When medical problems more than a decade ago forced Spokane’s Peggy Kuwada to give up racquetball and weight lifting, she started looking for gentler forms of exercise.
“I was 40, but I felt 80,” said Kuwada, now 52. “I just couldn’t work out the way I used to.”
So she decided to give yoga a try and gradually began feeling healthier, she said, which led her to becoming a certified yoga instructor.
Today, Kuwada is one of a handful of yoga teachers spreading the age-old practice within a new generation of followers: Folks in the 55 and up crowd, the fastest growing segment of the U.S. population.
Classes are sponsored through the Seniors Program within Spokane Community Colleges’ Institute for Extended Learning.
On a recent spring morning, Kuwada dimmed the lights and slipped some New Age music on for some 10 older adults seated on yoga mats in Spokane Valley’s CenterPlace.
Almost instantly, her students – ranging in age from 55 to 84 – closed their eyes, rested their forearms on their knees, and clasped their fingers and thumbs skyward in a half Lotus pose.
“Sit tall,” said Kuwada softly to the class.
“Let’s start with a nice, slow deep breathe,” she said. “Bring your awareness to the room, to your breath,” she said.
With each inhalation, she continued to guide her pupils, reminding them to relax their jaws, shoulders, arms, hands and legs. Strains of flutes, strings and piano music wafted through the room.
It was as if someone flipped on a serenity switch.
The calming aspects of yoga are something these seniors said they wished they’d been introduced to years ago.
Cancer survivor Mary Jo Kane of Spokane Valley credited yoga’s contemplative side with delivering her through several rounds of chemotherapy in 2001. “It made all the difference in the world,” Kane, a student of Kuwada’s for seven years, said.
Kane found yoga gave her newfound self awareness. And she used its deep breathing techniques and mind-focusing exercises to relieve anxiety.
Kuwada coaxed her class through gentle stretching moves, followed by basic, traditional yoga poses, all of which she’s modified just for seniors.
She’s come up with a milder downward dog pose, with students holding onto chair seats – rather than hinging forward from the waist to place palms flat on the floor – a deep stretch for arms, backs and calves.
Such modifications help seniors of all abilities to ease into the movements, said Kuwada, now almost exclusively devoted to teaching holistic arts to older populations.
Last month, a report from the Temple University Gait Study Center found basic yoga exercises can help prevent falls among elderly women, a leading cause of nonfatal injuries and hospital admissions among those 65 and up, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Andrea Kaiserman enrolled in the program about a year and a half ago. “It’s done wonders for my balance and flexibility. I’m going to continue as long as I’m upright,” she laughed.
Five-year veteran Catherine Yojko likes being surrounded by other positive-thinking peers dedicated to good health. All too often, she said, seniors just want to ruminate over their aches and pains, she said.
Several other students said half the fun of yoga classes is socializing and making new friends.
For Janet Munson, a 64-year-old retired school teacher, yoga is like having a “chiropractor, a physical therapist and exercise all rolled into one.
“I can’t believe the difference in the quality of life it’s given me. My mother was old at this age – and I’m so much stronger and energetic,” she said.
“I don’t want to sit around and watch TV in my old age. I want to be out biking and having fun. And you have to stay fit to do it,” Munson said.