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Yoga for Seniors
and the Physically Challenged

by Liv Helene Needham

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You don't have to be a body beautiful or be able to turn your body into a pretzel in order to enjoy the benefits of yoga. Anyone, any age, condition, or profession can reap the many rewards of this ancient system of well-being.

Yoga means "union," specifically the union of mind-body-spirit, past-present-future, evolving into a harmonic whole. It is both a state of harmony and the method of realizing it. Originating in Tibet and India over 3,000 years ago, yoga is one of the world's oldest branches of spiritual inquiry and physical exploration.

The journey of self-exploration is gaining popularity among the aging and physically challenged members of our society. This is not surprising. The later years of life are an ideal time to use yoga as part of a journey of self-discovery, growth and contemplation. In India, 50 years of age is considered an ideal time to begin practicing yoga, signifying a new and wiser stage of life. Yoga is easy to do, and is a strong self-help method of total relaxation for people of all ages and abilities.

Older Americans often lead very sedentary lifestyles. Many watch television for hours every day, scrunched down in a chair with their legs crossed. This inactivity and body posture directly contributes to back pain, stiffness, lack of quality sleep, constipation, weakness, obesity and depression. Inactivity can also be a factor in heart disease and osteporosis (affecting over 25% of older women and 10% of older men), and stiffness and pain around the joints, which contributes to decreased mobility. Tension, shallow breathing and physical inactivity also contribute to poor circulation of blood to the spine and the rest of the body, which leads to lesser mobility and health problems, which causes less activity, and onward in a vicious downward spiral. Yoga can be a key out of this cycle.

Safe, gentle, slow and controlled movements may reduce anxiety and depression, while increasing muscle tone and strength. This adds to coordination, improved balance and body control. Many of my older students state that they thoroughly enjoy the way yoga complements their lifestyle. It keeps their bodies supple, fit and strong, plus gives a feeling of well-being. If they are learning new skills, yoga helps by increasing oxygen to the brain, improving memory, and increasing the ability to focus attention for long periods.

Sometimes we forget that breath is life! Many people take very shallow breaths, using only the upper part of their lungs, especially when inactive or in pain. Shallow breaths rob us of energy and life force. Humans require approximately 2,300 breaths of air every day. Older and inactive people take in much less. Yoga breathing strengthens our lungs and vocal chords, helping us to speak with a stronger, clearer voice, projecting our voices with more authority.

The Feel Fully Alive Gentle Yoga System I teach is safe, gradual and effective. It consists of lifts, bends and other movements for the whole body, adjusted to fit each person's unique needs, accompanied by active breathing. It can done in bed, a chair, wheelchair, the bathtub, while lying down, sitting or standing.

Working with older and less able-bodied students is a wonderful adventure. I have seen the joy that comes as they discover they can be more flexible, energetic, reduce pain, release fear and reduce depression. Students experience more control over their lives and greater self-confidence. They move with greater muscle tone and strength, get safely up and down to the floor, into chairs, their bed, and the bath. This yoga system can be adapted toa llow the blind, disabled and severly challenged students to increase the quality of their lives.

Betty is 86 and one of my favorite students. She had been told to do less, to move as little as possible, to walk with help, and get as much rest as she could. Her long life had been very active and full. With the above limitations placed on her, she felt frightened, depressed and in pain. She began taking yoga class. She gained more mobility in her neck and shoulders, reduced the dowager's hump posture, and increased her energy and enthusiasm. Her general pain disappeared, and she began going for walks. She practiced yoga every day and looked forward to her lessons. Betty recently had a stroke, and we now use yoga to improve her balance, speech, movements and memory. She shows her co-residents yoga movements in our group classes. The other residents now look forward to our classes and participate within their abilities.

An exercise of self-care program has to be enjoyable and fun or people won't do it. Yoga anwswers this challenge-practitioners report feeling refreshed, energized and positive. Those who practice yoga gain enormous benefits by incorporating it into their daily life, for the rest of their life. Once you begin, you will come to understand what those who use yoga, regardless of their ability, already know: yoga is serious fun!

Liv Helene Needham has been teaching classical yoga for over 25 years. She teaches classes all week, morning, noon and evening, in Sebastopol, Santa Rosa and Rohnert Park, California. She also offers "I Feel Great" Workshops at your workplace. For more information visit her web site at

Related Info:
Meditation Doesn't Have to be Hard
A 15 Minute Condensed Yoga Routine
The Paths of Yoga
Mindful Yoga
Yoga Gets Better with Age
Yoga for Stress
Tai Chi: More Than Physical Exercise
Yoga in the Office


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