As you gather with family over the next few days, get off the couch and onto your mat (or, as pictured here, living room rug). You can work together to keep your back and hips limber by trying these simple partner yoga poses. These are a fun way to connect—even if the cat seems unimpressed in the photos—and a sweet activity for (grand)parents and children.
Communication is key: talk to your partner about how things feel. Don’t push or force. Treat yourself with the same care you spend on your partner. Take several breaths together before moving to another pose.
Downward-facing dog offers a wonderful release for the back side of your body, from your calves up through the hamstrings, back, and shoulders. But it can be tough for aging athletes.
A range of issues can make downward-facing dog a bad idea in your body. These include both high and low blood pressure; glaucoma; a propensity for vertigo; problems with the wrists, elbows, and shoulders; or simple tightness along the posterior chain—the back side—of the body.
In this video, I offer ways to “hack” your down dog—to deconstruct it and customize it to serve your needs. The key is to avoid bearing weight in your hands, and instead to use a chair, counter, or wall for your hands. You can still take the classic L shape with your body, but without leaning much weight into your hands and without lowering your head below your heart.
Along with age comes a greater appreciation for simple things—blue skies, fall colors, family. We grow more content with things as they are. Contentment with the current state of things avoids the suffering caused by avidya, or misperception, wrong-seeing. When we drop the struggle, we can find peace and contentment in the moment. Yoga describes this contentment as santosha, and it’s one of the five niyamas—the prescriptions for how to behave. This Thanksgiving, can you find gratitude for all the wonderful things you’re able to appreciate about your body, your situation, and your existence, as they are right now?
Chuck completed my certification in Sage Yoga for Athletes in 2012. Yoga has been integral in his transition from competitive sports to recreational sports, and in helping him cope with atrial fibrillation, as he details here. —Sage
After thirty years of ultramarathon and time trial cycling, I thought my days on the bike were over when I hit 284 heartbeats per minute during a state championship 40K time trial, went off the road, and crashed. The original diagnosis was atrial flutter, and an ablation was done, which, unfortunately, didn’t work. A flutter became adrenalin-induced atrial fibrillation. It was a sad day when I had to sell the time trial bike and decide how to move forward, and that’s when yoga came to the rescue.
I had been practicing and teaching yoga for over ten years and knew that it would provide the way forward for mind, body, and spirit. First the body: while I can no longer race, I’m still able to ride, and ride I do—6,000 miles this year—for the sheer joy of the sound of the whir of the spokes and the feel of the wind. If I feel my heart rate heading for dangerous levels, I slow down, begin yogic three-part nasal breathing (dirghapranayama, detailed below), and if necessary, the ultimate yogic calmer, alternate nostril breathing (nadi shodhana). It’s amazingly wonderful how something as simple as pranayama (yogic breathing) that is so easy and has been practiced for millennia can be so beneficial! Second, the mind: being able to still participate in the sport I love—you fellow athletes will understand this—just seems to keep the mind clear. With the body healthy, the mind follows. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, with my daily yoga practice enabling me to keep participating, there is just no room for depression, and the spirit soars!
There is no time like the present to explore the benefits of yoga breathing, so let’s begin with the basis for all the different techniques, dirgapranayama. If you are about to do your yoga practice, sit comfortably up straight on a cushion, and let your hands rest lightly on your knees. If you are not about to practice, just find a comfortable chair in which you can sit up straight. Let your hands rest on your legs, close your eyes, and begin deep, slow breaths through your nose. Nasal breathing promotes peace and calmness. Extend each breath, especially your exhale, letting a long slow exhale inform your next inhale. Place a hand on your belly and feel it move in and out with each breath. As you inhale, your diaphragm’s contraction will be pushing your belly out, letting you feel the depth of your breath. Then, place your other hand just at the lower edge of your ribcage, and feel it expand and contract much like the gills of a fish. You have done the first two parts of your three-part breath; now finally imagine yourself as a vase you are filling with oxygen all the way up to your chin, and take that extra bit of air in. Let your hands relax back to your legs, continue dirgha and enjoy the rhythm of your body as it takes in prana, your life force. (Try dirgha just before savasana at the end of your yoga practice, or for a most relaxing experience just before bedtime, play some relaxing music, place your legs up a wall or bend your knees, rest your legs on a coffee table, and do three part, dirgha breathing.)
