Keep calm and mobile with yoga

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Carol Sorgen

Timonium resident Mark Hambleton practices yoga most every day to help stay strong and flexible — and as a form of meditation. An estimated 21 million American adults are learning and practicing yoga today. Studies indicate regular practice can decrease blood sugar, blood pressure and promote better sleep.
Photo by Christopher Myers

Suzy Pennington fell in love with yoga within the first five minutes of her first class.

“It wasn’t just the exercise or the social component,” she said. “It was the mindfulness and the sense of paying attention. It brought quietness to my mind that I hadn’t experienced before.”

Pennington was 39 at the time. Like many baby boomers who came of age in the ‘60s, she was familiar with the concept of yoga from hearing about musical groups, such as the Beatles, that traveled to India to learn yoga and meditation. But she hadn’t actually tried it then.

Pennington, who holds an MBA and was a former marketing executive, went on to establish Susquehanna Yoga and Meditation Center, which she still directs (www.syoga.com). When she opened it 20 years ago, there were only two other yoga studios in Maryland. “Now there are probably close to 100,” she said.

Pennington says most of her students are between the ages of 40 and 80. “Twenty-year olds are looking for their ‘edges,’” she said. “Older adults are looking for their center.”

Popular with those 50+

Another thing older adults are looking for is a way to maintain their independence and mobility as they age. Yoga is becoming a popular way to do just that, according to the American Senior Fitness Association.

“Yoga has been shown to help alleviate or reduce many of the health challenges linked to a sedentary lifestyle, making it an increasingly popular exercise choice for our older adult population,” the association’s website says.

As a result, yoga classes today are offered in retirement communities, senior centers, private yoga studios and more.

Joan P. Cohen, who lives in Guilford, takes a yoga class right in her condominium community with a teacher who comes in from YogaWorks (www.yogaworks.com, formerly Charm City Yoga).

Cohen, 66, has been taking one or two classes a week for the past six years and notes that all the students are “of a certain generation.”

“It’s another form of exercise besides walking,” she said, observing that she’s more limber than she otherwise might be without yoga. “It also gives me quiet time so I’m not so stressed,” she added. “The class is a time and a reason for me to be quiet.”

Mark Hambleton, 56, first began practicing yoga “on and off” when he was 20. But for the past 12 years, the Timonium resident has been a faithful practitioner — doing some form of yoga almost daily at home, and taking classes weekly at Pennington’s studio in Towson.

“I started doing yoga as an exercise and meditation, and have been consistent in my practice in order to stay in shape and maintain strength in my shoulder, which has a history of dislocation,” Hambleton said.

Yoga not only keeps his body flexible and strong, but enables him to be both “mindful and calm,” he added. Hambleton, who runs a computer software business, also teaches meditation and offers workshops on integrated healing, including nutrition and exercise.

A history of benefits

Yoga originated over 4,000 years ago as a wholistic Hindu philosophy and practice designed to liberate the inner self from the activity of body, mind and will. Today, most yoga studios focus on various stretches, poses and breathing exercises that induce a feeling of well-being and build physical strength.

In the last 20 years or so, such yoga classes have flourished, especially in the U.S.

 Yoga has been shown to offer numerous health benefits, including better sleep, a decrease in blood sugar and cholesterol levels, reduction in chronic pain and improved breathing.

According to the National Institutes of Health’s National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, recent studies in people with chronic low-back pain suggest that a carefully adapted set of yoga poses may help reduce pain and improve the ability to walk and move.

Other studies suggest that practicing yoga (as well as other forms of regular exercise) might have other health benefits, such as reducing heart rate and blood pressure, and may also help relieve anxiety and depression.

On the other hand, some studies suggest yoga is not helpful for asthma, and studies looking at yoga and arthritis have had mixed results.

Debbie Saag, 59, first took up yoga in 1997 during a period of “disruption” in her life. One class led to another, and soon she was adjusting her schedule to take as many classes as she could. Two years later she took a yoga training course and today is an instructor with YogaWorks

Saag, who lives in Canton, said that yoga not only brings her peace of mind, but also improves her flexibility, balance, mobility and strength.

“As we get older,” she explained, “it’s easy to let gravity take over. We hunch over. We lose stability in our spine and our core. Yoga helps us fight gravity.”

Free outdoor classes

While most yoga classes are offered for a fee (you can purchase individual classes or group sessions), yoga instructors LA (Lee Anne) Finfinger and her husband Paul Wetzel founded Free Baltimore Yoga (www.freebaltimoreyoga.com) last year when they relocated to Baltimore from Pittsburgh.

Though there were already numerous yoga programs in Baltimore, Finfinger started FBY for two reasons. For starters, she was finding the “business” of yoga “exhausting.” And secondly, she loves that FBY’s classes are offered on a weekly basis in public spaces that are not existing yoga studios.

“This enables the program to grow in ways that are not confined to a brick and mortar location. And it enables the program to provide yoga to people who may not otherwise have access to, or feel comfortable in, a traditional studio setting,” she said of the free classes.

FBY’s classes are offered on Tuesdays at Patterson Park Youth Sports and Education Center, Wednesdays at Pixilated Photo Booth’s offices in Southwest Baltimore, and Thursdays at the Parks & People Foundation’s headquarters in Druid Hill Park.

Finfinger, 37, hopes to inspire others to love yoga as much as she does. “I was never really an athlete as a child or in my 20s. When I found yoga, that changed completely,” said Finfinger.

“I found a physical practice that was fun, challenging and had wellness benefits that far exceeded just the physical. The mood-boosting effects of yoga are the most powerful and important part of my consistent yoga practice.

“I became a certified, full-time yoga teacher soon after finding the practice, and I haven’t looked back!”

Despite the numerous reported physical benefits of yoga, Finfinger advises those who already have health conditions to check with their healthcare provider to see that they are healthy enough for a consistent yoga practice. (Certain poses, or asanas, may not be indicated for those who suffer from high blood pressure or glaucoma, for example.)

According to Finfinger, there is no age limit on any style of yoga, although some styles are more vigorous than others. She recommends checking out different teachers, studios and classes.

“Don’t be afraid to ask questions,” she said. “Most yoga teachers are happy to help students find a class that is a fit for them.”