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Yoga for Active Older Adults

November 29th, 2009

Half Moon - Ardha ChandrasanaBy Karen Scully

I began my yoga practice about 10 years ago with an incredible teacher, Julie Wright. I was in my early 40’s, and had been a runner for many years. I developed calcium deposits on my left thigh which caused great pain after my runs, to the point of crying while trying to go to sleep. When my doctor informed me that I had to stop running, I spent the next year looking for some form of exercise that I could do the rest of my life and would give me the “highs” of running along with the benefits – mainly weight loss. That was also when my doctor informed me I was in my early 40’s and should find a form of exercise I could do for a lifetime.

So I practiced yoga almost daily for about two years. I took mainly power yoga classes, some Bikram, some meditative. I was amazed at how strong and limber a 43 year old could be. Through different injuries that were a result of my job as a personal trainer, I turned to yoga to cure my aches, pains and depression at no longer being the young thing I thought I was. So my yoga experience grew out of a need to find health through exercise and that is what my focus is on – health for all through yoga, but specifically for the “mature adult.”

The one thing I have run into with active older adults is the need for yoga for therapeutic reasons, be it physical or mental. One of the incredible things about practicing yoga is that yoga strengthens all different areas of the body: heart, lungs, muscles, cardiovascular and nervous system. Yoga can also improve our digestive systems, send oxygen to all our different systems to bring them to a healthier state, and helps our psychological well-being. All of these are a like a jewel found in one place for a person needing to remain healthy for life. Another thing I find with active older adults is stress caused by either injury or physical conditions plaguing them, such as diabetes, etc., and the stress leads to depression. It is like a vicious cycle: injury or poor health leads to stress leads to depression leads to stress leads to poor health and so on.

Studies have shown that people who practice yoga recover from surgery faster, reduce symptoms of diabetes, high blood pressure, asthma, just to name a few. Why is that? Is it that yoga helps to reduce stress? Is it because the breathing sends healing energy through the body? Is it because their muscles and bones move more easily because of the asanas? Is it because you become more toxin free because of the twisting poses? Does meditation play a part? It’s because of all of these things, which is why yoga is perfect for anyone but specifically for the active older adult. And since no two people are alike – everyone has different strengths and weaknesses and different degrees of health, we have different types of yoga available for everyone.

Let’s begin with breathing, the most important part of ayoga practice. We are taught different types of breathing in yoga to help us in our asana practice and in our meditation. But anyone knows just from having to go in for, say, a big test and slowing their heart by taking deep, slow breaths that you can indeed rule your heartbeats and in turn, rule your blood pressure by slow, deep breathing. We take oxygen into our lungs that is transmitted into our bloodstream and carried to our muscles to increase our ability to exercise and stretch without muscle fatigue. Proper breathing techniques can relax a person immediately and anywhere and we know that because of studies done regarding shifting the balance of the nervous system to the parasympathetic side causing the relaxing to begin almost immediately. We know that relaxing muscles can help chronic pain, most commonly found in older adults from either physical illness or treatments used to help with their illness. So breathing is an essential part of anyone’s yoga practice, and it will be discussed again.

Yoga is a great stress reducer. Stress can come from lots of different things: daily work, issues with income/health, poor muscle alignment, chronic pain. As a matter of fact, arthritis and back pain are the two most common forms of pain, exacerbated by stress, found in older adults. Stress makes our muscles more likely to go into spasm, causing more pain/more stress. Stress can interfere with our deep sleep, essential for health, and common older adults. Lack of sleep increases pain. It is another vicious cycle. A regular yoga practice can help relax muscles, relieve stress and relieve pain.

Older adults also tend to slump, especially in their upper spines, causing muscle fatigue around their upper back and necks, ultimately causing pain. If continued, either due to sitting for hours watching TV or on their computers, or by the beginnings of arthritis or bone loss, their bones can slowly start to fuse in this manner so they can no longer stand straight. That’s why you see lots of older people stooped over from the middle of the back up. That is what happened to my father. Regular use of different asanas to strengthen our upper backs, using something like locust pose or cobra pose, can help strengthen these muscles and relieve the stress in the upper back, in turn relieving the pain.

Yoga also helps a person differentiate between whether they are feeling pain or are suffering. Pain can cause suffering but it is important for a person to know the difference and the difference is mostly a matter of the mind. This is where meditation comes in. Generally an active older adult cannot avoid pain, but they can control how much the “suffer” from pain. Studies have been done to show that long-term meditation can change the “wiring” of the brain in beneficial ways. Meditation activates the left prefrontal cortex which has been associated with greater levels of happiness. Personal happiness has a great deal to do with a person’s pain and suffering from the pain. Also, studies have shown that meditation can help reduce the pain signals from the thalamus to the higher brain centers where our brain interprets pain. Meditation is a huge part of biofeedback which has been shown to greatly help with a person’s pain. And where does our meditation always begin – proper breathing.

