By Simon Joannou, Principal Teacher Marrickville Yoga Centre
When I first started Iyengar yoga in London I participated in a workshop with a teacher who was seventy-five years old. Prior to trying yoga, I’d worked in the health and fitness industry for a long time conditioning athletes, many of whom competed on the international stage. I came to yoga with fairly fixed, and very Western, ideas of what it meant to be fit and healthy. Yoga changed my understanding of health and wellness and it was largely my earliest yoga experience in this workshop that drew me to the yoga path.
I was blown away by what this teacher, at the age of seventy-five, could do physically. Watching her do a free-balance handstand I thought to myself: Hang on, this is not what a seventy-five year old is meant to be able to do. I was perplexed and inspired by the physical agility and strength of this teacher, and watching her put a question mark in my mind over this thing I understood as yoga. And the more heavily I became involved in yoga, the more I came to redefine my concept of health and the ageing process.
When I started to seriously practicing Iyengar yoga I noticed I would practice with people in their fifties and sixties who were doing really strong practices. It was remarkable to me how strong flexible and able their bodies were and I was constantly checking myself, reminding myself that this was a person in their 60s, 70s. It was a new experience for me, being among the youngest in the group, to struggle to keep up with someone far older in you than years but far more able in terms of strength and stamina.
My first trips to RIMYI Pune,India allowed me to spend time with some of the older international teachers and seeing their general energy and life in seventies and eighties was remarkable to me. I always felt like I was hanging out with someone my own age and watching them in practice, they seemed to do things in their yoga that totally defied their age and leant a new definition to the term ‘agelessness.’ Over the years, as a student, a teacher in training, and then a teacher, watching Mr Iyengar practice was phenomenal. To watch him in his late seventies, early eighties and right through to his nineties brought to mind the elite athletes I had worked with in the past.
After teaching for many years myself, something I have always noticed is that of the people in the room, the most able and the physically strongest are usually female, and often in their fifties and sixties. Often these older students are the real benchmarks of a group as they possess a real strength and stability that the younger students can’t keep up with. This is not only very inspiring as a teacher, but it inspiring for younger students in the group.
For me, as someone who has done a lot of sport and physical activity, it is really exciting looking ahead into my fifties, sixties, seventies, eighties knowing that I can move forward and achieve things that I couldn’t when I was younger. Even as a practitioner now I feel that my own peak is somewhere ahead – this is so different to many other sports where you are at your best in your twenties and thirties. This is because working with props enables access to poses as you age. The characteristic of working with correct alignment in Iyengar yoga really pays off as you get older because the attention to that precision and correct alignment means that as you get older means you are working with your body, not against it.
“Even as the body ages and is able to do less, there are subtleties that reveal themselves, which would be invisible to younger or more athletic bodies. You have to create love and affection for your body, for what it can do for you. Love must be incarnated in the smallest pore of the skin, the smallest cell of the body , to make them intelligent so they can collaborate with all the other ones, in the big republic of the body.”
B.K.S Iyengar, Light on Life