Yoga and Healthy Aging

yoga and healthy aging

Taking up yoga will help with healthy aging. Obviously, it can’t turn the clock back but It can slow the physical aging process and even reverse some of the physical effects of aging to date. It can also help you regain feelings of youthfulness.

Benefits of yoga for the elderly

For many centuries people who have practiced yoga have experienced health benefits, no matter their age. But recent medical evidence has established specifically that yoga supports healthy aging overall. And it also helps with medical conditions that primarily affect the elderly.

Examples of these conditions include: 

  • back pain
  • osteoporosis
  • asthma
  • obesity
  • diabetes
  • heart disease
  • arthritis

And, aside from what you can get out of it, yoga requires no special equipment, although there are some useful props that we will touch on later. And you can practice yoga anywhere. 

You don’t have to leave home to practice yoga. However, it is highly recommended that you take some classes at a yoga studio from a qualified yoga teacher.

A yoga instructor will be able to tailor postures to suit any physical limitations you may have, such as arthritis, impaired mobility, or other conditions. You can modify just about any yoga pose to suit your individual physical needs.

Getting informed about yoga for seniors

Yoga comes with many benefits for seniors but it is important to know about the risks too.

Check out the Yoga Empowers Seniors Study (YESS). This found that yoga definitely benefits seniors. However, a senior should be aware of the risks associated with it. These are mainly associated with the physical limitations in the musculoskeletal system that come with old age. The effects of arthritis are an example.

So, in this regard, you should also check out the advice given by the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons. They too endorse yoga for seniors but caution against yoga-related injuries.

Don’t let the idea of yoga intimidate you 

People who are new to yoga or know nothing about it can be intimidated by it. This is because they associate it with difficult-looking postures or poses (asanas in yoga-speak) that look like you need to be a contortionist to perform.

But in fact, this is not the case. Another translation of asana, which is a Sanskrit word, is a comfortable or steady seated position, often associated with meditation.

The bottom line is that there is a yoga practice for everyone, regardless of age or physical condition. And it has many benefits for seniors in particular.

Just for example, let’s take a look at the benefits for seniors of simple forward bending yoga poses.

Forward bending poses 

forward bending yoga pose

In a study of 60 adults, aged 50-72, who were in good health, the researchers had these people participate in a 20-minute session of forward bending postures. They measured their blood pressure and heart rate during the session and noted their subjective feelings afterwards. 

Blood pressure, heart rate, and stress

These individuals were in excellent health and all of them practiced an hour-long yoga session each week. The researchers concluded that this benefited them in much the same way as other people benefit from engaging in higher intensity exercise such as running and swimming. The results of both yoga and high-intensity exercise are a decrease in blood pressure and heart rate levels. 

The researchers also noted a decrease in stress hormone levels in the same group of people that practiced yoga. 

Physiological effects of forward bending 

There are physiological benefits of a forward bending pose that can be achieved by a person keeping his body engaged in this posture. It increases the blood flow to the brain, reduces the back pressure on the heart, boosts nerve function, and allows an individual to relax. 

Improved blood and nerve supply to the brain gives the brain better control over the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems, enhances blood and nerve functioning, boosts the immune system, protects the eyes, relieves back pain, and improves digestion, respiration, and bowel functions.

General benefits of yoga for seniors

We just discussed the specific benefits of forward bending poses. But medical studies of seniors have found that a regular practice of yoga asanas in general can decrease symptoms of arthritis and lower blood pressure. 

Furthermore, asanas improve muscle strength and flexibility. This, in turn, has been shown to improve body posture and enhance general well-being. As a result, seniors who choose to practice yoga have been found to have reduced levels of anxiety and depression.

Yoga and emotional balance in seniors

One of the beneficial effects of the practice of yoga is the ability to achieve emotional balance. And for many seniors, this is one of the most important benefits. In everyday life, the elderly can encounter many obstacles that place a strain on them and on their relationships. 

Yet, a discipline of yoga can help to enhance emotional balance through the way in which it requires focus and concentration. In turn, this enhances a feeling of emotional and physical safety. As a result, people who practice yoga have been found to have higher levels of emotional stability and a positive outlook.