Studies have also shown that the vibrations we use, the Oms or the chanting (here we are back to breathing properly) helps to regulate the inhalations and exhalations we do. Regulating our inhalations/exhalations will regulate our involuntary muscle control, such as our heartbeats and blood pressure. Also, chanting helps us to redirect our thinking away from the pain we feel, giving a release, even for a short time, to our brain interpretation of pain, and we can learn to lengthen these periods of not necessarily removal of pain but ceasing to think out pain, thus teaching our bodies to do/think what we wish instead of the other way around. This has been found to be really helpful in older adults dealing with things such as fibromyalgia or even chemotherapy.

Older adults also seem to become depressed more easily than younger adults. Maybe our kids are grown and gone, we are unable to participate in golf or tennis the way we did due to illness or injury, whatever – depression is a huge problem in older adults. Many doctors want to treat depression with anti-anxiety drugs but yoga really leans toward a loftier goal. Yoga wants to quiet a restless mind, put us in touch with our deeper purpose in life, give us an inner source of calm and joy. Does this mean that older adults should not follow their doctor’s instructions and just do yoga? No. But it does mean we can incorporate the two to help a person to become well again, both in body and in spirit. And as we get older, we are less worried about our bodies than we are about our spirit.

If a person is physically able to do the sun salutations, these truly do bring energy into our bodies. Deep inhalations breathe energy into our bodies, and vigorous poses, such as the sun salutations or balance poses actually keep us from thinking about what may be our problems because we are too busy just trying to do the poses. The most important thing for people we work with who we know are suffering from depression is to not worry too much about their alignment (as long as we know they are not hurting themselves) but to just focus on their movement and breath. This keeps their mind focused. While they are focusing on the various movements and breathing, their body is taking in essential energy, stress relief, relaxation to help them combat depression. It works for everyone, no matter what their age but is particularly useful in older adults. Good poses for them are, along with the sun salutations are back bends because sending blood to their brains helps. It is always better to get quickly into the poses with persons who are depressed instead of focusing too much on relaxation or meditation because sometimes they can sink deeper into their depression and dark thoughts. It is also important to remember when you are doing their relaxation or savasana to keep their eyes open because closing their eyes causes them to focus inward and can lead to dark thoughts which are counterproductive to our practice.

We also understand that chanting and other devotional practices associated with yoga can help because they go directly to our emotions, again stimulating the left prefrontal cortex that is associated with calmness, happiness and emotional resiliency. Learning to bypass our bad thoughts and emotions through these practices can help us better deal with the emotional ups and downs of our lives.

Yoga also stresses a mind/body connection that some people think is elusive but yogis believe is essential. A good example of mind/body connection is does our mouth water when we think of apple pie? Does it elicit a good mood – a mood of contentment? On another level, are we so caught up in thinking of our problems that we cannot sleep? Are we so stressed about the difficulties we face as older adults that we develop an ulcer? Our physical bodies can affect our state of mind. We can’t walk as well as we used to so we become depressed. We take a hot bath to relax and relieve stress. Certain backbend poses can elicit a state of happiness in us. We can use different poses in yoga to make ourselves feel a certain way, and we can direct those poses specific to the older adult.

We need to remember to work on proper alignment, being careful to avoid poses that could cause problems with people with osteoporosis such as twists, lateral flexion and spinal flexion. We move gently through our poses incorporating spinal stabilization poses in every class, we feature poses that are comfortable and steady and encourage rest whenever necessary, we are cognizant of problems associated with older adults such as heart or blood pressure problems, and we urge the use of props, including chairs or walls for balance.

I have talked about asanas but I haven’t really covered the benefits of practicing yoga poses. Let’s take Big Toe pose – just a simple folding over of the body and holding your big toes. It, of course, benefits the low back. It also calms our brain to help relieve stress and anxiety, stimulates our liver and kidneys, stretches our hamstrings and calves, strengthens our thighs, improves digestion and helps relieve symptoms of menopause, headaches and insomnia. Next let’s take a look at a high lunge. It focuses on our ankles, calves, thighs, groin, abdomen, chest, shoulders, armpits and neck. It also helps with sciatica, heart problems and blood pressure problems. Warrior I focuses on the same as a high lunge, but also incorporates the lungs. It also strengthens the shoulders, arms and muscles of the back along with strengthening the thighs, calves and ankles. So even though I glossed over the poses a little, it would be exhaustive and take up the whole essay to discuss the benefits of each pose. Every pose strengthens, stretches and relaxes.

The purification we achieve from our twisting asanas help keep our systems working as God intended. As we wring our out visceral organs and the toxins are released into our bloodstreams, we flush them with water. Any twisting asana helps our bodies purify themselves.

Lastly, yoga also teaches us that the more we think something, the more likely we are to do it again. Our habits become deeper with more repetition. So our negative thinking or our self-flagellating inner dialogue may fuel depression. And the more an active older person sits alone or is inactive, the more they fuel their depression. So if we’re going to have a habit in our old age, let it be yoga. Let it be breathing properly, strength through asanas, meditation and purification through yoga. Let it be health in our mature years through yoga.

Karen Scully teaches Power and Hatha Yoga classes in Dallas, Texas.

(c) Copyright 2009 – Paul Jerard / Aura Publications

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