Yoga Is Not Just for Millennials: Why Maintaining Flexibility, Strength, and Stability Training Is Important for Seniors
In many major American cities, it is difficult to walk five blocks without seeing a yoga studio. Yoga is more than just the latest fitness craze; the ancient tradition has been around for thousands of years and offers countless physical and psychological benefits to those who practice it.
Yoga owes its popularity in large part to its adaptability for every type of body; just about anyone can practice yoga.
Today, more seniors are bringing yoga into their daily routines and reaping the benefits.
History of Yoga
Yoga has the tendency to feel quite contemporary; today, technology shapes the way people get healthy, and yoga is no exception. From the numerous apps geared at integrating a practice into people’s lives to all the blogs and podcasts dedicated to discussions about yoga, it’s sometimes hard to remember that yoga has been around long before humans became obsessed with their phones.
Yoga originated in India over 5,000 years ago as a Hindu religious tradition that teachers passed down to students orally. Yoga is a Sanskrit word with many translations, the most pertinent to today’s understanding of the practice being “to put to active and purposeful use.” The Yoga Sutra, a pivotal text written 2,000 years ago and the earliest known text outlining yogic philosophy, provides the foundation for all yoga today.
Yoga started to gain popularity in America in the mid-twentieth century, as westerners traveled to India and brought back yoga teachings. The year 1947 was big for yoga in America; Theos Bernard first published Hatha Yoga: The Report of a Personal Experience and Indra Devi opened America’s first yoga studio in Hollywood. Perhaps the most influential early American yoga teacher was Richard Hittleman, who published and sold millions of copies of books with yogic teachings and introduced non-religious yoga to the mainstream. In 1961, he was the first person to show yoga on television.
By the 1970s, yoga had become a widespread activity in the United States. However, since then, it has become associated with millennials. Perhaps more health conscious than their forebears, millennials have embraced yoga and other exercise activities to the point they have become common in the workplace. Having taken root in so many facets of modern-day life, it’s safe to say yoga is here for the long haul.
Ten Health Benefits of Yoga for Seniors
It’s not hard to see why yoga has skyrocketed to popularity; its mental and physical benefits to the human body are numerous, even in ways you might not expect. Here are ten of the benefits of practicing yoga regularly.
Increases your strength.
Building strong muscles through a regular yoga practice can do more for you than just make you look good. Especially in older people, strong muscles help prevent falls, in addition to preventing conditions like back pain and arthritis. Furthermore, a yoga balance is by nature balanced, so you will build strength in all your muscle groups in addition to countering this difficult work with soothing flexibility training.
Improves your flexibility.
If you’ve ever seen a yogi (a person who practices yoga) folded up in a seemingly impossible position, you’ve probably guessed that yoga improves your flexibility! Many people can’t reach their toes the first time they try yoga, but the repetition of lengthening your muscles will open them up and make seemingly unbearable contortions possible and even comfortable!
Many other forms of exercise stress strength over flexibility, but this sort of unbalanced lifestyle can have negative effects. Poor flexibility in the hips can result in knee joint pain, and tight hamstrings may result in back pain from the pressure it puts on the lower spine. Improved flexibility will lessen everyday pain.
Improves your posture and decreases back pain.
Poor postures plague most people, but it doesn’t have to be that way. With increased strength, flexibility, and regular practice, you can learn how to stand erect in a way that minimizes stress and fatigue in your back muscles. You want to improve your posture because a slumped spine can eventually result in joint problems and degenerative arthritis of the spine.
Furthermore, a well-rounded yoga practice, complete with backbends, twists, and forward bends will give spinal disks the necessary movement they need to remain flexible and properly protect the vertebrae.
Develops your cardiovascular health.
While not all yoga is aerobic, the more athletic variations of the practice will raise your heart rate. Regularly raising your heart rate lowers your risk of heart attack and can combat depression. Furthermore, even variations of yoga that don’t raise your heart rate to the aerobic range can improve cardiovascular health. Because so much of yoga is about breathing, people who practice yoga often have a lower resting heart rate and improved oxygen intake.
Lowers your blood pressure.
Yoga can be of great benefit to people with high blood pressure. The resting pose called savasana, practiced at the end of a yoga session, is associated with relaxation and lowered blood pressure. This relaxation pose is more targeted than simply lying down, and it is more effective in targeting sources of stress and lowering blood pressure.
Lowers your blood sugar.
This benefit of yoga is hugely beneficial to people with diabetes. Yoga lowers blood sugar in many ways: As an exercise, it encourages weight loss, it lowers cortisol and adrenaline levels, and it improves the yogi’s sensitivity to the effects of insulin.
Also, yoga lowers LDL (often called “bad cholesterol”) and boosts HDL (otherwise known as “good cholesterol”). People with diabetes are at risk of heart attack, kidney failure, and blindness, so it is essential to lower blood sugar and reduce the risk for such complications.
Yoga that makes use of props like block stretching or resistance straps and other positioning aids may benefit those who suffer from rheumatoid arthritis. Any gentle movement and heat can lessen symptoms of arthritis, so a restorative yoga practice can be ideal for targeting and easing the pain.
Helps you focus and relax.
