Men and Yoga, Part 1

My 70-year-old dad is my favorite yoga student. He is vocal about how good yoga makes him feel and he’s good about knowing his limits in a practice, resting when rest is appropriate. Whenever he’s in town, he comes to one of my weekly Yoga for Healthy Aging classes. He agreed to attend the first few classes with some trepidation—he was concerned he’d be the only guy on a mat. That has never been the case, of course, and in most of my classes at least half the students are guys about my dad’s age.

The demographics have changed since I first started teaching, and I see more and more men in class. The research agrees: according to Yoga Journal‘s recent study, men now make up 28% of all yoga students—and their numbers are growing. Considering that this same study tells us that 38% of all yoga practitioners are over 50, there’s a reason to celebrate: there is more gender and age diversity in yoga.

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Carl, Russell, Ray, Bob, Tom, and Tandy: all men in their 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s who regularly attend Yoga for Healthy Aging.

While yoga’s roots are male gurus and sages, in the West yoga has long been women’s territory. That’s changing, but what does it mean to be an active, aging man doing yoga today?

In my next few posts, I’ll be writing about considerations, modifications, and specific poses and sequences for men in their 50s, 60s, and beyond. If you’re an active, older guy with a yoga practice, I’d love to hear from you! What questions or concerns do you have? Has yoga helped you physically or in a more esoteric way—or both? What resources do you consult for your home practice?

—Alexandra

 

Practicing from the Sidelines, Part 3

In part 1 and part 2 of this series, we looked at the inevitability of injury and how to investigate its cause. Let’s turn now to how to continue a yoga practice in the face of injury. Later in the series, we’ll explore ways to modify yoga poses to work around injuries in specific areas of the body; here are some general guidelines for keeping up your practice while you heal.

Tone it down and dial it back

Taking your injury to a fast-paced group class is a recipe for disaster. If you’re craving the comfort of the studio and the attention of your teacher, choose a slower-paced class. The word “gentle” in the title is usually a good sign. When in doubt, call ahead to the studio and/or teacher to find out if the class is suitable for someone managing an injury. And see Alexandra’s primer on the styles of yoga to further decipher the studio schedule.

If you can find a restorative yoga class, that’s a great opportunity to jump-start your recovery from injury. Or enjoy restorative yoga at home. This post on supported fish can get you started.

Depend on your home practice

Part of the fun of being in group classes is not knowing exactly where the practice will lead—but that’s not appropriate when you’re hurt. Instead, rely on or start a home practice. This gives you the chance to move at your own perfect pace, to work around your injury, and to stop at any point if something doesn’t feel right.

Don’t have a home practice yet? Try these resources:

  • This very blog! Scroll through previous posts to find poses and routines targeting various parts of the body.
  • Find a yoga book. Ours, Lifelong Yoga, is coming soon; meanwhile, my Everyday Yoga is a guide to home practice, and it’s available in both paper and e-book format.
  • Follow along to a video. This is a great place to get started, especially if you’re unsure about just what to do. The Internet is full of free offerings of various quality. For curated content, Alexandra and I both have classes available at YogaVibes (see hers here and mine here). And several of my Core Strength for Real People episodes avoid putting pressure on feet and hands, which means you can get a satisfying workout when you’re injured in those areas.

Take another path up the mountain

Your yoga practice is a chance to feel aware and connected. There are several ways to get there besides doing yoga poses. One is meditation. Read Alexandra’s series on getting into mediation here. Others include being in nature—walk if you can’t run, sit in the sun if you can’t walk—singing, and serving others. Perhaps this is the time to volunteer at your favorite local races, or coach a youth league. You can keep a hand in your favorite sport while you heal.

—Sage

How Much Yoga Do You Need?

Before I had a family, I did yoga most days of the week. I attended a lot of classes, and I also had a consistent home practice. But as my family obligations and career pressures have grown, it’s hard to find time for everyday yoga (and exercise and meditation and cooking and life.) For most of us, the prime years for family and work (late 20s through 50s) are the busiest and most stressful. So how do you make time for yoga when there’s not much time? And how much yoga do you need?

A regular yoga practice confers all sorts of good things: physical strength, better balance, more flexibility, and that’s not to mention the harder-to-measure benefits: a sense of calm and peace, compassion, and better focus. The range of things that preliminary studies suggest that yoga might help includes back pain, insomnia, and even anxiety and depression. In short, yoga is good for you.

