Yoga for Healthy Aging Classes
Yoga for Healthy Aging is one of the newest classes offered by Heaven Meets Earth, a yoga studio and center for conscious living in Evanston. Led by John Liberty, the class offers students an opportunity to embrace getting older and even have some fun in the process. “Yoga for Healthy Aging is all about improving people’s quality of life and compressing morbidity, or reducing the length of time a person who is close to the end of life spends sick or disabled. The idea is to maximize a healthy lifespan,” says Liberty. “This class does that by providing tools for fostering physical health, brain health, stress management and mental calmness.”
Liberty, a registered yoga teacher, is also certified in teaching Yoga for Healthy Aging. “The class guides students through a safe and effective yoga practice for living a long and healthy life while aging gracefully,” he says.
As we grow older, a regular yoga practice can have a remarkable impact on physical and mental health, as well as spiritual well-being. Liberty’s class is structured around a practice designed by Baxter Bell, M.D., a doctor, acupuncturist and co-author of the book Yoga for Healthy Aging. Bell’s practice is a healing, nurturing style of hatha yoga that balances a desire for action with a need to quiet the mind.
While it’s not possible to actually slow or reverse aging, yoga can help people age in a more healthy manner. “The four key physical skills for staying independent are strength, flexibility, agility and balance. Yoga can help improve all of those, as well as enhance cardiovascular health and stress management,” says Liberty. Yoga can also minimize cognitive decline by increasing blood flow to the brain, improving central nervous system functioning and challenging the brain to think differently.
Yoga for Healthy Aging addresses unique variations for an aging population, such as how to adapt a yoga practice after being diagnosed with glaucoma. Both dynamic and static variations of poses are offered to help reduce atrophy and improve coordination and balance. “As the body ages, it takes muscles longer to respond to stretches and strengthening. We take everything a little slower, and might hold a pose for 90 seconds instead of moving through a fast-paced vinyasa,” explains Liberty.
The practice combines a variety of elements to help students cultivate equanimity, or an evenness of mind that allows us to come to peace with whatever we confront. “We use pranayama, or breath work; mudras, or hand gestures; asanas, or physical poses; mantras, or phrases, and meditation that are appropriate for the aging body,” says Liberty. “As people get older, they face inevitable loss, whether that’s their independence, their health, relationships or a sense of purpose. Finding that equanimity makes us more resilient for times when we feel things are out of control.”
Liberty was in his early 50s when he took his first yoga class, and credits the practice with helping him find more balance, on and off the mat. “When I started yoga, I didn’t have a good understanding of my body, and I felt really immobile. Like many people, I initially was drawn to the physical practice and how it helped me open up and move better. But I found that the meditative aspect was equally important, and it helped me through a difficult transitional time in my life,” he explains.
Liberty makes a point of informing his students of what’s happening in each pose. “In downward dog, they’re strengthening their upper body, lengthening the spine and stretching the hamstrings. Twists help aid in digestion. Giving them this information helps them cultivate a connection with what’s going on their body,” he explains. The Yoga for Healthy Aging class also puts an emphasis on modifications. “For students who have wrist issues and can’t do a plank, we offer forearm plank. Tree pose can be done seated or against a wall. We use props such as blankets, bolsters, straps and blocks to assist with comfort and support. We empower students to get past the stories they’re telling themselves that say yoga isn’t available for them,” says Liberty.
Founded in 2006 by Lisa Faremouth Weber, Heaven Meets Earth is a place where students of any age can move their practice forward and connect with others. Students come away with a stronger sense of purpose, which is especially important for older people that are experiencing new physical and emotional challenges. “We want people to realize what an accomplishment it is just to come to class and do something empowering to take care themselves,” says Liberty.
Carrie Jackson is an Evanston-based writer and frequent contributor to Natural Awakenings magazine. Connect at CarrieJacksonWrites.com.