yoga and aging, the wall of flesh, and the weekly yoga practice check-in open thread, please drop by and say hello

I’ve been thinking about easy-going yoga practices vs. those practices where you push against…actually I’m not sure what I’m pushing against.  Against what my body can easily do today, perhaps.  Against the line where a luxurious stretch becomes effort.  Against aging.

I mentioned it in a comment on the Friday check-ins a few weeks ago, I’ll quote my comment here: “…striving vs. maintaining, or possibly it is working hard in the practice (as in this post by Stacey Ingham about a recent David Garrigues workshop) vs. pleasure in the practice (as described by me in this post about the first David Williams workshop I went to).”  Who doesn’t want a pleasurable practice?  Why wouldn’t we just do easy, relaxing practices?  I mean, duh.

But it’s like this wall of flesh is advancing on me.  That’s the big bad boss in one of my kid’s games, “The Wall of Flesh,” I love that, haha.  But look, if I push against it, this relentless advancing wall, I CAN gain ground.  I CAN get stronger, more flexible, more able.  On the other hand, if I do an easy practice, if I don’t push against that wall very hard, or at all, then IT advances.  Just a little on any given day, but it does, and before I know it I’m back to pushing again, just to maintain, or I have to make my easy practice even easier, to maintain the feeling of ease.

Pushing practices are harder (obviously) and it’s much more of a challenge to get myself out of bed to push.  Easier to get myself out of bed for something I think will pleasurable.  Yoga as tai chi feels delicious.  And it does maintain, and even advance (if you do it every damn day), although slowly (but safely, fewer injuries on this route).  But that wall of flesh gets more powerful every year and the ground I’m standing on is turning to sand.  I find I have to throw some hard-work practices into the mix on a regular basis just to keep where I’m at.  Tai-chi yoga isn’t enough.


Joe Friel is a world class cycling coach and has written the bible on Cycling Past 50.  In it he looks at studies on older athletes, either that keep up a ‘good enough’ training schedule as they age (they drastically slow the deterioration that comes with aging) vs. the ones that keep pushing hard.  The pushers are just as good, or even better (faster, greater maxVO2 values, etc) than they were in their 20s!  Bottom line: use it or lose it.  (Friel has a new book coming out soon that I’m interested to read that looks at fitness and triathletes after 50, called Faster After 50, check it out if you like lots of science with your exercise reading.)

As Pamela says in the comments of that above post: aging body is real. We’re more tired just doing the same old things.  Injuries happen more easily and take forever to heal.  Everything is harder.  I want to rest.  It seems…kind…to honor that.  I want to be kind to myself.

On the other hand: “Don’t give aging an inch!” says Gillian Lynne, and 87 year old choreographer in this terrific interview, part of the documentary, Fabulous Fashionistas, about older women who are killing it with style and grace.  Two parts here: the first couple of minutes (first vid) introduces her and her work (and her husband who is 27 years younger):

And in the next couple of minutes she talks about her morning yoga/stretching practice and about pitting herself against the aging process, very inspiring.

Each day, each practice, each asana in a practice, I look at the question of how much to push, how easy to let it be.  Sometimes ease is what’s needed just to show up at all.  Sometimes I have to buckle in for some pushing—and I’m not talking about  crazy, I get injured too quickly.  But there is a continuum isn’t there, from going through the motions of practice like tai chi, through some effort, through wringing myself out.  I almost never wring myself out.  I’m lazy!  And afraid of hurting myself—it takes SO LONG to heal….  I want some of Gillian’s verve and energy to keep up the fight.  Actually I don’t want to fight at all.  But it seems unavoidable.  The war of attrition.  Maybe there is a different way to frame it?  Maybe engage, instead of fight…?

My weekly check-in is in the comments.   Fridays are open-thread days to drop in, say hello, talk about your practice, what you did, what you didn’t do, commiserate, ask questions.  Home practitioners especially need some community time and the Cyber Shala can offer that.  Please join in!

8 thoughts on “yoga and aging, the wall of flesh, and the weekly yoga practice check-in open thread, please drop by and say hello

  1. maya Post author

    I had a terrible cold in the beginning of the week. Missed Monday and did a wimpy restorative practice on Tuesday. Got in a three full primaries though, once I was feeling better. Still coughing, but my energy is back. SO STIFF. But the yoga felt great even so. So many days off in a row, Sat-Tues, and lying in bed for all of Sun and a lot of Monday meant my body had turned half-way to stone. It happens so fast!

  2. Rebecca

    I really liked those interviews of Gillian Lynne above. Thanks for posting! Thinking about the debate you pose, Maya, I guess I come down on the side of vigorous action. But it doesn’t really feel to me as if there are “sides” of the debate on yoga-and-aging-body. E.g., regarding ashtanga practice, I feel like I just practice. There are times when I’m capable of doing more and I feel positively bouncy and incredibly strong, particularly for my age, late 40s; other times I have to drag myself to the mat and the whole practice might be a slog. But through all of those daily ups and downs, there seems to be a thread of some sort of constancy — about which the yoga helps me to learn more. I still do the drop backs on the sloggy days, as long as I’m not injured. What I’ve learned is that there is a thread of strength and fortitude running through, something I can cultivate in myself and also rely on when things get grim.

