Yoga for the Aging Body: Seven Tips

by Angelena Craig

We are all aging. From the moment of birth, we are getting older—but we often fail to acknowledge that fact until we get a wake-up call of some kind. There comes a moment when we each say to ourselves, I see am no longer young, and now I can no longer call myself middle-aged either. In fact, I am moving into the stage of life called ‘old age.’

For baby boomers, and those beyond—we who thought this would never happen to us, that we would stay young forever—aging can be discouraging. As our bodies slowly break down, so does our confidence. Yet, in order to move forward with joy, we must come to terms with the aging process and the losses we must inevitably endure—loss of vision, hearing, balance, strength, flexibility, clear thinking, wrinkle-free skin … It’s a long list!

But the good news is that we have never before had so much information available to us that illuminates how we can use self-care practices and time-tested modalities to keep us healthy as we grow older. Yoga is one of those. A regular yoga practice helps us to remain flexible, strong, and balanced, with a relaxed mind, sharp brain, and uplifted spirit.

But here’s the thing: It’s not always easy to start doing yoga—or return to it after a hiatus—if you’re on the older side. In fact, after an hour-long yoga class, you might find your hips, shoulders, or back are not happy getting up and down from the floor. Holding the pose for as long as the teacher directs you to may be exhausting. Or you may find that you’re not able to follow along with the rest of the class as they move quickly from one asana to the next. They all seem to know what they’re doing and I don't have a clue! You’re left feeling worse about yourself than you were when you came in.

Don’t give up just because you’re not able to physically do what once came so easily for you. This is the time to look for something different, a class that still offers the full yoga experience while supporting the aging body, a class that leaves you feeling comfortable, safe, and eager to come back for more.

Here are seven tips for finding the yoga that works for you as you age.

1. Be with what is. Yoga is not about competing or comparing yourself to anyone else, including the teacher, the practitioner on the next mat, or the person you once were. Instead, yoga asks you accept yourself as you are, today, knowing that tomorrow could be different. Honor the limitations you have by never moving beyond what you can do safely. Know that an aging body can improve—with baby steps and over time.

2. Adapt the pose to your ability. Take care of yourself by modifying the warm-ups and the asanas, particularly in standing balancing poses like Tree. This pose opens the hips and strengthens the standing leg, which is great for older people, but fully balancing on one leg may not be possible for everyone because of ankle or knee issues, or other challenges. Go ahead and lean into the wall with your hip, or support yourself with a hand on the wall or on the back of a chair. Once supported, you may be able to come into the pose fully.

3. Use yoga props. Blocks, straps, and pillows will make postures more achievable and easeful. Seated postures and meditation will be much more comfortable with a firm pillow to raise the hips. Find one that works well for you and bring it with you to class, along with your mat.

4. Find the right class, teacher, and style of yoga. Rather than choosing the class you think you should be able to do, choose but the one that really works for your body. If you’re new to yoga, a class designated for beginners is a great choice, as it will typically offer more instruction and alignment cues. Also important is finding the right teacher, someone whose personality you resonate with and who understands your age-related issues and reminds you to modify as needed. You’ll also want to find the right style of yoga for you, as they do look and feel quite different. For instance, hot yoga may not be the best idea for an older practitioner, but a gentle Kripalu Yoga class might be perfect.

5. Try restorative yoga. This type of yoga, which uses props to support the body, is healing for everyone, but especially helpful if you have issues with endurance due to a chronic condition or if you’re recovering from an injury. During the long posture holds (five minutes or more), your muscles don’t have to do the work to hold you up; instead, this passive style allows you to gently surrender and soften into the support of the pillows, bolsters, and blocks. You might do only a handful of poses in a class, while seated or lying down. The props allow you to experience complete relaxation and rest.

6. Try chair yoga. If getting up and down off the floor is a challenge, chair yoga is a great option that gives you the same benefits as you’d get in a regular mat class. It is especially appropriate for those with a chronic condition like MS or Parkinson's, and for those who use a walker or wheelchair. But it is equally helpful for those who may be more adept at yoga but have knee, hip, back, shoulder, or wrist limitations. A chair yoga class may sometimes include a few standing poses to help you work on balance and strength; having the chair next to you builds confidence and protects you from falling.

7. Stay mindful. Keep your mind on your body rather than letting in drift around to the past of the future. Practicing yoga is not the time to be making shopping lists or ruminating over a difficult conversation you had earlier. The more you are in the here and now, the more you will reap the benefits of your practice, and keep yourself injury-free.

No matter your chronological age, yoga offers not only a way to slow down the aging process, but also opportunities to accept the changes in your body and embrace where you are right now.

Angelena Craig is a professional-level Kripalu Yoga instructor and former owner of the Kripalu-affiliated studio BeaconLight Yoga of Boston. Now a young octogenarian, she continues to teach slow-flow yoga and her specialty, chair yoga, in Sarasota, Florida. Angelena also writes a regular column, Boomer Talk, for the Newburyport (MA) Daily News. Find out more: