There are many similarities to look for and learn from in watching a yogi as well as an endurance athlete.

By Renee’ Fulkerson

I just returned from attending the 2019 Ironman on Kona, Big Island, Hawaii and it was epic. The Ironman race is a multi-event sporting contest demanding stamina, in particular in a consecutive triathlon of swimming 2.4-mile (3.86km), cycling 112-mile (180.25km), and running a marathon 26.22-mile (42.20km).

I am familiar with this environment as before I became a  Hatha Yoga teacher I did many years of pre and post race massage at Norba Mountain Bike Race events in the San Bernardino Mountains of Southern California. I have also attended many Xterra off road triathlons and trail running races as well as Tough Mudders.

I myself am not the competitive sports women type however, I enjoy attending these events and gain an incredible amount of knowledge about the human body, training and recovery. When I first arrive to a endurance sporting event like the above mention I feel as though my head might spin off while trying to observe all of this amazing human anatomy in real life. I observe these athletes while racing much like I approach my YogAlign classes there are many similarities to look for and learn from in watching a yogi as well as an endurance athlete.

First point I observe at an endurance race is at the starting line what does the athletes body language tell me? What is the expression on their face? At the take off does their body react with ease to the initial movement or is it clunky and out of sync? Much like I observe a new or longtime YogAlign student. At first glance do they look open and receptive or nervous and guarded, maybe tired from a long day at work or inspired and ready to rumble. When the new student or longtime student begins their YogAlign practice do they move with ease or do they appear to be stiff and sticky? Unlike the endurance athlete during a race I cannot shift anything for them to create favorable conditions however, in YogAlign class I can and will do just that. In keeping my YogAlign class size small and non competitive I can see what each student is doing as well as needing in order to create favorable conditions and results.

Inner Breath Yoga YogAlign Kauai Hawaii (9)
She is moving with ease, aligned and her feet are light and ready to go.

Second point I observe in regard to the endurance athlete and yogi or yogini is the transition between events/ postures. Has this transition been thought out and again is there an ease about it and are they showing any signs of pain/ fatigue in the physical body or facial expression? How is their breathing quality? I can tell the student or athlete is becoming fatigued, resistant, bored/ given up or is in discomfort when the gaze of their eyes begins to lower, chin starts tucking to chest (frontline collapsing), shoulders slump and or roll forward and feet/ legs look like heavy blocks pounding at the ground. Again I cannot support the endurance athlete but to only cheer them on and shout out keep going, keep breathing you got this however, the YogAlign student I will immediately attend to the issues in realigning the body posture, breath and hopefully the enthusiasum or bring them out of the posture all together if no positive benefit is being produced.

Inner Breath Yoga YogAlign Kauai Hawaii (8)
He is ready to transition to the run with his shoes already off.

Third point I observe and most important point is the halfway mark I ask myself by observing the athlete/ yogi are they doing more damage than good at this point? Meaning have they sustained and injury or woken up and old one that is creating a limp or undo pain, are they pushing beyond the bodies ability to sustain the pace/ posture and is it time to call it when more negative impacts are wreaking havoc (widespread destruction) on the body and a common recovery will not be enough. For the YogAlign student upon observation and possible communication with the student if I feel the negative is creeping in I ask the student to immediately stop or come out of a posture and possibly to not practice said posture at all. Example – if a YogAlign student is practicing full body recalibrator (supported splits) and I see, hear or feel they are in pain they need to come out immediately however, if they are feeling a small discomfort (2 on a scale 1-10) I can give them more yoga block support, que engage the core with breath and we will both know if the posture has been practice/ supported correctly with the benefits of the posture when the student comes out and up to standing (the discomfort will not linger). Yes, they may feel some sensation (created space or re-setting of the tension) in the groin, thigh or glutes but not pain. Remember you never get comfortable by being uncomfortable yoga is not supposed to hurt! As for the endurance athlete that is a personal judgement, personal trainer or a beloveds call to stop.

Inner Breath Yoga YogAlign Kauai Hawaii (19)
He has lost his stride foot steps close together (fatigue?) and facial expression (pain?)

Forth point and last point I observe (in regard to this blog) is about 15 minutes before the end of class or end of race. Now this is where body language and facial expression says it all bueno (good) or no bueno (no good). This point really encapsulates the first, second and third point however, I do understand an endurance athlete is going to drag themselves over the finish line when they are so close to the finishing (good, bad or ugly). lol  The YogAlign student however, will be ready for final resting posture savasana  or beaming with that feels so good face/ body, and does not want class to end by savoring space and time a little longer. I can personally relate to both the endurance athlete and the yogis desire for accomplishment and peace.

I consider it an honor to be sharing the last moments of a race or a YogAlign practice with an athlete or student as they have both equally committed their time and energy to this event/ class. I feel as though I also get to share in the joy, pride and gratitude they feel for themselves physically, emotionally and mentally after putting themselves out there and being vulnerable (some call that being brave).

If you are like me and enjoy anatomy in real life, being inspired and connecting  energetically on a heart level with others I highly recommend these type of events and yoga classes.  “once you stop learning, you start dying” -Albert Einstein

See you on the mat.

