In part 1, part 2, part 3, and part 4 of this series, we look at ways injury will affect your practice and at strategies for coping. Now let’s look at back pain. It’s a major issue in aging bodies and, for many people, an incentive for beginning a yoga practice. Good! Yoga asana can help counter back pain, as can general relaxation and awareness. However, many of the moves you’ll find in a typical class are not appropriate, depending on the pathology of your own back pain. Have a detailed conversation with your health-care provider and, if you have one, your physical therapist about what is going on, and which moves are indicated and contraindicated as part of your treatment plan.
That said, here are some general and specific ideas for practicing to avoid and counter back pain.
If it hurts to flex your spine/fold forward:
Don’t do it! The rounding your spine takes in a forward fold can exacerbate disk issues and places great stress on the front of your vertebrae, a no-no if you have bone density problems. Instead of rounding in a forward fold, stop with a long back. This may mean you don’t go very far at all, and that’s OK. You can ensure your back stays long by lying down and lifting your leg to stretch, rather than leaning the full weight of your torso over it in a seated or standing forward fold.
Similarly, don’t do roll up or roll down exercises if they hurt. Instead, focus on keeping your back long and moving form your hips, not your spine.
Instead of flexing, focus on extending the spine, which will strengthen the muscles that support a tall posture. Prone backbends like locust pose are especially good for this.
If it hurts to extend your spine/bend backward:
Don’t do it! If muscle spasms mean you have trouble bending backward, invite your muscles to release in a supported pose like legs to a chair.
If it hurts to twist or lean to the side
Don’t do it! Problems with disks, vertebrae, stenosis, or the sacroiliac (SI) joint can cause pain with these movements. Revert to legs to a chair and talk to your health-care provider.
If you’re a guy and you’re thinking about beginning a yoga practice, it’s helpful to know the answers to a few key questions, so you can walk into a class feeling certain that you’re in the right place, doing the right thing. While we encourage a home practice, if you’re new to yoga, checking out a class might be the best place to begin. (And if you’re in the Triangle area in North Carolina, you can take classes with me and Sage at Carolina Yoga!)
Why should I do yoga?
Yoga is a form of movement, exercise, and meditation all in one. It’s generally low-impact and it’s easily adaptable to any injuries you may have. Having a regular yoga practice now means that you’ll still be playing sports with your kids (and grandkids) later. Yoga helps you build strength, flexibility, and stamina. It’s also abundantly helpful for less-physical but just as important things: stress relief, for instance. Research shows again and again that yoga helps with ailments like back pain and depression. Movement is powerful: having a regular movement practice keeps you fit, well, and happy.
What if I can’t do a pose?
The first time you do anything, there are parts you might skip, watch, or modify. Yoga is no different. If the instructor cues a pose that doesn’t work in your body, simply stand or rest seated on your mat. No one will stare at you or think it’s strange that you are opting out of a pose or movement: that’s part of the practice. In a smaller class, your instructor might come over and ask if you need modifications. You can choose to explain what’s going on or just say, “I’m good.”
A common concern I hear from guys is a fear that you’re not flexible enough for yoga. There’s no such thing: you’re there, in part, to get more flexible! Still, as you build flexibility, you might modify common poses to make them more accessible for you. If you have tight hamstrings, for instance, there may be certain poses you need to adapt to your body. You can ask your instructor if you’re unsure what to do to make things work for you. Bottom line, though: if a pose doesn’t feel good or possible, don’t worry about it. Letting go of having to do everything (and letting go of your ego!) is a big part of the practice.
What if I don’t understand what’s going on?
If you’re in a class, you’re there to learn. Approach the practice with a beginner’s mindset, so when things occur that you don’t fully understand, you can access curiosity, not frustration. Depending on the class, the instructor might use Sanskrit words or chant. The instructor might touch you to offer assists. The instructor may burn incense or use essential oils. You can prepare yourself for what generally happens in a yoga class by reading blog posts (or purchasing our book, which offers a helpful overview) or calling the studio in advance to inquire about the type of class you’re attending. Regardless of preparation, you still might encounter new ways of moving, breathing, or being. Remember, that’s part of yoga: you get a chance to break out of what you’re used to and try things that may change you for the better. While it’s never easy to not know what’s going on, the experience of being new and a little confused won’t last long. After a class or two, you’ll have a good sense of how it all works. A few moments of psychic discomfort are worth years of physical health and comfort.
In addition to comfortable clothes you can move in, you can bring a yoga mat if you have one. If you don’t, nearly every studio has mats available for use. You might choose to bring a water bottle, but you don’t need anything else.
And a bonus: many studios have “first class free” specials. Call ahead to check, but you may not even need your wallet!
Keep in mind, though, that the ancient yogis were men, and the practice was largely male-dominated until the last hundred or so years. Yoga is by no means for one gender or the other.
One of my favorite guy yoga students told me that his biggest concern when he first started yoga was “being the dude that farted in yoga.” If this is a concern you share, rest assured that passing gas is common. (In fact, there’s even a pose called wind-relieving pose!) If it happens, it happens: no one is going to look horror-stricken, I promise, and it will probably be ignored. Certainly don’t let that hold you back from attending a class!
In my next post in my Men and Yoga series, we’ll look at some of the best poses for guys for long-term health.
