By Patricia Staszak, PT
You may think of yoga as a way to relax, but yoga boasts physical benefits, too. The slow, measured movements and strengthening poses can help you achieve better balance to prevent falls as you age. Falls are the leading cause of injury among older adults; one in three adults over age 65 experience a fall every year, and many do so repeatedly.
To improve your balance, practice these five yoga poses for five minutes a day, five days a week. Be sure to breathe as you steady yourself: Inhale through your nose and into your ribs without letting tension into your neck and shoulders. As you exhale, gently pull your belly button in towards your spine. Keep a chair nearby in case you need to hold on throughout the movements. Start from a Mountain Pose position by placing your arms at your side, palms out. Bring your legs together, or hip width apart, and ground your feet into the floor. Gently tighten the muscles in your thighs. This is the foundational posture for the movements that follow.
Movement 1: Downward Dog
Downward dog involves a fold at the hips with hands and feet placed on the floor, forming a V-shape in the body. If you don’t have the flexibility to put your hands on the floor, you may place your hands on a chair instead.
Fold forward at the hips, elongating your spine. The head should follow the spine, and the back should remain flat. Bend at the knees and/or lift your heels if necessary. Slide your shoulder blades down your back and rotate your arms outward, so the creases of your elbows are facing forward. Hold the pose for 30 to 45 seconds, and then return to standing.
Movement 2: Crescent Lunge
The crescent lunge involves a lunge forward with one foot, bending at the knee and holding the arms in the air or at the sides. Crescent lunge is an excellent pose for balance because the base of support is long and narrow.
Stand with your feet hip width apart. Step backwards and place one heel back against the nearby wall and the ball of the foot on the ground to stretch the foot and keep it stable. Bend the front knee to move into a lunge position, making sure the knee doesn’t extend past the toes. Keep the back leg as straight as possible. If you need to, drop the back knee to the floor or hold onto a nearby chair. Place the hands on the hips. Pull your belly button in toward your spine to keep your core stable. After 30 to 45 seconds in the pose, without moving your upper body, carefully step forward with your back foot to your starting position and repeat on the other side.
Movement 3: Chair Pose
Chair pose involves bending the knees and hips and lowering as though you were going to sit down into a chair. By using the muscles in the thighs to hold yourself in that position without the support of a chair underneath, you can gain strength and challenge your stability.
Start by standing with your back against a wall, with your feet hip width apart and about a foot from the wall. Place a small ball or a rolled up towel between the knees to stabilize your legs, and then put your arms up into the air or down at your sides. Slide your back down the wall and sit into the pose as though you were sitting down into a chair, gently lifting the pelvic floor, pulling your belly button in toward your spine and gently squeezing the ball between your knees.
Movement 4: Bridge Pose
Bridge pose strengthens and challenges the stability of the muscles in the hips, core and legs. Note: If you cannot move to the floor for this pose, you can perform the movement from the comfort of your firm bed or couch.
Start by lying down on your back with your hands at your side (palms down) and your head on the floor. Bend your knees and place your feet hip width apart. Gently engage the muscles of your pelvic floor and pull your belly button in toward your spine. While keeping your knees pointed toward the ceiling, lift the pelvis, creating one long line from the head to the top of the knees. Hold the pose for about five seconds, and then bring the pelvis back to the floor. Repeat this movement 10 times.
Movement 5: Tree Pose
Tree pose involves standing on one leg and using your stabilizing muscles to improve balance and alignment.
Start in Mountain Pose (see the top of this post for a reminder). Place one hand on a nearby chair for stability, if needed. Gently lift up your pelvic floor, pull your belly button in toward your spine and rotate your legs inward so you are stable through the hip.. Then, while keeping your hip bones facing forward, slowly lift one foot off the floor and try to bring it to your opposite inner shin. Ground your bottom foot in the floor and gently press your opposite foot to the shin. Hold the pose for 30 to 45 seconds before returning to standing. For a challenge, try bringing the foot higher, up toward your thigh. If you feel like you are wobbly, lower the leg so the ball of the foot is touching the floor and the heel is pressing against the inner shin, and continue holding the chair if needed.