Updated: Sep 5, 2019
While age does affect you in various ways, there’s a lot you can do to limit its impact on your body. Yoga is an excellent anti-aging tool, capable of relieving symptoms and even in some cases improving medical outcomes. It doesn’t matter where you are starting from or how old you are - mindful movement and yoga can help the slow aging process!
For older students new to yoga, specialized classes, small groups, or one-on-one sessions are the ideal format. Choosing not only the right class format, but an instructor who understands the challenges of dealing with an aging body and physical limitations, can create an optimal first yoga experience for older beginner’s. Students who walk out of their first yoga class feeling lighter, challenged, yet successful, calmer and a bit curious are likely continue to explore the benefits of this ancient discipline.
A 2016 Yoga Alliance & Yoga Journal study titled “Yoga in America” — highlighted that while more than one in three yoga students were aged over 50, just one in seven teachers were in that age range—meaning most teachers don’t know how it feels to be an older beginner. Although I am a generation removed from being a Baby Boomer, nearing 44 years old, I navigate life with two replaced knees and increasing arthritis in my hips and low back. While my daily life is affected both by changes in weather, and navigating this new integration and cooperation of my artificial joints with my god-given and aging ones, my yoga business boasts a client-base of nearly 70% of women and men ranging from 40 to 80 years of age, who enjoy classes that accommodate a slower, more therapeutic approach to yoga.
It is no newsflash that many people become increasingly sedentary as they age. When I first began experiencing symptoms of arthritic knees, I too, grew sedentary - it was painfully frustrating to move like I was used to moving. My yoga practice came to a near stand-still as I tried to deal with the physical symptoms and emotional stress of osteoarthritis. If this sounds familiar, I wholeheartedly encourage you to keep moving!
Gentle movements in varied directions can help maintain tissue elasticity, lubrication, and hydration while also circulating synovial fluid in the joints and lymphatic fluid. It can also bring awareness to differences in sensation or range of motion between left and right sides. Gentle mobility work is hugely beneficial, but because muscle mass and function tend to decline as we age, strength work is similarly crucial. The Baby Boomer population are resilient in their own right, having navigated a lifetime of challenges and stress. What they seek are often times no different than younger students - maintenance of mobility and strength and the ability to support themselves through life’s uncertainties.
Reflective and introspective practices like pranayama (the breath work part of yoga) and meditation that emphasize the parasympathetic nervous system, creates the “relaxation response”—lowering heart rate and blood pressure, stimulating digestion and immunity, and eventually reducing chronic inflammation. These changes benefit any age group but are particularly relevant for older students, especially those managing chronic medical conditions or injuries.
My classes consciously include time spent both stretching and strengthening areas of the body that are often overlooked: the upper body, where strength tends to decline along with a decrease in lifting and manual work, the posterior shoulder and upper back, where weakness can influence the tendency for the upper back to round into kyphosis as we age, and emphasis on better breath. Many students find it challenging to breathe without using accessory muscles in the neck and at the top of the rib cage. Learning to use the diaphragm more effectively by practicing relaxed abdominal breathing can have a surprisingly positive impact on posture, neck tension, digestion, balance, strength, and endurance.
At Yoga with Joy, classes focus on the varied movements of the spine, neutral-spine core work that strengthens the transverse abdominis - the deepest layer of the abdominals, recruited almost anytime a limb moves - movements or poses that coordinate opposite sides of the body, and both kneeling and standing balances to help maintain ankle, hip, spine and shoulder stability, reducing the risk of falling. I don’t ever twist my students into pretzel shapes, or offer anything beyond their zone of discomfort that could cause an injury or induce a sense of pain. I do guide my students to their personal edge on their yoga mat - and while working there, they begin to effect and notice real change in their bodies, as their minds happily follow along.
Whether we like it or not, change is inevitable. If we are lucky enough to enjoy a long life, we will see changes in how we look, feel, and even think, and hopefully, these changes emphasize the positive. In order though, to effect real change in the mind and body, we must let go of some things to create space to embrace others. Building on a foundation of achievable asana (the poses), pranayama, and meditation, and basic philosophical practices of yoga can help us smoothly navigate the aging process with courage, control, grace and yes, even joy!