Author Interview on The New Yoga for Healthy Aging Interview – HCI Books
Q. This is your fourth book on yoga for people at midlife and older. How did you get interested in this subject?
A. My first teachers were older men and women ranging in age from about 60 to over 90. I was very impressed with their youthful posture and flexibility. At the time that I began studying yoga, I was also working as a home health care provider for elderly people, some confined to a wheelchair and bed. I saw how life can change in an instant after a stroke and how the body can linger for many years, long after the mind is gone. The difference between the people I took care of and my teachers who were around the same age, made a profound impression on me.
Q. Your new book is called The New Yoga for Healthy Aging. What do you mean by “healthy aging”?
A. Healthy aging is the understanding that everything changes and that getting older is part of the nature of life, but, our minds and bodies can continue to function in ways that are healthy. If we exercise in a way that does not wear the body out, we can safely gain and maintain strength and flexibility. Healthy aging views the years after 50 as the best time for psychological and spiritual growth. The yoga philosophy of healthy aging includes facing death and learning to let go of what we no longer need on our journey through life. Healthy aging is aging with wisdom!
Q. What is the main way that yoga can be beneficial for healthy aging?
A. As we age the human body has a natural tendency to become increasingly rigid and inflexible. The loss of flexibility –mentally as well as physically — is a defining hallmark of old age. Medical research on aging has clearly shown that without proper exercise, the body contracts and we lose height, strength and flexibility. Our natural free range of motion becomes restricted, so daily activities become difficult and in some cases impossible.
However, if you observe older yoga practitioners such as the people in my book, you will see that they still have their natural youthful suppleness. They move freely in all directions—forward, backwards, sideways and upside down. Removing years of accumulated tightness and stiffness from your body feels like turning back the clock.
Q. What are some other important benefits of yoga for healthy aging?
A. As we get older, our bodies begin to show signs of wear and tear. The challenge for healthy aging is to exercise in a way that does not cause bone fractures or have a negative effect on our joints. Yoga is one of the few exercise systems in which weight is borne through the entire body, including the bones in the hands, wrists, arms, upper body, neck and even the head. Weight bearing upside down poses that strengthen the upper body are particularly important in preventing upper back fractures that result in upper back curvature common in older people.
Yoga builds strength safely and incrementally. Strong, supple muscles help protect us as we grow older from conditions such as arthritis, osteoporosis, and back pain and help prevent falls. It’s well documented that weight-bearing exercise strengthens bones and helps ward off osteoporosis. Many postures in yoga require that you lift your own weight. And some, such as Downward-Facing Dog Pose and Upward-Facing Dog Pose, help strengthen the arm bones, which are particularly vulnerable to osteoporotic fractures.
Q. What about yoga and the spine? In The New Yoga for Healthy Aging you point out that the close relationship between yoga and aging begins with the spine.
A. Yoga is unique in its capacity to prevent and even reverse the most conspicuous sign of aging—one that cannot be disguised or transformed cosmetically: the shortening and rounding of the spine.
Our posture affects more than our outer appearance. Our posture affects the health of every system of the body. Lengthening the spine to create space between the vertebrae is vital to our health because nerves connected to the structures of the body, including the internal organs, branch out from the spinal cord between the vertebrae.
Yoga develops spinal strength and agility, slowing and even reversing the common degenerative changes often found in people at midlife and older.
Q. What yoga poses are particularly important for a healthy heart?
A. All poses that open the chest, especially backbends, are particularly beneficial for the health of the heart. Backbends increase lung capacity and improve circulation to all the organs of the body.
As we age, stress accumulates in the body. One of the most important things we can do for our heart is to take at least twenty minutes every day to consciously relax and let go of stress. This can be as simple as lying-down on the floor with a folded blanket under our head, a pillow under our knees and an eye bag over our eyes. Or practicing what is known as Restorative yoga poses which are special poses that use blankets and bolsters to support the body and help us to relax and rest deeply. During deep relaxation all the organ systems of the body are allowed to rest.
Also important for a healthy heart are poses where the head is below the level of the heart as in Downward Facing Dog Pose, Legs Up the Wall Pose and other upside down poses. All poses that are deeply relaxing and relieve stress, are restful and healing for the heart. We have to keep in mind that all the systems of the body are connected and yoga has a positive effect on all aspects of a human being, body, mind and spirit.
Q. Tell us about the models who demonstrate the poses in your book.
A. The models featured in my book range in age from 60 to 94. I interviewed a wide range of people, some new to yoga and others who are famous longtime teachers. Most of the people in my book started yoga later in life, when they were in their 50’s , 60’s or even older. I feel inspired when I read their stories and see the beautiful photographs of their poses. One man I interviewed went to India to study with B.K.S. Iyengar when he was 87. He is now 95 and still hanging upside down, just like the photo of him in the book.
Q. Your book shows photographs of people in their 80’s and 90’s hanging upside down, bending backwards over bolsters and practicing standing poses with walls, chairs and other props. Why are yoga props especially important for older people?
A. Props allow older beginners to safely practice poses they would ordinarily not be able to do. For example, if you are unable to bend forward and bring your hands to the floor without straining, you can place your hands on a chair or wall. As the backs of your legs become more flexible, you will find that you can put your hands on a lower prop, such as a bench or a block.