Improved overall health for the elderly 

While many older people practice yoga for the purely physical benefits, such as improved posture, others practice yoga in order to improve their overall level of health. Some studies have shown that seniors who practice yoga are less likely to suffer from heart disease, stroke, and high blood pressure. 

Moreover, seniors who practice yoga are more likely to maintain a normal weight. In addition, they are less likely to suffer from anxiety and depression, stroke, and high blood pressure. These studies of seniors have found that a regular practice of asana can decrease symptoms of arthritis, headache, back pain, chronic fatigue, insomnia, thyroid problems, and other health issues. 

Dispelling some yoga myths

Myth 1: Yoga is only for the fit and athletic 

Not true. The actual practice of yoga is open to all, young and old, fit and unfit. And it is usually divided into a few themed sequences. There is a wide variety of classes available, that will range from very simple stretches and poses to a lot more elaborate sequences and poses. 

For example, in the beginning, you might begin with a single leg stand sequence and build up to a complete sequence. But you are never restricted to just a single leg stand, there is plenty of scope to develop the ability to balance and enhance balance skills.

Myth 2: Yoga is all about difficult poses 

Not true. Though some yoga poses are indeed difficult and require a great deal of acquired flexibility in joints and ligaments, there are many poses that will suit any age and physical condition. And a good yoga instructor will be able to guide you in this. In fact, most yoga instructors offer classes specifically designed for older people.

Unfortunately, many of the athletic yoga poses we see in television programs, magazine articles and instructional DVDs are designed to glamorize yoga. But they have the unintended consequence of deterring people from yoga because they just look too hard.

Myth 3: Yoga is a type of therapy

Not true. Therapy is a specific approach to resolving a specific medical condition. While yoga can be helpful for many medical conditions and is generally helpful in achieving health and wellness, it is not a form of medical treatment. You go to a doctor for this, not a yoga instructor.

Myth 4: Yoga is better than other fitness routines 

Not true. Like any other fitness activity, yoga can be beneficial in increasing fitness. But it is not better or worse than other specific types of training. However, many people, both young and old, will include yoga as supplemental to their other physical exercise routines. And it is certainly true to say that you will not find the contemplative and meditational aspects of yoga in, say, interval training.

Yoga and healthy aging poses to get started with

Here are some yoga poses seniors can get started with. And always remember that an instructor will have recommendations for modifications to suit your specific needs.

Warrior pose 

warrior yoga pose

The warrior pose is a standing pose that will improve your bone density and increase lower body strength by flexing out your thighs, groin, and hips.

  • Start with your feet directly below your hips. Your arms should be hanging loose at your sides.
  • Turn to the right and, with your right foot, step out to around 4 feet. Your right foot should be at 90-degrees to your left foot.
  • Raise both arms straight out at shoulder height. Inhale as you perform this movement.
  • Bend the right leg until your right thigh is parallel to the ground. Keep your left leg straight. Exhale as you perform this movement.
  • Hold this pose for 30 seconds.
  • Repeat with the other leg.

Low lunge pose

low lunge pose

The low lunge pose  stretches out the muscles of the hips and legs.

  • Stand with your feet slightly apart under your hips.
  • Step forward with your right foot, while bending the knee so that it is directly over the ankle.
  • Your left leg will be directly behind you with the knee resting on the floor. Use padding or a towel under the knee, if it’s more comfortable.
  • Put your fingers on the floor to the sides of your right ankle. With practice, you can raise your arms straight over your head for an extra stretch. Or you can put your hands on your hips, like the girl in the image.
  • Keep your upper body vertical.
  • Breathe deeply for about 30 seconds.
  • Stand and repeat with the other leg.

Tree pose

tree pose

The tree pose is a great pose for the improvement of balance. Don’t forget that falls are a major cause of injury in seniors. And don’t be put off by that image. These instructions modify it.

