In a prior post I shared my personal experience that led me on an unending exploration: Yoga Therapy for Healthy Bones, and the fountain of youth. My compass pointed me to endless books, workshops, and lectures. So, now I’m passing on the roadmap to my students via a series of Yoga Therapy workshops for osteoporosis, osteoarthritis, and general bone health. I call it, Dem Bones. The series is not based on pie in the sky claims, but on research and the knowledge of many yoga therapists, several of whom are MDs. The first session is Sunday, Oct. 4 at Cuatro Vientos in Todos Santos, Mexico. To register for private sessions or group workshops, connect with me.
In my second Dem Bones blog, I tap into pointers from Baxter Bell, MD. Read the next Dem Bones posts, quoting other prominent yoga therapists and/or physicians.
We tend to think it’s normal for our bones to bear the brunt of time. Pretty much all of us have seen the effects of advanced years on the bones. A dowager’s hump. Or grandpa who no longer is as tall as he used to be. God forbid an elderly person slips and falls, as brittle joints can’t handle what used to be normal knocks or blows. Hip and knee replacements cost Medicare $7 billion in 2013. With our aging America, poor diet, and lifestyle, the costs to our society will skyrocket if we are not proactive in protecting our bone health.
Dem Bones are precious. Like a strand of pearls or mala beads connected together by fine but strong threads.
Degenerative bone disease doesn’t sound as scary as a hip fracture. But, take a look at statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Yoga is both helpful in addressing the acute problems of swelling and pain, and the longer-term issues of improving mobility, strength, and stability of the knee joints,” Dr. Bell says, referring to arthritis.
Bell led a workshop on Yoga and Healthy Aging at this year’s International Association of Yoga Therapists (IAYT) annual symposium. He’s not your typical MD, though. He gave up a successful family medical practice in Ohio to become a yoga therapist. Today, he integrates therapeutic applications of yoga with Western medicine and lectures to health care professionals around the country. Bell equated yoga as “tools for fostering a longer healthspan,” and improved physical health. He said that yoga fosters equanimity, agility, coordination and it’s widely acknowledged to reduce stress. Stress, cannot be ignored, as it is a major trigger for heart disease, high blood pressure, and even arthritis.
When we’re young, nearly all of us take our bodies for granted. We can stretch up tall to reach a high shelf, or crouch low to pull something out from under the bed. We can twist around in our car to check on the kids, and have no problem lifting up the babies, and carrying them piggy-back. We can not only walk the dog but play fetch with him. In short, most have excellent mobility.
As we age, if we don’t keep up with healthy lifestyles, our bodies seem to betray us. Our muscles shrink and lose mass, which affects flexibility. Our soft tissues dry out, and stiffen. The cartilage cushions break down resulting in arthritic joints. It’s like a vicious cycle. So then, we lose our strength, flexibility, balance, and mobility. These are all interrelated.
“We need strength to stay active,” he says. He gives examples of how some medications, such as Fosamax, routinely given for patients with osteoporosis, have drawbacks.
The Harvard Woman’s Health Watch reports that there are a number of dangers associated with prolonged use of Fosamax. They recommend, “don’t take Fosamax unless you’re sure you need to. Continue all the other measures that help protect and maintain bone density” including calcium, vitamin D and weight-bearing exercise.
Even better, practice outside, in the sun. Soaking up the prana (including vitamin D).
Once the cookie crumbles, it’s too late. That’s why yoga is an excellent preventative medicine. Baxter Bell, MD, recommends “a balanced yoga practice (that) includes stretching, strengthening, balance and agility challenges, and anti-stress poses and practices.
Bell also spoke about sarcopenia, a gradual loss of muscle strength most commonly seen among people over the age of 50. According to WebMD, “People who are physically inactive can lose as much as 3 percent to 5 percent of their muscle mass per decade after age 30.” In addition to yoga keeping your body moving, the health of your muscle is directly related to your bone health.
Bell talks about how we can influence our future well-being by recapturing muscle strength.
Bell explains why yoga builds Dem Bones. During yoga, bone-strengthening begins just 10 seconds into a hold. The stronger the muscles around the joints, the more your body protects them.
Muscles begin to build after only 90 seconds in many yoga postures, Bell explains. Take the Warrior poses. Holding the posture for at least six long breaths, can be tiring but worthwhile, for both muscle and bone. Some yoga teachers encourage students to energetically pull the thighs together, belly to the spine, or engage the bandhas. Those are examples of isometric contractions which contribute to more strength building, and ultimately nourish the bones.
Without those, we lose our independence, and then our pride, joy, and even self-care and depression.
Bell says some of the physical health tools for both the body and the brain are strengthening poses like a down dog or warrior 2. Practices which focus on flexibility like gomukhasana (cow face) or reclined strap to foot are also essential to the healthy aging formula. Another tool is a routine of exercises that boost circulation. Legs up a wall is always a favorite, and breathwork is an important addition to that tool box. We know that as people age, they have more difficulties with balance, which is why the poses like tree and half-moon can ultimately help prevent falls which in turn can result in fractures.
Fractures lead to chronic pain, can be debilitating, cause emotional distress, and further muscle degeneration.
Finally, Bell points to studies of long-lived people that show that community is a important factor in healthy aging. “Practicing yoga together helps create community,” says Bell.
Just as the ankle bone is connected to the knee bone, the muscles are connected to the bones, via fascia and ligaments. The health of our bones is connected to the health of our muscles, and also our emotions, and heart and other major organs.