Health & Family

Yoga: Healthy aging with an age-old practice

Yoga instructor Carol Barry during an 8:15 a.m. yoga class for folks over 50 at the Harris YMCA, Tuesday morning, July 14, 2015.
Yoga instructor Carol Barry during an 8:15 a.m. yoga class for folks over 50 at the Harris YMCA, Tuesday morning, July 14, 2015.

When aches and pains crop up, yoga could help.

“You don’t have to turn yourself into a pretzel to practice yoga,” said Dr. Russell Greenfield, an integrative medicine practitioner in Charlotte. “Anyone can practice yoga because the practice itself can be set up for anybody, even folks who are not healthy.”

Pain can be a part of aging. It can simply be caused by stress and improper alignment, or by illnesses like diabetes, arthritis and osteoporosis. Yoga can help chronic pain and illnesses like these as well as enhance wellness for healthy people, Greenfield said.

Depending on the style, yoga can be rigorous or gentle. It’s a good way to start getting back into exercise, Greenfield said, and it complements other forms of exercise by toning and deeply stretching muscles.

Yoga emphasizes breath work, which benefits chronic pain. “Any woman who’s been through childbirth and has used breathing to regulate pain can realize how powerful it is,” said Carol Krucoff, yoga therapist at Duke Integrative Medicine in Durham.

Breath work is also part of the meditative aspect of yoga. “The division between mind and body is largely artificial,” Greenfield said. “When we take good care of the mind, it helps the body and the spirit.”

The mental benefits range from improving insomnia, depression and anxiety to actually changing brain structure, said Dr. Murali Doraiswamy, psychiatry professor at Duke University Medical Center. Meditation can increase the size of the brain’s memory center after a six-week course, he said, and it reduces the brain’s response to stress.

Both Greenfield and Krucoff agree that anyone with concerns about practicing yoga with a health problem should take precautions to prevent injury. Both recommend beginners search for a gentle, nonstrenuous yoga class. A style known as Kripalu could be one option, they said.

When searching for a yoga therapist or instructor, Krucoff urges people to consider their experience. Yoga Alliance runs a registry that gives yoga instructors titles based on their number of training hours, teaching hours and years of experience.

Greenfield urges anyone with a serious health issue to discuss yoga with a doctor or a yoga therapist, who can help develop an individualized program or modifications, before tackling a group class.

Carol Barry offers these modifications during her yoga classes at the Harris YMCA. She coaches the class through Tree Pose. Like a group of flamingos, they balance on one straightened leg, the other bent and folded up.

“Find your drishti, your focal point, and build your tree,” Barry says. “Some will bring their heel to their thigh, some will bring theirs to the calf, some will just lift it. It doesn’t matter, it’s your tree! It’s OK to sway – sometimes trees sway, sometimes they even fall down.”

Barry’s class has a group of regulars: Harriette Thompson, 92, Charlotte’s famed marathon runner; Alycia Kivlighan, 57, who has multiple sclerosis and uses yoga to stretch and get out of bed; and Barbara Cribbs, 60, who, after 15 years of practicing yoga, will use it to recover from upcoming shoulder surgery and knee replacements because of osteoarthritis.

Other students have found unexpected reasons to keep practicing yoga. “It helps your mind – my memory’s better!” said Beverly Fairley, 74. Elizabeth Miller, 65, said the yoga mindset of living in the moment has made her more patient.

Nancy Armstrong, 67, began practicing yoga as a way to get back into exercise. “The daunting thing for me was the loud music and the racy pace of other classes,” she said.


Yoga Alliance Registry:

International Association of Yoga Therapists Registry:

For details about YMCA classes:

DVD suggestions: Yoga instructor Carol Barry recommends Erich Schiffman’s “Beginning Yoga” or “Ali MacGraw – Yoga Mind & Body”