I recently had a conversation with a student at a club downtown where I was teaching this summer.
She told me she really liked the class and said, “I never really felt the benefits of yoga that everyone talks about before these two classes. When I tried it before, it just seemed hard and fast and my neck hurt afterword.” She had read about the calming and relaxing effects of yoga and even been told by her doctor to try yoga for her back but the classes she had taken left her feeling worse not better.
Yoga is everywhere now. Every gym and recreation center has lots of yoga classes and there is a yoga studio on every corner. At the same time, no two yoga classes are exactly alike. In fact, the diversity of approaches to yoga now makes it difficult for the average student to know what class or approach is right for them.
Some yoga classes move very fast with little instruction, in some yoga classes you barely move and never leave the floor. So what should you be looking for in a yoga class?
I am not going to recommend one type of yoga over another, instead here are some things to look for in a well rounded yoga practice for those entering or in middle age. You might not get all these things in one yoga practice, but no matter where you are on the fitness spectrum, if you are past 45, you should be paying attention to the following in any class you choose.
Especially for those who are more sedentary, you need to move. It is tempting to make assumptions that newbies need to take a very gentle, non-taxing yoga class to prevent injury and certainly there is some truth to this.
Ever heard the line, ‘Nobody moves, nobody gets hurt.’ ? 🙂
While safety is super important, I believe a beginner yoga class should have you moving within your capacity. What kind of movements? Getting up and down from the floor which is correlated with longevity. The dynamic sequences where you are moving and balancing at the same time are very good for fall prevention.
So movement is good but not the same movement each time. Beware of classes that do the same postures every single time as repetitive actions, especially when done incorrectly, can lead to overuse injuries. Think of doing plank pose to push up over and over with misaligned shoulders and you have an idea of what I mean. Choose a teacher that not only understands yoga but also understands anatomy and can mix it up.
Yoga is associated with increasing flexibility but strength is just as important, maybe more. Building strength can be safe if you are willing to put in some effort and are patient with yourself.
We need strength to thrive into retirement. Think of getting your carry-on bag up into the the over-head compartment or just being able to carry your own bags on a trip. Upper body and core strength should be incorporated into a yoga practice to prevent frozen shoulder and other common middle aged shoulder injuries.
On the other hand, if it is to hard or only one type of motion – it can lead to imbalances.
For example, if a yoga class only includes the traditional push ups (or chaterungas) over and over again, that is only one type of movement (pushing) – what about pulling actions? or strengthening the back of the body? Side plank, elbow plank, asymmetrical plank or reverse plank are just a few ways of mixing it up.
Good balance requires many components.
Core strength, the ability to focus, even the care and health of your feet. While you can work on balance in various ways at the gym, yoga takes a whole body approach. Where are the machines that work with your feet or your pelvic floor at the gym for example? A good yoga class will teach you how to pay attention to these critical areas.
You should also be learning to balance while moving, as that is what we do in real life. Working up to standing on one leg while moving the rest of your body is fun and a crucial part of a yoga practice for those entering middle age.
We all know falling can be devastating to your health, especially if you have low bone density.
Even those with balance and movement covered need to pay attention to healthy range of motion.
If you are active in sports or running, the activity you love may be making some of your muscles super tight in relation to other muscles. These imbalances can lead to injury. Yoga can help balance the body so one part is stable and another part can release.
Sometimes people tell me they are to tight to do yoga. A common perception is that yoga is for the bendy (hence the phrase ‘I’m too tight to do yoga’) but you should never feel that the poses are somehow the end goal. If you are feeling a little bit looser and better you are exactly where you should be.
If a yoga teacher is really flexible themselves, they can be tempted to show the “final version” of a pose or encourage gumby like behavior. Some extreme yoga postures are just bad news. Poses like foot behind the head or even full lotus may not be in your best interests.
Challenge yourself appropriately and within a normal range of motion.
Besides, there is so much more to good mobility than stretching! It is just as important to relax your nervous system or practice self massage techniques to work with your fascia and connective tissue.
Ok so I know you are always breathing anyway so what is the big deal?
The breathing practices in yoga are a great way to deal with the stress in your life.
Paying attention to and working with the breath is one of the things that a good yoga practice should include and is something with huge pay-offs. Yogic breath practices can improve lung capacity, lower high cortisol levels and other markers of stress, as well as help with mental focus.
Does your yoga practice incorporate relaxation and breath techniques? Everyone can use these but especially as we get older getting a good amount of oxygen to the brain and other organs is vital. Getting a chance to really relax in our day is super important to our health and well being.
Finally, I’ll tell you how my own yoga practice has evolved. I started taking yoga classes when i was about 20. It was in a basement studio downtown. (I’m still in the basement practicing yoga!) I went to a class once a week for years. No real home practice, no real body awareness outside of class, no real exploration or even commitment. That changed that when I started teacher training 15 years ago, I began practicing, learning and studying yoga in more depth and my practice underwent lots of changes then.
Then in the last few years – since I was 47 -my yoga practice has deepened once again. I don’t mean my asana practice has become more advanced – it has and it hasn’t. I mean I understand my body much better, I understand and accept myself much more and I do not have the ‘usual’ aches and pains of mid life. I never stop learning and I know yoga will be there for me when I need it into old age. Its a pretty good deal this yoga thing, and it just keeps getting better.