Book Review: Yoga for Healthy Aging: A Guide to Lifelong Well-Being

By: Charlotte Bell

Western culture is so continuously bombarded with negative messages about aging that most of us hardly notice it. It is widely accepted that if you’re moving into your middle years—or especially your elder years—your life is pretty much in decline and you—and your voice—become less and less relevant.

Embedded in Western culture as it now is, popular Western yoga has adopted much the same attitude. Sure, there are elder teachers whose voices are still heard and respected, but for the most part, the wider yoga culture has skewed toward youth and fitness.

The proliferation of yoga teacher trainings has unleashed a massive crop of 20-something teachers and bloggers. They bring curiosity, enthusiasm and innovative ideas into the mix, and that can be a healthy addition to a time-honored tradition. But until a yoga teacher has walked far enough along the yogic path, and the life path, to understand the ever-evolving nature of body and mind—especially after age 50—it is difficult for them to understand how to make their classes and writings speak to people outside their own demographic.

That’s why Yoga for Healthy Aging: A Guide to Lifelong Well-Being by Baxter Bell, MD and Nina Zolotow is such a breath of fresh air. Founders of a popular blog of the same name, Bell and Zolotow have assembled a comprehensive text that clearly explains the natural changes that take place as our bodies age, and how yoga—the entire system of yoga—can help us to navigate these changes with ease and grace.

Bell and Zolotow explain at the outset that their book does not promise to extend our lifespans. Rather, it is intended to give us the tools that may help us extend what they call our “health span.” The authors define “health span” thusly: “ … your ‘health span’ is equal to your lifespan minus the amount of time you spend in ill health. This is the period in your life during which you are generally healthy and free from serious or chronic illness. When we talk about healthy aging we don’t mean increasing your lifespan or your longevity. Instead, we mean doing what you can to keep your health span as long as possible (and the period of time you spend in ill health near the end of your life as short as possible).”

Many lifestyle factors contribute to extending your health span. In addition to developing healthy dietary habits, these factors include regular exercise and stress management. Hatha yoga, the practice of physical postures and breathing exercises, along with contemplative practices that are part of the larger system of yoga, can directly cultivate the latter two.

In Part One of the book, the authors cite four essential physical qualities that, taken together, must be cultivated in order to extend your health span. These are strength, flexibility, balance, and agility. Bell and Zolotow devote a chapter to each of these qualities. Each chapter describes how these skills can diminish in the process of aging—if we neglect to continue to develop them. The book then describes how yoga practice can help us not only retain these abilities, but can actually sometimes increase them as we age.

Also in Part One are chapters that address heart and cardiovascular system health, nervous system health, stress management, cultivating equanimity and applying yoga philosophy to your asana practice and daily life.

Each of the chapters on the four skills, along with those that address cardiovascular and nervous system health, describes the natural physiological changes associated with aging and how these can challenge the four basic skills as well as the cardiovascular and nervous systems. I particularly appreciate the way in which Bell and Zolotow approach what could be, for laypeople, technically challenging physiological concepts. They obviously know their stuff. But they don’t get bogged down in anatomical minutiae, preferring instead to focus on the big picture—the how and why of the physiology of aging and how it affects our lives. The language is always clear and comprehensible, and the concepts they present clarify the material that follows.

Each physiological discussion is followed by an explanation of how yoga can help mitigate the challenges of aging, which is, in turn, followed by discussions of how to use your yoga practice to cultivate each skill and to strengthen the cardiovascular and nervous systems. Each chapter offers specific sequences that address each particular skill or system.

Classes and texts intended for the over-50 crowd often emphasize “chair yoga” and modified postures. While these can be appropriate and welcome—and Bell and Zolotow do address practical modifications for the poses and sequences they introduce—the physical/mental/emotional conditioning of people 50 and beyond can be wildly varied. Some people over 50 lead sedentary lifestyles, while others run marathons. Yoga for Healthy Aging includes both easy and challenging routines, along with modified and unmodified pose descriptions.

In particular, I appreciate the authors’ emphasis on the fact that none of the skills or systems they describe operate in isolation. For example, when we strengthen the nervous system, the cardiovascular system also benefits. When we learn stress management skills and cultivate equanimity, our physical systems, as well as our minds, benefit.

Part Two of the book includes detailed descriptions and photos of all the asanas pictured in the sequences. Each asana description includes benefits and cautions, as well as descriptions of the “classic” pose and several options for using props to modify them. As with the rest of the book, their language is clear, concise and accessible. They’ve left no stone unturned in their how-to descriptions.

I greatly appreciate the tone of Yoga for Healthy Aging. Bell’s and Zolotow’s language is always friendly and engaging. Their descriptions of the inevitable changes that occur in our bodies as we age are neither fatalistic nor overly cheery. Instead, their approach bespeaks the equanimity they appear to have developed in their own practice. The evolution of our bodies as we age is simply what is true—it’s neither good nor bad. These changes are written into our DNA, and Bell and Zolotow approach them with a dispassionate depth of understanding that is refreshing.

No matter how many years we’ve lived in our bodies, the fact is, we are all aging. Every moment. We may not think much about aging before we turn 40, but that doesn’t change the fact that our biological clocks are ticking away. Yoga for Healthy Aging is highly informative, compassionate and a joy to read. It is the most comprehensive text I’ve yet read about this process we’re all navigating and how our yoga practice can grow with us as we age. Yoga for Healthy Aging is a book that you can turn to for knowledge and inspiration for the rest of your life.

Study with Dr. Baxter Bell and YogaUOnline – Yoga for Healthy Aging: Yoga Tools to Keep Your Blood Pressure Balanced.

Baxter Bell MD

about the authors of Yoga for Healthy Aging: A Guide to Lifelong Well-Being

Nina Zolotow

Nina Zolotow, RYT 500, Editor-in-Chief of the Yoga for Healthy Aging blog, is both a yoga writer and a yoga teacher. She trained to be a yoga teacher at The Yoga Room in Berkeley, California, has studied yoga therapy with Shari Ser and Bonnie Maeda, and is especially influenced by the teachings of Donald Moyer. She also studied extensively with Rodney Yee, and is inspired by the teachings of Patricia Walden on yoga for emotional healing. Her special area of expertise is yoga for emotional well-being (including yoga for stress, insomnia, depression, and anxiety) and she teaches workshops and series classes on yoga for emotional well-being, stress management, better sleep, home practice, and cultivating equanimity. Nina is the co-author with Baxter Bell of Yoga for Healthy Aging: A Guide to Lifelong Well-Being and co-author with Rodney Yee of Yoga: The Poetry of the Body (with its companion 50 Card Practice Deck) and Moving Toward Balance. She is also the author of numerous articles on yoga and alternative medicine.

Baxter Bell, MD, C-IAYT, eRYT 500, is a yoga teacher and educator, physician and medical acupuncturist. These days he focuses on teaching yoga full-time, both to ordinary students of all ages and physical conditions and to the next generation of yoga teachers, to whom he teaches anatomy and yoga therapy along with his accessible, skillful style of yoga. Baxter brings a unique perspective to his teaching, combining his understanding of anatomy and medicine with his skill at instructing people from all walks of life and all levels of ability. Baxter is the co-founder and writer for the popular Yoga for Healthy Aging blog, where he shares his knowledge of medical conditions, anatomy, and yoga with practitioners and teachers across the world. In addition to being a frequent presenter at Yoga Journal Alive events and yoga conferences such as IAYT’s SYTAR, he is often quoted as an expert on yoga and health by major national news outlets such as The Washington Post and Wall Street Journal. To learn more, visit http://www.baxterbell.com, http://www.yogaforhealthyaging.blogspot.com, and his YouTube channel Baxter Bell YogaBaxter is the co-author with Nina Zolotow of Yoga for Healthy Aging: A Guide to Lifelong Well-Being. 

