Practicing yoga with Dad

My nearly 80 year old father came to visit last week.

He told me he was having difficulty getting out of his chair and sometimes stumbled when he was out walking. Dad does a lot of walking but at a leisurely pace and his thigh muscles looked very thin and shaky.

I panicked a bit. I really don’t want him to lose his mobility and independence. He is one who is supposed to lose his mind not his body. This is a family ‘joke’, oh how we laugh!

After some research I learned something so simple and obvious that I feel a bit silly not having come across it before.

Proprioception – rolls off your tongue, right?!

Proprioception is our body’s ability to know where our limbs are in space without seeing them. It is the link between sensation and movement, via sensory receptors in our muscles and tendons travelling to our central nervous system (CNS). This link can be impaired through injury, medical conditions including diabetes, alcohol (e.g. when we can’t touch our fingers to our nose after a few too many vinos) and over time with age. Occasionally we experience a temporary loss of this proprioceptive link if we sit in an awkward position and give ourselves a dead arm or leg. Or try to drink with numb lips after visiting the dentist.

One of our most proprioceptor rich areas are the soles of our feet, so working with the feet and improving responsiveness can hugely help with our balance and help us stay stable as we get older. And it is never too late to develop this “sixth sense”.

Here are some simple ways to develop your proprioceptive system:

  1. Regular foot massages to restore circulation and bring back feeling to the feet;
  2. Rolling a spiky massage ball around under the soles of our feet;
  3. Walking barefoot, especially on uneven surfaces like sand;
  4. Practicing yoga poses with eyes shut. This is to be practiced only once the student is confident with the pose with eyes open!
  5. Active yoga feet.

“Active yoga feet” is when we spread our toes and keep all four corners of our feet pressing down onto the mat. I understood that active feet helped with balance and made the legs feel stronger but I didn’t know the science behind it.

In a 2008 article on the Gaia website, Dr Carla Cupido writes:

“This “yoga foot” helps to increase the sensory feedback to the CNS, therefore improving the stability of the body in the upright position. (Liebenson, p.518) Working with the yoga foot through poses will heighten the sensory feedback from the body, especially during balance poses during which the proprioceptive system is ultimately challenged. Via this challenge, great improvements to the system can be made.”

It makes sense, right?

The more responsive we train our feet to be, the more effective the sensory link will be to our CNS, improving our stability and balance.

Going back to Dad, I bought him a spiky ball to massage his feet, which didn’t look very responsive. I am sorry, I didn’t give him a foot massage. It would have been way too weird for us both but I did devise a basic yoga sequence for him to build strength in his legs and also improve his balance. I incorporated some responsive foot exercises into the initial warm up and we worked on active feet through out the practice.

The idea of practicing yoga can sound a bit woo-woo to an 80 year old parent but once I explained how sensation is linked to movement it was like a light bulb moment. He said his GP couldn’t explain why he was losing his balance and this made complete sense to him.

I have packed him off home and apparently he is doing his exercises every day and feeling stronger.

I really hope so.

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