Why balance declines at 40 and how yoga can help

Remember as a kid when you would skip and hop around the playground or walk along a balance beam in P.E. Shifting your weight from one foot to another as you nimbly moved about was easy and didn’t require much thought.

But as we age, that ease and grace of nimble movement deteriorates and our sense of balance starts to decline.  Believe it or not you don’t need to be particularly old for your balance to suffer. Researchers at Harvard Medical School (Merfeld 2016) found that balance starts to decline from the age of 40 and gets worse with each passing decade. Unfortunately, many people don’t realise there balance has waned until they try and stand on 1 leg and wobble, or worse still they have a fall.

Effects of poor balance

In the UK poor balance is a major cause of falls.  In 2017-18 there were around 220,160 emergency hospital admissions related to falls among patients aged 65+.  Falls often cause broken ankles or hips, which take much longer to heal when you’re older. Whilst recuperating many people need help getting about and doing day-to-day activities, so they start to lose their sense of independence.  Some people never regain their mobility and in 20% of cases, patients end up in long term care.

The fear of falling also has a detrimental impact on people’s mental health.  A survey by the WRVS into the effects of falls on older people (2012), found that 20% of the over 75’s worry about falling.  This affects their confidence and how often they leave their home, which leads to loneliness and social isolation.

Warrior 3 pose at Pilsdon Pen Hill Fort, Dorset, UK

How we balance

It’s not just about standing on one leg. To keep us upright the brain receives sensory messages from various parts of the body:

  • Visual cues from our eyes 
  • Vestibular cues which detect motion and maintain balance from our inner ears. 
  • Sensory cues from our muscles, joints and skin.  

All these let the brain know what position our body is in, in relation to our environment. They also help trigger the postural reflexes, which correct the orientation of the body when it shifts from being upright if we slip.

As well as the senses, to help us balance we need reasonably strong muscles and decent flexibility.  Age related muscle atrophy starts in our 30s and causes loss of strength.  Weak muscles make it harder to regain an upright position if we lose balance.  Likewise stiff muscles and joints decrease our range of mobility, making it harder to move from one position to another.  This means it’s easier to lose balance and harder to correct ourselves if we slip. 

As we age various health conditions can impact these systems, for example poor eyesight, vertigo or arthritis.  This can increase the likelihood of a fall and contributes to a fear of falling.  As a consequence it’s common to slow down and become less active.  But then you get caught in a vicious circle of sedentariness leading to a further decline in muscle strength, flexibility and poor balance.

How yoga improves and maintains balance in midlife

However it’s not all doom and gloom. Research (Sivaramakrishnan 2019 and Youkhana 2015) has shown that exercises like yoga can help slow down the deterioration in balance.  In fact regular yoga practice can actually improve poor balance. The combination of static and dynamic poses performed within a class help keep the neuro-muscular system strong.  Dynamic balancing, where the centre of gravity is moving, is also improved as we move from one pose to another. This means our vestibular system has to work harder, which keeps those postural reflexes in good shape.

Yoga keeps you flexible and a strengthening yoga practice helps keeps your core and muscles strong.  Weight bearing poses like Downward Facing Dog, Planks, Warriors and Tree pose help maintain strong bones and joints, which can help ward off osteoporosis.

If you want to use yoga to help keep your balance, it’s never too late to start. Yoga poses can easily be adapted to suit an individual’s ability.  I often use props, chairs and even the wall to help people move in and out of poses. So if your balance is poor you can start by practicing next to a wall for support.  You will quickly notice improvements if you practice regularly.

You probably won’t go back to skipping around like a lively 6 year old. But taking up yoga in mid-life will definitely help you enter older age in a sprightly manner and keep your postural reflexes sharp so you’re less likely to fall.  I run regular classes via Zoom, you can find details here.

References

  • Divya Sivaramakrishnan et al,  (2019) The effects of yoga compared to active and inactive controls on physical function and health related quality of life in older adults- systematic review and meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials
  • Merfeld D. et al (2015) Vestibular Perceptual Thresholds Increase above the Age of 40
  • Sabrina Youkhana, et al (2015) Yoga-based exercise improves balance and mobility in people aged 60 and over.

