This is what they say at the beginning and end of every yoga class I’ve ever attended: “Namaste.” And here is the official definition of yoga: “Yoga is known as the union of the mind, the body and the spirit. It is a discipline utilized for attaining a goal. It is more than just a form of exercise. It’s a holistic experience that can rejuvenate body and soul. It is calming and provides a rare opportunity to be at peace. It is a practice that becomes easier and more natural to perform yielding more benefits over time.” What does that even mean?
From your very first experience with yoga, things are a little well, Ravi Shankar-esque, and if you’re old enough to remember The Beatles visit to India and the ashram of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, then you’ve got the general idea. Actually, since I was assigned to write this piece, I wanted to find out what the word “namaste” actually meant so I checked to see what Aadil Palkhivala had to say about its meaning.
Aadil is the founder and director of the Alive and Shine Center in Bellevue, WA and The College of Purna Yoga. He’s also a Naturopath, a certified Ayurvedic Health Science Practitioner, a clinical hypnotherapist, a certified Shiatsu and Swedish bodywork therapist, a lawyer and an internationally sponsored public speaker on the mind-body-energy connection.
Here’s how he defined it: “The gesture namaste represents the belief that there is a divine spark within each of us that is located in the heart chakra,” he said. “The gesture is an acknowledgment of the soul in one by the soul in another. “Nama” means bow, “as” means I and “te” means you. Therefore, namaste literally means “bow me you” or “I bow to you.”
And so we bow, OK fine, but where exactly is one’s “heart chakra?” I asked a friend of mine who’s a trauma surgeon, figuring he would know all about the parts inside a body, and he replied, “It is the place where unconditional love is centered, and you’ll find it at a yoga class.” Apparently, he’s been taking yoga classes, too.
We’re living longer today than ever, and maybe that’s the reason we’re especially interested in things that will help us maintain an active and healthy lifestyle. But, as we all know, the aging process cannot be stopped, and after 50, we’re all more susceptible to certain ailments and injuries regardless of the shape we’re in. No one likes hearing about it, but the facts are that aging brings challenges that can include the loss of flexibility, balance, strength, muscle tone and bone density, and can slow digestion and circulation. These challenges often make people less active. Less movement means more sitting and extended periods of sitting aren’t healthy for joints, muscles, stamina or balance. Sitting—as my daughter, a physiology major at University of California-Berkeley says, will kill you.
Many experienced rheumatologists agree that the three key components to a good workout for those 50+ are low impact cardio, resistance training and stretching. Yoga covers those three and has been shown to help alleviate or reduce many of the health challenges people face as they age. In fact, the many benefits of yoga, along with a well-informed instructor, have been said to be able to slow—or even slowly reverse—the aging process.
OK, so maybe it’s not going to make you feel 21 again, but from what yoga devotees say, it’s no wonder then that yoga has become an increasingly popular exercise choice for older adults. Even men 50+ today who were always considered the least likely to sign up for a yoga class, are signing up in record numbers. And, yes, my daughter has me going, too, although she does yoga in a room that’s quite a bit hotter than Palm Springs in August, and I’m a huge fan of air conditioning, but the idea is the same or at least similar. She can stand on her head for the better part of a week, I’m sure, and I’m just learning how to bend down and touch my knees.
The really nice thing is that with the popularity of yoga growing faster than Starbucks did, classes geared toward the 50+ crowd can readily be found at not only yoga-specific establishments, but also at health clubs, community centers, senior centers, assisted living residences and even churches throughout the country.
20 Health Benefits Of Yoga
To hear yoga instructors talk, there’s almost no limit to the benefits of yoga. It’s said to be able to cure just about anything that ails you by keeping the mind and body in sync as you focus on your breathing, all the while posed in various positions that you’ve never even thought about getting into before.
Breathing is a big part of yoga, and when you attend yoga classes, you’ll learn that as we age, we stop breathing as deeply as we should. Yoga teaches us that it is vital to exhale as fully as we inhale and that we should breathe in order to relax, cleanse and replenish the body. I’m told that focusing on these full breaths helps 50+ participants slow their heart rates and improve their concentration.
