This is precisely what Hans thought. Hans is 80 years old and age had brought about more than one physical restriction. By now, though, he enthusiastically visits a yoga class once a week and practices at home on an all but daily basis. He usually walks to the school, the short distance takes him almost half an hour. When you're older, things don't go that fast anymore, he says. But yoga makes him feel good, which is why he regularly joins the class every week. He feels the marked increase in his quality of life every day and is happy that there a some days when he hardly feels any pain at all. He would never have thought that he might feel that good again.
Everybody can practice yoga …
… as my teacher, Pattabhi Jois, pointed out again and again. It is the task of the teacher to put together a type of practice that is tailored to the specific needs of each individual pupil. I personally take this task literally. Therefore, I try, again and again, to offer a new approach towards practicing yoga. What is particularly important to me is to enthuse especially elderly people and people with severe physical restrictions for yoga.
What is the effect of yoga for seniors?
Many elderly people suffer from several concomitant diseases and conditions, both of an orthopaedic and an internistic nature. Frequently, a great number of different types of medication is necessary to alleviate existing conditions. Seniors often spend long periods of time at doctor's offices. We may thus say that in their life a lot focuses on those aspects that do no longer work as they did in the past, on what's no longer possible. My approach in yoga places the focus on the complete opposite. I want to show what still is possible and promote precisely this potential. In doing so, I show seniors the way to holistic health and well-being.
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Welcome! Join me for a yoga class …
For me, it is of great importance to choose exercises which can still be performed with ease also in old age since only what is fun will be practiced. For my participants, getting down on the floor would be troublesome and in certain cases even painful. I want my participants to feel as agile and lithe as possible instead of helplessly bumping on the floor. For this reason, I start my yoga class with everybody sitting on a chair. I have deliberately chosen a simple chair as a tool since it makes it easy for participants to practice at home as well. I regularly encourage my participants to do so because in order to promote the existing potential efficiently and to achieve a graspable mental or physical change, one thing is needed above all: regular practice!
Say hello to yourself
As a second step, say hello to your muscles. To do so, put one foot on your thigh if possible and press it firmly but slowly with your hands three times. Slowly move up from the calf to the thigh, always pressing three times. As a next step, give an enjoyable pressure massage to your hands and arms in precisely the same way. (Image 1.2).
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Background: Applying pressure promotes the removal of tissue fluid, improves the venous return to the heart and has a positive effect on the circulation in general. This is particularly beneficial for older people. Many seniors tell me that the number of leg edemas has greatly reduced since they started practicing yoga. Those whose flexibility does not allow for reaching the foot simply start with the calves. After a certain period of time, flexibility often increases and it then becomes possible to reach the foot.
2. Greeting the sun - the sun salutation
Starting position: standing mindfully
Now get up, turn the chair around and and stand behind it with your feet positioned directly next to the seat. Try to keep your feet as parallel as possible. If it is possible for you, the balls of your toes may touch but the heels stay about two fingers' breadth apart. (Image 2.0).
Background: When you start practicing yoga, it is usually not possible to place the feet in a parallel, even position since body awareness and coordination decline with age. However, it is also possible to improve both aspects again. I always place great importance on positioning hands and feet in a precise way. As a result, my participants' awareness of the position of their hands and feet markedly increases already after only a couple of classes. This might seem a minor aspect at first, but in fact an improved body awareness leads to increased neuronal connectivity in the brain: new nerve connections develop and healthy body regions are perceived more consciously. Thereby, the perception of pain in other regions is literally suppressed.
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Movement 1: Reaching up
With your next inhalation, lift your arms laterally but in an arc-shape. Your palms are pointing upwards while your elbows have an inward and forward tendency. Use the whole range of motion that feels comfortable for you before lowering your arms again on exhalation. Repeat the same movement a couple of times in tune with your breathing rhythm. Feel how your breath deepens. Here, it is of secondary importance whether you're breathing through your nose or half-closed mouth (Image 2.1).
Background: Deepening the breath is an important aspect of yoga for older people: the better the lungs are aerated, the smaller the risk of bronchitis or pneumonia. Since the breath is linked to the movement, it automatically becomes longer and deeper. The respiratory system is loosened by the movement which also facilitates deeper breathing.
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Movements 2 and 3: Curling and straightening
On your next exhalation, bow down and grip the sides of the seat. Erect your back again on your next inhalation. Always keep a firm grip on the sides of your chair (Images 2.2 and 2.3)
Background: Over the course of our life, gravity pulls us further and further down towards the ground - we literally sink into ourselves. The curvature of the spine increases, the shoulders drop to the front and the legs bend. However, we can oppose gravity by deliberately straightening up. Our whole body posture will change over time. I'm fascinated again and again how well this process of gradually straightening up can be set in motion even in old age. A more harmonic and thus more comfortable position of the joints is the result of a more erect body posture.
