How Yoga Helps Slow the Aging Process
Over the past decade that I’ve been teaching yoga — and having casual conversations with people about the practice — I’ve heard all types of ideas about what people think to be the correct body or “type” for yoga.
While I’ve most often heard this in reference to body mass or “thinness,” plenty of times people have referred to their age and “stiffness” when telling me why yoga is not for them.
So today I’m here to let you in on a little secret: yoga is accessible and amazing for all! And not only this, for seniors it is a must because there are so many benefits of a mindful yoga practice for us as we age.
First, let’s look at the research findings from co-authors of Yoga for Osteoporosis, Dr. Loren Fishman, M.D. and Ellen Saltonstall.
Osteoporosis, by the way, is a condition that typically occurs in older age and is characterized by a weakening of the bones, causing them to become brittle and more likely to break or fracture (particularly bones of the spine, wrist and hip). According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), one out of every 10 adults over age 50 has the condition and risks increase with each year that we age.
According to Dr. Loren Fishman, yoga not only helps increase bone mass, “but because yoga poses pull and stretch the bones from every conceivable angle, yoga may also stimulate the formation of a bone structure that is able to resist greater amounts of pressure, as well as many different types of challenges.”
Additionally, brittle and weak bones increase the risk of falling, and in turn, fracturing a bone. Yoga increases balance — this is just one of its many benefits which also include increased strength and flexibility; decreased levels of stress; improved circulation and posture; improved bone health; increased mental clarity and ability to focus; boost in immune system functionality and mood; improved sleep; and an increased overall sense of well-being.
Here are some yoga poses that increase bone density and strength:
• Weight-bearing poses such as table top, downward facing dog, plank and side plank. This is particularly true when the pose is felt as challenging to the muscles because then the bones must work harder to support the body.
• Jumping back from a half standing forward fold (ardha uttanasana) to a lowered push-up position (chaturanga), or from downward facing dog (adho mukha svanasana) to a half standing forward fold. Note: we typically want to avoid a full forward fold because again, we’re working to keep the spine neutral and not go into a forward bending action.
• Poses that require the body move against resistance, such as chaturanga dandasana.
In the yoga practice proper alignment is key in healing the body and preventing injury. Study with a knowledgeable teacher who makes this a priority to ensure you are getting the support you need.
If you do have Osteoporosis, here are some keys for a healthy yoga practice:
• Avoid poses that require spinal flexion (forward bending). For example, child’s pose, plough pose, shoulderstand and headstand should be avoided
• Avoid deep side bending poses
• Instead, do these poses:
♦ Gentle twists are great as they increase range of motion in the spine and expose the spine to moderate vertebral pressure, which is necessary to stimulate bone growth. This is important because spinal fractures are very common with osteoporosis.
♦ Gentle back-bending poses, such as baby cobra (bhujangasana) and full locust pose (salabhasana) are great at opening the spine and countering a rounded upper back that comes from poor posture and weakened bones.
♦ Other great poses to practice include chair pose (utkatasana), strong standing poses like warrior 1 and warrior 2 (virabhadrasana 1 and 2), and standing balancing poses like tree pose (vrksasana) and warrior 3 pose.
Add in meditation and enjoy that savasana!
Allowing the body time to relax and rejuvenate supports bone remodeling. Savasana (final relaxation pose), meditation, pranayama (breathwork) and other relaxing practices, such as yoga nidra, ignite the parasympathetic nervous system (“rest and digest”), which like deep sleep, puts the body in a relaxed enough state that the body can construct new, healthy bone.
These meditative and relaxing practices also elevate mood and decrease stress overall. Emotional health promotes increased physical health, including the health of our bones.