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What Yoga Can Do for You

Yoga can relieve back pain, improve sleep quality, and boost overall fitness.

The idea that older adults are involved in yoga shouldn’t really come as a surprise. After all, while it may sound as trendy as Twitter, as new and shiny as your next laptop, this form of mind-body exercise has been around, by some estimates, for 5,000 years. What’s more, many of the most influential Indian yogis are nonagenarians, notably 90-year-old B.K.S. Iyengar, founder of an eponymous style of yoga that is practiced worldwide.

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And let’s not forget that it was the boomer generation that helped import yoga to America in the first place: Forty years ago, Swami Satchidananda, another influential yogi, gave the invocation at Woodstock. (“The future of the whole world is in your hands,” he told the crowd of 500,000 young people.)

Yoga as practiced in America today, however, is different from what it was in the peace, love, consciousness-expanding days of the '60s. The emphasis for most devotees now is on the physical, as opposed to spiritual, aspects of the practice. According to “Yoga in America,” a 2008 study by Yoga Journal, 49 percent of those who practice say they are doing it to improve their overall health. Most of these people tend to be younger: The study also found that among the estimated 15.8 million Americans who currently practice yoga, 40.6 percent are ages 18 to 34.

But more older adults are now taking their place on the mats alongside them. According to the study, 18.4 percent of practitioners are now over 55.

Health Benefits of Yoga

One reason that a great number of older adults are showing up at yoga studios is because their doctors have recommended it. A striking finding in the Yoga Journal study was the rise of the “yoga as medicine” trend: 14 million Americans say that a doctor or therapist has recommended yoga to them. With good reason. “The health benefits of yoga are well documented,” says Christine Geithner, professor of human physiology at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash. “It’s a good entry-level activity for older adults.”

Those benefits have been reported in numerous studies, most of them done in the past few years, involving “yoga interventions” with older adults here and abroad. Researchers have found that regular practice led to reduced incidence of chronic back pain; improved sleep quality and mood; a better sense of well-being and quality of life; improvement in heart health, rheumatoid arthritis and type 2 diabetes; and greater overall physical fitness.

Also, because a typical class includes balance exercises, yoga seems almost tailor-made for older adults, for whom balance is an issue. But there are also risks—the greatest of which might be a lack of understanding of yoga and the wrong kind of instruction. “My general recommendation is that yoga can be a tremendous addition to a well-rounded fitness program,” says Dixie Stanforth, a lecturer in exercise science at the University of Texas at Austin and a spokesperson for the American College of Sports Medicine. That said, “whether you’re already active or sedentary, you need to be extremely careful in choosing the type of yoga you become involved in.”

How to Select a Class

By some estimates there are 100 styles of yoga. The forms most commonly practiced in the United States share many similarities and have names like ashtanga, iyengar, hatha and vinyasa. Any one of them can provide a good start in yoga. Beginners should look for a level-1 class or one designed for older adults. If you have some physical limitations, look for a gentle, “restorative” class. (Geithner cautions beginning seniors, particularly those who have been sedentary, about starting with a power yoga program or the popular bikram classes—also called “hot yoga”—which are conducted in temperatures of 100-plus degrees to help enhance the body’s flexibility. “I wouldn’t recommend bikram because of the heat factor, although there may be some older adults healthy and fit enough to do that,” she says.)

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