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.
As you age, maintaining healthy feet is important: pain-free feet mean a lifetime of moving, dancing, and hiking. Healthy feet play a role in good balance, too, and having good balance makes it more likely that you’ll avoid a fall.
My dad does not have great feet. And because a lot of common foot issues—like low arches and bunions—are hereditary, I don’t have great feet either. Even if you won the genetic lottery, your feet will probably get wider, flatter, and a little stiffer with age and time. But here’s the good news: yoga can help. In the next few posts, I’ll show you how yoga poses keep your feet healthy and what you can add to your yoga practice to make your feet stronger.
In the meantime, try this little exercise a couple times a day: Stand up and plant your bare feet firmly on a hard floor or yoga mat. Lift all your toes off the ground. Look down at your feet. Take a breath in, and as you exhale, slowly lower your pinky toes, then ring toes, middle toes, second toes, and finally your big toes. Try to go slowly and lower each toe independently of the other toes on your feet. Prepare to be humbled, though, as you may find this simple exploration is not quite so easy.
If you missed our announcement on social media earlier this week, here’s a recap: Sage and I are co-writing a book, Lifelong Yoga, which will be published by North Atlantic Books in the summer of 2017. It’s Sage’s seventh book (!) and my first, and we couldn’t be more excited about collaborating and writing together.
Lifelong Yoga is a book for anyone who wants to continue or begin a yoga practice at any stage of life. The emphasis, though, is on how yoga can be a boon for the changes we experience as we move into our 40s, 50s, 60s, and beyond. It looks at yoga as a complement for an already-active life and sees yoga as a tool for living a long life of health and vitality. You can expect a lot of what you find on this blog, only in even more detail and with more explanation. We’ll have chapters devoted to the common ailments of aging (and how yoga can help!), sequences that will help you solve problems (“What’s the best yoga before a golf game?,” “How can I prepare for a weekend with my grandkids?”), and photographs of the most useful poses for healthy aging.
To reflect where we’re going—the book—you’ll notice that we’re shifting away from using “Yoga for Aging Athletes” to describe our work. Our social media sites have already changed, and in the upcoming weeks, we’ll update this blog to reflect our book title, too.
We’ll keep you updated on progress and let you know when the book is ready for pre-order. Meanwhile, I have some writing to do! And I just thought of my next blog post: a useful sequence for recovery after a long day of sitting at a desk.
It takes fitness and stamina to be a grandparent—it’s practically a sport. After a few days of watching my parents with my daughter, I came up with a short, simple sequence that prepares you for the physical requirements of grandparenting. Practice this sequence ahead of a visit with babies or before a family vacation with little kids— it only takes about 5 minutes. We’re standing on a yoga mat here, but it’s not needed. You don’t need any props for this sequence, and you can even do it with your shoes on. My dad (Umpa, to his grandchildren) filmed with me and did a great job of demoing!
For a weekend with grandchildren, you need stamina, a healthy spine, and strong glutes (for picking up those little kiddos).
A simple, short sequence you can do anywhere and anytime.
As we age, even if we’re active in a myriad of ways, getting up easily from a chair can get a little harder. We need the ability to stand with strength and ease in order to maintain an independent life.
Practice mindful standing in a series of successively more challenging (and fun!) ways.
Do you want to include more yoga in your day, but feel pressed for time? Here’s a simple—but not easy—routine that will add some yoga-inspired moves to an act you perform daily: donning your shoes.
Side note: I wrote a piece about this routine for Runner’s World, “Warm Up While You Lace Up.” When the print copy of the magazine arrived, I proudly set it on the kitchen counter, open to my article. My teenage daughter walked by and scoffed, “What? There’s an article here about how to put on your shoes?!?!?”
Our “Just One Pose” posts answer the question: “If I have time to do just one pose, what should it be?” If you sit a lot, deal with tight hip flexors, and want to make sure your glutes are activating when they should, bridge pose is the answer.
