Yoga For Seniors – How to Get Started and Why You Should
You’re never too old to reap the rewards of yoga. For seniors who are looking for a safe, effective way to enhance their physical health and overall wellness, the stretching, breathing, and meditation practices of yoga can be a great solution.
In fact, as you will see, doing yoga regularly can result in a host of benefits for older adults, from greater flexibility and improved balance to lower stress and better sleep.
It’s no wonder, then, that yoga is becoming increasingly popular among seniors. The 2016 Yoga in America Study found that nearly 14 million Americans over the age of 50 practiced yoga that year.
That was a significant jump from the four million who did so in 2012. This article outlines the many benefits of senior yoga and describes several of the best types of yoga for older men and women (including the increasingly popular discipline of chair yoga). It also offers information about basic poses and explains what you should do before you begin any yoga routine. And it even provides examples of helpful books, videos, and DVDs as well as tips on how to find appropriate classes.
The Benefits of Yoga for Older Adults
Yoga cultivates a mind-body connection, combining stretching and strengthening postures with deep breathing and relaxation. Despite its roots in Eastern philosophy, yoga as practiced in the West is generally focused on physical fitness. It still has a spiritual aspect, but it is not overtly religious. People of all faiths and belief systems can benefit from participating in yoga.
Because the poses (called asanas) can easily be modified or adapted to suit an individual’s needs, yoga is safe for seniors of all fitness or ability levels. In fact, it can be an excellent way to keep your body strong and healthy without the joint stress that comes from other activities like weightlifting or jogging. And it’s never too late to begin: You can start yoga at any age. (Just be sure to clear it with your doctor before you get going.)
Here are some of the benefits of yoga for seniors:
Better balance: Many yoga poses for seniors focus on strengthening the abdominal muscles and improving your core stability. That can help you become steadier on your feet and reduce your risk of falls.
Improved flexibility: Yoga movements can be fantastic stretching exercises for seniors. Holding a pose for several breaths encourages your muscles and connective tissues to relax and loosen, which helps to increase your range of motion. In fact, research in the International Journal of Yoga Therapy has shown that regularly engaging in yoga can dramatically boost the overall flexibility of older adults.
Enhanced breathing: The breathing control practices of yoga (known as pranayama) can expand your lung capacity and improve your pulmonary health. A study published in the Journal of Human Kinetics found that elderly women who practiced yoga three times a week for 12 weeks saw a significant improvement in their respiratory function.
Stronger bones: If you’re worried about brittle bones and osteoporosis, try yoga. For older women and men, a consistent yoga routine that includes weight-bearing postures can help bolster bone strength.
Some promising research has suggested that doing yoga can actually improve bone density in postmenopausal women.
Reduced anxiety and stress: Through meditation and mindful breathing, yoga encourages you to focus on the present and find a sense of peace. Research has demonstrated that that can lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol and help ease symptoms of anxiety and depression. In a National Institutes of Health survey, more than 85 percent of people who engaged in yoga said they experienced reduced stress as a result.
Better sleep: Yoga can help alleviate sleep disturbances, which are common complaints among seniors. In a study published in Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine, adults over age 60 who struggled with insomnia participated in yoga classes twice a week and underwent daily sessions at home.
After three months, the group reported significant improvements in both the duration and overall quality of their sleep.
How to Prepare for Yoga
Yoga offers some of the best strength and flexibility exercises for seniors. But as with any physical regimen, it’s important to make sure you’re prepared. Here are a few tips to help you get ready:
1. Evaluate your physical condition.
While people of any age can get started in yoga, some movements are not advisable for folks with certain medical issues.
For instance, people with glaucoma should avoid inverted or head-down positions because such poses can increase pressure on the eyes. That’s why it’s crucial to talk to your doctor (and your instructor) before you try even a simple yoga routine.
2. Gather your gear.
You need comfortable, stretchy clothing for yoga. Fitted clothes work best, especially for tops, since you will be bending into different positions and you don’t want your shirt falling into your eyes. Leggings or jogging pants along with a fitted T-shirt or tank top are good choices. You won’t generally need special footwear because yoga is typically performed barefoot. However, non-slip socks or even sneakers can be worn if you’re concerned about losing your footing.
You will also need a yoga mat. Some studios provide these at no charge, but others expect you to bring your own (and many people prefer to have their own for hygienic reasons). Look for one that is long enough to support your whole body when you lie down and sticky enough that you won’t slip when you try to hold a pose. You may also want to consider the material: Cheaper mats tend to be made of PVC, but if eco-friendliness is important to you, focus on mats made of rubber, cotton, or jute.
Most mats are one-eighth of an inch thick, but some are slightly thinner or thicker. Thicker mats offer more support for sensitive joints, but they can make standing balance poses more difficult; they are also bulkier and harder to carry around. Portability won’t matter if you only practice at home, but it might be an issue if you plan to tote your mat to and from a studio or community center.
3. Seek out a qualified teacher.
It’s important to find a trained instructor who understands the unique challenges faced by the 55-plus crowd. Yoga Alliance maintains a voluntary registry of yoga teachers throughout the U.S. who meet certain standards. Also, Yoga for Seniors offers a directory of instructors who have undergone special training to enable them to adapt yoga programs specifically for older adults.
Ask potential teachers how long they’ve been leading classes and whether they have any experience teaching seniors or people with health issues. If possible, observe an actual class to get a sense of the teacher’s techniques. And once you choose an instructor, be sure to tell him or her about any physical limitations you have, such as arthritis, balance problems, back pain, or high blood pressure.
4. Start slow.
You can become more flexible for yoga by easing into it. For instance, if your goal is to be able to bend over and touch your toes, start by putting your hands on your thighs. Take a few deep breaths, then reach down to your knees. Pause again and take some more deep breaths before reaching down to the middle of your shin, and so on. The point is to avoid overstretching.
Be sure to get enough rest after each pose, and never rush into new postures. It’s best not to add any new movements until your body has fully adjusted to your routine. Always remember that yoga is not about keeping up with the people around you. Just focus on going at your own pace.
A yoga posture should never hurt. You may feel challenged, but you should not get to the point of feeling strained. If you can’t do a certain pose comfortably, ask your teacher for a modified version.
Almost every yoga pose can be altered to accommodate a wide range of physical needs. And don’t hesitate to use props like straps, blocks, walls, or chairs for additional support.