Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Aging Gracefully, Part 2

I know I promised this to you last week, but here it is: part 2 of the Aging Gracefully series.

As we get older, our bodies go through a lot of changes.  Skin and muscles become less elastic, meaning they stretch less and tear more.  Bones become more brittle, which means you must take extra care to protect and maintain them.  Injuries heal more slowly, and old injuries that have piled up on each other create ongoing physical obstacles.  In this part of the Aging Gracefully series, we’re going to look at some of the benefits of Yoga for older bodies and methods of maintaining vitality and functionality over the course of a life time through some very basic Yoga-related practices.

As a Yoga teacher I work with a large clientele of people over 50.  The needs of older bodies are definitely different than those of younger participants, even for older folks who have been athletic through their lives.  I think it is valuable for seniors to remember that even though your body is moving slower, it is still vital.  Just because you feel yourself slowing down or have more aches and pains, that doesn’t mean you should stop entirely and turn into a mushroom.  I routinely work with people in their 70s and 80s, so I firmly believe that you can use these techniques at any age to maintain and even recapture your energy and youthful spirit.

There are three very important things that Yoga has to offer an aging body that will help protect and maintain vitality: stretching, breathing, and balance.  All of these things will help you live to the fullest as your body ages, allowing you to age gracefully.

As you age, gravity takes its toll.  Our bodies begin to curl in on themselves.  A practice that includes active stretching can help you maintain a healthy posture and also maintain bone and muscle alignment no matter what your age.  The tighter your body becomes, the harder and harder it feels to accomplish any stretch, but this is precisely the cue that you need to work on it.  If you commit to do just a little stretching in the morning and evening to lengthen the spine and give your organs a little more space in your body to function properly, you will certainly experience improved and longer lasting health benefits, as well as fewer aches and pains throughout the day.

The breath is the foundation of everything we do in Yoga.  Breath is life force.  However, if you do not learn to breathe well at a young age, you often breathe shallower and shallower as you get older.  Lung tissue is quite delicate and easily damaged so any scarring from disease or irritation from the environment greatly diminishes your lung capacity later in life.  The practice of controlled, purposeful, deep breathing, which is integral to Yoga, improves lung function, strengthens the lungs, and feeds the rest of your body.  Deep breathing also helps relieve stress and pain.  It is never too late to start learning to breathe well.  In fact, just a few minutes each day of intentional deep breathing can alleviate stress, fatigue, and mild to chronic pain.  It can also improve cognitive function and restful sleep.  Try just 2 - 5 minutes of deep, purposeful breathing before you fall asleep.  It's never too late to start doing this.  Make it a routine for the rest of your life.

Learning to do standing balances may be more important for older folks than younger folks, though I encourage everyone to start this practice young so that you won’t have to struggle with it when you are older.  As you age, your brain slowly develops plaque that interrupts synaptic pathways.   Balance is often one of the earlier areas to begin to deteriorate.  However, if you work on learning to balance (young or old), you reduce and inhibit that deterioration.  In short, practice of balance helps stave off Alzheimer’s disease and senility.   Yes, it is best to start young and continue the practice, but it is never too late to start.  

Most people are not born with a natural sense of balance, so expect to need practice and be gentle with yourself as you start.  Be gentle with yourself physically and emotionally.  Give yourself time to do the work and learn.  Celebrate even short balances, and make sure you don't scold yourself if you're not able to do it at first.  That's normal.  There is no need to become frustrated.  Remember, be gentle and compassionate with yourself as you learn.  Yes, your goal is to be able to do standing balances without holding on to anything because free standing balances help you gain the most benefit for your brain.  For many people this takes practice, so be willing to commit to the long journey.

Another very important thing for seniors to keep in mind is the importance of protecting your joints.  Really, young people should do this too, but you’ll feel it sooner and have to deal with more dramatic consequences the older you get.  Even the best joints that have been treated well over a life time wear down with age.  If you want to keep your mobility, be kind to your joints in all things that you do.  The joints allow for your mobility, and any movement, large or small, wears them down little by little.  ANY use of the joints, whether bending, straightening, or holding in place (walking, sitting, standing, stooping, lifting, climbing, etc.), puts stress and wear into that joint.  If you want to be able to easily walk up the stairs when you are over 50, protect your joints now. If you're already over 50, you can still use these techniques to protect the joint function you still have.  When you stand for long hours, wear proper shoes and stand on a pad.  If you choose to run (which is a heavy strain on joints) learn how to articulate your movements through the feet to cushion your strides.  If you sit for long hours, learn proper posture and stretch frequently or you'll damage your hips and back over the long run.  Every little move you make, from bending to twisting, from reaching to retracting, requires a little thoughtful joint protection if you want to avoid injury and arthritis in the long run.  This is true in daily life, but especially true during any kind of physical activity or fitness class.

