You’re never too old for yoga. Here’s how to get started
While not a cure-all, yoga offers countless health benefits to seniors.
In his mid-60s, Lawrence Nees noticed a few aches and pains that hadn’t existed before. Getting up from the floor felt harder, too, and it seemed he was less flexible. Nees’s wife was a long time yoga student, and when he retired from his job as an art history professor at the University of Delaware, he decided to join her.
Now 72 and a yoga devotee himself, Nees said his flexibility is better, and so is his balance. “I’ve become a believer,” he explained. “It’s not about getting younger, but it is about slowing the inevitable aging process.”
In adding a regular yoga practice to his repertoire, Nees joins a large number of seniors who roll out their mats several times a week. Research suggests it might be prudent for people to incorporate a yoga practice as they age, and some studies have even tied it to improvement in metrics that experts use to track cellular aging.
Others revealed positive changes to brain health. For instance, one recent small study found that healthy seniors practicing Hatha yoga for two years performed better than a control group on certain cognitive tasks.
In short, yoga can be beneficial to seniors. But before jumping into a new practice there are a few things to keep in mind.
LOOK FOR A CLASS TAILORED TO YOUR NEEDS
Nees and his wife attend a “gentle” yoga class in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania. Though not specifically geared to seniors, gentle yoga moves at a slower pace, with fewer intense positions, and often includes more meditation or breath work.
Their class is led by Ann Grace MacMullan, a 52-year-old instructor, who leads sessions primarily attended by seniors. She also practices gentle yoga, giving her an understanding of its effects on the body.
Other options for seniors – depending on limitations – include chair yoga, restorative yoga and Hatha, which all focus on slow, controlled movements.
Whatever style you choose, it’s important to find a teacher able to personalize instruction to your needs. Reach out before trying a class to see if the instructor regularly works with seniors or is able to accommodate specific health concerns. For instance, when Nees joined MacMullan’s class, he was suffering from the aftereffects of a virus that had attacked his diaphragm, making poses that required laying on his back impossible.
“Ann worked with me, helping me to do some of the poses standing or sitting,” he said.
Teresa Simon, a New Jersey-based yoga instructor in her mid-60s, said it’s crucial that senior students communicate with their teacher during class as well. If someone has arthritis or experiences vertigo, she wants to know so that she can offer alternatives to specific moves, or keep the client in a chair or on the ground.
“If you show up to class feeling stiff, with the right instructor, you will be able to get through it and feel better after,” Simon said.
KNOW THE LIMITS
Yoga, however, is not a cure-all for aging. “There are two chief areas of decline as we age,” explained Gene Shirokobrod, a physical therapist and owner of Maryland-based Recharge Modern Health and Fitness. Namely, we lose muscle and our tendons stiffen. Yoga will not reverse either, but it can play a small role in preventing further decline.
To stave off muscle loss, you should build a strength training habit outside of yoga. “Yoga challenges your body, but generally not enough to provide continual muscle growth,” Dr. Shirokobrod said.
A yoga practice won’t significantly increase your tendon flexibility either. “Aging tendons are stiffening because they are losing fluid and becoming less pliable,” said Dr. Shirokobrod. “You cannot change that by holding a yoga pose.”
You may not be able to increase tendon flexibility, but by pushing your joints and muscles to the end of their range of motion, you can improve how well they move within that range.
But even that comes with a caveat: If you’re someone with joint issues, taking poses to their end range might be uncomfortable, though usually not harmful. The key is staying within the limits of your body — something a good instructor can help you identify.
“If you’re practicing with an instructor who teaches with these body changes in mind, you’re in a safer, more realistic environment,” Dr. Shirokobrod said.
It’s also normal for your ability to balance to decline with age. One common solution is to use a chair or a wall for stability as you learn one-legged poses.
There are other considerations to keep in mind. If you have osteoporosis, avoid certain moves, like cat/cow or forward folds. “Rounding the back aggressively isn’t wise,” said MacMullan, “because you are at higher risk for compression fractures in your upper spine.”
Also, osteoarthritis might cause discomfort during poses that stress the wrists or ankles, so be sure to inform your instructor and ask for modifications if needed. If you are worried about a medical condition or injury, Grace suggested shorter, more frequent practice rather than longer, occasional sessions. One study showed that to increase bone density, participants with osteoporosis needed to spend 12 minutes per day at least five times a week doing the same poses.
“Weave the practice into your daily routine, rather than committing to an hour-long practice,” she wrote in an email. “Yoga is not just an exercise. It is a way of life.”
YOGA CAN BENEFIT THE MIND AS WELL
Aging can be stressful. Most seniors have dealt with their share of grief, loneliness, mobility issues and perhaps unsettling changes and transitions. Helping with mood and mental health is perhaps where yoga shines the most. “It’s not just physical postures,” said MacMullan. “It’s a whole system of ethics, meditation and breathing that address our minds, spirits and emotions.”
Margie Linn, a 72-year-old retiree from Pennsylvania, sees three benefits to her practice: physical, emotional and social. “I look forward to seeing others when I go to class,” she said. “There’s a real sense of community.”
Aim for a consistent practice a few times each week, ideally in a class setting for at least one of those sessions. If you are housebound, there are live online classes to join, which still provide a sense of community.
While not a magic elixir for aging, yoga can go a long way toward higher quality of life. “It gets you to move,” said Dr. Shirokobrod. “If you’re looking at whether yoga is a net positive or net negative in this age group, it’s a positive.”
START WITH THESE MOVES
If you’d like to ease into a gentle yoga practice – or simply add a few poses to your daily life, MacMullan recommended “a little bit of movement in a lot of places.” This can look like moving your entire body, exploring range of motion in every joint: Tilt your head from side to side, roll your shoulders back and down and gently arch your back. Twist your torso using your core muscles. You can perform any of these moves seated, standing or lying down.
Here are a few other exercises that MacMullan suggested to get started. If they are difficult or you have trouble balancing, place a hand on a chair or wall and perhaps consult your doctor before trying anything that might feel uncomfortable.
— TOE YOGA
Start by working with your foundation, your feet. While standing, lift all ten toes, spread them wide, and plant them back down. Lift your big toe, pressing down with the little toes. Then lift the little toes, pressing down with the first two toes. Some toes may not cooperate; that’s OK, just give it a try.
— CALF RAISES
While standing and holding on to something for support, lift up onto your tip toes and return back down. Inhale as you go up, exhale as you go down. Try to go slowly.
If you want, you can add arm movement, extending one or both out to the sides as you inhale and lift up, the arms descending as you exhale and plant both feet back down. Do five to 10 of these lifts and see how you feel, working up to more at your own pace.
— GENTLE TWIST
While seated in a chair, cross your right knee over your left. Then, using core muscles, twist to the right, arms draping down wherever feels best. Switch sides.
Or try it on a mat or bed. Lying on your back with both knees bent, cross your right knee over your left and then let both knees drift over to the left, arms out to either side. Switch sides.
— FLAMINGO POSE
Stand on one leg for one minute per day per side, every day, using support if needed. If you have knee or hip issues, you can shorten the amount of time based on how your body feels. Or else measure the time you can balance on one leg by the number of breaths you take while holding the pose — it could be two breaths, it could be 15 (that’s about a minute for the average person).
By Amanda Loudin © 2023 The New York Times
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.