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A photo of Collyn doing a standing yoga pose.

Inquiring into ‘old-hood’

I wanted to explore the question ‘does yoga helps thwart some of the effects of ageing?’. So I asked my octogenarian friend Collyn Rivers* if he would write a guest post on the topic.

Some of you might remember Collyn fondly from his wonderful classes at Sydney Yoga Centre, the school that he co-directed with me.

He and I have been committed to doing strong and dynamic yoga practice for decades. This is not always the direction that those of advanced years want to go. Older people might prefer to kick back and sit out their remaining days. But Collyn is not one of them.

Collyn on yoga and age

A perverse curiosity about advice on yoga for older people is that it is mostly from those far younger. Further, ‘age’ is regarded only chronologically. It overlooks that many an over-80 yogi will do stuff that most 50 year olds can only dream of. However, few over 70 write books about that.

There are exceptions: Vanda Scaravelli wrote ‘Awakening the Spine’ when she was about 83, and uses herself to illustrate advanced poses. BKS Iyengar was still doing his stuff just prior to his death (at 95). There are records of (American) yoga teachers doing handstands when over 100. Mary Stewart’s Yoga over 50 is fine (but 50 is hardly old). Our beloved Eve’s ‘Teach Yourself Yoga’ – includes pix of both of as 50 and 60 year olds – but may however need be updated.

I have never been one for non-thinkingly accepting any status quo – so starting yoga at 52 with Pixie Lillas in Balmain was not an issue. I became an Iyengar-certified teacher when I was 58 and taught for many years with Eve until my late 70s.

My basic approach now is to read the general aging advice. Then do the opposite.

That advice tends to include moving to a single story house. So we bought a three story house with a very steep 50 metre driveway. We (my wife is 20 years younger) may climb those three-story stairs many times a day.

My daily practice from 82 on was initially to build up core strength to beyond that I had previously then work on a basis of use it or lose it. Now at 87 I find I can still do much of what I did when I first started yoga at 52. My strength is far less, but flexibility is still much as in my 60s.

I have wrist issues that prevent handstands but can go up into headstand with straight legs at least 20 times in a row.

I take core building stuff very seriously and do far more repetitions than a 30/40 year old would do. I mostly do 20-30 repeats. This is to provide a reserve, as it were, as I will inevitably lose strength in the future.

Also have a feeling that being a Leo helps no end.

I still primarily use Mr Iyengar’s routines, and attend Jo Longhurst’s excellent Iyengar classes in Mona Vale once a week.

I have an annual medical check – not the least because I was born with some seven major back issues – none of which has given the slightest problem since I started yoga. My blood pressure is about 110 over 70 and resting heart rate of 50-55 beats/minute.

The main reductions are in strength generally – and balance on a soft surface. But, curiously no problem on the hard ones in our home. 

Apart from occasionally going upstairs to have a pee, then forgetting what I came up for, my memory is fine. I still work full-time – writing and publishing complex technical books.

I do not for a moment suggest this approach unless one has a long yoga background – but do think long and hard about following advice from those much younger.

Am also encouraged by recent findings that the body may cease aging when one is past 91. The study reported in a 2016 New Scientist by Michael Rose, professor of evolutionary biology, says that if you are lucky enough to live that long, you stop ageing. He notes that one’s health may not improve but it certainly does not get any worse. Whilst that advice is so far not mainstream, population statistics do show that ageing seems to stop at 93 – and does not speed up again until we get a telegram from Queen Elizabeth (the Last) at 100.

Thus, if one makes it to 99, you are no more likely to die at any given point than someone of 93. (From 110 plus may be a different matter but I’ll let you know).

*Collyn Rivers is a certified Iyengar Yoga teacher. Both Collyn and his wife Maarit have been (top) Level 3 Yoga Australia teachers – but have now ceased active teaching. Collyn plans ‘never to retire and to be working as now until at least 100 (currently13 years to go).’ He stays busy in his own business, Caravan and Motorhome Books, as writer and editor.