Paula Ward is a 60-year-old yogini who has been practicing yoga for two years. She has a background in theater and dance and says that she has tried pilates and aerobics but has chosen yoga.
“I appreciate that I can strengthen and stretch moving my own bodyweight,” says Ward, “I also need the calming meditative parts of my yoga practice because that is the way that I relieve my stress. It gives me time to be thankful for my body, for physical movement, and for the people that I practice with. It is my time of reflection.”
As we age, we grow in many wonderful ways such as wisdom and experience, but growth cannot occur without an equal or greater challenge. Our bodies do not heal as quickly as they did in our youth; our memory begins to dull; easy motions like standing up from a chair or walking down stairs can require a little extra help. As we inevitably face these challenges, it’s increasingly important to set up our bodies and minds for success.
This is where yoga comes in, to help us live longer and healthier lives. A population that stays active embodies traits such as mindfulness, loyalty, perseverance, and positivity. How awesome is that? And how exactly can we cultivate these life-giving attributes? Can yoga really benefit the aging population?
Alzheimer’s and Dementia
Research has found that yoga helped to prevent the cognitive issues that arise before the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. Prof. Helen Lavretsky of UCLA’s Department of Psychiatry explains, “Memory training was comparable to yoga with meditation in terms of improving memory, but yoga provided a broader benefit than memory training because it also helped with mood, anxiety and coping skills.”
In a recent yoga flow class, an instructor purposefully led students through yoga postures three times. During the first two, he led them through by naming the postures. The third time, they were challenged to flow on their own. By combining memory work with breath and movement, it is possible to exercise brain functions that are impacted by Alzheimer’s disease, thus preventing memory loss.
Practicing yoga during cancer treatment can help lower sensitivity to pain and fatigue. In addition, yoga can provide a community for physical, emotional, and motivational support before, after, and during treatment. The National Cancer Institute’s Chemotherapy and Yoga manual recommends “deep breathing, yoga, or other ways to relax. This can help reduce muscle tension, anxiety, and pain.”
According to the Center of Disease Control, coronary heart disease is linked to over 370,000 deaths annually. Recent studies have found that the calming aspects of yoga can work to mitigate symptoms of heart disease. In a separate study, the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology explains, “Yoga may help lower heart disease risk as much as conventional exercise, such as brisk walking.”
Harvard Health Publishing cites yoga as beneficial to the body’s regulatory functions. In particular, gentle stretching and exercise “helps [patients] become more sensitive to insulin, which is important for controlling blood sugar. Deep breathing can help lower blood pressure. Mind-calming meditation, another key part of yoga, quiets the nervous system and eases stress. All of these improvements may help prevent heart disease, and can definitely help people with cardiovascular problems.”
According to Art of Living Wellness Center, “Consistent practice of yoga asanas (body postures), pranayama (breath) and a few minutes of daily meditation can help reduce stress in the mind and body.” This, in turn, reduces glucagons—which raises glucose levels in the blood—and can also help improve insulin action. Consequently this helps to reduce the symptoms of diabetes by keeping weight in check, and lowering both blood pressure and blood sugar levels.
The American Heart Association recommends relaxation as an alternative way to lower blood pressure and cites that “meditation could be used as an adjunct or complementary therapy along with standard treatment.” On a personal note, my mother has suffered from hypertension for five years. Over the last 12 months she has been practicing yoga once a week, and has found that anxiety symptoms such as the pulsing sensation in her heart has significantly decreased.
Moving With Intention
Setting an intention in class creates the space for self-reflection and facilitates mental awareness of your body and life on and off your mat. Start by focusing your mind on something positive that you are working to pursue or create in your life.
Follow the intention that your teacher offers, or simply set your own. The important part is that you have the power to assign value to actions that you take everyday. Intention in yoga gives you the power to decide why and how you live each day to its fullest potential.
Mind Over Matter
Our thoughts have the power to transform the way that we see our circumstances. Are your thought patterns positive or negative? In her article “Even Centenarians Are Living Longer,” writer Rachel Rettner says diseases that inhibit cognitive function and the mind are common causes of death even among people who have successfully fought other diseases like cancer.
“It seems that often the mind gives up before the body,” says Rettner. How committed are you to keeping your mind just as healthy as your body? Yoga classes are specifically designed to strengthen both your mind and your body. This is why instructors spend just as much time planning class themes as they do planning the posture sequence.
Have you ever felt pain or discomfort but couldn’t figure out where it was coming from? In yoga, both movement and meditation help bring awareness to the body, thus increasing our ability to identify areas of tension and pain. For example, Vinyasa flow yoga encourages the synchronization of breath to movement, meaning that, for the length of your inhale, you move into one posture, and on your exhale, you move to the next. This process helps to slow down both body and mind. Even in still poses, deliberate breath forces you to feel what is going on inside your body.
Reclaim Your Balance
As we age, the loss of basic functions such as balancing, reaching, and fall prevention often result in painful injuries. Balancing postures in yoga help to strengthen and repair the small muscles that help us to stand, walk, and reach. For example, a modified tree pose with one foot lifted and one foot rooted on the floor can gently strengthen the muscles around the ankles.
We don’t realize how much these little muscles do for us until it becomes hard for us to walk from, say, the kitchen to the bedroom. When it comes to muscles, either we use them or lose them.
Need to Breathe
Even if you decide not to engage in the physical part of the yoga practice, practicing yogic breath work can be just as beneficial. Learning to breathe deeply helps to reduce tension and anxiety, and promotes clear thinking so that we can be mindful, graceful, and strong as we age. Yoga offers various breathing techniques that can warm you, cool you, or simply relieve stress.
Seniors, yoga is for you. Do not be intimidated by the postures, the age of the other students, or what your mind thinks it can and cannot do. Know that practicing yoga doesn’t give you any new abilities. Rather, it makes you aware of the tools your body already possess that can transform the way you live.
By Kayleigh Axtell
Kayleigh Axtell is from Los Angeles, California. Kayleigh did her 200-HR training in Hawaii where she now teaches yoga and kindergarten.