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Carl B. comes to my Yoga for Healthy Aging class every Monday. At 81, he’s spry, moves with ease, and is strong in balance poses. His weekly yoga practice includes attending my class, another class, and doing a few home practices. He’s been practicing yoga for about 15 years.

A Little Goes a Long Way

There is no clear answer for “how much yoga do I need?” A lot depends on your age, your activity level, and your body. Still, if you’re looking for a magic number, start with one.

One yoga practice a week can make a big difference in your life: it can set your mood, give you a guiding intention for the week, and help your body feel more open as you go about being a desk warrior or parent. Most of us can carve out the time to attend a weekly class or commit to waking up early one day a week for a quiet home practice. Start there. Commit to a once-a-week practice, if that’s all the  time you can spare. (And although research on this is sparse, at least one study shows that yoga once a week can improve spinal flexibility.)

If you can spare more time, than the next number is two: do a practice twice a week or get to a class twice in one week. From there, keep going: add yoga when and where you can. Unless you’re doing a rigorous leg-behind-the-head practice, you can do yoga every day. (Rigorous practices might necessitate rest days.)

How Much Time Does Yoga Take?

When you think about doing your own practice at home, it doesn’t have to be an hour of mat-rolled-out yoga. You may not even need a mat for a short practice; you could use a wall or do a practice in bed. Adding in 5-15 minutes of yoga to your morning or evening can confer big benefits. A little bit of daily yoga is better than none at all.

The short answer for “how much yoga do I need?”is that a little will make you feel good and more will make you feel better. Do what you have the time and energy for, but be sure to do it.

Make It a Habit

For many of us, making yoga a habit feels challenging, so take the pressure off. Do what you can in whatever time you have, and don’t worry about making it perfect. Just move and breathe. (You can even sprinkle in yoga throughout your day with little effort: practice balance poses, like tree pose or standing pigeon, when you brush your teeth; take a 5 minute stretch break every hour at work.)

If doing a home practice feels intimidating, find a class or a teacher that works in your schedule and fits your needs and go every week or twice weekly. In yoga, devotion to our yoga practice is called tapas. Find your tapas and make a commitment to your practice.

Start Now

Start now. Don’t wait until things are less busy or you have more space in your home or your children are off at school. Find a yoga class or a teacher or buy a book (ours is coming soon!) and get going. There is always a reason not to do the things that are good for us (stress and being busy, chiefly), but starting a yoga practice now sets you up for continued health as you age.

—Alexandra

Practicing from the Sidelines, Part 2

Photo by Tammy Lamoureux

Engage in your sport or in yoga asana long enough with appropriate zeal, and you’ll inevitably get injured. That’s the consequence of testing your limits, as we saw in part 1 of this series. My first piece of advice there is that when you find yourself in a hole, you must stop digging.

The next step is to pinpoint what’s going on. What changed and led to the injury in the first place? In the case of an acute injury, you know exactly what happened: you fell on the trail while running and cracked your kneecap, or while washing your car you tried to whip the hose over it and felt something in your shoulder pop. More common, however, is a slow-onset inflammatory injury: plantar fasciitis in the sole of your foot, bursitis in your hip. When these problems emerge, ask yourself: What changed? You’ll probably emerge with one of these answers, which helps you see how to correct the problem and how to modify your training and yoga practice accordingly.

Q: What Changed? A: Training Load

A change in the intensity, frequency, or duration of your workouts—including yoga asana—will affect the amount of stress your workouts put on your body. When this total stress load is greater than your body’s ability to recover proportionately, injury results. I cover this topic in great detail in my book The Athlete’s Guide to Recovery. If you’ve been lifting more weights, hitting faster paces or putting out more power, training more often, and going for longer, you must match the extra stress with extra rest.

Correction to the problem: Stop digging.

Q: What Changed? A: Habits Outside Training

Your body adapts not only to the stresses you intentionally apply during training, but also to the habits you form and ingrain all day long. If you’ve been spending more time at your desk or on your commute, you may be encouraging a hunch in your upper back and tightness across the front of your chest. If you’ve been caring for an ailing parent or partner, or for grandchildren, the extra time cooking, cleaning, and lifting will add stress to your body. These imbalances show up front to back, top to bottom, and left to right in your body.

