Forever Young


By Lorie A. Parch  |  

When she was 58, Karen Johnson was intimidated by the prospect of trying yoga. "I once saw a foldout sheet of people doing very exotic

poses—that’s what I thought yoga was. I knew I couldn’t do anything like that," remembers the now 65-year-old Peterborough, New Hampshire,

resident. But seeing a class of experienced older students changed her mind. "I saw them and said to myself, ‘You’re in your late 50s and you’re

watching 80-year-olds do things you can’t do!’ It was clear to me that I’d like to be like that in my 80s. If yoga would help me get there, I needed to go to

class."

So off to yoga class she went. Not surprisingly, Johnson noticed vast improvements within just one month of practicing. "I couldn’t believe how stiff I

was when I first went," she says. "After four weeks, I was amazed by how I could move and bend. I was really able to get my hamstrings stretched

out, which helps my lower back. Someone said to me that I appeared taller."

Like Johnson, more and more American seniors are taking up yoga than ever before. Yoga Journal‘s Yoga in America study found that of the 15.8 million

Americans who practice yoga, 2.9 million are 55 or older. The reasons for the surge are many. For starters, in a culture that worships youth, yoga honors the

aging process: Poses can be modified to every body type and level of ability, making classes accessible to anyone willing to step onto the mat. And the

philosophy of the practice encourages witnessing and accepting what is happening in the present moment.

Yoga is also empowering: Regular practice boosts energy, increases flexibility, decreases aches and pains, all of which leads to feeling—and even

looking—younger and more vital. Finally, a growing body of research is showing that a regular practice offers tangible health benefits. It has been

shown to lower blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol; help keep weight gain and depression at bay; and ease chronic conditions like back pain,

arthritis, and fibromyalgia. In short, doing yoga defends against some major killers—heart disease, stroke, and diabetes—and the aches that make

aging a real pain.

The best news of all: It’s never too late to start a yoga practice. Frank Iszak, 77, took up yoga—reluctantly, because he thought yoga would

"downgrade" his exercise regimen, which included karate—when he was 62. But he found the practice so helpful that five years ago he started a

nonprofit community outreach program in San Diego called Silver Age Yoga to train teachers to work with seniors. Since then, he’s noticed that yoga helps

seniors reduce the number and dosages of their medications, lowers blood pressure, and improves mobility. "Yoga works," he says. "It makes

aging a more joyful and a less painful process."

Peggy Cappy, creator of the DVD Yoga for the Rest of Us, encourages students to start yoga at any age—most of her students are over 70.

"The majority of my older students are totally brand new to yoga," says Cappy, 59. "I guarantee to everybody that they’ll feel better after

class than when they came in." That means they’ll have better balance and more strength and flexibility, as well as enjoy mental dividends. "Many

people don’t realize what a huge boost in peace of mind they get, or the increased ability to concentrate and focus," says Cappy. "That hour and a

half in class extends into other activities."

Cappy has witnessed how regular practice can greatly improve a person’s quality of life. One student who joined her class had given up a beloved nightly bath

ritual because she didn’t feel stable enough to get in and out of the bathtub. "After coming to class for two months she wasn’t concerned about slipping

anymore, because her balance was steady," Cappy says.

Taking it Slow and Easy

With so many older yoga students on the mat, it’s becoming easier to find classes tailored to seniors, as well as more teachers skilled in leading them. The

poses in a 55-and-older class will probably focus on those key skills of sure-footedness, strength, and flexibility. Angelena Craig, a Kripalu instructor in

Newburyport, Massachusetts, thinks forward bends, backbends, and spinal twists are essential, too. "You’re only as young as your spine is

flexible," she says. asanas done in a seniors’ class are frequently offered in a modified version, with extra time spent doing gentle stretches to warm

up the neck, back, shoulders, feet, and hands. There’s usually ample time alloted for Pranayama, too. "Breathing is the biggest problem as we age,"

Iszak says. "Poor posture happens over time and compresses the lung area, so breathing gets shallower. Rhythmic, mindful breathing is one of the first

things we emphasize, and students start feeling better, lighter."