One very important way to protect the joints includes never locking a joint to give yourself stability.  If you feel in any position that your weight is being maintained in the joint—the knee, the hip, the wrist—you want to lengthen yourself out and tighten the muscles.  As you experience the difference you will be able to identify how that feels more accurately.  The best description that I can give is that dropping your weight into a joint, or locking it out, feels easier but is more painful.  It feels like it takes less effort, which is true, because you are using the muscles less. However, the muscles are the part we want to focus on.  Build up the strength to hold the postures (or do the work) using the muscles.  If you feel yourself slipping into joint-focused support, then take a little break so that you do not damage your joints. 

You may also want to add some padding during your workouts to help protect your joints.  Any kind of padding will do.  Some examples include pads worn under or over clothing, extra layers of clothing, thicker floor mats, or a towel, block, or pad placed directly under the point of contact.  There is no shame in this.  You’ll thank yourself for every time you were careful with your joints as you get older.  

Also, I cannot stress enough the importance of drinking plenty of water and getting enough sleep during each 24 hour cycle.  The health benefits are endless (though I've listed a great many of them in previous blog posts). I believe this cannot be emphasized enough.  Stay hydrated and rested.  These two simple things can take you a long way toward keeping a youthful, healthy mind and body.

In my next installment, part 3 of our aging series, I’m going to discuss some nutritional aspects that can help you out. You are what you eat, and over time, it really shows.  Here’s my word for you to ponder until then: “kale.”  What’s your favorite way to eat it?  If you don’t have one, now is a good time to find out because it’s a serious super food.  Here’s another great word for you to ponder, just because I’m generous: “blueberries.”  Oh, and of course, my favorite word, "water," which I've already given you once today.  Until next time, may you find a little pocket of peace in every corner of your body, mind, and spirit.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Every Reason to Celebrate

Life is a celebration.  It really is.  And if for any reason you think it isn’t, well, it should be.  Every accomplishment, big or small is a reason to celebrate.  Often the littlest things become the greatest joys.  For this reason, you should celebrate them, and be sure not to miss them.

When I originally began thinking about the value of celebration in our lives (and celebrating life), I was thinking primarily about people in fitness classes and the positive value of celebrating even small successful steps on their health and fitness journeys.  Those little, tiny, baby steps are vitally important to the foundation of your success.  I think it is important not to overlooking them and to give yourself credit for EVERY victory along the way.

You, who just stepped through the doors of the gym for the first time after years without a fitness routine, celebrate it!  Even if all you did was tour the facility, celebrate it!  That’s a big step. You who have never done a Yoga class in your life and are completely terrified about it but showed up and gave it a try anyway, celebrate it!  It doesn’t matter if you couldn’t do the balances. It doesn’t matter if you can’t stretch very far.  You came to class.  That’s a big step!  Pat yourself on the back and do a happy dance.  That takes courage.  You with the tight hamstrings who runs the marathons who finally touched your toes for the first time today, celebrate it!! You with the arthritis who has to modify every standing posture, but listened to your body and did what you could do, celebrate it! You with the 100 pound weight loss goal who had to do child pose or forward bend between every posture to catch your breath, but STUCK IT OUT THROUGH THE WHOLE CLASS, CELEBRATE IT!!! You got up this morning and came to the gym on a Saturday!  Throw your hands up in the air and celebrate it! I’m serious! We spend so much time tearing ourselves down for little things that don’t matter.  Why not build yourself up about little things that do matter?  Why not acknowledge that progress comes in both big and small steps and the small steps are just as good?  Whatever your small steps are, your teeniest, tiniest victories, they are all good.  The bigger things build on the small things.  This is where you start, no matter how far you have to go, and you should give yourself credit for anything that keeps you faced forward toward your goal.

