Why the Over-50s Are Embracing Yoga

Yoga is not just for the young and lycra-clad

A woman doing yoga. Picture / 123RF.com.

We’ve become a nation obsessed with downward dogs and cat cows. Britons are now spending a staggering $1.6 billion a year on yoga classes. But you don’t have to be a twentysomething in stretched lycra to benefit from it. Increasing numbers of middle-aged people - so-called “silver yogis” - are discovering the benefits of the ancient practice.

These benefits are increasingly being backed up by science - and arguably, those who stand to gain the most from yoga’s advantages are the over-fifties. Last week, researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, found that a three-month course of yoga and meditation was more effective than brain-training exercises for minimising age-related memory loss. Another study found that it could improve sleep in breast-cancer survivors who had an average age of 54. It is also an excellent way to stay fit and supple in middle age: last year, Nigella Lawson, 56, credited her slim figure to practising Iyengar yoga - a slow form of the discipline, with a focus on alignment and posture.

When Lucy Edge, 53, a former advertising executive fell into a deep depression, she opted to try yoga, instead of the anti-depressants she was prescribed. “I took a six-month career break and travelled to India to learn yoga.

It proved so beneficial in fighting off my depression that I wanted to tell the world about its joys, so I founded the website yogaclicks.com. But as the daughter of a scientist [Lucy’s late father was Professor Gordon Edge, creator of the Cambridge cluster of science and innovation], I didn’t want to make mad claims, I wanted evidence, and I found so much of it for yoga,” Lucy says. “The website includes a section called Yoga Meds, which lists more than 300 clinical trials demonstrating yoga’s benefits, for conditions ranging from arthritis to insomnia to obesity.”

Here are some of the ways that yoga has been shown to benefit mental and physical health, and some help on how to get started as a silver yogi.

Stimulate grey matter
If crossword puzzles and Sudoku have been the extent of your memory training up to now, it could be time to sharpen up your warrior pose. The recent UCLA study took brain scans and memory tests, comparing the effects of 12 weeks of memory exercises with a course of yoga and meditation on 25 adults over the age of 55. The latter not only had better improvements in their spatial and visual memories, but reduced depression and anxiety and increased resilience to stress. “Although this study is small, it suggests that we should be doing more research into the benefits of yoga and meditation as additional ways to keep our hearts and brains in good health as we age,” says Dr Clare Walton of the Alzheimer’s Society.

Try it: There’s no need for hours and hours of headstands for you to feel the benefit. In this study, volunteers did just one hour of Kundalini yoga a week. This is a gentle form of yoga that incorporates breathing techniques and some chanting of mantras. It may feel silly at first, but can prove to be an easy form of meditation.The study participants also did 20 minutes daily of Kirtan Kriya, a type of meditation involving chanting, hand movements and visualisation of light. You can order a copy of a 12-minute Kirtan Kriya meditation CD for $28 from the US Alzheimer’s Research and Prevention Foundation.

Nigella Lawson swears by yoga. Picture / Getty Images.

Protect against heart attacks
We’re often told to plod the pavement with walking or jogging for the health of our hearts, but a large body of evidence suggests the more gentle option of yoga may be just the ticket. In 2014, a systematic review of yoga and cardiovascular disease published in the European Journal of Preventative Cardiology showed that yoga may help lower heart disease risk as effectively as conventional exercise such as brisk walking. This is likely to be because yoga reduces stress - a big contributor to heart disease. Stress hormones raise both blood pressure and heart rate, which can increase the likelihood of blood clots.

“The benefits of yoga on emotional health are well-established. It has been shown to help with anxiety, stress and depression, conditions that affect many people who have suffered a cardiac event or have undergone cardiac surgery,” says Dr Mike Knapton, associate medical director at the British Heart Foundation. “Previous research has shown that practising yoga is associated with some improvement in blood pressure, cholesterol and weight, which are all risk factors for heart disease.”

Try it: In her book The De-Stress Effect, yoga teacher Charlotte Watts sets out a stress-reducing series of gentle yoga poses, perfect for beginners. Another great way to reduce stress is to practise Restorative yoga, suggests Anna Ashby, a senior teacher at Triyoga Studios in London. “Postures are supported with bolsters and cushions and held for up to 12 minutes,” she explains. “This gives the nervous system a break and is like a fast-track to stress reduction.”

Beat back and joint pain
Sarah Shone, a musculoskeletal physiotherapist and yoga teacher, was so convinced of the benefits that she incorporated yoga classes for the over-fifties into her NHS primary care trust’s rehabilitation programme for back pain. A staggering 87 per cent of participants reported a reduction in their pain. Guidelines from the National Institute of Care Excellence (Nice) now recommend yoga and stretching as a useful form of exercise for lower back pain. Shone says its benefits go deeper and she is now aiming to train more physiotherapists in using yoga in their clinical work with this age group. “The over-fifties are the category we’re trying to capture in NHS physiotherapy, to try to treat or even prevent problems in later life, such as osteoporosis and arthritis, as well as back pain. The benefits it gives of increased flexibility, core stability, support, balance and strength have been shown to help those living with chronic conditions.“

Yoga has also been shown to help keep incontinence at bay, because it specifically targets the muscles of the pelvic floor, along with other muscles in the body, and it is a weight-bearing form of exercise, so it can help increase bone density. Plus, it can be adapted in so many ways to make it accessible for all.”

Try it: “If you’re over 50 and just getting started, tell your teacher about any health problems and choose a style such as Hatha or Iyengar, which is more gentle, rather than some of the stronger, more flowing or ‘power’ versions, at least to begin with,” Shone suggests. “If you have a specific condition such as back pain, talk to your doctor to see if you’re eligible for a course of subsidised yoga on the exercise referral scheme.”

What type of yoga should I try?
For better sleep:
Find Yin or restorative yoga classes, usually done by candelight with the support of blankets, cushions and bolsters.
For weight loss: Vinyasa Flow classes are energetic and tend to link postures to breath in a dance-like sequence. Don’t be afraid if you’re a beginner, as moves can be adapted, but do tell the teacher.
For muscle toning: Try Iyengar yoga, a precise style that holds poses for up to 20 breaths and focuses on the alignment and detail of each posture. It’s great for beginners, as you use props to help you get into poses correctly.
For a mood boost: Anusara, a modern form of yoga originating in LA, focuses on alignment, but with flowing movements. It is often accompanied by upbeat music.
For pain relief: Yoga Therapy is practised by teachers trained to use yoga to help heal injury or illness.

— The Daily Telegraph·

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