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.
December 11, 2015
Janet O’Dell, RN