Hormone Yoga for the relief of menopause symptoms

Hormone Yoga pose

I started teaching Hormone Yoga last September and since then I’ve taught the method to nearly 20 women.  Varying in age from mid-30s to late-50s, they wanted to learn this technique to help them manage a variety of conditions including menopause and peri-menopause.

Having completed the initial workshops, some continued a weekly practice with me online over the autumn. They kindly shared with me what they were feeling.

Energy Levels and Hormone Yoga

Everyone said their energy levels improved, and this is an effect you notice quickly. I taught the method to a fellow yoga teacher one morning and she later texted me to say:

“I feel so energised I’ve mowed the lawn (which isn’t small) and completed loads of jobs on my to-do- list that have been there for ages.” 

Another student said:

“I’ve noticed a difference, more energy and motivation and I also feel much more creative and I’m going for the things in life I should have done years ago.”

The oomph and vitality you get from a regular practice quickly fades if you stop the exercises.   A student, who had to miss a couple of weeks of classes, messaged me to say:

“I have really missed the sessions and have noticed a real drop in my energy and mood”

Digestion and Metabolism during Menopause

As we age our digestive system and metabolism may get sluggish and inefficient. A slow metabolism is associated with both hypothyroidism and menopause.  One woman said:

“I feel like my metabolism is higher than it’s been for a long time.”

That experience is not surprising, because Hormone Yoga stimulates the thyroid to produce more hormones associated with metabolism.

 Hormone Yoga also uses a strong abdominal lock (known as Uddiyana Bhanda) combined with a dynamic breathing technique called Bhastrika. The deeper breathing combined with the engagement of the abdominal muscles helps to tone and stimulate the digestive system, making it more efficient.  A regular student was delighted with the results:

“My stomach is nearly flat and I rarely get bloated like I used to”

Vanishing Aches and Pains

If you’re post-menopausal and wonder if Hormone Yoga will work for you, then the account of another student will be of interest. 

“Before having the sessions I was a tiny bit sceptical whether it would be of any benefit to me as I am 58 years old and menopausal and not peri-menopausal.  The main thing I’ve noticed is my lack of joint/muscle pain. At first I thought I was imagining it, but I’m not and it’s amazing.  To be able to get straight up out of a chair and walk up and downstairs without clutching onto the handrail, to me that’s nothing short of a miracle. Also my self-esteem is much better which is a joy in itself together with a greater appreciation and love of my body.  Energy levels are definitely up. On World Menopause Day there was a lot of talk about HRT as if that is the only answer.   I think Hormone Yoga is an excellent alternative and I only wish I’d known about it years ago.”

Everyone reported a positive experience, but as we’re all unique each one felt the effects of the practice differently. If you’re looking for a natural alternative to HRT for managing your journey through the menopause and are prepared to practice several times a week, then it’s definitely worth giving Hormone Yoga a go.

Find out more about workshops and courses I run by visiting the Hormone Yoga

page on my website.

Relieve Back Pain with Yoga

Most of us experience a stiff, painful lower back at some point in our lives. You know that feeling when you have to move slowly and gingerly as you get out of bed. You then struggle to put your socks on without your back twinging. Luckily, most of the time it’s not serious and is usually caused by a minor injury, poor posture or even stress.  It’s called ‘Non-Specific Back Pain’ because it’s not caused by a medical condition like sciatica, osteoporosis or a slipped (prolapsed) disc.

With more people working from home, niggly back pain caused by poor posture is becoming more common.  Picture your back as you sit hunched over a PC at the kitchen table on a chair that doesn’t support you properly.  Or like me as I type this blog, perched on the edge of a sofa with a laptop on a small table which is at the wrong height for my body.  Or perhaps you’re slumped on the sofa (or in bed!) with your tablet balanced on your lap. Hours spent in these positions will compress your spine and cause your back, shoulder and neck muscles to round forward, and tense as well as stiffen up.

Extended Child Pose gently stretches out the spine.

