Yoga keeps seniors forever young

Observing 90-year-old yoga practitioners has convinced Flinders University researcher Associate Professor Kathy Arthurson that maintaining yoga exercise is an important means for seniors to maintain youthful agility.

Associate Professor Arthurson, an expert in advocating mindfulness for improved health and wellbeing from the Southgate Institute for Health, Society and Equity at Flinders University, has found inspiring results from studying 60+ yoga practitioners and presents the evidence in her new book, Yoga Years: True Stories of How Yoga Transforms Ageing.

She is particularly inspired by such women as 95-year-old Tania Dyett in Wellington, New Zealand, who was one of 14 yoga teachers aged beyond 60 she interviewed for the research project about yoga and ageing that led to the publication of this new book.

“When I attended Tania Dyett’s yoga class, I immediately knew what kind of older woman I want to be,” says Associate Professor Arthurson. “Aged 95, her wicked sense of humour made the class an absolute delight. We learnt her unique My Pussycat Pose, which involved ‘tail wagging’ and loads of laughter.” Sadly, Tania Dyett recently passed away.

Vivian Vieritz doing the splits on her 90th birthday

Associate Professor Arturson was equally surprised by 95-year-old Vivian Vieritz in Queensland, who performed her favourite pose – the headstand – during her interview. “I was amazed at her strength and flexibility.”

Associate Professor Arthurson says watching Vivian, Tania and other senior yoginis move their agile bodies through poses is a testament to the benefits of yoga for older people.

“Meeting them made me think that practising yoga keeps you young forever,” she says. “I’m not talking about a lack of wrinkles and grey hair, or looking like Cher or Madonna. The yoga women share a joy and vigour for life that belies their age.”

For the book, Tania Dyett shared her favourite pose – the Reverse Prayer – for a healthy spine, wrists and shoulders, to avoid developing Kyphosis, an abnormal outward curvature of the upper back, thoracic vertebrae. She said this pose helped her to continue playing the violin. “Tania told me the body is like a musical instrument – you need to play it to keep it in good health.”

Associate Professor Arthurson’s book underlines that yoga helps maintain floor-to-standing mobility. A reduction in this ability for adults older than 50 is associated with earlier death and increased dependency. Even simple mishaps for these people, like dropping reading glasses onto the floor, may pose a serious challenge.

In contrast, Associate Professor Arthurson says she was astounded at how effortlessly the senior women yoga practitioners moved down onto the floor and back up again. “Vivian told me to use it or lose it. She proudly said ‘I don’t know of anyone else my age who is as healthy as me’.”

Practising yoga can help all people to maintain important movement capability – but it doesn’t have to be difficult. It can start by practising in a chair, and rising up and down from the chair.

“If you haven’t tried yoga before, don’t be put off by glossy pictures of yoginis in advanced practises or even seeing Vivian Vieritz in her headstand. Yoga is definitely not all about twisting the body into hard or bendy poses. There are many different styles and levels of yoga to choose from,” says Professor Arthurson.

“These yoginis maintain that any age is the right age to start yoga, because it will build flexibility, balance and strengthen muscles. Maybe, just like these women, you’ll still be practising yoga in your 90s.”

The book can be accessed via the website kathyarthursonyoga.com where you can also watch Vivian Vieritz, and Bette Calman (from Melbourne) practising yoga in YouTube clips

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