From baby yoga to chair-based yoga for pensioners: there’s a yoga class for every age and stage of life. When you approach yoga with the right mindset, it’s a truly ‘whole life’ practice that will sustain you throughout the decades. But different times in life call for different types of yoga practice. What suits the hyperactive teenager is no good for the exhausted mother of toddlers, and what engages the retired arthritis-sufferer won’t sustain the driven 30-year-old career-builder. In this article, I want to take a look at yoga through the stages of life and offer some pointers towards establishing a healthy lifelong relationship with yoga.
According to yoga philosophy, it’s essential to think about the way we spend our days when choosing what kind of yoga to practise. Do you identify with the archetype of the child, the scholar, the householder, or the sage? Although we can choose the path of scholarship at any age, and although some reach ‘sage’ status younger than others, there is a logical progression through the categories as we grow richer in years.
The Child: Yoga from birth to 20
The next generation of yogis in the UK may well be getting its start from the ‘yogo’ segments in BBC’s Waybuloo series, where cute creatures with physiques singularly ill-suite to yoga nevertheless do their best to demonstrate poses for their pre-school audience to try at home – to the consternation of several Christian groups, who feel the BBC is peddling subliminal Hindu propaganda. Watch this clip and make up your own mind:
Children and teenagers have short attention spans but flexible bodies. A good children’s yoga class is short and fun. The highly successful ‘Yogabugs’ franchise, targeted at kids from walking age to 12, mixes yoga with creative play to fire up young imaginations, gradually adding more structured yoga asanas to older age groups.
Teenagers can be an awkward bunch to teach – perhaps that’s why there are fewer yoga activities aimed at them – but a significant minority of secondary schools are starting to incorporate yoga as a PE option. Yoga has the potential to reduce stress, lift depression and improve focus and body-confidence at what can be a uniquely vulnerable stage of life. Children with autism and ADHD can respond very well to specialist yoga classes, which help to improve their coordination, concentration and emotional self-modulation.
If your child is interested in yoga, just make sure you do the same due diligence you would do for yourself. Is the teacher qualified, CRB-checked and aware of child protection guidelines? Some ‘yoga for schools’ training programmes offer a certificate in exchange for as little as one day’s training – I’d argue it’s not worth the paper it’s printed on.
The Scholar: Yoga from 20 to 30 (and beyond)
Young adults usually have energy to burn, recover quickly from exertion and can handle the more athletic forms of yoga with ease. The discipline of strong physical practice appeals to many young men and women; ashtanga yoga still forms part of the training of India’s National Cadet Corps, and if you’ve ever tried it you’ll appreciate its appeal to the regimental mind. If you like a good ‘workout’, try ashtanga and its offspring: look out for classes called things like Dynamic, Vinyasa and Flow.
I’d encourage people to try a few different kinds of yoga, and then once they’ve found a good teacher, to settle down to a few years’ worth of one style, mastering the basics and having fun with the more flamboyant stuff. Make the most of your time at your physical peak. Bodies have amazing memories, and if you show yours that it’s capable of a handstand or a big backbend while it’s still easy-peasy, it won’t ever completely forget how to do it.
A caveat, though one I’m sure will fall on deaf ears: it’s easy to think you’re immortal at 25, and that your body will keep on rebounding from injury ad infinitum. It won’t. Don’t take risks with your knees, shoulders, wrists and lower back; make sure you understand the alignment of the poses properly and resist the urge to compete with more experienced students. The repetitive strain of a strong yoga practice like ashtanga can take years to really ‘tell’ on the body. So take the advice of an older, wiser and much creakier yogi who wishes she hadn’t kept pushing through this sprained wrist or that wrenched shoulder, and be kind to your body so it can keep on doing yoga for many years to come.
Long hours spent climbing the career ladder (and trawling the dating pool) can take their toll. Stress, anxiety, depression and fatigue – all the modern malaises – can hit hard in the 20s. The yogic prescription is simple: breathe better. Choose a form of yoga that gets you moving but in a way that emphasises breath and stillness too. Viniyoga, Sivananda, Kundalini and Iyengar could all be good choices for a therapeutic practice, depending on your constitution.
The Householder: Yoga from 30 – 55
Not all of us eventually settle down to family life, but for most of us the logistical demands of living get more complicated in our middle years. And for all of us, the body begins to show the first signs of mortality. It takes us a little longer to get warmed up; a little longer to wind the mind down. A six-times-weekly, 6am ashtanga session may gradually become a less and less viable option.
But the very things that make it challenging also make it all the more worthwhile to continue to make time for yoga. The aim of a yoga practice for the middle of life is to maintain health, rather than push the body’s limits. Joints become stiffer, muscles weaker, lungs less efficient – so much is inevitable. But yoga (and other low-impact physical activities that stretch the body) can significantly delay these processes. Yoga isn’t a complete exercise programme, though: for optimum health benefits, combine your yoga practice with plenty of other physical activity. Walking, swimming, dancing: anything that raises the heart rate and gets you out of breath.
If you’re among the one in four women, or one in ten men, who will experience mental illness at some point during your life, yoga can help to keep your head above water. According to NICE, rates of depression in men spike between 35 and 44, and for women between 45 and 54. The advice is the same as for younger people: breathe, breathe, breathe. Viniyoga, Restorative yoga and Iyengar all suit the middle-aged beginner and can be a great support to minds in crisis.
The Sage: Yoga from 55 – 95
Our later years are a time when our bodies and minds begin to go downhill. But a lifelong yoga practice can have pretty age-defying effects. Look at Dharma Mittra [below, top], born in 1939 and still teaching advanced asana. Or Vanda Scaravelli [below, bottom], queen of the late starters, who took her first yoga class in her mid-forties.
Don’t let age put you off trying yoga; look out for ‘yoga for the third age’ classes if you’d prefer to be among your peer group, or try a style like Scaravelli that tends to appeal to an older demographic. You could also opt for a one-to-one teaching environment if that seems right for you. Start gently, and if you can find one, take a class with an experienced teacher around your own age who will better understand how your body responds.
As we age, what we lose in physical ability, we gain in wisdom. (That’s the theory, anyway; at almost 40, I’m still waiting…) Yoga offers a whole world of possibilities far beyond the physical, and as the desire to contort the body declines, the desire to explore the mind may increase. If you’re hungry for yoga beyond the postures, seek out teachers like Carlos Pomeda, a fantastic meditation instructor and a peerless populariser of yoga philosophy, both through his videos and workshops. Or take inspiration from the UK’s elder statesmen and women of yoga, who got the bug in the 60s and 70s and are now teaching with the benefit of 30+ years of experience. They include viniyoga pioneer Paul Harvey, breathing guru Philip Xerri, creative innovator John Stirk and Mary Stewart, pupil of Vanda Scaravelli and author of Yoga Over 50.
(A version of this article appeared at welldoing.org)