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.