Regular stretching and simple yoga poses can help prevent and alleviate Non-Specific Back Pain. I often have people attend my classes because their GP, physiotherapist or even a well-meaning friend has told them that yoga would help with their backache. Many times, after just a few weeks, those students are expressing delight becaue their back pain has subsided and they feel more flexible. Research confirms this with various studies showing yoga can be good for backs.  Just one example is a study led by the University of York which found that a 12 week yoga course aimed at back pain sufferers was a cost-effective treatment, and had long-term health benefits for patients.

Why is Yoga is good for Back Pain?

As well as the obvious benefit of improving flexibility, there are also a number of other reasons:


Body Awareness
– Yoga teaches you to be focused on what you can feel in your body as you move in and out of a pose. The slow, controlled movements mean you can move into a stretch at the right intensity for your body. If you feel a sharp or intense pain you are encouraged to come out of a stretch until you reach the level that’s right for you.

Whole Body Approach – You’re not just working on the back. Yoga encompasses the whole body and surprisingly often back pain might actually be caused by tight hip or thigh muscles. During a yoga class you will bend forwards, backwards and sideways. Your spine will lengthen and twist. Some poses will be seated and at other times you will be lying down or standing.  Some poses stretch the legs, whilst others open up the chest or the hips. By the end of a session your spine will have moved in a wide variety of directions and your body will feel more open and light.

Releasing Tension – In today’s stressful world many of us hold tension in our backs, particularly around the upper back and shoulders. If we don’t let go of that tension our muscles become rigid and tight. This restricts movement, giving rise to poor posture and making us more prone to injury.  Most yoga styles synchronise stretching with the breath, encouraging you to breathe deeper as you move into and hold a pose. The slow, deep breathing when combined with movement encourages muscles to relax and discharge tension.

Strengthening Muscles – It’s not just about flexibility; yoga also strengthens many of the key muscles.  Prone backbends like Cobra, where you’re lying on your belly and gently raising the torso upwards, help to strengthen back. Poses like Bridge pose and Bird Dog strengthen your core muscles, which provide essential support for your whole back.

If you want to use yoga to prevent or relieve Non-Specific Back Pain then I can help you. As an experienced Yoga Therapist and Teacher I can tailor a yoga session to meet the needs of your specific back problem, which fits in with your budget and availability. Visit my Yoga Therapy

page for more details.

Four Great Reasons for Doing Yin Yoga

Rushing about trying to do too much is a very Yang activity, which needs to be balanced with some Yin time; otherwise you can regularly feel stressed and out of sorts. Practicing Yin Yoga can help. You sit or lie down to do most Yin Yoga poses, which mainly target the hips, legs and back. The poses aren’t complicated and you align the pose to fit your body, so you don’t need to be super bendy and it’s great for beginners. Poses are held for 3 – 5 minutes, whilst you disengage the muscles around the target area. The stretch then moves beneath the muscles into the connective tissue; the fascia, tendons and ligaments. This quiet slow paced style of yoga is beneficial in so many ways:

Butterfly pose

Better posture

Healthy connective tissue has long straight collagen fibres.  As we age and get inactive these collagen fibres get short and tangled, particularly if you have a sedentary lifestyle.  The lack of stretching and movement stiffens and dehydrates the collagen making it short and matted.  Some parts of the body can get thickened areas of rigid fascia, making you look stooped and hunched.  Regular practice of Yin Yoga hydrates your body’s tissues, keeping your fascia fibres straight and elastic. So you can stand tall with a graceful upward stance.

Stronger joints

When you stress a muscle with an exercise like weight training, the body responds by strengthening the muscles you’ve worked.   Tendons and ligaments also strengthen when they are stressed.  But instead of several short repetitions of activity, they prefer one long steady controlled hold. So you move slowly towards the edge of the stretch, but stop before you reach its full intensity.  Then you pause and hold for a few minutes.  The tension created by moderately stretching the tissues surrounding the joints helps to strengthen them.

Improved well being

The meridian lines used by acupuncturists are in our fascia.  Energy within the body travels through these meridians.  When that energy is blocked or depleted it can manifest in a wide variety of ailments, aches and pains.  Yin Yoga targets and stimulates the meridians, helping to release any blocks so your energy can flow freely.  Stimulating specific meridians, particularly the Kidney meridian can help invigorate your energy.  With your energy replenished and moving freely you feel rejuvenated. 

