This post, I’m taking a break from my Men and Yoga series to give you a preview of Lifelong Yoga! One of my favorite parts of the book is Part III, where we offer short and long sequences to be used in preparation for specific life events, whether that event is daily exercise, gardening, a weekend with grandchildren, or an emotional weekend, like a wedding. Yoga is a toolkit for whatever you encounter in daily life, and this section helps you choose the right tools for the occasion. This simple standing warm-up sequence is one of my favorites: it requires NO props (not even a yoga mat!), you can do it in regular clothes, you can do it in shoes, and you can do it ANYWHERE! The whole thing could take as little as 5 minutes, but it will make you feel so, so much better. I use it nearly every day, and I start many of the classes I teach with this sequence.
Joan (age: 62) and Jeanne (age: 88) demoed this beautifully after class last week. Jeanne correctly calls herself my oldest student, and she moves with ease and grace– a life of doing yoga!
For more sequences, search for “sequences” in the search box on the left of the screen or pre-order our book! It’s officially out as of August 1.
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.
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?
Earlier this month, my back went out. This condition set in over the course of a day and hung around for two weeks, during which I generally was absolutely fine lying down, but felt the muscles seizing up after only a few steps. (Sleeping? Not a problem. Walking to the coffeemaker? Big problem.) About halfway through this frustrating fortnight, Alexandra wrote to me, “It’s interesting to think about this in the context of the inevitability of aging and injury. You do everything ‘right.’ Yet, this still happened. I think there’s a [B.S.] notion that yoga will save people. Not so. It helps, but there’s no way to avoid injury/illness.”
Yes. Injury is inevitable. If you continue a physical activity—running, gardening, yoga asana—for long enough and if you are interested in improving by testing your limits, you will get hurt. It’s an important part of the learning process; it often shows when you have pushed too far. In my case, my movement activities—running and asana—led to a muscular imbalance. I then found myself with some extra leisure time after we turned in the manuscript to Lifelong Yoga and my business partner and I got Hillsborough Spa and Day Retreat running. I spent this extra time doing more yoga asana than usual, and one or more of those poses found a way to capitalize on the existing imbalance and affect my SI joint. (Happily, this was caught by a wonderful athletic trainer and fixed by a clever chiropractor, and I’m better now.)
In my next posts, I’ll suggest some approaches for practicing from the sidelines. For now, I advise you do what it took me a few too many days to realize: when you’re in a hole, stop digging. I stubbornly kept running and continued my usual movement practices without investigating too deeply what caused the problem in the first place. This just dug the hole deeper. When you find yourself in the throes of injury, the very first step is to stop and get clear on what is going on.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
Strengthen your feet with quick and easy movements you can add to your yoga practice or do every morning.