This is the amazing and inspiring story of Karen Cairns that was posted on Facebook recently. The pics in this article are of the APP community and not her.
April 8, 2014 at 2:48pm
Gokulam, Mysore, India
When I am here in India, in the town outside of Mysore where the Shri K. Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Institute is located, I am frequently stopped on the street by Indians. They ask me, “Excuse me….. Your age, please?” And when I tell them, they exclaim then pranaam or salute me. They are not used to seeing a Westerner with white hair but they certainly seem pleased to see me. And I am certainly pleased to be here.
Recently at breakfast the women seated near me were expressing thankfulness that they had started doing ashtanga while they were young, that you couldn’t really start this yoga when you were older. In my country, the USA, I have had yoga teachers [teachers of other types of yoga] tell me and their students that ashtanga is “just for young people” or “just for young, physically fit people,” that “as you get older, you want and need a different, more gentle yoga,” or that “too many people get injured in ashtanga.” The perception is that ashtanga is for young yoga students or, perhaps, older students but only if you have a background in gymnastics or dance or some type of physical fitness and if you are “not too old”!
My experience with ashtanga yoga is the opposite of these perceptions. I started ashtanga at age 56 after 6 months of sampling other yoga classes. At the time I was under great stress taking care of elderly, ill parents and being in the last year of a doctoral program in education. I looked in the telephone directory under “Yoga” and found Yoga East in Louisville, Kentucky, where I lived. I drove by the studio several times before I got the courage to actually go in for a class. When I started ashtanga, I sometimes would sit in my car after class and cry with frustration. The students all seemed so young and flexible and what they did appeared impossible for me. But something inside kept me coming back.
When I started yoga, I had 56 years of relatively severe asthma and allergies and was on numerous medications. I had asthma since birth and my grandfather died from asthma, due to a heart weakened by the adrenaline shots he needed to keep breathing. My mother learned to drive a car in order to take me to the emergency room when I had attacks. In the hospital I was put in oxygen tents at times, given adrenaline shots and then Librium [an addictive sedative] to calm me down from the adrenaline. In school I was always excused from gym or PE [classes in physical education where students played games and did exercises]. I am a “regular person,” not athletic by any means- not particularly coordinated, pretty stiff, and rather timid to boot. Yet the last 8 years of my daily practice of ashtanga have been the best thing in my life: within 6 months I was off all medication and have not had to use any since then. My lung capacity is now considered “normal.” At 64 I am stronger, healthier, and far happier than at any previous time in my life. Because I am clearly a “regular person” with no special physical ability and with a lifetime of many fears, other people of all ages see what I am doing and become sure they could do it also: “Well, if Karen can do it, then I can too!” And this is true.
What I most want other people to know about ashtanga yoga is that I believe it is a yoga that is actually extra-protective for older people and especially beneficial for them. Ashtanga yoga is the one yoga that can stay with me as I age and help me prevent injury and illness. And when I do get ill, because we all age, get ill, and die, my yoga practice will sustain me with this too. Ashtanga yoga is a set sequence of asanas or poses that are based on both breath and focus. Once you learn the sequence, you are doing the same asanas every practice, 6 days a week. Because I know the sequence and how my body does within the practice, my awareness of my body and its strengths and limitations is actually protective for me. I know when I can push myself more and when I should not do so. As I age, I feel especially safe with my practice, much more so than if I were doing a yoga where the asanas and sequence were unknown to me, where they were a “surprise” or different with each practice. The only time I have experienced an injury was during a “power yoga” class I took years ago where I was told to go quickly from one pose to another. I did not know the poses, so I didn’t know that my body would react the way it did- with pain. When I have had physical limitations, due to a fall on ice, for instance, I still did my practice and the practice healed me. I would like to say and hear more about ashtanga’s benefits, including safety, for older students.
In ashtanga, especially for me as an older, stiffer student, we work on poses slowly and stop when we reach one we cannot do. We then continue to work on this pose, sometimes for years. For me, with my asthma history, I can pay special attention to working on my breath, slowing it down and making it deeper. Slowly, bit by bit, I learn more about myself. I can tell my weight within 1-2 kilograms by how I can “bind” or grasp my wrists in certain poses. I remember becoming aware that my upper middle back was what I considered a “Dead Zone.” Probably due to years of asthma and hunching forward, I could not feel any flexibility or movement there. How delighted I was when I first noticed some feeling there, some movement [this was during Marichiasana C, a lovely twisting pose] and I still deeply enjoy this feeling and working to increase it. Just this trip I had a further realization that the front of my body, especially the chest, is an area with little awareness or feeling. I have been hunching forward and protecting my chest. So now I am consciously bringing my awareness to this area and, someday, I hope to feel some movement there too. It only took me 8 ½ years to reach this “Aha!” moment of realization!
Many older students are also working with particular physical limitations and ashtanga is beneficial for this. I have a prolapsed uterus- not uncommon with older women who have a history of lifting heavy weights [I was a nurse for years] or long labor in childbirth [which I also had]. This means the ligaments holding my uterus in place are either weakened or perhaps torn. I wear a pessary to keep my uterus in place- I like to think of this as a sort of internal yoga prop! Far from limiting my practice, this “problem” has helped me learn more about practicing correctly, about “mula bandha,” the pelvic energy channel. I have had to relearn certain poses, such as utt pluttihi, so that I am channeling energy upward rather than downward. We each have different issues we struggle with, and ashtanga develops our awareness and our patience with the process.