Correction to the problem: Yoga poses are one good way to correct these imbalances. Better yet, visit a physical therapist for a full assessment.

Q: What Changed? A: Equipment

In sports that use equipment, a degradation of gear over time (think of running shoes that go flat, or bike cleats that shift out of position) or using the wrong equipment—an ill-fitted bike, a bowling ball that’s too heavy—can invite injury.

Correction to the problem: Consult with a professional about your gear. Buy new running shoes; check your bike fit. (This is one problem that throwing a little money at it can fix.)

Q: What Changed? A: Age

For lifelong athletes, one change is constant: age. Every year, your body becomes less capable of handling the amount of training stress it used to be able to process just fine. If you don’t adjust your training stress to accommodate this shift, you’ll get hurt.

Correction to the problem: Reduce training intensity; emphasize gentle and restorative yoga.

Your Meditation Practice and Healthy Aging

In my last posts, I wrote about the basics of meditation: how you do it, how you make it a habit, and how you might deal with common obstacles that arise. Whether you have a dedicated meditation practice or you’re just getting curious about meditation, you’re probably familiar with some of the benefits of the practice. But what happens when you dedicate yourself to a regular meditation habit? How do you know meditation is “working”? And what particular benefits does meditation confer on our aging brains?

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Kathleen Harris, 63, practices meditation before a yoga practice

 

Regular Meditation and a Changing You

Meditation practitioners report that a regular meditation practice makes them feel calmer, more centered, and more keenly aware of the space between stimulus and response. Another recognized result of regular meditation is greater concentration. But your meditation path might reveal other benefits (like better sleep, more vivid dreams, or a better awareness of posture and your breath) or it might not feel like you experience any of this! Additionally, some meditation sessions might come easily and feel rejuvenating, and some meditation practices might seem exhausting or fraught with constant mental turbulence. Whatever your experience, have faith that meditation is working, and over time you will start to notice the subtle benefits. Research shows this to be the case: in some studies, regular meditation conferred brain changes in as little as 2-8 weeks.

Meditation and Aging

The tangible benefits of meditation are more patience and more presence. But the greater benefit of meditation is a healthier brain. Research suggests that meditation actually changes your brain, creating more gray matter and a brain that is “younger” than your actual age might be. What does this mean, exactly? First, meditation reduces activity in the “me center” of the brain, so your self-focused mind and constantly-streaming anxiety chill out a little bit. In addition to calming your brain, meditation thickens gray matter in key areas, so your brain has an easier time with focus and concentration. In one study, this change occurred with just two weeks of habitual meditation. Finally, meditation might help you regenerate brain cells, allowing for slower responses to stress and a stronger memory. Preliminary studies even show that meditation may help decrease and slow the progression of brain ailments, like Alzheimer’s and dementia.

Like yoga and exercise, meditation is a practice. Meditating with regularity will make you feel better on a daily basis, and it will increase your vitality and overall health with every passing year. Ready to start?

—Alexandra

Practicing from the Sidelines, Part 1

Sage Rountree
Photo by Tammy Lamoureux

Earlier this month, my back went out. This condition set in over the course of a day and hung around for two weeks, during which I generally was absolutely fine lying down, but felt the muscles seizing up after only a few steps. (Sleeping? Not a problem. Walking to the coffeemaker? Big problem.) About halfway through this frustrating fortnight, Alexandra wrote to me, “It’s interesting to think about this in the context of the inevitability of aging and injury. You do everything ‘right.’ Yet, this still happened. I think there’s a [B.S.] notion that yoga will save people. Not so. It helps, but there’s no way to avoid injury/illness.”

Yes. Injury is inevitable. If you continue a physical activity—running, gardening, yoga asana—for long enough and if you are interested in improving by testing your limits, you will get hurt. It’s an important part of the learning process; it often shows when you have pushed too far. In my case, my movement activities—running and asana—led to a muscular imbalance. I then found myself with some extra leisure time after we turned in the manuscript to Lifelong Yoga and my business partner and I got Hillsborough Spa and Day Retreat running. I spent this extra time doing more yoga asana than usual, and one or more of those poses found a way to capitalize on the existing imbalance and affect my SI joint. (Happily, this was caught by a wonderful athletic trainer and fixed by a clever chiropractor, and I’m better now.)

