Yoga is an ancient form of movement that has helped millions of people thrive in body, mind and spirit. It is well documented that a regular yoga practice promotes calmness, strength, endurance and well-being (Woodyard 2011). These benefits, and countless others, extend to many special populations, including older adults. In fact, if you’d like to elevate the service you offer your senior clientele, adding yoga for seniors will set you apart and allow you to help your older clients even more. You don’t have to specialize in teaching yoga to insert its many benefits into your program design, and it may be the perfect boost your aging clients need to address specific issues.

As we age, breakdown outweighs buildup, and this affects us from top to bottom, inside and out. Natural changes in hormone levels affect muscle mass (sarcopenia) and can lead to decreases in bone mineral density, which can then lead to osteopenia and, eventually, osteoporosis (Padilla Colon et al. 2018). Unfortunately, it is common for these conditions to accelerate when osteoarthritis, heart disease, chronic pain, poor sleep, depression, anxiety, cognitive impairment or other health issues spur a decrease in activity. Before long, balance is compromised, frailty is exacerbated, and the stage is set for a devastating fall that can severely curtail quality of life or life expectancy. Every year, 1 in 3 people over the age of 65 suffers a fall, and that number increases with age (NIA 2017; Rao 2018).

It’s likely that your clients chose to train with you so that they could combat these problems. Did you know that yoga for seniors addresses many of these issues?  Let’s explore the research into yoga and aging and learn how to apply the findings to your program design.

Osteoarthritis

Aching and inflamed arthritic joints can seriously hinder a progressive training program. Yoga practice offers many paths for a wide range of practitioners. In one study that looked at the effects of yoga on people with knee osteoarthritis (OA), researchers found that participants who took 90-minute, modified Iyengar yoga classes once a week for 8 weeks reported a reduction in pain and improvements in joint stiffness and physical function (Kolasinski et al. 2005).

Another study looked at 36 women, average age 72, who all had knee OA and participated in a 20-week study. The yoga group showed significantly greater improvement on the WOMAC pain scale, which measures knee OA pain, when compared with the control group (Cheung et al. 2014). Another study found that an 8-week yoga practice improved hand pain, tenderness and range of motion (Bernstein 2021).

It is tempting to avoid and “work around” arthritic joints, but yoga poses provide a new option. Yoga’s slow, controlled movements emphasize body awareness and allow inflamed ligaments and tendons to warm up in a gentle, multidirectional way that can increase ROM and decrease joint pain.

Training tip: Incorporate yoga for seniors in slow, deliberate motions that connect to the breath as a warmup before attempting other movements that involve tender joints.

See also: Yoga for Optimal Performance

Balance

Regarding balance, if you don’t use it, you lose it. The data confirms this and, in particular, shows that yoga is a proven way to regain lost balance. In a systemic review of 15 yoga studies, Jeter et al. (2014) found 11 that listed improved balance as a positive outcome of participating in a regular yoga program.

An Australian study published in The Journals of Gerontology found that people who attended 12 weeks of a twice-weekly yoga class in a residential care facility could balance on one leg longer, stand and sit faster without the aid of their arms, and walk at a brisker pace than a control group by the end of the study. Participants also noted that they felt safe and had fun in the yoga classes (Tiedemann 2013; Rao 2018).

By incorporating yoga poses that combine balance, movement and breath into a session, trainers can help clients strengthen the musculature (core, back and hips) that helps prevent falls. These moves can be intimidating and humbling for clients. They may feel frustrated at their bodies for wobbling and struggling with what were previously simple movements. However, it’s important to remind people that each wobble not only trains muscles surrounding joints to be stronger but also strengthens the feedback of proprioceptors in muscles and joints. Those proprioceptors in turn send signals to the brain. Rehearsing these neurophysiological and neurocognitive reactions trains neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to organize and form connections, and mitigates declines in brain matter volume (Bullock 2021). Fostering this challenging mind-body connection is like handing a dumbbell to the brain, allowing it to “bulk up.”

Balance exercises fire many small, supporting muscles and require core control. It’s preferable not to save this work until the end of the workout when large muscles are already fatigued, energy is low and the likelihood of injury is higher. A better choice is to make balance a main feature of the session.

Training tip: Set your yoga-focused balance movements apart from other balance work by connecting the breath with movements. Cue your clients to bring their awareness inward and observe as they hold and correct. Coaching a mind-body connection at this level will help them when faced with real-life balance challenges.

Bone Density

People practicing yoga for seniors

If a client is concerned about bone loss, incorporate challenging yoga poses that use large muscle groups.

