Yoga for Seniors: How Yoga Can Help You to Enjoy Your Golden Years

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There’s no getting around it, as we age our bodies - and minds - change, and some of these changes are less welcome than others. Aches and pains, loss of mobility and diminishing energy levels can drain the pep from our step.

Contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to “act your age”: Yoga has proven itself to be an indispensable tool which can not only slow the aging process, but even reverse it - allowing you to take back control of your life.

If you’re looking for a way to improve your fitness, sharpen your mind and prolong your independence, yoga is not only safe but extremely effective in helping you achieve your health goals.

Not Your Granddaughter's Yoga

Yoga has racked up a reputation for being an activity reserved for young, flexible women who look great in leggings. However, traditionally yoga was created as a holistic health and wellness practice accessible to people from all walks of life.

Yoga is multifaceted: the practice incorporates postures, breathing exercises and meditation -which together serve to address our whole being: body, mind and soul. In so doing, yoga is one of the most comprehensive activities you can do to improve your health, and studies have proven it to be an ideal way to address both our physical and mental fitness as we age: From flexibility and balance, to improving memory and helping us sleep better.

Yoga To Age Gracefully

Flexibility

Our flexibility naturally declines with age, which can lead to a loss of joint mobility and even chronic pain as tension increases in particular muscle groups. In turn, this loss of mobility can increase the risk of falls and severely limit one’s capacity to partake in many activities once found enjoyable.

Research published in the Archive of Gerontology and Geriatrics showed that following a yoga practice, elderly participants experienced an increase in articular range of motion in a variety of joints commonly affected by aging, such as the shoulders, knees, hips and spine. (1)

In fact, Yoga’s ability to increase spinal flexibility in older adults is particularly important, as this is rarely addressed by alternative fitness regimens. A study by Grabara and Szopa measured spinal flexion in a group of women ages 50-79.

They found significant improvement in spinal mobility in all three dimensions independent of age of the participants after practicing yoga. (2)

Strength

While flexibility is the benefit we most typically associate with yoga, the practice of yoga is also a fantastic way to increase muscle strength. The low-impact nature of yoga means that it’s a perfectly safe way to gain strength, while protecting yourself from the unnecessary strain resulting from many other strength training activities.

While practicing yoga poses is a great way to increase strength, the kind of breathing techniques taught in yoga classes may also have a positive effect. An experiment by Telles et al. demonstrated a significant increase in muscle strength as measured by hand grip following yogic breathing exercises.

They also compared the effect of yogic breathing to breath awareness exercises and found that the effect was unique to yoga. (3)

Balance

Another key contributor to falls in older adults is the loss of balance commonly associated with aging. Practicing standing yoga poses helps recalibrate our sense of proprioception: our ability to sense where our bodies are in space.

Neuroscientists Gauchard et al. investigated the use of proprioceptive exercises such as yoga and their effect on balance in a group of participants over the age of 60. They concluded that these exercises - when compared with other activities - have the greatest impact on balance and postural control. (4)

Improving our balance can help to reduce the risk of falling -- one of the most common causes of injury as we get older. Tiedemann et al. examined the effects of a 12-week yoga program in a seniors residence population. They found a promising decrease in falls among their participants over the age of 68. (5)

Breathing

The aging process is associated with the development of breathing problems: from breathlessness when navigating a flight of stairs to more concerning symptoms including coughing, wheezing and chest discomfort. (6) Yoga classes incorporate a variety of breathing exercises which can help relieve breathing complications by strengthening the lungs and muscles such as the diaphragm.

A study in the Journal of Human Kinetics found measurable improvements pulmonary function of older women (average age 63) following 12 weeks of yoga practice: both heart rate and respiration decreased, while inhalation and exhalation pressure increased along with total breath volume. (7)

In 2014, Cebria i Irazon et al. found that yoga respiratory training exercises improve the strength of the muscles used in respiration in older adults with significant physical impairments which severely limit mobility. This led them to conclude that yoga breathing exercises are both well-tolerated and a viable means to improve respiratory health in these populations. (8)

Stress/Sleep

Older adults often experience difficulty falling asleep and staying asleep. These sleep disturbances can have significantly impact our daily lives: affecting everything from energy levels, increasing sensations of pain, and altering our mood -- often resulting in feelings of stress or anxiety.

The meditation component of yoga serves as a holistic approach to sleep improvement, and often with better, longer lasting results than sleep-aid medications.

A study in the journal of Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine observed an improvement in sleep quality in older adults following the practice of yoga. Yoga was found to decrease the time it takes to fall asleep and instances of awakening throughout the night, while improving the overall quality and duration of sleep. (9)

Mind

Do you find yourself forgetting where you put something down, or having a hard time remembering someone’s name? We often joke about how our memory begins to fade as we get older, but this doesn’t have to be the case. There are many activities in which we can partake to keep our minds sharp, such as taking up a yoga practice.

