by Deborah Charnes
We tend to think it’s normal for our bones to lose the battle with time. Senior citizens are just naturally shorter than their younger selves, and brittle bones come with old age. Healthcare statistics tend to support this notion. Hip and knee replacements, for example, cost Medicare $7 billion in 2013.
It’s time to rethink what’s normal. It turns out that we can keep our bones and joints strong well into our senior years, and yoga can help us do that.
“Yoga is both helpful in addressing the acute problems of swelling and pain, and the longer-term issues of improving mobility, strength and stability of the knee joints,” says Dr. Baxter Bell. Bell is not your typical M.D. He gave up a successful family medical practice in Ohio to become a yoga therapist. Today, he integrates therapeutic applications of yoga with Western medicine and lectures to health care professionals around the country.
Bell believes that yoga provides “tools for fostering a longer health span.” He says that yoga fosters equanimity, agility and coordination. Strength, flexibility, balance and mobility are all key to keeping bones and joints health. Instead of pharmaceutical solutions for maintaining bone density, Bell recommends a “balanced yoga practice” that includes stretching, strengthening, balance and agility challenges, as well as anti-stress poses and practices.
Yoga builds bones, Bell says, because while practicing yoga, bone strengthening begins just 10 seconds into a pose.
The stronger the muscles are around the joints, the more protection your joints have.
Muscles begin to build after only 90 seconds in many yoga postures, Bell explains. The Warrior pose is an example. Holding the pose for at least six long breaths can be tiring but worthwhile, for both muscle and bone. Some yoga teachers encourage students to energetically pull the thighs together, belly to the spine, or engage the bandhas. Those are examples of isometric contractions that contribute to more strength-building and ultimately nourish the bones.
Bell says some of the yoga health tools that benefit both the body and the brain are strengthening poses like Downward Dog or Warrior 2. Practices that focus on flexibility are also essential to the healthy aging formula.
Another important yoga tool is a routine of exercises that boost circulation. And breath work is an important addition to that toolbox.
Finally, we know that as people age, they have more difficulties with balance, which is why many yoga poses that improve strength and balance can help prevent falls. Finally, Bell points to studies of long-lived people that show that community is an important factor in healthy aging. “Practicing yoga together helps create community,” says Bell.
Deborah Charnes is a local certified yoga teacher with advanced training in Ayurveda and yoga therapy. Charnes offers “Dem Bones” yoga workshops in San Antonio; for information, visit www.thenamastecounsel.com. For Dr. Baxter Bell’s Yoga for Healthy Aging blog, visit www.yogaforhealthyaging.blogspot.com.