Can your elderly loved one touch their toes?

If they're anything like 91-year-old Bernice Bates, they can. Of course, Bates has been practicing yoga for half a century and was recently named the "World's Oldest Yoga Teacher," by the World Academy of Records and the Guinness World Records.

According to the Associated Press, Bates admits that there must be older instructors out there. But, the fact remains, yoga has been a central part of Bates' life for decades—while prescriptions and trips to the doctor's office have not.

Flowing (and aging) with grace

There's no doubt that exercise involving some regular physical activity is good for people no matter what their age. But sometimes, certain limitations prevent a senior from engaging in more commonplace forms of exercise such as walking, spinning, or lifting weights.

Nathan Wei, MD, a rheumatologist with over 30 years of experience says there are three key components to a good workout for seniors: low impact cardio, resistance training, and stretching.

He says that yoga has the potential to cover all three of these bases, but, people who are getting older should give serious thought to which yoga program they choose to adopt. Certain forms of yoga may be too strenuous, or require so much flexibility that a senior could easily hurt themselves by pushing too far.

Lucy Lomax, a certified Ansuara Yoga instructor and founder of the Serenity Bay yoga studio in Annapolis, Maryland, says that Anusara yoga is a therapeutic practice, focused on proper body alignment—perfect for seniors with physical limitations.

Anusara yoga is a style of yoga that is focused on honoring and accepting the whole individual—aches, pains, and weaknesses included. Translated, the word "Anusara" means "following your heart" or "flowing with grace." Classes generally have unifying themes and are always conducted with a relaxed, non-competitive atmosphere.

This focus on flow is especially important for seniors as, according to Lomax, people's bodies become less fluid as they age. She says a good yoga practice can help, "oil the joints" of an elderly person by increasing the amount of fluid in between the bones.

A senior's confidence builder

An improved sense of body awareness is also often seen in people who practice yoga regularly.

For a senior, this enhanced awareness can translate into an increased confidence in their ability to get around without falling. "Balance is one of the first things we start losing as we age," Lomax says. This is why she has some of the seniors who come to her classes use chairs or a wall to help steady them in certain poses.

Confidence is gradually built in Anusara classes as students, under the direction of their teachers, slowly work up to more complicated versions of poses.

For instance, a senior might start off doing a forward bend by only bending down halfway and holding onto a chair for balance. As they become more comfortable in that position, the instructor may encourage them to let go of the chair and put their hands on a piece of yoga equipment called a block. The block will be lower than the chair, but will still give the elderly person something to help stabilize them. Finally, the senior may be able to bend all the way over and touch their toes without any assistance.

Some people won't be able to progress to the advanced form of every pose, but that's perfectly acceptable. Anusara yoga is all about the honoring the individual and their unique journey.

Communication is key

After working with seniors for about ten years, Lomax encourages caregivers to tell an elderly person's yoga instructor about any physical or mental ailments that may affect their ability to do certain movements. It may also be a good idea to let the teacher know what kind of mood the senior is in.

An instructor will be able to use this information to help them, "feel the energy of the class," and adapt the practice accordingly.

Wei upholds the instructor as a senior's guard against injury. He says that a teacher who is aware of a person's physical capabilities will be able to modify poses so an elderly person doesn't get injured or become frustrated.

Browse Our Free Senior Care Guides

Scientifically-backed benefits

Research on yoga is still in its infancy, but some promising results regarding the benefits of practicing the discipline have been published.

Yoga has been shown to:

  • Improve sleep quality and improve depression
  • Reduce stress
  • Help control blood sugar in people with diabetes
  • Enhance respiratory function
  • Help alleviate arthritis pain
  • Improve bone health through increased bone density, preventing osteoporosis
  • Improve balance
  • Moderate chronic pain

Better together?

Yoga is also something that an older person and their caregiver may want to do together.

Lomax says that practicing partner yoga may help form or solidify the bond between a caregiver and their elderly loved one —it's just not something that's very common in the yoga community currently.

Differences in ability levels will have to be taken into account of course. Depending on their age and health, your elderly loved one may not be able to do the poses the way that you can. It's best to consult with a certified yoga instructor before embarking on a partner yoga practice with a senior.

Dementia disclaimer

For those seniors who have Alzheimer's, or another form of dementia, yoga may or may not be helpful.

Depending on how advanced the disease is in an elderly loved one, remembering the poses and alignments essential to a yoga practice might simply be too difficult.

Lomax's advice for those who wish to experiment with yoga for a senior who has dementia: begin with one-on-one sessions with a certified instructor.

An instructor will be better able to individualize a practice and keep an eye on the elder in case they forget what to do. The caregiver should also probably sit in on these sessions to help manage outbursts and provide a (somewhat) familiar presence for the senior.