More and more 21st century seniors are turning to a fifth century practice to ease the aches and pains of aging and create more emotional balance in their lives.

Yoga, the Indian-based discipline of specific stretching and breathing exercises, is not just for those who can twist themselves into a shape reminiscent of a double-helix molecule.

“Yoga is very gentle and holistic,” Sandy Cyrus, owner of Full Circle Yoga in Orono, said. “It’s like taking your car in for a tuneup, but yoga is a tuneup for the whole body.”

Most people have a sense of the physical nature of yoga, Cyrus said, but there’s more to it than that.

“We also work with controlled breathing and being in the moment,” she said. “When combined with the physical motions, it helps with circulation, lung capacity and improving brain function because the students are taking time to pause, focus and concentrate.”

Nancy MacKnight, who jokes “70 was in the rearview mirror a long time ago,” has been practicing yoga for decades and studying with Cyrus for about 10 years. The 77-year-old retiree said it makes a huge positive impact on various aches and pains, particularly in her knee and hips.

“I have a lot of arthritis, and one thing I always hear is the importance of keeping active and moving, [but] that can be quite painful for me,” MacKnight said. “With Sandy and yoga, we are taught to move and use our muscles but to stop short before there is any pain.”

Thanks to yoga, MacKnight said, she is able to drastically cut down on any pain medications she may need for her joint pain.

“Sandy is what my primary care physician calls ‘complimentary medicine,’” she said.

Once a week Cyrus meets with her students who are in their 60s through 80s for a modified, gentle session of yoga.

“We do ‘chair yoga,’ where the students use a chair for balance and support,” Cyrus said. “We adapt the movements so they don’t have to be rapidly getting up and down off the floor like in a regular class.”

But make no mistake, these students still get a full body and mind workout.

“There is no such thing as ‘baby’ yoga,” Cyrus said. “Just because they are using chairs does not make it a lesser form of the practice.”

Using a chair for balance and support helps her students safely reach their “edge,” that point at which they can ultimately stretch just before it becomes painful.

“When you reach and stay in that place, that is where yoga is the most beneficial,” Cyrus said. “I always say, ‘the person who uses the most props wins,’ because if you need a chair or a block under or foot or a pillow under your hip, you are a winner in my class because you are paying attention to what your body needs, not working against yourself by going past your comfort zone.”

Greg Zielinski, senior fitness instructor at the Bangor YMCA, agrees.

“I teach most of the [exercise] classes for the seniors, and yoga is fabulous for them.” he said. “When it comes to their overall fitness there are three major components: cardio, resistance training to help maintain muscle and flexibility. It’s all covered by yoga.”

Using the chair, he said, helps him modify the movements for his students who need that extra support.

“There are all different types of yoga,” Zielinski said. “There is the kind you hold poses for a long while, those where you do movements to build endurance and muscle and those which are fast moving where you start getting into more cardio vascular workouts.”

All of it, he said, can be modified to meet a student’s abilities, regardless of age or starting fitness level.

“It’s never too late to start any type of exercise, including yoga,” Zielinski said. “Several months ago, I read a study that said a group of octogenarians who had never worked out started weight training and after just a couple of months, their strength had increased by two or three times.”

He said one of his elderly students told him this winter was made a bit easier for her thanks to yoga.

“She told me she was out chopping the ice herself this winter,” Zielinski said. “She said last year she never would have been able to do that.”

Debbra McGlaughlin FNP sees a number of elderly patients in her Madawaska practice and said yoga is a great way for seniors to stay healthy in body and mind.

“It’s surprising how many of my elderly do some sort of exercise,” McGlaughlin said. “They are involved at their apartment complexes or in their boarding homes.”

There is really no discounting the importance of an exercise like yoga, she said.

“It keeps everything moving and keeps them flexible and their minds occupied,” McGlaughlin said. “They are more alert, and with that age group it also helps keep their digestion working well.”

At the start of her classes, Cyrus said they start with “body part shout-outs” during which her students tell her what they feel needs attention on their own bodies that day.

“I hear ‘knees’ or ‘lower back,’ so I design the class individually to meet those needs,” she said. “If someone is having issues around arthritis, we can work their fingers or hands or wrists. All of this can be done while they are sitting in a chair.”

Cyrus and Zielinski also work a lot with balance and core strength.

“The students can stand behind or alongside the chair and use it for stability,” Cyrus said. “You can address a lot of physical problems in the body — like tricky knees — by strengthening muscles.”

Then there is the breathing.

“There is an added benefit to the breathing and mental aspects,” Zielinski said. “It really allows you to hold a pose longer and create more endurance. When you start holding poses longer, it builds muscle strength.”

Paying attention to breathing also helps people “stay in the moment” and achieve a calming state of mind, Cyrus said.

“A lot of my students have grandchildren and are dealing with at times chaotic family situations,” she said. “Others are recently widowed and processing grief.”

With yoga, Cyrus said, your body and mind work together to function optimally and that helps a person better work through the ups and downs of everyday life.

“Their bodies feel better and more flexible,” she said. “But yoga also helps with a bit of an attitude adjustment as we practice meditation together. It’s a loving kindness meditation that can help generate compassion, and that is handy when dealing with tricky situations.”

MacKnight admits to have not been a fan of that particular part of the class early on.

“I’d just lie there and think of all the things I had to do after class,” she said. “But gradually I got to like that part and really appreciate it.”

Yoga, Cyrus said, teaches how to find and appreciate that “pause button” on life.

“If you are in your 60s or 70s or 80s and want to show up for life, I help give the tools that help you live your life in the present moment,” she said. “That is called ‘mindfulness,’ and it not only helps put yourself first, it makes us more available to the people we are with.”

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Julia Bayly

Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000.