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What not to do in yoga class if you have osteoporosis

By Christine Saari, MA, E-RYT, C-BDYT

Head on over to your local yoga studio on a weekday morning, and you'll be likely to unroll your mat next to someone over 50.

That's because interest in trying yoga has surged among older adults in recent years. More and more people are overcoming common myths stopping them from trying yoga and beginning to recognize the physical, mental, and emotional benefits of the practice.

Yoga is a low-impact form of exercise that can be adapted to suit your unique needs and abilities, making it an accessible and enjoyable way to stay active and healthy as you age.

Yoga for health aging

At some point in life, it becomes clear that we're not getting any younger.

Take skiing, for example.

We may have the same ability to ski as we did the prior season, but the toll it takes can feel greater. At some point, the likelihood of injury increases when we do risky activities, or, for that matter, even while doing laundry.

Yoga practice is one form of self-care that can help maintain our body's resilience as we age.

By improving physical strength, reducing stress and anxiety, improving cognitive function, and enhancing emotional well-being, yoga can help maintain independence and quality of life as we get older.

Yoga also offers a pathway to nurture ourselves as we age through management of chronic pain and injury prevention.

A study published in the International Journal of Yoga found that regular yoga practice can improve physical function and quality of life in older adults with osteoarthritis (1). Another study published in the Journal of Geriatric Physical Therapy found that yoga can help reduce falls and fear of falling in older adults (2).

The practice of yoga can also help counter the ageism pervasive in our culture.

As a Yogi, I pride myself on embracing my aging self. I practice welcoming change and yielding to its flow.

I'm not going to lie: there are times this is not so easy to accept!

But with each passing year, I get to know myself better and accept and love myself more. These are the gifts my yoga practice has given me.

So, if you are yoga-curious and over 50, now is the time to give yoga a try!

You won't be the only one: According to a survey conducted by Yoga Alliance and Yoga Journal, 38% of Americans aged 50 and older are interested in trying yoga, and 17% of yoga practitioners are over 55 and have already taken the plunge (3).

But what if you have been diagnosed with osteopenia or osteoporosis? Is yoga safe?

And can yoga be used to reverse bone loss?

Read on to discover how to reduce the risk of injury while practicing yoga with osteoporosis, and how to use yoga therapy protocols to reverse bone loss.

Aging and bone loss

Aging can have a significant impact on bone loss for both women and men. As we age, our bones naturally become weaker and more fragile due to a variety of factors, including hormonal changes, reduced physical activity, and changes in calcium and vitamin D metabolism.

Women tend to experience more rapid bone loss after menopause due to a decline in estrogen levels, which can accelerate the breakdown of bone tissue. Men also experience a gradual loss of bone density as they age, but at a slower rate than women.

Osteoporosis, a condition characterized by low bone density and increased risk of fractures, is a common result of age-related bone loss.

It's nothing to be ashamed of.

And, you can do something about it.

While traditional treatments such as medication and hormone therapy can be effective, they also come with potential risks and side effects. To reduce the risk of further bone loss, it is important to engage in regular weight-bearing exercise such as yoga, consume a diet rich in calcium and vitamin D, and talk to a healthcare provider about other strategies for bone health. When deciding on a treatment plan, always consult with your doctor to determine what course of action is right for you.

More and more often, doctors are recommending yoga for osteoporosis.

But the choice of postures–and the way you do them–matters.

A lot.

When prescribed therapeutically, yoga has the potential to be a lower-risk intervention for maintaining or improving bone density for those with osteoporosis.

Ready to try yoga for osteoporosis?

Before you head to your nearest yoga studio, educate yourself about the risks of certain types of yoga postures, and the benefits of certain approaches to modifying and practicing postures for managing your bone health.

Learn what types of poses not to do in yoga class, what types of poses you can do, and how to do them most effectively.

A word of caution about gentle yoga

Just because yoga is "gentle" doesn't mean it's safe for people with osteoporosis.

Because individuals with osteoporosis have weakened bones, they may be at increased risk of fractures and other injuries during certain yoga poses or movements.

Too often, patients with osteoporosis are directed by their doctors to try yoga, and they find themselves in a group yoga class led by instructors without specific training in pathology, and with limited training in contraindications for certain health conditions.

Yoga therapists are a type of yoga teacher trained specifically in using yoga to treat osteoporosis and other health conditions. Yoga therapists are certified by programs accredited with the International Association of Yoga Therapists, which is a different accrediting body than the one most yoga teachers are registered with (the Yoga Alliance).

A yoga therapist can educate you on how to self-modify your personal practice while attending a group yoga class to lower your risk of injury.

If your yoga teacher is not a yoga therapist, you will need to take responsibility for educating yourself on how to keep yourself safe in their class.

If you are unsure how to do this, ask your doctor, and consider consulting with a yoga therapist to learn which movements and postures are likely to place you most at risk given your individual health status. You can usually learn all you need to know about modifying common yoga poses in a few sessions.

Armed with this knowledge, you can then focus on attending gentle, low-impact yoga classes that emphasize static strong holds of postures, stability and balance.

Finally, remember that it is important to talk to a healthcare provider before beginning any new exercise program, including gentle yoga.

What to avoid in yoga class if you have osteoporosis

If you have osteopenia or osteoporosis, there are a few guidelines to help keep yourself safe practicing yoga.

Certain poses commonly considered by yoga instructors to be "gentle" may not be safe for people with osteoporosis.

Other types of poses are less risky, but would not serve a therapeutic purpose when working with osteoporosis, meaning they just aren't as helpful. In this case, you'd be better off substituting a different pose to maximize the benefits of your practice.

Here are some specific risks to consider:

  1. Spinal flexion: Forward-bending poses that involve spinal flexion, such as seated forward fold, can put excessive pressure on the vertebrae and increase the risk of vertebral fractures.

  2. Twisting: Twisting poses, such as seated spinal twist, can also put pressure on the vertebrae and increase the risk of fractures.

  3. High-impact movements: Jumping or other high-impact movements can put stress on your bones and place you at risk for injury.

  4. Risky balance poses: Some poses require balance and may increase the risk of falls, which can be especially dangerous for individuals with osteoporosis. Make sure your studio has chairs available, and if not, set yourself up near a wall for extra support during balance poses.

Spinal flexion

Let's consider spinal flexion.