Guest Writer: Why Seniors Should Give Yoga a Try and How to Get Started on Your Journey

Yoga is an ancient spiritual and physical practice that can be very beneficial to not only martial artists but also people of any age or physical ability. Guest writer Harry Cline shares his thoughts on how yoga can benefit seniors. If you want to check out more of Harry’s work please visit newcaregiver.org: The New Caregiver’s Comprehensive Resource: Advice, Tips, and Solutions from Around the Web.

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For decades, people of all ages have turned to yoga to give a boost to their mind, body, and spirit. A truly special form of meditative exercise, yoga is beloved by everyone from the casual to the hardcore athlete. Seniors can see great benefits from yoga, as it is a low-impact activity that strengthens muscles, bones, and tendons without risking the joint degradation seen in those who are involved in high-impact exercises. Not only that, but yoga can help seniors in a few other surprising ways. Keep reading to learn more.

The Benefits of Yoga for Seniors

Many people like to focus on the incredible physical benefits of practicing yoga and rightly so — they are substantial. Yoga can help improve flexibility, strengthen your muscles, improve bone density, give your circulatory and cardiovascular system a boost, and assist with weight loss or maintenance. A 30- to 45-minute yoga session is challenging enough to qualify as your daily recommended moderate physical activity. When you need a way to exercise without leaving your home and without major risk of injury, yoga is there for you.

Often, less attention is given to other, equally important benefits of yoga. Yoga is the ultimate stress-buster. This is great for your all-around health, and it can even improve your dental health! Depression, anxiety, excess stress, and poor dental health like periodontal disease share a connection, believe it or not. Daily yoga can help you control your stress levels, which will, in turn, help you stave off the poor mental health linked to all sorts of physical maladies.

And speaking of mental health, did you know that the bacterial makeup of your stomach has a huge effect on your brain? Your gut microbiome affects plenty of your body’s other mental and physical systems, and alongside healthy eating and probiotics, exercise and stress reduction are the best ways to keep your gut healthy. In short, yoga can boost your gut flora, which will, in turn, boost the rest of your body!

Yoga is basically medicine for your brain. When it comes to helping you manage common mental health problems, few things can boast an all-benefit-no-side-effect pedigree. As Psychology Today says, yoga “has been shown to enhance social well-being through a sense of belonging to others, and improve the symptoms of depression, attention deficit and hyperactivity, and sleep disorders.”

How to Begin

Intimidated? You shouldn’t be. Yoga isn’t really about headstands and other crazy poses — at least not for the majority of practitioners. Yoga is about doing what makes you feel better.

Here’s how to get started:

  • Buy a home yoga mat. Without one, your yoga will be a painful mess.

  • Look up some free videos on YouTube. There are thousands of quality yoga routines you can try out for free. This will help you get a sense of your yoga-related fitness level.

  • Try to get a handle on some basic poses. Yoga builds on itself as you progress, so having a solid foundation of things you can execute well is crucial.

  • Sign up for a group yoga class. Seriously. If you think that group yoga is only for experts, then you’re misinformed. Doing yoga with others will keep you motivated, help you learn faster, improve your form, and is really fun once you get into it. Local gyms offer classes for beginners, as do a variety of other places like churches, community centers, breweries, and of course, yoga studios. Search online for one near you. If you need help paying for yoga classes, some insurance providers, including Aetna, offer Medicare Advantage plans that cover the costs of yoga classes. Take note that Original Medicare does not offer this coverage.

There is a reason for yoga’s increasing popularity over the past couple of decades. It’s not just hype. Practicing yoga at least a few times per week will help you feel better almost immediately, and the long-term benefits for seniors are striking.

Photo by Patrick Hendry on Unsplash

 

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Turning Lemons Into Limoncello

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Last week I took the second worst yoga class of my nineteen-year practice. Taking yoga at gyms rather than a traditional yoga studio has always been a crapshoot. I have had some incredible teachers over the years. I have also had some who weren’t great. Thankfully I learned enough from the incredible teachers to recognize the difference. Although it was a pitiful class, it offered a great learning experience in patience, self-reliance, and making the best of a disappointing situation.

