Along with the smile lines and gray hair, aging brings changes that are harder to see but very easy to feel, especially during movement. As you age, you’ll encounter general physiological changes in elasticity, stability, speed, strength, and endurance, as well as a different perspective on physical goals. Specific health problems emerge as we age, and these age-related illnesses might affect your yoga practice. Here, we offer our thoughts on how to modify your practice for these common ailments, and we detail the ways that (in some cases) yoga can actually relieve symptoms or has been proven to improve medical outcomes. From heart issues to less lung capacity, decreased bone density to hormonal changes, and bad backs to artificial knees, physical changes will affect and dictate the needs of a yoga asana practice, but in all cases, doing yoga will make you feel better.
General Physiological Changes
Here’s the bad news: as you age, your body becomes less flexible, less stable, slower, weaker, and less competitive in endurance. With age you lose elasticity in muscle, fascia, and (as you can see in a mirror) skin. This results in generally less flexibility, which can translate to instability and stiffness. Sarcopenia (muscle loss) and osteopenia (bone loss) are common aspects of aging. Both can contribute to less strength, speed, and endurance. While it does get harder to build muscle with age, it’s not impossible, and it’s never too late. Exercise and yoga help you maintain the muscle mass you have and continue to add more. Whether you suffer from osteopenia may have as much to do with genetics and gender as it does with your physical activity level, but movement and weight-bearing exercises keep bones healthier for longer.
This information probably doesn’t come as a surprise, though; we tend to be well versed in the changes that come with aging, especially as we get older. The good news is that you also have all the attendant wisdom, confidence, and life experience of your years on earth. And let’s be honest: while it might be nice to still have the body of a twenty-one-year-old, we know few people who actually want to be twenty-one again (we certainly don’t!). Besides, the news gets even better: while age does affect you in various ways, much of it is in your hands, and there’s a lot you can do to limit the effect of age-related changes. Yoga is an excellent anti-aging tool. And it doesn’t matter where you’re starting from or at what age you begin—movement and yoga can help.
Things That Get Better with Age
There’s plenty of reason to celebrate every passing year: self-confidence, body image, empathy, and decision-making all get better with age.And as we age, our stress levels tend to get lower. People report greater happiness in the later years of their lives—the older we are, the happier we are. In short, things may change, but a lot changes for the better!
15 Health Benefits of Yoga for Aging Adults
Problem: As you age, your bone density decreases. For some people, this decrease is so great, it results in osteopenia or osteoporosis, which means their bones are more susceptible to fractures.
How yoga can help: Weight-bearing exercises can marginally increase bone density, although the gains are small. Still, yoga is valuable not only because of its potential effect on your physical skeleton but because it helps you build muscle, body awareness, and better balance.
Tips for your yoga practice: Weight-bearing lunge poses, like Warrior I, Warrior II, and Side Angle Pose, help build hip and leg strength; balancing poses like crane, tree, and Warrior III help protect against falls that can cause fractures in already-brittle bones. Because bone density loss makes your spine more fragile, be sure to talk to your medical team to create a plan of safe movements. Depending on the degree of your osteopenia, it might be wise to limit poses that require folding forward or minimize the degree to which you fold. The same is true of poses that require twisting—be gentle in approaching movements that cause your spine to rotate, or skip twisting poses all together.
Problem: Arthritis can cause daily pain in joints like hands, knees, wrists, or elbows. It can make you feel stiff and creaky, limiting comfortable range of motion.
How yoga can help: Recent research shows that a regular yoga practice can aid in reducing joint pain and help in improving joint flexibility. A regular yoga practice might also reduce inflammation.
Tips for your yoga practice: Avoid weight bearing in your hands and wrists, a common location of arthritis pain.
3. Spinal Stenosis
Problem: Spinal stenosis, the narrowing of the spinal canal or vertebral openings, can squeeze your spinal cord and cause radiating pain and numbness that affects your hips, legs, and even your shoulders.
How yoga can help: A yoga practice that cautiously approaches forward folds and side bending and avoids extension (backbending) poses can help significantly reduce pain.
Tips for your yoga practice: If you have stenosis and osteoporosis, you might avoid forward folds altogether. In general, avoid big, deep movements of the spine. Less is better. Safe yoga, though, can help you build strength and create better postural habits, which can help alleviate chronic pain. An experienced teacher with knowledge of your condition will be a powerful ally.
4. Disc issues
Problem: Herniated, bulging, or slipped discs can press on your spinal cord or nearby nerves, causing spasms, limited movement, and radiating pain. Disc issues and back pain are more common in the lower lumbar region but may occur anywhere along the spine.
How yoga can help: Yoga can help you build core strength and flexibility in your spine, and these two things can go a long way toward remedying back pain.
Tips for your yoga practice: If you experience pain from disc issues, often it is best to avoid forward folds or any pose that causes your spine to round, as this can exacerbate the issue by squeezing the disc more. Instead, focus on backbending poses and poses that challenge your abdominal muscles and strengthen your hips.
5. Core Strength and Back Pain
If you’ve ever experienced back pain, you’ve probably been given the advice to strengthen your core. That wisdom is logical—building up the muscles in your trunk, back, abdomen, hips, and legs means that your spine is better supported.
How yoga can help: Any new movement or exercise that you add to your daily life will likely result in a stronger core; as you move your body in new ways, your major stabilizing muscles have to adapt. Yoga offers specific poses for core strength, too.
6. Nerve Issues: Pain, Neuropathy
Problem: When nerves are injured, pain, weakness, numbness, cramping, or tingling can occur as a result. In peripheral neuropathy, this often occurs in limbs, hands, feet, fingers, and toes. Nerve issues can result from a myriad of illnesses. Often caused by circulatory system issues, neuropathy also can be a side effect of other diseases or injuries.
