Yoga for Seniors: Standing Tall Again
By Kareena
published in YOGACHICAGO magazine

Teaching at retirement residences for the last seven years, I have learned how senior citizens benefit from modified yoga asanas, better posture and deep-breathing exercises.
Common complaints among an aging population are a lack of energy, poor balance, stiff muscles and aching joints. According to ayurveda, the sister science of yoga, an imbalance in the wind/air element causes most of these problems.

Each stage of our lives is ruled by one of the three elements composing our physical bodies: water/ kapha, fire/pitta and air/vata. From birth to about the age of 16, the water/earth, or growth element, rules our bodies. The skin is plump, the eyes are bright and the hair full. The body feels light and repairs damaged cells quickly. Colds, coughs and respiratory disturbances typically affect this age group because the water element sits in the chest, throat and nasal passages.

From 16 to 50 years old, the fire, or metabolic, element dominates. Body and mind stay busy raising families and pursuing economic goals. The ravages of stress begin to make the body feel heavy. Colitis, peptic ulcers, hypertension, migraine headaches, frustration, anger and resentment arise as the fire element burns through the liver, spleen and pancreas.

After age 50 the air/wind, or motion, element dominates. It regulates breath, chi-flow and the nervous system. It slowly dries out the body, leaving some of us with wrinkles, thinning hair and skinny legs. Any serious disturbance in the air element can lead to more debilitating conditions like arthritis, sciatica, varicose veins, backaches, headaches, insomnia, constipation, confusion and memory loss in later years.

Most of the yoga asanas recommended to alleviate air disorders, primarily backbends and inversions, are too strenuous for retirement home seniors, so I have modified them. We practice modified sun salutations, mountain pose, triangle, lunge, spinal twists and other asanas, often with the aid of a chair or done seated in a chair.

I also stress the importance of maintaining erect posture and breathing deeply throughout the day. Deep breathing keeps prana, or energy, flowing throughout the body and mind. Chronic slouching, however, pushes the chest downward, compressing the lungs and diaphragm. If the lungs cannot open fully with each inhalation, less oxygen enters the body. Less oxygen means less energy. When the energy flow weakens, breath, balance and mental clarity falter, leading to accidents and disease.

Helping seniors achieve better posture is rewarding. I have seen 70-, 80- and 90-year-olds grow an inch or more, if only momentarily, as I chide them to lift head and rib cage and sit tall. Their faces beam with self-esteem when they recapture the inches lost due to a lifetime of spinal misalignments. One of my clients, Betty Pritcherson, recently returned from a trip to New York, proudly boasting how her relatives said she looked like she had grown taller.

My favorite technique to increase postural awareness in seniors is to place a yardstick vertically down one side of the body from ear to shoulder to hip. (Fortunately, I found an old collapsible yardstick to carry to class. Previously, when I carried a big yardstick to class, apprehension filled their eyes.)

Ears, shoulders and hips must maintain direct vertical alignment, whether seated or standing. If shoulders are forward to hips, the spine is rounding and the head is slumping. Another common misalignment is shoulders leaning back of hips. This puts pressure on the lower spine and causes backaches.

When standing, the chest should be aligned over the balls of the feet, a posture I call "positive attitude," or having a more forward attitude in life. Leaning backward is a symbolic pulling away from life.

For prolonged sitting, I recommend that a pillow or backrest be placed between the chair back and lumbar spine to keep the spine aligned.

The middle back, or thoracic vertebrae, should never slouch into or touch the back of the chair. Slouching leads to height loss.

To self-test, I suggest looking sideways in a mirror or having a friend see if you have vertically aligned ears, hips and shoulders. If not, you need postural realignment, no matter how old or young you are.

And to those who cry "It's too late, I'm too old," I respond, today is the BEGINNING of the REST OF YOUR LIFE.

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