When I mention to my yoga students that a pose is good against osteoporosis, I often get a blank stare. We are usually not aware of this “silent disease” that can put us at a high risk of breaking bones and becoming incapacitated. Nevertheless, this progressive loss of mineral density in bones is very real. Almost 1/3 of women have a hip fracture before they are 80 years old. A quarter of hip fractures after 50 lead to death within the year, not because of the fracture itself, but because of the resulting immobility, painful nights, increased risk for infection, change of lifestyle, depression etc. Although osteoporosis is less prevalent in men, they are not excluded and often less timely diagnosed. Once diagnosed with osteoporosis, or its precursor osteopenia, it is possible to counteract further bone weakening, but preventing this difficult condition is much easier than treating it. The good news is that practising yoga is one of the best ways to prevent and manage osteoporosis. This blog will delve into the ways yoga can help reverse bone loss, while next blog will look more at prevention.
Osteoporosis and its contributing factors
When you are diagnosed with osteoporosis, literally “porous bone,” your bones have lost mineral density to such an extent that you are at a great risk of fractures, especially of the hip, spine and wrist. This progressive bone weakness excludes no ethnic group or gender, and its prevalence is increasing as our life expectancy improves.
Many forms of exercise help to build our bones, provided they combine the effects of gravity and muscle activity. So swimming is not bone building, whereas walking is. Exercise in general supports coordination, stability, balance and muscle tone. Yoga in particular is good because it also supports all of the above, plus it engages all muscles and bones in its variety of poses. What’s more, it gives a sense of confidence, relaxation and well being. Let’s look at this in more depth.
How yoga can help
It is not only “working with weights” that helps to build bone. Yoga includes many weight-bearing poses, such as standing poses, inversions and arm balances. Apart from that, bone growth is stimulated through dynamic tension between muscles, which is the case in most yoga poses. This means that one muscle group opposes the action of another and the bones feel double pressure. Holding the yoga poses for at least 8 seconds is considered a good duration for bone building.
Yoga’s combination of poses, breathing techniques and relaxation promotes the relaxation response in our body and hence has a positive impact on the nervous system.
Exercise without drawbacks
As opposed to impact sports such as running, yoga is beneficial for the joints. When osteoporosis starts to manifest, the picture is often complicated by osteoarthritis. This wear and tear of the joints can be aggravated by sports that put pressure on the joints. Yoga movements are not only low impact but can be good for arthritis as well, as they lubricate the joints by encouraging their whole range of movement.
Weight lifting is sometimes advocated to prevent and manage osteoporosis but it is not beneficial for people who have osteoarthritis. Besides, weight lifting does not improve flexibility or balance and can lead to disc-related injuries and lower back pain.
When you suffer from osteoporosis, spinal fractures can occur quite commonly during normal activities. The fractures decrease the spine’s height and if your posture is bad, with a rounded upper back and forward neck, the fractures will exacerbate the spinal curve and lead to severe rounding of the upper back. Yoga can help improve posture, preferably before any fractures occur.
Principles of yoga for osteoporosis
Once you have osteoporosis, avoid inversions that put pressure on the neck and upper back. Also avoid sudden movements, forward bends and balancing poses without the support of a wall or chair. Forward bends increase the risk of vertebral fractures, while backbends are better.
Suitable Exercises when you have osteoporosis:
Up and down on the toes near a wall.
Stand near a wall or chair. Inhale and lift the feet slowly so you balance on the toes. Exhale and lower the feet, using the whole of the exhalation. Do this a few times and then add the arm movement, bringing the arms up and to the side with the inhalation, down with the exhalation. Repeat several times, coordinating breath and movement. This movement strengthens the feet, ankles and legs and is calming.
Tree pose against or near the wall
(Stand near a wall or chair).
This balance on one leg is traditionally done with the foot against the inner thigh. However, the foot can be under the knee, or one toe can even touch the floor: choose the position that feels right but avoid placing the foot directly against your knee.
When balancing on the right foot, keep lifting through the right hip so that you do not lean into the right hip.
Keep paying attention to the breath in this balance and work up to staying in the position for at least a minute on each side. Try imagining roots underneath your standing foot, and the exhalation going down the leg and into those roots. When you breathe in, feel tall, lifting from the waist up.
Forward bend with the wall
Forward bends are too risky when you have osteoporosis, so instead use a wall to rest your hands. Keep the hands quite high and walk back slightly until the hips are above the feet. Gently contract the lower abdominal muscles to keep your lower back supported and long. Also avoid sinking down between the shoulders. The whole spine should feel a nice lengthening.
Before raising the shoulders and head, tilt the pelvis and lengthen the lower back by contracting the lower abdominal muscles. This is important to avoid compressing or straining the lower back.Do not put weight on the hands but lift the shoulders and the head by contracting the upper back muscles. It is not a big movement.
-Keep looking down to keep the neck long and in line with the upper back.
Child with support
Child’s pose is soothing and relaxing for the back, but because forward bends are counter-indicated, practice child’s pose on a chair or sofa. Use a rolled towel under the ankles if the feet are tight.
Finish with a few minutes of Relaxation on the back.
If you have been diagnosed with osteoporosis a general yoga class is not advised and might put you at a greater risk of fractures. If you would like to learn how to adapt your yoga practice or indeed start yoga, try to find a yoga therapist with knowledge of osteoporosis. You can also contact me to discuss a yoga programme that helps to reverse bone loss, gain confidence and balance, increase strength and flexibility and deal with stress.
The blog in two weeks time will delve more deeply in how we can prevent bone loss.