My father is 86 years old. He has emphysema and a limited range of motion in his shoulders. Can you recommend some safe asanas for him?
—Georgianna D'Agnolo, Tucson, Arizona
The American Lung Association defines emphysema as a condition in which the lungs overinflate, causing decreased respiratory function and often breathlessness. Considering your father's age and condition, he should first get approval from his health care provider to do some gentle yogastretches and breathing exercises. Once he has that, look for a yoga teacher who has experience working with emphysema patients and can see him privately.
Under the guidance of a teacher, the following might be helpful. Have your father sit in a straight-backed chair, feet on the ground and parallel to each other. Make sure his spine is long and in a neutral position—he might need to move to the edge of the chair and then place a pillow in the small of his back.
Once he is in this position, have him drop his chin slightly and pay attention to his breath. Ask him to slow and deepen the breath, gradually making the exhalations a little longer than the inhalations. He should do this for two to three minutes at first, building up to seven or eight minutes. If at any time this makes him feel agitated or breathless, have him stop and breathe normally. He can practice this a few times a day.
To improve the range of motion in his shoulders, open his chest, and increase lung capacity, he can try this simple stretch: Have him stand facing a wall with his hands on the wall a little higher than his shoulders. On an exhalation, he should walk backward, toward the center of the room, so his torso is parallel to the floor. Have him try to hold this position for five breaths and then inhale (to reduce dizziness) as he walks forward. This stretch should be repeated twice.
My final recommendation is a supported version of Savasana (Corpse Pose). Place a bolster or large, firm couch cushion at a 45-degree angle against the couch. Have your father sit on the floor with the back of his pelvis against the cushion and lean back. (If getting down on the floor is too difficult, he can try this in bed, leaning back against a stack of pillows.)
Place a thickly rolled blanket under his knees and a smaller one under the ankles. Put pillows under his elbows to eliminate any strain on the shoulders and chest, and cover his eyes with a soft cloth. He can stay here for 15 minutes before carefully rolling to the side and getting up. Remember, all of these practices should be adapted to your father's abilities and should feel comfortable, causing no strain.
Judith Hanson Lasater, Ph.D., is a physical therapist who has taught yoga since 1971 and is one of the founders of the Iyengar Yoga Institute in San Francisco. To contact her and to learn about her most recent book, visit www.judithlasater.com.