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Ask several yogis what motivates their practice, and you’re sure to get a range of responses. Usually you’ll hear “stress relief.” Another common refrain is “spiritual growth.” Others come for “improved flexibility” or “relief from low back pain.”
What you probably won’t hear is mention of “strong bones.” Yet research shows that practicing yoga can be surprisingly protective when it comes to staving off fractures and helping to prevent osteoporosis, a condition that will cause approximately half of women age 50 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’re potentially building 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 and their levels of bone-protective estrogen and progesterone plummeted. “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 enhances your mental balance, too. “It makes you more present and focused,” Rubenstein Fazzio says, and alert people are less likely to slip on an ice patch or trip on a staircase.
4. Yoga calms you down (yes, this affects bone strength)
More surprisingly, yoga’s calming qualities help lower levels of cortisol, a stress hormone that breaks down bone when it’s chronically elevated, says Lani Simpson, DC, a certified clinical (bone) densitometrist and host of the PBS show Stronger Bones, Longer Life. In this way, even passive poses like Savasana (Corpse Pose) and Sukhasana (Easy Seat) can play a role in preventing bone loss.
Whatever your physical 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.”
See also Stand Strong: Yoga for Bone Health
12-Minute Yoga Sequence to Boost Bone Health
Practice poses from Loren Fishman’s bone-health research using the instructions at right from Terry Roth Schaff, C-IAYT, who collaborated with Fishman on the study. The sequence takes at least 12 minutes to complete and can be incorporated into your regular home practice or practiced on its own. Breathe slowly as you hold each pose for about 30 seconds per side.
Vrksasana, Tree Pose
Stand in Tadasana. Bend your right knee and rotate your right thigh outward without turning your pelvis. Lift your right foot and place it above the ankle or knee of your left leg (but not against the knee itself). Bring palms in front of your chest.
Utthita Trikonasana, Extended Triangle Pose
From a wide stance, rotate your left leg so your foot and knee turn out 90 degrees. Lengthen your torso over your left leg. Place your left hand on your left shin, the floor, or a block. Stretch your right arm up.
Virabhadrasana II, Warrior Pose II
From a wide stance, rotate your left leg so that your foot and knee turn out 90 degrees. Bend your left knee over your left heel. Reach your arms actively out to your sides at shoulder height.
Utthita Parsvakonasana, Extended Side Angle Pose
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.
Salabhasana, Locust Pose
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.
Setu Bandha Sarvangasana, Bridge Pose
Lie on your back with knees bent, 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.
See also 16 Poses to Ease Back Pain
Supta Padangusthasana I, Reclining Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose I
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.
Supta Padangusthasana II, Reclining Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose II
From 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.
See also A Yoga Sequence for Deep Hip Opening
Savasana, Corpse Pose
Lie on your back with legs hip-distance apart, heels under your knees. 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. Open each arm, palms turned up.
See also Your Brain on Yoga Nidra
Bonus Poses for Bone Health
Twists like Parivrtta Trikonasana (Revolved Triangle Pose), Marichyasana III, and —the three remaining poses from Fishman’s study—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. Sit in a chair with your heels under your knees and 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.