I’m envious of my son. He can touch his nose with his toes, run literally for hours, and, most astonishingly, he can sit down and stand up like it ain’t no thing.
Playing with these indestructible physical machines is a dangerous game. But more gruelling is the realisation that whereas my injuries used to come from fierce football matches, rolling with ninjas, and epic stage dives (epic, but not always well timed), now they come from ten minutes of ‘marauding bear’ or picking toys off the floor.
There are a few ways of dealing with this situation: (a) accept your future as a grumpy old man whose playful marauding days are to be replaced by sitting in a chair (your kids’ll grow out of that playing thing anyway), (b) throw yourself into some sort of intense HIIT regime like you’re a 20 year old, and wind up back in that same chair, but this time with a sprained ankle and a torn calf, or (c) yoga.
Yes I know it sounds unlikely that a few stretches and a downward facing dog are going to have you tumbling, leaping and sprinting like a teenager. But after a good 10 years of practising and teaching, I’ve found one of the oldest physical disciplines to have some of the most profound benefits.
So here’s the run-down:
Yoga can make you sexier
If posting pictures of yourself topless on a moody roof in a handstand is your thing, sign right up. Dynamic yoga can include all the funky looking postures, including those impossible looking one handed press-ups you see in videos of outdoor gyms. For those who prefer to keep more than just one finger on the floor, the body strength required simply to hold your own weight in the most basic of poses can build muscle you’d long forgotten you had, and strengthen the stuff you’ve already got.
Yoga can make you younger
The old yogis used to believe that standing on your head for a few hours a day could bring you eternal, youthful life. Sadly the evidence suggests yoga is unlikely to take you back to 1984, and standing on your head for that many hours a day will mainly give you neck-ache. On the plus side you don’t have to actually stand on your head to get the benefits. Any forward fold where your heart is lower than your head calms the nervous system, lowers blood pressure and slows the heart. Plus hanging out in a fold that stretches your hamstrings can make 5 minutes feel like an eternity.
The 6 pack
You know those rippling abs you’ve been meaning to work on all your life? Yoga works deep into the core muscles of the body, and although there is a (significant) chance this won’t result in a full 6 pack, the stability from the centre protects your spine, helping you lift weights or children more effectively. This core strength also significantly reduces your risk of back injury from crawling about on the floor.
How about keeping up with your 5 year-old child’s intensely advanced school curriculum? Regular yoga practice can help to regulate your sleep (or at least make the sleep you do get really count), which can bring back that mental clarity you used to have before baby number 1. Less brain fog, less morning grump, and the energy of a toddler on a sugar rush.
Focus on point
Then there’s the extra focus the meditative aspects of the practice can bring. Much of the practice is about ‘stilling’ and clearing the mind, practising staying on task, and keeping your concentration -whether that’s through seated meditation (even just 10 mins a day can help) or through your physical practice.
Range of motion
Unless you spent your formative years in Cirque de Soliel, flexibility is unlikely to have been one of your major goals. Rarely do you get to the gym and find guys in the free weights area killing it in the splits. The trouble is, when you’ve spent most of your life focussed on strength – how much you can lift and how big you can get – and neglecting flexibility, you start to pay the price of imbalance. Yoga has the advantage of including not only passive stretching, but active stretching, often combined with strength work. Many yoga poses engage the muscles around the joints to stabilise them, along with stretching the larger muscles in the surrounding area. A well rounded yoga routine will protect and lubricate joints, whilst increasing your safe, functional range of motion in a way that strengthens as well as lengthens. So if you’re struggling to regain the range of motion of youth (i.e. the ability to tie your own laces) and still crave those guns, a dynamic yoga practice might be the one.
Entering the less sexy zone, bone density becomes increasingly important as you age. Although women are at a greater risk in this area, it’s a significant cause of injury in men too. Yoga, which involves holding and moving your bodyweight helps keep bone density in the safe zone, and reduces the risk of fracture or breakage as you age.
Proprioception (sense of self) & balance
An awareness of where your body is in space might not be another sexy tool, but it’s a big’un. Especially as you get older – so grandads take note! One of the major causes of falling in the, let’s say, ‘slightly older’ population, is simply misplacing your foot/hand/limbs and losing balance. Yoga is all about fine tuning the link between your body and mind to set you up for a long, healthy life so that, as you creep away from the age of ‘tripping over’ and head into the time of ‘having a fall’, you can stay upright, and know your hand from your foot.
Sexy benefit number three is digestion. Moving your body regularly can help to regulate digestion and hopefully, as you become more aware of how your body feels after you’ve eaten (or after you’ve drunk…), you can start to make healthier and more informed choices, based on what genuinely makes your body feel good.
Then there’s stress level and general mood regulation. You don’t have to throw crazy yoga shapes to feel the yoga zen. In fact, you don’t need to throw any at all. Just 20 minutes of mindfully moving your body through the simplest of poses can significantly reduce stress levels. No more rows over the washing up. No more snarking at your early rising Saturday morning kids.
