What is the Most Important Thing You Can Do to Age Gracefully?
Often people ask me, “What is the most important thing I can do to age gracefully?” Well, there is no one thing, but building strength is one of the most important ways you can maintain your fitness, health and overall well-being as you move into the later stages of life.
Since both muscles loss and bone loss are apart of aging we will touch on both of these. I'll describe some of how yoga builds strength in our muscles and integrity in our bones and give you a sequence of postures you can do at home to reclaim and maintain your strength and vitality.
Resistance training or strength training is a type of physical exercise that activates muscular contraction which helps build strength, anaerobic endurance, and the size of skeletal muscles. This is important, because it provides significant functional benefits and improvement in overall health and well-being. Besides just increased strength and toughness in muscle, tendon, ligament, it also includes improved joint function, increased bone density, increased metabolism, improved cardiac function, and elevated HDL (good) cholesterol. Strong leg muscles has been proved to increase cognitive function and prevent falls too!
Yoga uses the body’s own weight as resistance to build strength. Yoga postures place the body in many shapes that not only require strength but also requires contraction of certain specific muscles to hold the position. This can be felt in downward facing dog, when the hands are pressing against the floor. Even through the action is motionless the muscles are contracting, which is known as isometric contraction.
Muscular contractions actually help more muscle fibers to be enlisted, resulting in improved strength. While this does not result in acquiring bulky muscles, continuously contracting the muscles while holding a postures helps to lengthen, tone and strengthen the muscles.
The inside of bones is like a web of fiber that are laid down in the direction that forces are applied to them. So, if you are doing the same movements all the time the bones are less structurally sound. Jumping can increase the forces applied to bone, so if you do not have any recent surgeries or injuries in your spine and lower body you are welcome to try jumping in and out of poses.
Bones get built in three ways.
Compression: This happens when the bones are being pressed on. This can be done in a yoga practice by pressing the palms together in prayer pose, clasping the hands together, making little jumps into and out of the poses or pressing any number of body parts into each other. For example, how in Tree Pose (Vrksasana) the foot of the bent leg is pressing into the thigh of the standing leg.
Tension: This occurs when the bone is being pulled on. Many poses involve stretching the arms away from the torso and legs apart, like in Warrior II (Virabhadrasana II). There are also time when we lengthen the bones of the spine away from one another, such as in Mountain Pose (Tadasana).
Torque: This is a twisting force that tends to cause rotation. Yoga involves many opportunities to twist the bones.
Here are some postures that target a wide variety of muscles and bones. Descriptions below.
Chair pose (Utkatasana) from seated
Mountain Pose (Tadasana)
Heel lifts with a chair
Stepping or jumping from Mountain pose (Tadasana) to Warrior II
(Virabhadrasana II) with the option to use a chair
Warrior I (Virabhdrasana I) with a chair as needed
Boat (Navasana) with the option of using a block
Downward-facing dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana)
Locust pose (Shalabhasana)
Leg Lifts (Uttanapadasana)
Bridge Pose (Setu Bhanda Sarvangasana)
Chair Pose from a seated
The movement is helpful for keeping our bodies strong enough to get in and out of a chair, which gets more and more challenging the older we get. Start seated in a chair with your back off the back-rest of the chair, so your posture is more upright and active. Set up for the Chair pose by bringing your knees a little bit forward and your feet a little back and wider. You can use your hands on the seat or arms of the chair as needed. If that's hard you can rock back and forth and gain some momentum to help you get up to squatting with your knees bent. If that is unnecessary simple place your hands on your hips or straight along side your body.
Once you're up, bent your knees and come down a little and then inhale and straighten them a little. Exhale and sit half way back down. Inhale and lift off. If the knees don't like that just stay up. Find a sustainable place to stay in the squat. Stay here for a few rounds of breath. You can leave the arms back or for more challenge have the arms come forward. Sit your butt back and bend the knees. Shoulders descend down as the chest lifts. Feel the power you have available in your legs. These are some of the strongest muscles on the body. Inhale and stand up, stretching the arms up. Take a nice, slow breath out and float the arms down.
