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Posted: September 01, 2006

Spiritual Caregiving

For an Aging Body, Sit Tall, Feel Better

Susan Winter Ward took her first yoga class at the suggestion of her girlfriends, and just a few years later, she taught her first class to a group of her elderly mother's friends. Ward was 45 years old when she took that first class and most of her first students were in their sixties.

Aging isn't easy, but for the first of the 76 million baby boomers who start turning "sweet 60" this year, "old" is being rapidly redefined. Body practices such as yoga, tai chi, and some martial arts offer aging bodies a gentle way to move, a prescription for keeping joints well oiled, and a path to deep relaxation that research increasingly reveals is essential to keeping the heart healthy.

"There's no reason that we have to be decrepit," says Ward, whose lithe frame and thick, healthy hair reflect her vitality. "There's no reason we can't stay strong and healthy in our later years if we stay physically active. A lot of what boomers have done to stay physically active -- jogging, aerobics, pumping iron -- is too punishing for the body as it ages. Yoga is a great alternative."

And for people who have never been active, or for those who can't be that active because of disability, traditional fitness activity like running isn't practical, either. But Ward believes people of all ability levels and ages can still build strength and flexibility from yogic movements. Yogic breathing, she says, gives the experience of relaxation and well-being. So Ward has accepted as her "assignment" teaching beginning-level students and those who can't very easily participate in a mat-based class.

Such accessibility means that whether you're a working person stuck at your desk (maybe you're one of those boomers who keeps working into retirement) or an elder who relies on a wheelchair, there are yoga poses that can help you feel better. "A student may walk in with a back problem," Ward says. "But they stay for the spirituality, that inner voice that quiets them down, that helps them relax, follow their hearts, and be at peace." With the following few simple movements, described in the "Sitting Fit Anytime" DVD, Ward says you can expect to feel:

relief from aches and pains

a deep sense of relaxation

better posture

increased flexibility and strength

clarity of mind

For each of the following exercises, place your chair on a flat surface, and secure it against a wall or a desk. For most of these poses, sit tall at the edge of your chair, with your feet flat on the floor. (A couple of exceptions are noted in the following pose descriptions.)

Shoulder Shrugs

Inhale; draw your shoulders toward your ears and squeeze your shoulder blades together. Exhale; release your shoulders and slide your shoulder blades down your back. Repeat several times.

Neck Release

Extend your left arm toward the floor, and use it to lightly brace yourself in the chair. Look straight ahead. Inhale, then exhale as you release your right ear toward your right shoulder. Draw your left shoulder down to deepen the stretch. Take several breaths, then gently inhale as you lift your head back to the center. Repeat on the other side.

Wrist Circles

Press your palms together in front of your chest, fingertips toward the ceiling. Inhale, expanding the rib cage. Exhale, pressing the palms together as you draw your shoulder blades down your back. Inhale, extending your arms in front of you at shoulder height. Make gentle fists with your hands, then circle your wrists toward each other several times. Change directions, continuing to breathe deeply and steadily.


Sit farther back in your chair. Cross your left thigh over your right. Inhale and extend your right arm to the right. Exhale and cross your right arm in front of your body, then grasp the outside of your left leg. Inhale and extend your left arm toward the ceiling. Exhale and twist to the left, setting your left arm across the back of the chair. Take a few breaths, then inhale with your left arm up, and exhale back to the center as you unwind. Repeat on the other side.

Hip Stretch

Sit farther back. Place your left ankle on your right thigh, your hands in your hip creases. Inhale; extend your spine. Exhale; lean forward with a flat back. Inhale; raise your torso back to center, keeping your spine long. Repeat several times, then change sides.

Beginning a practice isn't easy, but knowing we can stay vital into our nineties, "maybe even our hundreds," Ward says, may be a powerful motivation.


Jennifer Derryberry Mann is a freelance writer and yoga teacher based in Minneapolis. She is the former editor of Science & Spirit magazine. 

This article originally appeared in Spirituality & Health magazine, For subscriptions call 1-800-876-8202 or see Editor Stephen Kiesling and his staff contribute weekly columns, features and articles published every Friday as "Spiritual Caregiving" at Contact staff directly via email at

© 2006 Pederson Publishing, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Commercial use, redistribution or other forms of reuse of this information is strictly prohibited without the prior written permission of Pederson Publishing.

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