Ageing positively with Yoga

In todays yoga world, the practice of yoga appears to be mainly geared towards the young, the fit and active.  Practicing as a yoga therapist over the last twenty years, I have taught the young, the fit and active, able bodied, less able bodied, senior and very senior students.  I have to say teaching older students has been inspiring, rewarding and so exciting a journey for me.  All of them have taught me more than I ever could teach them.

I have found that by practicing yoga, older people wake up to their own power, their wealth of life experience, their tenacity  to deal with difficulty, tragedy and loss and their huge ability to see into the depth of Life and themselves.  They are not trying to improve their arm balances or perfect their Sun Salutation – they meet yoga from the perspective of a life skill.  They become aware of their posture and the importance of good alignment for their spines and discs.  They get to know the  freedom of joint mobility, the ease of stretching taut muscles and the sheer delight of deep relaxation and mental stillness.  They are able to laugh at themselves but with a kindness and a friendliness.

Let me start with my yoga therapy class in Donegal.  I have now been teaching these students for over four years.  The class is a chair based  yoga class, with some health issues presenting, one severe injury issue, and the usual joint and skeletal issues of getting older.  Students were quite apprehensive on that first day, as there were  a few serious injuries and serious health issues and of course  the students were older.  They were anxiously wondering what was this yoga all about and would they be able for it at all ? 

What has happened over the four years?  This class has become my advanced yoga class.  Their creation of aligned posture is precise  and accurate. Mental focus is achieved instantly with attending to the breath. Their joints move, glide even, with ease.  Their sense of their  own empowerment and confidence is tangible.  Their understanding of themselves and how they view the world has expanded. Their level of joy and delight in each others company is beautiful.  Their open heartedness and kindness to each other underpins the energy in the class.  One man, recovering from a serious injury when asked what the class meant to him replied ‘it’s the space you open up’.  Is that not an advanced  yogic expression?

The class presents a truly holistic experience, as no one is striving to become anything, no one is striving at all but there is advancement, achievement, there is a deepening and they are so awake, alive and empowered.

The chair practice has also moved onto the floor and there is such a sense of achievement and accomplishment, each one delighted for the other to see their progression.

No one is denying getting older and all that ‘older’ entails, from physical loss to emotional loss and all that lies in between.  But the group exudes joy, laughter, funny stories and the deep appreciation of life in each wonderful, lived moment and also a deep appreciation of each other.  My students are awake!

I have also taught more ‘senior’ seniors, where some students were in their nineties.  What has yoga to offer these students and can the practice empower them?

Sitting with good posture appeals to them all, as they sit all day.  They learn how to get up and down out of a chair by themselves, using skill rather than effort.  This is empowering  and builds such confidence.  Movement is challenging, as  they tire easily, so I have created the ‘story line’ - e.g when doing  joint movements such as wrist movements I ask if anyone remembers creaming margarine and sugar in making a cake with a wooden spoon.  Immediately I have interest and stories, while we do the action.  More stories emerge as we stir a pot of soup and I ask ‘What do you put into  your soup?’

We take a rest and stories are continued.  Even the quiet ones wake up to add their story.  The social engagement and being heard is as important and empowering as the physical movements.  Relaxation and breathing draw them all into a place of rest.  They sit better, they breathe better, they are alert yet relaxed.  Yoga adapted and modified to suit all audiences weaves its magic of empowerment, confidence,  self ease and always relaxation.

Another class is a local Active Retirement Group whose lives have been enhanced by the practice of Yoga.

I will share just one quote from a student after her first ever yoga class ‘This should be compulsory for everyone!’

This group want a handout so they can practice at home  - such enthusiasm!!

Older people are wise, they have seen a lot and have lived a lot, they say it as it is, nothing is held back,. This is so refreshing, open and honest. They salute their years with humour, pride and acceptance. Introducing yoga, that is relevant and achievable to them, inspires them and empowers them.

Yoga is not a one size fits all.  As a yoga therapist or yoga teacher it is up to you to make the yoga practice fit, to make it magical, to empower your students whatever age and whatever their condition. In return they will inspire you!