The worst yoga class I’ve ever taken was about a year or so ago. It was taught by a woman who was subbing for my regular Saturday teacher. She seemed like an aerobics instructor who had tacked on a weekend yoga workshop so she could teach more classes at the gym. Between the snarky, possessive comments she made about her poor whipped husband in front of the entire class and the bitchy, sarcastic little jokes she muttered every fifteen seconds I was unimpressed. After a few squats, lunges, and other ridiculous dance-y moves that weren’t any asanas I’d seen before I rolled up my mat and left.

This time I didn’t leave although I kinda wanted to. The woman teaching the class seemed very sweet, sincere, and also insecure, so I thought it would be bad form to walk out  on her…even when I realized with horror that she was playing a Celine Dion album in its entirety I didn’t want to be rude and storm out. It wasn’t downright horrible. It just wasn’t a yoga class. It wasn’t well organized, had no logical flow, and no explanation of “poses” (if you could call them that) to those who were new to yoga. Interestingly enough she did ask if anyone knew the Running Man and Peacock poses. Does every white woman in a pair of Lululemons make those poses a life goal or something? I quietly got my Crow on and silently willed her to focus on the basics, which she didn’t have much of a grasp of. Y’all, we didn’t even do savasana.

So I stuck it out for an hour. I decided that I would make it a good class for me and what my mind and body needed. I took full advantage of the opportunities to stretch and release my sore muscles that I had abused the day earlier in the dojang. I reminded myself to not let my thoughts wander or become impatient. Whether it was yoga or just a disjointed stretch class led by a very inexperienced teacher, this was the time for me to be quiet with no distractions–no phone, no computer, no TV, no taekwondo, no emails, no housework. Perhaps this was even better than a more traditional yoga class because it forced me to face head-on what was unfamiliar and uncomfortable.

And before anyone jumps on my back for being a judgmental, anti-Yogic, ahimsa-eschewing snob…no, I’m not. I don’t think that woman was a bad person or even a bad teacher. She was trying her best with the information and experience she had. What she taught just wasn’t appropriate for the situation, and I have the right to point that out, which I did to the gym staff after the class was over. Call it a stretch class or relaxation class, but don’t call it yoga. Calling it yoga would be very misleading to those who are new to the practice.

My favorite yoga teacher might counter me and say, “But, don’t you realize, Melanie, that IS yoga.” In a way, he would be right. Yoga is not a fancy pose or a pair of fashionable stretch pants. It’s the union of body, breath, and mind. That union could take place in an ashram or standing in line at the grocery store. Yoga begins and ends within.

So what’s the lesson to learn from this? Sometimes in life we don’t get what we expected or thought we signed up for. We find ourselves in situations that may be somewhat familiar but are still Bizarro, uncomfortable versions of what we’re used to. We may have to adapt and change more quickly than we wanted. We may have to take the initiative to make the best of a situation without the guidance of anyone else. I will not return to this woman’s class, but I will remember the challenge it presented to me to take charge of an unpleasant situation and make the most of it.

Loving Your Body, Pain and All

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Yesterday morning as I strolled down the galley of cubicles to get a cup of tea in the break room I had the sensation of a very uncomfortable air bubble in my left hip flexor. Strange. I didn’t notice any extraordinary pain or discomfort in Monday night’s taekwondo class. I thought I had popped all the kinks out with a 5 AM swim. For a split second I thought, “Oh great, now my left hip is acting up.”

When I was in my late twenties I had debilitating pain in my right hip stemming from an alignment problem with the sacroiliac joint and a dab of sciatica. Driving was excruciating, and I would squirm around for hours at my office job as I tried to ease the discomfort.  Thankfully I was led to a very skilled physical therapist who helped me go from doubling over in pain every time I stood up to running half marathons. Ever since then, though, my right hip has been a bit of an adversary, an enemy I keep close in case it goes rogue again.

Later that night in yoga class my teacher shared a quote from the scientist Dr. Bruce Lipton:
“The moment you change your perception is the moment you rewrite the chemistry of your body.”

