'How yoga helps me find balance in more ways than one'
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Don’t worry about standing up for yourself, worry about standing on one leg. Sharon Morrison discovers why yoga is far more than an exercise in regaining your bendiness.
Holidays are a distant memory for most of us at the moment, but I have an abiding memory of one I went on to Barbados seven years ago.
Each morning, from my beachside villa, I’d watch a line of four or five men, probably in their 60s and 70s, paddle boarding across the sea.
I’d never seen it before but they made it all look so serene and graceful I wanted to have a go.
I finally had the opportunity, in a rather choppy bay in Gibraltar, a couple of years later.
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But, instead of gliding majestically over the water, I made tidal waves as my wobbly legs let me down within a split second of standing up on the board. I can’t remember just how many times I fell in, but it got boring.
And depressing, as the others in my group (who were all at least 20 years younger) remained in control of their boards for most of the time.
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It didn’t take any brains to work out my problem: I had very poor balance.
To be even passable at paddle boarding, your back, core and legs need to work together to support you, but I already had the creeping recognition that certain activities were needing a lot more support these days.
Most of us are living in workout gear and trackie bottoms, which means socks. But I was now either sitting down or backing into a wall before I was able to put them on.
As you get older you tend to lose lots of things, your waistline, bone density, mental agility and, sadly, your ability to stop a fart escaping, to name but an irritating few.
These changes are very gradual, so it’s only when you challenge yourself, you realise just how much you’ve lost.
For me, balance isn’t about vanity (although I’d feel really proud if I could perform a standing quadricep stretch without reaching for the nearest wall), but safety.
According to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA), falls are responsible for four out of five accident-related hospital admissions for those over 65, so regaining or maintaining balance isn’t a nice-to-have, more of a must-have-now.
I’m no stranger to exercise, in fact I’ve been working out regularly for years, but jogging or HIIT classes, while great for cardio, do little for achieving balance.
But loss of balance isn’t all we have to contend with.
Age also bestows shorter, tighter ligaments, which makes it harder or impossible to swing a leg over a style, step over a groyne or perform a Tiller-Girl high kick.
And bendiness is just as important as balance in my book.
One way to get both back is to take up exercise regimes like Pilates, t’ai chi or yoga and, in lockdown, you can take your pick from some amazing online teachers (but please, please, please beware of those who aren’t amazing but look the part; they’re just in it for the fame and the followers; look for independent reviews… they matter).
Thanks to footballer Ryan Giggs, I chose yoga.
He’s been talking about its benefits for years and recently said: “Yoga had a big effect and it helped me carry on playing until I was 40. It works not just your hamstrings, groin and quads but also your calves, glutes, lower back, neck, sides and core. It helps to prevent injuries and makes you more supple and flexible. That’s why I still do it today.”
And so, after exhaustive talking about it and thinking about it, I finally went to my first yoga class run by Jocelyne Leach.
She came with great recommendations, had been teaching for years and I actively looked forward to her classes (still do, and now they’re all on Zoom of course).
What I noticed, when I did just a couple of classes a week, was how much better I felt.
I put that down to the gentle way Jocelyne got you to perform moves that you didn’t think you’d ever achieve, and how hard you worked without even realising it (that’s my kind of exercise regime!).
In fact, after one class which was focusing on arms and shoulders, I could hardly drive home, as my arms were like jelly.
Luckily, my fingers still worked.
After two years, I’m now far more flexible, and my balance has improved beyond all recognition.
And something that I really value but had no idea was part of the deal, is that when I’m concentrating on my breathing or a particular move, no other thoughts enter my head, and that, especially now, is a very peaceful place to be.
What I’ve also learned from practising yoga, as in life, is that you can only build something if you work at it.
Jocelyne knew I was concerned about balance, and suggested I stand on one leg while brushing my teeth.
It’s not as weird as it sounds believe me.
I started my one-legged stand, trying to get to 30 seconds without wobbling over, which was impossible at first, but I surprised myself at how fast I reached non-wobbly by just being consistent.
And age is no barrier to fully engaging with yoga.
Nor is your fitness level.
I only took up yoga when I was 60 and, now that my hips are more flexible, I want to see if I can achieve the splits.
I know I’ll have to up the number of classes I take but I like a challenge.
Want to put on your socks unsupported? Here are Jocelyne’s top 10 tips to going solo:
1. Try to balance on each foot for 30 seconds every day for a week; just raise one foot a few inches off the ground to start; be near a chair or wall to rebalance if you feel wobbly.
2. Successful balancing starts with your feet; you have to be grounded and stable (don’t worry it will come!)
3. Posture matters. Stand tall, keep your neck long, shoulders over hips, hips over heels, stomach muscles pulled in.
4. To help you maintain your balancing pose, you should gaze at a fixed point on the wall or in the garden, which is at eye level.
5. Bonus tip… to assist your steadiness, put a finger on the tip of your nose, or hold your ear lobe as you balance.
6. Remember to keep breathing. A steady breath will aid balance, holding it won’t!
7. Practice makes perfect, so increase your balancing time on each leg every week. Your legs will get stronger.
8. When you feel the time is right, try stretching your quadricep muscle, by drawing your right foot towards your bottom with your right hand.
9. Again, when the time feels right, try changing hands during the hold. Your left hand takes hold of your right foot from your right hand.
10. Core strength is vital to your ability to achieve great balance (and to paddle board) and you need to work on improving your core muscles.
These are the deep muscles in the torso attached to the spine and the pelvis.
When strong, they help prevent excessive wear on the spine and help transfer force between upper and lower body.