A study in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease compared yoga to memory enhancement training (MET) in a group of subjects over the age of 55. They found that a regular yoga practice is just as effective as MET in improving visual memory function, and observed neural connectivity changes associated with this effect via MRI. (10)

Another experiment compared a yoga group with one practicing non-yoga stretching-strengthening exercises in order to demonstrate yoga’s unique impact on executive mental functioning. Only the yoga practitioners experienced an increase in working memory capacity, as well as improvements in their ability to shift focus and attention efficiently. (11)

Meditation has a particularly interesting implication in improving and preserving cognitive abilities as we age. A group of long term meditators was observed by Prakash et al. to outperform non-meditators on a myriad of tests for memory and attention, which led them theorize that meditation can be an effective tool in preventing cognitive decline with age. (12)

The Benefits of Yoga for Seniors: Reduce Risk, Improve Health

The regular practice of yoga is associated with a reduction in several health concerns with commonly plague older adults, including:

Excess weight

It’s no secret that along with years we also tend to put on some pounds. A multitude of factors contribute to weight gain later in health, including changes in metabolism and a more sedentary lifestyle. Mind-body practices such as yoga are related to lower body weight status in adults.

Camilleri et al. in investigating the relationship between mind-body activities (including yoga) and body mass found that those who frequently practice exercises such as yoga are less likely to be overweight. Additionally, those who practiced more frequently had the lowest body mass indexes (BMI). (13)

Furthermore, a review of research findings on yoga and weightloss, published in the journal of Preventative Medicine, found it to be both safe and effective in reducing BMI in obese populations. (14)

High blood pressure

Hypertension (or high blood pressure) is another common ailment associated with getting older. While medications help to manage blood pressure, doctors often recommend making lifestyle changes in order to ameliorate results.

Bhavanani et al. conducted a pilot study on the effect of a single session of yoga on a population of seniors living in a residence. They discovered that following just one 60 minute class which included coordinated breath-body movements, breathing exercises and relaxation was effective in reducing both heart rate and blood pressure. (15)

Yoga improves our heart health by reducing stress levels and decreasing our overall response to stressful situations. A clinical review including over 6000 participants -- conducted by Tyagi and Cohen -- found that yoga’s emphasis on relaxation lowers blood pressure in both normal subjects as well as those diagnosed with hypertension. (16)

Aches and pains

While improving flexibility can do great things for improving the pain associated with muscle stiffness, there are other aches and pains we accumulate over the years that are more deeply rooted. Thankfully yoga also addresses the sources of these pains, getting down to the bones of the matter.

Ward et al. performed a review of current scientific research, confirming that yoga is beneficial for reducing pain levels in those suffering from a variety of musculoskeletal conditions, such as low back pain, fibromyalgia and arthritis. (17)

Pain in the hands, wrists and fingers is a common among older adults suffering from osteoarthritis. A study in the Journal of Rheumatology found that participants in an 8-week yoga program had a reduction in finger joint and hand pain. (18)

Of even more interest, yoga has been shown to help prevent and treat many health conditions associated with the aging process:

Arthritis

Arthritis is one of the most common causes of disability, and by age 65 nearly 50% of people will be diagnosed with either rheumatoid or osteo- arthritis. (19)

Medications can only go so far in managing the pain associated with arthritis, and while doctors recommend keeping active in order to preserve joint mobility many find the pain impedes them from participating in traditional exercises.

Many people suffering from arthritis find yoga not only safe but an enjoyable way to increase their activity level. Additionally, research has revealed that practicing yoga can be an effective way to decrease the inflammation underlying rheumatoid arthritis.

Scientists at the Ohio State University found that frequent yoga practitioners have lower blood serum levels of inflammatory proteins - such as interleukin 6. (20) While a group of researchers in India additionally revealed that yoga promotes the production of inflammation-fighting cytokines. (21)

Osteoporosis

It is well understood that exercise plays an import role in preventing bone loss as we age. The National Osteoporosis Foundation recommends weight bearing exercises to help improve bone density and prevent further degradation. (22)

Yoga is an example of a low-impact weight bearing exercise, meaning it’s just as effective if maintaining bone health while minimizing the possibility of injury and a safe alternative for older adults.

Phoosuwan et al. observed a decrease bone resorption markers in the blood of participants following a program in which they practiced yoga for 50 minutes three times per week for 12 weeks. (23)

However, yoga goes beyond slowing the process, actually reversing bone loss. One study found that a 12-minute daily yoga regimen reverses osteoporotic bone loss. This experiment, taking place over 10 years, found that regular yoga practice increase bone mineral density in the spine, hips and femurs in 227 participants. (24)

Diabetes

More than 25% of adults over the age of 65 have diabetes in the United States. As we age, diabetes becomes linked with a greater reduction in functionality and an increase in your chances of having to be hospitalized.  (25)

Thankfully, diabetes can be managed and one of the easiest ways to help lower your blood glucose levels is to exercise daily. (26)

Singh et al. conducted a literature review regarding the effect of yoga on persons with type II diabetes, revealing that practitioners have increased insulin sensitivity as well as improvements in glucose tolerance and lipid metabolism. They proposed that yoga works by activating the parasympathetic nervous system - our rest-and-digest response - and reducing stress, allowing the endocrine system to function at its optimal level. (27)

Menopause

We have already discussed how yoga can be beneficial for many menopausal symptoms, including sleep disorder, weight gain, and changes in mood, (28) but there is evidence that practicing yoga may bring about key hormonal changes at the root of the problem.

