Yoga 101 for Boomers and Beyond

yoga_shutterstock_emsmBy Catherine Nichols 

Considering starting a yoga practice? Are you worried your aging boomer body won’t be up for downward dog? Before starting yoga post 50, I confess I thought of it as a new age-y pastime for perky 20-somethings who twisted themselves into pretzel-like shapes when they weren’t mediating for hours on end and chanting “om.” 

I’m happy to report that when I finally stepped into my first yoga studio, this wasn’t the case. The people stretching on their mats were of assorted ages, ranging from their late 20s right up to their 60s and beyond. And they came in all shapes and sizes. Some of the younger practitioners were on the plump side; a few of the more senior members thin as a rail. Then I met our instructor. A woman around my age, she had an oh-so-familiar middle-age spread and wasn’t the least bit apologetic about it. As she led us through a series of yoga positions aimed at warming us up, I observed that her love handles didn’t hold her back. Donna could twist, balance, and shoulder stand with the best of them. 

Another yogi expert, Joanne Gordin specializes in teaching yoga to older students. An instructor at Osher Lifelong Learning Institute in Philadelphia, Gordin began taking yoga classes in her early 50s and hasn’t looked back. At 60, she started teaching yoga to students who range in age from their late 50s to early 80s. When new students confide that they aren’t flexible, Gordin tells them they’ve come to the right place. “Just about everyone in the class has some kind of physical limitation, including myself,” she says. “The most important thing is to listen carefully to your body and to avoid the feeling of pain at all times.” According to Gordin, “in yoga, ‘pain equals no gain.’” 

Like most serious practitioners, Gordin views yoga as a holistic system and not just a set of postures for fitness and exercise. Her classes start with a short talk on yoga philosophy followed by relaxation and breathing exercises (pranayama), yoga poses (asana) in which the body is stretched from head to toe, and a final relaxation (savasana). Poses are held for five complete breaths (an inhale and an exhale). Gordin’s goal is “to offer a class that is challenging but not impossible and for people to leave feeling relaxed and flexible, mentally as well as physically.” 

Since my first session, I’ve taken many classes with many instructors. I’m now a bona fide yoga junkie, squeezing in three to four classes a week and feeling out-of-sorts on the rare occasions when I miss a practice. Why do I go to yoga? As someone who struggles with anxiety, yoga allows me to relax and unwind. Also, quite simply, I feel better after a class. The creaky joints that sounded whenever I rose from a chair have mostly quieted. My arms and legs are toned and my core muscles stronger. I have more energy and my balance is improving by the day. And according to the scale, I’ve lost a few pounds too. 

Is a yoga practice right for you? The benefits of yoga are many. Here are a few of the most important ones. 

* Unlike high-intensity workouts that can strain the body and raise the risk of injury, yoga—when properly followed—is an excellent low-impact exercise. Because you use the weight of your own body in many of the poses, yoga also provides strength training. * As we age, our range of motion becomes more limited and stiffness sets in as the spine compresses. Yoga helps with flexibility by lengthening the spine and moving each joint through its full range of motion.  

* Yoga improves balance and coordination, both of which are especially important for older people. Prevent future falls by challenging your balance with simple one-legged poses such as tree pose.  

* With its emphasis on deep, regular breathing, relaxation, and focusing on the present moment, yoga is a natural, pill-free way to reduce and manage stress.

Keep in mind that these benefits are not magically conferred after a single yoga session. Work up to practicing yoga two to three times a week, though, and you will soon reap its many rewards.  

I invite you to take the first step on a journey that I hope will keep you young in body, mind, and spirit.

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