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Can we control how we age?

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

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Trish March 11, 2011, 11:49 pm

    I am so grateful to have found your blog. I am 71, have practiced yoga for 30 years and teach “yoga for the young at heart” 3x/wk at senior center. Thanks to your wonderfully informative post on down dog with 1 leg up the wall, I can now get both legs up the wall which delights my mind and body. I’ll be reading every post and ordering your downloadable 5 minute gems. Gratitude abounds.

    • Eve March 12, 2011, 7:31 pm

      Hi Trish,
      Lovely to hear from you! I found your comment in my email inbox on my birthday – made a great birthday present, so thank you!

  • Sharon February 23, 2011, 3:07 pm

    Yoga makes me feel sooo much younger. Apparently it keeps me looking young as well. I’m 42 and regularly get comments about how young I look. I get more comments now that I do yoga than I did five years ago when I didn’t. People say, “I can’t believe you have a 13-year-old!” Then they nearly pass out when I tell them that I have a 21-year-old too. Besides yoga, the only things I do is regular walking out of doors and stick to a sensible diet most of the time.

  • Heidi February 13, 2011, 10:15 am

    I think that yoga makes me feel younger not only in body but in spirit… as you have written, I feel a lightness and ease in my body and when I am practicing for myself and not teaching all the time, I feel this wonderful fluidity. And I do believe that we are as old as our spines!
    Thanks for your posting!

    • Eve February 13, 2011, 5:06 pm

      Hey Heidi,
      It is a real luxury to practice for ourselves. Since my recent assessment, I’ve been joyfully playing in my practice – no more shoulds, no more poses that I must do three times a week – or at least, the poses I chose to focus on are there because of my own needs and not because they’re on a syllabus.

      • Heidi February 15, 2011, 4:24 pm

        I find that the more I teach the more of a challenge it is to find that special time for ME, for my practice. I find my mind tends to wander to: oh, this pose would be good for so-and-so or OH, I should (there goes that word) incorporate more of this into my classes… sigh. It is an ongoing process of discovery.

        • Eve February 17, 2011, 10:28 am

          That teaching voice is never far away. For me it turned on the moment I started teaching, and has never really gone away since.
          It’s one reason I like to take long breaks from teaching – the teaching voice doesn’t disappear, but it fades, and that makes it easier to just practice.
          Still, where else would we work out ideas for the classes we teach?

  • C. Nicol May 15, 2010, 10:56 am

    Eve, thanks for highlighting the value of observing my elderly parents spine-health. It’s good to know that we have control over some aspects of the aging process!

  • Suzanne May 15, 2010, 8:50 am

    I know, me too. Maybe all the control subjects get to do yoga in the follow up intervention study… that would be a happy ending!
    Thanks for your great blog.

  • Suzanne May 14, 2010, 11:18 am

    Great post, Eve! Given all activities in the ‘Yoga for Kyphosis Trial’ took place at the ‘Yoga for Kyphosis’ offices, I assumed that the control group had some intellectual insight into what the study was about… which is fascinating. Although a big generalisation, to me it means they showed (although didn’t discuss) that it’s not enough to know something; you have to experience it to generate change.
    Just like I thought I knew how to stand up straight before starting yoga! (Actually, I still ‘think I know’ too much but that’s part of the brilliant process, I guess…)

    • Eve May 14, 2010, 3:34 pm

      Suzanne, interesting take, and thanks for pointing that out.
      I’ve always felt a little sorry for people in the control groups. They go through all of the measuring and filtering process and then don’t get to try out what the researchers think will work. I guess their satisfaction is in helping out in a scientific trial.