Props, too, tend to figure prominently. A teacher may use a chair to raise the "floor" about 18 inches for a modified Downward-Facing Dog or

Extended Side Angle Pose, or to help maintain balance in Tree Pose. For students who are disabled or especially fragile, doing yoga on a chair is an option

when standing for a few minutes isn’t possible. Blankets, bolsters, blocks, and straps can give extra support and ease stiffer bodies into and out of a

pose. But don’t make the mistake of thinking props or modifications are a crutch, Cappy says. She often uses them as a starting point. "I start with
the modification. So if, for example, we’re doing Warrior I, we might start with the feet only 2 to 2 1/2 feet apart so it’s not too taxing. Then they work

on that over a period of months at their own pace," she says. "The idea is that if you have them do the pose with their feet 4 feet apart, that

knocks out a whole bunch of people who haven’t stretched their legs in decades."

Be Not Afraid

For many newbies, simply venturing into a yoga class is an act of courage. They often are trepidatious about injuring themselves, embarrassing themselves, or

just trying something that’s new and foreign. "The first time, they might be almost kind of tip-toeing in, fearful that this is some religious

experience, some spiritual stuff, or that they have to put themselves into a pretzel," Iszak says. "But once they get beyond that, they see that it

makes them feel better and that we lead the practice in a slow, methodical way."

Joining a class of people roughly the same age often takes away much of the fear of getting started. When they hear about a class called Gentle Yoga Over 60,

seniors know they won’t be competing with teenagers wearing skimpy outfits. Teachers want to show seniors what’s possible, and when they’re ready, they’ll do

it. And a just-for-seniors class taught by an experienced teacher can be a revelation. People enjoy instruction that is truly appropriate for their level.

"With the support of props, they can go back to doing things they may not have done in years. They’re delighted they can balance again," says Suza

Francina, 59, author of The New Yoga for Healthy Aging. "People will show me how their hands are getting straighter, their range of motion is

improving, their tennis game is getting better. I’ve had senior athletes over the years who say that yoga is their secret weapon."

All the Good it Will Do

The gains of a regular practice—which can be as little as one class per week—don’t take long to manifest. Teachers who specialize in seniors

classes say that they quickly notice differences in their older students’ flexibility, balance, and strength—perhaps even sooner than with younger

people. "Yoga brings back flexibility," Francina says. "It never ceases to amaze me. Even very old people become flexible. Mental and physical

flexibility is what we associate with being young."

These changes translate into substantial health benefits. The results of his twice-weekly Iyengar class and daily meditation and pranayama have amazed R.?A.

"Bart" Bartholomew, 75, of New Braunfels, Texas. "I’ve been on blood-pressure medication since I was 34. Both my cardiologist and GP sat me

down after taking blood tests and stress tests and said, ‘What are you doing? These are the best results we’ve ever seen for a 75-year-old man.’"

Johnson says that her practice has given her greater body awareness; so she now knows how to head off, and treat, minor aches and pains herself. "If I’m

having lower-back tightness, I do Child’s Pose or Legs-up-the-Wall Pose," she says. Since starting yoga seven years ago, she hasn’t had a single

recurrence of the back-pain bouts that once laid her up for weeks. And Nell Taylor, 83, of Ojai, California, applies what she’s learned in class to help her

in everyday life: She watches her breathing when she’s stressed, which is, she says, a kind of meditation. She’s able to take care of her yard and home and

work in an office twice a week. "When you get to my age, you get stiffer in the joints, and things like reaching for something on a high shelf are

harder," she says. "But I can do that with great ease now."

Practitioners attest that the benefits go beyond the physical. Since Georgia Westervelt, 81, of Amherst, Massachusetts, first started practicing yoga, her

routine of two classes a week has served her well, keeping her limber and strong, and speeding her recovery from a fall that left her in severe back pain.

But yoga was also crucial in helping Westervelt survive the loss of her husband and her sister. "The practice has seen me through some really stressful

times," she says. "When my husband was ill and died in 2000, I got through it by focusing on the breathing and awareness. All of those things have

helped me so much in dealing with whatever’s going on in my personal life."

The twilight years aren’t always peaceful and stress free, of course, and many seniors say that learning to let go during Savasana (Corpse Pose) or a guided meditation has been yoga’s biggest gift. "Yoga has actually trained

me how to relax," says Johnson. "I get down on the mat and in a matter of seconds I’m already deeply calm. Now I don’t even have to be on my mat to

do this—I can do it in a car, stuck in a traffic jam." Craig notices a similar serenity among her students. "Stress reduction is what people

notice most," she says. "They feel relaxed and peaceful, and they learn tools to stay calm. They begin to notice stress and where it is in their

bodies and how it’s impacting their lives."

