Unlike many trends and fads, the increased popularity of yoga leaves room for people of all ages. While the fit, youthful bodies leaving many a studio may intimidate a more mature newcomer, it’s never too late to venture into a yoga studio to enjoy the benefits of practice. Taking on a yoga practice will entail a bit more effort (one translation of yoga is “work”) than plastic surgery or the quick fix of medication; however, the ancient discipline does more slowing down of the aging process than most any conventional treatment.
Increasingly recommended by the medical establishment for various conditions ranging from hypertension, pain associated with arthritis and even as a helpful adjunct to a cancer treatment, yoga is truly for everybody.
Alice Rocky, a popular yoga teacher in California who has taught an Iyengar class at College of Marin for more than 30 years, is the first to admit that older students face challenges unique to their age.
“It is difficult to start later,” she says. “For one, older students are just stiffer.”
Tim Salz, a 59-year-old Mill Valley psychologist and dedicated Ashtanga practitioner who came to yoga when he was 52, agrees. “You have less energy,” Salz says. “Your body does not change shapes as readily.” That’s a significant difference. Admittedly, Salz had some aptitude for yoga that kept him practicing amid a room full of younger students. “I’ve always been more flexible than average. I’m adept because I have long limbs, but I notice it takes me longer to recover. You can’t stop. You take a month off and it is brutal going back.”
Nonetheless, the benefits of yoga outweigh any downside, and older students tend to appreciate those benefits all the more. The age range in Rocky’s class is astonishing. She has 19-year-olds practicing next to committed 80-year-olds, and a spectrum of age groups in between. And counter to conventional belief, many of her younger students are less flexible than her older students.
Rocky herself, who taught modern dance before she began practicing yoga 33 years ago, has a physique that epitomizes the benefits of yoga practice—strong, flexible and energetic, she appears much younger than her years.
“I once had a football player come watch class and he pointed to one of my older students and said, ‘Why can’t I do that,’ ” she laughs. “I said, ‘Oh, age has nothing to do with it.’ ”
What it does have to do with is regular practice as well as genetics and environmental factors, which are unique to each body. As such, the same rules apply to a more mature student as they do to any yoga newcomer. Start slowly, consult with a doctor if you’re working with an existing medical condition and communicate any special conditions or injuries to your teacher. Don’t be cowed by what other students may be able to do; advanced poses are to be worked toward, not completed the first time tried. If you haven’t been very physically active, start with a gentle yoga class or introductory series of classes geared to the beginner rather than a sweat-inducing Hot Yoga or more aerobic power-yoga class. Inquire at studios about their staff to find a well-trained and experienced teacher who continues to study with teachers of her own. A good teacher will help students tailor their practice to their particular needs. Different bodies have different aptitudes for postures and most postures can be modified without losing the benefits. Take a variety of different styles of yoga—Iyengar, Ashtanga and Viniyoga (which have all the same basic roots, even if their look and feel is different)—and find one that suits your sensibility and general fitness level.
While athletic, Salz had never taken a yoga class until he was past 50, and was struggling to manage a heart-related medical issue. Dissatisfied with how his doctors were treating it, he looked to alternatives.
“I decided to try and control my condition by cutting out caffeine, changing my diet and practicing yoga. I’d read that yogis could control their heart rate—and yoga worked for five years.”
Though it wasn’t a long-term fix for his heart, Salz is quick to point out the other benefits of his commitment. “I have less anxiety and a sense of peacefulness. I am overall much calmer. I utilize yogic breathing at other times as a stress reducer. And I maintain my flexibility. There’s a slowing down of the aging process which is a good feeling.”
By the time a person hits his mid-20s, the spine begins to naturally atrophy. Generally, height starts to decrease due to the long-term effects of gravity, habitual patterns of holding one’s physical body, compression of the discs and decreased space between the joints. The arches of the feet tend to flatten and older people tend to shuffle when they walk.
One of the advantages of practicing the yoga postures, whatever the style, is to counter such typical aging patterns. This is chiefly for its focus on keeping the spine flexible. Rather than place stress on the body like many weight-bearing exercises, yoga practice builds strength and flexibility, serving to elasticize the spine, while countering stress. Poor posture begins to improve, flabby arms are toned and the internal organs revitalized. Inversions naturally reverse the effect of gravity.
“People come in [who haven’t been practicing] with such tight upper bodies,” notes Rocky. “As people age, their hands start to cup inward and they shuffle when they walk. If one stays flexible, one’s posture is so much better. You won’t start rounding forward. With all the downward-dog poses and arm balances we [yogis] do, we keep the ligaments and muscles stretched. We work at separating the muscles and ligaments so everything can move the way it should.”
Weight-bearing postures and inversions are especially beneficial for musculoskeletal conditions such as osteoarthritis and carpal tunnel syndrome. Triangle pose helps strengthen neck muscles, backbends open the heart, and twists improve digestion and tonify the internal organs while upward dog helps counter habitual hunching.
Rocky is a fan of inverted postures, such as head- and handstands. “Inversions are the best anti-aging poses,” she says. “I like to think of inversions as natural face-lifts. They bring blood to the brain and the eyes, and benefit the heart, lungs and digestive system. With all those things, people sleep better, they’re calmer.”
Likewise, most students who commit to regular practice naturally make lifestyle changes outside of class that support their overall well-being. Many adopt a vegetarian or lower fat diet, and cut back on drinking alcohol or smoking.
Like most physical practice, results come with commitment. While an older body may take a little longer to adapt, strength, flexibility and overall range of movement will improve with consistent practice over the course of several months.
And yoga is as much a practice of mind as body and one of its side benefits is clearing away beliefs and judgments about the possible. One of the first beliefs to be banished is the judgment around the limits of physical age.
“If I have a struggling student I’ll be like, hey, come on, look at her,” says Rocky, “And I’ll point to my 80-year-old doing a perfect half-handstand.”
Salz counts starting yoga among the most important things he’s done in his life. “It’s totally changed the way it feels to be me.” Salz says. “I wish I started when I was 23. It would have been a treat to enjoy the benefits of yoga throughout my whole adult life. It’s a great thing.”