A simple practice to help you get started.
Are you an older person concerned about maintaining strength, flexibility, and balance as you age? If so, yoga may be just what the doctor ordered.
"Silver" yoga, as it's sometimes called, focuses on adapting yoga's tenets of strength, flexibility, and emotional and physical balance to people over 50.
Like Tai chi, yoga helps improve balance and reduce the chance of falling in older adults. One well-designed study looked at the effects of twice-weekly yoga for 54 men and women between the ages of 60 and 75. After 12 weeks, participants had developed significantly greater balance: they were able to stand on one leg — with their eyes closed, no less — for nearly two seconds longer than when they began. They also moved from sitting to standing almost four seconds more quickly.
The benefits of yoga for flexibility are obvious. Yet since many poses involve weight-bearing activity, yoga can also help strengthen bones. New research has even shown yoga can help improve depression and lower high blood pressure and cholesterol in seniors.
With the benefits piling up, you may decide to give it a try — but unless you're already fit, you probably don't want to jump into the "basics" class at your nearest studio.
Instead, look for classes designed specifically for older people, which are increasingly offered at community centers, neighborhood gyms, and many studios. You may want to avoid hot, vinyasa, and Ashtanga classes — most will be too strenuous for a beginning practice or anyone with a health condition or injury. However, Iyengar, Viniyoga, and Anusara are three gentler schools of yoga taught in many centers around the country that are likely to be appropriate. (Check with the studio or teacher if you're in doubt about a class. Both should be more than willing to help.) Iyengar yoga is particularly suited to seniors, since it involves modifying poses to each person, but a good teacher in any gentle tradition should be able to help you modify poses to suit your abilities. In fact, it's good practice to speak with the teacher your first time or two at any new class: introduce yourself and explain any physical limitations or injuries you may, or may not, have.
Yoga can be tailored to virtually any level of physical ability, but there are some cautions to be aware of. Carol Krucoff, codirector of the Yoga for Seniors Teacher Training at Duke Integrative Medicine at Duke University, cautions that osteoarthritis can be a particular risk for older people. Since the condition often goes undiagnosed, check with your doctor before your first class and request a bone mineral density test if you're at all concerned about bone fragility. These tests are recommended for women over 65 or younger women with elevated risk of fracture, but not for men, who are somewhat less prone to the condition. If you already know your bone mineral density, you can calculate your risk yourself.
Poses that put strain on the spine — in particular, twists or forward bends — can be unsafe for fragile bones, Krucoff says. Leave twists out of your practice if you're at all unsure, or practice them only while supine (lying on the floor), which is easier on the spine, and never to the point of strain. Forward bends can also be modified by holding onto a chair for support.
The following sequence of poses is designed to give you a sense of what a yoga class is like. It should take about 10 to 15 minutes, but feel free to extend time in a pose if you'd like. You'll want a yoga mat or comfortable rug, as well as a chair or wall for balance if you need them (a blanket is optional). However you practice, be sure you're able to maintain a steady stance. And if you decide to take a class, start slow — even one 60- to 90-minute class a week is enough to provide substantial benefits.
As you practice, remember: one of the fundamental tenets of yoga is to find ease in poses. So while discomfort is sometimes a natural part of exercise, pain never should be. If a pose is uncomfortable, modify it to suit you, or move onto something else.
- Cat and cow pose. Only perform this pose if you feel comfortable getting on and off the floor (otherwise, start with mountain pose below). From a sitting position, come to your hands and knees. (If this is hard on your knees, place your knees on a folded blanket, or simply fold your yoga mat in half.) Inhale once. Then, as you exhale, gently lift your neck and arch your back, for cat pose. Next, inhale and let your spine drop into a convex position, dropping your head and neck, for cow pose. Move slowly from one pose to the other four to eight times (or however long you'd like, as long as you're not straining). This pose is a great warm-up as well as an excellent way to gradually bring greater flexibility to the spine. Come back to sitting, then use your hands (or a chair or the wall, if you need it) to come to a standing position.
- Mountain pose. It may surprise you to hear it, but even standing mindfully on two feet has benefits. For this pose, bring your feet together, heels slightly apart. Your knees should have the slightest bend (don't lock them). Contract your abdomen and tuck your pelvis: imagine a bowl resting at your hips, and tilt the bowl slightly up, so that any liquid inside is unable to spill. Experience how doing so naturally brings your shoulders back and neck upright; you may feel a gentle stretch at your heart, the front of your shoulders, and the tops of your thighs. Let your arms hang gently by your sides, palms facing forward, pinkies back. Hold for three inhalations and exhalations.
- Tree pose. If you need to, move next to a chair or wall for this next pose. To start, rest the foot of your right leg against your left ankle, shifting your weight onto your left, standing leg. Move your hands to your hips for greatest stability or, if you can, into a prayer position at your heart. Inhale and exhale. Slowly bring your right foot down and return to mountain pose. Then try this on the other side, lifting the left foot to rest perpendicular to the right ankle and shifting your position at the chair or wall, as necessary. Hold for one inhalation or exhalation. To stabilize your balance, focus on the standing leg: imagine it pressing against your opposite foot (rather than vice versa). If this feels easy, try bringing the foot further up the calf or leg, focusing on rotating your hip out to the side and keeping your spine straight as you move up; the pose will increase in difficulty the further up you go. Skip the knee to avoid putting pressure on that joint.
- Side stretch. Sit on the chair (or, if you're comfortable, cross-legged on the floor). Place your right hand on your hip and lift your left arm straight above your head. Then, gently reach your left arm over your left ear, tilting to the right until you feel a stretch on your left side. As you inhale and exhale, feel free to make the pose your own: stretch forward or back, gently include your neck in the tilt, or simply lift your arm straight above your head if that's most comfortable for you. Then, switch sides, placing your left hand on your left hip and lifting your right arm above your head and to the left until you feel the stretch in your right side.
- Seated meditation (Savasana, or corpse pose). Remain sitting in your chair (or lie down on the floor, arms by your side and legs extended). Make yourself comfortable — grab a blanket to stay warm if you need to — and close your eyes. Sit up in a chair as straight as you can and breathe slowly, inhaling up from the abdomen through your nose, then exhaling through your mouth. Slowly lengthen your inhalations and exhalations as much as you're comfortable — for example, try for a count of three and lengthen slowly to a count of six. Do this for one to three minutes, or for as long as you'd like.
December 11, 2015
Janet O’Dell, RN