Do the teachings translate?

This is a question I not only ask new YogAlign students but also long time practitioners do you understand what I am asking / does the information translate?

It can be intimidating to walk into your first yoga class with or without previous experience but then not to understand what the teacher is asking of you is not only confusing but also frustrating. It takes courage and confidence to let an instructor of any sort know that you do not understand or to ask why I am doing this posture? How is this benefiting me? So much so students will continue to try to do what is being asked of them even if it hurts or is very uncomfortable. I do not recommend continuing to move in a way that is hurting your body, mind or spirit so please stop and ask the question if not to the instructor to yourself:

  • does this posture allow my spine to maintain its natural curves (shock absorbers)?
  • in this posture do I have the ability to do deep, full, rib-cage breathing?
  • does this posture serve my human design and create functional movement positions?
  • is this posture causing me pain?

YogAlign translates to pain free yoga from your inner core it is a practice I am confident to teach a mixed class of beginners and longtime practitioners side by side. Aside from having severe health concerns and needing a one on one session the above mentioned seems to sync beautifully. I also find YogAlign is a yoga practice that is experiential. Meaning I like to keep the verbal cues limited and relatable as we move through the practice. Thus allowing the student the experience as well as building the trust and confidence of the practice. In a short time my words, the posture and feeling that comes with it will all connect like an aha moment.

Starting with breath is a for sure way to change your perspective from the outside world and transition into your yoga practice. I find most folks breathing habits have them breathing through their shoulders with the muscles around the neck and shoulders lifted and contracted. The easiest and most relatable way to shift the breath from the shoulders to the diaphragm is simply to let your shoulders relax away from your ears and let your shoulder blades relax down your back as you draw them slightly together. This allows the chest/ frontline to open up and draw the breath deeper from the diaphragm also known as our primary breathing muscle a muscle that also needs to be exercised.

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Then some self massage to not only allow you to relax into your practice but also allows a connection to the nooks and crannies of the body that do not get much thought or exploration. For example (have two yoga blocks or two small rolled up towels available to you) starting on your back, shoulder blades underneath you supporting your bodies natural curves. Start by bending your knees and placing a yoga block under your right foot and drawing your left ankle on top of your right knee. Next begin to press on each toe nail bed on the left foot for a few seconds and then gently roll down the toe joint (drawing circulation down into the toes and feet). Continue massaging the arch, heel and top of foot as well as below the ankle on the inside of the left foot. Work your way up the left leg between the ankle and knee, around the knee cap and into the large muscles of the upper left leg not forgetting the entire inner thigh. Interesting thoughts about the inner thigh I find many folks to contract and hold their inner thigh muscles much like the above mentioned neck and shoulder muscles (tight and short) which after long periods of time is exhausting to the muscle and to the body. Finally straighten the left leg, push the block from under the right foot out to the side, point the toes of the left leg to activate the left leg muscle (keeping the hip joint stable) and begin to do leg circles in towards the body. We do not want to hear or feel grinding (bone on bone) if so point toe more and make circles larger or smaller or stop altogether. Let your hips move as well as your right knee – your not glued to the floor. You will then hook that left leg over the right knee and roll onto your right side. Bottom right leg is straight (not locked out at the knee) the yoga block you pushed to the side earlier will now support your slightly bent left leg/knee and grab another yoga block to support your head as you are on your side. Important habit changer here do not bring the left bent knee in to close to your stomach and do not bring your chin to your chest. Why? Because this puts you in a fetal or C posture  and collapses the whole frontline, squishing your organs, inhibits the ability for full diaphragm breathing and does not support the bodies natural curves. From here the body is relaxed and then begin by massaging your behind (gluteal muscles), outside of leg (IT band), hip (iliac crest), up your side into the chest (pecs), arm pit (arm flexors), side of the neck (levator scapulae), the ear lobe and the side of the head. Massage all the way back down the sideline all the while thinking and feeling the body as a continuum not as separate pieces. As a student moves through this massage sequence I can name some of the muscles etc. while the students touches, connects to them and feels less intimated in the possibility of not knowing it all. Meanwhile the longtime practitioners are getting a little deeper with their massage and maybe covering more ground it’s a win win. Then we repeat massage sequence on the right side of the body, finish by laying on our backs with shoulder blades underneath us and prepare for three full body stretches.

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Full body stretch may sound like we are pulling the body apart however, it is the exact opposite. Everything about YogAlign is to empower the body, allow it to feel whole and put together versus in pieces. We begin lying on our backs, shoulder blades underneath us and down towards the floor now see if you can place your hand in the small of your back and feel the space between your body and the floor these are your natural curves or springs/ shock absorbers as we like to call them in YogAlign. Next reach your arms overhead, hip distance apart (shoulders relaxed do not squeeze your head), fingers spread and palms facing each other. Point your toes away from you inhale through the diaphragm (SIP breath if you have learned it) now tighten the entire body like you are laughing so hard you cannot breath. Fist your hands and pull down like you are pulling ropes towards you this will engage your core and them exhale or lion breath with tongue out (ssshale if you learned it) and completely relax the body. (2 more) Why do we do this full body stretch? To reset the tension in the body, make tighter what is already tight in the body and then let it all go – resetting the resting length of the muscles. We can now come up to standing (slowly do not get a head rush), have a drink of water and begin our standing YogAlign practice with hopefully some confidence and better understanding of our body and the practice.

