Yoga and Aging
The practice of Yoga offers us tools, techniques and knowledge that support healthy aging. Through yoga we come to understand that everything changes – the trees, the seasons, our desires and interests, our bodies, minds and hearts - and that getting older is a natural part of life. Through these changes, yoga supports us in ways that are healthy and in tune with natural cycles. It offers a form of exercise that, when done properly and mindfully, does not wear the body out. Through yoga we can comfortably and appropriately enjoy greater stamina, strength and flexibility throughout our lives.
According to the Ashrama or Ayurvedic models of growth and development, the years after age 50 are the best time for psychological and spiritual growth. These “Wisdom Years” are a time when we are completing our family and career growth and beginning to turn to the bigger issues of life, taking the lessons we have learned with us as we cultivate and refine a deeper definition of what it means to be alive and share our gifts with others. Eventually, this “wisdom” can help us face death, a natural part of the cycle, and learn to let go of what we no longer need on our journey through life. Quoting Suzanne Franca in her book New Yoga for Healthy Aging, “Healthy aging is aging with wisdom!”
How Does Yoga Help Us As We Age?
Slowly, over time, the body’s tissues loose elasticity and flexibility. This happens in a variety of ways. When injured, the body naturally contracts to support healing. If one begins to move too soon or too quickly, following injury, the body maintains that “armor” to protect itself. Dehydration – from lack of appropriate fluid intake and/or improper diet or exercise contributes to a drying-out of body tissues. And simple “underuse” of our body’s systems and organs results in less secretion of body fluid and a wasting away of body tissue. Thus, many of us become shorter and more stiff the older we get. Yoga practices can counteract these “natural consequences of aging.”
By helping to maintain our natural free range of motion, yoga contributes to healthy aging. Gentle movements lubricate joints, stretch muscles and tone organs allowing us to move through our daily routines with more ease, pleasure and grace. Aligning the body properly in each yoga pose allows the weight of the body to spread out efficiently throughout the entire body, reducing impact to specific bones and joints. This is one reason Yoga can be beneficial for those with Arthritis or Osteoporosis as well as numerous other “aging” diseases that result from or in decreased flexibility and mobility.
Bone Health - Yoga is one of the few exercise systems in which weight is borne through the entire body, including the bones in the hands, wrists, arms, upper body, neck and even the head. Weight bearing upside down poses that strengthen the upper body are particularly important in preventing upper back fractures that result in upper back curvature common in older people.
Yoga builds strength safely and incrementally. Strong, supple muscles help protect us as we grow older from conditions such as arthritis, osteoporosis, and back pain and help prevent falls. It’s well documented that weight-bearing exercise strengthens bones and helps ward off osteoporosis. Many postures in yoga require that you lift your own weight. And some, such as Downward-Facing Dog Pose and Upward-Facing Dog Pose, help strengthen the arm bones, which are particularly vulnerable to osteoporotic fractures.
Spinal Integrity - Yoga helps maintain a strong and flexible spine. Some Yoga Practitioners believe that aging begins in the spine. Often, as we age we notice a shortening and rounding of the spine. Not only does this - a postural issue - reflect in our external appearance; a rounded spine affects the health of every system of the body. Through Yoga, one can begin to lengthen an aging spine via movements designed to create space between the vertebrae. Space between the vertebrae supports a healthy nervous system, and health in our organs. The nerves traveling from the brain through the spinal cord connect to all the structures of the body, including our internal organs. These branch out from the spinal cord between the vertebrae at various locations. When pinched there is pain and loss of movement in the body. Yoga practices can be used to develop spinal strength and agility, thus slowing and even reversing the common degenerative changes often found in people at midlife and older.
Supporting a Healthy Heart - A Yoga Practice can be used to reduce or counteract stress.
As we age, stress accumulates in the body. One of the most important things we can do for our heart is to take at least twenty minutes every day to consciously relax and let go of stress. This can be as simple as lying-down on the floor with a folded blanket under our head, a pillow under our knees and an eye bag over our eyes. Or practicing Restorative yoga poses or the Guided Relaxation practice known as Yoga Nidra to support the body and help us to relax and rest deeply. During deep relaxation all the organ systems of the body are allowed to rest and rejuvenate.
Poses can be selected to gently open the chest, stretching tight muscles in the front of the body. Backbends in particular are beneficial for the health of the heart. While toning muscles in the back and stretching muscles in front, Backbends serve to increase lung capacity and improve circulation to all the organs of the body.
Gentle Inversions are also valuable for a healthy heart. These are poses where the head is below the level of the heart, including Standing Forward Bend and Downward Dog, Legs Up the Wall, Rabbit pose and more. Let the gravitational force of Earth do some of the work for you as you nourish both heart and brain!
All poses that are deeply relaxing and relieve stress are restful and healing for the heart, the brain, the entire body.
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