Katherine Beattie was skeptical about her first Iyengar yoga class two years ago. She wondered how she would ever get into the positions. A hip replacement, knee surgery and osteoarthritis in her hands and wrists left her with chronic pain and discomfort.
But when the instructor placed a bolster under Beattie's back to help raise her torso and wrapped a long sling-like belt around the bottom of her feet that extended under her hips and attached gently to the wall, her body relaxed completely into the yoga pose. For the first time in years, she felt relief from pain.
"I had never experienced anything like it before," says Beattie, 66, director of a Los Angeles program for at-risk teens. "I never knew yoga could be like that. The props made all the difference."
Yoga, in general, has become a popular national pastime, with studies showing it can help with everything from mindset to breast cancer survival.
Iyengar yoga, in particular, is especially good for people over 50 and for those with various medical conditions and ailments. Often referred to as "therapeutic" yoga, it develops strength, balance, stamina and body alignment. It helps ease the stiffness and mild aches and pains that can go along with aging.
(MORE: Improve Your Balance at Any Age)
Iyengar is also thought to help more serious digestive issues, menopausal hot flashes and even chemo-related fatigue in cancer patients. Research has also documented Iyengar's effectiveness in diminishing headaches, improving bone density in lieu of medication and reducing inflammation and fatigue in breast cancer survivors.
Giving Props to Props
What differentiates Iyengar is its use of ropes and props to help practitioner's assume various poses, called "asanas," despite age, physical condition or the length of time someone has been studying. Blankets, blocks, straps, sticky mats, benches, wall ropes, sandbags, chairs and even sofa pillows all become supports that are adjusted to a practitioner's needs and limitations.
"When you have proper alignment, the joints are protected and not overworked," says Beth Sternlieb, a California-based certified Iyengar instructor.
Sternlieb has contributed to a number of UCLA studies on the impact of Iyengar yoga on women with chemotherapy-related fatigue. "You get the essence of the pose and develop your strength where it needs to be. You're not jumping in and out of poses, which is hard on the joints," she says.
(MORE: Your Guide To Avoiding Joint Pain)
Overall, props help practitioners conserve and replenish energy, which is increasingly important as we age. Students who start practicing yoga in their 50s and 60s improve balance and are able to strike poses for a longer period of time without undue stress. Props also help stretch the spine and create space around joints, which, in turn, may alleviate arthritis pain.
Finally, the use of props makes it possible for students to achieve safe upside down poses that reverse the downward pull of gravity, which yogis believe helps slow the aging process.
Key to the successful practice of Iyengar yoga is working with a certified instructor. More than other yoga disciplines, Iyengar teachers receive stringent training over several years before being certified by a national Iyengar board.
When new students come to class, instructors ask about any physical issues or injuries and adapt poses for individual needs. The instructor observes a student's posture, positioning of kneecaps and feet.
Suza Francina, an Ojai, Calif. Iyengar instructor, starts new students off by explaining the principles of good posture and how to integrate them into daily life and apply them to each pose.
"The number one reason Iyengar yoga works is that it is done methodically and with the support of props so that it is healing and doesn't cause further injury," says Francina, author of The New Yoga for Healthy Aging and The New Yoga for People over 50.
"We're trained in anatomy and physiology,” Francina says. “For example, if a student is on blood pressure medication, we don't hang them upside down, and we know what to do if they come out of a pose and feel dizzy."
For students with llower back pain, Francina uses ropes to help them hang in the "downward dog" position, hands leaning on a chair for additional support. "They get relief because it creates space and traction in their spine," she explains.
Instructors typically recommend Iyengar yoga twice a week to reap the maximum benefits.
Beattie became such a serious Iyengar student that she built a studio in her home, complete with ropes and props. She practices each night in addition to sessions with her instructor.
"I've gained strength, I'm in less pain and my range of motion is vastly expanded," Beattie says. "My indigestion and heartburn are gone, and I have more energy. And I don't limp anymore in the morning. I used to shuffle around for five or 10 minutes before my joints got greased. Now, I sleep better and feel better.”
Jeanne Dorin is a Los Angeles-based writer who often covers health and wellness.
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