The Do’s and Don’ts of Yoga for Osteoporosis

An elderly woman performing yoga for osteoporosis prevention

Article At A Glance

Why is yoga such an effective practice to help prevent or treat osteoporosis?  “Because yoga poses pull and stretch the bones from every conceivable angle, yoga also may stimulate the formation of a bone structure that is able to resist greater amounts of pressure, as well as many different types of challenges,” says Dr. Loren Fishman. To successfully build bone mass, consistently practice yoga and other exercises for osteoporosis for a minimum of 30 minutes a day, five days a week. Included below are helpful do’s and don’ts for a safe and healthy yoga practice.

As we age, it’s normal to lose some bone mass. But losing an excessive amount of bone mass is not. When that happens, the culprit is osteoporosis.

What is Osteoporosis?

Osteoporosis is a disease that weakens the bones and makes them more susceptible to fractures and breaks. Osteoporosis can be prevented and treated with a regimen of weight-bearing exercises, such as yoga for osteoporosis, as well as a good diet and lifestyle routines.

Osteoporosis is a “silent disease” that occurs with no warning or symptoms. Loren Fishman, MD, and Ellen Saltonstall, co-authors of Yoga for Osteoporosis, say osteoporosis is one of the most widespread chronic health problems found in Western societies. Osteoporosis causes a million fractures each year, most of which are vertebral fractures, and about 300,000 are hip fractures.

“We worry so much about breast cancer in women; however, in actuality, the risk of a hip fracture is equal to the combined risk of breast, uterine, and ovarian cancer,” says Dr. Fishman, an Iyengar-trained yoga teacher and managing partner of Manhattan Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. Twenty-five percent of those with hip fractures die, and another 25% permanently enter nursing homes, he adds.

Building Bone Strength with Yoga Poses

Yoga teacher guiding an elderly woman through a series of yoga poses to alleviate the symptoms of osteoporosis

Dr. Fishman is currently conducting a major study on the bone-building benefits of yoga and osteoporosis. He says, “When bone cells get stimulated by being compressed, twisted, or elongated, they produce more bone mass until that bone gets strong enough to resist the pressure. In osteoporosis, the bones bend more, so the pressure is more effective in stimulating the cells to make bone.”

Bones need both structure and density to remain strong. “Dense bone mass on its own doesn’t necessarily provide protection against fractures; unless the bone fibers are laid down in a way to provide greater strength, the bone mass is not going to be very stable,” says Saltonstall, a yoga therapist and senior certified Anusara yoga teacher.  “It’s like the difference between a pile of steel beams and the George Washington Bridge.”

“Because yoga poses for osteoporosis pull and stretch the bones from every conceivable angle, yoga also may stimulate the formation of a bone structure that is able to resist greater amounts of pressure, as well as many different types of challenges,” adds Dr. Fishman.

Safely Practice Yoga Poses for Osteoporosis: The Do’s

A woman in her 70s doing a yoga for osteoporosis online class

People with osteoporosis should take great precautions to protect their bones since even simple movements can risk fractures. First, check with your physician to see if yoga practice is safe for your specific bone density and structure. If you get your doctor’s go-ahead, consider private instructions with a qualified teacher to ensure your movements are correct rather than independently modifying poses in a group yoga class. “The key to getting the benefits of yoga is to ensure that the yoga postures are done with proper alignment,” Saltonstall says.

  • Start slowly with simple yoga poses, and gradually build up the practice length and difficulty level. Be careful not to push yourself beyond your limits.
  • To successfully build bone mass, consistently practice yoga and other exercises for osteoporosis for a minimum of 30 minutes a day, five days a week.
  • Simple back bending poses like the Cobra, Sphinx, and Bridge strengthen the spine and prevent what is commonly known as “dowagers hump” in the elderly.  Bridge Pose and the Full and Half Shoulder Stand also stimulate the thyroid gland, which balances the endocrine system and encourages bone growth.
  • Lunging poses such as Warrior I and II adds needed strength to thighbones and muscles.
  • Poses such as the Dog, the Plank, the Crab, and Balancing the Table strengthen the upper body.
  • When you’re ready to progress to more advanced yoga poses, there are the Crane, the Half Downward Dog, Dancer, Warrior III, the Bow, the Wheel, Adept’s Pose, and the Supported Bridge Pose.

Postures to Avoid: The Don’ts of Yoga Poses for Osteoporosis

A yogi doing vipta karani with a chair, a common yoga pose to treat osteoporosis

(This is a variation on the pose recommended in #6 below)

Follow these additional yoga poses for osteoporosis guidelines to keep your bones safe and build bone density and strength.

  • Avoid flexing the spine forward to stretch the back, legs, or abdominal muscles. Several reclining poses can accomplish the same goal.
  • Avoid twisting the spine in a way that uses gravity or leverage for rotation.  Any rotation should be introduced slowly using simple movements without force.
  • Approach backbends cautiously and gently, and avoid overarching the back. Gently supported backbends, as with a rolled towel, can help restore posture.
  • Avoid supporting your entire body weight with your hands to avoid wrist fractures, a common problem with osteoporosis. Other poses, such as Mudras, arm movements, or sustained arm positions, can build arm and wrist muscles and bones.
  • Standing poses and balances are excellent for increasing leg strength, but they should be done with the help of a teacher and the support of a wall or chair, as the risk of fracture is increased in these positions.
  • Inversions are never recommended. Rather, try restorative poses such as the Legs-Up-the-Wall pose. (a variation of this pose is shown above)

“There are numerous other important ways in which yoga benefits people with osteoporosis, such as improving balance, muscular strength, range of motion, and coordination while lessening anxiety,” says Dr. Fishman. “These are other important benefits of yoga for people with osteoporosis because they each help reduce the risk of falling.”

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