A Changing Practice

There are certain aspects of practicing yoga that get easier with age: For one, competition tends to fade away with time, say many older students. "I

don’t look around to see what everybody else is doing or wonder [if I'm] doing it as well as someone next to me," says Westervelt. Being less

competitive actually makes it easier to practice self-acceptance and surrender. Cappy sees this in students. "They’re really happy with who they are,

and they bring a spirit of acceptance—not acceptance of their limitations, but of who they are in the world." While older students still play

their edge and hope to move beyond their limitations—they still want to learn, grow, challenge themselves, and expand—they’ve also settled into a

sweet acceptance of themselves and their lives, which allows them to enter into a contemplative practice.

Concentration and meditation may be easier to come by in later years, when life isn’t so jam-packed with the demands of job, home, relationships, and family.

"Teaching meditation to this group is so special," Craig says. "They have the time for it, and it really resonates for them." As you get

older, you want to be more present and less rushed. There’s a tendency to see the importance of slowing down and being in the moment. And there’s more

motivation because you realize it’s now or never. Francina uses her classes as an opportunity to prepare students for the ultimate transition. "The

spiritual life includes facing death," she says. "There are many natural opportunities to discuss death and dying in classes for seniors. When I

teach Savasana, I explain that in this posture we practice the art of releasing ourselves from our attachments and letting go."

Finally, the openness that yoga promotes can help transform relationships. Bartholomew says yoga has given him a greater appreciation of his children. When

his daughter-in-law confronted him, saying she believed he had Alzheimer’s, he took tests—which came back clear—to mollify her and his son.

Instead of harboring anger and resentment at her accusation, though, he told his daughter-in-law that it was a great thing, because he became more aware of

his health. "It brought my attention to that," he says.

We’ll Have Fun, Fun, Fun

Yoga teachers who work with seniors say dropouts are uncommon, and not just because their students feel better. The classes themselves are a hoot. "We

have so much fun in my older classes," Francina says. "They’re 10 times more fun than the younger classes. Part of that is because you’ve learned

to laugh at yourself. You’ve gone through the drama of life. There is more perspective."

Cappy teaches her classes in a circle to emphasize the sense of community. "Many seniors live alone—they’ve lost a partner or spouse—so the

whole coming together is an important part that is not so much a part of a traditional yoga class." Westervelt says she finds an energy and power of

being with other people on the same wavelength. "There’s a community who have shared ideas of what yoga means and a sort of peaceful, positive kind of

way of looking at your life," she says.

In the end, what makes for a meaningful, enduring yoga practice, one that will sustain you year in and year out, doesn’t change over the decades. It’s about

self-acceptance, seeing yourself as ageless and timeless. "Yoga has taken all the nasty things they attribute to aging and thrown them out the

door," Bartholomew says. "When my grandson calls me ‘Paw Paw,’ it doesn’t have a negative connotation. Yoga has given me measurable physical

wellness and has done away with that thought that I’m an ‘old’ man."

Johnson couldn’t agree more. "My yoga practice has made me forget my age. One woman said to me, ‘You’re bouncing around here like a 20-year-old,’"

she says. "It’s very clear to me that I would age differently and more unpleasantly if I wasn’t consciously aware by doing yoga."

Lorie A. Parch is a writer in Scottsdale, Arizona.

Patricia Bearden, our 70-year-old model on these pages, is a longtime yogi and med-tator who continues to take her practice seriously: She left the photo

shoot and headed straight to a weeklong silent meditation retreat.

Bearden has traveled to India five times, including the year she was a resident of an ashram, and did teacher trainings in the Sivananda tradition in the

’80s and ’90s. She says her practices have helped her maintain active outdoor interests—including, biking, tennis, swimming, and snorkeling—as

well as keep up with Malena, her energetic six-year-old granddaughter. "I used to practice poses from Yoga Journal in my living room in the

1970s," says Bearden (who is also the mother of Kaitlin Quistgaard, editor in chief of Yoga Journal). "It’s true that yoga and meditation

really are for everybody and help you stay healthy and balanced."

Sequence
Kimberly Carson and Carol Krucoff, co-directors of Duke Integrative Medicine’s Yoga Therapy Intensive "Teaching Yoga to Seniors."

Seniors are often dealing with myriad concerns—such as stiff muscles, arthritis pain, high blood pressure, and joint replacement. The way that you

practice can be as important as what you practice. It’s essential to cultivate and practice ahimsa (nonviolence) and noncompetitiveness and to give

yourself permission to rest when needed. Yoga shouldn’t hurt—so make any modifications necessary to fit the pose to your body, rather than try to fit

your body into the pose. Challenge yourself, but don’t ever strain!