Rowe, Koller & Sharma (2021) report that age-related bone loss can only be decelerated or reversed by applying stress to the bone. As we age, the activity of our osteoblasts (cells that break down bone) outpaces bone formation by osteoclasts. Wolff’s law states that bones will adapt in response to the stress or demands placed on them (Rowe, Koller & Sharma 2021). So, to stimulate osteoclasts to lay down new bone, stress must be applied to the existing bone. The multidirectional pull of muscle on bone via strength training has long been proven the most effective stress for overall bone health.

Fortunately for many frail clients, yoga for seniors can be a gentle way to reap the same benefits. In a 10-year study published in Topics in Geriatric Rehabilitation, researchers compared changes in bone mineral density in 741 volunteers before and after a consistent yoga program. Lu et al. found improvements in BMD in the spine, hips and femur of the volunteers who were moderately or fully compliant with participation. This demonstrates that the stress stimulus provided by the pull of muscles during yoga poses can be effective in mitigating bone loss. Yoga has also been found to safely raise BMD in the spine and femur (Lu et al. 2016).

Training tip: If a client is concerned about bone loss, incorporate challenging yoga poses that use large muscle groups. Many of the balance and core exercises will do double duty in this category and allow a focus on the hips and spine. Gradually introduce harder poses, giving clients opportunities to increase ROM and improve their ability to hold poses for more breaths.

See also: The ABCs of Teaching Yoga

Cardiovascular Health

Cardiovascular disease is still the leading cause of death for men and women in the United States in 2021 (CDC 2021). The interplay between heart, lungs and blood vessels should be at the forefront of any physical activity program for the aging population. Yoga for seniors offers many benefits for both the lungs and the heart.

But how does yoga stack up against other forms of exercise? A 2015 study published in Complimentary Therapies in Medicine pitted daily brisk walking against daily yoga practice to determine the effect each would have on blood pressure in elderly subjects. Yoga was the clear victor. The yoga group showed improvements in vascular function and blood pressure and a reduction in sympathetic activity (Patil, Aithala & Das 2015).

Deep, deliberate breathing is a keystone of yoga, and in a 2014 study, yoga was found to improve pulmonary health. Heart rate and respiratory rate dropped significantly with 12 weeks of regular practice (Bezerra et al. 2014). The decrease in respiratory rate was due to an increase of tidal volume (the amount of air that moves in or out of the lungs with each respiratory cycle), allowing the heart rate to slow and overall cardiovascular markers to improve.

Training tip: Encourage clients to fill their lungs all the way to the bottom, expand their ribs and exhale fully—a common oversight that keeps breathing shallow. Lead a few practice breaths before adding movement to ensure that clients can connect to their breath and make the most of each inhalation and exhalation.

Stress

When we are stressed, we sleep poorly, our hormones react, total-body inflammation rises, and our telomeres (protective caps—at the end of chromosomes—that shorten with age) grow shorter even more rapidly (Tolahunase, Sagar & Dada 2017). In brief, all of our bodily systems suffer. Although older adults may be retired and no longer subject to career stress, they are not immune to this stress response and yoga for seniors can help.

In a cross-sectional study, 65 men and women ages 60 and older were evaluated for sleep quality and quality of life (QOL) before and after participation in a yoga program. Members of the yoga cohort reported improvements in both sleep quality and QOL over the control group (Bankar, Chaudhari & Chaudhari 2013).

Another study, published in Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity, measured biomarkers of cellular aging and found that a focus on physical postures, breathing and meditation promoted cellular longevity. Specifically, cortisol levels decreased and telomerase—the enzyme responsible for maintaining telomere length—increased significantly (Tolahunase, Sagar & Dada 2017).

Training tip: Emphasize deep breathing and slow movements to help clients’ bodies switch out of sympathetic drive and turn on the parasympathetic nervous system. Being able to make this transition drives down cortisol, decreases blood pressure and reduces anxiety.

See also: The Benefits of Yoga Nidra: The Yoga of Sleep

Yoga for Seniors: Integrate and Educate

When you are planning programs for older clients, yoga can easily be among the top five options. Not only can you easily integrate yoga for seniors into almost any aspect of your program design, but it’s a good opportunity to educate clients about health and wellness. Your aging clients rely on your expertise to improve their lives. They want to become healthier, live well and feel better. Share with them the specific benefits you’re targeting by incorporating yoga poses into your sessions. They will love to hear that they are lengthening telomeres, increasing vascular pliability and curtailing bone loss by moving slowly and breathing deeply.