But this doesn’t just apply to Yoga, health, and fitness classes.  This is something we should embrace about all aspects of life.  You woke up this morning! Oh yes, you should celebrate it!  Another day, even if you think it’s a bad day, is a chance for you to learn, grow, discover, and in any small way reach toward the better things that build your life.  You may encounter many people within the scope of each day who treat you all manner of ways.  Why not celebrate the one who was kind to you, regardless of everyone else?  By doing that you make a bad day better and a better day great.  Your favorite song came on the radio? Sounds like a celebration to me. Only one piece of chocolate left in the candy dish?  Are you going to be sad that there is only one piece left or celebrate that you get to eat some chocolate today? That’s right, you celebrate!  I got to eat a piece of chocolate today! This is the reason that I say life is a celebration, or at least it can be, if you make it that way.

I am celebrating RIGHT NOW because I successfully updated my blog today.  You have proof, too, because you’re reading it.  (This is me throwing my hands up in the air and waving them around—OH YEAH!!)  The second part of my Aging Gracefully series will be coming down the pipe presently, though this little celebratory piece, in a way, speaks to the value of graceful living.  I think the older we get, the more clearly we see the importance of the small things.  You don’t have to wait until you’re showing your age to do this, though.  Start now, at any age.  The older you get, the bigger that “I woke up this morning” victory feels.  Don’t wait.  Celebrate it now, and every little victory in between.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Aging Gracefully, Part 1

I’ve had quite a few students tell me that for them, Yoga is their Fountain of Youth.  I think there are a lot of factors that go into aging with grace, and I can think of many aspects of Yoga practice that help in that respect.  A large segment of my clientele is retirement aged, so this subject is very much on their minds.  I have a number of posts I’d like to share over the next few weeks concerning aging, including how to approach Yoga with an older body, how to be healthy,  active, and fit with a body that’s just not what it used to be, and how keep both a young state of mind and a graceful, vital state of body.  I’d like to start with a larger overview of what everyone can do, at any age, to capture and retain a bit of youth.

This may seem a little odd coming from someone as young as me.  I’m in my mid-30’s and certainly still consider myself young and vital.  However, I am frequently mistaken for being about a decade, or more, younger than I actually am.  I do volunteer work at a wildlife center where my experience and knowledge has allowed me to train and supervise other volunteers.  On more than one occasion, new volunteers treated me somewhat dismissively because they mistakenly thought I was a very mature teenager, when in fact, I’m older than them by several years.  Sometimes people react dubiously when they discover I’ve been through college twice, traveled abroad, and had a book published.  They think I’m much too young to have done all that.  It would certainly be a difficult list of things for a 20 year old to accomplish, but well within the scope of someone over 30.  There is that old adage about not judging a book by its cover.   Some of my clients think I must know some sort of secret to age prevention.  That actually remains to be seen, but I’ll gladly share some of my thoughts on the subject.

I’ve written several posts on this, but lack of sleep definitely negatively impacts your health.  In addition, it ages you.  There are hormones and chemicals your body releases while you’re in deep sleep, and if you do not reach a delta brainwave state (which happens during deep sleep), you don’t get this benefit.  Without this little bio-chemical restoration from your body, you not only have less energy, but gain weight, look older, and may develop chronic pain.  So get plenty of rest. 
Along the same lines, stress has a wide range of negative effects on your health.  Stress ages you. If you haven’t incorporated a regular relaxation and self care routine into your life, it’s time to make some space for yourself. Looking and feeling younger is one of the many positive benefits of a weekly or even daily Yoga or Meditation practice.  Yoga is a lifestyle for me, but in addition to it, I have a self care routine that I commit to so that I can keep negative effects of stress minimized.  One thing that I personally do is go to the women’s day spa once a month every month as part of my dedication to self care.  You don’t need to spend a lot of money, but you do need to figure out successful methods to let go of the stress.

As a general rule your relaxation should not involve substance use, because that will be counterproductive.  I like a cup of coffee to calm me down when I feel stressed, but I do not include this in the category of self care or relaxation practices.  Things like caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol, which many people use for recreational purposes, do not help you prevent aging.  In fact, I’m pretty sure they pack the years on.  I’m not going to preach to you and say don’t do those things, but I will say, the less you do them, the younger you will look and feel consistently. 

