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Aging Bodies Need Yoga Too! 9 Principles for Teaching Safe & Effective Classes

I never imagined I’d be teaching yoga to older adults. When I started practicing yoga, I hoped it would help me avoid the painful osteoarthritis I saw my grandmother suffer through. Fast forward, I became a yoga teacher, and in the very first “All Levels” Vinyasa class I taught there was a 76-year-old female student!!  My inside voice was panicking, saying, “This is not what I expected!!!  I’m gonna have to modify every pose!! I’m not ready for this!”

I led an extra-slow vinyasa flow that day and themed the class around the word “ahimsa” (non-harming). As I learned to cue and observe my students my mind was blown and my perspective of “older” began to shift as I watched this 76-year-old yogini demonstrate how yoga can keep a body strong, flexible, and balanced way beyond any age I had imagined myself doing yoga. This student’s name was Nancy, she had been practicing yoga longer than my (at the time) 39 years on earth! Over her lifetime she had cultivated a strong, mindful, and beautiful practice.

Nancy is not the norm in our culture, but she remains for me an example of what might be possible for someone who starts practicing and nourishing their body and bones in middle or even “early-old” age. She helped me begin to understand that yoga could really be a lifelong practice as well as how a body might be if a person kept up their practice as they aged.  

In 2014, the National Osteoporosis Foundation found that 54 million Americans aged 50 and over are affected by osteoporosis and low bone mass. This means that “…more than one-half of the total U.S. Adult population is currently affected.”  http://nof.org/

Most definitions and cultures I’ve researched consider 65 to be the beginning of old age. That was the average age of death in 1935, when Roosevelt set that age for social security.  But now, we may live much longer, and yoga is one of the ways we can stay healthy as we age. Baby boomers (ages 51-70) are a huge part of our population, and yet it’s hard to find classes that cater to these boomers and older adults. We need more teachers willing to teach to these ages!  Now, in 2016, we need more gentle, basic, and chair yoga classes to make yoga more accessible to these folks. Yoga teachers need to meet these students where they are and yoga can be part of our health care solution!   

Since I met Nancy, my teaching pathway has led me to serve aging populations. My first time teaching chair yoga as a sub at Fairway Parks and Recreation turned into six years of working with senior citizens. I have learned so much from my students about the aging body. I always emphasize ahimsa (non-harming), and with this principle as their guide, my students have become more aware, more stable and strong, and more flexible both physically and mentally. The cool thing that’s happened with some of my boomers is that once they became more aware and strong, they push me to offer more challenging classes for them. Your students let you know when they are ready to grow!  It truly is a co-creation.

In addition to the older adults yoga can serve, we have plenty of much younger folks whose bodies seem older, whether from being sedentary or from being physically overworked. Add on poor nutrition, injuries, or weight gain, and their bodies, too, would benefit greatly from chair yoga or yoga for stiffer bodies. We need more teachers to teach all of these folks and they are right in your own neighborhoods and communities!!  

If you are already a yoga teacher, you have a foundation from which to start teaching aging populations - continue your education by seeking a training specifically on yoga for aging bodies. If you are not a yoga teacher, but have practiced yoga and experienced the benefits first hand, you can learn how to teach gentle yoga and chair yoga. If you don’t regularly practice yoga, but you think it would improve your own healthcare or someone’s you know, you can start educating yourself today!

Everyone has a unique education pathway, wherever you are on your journey the principles below will help you work with aging adults and people who need a more gentle approach to working with their bodies.