Not only do we each have physical issues to contend with, we also have mental or emotional ones. Ashtanga yoga has helped me even more with these! This yoga supports and protects me, as well as challenges me to step outside of my comfort zone- often an increasing issue as we age and our comfort zone may tend to narrow rather than expand. Yoga will be there for me no matter what happens as I age- through illness and through death. What I have learned and continue to learn is how to enjoy a non-adversarial relationship with my body. I am the caregiver for this body and feel both friendly love and compassion for it. There is no wish or desire for it to be different in any way. What a joy and freedom it is to finally feel this way! Daily questions occur and educate me as I ponder them. Is my difficulty with this pose due to a physical limitation, such as my uterine prolapse, or is it a psychological limitation or both? Many of my limitations have been due to fear, I know. Facing these fears empowers me beyond belief. So many things I do not know how to do and have never done. I am learning how to live with uncertainty, with risk, with awkwardness. And because of this I am less afraid to die- just one more thing I don’t know how to do and have never done.
The ashtanga yoga practice brings up many issues: issues about one’s body, certainly, but many issues are more psychological or existential: How do I feel about not being as “good” at something as others; how do I feel about my body and aging; why am I doing this? This is my 6th trip here to study yoga. One other trip, 2005-2006, I came during the months of November, December, and January. This trip I am here for February and March. My other trips were during June, July, and August, when there was more of a mixture of ages at the yoga studio here- several students in their forties, fifties, and even some others in their sixties like me. This time of year there is a much younger crowd- most appear to be in their twenties and early thirties. Many are extremely physically fit and flexible. What they can do is amazing! Ashtanga yoga has several series of poses, from the primary series to a fifth and even sixth series with progressively more difficult asanas or poses. There is a constant challenge to avoid getting caught up in what can feel like a competitive atmosphere. Many of the challenges of this yoga are the same no matter what age one is: issues of youth and age, definitions of “progress” or what it means to be “good” at this yoga, facing one’s limits both physically and mentally, and facing one’s own mortality. What would be “success” for me with this practice? These are good questions, the best questions. For me my success is found in the quality of my daily life off the mat [but this doesn’t mean that I don’t pray, Dear Lord, please let me stand up out of a backbend!].
As an older student, often the oldest that has not been practicing ashtanga for years and years [since they were much younger], my ideas of personal success and my “goals” for myself may be quite different from younger students. Certainly it is easier for me at this life stage to live a quieter, more contemplative lifestyle; I am past the householder stage of life. Many young students want to teach in a yoga studio and perhaps own their own yoga studio or shala eventually. These are not my goals. I do know that I want to share this practice with others, however I can. At this life stage, since I am retired, I want to do this as some sort of seva or service with others, rather than for profit or to “make a living.” I know I want to continue my practice, to daily stand on my mat and face all my issues and questions about my life, death, body, mind, what do I consider a life well-lived, and what brings me joy. When I am at my clearest, most of the time, I know without a doubt that success is here right now for me with how I feel and how I am living. I am already blessed. Dhanyo aham. I am blessed.
4/2012 And Ashtanga Builds Bone Density!
When I came back from my seventh trip to Mysore, to the Shri K. Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Institute, this year (I was there for October through December, 2011, then went on a yatra, a spiritual pilgrimage in January, as well as staying at Om Shanthidhama, a Vedic school run by my teacher), my physician thought I should get another bone density scan. I had one done ten years ago before I began ashtanga in 2001. This scan showed mild osteopenia or some thinning of bone density. I was reluctant to get another scan as I didn’t want to hear about any possible problems. My hip joints have been hurting, especially my left one, and also my shoulders- especially as I work as hard as I can on backbending. But I decided to get the scan and view it as information. My scan came back with great results- not only is there no sign of osteopenia but my bone density now surpasses that of young adults, let alone that of other “senior citizens.” Yay, ashtanga!
Still, the non-physical part of ashtanga is the one that benefits me the most. This last trip
brought home to me what it might mean to actually work for equanimity with either praise or blame- another aspect of daily practice for me now. Daily practice of all- truthfulness, especially with myself which is often the hardest, discipline, compassion- my daily check with my “karma-meter,” as Swami Brahmadeo suggests- how am I doing? My karma-meter evaluates the areas of bhakti, jnana, and seva/action. And I am the only one who can judge this. I have to measure myself- I am not to ask anyone else. Swamiji said that the work of the guru is to “show you your identification,” to show you who you are, then the guru’s work is done. By the blessing of the Divine, I have been shown, shown and reshown…. Swamiji says, “Yoga is the most beautiful way of life.” “Receive Divine Love. Cultivate Divine Fearlessness. If you have enough, you share. If you do not have enough, keep for yourself.”
Shanna Small has been practicing Ashtanga Yoga and studying the Yoga Sutras since 2001. She has studied in Mysore with Sharath Jois and is the Director of AYS Charlotte, a school for traditional Ashtanga in Charlotte NC. She has written for Yoga International and the Ashtanga Dispatch. Go here for more information on AYS Charlotte. For information on workshops, please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.