Mountain Pose with the option of a block between the legs
Bring you feet right under your hips with the toes facing forward. Press into your feet and stand tall. Activate the legs by pressing into the four corners of the feet. That's the big toe mound, inner heel, outer heel and little toe mound. Notice if some places are harder to feel or taking more weight and spread out the weight more evenly. Weight the whole foot. This more evenly uses all the sides of the legs.
If you want to use more leg muscles you can put a block in between your thighs at one if the two more narrow widths. This engages the inner thighs, stabilizes the pelvis and firms the gluts. Try lifting the toes and spread them. I find spreading my fingers can help me connect to and spread my toes better. From the foundation of the legs see if you can lighten up and find an inner lift through the center of the torso all the way through the back of the head, like the head is going to float off the body. The ears move slightly up and back as the chin gently tucks. The head is over the shoulders as much as possible, not forward of them. The shoulders drop down and the shoulder blades come more onto the back. Notice how this feels different than your normal standing pose. Are you taller, stronger, more alert?
Heel lifts with a chair
Bring the chair in front of you, facing away from you. Stand in Mountain pose behind the chair with the hands on the back of the chair. You decide how much weight you have in your hands at any given time. Inhale and lift your heels off the floor. Exhale and lower. Continue with this, trying to gradually increase the height of the heels each time. See if you can do this without leaning into the chair. Put the least amount of weight on your hands as you safely can. If you want to, you can try to hold the heels up. Engage your core; the whole corset of muscles that wrap around your center. If it feels safe, lift one hand off the chair as you inhale. Exhale it down. Inhale the other hand up and exhale it down. With your next breath, maybe try both hands if that's right for you. When you feel done slowly drop the heels back to the floor.
Warrior II with the option to use a chair
Start in Mountain Pose facing the long side of your mat. Press the palms together in front of your chest. If you are feeling less stable you can hold onto the back of your chair. Squeeze the legs together. On an inhale, jump or step the legs about 3 or 4 feet apart as you spread the arms. You are welcome to try this a few times to get familiar with it.
Have your feet parallel, to begin with, then turn your right toes straight out to the front edge of your mat and turn the left turn in and the heel back. Unlike the last posture, your feet are in one line for this pose. The same plane. The front heel bisects the back arch of the foot. Bring you arms parallel to the floor. Hug into the mid-line with your arms. Reach out through the fingers with your palms facing down. Start to bent the front knee over the ankle and towards the little toe side of the foot. Breath deeply. If the neck is alright with it look over the front hand. After 5 or 10 breaths or more lower the arms and straighten the legs. Bring the feet back to parallel and either step in or jump in, palms together at the chest. Hug legs together.
You can now step or jump back out, with the arms extended. Turn the left toes out and right toes in. Check out your feet to make sure they are in a safe alignment. Now hold the arms parallel to the floor while you bend the front knee, look at it to make sure it moves straight ahead. It you like you can hold your gaze over the front hand. We aren't focusing directly on the fingers but just passed them. Continue to breath as smoothly as possible. Resource yourself with the breath. Use the naturally invigorating and enlivening qualities of the inhales to sustain you and the relaxing quality of the exhalations to find rest within the posture. Exhale and release the arms down. Step or jump the feet back together...
