Yoga For Seniors

By DiAnne Crown

November 4, 2011 5 min read

Talk to frequent yoga practitioners and you'll soon wonder why everyone doesn't do yoga, including yourself. Yoga enthusiasts are a passionate bunch. Their sentiments about the exercises range from "It's a workout, but it's so relaxing" to "I can leave work really tired, but then go to a yoga class and I come out feeling energized."

John Record, a retired assistant medical school dean, put it this way, "I saw it as a physical activity with an emphasis on flexibility that would translate into my golf game. Where yoga has really taken me is to live with inner peace."

This feeling isn't unusual, according to Justina Schacht, owner of Namaste Yoga Center. "The word yoga means union. What we practice is uniting body, breath and mind in each moment. The practice is finding balance because it's the mind that wanders away."

The majority of Schacht's yoga students are seniors. "For them," Schacht continues, "there is a physical benefit (in practicing yoga): help with maintaining range of motion in joints; the benefit of improving the breath; breathing diaphragmatically -- deeply -- to use the entire lung capacity, even in times of stress; and the benefit of quieting and stilling the mind. What comes with that is peacefulness and acceptance."

Schacht believes people of all ages and stages can do yoga, even seniors who are just getting started. The important thing is to find a guide who is able to help improve your physical habits, both in doing the exercises and in daily life. "You should feel comfortable, as a beginner, going in anywhere to get the support of the guide." But if you want a class designed for beginners or one that accommodates special needs, those are available, too.

"There are beginning classes, chair yoga classes, as well as adaptive classes for people who can't get up and down off of the floor or need help learning how to do so safely. Bolsters, blocks and pillows can be used for support. And it's so liberating when people find they (have mobility) ... because that's the biggest fear, isn't it?" Schacht says, "that they'll get down on the floor and not be able to get back up. But our oldest student was 98 years old."

Seniors, like most people, Schacht says, need to start gradually, changing positions to accommodate initial limitations if necessary, then building up to some of the more challenging postures and exercises. Keep in mind, she adds that it's not a group experience; it's an individual experience within a group. Everyone doesn't have to be at the same level to take a class. "Everyone has different levels of flexibility and different muscle and bone capabilities. It's not a competitive sport."

"Yoga is a subtle science. You won't feel the burn or worn out when you leave, but over time the body becomes more flexible and stronger. Over a couple of months, you'll look back and say, 'My gosh! Two months ago I couldn't do this.'"

Yoga also teaches systematic relaxation, training people to reduce unconscious, often habitual tension, Schacht says.

In "The New Yoga for People Over 50, A Comprehensive Guide for Midlife and Older Beginners," author Suza Francina calls the practice of inversion, common to many yoga exercises, "the fountain of youth." Francina goes on to say that over all the yoga experience is a way to counteract the most obvious signs of aging, including rounding of the spine, a forward head position, heart disease, arthritis and much more.

Schacht says, "Most yoga postures 'innercize,' massaging internal organs that help with digestion, elimination and all the other issues that become more prevalent as you get older, and 'outercize' to improve balance, strength and flexibility."

For people concerned about the spirituality of yoga, "we don't preach to people," Schacht says. "Yoga is more than just postures (though). Yoga is a set of principles and practices to maintain your help and wellness, including spiritual health. When people quiet their minds, they can't help but feel a connection to God, or nature or whatever they think of as higher than themselves.

"You don't have to give up your religions or religious practices to do yoga. Whatever spirituality you have is enhanced through yoga."

John Record enjoys this spiritually quieting experience. Record, 63, started practicing yoga in the late 1990s. He now attends one class per week and practices at home four to five times each week. Although he began doing yoga for the physical benefits, Record says yoga has had a much deeper effect on this life. "The journey has gone from 'out there' to 'in here.'"

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