As we age, we lose muscle mass: between 3 and 5 percent per decade after the age of 30 and up to 12 percent between 60 and 70, according to Tufts University. Our balance and overall strength also decline, which means everyday tasks become harder, and our risk of falls and injuries grows higher.
But staying strong and healthy into your golden years doesn't have to be a stress-inducing endeavor. In fact, it can be quite the opposite: Adopting a gentle yoga practice with just a few moves a day can do wonders for your physical and mental health as you age.
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When it comes to aging gracefully, yoga is a great option, according to an August 2021 review in Advances in Geriatric Medicine and Research. That review found that yoga has been shown to improve things like mobility, balance and mental health in older adults, and it also helps prevent age-related cognitive decline (or loss of brain function).
Unilateral Yoga Poses for Stability and Strength
Practicing unilateral yoga poses (that is, poses that train one side of the body at a time) may have additional benefits for strength and balance.
My students will often tell me that one side of their body (typically the dominant side) feels stronger than the other. That's because many of us tend to unconsciously use the muscles on our dominant side more often (think: carrying a bag on one side or using one arm to lift or open things).
Unilateral movements help you train both sides of your body equally because you're isolating each side and putting the same load or stress on the muscles, according to the American Council on Exercise (ACE). This can correct any muscle imbalances you may have, improve your balance, help with proper core engagement and even help prevent or rehabilitate injuries.
Below, you'll find six beginner-level yoga poses you can practice daily for more stability and overall strength.
1. Single-Leg Bridge
Bridge pose is one of the best yoga poses for strengthening your glutes and legs while stabilizing the muscles in your hips. It also gently works your back and other muscles of your core to give your spine some sweet relief from compression and pain.
Amping this posture up by lifting one knee and putting most of your weight on the supporting leg is a great way to target each leg individually so both sides are activated equally.
- Begin on your back with your arms by your sides, palms facing down and feet planted on the ground as close to your butt as they can get.
- Take a deep breath into your rib cage and as you exhale, press your hips up as high as they can go, keeping your lower back long (imagine drawing your bellybutton toward your upper body to find length). Gently press your hands into the ground to lift up higher.
- Once your hips are lifted, lift your left knee and bring it toward your chest, keeping the knee bent at a 90-degree angle. Keep your left foot active by arching the foot, pressing the ball of the foot forward. Make sure to maintain length in your lower back.
- Hold the pose for three to five deep breaths, then gently lower the left foot to the ground, then lower the hips to the ground. Perform on the other side.
If lifting the leg feels like too much, perform your glute bridge with both feet on the ground until you feel stronger. Experiment with lifting one foot off the ground an inch or two and taking a few breaths.
2. Box Lunge
Doing the box lunge will help create stability in your lower body by engaging the hips, legs and glutes. In order to balance, you'll need to engage your abdominals and keep your hips aligned.
Raising the arms gives this pose an added benefit of lengthening those core muscles while strengthening the shoulders. Bonus: It'll help stretch your entire spine.
- Begin on all fours with your hips over your knees and your shoulders over your wrists.
- Bring your left foot forward in between your hands so that your knee is stacked over your ankle, bent at about a 90-degree angle.
- Press down into your right shin and right foot (you can keep the top of the foot down or place your right toes down — whichever is more comfortable in your body).
- Before you come up, press down firmly into your left foot — the ball of the foot and the heel — and lengthen your tailbone down toward the mat.
- Engage your core for stability, then slowly place your hands on your left thigh to help you lift your torso up so the crown of your head points towards the ceiling. Draw your lower belly up and in to lift up out of your hips and lengthen your lower back.
- If it’s comfortable, lift your arms up overhead and bring your biceps by your ears. In this version of the pose, avoid dumping your weight forward into the hips. Think of moving upward instead of forward. Keep your shoulders down and away from your ears and lift your sternum up.
- Hold the pose for three to five deep breaths, then lower your hands down to frame your front foot, return to all fours and perform on the other side.
3. Bird Dog
You'll really get a feel for how your core supports your stability and balance in bird dog pose. With one leg lifted and the opposite arm in the air, keeping the abdominals and back muscles engaged will help you balance and build strength in your entire body.
- Begin on all fours and activate your core muscles by drawing your belly in and lengthening the back of your body from crown to tailbone. (Imagine someone pulling a string attached to you at both ends.)