Starting something new with a negative outcome due to not knowing or continuing with something that may hurt or you do not understand is a dis-service we have all made to ourselves at one time or another. Your personal yoga practice or self study is that time to ask questions, know why you are doing what you are doing to better yourself and most of all feel good before, during and after your class. After all looking forward to your yoga class and  feeling better when you walk out of class then before you arrived is the whole point of the practice isn’t it? To this I say YES!

See you on the mat.

What is the importance of breathing? Maybe your quality of life.

By Renee’ Fulkerson

What is the importance of breathing?

Every system of the body relies on oxygen. From cognitive to digestion, effective breathing cannot only provide you with a great sense of mental clarity, it can also help you sleep better, digest food more efficiently, improve your body’s immune response, and reduce stress levels.

Let us sink a bit deeper into what is the importance of breathing and I would like to share with you the moments that provided the evidence that made the above statement true for me.

In the year 2010 I received a phone call from my uncle that my dad had been hospitalized, he was unconscious, and unstable. At the time of admitting my dad the doctors had no idea what was going on with him. Later that same day when I arrived to see him he was still in what they now were calling a coma and a machine was breathing for him.

Flash forward to days which turned into weeks of endless testing and near death moments the diagnosis was my dad had the West Nile Virus. About 1 in 5 people who are infected develop a fever and other symptoms. About 1 in 150 people who are infected develop a severe illness affecting the central nervous system such as encephalitis (inflammation of the brain) or meningitis (inflammation of the membranes that surround the brain and spinal cord) unfortunately my dad ended up being 1 of those 150 people. His symptoms included:

  • high fever, headache, neck stiffness, stupor, disorientation, coma, tremors, convulsions, muscle weakness, vision loss, numbness and paralysis and being over 60 years of age put him at a greater risk for complications and death.

After several months of laying in a hospital bed, paralyzed and unable to talk or breath on his own he was stable enough to be moved to a rehabilitation facility. This marked the beginning of what the rest of his quality of life would look like. To the naked eye the scene appeared bleak when a machine was breathing for him.

A reminder – what is the importance of breathing? Every system of the body relies on oxygen. From cognitive to digestion, effective breathing cannot only provide you with a great sense of mental clarity, it can also help you sleep better, digest food more efficiently, improve your body’s immune response, and reduce stress levels and my dad struggled daily with all of this.

Fast forward – after many months of rehabilitation my dad was finally able to breath on his own. It felt like from the first breath he took on his own it jump started his body. With the tube out of his throat and vigorous breath he was eating and digesting food which in turn gave him sustenance and strength. The ability for him to breath on his own relieved a great deal of stress for him and allowed him to get the healing rest/ sleep the body needs for recovery of any sort of trauma. Every time I came to visit him his mental clarity was sharper and his ability to talk, communicate and laugh yes laugh was amazing.

The biggest gift he received after literally getting his breath back was his immune system. When the machine was breathing for him he constantly had pneumonia and was always coughing and fighting for breath it was like he was in a never ending loop of despair. However, once his own breath kicked on the immune system his cough ended and he never again got pneumonia in the rehabilitation facility.

With his own breath flowing freely through his body the next step was getting him out of bed and walking on his own again and over time this too happened. Standing in front of my dad cheering him on when he took his first steps I thought my heart would burst with pride and joy for him. With the sweat on his brow and the racing beat of his heart I knew the ability for him to breathe on his own was his turning point to a quality life. The moment that happened all systems were ago and he had everything he needed on his side to succeed with his OWN breath.

After a year in the rehabilitation facility my dad was ready to go home to a quality of life he could be happy with. He started out in a wheel chair, could not feed himself as his whole right arm was still paralyzed and needed help with bed and bath. Over time with breath and movement he fully walks on his own, has learned to do most everything with his left arm/ hand and gets out as much as he can. Although his left arm does remain paralyzed to this day, he is unable to drive and does get frustrated and down sometimes he is a beautiful alive human being with a heart of gold. Getting his own breath his life force back gave him the ability to beat the odds.

See you on the mat

The quality of your health is a direct reflection of your level of independence.