About that time my hamstrings had started to protest my hanging over in forward fold for what felt like an eternity, causing a pulley of pain between my the dead weight of my upper body and my legs. Change my perception? Well, okay. I breathed into the back of my legs, stopped inwardly grumbling about the discomfort, and was getting quite comfortable when we were signaled to roll back up to standing position. Easy!

As we bent, stretched, and flowed through the yoga poses I thought about how we regard our bodies. We often either take them for granted (your body filters f*cking oxygen! How ridiculously cool is that??) or we’re scrutinizing and belittling and bemoaning all the perceived flaws and irritants in our body. It’s kind of weird and awesome to think that the human body can both cultivate the growth of a child as well as the rapid spread of a cancer or virus. Life and death all swirling around under T-shirts and sweat pants and yet we can’t help poking at cellulite or complaining about a bum knee.

As we crouched into Warrior II and sank into Half-Pigeon my teacher encouraged us to sit with the discomfort and change our perceptions. I’ve had that same advice for dealing with mental or emotional discomfort. Sit with it for a while instead of fighting it and don’t be surprised if it dissipates. Change your perception and don’t be surprised if you change your reality.

Instead of getting cranky about my aches and pains I thought about how I could appreciate my perfectly imperfect body. My left Achilles tendon aches because I am running and jumping and leaping and having tons of fun in taekwondo class. My lower back and hips get irritated from driving in a car I can easily afford that takes me to a comfortable job in an air-conditioned office. The few pounds that fluctuate up and down are thanks to the abundance of food I have easy access to. My bruises are evidence that I’m not afraid to fight. I have a lot to be thankful for, and my body is living proof.

My right hip is irritating me today. I have what I call the “ring of fire” that makes me want to snap off my leg at the hip socket like a broken Barbie doll. My sacro-iliac joint is wiggling and popping like packing bubbles. Driving home was a lot more painful than it has been in a long time. But I have the tools to cope with the physical discomfort and the emotional skills to not let the pain overwhelm me and ruin my good mood. I can change my perception. My “bum” hip helped me run on the treadmill early this morning. It helped me drive my car to work so I can continue to put food on the table and a roof over my head. I can walk, stand, jump, kick, and dance without a second thought or any extra effort.

Try not to let your aches and pains hurt your spirit as much as they hurt your body. Be kind to your body. Be thankful for what it CAN do rather than getting hung up on what it can’t do. Cut it some slack. It’s the only one you have.

Turn Your World Upside Down

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Duuuuuuuuuuuuuude….

Tonight in yoga class I did a headstand for the first time since I was in my mid-twenties….sort of. About halfway through class our teacher did a mini-workshop on the pose, which he had promised us after a request in last week’s class. He walked us through the process, emphasizing that no matter how good you get, you should always follow the steps to ensure safety.

“I ALWAYS measure my elbows,” he said, tucking the space between his forefingers and thumbs into the crooks of his elbows, “and make my base. Then I make my basket. No matter how good I get I always measure my elbows and make my basket.” He laced his fingers together and made a base for his head. Slowly he lifted one straight leg into the air, and then the other, breathing deeply and seeming to move his his legs and twist his torso with ease.

“What are you afraid of? What happens if you fall over?” he said after a few moments of watching us grunt and tumble around like puppies. “It’s just tadasana,” he continued, referring to one of the most basic yet integral poses of yoga. Tadasana is a standing pose that engages the entire body from the toes to the core to the crown of the head. It provides the sturdy frame for standing poses such as tree, horizontal poses such as plank and side plank, and even inversions such as headstand.

He motioned for me to come to the front of the class and help him demonstrate. After walking me through tadasana, signaling me to tighten up and straighten my muscles from my toes to my head he was able to move me back and forth like a stiff piece of plywood. I was feeling more confident. I can do tadasana all day. Just don’t ask me to do headstand again.

He then had me turn around and mimic the foundation for headstand of the elbows and forearms over my head, complete with the finger basket. “Oohh, I’m glad we wore the racerback top, that will really show off our swimmer shoulders and back muscles,” my ego chirped, elbowing me in the ribs. “Shut up, I’m trying to concentrate!” I whispered back.

