Yoga- the Youth Elixir… Part 1… Yoga in our 20’s/ 30’s and 40’s

Yoga is undoubtably the best way to stay young forever. A regular, dedicated practice will maintain:

  • toned muscles
  •  supple and agile joints and tendons
  • density in the bones (osteoporosis prevention)
  • prevention of arthritis and pain management
  • stimulation of all the systems in the body
  • plumping of skin via improved circulation.
  • stronger skin, hair, nail, teeth quality.
  • more agility and suppleness in the body leads to a calmer, more relaxed mind.


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What should we do in our 20’s

In our 20s, we feel invincible. We don’t think in terms of self preservation or how what we do to our bodies now will affect us in 2-3 decades time. It is great, however, to see how yoga has taken off so students are starting younger and younger. Younger students are more attracted to the “Power” style yogas. This is great. Keeping fit and strong while incorporating yogic philosophies and attitudes. It’s also great for the chiropractic/ massage/ physio businesses as large classes of young people trying to do contortions that they’re bodies aren’t suitable for keeps them injured and in constant cycles of joint and muscular pain.

(1) Ensure your chaturangas are done correctly. 

Chaturanga is the movement from high plank, to low plank… ie: the push down. Too often, i see bellies collapsing to the ground and too much strain on shoulders and neck; or a student perform the whole posture favouring one side of the body. Ensure your push down is seamless, straight, tailbone tucked under (instead of bum up)… with an even distribution of weight and power throughout the whole body- not just a forcing in the shoulders.

The practices with constant chaturangas (ashtanga/ vinyasa/ power) are the practices which see the most shoulder/ neck damage.

(2) Love being upside down. 

Learn to enjoy the liberating freedom of handstands, forearm balances, headstands… be upside down for as long as possible. It is soooo good for you. Ease of blood flow to brain, growth and feel good glands, to the face and hair; less pressure on the heart… reduction of swelling or pressure from the legs, ankles and feet. You’ll look younger, feel more invigorated, and the brain will be constantly stimulated with fresh oxygenated blood.

(3) Balance work

are you bad at balance now? in your 20″s … well take some time in this decade to work on balance. Did you know that by the age of 60, sense of balance starts to reduce? This increases the amount of trips and falls… coupled with reduced bone density, this can lead to broken limbs, hips and other important joints and bones… Once the falling/ breakage cycle starts to occur, the quality of life is drastically reduced, from being self-sufficient and able, to the demoralising stages of needing help and care. So if you “hate” balances now, it’s time to fix it up.

In my 20s, I discovered that I was very stable on my right side, and totally unstable on my left. My centre of gravity was completely skewed. I spent a whole summer practicing balance work on my left side. I observed a few things:

  • on my stable side, my mind always stayed steady and focused-with minimal extra effort; i felt grounded; my gaze didn’t shift from my fixed drishti; breath was natural, relaxed and even.
  • On my weaker side, my mind wandered, either to things outside of the postures, or just to a level of anxiety about why i couldn’t balance on that side; I found it difficult to keep weight even on all 4 edges of the foot- weight kept tipping to the outside; focus was challenging; and breath was not calm and rhythmical. …
  • Basically, balance is about grounding. if you are feeling unstable, meditate into your foot. Think about correcting weight distribution imbalances; focus on engaging the ankle.. Just that connection with the lowest part of our body keeps stability.

Understand the difference between stretching muslces & joints and compressing on bones. 

Why are some people more flexible than others? Why can some people be totally doubled over in a forward bend, while others practice for years and always have a gap between tummy and thighs?

There is stretching, where the fascia of our muscles soften and smooth out; there is release of deep seated tension- where stiff joints and tendons, ligaments, bones and cartiledges are released of strain and pain… but finally, we can’t control our bone structure. If our lower spine (sacrum/ lumbar/ coccyx) has a natural lordosis (ie- bum sticks out more)… then we are more prone to easing forward bends, but perhaps experience stiffer backbends. And vice verse… if the tail bone’s natural s-shape is not so profound around the tailbone… we can build towards beautiful tight backbends, yet may find it hard to flex into a forward bend. There come a point where no extra pushing, pumping or forcing will allow more movement. You have reached your point of compression. Each time you try to force past this point, you are no longer stretching muscles, you are grinding bone on bone… which is counter-intuitive.

So come to know and accept your physical limits. Things i see the most of:

  • people with strained necks and shoulders, and veins bulging from their forehead as they perform forward bends.
  • people who force their shoulders in down dog and backbends.
  • people doing very unweildy things with their bodies when they do twists… anything from matsyendrasana to paravrtta pasvokonasana.. the advanced pretzel versions of these postures are for the lucky ones with soft spines; long arms and legs… sometimes we are not built to do the most advanved version of the pose…

Please note- if you keep forcing beyond points that are your actual physical limits, you will end up with pulled muscles and joints, cartilage deterioration and arthritis.

 

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Our practice in our 30’s- start to look for a practice that you can sustain.

If you started practicing in your 20’s without a care for injuries and strains, well- those injuries and strains are going to come out in your 30’s. A skiing accident and disclocated knee got me practicing yoga in my early 20’s, and while I loved the flexibility work, I hated balances, strength work, standing postures.. so never concentrated on perfecting them. Result… my injured knees got so floppy, weak, and suffered from such hyper-extention that the ACL and meniscus gave way very seriously when I was about 32. Post very intense knee operation, I finally had my “ego checked” – went back to those strict iyengar schools where the muscles that were lazy got kicked into action.. and i spent the rest of my 30’s working out how students should strengthen where they are weak; and loosen where they are strained..

Start to find the yoga practice suitable for your dosha.

