The age of the ‘Golden Yogis’

Posted on December 2, 2016 by Eleanor McKenzie
yoga outside

Every day I am assailed by an avalanche of posts and adverts about yoga on social media. I realise that this is due to the fact that at some point in time I ‘liked’ a yoga-related post on Facebook. Now I am bombarded with images of people bent in an assortment of twisted pretzel positions (asanas in Yoga Speak) that make my hips inwardly groan at the thought of attempting them. Similarly, yoga retreats, yoga clothing and online yoga tutorials punctuate my day like my cups of tea. Perhaps if T.S. Eliot were writing The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock today, he would feel inclined to alter the line, “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons,” to one that measured life by yoga mats.

I have practised yoga on and off for years, more off than on admittedly. I dread that moment in the class when some more pliable body effortlessly achieves a posture that I would probably have struggled with in childhood, never mind in my 50s and so I opt for Tai Chi or Qigong, which is less punishing on my tight hamstrings (the bane of any aspiring yogini). However, I do recognise yoga’s many benefits and have enjoyed classes with teachers who are less purist about form and are content to let me advance at my own pace. There is much to be gained from yoga, especially in later life –flexibility being the one I need to work on. According to recent reports in the British press, the over 50s are wholeheartedly embracing yoga and spending £790 million annually in the process. We have been given the moniker “The Golden Yogis” and scientific research suggests that our age group stands to benefit more from this ancient practice than younger practitioners.

Yoga for brainpower

Neuroscience researchers at the University of California and the University of Adelaide in Australia, discovered yoga not only improves flexibility and builds muscle strength as well as reducing stress, it can “combat the cognitive decline that precedes Alzheimer’s disease (AD) and other forms of dementia. The scientists’ research results revealed that a three-month yoga and meditation course could assist anyone who is experiencing problems with thinking and memory. These might be the normal forgetfulness associated with ageing, such as having trouble recalling names, misplacing belongings or missing appointments.

What is very interesting is that when the scientists tested the power of yoga against the recognised brain training exercises that have become so popular, they discovered that the short-term yoga course yielded better results for improvement of memory. A senior researcher on the project said: “Memory training was comparable with meditation in terms of improving memory, but yoga provided a broader benefit because it also helped with mood, anxiety and coping skills.” The yoga also demonstrably improved visual-spatial memory that we use to remember locations and directions to places. The team are delighted with the outcome of their research efforts, because as the study leader, Harris Eyre from the University of Adelaide commented in the study, published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease (May 10, 2016): “We’re converting historical wisdom into the high level of evidence required for doctors to recommend therapy to their patients.”

Yoga for better mental and physical health

Yoga also improves your quality of sleep, and sleeping well is something that many over 50s struggle with. There’s also the flexibility and toning factor: have you noticed what amazing bodies many yogis have? It can reduce the likelihood of a heart attack, and beat joint and back pain as well.

It can also help with depression as author Lucy Edge (53) discovered. I read her highly entertaining Yoga School Dropout many moons ago and her website yogaclick.com contains a section with details of over 300 clinical trials that demonstrate yoga’s benefits for “conditions ranging from insomnia to obesity.” She pursued an evidence base, because as she puts it,” I didn’t want to make mad claims,” she wanted scientific back up for her personal experience of recovery from the blues.

Choosing a yoga style

There are so many excellent reasons to consider joining a yoga class of some kind, and I am very aware that there are as many styles of yoga as types of coffee on a Starbuck’s menu. Hatha yoga is the best known and perhaps the easiest to follow. Iyengar yoga focuses on correct alignment and posture, and then there is Ashtanga, Bikram and many more as this useful list of styles illustrates.

My yoga mat sits by the door, from which position it has been staring at me for some months. I think I should take it out to a class, or simply unroll it at home and find one of those online yoga tutorials I see every day. Joining the swelling ranks of the Golden Yogis is a positive choice, and I’ll just have to swallow my pride and be prepared to fall over in Warrior Pose.

by Eleanor McKenzie

Eleanor McKenzie is a Northern Irish writer with a passion for art, literature, and red wine. She's worked at advertising agency JWT, edited a journal for a European social policy think tank and tried to teach teenagers the difference between "there" and "their". Being 50+ has not significantly changed Eleanor's life, although she finds it a handy excuse when she wants to avoid anything too energetic.