Yoga Solutions for Healthy Aging

Yoga postures promote healthy aging by lengthening the spine, opening our posture and moving each joint in the body through its full range of movement.

Saturday, March 31, 2007

Photo by Jim Jacobs

Yoga is an ageless, timeless, holistic health system that teaches that the years after midlife are a time of greater perspective and illumination rather than deterioration.

The word yoga comes from a Sanskrit root that means yoke, unite, or make whole. A yoga pose or posture is known by the Sanskrit term asana. When we practice yoga asanas, we position the body in various standing, lying-down, upside-down, or seated postures. Yoga postures are one of yoga’s most significant and practical tools for integrating all aspects of a human being body, mind, and spirit.

Even though yoga has entered the fitness mainstream, its full potential as a preventive and rehabilitative component in holistic, cutting-edge gerontology is just beginning to be explored. Medical research on aging has clearly shown that without proper exercise the body contracts and we lose height, strength, and flexibility. Movement lubricates our muscles, ligaments, and joints.

Stretching daily prevents stiffening, the first visible sign of premature aging. Yoga postures promote healthy aging by lengthening the spine, opening our posture and moving each joint in the body through its full range of movement.

Inverted Poses, The Elixir of Life
Due to cardiovascular problems such as arteriosclerosis, blood flow to the brain gradually decreases as we age. The ravages of senility are apparent in every nursing home in the country. Western medicine accepts the fact that this is a degenerative disease usually associated with inadequate circulation to the brain, but it has found few ways of preventing or treating it.

Yoga teaches that the most effective way of increasing blood to the brain is to allow gravity to do the work for you. Inverted positions, which bring the brain below the level of the heart, permit circulation to the upper body to increase without putting strain on the heart. In effect, inverted yoga positions turn gravity itself upside down and are thus among the best means of slowing down and even reversing the aging process.

Inverted poses are the heart of a yoga practice for people over fifty. They bring emotional balance and mental clarity; by improving the flow of blood to and from the heart, they refresh and rejuvenate the entire body. The older I get, the more I appreciate the feeling of increased energy and revitalization that occurs after practicing inverted poses.

Good circulation and good health are intimately connected. When the circulation of blood is restricted, the cells of our bodies do not get the oxygen and nutrients needed to function effectively. When our circulation is sluggish, our vital energy drops and our whole physical, emotional, and mental response to daily life tends to take a negative turn.

Turning the body halfway or completely upside down increases the circulation to the upper body, including the brain. Blood circulates around the neck, chest, and head, helping the lungs, throat, and sinuses to become resistant to infection.

The endocrine glands in the throat and head (thyroid and parathyroid glands) also benefit from improved circulation. Upside-down poses control the metabolism of the body and regulate blood pressure, glucose levels, and chemical balance.

During the course of a typical day, most people spend 16 hours with the head above the heart and the legs and pelvic area below the heart. Because
of this, one of the first poses I teach to students of all ages, including those who start in their eighties and older, is Legs Up the Wall Pose.

Yoga’s Great Rejuvenator
Supported Legs Up the Wall Pose (Viparita Karani in Sanskrit), known as Yoga’s Great Rejuvenator, is a gentle, inverted pose that can be practiced by almost everyone. It is a safe position that most people can hold long enough so that gravity can return the blood from the extremities to the vital organs.

How to Practice Supported Leg Up the Wall Pose
If you are new to yoga, you may find it helpful to first be familiar with simply relaxing with your legs on the wall. If you have difficulty lowering yourself to the floor, you can practice this in bed by positioning one side of your bed right against a bare wall.

1. Sit sideways on the floor beside a wall, knees bent, with one shoulder and hip touching the wall.

2. Lower your back to the floor, with your legs bent, keeping your bottom close to
the wall.

3. Swing around to bring your legs up the wall, supporting yourself on your elbows and forearms.

4. Place a folded blanket under your head if necessary, to keep the forehead and chin level. Your neck must feel comfortable, without any tightness or pinching at the nape. If blood flow to the head is obstructed, the brain cannot relax.

The next step is to practice with one or two folded blankets within easy reach.

5. Bend your knees, press your feet into the wall, lift your lower back off the floor and place the blanket under your bottom, with your lower back supported.

With practice, you can increase the height under your bottom with additional blankets or a yoga bolster.

Note: Placing folded blankets under your bottom repositions the head and you may no longer need the blanket under your head. People with a very rounded upper back (kyphosis) may still need a folded blanket under the head even when the bottom is supported.

Close your eyes. Observe the rise and fall of your breath. Stay in the pose ten minutes or longer.

When you are ready to come out of the pose, bend your knees, press your feet into the wall, lift your hips and move away from the wall until your whole back rests on the floor.

When you feel ready, turn to your right side and sit up. If you are tired, it is natural to fall asleep in this pose. This pose can be a lifesaver and is well worth learning under the guidance of a knowledgeable teacher.

An eye bag over the eyes and a sandbag on the feet increase the feeling of relaxation.

Note how the position of the bolster causes the rib cage to open and spread. The width of the blanket depends somewhat on your height and flexibility. For most people, the edge of the blanket can be placed at the waist. This placement allows the back to curve in such a way that the chest opens and the lower back feels comfortable.

Part of the soothing effect derived from Supported Legs Up the Wall Pose is due to the angle of the torso.

Note in the photo how the bolster positioned under the pelvis brings the torso into a gentle supported backbend, while the wall supports the legs. As you lie in the pose, you can imagine that its shape creates an internal waterfall, as the fluid in the legs cascades down to the abdomen and spills over into the chest, toward the heart. This waterfall effect creates a peaceful, soothing sensation.

Practice this daily if your legs and feet swell easily or if you have varicose veins. When you are tired, get in the habit of napping with your legs up the wall to replenish your energy reserves.


–Suza Francina, RYT, is a certified iyengar yoga instructor and has taught yoga since 1972. She teaches yoga internationally and is the author of The New Yoga for People Over 50 and The New Yoga for Healthy Aging: Living Longer, Living Stronger and Loving Every Day. To learn more, visit her website.

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