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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.)

Although yoga classes are offered in many health clubs and specialized studios, beginner classes for older adults are also offered through adult education programs, YMCAs, libraries and other community organizations.

What to Expect

No matter where you practice, your typical 60- to 90-minute yoga classes have some common elements. Most will include a series of asanas (poses) designed to stretch and strengthen your body, some deep breathing and relaxation exercises, and a few balance poses.

What really makes a difference from class to class is the instructor.

Yoga is truly teacher-driven, and Stanforth believes you can tell from your first class whether the teacher is right for you. “I would say that if an instructor is not actively walking around and providing hands-on instruction and specific direction, I would not go back to that class,” she says. “That means either they don’t know how to do that or are not willing to do it.”

Teacher Is Key

Unlike in other exercise classes, a yoga teacher shouldn’t simply be the one to follow. In other words, he or she should not be moving through the poses on his or her own at the front of the room, while you try to follow along. “A good teacher teaches, a bad teacher leads,” says Jeff Logan, co-owner of Body & Soul Fitness & Yoga Center in Huntington, N.Y. At age 62, after teaching yoga for 18 years, Logan welcomes the influx of fellow boomers in his classes. In the right class and with the right instructors, he says, older adults can make tremendous progress. “Most don’t have real limiting conditions,” he said. “Understandably, they might be a little stiff in legs, groin, shoulders. But level-1 poses, especially when you use props, are available to them.”

The number of older adults in yoga has definitely increased, Logan says. “I would say half of our level-1 students are 55 and over. Just five years ago that wouldn’t have been the case … maybe 10 percent would have been in that age group.”

Adapted to Your Level

The adaptable nature of yoga is one of its great advantages: Through the use of blocks, blankets, belts, bolsters and even chairs, practitioners who are older and less flexible can help extend their range of motion in a pose, thus “opening up” the body and “creating space.”

There are those who find the exotic nature of yoga troubling, and its foreign origins may have raised suspicions among older audiences. A few religious groups have even questioned whether yoga is a form of Eastern mysticism, incompatible with Christian beliefs. If that’s a concern, you probably need not worry: As practiced in most American studios, yoga is stripped of its religious trappings. While there is an emphasis on clearing the mind, relaxation and being in the moment, it’s far more workout than worship.

“The way I try and explain this to people is that salsa dancing is strange and weird, too,” Stanforth says. “Just because this is culturally not something we grew up doing, doesn’t mean we can’t benefit.”

John Hanc, who writes about fitness and health, added yoga to his fitness regimen in 2003.

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