Questions About Yoga in Your Middle Years

While many yoga classes across the country seem to cater to the youthful enthusiast who wants to sweat his or her way through an hour-and-a-half workout, a growing number of longtime yoga devotees are raising questions about the best way to safely continue a yoga practice into midlife and beyond.

“I suspect that yoga was at times an old person’s sport and that it has prolonged the life and liveliness of people over the millennia,” said Dr. Loren Fishman, a back-pain specialist in Manhattan who uses yoga in his rehabilitation practice and has written extensively about yoga as an adjunct to medical treatment.

“Designed appropriately and taken in the proper dose,” he said, “it is certainly safe.”

Carrie Owerko, a New York-based teacher of Iyengar yoga who has been a yoga student for decades, agreed. “Yoga can be practiced fully and deeply at any age,” she said, with an added caution that “the practice has to change as the body changes.”

Dr. Fishman noted that aging brings impairments of range, motion, strength and balance that can require modifications, even among veteran yogis, like using the support of a chair or the wall for many poses. In addition, students may begin to feel the effects of arthritis, injuries and other ailments that may require students skip certain poses altogether.

Someone with osteoporosis, for example, may want to avoid headstands and poses requiring extreme spinal flexion or extension, while someone with glaucoma may want to avoid taking the head below the heart in poses like headstand, handstand, shoulder stand and standing forward bends. When in doubt about the safety of practicing with any specific medical condition, Dr. Fishman recommended working with a doctor.

Generally speaking, a warm-up sequence is important for the veteran yogi, Ms. Owerko said. “Our bodies may need more time to warm up properly, especially if we are experiencing stiffness or arthritic changes in the joints or in areas that may be more vulnerable to previous injuries,” she said.

It is also important to include various one-legged standing poses — Tree Pose or Eagle Pose are examples — that challenge one’s ability to balance, even if you need the support of the wall, Ms. Owerko said. Weight-bearing poses, like Plank Pose and Forearm Plank, and standing poses like Warrior pose variations, are also important to help counteract the decline in muscle mass and strength as we age, she said.

To help maintain flexibility, poses like standing or seated forward bends and hip openers, like Bound Angle Pose or Pigeon Pose, are also important, said Roger Cole, a longtime Iyengar yoga teacher and research psychobiologist in San Diego.

Mr. Cole emphasized that a regular yoga practice can help the body maintain a high level of flexibility into midlife and beyond. If a student continues the same practice as much as possible without interruption through the 50s and beyond, he or she will see a gradual decline in certain abilities, but not necessarily a decline in flexibility, he said.

“I think the average person probably does get stiffer as they age,” he said, “but I believe that it’s mainly because they stop doing the things that keep them flexible.”

The passage of more and more baby boomer yogis, teachers as well as students, into and past middle age has sparked interest in creating a new kind of peer yoga community as well.

Desirée Rumbaugh, a longtime yoga teacher who passed the 50-year mark a few years ago, started a class in Del Mar, Calif., aimed at yoga veterans 50 and over. Called Wisdom Warriors, it was intended to offer veteran yogis the chance to keep learning in an environment that is comfortable and encouraging.

“People want to be pushed, but not in the same way they did in their 30s,” she said. “They want a little slower pace.”

Slower pace or not, Ms. Rumbaugh includes a full range of poses in her classes, including backbends and inversions. A recent Wisdom Warriors workshop, presented by Ms. Rumbaugh and Cyndi Lee at the Yoga Journal Conference in New York in April, would have been a vigorous day of yoga for students of any age.

Debra Hodgen, 61, of Vista, Calif., is a student in Ms. Rumbaugh’s class. A former dancer, she said that she began a consistent yoga practice when she was 48. She said she has become “stronger and more fearless” as a result of the class, despite having osteoarthritis, no cartilage in her right knee and joint pain throughout her body.

“I may have trouble just sitting in simple cross-legged pose, but I did full Monkey Pose recently,” she said.

The most important way a seasoned student will be able to continue to practice safely, many teachers say, is to listen to signals their body sends them in class, and know when to back off.

“In my experience, older students often bring a mature wisdom to the practice,” said Ms. Owerko, who turned 51 this week and has for many years attended an advanced yoga retreated for women over 40. “They have lived long enough to have a sense of humor about themselves. And they are often more compassionate toward themselves and other students.”