6 Yoga Poses to Expand Your Heart

By Charlotte Bell.

Have you ever been in a yoga class when someone (maybe you) experienced a spontaneous emotional event? Sometimes, especially in intensive workshop situations, a new physical opening may trigger an emotional opening.

The Eastern medical model posits that emotions are stored in specific organs. Here’s a list of organs and their corresponding emotions, according to Chinese medicine:

  • Heart, small intestine: Joy
  • Spleen, stomach: Worry, over thinking
  • Lungs, large intestine: Sadness
  • Kidneys, bladder: Fear
  • Liver, gall bladder: Anger

The theory is, when we stretch and squeeze the tissues around these organs, the emotions stored there can be unleashed. There haven’t been any empirical studies proving this, but it is not uncommon for people to experience emotional release while having bodywork or practicing asanas.

Even though we don’t officially recognize these connections in the West, we have developed language that describes some of them: “my heart has wings,” “butterflies in my stomach,” “got so scared I peed my pants.” You get the idea.

Your yoga practice can support expanding the heart area, and perhaps even unleash some joy into your day. Practicing poses that mobilize and expand the ribcage can help us create space in that area. The ribcage is the structure that houses the heart. Mobilizing the thoracic spine, to which the ribs are attached, is the most effective way to create spaciousness for the heart.

February is Heart Health Month. Deep, abdominal breathing—as opposed to shallow, upper chest breathing—is essential to maintaining heart health. In Donna Farhi’s The Breathing Book, she explains the relationship between breathing and heart health:

“There have been a number of significant studies showing a correlation between upper chest breathing and heart disease. In one stunning report, patients who had already experienced a heart attack were taught how to breathe diaphragmatically and to generalize this behavior in everyday activities. In doing so they significantly reduced their chances of having a second heart attack.”

Deep, diaphragmatic breathing depends on chest and abdominal mobility. In honor of Heart Health Month, we’ll explore four poses that expand and mobilize the ribcage and abdomen to promote free breathing and open-heartedness.

YOGA POSES TO EXPAND YOUR HEART

There are many, many poses in asana practice that can mobilize the ribcage. The poses I suggest below can stand for other poses in their class—lateral bending, twisting and backbending. I’ve chosen relatively simple practices because part of expanding the heart is being kind to your body.

Gather together some props, including a nonskid mat. For the third pose, add a couple of yoga blocks and one or more blankets. If you have a yoga bolster, you can use it for Savasana.

  1. Talasana (Palm Tree Pose): Mobilizing the ribcage requires that we mobilize the thoracic spine. The thoracic spine is built for lateral bending. In addition, when we bend to the side, we stretch the soft tissue and create space between the ribs on the opposite side. Since the lungs are also housed in the rib cage, there’s more room to breathe. Here’s a post explaining how to practice Talasana.
  2. Jathara Parivartanasana (Revolved Belly Pose): In addition to lateral bending, the thoracic spine is built for rotation. Any twist will help mobilize that section of the spine. There are, of course, lots of wonderful standing and seated twists. But lying down creates a different relationship to gravity, one that allows for easier breathing, and therefore, more mobility. Here’s a post that explains the how-to of this pose.
  3. Matsyasana (Supported Fish Pose): Once you’ve mobilized your thoracic spine in the ways it’s designed to move, you can challenge it with a backbend. The thoracic spine doesn’t actually extend much. The facet joints, the joints between each vertebrae, are designed to put brakes on backbending. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t still extend the thoracic spine a bit. Because we all spend so much time hovering over desks, steering wheels and the like, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to practice this pose every day. Here’s a description of how to practice. One suggestion: In order for this pose to be comfortable, your head needs to be level, not tilting back. Make sure to put enough blankets under your head and neck to ensure that your neck is relaxed. Then relax and enjoy!
  4. Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (Bridge Pose): Bridge Pose not only expands your heart area, but it also strengthens your whole back body. It’s a great antidote to spending lots of time sitting in chairs. Here’s a post that explains more about the benefits of Setu Bandha Sarvangasana, and gives some practice pointers. If you want to practice a restorative version that uses a yoga block, try this pose. If you prefer to use yoga bolsters, read this post.
  5. Upavista Konasana (Seated Angle Pose): Okay. So this is not really an official heart-opening pose, but it’s important to add a forward bend into the mix. So far, this practice has included a lateral bend, a twist and two backbends. A forward bend is in order. For information on practicing Upavista Konasana, read this.
  6. Savasana (Corpse Pose): What would a heart-opening practice be without Savasana? After practicing backbends it’s nice to put support under your legs to release tension in your lumbar area. The simplest way to do this is to roll up a blanket and place it under your knees. If you have a yoga bolster, try this luxurious option, using a bolster, block and blanket.

Charlotte Bell discovered yoga in 1982 and began teaching in 1986. Charlotte is the author of Mindful Yoga, Mindful Life: A Guide for Everyday Practice, published by Rodmell Press. Her second book, Yoga for Meditators (Rodmell Press) was published in May 2012. She writes a monthly column for CATALYST Magazine and serves as editor for Yoga U Online. Charlotte is a founding board member for GreenTREE Yoga, a non-profit that brings yoga to schools and to underserved populations. A lifelong musician, Charlotte plays oboe and English horn in the Salt Lake Symphony and folk sextet Red Rock Rondo, whose DVD won two Emmy awards in 2010.

Outdoors After Fifty “A New Normal”

By Jean Drummond

I have lived in the Eastern Sierra for 17 years. I am so blessed to live in an area that offers so many world-class outdoor opportunities. This is a place where Olympic and professional athletes train and live.

I am an acupuncturist and I practiced in Mammoth Lakes for 12 years and now in Bishop for 4 years. I have been fortunate in my practice because people who live here are motivated to stay healthy so they can play in the outdoors.

Fall colors at Convict Lake in the Sherwin Range of the Sierras, a calm lake and mountains
Fall colors at Convict Lake in the Sherwin Range of the Sierras

My lifelong love of the outdoors and desire to be outside has not changed. However, my body has. In my mind, I’m 29—I think I can do anything at any time. But my 59-year-old body says otherwise. Everything hurts more. Discomfort and pain from years of wear and tear on the knees, shoulders, back and other body parts slows me down a bit.

I got a reality check this summer when I signed up for a 4-day backpacking trip in Yosemite. I wanted so badly to get out for an adventure since I hadn’t backpacked in almost 8 years. My young mind told me, “You can get in shape in 3 weeks!” But when I did training hikes and added more and more weight to my back, my body rebelled and my back seized up.

My lifelong love of the outdoors and desire to be outside has not changed. However, my body has. In my mind, I’m 29—I think I can do anything at any time. But my 59-year-old body says otherwise.

I had forgotten that just a year earlier I was in the ER with severe back pain from a herniated disk and have been plagued with back pain on and off since.  Needless to say, I had to pull out of the trip and was very disappointed in myself.

