Ashtanga for the Aging

Ashtanga is a form of yoga known for it’s grueling pace and acrobatic-looking poses. Focusing on a rapid flow of movement linked with breath, Ashtanga yoga provides an intense workout that claims to eliminate toxins while allowing for greater pliability of muscles. Ultra-limber popstar Madonna is a fan. Somehow, this doesn’t sound like the best choice of yoga for the old and infirm – but a recent article in the Northwest Indiana and Illinois Times newspaper suggests otherwise.

Classes in the publication’s local area have been helping people in their 80’s and beyond heal their bodies and improve their lifestyles, using a modified form of Ashtanga created in 1989 by Larry Schultz, a San Francisco yoga studio owner. Schultz wanted to use the principles of this ancient, acrobatic form of yoga to in a more “accessible” way, so that people with varying physical fitness levels or restrictions could still reap the benefits.

Students in the Illinois program have problems ranging from long-term spinal disorders to “normal” aging issues that impede movement and flexibility. Specially-trained instructors help these students perform restorative poses like Utkatasana, which builds muscle in the thighs while clearing and lengthening the spine. Since so many senior have difficulty standing, sitting, and getting back up after periods of rest, poses that focus on balance, back and leg strength and flexibility are especially helpful for the elderly.

Instructor Laura Moore was interviewed for the Times article, and argues that it’s not the practice of Ashtanga, but society’s views on the body and competition, that cause problems for seniors or those with physical restrictions.

“The idea is to detach from your body and focus on universal truths. The body…ages… falls apart… It’s not always going to be poetic and capable of fabulous postures…To focus on the physical pose is to take yoga out of context. We’re a competitive society and we look to see who can put their ankles behind their heads. It doesn’t serve any purpose.” Instead, she urges her students to “concentrate on how well you feel afterwards and be encouraged to sit in meditation, to be kinder or take a bigger interest in your community.”

Still, Ashtanga is a rather difficult form of yoga, where practitioners repeat specific poses in a certain, strict chronology or sequence. With numerous forward folds and knee and hip openers, it is vital that anyone instructing the old or infirm knows how to guide people with restrictions through the poses correctly, for maximum benefit at minimal risk.

But it may be that Ashtanga yoga is better suited to people with disabilities than one would think – the practice focuses on holding poses for long periods, allowing the body to relax into the pose rather than rushing through it. This forces muscles to gently adapt to new positions, so that even if slight pain or discomfort is felt in the beginning or the pose, the muscles will eventually stretch and strengthen to a point of peaceful comfort, assisted by deep, energizing ujjai breathing.

Regardless of what form of yoga you are doing, if you are lucky enough to find a good, educated instructor who can tailor the poses to your individual needs, you’ll be on your way to a happier, healthier life.

Hey, if an 86 year old with spinal issues can do it, why can’t you?

Leave a Comment