My 70-year-old dad is my favorite yoga student. He is vocal about how good yoga makes him feel and he’s good about knowing his limits in a practice, resting when rest is appropriate. Whenever he’s in town, he comes to one of my weekly Yoga for Healthy Aging classes. He agreed to attend the first few classes with some trepidation—he was concerned he’d be the only guy on a mat. That has never been the case, of course, and in most of my classes at least half the students are guys about my dad’s age.
The demographics have changed since I first started teaching, and I see more and more men in class. The research agrees: according to Yoga Journal‘s recent study, men now make up 28% of all yoga students—and their numbers are growing. Considering that this same study tells us that 38% of all yoga practitioners are over 50, there’s a reason to celebrate: there is more gender and age diversity in yoga.
While yoga’s roots are male gurus and sages, in the West yoga has long been women’s territory. That’s changing, but what does it mean to be an active, aging man doing yoga today?
In my next few posts, I’ll be writing about considerations, modifications, and specific poses and sequences for men in their 50s, 60s, and beyond. If you’re an active, older guy with a yoga practice, I’d love to hear from you! What questions or concerns do you have? Has yoga helped you physically or in a more esoteric way—or both? What resources do you consult for your home practice?
Before I had a family, I did yoga most days of the week. I attended a lot of classes, and I also had a consistent home practice. But as my family obligations and career pressures have grown, it’s hard to find time for everyday yoga (and exercise and meditation and cooking and life.) For most of us, the prime years for family and work (late 20s through 50s) are the busiest and most stressful. So how do you make time for yoga when there’s not much time? And how much yoga do you need?
A regular yoga practice confers all sorts of good things: physical strength, better balance, more flexibility, and that’s not to mention the harder-to-measure benefits: a sense of calm and peace, compassion, and better focus. The range of things that preliminary studies suggest that yoga might help includes back pain, insomnia, and even anxiety and depression. In short, yoga is good for you.
A Little Goes a Long Way
There is no clear answer for “how much yoga do I need?” A lot depends on your age, your activity level, and your body. Still, if you’re looking for a magic number, start with one.
One yoga practice a week can make a big difference in your life: it can set your mood, give you a guiding intention for the week, and help your body feel more open as you go about being a desk warrior or parent. Most of us can carve out the time to attend a weekly class or commit to waking up early one day a week for a quiet home practice. Start there. Commit to a once-a-week practice, if that’s all the time you can spare. (And although research on this is sparse, at least one study shows that yoga once a week can improve spinal flexibility.)
If you can spare more time, than the next number is two: do a practice twice a week or get to a class twice in one week. From there, keep going: add yoga when and where you can. Unless you’re doing a rigorous leg-behind-the-head practice, you can do yoga every day. (Rigorous practices might necessitate rest days.)
How Much Time Does Yoga Take?
When you think about doing your own practice at home, it doesn’t have to be an hour of mat-rolled-out yoga. You may not even need a mat for a short practice; you could use a wall or do a practice in bed. Adding in 5-15 minutes of yoga to your morning or evening can confer big benefits. A little bit of daily yoga is better than none at all.
The short answer for “how much yoga do I need?”is that a little will make you feel good and more will make you feel better. Do what you have the time and energy for, but be sure to do it.
Make It a Habit
For many of us, making yoga a habit feels challenging, so take the pressure off. Do what you can in whatever time you have, and don’t worry about making it perfect. Just move and breathe. (You can even sprinkle in yoga throughout your day with little effort: practice balance poses, like tree pose or standing pigeon, when you brush your teeth; take a 5 minute stretch break every hour at work.)
If doing a home practice feels intimidating, find a class or a teacher that works in your schedule and fits your needs and go every week or twice weekly. In yoga, devotion to our yoga practice is called tapas. Find your tapas and make a commitment to your practice.
Start now. Don’t wait until things are less busy or you have more space in your home or your children are off at school. Find a yoga class or a teacher or buy a book (ours is coming soon!) and get going. There is always a reason not to do the things that are good for us (stress and being busy, chiefly), but starting a yoga practice now sets you up for continued health as you age.
As we head into the Thanksgiving holiday in the States, a thought on gratitude. Lately, I’ve started class with a body scan. It’s natural for the attention to go straight to the sites of injury, tension, fatigue. (As my colleague Sara says, “The mind is a pessimist.”) And these are critical to notice as you begin an asana or meditation practice, so that you can see clearly what you’re working with.
But also take the time to find at least one spot, and ideally more, that feels totally fine right now. This could be “My right pointer finger is OK,” or “I don’t have a headache.” Let this expression of gratitude and appreciation for the good spots grow. Once you’ve found one, you can usually find several more. It makes a sweet practice out of counting your blessings, focusing on the sites of function rather than dysfunction.
