The benefits of yoga have long been said to slow—or even gently reverse—the aging process. Younger yogis often notice that other people their age seem to reach the creaky stages of the middle years more quickly, and seem to heal from injuries more slowly. Thankfully, many people who miss out on yoga in their youth find it once they are deep into their senior years. Though they may be quite limited physically by then, they often discover that practicing yoga can restore mobility and vitality to their lives.
Susan Winter Ward, author of the book Yoga for the Young at Heart (Nataraj Publishing, 2002), insists there is nobody for whom yoga is completely off limits. "If you're breathing, you can do yoga," Ward says. "All it takes is some creativity to adapt poses to any level of ability."
Still, before you venture into the world of teaching yoga to seniors, it's important to be aware of the common medical challenges often seen in the older population. It takes a willingness to work consciously with different physical needs. Some basic moves can be necessary for certain students. As Ward explains, "The first thing I teach is how to get up and down off of the floor."
Flexibility about what a yoga class should look like is also part of creating a practice for older students. If it hurts for them to sit, then have them work lying down, or standing up with a sturdy chair nearby to help with balance. If students can't stand, then try sitting poses. And always demonstrate poses at a level that's relevant to your students' abilities. "Make it a win for the students," Ward advises. "That is more important than the yoga. The yoga is a vehicle for teaching people to shine, to help people get in touch with themselves."
Frank Iszak is the founder of Silver Age Yoga in Del Mar, California, which offers free classes to low-income nursing home residents. For them, he says, yoga can be as much about connecting with the will to live and will to heal as it is about stretching and relaxing. He adds that yoga also helps these seniors feel less isolated. "They feel helpless and abandoned—watching television all of the time. Most are sedentary, settled into the waiting game for death." But in yoga, he says, they are energized—and they begin to wake up.
Iszak suggests including longer meditation sessions in senior classes, as well as frequent breaks—brief moments in Savasana, or Corpse Pose, for example. He adds that there's another important component: "You have to be able to make them laugh.” Finally, he says, it's essential "to establish safe postures and know what the posture is good for." If someone has a hip replacement, he explains, you must know what the person is capable of in a yoga setting.
One way to find the information you need to create a safe senior yoga environment is to participate in a formal senior yoga teacher training. A good class will include cutting-edge medical knowledge relevant to seniors. In addition to offering ideas for safely altering poses, such trainings focus on the contraindications for certain asanas. People with high blood pressure, glaucoma, or those who have suffered a recent stroke, for example, should keep the head above the heart, which usually keeps inversions and standing forward bends off the menu.
Yoga students of any age can show up with all sorts of injuries, but arthritis, pulmonary and vision problems, and back pain of all kinds is extremely common in the older population. Other typical challenges you may need to address in class include sciatica, which requires modified forward bending, and sinus issues, which could require adjustments in Pranayama exercises.
Students with painful arthritis may find it difficult to get up and down off of the floor; try having them work with leg lifts and twists while seated in a chair. One precaution Iszak suggests is making sure students don’t tip their heads back too far, due to a potentially brittle cervical spine. Those with advanced scoliosis can use the support of a wall in poses like Tadasana (Mountain Pose) until they’ve built up sufficient back strength to stand straight. In Vrksasana (Tree Pose) students with vertigo or heart problems shouldn’t raise their arms, Iszak says.
Teachers of seniors should be particularly cautious in making adjustments. With severe osteoporosis, for example, turning a student too forcefully in the wrong direction could easily result in a broken bone. Always remind students to heed their doctors' advice.
These medical concerns may sound overwhelming, but when you consider the benefit that senior yoga students get from the practice, you may decide it's worth it to build up the necessary body of knowledge to work with them.
An ancillary health benefit of a stress-reducing practice is that it might help some seniors choose to eat better, which could help decrease their risk of diabetes. In addition, by teaching seniors you'll be helping combat what Iszak calls the "big psychic stresses" of old age: loneliness, abandonment, and fear. An important part of the cure, he says, is offering kindness and loving attention.
In that way, to share the skills of a yoga practice is to offer renewed hope. "Our bodies are meant to move," says Ward. "We sit so much that unless there's a real effort to move in other ways, we get stuck.
"It's also a state of mind," she says. "If we think we're going to become decrepit, we manifest that." If we begin to believe otherwise, she adds, then change is possible.
Iszak agrees. "We're trying to change their perception of what life is all about, what their bodies are all about."
Rachel Brahinsky is a San Francisco-based writer and yoga teacher who's proud that her grandmother did a yoga pose every now and then toward the end of her life.