As we age, all kinds of things happen, like growing wiser, getting to know ourselves better, and developing a deep gratitude for any level of health or fitness that we maintain.
What is aging?
Age is not a disease. It’s a state to which we aspire.
The harsh truth of the aging process: we gradually lose motor nerves, our muscles weaken, our bones become thinner, and we lose our vision and hearing to varying degrees. Collagen, used in all connective tissues, becomes inelastic and we stiffen up. The spinal discs shrink, so we get smaller and may develop poor posture, and our joints wear down and become arthritic. All of these slow-moving age-related changes can leave us feeling frail, off balance, fatigued, and unable to live as independently. As a result we may become less active, thus deepening the loss of function. But don’t give up!
Often the very thing that many of these age-related changes react positively to is activity – and the right activity. When we make lifestyle changes to counteract the effects of aging, it can help us find a sense of control over what may seem like an overwhelming decline.
Our bodies were made to move
When we stay active, we can increase our health span – the years we will be on the planet without illness, able to function fully and to thrive. Many of the changes we experience as part of the aging process respond well to the type of activity that yoga provides, with many beneficial side effects we may not even be looking for. And almost anyone can do it.
How can yoga help?
Yoga is for the whole body and mind
Yoga is a mind-body practice that combines physical poses, breathing, and meditation or relaxation. Yoga may help reduce stress, lower blood pressure and heart rate. Yoga is considered one of many types of complementary and integrative health approaches, and it can be adapted to anyone, regardless of age or fitness level.
10 Ways Yoga Can Help You Age Gracefully
- Yoga emphasizes good posture and good breathing, and most poses stimulate the lungs and help maintain elastic in lungs.
- Yoga can increase range of motion in our joints. Certain yoga poses can move the joints into extreme but safe positions which bathe the joints in synovial fluid. Motion is lotion!
- Yoga helps you maintain a healthy spine, moving in all directions carefully and giving stimulus to discs evenly to keep them healthy and vibrant.
- Yoga improves flexibility, stretching tight muscles and increasing the fluid in dried out connective tissue. This can lead to better coordination.
- Yoga helps strengthen muscles that have lost mass and tone.
- Yoga reverses bone loss when practiced consistently and the right way. Yoga “actually builds bone significantly in the spine and the femur, the two most frequent sites of fracture.” See the blog post on Yoga for Stronger Bones for a much more detailed look at reversing bone loss.
- Yoga improves balance. With improved strength, flexibility, with stronger bones and well-oiled joints comes better balance! Our proprioception, or sense of our body moving through space, increases with yoga. This leads to confidence as we move throughout our everyday routines, helping us maintain independent lives. Yoga can improve foot health, too, which leads to better balance.
- The awareness levels created in yoga can help increase cognitive function in the brain, such as improved memory and executive function.
- A number of studies have shown that yoga may help reduce stress and anxiety. There is also evidence that yoga practices help increase heart rate variability, an indicator of the body’s ability to respond to stress more flexibly.
- Yoga can also enhance your mood and overall sense of well-being. The scientific study of yoga demonstrates that mental and physical health are not just closely allied, but are essentially equivalent. The evidence is growing that yoga practice is a relatively low-risk, high-yield approach to improving overall health.
Right Yoga, Right Way
Finding Your Practice
But the only way to get all these wonderful benefits is by doing the right yoga the right way and doing it consistently. Some yoga poses are not safe for people with certain physical issues. And poses need to be practiced with stable alignment of the joints, while holding long enough to achieve the effect.
Yoga has many styles, forms and intensities. Hatha yoga is one of the most common styles of yoga, and students may like its slower pace and easier movements. All of my yoga classes are based on the classic components of hatha yoga, adapted so everyone can progress at their own pace.
Whether it’s chair yoga or mat yoga, the core components of my yoga classes are:
- Poses. Yoga poses, also called postures or asana, are a series of movements designed to increase strength and flexibility among the many other benefits listed above. Poses range from lying on the floor while completely relaxed to more challenging postures that may have you stretching your physical limits. We also use the chair in chair yoga. All our classes offer modifications for different ability levels and are tailored to the students who end up attending.
- Breathing. Practicing breath-work is an important part of yoga. Yoga teaches that controlling your breathing can help you control your body and quiet your mind, but it also offers us the opportunity to fuse mind and body together to experience calm wholeness. Breath is at the very center of the entire practice, whether you are just sitting and breathing, or you are moving and breathing.
- Meditation or relaxation. In yoga, you may incorporate meditation or relaxation. Meditation may help you learn to be more mindful and aware of the present moment without judgment. Often we observe the breath as a focal point for meditation. In our culture we all need to learn to relax and give our bodies and minds time to recharge.
- Philosophy. My yoga classes may also touch on the philosophy of classical yoga, and can make a huge difference in the experience and outcome of yoga practice. For example, when practicing non-violence, the student will take care not to overwork or strain when performing the poses. Being clear about one’s condition and physical limitations, the practice of truthfulness forms the basis of an intelligent approach to yoga. On the other hand, one can be too cautious, and in that situation more effort or discipline is called for. One should practice yoga without grasping for immediate results, developing a healthy patience in the process of learning. As awareness develops, one can more easily appreciate life, and one’s movement through it, with contentment.
Yoga is called a “practice” because there is no perfect. It’s something we work at, that changes from day to day and week to week. So please: “start where you are” at the beginning of every practice. And find the right class for you.
My senior yoga students and I were interviewed for this NY times article, January 2023. Click to read more!
Words cannot convey the total value of yoga. It has to be experienced.B.K.S Iyengar