Getting older takes a toll. Weakening bones, increasing aches and pains, and failing balance, flexibility and strength can make the body feel like worn-out baggage. But there’s a curious truth in an ancient Hindu text that states, “Everyone else is conquered by the body, but the body is conquered by yogis.”
For centuries, yoga has been practiced by people all over the world for religious, spiritual rehabilitation or fitness reasons. The older set may see the neighborhood yoga studio as a place for the young and nimble, but there is ample evidence that aging seniors benefit physically and mentally from instruction in the “sun salutation”, “tree pose”, or amusingly named positions like the “chair pigeon” or “cat-cow pose”.
Yoga combines movement (asana) and breathwork (pranayama). The beneficial effects of yoga include relief from back pain, eased arthritis symptoms, better sleep, and improved mood. Regular yoga practice also promotes social connectivity and improved self-care.
Yoga stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system — the “rest and digest” mechanism of the body — reducing heart rate, respiratory rate, and blood pressure. Studies show decreases in blood glucose, cholesterol and sodium and increases in oxytocin. Yoga is effective in building strength, mobility and flexibility and aids in weight management and posture. Improved balance and functional movement are major benefits for seniors at risk of falling.
These physiological benefits have led to the incorporation of yoga into the treatment of many chronic health conditions including diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, and chronic pain.
While many people initially look to yoga for physical health benefits, there are important psycho-spiritual perks as well.
As a mindful practice, yoga increases concentration, memory, and attention. Hostility, anxiety, and depression are reduced. Instead, improvements in outlook and general self-acceptance arise. Breathwork patterns common to yoga practice are energizing and often used to treat depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions.
Dr. Kirsten Blokland, PhD, Certified Yoga Teacher (YTT 500), a developmental psychologist and certified yoga teacher, states, “Synchronizing movement with breath can impart a feeling of coherence and integration — something that is so needed in our society, where many people report feeling fragmented and unsettled because of the hectic pace of our lives.”
Dr. Blokland is part of a growing community of yoga specialists focusing on restorative yoga to assist with the healing process in response to significant medical challenges.
Where do you start if you can’t touch your toes? It’s unfortunate if yoga conjures ideas of pretzel-like contortions. To the contrary, yoga can be enjoyed by even those with limited mobility.
Chair yoga, a style of yoga performed in a seated position is a suitable starting point for people having difficulties getting from standing to seated on the floor repeatedly.
Sitting down lowers the centre of gravity, protects hip and knee joints from weight-bearing and eliminates the need to rely on the shoulders and wrists for support. With the added stability of a chair, participants can concentrate more deeply on breathing and poses.
There is also added accessibility of seated yoga. Everybody has access to a chair. Chair yoga can be done in the kitchen, in the office, or anywhere there is a place to sit.
Chair yoga can be just as beneficial as other forms of practice, such as on a traditional yoga mat.
“Chair/modified poses are in many ways just as beneficial as traditional asana poses — particularly when we consider that the benefits exist not just in the physical domain, but also in the psychological and spiritual domains,” says Dr. Blokland.
As the body ages, take this advice to “bend so you don’t break.” Give it a try under the guidance of a trained instructor.
Dr. W. Gifford-Jones is a graduate of the University of Toronto and the Harvard Medical School. For more than 40 years, he specialized in gynecology, devoting his practice to the formative issues of women’s health.