age before beauty

(a crazy old yogini)

I’ve written before about how according to Yoga Journal the only good yogi is the young, white, skinny woman sans cellulite and wrinkles. Two years ago when I was 53 I wrote this post about American yoga and ageism. So I was glad to see the latest issue of YJ devote a few pages to American yoga’s spiritual elders: Patricia Walden, 62; Gurmukh Kaur Khalsa, 67; Sharon Gannon, 58; David Life, 59; Angela Farmer, 71; and her partner, Victor van Kooten, 69.

I like the phrase “spiritual elder.” I attended a Buddhism workshop at the Omega Institute over July 4th weekend that was led by Lama Surya Das. Lama Surya referred to an old woman as a “spiritual elder.” She said she’s a former Quaker and she asked many questions and challenged Lama Surya on some things he said. Every time she did, he’d smile and they would spar a little. Toward the end of the workshop he referred to her as a spiritual elder, that unlike the East, in this culture we lack spiritual elders, that we look at certain pop celebrities as our new “spiritual elders”, that is until the next big book comes out then there’s a new spiritual elder.

Like the older yogis in the latest YJ, my yoga practice has also changed the older I’ve become. I wrote this post asking people to get real about their practice if they’re in their 40s, or 50s, or 60s. No offense to the young teachers out there — we all start out green and we can and do learn from everyone no matter the age (I have a 17 year old student who has been with me for three years and she’s a joy)…but I’m just not drawn to a younger teacher. Go ahead and call it reverse-ageism if you want to (I’m too old to care.) I am certainly not saying a young teacher does not know anything or that I know more or that seasoned people like me know everything. I’m saying that there is much to be said about life experience. It’s not all about what you read in the yoga books. I did not become a yoga teacher until I was 48 and frankly I am very grateful for that because for me the difference between 28 and 48 is not just 20 years but light years. You’ll see. Maybe it’s time that younger teachers start listening to us crones in our 50s and 60s. It’s good to be a crone.

Not only my own practice, but my teaching has changed. I used to feel that I had to keep people entertained and like Angela Farmer, I also feel the atmosphere of a class. I want people to intuit their own practice and get out of their heads and into their bodies, I don’t want students to mimic what I do. The longer I teach, the less I demonstrate, the more I walk around the room, even with beginners. I hate routine, one foot has to be this way, the other that way, the arms have to be here or there. How boring. How rigid. How dull. That is yoga prison to me. I choose to be a rasa devi and move in and with passion.

Fancy arm balances and pretzel poses no longer impress me. Show me how you live your life and what you can give up for 10 days at a retreat without complaint — that will show me what you’ve learned from yoga. Show me your service and gratitude.

I live with chronic pain nowadays and like Buddha said, there is no escaping old age, sickness, and death. Yoga and my spirituality has made me comfortable with it all, even the thought of death. During meditations I’ve had visions of myself of what seems like 20 years from now — I now know where that place is, where I will be. Just burn this crazy old yogini’s body and throw my ashes in Ma Ganga. I will have been grateful for it all.



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14 thoughts on “age before beauty

  1. Beautiful, and so true. My chronic, instense pain of the last few years has markedly changed my teaching. And my undersatnding of old age, illness, and death. Even though I am only 33!

    And I also no longer feel the desire to entertain or perform when I teach, I just want people to sink into their bodies. I giggled – if I demonstrate, I tend not to actually demonstrate how I practice, but I wasn't concentrating this mornign and went deeper in paschimottanasana than usual: my private client said, “oh, you're bending more than usual”
    And then I realised that he had thought I COULDN'T bend deeply, because I have never demonstrated it. But he gets so much out of his yoga, he doesn't care how I bend. That, that is as it should be.

    Great post, Wise Woman. Also, great photo!


  2. Great post. I'm still young, but if I'm lucky, I'll be a ripe, and hopefully wiser, old crone someday. It's good to have older mentors, my mom being my number 1, but I think you are one for me also, even though we have never met.


  3. I LOVE your photo- so beautiful!
    So true as well. As a 'young' yogini, I am acutely aware that experience will give me everything. I love hearing my mother speak about how she couldn't PAY someone to make her younger, and how much happier she is now in her 50's. I admire her muchly, and only hope to have as much wisdom and Grace when I'm in my 50's etc. 🙂
    Ageism is such a sad part of our Western culture, we fear aging so much. My grandmother was just diagnosed with Dementia of the Alzheimer's Type, and she is like a child, no longer able to live on her own, care for herself. And our society is not set up for children to care full time for their parents. My mother had to change her own fathers' diaper at one point during his illness (he passed last year) and she informed me that NO ONE should ever have to do that for their dying father.