By Renee’ Fulkerson

in·de·pend·ent
/ˌindəˈpendənt/
adjective – not depending on another for livelihood or subsistence.
“I wanted to remain independent in old age”
synonyms – self-sufficientself-supportingself-sustainable.
My experience with this above mentioned topic has happened within this last year and as always got me looking around at folks moving through their daily lives.
I grew up in Southern California and spent every summer (which then was June, July and August) in Baja California at my grandparents house on the beach until I was well out of high school.
In both geographical locations the weather was mostly sunny and warm which I am a huge fan of and I spent most of my days wearing cut off Levi shorts, tank tops and flip flops. In other words closed toes shoes, socks, pants and jackets were far and few in my everyday life.
I do everything in my flip flops (called slippers here on the Hawaiian islands) probably not the best option for most of my outdoor projects. While thinking back to my 16 years living in a mountain community (including snow) I still spent a great deal of time in my flip flops. I had a large yard/ garden in the mountains as well as here on the island consequently digging, raking, weeding etc. yes in my slippers. I have also done many hikes, walks and dancing in my flip flops as a side not ipanema slippers are my favorite.
Inner Breath Yoga YogAlign Kauai Hawaii (1)
This last June as my family and myself were preparing for our annual summer mainland mountain road trip my flip flop existence took a turn for the worst. As I was outside in the garden digging with a shovel pushing down on the metal piece with the the arch of my foot I felt a stretch and pull of discomfort and my heart dropped as I knew I had injured my foot.
I hobbled into the house and began icing three to four times a day with a frozen bottle of water, lightly massaged the surrounding areas (directly massaging soft tissue injury may make it worse) and slept with my foot wrapped in an Ace bandage.
Once on the mainland I continued feeling the discomfort and the lack of stability in my foot however road tripping and camping left me little time to continue my therapy routine. As the road trip progressed I wore shoes and socks much of the time as well as my slippers I was frustrated to say the least. I was not as agile, comfortable or confident in my daily ventures and had to opt out of hiking back to camp for a boat ride back to camp – Boo Hiss Growl
Upon arriving back on Kauai and to this very day September 09/2019 I continue to feel some pain in my foot. I have continued my normal daily activities at home (although I wear shoes and socks now while gardening). YogAlign, snorkeling and continuing icing and wrapping has kept me comfortably active. In my humble opinion being sedentary after and injury is the wrong way to go – the body wants to heal and circulation is key. I have purchased a new style of flip flops during healing process OOFOS Recovery Footwear.
Inner Breath Yoga YogALign Kauai Hawaii
As I began looking around me one day while I was out running errands in my OOFOs feeling comfortable, confident a mostly pain-free when I noticed how many folks were not stable on their feet. Young and old, small and large, black or white it did not matter their health or lack of was hindering their independence. Canes, wheel chairs having to be pickup or dropped off from the car and needing a partners arm for assistance was what I was seeing. Again these were not just mature folks (which by the way can also stay very independent).
That is when it hit me The quality of your health is a direct reflection of your level of independence or lack thereof. I think most of us would agree it is hard enough to ask for help much less be reliant on somebody to get you around physically. I could not imagine my life without my physical independence.
What have I learned:
Directly – flip flops / slippers have a time and place. lol
Staying physically active is a key component to independence but not only that being in proper posture and alignment while preforming that action keeps you less likely to get an injury. What I mean by that is when I am teaching a YogAlign class and we are doing the YogAlign SIP ups (properly aligned sit ups) with SIP breath (structurally Informed Posture- informs our body of how to be in good posture by aligning from the inside out)  before students begin movement we prepare are body for optimal results and less negative impacts to the body.
Students begin by lying on their backs, knees bent toward the ceiling/ with a yoga block placed between the meaty part of the inner thighs, shoulder blades under them to create and support the natural curves in the spine (no belly button toward the back body flattening out our natural spinal curves aka springs) hand over hand palm facing up supporting the Occipital Bone on the back of the head, drawing elbows up enough to see from their Peripheral vision thus turning on the arms and with a lion’s exhale let out all their breath. Next we look up at the ceiling take in a full diaphragm SIP breath, squeeze the block between out knees, engaging the core an lifting from the core (maintaining an open front line – no chin to chest) and coming down with the S-hale like a snake. If during that practice I see a student pulling from the neck with their hands or rounding the spine by pulling the chin to the chest I request they come out of the posture immediately as they are doing more harm then good to their body. We do not want to rob Peter to pay Paul. Again it is more important to practice a yoga posture correctly to receive the optimum benefits than doing more harm then good.
I wish us all to be proactive in maintaining our personal independence – you don’t know what you have until it is gone.
See you on the mat.

Is your yoga practice sustainable? If we are moving through a yoga practice that is harming or damaging our human body what would be the point?

By Renee’ Fulkerson

SUSTAINABLE | definition in the Cambridge English Dictionary
https://dictionary.cambridge.org › dictionary › english › sustainable
sustainable meaning: 1. able to continue over a period of time: 2. causing little or no damage to the environment and therefore able to continue for a long time.
We could exchange the word environment for human body.  By the above definition the question could be re-worded to – Is your yoga practice causing little to no damage to your human body? Will you be able to continue this yoga practice for along time?
The answer for me is yes at this current time as my yoga practice is The Yoga Align Method – pain-free yoga from your inner core focuses on proper body alignment and real life movement.
I have found whether young or mature of age we all want to feel good and be happy in our mind, body and spirit.
In my teaching and personal experience most of use can connect to the physical body easily we can touch it, see it and feel it. Where as the mind takes time to connect with with in regard to meditation and stillness. The spirit for some is altogether unattainable in the tangible sense and they cannot find the connection. So doing some physical movement seems like a rational place to find some joy and happiness.
For some yoga practice means only physical movement (asana) for others it is only meditation they seek and actually in this day and age yoga can come in many forms. For this blog lets stick with yoga practice in the physical sense.
When you are in your next yoga practice/ class ask your self some important questions:
  • Am I able to take a full deep breath in this posture?
  • Does my spine and sacrum maintain their curves and integrity?
  • Does this posture simulate functional movement, am I comfortable and stable?

