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Are Seniors the Vanguard of American Yoga?

It’s one of the paradoxes of today’s youth- and beauty-obsessed yoga culture that one of the oldest and most established yoga styles has become one of the least known:  Iyengar Yoga, named for its legendary founder B.K.S. Iyengar, isn’t complicated or exotic.  Its practitioners aren’t likely to burn incense or to chant Sanskrit prayers in class.  Known for its heavy reliance on props, including ropes and blocks, to ease practitioners in and out of the more difficult yoga poses, the practice is decidedly non-competitive.  It’s also distinctly unglamorous.  You won’t see many Iyengar teachers featured in a Lululemon clothing ad, or asked to participate in a sexy magazine photo shoot.  For one thing, the practitioner could well be in her 70s.

Which is why Suza Francina’s wonderful book, The New Yoga for Healthy Aging, is such a welcome addition to the sprawling American literature on yoga. Francina, author of three previous best-selling books and one of the original founders of the industry trade magazine Yoga Journal, isn’t a yoga pop celebrity like Tara Stiles or a Shiva Rea, and she’s far less well known than other prominent Iyengar teachers like Judith Lasater and John Schumacher.  And she seems to like it that way.  Now in her early 60s, she’s been practicing yoga since 1972, and almost from the start, as a fresh-faced 22-year old “hippie chick” living in California, she’s been drawn to working with seniors.  It’s clearly given her a grounded humble insight into what yoga can do to heal and rejuvenate the human body and spirit, and has kept her focused on the practice’s simple unadorned truths, free of the esoteric jargon and new Age pop-philosophizing that can be off-putting to yoga outsiders and newbies.

In fact, having focused on seniors so early, Francina may well be one of the nation’s leading experts on yoga and aging – a topic of growing interest to gerontologists and other US health professionals.   At the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), researchers are wiring up men and women in their 50s and 60s to try to document the specific muscular-skeletal effects of yoga, and nearly all of the yoga teachers and students involved in the new studies are steeped in the Iyengar tradition.  Similar studies are underway at the University of Southern California, where Prof.  George Salem of the Division of Bio-Kinesiology and Physical Therapy has established a special center devoted to yoga and seniors.  With the huge baby-boomer generation passing into retirement, it is no exaggeration to say that seniors are becoming the unheralded vanguard of American yoga – even though most yoga teachers are barely in their 20s and 30s and nearly all of the industry’s commercial marketing still celebrates the vanity and self-obsession of youth.

Francina seems to take delight in defying conventional wisdom by insisting that older practitioners are often more flexible than students in their 20s and usually more patient and consistent in their practice of the poses.  She insists, in fact, that seniors, not shy away from demanding and vigorous practice for fear of getting injured, and should embrace yoga’s “advanced” inversion poses — the headstand and shoulder stand, among them – because these poses, in addition to their spiritual majesty, have unique anti-aging benefits, including their ability to “detoxify” the internal organs and to improve blood circulation to the brain – a key challenge as gravity and age naturally take hold.
In fact, Francina is also an unabashed believer in yoga’s potential to cure, or at least treat, major physical ailments, especially those like arthritis, hypertension, and Parkinson’s that tend to afflict seniors in large numbers. She devotes several helpful chapters to describing how to tailor a yoga practice to alleviate such conditions, and provides compelling anecdotes from survivors who managed to regain control of their bodies, despite being written off by medical professionals. She also quotes doctors and available scientific evidence to support her view that yoga may be one the best anti-aging medicines out there – an alternative to expensive and often unnecessary surgeries and drug therapies and a powerful complement to massage, herbal supplements, and other popular “natural” remedies.  The US health care system, she suggest, could probably save millions of dollars annually if more medical professionals were willing to “prescribe” yoga to their patients before their daily diet and health problems became chronic and required more complicated and costly “treatments.”

One of the most compelling parts of Francina’s book is the powerful series of testimonies she includes from her long-time students, some of them far older than she. In fact, Betty Eiler and Barbara Wiechmann, the two “models” that demonstrate most of her recommended poses, are two lithe and sparkling grandmothers in their 70s. My favorite Francina witness, though, is Bernardo Spira, who took his first class with yoga legend Indra Devi in the 1940s and who still performs (supported) headstands at the ripe old age of 92. In an interview with the author, he strongly recommends that students not try to practice yoga at home by themselves. Find a highly qualified yoga therapist to tailor your practice to your body’s distinctive strengths and weaknesses, he says. (Francina includes a helpful list of such therapists, among other helpful resources in an appendix). And for maximum benefit, try to make it a habit to practice your yoga each and every day.

Some of Francina’s health claims are certainly open to challenge.  Other yoga professionals, citing scientific studies, have called into question the anti-aging benefits of the advanced inversion poses that Francina extols.  Nevertheless, the New Yoga for Healthy Aging is a welcome corrective to the efforts of some yoga entrepreneurs to push strictly cosmetic solutions (e.g. “Face Yoga” for wrinkle control) or to promote 15-minute DVD yoga regimens that invariably promise more than they deliver (e.g. “5 Yoga Poses to Reverse Aging”).  Real anti-aging yoga, Francina suggests, won’t come easy; it is a sustained and in-depth therapeutic practice.   At a time when American yoga sometimes resembles a bizarre even juvenile form of spiritual burlesque, Francina’s comprehensive and inspiring how-to-guide reminds us that yoga really does contain the seeds of ancient wisdom – especially when, through longevity and a life well- lived, you’ve acquired so much of your own.

Stewart J. Lawrence can be reached at stewartlawrence81147@gmail.com

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Stewart J. Lawrence can be reached at stewartlawrence81147@gmail.com

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