Why Yoga is Good
for Our Aging Bodies and Minds
By: Margaret MacMillan
Photo Credits: Keren Perez/Unsplash and Freepik
Recently, I’ve begun to think differently about exercise. I have long been interested in yoga, but the sustained poses went against my concept of what exercise should be. Moving to upbeat music and getting my heart rate up was more my thing. I love to dance, and aerobics came naturally to me. And though I’m not a runner, I enjoy brisk walks. Lately, however, I haven’t been able to do some of those things with the same ease and dexterity with which I once did. That’s why I’ve been rethinking the way I exercise and wondering if the slow movements of yoga combined with breathing techniques might not be more suited to this stage of my life.
The word “yoga” is derived from the Sanskrit word “yuj,” which means to yoke or join. There are those who interpret this as meaning to unite mind and body. In yoga, students practice mindfulness (being present in the moment); hold poses (asana), which improve physical strength; and integrate their breathing with their movements.
There are six branches of yoga. Each one has its own characteristics and represents a particular approach to life. Hatha yoga is any type of yoga that teaches the asana; most types of western yoga classes are Hatha classes. If you are looking at a roster of different classes at your local yoga center, and you are a beginner, those specifically called Hatha are your best choice because they will introduce you to basic yoga poses.
When considering beginning yoga, I have discovered it’s important not to think about age or be concerned with body image. Though we may not be as flexible at 50 as we were at 30, yoga can help improve flexibility, build bone, and increase physical strength. By meditating and focusing on our breath, we can actually reduce tension, anxiety, and stress. No matter how old we are, these benefits will contribute to healthier aging. Research has found that strength and relaxation, yoga’s two main principles, can slow aging. In some instances, it is even thought that yoga can reduce muscle loss.
Let’s take a look at five ways yoga can help improve our bodies and our minds as we age so that we can take better care of both as we grow older.
As we age, we lose bone density, which peaks at about age 30 when we stop forming new bone. After age 30, bone resorption, or reabsorption, begins. This is the process of bone tissue being broken down by osteoclasts, multinucleated cells containing mitochondria and lysosomes, which results in the transfer of calcium from bone tissue to the blood. Some of us will develop osteoporosis, which produces porous bones, or osteopenia, which produces low bone density. Weight-bearing exercise can marginally increase bone density. It can also help us maintain the bone mass we have. It is never too late to begin this type of exercise, but starting in our 30s is the optimum time.
Some recommended weight-bearing yoga poses to maintain bone health are: tree pose, extended triangle pose, extended side angle pose, locust pose, and bridge pose. It’s important to remember, as with all exercise, to consult a doctor before beginning yoga if you have any health issues. For those with osteoporosis, twisting and folding exercises should be limited, modified, or skipped because of the risk of spine injury. Modified versions of all exercises might be best when just starting.
Falls are the leading cause of injury and death in adults over 65. According to Yoga Journal, 30 percent of this age group has a fall each year and the rate increases to 50 percent by age 80. The results of a 2017 study in Western Wisconsin, in which participants whose average age was 70 years old took yoga classes twice a week for eight weeks, suggested yoga reduces falls. The number of falls in the test group declined by 48 percent in the six months after the yoga classes began. Because yoga strengthens the core, it increases body stability and balance so that we have more control over our bodies.
There are poses in yoga that are intended to target our sense of balance. They are called proprioceptive exercises, and they train the body and the brain by challenging the sensory and motor systems. Mountain pose, downward facing dog, chair, crescent lunge, and tree pose are examples.
Poor circulation can cause fluid retention and swelling in our lower extremities and can be a result of aging, sitting all day at a desk, pregnancy, high cholesterol, blood pressure issues, and diabetes. It can also manifest itself as numbness, cold hands and feet, muscle cramps, brittle hair and nails, and dark circles under the eyes. Movement is key to improving circulation. Because yoga can be practiced by all age groups and is low impact, it’s one of the best types of movement for the condition.
No matter the cause of the circulation issues we may have, the following yoga poses will assist in improving them: downward facing dog, which puts your hips above your heart and your heart above your head facilitating the flowing of blood to the head as well as strengthening the legs; warrior II, which improves muscle tone and circulation; triangle, which also improves muscle tone and circulation; and legs up the wall, which is an inversion to the way most of us sit all day and restores normal blood flow relieving blood pooling in the extremities.
Stress Relief and Brain Health
When we pay attention to our breathing, we alter our mindset and emotional state. In yoga, students are instructed to be conscious of their breath, connect to it, breathe deeply, and retain their breath. Breathing consciously is the essence of yoga as it helps us connect with our inner energy. Slowing down and taking deep full breaths is helpful in relaxing the parasympathetic nervous system, allowing us to expel anxiety and tension.
Concentrating on the breath helps us be in the present so that we let go of the past and the future. Conscious breathing stimulates the cerebral cortex, which has a relaxing and balancing effect on our emotions. No matter what our stage in life, reducing anxiety and stress and having a clearer mind allow us to approach life from a more rational perspective.
The branch of yoga dedicated to breathing techniques or exercises is called Pranayama, which means breath control. Here are five examples: lion’s breath, breath of fire, skull cleanser, three-part breath, and alternate nostril breathing. Remember to take a few relaxed breaths before and after each exercise and to practice each for only 30 seconds when beginning. When you are ready, you can increase the time in increments. If dizziness occurs, relax for a few minutes.
Flexibility is fleeting. It decreases as we age due to reduction in tendon strength, reduction of cartilage in the joints, and loss of muscle mass. Muscles can also shrink due to a sedentary lifestyle or the way we tend to sit or stand.
Yoga can help maintain muscle softness and flexibility as we age as well as strengthen muscles and reduce swelling in joints. Stretching exercises improve range of motion and flexibility and make our bodies feel better and fitter. Limbering up also improves mood, gets blood circulating, decreases the risk of injury, and improves posture and self-esteem.
These yoga poses will help increase flexibility: tree or baby tree pose, which, as well as being good for balance and concentration, helps with hip mobility; bird dog, which stretches the arms and legs and strengthens the transverse abdominals; downward facing dog, which is good for joint health, flexibility, and all-over body strength; sphinx, which improves upper back strength and works the rear deltoids; and cobbler’s pose, which also improves hip flexibility.
There are many online sites that explain exactly how to do the poses and breathing mentioned in this article and that focus on yoga and the aging body and yoga for seniors. Some of the most useful that I found were: Yoga Journal, DoYouYoga, The Chopra Center, and Yoga U.
If you are interested in taking a class, the following institutions in Houston offer yoga for those in their 50s and older: Alcove Yoga, The Woodlands Yoga Studio, YMCA of Greater Houston, Tellepsen Family Downtown Yoga, and Heights School of Yoga. You can find locations and phone numbers, as well as class information, for them all online.
And last, but not least, if you would rather do yoga in your own home, perhaps with a family member, a friend, or on your own, YouTube offers a variety of video classes for seniors and beginners. All you have to do is sample a few and decide which is best for you.
Regular yoga practice builds body strength, calms, and eases the mind, while improving posture and increasing balance. It can be beneficial to anyone in any age category as long as it is done with care. Yoga isn’t just for the young or just for the old. It is for everyone who wants to benefit their body and their mind as they age.