I don’t know about you, but I have absolutely zero desire to be one of those little old ladies leaning on a walking stick. Z-e-r-o. Let alone a Zimmer frame. Even when I’m 103.
And as far as I am concerned, one of the key ways to prevent a frail body is, quite simply, regular yoga – or asana, as the different positions are called. Don’t be put off by the words you’ll hear; they’re Sanskrit, the classical language of India, and asana simply means posture or pose.
It is rather gratifying that studies around the world are, increasingly, confirming that yoga asana can help fight all manner of challenges that ageing bodies (not to mention minds) face. Loss of bone density. Stiffness (of the brain, too). Hardening of the arteries. Hormonal fluctuations. Mild depression.
The list is pretty endless, but those are some of the key reasons why yoga is so darned fah-bu-lous for older bodies. (Sure, it’s great when you’re 20 and want a flat, show-offable stomach. But multiply 20 by two, or three, or more, and the benefits are exponentially greater.)
Then there are all the mental, emotional and spiritual benefits (I’ll write more on that next week.) Yoga is actually a spiritual practice – but don’t let that put you off. The physical postures are just one part of it, and even if that’s the only part you’re interested in, can transform how you move and how you feel about yourself.
Finding a class
Many people, though, really don’t know where to start. For me, the best recommendation is word of mouth, from a friend who enjoys yoga. Next-best-thing is the noticeboards in natural food stores, which usually have ads for local classes. I recommend calling to chat to the teacher beforehand, to explain your level of physical ability and fitness, and check out how suitable the class (and the teacher) is for you.
On which note: how do you know what type of yoga to do? There are a myriad of types, but I recommend Hatha, Iyengar, Sivananda or Scaravelli yoga for mid-lifers who have never done it before. There are subtle differences between them, but they’re all relatively gentle and suited to older bodies, in contrast to Power Yoga or Ashtanga, which are fast-paced, and where (in my opinion) injuries are most likely to happen, especially among beginners who may be straining to keep up.
As for Bikram – the one done in a stiflingly heated room – aren’t the women among us experiencing enough hot flushes without having to exert ourselves in 40 degree heat?
And I would generally avoid classes in a gym. Though there are some excellent yoga teachers in gyms, these classes are often taught by people who have bolted a yoga course on to a general fitness qualification, rather than devoted years of their lives to yoga study (as, for instance, British Wheel of Yoga teachers do). If in doubt, ‘interview’ a potential teacher before you unroll a yoga mat in any class for the first time, and trust your instinct.
Back and wrist problems
It is never too late to take up yoga (nor too early.) In a study for the University of California (UCLA) School of Medicine, 21 people aged 60 or over started to take a yoga class twice a week. They all had rounded backs, the dreaded ‘dowager’s hump’, which can interfere with normal movement. The measured benefits were impressive: the curvatures were reduced by six per cent; walking speeds were upped by eight per cent, and their ‘reaches’ improved by 18 per cent. As a side benefit, many of the study’s volunteers reported that their balance had improved.
Many of us who spend time at computers have wrist problems; leading, in some cases, to carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS), where swollen tendons press on the wrist. A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) showed that for mild symptoms, yoga can be incredibly effective. Researchers found that CTS sufferers who did Iyengar yoga twice a week for eight weeks experienced a four-fold improvement in grip strength and a two-fold reduction in pain, compared to their be-splinted peers. (My hunch…? Virtually any form of gentle yoga would have shown similar results.)
Circulation, cholesterol and bone health
Yoga improves the circulation, especially in hands and feet. It boosts blood flow to the cells, and as a result they function better. Inverted postures (it’s easy to imagine this) are good because they encourage blood to flow from the legs and pelvis back towards the heart, where it is freshly oxygenated before being pumped out again. (That’s why yoga can be very beneficial if you have swollen legs, or kidney problems.)
It has been found to lower ‘bad’ (LDL) cholesterol, and raise ‘good’ (HDL) cholesterol, as well as lowering blood sugar. Oh, and did I say that it’s effective for bringing down high blood pressure? And for stress? (It does this by reducing the levels of cortisol, which is produced by the adrenal glands when we face challenging situations.)
Yoga is also great for your bones. Osteoporosis is one of the big worries as we age: the prospect of collapsing vertebra (leading to the aforementioned dowager’s hump, not to mention terrible pain), or eventually to bones that ‘snap’ and trigger a fall.
Accepting our imperfections
Perhaps just as importantly, yoga also helps us simply to accept ourselves as we grow older. And to feel better about our bodies, even when they’re not perfect.
Clinical psychologist and yoga practitioner Janeen Locker says: “Body image has to do with how you feel in your body, how you describe your body and how you think people perceive you.”
What yoga does, experts believe, is help us to ‘disengage’ from judging our bodies, allowing us simply to experience them. And over time, that makes us feel more positive about our body image.
It is hard not to become rather pleased with your body, when the day comes that you can balance almost effortlessly in Tree pose, or open your hips wide for Forward Bend, or reach your toes for the first time.
Yoga is a practice that fosters a more familiar, intimate relationship with our body by teaching us how it functions. It’s true: we may never have a truly ‘perfect’ physique like Christy Turlington, no matter how many years we do yoga for. But (slightly un-yogic, this), I’d put money on you feeling 100 per cent better about your body, whatever its shape, weight and size, after practising yoga for a while. It is simply something that happens.
I have never met anyone who doesn’t feel ‘more comfortable in their skin’, as the French say, through yoga. Whatever their age.
Yoga for Life by Josephine Fairley is published by Kyle Books, £16.99
Next week Part two: meditation
Further reading The five best yoga sites