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Yoga Provides Health Benefits to Seniors

The staff at the Wakefield Senior Center sees a clear distinction among the seniors who take advantage of the Fairfax County center. Tina Stephens, the center's director, said there are those who come in for the lunch and those who visit to take part in the activities offered at the facility, located in Annandale.

"We're trying something different. We thought if we offered something totally different, it would get people active and attract new people," Stephens said.

As a way to get seniors up and moving, Wakefield will be offering a yoga class every Friday for 10 weeks beginning this March. The parks and recreation departments of the City of Fairfax, and the towns of Herndon and Vienna will also be offering yoga classes this spring, although the classes are not specifically for people 55 and older, as the county's is designated.

"WE DO BELIEVE IN IT. We have yoga and chair yoga," said Cheryl Laferty, program coordinator for senior services for the county's Community and Recreation Services Department. "It's really been something that has been taking off. The seniors out there want to stay fit and tone."

Hari Kaurkhalsa — a certified yoga instructor, who teaches classes for the Herndon recreation department, as well as in Reston, McLean and Tysons Corner — said that although none of her classes are senior-specific, she sees plenty of interest from the mature set. On average, she said approximately 10 percent of the students in any given class are seniors.

"It helps them. The people talk about being much more flexible and being able to take part in activities they thought they had to give up later in life, such as hiking," Kaurkhalsa said.

In general, yoga can not only improve flexibility but also help those suffering from arthritis or other joint problems by improving the range of motion. It also has emotional benefits for the participants.

"The core of yoga is you're supposed to notice the way the body feels with each movement and how you feel emotionally," said Cheryl Harlan, seniors program coordinator with the Vienna Parks and Recreation Department. "You can feel feelings of joy, frustration or anger, or be even-tempered."

Yoga, said Harlan originally was done as an extension of a meditation practice and has essentially remained a meditation practice of movement.

"Yoga and meditation are excellent coping skills," Kaurkhalsa said. "It helps your mind."

NOT ALL YOGA IS SUITED for all seniors, however. Kaurkhalsa said there are different styles, some of which can be more rigorous than others. She teaches a style called "Kundalini," which incorporates movements and breathing that seniors can do easily. Yoga that is offered by the recreation centers often includes movements that can be modified to fit the participant's fitness level.

"I think the main thing is finding the type of yoga or instructor that works for you. Ask to watch a class or to try one," Kaurkhalsa said.

Laferty said that all 13 county senior centers are seeing mature adults who want to stay fit, and one of the good things about yoga is its adaptability.

"You don't have to be a contortionist," Laferty said. "Seniors love it. It helps in so many ways."

The recreation departments of the City of Fairfax and the towns of Herndon and Vienna will be offering yoga classes beginning this March, although the classes are not specifically geared toward seniors. The county senior centers create their own recreation programs based on their clients, so programs can vary. Beginning in March, however, the Wakefield Center will be offering chair yoga.