The other day a woman who’s been coming for around 6 months to my Ageless Yoga classes came back from clearing out her mother’s cluttered home of a zillion years and remarked at how much stronger she felt. “It has to be the yoga!”, she said. (And her husband told her she looks taller.)
As a teacher of “Ageless Yoga”, designed for people over 50, I know the benefits of yoga for this population, but was heartened by a study I read recently in the Oxford Journals of Gerontology which outlines the benefits of yoga for a common issue, falls. While other forms of exercise have been studied in relation to fall prevention, yoga has been less researched in this area. Since falls loom so large in the landscape of aging, it’s a particularly important finding that yoga is so beneficial in fall prevention.
Folks older than 65 are at great risk for falling, which can result in very serious problems including head injuries and hip fractures. In these more serious falls, mobility is lost for the short or long term, which further exacerbates the situation and can result in other problems and decline in general health. Falling can occur for many reasons and many factors influence likelihood of falling, from simple things like poor lighting, to various illnesses, to decreased muscle mass and strength, to a less active lifestyle, etc.
Just a couple of months ago, my dear senior neighbor, miscalculated by throwing a bag of recycling down several stairs, which caused her to lose her balance, fall and hit her head. She was in the hospital and skilled nursing for almost 2 months. When I visited her at these facilities, I wondered if she’d be returning home. I was delighted to see her back home a couple of weeks ago. Yet while her attitude remains mostly positive, her strength is greatly diminished and she needs much more care– before the fall, she was on her own most of the time. Knowing her has brought home to me once again the very real danger of falls and the potential impact on one’s life.
According to the article which summarizes the study, lower limb strength (tested by getting up from a chair: sit to stand test), balance (tested by standing on one leg plus other simple standing balances), and walking test are the main ways to predict fall risk in individuals. Exercise can benefit these areas, thus reducing fall risk. But most improvement was seen in the yoga group in the sit to stand test and walking for 4m. Apparently, slowness, 12 seconds or more, in getting up from a chair, demonstrates vulnerability to falling.
The poses taught in the study were all standing poses:
- Tadasana (Mountain Pose) with arms extended
- Trikonasana (Triangle Pose)
- Virabhadrasana (Warrior) I, II, III
- Vrksasana (Tree Pose)
- Ardha Chandrasana (Half Moon Pose)
Support was used as necessary (wall, blocks, belts, etc.). Poses were introduced and taught over 12-week period of time, 2X per week, with a gradual increase in difficulty and use of less support (walls and props) as tolerated. This plan is consistent with a back care study I participated in as a teacher a number of years ago, and the length of time and frequency seem to be a good plan for studying effect over reasonable and solid time period, with regular participation.
As all of us who practice are well aware, standing poses develop strength and mobility, especially in the legs, and improve balance. In choosing these basic standing poses, the students in the study were also being challenged to extend their torsos and arms, change their relationship to gravity, look in different directions, all of which will enhance ability to balance. The use of props makes our system more accessible and useful to this population of students and aid in balancing. The ability to focus and pay attention, which arises from holding postures, can also help in this regard. While these things were not directly studied, it’s interesting to ponder the many ways these postures might affect the areas that were studied and resulted in improvement.
Interestingly, the study, which was conducted among people who had to get themselves to class twice a week for twelve weeks, showed greater adherence and enjoyment than in other forms of exercise. My experience with the “Ageless” class is the same. It’s also startlingly clear in teaching older adults (no one really ones to be called “elderly” and “senior” is just a little better!) that the camaraderie of the class is highly valued and fosters the consistency of the group. They enjoy the regular social contact and look forward to seeing one another. The supportive spirit allows for mutual appreciation and there is less of a tendency to feel or be competitive. The sense of community means people are more likely to persist. Combine this with a sense of enjoying the practice itself, and people persevere.
Balance and strength in the body are fundamental and essential to being an independent person. Yoga gives students these building blocks. Practice over time often shows us in hindsight that what we came to Yoga for initially takes us to the unexpected and unforeseen. Learning we couldn’t have anticipated comes our way, physically, mentally, inwardly.
A study like this one helps us to understand some of the measurable ways Iyengar Yoga can benefit people, and thus to encourage more people to experience these benefits and begin practicing. A goal like fall prevention is a wonderful entrance for older adults into the practice of Iyengar Yoga. Who knows from that beginning what layers of learning, benefit, awareness, and appreciation of the miracles of life, may well unfold?
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Nora Burnett has been teaching since 1988. A graduate of the Iyengar Yoga Institute Advanced Studies/ Teacher Training Program, she is certified Junior Intermediate III. She has had the opportunity to study in India with the Iyengars 6 times and at home with Senior teachers. As a current faculty member and public class teacher, Nora is grateful to share the knowledge, passed on to her, with others. She brings many years of experience in dance and bodywork to her understanding of anatomy, function, physical challenges, and the human spirit- all of which are a source of continual learning and fascination.
Nora is a faculty member of the Teacher Training Program as well teaching level 1-5. She also offers weekly Ageless Yoga classes. She has taught workshops for hips, shoulder, the psoas, hamstrings, chest openings, the ropes, arm balances, lotus pose, twists. She has experience teaching special classes for back care.