Stretch Yourself

Shot of a beautiful young woman practising yoga in a studio

You don’t need to be flexible, thin, or young to do yoga. It’s one of the best things that we, as women, can do for our mental, emotional, and physical health.

By Kelle Walsh

It used to be that yoga was considered the provenance of movie stars and alternative health practitioners. Now, yoga is decidedly mainstream. More than 36 million Americans do yoga, according to an industry study, and three-quarters of them are women. Of yoga practitioners today, regardless of gender, three-quarters have been practicing for five yeas or less. And yoga isn’t just for twentysomethings. Almost 40 percent of these yoginis are 50 or older.

You may have wondered, Should I try it? And perhaps just as quickly, you decided (check all that apply):
___ I’m not flexible.
___ I’d make a fool of myself.
___ I don’t wear yoga pants in public (most of the time).
___ People who do yoga don’t look like me.

If any of these thoughts have kept you from trying yoga, you’re missing out on a powerful opportunity to be good to yourself, says Dianne Bondy, author of Yoga for Everyone: 50 Poses for Every Type of Body. “If you’re not interested in a better quality of life, and are not interested in slowing down and having the space and ability to be more present with others and with yourself, then maybe yoga isn’t the modality for you,” she says wryly.

In other words, Bondy says, yoga is for everyone, no matter where you start from. Many people fear that they need to be like Gumby, or skinny or young, to do yoga. But those are misconceptions, experts say. “In the West, we focus a lot of our attention on the physical asana practice, the poses, but quite frankly the yoga practice first and foremost starts with the breath and the focus on yourself,” Bondy says. The movement begins from there, and meets you wherever you are, she explains.
Now 49, Bondy describes her own struggle with illness three years ago, which sapped her strength and energy and dramatically altered her yoga practice. “But I could move slowly and mindfully, and appreciate what my body could do in the moment,” she says. She bounced back stronger than ever.

“Something magical happens when you connect to your breathing, moving in unison with the body, that doesn’t happen with any other modality,” she says. “It improves the quality of your life in ways that you’d think are almost impossible.”

Heart to bones
No matter what may have held you back from trying yoga in the past, it’s worth taking a second look. Research reveals myriad benefits of a regular yoga practice for women, particularly as we age: it can help ease menopausal symptoms like hot flashes and insomnia; reduce blood pressure and keep our heart healthy; and even help manage depression and anxiety. Yoga’s greatest boon for women may be how it supports our bones. A 2015 study found that people who practiced a 12-minute yoga sequence every other day for two years showed significant increases in spinal bone density and improvements in bone density at the hip. A group of these same participants were determined to have “better internal support of their bones” in a small follow-up study, which lead researcher Loren Fishman, MD, of Columbia University, noted is an important factor in preventing fractures.

We’ve been told that only high-impact exercise, such as running or weight lifting, stimulates bone growth. As it turns out, the internal oppositional pressure that muscles put on bones during yoga poses is an effective way to stimulate the bone-making cells called osteocytes. At the same time, yoga increases flexibility, balance, muscle strength, and range of motion—all essential factors in staying mobile and injury-free.

“In general, yoga is good for maintaining the four essential skills that are important as we age: strength, flexibility, balance, and agility—the things that people start to notice change for the worse as we enter [our late 40s and beyond],” says Baxter Bell, MD, co-author of Yoga for Healthy Aging.

It’s good for your mind, too

In our always-connected, overstimulating reality, yoga’s effectiveness at reducing stress might be the most important benefit of all. Pairing movement with intentional breathing, the practice helps regulate the automatic nervous system, a necessary first step in coming down from the stress response, Bell says. This has implications that reach beyond whether or not you blow up at your spouse or stress-eat all the chips in the house. Studies have shown that long-term yoga and meditation practitioners experience changes in their brains that correlate to being less reactive. There’s also some evidence that regular yoga practice may lower the body’s inflammatory response, which is related to numerous chronic conditions and is exacerbated by stress.

By developing greater self-awareness, yoga also helps you to notice when you’re reaching burnout or overload, and are at risk of reacting in less healthy ways. “You’re becoming more aware of what’s happening inside your physical body and at the same time also becoming more aware of your thought tendencies and emotional fluctuations,” Bell says. This provides you with the space and perspective to decide what you need in the moment, and perhaps make a different, healthier choice—like going for a walk instead of pouring a glass of wine.

Where to begin

If you’re ready to dip a toe in the water and try yoga, you’re in luck. Its tremendous popularity means that many options are available to beginners. Baxter Bell recommends finding an introductory class or series, or seeking classes designed for people over age 50. “If you’re not active at all, look for a gentle or therapeutic class,” he says. Classes titled level one, slow flow, yin, or restorative will present slower movements and easier poses appropriate for newcomers. You’ll want to avoid heated classes, such as Bikram, ashtanga, or Power yoga, and advanced vinyasa offerings. To make sure you’re where you should be, tell the teacher where you are in your yoga journey before class begins.

Many workplaces now offer classes in yoga or meditation, or provide memberships to places that do. And classes offered at community or recreation centers, schools, libraries, or even in parks often cater to mixed-level groups, says Bondy. These casual settings might also feel more comfortable if going to a trendy yoga studio seems daunting.

Bondy recommends taking as many classes with as many teachers as possible when starting out. That way, if one class isn’t your cup of tea, you have other experiences to draw upon and might be less likely to give up on yoga altogether. And importantly, tell the instructors that you’re new to the practice and whether you have any physical or health issues. “You don’t want to exacerbate an injury or do something that’s contraindicated for your condition,” she says.

While in class, take care to tune in and listen to your body. If you feel winded or shaky or fatigued, take a position where you can rest for a bit, Bell recommends. You shouldn’t feel pain, which is different from feeling challenged. If you do, you may be attempting poses or sequences that are beyond your current level.

We can tend to be competitive, Bondy says, and that can come out when you’re new and looking around at others who may be able to do more than you. “Try not to get caught up in that competitiveness on the mat,” she advises. “Focus on what you’re interested in getting out of the practice.

“Yoga can be about building strength and resilience in a way that other activities are not. There’s no competition here, nobody to impress. You can just focus on creating more peace in your life, and learning how to take more time for yourself.” DW

Kelle Walsh is a writer and editor, and avid yoga practitioner, based in Boulder, Colorado.

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