Lesson learned: there’s a big difference between hiking and backpacking. I was unrealistic to think that I could get in backpacking shape in 3 weeks—that’s my younger mind taking over and my body not cooperating. And the doubt creeps in that I will never be able to do some of the things I’ve wanted to.

A stripe of sunlight hits clouded mountains
Sunrise at Wheeler Crest

I always struggled with the phrase “I used to…”  I used to hike 10-15 miles easily. I used to barrel down hills on my mountain bike… I used to do this and that…

So I have accepted a new mantra: “A new normal.” What was normal when I was younger is different now. My new normal allows me to still do lots of things, but I have to work a little harder and do it a little slower.

I always struggled with the phrase “I used to…” So I have accepted a new mantra: “A new normal.” What was normal when I was younger is different now.

My new normal has actually been a benefit. I feel more connected to nature now than ever because I have learned to slow down and really engage my senses. You go a little slower, but stop and smell the roses and see and feel things you maybe didn’t notice before.

Since hiking is my favorite form of exercise, I used to power hike. I would just barrel up hills and see how fast I could hike a trail. In doing this, you miss a lot of details.

Now, I go out with intention to enjoy my surroundings. And since I am a photographer, having a camera in my hand is forcing me to slow down, to observe, and I have been getting more incredible pictures.

Jean poses with a camera ready in the California landscape
Jean and her camera – photo by Julianna Weise

Life changes that impacted my outdoor experiences was a breakup from a 23-year relationship which dramatically changed my fitness level. I used to mountain bike a lot, road ride, backpack, ski, camp and travel with my partner who would push me to keep up, to do more than I thought was capable. So, I stayed in great shape.

The breakup coincided with my 55th birthday and it’s then I really noticed changes in my body. Being single, it’s harder for me to get motivated to go out alone and I have to be mindful of where I go. When I hike alone, I tend to stay on trails where I know I’ll see some people for safety reasons. When I’m out with others, we will go off trail, go farther and I push myself a little harder to stay up with others.

Jean rides a mountain bike on the edge of a steep canyon
Mountain biking Rainbow Rim

What advice would I give to my younger self?

Follow my dreams. I wanted to be a forest ranger, but my dad told me I would be sitting in a kiosk all day and scrubbing toilets and not being outdoors like the rangers I saw growing up.

And I wish I had known about trail crews and other summer work I could have done.

I do lament my youth in this respect—I wish I could be out there living in the wilderness for the summer months, but my body now would not take lifting rocks and logs very well.

Living in the Sierras and in my profession, I have met and been inspired by many older women who are still out there hiking, biking, backpacking, and doing what they love. I’ve always wanted to know their secret. As I have aged, I think I might know— never stop moving!

Jean walks through a sagebrush desert
Jean on the move, camera in hand – photo by Julianna Weise

The most important thing for an aging body is keeping fit. These women I meet are being active every day, doing some kind of movement exercise. For me, I’ve realized that walking and hiking is not enough now to stay strong. I need strength training to keep my muscles and bones strong so I can put a backpack on again.

I have accepted a new normal and that still offers me plenty of outdoor experiences to pursue which ultimately makes me the happiest.

When I turned 50, I was in my best shape ever because I trained all year to climb Mt. Whitney. Since I will be 60 this year, I need to find a big goal to train for that will push me and motivate me to get in incredible shape again.

I have accepted a new normal and that still offers me plenty of outdoor experiences to pursue which ultimately makes me the happiest.

Images courtesy of Jean Drummond unless otherwise specified.

Jean Drummond is a wellness expert, photographer and writer with a deep love of the outdoors and the healing power of all things natural. Her mission is to inspire and empower women to connect with nature’s gifts to live life with vibrant health and soul-stirring adventures. Find more from Jean at thewellnesspotential.com and her new blog soothedbynature.com

Yoga after Knee replacement surgery

Yoga can actually be a very useful tool in the rehabilitation process after knee replacement surgery. Carried out mindfully and with awareness of your limitations at any given point throughout the recovery period, yoga can help to minimise or even eliminate bad postural habits that you may have had prior to surgery and which may have even been a contributing factor to your knee problems.

The range of motion in your knee will depend on various factors including; the range of motion you lost prior to surgery, how long ago the surgery was carried out, and if you’ve been following an exercise plan post operation recommended to you by your physiotherapist. The basic indicator of how easily you can get up and down from the floor is a good place to start with when considering what yoga poses you can and cannot do.

Post-op alignment in yoga is very important to prevent recurrence of any knee issues. Avoid torque forces through the knee joint which will affect the cement in the joint (the meniscus). Its really important that you keep your toes and knees tracking in the same direction in poses such as Warrior 1 and Goddess. Also stacking the joints from the base up in standing poses will not only help prevent future knee issues, but will also give you more stability in your standing poses. Remember that you can always pull up and back from poses such as Warrior 2 until you feel that you have the strength to go deeper, never passing the knee beyond the ankle.

Contrary to what you may think though, kneeling is problematic but not necessarily injurious to the new knee. Using props such as blankets or cushions under your knee when doing poses performed on all fours may help ease any discomfort. Be conscious of when the right time to perform poses in which you’re on your knees is, such as camel, remembering that often the pose can be taken standing up or cross legged as a variation if you find that you’re putting too much weight on your knees for comfort.

One of the key factors in using yoga as part of the therapeutic process after a knee replacement is that you’re not just bringing awareness to the knee itself. Strengthening all the muscles that cross the knee will greatly help towards a successful recovery. This means working with the whole area from the hips down to the feet to make them stronger in their supporting role. Strengthening your quadriceps and hamstrings will be highly beneficial, as these are often weakened in surgery. And if you have tight hips or hamstrings make sure that you modify the pose to allow these areas to properly open and stabilize,preventing strain on or incorrect movement in the knees.

Standing poses if carried out mindfully can help to strengthen the quadriceps and hamstrings, but make sure you take them slowly and pay special attention to alignment. If taken in small steps these standing poses will help maximise a full range of motion in the knee. Any poses that require deep flexion of the knees can be propped or you can use a chair or wall to help take some of the weight out of the pose, or of course avoided altogether. Also poses that strengthen the hips and ankles will help to further stabilise the knee joint.

Questions to consider with your yoga teacher or therapist before starting to practice yoga again after knee replacement surgery.

1. How long ago was the surgery?
2. Are you still in pain?
3. Are you still in physical therapy?
4. Do you have any hip or back pain (either before or after the knee replacement)?
5. How much mobility do you currently have? Can you get up and down from the floor?
6. Do you have arthritis in any other joints?

Poses for strengthening the supporting muscles:

Warrior 1 and 2 – strengthen and stretches the leg muscles and hip flexors, in particular building strength in the quadriceps,and helps build awerness in proper tracking of the knee. Your knee should be aiming towards being in line with your second and third toe of the bent knee leg.

Yoga after knee replacement surgery
Bridge pose – work with your hamstrings. Stretch your hip flexors and engage the hip extensor. Make sure that your knees are tracking in the same direction as your feet, which are in turn in line with your hips.

Yoga after knee replacement surgery
Tadasana on block with leg lifts out to side and back to centre – building strength in your abductors (outer hip) and adductors (inner thigh).

