The New Year is on the horizon. With it come those pesky resolutions, a promise to yourself to live better, eat more healthily and to quit, or at least modify, bad habits. And, of course, a resolve to get up and off that comfortable couch, which is so beckoning and cozy, especially when it’s sub-zero outside.
Who are you?
You are in your mid-sixties and haven’t been nearly as physically active as you should have been over the years. You need to exercise but don’t hold your breath, world. You already know you aren’t going to start running marathons or become a fervent gym rat.
What can you do to improve your health, as well as your flexibility, your appearance and your attitude, which does not require you to pound the pavement?
There’s this thing called yoga. Anyone can do it. No, you are not going to execute some elaborate pretzel-like pose your first time out, and may never, but that’s not the point.
You’ve heard this expression time and time again: Use it or lose it. This is where yoga comes in. You start using it, your body, your muscles, once again.
You also learn how to relax. Imagine that? And better yet: Most of the postures are done while sitting or lying down.
Oh, certainly, the body may balk at first but it will adapt and ultimately thank you for regaining your strength and flexibility. Posture and balance improve, too. The balance part is critical for seniors, who do not want to fall and break bones.
The Argument Against Taking It Easy
Yeah, we get it. You are 65, tired and retired. Your joints are creaky and your muscles are revolting. You have packed on some pounds but aren’t especially concerned about it. Your ‘modeling’ days are long over. You have spent a lifetime working hard and are rewarding yourself by taking it easy.
The problem with the laid-back, not-moving-from-the-couch attitude is it backfires on you. If you resign yourself to an inert position on the sofa, this hastens joint deterioration and lessens flexibility. When immobile for long periods of time, muscles shorten, tighten and weaken.
If you haven’t lifted anything heavier than a coffee cup in years, lack of weight-bearing activities plays a part in osteoporosis, or brittle bone disease.
Yoga is doubtless the best tool to lower health problems and boost mobility in the senior set.
Brenda, 58, says, ”In most ways yoga has the same benefits for seniors as it does when you are younger. Flexibility, relaxation and just an overall sense of well-being. It just seems even more important as we age because we seem to lose these traits. I have arthritis and fibromyalgia. Yoga keeps me loose and flexible. Since starting classes rarely do I ever need to take pain medication. It also helps tremendously with my digestion. I really think this is the one exercise that anyone can do no matter what their age.”
In yoga classes, you do poses called asana. You hold them as long as is comfortable for you. Yoga is not a competitive sport. Just because the person next to you has the flexibility of a Cirque du Soleil acrobat has nothing to do with you.
These postures result in a balance between both sides of the body. There is no excessive stress on joints, muscles, bones or body organs. If you do feel too much stress, back off. Simple as that.
Yoga focuses on mindful breathing, meaning you pay attention to your breathing, which we ordinarily don’t do. With age, people stop breathing fully. In yoga, you will be reminded, repeatedly, to inhale and exhale deeply. This is important because it off-sets the loss of flexibility in the ribcage, which happens with age, leading to cramped space and insufficient room for expanding lungs, as well as to spinal malformations.
Mindful breathing serves other purposes as well. The yogi’s attention and concentration is enhanced when breathing mindfully and the heart rate slows down.
Those, of any age, who regularly practice yoga reap the benefits. People afflicted with chronic pain find some relief. No, yoga is not a magic bullet but it does help.
It improves mood. Attending a class with your peers is a social experience and fun. Older people sometimes become isolated and don’t engage in sufficient communal interaction leading to depression.
Those suffering from lung and breathing issues find relief via yoga breathing as well as through executing postures relaxing the neck. Yoga and mindful breathing reduce anxiety, which can occur when someone is experiencing breathing difficulties.
Yoga is restorative. It is not hurried, rushed or high impact. When in a pose, the individual learns to relax, although that may not come easily at first, and how to breathe deeply so the body can be healed and repaired.
The Nervous System
Yoga postures spark the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) and as a result, heart rate and blood pressure lower, the endocrine system continues operating efficiently and the immune system is fueled.
The PNS works in sync with the sympathetic nervous system (SNS.) When stressed, the SNS is set in motion. When the SNS goes up, the PNS goes down. If you are constantly agitated, which prompts the ‘fight or flight’ mechanisms in your body, the PNS and SNA get off kilter. When stressed, the body releases a hormone called cortisol, which is helpful in the short run and helps you outrun the dinosaur that is chasing you, but damaging if it sticks around.
Because yogis have strengthened the PNS this lessens the chance the body is going to activate the SNS, which entails the release of cortisol. Doing yoga bolsters the PNS leading to balance.
Prompting the PNS is achieved through deep breathing, which kindles the ‘rest and digest’ tools of the body. When the PNS is activated, blood flow is conveyed to the reproductive and digestive organs as well as to the lymphatic and endocrine systems, which are vital organs, allowing you to survive. When the body is in sync, people sleep better and digest food easier as well as effectually remove toxins (bowl movements) due to better-quality blood circulation.
Yogis learn to pay attention to their bodies and how they feel. They also become cognizant of stressors and use breathing techniques to avoid becoming agitated when faced with a stressful situation.