    On a more practical level, I’d say that I practice pretty much in the vein of how I practiced for three years doing mysore daily with David G. However, it is different without a teacher and without a bunch of other yogis in the room. This difference seems to suit me right now — I know that if I had David there (though I still consider him my teacher) I would be “pushing” harder, because he would probably encourage in that direction. On the other hand, I have a kind of natural “push” – I don’t at all tend towards the lackadaisical in practice, so maybe I strike a balance now. On the third hand, though, if I lived in Philadelphia, I’d probably hop right over to the AYP school and start up mysore again (time, job, and family life permitting, of course). In conclusion (and sorry for going on for so long): life strikes me as a big huge improvisation.

    *One final thought: the “wall of flesh” and the “pushing against” themes, in regard to aging, seem to bring up the possibility of an alternative: acceptance, but not somehow ‘giving in’ to debility. It seems like a tricky dance, to accept but not collapse…

    1. maya Post author

      Hi Rebecca! Isn’t Gillian grand and amazing! I like your idea that I might be caught in a false dichotomy (push/pleasure) and that it could be posited as not an either/or somehow. A third option. And I’m so impressed that you do dropbacks! I can’t even come close. David G definitely pushed us hard in the workshop I did with him. I kind of felt like…it was amazing, I was inspired, but there was no way I could (or even wanted to) sustain it. I felt really, really tired afterwards and I remember driving home one of th days and thinking, what in the world is the point of all this striving? YES life strikes me a as big huge improvisation too, just keep those plates spinning…. And I definitely can fall into lackadaisical in all things, haha. Temperament..

  3. andrea

    hi, home-practicer here, fairly new, but as i live in south america with two young kids, i don’t have easy access to a yoga studio so i do what i can at home. anyhow, all that to say i’ve been doing very short practices lately and i can feel it getting harder every day to get to poses that earlier were almost easy. as for progress, that has come to a standstill. i really need to get in some longer practices. ideally i’d do a daily practice of at least 30 min and then three times a week or so, an hour or longer. at this point in my life, that would be amazing.

    i love the fabulous fashionistas videos, thank you for sharing them! from what i’ve seen, i agree with jillian about not giving an inch. that does not mean acting like a silly old fool, grace is something we can always practice, but physically, the moment you stop is when everything starts to crumble and then it crumbles quick. of course i don’t have the best examples of people growing old around me so i may be absolutely wrong but it is what makes sense now. i’m 37 and after two kids, i can definitely see the wear and tear on my body accumulating. so glad i found yoga, however late, because good genes can only go so far.

    rambling away, so i’ll stop but thank you for this weekly space. 😉

    1. maya Post author

      Hi Andrea, thanks for stopping by! I started Ashtanga at 38 and I am DEFINITELY much better, have reversed the aging flow, over the last few years (I’m not 43) as a result. I highly recommend it! Keep going, you can do it, the benefits are massive…for me we’re talking hugely reduced back pain, much more joint flexibility, posture, just being able to MOVE, plus better balance and strength. Plus curves and muscles instead of sagging (I still sag, but LESS that I would ! 🙂 ) Actually, that would make a good post, what I’ve gotten from five years of yoga practice as a middle aged gal….
      Welcome, I hope you stop by again!

  4. louise

    Hello everyone. It’s a shame but those videos aren’t available for me to watch in the UK? Weird huh? I would have liked to watch them.
    I’m still limited to the standing sequence as I’m pushed for time but I have got on my mat every day since I was last here. I’m tweaking tiny adjustments and finding more places to go in Surya that I hadn’t noticed before and I’m enjoying fine tuning single asanas. I’m preparing to do a daily half practice to Navasana after having some hip issues but am happy pottering around in the shallows 😉
    Being 51 now and beginning Ashtanga at 43 ish I would say it has improved my mental and physical health in spades. I went through an early menopause and I dread to think how my health would have been without Ashtanga. The disturbed sleep, the hot flushes, the wooly brain, the plotting of murder were all much improved by having a regular practice. I can say that my symptoms were minimal in comparison to my peers and I managed to stay on the right side of positive thought and although counting skin and hair condition seem a bit shallow, I’m sure all those headstands are beauty treatments in themselves. Improved tone, stamina, posture and the ability to relax are things I count as blessings. And out of the other side I feel so glad I persevered with practice even though it didn’t and doesn’t change or ‘improve’ much. It is what it is. I strive a bit for detail as that is what consumes my daily working life but I’m unambitious as far as practice goes. Actually, I am unambitious generally these days!
    So, the point of the striving is a steady maintenance, if you feel that way inclined, then improvement will follow, slowly and even if it doesn’t, practice is almost certain to help you through what can be seen as a very challenging time. It’s all far far better than the alternative.

    1. maya Post author

      Hi Louise! You know, that Fabulous Fashionistas documentary was a BBC thing–I wonder if they are blocking it in their own country? Did you try googling for another copy of the vids? Sorry you couldn’t see them.

      The standing poses are a great mini practice, I think. Good on you for hitting daily practice! and yes, it’s so so much better than the alternative. I think of my grandmother who is in the very slow process of dying now (wheelchair, not talking much, barely eating). She was super vibrant, traveling the world into her eighties but when Granddaddy died, she kind of packed it in, just sitting for days at a time, followed by a very rapid decline to where she is now. Engage with your life or sit in a wheelchair.

      I don’t know, I’m rambling. there is a lot of grey area between daily yoga practice and being in a wheelchair! But thank you, wise women, for talking about your practice with me. The thread of practice, the steady maintenance even when there is no “improvement”, a big improvisation…all chewy good stuff for me.

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