Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Yoga for Your Bones

My favorite yoga students are senior citizens, because most of them truly appreciate what their bodies can do. Many have overcome serious illnesses or injuries and are happy to still be going strong. They know how much of a difference yoga makes in their lives. It is a joy to watch their practices.

I have a number of older women in my adult education class at the community college. One in particular delights me every week. She is 68 years old and has osteopenia, or low bone density, a precursor to osteoporosis.

Because it is an all-level class, I try to do some challenging asanas each week to keep the practice interesting for the younger people. I also like to throw in some core work; a strong core helps all the asanas. My 68-year-old with her thin bones tries every asana, and says "yes" when I ask if they want one more round of core-strengthing exercises. She's told me she knows how important it is to stay strong, and that's why she's gives it her all each week. If she doesn't, her bones will get weaker and she won't be able to run around with her grandchildren.

For most people, bone mineral density is highest when they turn 30. From then on, existing bone cells are reabsorbed by the body faster than new bone cells are made, and the bones lose mass. Exercise helps to build bone mass, so people who were active in their youths will have a higher bone density when they hit the 30 year mark, and will therefore have more to spare as they age. For those of us who weren't high school jocks, we can still stimulate bone growth with exercise to prevent or slow osteopenia. Exercises which cause muscle to pull on bone, such as walking, running, cycling and yoga, help the bones to retain, or even rebuild, bone mass.

Many of yoga's asanas are weight bearing and oppose one muscle group against another, which can help reinforce the bones. Yoga has some additional benefits as we age. Yoga promotes balance and coordination, which helps prevent falls which can lead to broken bones. The deep, relaxed breathing reduces tension and toxicity, slowing the overall aging process. And yoga is accessable to everyone, regardless of current fitness level.

If you are suffering from osteopenia or osteoporosis, it is important to tell your yoga teacher. Brittle bones can break if forced into very deep twists or folds. Your teacher can help you adjust poses to avoid injury.

No matter how old you are, it's important to stay active. So get out there and walk or run, ride your bike, and, of course, do some yoga. It's for your bones.
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