Warrior I with an option to hold a chair
We will now try Warrior I pose while holding onto the chair. Step in close to the chair, then bring your left foot back, reaching your heel to the floor. If that’s hard, bring your right foot more out to the right and shorten your stance. Your right knee is bent. Bring the front foot close enough to the chair so you don't have to lean. Bring the spine as vertical as possible. Bent the knee straight ahead, not to the sides and have the knee no further forward then the toes. If you are newer to the practice this is a great place to stay. Otherwise you can take your hands off the chair and place them onto your hips. If hands on the hips is easy for you, you can try one or both arms overhead in a V or a U shape. Draw the shoulders away from the ears while the forearms reach up. Exhale and bring the arms down and step in towards the chair. Wiggle out or bounce your legs. Take your right foot back and notice if you feet are in one line. It will help your alignment and balance to bring them onto separate tracks. Adjust your stance so you have a long stride. Firm the back leg straight as you bent the front knee. Torso over hips. Hands on chair, hips, or overhead. Stay conscious of the connection of your legs to the earth. The anchoring of your back leg into the floor allows the front knee to bend more easily. Notice your breath and if it feelings labored back off. We should only take the pose to the depth where the breath maintains fluid. Release and shake the legs.
Boat (Navasana) with the option to use a block
Come down to seated on the floor with your legs in front of you. Placing a block between the knees is an option for greater engagement through the legs and pelvic floor. Hands can go behind the thighs or on the floor for more support. With your knees bend, lift your feet off the floor only as high as you can without rounding your back. Lengthen through the spine and neck, lift the chest. On an inhale lift the feet higher. Exhale and tap the toes on the floor. For greater challenge arms can extend forward. Continue to move and breath as you squeeze the block. You can stay with dynamic movements or you can hold the legs up with bent knees. Knees in. Core engaged. Spine tall. Release anytime you need to and take the block away.
Now come to your hands and knees. Walk your hands a little forward and your knees a little back so you are in a modified plank position, like a push-up but with your knees on the floor. Your body is in a diagonal line from head and shoulders to hips and knees. You can also do this on your forearms if you want to remove your wrists from weight-bearing. (Show forearm plank close-up picture). Contract your abdominal muscles. Press your arms into the floor. Tuck your tailbone. Bring the back of the head towards the sky. Continue to maintain the integrity in the pose as you breath. Rest before you feel any pain.
From hands and knees turn your toes under and stretch your legs so you look similar to an upside down V shape. Bend your knees a little and walk the feet in place. Continue to breath. If there isn't too much pull on your legs or back, straightening your legs and draw your heels towards the floor. Relax your head and lift your hips, bringing them up and back. Hold as long as you like. As you inhale, come out of the pose.
Come to laying on your belly. If you feel anything tender there put a blanket underneath you. Bring your forehead to the floor and then lift everything off the ground; head, shoulders, chest, arms and legs. Exhale and lower. Inhale and lift to your full expression of the pose. Release to earth. Continue up and down at your own pace. If this gets too hard, you can just do the lower body or just do the upper body. Stay lifted now and look down, keeping the back of the neck long. Shoulders lift away from the ground. Everything as you breath. Release on an exhale and wiggle out your backside and relax.
Come down onto your back. Bring the arms in close to your sides, tucking the thumbs underneath you. Bring your legs over your hips. Inhale and draw the legs a few degree towards the floor. Exhale and bring them back up. Continue, going as low as the back allows. Make sure there is no pain and the low back is planted on the floor. If two legs together is too much try one leg at a time or both knees bent. See how much you can let the breath inform the movement. You can experiment with which partnership of movement and breath is optimal for you. Maybe its exhaling down and inhaling up. The most important thing is that you are breathing. Flex through the feet.; heels out, toes towards your head. Move slowly, so you can more consciously engage the muscles and not just use momentum. Relax the head and shoulders into the earth. Jaw is relaxed.
Bridge Pose with the option of using a block
From laying on your back, bring both feet to the floor and walk them in close to the buttocks. An option here is to have a block between your thighs. The arms come in along side the body and the palm press into the floor. Lift your hips off the floor. This can be a dynamic movement, coming up and down with the breath, or you can hold the pose. Ground through the feet, the back of the head and the shoulders. Nudge the weight towards the shoulders as the inner feet ground. After some time here slowly roll down the spine one vertebrae at a time.