We have been exploring in my public YogAlign practice that some folks do not and have not ever felt comfortable and stable in a forward lunge. A lunge is a lower-body exercise that works several muscle groups at once. The targeted muscles include the glutes in your hips and butt along with the hamstrings and quadriceps in your thighs. The calf muscles in your lower legs, your abdominal muscles and your back muscles act as stabilizers during this exercise.

Not feeling stable in the forward lunge restricts deep breath, alignment and there for is not comfortable or stable. The solution is simple we have placed a yoga block under the back foot which has a double duty purpose. One it allows the student to get alignment from the foot to the hip, raises the heel to a comfortable level and creates the stability the student was lacking and once they are in a stable lunge everything else falls into place.

Inner Breath Yoga Yogalign kauai hawaii

I have also had students lunge with the assist of the wall. Placing their right foot forward big toe close to the wall be not touching, left foot back on a block or heel lifted once they feel stable (foot in alignment with hip) I have them check to see if the back of the head the Occipital bone and the sacrum are in alignment creating even more stability and bonus proper alignment. Next when alignment and stability are solid we sink into the front knee and place the pads of our fingers (fingers open to turn on the arm muscles) against the wall upper chest height and start our SIP breath (structurally Informed Posture- informs our body of how to be in good posture by aligning from the inside out). Allowing this core breath to stabilize the body along with drawing the shoulder blades together creating even more stability.

When properly aligned in a posture with effective breathing and feeling stable and comfortable then and only then will we reap all the benefits the posture has to offer. I would say the above described YogAlign Power Lunge is sustainable for the human body as it ticks all our boxes.

If we are moving through a yoga practice that is harming or damaging our human body what would be the point? Although sometimes this may happen and we do not even realize it is happening. Be careful when an instructor cues a posture is supposed to be painful and to breath through the pain. That may be somewhat true for a person who has had a debilitating accident and is in recovery (physical therapy) and even then I would question the motive and benefits.

We can create a happy healthy mind, body and spirit well into a mature age by putting our body in breathable, aligned, functional, comfortable and stable yoga postures.

Now go out and use your sustainable body for good!

See you on the mat.

Exercise Wins: Fit Seniors Can Have Hearts That Look 30 Years Younger

By PATTI NEIGHMOND

We know we need to exercise for our health, but a lifelong exercise habit may also help us feel younger and stay stronger well into our senior years. In fact, people in their 70s who have been exercising regularly for decades seem to have put a brake on the aging process, maintaining the heart, lung and muscle fitness of healthy people at least 30 years younger.

Take 74-year-old Susan Magrath, a retired nurse practitioner who lives in Muncie, Ind. Magrath has been running almost daily for 45 years. She often runs outdoors and describes it as addictive. “It’s just such a release, just a wonderful release,” she says. “I ran today and there were little snowflakes coming down, and I was down by the river and it’s just wonderful. And I think it’s become more of a contemplative meditative process for me.”

Magrath may be living proof that lifelong exercise helps with cardiovascular and muscle health. She recently took part in a study at the Human Performance Laboratory at Ball State University, also in Muncie, headed by exercise physiologist Scott Trappe. Trappe is among the first to study the enticing new population of lifelong exercisers.

After the running and aerobic boom of the 1970s, large numbers of septuagenarians stuck with it and have been exercising regularly for the past 50 years. In this population, Trappe says, “We were interested in basically two questions: One, what was their cardiovascular health? And two, what was their skeletal muscle health?

What he saw surprised him. “We saw that people who exercise regularly year after year have better overall health than their sedentary counterparts. These 75-year-olds — men and women — have similar cardiovascular health to a 40- to 45-year-old.”

” ‘Exercise wins’ is the take-home message,” he says.

In the study, Trappe divided 70 healthy participants into three groups. Those in the lifelong exercise group were on average 75 years old and primarily kept their heart rates up through running and cycling. They had a history of participating in structured exercise four to six days a week for a total of about seven hours a week.

The second group included individuals who were also, on average, 75 years old but did not engage in structured exercise regimens, although they might have participated in occasional leisure walking or golf.

The third group consisted of young exercisers who were, on average, 25 years old and worked out with the same frequency and length of time as the lifelong exercisers.

All participants were assessed in the Human Performance Laboratory at Ball State University. Cardiovascular health was gauged by having participants cycle on an indoor bike to determine VO2 max, also known as maximal oxygen uptake, which is the measurement of the maximum amount of oxygen a person can use during intense exercise and is an indicator of aerobic endurance. During the cycling test, which became increasingly challenging, individuals exhaled into a mouthpiece that measured oxygen and carbon dioxide levels.