Slowing down your breath and focusing your attention inwards, distracts your mind connecting you to your inner stillness.

Calmer mind

As you hold a pose, you breathe deeply into it using your exhalation to slowly soften the muscles of the target area.   You keep your awareness on the sensations that arise as you feel your muscles slowly releasing. Slowing down your breath and focusing your attention inwards distracts your mind from its usual brain activity connecting you to your inner stillness. This soothes the nervous system and leaves you feeling peaceful.

If you want to experience the benefits of Yin Yoga I teach a short weekly class online.

Managing the Menopause with Hormone Yoga

I discovered the Hormone Yoga Therapy system when I was researching yoga techniques to alleviate peri-menopausal symptoms.  I was waking up hot in the night, throwing off the duvet, then not being able to get back to sleep again. I began using my knowledge and experience of yoga to manage the condition and quickly realised my sleep was better when I meditated for 20 minutes just before bed.  This isn’t surprising, it’s recognised that meditation soothes the nervous system and lowers stress hormones.  When stress hormones are elevated it makes menopausal symptoms worse because your hormone levels get way off balance.

Hormone Yoga therapy was devised by Dinah Rodrigues, a Brazilian Yoga Therapist in the 1990s.  Since then Dinah has trained many Yoga Teachers around the world to teach the system.  So when a yoga teacher I knew announced she was running a Hormone Yoga Therapy course aimed at yoga teachers I quickly enrolled.  

At the beginning of May via Zoom I joined 16 Yoga Teachers from Germany, Holland, India and the UK to train to be a Hormone Yoga teacher.  Over 3 days we learnt the techniques and explored the anatomy and physiology of the endocrine system.  The weekend was fascinating, we practised a full Hormone Yoga class each day, as well as breaking off into small groups to teach each other.   I quickly noticed the energetic effect of the exercises even after the 1st session.

There are 12 different yoga poses, most of them are familiar if you’ve done yoga before. But it doesn’t matter if you’ve never done any yoga because its suitable for beginners because all the poses can be adapted to suit all abilities. The method also includes warm up exercises, breathing techniques, visualisation and relaxation.

Since May I’ve been regularly practicing and experimenting with the techniques and recording how the method has affected me.    Symptoms like brain fog and irritability have subsided very quickly.  I’m still getting hot at night but not as often and usually only when it’s warm.  Twelve weeks later I’m sleeping better, I have more energy and I can think more clearly.

If you want to give Hormone Yoga a go join me for some taster sessions and a short online course in the autumn.

What a Yoga Therapist does…

Yoga isn’t just about stretching.  It’s a holistic health system incorporating various practices; yoga stretches and poses, body awareness, breathing exercises, relaxation techniques, visualisation and meditation. Yoga Therapists use these elements separately (or together) to manage both physical and mental conditions.  For example asthma, sports injury recovery, back ache, stress, arthritis and even symptoms of the menopause can be helped with yoga.

It’s becoming more common for GPs and Physiotherapists to recommend yoga for managing particular health conditions.  I’ve had a number of people turn up at my classes with back pain or anxiety who’ve been told to try yoga by a GP. It’s great that health professionals are recognising the benefits of yoga.  But if you’ve been told to attend yoga to help manage a specific health condition or alleviate pain you need a Yoga Teacher with the appropriate training and experience. So it’s best to seek out a Yoga Therapist.

As a Yoga Therapist i’ve completed further training in addition to my teaching qualification. This means I have a much greater understanding of anatomy and physiology. As well as the body’s energetic system.  I’m also aware of the contraindications of particular poses and techniques, and know how to use yoga therapeutically to improve health and wellbeing.  Like other complementary and alternative health professionals, a Yoga Therapist will take a holistic approach with each client.  So rather than just address the symptoms of the condition, I will help a client identify the underlying cause and teach techniques to address that.  

Zoga Yoga

For example if you’re suffering from back pain, the underlying cause may be linked to how you hold your body when you’re stressed.  As a Yoga Therapist I would teach some basic stretches to release tension from the relevant aching back muscles.  I might use props like a bolster to support your body, so you can ease into a stretch gently.  But if you’re regularly stressed those muscles are going to keep tensing up and your pain is likely to return.  So further sessions may address that by including breathing exercises or relaxation techniques. These soothe the nervous system and further relax the mind and body. We may also utilise body awareness so you can recognise what triggers the tension in your back. Then you can use the simple stretches or relaxation techniques I have recommended to stop the tension building up in your body. 

