We blather on regularly at MiddlesexMD about the importance of good health—staying active, eating well, exercising, maintaining a healthy body weight. Given the many exercise fads that come and go (remember Jazzercize?), maybe it’s time to get specific about ways a mature woman can stay in shape.
Yoga is one of the best. Hardly a fad, yoga’s been around for at least 5,000 years; the earliest mention is in sacred Ayervedic texts in northern India. In the US, it’s now a $10 billion-a-year industry with 20 million practitioners.
As you can imagine, many styles of yoga have developed over the millennia, but the main forms you might encounter are:
- Hatha. The most familiar style that focuses on the breath while holding various poses.
- Vinyasa. Series of poses that flow smoothly into one another.
- Bikram. You might have heard of this “hot” yoga style that involves a specific series of challenging poses done in a very hot room.
- Iyengar. This type uses props, such as foam blocks, straps, or blankets to maintain comfort and good form during poses.
What all these flavors have in common is a focus on the breath as a meditation and on moving at various speeds through a series of poses, which are sometimes very challenging. As such, it combines the calming effect of meditation with bodyweight strength-training of held poses.
The benefits of a regular yoga practice are impressive. Yoga clearly increases flexibility and strength, and improves balance. According to a slew of studies, the mind-body effect of yoga may also relieve stress and depression, lower blood pressure and heart rate, stabilize blood sugar levels, relieve chronic neck and back pain, and even improve brain function.
Referring to a 2015 study published in The European Review of Preventive Cardiology, an article in the Harvard Heart Letter reports, “over all, people who took yoga classes saw improvements in a number of factors that affect heart disease risk. They lost an average of five pounds, shaved five points off their blood pressure, and lowered their levels of harmful LDL cholesterol by 12 points.”
Despite the fact that some of these studies are small and not terribly rigorous, the consistent result is that, while yoga isn’t a cure-all, it helps to relieve some surprising conditions.
One of those small studies published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine reported that yoga can even improve sexual function. In this study, 40 women practiced yoga for an hour every day for 12 weeks. At the end of the study, 75 percent of them reported improvement in sexual satisfaction on several assessment areas, such as lubrication, desire, arousal, and pain. Women over 45 showed the most significant improvement in lubrication, arousal, and pain.
The good thing about yoga is that you can jump in and feel challenged at any fitness level, from couch potato to workout devotee. It’s low-impact, so it’s easy on the joints. It isn’t competitive, so you shouldn’t be looking over your shoulder (or between your legs) at the next person. It doesn’t require any equipment other than a mat, so don’t stress the gym wardrobe.
You can find yoga workouts online or on DVDs, but classes are offered everywhere as well. The glut of choice actually makes teasing out the best choice for you more challenging. It took hours of online searching to find a workout that fits my ability but that also avoids an annoyingly smarmy monologue or off-the-wall comments about hairstyle or the leader’s latest manicure. (Not kidding.) I ended up sampling the beginner clips from this list.
Taking a bricks-and-mortar class may be the best option for maintaining motivation, but also for feedback and advice on proper form and avoiding injury. Check out the background of the person leading the class. Barriers to entry are low, so anyone can teach yoga with a few hours of training. You’ll want someone with experience and many years of practice in the discipline.
“To my mind, a good teacher always asks, ‘Are there any injuries or conditions I should know about before we get started?’” writes Julie Corliss, editor of the Harvard Health Letter. She also advises checking out a few different classes to find a good fit.