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Fit after 50: Staying flexible with yoga

Kareemabduljabbar_yoga
(Photo left: then; Kareem 1981. Photo right: now; Kareem 2008)

Yoga scares some people. They imagine a white-robed cult of New Age zombies sipping herbal green tea and smiling vacantly. For some, the problem is the word itself: yoga. Funny-looking, foreign and too exotic. Okay, for you we’ll call it “power-stretching” or “ultimate breathing” or “hot-bod sculpting.”  Is that better? Because the truth is that yoga is an excellent means of creating a more flexible and healthy body that will be less prone to injuries. And the most important part of staying fit after 50  is avoiding workout injuries that can disrupt your exercise program for weeks or even months.

I’ve been an enthusiastic practitioner of yoga since high school. Yoga is one of the reasons that I was able to play professional basketball as long as I did with as few injuries as I had. One of the first improvements I noticed was in my posture. Before yoga I’d been having lower back pains; after I started practicing the positions, my overall health improved significantly. (FYI: the practice of yoga began 3,000 years ago in India. The word “yoga” is Sanskrit and means to “union,” meaning to join together the mind, body, and spirit.)

There are many different styles of yoga. I practice Bikram yoga as well as several other styles.  Beginners tend to do what I call the “yoga tour” -- that is, trying out the different styles until they find the right ones for them. That’s a perfectly reasonable approach and is more likely to produce the results they’re looking for.

When Miami Dolphins Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Marino came to me to ask me how to extend his longevity and deal with all the collision-type injuries you get from playing football, I steered him to yoga; the next time I saw him he said it was absolutely helpful in his training regimen.

Those of you who studied pilates know that a large part of its foundation is based on yoga. My father started doing yoga in his late 70s and it helped him to stop his decline of flexibility.  So whether you're in top athletic shape like my friend Dan Marino or just have old achy bones like my Dad, I thought I'd give those of you who are ready to get started a few tips:

1. Be consistent. Any new endeavor requires a period of commitment. At first, you may feel awkward or self-conscious, but promise yourself that you’ll stick with it for two months. At the same time, to receive the most benefits, you’ll need to practice yoga at least three times a week.

2. It’s not a competition. As a beginner, your body needs a period of adjustment as it adapts to new demands. Don’t push yourself beyond your limits just because you see others able to do what you can’t. We don’t throw the teen that just got his driver’s license into the Indy 500. Take your time.

3. Practice with a friend. It’s easier to keep motivated if you have someone you work out with. So, if you intend to take a yoga class at your fitness club, or practice at home with a DVD, see if you can get a friend to practice with you.

I started teaching myself yoga when I was 14, from a book. At the time, there weren’t many other opportunities to learn yoga. Today there are many classes available from fitness clubs, community colleges, yoga centers and senior centers. There are hundreds of books and DVDs that can be ordered off the Internet. Today about 18 million to 20 million Americans practice yoga regularly, including everyone from children to senior citizens, from weekend warriors to professional athletes, from soccer moms to marathon-running moms.

There’s a reason yoga has grown so dramatically in popularity: it works! It’s worked for me for over 45 years and it can work for you starting today.

(Photo credit: left: Aaron Rappaport; right: John Russo)

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Comments

Kareem:
After years of playing contact sports and accumulating many nagging injuries I hurt my back (1995) and was introduced to Yoga. It took a while to make the transition to a non-competitive work out but I found a Rodney Yee CD in 2002 and do it now twice a day for at least 15 minutes and recommend it for anyone that wants to learn how their body really works. It's beyond athletics and working out. It will tune you into your mind, body and can really give you a spiritual experience. Thanks for the blog and all of the UCLABucks&Lakers fun. And keep up the jazz talk... Miles&Monk&Bird lives!

Kareem,

I'm also a yoga practitioner. I do a style of Northern Taoist Ch'i Gung called Peckwar that's a lot like Ashtanga yoga.

I've heard a lot about Bikram. Why do you like it more than other styles?

Personally, I wish yoga was taught in school and were it not for the "New Age Cult" stereotype associated with it, it probably would be.

Yoga cuts down on athletic injuries and tones the entire body while fostering a greater sense of personal relaxation. It's fantastic stuff and anything to promote its popularization is alright by me.

What a pleasant surprise! For years I have encouraged my sons to learn yoga in order to improve their basketball skills and strengthen their ability to reach high at the boards and concentrate at the free throw line. They instead practiced martial arts. Yoga is also self-healing. Recalling an attempt to reach my orthopedic physician for a follow-up appointment from a broken foot that just wasn't right, which I knew from practicing yoga since college. The appointment was not available for 30 days. I decided a yoga treatment was worth a try and miraculously I felt all of the bones that were not aligned fall immediately into place, ending my need for the appointment.

Congratulations for being named the number one College Basketball Player of all time, talk about being On the Shoulders of Giants!

Thanks again for addressing some of the fears and misconceptions I hear from people when I beat the drum (or gong) for the benefits of yoga as a fitness and therapeutic aid for those of us over 50. Yoga not only leads to improved posture, internal organ function, balance, flexibility, and mental focus, it’s a terrific antidote for stress. Lose the fear, try yoga!

Congratulations on your blog Kareem! One of my yoga students, Sage Rountree, just had her first book published. It's called "THE ATHLETE"S GUIDE TO YOGA, An Integrated Approach To Strength, Flexibility And Focus". You and some of your readers might find it an interesting read. It also comes with a very helpful DVD of 15 minute warm-up and cool-down routines. Namaste!

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Captain Kareem

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is considered by many fans and sportswriters to be the greatest basketball player of all time. The 7-foot-2 Hall of Fame center, famous for his indefensible skyhook, dominated the NBA for 20 years, first with the Milwaukee Bucks then with the Los Angeles Lakers. Before that he was the star of the UCLA Bruins teams that won three consecutive NCAA championships. Kareem was the NBA's MVP six times, a 19-time all-star and set the NBA all-time records in nine categories. He is the NBA's all-time leading scorer with 38,387 points, a record that may never be broken.

Since retiring as a player in 1989, Kareem has balanced his love of basketball with his love of history. In 2002 he led a USBL team, the Oklahoma Storm, to a championship. Since 2005, he has been the special assistant coach for the Lakers, working with Andrew Bynum.

In 2008 he was chosen The Greatest Player in College Basketball History.

Kareem also remains intellectually active, authoring six bestselling history books intended to popularize the contributions of African-Americans to American culture and history. His books include "Black Profiles in Courage: A Legacy of African-American Achievement"; "Brothers in Arms: The Epic Story of the 761st Tank Battalion, WWII's Forgotten Heroes"; "A Season on the Reservation," which chronicles his time teaching basketball and history on an Apache Indian reservation in White River, Ariz.; and the current New York Times and Los Angeles Times bestseller, "On the Shoulders of Giants: My Journey Through the Harlem Renaissance."

His audio adaptation, "On the Shoulders of Giants: My Audio & Musical Journey through the Harlem Renaissance," is a four-volume compilation read by Bob Costas, Avery Brooks, Jesse L. Martin, and Stanley Crouch, and features private and fascinating conversations with dozens of icons, including Coach John Wooden, Julius Erving, Charles Barkley, Samuel L. Jackson, Maya Angelou, Quincy Jones and Billy Crystal. He has also been written to L.A. Times, under the Sports section.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has been appearing on various radio stations and TV shows, as well as the most relevant websites talking about his life and his new audio book, On the Shoulders of Giants.

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