Aging – It’s NOT About Maintaining Flexibility

Laurie Marks Science, Yoga Therapy & Practice Leave a Comment

The special sections editor of a local newspaper asked me the following questions for an upcoming edition of Four Corners Healthy Living.

  1. Why is it important to combat the natural loss of flexibility?

“Mobility is a basic human need. Being able to perform in Cirque du Soleil is not.”

The word “combat” implies some sort of battle. I don’t feel this is a useful approach. We often hear such militaristic language in the dialogue around cancer. While adopting such an approach toward the body might be useful for some, perhaps –  whether working with cancer or in this case, flexibility –  consider taking an approach that’s more nourishing and even forgiving. Do we really want to be in battle with this extraordinary, one and only body of ours?

Regular stretching does indeed improve flexibility, which is the range of motion we have in our joints; however, whether flexibility improves functional outcomes and offers health benefits is not well established due to the lack of research.1  Thus, in this article I will speak to the importance of maintaining mobility, the ability to move within that range of motion and to do so with control, ideally with comfort and ease.

Mobility is a basic human need. Being able to perform in Cirque du Soleil is not. Flexibility reduces stability. Believe me. See that picture? I’ve suffered a lot over the years because of too much range of motion in my joints.  We are, however, designed to move.2 Consider our ancestors and the way they lived. The type of movement they engaged in as their lives revolved around survival was regular and diverse. They walked long distances to find sources of food; they ran from predators; constructed shelters and made tools. To sit, they did so cross-legged on the ground. Chairs, through most of human history, have been reserved for the elite. For most of us, sitting cross-legged on the ground would require some training! And while today we may not need to hunt for our food (did I hear there is a La-Z-Boy recliner with a built in refrigerator?), our ability to be mobile whether via walking which is my go-to, engaging in other exercise, gardening, getting up and down from a seated position, dressing, preparing meals, participating in social activities, etc. is important for our physical and psycho-emotional well-being.

It is also important to consider the mind state and its potential influence on the body, an ancient concept now being borne out by modern science, particularly in the field of mind body medicine. Consider the effect of fear on our physiology. I had the opportunity to ocean swim while on the Cape this summer and having watched Jaws at a very young age, I couldn’t help but think of sharks. Besides, we weren’t far from where the film was shot! As I stood on the beach contemplating a dive in, I felt the pounding of my heart. So, just as the mind has the potential to influence the body, the body also has the potential to influence the mind. Staying physically mobile may help the mind to also stay mobile; that is, less rigid and more open to new ideas and experiences. I encourage you to make your own observations whether they be in your own experience or, in observing someone you might know who is closed minded. I would guess that more Tai Chi, Zumba or Hip Hop – something that gets us out of our box – would be good for many of us!

  1. How does yoga help people prevent injuries?

“The practice of yoga can help individuals move with more confidence which in and of itself is an injury prevention tool. Furthermore, when one is injured, healing can more readily occur.”

Good physical mobility requires stability, muscular coordination and proper alignment, all of which can be developed by the physical practice of yoga. The ability to relax is also important as excess muscle tension accumulated over weeks and years along with impaired stability, coordination and proper alignment can all be significant contributors to a declining state of mobility. Thus, our risk of injury increases. While not an exhaustive list, here are some of the ways in which yoga can help prevent injuries:

Mobilizes the spine in all five directions: there are five directional movements of the spine, all of which are practiced in yoga asana (postures) as appropriate for the client and their condition: bending forward, bending backward, bending laterally, rotating the spine (twisting) and lengthening the spine up (axial extension). Mobilizing the spine in all five directions helps keep the spine supple and strong.

Interoceptive & Proprioceptive awareness. In the Viniyoga3 tradition, the breath is the medium for movement. A breath centric practice helps to build a strong degree of interoceptive awareness (what’s going on in the body) and proprioceptive awareness (knowing where the body is in space without having to look) both of which are important for muscular coordination and balance. While beyond the scope of this article, specific breath techniques are also used to achieve particular energetic effects and structural awareness.

Ease and stability: finding not only ease in a pose but also stability are two of the primary intentions in the physical practice of yoga. Both are linked. How can a tree remain stable and upright if it is rigid and unbendable? Imagine standing on one leg of which there are many variations in yoga. The muscles around your standing ankle and in your spine would need to engage. The muscles in both legs and hips would also need to engage, although differently because you are standing on one leg while the other leg might be lifted and bent at the knee or the foot on the lifted leg might be placed on the inner standing leg as in tree pose. All would need to happen in a coordinated fashion. Yoga works both deep (intrinsic) and superficial (extrinsic) muscle groups, bringing much more structural integrity and less imbalance. Also beyond the scope of this article, breathing practices can aid in uncovering areas of disease and instability (contraction) in both the body and mind.

Alignment: imagine while standing on one leg that the knee comes too far forward of the ankle or there is a lateral dislocation. This would make balance difficult and potentially unsafe. A skillful teacher would guide you in an adaptation that would be both safe and more accessible while also offering suggestions to support better structural alignment.

All of the above contribute to moving with more confidence which in and of itself is an injury prevention tool. Further, when one is injured, healing can more readily occur. There are a great many other benefits to practicing yoga, particularly its effects on our nervous system. Yoga is now considered evidence based medicine given the increasing number of scientific studies on a wide range of health and lifestyle issues.

  1. What stretches would you recommend to gain better mobility?

It depends upon the individual. What is their current degree of mobility? Do they have restricted range of motion and in which joints? Are there structural imbalances such as scoliosis? What have they been doing, or not doing, for movement/exercise? Do they experience pain and if so, doing what? When? Where? How is the pain alleviated? How is their diet? Breathing? Sleep? Is a lack of sleep preventing them from adequate exercise? What’s going on in their emotional life? These are just some of the questions I might ask a client who has come to see me with the goal of increasing their mobility (or flexibility).

