Yoga At Any Age

The secrets to enjoying yoga into your 60s, 70s and 80s. By Katie Sutherland.

A t the age of 86, Bette Calman practices yoga twice a day and teaches two classes per week to a dedicated group of loyal students. While the rest of the tenants in her retirement village would struggle to sit on the floor, Calman’s daily practice incorporates Headstand, Shoulderstand, Boat Pose and Sun Salutations, which many 20-somethings would find challenging.

Then there’s the relaxation. At one time, she may have bypassed meditation, but it is now an essential part of her day.

“I’m not a person to sleep,” she reflects. “I’m going to be sleeping for a long time soon, why w aste time now? Four hours sleep a night is enough, but I certainly won’t say no to a nice relaxation during the day. It recharges me.”

Calman is one of many yogis who continue their practice into later life, reaping all the benefits of flexibility, strength, relaxation, improved focus—and pain relief from ailments that simply come with old age. The other bonus is keeping fit and trim. “I have a flat tummy and I’ve weighed six-and-a-half stone [41kg] for the past 20 years—no more, no less,” she laughs.

A pioneer in the yoga community, Calman has witnessed changes to the industry and is bemused by the arra y of props and equipment on offer these days. She didn’t even use a mat when she first started, believing all you really need is “yourself and the floor”.

She remembers paying seven shillings for her first yoga class in Sydney. She doesn’t remember when it was exactly— “I was probably in my 20s”—but she remembers the five other regular students who would attend a class by Russian teacher, Michael Bolin.

“There were no books or anything on yoga,” she says. “The first book to come out was called Yoga and H eal th [by Selvarajan Yesudian and Elisabeth Haich]. There were only four copies in Sydney and we all rushed down to Angus & Robertson when it was released.”

Calman later moved to Adelaide and, as well as running 36 hotels and five bottle shops with her husband, managed a busy yoga studio for 30 years. She moved to Melbourne 11 years ago and, until her husband died last year, taught classes most days.

Yoga continues to serve Calman well and she says she couldn’t imagine life without it. “You’ve got to keep the body going—the body’s a moveable instrument,” she says. “You’ve got to eat properly and you’ve got to be positive. I do notice the things that worry other people don’t worry me. Yoga is the way you think and act.”

Dealing with injury

Not all people are lucky enough to be as agile as Calman in their old age. In fact, many people come to yoga in later life to assist with stiffness and pain or sheer body degeneration. The beauty of yoga, of course, is that it is available to everyone, regardless of their flexibility or strength. It’s a matter of finding the right teacher and a class where you can adapt your practice to a level at which you feel comfortable.

Bobi Ward, 56, started yoga in her 20s after sustaining fractured vertebrae in a car accident. She could barely lift a cup of tea, let alone raise her arms above her head. However, recently Ward performed an assisted Handstand for the first time since she was a child.

In fact, she is now stronger and fitter than when she first started yoga. “It’s not just physical agility but also mental agility,” she explains. “My outlook on life has changed.”

Ward teaches a number of classes around Perth and says her injury has helped her to empathise with the students, many of who ha ve ailments through “wear and tear”.

Her introduction to yoga classes w as with a friend in Leicester, England. “The average age in the class was 60 and at the end they all did unassisted Shoulderstands,” says Ward. “I thought, I’m going to be like those people when I grow older.”

Yoga has since seen Ward through such life experiences as motherhood, a bout of depression (after migrating to Australia, knowing only one person), divorce, her children leaving home and menopause.

The key, she believes, is working to her own level. For many years Ward could only do yoga lying down, as sitting or standing was too uncomfortable. More recently, she introduced one set of the Pawanmuktasana series into her practice when she developed arthritis. It did the trick and the arthritis hasn’t returned.

Shifting focus

Yoga has also been a journey for Eve Grzybowski, 67. She had been practicing for about 20 years when she w as diagnosed with osteoarthritis at age 47 and then went on to have hip surgery two years ago.

While already very interested in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras and the intellectual aspects of yoga, the arthritis and subsequent surgery compelled Grzybowski to slow down her physical practice. “At first it was bad news, then I realised that ultimately I could help other people, so I’ve taken that and worked with it,” she says.

“I’m so glad I had hip surgery—it’s given my life back to me. But while it’s great to have optimum health, and I do think yoga supports me in that way, what I really like to do now is the simple, basic poses, and do them well. “Everybody wants to know if I can do all the poses that I used to and it’s hard to convey that’s not really important to me.”