In 2016, Jorge et al. showed that a 12-week yoga trial reduced menopausal symptoms in a group of 88 women. Yoga was also effective in decreasing symptoms of anxiety and depression, leading to an overall improvement in quality of life. (29)

A case report, also published in 2016, observed an increase in estrogen levels in women who practiced yoga twice weekly for a period of four months. (30) Yoga exercises may serve as a tune-up for our endocrine system, which produces the hormones responsible for these symptoms.

Classes To Try

Gentle, Senior or Chair

There are several less physically intensive yoga classes available at the majority of yoga studios. Look for titles such as “Gentle” or “Senior” if you’re planning to drop in for a session.

Gentle yoga is slower, and more relaxation based than a typical hatha yoga class. You will be guided through a sequence of poses at a slower pace, often spending the majority of the class seated or lying down rather than in complicated standing postures: although these too make an appearance which helps to build our ability to balance.

Classes labelled “Senior” are very similar to gentle ones, except that they have been specifically designed for an older population, and often include specialized modifications of postures to make them accessible to those with limited mobility.

In this video, yoga instructor Sarah Helt demonstrates a short, friendly yoga sequence, and explains how you can use props to support your practice.

If getting down on the floor to practice yoga is outside of your personal capacity, you can opt for a Chair Yoga class instead. These courses offer all the same benefits as more traditional styles, except that the poses are practiced using a chair - or chairs - to support the body.

Sukshma

Sukshma yoga is a very unique style of yoga which is less commonly found in the Western world. This practice uses subtle, micro movements which are believed to activate particular pressure points on the body, releasing toxins and energy blockages, and increasing relaxation.

Accessible to absolutely everyone, these quick, easy routines can be performed virtually anywhere and only take about 10 minutes to complete.

In this video, The Art of Living’s Sri Sri Ravi Shankar guides a group through a typical Sukshma Yoga routine. Follow along and experience the relaxation for yourself.

Laughter

Another style of yoga which has recently gained traction in the West, especially used as part of a therapeutic treatment, is Laughter Yoga. While it may seem silly at first, laughter yoga has been proven to help reduce stress and is a highly enjoyable and relieving activity. (31)

The concept behind Laughter Yoga is fairly straight forward, basically “fake it ‘til you make it.” Voluntary laughter quickly evolves into real, spontaneous laughter which brings along with it feelings of elation, vitality and joy. These classes incorporate gentle stretching and yogic breathing exercises for maximum impact.

While it may seem silly, laughter has the ability to increase the levels of serotonin and dopamine in our brains -- those chemicals responsible for our feelings of positivity and happiness. Laughter Yoga is thus extremely effective in relieving stress, anxiety and depression. (32)

You can find some Laughter Yoga videos on YouTube, but this style of yoga is most effective when practiced in a group where you can share in the camaraderie of others. This video from Pine Tribe provides examples of six common Laughter Yoga exercises.

How To Start Practicing Yoga

While yoga both appropriate and safe for people of all ages, there are certain medical conditions or injuries that warrant special care. It is thus extremely important to discuss your intention of beginning a yoga practice with your doctor.

If you decide to attend a class at a local studio or fitness center (and we recommend you do when first starting out), discuss any concerns you may have and alert your teacher to any physical limitations. This will enable them to cue you in how to modify poses in a way which respects your body and keeps you safe.

While YouTube is a great source of a variety free yoga classes, you may be better served by referencing some more specialized programs put out by professionals.

Sixty and Me

Margaret Manning founded Sixty and Me, yoga designed to address our bodies’ needs as we age, after experiencing the multitude of benefits for both her students and herself.

This video series, experienced Senior yoga instructor Cat Kabira guides you through slow-paced, easy to follow yoga sequences to get you started on a road to a happy, healthier self. Purchase your copy here for only $39.99, 50% off the normal sale price.

Silver Age Yoga

Silver Age Yoga is a unique style of yoga created to address the equally unique health challenges facing seniors. Their mission is to bring yoga to those who need it most, through training teachers, created affordable classes and this online DVD you can purchase and follow at home.

If you enjoy their DVD you may wish to seek out a certified Silver Age Yoga instructor in your neighborhood if you are fortunate enough to live in one of these areas.

Grokker

Grokker offers high-quality, dedicated videos for seniors, as well as a multitude of gentle yoga classes which can easily be adapted to your specific needs.

With your subscription you not only gain access to all the premium yoga videos, but also a wealth of other resources from expert tips to healthy recipes. You can start exploring Grokker today with their free 2-week trial, and after that this exceptional service will only cost you $14.99/month - or $9.99 if you sign up for the annual plan.

It’s Time To Turn Back The Clock

You only get one body to carry you through this life, show it the love it deserves and begin your yoga journey today.

If you’re still on the fence, don’t just take my word for it: Give one class a try and experience the multitude of benefits yoga has to offer, many of which become apparent after just a single practice!

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