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Health & Balance

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Stay Young With Yoga

Can it reverse aging?

Countering the Effects of Aging continued...

Although evidence for the wide-ranging benefits claimed by proponents such as Cotner is mostly anecdotal, Americans in ever-increasing numbers -- 18 million, according to Yoga Journal -- are flocking to a range of styles from more traditional hatha and Iyengar yoga to new variations like Bikram yoga, which is practiced at room temperatures ranging from 90 to 100 degrees, and "power" yoga, which blends the peaceful Eastern tradition with elements of aerobics.

People of all ages take up yoga to get the "kinks" out of their bodies, strengthen bones and muscles, improve posture, breathe better, relax, and improve their overall health and vitality. With good reason, says Suza Francina, a noted yoga teacher and author of The New Yoga for People Over Fifty. She says that older students who attend class regularly for at least six months report increased strength and range of movement. That, in turn, enables them to return to physical activities they thought had become permanently hampered by aging: gardening, climbing uphill and climbing stairs, biking, dancing, reaching and bending without strain, sitting comfortably on the floor in various positions, and getting up from the floor with confidence.

"Yoga counters the effects of the aging process by moving each joint in the body through its full range of motion -- stretching, strengthening, and balancing each part," says Francina.

Francina particularly advocates yoga's weight-bearing postures, as current research increasingly supports their benefits for musculoskeletal diseases like osteoporosis, osteoarthritis, and carpal tunnel syndrome. "Inverted weight-bearing yoga postures, where the bones in the arms, wrists, and hands are strengthened by supporting the weight of one's body, all work to prevent osteoporosis and other problems related to a weak skeletal structure," she says. Muscles shorten and joints tighten with age, and most popular forms of weight-bearing exercise can create further stiffness. Yoga, on the other hand, stretches the body to relieve stiff joints and lengthen muscles.

For my mother, it's just such benefits of increased suppleness and mobility that have been most welcome. "When I started yoga I could not even do the child's pose," she says, referring to a simple kneeling position, with the forehead bent to the floor. She marvels at how far she has come in such a short time, and she expects to be doing yoga for the rest of her life.

"That I never thought of yoga till I was well into my seventies is too bad," she says, "but clearly it's not too late."

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