The aerobic profile of the participants’ muscles was measured by taking a sample via a biopsy about the size of a pea, says Trappe. Then in the lab, researchers examined the micro vessels, or capillaries, that allow blood to flow through the muscle itself.

They also looked at specific enzymes that provide fuel to the working muscle and help break down carbohydrates and fats.

Although the study was relatively small, the findings, which were published in the Journal of Applied Physiology in August, suggest a dramatic benefit of lifelong exercise for both muscle health and the cardiovascular system.

“Lifelong exercisers had a cardiovascular system that looked 30 years younger,” says Trappe. This is noteworthy because, for the average adult, the ability to process oxygen declines by about 10 percent per decade after age 30.

“It’s kind of a slow decay over time that’s probably not so noticeable in your 30s or 40s,” says Trappe, but eventually as years go on, becomes apparent. People can get out of breath more easily and may have difficulty pushing themselves physically.

The age-related reduction in VO2 max is directly associated with an increasing risk of multiple chronic diseases, mortality and loss of independence. Maintaining a strong heart and lung system has been shown to decrease these health risks.S

As for muscle health, the findings were even more significant, says Trappe. Trappe says researchers were surprised to find the 75-year-old muscles of lifelong exercisers were about the same as the muscles of the 25-year-olds. “If I showed you the muscle data that we have, you wouldn’t know it was from an older individual. You would think it’s from somebody that’s a young exerciser,” he says.

David Costill, 82, was not part of the study but is a former colleague of Trappe’s and professor emeritus of exercise science at Ball State University. As an exercise physiologist, he has always known about the benefits of exercise and has been committed since high school.

He says he has spent about “60 years actively exercising.” Costill ran marathons for about 20 years until his knees started to bother him, so he headed to the pool. “And I’ve been swimming for the last 35 years.”

When Costill looks at his friends, he says he finds he can do a lot more physically than they can. “If I’m out with a group of my peers, guys who are near 80, and we’re going someplace, it seems to me they’re all walking at half speed.”

Trappe says the findings are clear: 30 to 60 minutes of exercise a day may be the key to a healthy life. But you don’t have to run marathons or compete in cycling events. “If you want to do 30 to 45 minutes of walking a day, the amount of health benefit you are going to get is going to be significant and substantial,” he says. “Will it equal the person training for competitive performances? No. But it will outdo the couch potato.”

Unfortunately, couch potatoes are the norm. Federal guidelines recommend two hours and 30 minutes of moderate exercise a week, or one hour and 15 minutes of vigorous exercise per week. Yet 77 percent of Americans do not come close to getting that amount of exercise.

Dr. Clyde Yancy, spokesperson for the American Heart Association and chief of cardiology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, says the findings suggest “a lifelong investment in health and fitness appears to be associated with a really sustainable benefit out until the outer limits of life.”

Since we are living longer, maintaining a good quality of life is more important than ever. While the study was small and the findings need to be confirmed, they present a “strong argument” for lifelong exercise that is inexpensive and accessible for everyone. “If you can swim, do yoga, cycle, or walk,” you can benefit,” Yancy says.

10 Tips for Starting Yoga at 50+

by Amber Burke & Bill Reif

Medical practitioners and health-focused websites are increasingly recommending yoga to those of middle age and up, perhaps because yoga can help make you more flexible and mobile, improve your balance, reduce age-related changes in gait, increase your energy, reduce chronic pain and addictive behavior, decrease the risk of heart attacks and strokes, alleviate depression and anxiety, improve sleep quality, and even slow the effects of aging on a cellular level.

Older adults seem to be listening. According to one large survey, those 50 and up constitute 38 percent of all practicing yogis, making them the second largest group of practitioners (after those 30-49). If you are considering joining this number, it’s important to consider how best to approach a new yoga practice at and after middle age.

Although no single type of practice will ever be appropriate for everyone in any demographic, a yoga practice for those 50 and up is one that understands and works with the differences between younger bodies and older bodies, rather than one that pretends those differences do not exist.

In particular, a safety-focused approach to yoga may be especially valuable for older practitioners, who seem to run a higher risk of in-class injury than their younger counterparts. Yoga, like all forms of exercise, can both cause and exacerbate injuries, and while the rate of yoga injuries for all demographics rose between 2001 and 2014, injuries were most frequent among those 65 and up (57.9 injuries/100,000 practitioners), followed by those 45 and up (17.7/100,000). This may result from the way normal, age-related changes and preexisting wear and tear on our bodies interact with a yoga practice.

Although all bodies are different, in general, our bodies become less resilient as we age. To varying degrees, we experience decreases in muscle strength, connective tissue elasticity, and bone density, the combination of which may make us more vulnerable to injury than our younger counterparts. Older adults may also find that their injuries don’t heal as quickly as they did a decade or two ago.

By the time we reach middle age, it’s also likely that we bring to yoga conditions or injuries—diagnosed or undiagnosed—that affect our practice and can make injury more likely. Kyphosis, frozen shoulder, osteoporosis, and back pain (discussed further here) are among the common conditions experienced by older adults that may necessitate changes in our yoga practice.

