There are almost 70 million people in the U.S. between the ages of 58 and 76—and more and more of them are practicing yoga. Like many others, they’re attracted to the practice for the health benefits. The practice promises to ease pain, lower blood pressure, reduce depression, and provide benefits for other health concerns that impact older Americans.
But teaching the senior yoga population involves more than just renaming a yoga class “Silver Stretches” and slowing down the flow. Yoga teachers who want to serve senior students will need to understand their unique needs.
Meet seniors where they are
The first thing to remember is that “senior” is a generic term that describes people with a wide range of experiences and a wide range of goals for their practice. This demographic might include a 55-year-old with osteoarthritis, or a 75-year-old who runs marathons. And a senior yoga class may draw people who have been practicing since Woodstock, as well as those who are just being introduced to the practice.
Yoga instructor Patty Balboni is a prime example of why we can’t make assumptions about senior students. At 71, she is an avid hiker, biker, and kayaker; her last birthday celebration included ziplining. She also teaches yoga classes at the active-senior recreation centers in Greensboro, North Carolina where she lives. Her mission is to help her students find a practice they feel comfortable with.
“I like to focus on what we can do and not what we’re not able to do, or what our bodies don’t really want us to do at this point,” she says. “But we can all make some measure of improvement in our range of motion. We can get stronger. We can definitely become more flexible.”
Taking time to get to know your senior students will help you avoid ageist stereotyping, while making you aware of the particular concerns of your over-55 group. Here are other practical tips for teaching seniors.
Listen to students concerns.
Some students may be daunted by the idea of getting on the mat–literally. “The whole thought of [getting on the floor] strikes fear,” says Robin Downes, a yoga teacher and manager of the Facebook group Caregivers Embracing Elder Care. “They’re concerned about being able to get down and get back up.” That may seem minor, but it can make the difference between someone coming to your class or not. It’s important to let students know that there are options for their practice, including pose variations that keep them off the floor.
Be prepared to flex.
Balboni says anyone who is teaching seniors has to be equipped to offer modifications and alternatives for any asana they plan to teach. “Don’t expect to come in with a lesson plan of poses and go down the list,” she says. “Why are you doing the pose? Once you figure that out, you can more easily offer options that will have a similar effect.”
“I think there’s an appreciation when the instructions are flexible,” she says. “I don’t want my students to feel like there are hard and fast rules here. I don’t want to give the impression that there’s a right or wrong way, other than safety and alignment.”
Multiply the mats.
“I advise my seniors to use multiple mats,” Balboni says. “I tell them to grab as many mats as they’d like–four, five, six mats—and maybe another one to roll up and use if they have any trouble with their wrists.” An additional mat or two can be folded to cushion the knees in kneeling poses.
In fact, make use of all available props. Blankets, blocks, bolsters, straps and other props can help provide support, comfort, and protection as seniors explore how to find the shape of the asana that suits their bodies. Just having a chair nearby can boost a student’s confidence; it’s there if they need to lean on it for support in standing balance poses such as Vrksasana (Tree) or Big Toe Pose, or if they need to sit down and practice some chair versions of the poses you’re teaching.
Warm up head to toe.
“I don’t just jump in with a quick warm up–rolling the shoulders and boom,” says Balboni. She introduces her classes with some careful neck stretches, gentle spinal twists, and hip socket rotations. She starts every class with pranayama practice including a four-count Box Breath and deep diaphragmatic breathing. “That full belly breath is news to a lot of the seniors,” she says. “They’ve been missing out on the full breath by only breathing in the upper part of the chest.”
Give extra attention to the small joints.
Our bones get more fragile as we age; our joints may become arthritic. We feel it not only in knees, hips, and shoulders, but also in the joints between smaller bones.“The feet become a big issue as we age,” Balboni says. “Our soles thin out, so they’re more sensitive. Plus if there’s been any weight gain or you have any issues in the hips and back, it’s all going to impact how we land and how we walk.” She has students massage their feet, using their hands or working with a tennis ball to apply pressure.
Wrists are another sensitive area that require careful warm up. Wrist exercises are a way to address arthritis, carpal tunnel syndrome, or fibromyalgia, and help address any difficulty gripping and turning.
Hush now, don’t over explain.
“I don’t cue every little movement,” Balboni says. “I do cue them to pay attention to their alignment. Do they feel steady on their feet? …That’s what I’m looking for.” Once everyone is in a safe position, she encourages them to explore a pose in a way that meets their individual needs, whether that’s stretching out a stiff neck or working on balance.
Don’t discount the power of an “easy” pose.
“Holding your body up straight is an exercise,” says Downes. Poses like Tadasana and Dandasana come to mind. Though they’re not moving poses, they’re still active and energetic. She has found such seemingly basic poses beneficial to her elderly father for whom she is caretaker.
“Easy” poses can be a way to build strength as well. Pressing blocks between your knees in Bridge Pose can strengthen the legs. In a pose such as Virabhadrasana 2 (Warrior 2 Pose) or Goddess hold blocks up to work arm muscles isometrically. Staying in a Boat pose or Plank variation for several breath cycles can also build core strength without the need for a lot of active movement.
Focus on posture.
Seniors who have become sedentary may start to see changes in their posture, says Downes. Sitting for long periods of time encourages kyphosis, also known as Dowager’s Hump. The discs between your vertebrae thin, which can cause your spine to compress. People who use a cane may favor one side of their body over another, creating imbalance.
For these reasons, seniors can benefit from poses such as Dandasana (Staff Pose), Urdhva Hastasana (Upward Salute), and Vrksasana (Tree), which encourage lifting the head and neck, elongating the spine, and opening the shoulders. Full forward folds (think Rag Doll) also help with spinal extension. Poses that are practiced on both the right and left side help even out any physical asymmetry.
Downes says she has seen an improvement in her father’s posture since introducing him yoga and other healthy lifestyle practices. “He was used to walking hunched over; I just want to remind him what it feels like to just stand upright,” she says.
Expand your idea of asana.
Downes incorporates music into her practice–playing tunes that will resonate with her father and the other seniors she works with. “Playing their favorite music from when they were really active brightens their spirit. They feel it in their soul and it triggers good memories. Then you can guide them into healing movements,” she says.
These “dance breaks” might include moving the shoulders or some twisting poses. “Clapping your hands wide is a big stretch for your shoulders,” she says. Some chair yoga teachers choreograph sequences that challenge coordination–such as moving the arms in one direction and the legs in another, for example. This not only offers seniors a good physical workout, it helps keep the mind sharp.
Shine some light.
“I think seniors appreciate a sense of humor. Why not put a little levity in it? Knowing that this is a stretch, literally and figuratively, for some folks, having a little humor takes the stress out of it,” Balboni says. Do whatever you can to help students feel that yoga is something that they can do.
Downes calls herself her father’s main cheerleader, working to keep him in a positive state of mind. “I tell my father whenever he may complain about something, that I don’t want to disrespect the fact that you feel this way. And I totally, totally get it. But let’s not stay in this feeling. Let’s figure what we need to do to move out of this state so that we can continue to have a great day.”