You’re never too old to reap the rewards of yoga. For seniors who are looking for a safe, effective way to enhance their physical health and overall wellness, the stretching, breathing, and meditation practices of yoga can be a great solution. In fact, as you will see, doing yoga regularly can result in a host of benefits for older adults, from greater flexibility and improved balance to lower stress and better sleep.
It’s no wonder, then, that yoga is becoming increasingly popular among seniors. One study found that nearly 16 million Americans over the age of 55 practiced yoga in 2017. That was a significant jump from the four million who did so in 2010.
This article outlines the many benefits of senior yoga and describes several of the best types of yoga for older men and women (including the increasingly popular discipline of chair yoga). It also offers information about basic poses and explains what you should do before you begin any yoga routine.
The Benefits of Yoga for Older Adults
Yoga cultivates a mind-body connection, combining stretching and strengthening postures with deep breathing and relaxation. Despite its roots in Eastern philosophy, yoga as practiced in the West is generally focused on physical fitness. It still has a spiritual aspect, but it is not overtly religious. People of all faiths and belief systems can benefit from participating in yoga.
Because the poses (called asanas) can easily be modified or adapted to suit an individual’s needs, yoga is safe for seniors of all fitness or ability levels. In fact, it can be an excellent way to keep your body strong and healthy without the joint stress that comes from other activities like weightlifting or jogging. And it’s never too late to begin: You can start yoga at any age. (Just be sure to clear it with your doctor before you get going.)
- Stronger bones — If you’re worried about brittle bones and osteoporosis, try yoga. For older women and men, a consistent yoga routine that includes weight-bearing postures can help bolster bone strength. Some promising research has suggested that doing yoga can actually improve bone density in postmenopausal women.
- Improved flexibility — Yoga movements can be fantastic stretching exercises for seniors. Holding a pose for several breaths encourages your muscles and connective tissues to relax and loosen, which helps to increase your range of motion. In fact, research has shown that regularly engaging in yoga can dramatically boost the overall flexibility of older adults.
- Better sleep — Yoga can help alleviate sleep disturbances, which are common complaints among seniors. In one study, adults over age 60 who struggled with insomnia participated in yoga classes twice a week and underwent daily sessions at home. After three months, the group reported significant improvements in both the duration and overall quality of their sleep.
- Enhanced breathing — The breathing control practices of yoga (known as pranayama) can expand your lung capacity and improve your pulmonary health. One study found that elderly women who practiced yoga three times a week for 12 weeks saw a significant improvement in their respiratory function.
- Reduced anxiety and stress — Through meditation and mindful breathing, yoga encourages you to focus on the present and find a sense of peace. That can lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol and help ease symptoms of anxiety and depression. In one survey, more than 82 percent of people who engaged in yoga said they experienced reduced stress as a result.
- Better balance — Many yoga poses for seniors focus on strengthening the abdominal muscles and improving your core stability. That can help you become steadier on your feet and reduce your risk of falls.
The Best Types of Yoga for Senior Citizens
Whether you’re aiming to get stronger and more flexible or you just want to decompress and still your mind, yoga can help. But with the dozens of different styles that exist, it can be tough to figure out which type is most appropriate for you. Remember that a key consideration is your physical condition and fitness level. Always consult your healthcare provider before beginning any new exercise regimen.
Restorative yoga is a slow, meditative form of yoga that is designed to release tension passively, without stretching. Props are used to totally support the body, and poses are held for a long time, sometimes up to 10 minutes. Restorative is the best type of yoga for seniors who want to cultivate relaxation and contentment. It’s not uncommon for people to fall asleep in class.
This is a general term for yoga styles that involve matching breathing with a series of continuous movements that flow from one to another. Pacing can vary, but routines are often very fluid and quick. Vinyasa emphasizes the transitions between postures as much as the poses themselves. Some people liken it to dancing. Vinyasa yoga is hard in the sense that it tends to be physically vigorous, but seniors who are reasonably fit may enjoy the challenge.
Iyengar yoga is methodical and precise, with a strong emphasis on proper form. Practitioners are encouraged to use props like bolsters, straps, blocks, and incline boards to help them get into the correct alignment. Because the props allow for all kinds of modifications, this is a good style of yoga for seniors with arthritis or other chronic conditions.
Not really a specific style, hatha is a generic term which encompasses all forms of yoga that concentrate on physical postures. But in most cases, classes advertised as hatha yoga feature a slow-paced series of sitting and standing poses. They are typically about stretching and breathing, not boosting your heart rate or getting your leg up behind your head. That’s why many people believe that hatha is the best type of yoga for beginners.
How to Prepare for Yoga
Yoga offers some of the best strength and flexibility exercises for seniors. But as with any physical regimen, it’s important to make sure you’re prepared.
While people of any age can get started in yoga, some movements are not advisable for folks with certain medical issues. For instance, people with glaucoma should avoid inverted or head-down positions because such poses can increase pressure on the eyes. That’s why it’s crucial to talk to your doctor (and your instructor) before you try even a simple yoga routine.
You need comfortable, stretchy clothing for yoga. Fitted clothes work best, especially for tops, since you will be bending into different positions and you don’t want your shirt falling into your eyes. Leggings or jogging pants along with a fitted T-shirt or tank top are good choices. You won’t generally need special footwear because yoga is typically performed barefoot. However, non-slip socks or even sneakers can be worn if you’re concerned about losing your footing.
You will also need a yoga mat. Some studios provide these at no charge, but others expect you to bring your own (and many people prefer to have their own for hygienic reasons). Look for one that is long enough to support your whole body when you lie down and sticky enough that you won’t slip when you try to hold a pose. You may also want to consider the material: Cheaper mats tend to be made of PVC, but if eco-friendliness is important to you, focus on mats made of rubber, cotton, or jute.
It’s important to find a trained instructor who understands the unique challenges faced by the 55-plus crowd. Yoga Alliance maintains a voluntary registry of yoga teachers throughout the U.S. who meet certain standards. Also, Yoga for Seniors offers a directory of instructors who have undergone special training to enable them to adapt yoga programs specifically for older adults.
You can become more flexible for yoga by easing into it. For instance, if your goal is to be able to bend over and touch your toes, start by putting your hands on your thighs. Take a few deep breaths, then reach down to your knees. Pause again and take some more deep breaths before reaching down to the middle of your shin, and so on. The point is to avoid overstretching.
Be sure to get enough rest after each pose, and never rush into new postures. It’s best not to add any new movements until your body has fully adjusted to your routine. Always remember that yoga is not about keeping up with the people around you. Just focus on going at your own pace.