Yoga for Seniors: A Therapeutic Practice for Healthy Aging

Yoga is one of today’s most popular mind and body exercises, with more than 20 million Americans currently practicing, according to the 2012 Yoga in America study. In recent years, yoga has been shown to help improve respiratory and cardiovascular function, relieve anxiety and depression, and ease pain and chronic stress. The benefits of yoga for seniors in particular include improved mobility, a reduced fear of falling, and enhanced quality of life.

“A lot of the time, seniors don’t have access to certain things that could help them maintain their quality of life,” says yoga teacher Molly Lehman, RYT 500. “Through yoga, they can feel empowered to take care of themselves and take their health into their own hands. Plus, this is a physical activity that requires some thought. Different parts of the brain get stimulated, which can bring them back to a happier place mentally.”

What’s more, unlike many other forms of exercise, yoga acknowledges the unity of mind, body, and spirit. It offers seniors a sense of spiritual connectedness and peace at a time in their lives when they may be faced with declining health, chronic pain, the loss of loved ones, or many other difficult transitions.

Lehman, who has taught yoga for seniors since 2003, adds, “Just because many seniors are retired doesn’t mean that they might not need meditation and breathing exercises to destress. They may even need it from a deeper place, because their stress is different — they are dealing with the reality of old age, which isn’t pleasant for a lot of people.”

As yoga classes become increasingly widespread, with many now available at senior centers, retirement communities, and skilled nursing facilities throughout the country, it’s important for healthcare professionals and gerontologists to learn about yoga for seniors and its potential to offer this population many therapeutic benefits.

Yoga’s Lineage and Philosophy

The International Journal of Yoga defines yoga as a form of mind and body fitness that combines physical activity with a mindfulness of one’s breath, energy, and the self. A 3,000-year-old practice, yoga’s seminal text is Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, in which Patanjali offers an eightfold-path toward awareness and enlightenment. Yoga’s two most practiced steps, or limbs, in the West are asanas (postures) and pranayama (control of the breath). These make up the physical poses and breathing practices of hatha yoga and meditation.

Many interpretations of the Sanskrit word “yoga” have been handed down over the centuries. The Heart of Yoga by T.K.V. Desikachar, one of the world’s most renowned yoga teachers, offers the definitions “to unite” as well as “to tie the strands of the mind together.” Another classic definition of yoga is “to be one with the divine” — a power higher and greater than ourselves.

Many people report an increased sense of mental peace and spiritual wholeness as a result of practicing yoga. In fact, a 2014 study published in the International Journal of Qualitative Studies on Health and Well-Being found that people suffering from stress-related symptoms who took up yoga experienced feelings of calmness, peacefulness, and a sense of spirituality, as well as increased self-awareness and self-esteem. Some reported seeing their circumstances differently, which “enriched and recast their perception of themselves and their lives.”

Yoga’s Effects on Emotions and Cognition

Several basic principles are at the core of the yogic philosophy of healing. A 2005 International Journal of Yoga Therapy article, highlighted by the International Journal of Yoga, cites them as follows: First, the human body is a holistic entity comprised of different dimensions, and sickness within any one of these dimensions affects the others. Second, each individual is unique; yoga practice should therefore be tailored to individual needs. Third, unlike other healing modalities (such as surgery), yoga requires the practitioner to actively participate in her own healing through disciplined practice. Lastly, a positive state of mind encourages healing more readily than a negative one.

Several poses in particular are known mood boosters that can positively impact the mental outlook of people of all ages, according to Lehman. “When we’re anxious, we round our shoulders and cave inward,” she explains. “When we open our chests in heart-opening poses such as bridge, we can get more breath, which makes us feel lighter.”

Interestingly, a 2010 study in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine reports that a 12-week yoga intervention was associated with greater improvements in mood and anxiety than a walking intervention. These improvements correlated with increases in the brain’s GABA levels, which can also be achieved through the use of medications prescribed for mood and anxiety.

Classes that offer yoga for seniors can give older adults a positive and uplifting environment as well as the opportunity to find community, notes Lehman. “The focus is on feeling good — not on sharing their complaints — so it’s a lighthearted atmosphere where they’re enjoying each other’s company and getting to know other people they never would have met before.” Considering the wealth of research that demonstrates the benefits of socialization on life expectancy, these classes are one powerful way that older adults can build social connections.

