This time last year I was in India and I felt more connected to the universe and all the creatures and matter in it than I had ever thought possible. Okay, that sounds a little crazy. A bit hippy-dippy perhaps, but I promise I’m a very level-headed person (as any lunatic would assert). The point I’m making is that when I thought of someone, I would meet them on the street. When I wanted something, it was there, or I would know with all my being that it was a blessing that I didn’t have it. When I felt I needed an extra day to myself before my boyfriend arrived he missed his transfer flight and was delayed by a day. It seemed like everything was connected, thoughts became happenings. Everything was for a reason. You know those times when you think about your mother or best friend seconds before they phone you? It was like that, times a thousand. We’ve all experienced this to some degree, so… not so crazy, right?
Why am I telling you this? Well, a few months ago I was approached by a lady I know who has recently been diagnosed with osteoporosis. She asked if I would consider starting a yoga class for people with this disease. I said I’d consider it and would let her know. Shortly afterwards I had arranged a meeting with someone and was an hour early due to a previous meeting finishing earlier than expected. I wasn’t bothered, I decided to use the time to go for an aimless wander around the city that is still quite new to me. This brought me for some reason into the library I had never seen, past the fiction and languages books, music scores and CDs and, before I realised where I was, I found myself standing face to spine with a book called The New Yoga for Healthy Aging (by Suza Francina), complete with Chapter 5: Beautiful Bones for Life. How could I not take it as a sign.
I became a member of the library on the spot and left with the same book in hand (along with a John Le Carré novel, ’cause all work and no play…etc). Afterall it had drawn me to it like a magnet, from where I’d locked my bike outside of Tesco, across the college green by City Hall, around to a pedestrianised street I’d never noticed, up the stone steps of the library and through the maze of books, to the shelf it shared with many other books at which I didn’t even glance. It would have been rude to leave it there!
I began some further research on osteoporosis and osteopenia and decided that this was something I wanted to do: teach yoga to help people improve their health. This was not a new revelation. In fact, this was my initial revelation when I decided I wanted to teach yoga. If you’ve read my previous blog you’ll know that I came to yoga to improve my own health. I’ve skipped a big section on how that brought me to teaching yoga, but I’ll get to that another time. The synopsis for now: it helped me massively, and I wanted to share my experience with the hopes of helping others.
So what did I find out from my research? Well, I was surprised by the fact that it affects so many men, for a start. I’ve heard so much about it affecting women that I didn’t realise it affects as many as 1 in 5 men over the age of 50. That’s a lot! According to the National Osteoporosis Society website: “In the UK, one in two women and one in five men over the age of 50 will break a bone mainly because of poor bone health.” Looking at the image below we can see how fragile our bones can get:
I remember my grandmother breaking her wrist when I was young. We had stopped for a rest at the side of the road on a long car-journey and she had stumbled on a grass verge while standing up from seated. She fell back onto her wrist from only a few inches above the ground, but her fragile bones couldn’t take the sudden impact. I remember mentioning it to her a few years later and she got upset and told me she didn’t want to talk about it. At the time I was young and didn’t understand why, but looking back I can see that it had traumatised her more than I had known. She was a very active, independent lady and having her body let her down like that would have been a blow to her pride and an unwelcome reminder that she was getting old. The trauma was of course also due to the pain of the fracture, the distress of having to find a doctor while far from home, the embarrassment of being vulnerable in front of her daughter and grandchildren, the inconvenience of having to take a long detour from the destination and… did I mention the pain??
Could a regular yoga practice have prevented my grandmother’s distress? Coulda, woulda, shoulda…who knows! Nothing can be done about it now, but perhaps my mother can be spared, and my father. Perhaps my siblings and I, my friends, my students, my niece…
A pilot study carried out by Loren Fishman, M.D., on the effects of yoga on osteoporotic patients concluded:
This pilot study tends to give support to the hypothesis that practicing yoga for as little as 8 to 10 minutes daily will raise T-scale ranking in older patients.
For the non-medical-literate among us, this means that bone density seems to be improved by a regular yoga practice. This does NOT mean that you should join the first Ashtanga Vinyasa or Bikram class you see. There are contraindications to many poses and serious precautions to consider. For example: forward bending done incorrectly may cause spinal fractures, resulting in a curved spine, height loss and considerable pain. Most regular yoga classes will not consider this, and while the teacher may say: “bend from the hip”, they may not enforce this rule within the class environment, especially if it is a large class. Sudden impact or considerable weight can be too much for an osteoporotic bone to take, as with my grandmother’s wrist. If a novice yoga student is unaware and tries a jump-through or a hand-stand, the result could be very painful.
Mr. Fishman (of the afore-mentioned pilot study) wrote a book in conjunction with yoga teacher Ellen Saltonstall in which they state:
Yoga promotes balance, increases range of motion and strength, improves manual learning skills, brings about relaxation, lowers blood pressure, counters spasticity, generates no impact, and stretches muscles against themselves, exerting many hundreds of pounds of pressure on the bones to which they are attached, but in a gradual, nontraumatic, and self-regulating way. (Yoga for Osteoporosis, p 75)
Sounds good to me. Add to this the fact that exerting a force on our bones stimulates them to absorb the minerals required to maintain or improve bone density and it’s worth trying, right?
Of course, as always with yoga, it’s not all about the physical. Yoga helps us to accept where we’re at. Finding out that our bodies are weakening is traumatic. Accepting that our bodies are aging is difficult. However, accepting where we’re at is the first step we must take in order to move forwards – onwards and upwards to improve ourselves. Yoga can not only help us to prevent and even reverse osteoporosis symptoms but, perhaps even more importantly, it can also help us to accept that we are fragile beings and allow us to be kind towards ourselves and especially towards our bodies at a time when we may feel let down by them.
[Having decided to run a yoga class for people with osteoporosis or its precursor – osteopenia, the class starts this week in Bristol. If you’re interested in finding out more on this please do get in touch through my website: http://www.meltintoyoga.co.uk]