Yoga after knee replacement surgery
Locust variations – stabilises the sacrum. Stretches and strengthens the hip abductors and tones the quadriceps.

Yoga after knee replacement surgery
Extended hand to big toe with a chair – you dont have to come into the full expression of this pose. Bring a chair to one side to lightly place your fingers on and then use a belt around the toes of the foot that you’re going to extend up.try to keep stability in the pelvis keeping your hip bones in line.

Yoga after knee replacement surgery

Poses with counter indications :

Pigeon pose – take a figure of 4 on your back instead to take the weight off your knees.

Yoga after knee replacement surgery
Eagle pose – place a block by the side of your standingleg and dont wrap your leg. Probably best to avoid all together if too close to surgery.

Yoga after knee replacement surgery
Low Squat – try a higher Goddess pose instead or place a block or two under your sit bones to help take some of the weight of the pose. Make sure that your knees are tracking in line with your feet.

Yoga after knee replacement surgery

Yoga after knee replacement surgery
Hero pose. Sit on a block or bolster or avoid this pose all together.

Yoga after knee replacement surgery
Childs- place a cushion or blanket under your knees to cushion them and also between your calves and thighs to help take the pressure off your knees.

Yoga after knee replacement surgery

Psychological Flexibility: The Other Type of Flexibility That Yoga Helps Improve

| October 4, 2017

Takeaway: Yoga helps improve flexibility, both physically and — perhaps more importantly — psychologically.

While our world has always experienced change, it’s fair to say that the rate of change has sped up dramatically in recent times. Ever since the Industrial Revolution, the rate of human progress has been increasing exponentially.

Over the past 25 years, we’ve seen the birth of the Internet, driver-less cars and the emergence of artificial intelligence. The way we live has fundamentally changed, and we’ve had to adapt to entirely new concepts and social interaction. But as humans, are we designed to adapt to such rapid change, especially since we’ve also seen the number of people suffering from depression and/or anxiety rise by almost 50 percent (according to the World Health Organization)? It’s a staggering figure and raises important questions around why this has happened.

To be sure, these are complicated questions, but one contributing factor is how adaptable we are to change, particularly in a world where there is so much uncertainty. Often referred to as psychological flexibility, how we perceive and manage change is an interesting concept, and how yoga can help is arguably even more intriguing.

Here we’ll share more background information on the concept of psychological flexibility and the ways in which yoga can help build this imperative mental pliability.

Psychological Flexibility Defined

In a 2010 research paper titled, “Psychological Flexibility as a Fundamental Aspect of Health,” Todd B. Kashdan came up with one of the simplest definitions of what psychological flexibility entails. The four main principles are:

  1. How a person adapts to fluctuating situational demands
  2. How a person reconfigures mental resources
  3. How a person can shift perspectives
  4. How a person balances competing perspectives and values

This ability to adapt to a particular situation, to shift our perspective and to choose the best course of action, is the foundation of psychological flexibility. Similar to the principles of Charles Darwin, those with the most resilience and adaptability are often the ones that can grow the most – and this is where yoga can help.

Letting Go With Yoga

Through yoga, we can learn the art of letting go, learning to live with the consequences and challenges that life can often throw at us. By embracing the unknown, and understanding that we can’t have the “ups” without the “downs,” managing or accepting change can be viewed from a different perspective – a perspective of understanding and acceptance that can make the concept of change much less daunting.

(Read more about The Freedom in Letting Go.)

This ability to shift mental states and develop our psychological flexibility turns out to be a fundamental aspect of our overall well-being. Columbia University psychologist George Bonanno found that in the aftermath of 9/11, the most flexible people living in New York City recovered quicker, and enjoyed greater psychological and physical health than their less adaptable counterparts.

The simple premise is that by acknowledging that life is full of change, it can become easier to confront things head on, learning from life’s lessons as you go and using any negativity to either motivate or adjust your own behavior. This mindfulnessapproach of accepting things as they are and then selecting the best course of action can move us toward the things that we value most in life. But it’s not always easy: change, it would seem, is a challenge.

(More on our aversion to change in Exploring Aversion.)

The Challenge of Change

While we’re designed to handle a certain amount of change, problems often occur when we’re overloaded with more change than we can handle. Whether it’s a shift in global politics, our personal life, or challenges in our careers, when the various pressures of modern life are added together, it can create uncertainty. All too often, it can become too much to bare and too much to process.

When faced with a change in our life, whatever it may be, the ability to use yoga to tune in to how our body is responding can give us valuable time to adjust. By focusing on the breath, we can increase the flow of oxygen, which in turn calms our nervous system and reduces our levels of stress almost immediately. Once settled, focused and with a calm mind, we can respond in a more positive manner in the light of uncertainty.

(Learn how to put these points to practice in How to Release Anxiety Using Breath.)

And it’s not just the nervous system where yoga has its benefits. Research by psychiatrist Jeffrey Schwartz from the UCLA School of Medicine reveals what actually happens in our brains when we experience change. When faced with a new challenge, an area of our brain called the pre-frontal cortex is activated. It’s the area of the brain that deals with planning, complex cognition and decision-making. Essentially, all the tools we need to deal with change.

However, using our pre-frontal cortex uses a lot of energy and when we get tired, our brain would much rather run off its hard drive, the basal ganglia. It’s a much more efficient part of the brain, uses less energy and it’s primary function is to store all of our saved memories and the repetitive tasks we frequently perform. Put simply, doing what we know is physically easier; it’s the path of least resistance and means that we can be less adaptable when faced with new challenges.

Training the Mind With Yoga

The beauty of yoga is that it can be used to train both the mind and body to adapt to new circumstances and new challenges. As you go through a workout, the prefrontal cortex is working hard to maintain your concentration and stillness. As you hold a posture, your mind is countering any response to stress, helping to keep it under control. As you practice, you get better at doing this even outside of the yoga room, and we physically can start to re-wire the brain, altering how we react, think and behave.

The key to flourishing in today’s environment, to be happy and content, is that we must learn how to embrace change. Thriving in a state of perpetual chaos isn’t easy, but yoga has been shown to positively affect ingrained behavioral patterns that are often difficult to shift, ensuring that the concept of psychological flexibility is an important tool that we can all learn and develop through yoga.

Embracing the Change

It’s likely that we’ve all been there before – the embarrassing “trip” as we stumble over an uneven floor, or even our own two feet. Aside from being somewhat embracing, the good news is that our physical dexterity can help us rebalance and recover our poise, hopefully before our “moment” ends up on YouTube.

How effectively we do this is, in part, down to how fit, healthy, strong, supple and agile we are. Through the virtue of physical exercise, we can become better at regaining our balance. And it’s the same with our mental health. By training, practicing and developing our mental health, we can bounce back from the adversities in life much more quickly.

Rising Above Change With Yoga

Through yoga, we can train the mind to be composed, rational and open to different ideas or ways of thinking. Psychological flexibility is all about looking at ideas in new ways or coming up with new solutions; and by using the yogic technique of mindfulness, we confront our thoughts, thereby gaining the ability to change automatic and ingrained responses to those thoughts instead. It inevitably becomes easier to take positive actions toward achieving our goals, even when we experience change in the modern world.

10 Things I Wish I Knew Before I Started Yoga

BY 

Most of us come to yoga with a whole lot of misconceptions about what yoga is. I was no different. Here are some of the mistakes that I made, and lessons that I learnt, as a new yoga student.