At my teacher’s command I pressed my forearms and elbows up into his palms as if I were inverted and pressing my arms into the floor. Okay, I’m still feeling just fine in tadasana, and okay maybe now I’m ready for headstand, but…no, wait, I’m not ready!

I returned to the floor, measured my elbows, snuggled my head into my finger basket, and lifted one straight leg into the air. “Tadasana!” my teacher whispered, smacking the sole of my foot so I would flex it. Tentatively I lifted the other leg. For a split second I felt myself tip backwards and gasped in panic.

“It’s OK, I’ve got you,” my teacher said, tapping the back of my ankle with his hand. Slowly he backed away and before I knew it I found that I was doing headstand all on my own, built from a foundation of trust and strength I didn’t know I had. I tried it again on my own and couldn’t quite get both legs in the air, but I was very satisfied with that one time I was able to fully express the pose.

“It’s the fear of the unknown,” my teacher said as he walked around the room and gently guided other students into headstand. “That’s why this pose is scary, but just remember that it’s only tadanasa upside down.”

How often to we back away from projects, opportunities, and even relationships because of the fear of the unknown? How often do we freak out and run the opposite way because something seems so scary and different and foreign that we can’t possibly comprehend making that change? How often do we not trust ourselves to provide that solid foundation when things get turned on their head?

I thought about the last time I did headstand as a young twenty something. I had no idea that my life would take so many twists and turns into the unknown. I had no idea I would change careers or go back to school. I had no idea that a great love would enter my life.  I had no idea that when that great love left my life and my world was turned upside down I’d still be standing strong on a foundation of trust and faith in myself. And of course I had no idea that I would be months away from testing for my black belt in taekwondo.

What are those “unknowns” that you are afraid of? Build your foundation of safety and trust. Does it still seem scary? Just try one foot at a time, one step at a time. Still scary? Rest for a moment….And then take a deep breath and move into it again. You’ve got this.

Looking for the right yoga mat to support you in your headstands? Check out Reviews.com for the Best Yoga Mat Reviews of 2017.

Spar Though Your Heart Is Breaking

brucelee smile

If I had abs like that I’d never stop smiling.

At the end of Tuesday night’s yoga class we quietly transitioned from savasna to the fetal position. Throughout the hour our teacher encouraged us to go big, take life, and when necessary, let go. “You can breathe through the tension, smile in discomfort, and use strength you didn’t know you had,” he said before summoning us to sit up. I’ve been doing a lot of that lately. I have had to face discomfort and uncertainty and tap into a strength I didn’t know I had. I’ve had to let go.

I usually don’t set intentions during yoga class but that night I decided to practice a “loving kindness” meditation, something I’d picked up at a yoga retreat. Throughout my practice I thought about a person who is hurting and facing their own pain and tension and discomfort. I directed energy of peace and comfort during the class, reminding myself to get back on track when my mind wandered. I could not be responsible for this person’s happiness or emotions, but I could send feel-good vibes and well-wishes.

During our final backbend, wheel pose, my teacher put a cloth belt under my lower back and helped me flip up to standing and then bend backwards toward the ground about three times. “It’s scary!” I whispered as I flew up to face him and then fell back again, but I made it back safely to the ground in one piece. I would like to think that this person who is suffering will take comfort in fact that they will survive and land in one piece.

I tried to hold my mindset of peace and positivity during tonight’s taekwondo class too, which seems a little at odds with the purpose of sparring, but for some reason it works. I knew I needed to go big and take my life back, and part of that involves yanking myself out of my fog, throwing myself back into my passions, and remaining focused on my goals. If anything it was a welcome distraction, and as usual we had a lot of fun, hard work, and lot of laughs.

Thanks to a broken A/C, muggy Texas spring weather, and a dobok that doesn’t breathe I was so red that my face took on a charcoal gray tint and I had more than one moment of being dizzy. I got kicked in the head, knocked to the floor, and bashed against the wall. And I had a BLAST. I breathed through the tension and I even smiled in the extreme discomfort. (Don’t worry, none of the hard blows hurt. I’m as padded up as Randy in “A Christmas Story.”)

