Yoga for Seniors + 5 Breathing Exercises (Pranayama) for Older Adults
The body undergoes degenerative changes as we age. We cannot reverse or halt this natural process, but we can go through it gracefully, and yoga is a fantastic resource to accomplish this.
Pranayama is the term for breathing techniques used in yoga. Patanjali, the father of Yoga, calls breathing the ‘heart of yoga’ in his foundational text Yoga Sutras. But there seems to be some hesitancy when it comes to pranayama and yoga breathing among the older population. Much of it is due to a misconception that breathwork is ‘dangerous’ or improper for older adults.
Yoga offers several modified practices that respect bodily limitations and allow seniors to practice it safely. Finding the perfect routine is about choosing techniques appropriate for your age and health conditions. Ideally, you would learn them from a teacher. But we recognize that this may not be possible for a variety of social, financial, or geographical reasons.
If that is the case, you can learn about the benefits and precautions of an exercise before you attempt it. Some breathing exercises are contraindicated in certain health conditions. For example, a particular practice may demand that you retain or suspend the breath. Breath retention is contraindicated in anxiety, hypertension, and heart disease. You can do the exercise without the breath retention component (skip the step) or choose another one.
In this post, we have taken the utmost care to include yoga breathing techniques that are safe for the general population. They are easy-to-follow, effective, and can be done at any place or time.
Benefits of Pranayama for Seniors
Pranayama is an effective way for seniors to improve mental and physical health. A study reported that a yoga program can alleviate the symptoms of hypertension, osteoporosis, and arthritis – the 3 most common conditions affecting the aging population. Similarly, another study indicates that yoga improves mental health in seniors. This, of course, is just the tip of the (empirical) iceberg.
Regardless of age, anyone who practices pranayama may benefit through improved circulation, reduced stress, better autonomic function, and relief in numerous health conditions. Seniors can use pranayama for pain management or supplement ongoing medical treatment.
The latter should be done under the guidance of an expert and in consultation with your healthcare giver. These benefits are contextual, but there is one undeniable reason for seniors to take up pranayama. It improves the quality of life by creating relaxation in the body and mind. It's an avenue to make positive changes in your perception and personality.
So, let's look at four easy and effective breathing practices that you can adopt as a beginner.
1. Diaphragmatic Breathing
Diaphragmatic breathing is our first recommendation because it is as straightforward as it gets. It’s not even a yoga breathing practice per se. It’s just the right way to breathe – a trait that is not as common as we would like to believe.
How to do diaphragmatic breathing?
Get into a seated meditation posture or lie on a yoga mat in Corpse Pose.
Place the right hand over the navel and the left one on the lower end of the ribcage.
Close your eyes and bring your awareness to your breathing.
Breathe from the diaphragm, causing the belly to fill up.
The right hand will rise as the belly expands. The left hand should not rise before it.
This is called diaphragmatic breathing. Do this for 3 to 5 minutes.
Built it up to 10 minutes over one week before you add another practice.
During diaphragmatic breathing, the hand on the navel should always rise before the hand above it. It indicates you are doing it correctly.
2. Three-Part Breathing
Three-part breathing is called Dirgha (pronounced: deer-GHA) Breathing in yoga. The Sanskrit word Dirgha translates to ‘long’ (in space or time). Thereby, the point of this breathing practice is to lengthen your breath, encourage diaphragmatic breathing, and calm the mind and body.
How is this achieved? We do it by taking slow, deep breaths, using the three parts of breathing - the diaphragm (abdomen or belly), clavicular (rib cage), and upper lobar (upper chest) sections. Do not that breathing is not divided into three parts. It's one smooth and constant flow of breath.
How to do the yogic three-part breath?
To do three-part breathing, get into Corpse Pose on a yoga mat.
Gentle, deep inhale: Fill up the belly – then the rib cage – then the upper chest.
Slow, deep exhale: Empty the upper chest, rib cage, and belly.
This is the three-part breath. Do this for 10 breaths or a few minutes.
Set your own pace and stay relaxed for the entirety of your practice.
Try to keep your mind clear and link it to the breath for a calming effect. It will take some practice to achieve smooth breathing. Build capacity gradually to avoid taxing the breathing apparatus. Overdoing three-part breathing can lead to dizziness and temporary discomfort.
There is no breath retention is three-part breathing. You may notice a natural pause between the inhale and exhale. That's fine!
3. Bhramari, Bee Breathing or the Humming Breath
Bhramari alludes to 'Bhramar' – the Sanskrit term for a Bumblebee or Carpenter Bee found in the Indian sub-continent. It involves exhaling while making a bee-like humming sound. That's it. It's an easy practice that can be done without any previous experience in yoga.
How to do yogic Bee Breathing?
