Restorative yoga helps participants age with ‘bounce’ and resilience

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When Helme Calfee began restorative yoga about 10 years ago, he didn’t expect to unwind decades of wear and tear from his now 69-year-old frame.

He’d tried yoga several times, but the practice didn’t click until he began restorative sessions at All Life Is Yoga, where he practices with teacher Rutu Chaudhari. He attends a couple of classes each week, interspersed with his daily home practice, and it’s helped him push back against society’s often negative perceptions of aging.

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“It’s like it’s not OK to be old, but what this yoga practice and managing my diet has brought me is the best I have felt in my entire life,” he said.

“This is the first time I’ve had stretches of days in a row where I’m pain-free. And I can put my palms on the floor. I can lift anything I want to lift … I’m completely unencumbered by my body. That’s not the narrative around aging — not for a 70-year-old.”

‘Elasticity and bounce’

All Life is Yoga students who find a pose hard to achieve get help from Chaudhari in downgrading the difficulty level to a position that’s more appropriate for their flexibility levels. Sometimes Chaudhari integrates props, which are a hallmark of restorative yoga and can ease the challenge of holding a pose. The early morning sessions Calfee prefers last around an hour and a half.

“It’s very slow, very meditative — arguably boring — but absolutely exquisite, and it’s given me access to meditation,” he said. “One premise of this style of yoga is, ‘Don’t do anything today that would prevent you from doing yoga tomorrow.’ I’ve never been sore, I’ve never been injured.”

Despite its benefits, building yoga into his life hasn’t necessarily come naturally for Calfee.

“I never had a relationship with my body that I had any level of athletic ability, strength, coordination — any of that — it was just not me,” he said.

And yet, as this Decatur resident looks toward 70, yoga, along with diet and movement, has returned his once high blood pressure to normal, and he now weighs the same as he did in his early 20s.

“I did not set out to be able to bend at the waist and put my hands on the floor — like, unimaginable,” he said. “I’ve had a couple of things in the past number of years that have happened that I’ve walked away from, and I attribute that to the elasticity and bounce that I have as a result of moving my body.”

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‘The ultimate beginners’ yoga’

Ashley Hall, co-owner of Pure Motion Yoga, echoes the importance of using restorative techniques, which he calls “the ultimate beginners’ yoga,” to establish correct positioning.

“The goal is to really relax and calm the body by using the props to support completely the pose, so you’re not really in any state of actively doing or really stretching, but you’re receiving the benefits,” he said.

Those benefits may come in the form of weight loss, stress and pain reduction and better sleep, according to the Sleep Foundation. Yoga is particularly beneficial, the foundation states, for improving sleep quality in older people experiencing sleep disruption from issues like insomnia and snoring.

As pandemic risks have abated, Hall said, he’s seen more restorative participants — many seniors among them — looking to reduce stress.

“We see a lot of seniors,” he said. “We’ve seen a lot more now that people are feeling a little bit more comfortable coming back into the studio … people who are retired and in that mindset of enabling themselves to just not constantly be doing, doing, doing.”

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