My Geriatrician Sent Me to Yoga

yoga class for seniors
Photo by ymcapdx

Yoga seems to be the latest magic prescription in the battle against aging. Look around in any studio and yoga classes seem to be filling up with students over 50. And there’s good reason: flexibility, strength, stress-reducing breathing and balance are just some of the benefits of a regular yoga practice, no matter your age.

Yet expectations that yoga can reverse or stave-off the effects of aging may be a little high, especially if the only classes you’re attending are crowded with varying levels of students. If you’re 60 and struggling to cross your legs in Sukhasana (Easy Seated Pose), practicing next to a 20-something warming up in Adho Mukha Vrksasana (Handstand) may not be the most beneficial class for you—especially if it’s the only one you’re attending regularly.

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For the older student, individual attention will be necessary to successfully address your unique physical challenges that won’t get tended to during popular classes. With an experienced instructor, and in a smaller classes or in private sessions, you’ll be able to focus on the needs of your body in order to make your yoga practice your own. Only then will you reap the full benefits of this divine practice—while also learning better, more useful modifications for the larger classes you frequently attend.

Here are some considerations for those of you who are older and considering yoga, despite what your doctor may have suggested:

First, if you’re a (soon-to-be or current) senior, start with a true beginners class. Go to different studios and ask if you can observe the classes. Talk to instructors, and ask questions. Get recommendations from friends and people you know.

Next, do some reading on yoga and the integration of mind, body and spirit. Then take a look at the Five Yamas of yoga. I’ve been practicing for more than 20 years and still have to remind myself that my mat is my own private island. It doesn’t matter what anyone else in class is doing, or even what you could do last week. When you’re on the mat, you’re in the present.

Steer clear of articles, images and books that show people in a yoga poses without props. Internet research is great, but those images of your contemporaries in beautifully executed yoga poses can lead you to believe that you should be able to do those poses the same ways. The truth is, blocks, bolsters, belts, walls and chairs are extremely helpful when it comes to stretching and strengthening muscles that haven’t been challenged much until now. One of my most endearing memories of my Iyengar yoga instructor is her insistence that “the belt is your friend.” Even at the most advanced level, props are used in her classes.

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Another tip: Learn to get up off the floor safely. Roll to one side, use your arms to push yourself into a seated position. If you need additional help, use the seat of a chair to push onto your knees, move one foot flat onto the floor and use the chair to help push you up. I’ve had older students who were afraid to try yoga because they couldn’t get off the floor unaided.

Not able to get on the floor at all? Because of increased interest in yoga for the older generation, chair yoga classes are beginning to pop-up. Don’t believe chair yoga can be challenging? Try a class. You’ll be surprised at how challenging and useful it can be.

It’s not a magic pill, but yoga helps to keep the joints hydrated and flexible, aids balance and increases stamina, and helps reduce stress. If you’re older and thinking about trying a class, don’t wait for your doctor’s recommendation to get on the mat. Ultimately, shape, size, past physical activity and age aren’t what matter when practicing. Look inside. That’s where you’ll find success.

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