Yoga for Seniors: Why Practice?

senior-woman-practicing-yoga“Yoga is the practice of tolerating the consequences of being yourself.” —Bhagavad Gita

Most Americans think of yoga as a physical exercise that young people do to gain strength, flexibility, and maybe show off cute workout pants. Some may be aware of its benefits for managing stress and even improving mood and energy. All of these are parts of yoga, but they only touch on the surface of what it has to offer—to people of all ages and abilities.

The word “yoga” can be translated in many ways. Literally meaning “to yoke,” it is most often translated as “union”—of body, mind, spirit, and with the universe. My personal favorite definition is the above quote, which comes from a great spiritual text and clearly runs much deeper than the usual understanding of yoga as exercise.

I teach regular chair yoga classes to seniors. We sit in a circle, and I invite them to listen to their bodies as we go through the practice so they don’t hurt themselves. One of the most vital concepts of yoga is to practice to your own personal edge for that day—to find that balance between comfort and effort. In other words, to listen deeply to your needs (a new concept for many!) and then to push yourself out of your comfort zone, but not so much that you harm yourself.

We settle in to our chairs, close our eyes (if people care to), and we begin to observe our bodies, minds, and breathing—without judgment. We then deepen our breath, and finally set an intention (“Samkalpa”) for the class. Historically, yoga was taught by a master to an individual, so an intention was based on that person’s particular needs. In a larger class, I do my best to set an intention that is applicable for all, such as “acceptance of change,” gratitude, or perhaps to just bringing awareness to your energy as we move through the poses.

We then work our way through the body slowly, paying deep attention to each gentle movement. Everyone is doing something slightly different according to his or her strengths and limitations. In between, we may laugh or someone will share a story (especially when someone passes gas, which seems to happen a lot). We complete the class by practicing Shavasana, or “corpse pose,” which is simply deep relaxation with no effort. I ring the chime gently, and we awaken out of relaxation and take stock again of our bodies, minds, and breath so we can evaluate how we feel differently than when we started. I chant an “ohm” and most people choose to join in.

Along the way, I sometimes walk around the circle, gently touching shoulders or necks (if I have gotten the person’s permission to do so). Do you realize how rarely the elderly are touched or touch themselves with any tenderness?

The benefits of yoga are not only physical; they are emotional, spiritual, and communal. With practice we become clearer about what we can change, what we can let go of, and what we need to accept in ourselves (see above quote!). Every time we sit together and practice, we quiet our minds and meet each other at our best. The now-clichéd expression “Namaste” means “the best in me greets the best in you.”

How many places can you go where this attitude is cultivated and practiced?

© Copyright 2013 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Lillian Rozin, LCSW, MFA, RYT, Aging and Geriatric Issues Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Mike

    August 16th, 2013 at 4:18 AM

    I have tried and tried to enjoy yoga
    I certainly know that there are dozens of benefits for me if I would practice
    But I can’t help but always get this feeling that I want to rush thrpugh it, get it over with
    I guess that I am not the patient type and slowing down enough to do the poses, hold then and get the real benefits from the entire experience is something that I am pretty sure that I will never master.

  • gregor

    August 17th, 2013 at 1:12 AM

    my teenage daughter is quite the yoga enthusiast!she keeps telling me and the wife to try it but we never gave it any thought.seems like we really should start.with the multitudes of benefits of yoga I keep hearing I think we should go for it.does self practice suffice or is a trained person needed even for someone looking to step into this casually?thanks.

  • janna y

    August 17th, 2013 at 5:41 AM

    While I tend to agree a little with Mike, I know that this could be essential for older people and those who need a release that does not necessarily need to involve impact. I think that yoga could be a wonderful thing for many older people to relax and also do something good for their bodies and their minds simultaneously!

  • Courtney

    August 19th, 2013 at 6:02 AM

    tHe facility where my grandparents live start every day with yoga for their residents and it has made a HUGE impact for especially my grandfather. He is a little uptight and always has been, I think he is just of that gemeration of men who likes to be in control you know. But this has kind of given him a new way of looking at things as well as something fun to do with my grandmother that I don’t think that he ever would have tried before they moved here. Giving up their own home was stressful for them even though they knew that this was the best move for them so I like that this facility has yoga almost as a little stress reliever for them as well as a social activity for them. Big difference maker in their lives.

  • Lillian (author)

    August 21st, 2013 at 11:24 AM

    A couple of thoughts: Mike – don’t beat yourself up! If yoga doesn’t work for you, it doesn’t work. There are other choices -perhaps Tai Chi, perhaps walking meditation, perhaps anything that allows you to develop a one-pointed focus and get out of your head. Though I love yoga and see its benefits, it is not for everyone. Find something that works for you and let go of yoga for now. Every one is different!

    Gregor: I generally suggest that if you are starting out, you try a class or something sustained on line. Ultimately the goal of yoga is to have a daily practice of your own so that it is completely tailored to your own needs. Most people choose a class because it imparts a structure and you will also learn the poses and breathing techniques. Classes are really variable – some are fast-paced or very strenuous. If you have trouble getting up and down from the floor, look for a chair yoga class, mostly found in centers where there are a lot of seniors. If you can do a mat class, look for a class called “Hatha” Yoga, or “beginners” or “gentle”. Ask lots of questions before going and see if the teacher is flexible and offers modifications to suit individuals’ needs. Most importantly, when you go, HONOR YOUR OWN BODY even if everyone is doing a pose a certain way, do what your body can handle. Too many people follow the fold, get hurt, and never try yoga again. A resource for videos, good yoga practices and articles is:
    Good luck and Namaste :)

  • Phoenix Family Counselors

    August 23rd, 2013 at 4:00 AM

    Yoga is a genius method to avoid difficulties faced by us every day. Yoga is beneficial for everyone.

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