Brush your teeth.  I'm serious.  Especially if you're into one of the above vices (coffee, cigarettes, alcohol), because they stain your teeth.  We didn't choose the teeth we were born with.  Some people were blessed with lovely straight teeth, some people endured years of pain as teenagers to attain straight teeth, and some people were given by genetics a wild and crazy set of teeth.  Whatever you've got, you need to take care of them.  Dental problems can be life threatening.  Think about this, your mouth is really close to both your heart and your brain.  If you've got an infection in a tooth or your gums, where do you think is the first place it will circulate to in your body?  How about your brain, heart, and lymph nodes.  None of this is good.  There is a direct correlation between mental health and dental health.  If you take someone who has been experiencing extreme mental distress or illness and put them on a good dental plan, symptoms of their psychosis will abate. Plus dirty, stained teeth make you look older.  Keep them clean and care for what you have no matter what you were given.  You look nicer and you'll be healthier.  You might even be less crazy.  I'm pretty sure I'd be crazy if my mouth were in chronic pain.

Drink more water.  Do I really have to tell you the reasons?  You know your body is mostly water. If you want your organs to function properly, drink more water.  When your organs don’t function as they should toxins can build up in your body and lead to illness or exacerbate existing problems.

This is probably a good place for me to make a few comments on skin care, since those who want to keep a youthful appearance always have an obsession with skin care products.  This is actually also kind of laughable coming from me.  I have really nice, clean, clear skin most of the time.  I’m forever being complemented on my skin and hair by friends, family, clients, complete strangers in the super market, you name it.  People love to ask me “What do you do to have such beautiful skin?”  Nothing.  I do absolutely nothing. You probably should, too. 

I’ve given this a lot of thought, and I don’t think it is that I have abnormally good skin compared to other people.  I think I just haven’t damaged my skin with the over use of products it wouldn’t need if you weren’t using so many products.  I wash it.  End of routine.  If the weather changes I might use a dab of moisturizer.  But rarely even that.  I don’t wear make-up that much either, and while I have no issue with the general practice of wearing make-up (for women or men), the reality is, if you like to cake that stuff on, your skin can’t breathe.  That is the problem.  When I was a professional actress, I used to purposely only wear make-up on stage.  Putting on the make-up was part of creating and becoming that character for me. No two characters of mine wore the same stage make-up.  I always came up with a different set of shading, colors, and order of application for every character I played.  As a result, when I am myself, and not a character, I just don’t wear any face paint.  If a little make-up helps you feel good and glamorous, you should wear it.  I believe in feeling good!  But if you’re piling it on, you might want to try a bit less to see if  your skin improves.  My skin would have fits of breaking out and being temperamental when I was in the middle of a running show and having to pile the make-up on and scrape it off every night.  Now that I don’t do stage work anymore, I have beautiful skin all the time.  I’m only sharing this because I think they two things are related.

Too much sun ages your skin.  But, don't get me wrong, sun is good for you.  It is good for everyone to spend a little time in the sun when they can.  However, it only takes about 10 - 15 minutes of sun exposure to get the full amount of vitamin D that you need.  I love being outdoors, so I totally understand that a really long list of fun, healthy, invigorating things, that you can and should do, will involve more than 15 minutes of sun exposure.  The important thing is that you protect your skin appropriately for your skin type.  Skin that has been burned or over exposed many times looks like tanned leather, because it basically is.  So, a little sun is good and even healthy, but a lot of sun on unprotected skin makes you look about 20 years older than you actually are.

Attitude is everything.  When you’re frowny, your face gets wrinkly.  Laugh more.  Laughter keeps you young.  I’m pretty sure heartfelt joyfulness is the true Fountain of Youth.  Follow your bliss.  Find your joy.  That is more important than anything else I've listed here.
Regardless of your actual age, or feelings about growing older, I hope that you will find a way to make peace with your physical body.  Being happy where you are, as you are, with who you are is the most important thing you have on your journey through this life.

Keep an eye out for my next discussion in this series.  I’m going to move on to some Yoga related things you can do to guard your youth and some things that older folks might want to practice in order to keep an aging body vital.