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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response to "getting back to yoga"

(Please read Getting Back to Yoga, Part 1 and Part 2 in their entirety before reading this post.)

This post is excerpts from an email I received from a regular reader who is also a yoga teacher. She gave me permission to use it, with edits. she asked me to disguise her words because she is worried that she might lose her job if someone recognized her.

is that what the state of yoga in this culture has come to? think about that. that might be the bigger issue here. are we as teachers so afraid to call a spade a spade, so afraid to speak our truth about teaching and the state of yoga as some of us experience it that we are afraid to lose our jobs? a job that we do because we love it and not because we can make any type of money to support ourselves.

call it a yoga rant if you want to but it’s food for thought and I believe these things need to be said because the mainstream yoga media doesn’t talk about it. the mainstream yoga media is more concerned with marketing to the perfect yoga demographic. as my yoga cyberpal YogaDawg says, no yoga BS here.

I thought her comments important enough for a post of their own instead of in the comments section where they might be ignored.

“…this whole “Americanized” yoga thing is the same thing that is going on with our whole culture…skinny, tight, no wrinkles on a 65 year old woman, tummy tucks after babies, puffy collagen lips…I won’t even get started.

I had 30 in a class last night, way too many. After class a woman asked if I always do postures that you have to support your weight…she has a severe arm injury…no upper body strength at all. this is a public class, for the general population…this is not private instruction, which she needs.

I am working with a young man with rheumatoid arthritis. he was going to take a community class with a student teacher. When I heard that I told him absolutely not. I am working with him for free to keep him from injuring himself.

Yoga is advertised as a cure-all, body opener, strength builder, look beautiful like the pictures in Yoga Journal, your wrinkles will disappear as soon as you feel your breath….And everybody can do it, just modify a pose in a group class, no matter what the asana is.

A woman came when she was very pregnant and said, “I know you will modify every posture for me.” And what am I supposed to do with the 20 other people (half of which are new) in class while I am attending to her? And she was new to yoga. Not a good time to start when pregnant with your first child. I told her to start a prenatal program.

At one of the first classes I taught I was asked, “Oh wow, are you going to teach us those really hard arm balances and all that cool stuff?” I said, “no, that would not be me”, and the student hasn’t been back. they have no idea that you go to an advanced class or one-on-one to learn those asanas.

Wow, I really took off on this one…sorry, but I do feel better….”

hey, even yoga teachers need to let off steam, none of us are enlightened yet.

and I totally get what she is venting about. because for as much as yoga is portrayed in western culture, for as much as we hear or read about it in the media (it had its 15 minutes of fame on Oprah), for as much as we yoga teachers like to think that yoga is “mainstream”…it’s not. yet yoga IS advertised as a cure-all (“GET THAT YOGA BUTT IN 20 MINUTES PER DAY AND OPEN YOUR THROAT CHAKRA, TOO!”), and as much as I believe in the healing power of yoga, this is a huge disservice. people who could benefit from private yoga go to group classes because they don’t know any better and end up getting frustrated or worse, injured, sometimes seriously.

as I wrote in my last post, I was taught that personal transformation can begin in a group class, but is accomplished by working one on one with a trusted teacher and having faith in that teacher. there have been many times when I have suggested to certain students in a group class that their needs would be much better served by private yoga sessions. yet, for some reason, the idea of private yoga classes in this culture is met with skepticism. it boggles my mind that people will pay someone $75 or more to clean their house or to pick up their dog’s poop (not to mention the money one can spend at Starbucks in one month), but the thought of paying a highly trained yoga teacher $75 or less for a private yoga session is anathema to them. people pay more than $50 for a pizza party for their kids.

it’s all about priorities….

reader warning: yoga rant!

My birthday yesterday got me thinking about aging yoginis….me in particular, but in general the use of youthful yoga images in the Western media to sell a product…yes, let’s admit it, yoga in the West is mass-marketed and a brand name in some cases.

Feminists say that the older woman, that is, a woman over 40, is invisible in modern society. I’ve read more than a few articles about how older Hollywood actresses believe that there are few good roles for the aging actress in a culture obsessed with youth and Botox.

I will throw the question out there: is Western yoga culture guilty of the same offense? Think about the covers of your favorite yoga magazines and the pictures that accompany the stories inside. Think about the ads for yoga products. How many wrinkles can you count? Indeed, how many rounder bodies do you see, the more zaftig, Rubenesque forms?

Vanity Fair has a slide show on famous yogis and yoginis (thanks, Marilyn!) and while the photos are fabulous and I was glad to see master teachers like Desikachar, Jois, and Iyengar, I noticed that there weren’t many older women. Gurmukh Kaur Khalsa was featured, and I’m assuming that Trudie Styler is over 40 since Sting is in his mid-50s, but where are all the older women? Surely Vanity Fair could have found more than two…or am I just being overly-sensitive? And if I am being hyper-sensitive about it, so what?

I don’t know about anyone else, but I’m getting tired of seeing the young, skinny, cellulite-free bodies in Yoga Journal and other yoga magazines. I want to see people in my age group and older featured in the articles, and not just in articles about “senior yoga” in chairs or yoga in nursing homes! And I certainly don’t want to see a 20-something yogini demonstrating the asanas in an article about yoga for menopause! I want to see older yogis and yoginis as cover models, wrinkles, saggy breasts, and softer bellies included. But I guess we’re not the right demographic age group — after all, it’s all about who buys what.

I plan on practicing and teaching yoga the rest of my life and the current collection of popular yoga magazines just don’t appeal to me anymore. I used to read Yoga Journal cover to cover and save each and every issue — now I barely skim it and it gets recycled very quickly. At least the YJ interview in the latest issue (ahem…on the last page) features Patricia Walden, an “old” yogini. My favorite yoga magazine is ascent, founded by Swami Sivananda Radha — you can count lots of wrinkles in that magazine!

You may have seen the movie Calendar Girls where “old” Helen Mirren and her “old” friends take off their clothes for a fund-raising calendar. If someone somewhere would do a calendar like that featuring us older yoga bodies, honey, sign me up! Sing the Body Electric!

I Sing the Body Electric — Walt Whitman, 1900

“…This is the female form;
A divine nimbus exhales from it from head to foot;
It attracts with fierce undeniable attraction!
I am drawn by its breath as if I were no more than a helpless vapor—all falls aside but myself and it…

Hair, bosom, hips, bend of legs, negligent falling hands, all diffused—mine too diffused;
Ebb stung by the flow, and flow stung by the ebb—love-flesh swelling and deliciously aching;
Limitless limpid jets of love hot and enormous, quivering jelly of love, white-blow and delirious juice…

Be not ashamed, women—your privilege encloses the rest, and is the exit of the rest;
You are the gates of the body, and you are the gates of the soul…”