Fortunately, by making careful decisions about what type of yoga to practice, and how to practice it, we can decrease the odds of injury. While much of the advice below applies to yoga practitioners of all ages and levels, it is especially crucial for those starting yoga at or after age 50, when safety must take center stage.

1. Seek out the type of yoga class that’s right for you.

There are many types of yoga. A high-intensity practice like ashtanga, vinyasa, or power yoga (in which students often “flow” quickly through poses) usually requires the hands to bear weight. These practices may work for some beginning practitioners, especially those who are athletic and free from competitive urges, and who can easily make adaptations within a group class when needed.

But if you are newer to exercise and/or working with injuries or pre- existing conditions (especially of the shoulders, elbows, or wrists), the fast pace of a vinyasa or power yoga class and the emphasis on weight-bearing with the hands may not suit you. Instead, you might consider choosing a class that moves slowly and focuses on alignment. Hatha classes, Iyengar classes, classes geared specifically toward older adults or billed as “alignment-focused,” and introductory, basic, or foundational classes could all be appropriate. Kundalini classes, which often emphasize seated poses, chanting, and working with the breath, may also be beneficial. Yin yoga and restorative yoga (both floor-based practices emphasizing long holds), and chair yoga, in which many poses are practiced with the help of a chair, are of value to many practitioners, but may be especially valuable for older students who are newer to exercise, find balancing to be a challenge, or have difficulty coming down to and up from the floor.

Teachers of all of these different styles are often happy to teach you privately. A private yoga session is considerably more expensive than a group class, but often far less expensive than an appointment with a physical therapist or doctor.

During one-on-one sessions, a teacher can check your form and help you make adjustments to poses that haven’t been feeling quite right, or about which you may be uncertain.

Yoga International and other yoga sites will give you many of the tools you need to be your own teacher and embark on a home practice. There, you’ll find online yoga videos that offer classes for a variety of different levels that you can practice at your convenience. However, even those who prefer practicing at home often find participating in group classes helpful—both for the instruction from a “live” teacher, and the encouragement from a community of other students.

2. Find the right teacher for you.

Even within each type of yoga mentioned above, classes often vary tremendously depending on the instructor. Some say there are as many styles of yoga as there are yoga teachers. For instance, some vinyasa teachers may move slowly, while some hatha teachers pick up the pace. Shop around. Try different teachers. It is not necessarily important that your teacher be the same age as you, but it is important that younger teachers know how to work with students older than themselves.

Go to class early enough to talk to the instructor, or visit with the studio manager to inquire about various teachers’ styles. Ask about their philosophy and goals. Consider steering clear of teachers who think all poses are uniformly attainable and beneficial for all bodies. Instead, seek out a teacher who seems to care about any needs and pre-existing injuries or conditions you might have, and is interested in making your practice productive for you.
Find someone who gives careful instruction, teaches poses that seem valuable and possible, and who offers directions you can easily interpret. Above all, look for a teacher whose emphasis is not on the “what” but the “how”—a teacher who is more interested in teaching students how to move safely and with awareness, than in achieving a particular pose.

3. Be clear about your goals.

If, instead of accomplishment—like achieving handstand or lotus pose, you see the goal of your yoga practice as improved physical and mental well-being, the poses themselves become less important, a means rather than an end. You will then be less inclined to do anything in the short term that puts you at risk for injury, which would interfere with your long-term goal.

Yoga’s benefits for your well-being do not hinge on the attainment of particularly adventurous or dramatic poses, keeping pace with the person next to you, or practicing a pose just the way your teacher does. Rather, the benefits derive from a consistent and mindful practice of poses that challenge your range of motion and strength to a sustainable degree.

4. If you have any injuries or pre-existing conditions, tell your teacher about them, and share any advice you’ve received from your doctor.

A discussion with your teachers regarding any injuries and conditions you may have is essential, so that they avoid encouraging you to make movements that are risky for you. Sometimes, your teachers can help you modify potentially problematic poses or suggest alternatives. Even if you aren’t seeking advice (because you know exactly which changes you’ll make to your practice to keep yourself safe), it’s also important to communicate with your teachers to avoid hands-on adjustments that could place pressure on a place of injury or vulnerability.

Past injuries and surgeries matter, too, since the area of a previous injury is often the area that’s most likely to be injured again.

Any information your doctor has given you about which movements to do and which not to do can be invaluable to your yoga teacher. Though many experienced teachers will know how to work with practitioners who have certain common injuries and conditions, it’s simply not possible for them to know the particulars of every diagnosis. So if, for example, your doctor has given you instructions not to twist or forward-fold, pass that information on.

5. Take charge of your own well-being throughout your practice.
It can be tempting to assume that whatever poses the teacher suggests will be a good idea for you, especially if you’ve communicated with them about any injuries or conditions you have.

But it’s important not to surrender responsibility for either your own safety or your own good judgment. Sometimes classes are so large that teachers don’t feel they can attend to the particular needs of any one individual. Sometimes your teachers may not know how best to accommodate your needs.

But perhaps most critically, there will be times when only you will know what your needs are. For instance, only you can know when you are on the verge of losing your balance in a standing balance pose. But since, according to one study, falls from standing height are the most common cause of injuries in older athletes, it’s critical that you don’t wait for the teacher’s invitation: Exit the pose before your shaking destabilizes you.