Here are some simple tips on how to build better balance.
Balance is increasingly critical as we age, and especially so for aging athletes. A sense of where your body is in space will not only reduce your risk of falls, it will help keep you nimble.
Spend some time challenging your balance every day. This can be as simple as standing on one leg as you brush your teeth, or as complex as enjoying a lengthy string of balance poses in your yoga practice. Hold your single-leg stance until you feel pleasant fatigue in your lower leg or hip.
Start on a hard, smooth surface, with something nearby to rest a hand or fingertip on. Having a chair back, counter, or doorknob close yields a strong placebo effect and makes balance easier. Move to a carpet, rug, or yoga mat for greater challenge. Folding the mat, or balancing on a folded blanket, makes it tougher still, especially for your lower leg. For more, try standing on a yoga block—being slightly higher in space will test your vestibular system. In any of these positions, a slow blink of your eyes, or holding them gently closed, will enhance the work, as will shaking your head from side to side.
If you compete in a sport, your training follows a cycle that should build in progressive stages to your peak competitions, then allow for downtime before reaching a new crest. In exercise physiology, we call this periodization: the training progression has distinct periods. As you consider how to include yoga to support you as a masters athlete, keep this training cycle in mind. The closer you are to peak competition, the more mellow your yoga practice should be. I outline this approach in detail in my book The Athlete’s Guide to Yoga, and again in The Runner’s Guide to Yoga.
Keeping the intensity of your yoga practice in inverse proportion to the intensity of your sport training is especially important for aging athletes, because we require more recovery time between challenging workouts. If you slot a vigorous yoga practice into your already-rigorous training week, you’ll have to factor extra time to recover, which means the more challenging styles of yoga should generally be ruled out during your most active peak period in your sport. This means you can enjoy hot yoga, Ashtanga, and power vinyasa styles in your off-season, but keep them away from other major demands on your body.
Maybe your competitive days are over, but you enjoy getting out to play on a seasonal cycle: golf in the summer, skiing in the winter. The same principle applies, even if your activity isn’t expressly periodized. Use your off-season—if only the one determined by the weather—to choose a more strength-building yoga practice. While you’re more active off the mat, dial back the intensity of the practice so you have time to recover between sessions.
This balance is the key to longevity. Use your energy wisely, where it is best spent. If you’re targeting an athletic goal, most of your hard efforts should be in your training sessions, not on the mat. Use gentle and restorative yoga, and shorter home routines like those Alexandra and I offer on YogaVibes and those in my book Everyday Yoga, and you’ll be best balanced to perform at your personal best.
Welcome to Yoga for Aging Athletes—a resource to help keep you in the game. Here, yoga and Pilates teachers and athletes Sage Rountree and Alexandra DeSiato offer advice and answer your questions about how yoga will keep you active and balanced through the decades.
Use the links at left to read about us and get our tips—we post new content weekly. Visit us in person at the Carrboro Yoga Company in central North Carolina, and virtually by streaming our yoga and core-strength classes online anytime at YogaVibes:
Our “Just One Pose” posts answer the question: “If I have time to do just one pose, what should it be?” We’ll kick off with one of my favorites: standing pigeon.
This multitasking pose builds balance in space, balance between the hip and lower portion of the standing leg, and balance between strength and flexibility in the glutes—the standing leg glutes have to work to hold you steady, while the bent leg’s glutes get a stretch. You’ll get a lot of bang for your buck, making this a go-to when you have the time or energy for just one pose.
Stand tall, shifting your weight into one leg as you cross the opposite ankle over your standing leg’s thigh. Lower your hips back and down until you find a natural stopping point. This could feel like stretch in the bent leg’s glutes or inner thigh, or like work in the standing leg’s foot or hip. Make sure your standing leg’s knee points straight forward over your toes. Keep your spine long and use your arms for balance. Hands can be in prayer position, as shown here, or off to the sides.
Hold the pose for 5–15 breaths, and repeat on the other side.
If it’s tough to balance: rest one or both hands on a wall, table, or counter. Take off your shoes and try the pose in bare feet on a hard surface. (Conversely, to up the challenge, stand on carpet or a folded yoga mat.)
If your knee or hip won’t bend this way: substitute tree pose, shown above, instead.
For a bonus chest stretch: Reach your hands behind you. Use a belt or tie to help them connect, or interlace your fingers if you can.