By the time people at midlife and older start yoga, they often have a wide range of problems, ranging from back and neck pain to knee problems to old injuries. They may be recovering from surgery or coping with problems like arthritis. The more problems and health issues a person has, the more useful yoga props are. Props allow you to stay in poses longer, so you can experience their healing effects. By supporting the body in the yoga posture, muscles can lengthen in a passive, non strenuous way. By opening the body, the use of props also helps to improve blood circulation and breathing capacity.
Props like walls and chairs also allow older people with balance problems to practice the weight-bearing standing poses, helping them to remain independent and out of a wheelchair.
Many people feel too tired to exercise. Yoga practiced with props help people to conserve and replenish their energy reserves, which becomes increasingly important as we grow older.
Q. Your book shows people in their eighties hanging upside down in yoga wall ropes. What are the benefits of turning upside down?
A. Turning the body half way or completely upside down improves the flow of blood to and from the heart and feels refreshing and rejuvenating, particularly as we grow older.
The gravitational force of Earth is among the most powerful physical influences on the human body. With the passage of time, it becomes increasingly important to reverse the downward pull of gravity on the body. In a sense, inverted yoga positions turn gravity itself upside down which is among the best ways of slowing down and even reversing the aging process.
Think about it! During most of the day we are standing or sitting with our head above the level of the heart. When we bend forward in a yoga pose such as a Standing Forward Bend or Downward Facing Dog Pose, or we turn ourselves upside down as in a Headstand, the head is below the level of the heart which increases the circulation to the upper body, including the brain.
Due to cardiovascular problems related to aging, such as arteriosclerosis (hardening of the arteries), blood flow to the brain gradually decreases. Senility, memory loss, is one of the things people fear most about aging. Western medicine accepts the fact that senility is a degenerative disease usually associated with inadequate circulation to the brain, but it has found few ways of preventing or treating it. Yoga teaches that the most effective way of increasing blood to the brain is to allow gravity to do the work for you. Inverted positions, which bring the brain below the level of the heart, permit circulation to the upper body to increase without putting strain on the heart.
Q. What about the cost of all those props and yoga classes?
A. People sometimes tell me, “But not everyone can afford to go to a yoga class or purchase those expensive yoga bolsters.” Many older people cannot afford to attend classes at fully equipped yoga centers and they don’t have the money to purchase props for home use.
My reply is this: One year of yoga costs less then a single day in the hospital. My book gives convenient alternatives to standard props for situations in which they are truly not available. I believe we should think of yoga classes and props as preventive medicine –as an investment in our health. The National Academy of Sciences has reported that if the average age of institutionalization could be postponed by just one month, it would save over $3 billion in Medicare and Medicaid—and that figure doesn’t include the priceless savings in dignity and independence for elderly people!
Our society recognizes the need for all kinds of products that help older people maintain their independence. I believe that someday yoga chairs, bolsters, wall ropes, pelvic slings and even Backbenders will seem as normal as any other common item. In the coming years, more doctors will follow the lead of today’s mind–body medicine pioneers and will have props and yoga therapy programs available in medical offices, hospitals and senior wellness centers. Insurance companies and Medicare are acknowledging that programs promoting health and balance, and preventing falls and other accidents, deserve coverage.
Q. How can older beginners safely start practicing yoga at home?
A.There are four simple poses that I tell all my students to practice at home.
The first pose is to stand every day in bare feet with the back of your body against a wall. Standing in good posture near a wall will help remind you to open your chest and lengthen your spine. In yoga this is called Mountain Pose where we learn to stand steady on our feet.
Second, sit on the floor in a comfortable cross-legged position every day. This will help keep your hips flexible and assure that you do not loose the ability to get down and back up from the floor.
Third, relax with your legs up on the wall for at least ten minutes everyday. This is known as yoga’s great rejuvenator and is very beneficial for the heart and balancing your blood pressure. It also relieves swelling in the legs.
And fourth, lie down on the floor every day for at least ten minutes with a folded blanket under your head and a pillow under your knees. This will relieve stress and passively stretch the chest muscles and help keep the spine youthful. This is known as the Pose of Deep Relaxation, Savasana.
Q. How does someone go about finding a good teacher for an older beginner?
A.Yoga teachers vary widely in training and experience. I recommend choosing your yoga teacher as carefully as you would any other health care professional. If you are starting yoga after age 50, I suggest finding a class especially geared for people at midlife and older. If you have an existing medical condition it is wise to start with a private lesson with a teacher who is willing to consult with your doctor or another health care professional who is knowledgeable about your condition. Find a class that is appropriate for your level with a teacher who can show you how to modify poses and how use yoga props. Be a good student and attend class on a regular basis and practice at home!
One more suggestion: Give your teacher a copy of The New Yoga for Healthy Aging –it has a great chapter on The Art of Teaching Seniors! The Resource section of my book also lists organizations that can help you find a teacher in your area, such as The International Association of Yoga Therapists.
Q. One last question: Are you a vegetarian?
A. Yes, of course I’m a vegetarian. I don’t have the heart to kill anything, not even a spider in my house! While you don’t have to be a vegetarian to do yoga, the practice of yoga is rooted in the principle of ahimsa which means reverence for all life. Yogis believe that all of life is sacred and that we should refrain from harming animals and other living things whenever possible.