Yoga students focus on relaxing at the beginning of the Yoga for 50 and Better class at the Yoga Center of Steamboat. More older adults are experiencing a renewed sense of wellbeing and many other health benefits through yoga practice.

Tamera Manzanares

Yoga students focus on relaxing at the beginning of the Yoga for 50 and Better class at the Yoga Center of Steamboat. More older adults are experiencing a renewed sense of wellbeing and many other health benefits through yoga practice.

Aging well: Yoga's many gifts and rewards

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Yoga studios

Craig:

• Holistic Health & Fitness of Craig, 824-4700

• Trapper Fitness Center, 824-6932 (classes coming in the fall)

Steamboat Springs:

• Colorado Mountain College, 870-4444

• Fusion Fit, 870-1444

• Old Town Hot Springs, 879-1828

• Steamboat Pilates & Fitness Center, 879-6788

• The Buddhist Center of Steamboat Springs, (Yoga with Libbie), 879-8428

• Yoga Center of Steamboat, 870-1522

Joan Gibbs takes the most direct route to yoga class in Steamboat Springs. After class, she chooses to drive the meandering back roads toward her home in Oak Creek.

"It's slower, but I think, 'Why rush?'" she said.

Like Gibbs, many older adults are finding yoga almost immediately makes them feel more relaxed, less stressed and less rushed in their everyday lives. Regular practice results in additional benefits, including better flexibility, balance and strength and a host of other health improvements.

"If I continue the exercises at home, I'm mostly pain free," said Gibbs, 64, who copes with weak muscles and joint stiffness plaguing many older adults. "I firmly believe in it."

The ancient practice of yoga uses poses and breath work to connect a person's body, mind and spirit, helping them achieve focus and overall wellbeing.

This deep "going inward" practice is what distinguishes yoga from many other forms of exercise, said Libbie Mathes, 70, who teaches yoga at the Buddhist Center of Steamboat Springs.

"Yoga isn't a six-week course you take," she said. "It's adopting a lifestyle."

Benefits for everyone

With more and more practice, yoga practitioners become more aware and conscious in daily life and, along the way, reap many health rewards, said Mathes, who has been teaching yoga for 25 years and practicing for more than 40 years.

Nearly everybody, whether overweight, stiff, weak, chronically tired, can begin yoga practice.

"Wherever you are : everything will start to come into balance," Mathes said.

A growing body of research and the experience of longtime practitioners such as Mathes, point to a long list of potential benefits, including better circulation, lung capacity, digestion, sleep and more regular blood pressure.

Yoga can help alleviate chronic pain from osteoarthritis and other conditions by lengthening and strengthening muscles and improving posture. Yoga also improves balance, helping prevent debilitating falls and is a weight bearing exercise that will help strengthen bones to prevent osteoporosis and bone fractures.

"Yoga is so valuable therapeutically for everybody, including older adults," said Jeanne Upbin, a yoga instructor at the Yoga Center of Steamboat. "The fitness element is equally important but, unlike so many other movement practices, yoga has this quality of adaptation."

Comfort and challenge

There are many variations of yoga that involve different approaches and focuses. Some styles are gentler, while others are more rigorous. Others may place more emphasis on breath work and the meditative aspects of yoga.

Mathes and Upbin agree that older adults - who age and live their lives differently - should not limit themselves to a certain type of yoga class. They do, however, need to start slow, let their instructors know of their conditions and limitations and, above all, feel relaxed.

"I think it's really key people come to classes where they are comfortable," said Upbin, who has been teaching yoga for nine years and also is the fitness coordinator for the Visiting Nurse Association's Aging Well program.

Upbin teaches a Hatha yoga class designed specifically for adults ages 50 and older. Hatha yoga tends to be gentle and slow-paced with emphasis on creating flow between poses. The class is designed to improve posture and spine flexibility, loosen problematic joints and help older adults become more focused and relaxed. They are encouraged to use blankets for extra padding and, if needed, the wall or chairs to get from a seated to a standing position.

The class can be a good environment for beginners to learn about basic poses, breathing and yoga terminology among their contemporaries.

"I don't think there should be any limitation to where people go from the 50-plus class," Upbin said.

Mathes teaches beginning and advanced levels of Iyengar yoga, which focuses on achieving proper alignment - often using props - deep breathing and holding poses for extended periods of time.

She divides classes based on participants' strength, flexibility, balance and focus. There are mixed ages in all her classes; Mathes' advanced class includes individuals in their early 30s to late 70s.

"They are doing the same thing side by side," she said.

Mathes said that while it's important individuals start slow and adapt moves to prevent injury, they also must challenge themselves so they progress towards their health goals and overall wellness.

She emphasized her point with a photo of local yoga students in their 60s and 70s doing handstands, an advanced inverted pose that promotes circulation, releases strain on the heart and also has positive psychological effects.

"There's something about being upside down that makes you cope with your world goes upside down," she said.

Yoga does not end when a person leaves the studio or achieves the perfect pose. Whether they are doing shoulder circles while on the phone, balancing on one foot while brushing their teeth, rising each morning with a 10-minute sun salutation or working to deepen their breath and focus, there always is more work to be done.

"You're going to want to do more and more as you see the benefits," Mathes said.

Tamera Manzanares can be reached at tammarie74@yahoo.com.

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