Just before my major knee blowout, I was very gung ho on my Ashtanga/ mysore practice. I was practicing about 4 times a week. I loved that sensation of feeling like your whole body had been through the washing machine. it was purifying in and out. After one particular practice, my yoga buddy, Lynn, and i went to the cafe next door. She was a pretty chilled out type, I have always been hyper-excitable. My phone rang once we got our “chais” and the message bank said, “you have 7 messages”… I freaked out. I didn’t have a pen, or paper, my business was new- I needed to jot down and return all those calls.. My head went into an anxious spin- I was hyper-ventilating. And this was after a 75 minute Mysore practice. Lynn calmly took the phone, wrote down all my messages neatly; turned my phone off and told me to calm down and drink my tea. This practice was ideal for her laid back nature.. it was proving to really aggravate my vata/ pita tendancies. My knee collapse was the final straw.

Vata / pita students (dominant with air and fire) are drawn to Power, Ashtanga and Vinyasa yoga styles when they are young. These practices, whilst keeping the body and mind in good shape, can aggravate those doshas. I’m not saying to cut your favorite practice out of your repertoire, but take on a yin or Iyengar class each week (ideally 2- if you are practicing daily)- to ground you, stretch you deeply. Don’t worry about cardio/ muscle tone/ body beautiful… the grounding effect of those two practices will ensure you will be doing yoga for the long run and not just short term.

On the otherhand, our grounded, watery kapha friends- those who love yin yoga; easy versions of every posture… should add an open hatha class or two to their weekly programme. They need the vata/ pita building aspects of a vinyasa class- to get heartbeat up and tone soft flesh into muscle.

Ashtanga and students 35 yrs plus

It has been said that Ashtanga (mysore style) yoga shouldn’t be practiced by women 35yrs and over. For some women, the practice remains suitable. But i do see some women working through back pain; shoulder pain .. seeing Osteos and physios each week, needing weeks off their practice because of pain and swelling.. only then to go back to the same practice maybe just a  little bit too soon. Students, remember, working through pain and swelling is going to punish you in your 40s and fifties.

It’s time now to slow down your postures. Each pose has a superficial then profound effect.  Poses held for 5 breaths only “touch the surface”. We only start to discover the profound effects once we have held the posture for > 1 minute. The longer the better. You can still keep active and dynamic, but start to focus on poses that heal and deal with your specific body type and shape.

Please do your shoulderstand on a blanket

If you want any type of strain-free movement in your neck when you are 40 or 50 plus, please put 3-4 blankets under your shoulders when you are doing a shoulderstand. Head should be on the floor, shoulders should be a handspan in from the edge of the blanket. Our necks shouldnt be holding the strain of all our weight… we need that gentle support so that we don’t deteriorate our neck joint. This area of our body is way too fragile to jeapoardise.

 

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Yoga in our 40’s

I do see a maturation in students’ practice by this stage. We have no choice but to listen to our bodies. If you’ve had a regular practice for a while, you will see the long term benefits of:

  • inversions and their effect on our circulation, skin and hair quality
  • spinal extensions (backbends) and their effect on our cardiovascular activity
  • surya/ chandra namaskars; standing & strengthening postures and their effect on our postures, muscle tone and bone strength
  • deep long-held stretches and our pain-free, lubricated joints.

If you are starting now, start slow. Join beginners courses and gentle hatha classes, even if you are used to strenuous cardio activity during the rest of your leisure time. If you are drawn towards the strong stuff, please build up slowly. Yoga can be very intense- a shock not only for your physical body, but every system, your mind and emotions.

I see women start yoga who say, “Oh i did headstands when I was a teenager”… then proceed to kick up dangerously without regard for neck, shoulder or spine safety. In our 40s, the ego should not drive your practice at all. We should no longer be pushing beyond any physical limits because of some mental ideal we have of our body.

Including long deep yin like stretches with resistance work in our standing poses, we’ll keep our bodies and minds stronger for longer.

Take more time to warm up. 

A decade ago, I’d commence my practice with a shoulderstand, despite contrary recommendations. Shoulderstand, followed by plough then knee to ear pose. I loved the blood to the head sensation, the intense neck stretch, the tingle that seemed to run through my whole nervous system. Then one winter morning a few years ago, I started the same ritual, tearing quite a few muscles in my neck, and inner shoulderblade. Needless to say, that after I was able to finally move my neck and head, I paid heed to all those years of advice and never warmed up this way again. I also never again assumed that since a group of students in front of me may have been young… I would never encourage them to start a class this way.

Lesson learned: take time to warm up – each joint. Don’t expect that you can fall into an advanced posture today, just because you managed it last week. So many things need to be taken into account- how warm your joints are; the weather outside; how your overall energetic body is feeling etc…

Joint articulation practices (neck and shoulder rolls; gentle twists; lateral flexions; cross legged forward bends; cat/ cow poses etc, are ideal ways to commence your practice. Smooth your way into downward dog… then get more rigorous with your salutes to the sun.

Joints

Consider the mobility in your joints when practicing. Ankles; knees; hips; shoulders… I’d even include the spine in this paragraph. Consider now where you hold tension, which old injuries haven’t healed, then start to focus on adding healing long stretches that address these blockages.. and continue practicing them until you feel more mobile and healed.

In recovery from my knee operation, I slowly worked on Supta virasana for years. At the beginning, I needed 2 bolsters under my buttocks. Over time, I lowered the elevation and now my bottom lies flat on the floor. In winter, my right ankle collapses in- signifying that the knee joint can still be a little lazy, but I work the ankle/ knee connection as much as i can to stimulate the area.

If you experienced bulging discs in your life… continue your core work; spinal twists; cobras and spinal extensions. If the injury has more or less healed, be conscious in your forward bends so you don’t exacerbate the old injury.

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