- Inhale into your rib cage and on the exhale, extend your left leg back behind you with your toes on the floor.
- Then, gently lift the left leg and press the heel of your foot back (as though you’re pressing it up against a wall).
- Take a moment to find stability with your leg lifted and take a few breaths. Be mindful in keeping your back straight, lifting your mid-back toward the ceiling and hugging your ribs and belly in.
- Once you feel stable, extend your right arm out in front of you and lift it so it’s parallel to the ground.
- Breathe in the pose for three to five breaths, then return to all fours and perform with the opposite arm and leg.
4. Supported Side Plank
With one knee, shin and foot planted firmly on the ground while the other leg extends behind you, you should feel supported side plank activating all the muscles in your core, especially the obliques (or the abdominal muscles along the side of your body).
The oblique muscles play a big role in supporting your spine and overall stability. Plus, this pose will also work your shoulder muscles, the muscles in your upper back and your hips and glutes.
- Begin on all fours, then extend your left leg back behind you with your toes planted on the floor.
- Place your left heel down so your entire foot is planted on the ground and press your right shin into the ground for stability.
- Lift your left hand and extend your arm up toward the ceiling. Your hips will open toward the side of your mat.
- Gaze up at your left thumb. Be mindful in keeping your neck long — don’t let your head drop down.
- Take three to five breaths in the pose before gently bringing your left arm back down, and come back to face the center of your mat. Come back to all fours, then perform on the other side.
5. Tree Pose
Trees are some of the most stable and strong structures in nature, and practicing tree pose can help you cultivate the same qualities in your body.
This pose requires putting all of your weight on one leg, which will strengthen you from your roots (aka your feet) to your legs and hips, and lengthen your entire spine all the way up to the crown of your head.
- Stand with your feet hip-width apart. Let your arms rest by your sides, palms facing out, and your eyes gaze straight ahead.
- Engage your core by pulling your lower belly up and in and put your weight onto your left foot.
- Lift your left knee up toward your belly, grabbing hold of the knee at the top. Keep the standing leg straight but don't lock the knee. (Try your best not to bend down to grab the knee or foot.)
- Grab hold of your left ankle or foot and place the sole of your left foot onto the inside of your right thigh. Allow your left knee to relax down.
- Alternatively, you can place the sole of your left foot just below your knee or on your ankle with your left toes on the ground. Never place the foot directly on the knee!
- Once you feel stable here, place your palms together in front of your heart and roll your shoulders down and back (away from your ears), creating length in your abdominals and upper back.
- If it’s comfortable, extend your arms above your head in a V shape, keeping your shoulders down and away from your ears.
- Hold the posture for three to five deep breaths, then slowly bring your left knee back to center so that your knee is facing forward.
- Gently place the foot back down on the ground, then perform on the other side.
6. Eagle Pose
Eagle pose is known for honing your focus, and because it requires standing on one leg, it'll also help you cultivate stability and strength. This pose activates the muscles in your feet, ankles, legs and hips and opens up your entire back body, especially the upper back and shoulders.
- Begin standing with your feet hip-width apart with your arms down by your sides.
- Bend your knees slightly, then put your weight onto your left foot.
- Balance on your left foot and take an inhale. On your exhale, lift your right knee and cross your right thigh over your left.
- If it feels comfortable, hook the top of your right foot behind your left calf. Alternatively, you can skip hooking your right foot and rest your right toes on the floor for more support.
- Extend both your arms out straight in front of you, then rest your right arm under your left elbow.
- Bend both elbows, then draw your forearms toward you so that your hands are facing up toward the ceiling. Wrap your forearms and hands and, if it’s accessible, press your palms together (or as close as you can get them). If your arms can’t wrap or hands don’t touch, you can press the backs of your hands together.
- On an inhale, keep the arms wrapped and gently lift your elbows, keeping your shoulders down and away from your ears. Reach your fingertips up toward the ceiling as high as they will go.
- Be mindful to keep your hip bones and chest facing forward, and keep your core engaged by drawing your belly up and in. Lift your sternum up.
- Gaze at your thumbs and hold the pose for three to five deep breaths.
- Gently unwind your arms, then your legs and return to standing. Perform on the other side.