Yoga for Seniors: How to Get Started (And Why You Should)
By Crystal Lee
| Last updated
You're never too old to reap the rewards of yoga. For seniors who are looking for a safe, effective way to enhance their physical health and overall wellness, the stretching, breathing, and meditation practices of yoga can be a great solution. In fact, as you will see, doing yoga regularly can result in a host of benefits for older adults, from greater flexibility and improved balance to lower stress and better sleep.
It's no wonder, then, that yoga is becoming increasingly popular among seniors. The 2016 Yoga in America Study found that nearly 14 million Americans over the age of 50 practiced yoga that year. That was a significant jump from the four million who did so in 2012.
This article outlines the many benefits of senior yoga and describes several of the best types of yoga for older men and women (including the increasingly popular discipline of chair yoga). It also offers information about basic poses and explains what you should do before you begin any yoga routine. And it even provides examples of helpful books, videos, and DVDs as well as tips on how to find appropriate classes.
The Benefits of Yoga for Older Adults
Yoga cultivates a mind-body connection, combining stretching and strengthening postures with deep breathing and relaxation. Despite its roots in Eastern philosophy, yoga as practiced in the West is generally focused on physical fitness. It still has a spiritual aspect, but it is not overtly religious. People of all faiths and belief systems can benefit from participating in yoga.
Because the poses (called asanas) can easily be modified or adapted to suit an individual's needs, yoga is safe for seniors of all fitness or ability levels. In fact, it can be an excellent way to keep your body strong and healthy without the joint stress that comes from other activities like weightlifting or jogging. And it's never too late to begin: You can start yoga at any age. (Just be sure to clear it with your doctor before you get going.)
Here are some of the benefits of yoga for seniors:
The Best Types of Yoga for Senior Citizens
Whether you're aiming to get stronger and more flexible or you just want to decompress and still your mind, yoga can help. But with the dozens of different styles that exist, it can be tough to figure out which type is most appropriate for you. Remember that a key consideration is your physical condition and fitness level. Always consult your healthcare provider before beginning any new exercise regimen.
Here are eight types of yoga that may offer what you need:
A Non-Traditional Option: Chair Yoga for Seniors
Not everyone is comfortable with the up-and-down movements of traditional yoga. In chair yoga, seniors who have mobility challenges or balance issues can enjoy the benefits of yoga without having to get down on a floor mat. A huge number of poses—from spinal twists and hip stretches to chest openers and forward bends—can be modified to be performed from a chair.
The following video illustrates a one-hour gentle yoga sequence for seniors who prefer to (mostly) stay seated:
How to Prepare for Yoga
Yoga offers some of the best strength and flexibility exercises for seniors. But as with any physical regimen, it's important to make sure you're prepared. Here are a few tips to help you get ready:
1. Evaluate your physical condition.
While people of any age can get started in yoga, some movements are not advisable for folks with certain medical issues. For instance, people with glaucoma should avoid inverted or head-down positions because such poses can increase pressure on the eyes. That's why it's crucial to talk to your doctor (and your instructor) before you try even a simple yoga routine.
2. Gather your gear.
You need comfortable, stretchy clothing for yoga. Fitted clothes work best, especially for tops, since you will be bending into different positions and you don't want your shirt falling into your eyes. Leggings or jogging pants along with a fitted T-shirt or tank top are good choices. You won't generally need special footwear because yoga is typically performed barefoot. However, non-slip socks or even sneakers can be worn if you're concerned about losing your footing.
You will also need a yoga mat. Some studios provide these at no charge, but others expect you to bring your own (and many people prefer to have their own for hygienic reasons). Look for one that is long enough to support your whole body when you lie down and sticky enough that you won't slip when you try to hold a pose. You may also want to consider the material: Cheaper mats tend to be made of PVC, but if eco-friendliness is important to you, focus on mats made of rubber, cotton, or jute.
Most mats are one-eighth of an inch thick, but some are slightly thinner or thicker. Thicker mats offer more support for sensitive joints, but they can make standing balance poses more difficult; they are also bulkier and harder to carry around. Portability won't matter if you only practice at home, but it might be an issue if you plan to tote your mat to and from a studio or community center.
3. Seek out a qualified teacher.
It's important to find a trained instructor who understands the unique challenges faced by the 55-plus crowd. Yoga Alliance maintains a voluntary registry of yoga teachers throughout the U.S. who meet certain standards. Also, Yoga for Seniors offers a directory of instructors who have undergone special training to enable them to adapt yoga programs specifically for older adults.
Ask potential teachers how long they've been leading classes and whether they have any experience teaching seniors or people with health issues. If possible, observe an actual class to get a sense of the teacher's techniques. And once you choose an instructor, be sure to tell him or her about any physical limitations you have, such as arthritis, balance problems, back pain, or high blood pressure.
