The om and ahhh of yoga

More and more people 50-plus are discovering yoga provides a worthy workout, a sense of well-being and, best of all, pure pleasure.  And it’s a practice that grows and deepens as we age.

Early morning sunlight spills through the large second-floor windows at Breathe Yoga Studio in the west end of Toronto. Six men and women ranging in age from early 50s to 80 roll out their yoga mats onto the gleaming hardwood floor, ready for instructor Jane Loney to lead them through their yoga postures (asanas).

“Use your breath to release any tension,” Loney gently urges her students as they begin breathing deeply in and out. “Yoga practice is about centring the mind and body.”

For this group, yoga is also about staying fit, flexible and healthy well into the second half of life — and finding relief for what ails them. Marilyn Coady, 59, became a yoga convert two years ago after surviving breast cancer and a stroke. “I had a lump and lymph nodes removed from my right arm, and then, after the stroke, I had trouble with my left arm,” says Coady. “Sometimes, I can hardly move it and I think, ‘Maybe I shouldn’t go to yoga today,’ but when I do, I always feel betterI’m sure I would just seize up without it!”

That feeling of well-being is also what motivates the other members of this Gentle Yoga class. Joe Cowan, 80, who has been practising yoga for the past six years, moves about the studio as energetically as a man half his age and credits yoga for his agility.

Better with age
Coady and Cowan are part of a new trend in yoga: older men and women flocking to specialized studios, health clubs and community centres to reap the benefits of this ages-old Hindu discipline. Yoga, they’re discovering, isn’t just for skinny mystics, the young and the flexible, movie idols, models and rock stars. The safe, gentle, slow and controlled movements of yoga, combined with the relaxing effect of the breathing, can help anyone at any age and fitness level chill out and shape up.

“Yoga is a practice that continues to grow and deepen as we age,” says Esther Myers, 56, owner of the Esther Myers’ Yoga Studio in Toronto and author of Yoga and You (Random House, 1997). In fact, in India, it has long been considered ideal to start practising yoga in your 50s because you’re entering a new and wiser time of life. Myers says her oldest student didn’t take up yoga until the age of 45, and she’s still doing headstands and backbends at 90. “It’s really important to eliminate the mentality that because you’re 50 or 60, you can’t do these things and it’s all downhill from there on in,” says Myers.

Curing what ails you
While yogis and health experts alike have long heralded the mental benefits of yoga, they’re now touting its ability to prevent and treat many age-related health problems, including arthritis, heart disease, back pain and osteoporosis. At New York Presbyterian Hospital, all patients undergoing cardiac procedures are offered yoga during recovery to help reduce stress. And at the University of Pennsylvania school of medicine, a group of patients with osteoarthritis of the hands were treated with yoga and improved significantly with regard to pain during activity, joint tenderness and finger range of motion in comparison to the control group.

“Yoga is an excellent form of exercise that improves balance, posture, flexibility and strength,” says Dr. Darien Lazowski-Fraher, a professor at the Centre for Activity and Aging at the University of Western Ontario in London and a member of the Osteoporosis Society’s scientific advisory council. “We all stiffen up as we age and tend to be less mobile. The more we can maintain flexibility, the less chance we have of injuring our joints.” Lazowski-Fraher says that in her experience, people with osteoporosis, even those with spinal fractures, who perform yoga regularly have better balance and posture than those who don’t. “Balance is really important, especially in the older years, to prevent falls.”

Yoga also strengthens the core, or stomach, muscles, as well as lengthening and limbering up the spine, which helps prevent back problems — one of the top physical complaints among North American adults. Ea Timms, 62, of Creemore, Ont., suffered from back pain for years after a diving accident. Since she began doing her yoga stretches every day, the pain has disappeared. “I can stand up, I can hop, I can dance, I can take the garbage out,” says Timms. “To me, yoga is a lifesaver.”

Myers, a breast cancer survivor, pioneered a yoga program at the Marvelle Koffler Breast Centre at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto in 1996 to help breast cancer survivors combat stress and regain flexibility and range of movement in their arms after breast surgery. She found the classes provided a psychological boost as well. “If you’re functioning better because you have better movement in your arm and you can do the things you want to do in daily life with ease, then that’s obviously going to have a positive affect on you psychologically,” says Myers.  

Appreciating the power of yoga
When Jean Marmoreo, a Toronto family physician and author of The New Middle Ages: Women in Mid-Life (Prentice Hall Canada, 2002), brought together more than 100 predominantly middle-aged women, who dubbed themselves Jean’s Marines, to train for a marathon, yoga became an integral part of the program. Jean’s Marine member Annabel Griffiths, director of the OmZone yoga studio in Toronto, led the group through a weekly yoga session designed to increase strength and flexibility and reduce the strains and sprains so common to runners. The participants also came to appreciate the power of the “yoga breath” — slow, deep breathing in and out through the nose that promotes calmness and concentration.

Choosing the style for you
Nearly all yoga styles — Ashtanga, Bikram, Ivengar, Kripalu, Viniyoga, to name a few — are rooted in Hatha yoga, which focuses on postures and breathing exercises. No one style is better than another; it’s simply a matter of personal preference and finding the right fit. Some people in their 50s are really into a vigorous type of yoga practice, such as Ashtanga, says Loney, while others the same age who have had injuries in the past or have health-related problems need a gentler, slower practice such as Viniyoga.

But pushing too far too fast has caused a recent surge in the number of yoga injuries being reported to doctors, chiropractors and physiotherapists, especially among people practising the more athletic “power” yoga, says Sherri McMillan, an exercise physiologist, fitness instructor and author of Fit Over Forty (Raincoast Books, 2001).  The best advice is to follow the yoga maxim that what you can do is what you should do.

A good yoga teacher will adapt poses to your abilities, especially if you have heath-related problems. “You want someone who is well-trained, who understands the body, who can make adaptations to your specific needs,” advises Myers. “The more specific your needs, the more careful you have to be.”

Like any exercise program, if you have any health concerns or haven’t had a physical in a while, get your doctor’s okay before taking up yoga.

Since yoga offers the greatest rewards when practised regularly, it’s better to do a little bit each day, even for a few minutes than to save up and have a two-hour session each week. This becomes increasingly important as you get older to prevent aches and pains and injuries. “Yoga is not all or nothing,” says Loney. “A little goes a long way.” Be patient with yourself and don’t get discouraged. “The key to continuing any practice over the years is to thoroughly enjoy it,” says Myers.