Bridge pose builds strength in the glutes, hamstrings, low back, and core. In bridge, your glutes support much of your weight, so deep glute activation occurs. Strong glutes are vitally important for healthy aging and correlate with fewer injuries. Strong glutes mean better balance and more stamina in running, hiking, and walking. We rely on our glutes to help us get back to standing from a seated or recumbent pose, which becomes more and more important for independent living as we age.
Lie on your back on the floor with your knees bent. Your knees should be directly over your ankles. Lift your hips skyward. Focus on squeezing your seat to keep your hips nice and high. At the same time, hug your belly inward, engaging the deepest layer of your core. Keep your knees hip-distance apart, but activate the inner thigh line by drawing your legs toward one another. To add the upper body component, roll your shoulders under your body, one shoulder at a time. Your hands might hold the sides of your mat, rest on the mat, or clasp under your body.
Make it spicier for your glutes by stabilizing your hips and then lifting one leg skyward. You can hold your leg still, draw circles in the air, or even add dynamic action by lifting and lowering your leg or your pelvis.
Encourage the engagement of the adductors (inner thigh line) by placing a block between your legs and squeezing. You can squeeze and hold or try gently pulsing.
A few weeks ago, I wrote about chair pose, a glutes-strengthening pose. When you practice chair, you should feel the pose working muscles of the quads, glutes, core, and back. If you try this pose and you can’t feel it in your gluteus maximus at all, you may be experiencing gluteal amnesia. This means that the glutes aren’t activating as well as they should.
Even though you’re active, you may also sit a lot. All that sitting means the hip flexors get shorter and the hip extensors (primarily glutes and hamstrings) get elongated, weaker, and atrophied. After a while, the muscles of the glutes stop working effectively and other muscles compensate—particularly the muscles that comprise the hip flexors, hamstrings, or low back. This creates imbalance, and it’s also incredibly inefficient: the gluteus maximus is the largest muscle in the body. We want that muscle doing its job!
Donkey kicks are the perfect solution to the problem of gluteal amnesia. Start by coming to your hands and knees and moving in and out of cat-cow to warm up your spine. Next, find a neutral spine and deeply engage your core. (As you do this movement, you will to keep your core engaged to protect your lower back.) Extend your left leg about level with your hip and bend your knee, as if you were stepping your left foot on the ceiling. This is your starting position:
Keeping your belly engaged, lift your left thigh a little higher, “kicking” your foot up toward the ceiling:
Move in and out of these two positions, making sure to breathe. Continue this movement until you need a break—maybe 10-20 kicks. Rest afterward in child’s pose, and then set up on hands and knees and repeat with the right leg lifted. Try to do this movement a few times a week or add it into your daily yoga practice.
As we age, it’s especially important that our glutes are strong and that they’re activating when they should. We need them for yoga, balance, and athletics, but also to simply stand up from a seated position—something of utmost importance for independent living in our golden years.
In part 1 of this series, we explored a passive backbend you can enjoy most days for several minutes at a time. If you’ve been practicing that shape diligently in the last two weeks, you’re ready for part 2. (If you haven’t, that’s OK; do one five-minute hold of the pose, then join us here.) The flexibility you’ve created across your chest by stretching it is critical to the exercises demoed here, as tightness through the chest will prevent you from developing strength across the upper back.
When the upper spine rounds forward and the chest is tight, the muscles of the upper back are held long and lose strength.
Once you’ve cultivated chest flexibility, work to strengthen your upper back.
In this video, I demonstrate some exercises to do standing, on hands and knees, and on your belly to strengthen your upper back. Do the ones that work for you—if being on your wrists doesn’t feel good, skip those—most days until you feel pleasant fatigue. After a few weeks, you’ll feel the difference!
When we think about strength in our lower body, we should think first about the most superficial muscle of the glutes: gluteus maximus. But strengthening your seat isn’t the only important focus for hip stability. In fact, there are some smaller muscles of the outer hip (the abductors) that keep you stable in balance poses and sports such as running, tennis, hockey, and skiing. Yoga offers some good poses for abductor stretching, but the quick move offered in the video here is a strength-building variation on a Pilates movement. You can do it just about anywhere: all you need is a wall or chair for a little stability, and you’ll be on your way to stronger outer hips. This two minute video will get you started: