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

 

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

 

Introduction to Meditation, Part 1

The idea of meditation has gotten increasingly popular in mainstream culture in the past few years. And there’s a reason for that: studies have shown that meditation changes your brain, making it more able to handle stress and better adept at finding focus and calm.

Meditation is of particularly importance as we age; research has shown a correlation between meditation and brain health. Meditation is like yoga for your brain: with practice, it allows you to assert better control of your responses to stressful, stimulating events and situations.

While many of us have grand plans to meditate, getting started and sticking with the habit of meditating can be hard. In my next few posts, I’ll write about how to get started, how to make it a habit, and how to know it’s working. (Early hint: if you’re doing it, it is.)

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This week, let’s look at how to get started and how to actually meditate.

Start Small

Start a meditation practice with modest goals. Decide to meditate a few times a week or even just on a special day, like Sunday night or Monday morning. Even if you feel ambitious and make a plan to meditate daily, limit the time you sit in meditation. Start with two minutes or five. If you aren’t used to being still with your thoughts, even five minutes can feel like a long time! Set a timer and get comfortable.

Get Comfortable

You do not need to sit on the floor cross-legged. If that feels great in your body, you certainly can, but you could also sit in a chair, on the floor leaning against a wall, or even comfortably reclining. (Don’t get too comfortable, though, or you might fall asleep.) Definitely do not choose a position that causes you any degree of agony. Start in a sweet place.

Choose an Anchor

As you sit in your comfortable space for several minutes, your goal isn’t to clear your mind. Rather, your goal is to choose an anchor for your attention. Common anchors include your breath, a mantra (a phrase or intention you repeat, like “calm,” “present,” or “here now”), or counting. You can also meditate with your eyes open, focusing on a candle or an image that appeals to you and calms you.

Gently Return

Regardless of what anchor you choose, your attention will wander—probably within a matter of seconds. When you notice you’re thinking about something—plans, the future, some event that’s already happened—gently and kindly (and without judgment or frustration) move your attention back to your anchor. Reset. Start again. In each meditation practice, you will return your attention to your anchor again and again and again.

—Alexandra

 

A Simple Fix to Save Your Wrists

Certain yoga poses require your hands to support your weight. Many of these poses have modifications, so if you have arthritis or inflammation and pain in your wrists, you can find a variation of the pose that’s safer for you. Downward-facing dog, for instance, can be practiced at a chair or at the wall. Some poses, though, aren’t as easily modified to take weight out of your hands. Plank pose requires your hands to be on the ground, and in the pose, your wrists help support your body weight. If your wrist ailment gets exacerbated by use, you can skip poses that aggravate your condition. There are often substitute poses that challenge or stretch in a similar way. In lieu of plank, a pose like roll down is a good alternative.

If discomfort in your wrists isn’t linked to a chronic condition, it might just be a matter of building strength. Over time as you practice plank or downward-facing dog (in its traditional orientation), your upper body will get stronger and your wrists will feel more supported by the muscles in your upper arms, shoulders, and back. But in the interim, it’s important to care for your wrists.

Problem

As you build strength in your upper body, caring for your wrists is important. If you experience any wrist pain, how do you protect your wrists and still practice poses like plank and downward-facing dog?

Solution

First, anytime you’re on your hands, be sure to spread your fingers wide, so you can see mat between your fingers. Engage the muscles in your whole hand, pressing each finger down on to the mat. This will help distribute the weight, so your wrists aren’t bearing all the work. Another easy fix is to add padding under your hands. You can do this by using a blanket under the base of your palms or by double (or triple) folding your mat. In either case, the padding changes the angle of your wrists and alleviates some of the pressure.

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A blanket under your wrists decreases the bend, making it significantly sweeter.
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If class is moving quickly or you don’t have a blanket nearby, fold up your mat for wrist support.

Finally, you can always make fists and balance your weight on your knuckles, if that feels better. The bottom line: if you have wrist concerns, explore your options. There may be a perfect fix that will keep your wrists supported and allow you to do hands-on-the-mat poses.

—Alexandra

Let Your Intention Guide Your Practice

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We talk a lot about intentions in yoga. Intentions are different than goals. If you set an intention at the start of your yoga practice, it’s your starting point for the flavor of your practice. You might set an intention of peace, for instance. Or presence. Goals are different: they’re measurable achievements you arrive at later. You can certainly have goals in yoga, too. You might be practicing plank pose for successively longer numbers of breaths, for example. The number of breaths you’re working toward is your clear and stated goal.

