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.

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