Do you have a question about yoga over 50? Dr. Loren Fishman is answering reader questions on the Booming blog.

10 Tips for Starting Yoga After Age 50

I was asked to teach a “Yoga Over 50” class at my local studio. I’m pretty sure the intention of adding the class was to reassure newcomers that it was a back-and joint-friendly class with options for their changing bodies. The title received mixed reviews from many of those in the 50-plus age bracket who populate the vinyasa classes. They were irked at the implication that they should be “relegated” to an age-specific yoga class.

I understand their irritation. For many agile and longtime yoga practitioners, the faster pace and more strenuous asanas are just what they are looking for, especially if they primarily practice yoga for fitness. But the fact that we can “keep up” in the hardest class doesn’t mean it’s the most beneficial thing for us all the time—no matter how old we are.

Despite the flak, it turned out to be a popular class. Some who came had practiced for a long time and were curious about how it differed from a regular yoga class. Some were just coming back to asana after a break and didn’t want to get trounced in a class with quick transitions, deep backbends, or arm balances. Others came following surgery or injury. And some were brand new to yoga and came on recommendation from a doctor or a friend. I even had one student in her early 40s who showed up because she likes therapeutic classes.

What the dissenters didn’t understand was that starting yoga later does entail adjustments and that practice itself does change as we age—for the better! Yoga after 50 is a time for moving inward, and that’s a positive thing. And the Vedas, the ancient body of texts that inform much of yoga today, says that, after all the years of proving ourselves in the realms of work, family, academia, etc., that’s what we should be doing.

Vedic philosophy teaches that the first 25 years of our lives are meant for study—with our parents and our teachers—and it’s a time for strong channeling of all that youthful physical energy! The second 25 years are the time for family and worldly achievements. The third 25 years are a time to move inward, with the family less dependent on us. And in the last 25 years, we become teachers, offering the fruits of our inner explorations. So “yoga after 50” might not sound so insulting if we look at asana as preparation for reaping the benefits of meditation and breathwork and less as simply a fitness regimen.

I know so many who have started a practice not just after 50 but in their 90s and enjoyed more ease in all aspects of their lives. It’s simply never too late to begin.

Asana is not less valuable for the older body. Doing a daily practice is vital to being able to sit for meditation and breathe efficiently, as well as for keeping the energy flowing. Plus, people who practice all facets of yoga live longer, giving them a better chance of making it into that fourth quarter-century.

If you’re an older newbie to yoga or have been away from your practice for a while, you may be a bit out of touch with your body and energy level and have no idea what to look for in a class or instruction. Do an inventory of your body. Start by circling your ankles and stretching the joints of your feet. Then move up to your knees with gentle squatting and move upward from there.

Explore where you feel stuck or open. This will give you a better idea of what kind of class and what type of movements will help you. If you find that you have pain when you twist or fold forward, for instance, find a class that focuses on back care or one led by a teacher with therapeutic training.

Tips for Getting Started

1. Your doctor will probably say yes to starting yoga, because yoga practice can supportbetter sleep habits, more flexibility and energy, less chronic pain, and better movement. But they may not know anything about the classes available, and just showing up at your local fitness center and hoping to find the right class may not be the best idea.

If you have diagnoses involving your back, knees, hips, or low bone density, you need a slower paced class with a well-trained teacher or yoga therapist who can provide a variety of options. Not every yoga teacher is trained to address osteoporosis or joint replacement. Same goes for just overall stiffness. So keep it gentle and slow. Pushing yourself in a sweaty vinyasa class may make you so sore that you’ll avoid returning, and consistent practice is what gives long-term benefits.

2. Seek out resources for a home practice, but also attend a class in person if it’s accessible. While books and online classes can help you maintain a regular yoga practice (and they also offer you the benefit of learning from master teachers), for a newcomer, books and videos alone may not provide the feedback you need for your specific body and breath. In a live class, a well-trained teacher can watch for unhealthy knee placement or will notice when you’re holding your breath in a pose. Listening to instruction from a teacher helps you internalize those cues for your home practice.