In my next posts, I’ll suggest some approaches for practicing from the sidelines. For now, I advise you do what it took me a few too many days to realize: when you’re in a hole, stop digging. I stubbornly kept running and continued my usual movement practices without investigating too deeply what caused the problem in the first place. This just dug the hole deeper. When you find yourself in the throes of injury, the very first step is to stop and get clear on what is going on.

Introduction to Meditation, Part 3

In my previous two posts, I wrote about how to get started with meditation and how to make meditation a consistent habit. This week, we’ll explore some of the common obstacles that might arise when you meditate.

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Shelley Dillon, 56, practices seated meditation before yoga

Meditation Obstacles

Meditation is simple: all you do is close your eyes, focus your attention, and breathe. But despite its simplicity, meditation is not easy. Once you close your eyes, your attention immediately gets pulled in many directions…or you notice an itch…or you suddenly feel the urge to plan dinner. To just stay and do nothing and draw your attention (again and again and again) to an anchor point (breath, counting, or a mantra, for instance) is no small feat. Obstacles to meditation are omnipresent. Here are some of the most common ones and some creative ways to solve them.

Boredom

When you first start to meditate, two minutes is going to feel like a small eternity. Imagine sitting for ten minutes! Or half an hour! Your brain is going to miss your smart phone, your car radio, your coffee—whatever it is you use to distract yourself from what’s happening RIGHT NOW. And since your brain has no option but just to hang out with itself, in the beginning this slow presence is going to feel kind of boring.

What do you do? Sometimes when I don’t feel like running, I make a deal with myself: If I get my running clothes on and run one mile, I can check the box, go home, and be done for the day. Of course, once I’m out there running, I don’t usually opt out. Meditation works the same way: once you get going, it feels pretty good. The boredom fades. So make a deal with yourself: sit for ten sessions, and if you still feel bored you can opt out of meditation and try it again in another few months.

Physical Discomfort

It’s tough to sit in one place for an extended period of time—you may feel a little stiff and creaky.

What do you do? Prioritize comfort when you start meditating. You do not need to sit on the floor. Sitting in a comfortable chair works great. You could even be propped up in bed (although the temptation to fall asleep may be too great there.) Make sure, though, that your seated meditation doesn’t result in legs falling asleep or muscles being pinched. Get particular about your comfort before you begin.

Loneliness

Although you can certainly join a meditation group, even there you are essentially alone in a room of people. Sitting and being present with what’s in your head might feel a little isolating or even lonely.

What do you do? You could make it a point to have a meditation buddy—someone that you talked to about your practice on a regular basis, so the experience feels more shared. The thing is, though, meditation will feel like a lonely endeavor initially, but eventually it becomes a place you go to find solace from the busy world of people. It moves from feeling lonely to feeling solitary. Time practicing helps you make this shift.

Distraction

Distraction shows up in various forms: emotions (like anxiety or anger), desire, planning for the future, ruminating thoughts, or outside distractions, like noises, family, or pets.

What do you do? This is where the discipline of meditation comes into play: when you notice your mind has moved away from your anchor, you gently and deliberately bring it back. Some days, this will be easier and some days this will feel like you are jogging through mud. The easier practices and the more challenging practices are all part of meditation. Over time, you may find you’re distracted less. You may find it easier to stay connected to your anchor during your practice.

In my next post, we’ll look at how you can tell meditation is working and how your meditation practice might offer support for aging.

—Alexandra

 

 

 

Find the Good Spots

So much is going right!

As we head into the Thanksgiving holiday in the States, a thought on gratitude. Lately, I’ve started class with a body scan. It’s natural for the attention to go straight to the sites of injury, tension, fatigue. (As my colleague Sara says, “The mind is a pessimist.”) And these are critical to notice as you begin an asana or meditation practice, so that you can see clearly what you’re working with.

But also take the time to find at least one spot, and ideally more, that feels totally fine right now. This could be “My right pointer finger is OK,” or “I don’t have a headache.” Let this expression of gratitude and appreciation for the good spots grow. Once you’ve found one, you can usually find several more. It makes a sweet practice out of counting your blessings, focusing on the sites of function rather than dysfunction.

All our best for a peaceful Thanksgiving holiday.

—Sage

Introduction to Meditation, Part 2

In my last post, we looked at the reasons meditation is important as we age, and I offered a brief primer on how to meditate. Starting a meditation practice can be daunting, but once you begin, you have to create a habit that sticks: the magic of meditation comes from doing it routinely.