4. Start slow.
You can become more flexible for yoga by easing into it. For instance, if your goal is to be able to bend over and touch your toes, start by putting your hands on your thighs. Take a few deep breaths, then reach down to your knees. Pause again and take some more deep breaths before reaching down to the middle of your shin, and so on. The point is to avoid overstretching.
Be sure to get enough rest after each pose, and never rush into new postures. It's best not to add any new movements until your body has fully adjusted to your routine. Always remember that yoga is not about keeping up with the people around you. Just focus on going at your own pace.
A yoga posture should never hurt. You may feel challenged, but you should not get to the point of feeling strained. If you can't do a certain pose comfortably, ask your teacher for a modified version. Almost every yoga pose can be altered to accommodate a wide range of physical needs. And don't hesitate to use props like straps, blocks, walls, or chairs for additional support.
Basic Yoga Positions for Beginners
Keep in mind that basic does not necessarily mean easy. Yoga poses are meant to challenge your mind as well as your body. Even in simple moves, there is a lot going on. That's why, in the beginning, yoga poses are easiest to learn in person from a qualified instructor. But if you want to get comfortable with a few moves before going to class, be sure to listen to your body and not push yourself past your limits.
Ready to get started? Here are some examples of yoga exercises for beginners, with links to videos that demonstrate proper technique:
Yoga Classes for Seniors
It's highly advisable to begin your yoga journey by taking an in-person class so that you can get customized instruction from an experienced teacher. You need to make sure you are performing the moves correctly so that you can avoid injury and receive the greatest benefit. Plus, many older adults enjoy the social aspect of getting together regularly with other people who share their interests.
"But," you may ask, "how can I find beginning yoga classes for seniors near me?" One option is to contact yoga studios, community centers, or health clubs in your area to see what they offer. Look for programs such as beginner or gentle yoga for seniors.
You can also try searching on the Yoga Class Near You website, which allows you to enter a location and specify that you're seeking seniors yoga classes.
Helpful Books, Videos, and DVDs
Some people are uncomfortable with the idea of going to an organized yoga class. Fortunately, you can practice yoga by following along with books, online videos, or DVDs.
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Below is a sample of titles you may enjoy:
1. Yoga for Healthy Aging: A Guide to Lifelong Well-Being by Baxter Bell and Nina Zolotow
Authored by the cofounders of the Yoga for Healthy Aging blog, this book offers information about how yoga can help older adults improve their flexibility, strength, agility, balance, and more. It outlines a variety of safe, easy-to-follow sequences and includes multiple variations of each pose.
In this book, Iyengar yoga instructor Suza Francina explains how yoga can benefit those over age 50 who are dealing with arthritis, osteoporosis, chronic pain, and other ailments. She provides step-by-step instructions for a range of poses that incorporate props like blocks, walls, and chairs.
3. Chair Yoga: Sit, Stretch, and Strengthen Your Way to a Happier, Healthier You by Kristin McGee
This book describes dozens of yoga poses that can be done while seated on a chair rather than a floor mat. It includes exercises for specific muscle areas as well as sample routines that can be performed in 15 minutes or less.
4. Relax into Yoga for Seniors: A Six-Week Program for Strength, Balance, Flexibility, and Pain Relief by Kimberly Carson and Carol Krucoff
Offering important information on how to practice yoga safely and adapt movements for various physical challenges, this book outlines a progression of poses that can help older adults improve their health and well-being.
On YouTube, "yoga for seniors" videos are widely available. Here are a few examples you may find helpful:
If you're hoping to find the best yoga DVD for seniors, have a look at a few of the top contenders:
Led by Harvard University Center for Wellness instructor John Schlorholtz, this is a great chair yoga DVD for older adults who have difficulty getting down on the floor. It features a variety of routines that offer you a choice of either sitting in a chair or using a chair for stability while standing.
Aimed at older adults as well as anyone with health issues, this DVD includes standing and floor routines along with some that can be done from a bed or a chair.
Gentle yoga is good for beginners. Targeted at adults between ages 40 and 70, this DVD includes seven separate routines for various purposes, such as improving balance, boosting core strength, increasing flexibility, and promoting relaxation. In total, it covers more than 100 different yoga poses.
This DVD is hosted by a former PBS yoga instructor. It offers a morning routine to help you boost your flexibility and vitality, as well as an afternoon sequence to help you de-stress and relax.
The Yoga for Seniors DVD is designed to help older adults (particularly those over 70) become stronger and better balanced. It includes exercises you can do while seated in a chair as well as some standing and stepping movements that use a chair for support.
Comprised of simple exercises that allow older adults to build their strength and increase their flexibility, this DVD features three energizing routines for the morning as well as two programs designed to relieve tension and help you relax at the end of the day.
Take Charge of Your Wellness
Yoga for seniors is becomingly increasingly popular as more and more older adults discover the physical, mental, and emotional rewards it can bring. Armed with the information above, you can discover the specific style and form of yoga that is best for you.