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I’m ready for sparring!

I’m still pretty bad at sparring. I get frustrated, I’m slow, and my body won’t obey my brain’s (or instructors’) commands. It’s uncomfortable, stressful, and exposes all my flaws. But it also reminds me that I have more strength than I thought I did in a scary situation. I’m able to breathe through the tension and smile in discomfort, and make it back to my feet safely and in one piece. I’m a fighter after all.

So Just Chill Till the Next Episode

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“To surrender,” my yoga teacher said as he looked around the dark room at our upturned faces, “you sometimes first have to build heat.”

It was my first yoga class in about a month. When asked about my long absence I gave the ubiquitous answer of “I had things going on” with a Robert De Niro-esque shrug. I did have things going on (laundry doesn’t fold itself), but that wasn’t the entire answer.

Sometimes I avoid my practice on purpose when I am dealing with tricky issues or need some mental downtime. As I’ve said in previous posts, my mind does not shut off and focus in yoga the way it does in taekwondo. About halfway into the practice my mind quiets down, but for the first thirty minutes thoughts bounce around in my head like a racquetball. When a sticky issue is top of mind it likes to crab-walk down my spine as I dangle in forward fold, crawl into my ear and whisper, “Let’s think about THIS.” It’s even worse when I try to meditate on my own or using guided meditation. And you know what? I just don’t like meditation—there, I said it. Revoke my hippie card.

My reluctance to surrender to my practice reminds me of when I did some individual coaching sessions for a team about two years ago. One of my clients, a young woman I’d known for years, said she had put off meeting with me for quite some time because she knew a sticky issue would probably come up. We peeled back layers carefully, and by the end of our session she was relieved that she had finally talked about it and figured out how to address it.

It felt fantastic to be back to yoga. My body unfolded into the poses as if I were smoothing out a crumpled piece of paper on a cool kitchen counter. The old familiar pinching pain in my left shoulder was gone (perhaps since I hadn’t done yoga in four weeks) so the million chaturangas we always do didn’t have to be modified. About halfway into the practice my mind was finally quiet.

My teacher continued his original thought as he gently tugged my arms up and away into a fuller expression of locust pose.

“When you think you’ve reached your end,” he said, “Notice the tension in your body…and ease off.” He lowered my hands an inch. “It’s a life lesson. When you hit a plateau in your practice or your work or relationships…just ease off a bit…and then you can get back into it.” He released my hands, and my arms and legs felt twice as long as they floated to the ground. It was just what I needed to hear after mulling over the burnout I had been experiencing.

Plateaus and burnouts aren’t necessarily bad things if we don’t let them overrun us. They are cues, feedback to us to ease off for a bit in order to rest, recharge, and make any necessary changes. They are an opportunity for us to surrender and let go so the heat we’ve built doesn’t burn us to the ground. A healthy practitioner, no matter the trade, knows when to recognize these cues and surrender to the needs of the body, mind, and spirit.

In other words, it’s OK to chill! (After I get home from sparring and red and black belt class)

Back to Basics

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“Can we do other asana [yoga poses] besides just upward dog, downward dog all the time?” chirped an older woman right as our instructor had settled us into our first child’s pose in this morning’s yoga class. I’m not very fond of this woman. She is sour and cranky and doesn’t have much respect for other people’s personal space. (She once sandwiched her mat between me and the woman next to me when there was plenty of room around us. I practically had my foot in her face until I moved.) On the surface she seemed to be complaining about the sequence my teacher used every class. It’s a vinyasa style built on the sun salutations A and B sequences, which include a lot of upward and downward dogs. Unlike other teachers I’ve had he rarely varies from his routine and instead challenges us to be present and heighten our awareness of how our bodies feel in the poses.

I wondered what was really driving her question–was it cultural? (She is from another country and doesn’t have sweet-as-pecan-pie genteel southern manners like we do here in Texas. We’ll still stab you in the back, but you’d never know it.) Had something happened earlier that morning to put her in a bad mood? She is rather frail and often struggles to keep up. Was she really just frustrated with her own body’s limitations and was taking out her anger on the teacher? We all giggled when she asked her question.

