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

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

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

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

 

Just One Pose: Mountain

Our “Just One Pose” posts answer the question: “If I have time to do just one pose, what should it be?” This one is the most express of all, and you can do it virtually anywhere: mountain pose (tadasana). It’s simply standing there—simply, and profoundly just standing there.

(Smokey) Mountain Pose
(Smokey) Mountain Pose

Why

When you learn to pay attention in mountain pose, both to your alignment and to your breath, you’ll have the ideal foundation for virtually every other pose. And you’ll gain experience in being present with what is happening right now, that is, mindfulness.

How

Stand tall with your feet under your knees and your knees under your hips. Experiment with the most comfortable distance between your feet. Hold your weight even across your feet. Level your pelvis so you feel your core muscles lightly engage. Lift through the crown of your head. Relax your shoulder blades down, and try rolling your thumbs out, as in the photo above, then keep that broadness across your chest and drop your arms by your sides. Take several breaths while feeling the groundedness through your feet and the lift through your spine.

Variations

Mountain pose is portable! You can and should do it anywhere. Shake things up by:

  • Closing your eyes. If that’s too destabilizing, blink in long intervals.
  • Lifting your arms. With your arms lifted, tuck your lowest ribs in so you aren’t arching your back.
  • Lifting your heels. Challenge your balance by creating some space between your heels and the floor. This could be a millimeter or six inches, depending on your balance. Keep breathing!
  • Finding mountain pose in a chair. Keep your ankles and knees in line as you reach your spine tall from your pelvis.

—Sage

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

Share Your Questions

Alexandra and Sage
Alexandra and Sage

We are in the home stretch of drafting Lifelong Yoga, our book to be published by North American Books next summer. Our goal is to tell and show you how to develop and modify a practice to take you through your forties, fifties, and far beyond. We’re covering adaptations for common age-related conditions, appropriate expressions of poses for various bodies and needs, and yoga philosophy.

Here’s your chance to help direct the book. What are your biggest questions around making yoga a lifelong practice? How has your practice changed, and how did you adapt? What would you most like to learn about yoga through the years?

Please let us know in the comments and on Facebook. Thanks in advance!

—Sage

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