Meditation is a huge part of the yoga practice, although one that often gets sadly overlooked to focus on the physical benefits. Yogis must be mindful to focus on the present and appreciate the current moment. Guided meditations and savasana quiet the mind, which allows people to appreciate their lives and solve problems more easily, due to the lack of distractions and better control over their own thoughts.
Improves your sleep patterns.
Many people, especially seniors, suffer from sleep disturbances and irregular sleep patterns. Whether from insomnia, daytime drowsiness, or a combination of both, a regular yoga practice can help alleviate problems with falling asleep and staying asleep. Exercise helps the body expend its energy and feel ready to sleep when bedtime arrives, and deep concentration and relaxation help the mind feel more clear and ready to fall asleep.
Improves emotional health.
In this regard, there are countless ways in which yoga improves mental health. First, yoga is shown to raise self-esteem. Today’s society has an epidemic of low self-esteem, but a regular yoga practice, with all the self-discipline, self-focus, and self-examination it entails, can help you to see a different and valuable side of yourself.
Even more simply, when your body feels good, you’ll start to feel good, too. If you see the physical improvements of a yoga practice starting to show in your body, you’ll feel more confident in your appearance. Also, yoga may reduce feelings of anger by calming the nervous system and increasing the feeling that we are all inter-connected. You may discover a more empathetic side of yourself through a regular yoga practice!
Types of Yoga
There are many kinds of yoga practices to fit different needs. Where some are more athletic, others are more restorative. If you are first getting started with yoga, you may be confused by all the different kinds out there. Here are just a few of the types of practices with their names explained.
Hatha. In Sanskrit, hatha refers to yoga that teaches physical postures. However, in the present day, it has come to mean a slower, more gentle type of yoga practice. Hatha yoga teaches you to hold poses for a few breaths, and it is great for beginners.
Yin. In a yin yoga practice, yogis hold postures for several minutes at a time. A meditative practice, yin yoga targets deep tissues and improves flexibility. Because it is deeply meditative, beginners may get bored easily holding the poses, but, if you keep at it, you’ll soon feel the restorative progress it makes on your body.
Iyengar. Iyengar is great for seniors because it can be practiced at any age and focuses on proper alignment using props. Using blocks, blankets, and straps, Iyengar yoga is customizable and is even safe for many people with running injuries.
Bikram. Not for the faint of heart, Bikram yoga usually takes place in a room heated to around 105 degrees and combines breathing exercises with a vigorous series of poses. While it’s great for aerobic exercise, it may not be recommended for seniors who are new to yoga, as the practice can feel quite strenuous.
Vinyasa. Vinyasa yoga is a little bit like dancing, and it will get your heart rate up, too. The dynamic practice combines breathing with quick pose changes to create a fun but intense endurance exercise. Runners may enjoy Vinyasa yoga because of its quick poses and continuous movement.
Ashtanga. Ashtanga yoga has six different series of specifically ordered poses, so it’s great for perfectionists who like to memorize a sequence and get it just right. All about building heat in the body, the specially designed yoga flows vary in length.
Sukshma. Sukshma yoga is great for seniors who are new to yoga! Making the most of small motions to open the body, this type of practice can lead to deep relaxation. The sequence focuses on the face, neck, joints, hands, and feet.
Yoga for Seniors
While you may feel intimidated from some of the descriptions, yoga has no age; practices can adapt to suit anybody. Even better, it’s never too late to start doing yoga. Yoga is great for seniors because, as a low-impact exercise, it can accommodate just about any physical constraint. Minds and bodies age gracefully with yoga due to its holistic benefits to the mind and body.
You don’t have to be a yoga expert to do a practice “correctly.” You just need to be in tune with your own body. Yoga should be comfortable, so you can tell if you’re doing a pose incorrectly if you feel pain.
If you are new to yoga as a senior, it may be a good idea to avoid cardio-heavy yoga sequences, holding positions for a long time, and positions that require a lot of abdominal strength. For those with lesser mobility, chair yoga can be a great option to reap the benefits of the practice while putting minimal stress on the body.
If you have a medical condition you think may impede your ability to do yoga, you should speak with a medical professional before starting a new routine. They will advise you on what sort of practice is best-suited for your body.
Best Asanas for Seniors
A physical yoga sequence is made up of asanas or poses. These types of asanas are great for seniors.
Standing poses. If you are comfortable standing during a yoga sequence, triangle pose and standing spinal twist are great stretches.
Sitting poses. Butterfly pose, in which the sitter holds his or her heels together with their knees pressing toward the floor, is great to stretch out the hip joints. Cat and cow stretches on the hands and knees give the spine greater mobility, and child’s pose is a soothing resting pose.
Lying down poses. Cobra pose and locust pose, both done while lying on the stomach, strengthen the back. You can also do very effective leg stretches while lying on your back.
Chair yoga. Many standing poses become easier with the addition of a chair to support the bent leg. For example, to achieve Warriors One and Two, two classic standing poses, yogis can support their weight with a chair underneath them. Chair pigeon is a low-impact way to stretch out the hips, and chair eagle stretches the shoulders. A forward fold while sitting in a chair will help you feel a nice stretch in your lower back.
There is so much to love and to be gained from yoga. Give your body the attention it deserves by practicing simple poses at first and then building your repertoire of poses. Increased strength and flexibility, lower stress levels, and a healthier you are just around the corner!
- Becky McDowell