  1. Discuss and observe ahimsa (non-harming). Offer verbal cues with feedback more often than physical adjustments. If you do offer physical adjustments, make them very gentle enhancements. Older adults are usually more fragile. Don't expect a specific pose “shape”, instead focus on helping the student be safe and learn to activate key muscles.   
  2. Always review your student’s medical conditions or concerns and get in the habit of communicating with them about how their bodies feel and respond to poses. While it’s important to observe and guide when teaching any population, it is especially important with older adults. Encourage open communication so that you and the student both can begin to learn and understand the uniqueness of the student's body and ask for verbal consent before offering adjustments.
  3. Get grounded! Always include some sort of foot work to bring awareness of connection to the feet. Continuously cue students to “press down” into all four corners of their feet. On colder days, or any day, start with a foot massage and then press feet to floor. The feet are the part of the body that are farthest from the brain, and we all need to continue cultivating that brain-foot neuropathway and circulation throughout our lives.
  4. Let go of the perfect shape. Yoga for older adults can be more individualized than it is for other populations. Don’t expect the shape of the pose to be perfect. Offer minimal enhancements as this population may be more fragile depending on bone density. Move toward alignment without expectation. Make sure foundation and alignment are safe, and only then explore. Remember that most older adults will not have a picture-perfect pose, so safely activate the key muscles, remind them to breath, cue lines of energy, and let the practice unfold. Gradually increase the time they hold each pose. Stay mindful of students with high blood pressure.  Keep it simple, hold space, and focus on breath.
  5. Educate and re-educate yourself about bones and the diseases of osteopenia, osteoarthritis, and arthritis and joint replacements.  Yoga is a great way to stimulate the bones in a slow gradual way which is essential to making more bone.  Movement in the joints is essential for the body to continue making more synovial fluid in the joints.  Read Yoga for Osteoporosis, by Lauren Fishman, M.D. This reminded me of how our bones need stimulation to make more bone. Share this information with your students!!!!
  6. Embrace slowness. Avoid overexertion and straining, and move through poses slowly, gradually building strength. Slowness is important to let the body, muscles, bones, and brain adapt, but also to avoid increasing blood pressure, which should be considered with students of any age that have high blood pressure.
  7. Offer Krama, steps or modifications that move your student toward the full expression of a pose. For example, Chair Pose (Utkatasana) can be taught in this progression:
    1. Sitting in a chair while activating all lines of  energy and breathing
    2. Standing in front of a chair activating lines of energy and breathing, the chair is there for resting when needed
    3. Practicing the pose without the chair, stand with back to wall
    4. No props or modifications
  8. Treat this person as if they are your own grandparent. Handle with care and compassion. Cultivate practice as a co-creation, encourage your students to ask questions and give feedback.
  9. Teach and practice santosha (contentment).  For both you and your students, regularly find gratitude for the ability to practice in any capacity. Know you are exactly where you should be on your path, without having to make a specific shape or look a certain way. Appreciate the feeling of your body and your mind waking up and getting stronger!  

A note from Shannon: I hope more yoga teachers will expand their knowledge and join me in sharing the therapeutic knowledge of yoga and how it can greatly benefit our bones and our entire body, including our minds!!  I hope more older adults will seek out a yoga teacher that can help.  Yoga can be part of the health care prevention and solution for all of us who are aging!!  

Peace, Love and Gratitude,

69 Comments to Aging Bodies Need Yoga Too! 9 Principles for Teaching Safe & Effective Classes:

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Jeannine on Monday, August 8, 2016 7:26 AM
Thanks Shannon! Loved this article. As a teacher who teaches mostly students 55+ in Chair, Restorative and Gentle Flow, your words ring true to my heart. I started from the mindset of bringing yoga to this demographic who felt like mainstream was out of their reach. It is the most rewarding to watch this community unfold! Thanks for being a bright light and sharing your passion!
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As we age, the density of our bones decreases and different types of bone problems occur. Osteoporosis is the most common bone problem that most of our grandparents experience and our body is prone to fractures. Yoga will help us to relax and have a good posture for our grandparents. Another ailment that yoga can be a helpful is the high blood pressure. During yoga, they will experience a relaxing sensation that may help them to lower their blood pressure by breathing deeply.

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At first, I thought yoga is making your body like pretzels and this meant only for young people. But I was wrong because it is for people of all ages and all walks of life. Yoga helps develop not only the body but also the mind and it will bring a lot of health benefits. Seniors, who often struggle with pain, joint stress, imbalance and other physical limitations, can benefit from incorporating a yoga practice into their daily routine, Even so, this is not a substitute for medicine.

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