Getting older comes with some fringe benefits — experience, wisdom, perspective, maturity, composure, and dignity of manner, among others. Even so, the aging process can also usher in many challenges. The likelihood of developing a life-threatening illness, such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, and certain forms of cancer increases with age. Joint trauma, osteoarthritis, and other varieties of pain may very well emerge as you grow older. Emotionally and psychologically, many seniors will be faced with anxiety and depression, and other mental conditions as well. Memory can diminish, balance may become impaired, and with that, self-esteem can be affected.
Eating a healthy diet and exercising regularly can help seniors to prevent disease, incapacity and maintain a strong, agile physical body, and mindfulness meditation and brain training exercises can be put to good use to keep your mind focused and alert. According to Dr. Mitravinda Savanuris, a food science and nutrition specialist, “Yoga is becoming increasingly popular among seniors because of its many health benefits.” Yoga combines a sequence of postures and breathing methods to relax the mind and body while strengthening the body itself simultaneously. Many yoga exercises are simple and can be performed nearly anywhere and by just about anyone. Briar Boake, yoga instructor at an award-winning retirement community in Mississauga, Ontario, believes that, “Yoga is for everyone. If you have Parkinson’s or are in a wheelchair, you can do yoga; all you need is yourself.” Yoga helps you to maintain the flexibility you have, while strengthening other muscles that have been in disuse for some time. Yoga poses can be modified to keep seniors’ needs in mind. Poses can be held for as little as 2-3 seconds apiece. Seniors’ yoga can make use of chairs for optimal comfort and provide some minor changes of poses that are closer to the ground. Seniors, who must often put up with arthritic pain and restriction, joint stress, imbalance, and other physical handicaps, can benefit from incorporating a yoga practice into their daily routine.
Here are some of the ways that yoga is good for senior adults:
- Better balance—Many yoga poses for seniors focus on strengthening the core muscles of the body. That can help seniors to become steadier on their feet and reduce the likelihood of falls and bone fractures.
- Improved flexibility—Yoga movements can be excellent stretching exercises for seniors. Holding a pose for several breaths helps your muscles and connective tissues to loosen and relax, which serves to increase your range of motion. Research has shown that regular yoga practice can significantly increase the overall flexibility of older adults.
- Stronger bones—Osteoporosis is a major concern for many women and some men as they age. A yoga routine that includes weight-bearing postures can help strengthen bones and reduce the risk of brittle bones. Some recent studies suggest that doing yoga can actually improve bone density measures in postmenopausal women.
- Enhanced breathing—The breathing control practices of yoga can expand lung capacity and improve pulmonary health. One study found that senior women who practiced yoga several times a week for three months saw a major improvement in their respiratory function.
- Lower blood pressure—Research data shows that more than 60% of men and women over the age of 65 have high blood pressure and many take medication to keep the numbers in check. Practicing yoga can also help. The controlled breathing that accompanies various yoga poses decreases nervous system activity which in turn helps to control blood pressure levels.
- Reduced anxiety and stress—With the use of meditation and mindful breathing, yoga helps you to focus on the present and discover a sense of tranquility. That can lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol and help reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression. In one study, more than 85 percent of people who practiced yoga said they experienced less stress as a result.
- Better sleep—Yoga can help to reduce sleep disturbances, which are a common affliction among seniors. Exercise overall helps sleep, but yoga takes it one step further by relaxing muscles, soothing the mind and teaching calming breathing techniques, which can be practiced on a daily basis.
Here are a few of the most common types of yoga for seniors:
- Hatha Yoga—Any type of yoga that teaches physical posture is considered Hatha Yoga. Classes offering hatha yoga will give you an introduction to the basic poses.
- Vinyasa Yoga—In Vinyasa classes a series of fluid movements is common. These lessons will keep you moving from pose to pose. Soft music is generally played to provide a serene backdrop.
- Ashtanga Yoga—Each breath is connected to a movement in Ashtanga Yoga. These classes are usually unvaried with poses accomplished in the same order.
- Bikram Yoga—Classes offering Bikram Yoga take place in studios where the level of heat is turned to high. You will perspire excessively as you move from pose to pose, and these sessions may not be healthy for all participants.
- Restorative Yoga—This form of yoga focuses on passive poses that help to relax the body. Blankets and blocks are frequently used.
- Chair Yoga—This type of yoga is centered on people who may not be able to stand for long periods of time or perform the exercises on a floor mat. Poses are altered using a chair to lend support. (Senior Chair Hatha Yoga. YouTube video by Ofelia Mohr, 57 minutes.)
- Water Yoga—Many seniors prefer this method as it is low-impact and does not exacerbate joint pain. Many of the same yoga poses usually performed on a mat are done instead in the water.
Be sure to understand that yoga poses are meant to challenge your mind as well as your body. For this reason, when you begin your yoga practice, it is better to learn your poses in person from a qualified yoga instructor. Look for programs such as beginner or gentle yoga for seniors. Contact yoga studios, community centers, or health clubs in your area to see what they offer. Some older adults are uneasy with the prospect of attending an organized yoga class. Luckily, you can practice yoga by following along with online videos or DVDs. On YouTube, “yoga for seniors” videos are widely available.
Here are some examples of yoga exercises for beginners:
- Mountain—The most basic standing pose, mountain pose helps you to improve your balance and posture.
- Tree—The tree pose is especially helpful for building lower body strength and improving balance. Modified versions can be performed using a chair.
- Downward-facing dog—This pose opens the chest and stretches out the calves, hamstrings, and lower back.
- Cat-cow—This classic yoga movement promotes flexibility in the spine and strengthens the abdominal muscles. Cat-cow can also be done from a chair.
- Plank—This pose involves getting into a push-up position, but not actually lowering yourself. It helps to develop core stability and upper body strength.
- Triangle—This pose strengthens your core and works your hamstrings and hips. It helps to relieve lower back pain and can improve slow digestion.
- Warrior—This pose opens the chest and hips and strengthens your thighs, calves, and ankles.
- Child’s pose—This pose stretches the spine and hips as well as the lower back. It is often used as a resting position and helps you to relax, relieve tension, and calm your mind.
You are never too old to reap the benefits of yoga. For seniors on the lookout for an effective, safe way to improve their physical health and overall well-being, the breathing, stretching, and meditation practices of yoga can be a helpful solution. Performing a yoga practice regularly can bring about a host of benefits for seniors, ranging from improved balance and greater flexibility to lower stress and better sleep. Susan Schneir, a certified yoga instructor offering classes in Westmount, Quebec, declares that, “As a senior myself, I can attest to the benefits of yoga to overall health. I’m not talking about the yoga practiced at many gyms and studios that includes intense heat and caters to pretzel-like poses. I’m talking about slow, meaningful postures and meditative breathwork that bring flexibility to our joints and connective tissues. At the same time, this mindful movement of the body and breath can bring inner peace and relaxation to our lives at any age.”