Get into a seated meditation posture (you cannot do this one while lying down).
Try Easy Pose (Sukhasana) or use a chair if you cannot sit cross-legged.
Close your eyes, plug your ears with the index or middle finger. Inhale.
Make a humming or buzzing sound (like a bee!) as you exhale.
The lips are sealed for the entire practice.
Typically, the exhale is longer than the inhale. You can start with an even duration and build it up gradually. Forcing the exhale is not advisable.
This is one round of Bee Breathing. Try 5 to 10 rounds or as long as it feels good.
In yoga, we chant ‘AUM’ as we exhale. There is nothing spiritual or religious about it if that is a concern. In Indic philosophy, it is the primal or first sound created. Alternatively, you can just articulate ‘hmmmm’ or ‘M’, if you feel more comfortable doing it that way.
Once you learn how to lengthen the exhale, you will notice that Bhramari is an excellent resource to relax the body and mind. A recent study  concluded that Bhramari pranayama has an immediate positive effect on high blood pressure and can be used daily to reduce cardiovascular risk.
4. Mindful Breathing
Mindfulness is often associated with meditation. Mindful breathing on the other hand is just another term for breath awareness. It involves remaining in the present and directing your attention to the breath without trying to alter or control it.
When you start, you may find your mind uncontrollably drifting away. Allow it to flitter without letting it irk you. Shake off the distraction and gently usher your attention back to your breath. Some people suggest that using a mantra (chant) makes the process easy.
Mindful is a basic practice but powerful nonetheless. A study  noted that five minutes of mindful breathing could be useful in distress reduction in palliative care patients. It reduces anger, negative emotions, and anxiety. It is a great way to alleviate stress and anchor the mind. We recommend using it right before bed or at the very start of your daily pranayama practice.
5. Even Breathing with Visualization Meditation
In this practice, we fuse yoga breathing with meditation. All you need to do is pick a seated or supine posture like Easy Pose or Corpse Pose. Close your eyes and breathe evenly. Even breathing refers to a 1:1 ratio. That means you inhale for 4 seconds and exhale for 4 seconds. The actual count is not fixed. Feel free to choose a measure that feels natural and comfortable.
After a few rounds of breathing, try to visualize something calming, restful, or meaningful. It can be something as simple as a full moon, a scenic beach, or someone affable from your past or present. If you have trouble visualizing scenery, try imagining a blue light entering you with each breath and washing through your body to purify it. Get creative with your visualizations but ensure that there is something meaningful associated with it.
Do seniors need yoga props or accessories for yoga breathing?
Yoga props are not mandated for yoga breathing. The only thing you need is a yoga mat or something equivalent. Nevertheless, we highly recommend using blankets, yoga bolsters, and eye pillows for beginners, seniors, or those with prohibitive aches and pains.
Firstly, it provides relief and adds a relaxing/restorative element to your practice. Secondly, it makes things more pleasant, which will keep you from quitting. Relaxation/comfort is something we look forward to each day. In that sense, yoga props are a worthwhile investment.
We have shared five breathing exercises for seniors as a gentle way to get started. Start slow and add a new exercise only after you are adjusted to the previous one. Be mindful and respect your limitations. This is our suggestion for how to structure your yoga routine:
Start with a brisk walk or a few minutes on a treadmill
Do gentle stretching and joint movements for a few minutes
Do at least ten minutes of pranayama
Add 5 to 10 minutes of meditation if possible
We encourage you to discuss the routine with your therapist or healthcare giver to get an informed perspective on what works best for you. If you are tuning in to Prana Sutra for the first time, start with our yoga breathing guidelines for old age and seniors.
Stay the Course: Related Articles
Crews, Leigh. "Designing a yoga program for active seniors: how a simple yoga practice can alleviate symptoms of arthritis, hypertension and osteoporosis, three health conditions that typically affect older adults." IDEA Fitness Journal, vol. 2, no. 4, Apr. 2005, pp. 56+.
Shashidhara. (2018). Effect of yoga on mental health among young and seniors in India. International Journal of Adapted Physical Education & Yoga, Vol. 3, No. 1, pp. 1 to 8.
Sathe, Samiksha, et al. "To Find Out Immediate Effect of Bhramari Pranayama on Blood Pressure, Heart Rate, and Oxygen Saturation in Hypertensive Patients." International Journal of Current Research and Review, vol 12, no. 19, October 2020, DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.31782/IJCRR.2020.121919
Beng, Tan Seng, et al. “Distress Reduction for Palliative Care Patients and Families With 5-Minute Mindful Breathing: A Pilot Study.” American Journal of Hospice and Palliative Medicine®, vol. 33, no. 6, July 2016, pp. 555–560, doi:10.1177/1049909115569048.