Updated: Jan 31, 2020
Longevity is something most of us strive for, and increasingly, research shows that implementing a consistent yoga practice can be a fruitful investment toward that goal. Yoga is an eight-branch system of well-being that encompasses exercise, meditation, conscious breathing, diet and other elements, but how it effects mind-body fitness alone is proving to be a reliable defense against age-related loss of mobility, cardiovascular disease and depression.
Its stress-busting capabilities help to support challenged adrenal glands and lower elevated blood pressure. Getting on the mat can improve insulin sensitivity in diabetics and also help balance immune responses in individuals with autoimmune conditions or insufficient natural killer cells.
Combined research from 22 studies by the University of Edinburgh reveals that yoga, compared to both sedentary lifestyles and other forms of exercise such as walking or chair aerobics, improved the lower-body strength and flexibility in individuals age 60 and older. The findings published earlier this year in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity also showed improved quality of sleep and fewer symptoms of depression.
Fewer Health Risks, Stronger Bones
Yoga’s inverted poses increase blood circulation to vital organs, including the intestines, which facilitates assimilation of nutrients and waste elimination. Asanas like shoulder stand, bridge and downward-facing dog stimulate blood flow from the lower extremities to the heart and fortify red blood cells by increasing hemoglobin, guarding against blood clots, stroke and heart attack. Yoga can also strengthen the bones. A 2016 study published in the International Journal of Yoga shows improved bone mineral density in women with postmenopausal osteoporosis.
“Much like a house that sits empty or a car left to sit unused in a garage, our human parts can age and rot without movement. Movement creates more energy,” explains Nancy Poole, a teacher at Clarksburg Yoga and Wellness, in Clarksburg, Maryland.
Joints lose flexibility as we age, but yoga movement provides them with essential oxygen, blood and nutrients. Lisa Moore, owner of Free to Be Yoga, in Great Falls, Montana, underscores, “A joint needs to move through its full range of motion to function well. Movement helps lubricate and cushion joints, provides nutrition and removes wastes.”
Stretching Into Joy
A 2014 hatha yoga study published in the Journals of Gerontology revealed increased cognitive function in older adults after eight weeks of yoga three times a week. Yoga’s super power lies in its capacity to reset the autonomic nervous system and ramp up mood-boosting serotonin while decreasing monoamine oxidase, an enzyme that disarms the effects of stress hormones like cortisol. Under the influence of yoga, the brain is bathed in calming neurotransmitters, combatting depression and anxiety, and instilling a sense of optimism.
“Yoga also helps us to embrace the hard times and ride the waves. With the tools that yoga provides, we can swim toward the light. It also helps us to experience a more intimate relationship with body and soul, and in turn make better choices in all aspects of life,” notes Carmen Ferreira, owner of the Sunshine Barre Studio, in Rocky Point, New York.
Moore concurs, advising, “Yoga gives us powerful tools so we may age gracefully. One of them is to manage stress with equanimity.”
The Breath of Life
Conscious breathing is at the core of a dedicated yoga practice, and a lowered risk of cardiovascular and respiratory disease gives us another reason to inhale and exhale deeply. Poole observes, “Our general population does not breathe correctly, and many of us even hold our breath unconsciously. For my students, the hardest part of yoga is learning to take deep, full breaths. Old breathing habits must be unlearned. Once attention is given to the breath, tensions can be released.”