  1. What other forms of exercise are good for mobility and why?

Walking. Aforementioned, humans are designed to move. I am a strong proponent of walking, a big part of our ancestral DNA. To do so requires a complex coordination of muscular engagement along with alignment. Walking stretches the front of the hips, a very effective counter pose to the sitting so many do on a daily basis for hours at a time. Ideally, walk outside where the view is expansive, beyond the confines of a mobile device, treadmill screen or the TVs above it as is common in a gym. A treadmill, because it is moving us, changes our gait and hampers the muscular engagement on the back of our bodies that occurs when walking under our own power. By all means, if a treadmill is all you have access to – maybe it’s the dead of winter and you live in Woodbury, Minnesota – then use a treadmill.

Move, move often and in different ways. Again, recall our evolutionary DNA. The variety of movement our ancestors engaged in was quite diverse. Today, most of us sit in chairs or car seats for hours on end. Sitting in a chair is not bad in and of itself but it is the amount of time we are spending in a chair, unmoving2. Engaging in different types of activities recruits different muscles and coordination thereof; each requiring different types of stability and alignment. In the fitness world, this is called cross-training.

Start today!

  • Reaching up to the top shelf in the kitchen, gardening, vacuuming and other house chores are opportunities to move
  • Take advantage of opportunities to squat down (using the toilet, picking up something off the floor, getting into the cabinet under the sink) with a long spine – bend at your hips, not at the waist. You will be conditioning the joints and muscles of your spine and especially your lower body.
  • Practice sitting with a tall spine rather than slumping in chairs, many of which encourage the pelvis to tuck under, thus over-stretching the low back, potentially putting pressure on the sacrum at the base of the spine. A slumped posture also collapses the upper body, affecting our digestion, respiration and other bodily systems.
  • Don’t use that shoe horn, squat down instead! Another thing I like to challenge myself to do is to collect my shoe off the floor with a squat, stand on one leg, bend the other knee toward my chest and reach down to put on my shoe.
  • Sit on the floor to vary your sitting positions while also giving yourself another cross-training opportunity to get up and down off the floor.
  • Lay on the floor to read. A low loft pillow placed under the pelvis can help support the low back if needed.
  • Get something that monitors how much you are moving even if you don’t think you need the motivation. What a surprise for me to see how little I was moving throughout my day!
  1. Anything I would like to add?

The Mind

Yoga in the West has become primarily associated with fitness, a stand up paddleboard or even goats but alas, it is about the mind. The ultimate goal of yoga is to attain mastery over the mind. Through practice, we restore the mind to its natural state of luminosity where there is clarity and peace. We do not allow it to roam in ways that can be disturbing, stupefying and distracting.

The Art of a Personal Yoga Practice and Considerations for Any Movement Practice

Whether you already have a personal yoga practice, are considering a practice or any other movement practice, it is useful to consider what your intention for your practice is. There are two different approaches to a personal yoga practice in the Viniyoga tradition4, both of which determine the type of practice and how it is applied.

In the age model, one’s life can be reflected in the movements of the sun: sunrise, midday and sunset. The first twenty five years of life can be thought of as the sunrise stage of life. Practice is oriented toward growth and development, thus asana (postures) is the primary focus of the practice. In the midday stage of life, covering the years roughly between twenty five and seventy five, a practice oriented toward stability is most useful. This is a period in our lives when we are working, raising a family and often caring for aging parents. While asana is still important during this stage of life, pranayama (breathing) becomes the most important aspect of practice. Asana is practiced in a way that supports pranayama. In the sunrise stage of life, roughly age 70 to the end of life, practice is oriented toward the heart. It is a time in which we begin to withdraw from the material. Meditation and prayer is considered the most important aspect of the practice; asana and pranayama are practiced in a way that supports meditation and prayer.

The second approach to practice reflects the interests of the student. The practice can be developmental, preventative, therapeutic or transcendental. In a developmental practice, the student seeks to develop their structure (i.e. posture), physiology (i.e. energy level) or mind (i.e. concentration) in some way. In a preventative approach to practice, the intention is to protect what we have. We may want to avoid a practice that could risk the stability of our joints; for example, through excessive stretching. In a therapeutic approach, there is suffering at some level that we wish to eliminate in order to improve our quality of life. In modern medicine, Yoga Therapy is a complimentary approach being used to treat a number of conditions ranging from anxiety to low back pain5. In a transcendental approach to practice, the practitioner, traditionally one in the sunset stage of life, orients their practice inward as they seek the deeper meaning of life. How the practitioner orients their practice – toward God and self-realization or elsewhere – depends upon their interests.

When what you are doing is truly in service of your physical, structural and psycho-emotional needs and goals, there is a greater potential for transformation on all levels of our being.

DISCLAIMER – This article is not a substitute for diagnosis, care or treatment by a licensed health care professional.

Sources

1 Stathokostas L, Little RMD, Vandervoort AA, Paterson DH. Flexibility Training and Functional Ability in Older Adults: A Systematic Review. Journal of Aging Research. 2012;2012:306818. doi:10.1155/2012/306818.
2 Designed to Move, The Science Backed Program to Fighting Disease and Enjoy Lifelong Health by Dr. Joan Vernikos
3 American Viniyoga Institute. www.viniyoga.com
4 Yoga for Transformation by Gary Kraftsow
5 Yoga as Medicine, The Yogic Prescription for Health and Healing  by Timothy McCall, MD

Other Reading

A blog by the author of Better Movement, Todd Hargrove
Counterclockwise: Mindful Health and the Power of Possibility by Ellen J. Langer
Moving as a part of daily living: Blue Zones Solution: Eating and Living Like the World’s Healthiest People by Dan Buettner

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