Aging Gracefully: How a Yoga Practice Keeps Us YoungAug 31, 2022 ● By Maya Whitman
In 1967, Tao Porchon-Lynch left a successful Hollywood career as a model and actress to become a full-time yogi in her 50s. At age 87, she added ballroom dancing to her list of passions and at 93, she landed in the Guinness World Records as the oldest yoga teacher on the planet. She continued to teach a weekly yoga class just days before her death at age 101. “I love seeing students realize what is possible,” Porchon-Lynch said in an interview, and her words are an added incentive to reap the many benefits of a regular yoga practice at any age.
Whether it involves getting down on a mat or practicing modified poses with the use of a chair, yoga helps us to stay nimble, manage stress, reduce symptoms of depression and tame high blood pressure. Yoga has been around for thousands of years for good reason, and health organizations like the Johns Hopkins Arthritis Center are now recommending the healing modality for a better quality of life.
Ancient Moves for Modern Life
“What I learned is that we need four essential physical skills to navigate through life as we age—strength, flexibility, balance and agility—and we get that from yoga. We can find independence in our everyday life, and we don’t need a vigorous yoga class to do that,” says Ruth Pipitone, a gentle yoga instructor at various studios and senior centers in Northeastern Pennsylvania. For those that only associate the practice with youthful bodies and hip yoga gear, yoga is a full-spectrum practice. “Anyone can do yoga—gentle yoga, chair yoga and even wheelchair yoga.”
According to a 2016 study of 227 participants reported in the journal Topics in Geriatric Rehabilitation, just 12 minutes of daily gentle yoga over 10 years improved bone mineral density in the spine and upper legs. About four in five participants had osteoporosis or osteopenia (low bone density), indicating that yoga is a good strategy for the 10 million Americans over the age of 50 with osteoporosis and the 44 million with osteopenia.
For Terecita “Ti” Blair, yoga offered a new way of life after a catastrophic automobile accident in 2009. The Denver-based trauma and resilience educator and 2017 SilverSneakers Instructor of the Year says, “Virtually any style or type of yoga can appeal and work well for you today, but not tomorrow. Therefore real ‘yoga’ is about adaptability, and yes, those of us with compromised joints, immune systems, pain, disability and illness can absolutely benefit from yoga.”
Those with conditions ranging from cancer to Parkinson’s disease can reap benefits from an appropriate yoga environment. In 2021, a meta-analysis of 12 studies published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health found that yoga can increase muscle strength, mobility, balance and lower body flexibility in mature adults. An older study from Temple University showed that Iyengar yoga can improve balance and prevent falls in women over 65 years old.
The Breath of Now
The keystone of all yoga practice is working with the breath, an action that is naturally compromised by just getting out of bed and into the day’s challenges. “Most adults breathe from their chest. That’s where we activate the stress response of fight, flight or freeze. We need to use the lower lungs, too, so we can activate the parasympathetic nervous system to find calm,” says Pipitone.
Blair, who specializes in helping others to find emotional equilibrium after trauma, concurs: “The nervous system is symbiotic with the breath, and vice versa. A long, deep inhale and a long, slow exhale can act as an immediate elixir for the nervous system to recognize that, in that moment, we are okay.” She has taught groups of people, some in wheelchairs and hospital beds, and she “still experienced the entire room shift when breathing together. As long as we are able to consciously notice breath, we can do yoga.”
No matter how many trips we take around the sun, tapping into the life force can give us a new perspective. “I use asana (yoga poses) to examine my thoughts and feelings and to find introspection to examine what is happening with myself physically, as well as mentally and emotionally,” says Pipitone. “You become more mindful of what you need to carry with you and what you don’t need to carry with you.”
In essence, we deepen as we age, and yoga can meet us on a multidimensional level. “Yoga does not have to mean poses. Possibilities are infinite, and adaptations are unlimited, based upon our needs,” says Blair.
Connect with Maya Whitman at [email protected]