In addition to the myriad emotional benefits yoga offers, research has found that it can boost brain function and improve cognitive ability. Participants in a study conducted by researchers from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign showed more improvement in cognitive performance after practicing yoga than after aerobic sessions or at baseline. Another study by two of the same researchers found that practicing hatha yoga three times a week for eight weeks boosted the everyday cognitive ability of sedentary seniors. Compared to the control group, the senior yoga participants reported more accurate scores on tests of information recall, mental flexibility, and task-switching after a yoga class.

The Physical Health Benefits of Yoga for Seniors

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that 80 percent of seniors have one chronic medical condition, while 50 percent have at least two. The CDC also states that regular physical activity is one of the most important steps older adults can take to improve or maintain their health and cites yoga as one of the activities that helps seniors build muscle strength.

John Wilbert, MSPT, physical therapist and director at Recovery Physical Therapy in New York City, says that yoga can do more than just strengthen muscles: Many senior exercises promoted for healthy aging, such as balance training and flexibility exercises, are core components of most yoga classes.

“As we age, we may have dehydration in our joints and muscles, and yoga can rehydrate them to help us maintain flexibility,” says Wilbert. “Lack of balance is also an age-related condition, and yoga uses a lot of tandem and single-stance poses that challenge us in multi-directional ways — the way that real life does — so that we learn to use our muscles to get back to balance if we fall off center.”

“Seniors are less likely to have fractures if they have balance,” Wilbert adds. In addition, a 2009 pilot study reveals that yoga can build bone density in seniors who have osteoporosis or osteopenia — two major fall risk factors in the older adult population. Yoga practitioners showed improvement in bone mineral density over a two-year period, while the control group experienced a slight loss.

Seniors can enjoy other health benefits of yoga, too, as shown by a Hospital for Special Surgery (HSS) study. Participation in multiple eight-week yoga classes offered at senior centers over the course of about two years helped decrease pain, improve mobility, and enhance the overall health of a group of Asian older adults. The HSS offered this program to promote the self-management of arthritis and other musculoskeletal conditions through exercise. At the end of the program, 48 percent fewer participants had pain on a daily basis; 69 percent could climb several flights of stairs; and 83 percent more could bend, kneel, or stoop.

Chair Yoga: Making Yoga Accessible to All Seniors

Some seniors may not be able to stand long enough to get through a regular yoga class or be able to hold themselves in a downward dog pose, but that doesn’t mean yoga is out of the question, according to Lehman. Instead of traditional yoga, seniors with limited mobility can practice chair yoga from a seated position. “Seniors with limitations can still work their spine and gain flexibility in their hips from a chair,” says Lehman. “And if they can stand, there’s so much they can do standing behind the chair, holding onto it, such as modified warrior poses and even bending their knees and going up on their toes to strengthen their ankles.”

Chair yoga was also shown in one study to reduce seniors’ fear of falling as well as to decrease their reliance on assistive devices for mobility. In fact, three of the 16 participants (who ranged in age from 68 to 97 years old) were able to eliminate the use of their assistive devices completely.

That said, there are some medical conditions for which yoga is not recommended. For instance, it may be dangerous for seniors with unregulated high blood pressure, advanced Parkinson’s disease or Alzheimer’s disease, or spinal degeneration to practice yoga. In addition, some medications may cause side effects such as dizziness or lightheadedness, which can increase fall risk during a standing yoga practice. These seniors should check with their physicians before beginning yoga or any other exercise program. In many cases, they may be best suited to one-on-one sessions with a certified yoga teacher who can give them individual attention and support.

Promoting Yoga as a Supplement to Medical Interventions

As a healthcare professional, it’s important to remember that yoga can offer extraordinary health benefits for seniors when it supplements traditional medical care. Though you may need to urge your senior patients to participate initially, they often become receptive to the practice once introduced. Lehman says that her senior students often need to be pushed to join in, especially if they haven’t been exercising at all. But once they begin to practice, it has a tremendous impact on their lives.

Even for those seniors whose chronic conditions may be debilitating, Lehman says that yoga offers hope. “One of my senior clients had spinal stenosis, neuropathy, and arthritis in her knees, and her doctors told her she was going to be in a wheelchair in a matter of months,” Lehman recalls. “That was in 2004. It’s 2015, and she’s still walking. When it comes to our bodies, we can change our course of action and change the quality of our lives.”

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