Recently, the weather changed and I found myself creaking as I got out of bed. Walking my 15-year old dog at 6:30am seemed as daunting as did climbing peaks in Nepal in my younger years. What’s up? Despite a lifetime of physical activity, my own aging is beginning to be felt in ways I’ve not known before. But, to the mat I go, for yoga is what keeps me going AND not shrinking. I gained three-quarters of an inch in height over the past decade, when I should be getting shorter.
Yoga is not new, despite the trendy marketing hype surrounding it. The roots of yoga go back at least several thousand years, and yoga in the West is often traced to BKS Iyengar’s Light on Yoga compiled about 50 years ago. I’m not very interested in arguing the dates, but rather in the experience of yoga in my own life and body and in what I hear from authentic yoga teachers, many of whom are now teaching yoga to those in their 70’s, 80’s and 90’s.
So, what makes yoga such a great physical (we can talk about the spiritual in another blog) practice as we age? According to yoga philosophy, one’s age is not determined in years but rather by the flexibility of the one’s spine. Yoga’s focus on lengthening the muscles helps combat their natural shortening we get older. Muscle strengthening from yoga can reduce injury and the focus on flexibility of the spine improves posture. Gentle breathing relaxes and expands the lungs. Yoga sends blood to the extremities, increasing circulation. Regular yoga practice can enhance your immune system, and there is growing research indicating yoga can improve balance, range of motion, blood pressure, pain, fatigue, sleep quality and depression. (Wang, 2009).
My current yoga teacher is conducting a class at an assisted living facility where her mother lives. At first, seeing the decreased range of motion, poor posture and other physical issues with the residents inspired her primarily to urge younger students to practice more diligently to avoid these issues in later life. Now, however, she sees the outcomes in the older people, small though they may be, as very rewarding. The students, older women mostly, share little improvements they feel and can see from coming to the class. One resident said, “It also makes me smile.”
BKS Iyengar, still practicing yoga at age 92, says it’s never too late to start, often mentioning that the Queen of Belgium started doing head balance at age 86. But, you don’t have to do a headstand to benefit. Try a beginner class or chair yoga, a gentler, age-adjusted version to start. Make sure you find a teacher who will accommodate any special needs, understands and nourishes those new to yoga, and encourages you no matter your age.
Now back to the mat…
Photo credit: The New Yoga for Healthy Aging