The Doctor Game: Bend more so you don't break |  guest columns

By W. Gifford-Jones

Aging takes its toll. Weaker bones, increasing pain, and a lack of balance, flexibility, and strength can leave the body feeling like worn-out baggage. But there is a curious truth in an ancient Hindu text that says: “All others are conquered by the body, but the body is conquered by yogis.”

For centuries, yoga has been practiced by people around the world for religious, spiritual rehabilitation, or fitness reasons. The older folks may see the neighborhood yoga studio as a place for the young and nimble, but there’s plenty of evidence that aging seniors can benefit physically and mentally from instruction in “Sun Salutation,” “Tree Pose,” or positions with amusing names like the benefit of “stool pigeon” or “cat-cow pose”.

Yoga combines movement (asana) and breathwork (pranayama). Beneficial effects of yoga include relieving back pain, alleviating arthritis symptoms, better sleep, and improved mood. Regular yoga practice also promotes social connectivity and improved self-care.

Yoga stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system — the body’s “rest and digestion” mechanism — and reduces heart rate, respiratory rate, and blood pressure. Studies show decreases in blood sugar, cholesterol and sodium and increases in oxytocin. Yoga is effective in building strength, mobility and flexibility and helps with weight control and posture. Improved balance and functional movement are important benefits for seniors at risk of falls.

These physiological benefits have led to yoga being incorporated into the treatment of many chronic health conditions, including diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, and chronic pain.

While many people initially seek yoga for physical health benefits, there are also important psycho-spiritual benefits.

As a mindful practice, yoga increases focus, memory, and alertness. Hostility, anxiety and depression are reduced. Instead, there are improvements in perspective and overall self-acceptance. Breathwork patterns, common in yoga practice, are energizing and often used to treat depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses.

dr Kirsten Blokland, developmental psychologist and certified yoga teacher, explains, “Synchronizing movement and breathing can provide a sense of coherence and inclusion—something so much needed in our society, where many people are fragmented and unsettled by the rushed pace of our life.”

dr Blokland is part of a growing community of yoga specialists focused on restorative yoga to support the healing process in response to significant medical challenges.

Where do you start if you can’t touch your toes? It’s a shame when ideas of pretzel-like contortions are conjured up in yoga. On the contrary, yoga can also be enjoyed by those with limited mobility.

Chair yoga, a style of yoga performed while seated, is a good place to start for people who have difficulty going from standing to sitting on the floor repeatedly.

Sitting lowers your center of gravity, protects your hip and knee joints from weight bearing, and eliminates the need to rely on your shoulders and wrists for support. With the added stability of a chair, participants can focus more deeply on breathing and poses.

There is also additional accessibility of seated yoga. Everyone has access to a chair. Chair yoga can be done in the kitchen, office, or anywhere there is a place to sit.

Chair yoga can be just as beneficial as other forms of exercise, such as on a traditional yoga mat.

“Chair/modified poses are in many ways just as beneficial as traditional asana poses—especially when we consider that the benefits are not just physical, but also psychological and spiritual,” says Dr. Blokland.

As the body ages, follow this advice: “Bend so you don’t break.” Try it out under the guidance of a trained instructor.

dr W. Gifford-Jones, also known as Ken Walker, is a graduate of the University of Toronto and Harvard Medical School. You can reach him online at his website,, or by email at [email protected]