How Yoga Strengthens the Immune System

Help your body resist viruses by keeping your immune system healthy and strong.  Feeling stressed, not getting enough quality sleep, being too sedentary and shallow breathing all impact on our immunity.  Luckily a regular yoga practice can help.  Various yoga techniques aid the respiratory, lymphatic, nervous and hormonal systems to build a resilient mind and body, to strengthen the immune system.

The respiratory system takes the initial hit with a virus. Bacteria lodges in the back of the throat and nasal passages.  Regular practice of pranayama (breathing techniques) helps keep respiratory tracts clear.  Synchronising movement with breath encourages deeper breathing and better utilisation of the lungs.  Which helps keep the lungs healthy.   


How yoga helps the lymphatic system

Our lymphatic system defends the body against germs, viruses, bacteria and moulds.  It gets rid of toxins and waste via the lymph, which is a liquid containing infection fighting white blood cells.  The lymph moves up the body through a network of vessels.  But the lymphatic system doesn’t have a pump like the heart to circulate the lymph.  So it’s reliant upon movement, breathing and gravity to get the lymph moving.   You’re more likely to have a sluggish lymphatic system if you have a sedentary lifestyle.   The inverted poses, twists and stretches in yoga move and squeeze the lymph around the body, up to the main lymph ducts located in the upper torso.  There the lymph with the toxins the body doesn’t need get released into the circulatory system to be dealt with by the liver and kidneys.

Legs up the Wall is a simple yoga inversion to help the lymph flow

Stress hormones and yoga

Getting anxious and upset increases your stress levels which can knock your immune system.   Cortisol is a hormone released when you’re feeling stressed. We all need a certain amount of cortisol.  But when stress levels escalate, cortisol levels increase too much.  That’s when stress starts to weaken the immune system by compromising the T cells (a type of white blood cell involved in immunity).  When the T cells stop functioning properly the body loses its ability to regulate the inflammatory response.  Inflammation in the body then escalates and leaves us more exposed to viruses.  So it’s important to keep cortisol levels in check.  Various yoga techniques have a soothing effect on the nervous system which helps lower cortisol.

Increased cortisol also affects sleep.  It’s what wakes you up in the early hours with a busy mind that won’t let you doze off again.  After a few weeks of not sleeping properly you feel tired and run down.  That’s when you get one of those colds you can’t seem to shift.  Studies have shown that lack of sleep negatively impacts on the immune system, and chronic stress and long term sleep deprivation can lead to many serious health conditions.  Gentle slow moving forms of yoga, pranayama, guided relaxation and meditation, all help to soothe the mind helping you sleep better.

So it’s good to regularly incorporate a range of yoga techniques into your daily routine.  This will strengthen your respiratory system and help move lymph around your body.  You will feel less stressed and more likely to get a good night’s sleep.  Combine yoga with a healthy diet and you’ll strengthen your immune system, getting it in tip top condition.

In the beginning

I love yoga because it works on so many levels. When i feel tetchy yoga makes me feel so much better. It boosts my energy when i’m feeling tired and of course it’s great for a good stretch. But yoga isn’t just about getting flexible.  Yoga is a holistic health system, which incorporates asana (the physical exercises), breathing techniques, diet, massage, relaxation and meditation.  Which means yoga can be used therapeutically, as my yoga teacher says:

The numerous exercises aim to bring together all the various aspects of ones being (the physical, mental and spiritual) in an integral psycho-physical system to work in harmony and stay balanced.  Duncan Hulin, from Devon School of Yoga

I’m not only aYoga Teacher and Therapist. I’m a researcher with a doctorate in the communication of risk and science.  So this blog will combine my geeky and inquisitive nature with my love of yoga.   My posts will include information on how yoga can be used as a therapy to manage particular health conditions.  I’ll explore academic research in relation to yoga, demonstrating what the experts are saying about its benefits.  I’ll also share useful tips and information on anything yoga related.