As you’ll know from decades of life and experience with exercise, sensation—even intense sensation—is a byproduct of effort. And this sensation is often necessary for growth. With no stress stimulus, there’s no adaptive response. No challenge, no change. But the trick is to learn how to find the right degree of stress, so that you grow and don’t break down. I wrote about this in Goldilocks and the Gauge.
Your asana practice—doing yoga poses—can be a laboratory so you can begin to discern between productive discomfort and unhealthy pain. This skill then can serve you off the mat, sometimes in unexpected and useful ways. Here’s how to begin to tell the difference; your body, of course, should be your number-one guide.
Productive discomfort can feel like . . .
Shaking in the muscles
Heat in the muscles (“feel the burn”)
A challenge to keep you focused
A challenge to keep your breath regular
Sensation that fades quickly when you leave a pose
Pain can feel like . . .
Sharpness in the joints
Aching in the joints
Too much to keep you focused
Too much to breathe through with a regular rhythm
Sensation that continues even after you leave a pose
Use your practice to help you find ways to stay present in the face of discomfort, and to recognize and avoid unproductive pain.
We talk a lot about intentions in yoga. Intentions are different than goals. If you set an intention at the start of your yoga practice, it’s your starting point for the flavor of your practice. You might set an intention of peace, for instance. Or presence. Goals are different: they’re measurable achievements you arrive at later. You can certainly have goals in yoga, too. You might be practicing plank pose for successively longer numbers of breaths, for example. The number of breaths you’re working toward is your clear and stated goal.
With regard to why you choose to do yoga, it’s useful to have an intention, too. When I started doing yoga, I wasn’t always clear about my intention. I had a lot of goals—mostly based on achievement of certain poses—but I didn’t always have a deeper reason for my practice. This has changed. I do yoga with intentions that generally coalesce around the ideas of meditation, strength, relaxation, and injury prevention. Starting from one of these places, I create my sequences or choose which poses to do on a given day. If my aim is strength, I’ll probably do more core-focused poses; if my plan is to build focus or relax, I may do a restorative practice.
Because my intentions toward my practice are clearer, there are poses that I have stopped doing. These poses don’t feel good for me, regardless of how I tweak my alignment or use props to offer support. These poses don’t feel like they help me build strength, allow me to find meditative focus, or encourage relaxation. They feel stressful to my joints or potentially dangerous to more fragile parts of my body. They don’t align with my intention to use yoga as a tool to stave off injury.
Downward-facing dog is probably the most ubiquitous pose in yoga. If down-dog doesn’t feel good for your shoulders or wrists, try a modification. And if it still doesn’t feel good? If there is associated pain? If you can find alternative ways to strengthen your shoulders? Then take it off your roster of poses—maybe just for a while (as you recover from an injury, for instance, or build strength in another way) or maybe permanently.
If your yoga teachers says “listen to your body,” what he or she is really saying is “let your intention guide your practice.” But this begs the question: why do you do yoga? What intentions flavor your yoga practice? Getting clear on these questions can help you make mindful choices about the type of yoga—including which specific poses—you want to do.
If you missed our announcement on social media earlier this week, here’s a recap: Sage and I are co-writing a book, Lifelong Yoga, which will be published by North Atlantic Books in the summer of 2017. It’s Sage’s seventh book (!) and my first, and we couldn’t be more excited about collaborating and writing together.
Lifelong Yoga is a book for anyone who wants to continue or begin a yoga practice at any stage of life. The emphasis, though, is on how yoga can be a boon for the changes we experience as we move into our 40s, 50s, 60s, and beyond. It looks at yoga as a complement for an already-active life and sees yoga as a tool for living a long life of health and vitality. You can expect a lot of what you find on this blog, only in even more detail and with more explanation. We’ll have chapters devoted to the common ailments of aging (and how yoga can help!), sequences that will help you solve problems (“What’s the best yoga before a golf game?,” “How can I prepare for a weekend with my grandkids?”), and photographs of the most useful poses for healthy aging.
To reflect where we’re going—the book—you’ll notice that we’re shifting away from using “Yoga for Aging Athletes” to describe our work. Our social media sites have already changed, and in the upcoming weeks, we’ll update this blog to reflect our book title, too.
We’ll keep you updated on progress and let you know when the book is ready for pre-order. Meanwhile, I have some writing to do! And I just thought of my next blog post: a useful sequence for recovery after a long day of sitting at a desk.
Last week, while teaching a five-day intensive for teachers interested in working with athletes, I spent a lot of time talking about “the gauge.” How nice it would be, I said, if as teachers and coaches we could glance at a panel that would tell us how the students and athletes are doing. Are they redlining? Are they at a level of effort enough to induce positive change in the body? Are they snoozing?
