Yoga is an ancient healing practice that has become increasingly popular in our modern, stressful world as a powerful way to stretch and strengthen the body, relax and calm the mind, enhance energy and lift the spirit. Doctors often recommend yoga to people over 50 because it can help lower blood pressure, ease pain and improve balance. But people stick with the ancient practice because they find it improves their mood, reduces stress and, simply put, makes them happier.
Unfortunately, many yoga instructors are not trained to adapt the practice to older bodies. And America’s booming interest in yoga has lead to an increase in classes that are called yoga, but are actually “yoga-flavored” exercise classes taught by instructors whose yoga training may not have been very inclusive.
Unless a yoga teacher creates a safe class designed for older adults, this practice meant to heal may cause harm. To safely reap the many benefits of yoga, it’s important to understand these five essential yoga facts:
1. Yoga can be good medicine. When new students come to my yoga class, I typically ask them what they’re seeking from the practice. “Flexibility” and “stress reduction” are the most common answers, since most people associate yoga with stretching and relaxation. But that’s changed in recent years, as a growing body of scientific evidence suggests that yoga offers many other health benefits including reducing high blood pressure, relieving back pain and improving sleep.
2. Yoga is not just for the fit and flexible. Saying that you’re not flexible enough to practice yoga is like thinking that your house is too messy to hire a maid. The idea that you must twist yourself into a pretzel to do yoga is one of many common misconceptions. The only requirement for practicing yoga is the ability to breathe.
3. You don’t have to stand on your head. While some people over 50 are extremely healthy and able to do headstands and other challenging yoga postures, much more common are older adults who fit the profile of the “average” senior in America — 80 percent of whom have at least one chronic health condition and 50 percent of whom have at least two. Many also face other health challenges, such as artificial joints or prosthetic heart valves. That’s why it’s essential for older adults beginning yoga to find an appropriate class with an experienced and well-qualified instructor.
4. There are many styles of yoga — from “hot” to gentle. For example, ashtanga yoga is very athletic, while kripalu yoga tends to be gentler and viniyoga is generally done one-on-one in a therapeutic setting. If you attend a class that is too demanding for your specific level of fitness, you may risk injury. Be sure you’re in a class that is appropriate for you, and inform the teacher of any health concerns or challenges you face. Older adults, particularly those who have been inactive, should look for a class called Gentle Yoga or one specifically geared to seniors.
5. Yoga should never hurt. The yogic approach is very different from the Western exercise mentality of “go for the burn.” Ancient texts on yoga say that a posture should be “steady and comfortable” or, according to some translations, “relaxed and stable” or “sweet and calm.” So if you’re straining to push yourself into a posture suitable for a magazine cover, that’s gymnastics or calisthenics but not yoga. Yoga invites you to move into each posture only to the point where you feel a sensation of pleasant stretch, then allow your breath to help the pose deepen and unfold. If it hurts — back off!
Yoga is not just a workout. Yoga is a powerful form of mind-body medicine that approaches health in a holistic manner, recognizing that physical ailments also have emotional and spiritual components. The tools of yoga are postures, breathing practices and meditation, which work together to balance and integrate mind, body and spirit.