    Back to yoga- my favourite yoga teachers have been those that do not demonstrate, but teach.
    Thank you for a fantastic, thoughtful post, and hopefully someday I too will become a beautiful spiritual elder!


  4. thanks, Grace and Eco!

    I want to emphasize that I AM NOT dissing young(er) yoga teachers. don't forget that I was young once! i.e., body-wise, I am still young mentally!

    and I agree with your mother, Eco, I love being 50+, and as far as I am concerned, the best is yet to come.


  5. Beautiful pose and beautiful post! I know that as a yoga teacher (and human!), that the best years are yet to come. My yoga teacher just turned 50 this year, and she says she'll be doing handstands until she's 75. And I believe her!

    On the subject of age and power, I found this little video which reminded me of you. Unfortunately, I can't post it in this comment box (argh!), but I've put in the roller derby post on my blog.


  6. I've never had any fear of aging, unlike many women I've observed around me. Those who complained about turning 30, who dread each birthday.

    My philosophy has always been: I can't know the things I know or have seen what I've seen, without aging.

    Simple, true. Yet so many women seem to be in a major funk over their age. I think even to this day my mother refuses to tell people her age – “You never ask a lady her age” – is the comeback.

    In some ways I really love that I'm only just becoming a yoga teacher at age 37. I mean, it would've been nice to have gotten that seriously into yoga while in my 20's but then, this is a path of wisdom.

    I know teaching is going to just completely redefine my understanding of yoga. And I love my Upaya Guru, the woman who runs the school I'm studying at – she's a kick ass grandmother and brilliant, humble yogini.

    Definitely, I salute my yogic elders, and as I always offer in my end of meditation prayers (to the mahasiddhas), I say also to the yogini elders: may your realisations one day also be my realisations.


  7. Great post Lindasama.

    I just started to get serious about yoga at at the beginnig of this year at the age of 41. I don't think I had the patience or grace at 20 or 30 to truly appreciate the mind/body integration. I am toying with the idea of going through teacher training within the next few years, but we'll have to see what happens.

    I'm also working towards a major career shift – taking the science prerequisites I need to get into a nursing program. I have very lofty plans for the next half of my life and you are such an inspiration for me to just freekin' go for everything balls to the wall. ;))


  8. Great post!!! As a Forrest yoga teacher who is much much much closer to 40 than 30, I love it when Ana (who's 50-plus) refers to becoming a “wisdom keeper.” I think of that as the Native American equivalent to “spiritual elder.” Yoga has such potential to offer women & men a return to aging as a path to strength, depth, growth & greater openness of spirit.


  9. As a yoga teacher and practitioner in her 40's I really appreciate you writing this piece. As a teacher my classes are slow, medicinal and restorative. As a practitioner I’m on a journey. At times certain yoga fits my body and mind and others don’t. I take what I need without judgment. I’ve had my fair share of talks with women who feel yoga isn’t the “workout” they need to keep fit. A friend of mine resisted a restorative class for years. Her daughter has said it was “old ladies yoga” and the thought of being reduced to an old ladies class turned her off. It’s a shame really, it’s the best darn class I go to all week, nothing works my mind and body like that class. Sometimes I hobble in pieces but I always leave whole and satisfied. I liked to give a shout out to Peggy Cappy who I feel should also have been named in YJ for introducing the concept of yoga for everyone at every age. Shine on and thank you for writing this.


  10. Linda:

    Pleased to meet the Linda-Sama who commented on my blog (thanks!).

    I recently did a retreat with my current main teacher, a woman in her mid 50s. In the class, there were many students younger than she, with more toned, more youthful bodies. But it was so apparent that who the most-advanced yogi was–in every way (asana, pranayama, and unmistakable wisdom). No matter how fit any of us were, no one else but she could come close to padmasana in pincha mayurasana! But it was more than the asana. It seemed the she epitomized being “in her element.”

    Best to you,
    Yoga Spy


  11. Great post! Your entire blog is a real gift… inspiring and refreshing.

    After a long hiatus, I've come back to my yoga practice this year and, at almost 40, it's been a much different journey than it was in my 20's. This time I'm actually feeling and investigating the asanas — not just doing them.

    I've been giving some consideration to becoming a teacher and, of course, my age worries me. I hadn't considered that there are people out there who would prefer an experienced teacher to a younger one. Thanks for speaking out!


  12. As a Yoga teacher in her 40's, I'd like to thank you for saying, so very well, what I've had on my heart. Excellent, excellent post Linda.


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