As the body becomes more rigid with age, it’s important to cultivate softness and suppleness. Link your movements with your breath and minimize static

"holdings." Be sure to end your practice by relaxing for at least five minutes in Savasana

(Corpse Pose).

Props needed Sturdy chair, strap, and wall.

1. Tadasana variation (Seated Mountain Pose with Hands and Feet)

Sit on a chair. Lengthen your spine so your sitting bones drop into the seat and the crown of your head extends toward the sky. Place both feet on the floor

(if they don’t reach, use a stool or folded blanket). Imagine a light shining out from the center of your chest and try to shine the light forward. Bend your

elbows and make gentle fists. Open your hands into claws, then spread your fingers wide. Return your hands into claws, then fists. Repeat 5 times. Next, keep

the heels of your feet on the floor but lift the rest of the foot. Make "fists" with your toes, then spread them wide. Repeat 5 times.

Benefits

Enhances balance;
Boosts hip, knee, and shoulder mobility;
Helps expand chest;
Improves leg strength and flexibility.

2. Virabhadrasana I variation (Dancing Warrior I)

Stand against a wall with your heels touching it. Take a comfortable step forward with the right leg. Turn your left toes out about 20 degrees and root the

left side of your back heel against the wall. Bring hands into prayer position in front of your heart. Keeping your spine long, inhale and bend your right

knee, opening your arms out to the sides with your elbows bent, like a cactus. Make sure your right knee and toes are heading in the same direction. Exhale,

gently hug your belly to your spine, and straighten your right leg, returning your hands to prayer. Repeat 3 to 5 times, moving with your breath. Switch

sides. If you experience knee discomfort, take a shorter stance or bend your knee less. If you don’t feel stable, lightly hold on to the back of a sturdy

chair or step your legs a bit wider.

Benefits

Enhances posture;
Relieves hand and foot stiffness and arthritis.

3. Vrksasana variation (Modified Tree Pose)

Stand with your feet hip-width apart, lightly holding the back of a sturdy chair. Press the soles of your feet evenly into the floor as you extend the crown

of your head toward the ceiling. Anchor your gaze at a point on the horizon as you send "roots" down your left leg. Pick up your right heel, turn

your right knee out 45 degrees, and slide the heel of your right foot onto the top of your left foot, toes touching the floor. Take a few deep breaths here.

To challenge your balance, pick up your right toes. If you are steady here, explore sliding the sole of your foot up the inside of the left leg—as low

or high as you like (but not on the knee joint). Try taking one or both hands off the chair, bringing palms into prayer or extending your arms out to the

sides or overhead (touch your right toe back down if you like). Play with the pose and your balance, being sure to use the support of the chair as needed.

Switch sides.

Benefits

Enhances balance;
Strengthens legs;
Boosts core strength.

4. Setu Bandha Sarvangasana variation (Modified Bridge Pose)

Lie on your back with your feet flat on the floor, ankles under the knees and hip-width apart. Extend your arms along the floor at your sides. Begin with

some gentle pelvic tilts: Inhale and tilt your tailbone toward the floor, feeling space behind your lower back. Exhale and plant your navel into the ground,

pressing your lower back to the floor and feeling your tailbone move away from the ground. Repeat 5 times. Now, on an inhalation, press down with your feet

as you lift your hips up, gently tucking your tailbone between your legs and unwinding your spine off the floor, vertebra by vertebra. On an exhalation,

relax your hips back down, rolling the spine down to the floor. Continue this gentle lifting and lowering, moving with the breath, for 3 to 5 slow, easy

breaths. For more of a challenge, remain in the "up" position for several breaths before lowering the hips down.

Benefits

Stretches thighs and chest;
Strengthens back muscles;
Brightens mood.

5. Apanasana (Knee-to-Chest Pose)

Begin lying down with both knees bent and feet in line with your sitting bones. Inhale and then exhale as you bring your right knee toward your torso,

holding your leg behind the knee. If you can’t reach your leg while keeping your head and shoulders on the floor, use a long strap. Take a few easy breaths

here, inhaling as you gently let your knee float slightly away from the torso and exhaling as you gently invite your leg toward the torso. Repeat 5 to 7

times. Return your foot to the floor and repeat with the other leg. After you return your left foot to the floor, take a moment to notice what is present.

For an extra challenge, repeat while hugging both legs toward your torso.

Benefits

Improves digestion;
Relieves constipation;
Stretches the lower back and hips.