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Ask people what motivates their yoga practice, and you’ll receive an array of responses. “Stress relief” and “spiritual growth” are ones you’ll hear often. Other common refrains will include “improved flexibility” or “relief from low back pain.” What you probably won’t hear? “Prevent osteoporosis” or “strong bones.”
Yet research shows that practicing yoga can be surprisingly protective in preventing fractures and osteoporosis, a condition that will cause approximately 50 percent of women age 50 or older to experience related complications. Men can be afflicted by osteoporosis as well, although 80 percent of sufferers are female. This is likely due to women’s smaller, thinner skeletal structure and the sharp decline in production of estrogen—a female hormone that protects against bone loss—that accompanies menopause.
The reality is that by the time you hit the age when your skeleton becomes more brittle, it’s much more challenging (though not impossible) to build protective bone mass. Which means the best time to focus on increasing your bone mass reservoir is always now, says Loren Fishman, MD, a Columbia University physiatrist specializing in rehabilitative medicine who studied under B.K.S. Iyengar.
How yoga helps create strong bones
As someone who practices yoga, you’re already protecting your frame in a few major ways.
1. Yoga causes the creation of new bone
For starters, each time you practice a pose, you potentially build new bone. “When you hold a pose like Supta Padangusthasana (Reclining Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose) or a twist, you’re opposing one group of muscles against another, like the quadriceps against the hamstrings or the gluteal muscles against the shoulder muscles, respectively,” says Fishman. That opposition creates a force that physically stimulates osteoblasts, bone-making cells that initially live on the outside of the bone and turn into osteocytes, which are cells that become embedded within your bone. “You’re actually laying down new bone,” explains Fishman.
2. Yoga may help reverse or stall bone loss
Yoga may also help reverse or stall the bone-weakening effects that come with age—which is relatively new thinking in the medical world. Doctors used to believe that women’s ability to accrue new bone basically ended once they entered menopause, which is when levels of bone-protective estrogen and progesterone plummet. “The new research shows that yoga can outweigh the hormonal effects of age,” says Fishman.
His 2015 study, published in Topics in Geriatric Rehabilitation, found that 80 percent of older participants, most of whom had osteoporosis or its precursor, osteopenia, who practiced 12 yoga poses (often modified) a day showed improved bone density in their spine and femurs. These findings also apply to younger women with healthy skeletons. “There is strong evidence that young osteoblasts do respond pretty vigorously to the forces generated by muscles, which is likely to put off osteopenia and osteoporosis until later in life—if it were to appear at all,” says Fishman.
3. Yoga helps with balance
There’s also the vital role yoga plays in preventing fractures by building stability and agility. “Yoga improves your physical balance and flexibility, which means you’re less likely to fall and break something—and if you do start to fall, your agility may help you catch yourself,” says Lori Rubenstein Fazzio, DPT, C-IAYT, clinical director of the Yoga Therapy Rx Practicum at Loyola Marymount University (LMU) and part-time faculty in LMU’s Master of Arts in Yoga Studies.
Equally important, yoga also enhances your mental balance. “It makes you more present and focused,” says Rubenstein Fazzio. Alert people are less likely to slip on an ice patch or trip on a staircase.
4. Yoga helps with anxiety (yes, this affects bone strength)
More surprisingly, yoga’s calming qualities help lower levels of cortisol. When the stress hormone is chronically elevated in your system, it breaks down bone, explains Lani Simpson, DC, a certified clinical (bone) densitometrist and host of the PBS show Stronger Bones, Longer Life. In this way, even passive poses, including Savasana (Corpse Pose) and Sukhasana (Easy Seat) as well as other restorative yoga poses, can play a role in preventing bone loss and helping counteract osteoporosis.
Whatever approach you take to your physical yoga practice, slow and steady win the race for strength. “Strength builds as you hold each pose, which you should do for as long as you comfortably can,” says Rubenstein Fazzio. Aim to hold each pose between 12 and 72 seconds, when possible, because that’s the range needed to stimulate osteocytes, says Fishman.
But don’t remain in the pose so long that you risk your form as good alignment is critical. In Vrksasana (Tree Pose), for instance, make sure your pelvis is level and your standing leg’s knee is facing forward. “If your hip is jutting out or your standing knee is collapsing inward, you’re probably just hanging on your ligaments and joints and not using your muscles,” Rubenstein Fazzio notes.
And if your muscles aren’t pulling on that hip bone, no meaningful bone-strengthening will occur. “You want to feel your muscles tensing; that’s how you know you’re engaging—and building—them. And when you build muscle, you build bone.”
12-minute yoga practice to strengthen bone health
The following yoga poses to improve bone health and prevent the effects of osteoporosis come from Loren Fishman’s bone-health research with instructions from Terry Roth Schaff, C-IAYT, who collaborated with Fishman on the study. The sequence can be incorporated into your regular home practice or practiced on its own. Breathe slowly while you stay in each pose for about 30 seconds per side.
Stand in Tadasana (Mountain Pose). Bend your right knee and rotate your right thigh outward without turning your pelvis. Lift your right foot and place it above your ankle or knee of your left leg (but not against your knee). Bring your palms in front of your chest. Keep your gaze steady and straight ahead. Switch sides.
From standing at the front of the mat, turn to face the long side of the mat with your left foot forward. Rotate your right leg so your foot and knee turn out about 90 degrees or slightly less. Lengthen your torso over your left leg. Place your left hand on your shin, the floor, or a block. Stretch your right arm up.
From Extended Triangle, lift your torso and bend your front knee over your left heel. Reach your arms actively out to your sides at shoulder height.
From Warrior II, lengthen your torso and lower your left forearm onto your left thigh. Reach your right arm up and over your right ear. Stretch from your right outer heel through your fingertips.
Repeat the last three poses on your other side.
Lie face-down on your mat with your arms alongside your torso. Lift your chest forward and up as you raise your legs and stretch them out behind you. Lift your upper body and legs without straining, streaming your arms along your torso, palms facing down.
Lie on your back with your knees bent and your heels in line with your knees. Press into your feet as you lift your hips and torso. With your arms extended, interlace your fingers and come onto your outer shoulders.
Lie on your back. Hook a strap around the ball of your left foot. Hold an end of the strap in each hand. Straighten your left leg, drawing it up toward the ceiling without lifting your left sitting bone. Stay here for several breaths. Switch sides.
Supta Padangusthasana 2 (Reclining Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose 2)
Come back to Supta Padangusthasana I, hold both ends of the strap in your right hand. Keep the left side of your body grounded as you extend your right leg out to the right side and lower it toward the floor. Switch sides.
Lie on your back with your legs hip-distance apart or wider. Press your shoulder blades into the floor. Rest your hands on your lower belly. Stretch each leg out in front and let each foot fall open. Release each arm at your side, palms turned up.
Additional yoga poses for osteoporosis
Twists such as Parivrtta Trikonasana (Revolved Triangle Pose), Marichyasana III, and others help stimulate bone growth by gently tugging on your spine and hip bones. But if you have osteoporosis or are new to yoga, start by practicing seated twists in a chair to avoid overdoing it, advises Schaff.
A simple stretch you can try is to sit in a chair with your heels under your knees. Maintain length in your torso as you gently twist to the right, starting from your low back and moving up your spine. Keep both sides of your chest open and twist only to the point where you can maintain length in your spine (don’t round your back). Repeat on other side. Then, practice the same twist with your legs crossed.
Our three-part series reveals which yoga poses may be particularly beneficial, regardless of your age. Read on for the latest research-backed ways to strengthen your bones.