3 benefits of yoga that can help you age well

Regular practice can help keep your body limber and strong — and flexes your brainpower, too. 

Mature woman and teen practicing yoga by the shore.

You may think you know what yoga is. But if you’re picturing headstands and intimidating pretzel poses, erase the thought: Most yoga poses are simple and safe for older adults. 

What’s more, getting comfortable doing a Tree or Warrior pose does more than just improve your flexibility — it may also strengthen your mind. In 2017, a Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease study found that practicing yoga slows mild cognitive problems just as well as brain games and memory training. But the really cool part of the results was that people in the yoga group also showed noticeable improvements in their mood, ability to focus and resilience to stress.

Intrigued? Take a look at these three benefits of striking a pose. Plus, get started with our beginner-friendly yoga series — no head standing or pretzel poses required.

Benefit #1: Power Up Your Concentration and Productivity

Yoga has been shown to influence the brain’s stress circuits. In a distracting world, taking a little time each day to focus on deep breaths and stretches can help relax your mind and help you focus on getting things done. 

Regular yoga sessions can also make the effects of stress less hard on the body, according to a 2015 study from the University of Texas Health Science Center. Researchers are still trying to get to the bottom of exactly how yoga does such a great job helping us stay on task and upbeat. They think it’s because yoga helps your nervous system shift out of fight-or-flight mode so you can relax.

All you need to remember, though, is that carving out time in your day and week to do some stretches and poses may be worth it.

Benefit #2: Get to Dreamland Faster 

It’s known that doing some light physical activity before bed can help improve sleep. Yoga has been shown to help people not only fall asleep faster, but also sleep longer and more soundly.

For example, when a group of 69 older adults in India were asked to either take up yoga, try an herbal remedy or do nothing to help improve their sleep, the yoga group got the win. They reported nodding off sooner and feeling more rested in the morning than the other groups, all of which were part of a study published in the Indian Journal of Medical Research.

Here in the United States, 55% of Americans who practice yoga say it helps them sleep better, according to a national survey by the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (part of the National Institutes of Health).

Along with its relaxation benefits, yoga helps increase your body’s levels of melatonin (“the sleep hormone”), according to a report in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. It’s also been shown to reduce muscle and joint pain to help you fall asleep faster.

Benefit #3: Stay Steady on Your Feet

Many of us tend to sit or stand in the same positions day after day. With yoga, you can introduce your body to a greater variety of stances and positions to help with lower back and joint pain. Yoga is also great if you’re looking to help improve your strength, balance and coordination to help prevent falls.

In one study, a team of international researchers set out to see if yoga or faster, more dynamic exercises like jumping jacks and lunges would do a better job of helping adults over age 60 improve their flexibility and mobility. They handed 66 men some workout clothes and followed them for a year.

When the calendar turned, the yoga group’s flexibility gains were nearly four times those who did gym exercises, according to the findings published in the International Journal of Yoga Therapy.

Yet another study — this one in the Journals of Gerontology — found that a 12-week yoga program that focused on standing poses helped older adults improve their balance and mobility. 

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5 Yoga Poses to Try

The internet is filled with lots of yoga videos to watch, but these five poses are great for getting started.

You can do them together as a series, or on their own whenever you’re looking for a reset in your day. And while yoga is traditionally done in bare feet, go ahead and keep your athletic shoes on if you need them for support and comfort. 

Most important, remember to check with your doctor before starting a new exercise routine. This is especially vital if you have a chronic condition or are coming back after an injury or surgery.

Standing Crescent Moon Pose

  • Stand with your feet hip-width apart, arms at your sides.
  • Inhale and sweep your left arm above your head, palm facing in.
  • Exhale and reach with your left fingertips until you feel a stretch along the left side of your body (your left arm will look like the outline of a crescent moon).
  • Hold this position for three to three to five slow breaths in and out.
  • Return to the start, then repeat on the right side.

Chair modification: If you’d like more support, try the pose while seated in a sturdy chair. Sit tall toward the edge of the chair and keep your feet flat on the floor. 

Warrior II Pose

  • Stand with your feet together.
  • Exhale and step your left foot back about 3 feet. Choose a distance that makes you feel as though you can come down into the pose without feeling out of balance. You also want a stance that gives you enough room to prevent your front knee from going past your front ankle.
  • Turn your left foot nearly parallel to the back of the mat and inward at slightly less than 90 degrees. Your right foot should be pointed forward. Check your alignment: If you were to draw a line between your feet, your right heel would intersect the arch of your left foot.
  • Turn your right thigh slightly outward so the knee is in line with the middle toes, while bringing your hipbones and torso toward the left.
  • Exhale and bend your right knee over your right ankle, so your shin is perpendicular to the floor. Press your left heel firmly into the floor for stability. Keep your hips centered and your shoulders back, so you’re not leaning forward.
  • Raise your arms parallel to the floor, so one is reaching back and the other forward. Tip: Having your palms facing up will help you keep your shoulders back, which in turn helps keep your hips in the proper position.
  • Reach through your fingertips, keeping your shoulders relaxed and stacked over your hips.
  • Turn your head to the right and look past your fingertips.
  • Hold this position for three to five slow breaths in and out.
  • Return to the start, then reverse your feet and repeat.

Chair modification: If you’d like more support, place a sturdy chair in front of you and hold the back of it for balance. 

Tree Pose

  • Stand tall with your feet hip-width apart, hands on your hips.
  • Exhale and roll your shoulders down and engage your core for support.
  • Shift your weight to your right foot and drive your heel into the floor.
  • Turn your left knee out slightly and glide your left heel above your right ankle; be sure to keep your hips steady and facing forward. Tip: Focusing your gaze on a stable object that’s about 10 feet away will help you keep your balance.
  • Hold this position for three to five slow breaths in and out.
  • Return to the start, then switch legs.

Chair modification: Stand next to a sturdy chair and hold the back for support. 

Challenge yourself: As you become more comfortable with the pose, try gliding your foot higher up your shin, toward your knee. 

Downward Facing Dog with Chair

  • Stand facing the seat of a sturdy chair with your feet hip-width apart, placing your hands on the seat.
  • Exhale and bend forward at your hips (not your waist).
  • Straighten your back and legs until you feel a gentle stretch.
  • Hold this position for three to five slow breaths in and out.
  • Return to the start.

Half Lord of the Fishes with Chair

  • Sit tall in a sturdy chair, feet flat on the floor in front of you.
  • Exhale and gently rotate toward the right, placing your right hand toward the back of the seat (or the arm rests, if your chair has them) and your left hand on top of your right thigh. 
  • Inhale and press further into the twist until you feel a gentle stretch in your back.
  • Hold this position for three to five slow breaths in and out.
  • Return to the start, then switch sides and repeat.