In part 1, part 2, and part 3 of this series, we look at ways injury will affect your practice and at strategies for coping. Let’s drill down further into ways to modify a few common poses to work around injury in the lower body. This could be anything from arthritis in the toes to sprained ankles to knee and hip problems. One of my favorite workarounds is to modify a pose’s relationship to gravity. This can alleviate much of the load in the pose while still addressing muscles, connective tissues, and joints in beneficial ways. Try these only if they feel good; defer to your health care team if you are in immediate recovery from an acute injury or post surgery.
If it hurts to lunge:
Try a half happy baby. Lie on your back and bend one knee in. Depending on what feels best, you can hug your shin, or point the sole of your foot toward the ceiling. By pulling your bent leg more toward center or the side, you can stretch your inner thigh and outer hip with no pressure on the knee, ankle, and foot, and less strain on the hip. As a bonus, this stretches the front of the base leg, too.
If it hurts to squat:
Try a full happy baby. As in half happy baby, you’ll rest on your back with your knees bent, holding your shins, backs or your knees, or feet as feels good.
If it hurts to kneel:
Lie on your side and either hold your foot in your hand or, if that hurts, place your top knee facing up and that foot on the floor. You’ll stretch your quads and hip flexors gently without bringing your knee into deep flexion.
P.S. We’ve got a final cover for Lifelong Yoga! You can now preorder it at your favorite bookstore—links are here.
If you’re a guy in a yoga class, chances are you have uttered this phrase at some point, whether to yourself, a friend, or your yoga instructor. The complaint of “tight hamstrings” is pervasive in yoga, and it’s a comment we often hear men make. In part 2 of my series on men and yoga, let’s look at why tight hamstrings are more common in men and what you can do to make hamstrings-heavy poses friendlier for your body.
Generally, women are more flexible than men, but this is certainly not the only reason men experience tighter hamstrings. An additional exacerbating factor is sitting (a common element of modern jobs.) Sitting for long stretches, over time, results in tighter, shorter hamstrings muscles. But genetics play a role, too: if you’ve been plagued by less flexibility in the backs of your legs since you were young, then you may simply have shorter hamstrings than your peers.
The sensation of tight hamstrings can also be a symptom of tightness or imbalance in other places, like calves, hip flexors, glutes, or your lower back. Sometimes stretching these other areas can create noticeable space and loosening in the hamstrings. The good news is that yoga targets your whole body, so your yoga practice over time will serve a goal of creating more flexible hamstrings.
What to do
If you have less-flexible hamstrings, forward-folding poses might be uncomfortable. So here’s what not to do: don’t just push through, shaking and sweating and gritting your teeth. Instead of pushing your muscles into submission (which won’t happen, anyway, but could result in injury), patiently coax them to slowly and steadily relax and release, by asking less of them. How? Bend your knees.
Bending your knees is the simplest fix for tightness in the backs of your legs. By bending your knees, you can control the intensity of the stretch. Aim for a level 3 or 4 intensity (out of 10), at least for the first half of your yoga practice. As you feel warmer, experiment a little, but always stay below the shaking, teeth-gritting point. (There’s greater risk of injury when you push. Practice patience—make that your intention for your yoga!)
When you bend your knees in a pose, you’re still doing the pose! You’re doing a version that is appropriate for your body and your needs. It’s not cheating to modify. It’s not weak or wimpy. It’s intelligent yoga to make wise decisions that better serve your body.
Here are three common poses modeled with bent knees. This allows your hamstrings to release gradually over time. Less is more!
By bending his knees in downward-facing dog, Bob can get the full effects of the pose in his upper body. The integrity of the pose isn’t compromised by this modification. The bend allows his hamstrings to gently stretch, and he probably also feels a stretch in his calves here, too.
Standing forward fold
In this version of standing forward fold, Bob’s bent knees allow his glutes to stretch, too. Notice that he’s brought his hands to his elbows. Don’t worry about touching the ground in your forward folds. There’s no need to arrive at any particular destination.
Seated forward fold
In the picture on the left, Bob is showing what not to do. Don’t sacrifice your back (rounding it, as he’s doing here) in order to keep your legs straight. Instead, follow his modeling on the right: deeply or lightly bend your knees. Be sure to sit on a blanket. Lean forward from the chest, keeping your back long and your spine straight. Don’t worry about where your hands go. (No one cares if you touch your toes. Don’t compare yourself to the 21-year-old. You’re not her.)
In my next post on men and yoga, I’ll answer some common questions you might have if you’re a guy beginning a yoga practice.
The cover is being finalized, and we’ve just happily reviewed the beautiful inside of Lifelong Yoga: Maximizing Your Balance, Flexibility, and Core Strength in Your 50s, 60s, andBeyond. This is my seventh book and Alexandra’s first—the thrill of holding page proofs never gets old, though, and it makes the whole thing seem very real.
You’ll know it’s real when you’re holding your own copy this summer. Preorder it now from your favorite bookstore! If you like the convenience of Amazon, you can buy there and take advantage of their preorder price guarantee—click here to preorder on Amazon.
The book boasts a very special foreword by my student Roy Williams, who just one his third national championship as coach of the University of North Carolina men’s basketball team. As impressive as that is, Alexandra’s daughter had a few edits:
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.
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?
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.
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.
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 meditation 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.
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.
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. 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.
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.
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?
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?