Wednesday, October 14, 2009

One Idea in Detail: Practice Yoga

There are many reasons for a retired person to try yoga. In fact, perhaps I should start this way - why wouldn't a retired person try yoga? It's just about the perfect exercise for the retiree, using the word "exercise" in the broadest sense. It requires no equipment. You can begin from exactly where you are right now - physically, emotionally, spiritually. If you join a class, you're likely to meet some interesting folks you'd never get to know otherwise. It's not competitive (which not all of you may consider an advantage). You progress at your own pace, but you will progress.

If you've never practiced yoga, now is the time to start. One way is by picking up a few books on yoga at the library or the bookstore. There is no shortage of these, including a few targeted specifically at the over-50 crowd. You will see photographs of yogis and yoginis (female yogis) in poses you can actually imagine yourself doing and a few more that might seem a bit of a stretch (sorry, bad pun!). And a few more that you know in your heart of hearts will never happen in this lifetime. No problem! In yoga you decide how far you will push yourself and how far your particular body is capable of going. There is no such thing as perfection, just you working to your own degree to make progress toward the benefits you're seeking.

After you've perused a few books and/or DVD's, Websites, YouTubes, etc., I'd strongly recommend you sign up for a class. Learning yoga on your own seems likely to be unfulfilling and a good instructor will recognize the right pace for you while giving you helpful feedback. Other class members will provide a supportive atmosphere. And there's always something to be said for the discipline of having a scheduled time and place for any activity. You will almost certainly make better progress with an instructor's guidance as well as avoid injuries, which are a risk for a beginning, self-taught yogi.

Fortunately, yoga has become so popular in the U.S. that you'll probably have several choices for classes within a reasonable commute. Besides commercial yoga studios, classes are frequently offered in senior centers, churches, schools, YMCA's, recreation centers and community outreach programs. Costs will vary but many are not expensive. If you've not previously practiced yoga, a class is definitely the way to go.

My own experience with yoga started about 18 months ago when I was inspired to try a yoga studio I passed each day as I went to work. It's called "Inner Fire Yoga," and I soon discovered the title is not metaphorical. (Well, there are no actual flames involved but there is a lot of heat.) Another name for this yoga is Bikram, after its founder, and it consists of a defined sequence of 26 poses plus two breathing exercises performed for 90 minutes in a room heated to 105 degrees. Yes, one does sweat. A lot. Profusely. I recently weighed myself before and after a class and found I'd dropped five pounds, even though I'd drunk a quart of water during class.

Amazingly - to me, at least - I went back for a second class, and a third, and so on. At last count, I've slogged through 250 classes in the past year and a half. The sweating part doesn't bother me, although when it's humid, I do occasionally find I need to sit out a pose or two. They tell us that the heat helps loosen our connective tissue and muscles, making us more flexible, as well as rids our bodies of unspecified toxins. They may be right about that, but I just find the poses and environment seem to have the right mix of challenge and relaxation for me.

I watched my dad become increasingly bent and stiff on his journey to age 100, so one of my motives for trying yoga was to increase my back strength and improve my posture. It has done that, I believe, as well as improved my overall muscle tone and balance, even though the one-leg balancing poses are my nemeses. Inner Fire also has some great instructors who are thoroughly knowledgeable about the poses and demonstrate both equanimity and discipline. I've learned not to compare myself with the 5'0", 95 pound twenty-somethings in the room and simply focus on doing what I can do and making each posture my personal best on that particular day.

There are many variations of yoga, most performed at normal room temperature. Find a program, talk to the instructor, try a few classes, and assess how you feel physically and emotionally afterward. If you have doubts, try a different type of yoga with a new instructor. Take your time finding the one that fits you best. Avoid setting expectations too high. Books and Websites may tout yoga as a near-miracle cure for all sorts of physical issues and I wouldn't try to talk someone out of a real benefit he's experienced, but I wouldn't start practicing with that expectation. Just experience yoga the way you experience yoga, absorbing the instructor's guidance, pushing yourself just far enough but not too far, and letting yourself find a new equanimity. If you also find relief from a painful or debilitating physical ailment, consider it a wonderful bonus and let your gratitude know no bounds.

The photograph is from the Website of the Bikram studio in Nevada City, California, demonstrating the standing bow pose (yes, that would be one of those troublesome balancing poses that frustrate me).

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