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Alex, 37, sits in meditation. You might have a special place where you always meditate, but your yoga mat works just fine, too.

Same Time

It is not imperative that you meditate every day, although meditation experts suggest it. More important than how often you meditate, though, is that you meditate with regularity. Whether you meditate daily, three days a week, or just once a week, find your meditation time and adhere to it.

Don’t fret about how long you “should” meditate for: starting out, go for a regular meditation practice but for short intervals of time. After all, if you were training for a marathon, you wouldn’t start by running ten miles on your first day of training. First, you’d create a manageable weekly running schedule, and you’d commit to running at least several times a week. From there, you’d start with shorter runs and build slowly to running longer distances and covering more miles. It’s the same with meditation: make it a habit, and then add a little more. When you first begin to meditate, two to five minutes is plenty of time! If you do that successfully for a couple of weeks, consider adding an additional minute every few meditation sessions.

Same Place

It’s just as important to have a set place as it is to have a set time. Some people enjoy having a meditation area in their home—a specific corner of the bedroom or an alcove near a window. You could put a yoga mat, meditation cushion, or candle there. That’s a nice idea, and if setting up a sacred area appeals to you, go for it. It’s also completely fine for your meditation “place” to be on the floor next to your bed—or even on your bed! Where you meditate doesn’t have to be special, but creating habits is easier when you do the same thing again and again: for that reason, meditate in the same place every time. (Of course, when you travel, this idea gets shaken up. But when you’re home, have a meditation place.)

Familiar Anchors

You can vary the anchors you use: one day you might choose to focus on your breath, one day you might choose a phrase or mantra. When inspiration strikes, let it guide your practice. There will be plenty of days, though, that you won’t feel inspired to meditate on a new mantra or intention. You won’t feel inspired to meditate at all: the very act of committing to your meditation practice—actually sitting down and closing your eyes—will feel like a chore. For those days, you need a stockpile of go-to anchors. You might have a specific counting pattern you know captures your mind well. You might choose a simple mantra you use often: the word “peace” or a sentence like “breathing in, I am present; breathing out, I am here.” As you begin creating your habit of meditation, jot down a few anchors you can use any time you sit to meditate. When you don’t feel inspired, use familiar anchors.

Connect Meditation to Your Daily Life

The best way to begin—and then stick to—a meditation practice is to connect it to something you already do routinely. If you plan to meditate daily, perhaps you can sit down right after you brush your teeth every morning. You’ll use your already ingrained habit to trigger your soon-to-be-ingrained habit—and meditating with minty breath may even help you stay alert! Or maybe you unwind at night by reading. You can still do that, but sit in meditation first. If you have a daily or weekly yoga practice, add a few minutes of meditation before or after your practice. Instead of making your meditation practice something else you have to do, connect it to something that you’re already doing.

In my next post on meditation, we’ll explore some of the common obstacles and examine how you know when your meditation practice is working. (Preview: are you meditating routinely? It’s working!)

—Alexandra

 

Productive Discomfort and Pain

As you’ll know from decades of life and experience with exercise, sensation—even intense sensation—is a byproduct of effort. And this sensation is often necessary for growth. With no stress stimulus, there’s no adaptive response. No challenge, no change. But the trick is to learn how to find the right degree of stress, so that you grow and don’t break down. I wrote about this in Goldilocks and the Gauge.

Depending on where and how you feel it, this pose can be one of appropriate intensity or unproductive pain
Depending on where and how you feel it, this pose can be one of appropriate intensity or unproductive pain.

Your asana practice—doing yoga poses—can be a laboratory so you can begin to discern between productive discomfort and unhealthy pain. This skill then can serve you off the mat, sometimes in unexpected and useful ways. Here’s how to begin to tell the difference; your body, of course, should be your number-one guide.

Productive discomfort can feel like . . .

  • Shaking in the muscles
  • Heat in the muscles (“feel the burn”)
  • A challenge to keep you focused
  • A challenge to keep your breath regular
  • Sensation that fades quickly when you leave a pose

Pain can feel like . . .

  • Sharpness in the joints
  • Aching in the joints
  • Too much to keep you focused
  • Too much to breathe through with a regular rhythm
  • Sensation that continues even after you leave a pose

Use your practice to help you find ways to stay present in the face of discomfort, and to recognize and avoid unproductive pain.

—Sage