Yoga for Seniors: How to Get Started (And Why You Should)
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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:
- Better balance: Many yoga poses for seniors focus on strengthening the abdominal muscles and improving your core stability. That can help you become steadier on your feet and reduce your risk of falls.
- Improved flexibility: Yoga movements can be fantastic stretching exercises for seniors. Holding a pose for several breaths encourages your muscles and connective tissues to relax and loosen, which helps to increase your range of motion. In fact, research in the International Journal of Yoga Therapy has shown that regularly engaging in yoga can dramatically boost the overall flexibility of older adults.
- Enhanced breathing: The breathing control practices of yoga (known as pranayama) can expand your lung capacity and improve your pulmonary health. A study published in the Journal of Human Kinetics found that elderly women who practiced yoga three times a week for 12 weeks saw a significant improvement in their respiratory function.
- Stronger bones: If you're worried about brittle bones and osteoporosis, try yoga. For older women and men, a consistent yoga routine that includes weight-bearing postures can help bolster bone strength. Some promising research has suggested that doing yoga can actually improve bone density in postmenopausal women.
- Reduced anxiety and stress: Through meditation and mindful breathing, yoga encourages you to focus on the present and find a sense of peace. Research has demonstrated that that can lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol and help ease symptoms of anxiety and depression. In a National Institutes of Health survey, more than 85 percent of people who engaged in yoga said they experienced reduced stress as a result.
- Better sleep: Yoga can help alleviate sleep disturbances, which are common complaints among seniors. In a study published in Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine, adults over age 60 who struggled with insomnia participated in yoga classes twice a week and underwent daily sessions at home. After three months, the group reported significant improvements in both the duration and overall quality of their sleep.
Reconnecting with your body:
Life’s stressors and events have a way of separating us from ourselves. Hormonal and other physical changes can make our bodies feel more foreign over time, and a sense of disconnection can set in between mind and body. Yoga offers the potential to work on your mind, body, and spirit at the same time, and for you to integrate those changes in your daily life.
Improving your flexibility, both in how you move and in how you think, can open doors to exciting possibilities. Whether the end goal is to love yourself more, feel more in-tune with your health, venture into the dating world, strengthen your spirituality, or something else, the benefits are worth exploring.
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:
- Hatha: Not really a specific style, hatha is a generic term which encompasses all forms of yoga that concentrate on physical postures. But in most cases, classes advertised as hatha yoga feature a slow-paced series of sitting and standing poses. They are typically about stretching and breathing, not boosting your heart rate or getting your leg up behind your head. That's why many people believe that hatha is the best type of yoga for beginners.
- Iyengar: Iyengar yoga is methodical and precise, with a strong emphasis on proper form. Practitioners are encouraged to use props like bolsters, straps, blocks, and incline boards to help them get into the correct alignment. Because the props allow for all kinds of modifications, this is a good style of yoga for seniors with arthritis or other chronic conditions.
- Restorative: Restorative yoga is a slow, meditative form of yoga that is designed to release tension passively, without stretching. Props are used to totally support the body, and poses are held for a long time, sometimes up to 10 minutes. Restorative is the best type of yoga for seniors who want to cultivate relaxation and contentment. It's not uncommon for people to fall asleep in class.
- Yin: Like restorative yoga, yin yoga is slow and focuses on holding poses for a long time. The difference between yin and restorative yoga is that restorative involves no active stretch, whereas in yin you work on stretching your deep connective tissues. Doing yin yoga regularly can help relieve stiffness and enhance flexibility.
- Vinyasa: This is a general term for yoga styles that involve matching breathing with a series of continuous movements that flow from one to another. Pacing can vary, but routines are often very fluid and quick. Vinyasa emphasizes the transitions between postures as much as the poses themselves. Some people liken it to dancing. Vinyasa yoga is hard in the sense that it tends to be physically vigorous, but seniors who are reasonably fit may enjoy the challenge.
- Ashtanga: Fast-paced and physically challenging, ashtanga comprises a predetermined set of poses that are performed the same way every time. It's an intense, acrobatic activity that boosts your heart rate and circulation, which is why some people say that ashtanga is the best type of yoga for weight loss. While it is not generally recommended for beginners, some older adults find it to be greatly beneficial.
- Bikram: In Bikram yoga, rooms are typically heated to more than 100 degrees and have 40-percent humidity. That guarantees you will sweat buckets as you spend 90 minutes going through the sequence of 26 poses and two breathing techniques. The idea is to strengthen muscles and flush out body toxins. However, overheating is a real risk. If you have low blood pressure symptoms, high blood pressure, or some sort of heart condition, Bikram is not for you.
- Kundalini: Known as the "yoga of awareness," kundalini can be appealing to seniors who are keenly interested in the spiritual as well as the physical components of yoga. It combines physical postures, breathing exercises, meditation, and chanting.
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:
- Mountain: The most basic standing pose, mountain pose helps you improve your posture and balance.
- Tree: The tree pose is great for building lower body strength and improving balance. Modified versions can be done while either leaning on or sitting in a chair.
- Downward-facing dog: This pose opens the chest and stretches out the calves, hamstrings, and lower back. If you have wrist problems, you can modify this pose by keeping your forearms on the ground.
- Cat-cow: These are classic yoga movements that promote flexibility in the spine and strengthen the abdominal muscles. Cat-cow can also be done from a chair.
- Plank: The plank pose essentially involves getting into a push-up position, but not actually lowering yourself. It's excellent for developing core stability and upper body strength. For a modified version, keep your knees on the ground.
- Triangle: In addition to working the hamstrings and hips, this pose also strengthens your core. It can help ease sluggish digestion and relieve lower back pain. You can also do the triangle pose while seated.
- Warrior I: This pose opens the chest and hips and strengthens your calves, ankles, and thighs. If reaching up is too difficult, keep your hands on your hips.
- Child's pose: Frequently used as a resting position, the child's pose stretches the spine and hips as well as the lower back. It's a good way to relax, relieve tension, and calm your mind.
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 lets you 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.Buy on Amazon
2. The New Yoga for Healthy Aging: Living Longer, Living Stronger and Loving Every Day by Suza Francina
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.Buy on Amazon
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.Buy on Amazon
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.Buy on Amazon
On YouTube, "yoga for seniors" videos are widely available. Here are a few examples you may find helpful:
- Slow and Gentle Yoga With Adriene: A 28-minute sequence of gentle sitting and standing postures
- 7-Minute Yoga Workout for Older Adults: A short, basic standing routine that uses a combination of seven different poses
- Daily Stretches for Seniors: Simple Yoga Exercises: A 10-minute series of stretch exercises for seniors that can help alleviate pain and improve flexibility
If you're hoping to find the best yoga DVD for seniors, have a look at a few of the top contenders:
1. Chair & Standing Routines: Ageless Yoga, Volume 1
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.Buy on Amazon
2. Relax Into Yoga
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.Buy on Amazon
3. Gentle Yoga: 7 Practices For Your Day
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.Buy on Amazon
4. Lilias! AM & PM Yoga Workouts for Seniors
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.Buy on Amazon
5. Yoga for Seniors With Jane Adams
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.Buy on Amazon
6. Jane Fonda Prime Time: AM/PM Yoga for Beginners
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.Buy on Amazon
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.