Jana Long is a yoga therapist, wellness educator, meditation facilitator, mentor, and managing director of Power of One Yoga School of Ayurveda & Meditation Arts, and cofounder and executive director of the Black Yoga Teachers Alliance. She is the author and editor of Yoga as a Peace Practice, a curriculum and social movement that brings contemplative practice to individuals and communities impacted by violence. She inspires and empowers people 60 years and older to revitalize their bodies and spirits with yoga practices specially designed with aging bodies in mind.
In 2008, I was a 56-year-old director of news technology services in the newsroom of the Washington Post and began to hear rumors that retirement buyouts would be offered to select employees. The whisper was that this round of buyouts would deeply cut the workforce. I saw the writing on the wall and gave serious thought to my future.
By the end of the first quarter of 2008, the talk of buyouts transformed from rumor to reality. With 19 years on the job, I was eligible. The time had come, and I was ready for my pink slip. I decided to turn this transition into an opportunity to realize some of my dreams, which included teaching yoga. I had already begun to build the bridge to this new life. In 2005, I had completed a 200-hour yoga teacher training and earned an Ayurvedic practitioner certification.
Finding My Audience
In the midst of the piles of retirement papers and literature, I found a flier that had come in the mail about a certification program at Duke Integrative Medicine, focused on teaching yoga to seniors. I was seeking my voice and identity as a yoga teacher, and I followed my intuition and registered for the program. The training at that time was a three-part series that began with lectures and workshops and culminated in the opportunity to design and implement a six-week practicum or anecdotal research project.
For the practicum, I chose to teach yoga to patients experiencing essential tremor (ET), a neurological disorder my mother developed in her late 70s. ET is involuntary shaking or trembling of the hands, voice, and head. ET differs from Parkinson’s in that it’s mostly seen while the body is moving. In Parkinson’s disease, tremors happen more at rest. At age 78, my mother was organizing residents in the active senior community where she lived and helping to promote the project among her neighbors. Fourteen women, who ranged in age from 68 to 88, signed up for 75-minute sessions once a week for six weeks. Our theme was yoga for stability. The practices focused on spinal alignment in standing and seated Tadasana (Mountain Pose); the bandhas, especially Mula Bandha (Root Lock) to strengthen the pelvic floor; joint openers for the whole body; and a range of chair-assisted postures. I also introduced them to basic pranayama such as Dirgha and Ujjayi, guided yoga nidra (yogic sleep), and tense-and-release practices for relaxation.
The impact of the yoga postures on my mother’s essential tremor was negligible, but I discovered that the guided meditation and relaxation techniques helped her feel more capable of controlling the tremors. She began to pause, take a breath, and come fully present to the moment before taking action. I continued to teach yoga to seniors in that community for a full year.
The practicum served as the foundation to offer more yoga classes in other senior communities. I had found my niche. In 2009, I connected with the School of Continuing Education Senior Institute, which is part of the Community College of Baltimore County, and began to offer a class called Yoga Therapeutics for Seniors. Over the years, I have added more classes, and my student rosters are full. This year I celebrate my 10-year anniversary teaching yoga to seniors. I’m doing something I love as a second career, and I control my day and schedule. Even better, I share the practice of yoga with my peers to keep us vital as we grow older.
Yoga’s Healing Power
Research has shown that hatha yoga, or the physical practice of performing postures, helps older people remain functional and active. Yoga offers a relatively safe way to encourage movement and relaxation, promote joint health and flexibility, restore balance, improve strength and stamina, and provide a degree of pain management. Studies also show that yoga can help improve arthritis, diabetes, insomnia, depression, and other conditions that arise with aging. The contemplative aspects of meditation support stress management and cultivate peace of mind.
My classes for seniors are rooted in my firsthand knowledge of what it feels like to be in an aging body. I know how it feels to be perfectly fine one day and the next day feel aches and discomfort without any clear indication of what shifted in your body. Older bodies also thicken around the middle. This is natural, and eating salad is not going to change it, so in my classes we are free to breathe deeply and relax our bellies. As an older yoga teacher of older people, I appreciate the connectedness yoga has brought into my life and the community that surrounds me. I am thankful to offer a space of comfort, safety, and acceptance where we are free from judging eyes and where we honor the inevitable changes that come with aging. Older people, myself included, reminisce about the way we were, and although we will never return to the same youthful vigor we once had, yoga restores us so that we can live more vibrantly as we age. We leave our egos at the door. Yoga for older people, like the sequence on the following pages, is foremost about maintaining functionality and a general sense of well-being.
Learn More from Jana Long about Teaching and Practicing Yoga for Seniors:
- Sequence for Mobility
- Joint-Freeing Series Video
- Guided Meditation
- How to Teach Yoga to Senior Citizens
About the author
Jana Long is a certified yoga therapist and a Yoga Alliance Continuing Education Provider. She is also writer, a certified Master Gardener, and an ardent student of astrology. Learn more at powerofonecenter.com.