Old people doing yoga has practically become its own internet meme: My new favorite theory is that lululemon is funding an underground society of yogis whose sole job it is to dig up 90-something yoga teachers for a biweekly installment of the smug “see, yoga is THIS good for you” profile. Because every time I see another cute, elderly yogi stretching her lithe limbs, I think: Damn, I guess yoga really is pretty good for you. (Maybe I should go get a new tank top to make me want to go to class.) But much as I’d like to believe that yoga is the miracle drug for keeping a limber, injury-free body well into old age, the reality is that it’s probably more like every other kind of exercise: Very good for you, but no guarantees.
My favorite kinds of exercise are running and yoga: One has earned a reputation for forcing fanatic athletes into hip replacements and early arthritis; the other is perennially depicted as a kind of miracle anti-aging miracle drug. But I think that’s just a bunch of bad PR (or good, depending on how you look at it). The truth is, there are plenty of old runners, and not everyone who practices yoga is injury-free, or even able to do it into old age. Whether you’re going to a yoga class or a treadmill, you’ll still need to sign a liability waiver.
This feeling that the oldie yogi profile trend is bunk has been nagging at me all week, ever since I read about 2012′s first 90-something yoga teacher, Ms. Adela Choquet. She looks great, and she’s of course bendy (see: photo above), but she’s just one woman, not a large-scale study. And, without meaning any disrespect towards my elders, I have to say: She’s dispensing somewhat questionable information about yoga. She told The Villages Daily Sun:
“I always tell them the same,” Choquet explained, her accent emphasizing each word. “Yoga exercises every single muscle of the body.”
She pointed at her leg and then moved her hand upward, indicating a yoga position where the leg would be pulled high.
“Sometimes if you are new, what hurts when you put your leg up here? The back nerve, right there,” the Village of Rio Grande resident said, motioning toward the back of her leg.
“It takes a few times for the muscle to get used to the pull,” Choquet said, adding again, “Every muscle is done in yoga.”
But the truth is that yoga doesn’t necessarily exercise “every muscle,” and with hundreds of types of yoga classes out there, some yoga isn’t a balanced exercise routine at all.
Yoga is certainly low-impact compared to running, and its lack of equipment makes it reasonably safe for the clumsy. But an article in today’s New York Times highlighted the reasons that, contrary to popular belief, yoga is hardly risk-free: In “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body,” William J. Broad talks to Glenn Black, a yoga teacher who says he’s learned from experience that yoga is far from safe:
In India, he recalled, a yogi came to study at Iyengar’s school and threw himself into a spinal twist. Black said he watched in disbelief as three of the man’s ribs gave way — pop, pop, pop.
After class, I asked Black about his approach to teaching yoga — the emphasis on holding only a few simple poses, the absence of common inversions like headstands and shoulder stands. He gave me the kind of answer you’d expect from any yoga teacher: that awareness is more important than rushing through a series of postures just to say you’d done them. But then he said something more radical. Black has come to believe that “the vast majority of people” should give up yoga altogether. It’s simply too likely to cause harm.
The article ends with Black’s summary of his unlikely message:
Asana is not a panacea or a cure-all. In fact, if you do it with ego or obsession, you’ll end up causing problems.
Which is pretty much true of any kind of exercise. So, while old people doing yoga certainly makes for fun photos and inspirational quotes, just keep in mind that any kind of exercise done in moderation and with care is probably going to help you feel healthy into old age.
Photo: The Villages Daily Sun