1. Asana does not equal yoga.

When I started doing yoga I was awed by the strength and grace of the physical practice I saw my fellow students doing. I couldn’t wait for the day when I too would move with such beauty. I fell in love with asana.

But asana (physical postures) is not Yoga. Asana is a tool of yoga.

What is Yoga? It is a state of self-realization, and it is also the practice that we do in order to experience this state. So physical postures are one part of the practice of Yoga, as are meditation, pranayama, kirtan, and the yamas and niyamas. These are all tools which helps us to observe the fluctuations of our minds, and to get a little closer to the state of self-realization.

It is possible to practice asana without practicing yoga. In fact, this has become extremely common. I know I’m not alone in having discovered yoga solely in the form of asana, as this seems to be the experience of most Western yoga practitioners. This results in many of us modern day ‘yogis’ missing out on the real treasures of a yoga practice, and settling instead for a limited asana practice, that can only ever take us part of the way to what we really crave.

2. A home yoga practice is essential. No excuses.

I was lucky to start my yoga journey with teachers who strongly encouraged their students to cultivate a home yoga practice. In fact, it was their main goal as teachers, and they regularly held sessions at the studio where they supported us to develop our personal yoga practice.

Why were my teachers so insistent on a home yoga practice? Well, a home yoga practice is what makes the difference between practicing yoga postures and actually practicing yoga. It’s the container that holds and supports your yoga, forcing you to show up daily on the mat, even when you are overwhelmed with resistance and excuses.

Sadly, many yoga teachers don’t place any emphasis on developing a home yoga practice, and may not even have one themselves. Perhaps it’s not seen as an economically advisable approach, but more likely it appears that many yoga teachers simply aren’t aware of the importance of a home yoga practice, having been taught by teachers who didn’t have one themselves.

Your home yoga practice doesn’t have to be long, complicated or even involve any asana. It could be as simple as ten minutes of meditation every morning. Or listening to a Yoga Nidra recording every night before bed.

3. You don’t need to be flexible to do yoga

A common misconception among new yogis is that flexibility is the true measure of success in a yogi. The further forward you can bend, the logic goes, the more advanced a yogi you must be. And so the new student at their first yoga class feels incredibly self conscious about their flexibility, or worse, they’re so intimidated that they won’t attempt yoga at all.

And yet the idea that you need to be flexible to do yoga is flat-out untrue. In fact, it’s ridiculous! Most of us come to yoga with bodies that we have neglected or harmed in some way, and all of us come to yoga with bodies that move in particular ways, bodies that have limitations and strengths.

Whatever you come to yoga with is OK. We all have to start where we are, and because our modern lifestyles  sure as hell don’t make it easy for us to cultivate healthy relationships with our bodies, most of us have a lot of work to do. That is the work that we begin to do when we come to yoga. This is yoga.

Flexibility is a side benefit of yoga, it is not in any way a measure of the integrity or strength of one’s yoga practice. A deep backbend does not equal a ‘good’ yoga practice. Yes, over time a dedicated yoga does tend to open the body, allowing you to soften, and to increase your flexibility. But think of it as a perk of the practice, rather than a prerequisite or an end goal.

4. Injury is possible, even likely.

When I first began my yoga practice I had an unconscious belief that it was impossible to be injured doing something as virtuous and healthy as yoga. Plus I was in the midst of recovering from an eating disorder, and a subtle sense of aggression towards my body pervaded everything I did.

This was a dangerous combination of beliefs to enter a yoga studio with. It led to me doing a lot of advanced postures, particularly backbends, that I wasn’t ready for. I was naturally flexible, so I could almost always find a way to get myself into a given posture, but I didn’t have the strength or awareness required to do it with integrity.

What happened? I got injured, and for the first time in my life I experienced back pain. I continued to force my way into advanced backbends, but I felt a growing uneasiness. Perhaps, just perhaps, this virtuous and ‘safe’ activity wasn’t so good for me after all.

So yup, turns out that you can get injured in yoga, in fact it’s incredibly common. It doesn’t help that many of us – like me – come to yoga in a state of disconnect from our bodies, with a whole lot of unconscious beliefs about what yoga should be like. The solution? Discard magical thinking, pay attention, question your beliefs about yoga and your body, and ask for help from your teachers so that they can help you to do this.

5. Mainstream yoga images (often) suck.

I came to yoga just before that crazy explosion of social media that has changed so much about our lives. I had a blissfully old fashioned and unflashy view of the practice. For years, I associated yoga with serious, committed people who wore comfortable clothing made of natural fibres and attended to their yoga practice with quiet devotion.

The arrival of Facebook, Instagram and Twitter changed all that. Suddenly I was drowning under a deluge of ‘perfect’ yoga images, usually of young, white, slim and ‘perfect’ women, showing off their bodies in an advanced yoga pose.

I recognized that images didn’t represent me or my yoga practice. I felt manipulated by them, and yet I couldn’t look away. They were seductive, these images, and like it or not, they began to infiltrate my yoga practice with feeling of insecurity: Not slim enough, not strong enough, not sexy enough, not beautiful enough, not flexible enough…

Over time I’ve learned to limit my exposure to perfect yoga images, and to always always question how I respond to them. I’m not alone in feeling that too many perfect yoga images do yoga a dis-service. Real yogis know that perfection is not what yoga is about, and they’re forming a growing movement of rebellion against mainstream yoga images.

6. Yoga teachers will let you down.

Yoga teachers are not perfect beings. This is particularly true in the day and age of unregulated 200Hr Yoga Teacher Trainings, which have released countless enthusiastic but minimally experienced yoga teachers onto the unsuspecting public.

And guess what? Some of them are not very good yoga teachers – not yet. They may not know how to keep their students safe from injury, they might give dodgy dietary advice, develop inappropriate relationships with their students, give confusing and misleading cues, and just generally fail to transmit the true essence of yoga.

That’s not to say that here aren’t great yoga teachers out there. Still, even the best yoga teacher will let you down sometimes. No matter how awesome they may be, yoga teachers are still human, liable to make mistakes and to hurt people, as we all do sometimes. So keep your yoga teacher off any kind of pedestal and you’ll be all the better for it.

7. Yoga teachers will transform you.

On the flipside of that, a good yoga teacher can break your heart, body and mind wide open. They can help you access parts of yourself that you never imagined existed. They can catalyse serious and enduring transformations, and keep you safe throughout.

Sometimes you need the help of a yoga teacher to progress your practice. Cultivating your inner teacher and committing to a daily personal practice is the foundation of a yoga practice, but when you’re ready for it the direct transmission and skillful instruction that you receive from a real life interaction with a yoga teacher can supercharge your progress, and blow through your obstacles.

Good teachers are well-worth hunting down, and studying with.

8. Yoga will revolutionize your relationship with the everyday stuff of your life

I never imagined the extent to which yoga would affect every aspect of my life, no matter how mundane. When we cultivate awareness on the yoga mat it starts to spread out into all aspects of our lives. Whether we like it or not, the yogic mindset we are developing starts to illuminate our unconscious habits and beliefs.

We might start to pay attention to how regularly we reach for a glass of wine in the evening, and see that underneath that craving for alcohol lies a deep need for rest and stillness. We might get curious about our coffee habit, and how it affects our pranic body. We might notice how good we feel when we fuel our body with nourishing food, and become awake to the ways in which we abuse and harm our body through food.

