Yoga and the older body: Seniors look for benefits
ANN ARBOR, Mich. – In a large, open room of the Ann Arbor Senior Center, yoga class is underway. A dozen men and women, age 55 to “you don’t really need to know, do you?”, kneel on rows of soft mats, stretching their legs and ankles.Donna Pointer, the 69-year-old instructor, is at the front of the room, encouraging them to stretch a little more deeply. “Flexibility in your ankles is something you need if you want to be able to walk on your own,” she says.The students bring a range of ability and experience to the class. Some have been doing yoga for 20 years or more. Others are former athletes wanting to stay limber and active. A few are coming back from strokes, surgery or arthritis. One woman says, “I ignored my body for 62 years; it’s mad at me.” But, says Pointer, they’re all alike in one important way.”At this age,” she says, “to retain independence is the name of the game.”In recent years, yoga’s popularity has taken off much as running did in the 1970s. Hollywood stars have embraced it, and gyms offer classes combining yoga with aerobics, disco dancing, even boxing. The media, as in so many other things, tend to present yoga practitioners as fit young beauties sweating their way to flat abs and enlightenment.Given the glam veneer now attached to yoga, seniors might well wonder if it’s right for them.
“Yoga’s an excellent activity for seniors,” maintains Mike Siemens, director of exercise physiology at Canyon Ranch health resort in Tucson, Ariz., whose job is in part to help people develop realistic fitness plans.Yoga can benefit older people in three important ways, he says: improving balance (which can help people avoid falls), strength and flexibility. It’s just important for seniors to find a class and teacher that’s right for them.What to look for? Experts agree an experienced teacher is a must – one who’s not going to blast them through a sweat-fest, but knows how to accommodate health issues from arthritis to high blood pressure to stubborn muscles.”Yoga can be taught carefully for people with special needs,” says Laurie Blakeney, who teaches a class for “seasoned practitioners” over age 50 in Ann Arbor.Before enrolling in any class, older students should ask the teacher what the pace and demands will be. A senior who ends up in a class with a lot of younger students can easily feel intimidated, frustrated and – worst of all – can get hurt trying to keep up.”Go sample a class and see what you think,” and try different teachers, suggests Pointer. “Yoga will speak to them, or not. It’s not necessarily for everyone.”Siemens suggests finding an instructor certified by Yoga Alliance or the International Association of Yoga Teachers.
“Yoga should never be painful,” he says. “Stretch to a point of tension, not pain.”A class specifically for seniors can still be challenging, but to the proper degree. For many students in Pointer’s class, the achievable challenge has led to camaraderie and better health.Mary, who didn’t want to give her last name, had a stroke 10 years ago that left her with balance problems and a tricky right hip. She says steady yoga practice has helped her earn back strength, flexibility and confidence.”If I got down to the lower shelf when I was shopping, I couldn’t get back up,” the 77-year-old says. “Now I can, without help.”Pointer’s only prerequisite is that students be able to get down to the floor and back up without assistance. Because balance is a problem for many seniors, they spend almost the entire session sitting or lying down.The more experienced students are quite limber, but even they must cope with the impacts of age. Everyone nurses tight or sore spots. Pointer’s sequence of asanas, or poses, ensures that the whole body gets stretched.After stretching their ankles, the students move on to arm extensions and torso twists, even gentle abdominal exercises. The class cheers when one student is able to sit on his heels for the first time in years, and again when a woman is able to raise her once-frozen shoulder over her head. All strive to straighten stooped backs.
“I enjoy seeing them make progress,” says Pointer. The improvement “is not all a straight line forward, but it does happen.”Pointer has been teaching the Iyengar method of yoga for some 30 years. She can still perform eye-popping stretches. But she’s adamant that for her students, showing off is not part of the program. No one here wears spandex or cute T-shirts with Sanskrit letters. The pace of exercise is brisk but forgiving.”I’m not trying to get them into a perfect pose,” she says. “Yoga’s not a competitive sport.”That principle’s a mainstay of virtually every yoga class. But it’s often ignored by students who berate themselves for not being able to stretch further, or who feel smug because they can slip more gracefully than others into lotus pose.”Older people know their limits,” says Blakeney. “They don’t get their feelings hurt when they don’t get it or can’t do it.”Blakeney believes seniors also make great yoga students because of the experience and wisdom they bring to the practice. “They’re less pliable physically,” she says, but “the older student has in some ways a better connection with their body, because they’ve lived in it longer.””The point of yoga is to become stable mentally and physically. Kids’ minds move fast, so their bodies must. Older people can quiet and slow their minds, so they can move slower,” Blakeney says. “The slow, older mind gets a bad rap. Older people tend to concentrate and focus better. They seem more there.”
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