  • Stand with your feet together, arms straight and over your head, with palms together. 
  • Raise one leg slightly off the ground with the toes still touching the ground and your heel touching the upper part of your foot close to the ankle.
  • Hold your balance in this position for up to 30 seconds. But don’t worry if you can’t make it that long to start with. 
  • Repeat this pose with the other leg.

 When you are just getting started, you may want to hold onto the back of a chair, rather than have your arms over your head. But just touch the chair for balance. Don’t grab it.

With practice, and as you gain balance, try pulling up the raised foot so that the sole rests on the inside of your calf. As you practice and gain flexibility, you may be able to raise your foot to the inside of your thigh, like the girl in the image.

Extended puppy pose 

extended puppy pose

The extended puppy pose will stretch out the spine.

  • Start on your hands and knees (hands under shoulders and knees under hips). Put a towel or padding under your knees if you feel discomfort.
  • Walk your hands forward until your chest is close to the floor.
  • Press your hands and arms into the floor, while keeping your head down.
  • Take deep breaths for up to 30 seconds and then slowly walk your hands back to the hands and knees position.

As you practice and gain flexibility, you will be able to lower your bottom such that it touches the backs of your legs, like the girl in the image.

The bridge pose

bridge pose

The bridge pose strengthens the lower back and hips.

  • Lie on your back with feet hip-distance apart and flat on the floor and directly under your knees. Keep your arms straight at your side.
  • Press your hands into the floor and breathe in.
  • As you exhale, engage your stomach muscles and tilt your pelvis and then your back off the floor until you form the bridge, like the girl in the image.
  • Hold this position for 30 seconds and then gradually lower your spine to the floor,  starting with your shoulders, until your back is flat on the floor.

Legs up against the wall pose 

legs up the wall pose

This legs up against the wall pose is a restorative pose. And we’ll come to restorative yoga in just a moment.

This  pose offers gentle release but without having to bend over. And it helps with the recirculation of blood to the heart.

  • Start by sitting on the floor with one side of your body against the wall.
  • Lower your back to the floor and then maneuver your legs up the wall until their backs are flat up against the wall.
  • If this is too difficult, move your body away from the wall a bit. This will let you bend your legs slightly.
  • You can keep your arms flat by your side or spread them out, like the girl in the image.
  • Take deep breaths and maintain the pose for about a minute.
  • Then slowly swing your legs down the wall to one side and resume the sitting position.

Butterfly pose

butterfly pose

The butterfly pose stretches out the inner and outer thighs, hip and lower back flexors. 

It is especially beneficial for lower back pain.  

This is a pose that you should work your way into gradually without forcing it to the point of pain. And you should not do it if you suffer from knee issues. It is best practiced after warming up with some cardio work. 

  • Sit on the floor with both legs stretched out in front of you.
  • Straighten your back and hold your head above your spine..
  • Bring the soles of your feet together, with your knees bent and pointed outwards. Starting out by doing this one leg at a time.
  • Bring your heels as close to your body as possible but without forcing them through discomfort.
  • Lean forward, while keeping your back straight. But do this gradually. Do not force it through pain.
  • Hold the pose for 30 seconds

Restorative yoga

Restorative yoga for healthy aging is the subject of a separate post. But this is a brief introduction, because, although suitable for yoga practitioners of any age, it is especially beneficial for the elderly.

The restorative style of yoga is restful. It holds poses for longer periods of time and uses supportive props like blankets, bolsters, and blocks. These props make the holding of postures for an extended period almost effortless.

In contrast to the more athletic style of standard Western yoga, restorative yoga places emphasis on the traditional Eastern meditative aspects of yoga. It provides deep relaxation and a sense of stillness. As such, it is a powerful reliever of stress.

Conclusions on yoga and healthy aging

Yoga can become a way of life and you can make it an important part of your quest for healthy aging. It can help you build physical endurance in a gentle and sustainable way. And its contemplative aspects are great for stress relief and strengthening the connection of mind-body. 

But before you dive in, it’s important to learn about the risks of yoga for seniors, as well as the benefits. As a yoga-practicing senior myself, I hope this article helps.

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