For decades, yoga has been touted as an amazing form of exercise, and today, its popularity is at an all-time high. National surveys in the U.S. show that more than 36 million people have taken up the practice.
But the myth persists that you have to be a bendy pretzel person to take up yoga. The truth is, yoga works for all body types, shapes and sizes. The practice can do wonders for overall conditioning and to maintain and improve mobility and range of motion, straighten out posture and help you look and feel better. For those entering into their glorious golden years, yoga offers some key benefits that help elevate, optimize and even prolong your quality of life.
At the same time, for yoga to be enjoyable and safe, it’s key to practice it in the right way. Age-related issues such as natural wear and tear of joints, loss of flexibility and osteoarthritis can make practicing yoga in older age as challenging as it is rewarding. Whether a newbie or getting back to the yoga you started in the ’70s, here are four tips to keep your practice safe and sustainable.
1. Choose the right yoga class
At your neighborhood yoga studio, you’ll probably find lots of “mixed” or “all-levels” classes. Though technically open to all, they don’t often cater to mature students with detailed instruction or appropriate modifications of poses. Instead, if possible, choose a class that corresponds to your level of experience.
As a starting point, you might try beginner or gentle yoga. If nothing else, you’ll get a good stretch. You can try out a more challenging class once you feel grounded and familiar with the poses and breathing techniques.
2. Pick the right style
Iyengar yoga (named for its founder, B.K.S. Iyengar, who practiced to the ripe old age of 95), Integral yoga, classical Hatha and Kundalini yoga are well-rounded styles of yoga popular among mature practitioners. Gentle and Therapeutic yoga also offer a slower-paced class adapted to injuries and special needs.
Faster-paced styles — vinyasa and Ashtanga — are physically demanding and involve a great deal of “push-up”-like movements in between poses. They’re best left to those who have the healthiest and most resilient wrist, elbow and shoulder joints.
3. Work the basics
Check your pride at the door. As with other fitness regimes, take time to learn correct alignment for the common positions important for safety and injury prevention.
Every pose on this list requires attention to detail and correct form to keep your wrists and shoulders safe:
1. Basic standing poses: Mountain, Warrior, Triangle Pose
2. Simple backbends: Cobra
3. Basic forward bends which stretch the back body
4. Challenging weight-bearing poses: Plank Pose, Downward Facing Dog, Dolphin
Whether you’re familiar with these poses or not, as you dive into a yoga practice, listen for them and be cautious.
4. Work at your own pace
Yoga isn’t meant to be competitive, but you’ll still see all sorts of people pushing themselves to the max in public classes. It’s human nature, but this kind of competition leads to injury. Do what feels right for you, following these helpful guidelines.
Don’t push through pain. As your practice advances, you’ll eventually notice the difference between intense feeling or sensation and actual pain. Never push through pain or ignore a nagging injury. If a teacher asks about injuries, confess. The more she knows about your body, the better she can help you adjust or modify the positions to accommodate your safe range of motion.
Look for an experienced teacher. Renowned yoga instructor Sandra Sommerfield-Kozak once said that the best teachers are those who’ve got some life experience and have even “broken down” a bit. Mature, experienced teachers tend to be more familiar with injuries, contraindications and the unique needs of older students. Find a teacher you feel comfortable with and who will address your questions and needs.
Knowing that our bodies are changing as we get older, savor your breath, freedom of movement and any progress you make, however large or small. The effects of yoga can be as subtle as simply refining your breath, improving your body awareness or sharpening your concentration, but are no less powerful than a traditional strenuous workout.