Continually register what you are doing and how it feels. Stay attuned to warning signs like tingling, numbness, lightheadedness, and, of course, pain. These are cues telling you that it’s time to come out of a pose.

6. Move Slowly.

Moving slowly from pose to pose gives you time to both get your footing and to notice sensations in your body. And if you’re not in a rush during transitions, it may be easier to stay mindful of your alignment, as well as of any advice your yoga teacher or your doctor may have given you.

Slow movement can also help build strength. Slow doesn’t mean easy—quite the opposite. Try taking a few steps as slowly as possible. You’ll likely feel that moving slower requires more control and effort, rather than less. Moving slowly can also require mental strength to stick with the challenges it presents, as well as to keep a slow pace even when others are moving faster.

7. Give yourself permission to skip and alter poses as necessary.

Respect your feelings of hesitation. If you look at a pose and think, That looks like a bad idea, don’t do it.

Err on the side of caution. Take all directions as suggestions rather than mandates, and do only the poses you can do without strain and while breathing deep, comfortable breaths. Whenever you wish, take a break in child’s pose or any seated pose that is comfortable for you.

Often, there may be another way of approaching a pose to make it more accessible. Ask for help from the teacher in creating another version of the pose, perhaps using props. Having a wall to touch or lean against can help you with balance, and blocks or straps can arrest the depth to which you go in a pose, lessening strain and lowering the probability of injury.

8. Pay attention to how you feel, both after practice and the next day.

It’s important to take into account how you feel, not only during but also after your practice. Do you feel nothing at all? Do you feel you exerted yourself in a productive way? Maybe you’re sore in a “good way”?

Do you have a lightness in your step and a buoyancy in your mood? Or do you feel exhausted? Or maybe you even feel new pain somewhere?

If you feel nothing at all after the class you took, you might consider upping the intensity of your practice. If you feel absolutely exhausted or in pain, you may conclude that you did a little too much, and tone things down next time.

9. Give up comparisons.

You may or may not have something in common with the person practicing vigorously next to you. Do not expect your poses to look exactly the same way that other students’ poses look. Besides, impressive as some of those demonstrations may be, you don’t know what is going on inside any of those other bodies. For all you know, those yogis have rotator cuff tears, repetitive motion injuries, or pain they are ignoring (and perhaps exacerbating by practicing that seemingly advanced pose). Who knows, some of them may have managed to get into their pose only by compromising their alignment or stability in some way. They may even be holding their breath!

Trust that the more advanced student is one who recognizes their own limitations, and practices the version of a pose that is appropriate for their body while maintaining their personal optimal alignment and breathing deeply. Be that student.

It may also be tempting to compare yourself with the person you were twenty years ago, who could have done the suggested adventurous pose with abandon. You can no longer do anything to help or hinder the person you used to be, but your actions today will have a direct impact on the person you will be tomorrow. Do your future self a service by respecting your limits as they are today.

10. Men: Patience and persistence will pay off.

Researchers have long-noted that women tend to be more flexible than men, a gender gap that is slight in preadolescence but increases toward seniority (when older women maintain greater range of motion in many joints than older men do). This difference may be due to a combination of muscle size, tendon elasticity, hormones, and the kinds of activities that men or women are more likely to engage in.

The fact that aging-related declines in flexibility appear to be joint-specific, with, for instance, the shoulder and trunk experiencing greater losses in range of motion than the elbows and knees, indicates that habitual joint usage patterns play a role in these losses.
Statistically, men tend to participate in more vigorous physical activities than women, do more strength-training activities, and play sports twice as much (or more) than women do. But muscle bulk, the wear-and-tear of repetitive movements, and the scar tissue that results from injuries may contribute to losses in flexibility.

Men’s comparative inflexibility is not a reason for them not to do yoga; rather, it makes yoga even more important. And the good news is that, when embarking on a program of stretching, men seem to make gains in range of motion at a similar rate to that of their female counterparts.

However, it’s important that they take things more slowly than they might be inclined to, and that they don’t expect themselves to be able to do everything their female neighbors in class are doing—at least not right away.

Reflections

What all these tips encourage is viveka: a Sanskrit term for the prized quality of discernment and discrimination. Although certain physical aspects of yoga may be more challenging as we age, discernment may also be easier to come by.

At middle age and beyond, we may have an easier time discerning our goals, the kind of practices and teachers that are right for us, and the speed at which we may safely proceed. We may be able to better discriminate between the poses and movements that are of benefit to us and those we would be better off skipping, between what is right for another and what is right for us, and even between what was right for us 20 years ago and what is right for us now.

If we apply this earned wisdom to our yoga practices, it will not only help to keep us safe, but it will also serve as a signal to others.

Every time we stay in a less extreme version of a pose, or take a break when we need it, we model to younger, more ambitious practitioners a kinder way of practicing. We tell another story about what yoga can be. Through the self-awareness and self-care that infuses our actions—and at times our inaction—we become arrows that point inward instead of outward.