Movements 4 and 5: Angry and happy cat
With your next exhalation, step one small step back. Again, your feet should be in a parallel, symmetric position and be approximately under your hip. Keep exhaling and round your back as much as possible. With the next inhalation, arch your spine. Repeat the angry cat - happy cat movement a couple of times. Try to make sure that arching and curling covers the entire spine and brings it into an even, dynamic movement (Images 2.4 and 2.5).
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Background: Many seniors spend most of their day in a sitting position, with the back bent forwards to a greater or lesser degree the whole time. Over the course of time, the back loses its flexibility and increasingly stiffens in this position. The back muscles likewise stiffen and tense up when always in one and the same position. Back pain is the result. The movement between angry and happy cat, which is synchronised with the breathing rhythm, is an efficient way to regain more flexibility and to simultaneously activate and loosen the muscles. A simple but highly effective exercise which proves extremely beneficial for the back and will create a new feeling of well-being.
Movements 6 and 7: Diagonal curl and stretch
On exhalation, place your left hand on the seat. Lift your right hand and your left foot from the ground. Keep exhaling and diagonally move your knee towards your elbow. Inhale and diagonally stretch your right hand forwards and your left leg backwards. Make sure that your thumb is higher than your little finger when moving forwards. Repeat this movement like the others a couple of times with calm, even breaths (Images 2.6 and 2.7).
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Background: You're quite likely to realise how difficult this exercise is when practicing it. In fact, hardly any of the seniors can do this exercise when trying it for the first time since it is a challenging balance exercise. Those who have only recently joined the class start by moving only the leg first, then only the arm. This is followed by learning to coordinate the diagonal movement, which is a challenge indeed. A challenge which not only motivates in a positive sense but is also truly worthwhile. Participants want to learn the movement and usually start practising it at home already after the first class. As a result, balance and coordination quickly improve. This is particularly important for seniors since it helps them to avoid potential falls and the related bone fractures in everyday life: fall prevention which is fun!
Movements 8 to13: Continue the flow
We continue with movements we already know. Get into the angry cat position on exhalation (movement 4), followed by the happy cat position on inhalation (movement 5). Repeat the diagonal curl and stretch with your left elbow and right knee a couple of times in tune with your breathing rhythm (curl on exhalation (movement 6) and stretch on inhalation (movement 7)). Exhale and come into the angry cat position (movement 4) and, on inhalation, the happy cat position (movement 5) once again.
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Movement 14: Playful dog
With your next exhalation, step back even further. Hold on to the edge of the chair with both hands. Enjoy how your back lengthens and and the pleasant stretch in the back of your legs for about five breaths (Image 2.14).
Background: As you will have noticed, things are becoming more dynamic and do require a bit of an effort. As studies prove, only a dynamic form of yoga practice is an efficient training for the cardiovascular system. What is more, science teaches us that only 30 minutes of cardiovascular training per week reduce the risk of a heart attack by approximately 30%. The study refers to patients who had already suffered a heart attack before. Many participants of my senior classes belong to this group. Therefore, keeping the heart healthy is one of the most important preventive aspects for me. This means that I'm happy when participants start to sweat.
Movements 15 - 17: Complete the flow
With your next inhalation, come back to the chair. Keep your arms straight and your gaze straight ahead (see movement 3). On exhalation, bow down deeply (see movement 2). Inhale, slightly bend your knees and rise up with a straight back. Simultaneously lift up your arms over the sides (see movement 1). An exhalation brings you back to the starting position. Start into another round of sun salutations from here. Repeat the motion sequence a couple of times in your own breathing rhythm.
Background: The motion sequence described above for me is an integral part of each yoga class. It is the sun salutation as practiced in ashtanga yoga, here in a modified version particularly suitable for seniors. On first sight, it might sound boring to repeat the same exercises over and over again. However, the more often you repeat the motion sequence, the more familiar you will become with the individual steps. You can then start to focus on an accurate performance. In doing so, you will discover a new detail each and every time and you will be able to focus better on synchronising movement and breath.
3. Calm down and relax
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Finish your practice by taking a couple of calm, deep breaths in an upright sitting position. For the following relaxation, simply lean comfortably back in the chair (Image 3).
Background: After so much dynamics and effort, your muscles are well supplied with blood. Now, relaxation is particularly beneficial because the muscles can release even deep-sitting cramps and tensions easily.
I mostly keep to the same motion sequence in each yoga class. Even though I do set different foci, point out new details or help to develop the exercise further from different points of view, the sequence as such always remains the same. This unchanging structure helps to establish an autonomous yoga practice at home quickly - which is a firm requirement when a quick improvement of strength, stamina, flexibility, coordination and balance is to be achieved. This success provides motivation to keep practicing. When, in addition to that, even physical ailments such as back or joint pain start to vanish, the enthusiasm to practice autonomously increases further. In this way, yoga helps seniors to improve their quality of life. In Hilde's (85 years) words: "The yoga class is my most important and most pleasant appointment of the week."