Growing older comes with many physical challenges. Muscles weaken, joints grow stiff and achy and seniors begin to feel shaky on their feet. Exercise is commonly recommended to help seniors stave off the physical changes of age, but many older adults are intimidated by popular forms of exercise like running or weight lifting.
Yoga is an approachable form of exercise for older adults with far-reaching benefits. In addition to increased physical activity, The Chopra Center reports the following benefits of yoga for seniors:
- Improved balance and stability. Seniors who are stable on their feet are less likely to suffer a fall, a leading cause of death and disability in older adults.
- Improved flexibility and joint health. Yoga alleviates symptoms of arthritis and helps aging adults remain flexible. Flexibility is an important part of functional fitness for older adults.
- Improved respiratory health. A healthy respiratory system keeps the body properly oxygenated and is critical for healthy aging.
- Reduced blood pressure. High blood pressure is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease, a major health threat for older adults.
- Reduced anxiety. As a form of exercise and meditation, yoga is highly effective at relaxing the mind and reducing stress.
Before You Start
Yoga is doable for most seniors, especially as the exercises are easily adapted to different ability levels. However, as with all exercise, seniors should get clearance from their doctor before practicing yoga. A doctor can also help seniors establish a safe starting point for their yoga practice.
Seniors and their caregivers should also create a dedicated space in the home for yoga. Because yoga is a form of meditation, it’s important to have a peaceful space free of distractions. A room with a window that looks out onto a natural setting is ideal. However, any quiet, soothing space is appropriate. It doesn’t need to be a large space, but it should be neat, simply decorated and stocked with a comfortable yoga mat, a device for playing instructional videos and any necessary adaptive equipment.
Types of Yoga Practice
Yoga comes in a variety of styles. Some styles of yoga are more meditative while others are fast-paced and physical. There are also types of yoga designed specifically for people with physical limitations. These are the best types of yoga for new senior practitioners:
While not a type of yoga, meditation is integral to the practice. The breath control and mind-body connection emphasized by yoga are meditative practices designed to calm the mind and promote mindfulness. When seniors meditate regularly, older adults and their caregivers will notice they become cognitively sharper, less stressed and more capable of coping with the emotional challenges of aging. Seniors can benefit from practicing meditation alone and in conjunction with yoga.
Yoga can be adapted to suit a wide variety of ability levels. While several adaptations fall under the umbrella of adaptive yoga, chair yoga is the most well-known practice.
Chair yoga is suited to seniors who use wheelchairs, are recovering from injury, or are unsteady on their feet. Some practitioners may graduate from chair yoga into more traditional practices, while others only practice chair yoga. Either option will benefit the senior’s health. Do You Yoga recommends eight poses to get started with chair yoga. Center for Holistic Living member and veteran yoga instructor Lynne Thurston offers her Mindful Meditation Yoga DVD on this website. Click here for more information or to purchase.
Water yoga is another adaptive practice that’s growing in popularity with seniors. While yoga is naturally low-impact, practicing in water offers added comfort for arthritic joints.
Many yoga centers offer gentle yoga classes. Gentle yoga is designed for beginners and individuals who need a slower-paced, less athletic yoga practice. Gentle yoga is also an excellent introduction to different yoga poses. Because gentle yoga instructors are accustomed to working with beginners, they’ll be prepared to guide the senior’s body into proper form, thereby reducing the risk of injury. After learning poses under the guidance of an experienced instructor, seniors can try practicing gentle yoga at home.
Iyengar yoga is a slow type of yoga that emphasizes proper form and body alignment. It’s excellent for learning poses and improving body awareness in seniors. Body awareness, in turn, helps prevent falls and correct movement patterns that cause physical imbalance and pain. Iyengar yoga also makes use of props like blocks, incline boards and straps. These props allow students with limited range of motion to achieve poses they wouldn’t otherwise be able to and ultimately extend their range of motion.
Slow Flow Vinyasa
Unlike Iyengar yoga, which focuses on discrete poses, Vinyasa yoga emphasizes flow. Flow is when several yoga poses are strung together with fluid motions. Many yoga centers offer Vinyasa yoga at different paces. Seniors who are new to the practice should start with a slow flow Vinyasa until they’re comfortable with the flow and breath control.
While seniors shouldn’t feel limited to these four styles, adaptive yoga, gentle yoga, Iyengar yoga, and slow flow Vinyasa yoga offer the most approachable starting points for new yoga practitioners and people with physical limitations. As they grow in strength, flexibility and balance, some seniors may wish to graduate to more challenging yoga styles while others continue with a gentle practice. Because yoga emphasizes mind-body connection over physical accomplishment, either choice is beneficial to a senior’s physical and mental well-being.
Harry Cline is the creator of NewCaregiver.org and author of the upcoming book, The A-Z Home Care Handbook: Health Management How-Tos for Senior Caregivers. As a retired nursing home administrator, father of three and caregiver to his 90-year-old uncle, Harry knows how challenging and rewarding caregiving can be. He also understands that caregiving is often overwhelming for those just starting out. He created his website and is writing his new book to offer new caregivers everywhere help and support.