One for the Ages

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Older students who have the discipline to practice on their own and/or attend a class three times a week for an hour to one and one-half hours generally make the most noticeable progress, according to Suza Francina, a certified Iyengar Yoga instructor and author of The New Yoga for People over 50 (Health Communications Inc., 1997).

"Daily practices, even for 10 to 15 minutes, are more beneficial than occasional long ones," she says.

However, it's not only how long or how often that's important, but also the quality of the practice. "If you only have a short amount of time, it's better to do a few poses carefully than to rush through several. As you learn to practice in a balanced way, so that you are not overly sore the next day, you can gradually increase the length of your practice to an hour or longer," says Francina.

Older yogis can benefit from the same vital weight-bearing poses taught in regular classes, if they approach it with a gentler, slower pace.

As far as which ones are the most beneficial, Francina suggests beginning with various standing poses, such as Trikonasana (Triangle Pose), Utthita Parsvakonasana (Extended Side Angle Pose), and Vrksasana (Tree Pose), to help develop a sense of rootedness, stability, and balance—qualities vital for older practitioners who may be feeling wobbly on their feet.

Another key pose to practice every day is Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog), which strengthens the hands, wrists, arms and shoulders, lengthens the spine, and helps prevent and decrease the roundness of the upper back so common among older people.

Francina says older yogis can and should work toward inversions, which help counteract the aging process by reversing the gravitational pull on the internal organs and improving venous return to the heart. But this doesn't necessarily mean Headstands and Handstands.

"I always advise older beginners, who are not able to safely practice the more challenging upside-down positions, to relax in Legs up the Wall Pose for at least five to 10 minutes every day," says Francina. "But make sure to place two or three folded blankets or a bolster under your buttocks for better support."

Almost every pose, though, can be modified and practiced by older beginners with the help of yoga props. "The more health-related problems an older student has, the more useful are yoga props," says Francina. "Props allow older students, who often tire more easily, to hold poses longer, so their bodies can reap the postures' healing effects." She suggests using wall ropes, bolsters, straps, blocks, and backbenders.

"I especially encourage my older students with balance problems to practice standing poses with the help of nontraditional props like a kitchen counter, table, wall, or railing."

As yogis age, it's even more important to balance active yoga poses with restful poses. Allow at least 10 minutes for relaxing in Savasana (Corpse Pose) or another restorative pose at the end of a practice.