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Is Yoga on Your To-Don't List?

By Sheryl Kraft

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About 10 years ago, I decided I needed to add some variety to my workout routine. I also craved something a bit slower-paced and meditative. So I took up yoga.

I loved the way it stretched out my body. I loved the way it forced me to slow down and relax. I loved the way I felt when I took that special time out from my busy life.

But then my love affair with yoga ended. I hurt my neck (no, not during yoga, but tripping over a pair of wayward sneakers in my home) and subsequently needed not one, but two neck surgeries.

I attempted to return to the practice, but my neck was not liking it. And in addition to that, I found that other parts of my (aging) body, like my knees, did not sign on either.

Last week I was excited to see an article in the New York Times, "Yoga After 50". It's so good to have company and be recognized:

“While many yoga classes across the country seem to cater to the youthful enthusiast who wants to sweat his or her way through an hour-and-a-half workout, a growing number of longtime yoga devotees are raising questions about the best way to safely continue a yoga practice into midlife and beyond.”

I asked Laurel Attanasio some of my questions. Laurel is a 500-hour certified yoga/Pilates teacher who teaches classes in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. She also teaches workshops nationally and globally. Here is her advice:

Q. As we age, our bodies inevitably change, and we can't do what we might have been able to do years ago. How can someone 50-plus still enjoy yoga and avoid injuries if they, for instance, have a bad neck or have osteoarthritis?

A. Yoga is truly for every body! Some of my most flexible and strongest students are in their 50s and 60s. I think a person's activity level, health history and prior injuries impact their yoga abilities more than their actual age. I like to focus on the person as an individual and how they currently feel rather than on their age.

THIS MATTERS:
Make sure to arrive early to class and discuss any major issues with your instructor so that needed modifications can be provided. Many teachers will ask students before class if they have any injuries the instructor should be aware of, which is the perfect time to discuss any complications.

Q. So let's say you decide, despite some limitations, you want to pursue a yoga practice. How can you feel comfortable doing so?

A. If you're new to yoga, start with a beginner's class. If you're suffering from a major injury, go for a gentle or restorative class. Remember, modifications can be provided for all poses, allowing students with injuries and limitations to practice yoga at all times.

THIS MATTERS: Yoga is not a "no-pain-no-gain" activity. If you're living with osteoarthritis or any other health issue, something may feel good one day and feel awful on another. The key to yoga is to listen to your body and respond appropriately.

Q. Along with aging comes a loss of muscle mass and bone strength. How can yoga help?

A. Yoga helps maintain and build muscle mass and bone density. During yoga, you often need to support your own body weight; in fact, during your practice you're essentially moving through a weight-training session without using a lot of fancy equipment.

THIS MATTERS: Poses such as down dog, plank and handstands require a lot of upper body strength, which you build throughout your practice. And, while holding standing poses, your leg muscles are working hard to support you.

Q. If there are not classes specifically aimed at people 50-plus, what can a person do? How can you find a class for you?

A. All classes are for every age and every body! Read the class descriptions, levels and type and then make an educated decision based on the information. Do not be afraid to talk with the studio employees to get their feedback. Also, read the instructor's bio and find out how long they've been teaching, where they studied and what they specialize in.

THIS MATTERS: It may take a few tries to find your favorite class or teacher. Remember: You are a student and the teacher is there to help. It's the teacher's job and responsibility to make sure you have the best injury-free practice possible.

Q. Are there certain poses you can easily do at home to help with balance and strength?

A. Tree pose is always a great and safe balance pose to start with. You can even stand next to a wall for a little extra assistance. Start with your lifted foot near your ankle, then the calf, and then move to the thigh, making sure to never prop the foot on the side of the knee.

THIS MATTERS: Remember, there are always levels and modifications.

Q. Finally, what's your best advice for someone who has never tried yoga but wants to start now?

A. Shop around to find a teacher and studio you love. Don't take it so seriously—it's only yoga! Have fun and look at it as an adventure and the start of a new journey of self-exploration.

THIS MATTERS: You'll be surprised at how many other 50-plus people you'll find in your classes—it may even be your teacher! Have fun … you may just be rocking a handstand on your 60th birthday!

Need some visuals? Here are some helpful links:

If something does not feel good, move to child's pose or sit still and breathe; you are still practicing yoga.

Great muscle builders include planks, down dogs and crescent poses.

Comments

Wish Laurel taught classes in my hood:-)

I know, Irene. Doesn't she sound ideal?

I started doing yoga 2 years ago in my 40s. Here's the secret I found - go to a class that is during the day. Classes at night tend to be young people after work and are harder and faster paced. Midmorning weekday classes have a lot of midlife folks and seniors. Also pay attention to the type of yoga the class is advertised as. Vinyasa is harder than hatha. Another great thing to look for is a combo class - I am now taking yogalates: yoga and Pilates combined. It is wonderful. If your instructor does not offer modifications or encourage you to do what works, go elsewhere. Yoga is not a competition. The other thing I would say is don't give up right away. It took me weeks until I was not really sore the next day.

Brette, these are such wonderful tips - thank you! I hope a lot of readers see them and pay attention.

I'd also add that it's possible to end up with a teacher who's pushy to the point of being a bully. Don't let anyone tell you to do a pose you don't think is right for your body.

Absolutely, Ruth. I've been there and I've gotten injured because of my foolish pride.

I had a teacher in her 60s when I lived in the city and loved her yoga classes. When we moved to the country, I didn't have any choice, there is only one instructor and one class. She does have some older women in her class, but they are very fit. I had a stomach surgery 9 years ago that doesn't allow me to bend or crunch my tummy. She couldn't seem to give me any adaptable poses to help me with my limitations. I finally just gave up. Hopefully, we will, at some point, move back to the city and I hope to re-enroll in my old class.

What a shame that you were not able to find ways to customize your yoga class to suit you. I really hope you'll be able to resume it some day soon!

But I had to shop around to find the teacher and the type that really worked for me.

Hopefully you were able to find the perfect fit, Heather.

I love yoga and am very fortunate to have a teacher who encourages us to work with our bodies, not against them. Yoga has really become an integral part of my life.

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