Age Better With Yoga: Part I

Baxter Bell examines growing evidence that a regular yoga practice is key to feeling your best as years pass.

older man mature yogi arm balance astavakrasana eight angle pose

Over the past two years, I’ve been investigating how yoga can be used as a tool in healthy aging. Via my own practice; in following the latest research; through discussions with fellow yoga teachers; and in the classes, workshops, and retreats I lead, I’ve been formulating a yogic approach to this idea. It involves cultivating four essential skills by virtue of a regular yoga practice, and addressing the detrimental effects of an unregulated stress response via the stress-reducing practices of yoga. I’d like to introduce two of those skills to you today.

The first two skills are improved strength and flexibility. More to the point: We want to have a strong body, mind, and spirit while simultaneously possessing physical, mental, and emotional flexibility. The harmony between these two goals allows for us to be stable and strong when necessary, yet to also be pliable, like a healthy tree, so we can also weather unexpected physical and real life challenges that are always blowing through our lives.

These skills are essential as we age, because the aging process itself, if unaddressed, leads to a loss of physical strength and flexibility, and could reflect and influence those qualities in our cognitive and emotional systems as well. When we look at muscle strength specifically, the aging body starts to lose muscle mass noticeably around the age of 50, but in some circumstances as early as in our 30’s. The process is known as “sarcopenia,” or the degenerative loss of skeletal muscle mass, and is an expected part of the aging process.

A 2011 study done at the University of Michigan found that progressive resistance exercise is effective in combatting the normal loss of muscle mass and function that happens as we age. Typically this sort of exercise is done using weights or machines. However, both slow vinyasa practices, which take a muscle and joint through a full range of motion, and static, held poses in yoga use your own body weight as resistance to build muscle. Doing repetitions of movements, such as coming in and out of Triangle Pose on the inhale and exhale for six rounds, will address the first kind of muscle building. To create the “progressive” part, you need to gradually increase your repetitions. Then, holding Triangle for 20 seconds or more requires isometric contraction that builds muscle. You can apply this principle to just about every yoga pose you do.

In addition, building mental and emotional strength can be linked to practices like meditation that actually increase the size and function of your brain. In Boost Your Willpower!, a program she designed for YJ, Stanford University psychologist and yoga teacher Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D. shows how simple, relatively short daily meditation practices increase the size of the brain’s prefrontal cortex, which increases self-reflection and self-control. So, make sure that meditation is part of your regular yoga practice!

Even non-yogis are aware of the impact of yoga on flexibility, although they are sometimes confused and believe that you have to start out flexible to do yoga. You and I know that no matter where we start in yoga, we usually begin to notice improved flexibility as we practice. This is especially important as we age, due to the changes that happen in our bodies that cause stiffness and tightness in our muscles, joints, and connective tissue, in particular, a cumulative loss of moisture.

However, if we initiate and maintain a regular yoga practice, the mere act of moving our joints through a full range of motion promotes better transfer of water and nutrients into cartilage, spinal discs, and joint spaces, keeping them healthier and allowing for improved flexibility.

With the physical changes of aging often come mental and emotional changes: many of us become more and more rigid in our thinking and our feelings about things. Although research is lacking on this front, my observations are that people who begin to practice yoga more regularly experience greater flexibility both in body and mind, with beneficial effects for their work and relationships.

The good news is that all kinds of yoga asana styles will begin to address your desire for greater strength and flexibility, so start anywhere that feels right for you.