Yoga for Boomers and Beyond

How to adapt a yoga practice for aging bodies.

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It’s become more common for yoga teachers to see older students in their classes. Some come to recover from the assaults of years of intense exercise, while others hope to dodge heart disease and osteoporosis and the general rigidity and weakness that can set in with age. While there are classes devoted to older bodies, in many cases, older students are showing up to general classes.

With age, stiffness sets in as the spine compresses and we lose joint mobility and balance, as well as muscle and bone mass. By age 50, we also start paying for our sins. Too much sitting and years of bad posture commonly result in neck and back problems by midlife. Sometimes, the assaults of time can happen even in very active people, such as in the case of osteoarthritis in older runners. “Yoga is the antidote to the stiffness that settles into the body with the passage of time,” says Suza Francina, author of The New Yoga for People Over 50, a pioneer in the field of teaching yoga to seniors. Francina explains that yoga counters the effects of gravity by lengthening the spine, opening the posture (and chest) and moving each joint through its full range of movement. So it’s natural that older students may be showing up in your class. How you teach them, however, is another matter.

There are specific and suitable forms of yoga across the lifespan, according to Larry Payne, PhD, a back pain expert who created Prime of Life Yoga aimed at people in their 40s to 70s. He identifies three age groups: the young and restless (teens to 45), prime of life or midlifers (40 to 75), and older adults (75-plus). “Each group and stage of life needs something different; by age 40 or 45, yoga needs to be done a little differently,” he says. Whereas the emphasis for the younger yogi is building and challenging the body, by midlife, the focus is on maintaining optimum health including injury prevention through yoga lifestyle (e.g. mindset, biomechanics, safe user-friendly routines, advanced breathing techniques (Pranayama), proper food choices, rest and relaxation).

Here are some key things for teachers to focus on whether they’re leading an entire class of older students or trying to integrate a handful of 50-plus students into a younger class dynamic.

Understanding Age-Related Physical Changes

Having some idea of typical changes and health concerns and how that affects movement and strength can help a teacher gauge how much to challenge a student, what to modify, and essentially how to help students benefit most from yoga. “When people start yoga at age 50 and older, they usually come to class with various health issues commonly associated with the aging process, such as increasing stiffness, back and neck pain, kyphosis (rounding of the spine), problems with balance arthritis, osteoporosis, knee and hip replacements, heart health and blood pressure issue, et cetera,” explains Francina.

Know to Modify or Direct the Poses and Sequences

“In a mixed level class of students over age 50 with many physical problems, especially in ongoing group classes where it is not uncommon to have new students drop in, I recommend starting with simple lying down poses that are generally safe for everyone, yet challenging for more experienced students, such as leg stretches, hip openers and twists. Be sure students with a rounded upper back have adequate support under the head, so their head is level,” says Francina.

Slow Down the Pace

“Slow and gentle allows an aging body to go deeper into the pose,” says Francina. The challenge, adds Richard Rosen, director of the Piedmont Yoga Studio in Oakland, California, and author of Yoga for 50+, is convincing people that it’s something they need to do. Rosen says it’s particularly hard for many older men and seasoned yogis to slow down, or not try to replicate what someone younger and more adept in the class is doing. That said, the threshold for when to slow down is individual. “It depends on when you started yoga and what shape you’re in,” says Rosen. Some 70 year olds may be stronger or more flexible than an out-of-shape 35 year old.

Encourage Students to Use Props

The use of props becomes increasingly important as we age. “Making props available to older students ensures they don’t go too far, too fast,” says Rosen. “Props take a little bit of the stretch out of the stretch, and eventually students can adapt to it.” Rosen regularly hands out blocks, chairs, and straps and encourages students to use them. If you make it commonplace to use props in class, people are more open to the idea.

Keep the Focus on Function

A lot of younger students come to yoga to get the physical perks of “yoga arms” or a tight bottom. But for the older student, the focus changes. “Making space in the joints in the body is the most important thing,” explains Rosen. “More important than hardening the belly and the buttocks is keeping your movements fluid. Tightening makes them restricted and stiff. But creating space also increases strength at the same time.”

Payne recommends reminding students of the intention of the pose to help them understand that the benefit is the most important element. “For instance, the purpose of Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend) is to stretch the spine, and the hamstrings are secondary. If you soften your limbs, such as slightly bending the knees, it’s easier to stretch your spine, especially if you are tight or a beginner.” He also recommends dynamic and static movement for older students, “Moving in and out of the postures prepares the joints and muscles and links you with the breath.”

Treat Students Individually, Regardless of Age

Don’t judge a student by their age, but by their abilities and limitations at any age. “At the beginning of class, ask students if there’s anything specifically wrong that you should know about,” suggests Rosen. This includes chronic conditions such as hypertension and osteoporosis. Of course, you can’t assume everyone has a bad back or arthritic knees because of a few gray hairs, but you job is to figure out which students do need extra help.

As a teacher, you know that anyone can benefit from yoga at any age. “In 40 years of teaching I’ve learned that students of all ages, including octogenarian beginners, can benefit from the safe-practice of all categories of poses,” says Francina. The best thing is to approach them with “great kindness, patience, and props.”

Here are a few other things to keep in mind:

Get the head below the level of the heart Inverted postures are a must for aging bodies. For example, recommend that students practice Supported Leg Up the Wall Pose at least 10 minutes a day.

Practice in a way that is appropriate and healing Never force and avoid poses that bear weight directly on the neck and head. People with kyphosis and others at risk for osteoporosis (bone fractures, weakened vertebrae) should practice weight-bearing inverted poses, such as Headstand (Salamba Sirsasana) and Shoulderstand (Salamba Sarvangasana), only under the guidance of an experienced instructor and after they build strength in upper-body strengthening poses, such as Downward and Upward Facing Dog, and Plank.

Build in modifications for challenging asanas. When teaching more difficult poses, make it crystal clear that students can repeat the basic pose that usually precedes the more challenging one, and that using props is perfectly fine.

Focus on lengthening the spine. Lengthen the spine and open the chest in all categories of poses, including forward bends, twists and backbends.

Learn to move from your hip hinge (hip joint). Keep your upper body in one unit and the spine elongated. If the hamstrings are tight, it’s difficult to bend sideways or forward without rounding and shortening the spine. Using a wall or chair can help someone bend from the hip joint while keeping length in the spine.

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