Lucy is 93 and, when asked about the secret to her longevity and health, will open up about childhood hardships, including her family being denied the right to vote when she was growing up, and a turbulent move to the Bay Area in the last 60s. But these struggles never broke her family, she says. They didn’t wither in the face of implacable hatred and injustice, because they were able to always find new ways to rise above, new avenues of success. “When they zigged,” Lucy likes to say, “we zagged. They were rigid, but we were flexible.”
I’ve thought a lot about that philosophy while talking to Lucy about her newest hobby: yoga. She took to it instantly, and I wondered if, in addition to the health benefits, she saw in yoga a kinship to the principles that got her through life. She agreed, “Life isn’t about fighting against everything like a tree unbent in the wind. Those trees fall. Life is going to throw obstacles at you, try to break you, especially as you get older. It’s all about being flexible enough to adapt to things, to let yourself be free, and to be open to whatever might happen. Yoga let’s me remember that.”
Indeed, there is a reason why yoga has become more and more popular with older adults, especially in the Bay Area, over the last few years. It’s wonderful exercise, a great way to socialize, and teaches important principles that we need to remember as we get older. There are contortions in yoga, and in life, that we think we just can’t do. But with an open mind, and a willingness to try, there are no limits to what we can accomplish.
The Trend Towards Yoga
Yoga may seem like it’s a new trend, since it wasn’t really introduced in America until the 1960s, made popular in the 80s, and ubiquitous in the last decade. But it is, of course, ancient, with a tradition started over 5,000 years ago.
There have been many different interpretations of yoga throughout the years, from the sacred to the secular. For some people, yoga opens up their minds, and gives them spiritual peace. Others find it relaxing, while many like it vigorous. Even though every camp has its rigid adherents, there’s no wrong way to enjoy yoga. And that’s important for seniors to know—yoga isn’t an exclusive club, and you don’t have to do it the “right” way. You only need to find what works for you.
The Benefits of Yoga for Older Adults
Regardless of why you choose to practice yoga, there are some consistent benefits for older adults.
Yoga is, first and foremost, exercise. It can be very difficult at higher levels, but is also accessible to everyone in most beginner classes. For many older adults, yoga can offer some of these incredible health benefits.
- Reduce hypertension: Yoga is proven to minimize hypertension and lower blood pressure, which has the potential ancillary health benefit of reducing the amount of medication a person needs to take (making medical management easier).
Indeed, a study in the Journal of Clinical Hypertension found that regular yoga could reduce the systolic rate by 33 points. Even basic poses, such as Downward Dog or Plow Pose can have positive benefits for hypertension.
- Can prevent osteoporosis: The best exercises to prevent bone loss are weight-bearing exercises in which the body fights against gravity. This works out the bones, which are tissue, and often weaken as we age. Yoga, by its very nature, forces the body to combat gravity, accommodating positions that it isn’t used to, and strengthening bones. Along with Vitamin D, exercise like yoga is vital in the prevention of osteoporosis.
- Offers protection for joints: Whenever someone is introduced to yoga, they say something along the lines of, “I didn’t even know I could bend that way,” or “I worked out joints I didn’t know I had.” As we get older, we use less and less of our body, and this makes it weaker. Yoga fights this process and protects our joints from decay by giving them a comprehensive workout. It can even be an important way to stave off chronic geriatric pain.
- Improves balance: One thing yoga will do for nearly every practitioner is improve their balance. It gives you a better sense of your body and your surroundings, and a connection with your immediate environment. By creating this awareness, yoga helps to increase balance and self-control.
It also helps that bones and joints will grow stronger, and that practicing yoga is often accompanied by weight loss. Anything that aids in preventing falls can help ensure you are able to live a life with more independence and freedom.
Social engagement as a way to prevent isolation is one of the most important benefits of a regular yoga practice. And, as we said, yoga is increasingly popular among older adults in the Bay Area. We’ve picked out a few studios to spotlight, but it’s just to give you an idea. There are dozens, if not more, for you to choose from all over San Francisco. Find one which is right for you and go with friends or meet new people.
- Ageless Yoga, San Francisco: A program designed specifically around older adults, taking into account limitations, while working to expand them.
- Yoga for Healthy Bones, Berkeley: Offers classes specifically created to enhance bone strength.
- Chair Yoga, Oakland: This is a class designed for seniors with limited mobility, who can’t stand through an entire class, but still want the benefits of a yoga workout.
Those are just three options offering a wide range of classes, from the general to the very specific. The great thing about each of these is that you’re able to interact with new people, make friends at a similar place in life, and get on a regular exercise schedule.
Here’s what so many older adults love about yoga: it isn’t just about the physical, it’s also a mental exercise. Yoga has been shown to decrease anxiety, improve one’s outlook on life, reduce stress, improve sleep quality, and lower rates of depression. There are a lot of explanations for this, including socialization, but I think it gets back to what we were talking about with Lucy.
Yoga is about trying something new. It’s about challenging your body to contort to positions it hasn’t been used to. This can be hard when you try to do it in your 20s, much less when you’re older. Your body initially wants to reject change, but by pushing through, you’ll see that you can do amazing things.
And, in recognizing that, we see that we can be incredible in so many ways. We see that there is never a time where we have to stop being flexible, stop pushing forward, stop opening ourselves to new ideas. It’s easy to do so as we get older, partly because society assumes that of aging adults, but it doesn’t have to be that way.
Aging can be a process of exploration, whether that’s trying an ancient exercise or taking long walks in new and vibrant locations. It can be making new friends or reading that book you never gave yourself time to read. It’s about being flexible enough to accommodate for changing situations, like aging, but still being yourself within them—and working with a positive spirit through any limitations you may have. We can learn, just like our muscles and bones can, new ways to express ourselves. Yoga can give you the gift of finding yourself in a strange new position. And that is a wonderful place to be, at any age.
At Institute on Aging, we help Bay Area older adults live with independence, dignity, and a spirit of exploration. Connect with us today to learn more.