The Healing Power of Yoga

By Michelle Porter Tiernan

Three women in their 60s and 70s recline on their backs on yoga mats with their eyes closed and their hands turned palms up. Certified yoga instructor Helena Bray begins savasana, the final relaxation. Her voice is quiet and soothing.

Yoga can provide caregivers with an important tool for preserving good health.

“Imagine there is a river gently flowing by you, and a leaf floats along the river,” Bray says softly. “By the time you notice the leaf, it is already gone. Let it go—in and out of sight, in and out of mind. If thoughts come into your mind, treat them as the leaf on the river. Let them go.”

Bray is leading a 30-minute yoga session on the DVD Yoga for Caregivers. She models simple yoga poses that are specifically designed for caregivers to relieve stress and improve physical health.

As a caregiver of a loved one with Alzheimer’s disease, you may find yourself facing many days full of frustration, fatigue and even depression. When you’re an older adult, the emotional strain of caregiving—combined with your own stiff joints, limited mobility or fitful sleep—can leave you feeling drained.

Yoga is a simple exercise that offers energy and relief. Adapted to meet your needs as a senior caregiver, yoga practice can help recharge your body, mind and spirit.

Feel Younger
Light exercise like yoga is easier on the joints and can be a good choice for seniors. Yoga gradually builds flexibility and strength, improves concentration and increases energy, says the American Yoga Association. Studies show that practicing yoga on a regular basis may help lower blood pressure, reduce anxiety and depression, and improve sleep.

Yoga does not need to be a very intense movement to be a beneficial exercise, says Frank Iszak, founder of San Diego-based Silver Age Yoga and a yoga expert with 15 years of teaching experience.

“Seniors often address insurmountable issues like depression and other psychological issues,” Iszak says. “In most cases, those who participate in yoga classes find tremendous improvement.”

Yoga taps into emotions that we all share, Iszak says. “Understanding, patience and love are deeply seated human qualities that yoga brings to the surface. As caregivers, we can reach this—it’s at the heart of what we do.”

Reach Inner Harmony
The word yoga means to join or yoke together. A series of connected movements combined with carefully paced breathing, yoga brings the body and the mind together as one.

Yoga is an uplifting exercise for the spirit, but it is not necessarily connected with religion. Although yoga techniques have been adopted by many religions throughout the world, yoga itself is merely an exercise that can be used to manage stress, learn to relax and become more self-aware.

According to the American Yoga Association, the practice of yoga is an ancient exercise. Stone carvings have been discovered of figures in yoga poses that are at least 5,000 years old. The tradition has passed down from teacher to student through word-of-mouth and practical demonstration. Formal techniques that are currently known as yoga evolved from the collective experience of many individuals over thousands of years.

Today, there are more than 100 different schools of yoga. Two of the most recognized are Hatha Yoga, physical movements and postures combined with breathing techniques, and Raja Yoga or the “royal road,” which incorporates exercise and breathing with meditation and study.

Stay in Shape
As a senior caregiver, you should choose a form of yoga specific to your needs. Yoga can be practiced by most adults of any age or physical condition, but there are particular programs designed for seniors. Silver Age Yoga Community Outreach helped produce the DVD Yoga for Caregivers. The program offers free, weekly yoga classes at senior centers throughout the San Diego area. Silver Age Yoga also teaches special skills for yoga instructors to deal with the challenges faced by older adults.

The stretching and breathing exercises of yoga helps improve mobility and flexibility, while reducing stress and stiffness.

The American Yoga Association’s Easy Does It® Yoga is a nationally recognized program developed in the 1960s by Alice Christensen. Designed specifically for older adults just starting to exercise or adults with physical limitations due to age, illness or inactivity, the six-week program includes basic yoga poses, breathing and meditation.

Easy Does It Yoga is a gentler form of yoga that adapts traditional yoga techniques to make them safe and simple for those who face physical limitations. Although it is not an intense program, the American Yoga Association says the program is just as effective as more strenuous fitness programs for getting and staying in shape.

All exercises in the program are gentle bends, twists and lifts that can be performed on the floor or in a chair, bed or wheelchair. Movements are performed with specific breathing patterns that strengthen the respiratory and circulatory systems. Postures such as the Gentle Full Bend, the Easy Sun Pose and the Elbow Twist target weaker spots and improve flexibility.

Give Yoga a Try
If you would like to get started in yoga, the American Yoga Association recommends finding a qualified teacher or purchasing a good book or DVD. Try contacting adult education programs, family YMCAs, community centers or local dance studios to locate a yoga class that caters to your requirements as a caregiver and as an older adult.

Iszak recommends finding a yoga class that is oriented to seniors and sensitive to your needs. “Yoga should not be patronizing,” he says. “You need genuine love—kindness and a spiritual connection.”

Source: www.ALZinfo.org. Author: Michelle Porter Tiernan, Preserving Your Memory: The Magazine of Health and Hope; Winter 2008.