3. Ask friends over 50 where they take yoga classes. Classes aren’t always billed as “Yoga Over 50” or “Senior” classes. They may be called “Gentle Yoga” or “Yoga Basics,” and you certainly don’t have to be of a certain age to benefit from a deliberate and slower paced approach. If you don’t have friends who attend yoga classes, try calling a nearby YMCA or some local yoga studios to inquire about classes that involve longer warm-ups (more on why that’s important below) and a less-intense physical practice.

4. Warm-ups are probably the most important part of a practice—especially for an older body, as stiffer joints may take more time to relax, and a fast-paced class is less likely to offer that. Make sure to do warm-ups as part of your home practice: Simple warm-ups and a few chair sun salutations can help you make headway in consistent practice. For my asana practice, I sometimes just do some warm-ups and some systematic relaxation, and I feel great for the whole day!

5. If you haven’t been super active for a few years, you may want to start with a chair yoga class. Call ahead and ask questions! Keep in mind that even in a chair class you may be asked to get on the floor at the end for the final relaxation pose. If you know that your knees or back make it too difficult to get back up (even with a chair nearby so you can push yourself up), find a class that involves a seated relaxation or just let the teacher know that you’ll be doing final relaxation in your chair.

If you just aren’t sure about executing the shift to and from the floor, try experimenting with getting your body down on the floor near a heavy chair or couch so you can use it to help pull yourself back up (maybe even have a buddy nearby). A lot of people have gotten very used to sitting for work, driving, and entertainment. And since the world we inhabit is bed, table, and counter height, they simply may not see any reason for being on the floor—unaware sometimes of what they’re missing: for example, letting the back find a long, supported alignment that lying on the floor can facilitate. A bed or a couch just doesn’t offer the spine the firmness it needs to stack up, which can lead us to become stiff and rounded if they’re all we ever lie on.

6. Look for a class that offers the whole package: movement, breathwork, and meditation. The meditation and breathing parts of the equation are vital for making yoga an integral part of your life. Many of us have developed short, tight breathing habits, and yogic breathing reminds us to keep the breath low and slow. Meditation helps with mental acuity, memory, focus, and overall health benefits, including pain management.

Some classes focus entirely on meditation, and they may be great for you in addition to your regular asana practice. But the main reasons for all of that twisting and wriggling around in an asana class are to prepare you to sit comfortably for extended periods of time, to deepen your breath, and to relax for meditation. Even if meditation is your primary goal or interest, keep in mind that some movement before sitting, even if it’s just a short walk, can benefit your practice overall.

7. A little gear helps. Having your own yoga mat is good for both hygienic reasons and as a reminder to unroll it at home for personal practice. Clothes that are stretchy and comfortable also help to make the class more comfortable. I’ve had people show up for class in tight jeans, shorts that are way too revealing in wider-leg poses, and even skirts—any of which can inhibit you in your practice. Keep in mind when choosing what to wear that many movements in yoga classes require bending forward and lying down.

8. Arrive for class 10 minutes early and let your teacher know if you have special physical needs or injuries. I don’t know how many times I’ve had a new student arrive right at class time and tell me after the class, “Oh, by the way, I have a cervical fusion,” or “It’s hard for me to sit that way because of my hip replacement.” Had I known beforehand, I would have offered them different options during the class. Teachers need to know in order to help.

9. Remember that even a little practice can make a big difference. Try to find 10 to 20 minutes a day, the earlier the better so that your yoga doesn’t get back-shelved when you get busy. You can do a short online class, or even just do a few simple stretches each day. Of course, if you have more time, you could choose a longer class, but keep in mind that even a little bit of yoga can make a big difference when done regularly. Making yourself feel guilty about not practicing for a full hour every day may discourage progress and continuity. Think of your new yoga adventure as a seedling and gently encourage it to flourish.

10. Practice the poses you find challenging, as well as the poses and movements that are easy for you. In home practice, no one’s going to know if you avoid poses that remind you of your tight hamstrings or the weakness in your arms. Make a point of working on at least one pose that you find challenging each week at home.

Finding a yoga practice that’s right for you at this time in your life is well worth the effort. Most importantly, look for a practice that speaks to you, because sticking with it is how we deepen the neural grooves that help us enjoy the vitality and clarity that yoga brings the rest of our lives.