Spinal Flexion Guidance for Osteoporosis and Kyphosis

Spinal Flexion Guidance for Osteoporosis and Kyphosis

I am an RYT 500 yoga teacher, and am taking your Chair and Gentle Yoga Training for the 50+ population – it is excellent!

In the training, it is mentioned that Cat/Cow is done in nearly every senior sequence – is the Cat pose (spinal flexion) okay to do if a student has osteoporosis or an overly rounded spine (kyphosis)?  What about gentle side bending and non-leveraged twists for these individuals (I do believe in the training you mentioned that non-leveraged seated twists are okay)?

Finally, I also saw in the training that we need to bring the spine back to neutral after a backbend, side bend, twist, etc., and that is done by a forward bend.  In my YogaWorks training (note: not focused on 50+ population), it was recommend to include a “transitional” pose between spinal extremes (for example, after a backbend, neutralize the spine w/ a twist before forward bending in order to not stress the spine).  Is this concept different for the Senior population?

Answer from Sherry

I am so happy you are enjoying the Chair Yoga Training program. I took Yoga Works training as well and yes, Senior Yoga has a different approach and some nuances that are important to understand.

Spinal Flexion and Extension for Seniors

Spinal flexion and extension, as in cat/cow, keeps the spine aligned, flexible and the discs imbibed with fluid. If one would totally avoid spinal flexion because of the fear of osteoporosis and associated vertebral compression fractures (VCFs), then the spine would continue to lose its mobility – which is what we want to avoid. Where movement goes, energy flows. We want that in the spine as well! I don’t believe in absolutes because every student is different. In a group class, a teacher needs to accommodate multiple levels of ability and thus why offering progressive type movements is important. Spinal flexion/extension can be done as gently as cactus arms with a gentle rounding and arching, or fully like a seated forward bend.

Why are Forward Bends Beneficial to the Health of the Spine?

As a side note, I have a very dear 92-year old friend that has osteoporosis and multiple VCFs and has lost much of her stature. But she still enjoys a gentle cat/cow that she says brings relief to the muscles that are working hard to support her “damaged” spine. We have to consider the health of the entire spine which includes the bones, discs, muscles and nerves and not restrict movement out of fear. I know many cautions have been around osteoporosis and forward bends which has become a blanket mantra for Yoga and Seniors. However, a seated cat/cow is the least downward gravitational pressure on the spine when done with gentle awareness and breathwork.

Spinal Twists are Important to Keeping the Spine Mobile

Similar concept with twisting the spine. If the spine does not move in all the range of motion is was built to move in, then the body slowly gets less and less mobile. No wonder seniors start to walk rigidly and timidly! If you have seen Justine’s work, she has spinal stenosis and lumbar disc damage and she stopped doing twists for a few years thinking that it might worsen those conditions. She found that she was in much more pain because she was stabilizing an area that was not meant to be frozen in a 2-dimensional plane. Where movement, goes energy flows. And we all know energy (prana) is healing.

Why Specific Spinal Movements are Beneficial for Seniors

Axial extension (upward lengthening movement) of the spine in a vertical alignment is one of the key movement patterns needed for an older body. Because gravity takes its toll on the spine, compression can occur in all areas of the spine (Cervical, thoracic and lumber). So the concept of bringing the spine back into a neutral position is really bringing it back to the vertical position after twisting, lateral bends and backbends. And remember, there is no concept of extreme positions when teaching to this population so an intermediate counter pose is probably not as necessary as it would be with a more active practice. Laterals and twists should be quite gentle and the range of motion would be like hitting a bumper and backing off a notch. A gentle forward bend will open the space between the discs a bit more when in the vertical position and that is its main purpose. Thus both axial extension and a gentle forward bend would be considered bringing the spine back into a neutral position.

I hope this explains the concepts a bit more. What I want to emphasize is that the body still operates in the same anatomical fashion as it does when it is 18 and when it is 81. We just need to ratchet down the effort, the extreme positions and the duration of Yoga asanas… not just avoid movements. Those nuances, when understood, make a good teacher for the senior/elderly student.

Good luck on your studies. And thank you for your service to others!

Sherry Zak Morris, Certified Yoga Therapist
Founder of Yoga Vista

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