How Yoga Improves Heart Health and Reduces Fall Risk
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Yoga is for everybody. That means for every type of body at any age! At its core, it is the art and science of healthy living that brings the mind and body into alignment.

The word ‘Yoga’ means ‘to unite’ or ‘to join’. It is a physical practice that can simply improve basic flexibility and physical well-being and can awaken one to deep spiritual truths about the very nature of reality and consciousness.

The benefits for developing a yoga practice are numerous and have been proven throughout the ages to benefit anyone who engages in any form of this broad discipline.

We will cover tips for creating a yoga practice, give an overview of the benefits that yoga has to offer, and describe some of the poses for you to try.

A Little Background on Yoga

There are so many types of yoga being taught these days it is difficult to know where to begin. Let’s start with Hatha yoga, the hallmark of all yoga and the best starting place for any beginner.

  • Hatha is an umbrella term for all of the postures of yoga. Here in the West, hatha refers to all the styles of yoga that are based in a physical exercise practice. Physical yoga practices are the most popular and are best for beginners.
  • Hatha yoga classes are slower paced. They embody breathing and exercises making it the best choice for the beginner. Once one has some experience and has developed an interest, there are other schools of yoga that focus on various forms or methods of practice these include, but are not limited to:

o Ashtanga

o Iyengar

o Vinyasa

o Bikram

o Restorative yoga

How Yoga Improves Heart Health

Many studies have been done to determine whether or not yoga is beneficial to heart health. Good news, yoga is great for your heart. You don’t have to exert yourself with exercises that raise your heart rate. Yoga can also help prevent or manage heart disease.

According to the Director of Cardiac Arrhythmia Service at Johns Hopkins, Hugh Calkins, M.D., “There’s been a major shift in the last five years or so in the number of cardiologists and other professionals recognizing that these benefits are real.” Some of the most powerful benefits include:

  • Relaxing the mind and body. Practicing yoga regularly helps regulate hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline which are released when we are under emotional stress. As we get stressed these hormones narrow arteries and increase blood pressure. By practicing yoga, stress is reduced.
  • Promoting recovery. For patients who have experienced a cardiac event such as a heart attack, surgery, or a diagnosis of heart disease, doctors often encourage doing yoga as part of the overall treatment plan.

Also, according to one study, subjects who practiced yoga for three months were able to lower blood pressure, cholesterol, glucose levels, along with heart rate. Yoga reduces the impact of conditions such as metabolic syndrome.

Yoga with senior and caregiver outside

5 Yoga Postures for Fall Prevention

One of the biggest risks as we age is falling. For a multitude of reasons, we move less, and lose our balance more easily. Falls are the leading cause of broken bones and hospitalizations for seniors, so taking the proper steps to prevent falls inside the home is essential.

Yoga improves balance and helps prevent falling. Here are five yoga postures that you can start practicing today for fall prevention or share with your loved one. If you are a caregiver, do the exercises along with your loved one and make it fun.

Great Yoga Poses for Seniors

Downward dog: This pose elongates the spine. It is achieved by folding the body at the hips and placing the hands and feet on the floor. If you can’t reach the floor you can place your hands on a chair instead.

Crescent Lunge: This pose is done in standing position, lunging forward on one foot,

bending at the knee and holding the arms in the air or at the sides. Crescent lunge is an excellent pose for balance because the base of support is long and narrow.

Chair pose: This pose strengthens the muscles in the thighs and simulates sitting in a chair without actually using one. It involves bending the knees and hips and lowering as though you were going to sit down into a chair. This pose helps to increase strength and stability through strong leg muscles.

Bridge pose: Bridge pose increases the strength of the core muscles as well as those in the hips and legs. It is done on the floor but can also be done on a firm bed or couch. It strengthens and challenges the stability of the muscles in the hips, core, and legs. It involves lying on your back and raising the pelvis to create one long line between the head and the knees.

Tree pose: This pose involves standing on one leg and stabilizing the body using leg and core muscles to achieve balance and prevent falls for seniors. There are beginner versions of this and more advanced versions so it is a good exercise to improve balance over time.

You may find that your parents are resistant to change. Offering a new activity such as yoga can seem daunting. Talking to your loved one about fall prevention can be a difficult task, but with some tips and knowledge, you can navigate the conversation successfully.

The Best Chair Yoga Poses for Seniors

Don’t worry, yoga isn’t just for those who can put their foot behind their head! Chair yoga is highly beneficial and can improve strength and balance. The best thing about yoga is that it can be practiced gradually and poses can become more challenging as you build strength, lengthen, and strengthen your muscles.

Here is one example of one great stretch that can be done in a chair. There are many sites online that show with photographs and video how to do many chair poses clearly and safely.

Seated Forward Bend:

  • Inhale while sitting firmly upright in a chair without arms. Focus on extending your spine. Fold your torso over your legs. Start with your hands resting on your thighs. You can slide them down your legs as you bend for extra support. As you get more flexible, you can keep them at your sides as your torso gets closer to your thighs.
  • While bent toward your thighs, take five breaths. This massages the intestines and helps to passively lengthen the spine and stretch the back muscles.
  • When ready, inhale as you slowly lift your torso to a fully seated position with your spine straight, yet relaxed.
Seniors doing yoga together outside

Other Benefits of Yoga for Seniors

The ancient practice of yoga is enormously beneficial for the body and the mind.

No matter what your age or current physical state, there are yoga exercises that will be of benefit if given some attention and time. Within just a couple of weeks people begin to notice profound changes. Yoga is a practice everybody should consider.

Additional yoga benefits include:

  • Improves core strength
  • Loosens the joints and builds muscle
  • Prevents falls and improves balance
  • Reduces anxiety and depression
  • Improves the function of nearly every organ in the body
  • Reduces fatigue and improves sleep
  • Increases joint lubrication
  • Helps relieve arthritic pain
  • Provides a supportive and fun social environment for seniors
  • Increases physical and emotional confidence

Start slowly at home by watching videos, finding yoga teachers online or television. You can also start by going to a class in your area. The important thing is to try it because it is good for you and your loved one.

Creating a Yoga Practice

The very best way to create your own yoga practice is to find a local yoga class where the instructor can guide you as you learn the poses. If you believe that your loved one would benefit from fall prevention exercises, research senior yoga classes in your area. Yoga centers offer them and some senior centers do as well. Search for “senior yoga” and you will find the resources in your area.

Here are a few basic guidelines to keep in mind when beginning to practice yoga:

  • Yoga is a practice. It is not a competition. Don’t compare yourself to others. It is meant to bring one into alignment with their body, breath, and mind.
  • Always use a Yoga mat. This way you do not slip while practicing the poses.
  • Don’t force any movement. Listen to the limits of your body. The point is to do the best you can now and know that overtime your flexibility will improve. If you cannot get into the pose don’t force yourself. Do the ones you can achieve easily.
  • Keep it slow and steady. A slow, steady, rhythmic breathing will actually help you to balance in these poses.
  • Breathing is worth focusing on. Breathing with the various movements is important. It seems very obvious, but the truth is many of us hold our breath when engaged in moving. Breath in slowly through your nose and exhale through your mouth.

Resources

The Yoga-Heart Connection

7 Yoga Poses You Can Do in a Chair

About the Author(s)

As a Volunteer Caregiver to the Zen Hospice Project and a Course Manager at the CareGivers Project, Audrey Meinertzhagen is passionate about improving the standards of care for older adults and educating caregivers on the principles of mindfulness and self-care.

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