By Christine Green
Karen Des Jardin of Holley can just about do a split with the assistance of a stuffed yoga bolster thanks to gentle and therapeutic yoga classes at Beyond Yoga in Brockport. Her classes with owner and teacher, Melissa Kleehammer, have improved her flexibility and general body awareness.
“I hear Melissa in my head: ‘stand with your weight in your heels, spread your toes, don’t let your hips stick out.’”
Des Jardin, a retired Kodak engineer, first came to Beyond when she and her daughter attended a workshop with Kleehammer four years ago. Since then she has adopted a regular yoga practice along with several other students. Des Jardin and many of her classmates over 55 have improved their health and overall happiness by practicing yoga.
The benefits of a regular yoga practice are many and include better bone health, increased strength and flexibility, and steadier balance thus reducing the incident of falls and an easier recovery from injuries. Many students also experience improved digestion and elimination, lower blood pressure, reduction in arthritis pain and increased physical energy.
Of particular concern for older yoga students, though, is an unhealthy forward bending posture. Martha David, a family medicine physician with Unity Family Medicine in Brockport, agrees that poor posture is a big problem in our society and noted that, “we spend so much time bending forward that as we age some people can’t lie flat anymore.”
Computer and cell phone use are activities that require a person to hunch forward. In this day and age almost everyone engages with these technologies and will, at some level, experience the negative physical effects of their use. These effects include forward stooping leading to shoulder and neck pain as well as back ache.
“We are weaker at the front of the spine, so age alone will slowly bring us forward. Age coupled with technology is a disaster. We don’t have control over our anatomy, but we do have control over our posture and can work to slow the progress,” said Kleehammer.
Kleehammer’s classes help students open the chest cavity, strengthen the spine, and adopt a more healthful posture.
Students at Beyond also have access to her specialized knowledge of how to use yoga to both prevent and relieve the effects of osteoporosis. Since women over the age of 50 are at the highest risk for osteoporosis yoga is especially beneficial to them as they age.
But yoga — while an outstanding activity for the physical body — is also about mindfulness, focus and what Unity physician David refers to as “mental flexibility.” Mental flexibility is the ability to cognitively adapt to change without undue stress as well as problem solve as physical, emotional, and situational concerns arise in one’s life. Regular repetition of meditation and mindfulness, which are a part of any fully rounded yoga practice, strengthens and improves cognition.
Brockport Mayor Margay Blackman does yoga as a complementary activity to her aerobic and strength exercises but acknowledges the importance that the non-physical aspects of yoga are important, too. In fact, she has applied her yogic breathing practice — also called pranayama — in many a tense situation at work and at home.
“The meditation and breathing have been especially important to me in my post-retirement stressful, encore career,” she said.
Blackman has also used pranayama techniques on a bumpy flight and then again before a dental procedure. Des Jardin incorporates yoga lessons at home while preparing meals, doing dishes or even standing in line at the grocery store.
Fellow yoga instructor Melanie MacDonald believes that a greater acceptance of relaxation and mindfulness tends to come as students age and grow within their practice. She said that it becomes, “less about just the physicality of the poses and more about the awareness/steadiness of mind and body.”
Kleehammer loves when students like Des Jardin and Blackman are devoted to not only the asana (poses) of yoga but also the meditation and pranayama associated with a dedicated practice. Embracing emotionally introspective facets of yoga along with asana can lead a practitioner to a place of deep personal awareness and acceptance. This awareness coupled with the natural maturity of age means that students entering their 50s, 60s and 70s are less inclined to push their bodies through difficult poses that aren’t good for them.
“Ultimately, the loss of ego and age are a wonderful combination. There’s the age-old saying, ‘less is more’ and this rings true for your yoga practice,” Kleehammer told In Good Health.
For people brand new to yoga but curious about a class she says not to be shy. Find a studio in your neighborhood or close to your work so that going to class is easy to fit into your schedule. If you have any injuries or medical concerns make sure the yoga studio has classes that will suit your needs.
Most studios rent mats for a reasonable price, but it is usually easier to bring one from home. Bringing your own mat ensures a comfortable class and is more hygienic than using a studio mat. Inexpensive mats are easy to find at local discount or sports stores or on-line. Comfy clothes that allow freedom of movement are also essential, but there is no need to spend a lot of money. Leggings, athletic shorts, and a breathable T-shirt or tank are sufficient.
The most important thing to bring to a yoga class, though, is an open mind. Leave pre conceived notions at the door of the studio. Kleehammer pointed out that new students absolutely do not need to be flexible to start yoga, so lack of flexibility is not an excuse to avoid giving it a try if anyone is curious.
Kleehammer said that yoga is “focused around helping people gain strength and stability. Through these, flexibility and mobility is gained. We can achieve all of this through subtle muscular engagement and relatively simple postures. This is what lasts. This is what allows us to age gracefully. Physical and mental stability out weigh uber-bendy any day of the week.”