Starting Yoga After 50
Yoga is a discipline of philosophy and fitness that you can start at any age if you have the right motivation. It brings changes to not only just your body but also your mind.
There are many different branches of yoga. While some focus on physical ability, others focus on mediation and service. The paths may be different, but all of them lead to the same goal: ‘nirvana’ (super-consciousness).
According to Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, ‘yoga is the cessation of mental fluctuations and the ability to control the patterns of consciousness. So naturally, there is no age limit to learning your yoga journey.
If you are someone who is older and want to embark on this journey, here are some of the things to know:
Asana and Pranayama
Contrary to popular belief, yoga is not just about contorting the body into seemingly impossible positions. ‘Asana’ (yogic posture) is meant to be held for long periods of time. This is a way in which we discipline our minds to focus, concentrate, and achieve stillness.
Many young practitioners are adept at headstands, backbends, etc. but they are unable to sit still for a long period of time. This defeats the purpose of
practicing asanas. One only achieves mastery over a pose when one can hold it for a long period without any discomfort. This is so they can spend uninterrupted moments in deep mediation.
While there are warm-up routines to ensure that all parts of the body are stretched out, relaxed, and discomfort is eased. In classical yoga, some asanas can be practiced by beginners and intermediate practitioners alike. These are collectively known as “Sukhshma Vyama”. They are preparatory poses that open up the major joints and help the body relax.
Another important part of the beginner stages of yoga is the practice of ‘Pranayama’ (yogic breath). In Sanskrit, ‘prana’ is the vital life force that runs through our body and ‘ayama’ denotes expansion or extension. Thus ‘pranayama’ is not just mere breathing exercises. It is a process through which the dimension of prana is expanded or extended. Just like asanas, there are many different kinds of pranayama. But all of them focus on four main aspects: inhalation, exhalation, internal breath retention, and external breath retention.
In our everyday lives, our breath is generally rapid and shallow. The rhythmic, deep and slow respiration that we practice during Pranayama stimulates calmness in our minds and thus helps us prepare for ‘Dharana’ (mindfulness), which then leads to ‘Dhyana’ (meditation).
Shatkarma: Purification Processes
Over the years, our bodies often accumulate excessive fat, mucus, bile, phlegm, etc. According to the ancient text known as the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, six cleansing techniques can be practiced creating harmony amongst our prana. These are known as ‘Shatkarma’.
While some Shatkarma such as the ‘neti’ (the process of cleansing of the nasal passage), ‘trataka’ (the process of gazing intensely at a fixed point or object to induce concentration), and ‘kapalbhati’ (also the name of a type of Pranayama used for purifying the frontal region of the brain) can be practiced by beginners, others such as ‘nauli’, ‘bhasti’, and ‘dhauti’ should only be practiced under the careful guidance of the teacher or guru. However, just like poses and breathing, there is no age to learn about and subsequently practice these purification processes.
Choosing a Suitable Yoga Technique
As mentioned earlier, there isn’t one singular way to practice “yoga”. In the West, the Ashtanga Vinyasa school of yoga is often associated with the word yoga. It comes from the classical Hatha style of yoga and is dynamic, rapid, with a special focus on physical posture. But that is not the only kind of yoga. We are all unique and have different temperaments. Here are some of the different types of yoga that you can be a practitioner of:
- Bhakti Yoga: This is for those who are emotionally and devotionally inclined. There is a common misconception that yoga is a “Hindu” way of life and thus cannot be practiced by those who come from other religious backgrounds. But this is false, devotion transcends religion. Bhakti yoga is for you if you have or want to establish a deep connection with the divine and see this connection as a means to achieve samadhi.
- Jnana Yoga: This is for you if you are intuitive by nature. Known as the path of knowledge, Jnana yoga focuses on self-realization by asking one fundamental question: ‘who am I?’
- Karma Yoga: For those that are active by nature, this technique emphasizes actions and good deeds without expectation of anything in return. It is known that every action has a reaction. Karma Yoga is thus the path of action.
- Raja Yoga: Perhaps the most revered branch of yoga, Raja yoga can be practiced by those with strong willpower. To become a Raja yogi, a practitioner often spends many years mastering Ashtanga Vinyasa or Hatha yoga. In this technique, it is believed that there are eight limbs or branches (Ashtanga) and mastery over these is the way to achieve samadhi.
- Laya Yoga: Often known as ‘Kundalini’ yoga, this technique focuses on ‘mantra’ (sacred hymns), ‘tantra’ (rituals), ‘yantra’ (geometric sacred mandalas), yoga and mediation. Practitioners of laya yoga see the ‘Kundalini’ (a dormant power that resides in the root chakra) as the means to achieve samadhi and practice techniques that help them awaken and subsequently control this dormant power that lies within us.
Diet and Nutrition
No matter which technique of yoga you adopt, there are certain things you need to be mindful of when you practice yoga. While it is impossible to follow the dietary norms exactly as given in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika or the Yoga Sutras, as a general rule it is advisable to adopt practices such as eating only an adequate amount of food that has high nutritional value. Don’t overeat, but don’t starve yourself either.
Another common misconception is the idea of eating only vegan or vegetarian food if you want to be a practitioner of yoga.
As much as the availability permits, try to avoid processed food and eat natural, healthy, and fresh food.
There are strict rules when it comes to habit-forming substances. This is why in Ashrams (yogic residencies in India) certain things such as coffee, cigarettes, alcohol, etc are prohibited. The meals are communal and simple. Self-discipline is a key aspect of yoga and unfortunately, these substances are roadblocks that prevent us from reaching our destination.
If you find yourself on the other side of 50, don’t worry. You have plenty of time on your hands to start yoga and master it eventually. You don’t need to spend many hours in a day, make a schedule that suits you and find a teacher who will guide you along the way. So don’t procrastinate anymore. Start today.