Never too old for yoga: How Yoga Therapy paves the path to ageing gracefully

As life expectancy increases and with the number of people over 60 set to double by 2050, the quest for healthy ageing has become an important concern for many of us. In this pursuit, the holistic approach of yoga therapy is gaining prominence, and lighting the way as a beacon of wellbeing. Yoga therapy offers a profound and multifaceted approach to healthy ageing, addressing the mind, the body and the soul.

[Y]oga has been shown to relieve many ailments common among older adults including improving blood pressure, heart rate and insulin resistance, relieving anxiety and depression, easing back pain, and alleviating sleep problems. On a cellular level, one study even described improvements in biological markers of ageing in people who practise yoga and meditation, suggesting that these practices may hold the key to delay ageing and age gracefully.”

Yogatherapy.health

The Physical Benefits

Enhanced Flexibility and Mobility:

Yoga therapy is renowned for its ability to increase flexibility and improve joint mobility. As we age, the body naturally loses some of its elasticity, leading to stiffness. Yoga poses and stretches performed mindfully, help counteract this process, promoting a greater range of motion and reducing the risk of injuries.

Classical yoga postures may not be appropriate for many people.  A trained Yoga Therapist however will ensure safe adaptations and modifications in order for their clients to reap all of the health benefits of yoga while also mitigating risk.

Whilst my priority as a Yoga Therapist is creating a safe environment for my clients, it is of equal importance that this safety does not create a sense of fear or limitation. Yoga therapy is ultimately about empowerment. 

Yoga therapy client and therapist

Strength Building:

Two prevalent physical changes due to ageing are the loss of muscle mass and the stiffening of our tendons, both of which lead to many functional changes. This can result in weakness and a higher susceptibility to falls. Yoga therapy may incorporate weight-bearing poses that strengthen muscles, bones, and connective tissues. This not only aids in maintaining a robust physique but also fortifies the skeletal structure, reducing the likelihood of fractures.

Osteoporosis is one of the most common skeletal disorders. In 2021 within the UK, 21.9% of women and 6.7% of men aged 50 years or more were estimated to have osteoporosis. Women are around four times more likely to develop osteoporosis than men.  For women, a drop in oestrogen at the time of menopause leads to a more rapid and significant loss of bone mass. For men, this happens later beginning around age 70, due to a drop in testosterone. Certain medications (notably steroids) and medical conditions (such as rheumatoid arthritis and eating disorders) can also contribute to osteoporosis. 

When bone mass is low but not low enough to be classified as osteoporosis, this is called osteopenia or “bone poverty.” It precedes, but does not always lead to osteoporosis. While lower bone density means greater risk of fractures (most commonly in the spine, wrist and especially the hip), more fractures tend to occur in those with osteopenia rather than those with osteoporosis; mainly because a greater number of people have osteopenia. 

Hip fracture specifically has been shown to be one of the most disabling and costly types of fracture and worryingly has also been shown to lead to increased morbidity and mortality.  Within the UK mortality is high; around 10% of people with a hip fracture die within 1 month, and about one third within 12 months (It is important to note however that not all deaths are attributable solely to the fracture and that there is also a high prevalence of comorbidity in people with hip fractures).

Yoga tree pose

Balancing Act:

Tom Myers, author of the acclaimed bodywork guide Anatomy Trains states that how well you move and particularly how fast you’re able to walk as you get older, predicts how long you’re going to live.  He describes how the speed with which you walk, down to the 10th of a second, can even predict your chance of surviving cancer.  One of the key factors for this is the ageing of the fascial network, the connective tissue of the body.

“What causes us to move more slowly, and have less movement capacity, is the loss of the suppleness, hydration, and resilience of the fascial network. As the fascia gets stiffer as we age, it gradually robs us of our freedom of movement.  Once the fascia thickens or gets stiffer, it loses its ability to slide and stretch. This in turn, disrupts our balance and ability to move freely the way we are used to.”

Fortunately, there are ways to reverse this trend. Exercising of course makes a big difference, but for even greater benefits, you may choose to work alongside a yoga therapist to work on stretching the fascia and fostering myofascial release.  A yoga therapist may also prescribe yoga poses that focus on stability and coordination which can be instrumental in preventing falls, helping to promote a sense of equilibrium and improve overall spatial awareness.

Yoga

The Mental and Emotional Benefits

Stress Reduction:

Ageing often brings its fair share of stressors; be it health concerns, financial worries or changes in social dynamics. As we slowly lose our freedom of movement, our vitality, energy and general quality of life may also begin to suffer. Additionally a limited ability to move can contribute to mental health issues, including depression.

Wilting flower

Yoga therapy uses mindful breathing and meditation; proven techniques for stress reduction. This not only contributes to a more peaceful mindset but also positively impacts physiological functions.

Cognitive Agility:

Research suggests that regular practice of yoga and mindfulness can enhance cognitive function and stave off age-related cognitive decline. The combination of physical postures, breathing exercises, and meditation creates a combination that nurtures mental clarity, focus, and memory retention.

We may expect to become more forgetful as we age, however research has shown that through the practice of yoga and mindfulness, that we can in fact slow down or even prevent age-related thinning of the frontal cortex; the area of the brain associated with the formation of memories.

Those who practised mindfulness in their 40’s and 50’s were shown to have the same amount of grey matter as those in their 20’s and 30’s.  In long-term mindfulness practitioners, thicker cortical regions (related to attention and sensory processing) were found when compared with those who did not regularly practise mindfulness.  