“Everybody sit up, I want you to ask the rest of the class and see if they feel the same way,” my teacher barked. No one laughed at that point. I detected a slight amount of irritation in his voice and wondered how he was going to handle the situation. He went on to ask some pointed questions and explain the reasoning behind why he takes us through the same vinyasa sequence every time–to build heat within the body to prepare us to safely move into deeper poses, not to mention that it was a tried and true sequence passed down by the great yoga teachers of India. He said that students are welcomed and encouraged to modify poses for our own physical needs. He made his point without being defensive or ridiculing the old woman, even thanking her for her question, but I could also tell that he was staying firm in his belief in the power of his chosen form of yoga practice. He wasn’t going to throw it all away and go back to the drawing board just because one student complained.

A fellow student remarked that my teacher hadn’t heard from the rest of the class, which seemed to be quite satisfied with his sequence. We nodded in approval. You rarely hear from people who are happy with things as they are. My teacher wrapped up his lecture by reminding us to be present and practice from a place of love and tolerance. I wondered if that was as much a reminder to himself to keep his cool as it was to us to not judge this woman too harshly for disrupting the happy vibe of the morning. He did add some variation, but his main sticking point was reminding us to see if we can be present and go deeper into the poses. The old woman stuck it out through the class, and I noticed that she took more time to modify the poses for her slower pace and her body’s needs. I smiled as I watched her out of the corner of my eye. She seemed more confident and comfortable. Maybe that was all she needed–the green light to make the practice her own. My teacher made sure he paid attention to her just as he did with all the other students. She scurried out as soon as class was over. I wonder if she’ll come back next week.

But here’s the thing–I’d found myself getting bored with that sequence, so maybe I shouldn’t be so quick to cast stones at my crabby classmate. Sure, it’d be fun to try different balance poses or sink into pigeon for an extended time, but I can always do that on my own. Doing the same thing over and over again and actually benefitting from it requires a different mental discipline than always having the luxury (and the shorter attention span) of variety. I challenged myself during that class to try and learn something new from the same old poses, to really feel my body from the inside out and make micro adjustments to help me get more fully into the expression of the pose. If you’re not present and mindful you’re just going through the motions.

Today’s yoga class experience made me reflect on a similar theme in last night’s taekwondo class. Fridays are reserved for technique and forms. This class, which precedes the new adults only class, is open to green belts and up. After some kicking drills my instructor calmly announced that we were going to work on some orange belt (rank above white belt) techniques. For several minutes we performed strikes and blocks that formed the foundation of our forms, one-steps, and to a lesser extent free sparring techniques. Without a strong front stance your balance is compromised. Without a solid low block you can’t deflect a kick from an opponent. Without being present and making the micro-adjustments you can’t fully express the intent of the strike or defensive block. That rings true for a white belt or a black belt. Sound familiar?

The theme continued as we reviewed palgwe sah jang, one of the loveliest and most complicated color belt forms. Although it seemed like Grandmaster was doing this for the benefit of the two little blue tip boys who needed to practice the form for their next belt test, I felt like he was doing it even more for the red and black belts. He intellectualized the form, explaining the why behind the moves and demonstrating intricacies of each strike and block so it would all flow together in a logical sequence.

“Be patient,” Grandmaster chided the two little boys as they fidgeted behind us, but like my yoga teacher, he did not bend to the influence of the complainers. He continued walking us through the sequence, something we’ve done a hundred times before and something that’s built on those old foundational blocks and strikes we learned as lower ranking belts. It’s our taekwondo version of all those old familiar upward dogs and downward dogs. As I did with my yoga practice today I learned something new from a form I’ve practiced for over a year. Both classes gave me a stronger appreciation for the foundations that support all the complicated pretty stuff.

Every once in a while we need to go back to basics. What routine are you doing that needs a refresher? What is something new that you can learn from something old? How can you revisit and strengthen or reconfirm the building blocks (morals, values, beliefs, etc.) that make up your the complexities of who you are?

If you’re making time for your yoga basics, make sure you have the right support. Check out Reviews.com for the Best Yoga Mat Reviews of 2017.