Book Review: A natural prescription for baby boomers, The New Yoga for Healthy Aging

Book review by Irene Alleger, Townsend Letter: The Examiner of Alternative Medicine November, 2007.

Yoga, it turns out, is an ideal form of exercise for older people. Consisting of mindful movements, slow, deep breathing, and stretching, yoga postures (asanas) are rejuvenating, “moving each joint in the body through its full range of motion–stretching, strengthening, and balancing each part.”

Suza Francina’s latest book, with astonishing and wonderful photos of people in their 60s to their 90s in yoga postures, is inspiring, to say the least. She has been a leader in teaching yoga to older people, with amazing results. These people retain their agility, even growing stronger and more flexible. The photos should inspire anyone over 50 to look for a yoga class and investigate for themselves the benefits of yoga.

This more than two-thousand-year-old discipline views a healthy body as the proper environment for spiritual awakening and aligns with most cultural ideas of the later stages of life being used for the pursuit of wisdom or enlightenment. This is the true gift of yoga–transformation–both physical and spiritual. And the gift of health is great: regular exercise, such as yoga, can help some diabetics come off insulin and some hypertensives get off their high blood-pressure medication. Yoga can lower cholesterol, ease arthritic pain, lift depression, relieve anxiety, and help asthmatics breathe better without medication. Yoga can strengthen muscles and preserve bone, even in the frail elderly, “allowing some in their 80s and 90s to double and even triple their strength to the point where many are able to walk and perform other tasks without assistance.” These are proven benefits–a low-cost, low-risk, effective way to retain independence with age.

In fact, the healing power of movement is so effective that a report from the National Institute on Ageing states: “If exercise could be packed into a pill, it would be the single most widely prescribed and beneficial medicine in the nation.” Even though yoga has penetrated the fitness mainstream, its full potential as a preventive and rehabilitative element in holistic gerontology is just beginning to be explored. In the last ten years, research has documented the effectiveness of yoga for improving many health conditions. “As 78 million baby boomers enter the time of life when chronic conditions combine with long-term wear and tear on their bodies, more and more of them will turn to yoga for both prevention and rehabilitation.”

The over-50 reader is immediately relieved to read in the opening chapters how the innovative props, walls, and chairs are used to help older students achieve almost any posture. Standing poses are practiced with the support of props, using the wall, windowsill, or blocks and chairs for support. Using yoga props makes postures safer and more accessible. Props allow older students with balance problems to practice the weight-bearing standing poses, helping them to remain independent and out of wheelchairs. They also allow older students to practice inverted postures safely and to reverse the downward pull of gravity, slowing down the aging process. Inverted poses also have a powerful effect on the neuroendocrine system by allowing fresh, oxygenated blood to flow to the glands in the head and neck.

Many of the asanas are photographed with accompanying text about the teachers and practitioners–all in their 60s, 70s, and even 90s! The reader can see for herself how these movements can be done by older people and can see too the many benefits to be had. My favorite chapter in The New Yoga for Healthy Aging is “Learning the Ropes,” in which yoga is practiced with wall ropes (new to me, but I live in a small town). The photos are exhilarating, showing dozens of poses using upper and lower wall ropes. Suspended by ropes like puppets, practitioners look ecstatic as they hang upside down in the downward poses. These wall rope systems can be located with the help of an appendix provided by the author.

There are specific sections on Osteoporosis, Arthritis, Hip Replacement Surgery, a Healthy Heart, and Parkinson’s. Detailed information is given on postures relating to these subjects, as is information on how the postures benefit these specific health problems. After these sections, the author presents a series of postures specifically for healthy aging. And let’s not forget the stress reduction achieved with yoga–not a small thing in the modern world. Stress is considered a primary health problem by physicians today.

Ms. Francina writes great books on yoga. (Yoga and the Wisdom of Menopause was reviewed in the Townsend Letter in January 2004.) The New Yoga for Healthy Agingmay be the best prescription around for the growing population of baby boomers.