Yoga can benefit older adults, including those with memory loss

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October 4, 2022 – Paige E, a 76-year-old retired psychotherapist, has always enjoyed yoga, which she has found to be relaxing, uplifting, and spiritually meaningful. As she got older and faced increasing physical challenges, she began taking yoga classes for seniors.

When the COVID-19 lockdown began, Paige was concerned that she might have to give up yoga classes. She knew she could practice on her own, but felt she needed the structure of a class and the support of a teacher. So she decided to take online classes with Howard Katz, a yoga teacher from Teaneck, NJ with whom she had taken in-person classes in the past.

At first she was skeptical that the online format would make sense.

“I’m not very tech savvy — actually I’m a tech dinosaur — and I worried that I wouldn’t be able to handle the technology or relate to a virtual format,” she says.

She was also concerned because she had some brain issues and wasn’t sure how these would affect her ability to participate in online learning.

“I don’t have classic dementia or Alzheimer’s, but I do have memory and organization problems related to other health issues,” she says.

Fortunately, she was able to master the technology and benefit from the lessons.

Feasible and safe

Online yoga became part of the “new normal” during the COVID-19 pandemic, and its use has remained ever since. And while some people prefer personal settings, many continue to prefer the convenience, affordability, and other benefits of online yoga.

This also applies to courses aimed at seniors, including those with cognitive impairments. A recent study found that a remote chair yoga intervention was helpful for older adults with dementia.

“The telemedicine-based chair yoga intervention proved convenient for both participants and their caregivers to keep them physically active as it was easily accessible from home and required no transportation or dressing, reducing the burden and reduced caregiver stress,” said senior researcher JuYoung Park, PhD, professor in the Phyllis and Harvey Sandler School of Social Work in Florida Atlantic University’s College of Social Work and Criminal Justice.

Seniors with dementia “are able to focus more effectively on the chair yoga intervention in a comfortable home environment than in a community center with the attendant distractions,” she explains.

Notably, there were no injuries or other adverse events during the procedure, “suggesting that online chair yoga with caregiver support is safe.”

Park emphasizes that some people may face technological challenges in accessing online sessions, so technical support should be provided when needed. And “since the instructor cannot act directly with the participant, it is recommended that a caregiver attend the sessions with the person with dementia, monitor the participant for safety and help to follow the poses correctly.”

What is Yoga for Seniors?

Katz teaches older adults in senior centers and also offers online and in-person group and private classes for seniors his own yoga studio.

“Senior yoga is regular yoga made accessible to older adults who may have age-related physical challenges,” says Katz.

“With seniors, I usually start with gentle warm-ups and then progress them through basic standing forward bends, gentle backbends, and warrior poses,” says Katz.

Props such as blocks, harnesses, and chairs are offered, and postures are modified to accommodate seniors’ physical challenges.

“Some seniors can’t sit on the floor because they have trouble getting up, so I change postures so they can sit in a chair. Some have trouble balancing, so they hold onto the chair or the wall,” notes Katz. In fact, half of the postures in his senior yoga classes are seated, while the other half are standing.

Katz’s yoga classes emphasize breathing techniques. In particular, he enjoys teaching alternate nostril breathing (Nadi Shodhana), oceanic sounding breath (ujjayi) and bee breath (Brewery) which are calming for those dealing with anxiety and stress and also have other benefits – such as lowering blood pressure.

All of Katz’s classes include meditation, which he says can bring calm, peace, and spiritual opening to people of all ages, and has also been shown to be helpful in improving cognition and quality of life in seniors.

“I look at yoga postures and breathing as preparation for the most important part of yoga, meditation,” he explains.

Addressing the special needs of seniors with cognitive challenges

Katz offers private classroom and online classes to people with cognitive disabilities.

“Instruction is highly individualized, and all components are modified based on the student’s cognitive level and needs,” he says.

For example, he simplifies breathing techniques or postures and explains everything more slowly, repeating instructions and explanations as often as necessary.

Some people with mild cognitive impairments can attend classes on their own. But according to Katz, people with more severe impairments or dementia benefit from the fact that a caregiver is present for safety and reinforces the yoga class.

“It also creates a shared bond and activity for the caregiver and student to do yoga together,” he says.

Paige’s cognitive impairments are mild. She lives independently, doesn’t need a caregiver, and successfully takes online classes with Katz, who is “patient and supportive when I don’t remember some things,” she says. “He explains things well so I understand what each pose is trying to achieve and he creates a safe atmosphere so I never feel rushed or judged.”

Paige feels yoga has helped her physical health, cognition, and mood.

“Yoga is a gift in my life and I encourage other seniors to try it,” she says.

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