Aug. 14, 2000 -- At 77, Jean Cotner is not the oldest person in her yoga class, but she's the most accomplished. Of course, you'd expect that of the teacher. A devout practitioner for over 30 years, her body is the best advertisement for her classes: She appears strong, flexible, and much younger than her years.
"Of all the aids to self-improvement," says Cotner, "mental as well as physical, yoga is surely the most reliable, the safest, and the best." Yoga, she says, works to improve the circulatory, glandular, nervous, and muscle systems. Known as the First Lady of Yoga in Orange County, Calif., where she has taught since 1969, Cotner practices daily and teaches five days a week. Most of her students are much younger than she is, but they are much less flexible as well.
"I wake up doing yoga," she says. "I stretch even before I get out of bed, always accompanied by deep breathing. Breath is life."
Countering the Effects of Aging
I first learned about Cotner's classes through my mother, Rhoda Rafkin, who at 79 is one of the few students actually older than her teacher. My family has always been athletic -- I practice martial arts as well as mountain climbing -- and my mother broke her right hip and several leg bones in a hiking accident 20 years ago. She had tried weight training to compensate for her injuries, but nevertheless, simple, everyday movements like bending in her garden had become more difficult.
Six months ago, my mother began taking Cotner's classes to deal with the stiffness, aches, and growing arthritic pain she was experiencing. "Already, I see a great improvement in my flexibility," she says. "After many years of not being able to sit on the floor and cross my legs, I'm now able to do so."
While my mother was conducting her own real-life experiment, a recent bevy of studies lend support to the beneficial aspects of yoga:
A study published in the April 2000 issue of Indian Journal of Physiology and Pharmacology showed that yoga may be as effective as drug therapy in controlling hypertension. (However, until this is more firmly established by additional research, yoga is better regarded as an adjunct to drug treatment rather than a replacement. Needless to say, any changes to your drug regimen should be made in consultation with your doctor.)
A second study in the same journal documented that a four-month yoga regimen significantly increased feelings of good health, as rated by a standardized "Subjective Well-Being Inventory."
A Stanford University review of the research on complementary treatments found that mind-body techniques including yoga were efficacious primarily as complementary treatments for musculoskeletal disease and related disorders.
Other studies, including one at the Roosevelt University Stress Institute in Chicago, have found that yoga stretches reduce physical stress while increasing physical relaxation.