Hitting the sweet spot—finding the middle that Goldilocks looked for: not too hard, not too soft, but just right—is best for growth. We see this in sports training and in asana practice. You have to have enough stress to encourage the body to adapt, but apply too much stress and the body will break down instead of building up. We want the porridge to be not too hot, not too cold, but just right.
Yet none of us have an externally readable gauge. Sure, you can measure your heart rate or power, and your teacher or coach can see the tells of over-efforting: a grimace, a gritted jaw. Ultimately, however, it’s up to you to choose the poses and workouts that will challenge you enough for change but not enough for corrosion or crisis.
Happily, age is an advantage. With a history of sports injuries or muddling through unproductive training cycles, you have the intuition to read the gauge from the inside. Your breath is your best tool—and that’s what I’ll discuss next time.
This sprang to mind when I read Gina Kolata’s New York Times piece on slowing down with age. The limitations of age force us to focus less on goals, or to adjust the goals based on age-grading charts like the one mentioned in the article, and more on intentions. We are less interested in training and competing for glory and more interested in the experience of being in our bodies as they move. This movement becomes less directed toward achieving a particular outcome and more toward the inner sensations and broader mental and physical benefits of exercise.
A similar pattern emerges among yoga practitioners. After several years of practicing, many of which may have focused on achieving increasingly sophisticated poses, we generally turn away from externally measurable achievements and toward the gentler expressions of poses, along with careful attention to the experience of being in a breathing body. Kolata’s article ends with her source’s suggestion of running watch-free. Can you bring the same approach to your mat? Can you emphasize intention over goals?
One of the restrictions of aging is a loss of flexibility and mobility. Not being able to move as much as we used to can lead to not moving much, which creates a negative spiral. One of the glories of aging is knowing that everything changes and developing a sense of acceptance. In yoga, we’d call that santosha, contentment. It’s the key to preventing avidya, wrong seeing, which you can read more about here.
To find contentment in your yoga asana practice, be clear on the purpose of each pose. When you understand why you’re doing something, it’s easier to find a substitute that will get the job done in ways that are appropriate for your body in this moment—not what you had in the last ten years, last year, last month, or even yesterday. Otherwise, you’re setting yourself up for struggle and “failure.”
Choose the path of right seeing by looking at what is happening right now.
In order to adapt and grow, we need to have the right balance of consistency and variety—the consistency helps us get into a groove, and the variety prevents that groove from becoming a rut. This is true both in our sports training and in our yoga practice.
In order to get stronger, faster, or able to go longer, you’ve got to have consistent application of the right amount of stress. Too little stress means no growth; too much means breakdown and injury. This is why you might do weights two or three nonconsecutive days a week, and play tennis on another two or three days. It balances the consistency and variety of your training stressors to give your body time to adapt without breaking down. Too much consistency makes you stale; too much variety never lets your body figure out the most efficient path of movement.
The same applies to your yoga practice. Doing a little bit of yoga several times a week will yield better benefits than making it to a ninety-minute class once every six weeks. The key is to establish consistent frequency of the practice. Once that’s in place, variety matters. Your body adapts to the familiar, then plateaus, and it can be easy to check out mentally while going through routines you know inside and out.
You’ve probably got consistency down. As we age, we grow more set in our ways, preferring the familiarity of our regular routines: doing the same workouts, attending the same yoga classes, sitting on the same spot on the couch, eating the same meals. But variety is what challenges us to continue to grow and adapt. Here are some ways to add variety to your practice.
Try a new teacher. Even when class content is the same, you’ll find huge variety among teachers. A different teacher might turn a phrase in such a way that things click into place for you. (My regular sub, Sara, reported that when she filled in for me last month, students loved doing “new and different” things—even though she taught the very same sequences I do! The cueing, not the content, changed.)
Set up in a different spot in the room. It’s easy to fall into a habit of always being in the right corner, say, or in the center of the back row. Move around and see what shifts.
Venture outside your usual routine by streaming classes. Between the two of us, Alexandra and I have dozens and dozens of classes at YogaVibes.com. (Hers are here; mine are here.) Streaming classes lets you try something with no etiquette around stopping if you don’t like it!
Change the setting of your practice. If you’re used to unrolling your mat in your guest room, change it up. Set up in the living room, or on the porch. Spread a beach towel at the edge of a practice field. A change of venue—particularly if it includes a move to an unstable surface like carpet or grass—will add variety and challenge to your yoga routine.
Swap sides. If you’re used to always starting on the right side, start on the left. If you usually set up facing the short side of your mat, try facing the long edge and building your practice around wide-stance poses.
Experiment. Try different arm positions, use different props, close your eyes, switch up the coordination of your breath and your movement. Such experimentation can lead to wonderful revelations.