— Lois, Oakland, New Jersey
Jaki Nett's reply:
Osteoporosis occurs when there is a loss of calcium and mineral in the bones that weakens them, causing them to break more easily. Losing bone density is a natural part of the aging process. Peak bone density occurs during the twenties; in our thirties bone density starts to decline. The most common place of a fracture is a vertebrae in the spine, the second area is the hips, and thirdly, in the wrist.
Diet, weight-bearing exercise, and movement are prescribed for osteoporosis. Exercise cannot replace bone that’s already been lost, but it can help maintain strength in the bones. Simple movement can bring softness and agility to the joints. Agility helps us to maintain balance to prevent falling as we age.
Seated postures do wonders for the hip joints because they require a wide range of movements, which increase mobility. Try Virasana (Hero Pose), Siddhasana (Adept's Pose), Baddha Konasana (Bound Angle Pose), Janu Sirsasana (Head-to-Knee Forward Bend), Marichyasana III (Pose Dedicated to the Sage Marichi, III), Upavistha Konasana (Wide Angle Pose), and simple squatting.
To maintain the health of the spine, practice poses that demand the back muscles to contract and lift against the pull of gravity. Backbends do this, but start with the simpler, "baby" backbends. If the spine has developed kyphosis, that is, an excessive convex curvature of the upper spine (also known as a Dowager's Hump), deeper backbends like Ustrasana (Camel Pose), Dhanurasana (Bow Pose), and Urdhva Dhanurasana (Upward-Facing Bow Pose) can be painful and even cause injury. Practice Salabhasana (Locust Pose) and Bhujangasana (Cobra Pose) without the use of the arms (this requires more strength in the back) and Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (Supported Bridge Pose) with the knees bent and feet flat on the floor.
Standing poses are extremely beneficial because they are weight bearing on the large bones of the legs and hips and they promote flexibility. Let’s take a look at Prasarita Padottanasana (Wide-Legged Standing Forward Bend). This pose is weight bearing on the legs and feet, arms, wrists, and hands. It also encourages mobility in the hips and a concavity to the spine, rather than the convex, hump shape.
From Tadasana (Mountain Pose), step the legs and feet wide apart. Separate the heels wider than the toes and place the hands on the hips. Spread the soles of the feet and straighten the legs by lifting the kneecaps. Balance the pelvis on the hip joints. Inhale and concentrate on lifting the upper back as you arch the spine into extension. As you exhale keep the spine extended and fold forward, moving from the hip joint. Stop when the pelvis and the spine are at a right angle to the floor.
Release the arms and place the hands flat on the floor or on blocks. Place the hands directly under the shoulders so that the arms are perpendicular to the floor. Balance the weight evenly between the feet and legs, and the arms and hands, like a table on sturdy legs. Keeping this stability, take the spine deep into the body and look up. As you do, notice how evenly the muscles of the back body can contract. Notice the hard-to-move places and easy-to-move places. Hold and observe. Return to Tadasana on an inhalation.
Use caution when moving in and out of poses. When we’re young our bones are stronger and can withstand sudden movements and even strong pounding (like jumping in and out of poses in Ashtanga practice). But with osteoporosis, this can cause fractures or, at the very least, increase pain.
As we grow older and our bodies change, so should our relationship to our yoga practice change. Let that relationship allow you to approach your yoga with knowledge, gentleness, and acceptance.
Jaki Nett is a certified Iyengar Yoga instructor in St. Helena, California, and a faculty member of the Iyengar Yoga Institute of San Francisco. She teaches public classes in the San Francisco Bay Area and leads workshops in the United States and Europe, including specialty workshops on female issues.