So here are FIVE poses (yoga asanas) that should help you on the road to being a playful, sleeping, standing up and sitting down yoga don:
1. Adho Mukha Svanasana // Downward Facing Dog
The poster boy of yoga poses. This is a forward fold, a back extension, a hamstring and calf stretch, and a shoulder strengthener. If there is one pose that has it all, this is it.
To do: the first thing is not to worry how this pose looks – everyone can get the benefits no matter how tight or bendy you are. Keep the hands around shoulder width apart, fingers pressing firmly to the ground, hands pointing directly forwards or very slightly turned out. Try not to turn your fingers towards each other, and don’t let the knuckles of your index fingers or thumbs leave the ground. Straighten your back as much as you can by sending your hips to the sky. Bend the knees as much as you need in order to do this. You can also lift the heels as high as you need, but keep them reaching to the back of the room to lengthen the calves and hamstrings. Turn the tops of your arms out (external rotation), press the thumb side of your hands down, and push the ground away. Keep the chest open, the neck long and relaxed, and breathe.
Hold for 5 breaths – breathing in steadily through the nose for around a count of 4, and breathing out steadily through the nose for around a count of 4. Trying to balance out the sides of breath, allowing them to be as even and unstrained as possible. If a count of 4 feels too long and brings any discomfort or anxiety, start with the longest you can manage – perhaps even 2 or 3, and slowly build up to the full count over time.
2. Malasana // Yogi Squat
The most photogenic of all the yoga poses. This is a stretchy kind of squat that allows you to get deep into the inner groins and hips (all of your happy places), essential for being able to get down and get back up again without the use of furniture.
To do: keep your feet pointing roughly in the same direction as your knees, then try to keep the chest lifted as you press the elbows into the thighs to open the hips. If your heels don’t reach the ground easily, pop a towel or a cushion or a yoga block underneath them to help your balance. Try not to let your chest collapse forward, no matter how much you might want to lie down.
Hold for 5 breaths as above, or, once you really get the hang of it, you can eat your dinner in this pose.
3. Uttanasana // Forward Fold
Inactivity (i.e. sitting down all day) has been identified by the World Health Organisation as the fourth biggest killer on the planet, after obesity. When you sit for long periods, among other things, the hamstrings tighten, the shoulders hunch and the back starts to lose it’s natural, healthy ‘S’ curve leading to postural problems, general aches and pains, and injury. This is a pose to counter your sitting. It stretches the hell out of the hamstrings, releases the shoulders, and, as the head is lowered, gives a sense of calm and grounding for your mind and nervous system.
To do: start with your feet a hip width apart, fold forward from the waist and take the hands towards the ground. You can bend the knees, but this will be a stronger stretch in the backs of the kneecaps (the insertion of your hamstring), so if it feels too much (or you’re working with a hamstring injury), perhaps put your hands on something at a height that means the legs can stay straight. Whichever way, lift the kneecaps up actively and engage your quads, working the strength of the front of the legs, and stretching out the back of them. Keep the back as long as you can, and try not to hunch the shoulders, allow gravity to stretch out your neck.
Hold for 5 breaths.
4. Anjayneyasana // Low crescent lunge
Another issue with all of that sitting is hip flexor tightness. A tight psoas (a major hip flexor) can cause problems in the lower back, it can change your entire posture, and can lead to muscle imbalance and often weak core strength. All of which make you more prone to injury, whether that’s through scrambling about on the floor, or your grand return to any sort of sport or cardio exercise.
To do: for this variation, have your knees both at 90 degree angles, start with right foot forward, left foot back. If your left knee feels funky on the ground, put a blanket or jumper underneath the knee so the floor isn’t so hard. Check your pelvis is level and avoid sticking your butt out behind you. Now lift the front hips, engage your glutes and push into the back foot as you lift your arms high. Stretch the arm pits, engage your core and lift the chest trying not to change the angle of the front knee. Send the chest to the sky and bring the arms back towards the ears. Although this is technically a backbend, avoid feeling this in the lower back (lumbar), try to focus on stretching the hip flexor of the left (back) leg, the upper spine (thoracic) rather than the lower back.
Again hold for 5 breaths.
5. Viparita Karani // Legs on a chair
This is the ultimate destress-er. All you need to do is lie on your back near a chair, pop your legs onto the seat of the chair and shuffle up close enough that your backs of your knees rest comfortably and your calves are fully supported. You should feel comfortable and be able to stay there with ideally no muscular effort whatsoever. If you need to pad the chair, or put something soft under your head, do. Stay here for as long as you have time. For extra restorative vibes, place a cushion under your pelvis so that your hips are raised and there’s a slope from hips through chest to neck. Having your heart slightly higher than your throat will trigger off the slowing of your heart rate and the lowering of blood pressure. An excellent way to wind down for some shut eye at night.
A final few words for the yoga-wise. Remember that poses like these, which involve deep stretching, can take time. Yoga is about trying to dial down that need to be there five minutes ago, and about appreciating that bodies are different, so a pose that looks one way on one person, will look different on another. So don’t worry about the way the posture looks, focus on the way it feels, and make sure wherever you are that you can breathe, calmly. Feel your way in, do nothing that hurts, and enjoy your practice!