With regard to why you choose to do yoga, it’s useful to have an intention, too. When I started doing yoga, I wasn’t always clear about my intention. I had a lot of goals—mostly based on achievement of certain poses—but I didn’t always have a deeper reason for my practice. This has changed. I do yoga with intentions that generally coalesce around the ideas of meditation, strength, relaxation, and injury prevention. Starting from one of these places, I create my sequences or choose which poses to do on a given day. If my aim is strength, I’ll probably do more core-focused poses; if my plan is to build focus or relax, I may do a restorative practice.

Because my intentions toward my practice are clearer, there are poses that I have stopped doing. These poses don’t feel good for me, regardless of how I tweak my alignment or use props to offer support. These poses don’t feel like they help me build strength, allow me to find meditative focus, or encourage relaxation. They feel stressful to my joints or potentially dangerous to more fragile parts of my body. They don’t align with my intention to use yoga as a tool to stave off injury.

Downward-facing dog is probably the most ubiquitous pose in yoga. If down-dog doesn’t feel good for your shoulders or wrists, try a modification. And if it still doesn’t feel good? If there is associated pain? If you can find alternative ways to strengthen your shoulders? Then take it off your roster of poses—maybe just for a while (as you recover from an injury, for instance, or build strength in another way) or maybe permanently.

If your yoga teachers says “listen to your body,” what he or she is really saying is “let your intention guide your practice.” But this begs the question: why do you do yoga? What intentions flavor your yoga practice? Getting clear on these questions can help you make mindful choices about the type of yoga—including which specific poses—you want to do.

—Alexandra

Yoga for Your Feet, Part 3

In my last posts, I wrote about how important it is for your feet to stay strong and flexible, and I discussed the ways your yoga practice already helps your feet. This week, I’ve included a short video that gives you a few movements to include in your yoga practice to strengthen your feet and create greater flexibility. These simple additions require no special props, and they’re easy to do.

Problem

As we age, we rely on our feet to keep us stable and secure. Our feet get stiffer and weaker over time, and although our yoga practice helps, there are additional ways we can build strength and keep our feet healthy.

Solution

Strengthen your feet with quick and easy movements you can add to your yoga practice or do every morning.

—Alexandra

Yoga for Your Feet, Part 2

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Having strong and flexible feet is important for healthy aging. If your feet are pain-free, you’re more likely to continue hiking, walking, or jogging. Feeling steady on your feet can help you avoid falling, too. Genetics play a role in the sort of feet you have, as I talked about in Part 1. But even if your feet feel strong, age takes a toll. As we age, our feet get wider and flatter, stiffer and weaker. The good news is that your yoga practice is already helping fight back against these age-related foot changes.

This week, let’s look at the best yoga poses for your feet. You’re probably already regularly doing many of these! In my next post, I’ll show you a few things you can add to your yoga practice to get your feet in even better shape.

Foot-Stretching Poses

Downward-facing dog offers a fantastic bottom-of-the-foot stretch, especially if your heels don’t touch the ground. (For most of us, they don’t.) If they do, you can find this  same stretch in a high lunge pose with your back heel lifted. Stretching the bottoms of your feet will feel pretty good, and it can also help relieve the tension that causes plantar fasciitis. The seated pose hero pose gives you the same benefit but without standing up on your feet.

Arch-Strengthening Poses

Standing poses like Warrior I, Warrior II, triangle pose, and extended side angle pose require you to lift your back-foot arch while shifting weight into the pinky-toe side of that foot. This can feel especially challenging if your arches are weak or flat. If you’re newer to yoga, it can be easy to overlook this small nuance, so listen for that cue in your yoga class and lift your arches.

Balance Poses

Any time you practice a balance pose, you’re building foot strength. That gentle burning sensation on the bottom of your foot is a good thing! Tree pose and Warrior III are especially good balance poses, as they are simple (but not easy) which allows you to stay longer.

If you’re great at balance, try making it more challenging by practicing your balance poses on a doubled-up mat. An unstable and soft floor makes your foot work harder; the harder your foot works, the more you’re increasing its ability to hold you up safely over time.

Glutes-Building Poses

There are several poses in yoga that help you build glutes strength, like chair pose and bridge pose. Strong glutes allow you to move with ease and grace and help you feel lighter on your feet. You can also practice donkey kicks and outer-hip leg swings to build strength in your seat.

In my next post, we’ll look at small additions you can make to your yoga and movement practice to keep your feet strong and flexible at any age.

—Alexandra