Aug '08 Practice Notes

Yoga is not for everyone but it is for anyone
by Annie Gurton

A pithy epigram from David Swenson is that "Ashtanga is not for everyone, but it is for anyone’". It sounds great, but what does it mean? Simple: that Ashtanga can be taken up by a beginner and practised regularly regardless of age or disability. However Ashtanga has, to some extent, got an image as being the yoga for the flexible, and ideally for those aged 20 to 50. Not so. As David says, it can be for absolutely anyone, provided it is adopted with intelligence.

You need intelligence when bringing a keen youngster to the mat. There is an age below which, despite having extraordinary physical flexibility, a young mind simply does not have the focus required. And a body that is too young can be damaged to give problems later in life. The recommended age to begin Ashtanga varies depending on who you speak to and the maturity of the individual, but 12 to 14 years seem widely accepted.

You need intelligence to know how to start someone who has disabilities or existing injuries, although essentially the same principles apply as with any beginner: do the poses in the classical way with as few modifications as possible, and then gently drop the modifications as the body opens and accepts the new boundaries of flexibility. The important thing is to stick to the sequence, the breath and the system, and the body will find its own way.

And if someone becomes injured once they have started Ashtanga, they need even more intelligence to realise that their injury will not heal if it is continually aggravated by niggling at it with asanas that irritate the injury further. An injured beginner will listen to the teacher, but an injured Ashtangi will often remorselessly push, push and push ‘though’ the injury in the expectation that eventually the body will learn to ignore the pain. Obviously, this is not intelligent practising. An injury needs to be nursed, which means continuing to practice daily, keeping the body in touch with the expectations of the practice, but backing off when the point of pain is reached, and allowing the body to heal.

There is a saying that you can practice through a cold but not through a fever. Any illness should be taken seriously and recovery time allowed for convalescence afterwards. A common cold is annoying because it can interfere with breathing, but is no cause to stop practising. A fever, however, should be taken to bed and rested, with lots of fluids but little food, and practise put on hold until the fever goes. If you are on the mat and feeling dizzy and weak, then you need intelligence to say to yourself that it is enough for that day, that tomorrow is another day, and rest and recuperation are the best practice for the time being.

There is no upper limit to the age when people can start practising Ashtanga, in fact it can be the single most effective thing that older people can do to maintain flexibility and strength. However, coming to the practice as a 65 or 70 year old requires great intelligence on the part of both student and teacher. Unfortunately many older people dismiss Ashtanga as something only suitable for younger bodies, which is a great shame. It is true that older joints take longer to come out of asanas, and muscles creak and complain at the very sight of the mat, however, with modifications and a gentle approach, Ashtanga can make an older life much more enjoyable because of the enhanced feeling of well-being and overall uplifting of the spirit that Ashtanga delivers, as well as the physical benefits.

So, for richer and poorer, in sickness and in health, ‘til death do you part, Ashtanga can be for anyone, provided you use your intelligence to make sure that it is appropriate on that day, for that person.

Annie Gurton founded Goa's Purple Valley and is now retrained as a Counsellor and Psychotherapist. She offers a short-term counselling and therapy service for anyone in emotional pain or mental confusion. She can be contacted at or through Facebook.

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