Aging is inevitable. We are all getting older every day and we are certainly are not alone in the aging process. In our culture, aging is often viewed as a negative process and there is an assumption that aging is equivalent to deterioration and decline. There’s a commonly held belief that assumes that as a person gets older, they will automatically succumb to illness and mental decline.
This is just not true.
Of course, we cannot stop the aging process, but there are many things we can do to minimize and even prevent declining health.
First, let’s just acknowledge that there are many gifts that go along with getting older. Our life experiences have led us to acquire more wisdom, patience, confidence, and perspective, to name just a few. As we get older, we can let go of the burden of caring what other people think about us as we are hopefully more comfortable with who we are. As we get older our priorities shift and we often find ourselves with more time to spend on taking care of ourselves and pursuing our passions and interests.
Even though there are many challenges with getting older, we can modify our lifestyle to optimize our health. As we age we have an increased risk of chronic illnesses but there are steps that we can take to improve our health as we grow older through proper diet and exercise, managing our stress levels, getting adequate sleep, engaging in mentally stimulating activities and staying connected socially.
Yoga is a wonderful practice to add to our wellness routine because it is a holistic practice that benefits us physically, emotionally and mentally. Yoga offers many tools to help us maintain and improve our health as we age. Here are some of them:
As we age, our flexibility decreases, especially if we are sedentary or spend a lot of time sitting. Decreased flexibility can lead to pain and immobility. Yoga can help reverse this process by moving and stretching the body in new ways. A regular yoga practice will help you become more flexible and more mobile.
In our 30’s, we begin to lose muscle mass every year. Exercise can help to improve muscle mass and strength, which is very important in preventing falls. Falls are the leading cause of injury in older adults. Many yoga poses require you to bear your body weight in new ways, including balancing on one leg (as in Tree Pose) or supporting yourself with your arms (as in Down Dog), these poses held for several breathes help to build muscle strength.
Improved balance is one of the most important benefits of yoga for seniors. Regularly practicing yoga increases proprioception (the ability to feel where your body is in space) and improves balance. Better balance could mean fewer falls, which translates into greater mobility and independence.
The movements in yoga are low impact. Yoga helps strengthen the muscles around the joints, lessening their load. Moving your joints through a full range of motion during yoga practice helps to stimulate synovial fluid, which nourishes the joints and reduces friction. People with arthritis often see improvement in their pain and mobility with regular gentle yoga practice.
Increased flexibility and strength can help prevent the causes of some types of back pain. Many of us spend a lot of time sitting at a computer or driving a car, which causes tightness throughout the body and spinal compression. Yoga helps to counteract these effects.
It is very common for us to take shallow breaths and not pay attention to how we breathe. Yoga is a breath-centered practice. Yogic breathing, called pranayama, facilitates deeper and slower breaths, which benefits the entire body. Yoga breathing calms the nervous system, which has physical and mental benefits on and off the mat.
Yoga requires us to pay attention to what our body is doing as we synchronize our breath with movement and move the body in new patterns. Meditation is an important part of yoga and helps to improve our ability to focus and concentrate. Recent research has shown that yoga has a beneficial effect on the brain and memory.
When we practice yoga we work towards aligning our bodies in a way that improves the strength in our postural muscles and counters the maladaptive posture that many of us acquire from prolonged sitting and activities that involve leaning forward. The practice of yoga helps to stretch out the tight muscles and strengthen the weak muscles that contribute to poor posture.
The emphasis yoga places on being in the present moment, through concentration on the breath and movement, can help us to not dwell on past events or anticipate the future. Restorative yoga, gentle yoga, and meditation help to calm the central nervous system, reducing the fight or flight response. Yoga helps to calm the mind. When we can slow down the mental loops of frustrations, worries, and preoccupations, we reduce our stress. Stress is implicated in many health issues and diseases so by reducing our stress we can significantly improve our quality of life.
Yoga lowers cortisol, the stress hormone that is produced by the adrenal glands. Normally, cortisol is increased in response to an acute crisis, which temporarily boosts immune function. But if your cortisol levels stay high even after the crisis, this can compromise the immune system. Chronically high levels of cortisol impair memory and may lead to permanent changes in the brain. Additionally, excessive cortisol has been linked with major depression, osteoporosis (it extracts calcium and other minerals from bones and interferes with the laying down of new bone), high blood pressure, and insulin resistance, which can lead to diabetes and all the related health issues that go along with it.
Yoga can lower blood sugar in several ways: by lowering cortisol and adrenaline levels, encouraging weight loss, and improving sensitivity to the effects of insulin, all of which reduce the risk of diabetic complications such as heart attack, kidney failure, and blindness.
Doing yoga improves the mind-body connection, fostering a better awareness of our own body and how it moves and feels. Yoga can teach us to accept our body as it is without judgment. Over time, we begin to feel more comfortable in our own bodies, boosting our self-confidence.
It’s well documented that weight-bearing exercise strengthens bones and helps ward off osteoporosis. Yoga is a weight-bearing activity and weight-bearing in the legs is enhanced when we are standing on one leg or holding standing poses for longer periods of time. In yoga, we weight-bear through the arms when we are on our hands and knees or in Downward Dog for example. Yoga’s ability to lower levels of cortisol may also help to keep calcium in the bones.
Studies of the final resting pose, Savasana, showed a significant drop in both systolic and diastolic blood pressure and the higher the initial blood pressure, the bigger the drop. One study showed that 3 months of yoga reduced oxidative stress, which in turn lowers blood pressure. Oxidative stress causes free radicals to build up in the body and is linked to many illnesses: cancer, cataracts, Alzheimer’s, and heart disease.
Yoga can ease your pain. According to several studies, asana, meditation, or a combination of the two, reduced pain in people with arthritis, back pain, fibromyalgia, and other chronic conditions. When you relieve your pain, your mood improves, you’re more inclined to be active, and you don’t need as much medication.