Many older practitioners say that their priorities change with yoga. Where once they may have come to yoga for physical fitness, their orientation may shift to the spiritual or relaxation benefits. W hat is important, explains Grzybowski, is for older people to maintain a level of enjoyment with yoga—and to listen to their intuition, as well as their body’s needs. “Listening to your body is everything. It’s like when the phone’s ringing and you answer it,” she laughs.

Acceptence is key

Jill Phillips, 60, has modified her yoga practice over time to deal with a meniscus tear in her knee (she is wary with sitting and kneeling postures) and ongoing bursitis in both shoulders.

A mother of six, Phillips still does all the poses she used to, but doesn’t hold them for as long or go into them as deeply. She also keeps up with rock-and-roll dance classes, walking and swimming, but will continue to modify her yoga practice and other exercises to accommodate her changing body. “Of course, people who have practiced yoga all their lives will be able to do more in older age—but you can’t assume [that’s the case]. At 55, I had nothing wrong. The shoulders were a shock. Nature doesn’t always get it right,” she says. “But with a c c e p t a n c e , you’re prepared f o r a n y t h i n g . And yoga does help to give you that acceptance of ‘what is’.”

Like Ward , Phillips also teaches an over-55s class at Beacon Yoga Centre in Perth and an all-ages class at the Melville Recreation Centre once a week. Her students include an 88-year-old man, who puts his agility down to yoga and ocean swimming, and a dedicated 84-year-old woman and her 87-year-old husband, who “turn up without fail, even in the dead of winter, mats under their arms”.

She says many of her students choose a class dedicated to people older than 55 so they know they can manage all the postures.

“It’s a class where modification is the norm.” Phillips adds that there is a wonderful sense of mutuality and community in these classes, with many of the retirees going for coffee together afterwards.

Go with the flow

Adele Egan, 75, a Brisbane yoga teacher, has also found that her practice hasn’t necessarily become harder or easier, just different.

Remarkably, she feels stronger and fitter than she did at age 30, when she suffered with chronic ha y fever—and she puts it down to yoga. Encouraged by her father to try it in her early 30s, Egan found that her breathing dramatically improved—and she has never looked back.

She went on to study under several teachers in Queensland and India, reaching a turning point in 1980, when she took a class by B.K.S. Iyengar in Melbourne.

“That was when my practice really changed,” says Egan. “I’d had three children and rested them on my hip, so I was out of alignment. Mr Iyengar picked it up when I was doing Triangle Pose and from then on I became very alignment focused.”

These days, Egan teaches a two-hour class once a week, as well as maintaining a daily practice and vegetarian diet. While still in top physical condition, she says her practice now flows with softer lines and she brings more breathing into her postures. Egan has always made time for relaxation in the day and says this, combined with regular asanas, has carried her through many life changes.

A family tragedy in her 60s affected her nerves badly and subsequently her balance, but she continued to practice and teach, and turned to other areas of yoga to get her through.

“Using all of yoga’s gifts, that the wise men of the Himalayan caves gave to the world, is how we can grow old and stay centred with ease and gracefulness,” she reflects. “I never realised when I began my journey with yoga that I would have such a fruitful and healthy life.”

Katie Sutherland is a freelance writer and vinyasa yoga practitioner based in Sydney. 

Keep on moving

Yoga is available to everyone, but our needs change as we grow older. Here are a few tips for over-55s.

  • Get upside down once a day. Even if it’s Legs-Up-The-Wall Pose. Inversions rest the legs and get more blood into the abdomen and heart.
  • Don’t give up forward bends. If you have blood pressure issues, take that into consideration.
  • Continue with lateral bends. Simple side bends encourage a healthy spine.
  • Movement is everything. Wrist and ankle rotations are under-rated.
  • Recognise that your practice will change. Accept “what is” and that you may not be able to do everything you once did—modify, modify and modify again.
  • Yoga is time to focus on yourself. Forget the rigours of everyday life and use your practice to recharge.
  • Practice Savasana—it can be one of the hardest postures for some people!
  • Breathe. Even focusing on your breathing for 20 minutes will have immense benefits.

Ageing with spirit

Yoga assists wellbeing at all ages. Here are the key benefits of maintaining a yoga practice into your 60s, 70s and 80s.

  • Flexibility and mobility: our body naturally encounters stiffness of the joints.
  • Relaxation: different concerns arise with age, including the responsibility of being a primary carer or living on a pensioner’s wage.
  • Sleep: many older people have difficulty sleeping.
  • Focus: maintaining mental agility and focus.
  • Pain relief.
  • A sense of community and inclusion.