Can we control how we age?

in Chest Openings,commentary,Yoga and Aging

Look in the mirror and the answer seems to be “yes and no.”

We are bound to look older. That’s a non-choice between wrinkles, saggy jaw lines and drooping eyelids, and the wind tunnel effect of skin pulled tight by surgery.

But with a nod to genetics and a deep bow to degenerative diseases that can strike apparently at random, we do have control over at least one sign of age that used to seem inevitable: the misnamed dowager’s hump – misnamed because it happens to men as often as women.

Also known as hyper-kyphosis, the exaggerated curve of the thoracic spine throws the head forward, creating strain on the front of the spine and tension in the muscles of the back, neck and shoulders. It compromises our breathing and creates a cascade of physiological disaster that can even end in earlier death.

As we age, about 40 per cent of us develop over-curved spines.

Yogis believe you are as old as your spine.

Yogis believe you are as old as your spine.

For years yoga teachers and students have believed that a yoga practice can help keep our spines straight, and can even improve on a spine that is already over curved.

As I mentioned in my Monday post, there’s now solid scientific evidence that it’s true – in the form of  a randomized controlled trial conducted by researchers at UCLA.

“Yoga Decreases Kyphosis in Senior Women and Men with Adult-Onset Hyperkyphosis: Results of a Randomized Controlled Trial,” was published in the September, 2009 Journal of the American Geriatric Society, led by Gail A. Greendale, of the Division of Geriatrics, David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. (The link will take you to an abstract; you will need to use a library with a subscription to the magazine to gain access to the full article.)

Two groups of people who had developed an over-curved upper back as adults were randomly assigned either to a one hour yoga class, three times a week, or to a monthly seminar, with lunch.

They all met certain criteria, including passing fitness tests such as standing with the feet together for 30 seconds (and if you feel bad about your own fitness level, there’s a baseline to both give you hope and get you out walking).

The median age of the group was 75. The age range was 60 to 90. They were predominantly women (81 per cent), and mostly Caucasian (88 per cent).

The yoga group progressed from yoga on their backs to yoga on all fours and in chairs to, eventually, standing poses. They worked on stretching out the muscles of the front chest (pectoralis major and minor), strengthening their abdominals and their erector spinae muscles, stretching their hamstrings and strengthening their quadriceps – pretty much your standard yoga class.

After six months, the yoga group had a decreased thoracic curve by the three measures used; in the control group the thoracic curve had increased.

The difference between the two: 5 per cent.

And this was in six months, in people with an median age of 75.

We look at bones and see permanent structures. We forget that bones are held in place by muscles, fascia, tendons and ligaments, all of them pliable tissues, some more than others. And muscles in particular can be stronger or weaker.

In the conservative words of the study: “The decrease in flexicurve kyphosis angle in the yoga treatment group shows that hyperkyphosis is remediable, a critical first step in the pathway to treating or preventing this condition. Larger, more-definitive studies of yoga or other interventions for hyperkyphosis should be considered.”

I’ve been conducting my own somewhat random and uncontrolled study for 23 years now – ever since my first private class with Wende Davis, when she showed me a spinal stretch to help bring some length to my upper back.

I still have a tendency to round my back, especially in forward bends, but I can arch it too. And the freedom to move my spine more freely now than I did when I was 40 tells me that yes, part of how I grow older is under my control.

Does your practice make you feel younger? Has it changed how you feel about growing older?  I’d love to know.

Image from Flickr Creative Commons, by Sara Björk.

If this was your kind of post, you might also like:

Arm balance: a love story continued

Can Yoga Prevent Dementia?

Smack in the Middle of the Mandala – It’s a Good Place to Sit


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