Suddenly, even though you may have just started yoga for the physical practice, your entire life is changing.

9. Yoga will relentlessly bring up all your ‘stuff’ and gradually peel away the layers of your ego. If you let it.

I came to yoga looking for solace from emotional pain. But that’s not what yoga is about. While yoga has given me tools to work with pain, it has also relentlessly brought it up, again, and again, and again.

Yoga isn’t a get out of jail free pass, it doesn’t allow you to run away from the pain of your life. Yoga is self-realization, and self-realization is a messy and painful process. The more that we practice awareness, taking our yoga off the mat and into our lives, the more we are confronted with the deeply ingrained beliefs we hold about ourselves and the world, and the more we find that all of our old sorrows and the hurts come back for healing and release.

Yes, sometimes this process straight out sucks, but I’ve come to believe that the alternative – staying numb and disconnected – is never worth it. Commit to the process of yoga. Let it change you, and you won’t regret it, even on the most challenging of days.

10. There’s this thing called Kundalini and it could blow your life wide open.

Kundalini is the wild card of yoga. It has a dangerous, mystical ring to it, it’s rarely discussed in yoga classes, or in mainstream yoga circles, and most yogis couldn’t tell you what it is. Yet our Kundalini articles are consistently the most read on the entire website, and we get emails and questions all the time from people who experienced it.

A Kundalini awakening is when Shakti, a form of divine feminine energy that lies dormant at the base of our spine, literally wakes up and starts to move up the spine toward the crown of the head. It’s an experience of self-realization, but it can sometimes show up looking like mental illness, or a psychotic breakdown. Kundalini can be catalysed through dedicated yoga practice, but also through trauma, mis-use of drugs, illness, or in a dream.

The effects of Kundalini are serious and intense. It can blow your heart, mind and life wide open, and if you’re not ready for it you’ll have a hard time putting all the bits back together afterwards. It’s generally agreed that it’s dangerous to awaken Kundalini without the support of a Master, and for good reason.

10 Ways to Get Real About Your Body’s Limitations & Avoid Yoga Injuries. YJ Influencer Laura Burkhart offers the story of her own chronic pain and hip injury as a caution to yogis and encourages you to get honest about your own practice.

By Laura Burkhart

Yogis, it’s time to get honest with yourselves and start respecting your body’s limitations. We’ve all heard success stories of people who have healed their body, mind, and emotions through yoga. But lately, I’ve been hearing about more and more students and teachers (including myself) who’ve been hurt by their asana practice.

Why is everyone talking about yoga injuries all of a sudden? For one thing, there are more people practicing yoga now and so likely more injuries. But getting injured by yoga, which most of us start doing for its healing benefits, can also be confusing, embarrassing, and counterintuitive. All of that can make it hard to talk about.

My Yoga Injury Story
I started practicing yoga during a time when I was dealing with chronic health problems and a lot of stress. I was originally attracted to it, because it reminded me of the moving meditative quality I used to find in dance. But unlike dance, where I was taught to push past pain and difficulty with a smile on my face, yoga, ironically, encouraged me to respect my body and its limits.

While I thought I was working within my limitations, years into my yoga practice, I made the decision to stop lifting leg weights in order to increase my flexibility to get into Visvamitrasana, which would eventually be photographed for this Master Class article in Yoga Journal. I was happy when my consistent practice “paid off” and I was able to work into “advanced” poses that required a lot of flexibility and arm strength. What I didn’t know was that 14 years of dance, followed by 16 years of yoga, plus 7 years of not counteracting all the stretching with strength training, had led to overuse of my hip joints and strain on my tendons and muscle fibers.

A couple of years ago, my body started telling me it was exhausted and didn’t want to do long practices or extreme poses. Did I listen? No. I had big plans, work to do, classes to film, and bills to pay. One day, while demonstrating Compass Pose, I pulled my left knee into my armpit and immediately felt a deep pain in my left groin. My initial reaction was frustration with my body for not keeping up with me. I pushed past the pain and continued doing everything I’d been doing. A week later, while teaching I demonstrated Side Plank with my top (injured) leg in Tree Pose and heard a “pop.” That was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I was in so much pain that I could barely sleep or walk for 5 months. During that time, to teach I either sat in a chair or hobbled around in pain.

Today, 19 months later, after three x-rays, two MRIs, six doctors, six physical therapists, two acupuncturists, and multiple injections, I’m still walking on eggshells. It’s painful to stretch, strengthen, and externally rotate my left leg or pull my left thigh toward my chest. I’ve slowly progressed from 14 to 43 simple yoga poses, but basics like Happy Baby, Child’s Pose, Crescent Lunge, Warrior II, Triangle, or a simple cross-legged position are difficult for me. After a year of being misdiagnosed, I found out I had labrum tears, a strained psoas, multiple hamstring and gluteal tears, tendonitis, and tendonosis. According to my orthopedic doctor, the labrum tears were caused by repetitive deep hip flexion—the head of the femur bone hitting the hip socket. (Think poses like Visvamitrasana, Tittibhasana, deep forward bends, and even Child’s Pose.) Unfortunately, my labrum and gluteal tears might have to be fixed surgically, which will also come with a bonus package of 5–12 months of rehab.

I haven’t talked much about my injury, not so much out of embarrassment or secrecy, but because I made a decision a couple of months into the healing process to focus on the positive and what I could do, rather than what I couldn’t. I find talking about the injury, and focusing on the physical and emotional pain it’s caused, is a depressing road that leads nowhere.

Unfortunately, I’m not the only yogi dealing with serious injury.
It didn’t take long to reach out to a handful of other highly skilled teachers in San Francisco (where I live), Los Angeles, and beyond, who have been injured by yoga. Like myself, Jill Miller and Melanie Salvatore August have suffered from major hip injuries due, in our opinion, to overuse. Jill recently had a hip replacement. Erika Trice healed a back injury using yoga, but ironically feels too much asana created repetitive stress injuries in her shoulders and lower vertebrae. Sarah Ezrin recently had shoulder surgery for an injury that she also believes too many Chaturangas and binds contributed to. Similarly, Kathryn Budig assumes years of repetitive movement, vinyasas, and emotional stress led to the shoulder labrum tear she just recovered from. Jason Bowman had surgery for a knee injury that he attributes partially to the regular practice of poses requiring external rotation paired with deep knee flexion like Lotus Pose. Meagan McCrary thinks it was 10 years of hyperextension and nerve entrapment around her joints in practice that short-circuited her nervous system and caused her severe chronic pain. I also know many teachers who have had to reduce the intensity of their practice or focus more on strength training due to non-yoga-related injuries.

In the classroom, I see shoulder injuries most often. They tend to happen to ambitious newer students who skip learning the basics and push hard the first 6–18 months trying to “advance” their practice. Normally I find students experience shoulder pain when they practice too often, do too many Chaturangas (incorrectly), or try to get into arm balances when their alignment is off. Luckily, most students are grateful for any tips and corrections when it comes to injury prevention while other students don’t think the adjustments or warnings are for them until it’s too late.