How yoga can help: Yoga poses improve circulation; movement alone can help! Body awareness is also key.
Tips for your yoga practice: The more you are aware of what exacerbates or helps with pain or numbness, the better you are at making wise choices with your movement practices. Yoga allows you to explore your body in slow, safe movements. It gives you the opportunity to get to know what works for your nerves. Be sure to move slowly and pay careful attention to your body’s response in each pose.
7. Ligament Tears
Problem: Ligament tears are common in aging, stressed, and over-used joints, especially knees, shoulders, hips, and ankles. As we age, we put increasing stress on these joints, which can result in abrasions and tears. If the ligaments give out, or if the joint is degraded, you may find yourself with a replacement.
How yoga can help: Yoga is useful for ligament issues in several ways: First, yoga helps you strengthen the muscles around your joints. Your knees, for instance, will be better protected if your glutes, hamstrings, and quadriceps are strong. Many common yoga lunge poses help keep your legs strong. Yoga is also useful if you are recovering from a ligament tear injury, as it allows you to continue moving even amidst injury.
Tips for your yoga practice: You should choose a gentler practice as you heal, and omit any poses that exacerbate your injury. Finally, yoga is adaptable enough to continue even if you experience a hip or knee replacement. You’ll be able to come back to a yoga practice, and doing yoga after a replacement (with your medical team’s approval) may even speed up the healing process.
Problem: Although it’s often a temporary condition, tendon inflammation can cause joint pain and stiffness, and it can also create instability in weight-bearing movements. And as tendons age they can degrade, a condition called tendonopathy.
How yoga can help: Acute tendonitis generally requires some days of rest. But after allowing time to heal, yoga can be useful in helping establish new movement patterns. Because tendonitis is often caused by repetitive movements, practicing a variety of yoga poses offers you a chance to continue movement but in new and various ways—shoring up the muscles around the tendon and giving inflamed areas a chance to heal.
Tips for your yoga practice: If your health-care team diagnoses tendonopathy, ask which movements are safe and which you should avoid, then follow their directions in your home practice and convey them to your yoga teacher in class. Because of yoga’s adaptability, you will be able to find poses and sequences that continue to work for you.
9. Myofascial tightening, stiffness due to decreased collagen
Problem: As we age, we lose flexibility in our muscles and connective tissue, which results in stiffness, imbalance, and less confidence while balancing.
How yoga can help: If you don’t use it, you lose it! A regular yoga practice can help reverse some of that acquired stiffness. Gentle, regular stretching can help keep your body fluid and flexible. We’re often as amazed as our yoga students when we see the changes that habitual stretching and movement can confer. You don’t have to touch your toes, but yoga might get you a little closer to them.
10. Hormonal Changes/Hot Flashes
Problem: In women, menopause can bring temperature changes and hot flashes.
How yoga can help: Some studies have shown that a restorative yoga practice can help decrease the hot flashes that can come with hormonal changes.
Tips for your yoga practice: During a yoga class, it can also be helpful to lighten the amount of clothing you’re wearing or dress in layers so that when you feel warm, you can peel off a longer-sleeved shirt. Some yoga classes are warmer than other others. If you plan to attend a class, ask in advance about the temperature of the room.
11. Blood pressure
Problem: High blood pressure is one of the most common ailments that affect adults as they age. One in three American adults has high blood pressure. Rapidly transitioning from standing upright to folding forward can exacerbate dizziness, a common symptom of low blood pressure and a side effect of common medications for high blood pressure.
How yoga can help: Some studies show that regular yoga can lower blood pressure, so a routine yoga practice will help.
Tips for your yoga practice: As you move, avoid transitions that put your head below your heart, and opt out of sequences that require you to move quickly from standing to forward folding.
Problem: Age-related lung changes can aggravate asthma, so as you age, bouts of asthma may increase.
How yoga can help: If your asthma is provoked by exercise, yoga is a good fit, since with yoga your heart rate stays relatively low.
Tips for your yoga practice: Keep in mind that in some classes yoga teachers use essential oils or incense to enhance the students’ experience. While this is a lovely intention, if you are asthmatic, strong scents can be triggering. It’s appropriate to ask in advance if these types of scents will be used in class and to request that they be omitted. Calling ahead to verify this may be the wisest choice.
13. COPD, Chronic Bronchitis, and Emphysema
Problem: Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), chronic bronchitis, and emphysema make breathing very challenging and limit your ability to do cardiovascular activities.
How yoga can help: Yoga is low impact. For this reason, it is a useful movement practice if you have COPD or similar respiratory problems. Additionally, a yoga practice often has pranayama, or breath practices. Focusing on inhaling and exhaling can be useful if you have a chronic breathing problem, since breathing exercises can potentially help strengthen muscles used in respiration. Time spent in mindful breathing can also help you have more awareness of your breath; noticing when you get breathless or when you feel short of breath can help you seek treatment quickly.
14. Insomnia and Sleep Issues
Problem: Night wakefulness or restlessness may disrupt sleep.
How yoga can help: Intentional, slow breathing can foster a sense of relaxation and calm. A slow yoga and stretching routine before bed can help encourage drowsiness and tranquility. In fact, studies show that yoga can help you fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer. Exercise of any type helps tire us out and promotes exhaustion, which can lead to better quality sleep.
15. Chronic Illness
Problem: Chronic illness can cause pain and hopelessness and may create limitations to practicing yoga.
How yoga can help: Yoga can be effective as a pain-management tool for painful diseases like rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia. Since yoga is so adaptable, it can be practiced in a chair or hospital bed. It may also be a helpful meditative tool for those diagnosed with a terminal illness.