I recently befriended two people in their 80s that are intelligent and enthusiastic about their lives.
One runs a non-profit for underprivileged children and the other is a gender-equality activist. One is a yoga student of mine, and the other a fellow comrade of personal-empowerment and authentic living. What I am coming to learn from each of them is the importance of a physical discipline that benefits mental faculties.
Here are my top five reasons why our elders need to practice the physical discipline of hatha yoga:
1. Cognitive Resiliency
Yoga’s process of drawing distinction between body parts, sensations and degrees of effort supports increased self-awareness, proprioception (the mind’s GPS) and balance. By coordinating different and often contrasting regions of the body, both sides of the brain communicate better, which could be linked to improved memory and decision-making skills.
Engaging in new physical routines builds and strengthens brain pathways. This action of neuroplasticity has been shown to ward off Alzheimer’s symptoms and also increase intelligence.
2. Improved Circulation
Breathing practices alone will help to increase movement in the upper back and chest at a time in the aging process where this region is often stiff, dehydrated and compressed. Regular yoga practice can also act as a preventative measure for pneumonia in older populations that are especially vulnerable to this sometimes fatal condition.
When gravity has been pressing down on the sphincters, vessels and cavities of our bodies for decades, the fullness of circulation can deplete and pulmonary issues are more likely. With age and habit, connective tissues harden, leading to discomfort and inflammation.
The dynamic movement sequences in a typical yoga class cause pressure and release for the organs and connective tissues that hold the body together, thought to work like a gentle massage for these areas. Whenever we increase blood flow to an area of the body, that innate healing intelligence activates, improving our odds to fit off stress and its consequences.
3. Sustained Strength and Flexibility
With age, our joints and bones become more vulnerable to fractures and inflammation, but yoga’s signature method of low-impact, resistance training builds muscle tone and strength. Even a gentle practice with just a few weight-bearing poses can help retain strength and stave off issues related to arthritis. That adage about “being set in their ways” isn’t so far off in this case. Habits and a more sedentary lifestyle will atrophy muscle tissue, causing weakness and poor circulation. But, hatha yoga encourages the body to lengthen muscle fibers that are often short and stressed, increasing flexibility and also resiliency.
4. Improved Focus and Willpower
Concentrating is difficult enough in our busy, over-stimulated modern world and the elderly feel the effects, too. When that kapha influence of laying low and keeping cool are the signature influences of this stage of life, willpower and the motivation to exercise or meditate can be daunting (especially if regular exercise and mindfulness work isn’t part of the daily routine). A regular hath yoga practice can quell the stiff inertia of immobility without the over-exertion of more athletic exercise programs.
5. To Maintain Well-being
All my elderly friends and family often share with me how they enjoy being around younger people. Getting into the healthy habit of a regular yoga practice promotes socializing, sharing and community building. Mindfulness, resiliency in the body-mind, and honoring the aging process for what it is, all help to maintain wellness. Living a healthy, active life aids in increasing the feel-good hormones in the brain that elevate mood. Also, having cross-generations mingle together in the supportive environment of a yoga class sets a great model for younger generations who have outdated ideas about what it means to grow older.
Like every wise-elder archetype ever, my friends dole out some pretty wonderful insights about growing up and getting closer to death. They joke about being “old” and how yoga makes them feel young and strong.
If we are really only as young as our spine is healthy, could you imagine what our world would be like if our oldest tribe members were backbending their way to the grave?