I remember once hearing Kaliji say that TriYoga Basics was a complete yoga practice. I remember something about the fact that by practicing Basics’ five systematized series, 108 postures, 20 mudras, 16 turns, 5 pranayama techniques, yoga nidra, concentration and meditation, I would have a lifetime’s worth of yoga practice.
I didn’t believe her.
Well, maybe I believed her, but I didn’t act as if I believed her, and I’m sure I wasn’t alone. Being a normal western civilization achiever, I set goals. Less than a nano-second after being certified in Basics I signed up to be a Level One intern. And less than a nano-second after being certified as a Level One teacher I registered as a Level Two intern.
When I found myself struggling with some of the Level Two asanas I was encouraged to power on. Hmmmm? I didn’t remember struggle and push as part of my practice up to then. One teacher encouraged me by saying that someone my age (or maybe older) was already a Level Three teacher another suggested that I wouldn’t have to actually be able to “do” the asanas as long as I could speak them. Friends sent links to You Tube videos of a 90 year old yoga teacher, an octogenarian gymnast. Onward!
Which brings me to my desk to write about the challenges of yoga for an older student. I am 76. This body of mine has had years of experience, (river-rafting, hiking the Alps, kayaking the coastline of the Sea of Cortez, mountain biking in Canyonlands, standing for uncountable hours in the kitchen, childbirth, careers, etc. etc. –you get the drift: active) and, because of the impermanent nature of any body this one is appropriately showing all sorts of signs of wear and tear, as it makes its way slowly but surely to it’s demise.
I teach three classes a week, Basics and the beginning series of Level One. Not one of my students has ever asked me what level of yoga I’m teaching. Some of my students have been practicing with me for 7 years and haven’t yet flowed into swan. We practice together in bodies that have had hips replaced, shoulders reconstructed, knees repaired or in need of repair, arthritis, bursitis, anomalies from bones that long ago broken found a way to re-set themselves in original ways. We practice Ahimsa, do no harm. TriYoga has allowed each of us, following our breath, to listen in, to trust what we find, to increase our strength and flexibility, and learn through economy of movement to conserve our energy. Jay Guru Devi! Victory to TriYoga! Victory to the teacher within!
Of course there remains the perpetual challenge for teacher and student alike to know when to deepen one’s practice by stretching and strengthening the body through increasing levels of difficulty and when to expend one’s effort in keeping the mind focused and the breath flowing in something as basic and potentially profound for an older body/mind as leg lifts. As a teacher it is way too easy to discourage an older student with a bit too much encouragement. The fulcrum of balance for an an older student’s practice will inevitably move from developing the body to maintaining the body, from asana to meditation.
There is an inherent opportunity in being older myself, teaching other aging students whose bodies also show clear, undeniable signs of mortality. The focus on levels of achievement shifts from the physical to the subtle. In an aging body it is simply easier to grasp the experience that I am not this body, that who I am is neither born nor dies.
I remember in my early years of studying TriYoga, my teacher Bindu told me of a hike she had taken in the Santa Monica mountains, chanting Ham Sa So Hum, and allowing the mantra to carry her effortlessly up the steep dusty grade. Yet it is only recently for me that the cadence of the mantra has shifted to its meaning. I am That, That I am. The older student may come to yoga to ease the aches and pains of an aging body, to stay flexible, and find freedom in daily activities. But these same older students also crave and are grateful for a practice that points not only to achievements of refining asana, to the western emphasis on accomplishment, but to learning to recognize the aspects of the practice that signify union with the eternal, the One. And, after all, isn’t that what yoga is all about?