Yoga and the Art of Healthy Aging

Yoga and the Art of Healthy Aging

Alison Irwin

Photos by Peter Hares

My personal journey with yoga started when I was in elementary school, tagging along with my mom to her weekly community yoga class. With this early-established interest in health and well-being practices, I continue to follow the yoga path throughout my life. Five decades later, my experience with yoga has become even more enjoyable and beneficial.

The ancient Indian practice of yoga traces back over five thousand years. It has stood the test of time, and has become one of the most popular regimes to support a healthy lifestyle for an aging population. Yoga offers a complete package for physical, mental, and emotional health by focusing on physical postures, breathing exercises, and meditation.

The word “yoga” comes from the Sanskrit root word yuj, meaning to join or to yoke. Yoga represents the connection — or union — between body, mind, and heart. The mindful practice of yoga offers the opportunity to cultivate a more positive relationship with all parts of ourselves as we navigate the aging process.

Research shows that a positive attitude toward aging can extend our life span up to 7.5 years. Other studies indicate that older adults who follow a regular yoga practice can help stave off the signs of premature aging. A yoga practice is just the ticket to address many of the predictors of longevity— from improved strength, balance, and flexibility to enhanced overall well-being and daily stress management.

The benefits of yoga are vast. One of the greatest benefits is the positive effect yoga has on stress and depression management. Stress is the number one factor in premature aging.

Chronic stress is when the “all clear” signal is unable to get through to the body. The system remains flooded with the stress hormone cortisol. Elevated levels of cortisol cause cellular inflammation, which is the primary cause of all degenerative diseases.

The slow, mindful quality of the movements of yoga and the deep breathing exercises allow the central nervous system to come into balance, and endorphins — or our feel-good hormones — are released. This provides the perfect combination for stress relief and depression management.

As we age, our body requires special care and attention. Yoga offers a safe, non-competitive environment to explore our physical strengths and limitations.

Yoga is invaluable for strengthening the big muscle groups, keeping joints supported and supple, and keeping bones strong. It provides the body awareness and core strength to maintain an upright youthful posture.

There is a saying in yoga — “You’re only as old as your spine is supple.” A yoga practice provides the rare opportunity to mobilize the spine in five different directions: lengthening, forward bending, backward bending, side bending, and twisting.

An average day may only provide a couple of these spinal movements. A regular yoga practice guarantees that the spine will be sufficiently mobilized in all directions, thus strengthening muscles and creating much needed space between vertebrae.

When it comes to flexibility and strength, we are often quick to label ourselves as “not flexible” or “not very strong.” Functional flexibility, strength, and balance are what we are interested in when it comes to our daily activities. We want to continue to get up from the floor, our bed, or a chair. We want to be able to bend down and reach up, and have the stamina to do the activities we enjoy. The variety of yoga poses are endless to gently and safely build functional flexibility, strength, and balance.

An invaluable dimension of yoga is the practice of deeper breathing. Breathwork is the foundation of yoga. Deeper breathing slows down the heart rate and lowers blood pressure. Flexibility of the chest wall is improved through deeper breathing, and lung capacity is maintained. This increases oxygen intake at a cellular level, providing the much needed “get up and go” energy.

Mindful deeper breathing is the gateway to meditation, which is associated with improved mental clarity, concentration, focus, and memory. Yoga postures coupled with mindful breathing become an effective and enjoyable moving meditation.

There are many styles of yoga to choose from for the older adult, depending on lifestyle and personal needs, from stronger yoga practices to gentler styles to chair yoga. The beauty of yoga is that it is never too late to get started and immediately reap the benefits of this tried-and-true healing art form.

Alison Irwin is a Certified Yoga Instructor and former Edmonton Public Schools teacher. Alison lives and teaches yoga on Gabriola Island as well as leads classes on Zoom.