Yoga for People 50 and Up: What You Need to Know

Health Writer
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It’s never too late to increase balance, strength, and flexibility. Follow these tips for finding the best class for you.

When it comes to increasing joint mobility, easing chronic conditions, reducing blood pressure, and improving sleep, numerous studies have pointed to yoga as a top tactic. For those over 50, there are even more benefits, such as reduced risk of falls, slowed progression of osteoporosis, and a greater sense of wellbeing.

That’s likely why yoga classes for those over 50 are popping up nationwide. But for those who are new to the practice, even the thought of rolling out a mat can sometimes feel intimidating. Will the teacher try to bend you into a pretzel? Will everyone else there be doing backbends while you’re lucky to tie your shoes on a good day? Do you have to buy those skin-tight yoga pants? The answers are no, no, and best of all, no.

The trick to making the most of yoga is finding a class that’s a good fit for you. Follow these tips and you’re likely to click with a teacher and a group that can get you closer to your fitness goals:

Look for chair yoga options

If you’re brand new to the practice, chair yoga can be an excellent starting point. These classes or sessions do many standard yoga poses while seated, or using a chair for support during balance moves. That can give you a sense of stability, especially if you’re dealing with injuries or mobility issues.

“You want to feel supported, because that will allow you to do more in terms of stretching, twisting, and breathing more deeply,” says Minneapolis-based yoga teacher Jessica Rosenberg, who offers teacher trainings in chair yoga. Movements are often slow, gentle, and clearly explained.

Can’t find a class in your area or want to try it out before you join a group? YouTube to the rescue. Simply go on the website and type “chair yoga” into the search bar. As of this writing, there are 539,000 results. Some videos are only a few minutes long, while others might be 20 to 30 minutes.

Start slow and increase ability over time Novice runners don’t usually choose a marathon for a first race. They build up stamina, endurance, and strength over time and see very gradual improvements. The same happens with yoga — many people, especially those over age 50, benefit from doing what they can at the time, while honoring their limitations.

“There’s a difference between challenging yourself and pushing past your comfort point,” Rosenberg says. “You need to listen to your body.”

In other words, if it hurts, don’t do it. A chair yoga teacher will often offer different modifications on a pose so that you still get benefits, without aggravating any nagging trouble spots. You may find that over time, especially with regular class attendance, that a pose you once thought was impossible now becomes routine.

If you’re doing chair yoga on your own, focus on shorter sessions first — just a few minutes a day can be helpful — as well as easy-to-do poses. Gradually build up to longer and more challenging sessions.

“When just starting out, you want to keep it simple and avoid certain postures that might put strain on your body or that involve being upside down,” says Santa Barbara-based yoga instructor and personal trainer Jimmy Minardi. “It’s best to start with a very gentle program, coupled with a light aerobic activity like walking or swimming.”

Click with your teacher

You could find a class with the best possible series of poses that seem tailor-made for you, but if you don’t like the teacher, it’s going to be tough to motivate yourself to go. Much like any other type of professional relationship, there’s a chance you won’t quite connect with a certain yoga teacher, and that’s okay.

Some might be super high energy, so the class moves much faster than you’d like. Others might be the opposite, and you spend class feeling restless because you want to do more. Most notably, you may find that a teacher isn’t providing enough modifications on poses, so you feel like the class is at a higher level than you are.

In any of these instances, look for a different class. Yoga teachers know that not every teacher-student pairing will be a love match. Shop around a bit, if you can. Most likely, you’ll find the teacher that’s right for you in terms of personality, instruction style, and skill progression.

Before you start a new class, see if you can have a quick chat with the teacher beforehand. Tell him or her about any injuries or limitations, or simply about your goals. Often, a teacher can modify a class based on that information. For example, you might say that you want to gain better balance — the teacher can then spend more time during that class on supported balance poses.

Wear what you want

Whether you’re doing chair yoga or a beginning yoga class, you don’t need to invest in a new workout wardrobe. Simply wear comfortable clothes that you move in during twists, supported lunges, and forward bends. That might mean it’s best to wear sweatpants and a long t-shirt.

In beginning yoga classes, many people take their shoes off and practice barefoot, because they find it easier to do poses without sliding on the ground. But you’ll find that chair yoga students often prefer to keep their shoes on, because they feel more ankle and arch support that way.

It’s your choice — fortunately, there’s no “yoga uniform.” Just choose clothing and shoes that let you move easily, with minimal readjustment during poses.

Recognize that yoga is for everyone

Although some ads and magazines may feature svelte young women doing circus-level yoga poses, there is a breadth of yoga options that encompass every type of ability, age, and situation.

For example, Minnesota teacher Matthew Sanford is a pioneer in adapting yoga for people with disabilities, and teaches classes from his wheelchair. In North Carolina, yoga teacher Jessamyn Stanley is passionate about bringing her high-energy classes to those who are overweight and obese. Yoga classes are now taught in schools for the blind, hospice centers, children’s summer camps, and memory care communities.

“It doesn’t matter how old you are, what injuries you might have, or what health challenges you’re facing,” says Rosenberg. “You can adapt yoga to be what you need. You just have to take that first step forward and give it a try.”

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