Yoga strengthens and stretches the body while also using the breath to focus and calm the mind. The practice offers multiple benefits for everyone, especially older adults. Yoga is a wonderful exercise on its own and a complement to other sports and physical activities.
Originating in India, yoga has been around for more than 5,000 years. In its full form, yoga is a path for life that encompasses practices for the mind, body, and spirit. It is a philosophy for well-being, not a religion. In the West, the emphasis has mostly been on yoga as a physical practice combined with some breath work and meditation.
Beginning with the Breath
Breathing exercises, a common opening practice in many yoga classes, help increase circulation throughout the body. “The breath work can improve relaxation and our stress response, which can positively influence our immune and cardiovascular systems,” explains physical therapist Helen H. Setyan, DPT, RYT, UCLA Department of Rehabilitation Services. “Stress impacts every system in our bodies, so if we can influence our breath then we can influence every system in the body.”
There are many techniques for yogic breathing, called pranayama. For example, “breath of fire” is meant to invigorate the body with short, quick rhythmic breathing, requiring core muscle control. “Alternate nostril breathing” is said to bring oxygen to different parts of the brain.
Pranayama can also be as simple as slowly inhaling and slowly exhaling. Doing that for just a few minutes can quickly calm the mind and the body.
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Stretching Out Stiffness
If you’ve ever felt stiff after waking or sitting for a long time, you know that a good stretch can feel fantastic. With age, muscles, tendons, ligaments, and connective tissue (called fascia) can become less flexible. Some inflexibility is due to changes in collagen fibers. But, stiffness also is due to lack of activity. Yoga poses (also called postures or “asanas” in Sanskrit) can increase flexibility, strength, and balance.
Postures should be held for at least 20 seconds to elongate muscle fibers. Focusing on the breath helps practitioners become more aware of how the body feels from the inside. This is particularly important when it comes to stretching because over-stretching can lead to injury.
Most instructors will simply cue students to inhale and exhale several times rather than actually count the seconds. There could be a mild sensation of pulling when holding the pose, but nothing should ever hurt. If you feel a sharp stabbing pain or joint discomfort, you’re stretching too far. Reduce the degree of the stretch so it doesn’t hurt. Relaxing as you exhale also helps encourage muscles to let go. Often, people aren’t even aware that they are tensing a muscle until they focus and relax into their bodies.
Know also that how you’re directed to do a particular pose depends on the style of the class. The same posture can stretch and strengthen, depending on the intention. Strength comes from muscular exertion. Flexibility is derived through release of tightly held muscular effort. Some classes focus on both, while others may emphasize one more than the other.
Finding an Appropriate Yoga Class
Yoga comes in many styles. Hot yoga is done in a room heated to about 100 degrees. The heat can help muscles relax and elongate. It’s best to do this style of yoga in a room that is warmed with moist heat and well-ventilated. Floors should be wood or made of an antibacterial material, rather than carpeting.
The style that ignited hot yoga is called Bikram, which started in the 1970s and features 26 postures. It’s very vigorous, and modifications are uncommon. The concept of doing yoga in a hot room has since expanded to other styles.
Use caution and common sense regarding classes held in heated rooms, as they may not be appropriate for those with certain health conditions or who are taking certain medications. Drinking water during these classes is a must. The heat can cause dehydration and increased heart rate. Similarly, power yoga, flow classes, and Ashtanga are demanding styles and designed for more seasoned practitioners.
For more information about yoga, purchase Easy Exercises: 10 Activities for Fitness and Fun at www.UniversityHealthNews.com.
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