For better health, give yoga a try

Created date

December 7th, 2016
Cartoon image of senior doing yoga.

Cartoon image of senior doing yoga.

According to the most recent data from the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), nearly 21 million adults in the U.S. practice yoga—twice the number from 2002. Among adults ages 45 to 64, use of yoga increased from 5.2% in 2002 to 7.2% in 2012.

And while adults over 65 are increasing their participation in yoga, it’s still not very popular. Only 3.3% practiced it in 2012, up from 1.3% in 2002. “There are misconceptions about yoga that keep seniors away, especially men,” says Julie Levinson, yoga instructor at Vita, the wellness center at Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital in West Bloomfield Township, Mich. “People think you have to be flexible to do the poses, and that’s simply not true.”

Yoga is a practice with origins in ancient Indian philosophy. The style commonly practiced in the U.S. is called hatha yoga, which combines physical poses, breathing exercises, and relaxation (meditation) techniques. 

Denise Malloy, R.Y.T., a certified Kripalu yoga instructor who teaches at Oak Crest, an Erickson Living community in Parkville, Md., explains Kripalu, which is a version of hatha: “The philosophy of Kripalu yoga is connecting your body, mind, and spirit,” she explains. “We stretch and lengthen muscles, and use gentle twisting and breathing techniques to massage internal organs, improve circulation, and open joints. The breathing also quiets the mind and helps you develop an awareness of your body, both inside and out.”

Health benefits supported by science

“There is a significant amount of research being conducted on yoga’s health benefits,” Levinson says. “Along with increasing flexibility, yoga may improve your core strength, mobility, and stamina. For some people, it may help chronic conditions by increasing bone density, lowering blood pressure, and stabilizing blood sugar.”

According to NCCIH, recent study results in people with chronic low back pain indicate that a carefully adapted set of yoga poses can help to reduce pain and improve function. Other studies suggest that practicing yoga may help to reduce heart rate.

Along with physical benefits, yoga may have brain benefits. Earlier this year, one study showed that it may help improve memory in people with mild cognitive impairment. “Some research indicates that anxiety and depression may be lessened by practicing yoga regularly,” Levinson adds.  

“The meditation that is an integral part of yoga gives you inner strength,” Malloy says. “That strength can last throughout your day and help keep you focused, centered, and balanced.”

Use caution

As long as it is practiced properly under the guidance of a well-trained instructor, yoga is generally considered safe for healthy people, according to NCCIH.

For seniors, however, the safety of yoga hasn’t been well researched. One study measured the physical demands of yoga on a group of older adults and the results showed that participants were more likely than younger adults to suffer musculoskeletal problems such as sprains and strains. 

According to the National Institutes of Health, some serious, but very rare, complications have been reported, including nerve pain and certain types of stroke. 

Yoga designed for seniors

If you want to begin yoga, tell your doctor first. You can discuss which aspects of your health an instructor should know about before you begin. According to NCCIH, if you have high blood pressure, glaucoma, or sciatica, certain poses should be modified or avoided altogether. 

Once your doctor gives you the green light, do some research to find a qualified teacher. “You need to find an instructor who has experience teaching people with chronic illnesses,” Levinson says. “Not all yoga teachers have that training.”

The type of yoga safest for seniors is called adaptive yoga (also called modified yoga). In adaptive yoga, instructors know how to change traditional poses to make them safer for seniors with health conditions. “People with uncontrolled high blood pressure shouldn’t have their head below their heart, which is how you do a typical downward-facing dog pose,” Levinson explains. “Instead, we can use a pose called wall dog, in which you lean against the wall with your hands while standing. 

Levinson continues: “Seniors with osteoporosis in their spine should not do a deep forward fold, in which you bend over from a standing position. We can use props such as large soft blocks to allow people to bend forward slightly.” 

Chairs are another prop that comes in handy. Students can sit for the entire class or only when they need to. “At a sitting position, we work on posture and exercise core muscles, which can build support for weak back muscles,” Malloy says. “We also use chairs to practice balance exercises.” 

Adaptive yoga instructors are versatile and creative. “I offer many different versions of the same exercise in a single class,” Levinson says. “We can always find options for practically anyone’s needs.”

To find a yoga program designed for seniors, check with your doctor, senior centers, or a local hospital. “More hospitals seem to be offering yoga for people with chronic conditions,” Levinson says. “No matter where you choose, always talk with the instructor before you begin.”