Brain connections

Research Studies conducted by Harvard Medical school show more evidence that yoga physically changes our brains.  When we practise yoga, our brain cells develop new connections and changes occur not only in brain structure but in function as well; resulting in improved cognitive skills such as learning and memory.  Yoga has been shown to strengthen parts of the brain that play a key role in attention, awareness, thought and language.  As with mindfulness, brain imaging scans have shown that people who regularly practise yoga have a thicker cerebral cortex (the area of the brain responsible for information processing) and a thicker hippocampus (the area of the brain involved in learning and memory) compared with those who don’t practise yoga.  These areas of the brain typically shrink as we age but strikingly the older yoga practitioners showed less shrinkage than those who did no yoga.  This may suggest that simple yoga and mindfulness techniques may offset cortical thinning brought about by ageing. 

Emotional Well-being:

Yoga therapy encourages self-reflection and a deeper connection with one’s emotions. As we navigate the challenges that come with ageing, this practice provides a nurturing space to cultivate resilience, acceptance, and a positive outlook on life.

A 2008 study found that yoga practice, including yoga philosophy, helps to keep seniors engaged, especially in that of group classes for seniors.

Another important factor is social support.  Data has shown that having fewer feelings of loneliness and higher levels of emotional support were directly associated with a reduced mortality risk.  We even have a Loneliness Minister in the UK. The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared loneliness to be a pressing global health threat, with the US surgeon general saying that its mortality effects are equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. 

In another study conducted by Levy, Slade, Kunkel & Kasl in 2002 which looked at longevity alongside self-perceptions of ageing, it was concluded that:

People who have a positive view of ageing live an average of 7.5 years longer than people who have a negative view of ageing.

Ageing couple yoga

The Spiritual Connection

Mind-Body Union:

There is an important connection between spirituality and late-life health, with spiritual activities said to be able to predict longevity.  Meta analysis of 29 articles showed that those with spiritual involvement were almost 30% less likely to have died than those with lower involvement during a set period of time.

Yoga therapy is founded on the principle of uniting the mind and body. By fostering this mind-body connection, individuals can experience a profound sense of inner harmony and peace, contributing to an overall feeling of wellbeing.

Purposeful Ageing:

Ageing is not just a biological process; it is also a spiritual journey. Yoga therapy guides individuals to explore their inner selves, helping them find purpose and meaning in this stage of life. The spiritual aspect of yoga can be a source of strength and resilience, enabling us to embrace the wisdom that comes with age.

It is well quoted that the only constant in life is change, but during our senior years the shifts may become more noticeable to us. The ancient practice of yoga therapy offers a holistic approach that goes beyond the physical realm. Although yoga therapy cannot reverse time, it may be able to help slow the progression of change thus allowing us to maintain our quality of life as we age. By incorporating yoga therapy into our lives, we can gracefully navigate the challenges of ageing, fostering a harmonious balance between the body, mind and spirit. Embracing the golden years becomes a journey of self-discovery, resilience and a celebration of the wisdom that comes with the passage of time. 

Ageing woman practising yoga

“If you change the way you look at things,
the things you look at change”

Dr Wayne Dyer

Put simply, you don’t have to have the “right” shape, size, or level of fitness to begin your yoga therapy journey. Any time is the right time to start, and it is never too late to add yoga into your life!

In gratitude and appreciation of my teachers Whitney O’Baugh & Mark Uridel for their comprehensive and ceaseless exploration into yoga and the ageless therapeutic benefits it offers the body, mind and soul which are referenced throughout this piece of writing.  

Sources: 

Bernado, L.
https://lisabernardo.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/02/The-effect-of-yoga-on-markers-of-bone-turnover-in-osteopenic-women1.pdf

Harvard Medical School https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/yoga-for-better-mental-health#:~:text=A%20sharper%20brain&text=When%20you%20do%20yoga%2C%20your,awareness%2C%20thought
%2C%20and%20language.

International Journal of Yoga Therapy (IJYT)

International Osteoporosis Foundation
https://www.osteoporosis.foundation/sites/iofbonehealth/files/scope-2021/UK%20report.pdf

Journal of Personality and Social Psychology
https://www.apa.org/pubs/journals/releases/psp-832261.pdf

Khalsa, S., Cohen, L. et al. Principles and Practice of Yoga in Health Care 2016

National Institute on Aging https://www.nia.nih.gov/

NICE
https://www.nice.org.uk/guidance/cg124/documents/hip-fracture-final-scope2

O’Baugh, W. (2021) ‘The therapeutic effects of mindfulness meditation’ (Lecture), YT107.10: Yoga Therapy Tools & The Subtle Body. Practice School of Yoga Therapy. 10 November.

Uridel, M. (2023) ‘Osteoporosis and Yoga Therapy’ (Lecture), YT306.09: Essential Applied Yoga Therapy. Practice School of Yoga Therapy. 11 February.

World Health Organization
https://www.who.int/teams/social-determinants-of-health/demographic-change-and-healthy-ageing/social-isolation-and-loneliness

yoga4seniors.com
https://www.yoga4seniors.com/wp-content/uploads/2023/07/The-Yoga-for-Seniors-22Continuum-of-Practice22-TGR.pdf

yogatherapy.health
https://yogatherapy.health/2023/08/24/a-key-to-aging-gracefully/
https://yogatherapy.health/2023/08/10/never-too-old-yoga-for-healthy-aging/
https://yogatherapy.health/2022/03/31/a-yoga-therapists-insights-into-making-yoga-accessible-to-seniors/
https://yogatherapy.health/2019/09/26/some-people-excel-at-growing-older-and-happier-and-some-dont-which-one-are-you/

YogaUOnline.com

Tom Myers: Yoga for Ageless Living: Fascia & The New Science of Flexibility