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My relationship with my body changed radically when I started to practice yoga more than 25 years ago. The ambivalence I felt about my body in my teens and early twenties had manifested in self destructive behaviours – binge drinking, drug abuse and some very unhealthy relationships. Yoga played a big role in helping me transform self-loathing into self-love and heal from the anxiety and panic disorders that had crippled me.

 

But now, after a quarter of a century of loving the body that yoga helped to strengthen and heal, that body is changing in new and uncontrollable ways. At first I was puzzled by the extra time my thoracic spine needed to warm up before practicing asana in the mornings. I marveled at how the skin on my upper arms folded in new ways when I moved into Garudasana. I was amazed that, when I took a break from asana practice for a day or two, I couldn’t just snap back into poses in the usual way. My yoga body is aging and the changes it is undergoing have forced me to renegotiate the truce that I arrived at with my body decades ago.

 

Yoga would seem to be the ideal vehicle for navigating the challenges of aging. But when I looked around at the images of yogini’s served up in public, it seemed as if the visible signs of aging, childbirth and life’s struggles could be Om’d away in a flurry of vinyasa and organic raw food diets. Or is that Photoshop? But my body bears those scars with stubborn determination. The soft rolls of my belly, the thickening waist, the receding gums, the laughter lines, the slackening skin on my arms and throat. Part life choices, part genetics, this is the body I live in.

 

Could I rejuvenate my body through diet, exercise, clever make up and smart clothing choices? Probably. For a bit. I honestly can’t be bothered, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t care. Because our culture renders older women invisible and I’m not ready to disappear just yet.

 

Where are the older yoginis? In the same way that women are airbrushed out of magazines, movies and public life when they lose their sex appeal (if you haven’t seen Amy Schumer's 'Last F**kable Day' do yourself a favour and click here), so too do yoginis fade from view as age renders their bodies less commercially desirable.

 

One of the few public portrayals of older women practicing yoga is the internet phenomena of the Yoga Grannies, women in their 80’s and 90’s performing uber-bendy yoga poses in pink track-pants. But instead of being celebrated for their wisdom, these women are presented as novelty items for us to gawp at. “Wow, look what that old lady can do!” is not the same as ‘Wow, that woman has accomplished great things and has much to teach us.” 

 

As a yoga teacher, the changes I am experiencing in my body take on a professional as well as a personal dimension. My relationship with my body doesn’t just affect the way I think and feel about myself, it also influences the way I teach and the messages I (consciously or unconsciously) send my students about yoga, aging and body image. 

 

The older female teachers I admire and learn from have never, to my knowledge, been photographed in full make up while modeling expensive yoga pants as a brand ‘ambassador’. They continue to teach and lead with integrity, but their faces (let alone their bodies) are not part of the regular parade of celebrity yoga teachers.

 

Is that because they choose not to be part of the media circus or because the media refuses to engage with older female bodies? And do we really need to add yet more images to the vast gallery of yoga bodies in print and social media? Surely that would only serve to further entrench the idea that yoga is only about manipulating the body? My natural inclination is to let the younger, publicity hungry yoginis take the limelight.

 

But as a yoga therapist and teacher, I see the benefits that yoga brings to older and less able bodied students every single day and it breaks my heart when I hear people who would gain so much from yoga say they believe that they’re too old or inflexible to practice.

 

It isn’t just the media creating the impression that yoga is inaccessible to much of the population. The rise of one-size-fits-all yoga classes and the group-fitness approach to teaching also alienates those who are not youthful, bendy and body confident. The responsibility for ensuring that yoga is accessible to people of all ages and body types rests squarely with those of us who teach the classes.

 

As a mature yoga teacher, I have an opportunity to support and encourage people who might not otherwise find their way to yoga. It’s my job to make yoga accessible and that includes allowing myself to age, and be seen to age, with honesty and awareness. I want my students to see that it’s ok to stand up and be seen for who you really are – a healthy, happy adult who embraces her body with all its battle scars and imperfections. 


Nikola Ellis is the founder of Adore Yoga, yoga therapist, counsellor and teacher trainer. Join her for Yoga Classes, Workshops, Training and Yoga retreats. Got a question about yoga or ayurveda? Ask Nikola here

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