Whatever it does, it certainly does something positive. And after my daughter told me all about the importance of breathing to the practice of yoga, I figured that I’d do just fine. I had never thought to brag about it before, but I’m great at breathing. No, seriously—I breathe all the time. I’m a world-class breather. Or at least I thought I was until my first yoga class when I learned that breathing is a lot harder than you might think.
As ridiculous as I felt trying to get into some of the positions, yoga poses actually serve many purposes, include changing the amount of pressure on major organs, strengthening muscles and developing better balance. Regularly attending three yoga classes a week is all you need to get the maximum benefit, and the good news is that you can go at your own pace, and it does get easier over time.
Here’s a list of 20 benefits you can see from the consistent practice of yoga over time:
- Improved posture
- Toned muscles
- Increased flexibility and range of motion
- Improved balance
- Stronger bones
- Sharper mind
- Lower heart rate
- Improved circulation
- Lower blood pressure
- Improved sleep
- Weight control
- Less depression/anxiety and other stress-related symptoms
- Relief of lower back pain
- Reduced level of chronic pain
- Better control of blood sugar and diabetes
- Enhanced respiratory function
- Less arthritis pain
- An improved sense of self and body awareness
- A new sense of confidence
- A sense of belonging through social interaction
Safe Types of Yoga for Beginners 50+
There are many different styles of yoga, some more geared toward younger individuals looking to expend high energy and get a good cardiovascular workout. Those types of yoga, however, may be too strenuous for older participants, or require too much flexibility, and it’s important to remember that pushing too hard is how people get injured.
Below are the recommended styles of yoga that are safer for participants 50+ and beginners because they focus primarily on breathing, stretching and concentration. And, remember, it’s always a good idea to check with your physician, but assuming he or she approves of a new yoga routine for you, you don’t need to be afraid to try one of the yoga styles listed below.
Hatha is a slower-paced style of yoga. It provides an introduction to basic yoga poses.
Integral is a gentle style of Hatha yoga that strives to integrate mind, body and spirit, and includes chanting and meditation.
Iyengar is a style of yoga that focuses on the proper alignment of the body. Practicing Iyengar usually emphasizes staying in poses over long periods. The practice encourages the use of props such as yoga blankets, blocks and straps, making it easier to bring the body into proper alignment.
Kundalini emphasizes breath and movement. The main focus is to free energy in the lower body, allowing it to move upwards.
Viniyoga may be one style of yoga class that is harder to find, but it is worth the search as it is a practice that focuses on the unique stage of a person’s life, health and current needs.
Kripalu practice involves meditation, physical and spiritual healing. It’s an excellent style for people with limited mobility.
Restorative yoga uses props to help you to relax into poses. The idea is to stay in each pose long enough to encourage passive stretching. Seated forward bends and gentle twists are adapted to be restorative with the help of props.
Chair yoga is geared toward people who have trouble standing for long periods or are uncomfortable sitting on the floor. Chair yoga is offered in many senior settings and is a great resource for anyone with limited mobility.
Anusara yoga classes are popular because they’re generally conducted in a relaxed, non-competitive atmosphere. It’s a therapeutic practice, focusing on proper body alignment and is great for people with physical limitations.
Dahn yoga has a unique style that includes movement, occasional chanting and tapping the body to increase energy flow, invigorate brain waves, and encourage healing.
Do You Need a Class?
It is possible to learn yoga from books and videos, and many people do just that. But, I think most people will do much better by starting out taking at least a class or two if possible, and many people find yoga even more rewarding when they attend classes with a friend who is equally interested in finding out what yoga is all about. Also, going into it with someone else also increases the likelihood that you won’t just go once and then give up, something I was all but certain to do, and would have done without my wife and daughter prodding me along.
Attending classes increases the likelihood that you’ll get the most out of yoga with the least risk of injury, and if for some reason you can’t find a class geared toward people in your age group, don’t let that stop you from signing up because you can take any beginner level class in any of the above styles. And, your first time out, my advice would be to pick a spot at the very back of the class. That way, others aren’t watching you strain to do the simplest of things, and can’t stare at your tush while you’re trying to hold yourself in a position you haven’t been in since you attended kindergarten.
Oh, and remember to keep breathing and you’ll do just fine. Namaste.