Hack Your Yoga for Bone Safety

Bone health begins to decline as we age. This is true for men and women although osteoporosis, and its precursor osteopenia, are more prevalent in women. Living an active, healthy lifestyle can help prevent bone density loss, but there are risk factors that we can’t control, like genetics. According the the National Osteoporosis Foundation, 54 million people have low bone density. They estimate that after age 50, half of all women and a fourth of all men deal with bone issues—like fractures—due to osteoporosis.

So where does yoga come in? Yoga is a useful tool for maintaining healthy bones and staying agile in aging. A recent study lends credibility to the assertion that yoga can even improve bone density, reversing some bone density loss. Yoga also builds muscle and strengthens balance, so you’re more secure on your feet, lowering the risk of falling.

Some poses that may be especially useful for bone health are balance poses, like tree; lunge poses like the warrior poses; extension poses like locust and camel, and supine leg-stretching poses (on-your-back poses that involve moving your legs in various directions).

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Courtney Doi, 36, models standing camel. This simple pose can be done anywhere, and it’s an excellent and safe pose for aging athletes with low bone density.

It’s important to know, too, that there are some yoga poses and movements that are contraindicated for osteoporosis. If you have received a diagnosis of osteoporosis or osteopenia, there are some poses that you’ll want to be careful practicing. There are also poses you’ll want to abstain from doing altogether. Here’s a quick primer to help you modify for safety when you’re practicing in a group class.

Forward folds

What might be offered: Traditional sun salutations, which are typical in a lot of yoga classes, include standing forward folds. Many classes also include a round of seated forward folds toward the end of the practice.

What to do instead: Instead of folding forward from standing, squat to move downward. Or keep a long, straight spine and lean forward, but don’t fold. When sitting, work to sit tall and maintain a long spine, but opt out of moving your heart toward your legs. Instead, sit, engage your core, and work on building your posture.

Twists

What might be offered: Twists might be offered throughout a yoga practice in seated poses, supine poses, and in lunge poses.

What to do instead: There’s conflicting information about whether twists help or harm spinal bones. Err on the side of caution and twist very lightly. Don’t “force” a twist and stop at the first sign of discomfort. Come out of any twist very carefully, and avoid jerky or rapid movements.

Jumping or kicking movements

What might be offered: Jumping from one pose to another (like downward-facing dog to standing) or kicking up to a handstand.

What to do instead: Walk forward, don’t jump. Opt out of handstand; instead, explore downward-facing dog, and add challenge by lifting one leg at a time. If doing full downward-facing dog isn’t in your practice, explore variations at the wall or using a chair.

Neck-compressing poses

What might be offered: Poses like shoulderstand, plow, and headstand might be offered in a class. These poses are contraindicated because they can compress the bones of the cervical spine.

What to do instead: Try a gentler, but similar, pose. Choose bridge pose instead of shoulderstand and plow. Instead of headstand, try rabbit pose or rest in child’s pose.

(Some) core poses

What might be offered: Boat pose is a commonly-offered core pose in yoga. Building core strength is important for preventing falls, so you’ll want to include core-strengthening poses in your practice. Boat is contraindicated for osteoporosis, though, as this pose places your body weight on just your tailbone and sitting bones.

What to do instead: Plank, my favorite core pose! (Read all about variations on plank here.)

Yoga is good medicine for our bones as we age. Choosing the right poses for your practice takes knowledge, but doing yoga offers big results. You can expect to find future posts on this blog focused on sequences, poses, and routines for bone health.

—Alexandra

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Alexandra DeSiato

Alexandra DeSiato is an avid runner, an instructor of yoga, Pilates, writing and literature—and an aging athlete.

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