Older yogis learning yoga may not stop aging but helps with the process
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As a yogi, 70-year-old Sharon Steffensen thought she wouldn’t suffer the effects of aging.
“Then when I needed a hip replacement, I thought ‘What the heck? Man, what’s that about? I’ve been doing yoga since I was 24.’ And then, a year after, when I had the second one, I thought…’ok,'” said Steffensen, the publisher of Yoga Chicago who has been teaching yoga for 42 years.
Still, yogis may be on to something. Science may have helped us all live longer, but many of our bodies still need support to stay healthy, and in many cases, many of us need help in accepting the inevitability of getting older. Research shows that yoga can help us do both.
That idea is catching on: Americans are increasingly turning to yoga as their fountain of youth, a survey showed. According to the 2016 Yoga in America Study, about 14 million people ages 50 and older practice yoga. That’s a jump from 4 million folks 55 and over who said they practiced yoga in 2012.
Many believe that more are gravitating toward yoga because they are learning about yoga’s science-backed benefits, which include increased flexibility, strength and balance, as well as stress reduction.
Some research also suggests that yoga can slow down the biomarkers of cellular aging –– but the jury is still out on whether yoga can truly stop the aging process.
“Stuff wears out,” said Steffensen who teaches a “Grandma Yoga” class at the Chicago School of Yoga.
“But yoga has never failed me in any way.”
Stiffness-related pain prompted internationally recognized yoga teacher Desiree Rumbaugh to adjust her practice.
“I was very excited on my 50th birthday because my practice was at its strongest point ever. There was not a smidge of difference between me at 49 and the day I turned 50,” said Rumbaugh, a co-author of Fearless After Fifty: How to Thrive with Grace, Grit and Yoga.
“And then three years go by, and then hormones start to shift and then the aging process shows up more fiercely in my hair and face and my body starts to shape shift a bit.”
That reckoning was daunting, she said. But Rumbaugh was determined not to let fear stop her from practicing yoga. So she teamed up with a colleague to create a system of postures to help strengthen her own body. It worked, and Rumbaugh decided to share it with her students in what she calls the “Wisdom Warrior” program.
Jennifer Asimow, a 52-year-old yoga instructor from Chicago, follows a similar strategy.
“I used to be sharp as a tack and now I am a duller tack,” she said. Yet Asimow and many of her students are still able to practice vinyasa, a vigorous form of yoga. “My feeling about it is to keep doing it vigorously, and make adaptations when you need to,” Asimow said.
For example, she said, “I don’t stand on my head anymore. Mainly it’s because I have some cervical spine issues, but I think this is safer for me now.”
But you don’t have to be a longtime yogi to experience the benefits, said Kerry Maiorca, the founder of the Chicago-based Bloom Yoga Studio.
Anyone can start at any age, but it is wise to check with a doctor for contraindications first, she said. Gentle yoga classes are often a good start, and props can help you move comfortably into a pose. Chair yoga, too, is available for those who have difficulty getting up off the floor.
“We have a lot of clients over 50, who are active and amazing and strong,” said Maiorca.
One of the biggest, but lesser known benefits of yoga is how it prepares us mentally for the inevitable, or as Rumbaugh said, the moment “when we realize that we, too, are going to get older and one day die.”
Yoga philosophy teaches radical acceptance of yourself and to let go of ideas and habits that no longer serve you, she and other teachers explained. It also teaches you breathing and meditation techniques to calm anxieties and nervousness.
“So much of the benefit is to the mind and the nervous system and that is something can’t be overlooked for anyone, but especially as we age,” Maiorca said.
And for some, yoga provides a kind of middle ground.
For example, when Elizabeth Cunningham turned 50, she had an empty nest and more flexible work hours. She had time –– finally –– to spend on herself doing what she wanted to do. And she realized she wanted to tackle the next act of her life with energy, vitality and grace.
Cunningham, who had a fitness routine and had been taking some yoga classes, shifted gears.
“I wanted to approach the second half as being as in tune with my physical well-being in as a positive, forward-looking manner as I can,” said Cunningham, of Chicago.
She began a dedicated yoga practice that, five years later, is still serving her well.
“For the first time, I could focus on what I could do instead of what I couldn’t do,” she said. “And all the nervous chatter in my head…that went away.”
Gentle yoga poses to try for aging bodies
Tree pose (vrkasana)
Shift your weight to your right foot and ground firmly into the floor. Bend your left knee and lide the sole of your left foot along the inside of your right leg as far as you can go, avoiding the knee area. You can grab the left foot with your hand and place it on your opposite leg, if it helps. Hands can be at the center of your chest or on your hips. Repeat with the right leg.
To stretch lower back:
Cat cow (bitilasana)
Start on your hands and knees in a table top position. On an inhale, lift your chest and head toward the ceiling and let your belly sink. On an exhale, push strongly through your hands on the floor, drop your head and round your back. Repeat.
Boat pose (navasana)
Lie on the floor with knees bent. Hold on to the backs of the legs, and lift your torso up using the strength of your middle section. Hold, or if you’d like a challenge, straighten your arms and legs out so that you look like a sitting V.
To open hips:
Lie on your back on the floor. Bend your knees and cross your left ankle over your right thigh. Flex your left foot. Lift your right leg to your chest. Your hands can be clasped behind the right leg or placed on the right shin. Repeat on left side.
Warrior 1 (virabhadrasana I)
From a standing position, step your left foot back about four feet. Turn the left foot at a 45-degree angle. Turn your hips to the front of the room. Bend your right knee until you feel a stretch. Lift your arms to the ceiling. Repeat on the opposite side.
Source: yogajournal.com and Fearless After Fifty: How to Thrive with Grace, Grit and Yoga.