What do you do after a yoga injury?
On a brighter note, if you are injured, your life is not over by any means. I have actually “accomplished” more since I’ve been injured by thinking outside the box and stepping beyond the lines of the path I had created. I discovered that I love writing articles and blogs, mentoring teachers, experimenting with yoga props, swimming, and having a simple, yet satisfying yoga practice. I still take yoga photos (some of which have been published in Yoga Journal Italy and Singapore). And I’m currently creating a co-led teacher training with Jason Crandell. My injury has given me an opportunity to step back and create a different life for myself.

That being said, I would do anything to go back in time, to have listened to my body, and to not have pushed so hard in my practice. I wish I would have avoided ending up in my current limited state, having to constantly monitor and be cautious with my body. I wish I didn’t experience pain in my left hip, lower back, and hamstrings on a daily basis. It would also be amazing not to worry about how I’m going to get well or my healing timeline. I’ve accepted the fact that I will no longer do crazy yoga poses, but I would love to one day do simple poses such as Triangle on my left side or move through a vinyasa without pain or fear of reinjuring my body.

These stories are not to scare you, but to encourage you to be careful, listen to your body, and not to push past your God-given limitations! You can have a healthy practice that is extremely beneficial to your body if you can get real with yourself about it. The following questions are a good place to start.

10 Questions to Ask Yourself About Your Yoga Practice

1. Does your practice balance the rest of your life?

If you are already performing high-intensity activities such as running, swimming, cycling, etc., I recommend choosing an asana practice that is less intense in nature, such as Iyengar or restorative practice. That way you can reap the benefits of yoga and avoid overusing your joints, tendons, and muscles. On the flipside, if you lead a sedentary life, then a vinyasa practice might bring your body into balance.

2. Do you practice too much?

As practitioners get serious about asana, some feel the need to do an intense 90-plus-minute practice, 5–7 days a week. Many yogis try to keep up with this “expectation” because they believe it’s what a “true yogi” would do. Unfortunately, for many of us, too intense of a practice too often can also lead to overuse of joints and unnecessary repetitive stress on tendons and muscle fibers. I personally don’t recommend doing long, high-intensity yoga practices more than 3–4 days a week.

3. What motivates you to practice?

Your teacher? Your ego? Social media? Your body? Some of us want to “master” complex asana to win favor and praise from our teachers, fellow practitioners, or social media followers.
This need for approval and recognition can be exacerbated when teachers encourage students to push deeper into poses, or praise students who have the ability to get into difficult asana, rather than applauding students with mastery of alignment and stability. If you always want to go deeper or make a pose “more advanced,” where is that coming from and why?

4. Does what you’re doing hurt?

If it hurts, don’t do it. Period. Regardless of whether your teacher is pushing you to go further, or you see other people going deeper.
We come from culture of “no pain, no gain” and pushing past our limits. Hard work, sacrifice, and going the extra mile get us good grades, promotions, and wins in sports. While this mindset can lead to advancement, it can also lead to imbalance. Your internal drive may be high, but your anatomical structure can only take so much. Too much pushing can lead to impingement, strain, and tears in the joints, tendons, and muscles. Honor your body’s limitations. If you have existing injuries, tell your teacher. Your teacher should be able to show you how to modify poses, which poses to avoid, and maybe even guide you toward poses to heal what ails you. You might also need to back off your intensity with the practice to avoid making the injury worse.

5. Are you protecting your shoulders?

In Chaturanga, do your shoulders dip below the level of your elbows? Do you jump back every time you vinyasa? Do you land in Chaturanga or Plank? I recommend limiting jumpbacks and landing in Chaturanga when you do. For most of your vinyasas, I recommend lowering your knees to your mat or skipping Chaturanga all together to prevent repetitive stress injuries, such as labrum tears and rotator cuff issues. If you have a pre-existing shoulder issue, avoid Chaturanga and arm balances.

6. Are you protecting your hips?

Are you listening to your body? In poses where you externally rotate your legs and/or go into deep hip flexion (like Compass Pose, Tittibhasana, Visvamitrasana, Krounchasana), observe how far your body naturally wants to go without pushing further. Also consider balancing out hip flexibility with abduction, adduction, and gluteal strength training.

7. Are you protecting your knees?

A few pointers: In standing poses, don’t let your bent knee go past your ankle. In standing poses that require external rotation like Warrior II, rotate the front leg from the hip socket rather than the front foot. Be sure your body is well warmed up for poses that require deep external rotation with knee flexion like Full Lotus Pose before attempting them. If you already have issues with your knees, avoid Pigeon Pose and practice Thread the Needle on your back instead.

8. Are you protecting your lower back?

Do you warm up before going into deep twists? Recently, many senior teachers and physical therapists alike have begun recommending not squaring your hips in twists, especially if you’re hypermobile, to protect the lower back and SI joints. If you already have lower back issues or have tight hip and hamstrings, be careful with forward bends, particularly seated forward bends. In seated forward bends elevate yourself on a block or folded blanket to avoid rounding your lower back.

9. Are you working on mastering alignment and increasing stability?

I view an advanced student as one who knows how to align their body and use appropriate props when needed. Better alignment will also help you avoid injuries.

10. Can you be happy with where you are?

Be in the present moment; focus on what you can do now, not what you used to do, or what you think you should be doing a month from now. Your practice will change over the years. Don’t get too attached to the current season. This doesn’t mean you can’t have goals, but be realistic and see where your goals are coming from, and if it honors your body.
Shift your goals from intensity, strength, flexibility, and complex asana to digging below the physical. Our yoga culture has drifted away from the purpose of asana. The practice was originally intended to prepare the mind and body for meditation, not a career as a contortionist.

Over-50 Yoga: How to Make Your Yoga Practice Sustainable.

by Charlotte Bell

It’s that time of year again—resolution time. If you haven’t yet made a resolution—or resolutions—you’re not alone. According to an article in Forbes, only 40 percent of Americans make resolutions. Only 8 percent of Americans stick to them.

Still, it’s not a bad idea to set intentions for the new year. Because this blog concerns all things yoga, I’m going to delve into yoga resolutions. And because I’m over 50, I’m going to focus on how to approach starting classes when you’re in my demographic.

I began practicing in my 20s, but over the years my practice has evolved in ways I couldn’t have predicted. A healthy percentage of my students are in my age range. Many of them have practiced with me for decades. So we’ve all seen our bodies, our practices and our lives change.

Maybe you’re thinking of starting a yoga practice at 50-plus. Or maybe you’re thinking of resurrecting a practice you abandoned years ago. Perhaps you’re feeling your current practice is not working for you and would like to explore something else. The best way to make your practice stick is to make sure it’s sustainable. By “sustainable,” I mean that it’s important that your yoga practice replenishes and invigorates you, rather than choosing a practice that wears you out.

According to a new book, Yoga Healthy for Aging, by Nina Zolotow and Baxter Bell—an excellent book, by the way—there are four qualities that we should endeavor to develop in our asana practice. These qualities help us live a more graceful life even as our bodies change. These qualities are:

  • Strength
  • Flexibility
  • Balance
  • Agility

Most types of asana practice develop a measure of these qualities, but some are not sustainable, and that is key, especially for the over-50 crowd. Cultivating these qualities will require different foci for different individuals. Still, here are a few ideas for finding the right practice for you.

