Taking Up Yoga Late in Life by Bob Ritzema
For most of my adult life, I had no use for yoga. I have always exercised regularly and have been fit, so I didn’t need yoga for that. I also didn’t need the calming effects, since I could deal with periodic times of worry and anxiety using a combination of relaxation exercises and prayer. What benefits could yoga offer me that I wasn’t already getting by other means?
Well, it could help improve my posture, flexibility, and balance. Not that these mattered to me at the time. A couple years ago, though, when I was 67, I developed a problem with my shoulder because of poor posture. Physical therapy helped, but I also learned that many yoga poses are good for improving posture. About the same time, a friend pointed out that my gait tended to be overly mechanical because my joints were so inflexible. I tried sitting cross-legged on the floor and found that I couldn’t even open my hips widely enough to sit comfortably. I decided to try yoga to help with posture and flexibility, only to learn that I really needed it for balance as well. More on that later.
A little over a year ago, I found a few yoga videos on YouTube and tried to follow along. Even in videos aimed at beginners there was a lot I couldn’t do! It disheartened me that even things I expected to be easy were hard to do. For example, I thought I had enough strength that plank pose and downward dog would present no trouble. However, I could only stay in them 15 seconds or so before my arms started getting shaky. With some poses, I couldn’t get in anything like the alignment that Adriene, my first video instructor, folded easily into. She’s always telling her watchers to not force it but just do what they can. I needed to follow that advice more often than I liked!
I eventually took a yoga class offered by the local parks and recreation department. Teri, my instructor, was a good cheerleader and also offered plenty of modifications to poses so that even we beginners could be doing something vaguely relevant while most of the class bent and twisted in ways far beyond our capacity. Here, though, is where I found out how poor my balance was. Teri included a pose requiring us to stand on one leg at a time while sending the opposite knee out to the side and lifting that foot to the inner thigh. I could only stand there a second or two before tipping over in one direction or the other! I ended up having to stand by a wall, propped against it for support, while assuming the pose.
I continue to practice yoga three or four times a week. I haven’t had any more problems with my shoulder, and my posture seems better. My hips are still tight, but at least I can comfortably sit cross-legged on the floor and can do a number of hip-opening poses that were impossible for me at first. And I can stand on one leg for thirty seconds or so.
A morning yoga routine doesn’t transform my day the way that Cole Chance, another of my favorite YouTube yoga instructors, implies it will. It does seem to provide some health benefits, though. And it is probably helping my brain maintain some important functions. A recent NYT article titled “How to Age Well” reports on an experiment in which a group trained in yoga and meditation was compared to a group who did brain exercises. The yoga/meditation group did better on visuospatial memory, which the article describes as “a type of remembering that is important for balance, depth perception and the ability to recognize objects and navigate the world.” That group also formed more connections between the parts of the brain that control attention.
For the reasonably healthy person getting on in years, aging is neither delightful or disastrous. There are some new blessings and some new difficulties, and successful aging seems to be a matter of enjoying the blessings and coping effectively with the difficulties. I’ve discovered that yoga is a useful tool for addressing some of the difficulties. So many mornings I’ll be unrolling my mat, sitting cross-legged in front of my laptop, going to YouTube and listening to someone much more flexible than me instruct cheerily “Let’s start today in extended child’s pose….”
By Bob Ritzema