“They may feel like rocks, but bones are living things.” And all living things need to be taken care of. As a young adult I never gave much thought to the health of my bones, just taking for granted that they supported my physical structure without question. If I could go back in time and consult with my 20-30 year old self, I would certainly offer advice about the importance of taking care of my bones then, as you are never too young to start. In fact up to the age of 30 we are actively building bone mass, but bone production begins to drop off the older we get. The more bone mass we have in the bank, the better off we are in our later years.
Statistics tell us that 1 out of 2 women and 1 out of 4 men over the age of 50 will experience some amount of bone loss. This does not mean that 50% of my gender will require intervention. However, serious bone loss leads to the dreaded condition of osteoporosis, or porous bone, which conjures up all kinds of distressing images about quality of life issues and broken bones. We've all heard about or known an elder who fell, broke a hip and quickly deteriorated. We've also seen the results of small breakages in the spine that create the “dowager's hump”; the painful condition that causes the spine to curve forward, throwing off a person's center of gravity, stressing the spine and internal organs, interfering with blood flow, digestion and elimination and impacting how we breathe, all of which limit life expectancy. But bone loss does not have to be a death sentence or a quality of life issue. It certainly is a wake up call, and what we do with that information can determine how we can live a productive and healthy life into our senior years.
Yoga is a holistic modality that supports healthy bone production and keeps up bone mass. It is a simple, inexpensive and supportive program that is good for strengthening not only bones, but the muscles that surround the skeletal system. Keeping muscles strong allows for better stability in the body and helps to absorb the impact in the event of a fall. A well rounded practice provides the weight bearing exercises that are recommended for building bone, as weight is held throughout the whole body. Because it is a gradual process in building muscle and going deeper into poses, it is an incremental process that builds bone safely. Unlike high impact sports that pound the joints, yoga's pull of muscle on bone works to irrigate joints and renew cartilage making tissue, tendons and ligaments.
When asanas are held for longer stretches, the impact can be noticeable within a relatively short amount of time. Prevention only takes about eight seconds to keep bones from losing mass, so holding poses for up to a minute are highly beneficial. Studies have shown significant gains within two years of practicing yoga, in regaining bone mass and in postural alignment. In my own case, I regained 3/4 of an inch of my prime height after a year of faithful practice in my early 40s.
In addition to building muscle and keeping bone mass strong, yoga poses teach us how to maintain balance, improve posture, flexibility and coordination. Asanas that address sustaining balance in varied forms are a critical part of prevention in falling, thus preventing the breaking of bones. It teaches us how to find and maintain our center of gravity, rooting us more firmly into the earth.
There are so many other benefits to adopting a regular yoga practice in addition to strengthening bones, and it's never too late to start (and never too early either). My personal experience of a sustained yoga practice began with the asanas or physical practice, but has continued to enrich my life in countless ways.