Over-50 Yoga Practice

Find a class. Unless you’ve enjoyed consistent practice for a long time, it’s easier to keep your practice going if commit to a class. This is not as easy as it sounds. Yoga studios may be ubiquitous, but types of yoga vary wildly. If your intention is to whip yourself into shape, you might be tempted to hit a Hot Yoga or Power Yoga class. I would strongly steer you to a Hatha Yoga class instead. Here’s why:

  1. In a Hot or Power class the pace is really fast. When you’re cycling through poses really quickly, teachers don’t have time to explain healthy alignment. It’s easy to develop unhealthy habits.
  2. These classes tend to feel more competitive. Most yoga injuries come from pushing too hard or stretching too far. If you hurt yourself going to a yoga class, you’re not likely to continue.
  3. Moving quickly from pose to pose can work well for people who are aware of pose names and healthy alignment practices. But if you walk into a vinyasa class with no familiarity with the asanas, you will likely feel pretty lost. It pays to find a slower-paced class where you can learn the poses and how to practice them with healthy alignment.
  4. Hatha Yoga classes are slower paced, with much more attention to alignment. Just because they move more slowly doesn’t mean that they’re less effective at developing strength, flexibility, balance and agility. In fact, they may be more effective. Yoga for Healthy Aging explains the physiological reasons why longer holds are more effective.

The faster-paced asana classes such as power and vinyasa are derived from Ashtanga Yoga. Ashtanga was taught to its best-known teacher, K. Patabhi Jois, when he was a preteen. It is actually intended to be a practice for the earlier stages of life. This doesn’t mean that the over-50 crowd can’t benefit from a faster-paced practice sometimes. It just means that it may not be sustainable for us over the long run, and it’s probably not the right place to start.

Here are a few more tips for over-50 practice:

  • Start slow. Sometimes our intentions are way too much: “I’m going to go to yoga five times a week and practice an hour every day!” In this case, we’re likely to be disappointed if we can’t keep up with our aspirations. Commit to something you can easily fit into your life. And if you miss a day once in a while, remember that all is not lost. Step back onto your mat the next day.
  • Ask questions. The proliferation of yoga teacher trainings has produced tons of teachers, but also a very wide variety of proficiency levels. It’s important, especially at first, to start with a teacher with many years of teaching experience. It takes years to develop an eye for structural variations. It also takes a long time to understand how to modify poses for people of varying structures. Find a teacher who’s not only been around a while, but someone who’s experienced in teaching over-50 yoga.
  • If you practiced years ago, you may be surprised at the changes in your body’s strength, flexibility, balance or agility. These changes are absolutely normal. Aging is not a disease. It is written into our DNA. Meet your body where it is today.
  • Yoga’s greatest gift is the quieting of the mind. Our minds can only rest in silence when we’re connected to each moment’s experience. When we’re wishing for our 20-year-old bodies, our minds will be in a state of struggle. Relax into your body just as it is right now. Be present to the sensations you feel and adjust your poses so that you can be at ease. That is where the yoga is.

Here’s a post that gives some more tips on finding the right class for you. It also gives brief descriptions of different styles of yoga.

About Charlotte Bell

Charlotte Bell discovered yoga in 1982 and began teaching in 1986. Charlotte is the author of Mindful Yoga, Mindful Life: A Guide for Everyday Practice, published by Rodmell Press. Her second book, Yoga for Meditators (Rodmell Press) was published in May 2012. She writes a monthly column for CATALYST Magazine and serves as editor for Yoga U Online. Charlotte is a founding board member for GreenTREE Yoga, a non-profit that brings yoga to schools and to underserved populations. A lifelong musician, Charlotte plays oboe and English horn in the Salt Lake Symphony and folk sextet Red Rock Rondo, whose DVD won two Emmy awards in 2010.

Samskara, Sankalpa & Tapas—The Yogi Trifecta that’s better than New Year’s Resolutions.

By Kathy Bolte

It’s that time again when we look ahead to the year in front of us and imagine it to be better than the one we are leaving behind.

We may think of stopping a bad habit, creating a positive one, or reaching for a significant goal in the upcoming year. We resolve to evolve. But let’s face it: our resolutions rarely create the magic we intend.

Before we resolve to change the bad habits that plague us, perhaps we need to understand them a little better.

In yogic philosophy, our habituations are called samskaras. They are mental, emotional, or psychological imprints. Every time we receive a bit of sensory input or produce a thought, a subtle imprint is recorded in our memory. The more intense the input or the more often it is repeated, the stronger the impression becomes. Eventually these imprints become a part of who we are and influence our behavior. It is even suggested that we may be born with a karmic inheritance of patterns through which we cycle over and over again.

Repeating samskaras reinforces them, creating a groove that is difficult to avoid. I like to think of them as our psychological comfort zones. Samskaras can manifest in positive ways such as healthy eating habits or positive self-talk. They can also be negative such as mental patterns that influence low self-esteem or destructive relationships. Our negative samskaras are what block our positive growth.

Changing samskaras is not a process to be taken lightly.

What typically happens on New Year’s Day is that we identify something we want to change, or something we want to manifest, and so we create that tired old “New Year’s resolution.” We declare our resolve in January, and by February, we’ve slipped back into old habits of behavior and forgotten about our commitment. Changing our samskaras requires a much stronger intention and a dedication to a practiced discipline that will support our intention.

Yoga teaches us that the intention we are looking for is called a sankalpa. Unlike our New Year’s resolution, a sankalpa is a sacred intention formed by the heart and the mind. It is a solemn vow that is steeped with determination to harness our will and create focus in our mind and our body. But there is an interesting paradox that we must observe when setting our intention and making our vow. We must realize that we are already perfect as we are, even while we are reaching for change.

If we begin with the premise that we are perfect just as we are, we can ask that deepest, most wise part of ourselves what it is that we truly want, what it is that we need. Sankalpa unites our mind with those deeper parts that can sometimes be difficult to access.

Conscious use of sankalpa is a compelling way of communicating, to our emotional and spiritual bodies, what it is that we truly want. Instead of asking for something magical outside of ourselves to create what we want, we tune in to our own deep knowing. Sankalpa is not something we have to make up. It’s already there. All we have to do is listen courageously to what is calling out from deep inside our heart.

Once we set our intention, we must not be impatient. Significant change doesn’t happen overnight. We have no magic wand in hand, so it’s important to set milestones to help us stay committed during the long year ahead.

So you’ve identified the samskara (habituation) that you want to change, and you’ve created your sankalpa (sacred intention) and taken your solemn vow to remain dedicated to your intention. How are you going to keep your commitment?

The final ingredient in our recipe for change is tapas (fiery discipline).

Tapas is the disciplined practice of implementing your plan for change. It is the dedicated practice that actually causes the change. The word tapas derives from the Sanskrit word tap which means “to heat.” Purposeful change in behavior creates heat from the friction of the new pattern rubbing against the old, negative one.

Change is usually quite uncomfortable. When we consciously change a habit, discomfort arises and creates emotional or physical heat. The heat generated by practicing tapas will incinerate the impurities of our negative samskaras. If we acknowledge that the discomfort generated by the discipline is ultimately good for us, we are more likely to remain dedicated to our practice.

In summary, tapas (fiery discipline) challenges our long-standing samskaras (patterns of behavior), and gradually burns them up and clears the way for our sankalpa (sacred intention) to emerge as significant spiritual and psychological growth.

Rather than reverting to another same ol’ same ol’ resolution on New Year’s Day, I invite you to commit to a new way of evolving.

Author: Kathy Bolte
Image: João Silas/Unsplash 
Editor: Catherine Monkman