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N C C A M Research Blog

Q&A With Drs. Gale Greendale and George Salem

January 28, 2013
Gale Greendale, M.D., George Salem, Ph.D.

On January 14, Dr. George Salem, Associate Professor, Division of Biokinesiology & Physical Therapy and Co-Director of the Musculoskeletal Biomechanics Research Laboratory delivered the NCCAM Integrative Medicine Research Lecture. The focus of his talk was on the Yoga Empowers Seniors Study - a research study which aims to quantify the physical demands of yoga in seniors.

Dr. Salem, along with his colleague Dr. Gale Greendale, Professor, Department of Medicine, Divisions of Geriatrics and General Internal Medicine, University of California Los Angeles discuss their research in this Q&A with NCCAM Program Director Dr. Partap Khalsa.  Below are some excerpts from the interview.

Are there safety issues to consider when practicing yoga? In particular, is it safe for older adults?

Like other forms of movement, yoga is safe in older persons if certain conditions are met. The level of the activity (e.g., intensity, balance demands, range of motion required) must be properly matched to the yoga practitioner.

Thus, we must take care to “get it right” when teaching yoga to seniors. Compared to younger adults, in general, older adults have less strength, range-of-motion, and balance. With age, we also have more “medical baggage” (conditions such as osteoarthritis, heart disease, diabetes, etc.) that play into pose selection and modification.

We are currently conducting research into how to maximize yoga’s safety in seniors. But, how can we maximize safety of yoga in seniors in real time while that research is ongoing? The following suggestions are based on our clinical and research experience to date. Prior to beginning a yoga program, older adults should see their primary care provider to get advice on any restrictions or special advice pertaining to their health. Then the yoga student should inform the yoga instructor, so that he/she is aware of any relevant conditions.

From the yoga instructor’s perspective, heightened attention to safety and more intense supervision is paramount when teaching seniors. Because seniors have reduced sensory feedback capabilities and many have not participated in movement programs for some time, they can potentially put themselves into postures that they are not capable of safely performing. With respect to asana (pose) selection, the traditional poses should be modified in order to reduce the risk of injury. Our study provides biomechanical evidence to help instructors select appropriate poses and pose modifications for this purpose.

What is biomechanics, and how was this field utilized in your study?

Biomechanics is the study of the physical properties of biological systems. Kinesiologists, exercise scientists, and neuroscientists (along with a host of other researchers) use this discipline to study and quantify the physical attributes of human movement. That is what we did in the YESS study.  We used biomechanical investigation (motion analysis with high-speed cameras & force platforms, and electromyography—a measure of muscle activation) to quantify the physical demands (joint angles, joint moments/torques, and muscle recruitment patterns) of yoga poses (asanas) used in a 32-week yoga intervention for seniors. We also used this type of analysis to quantify some of the adaptations (walking speed, balance capabilities) associated with the intervention.

Read the full interview