10 Mistakes Young People Make Teaching Asana to Older Yogis
A local studio called me to say, “We want your people.” I had to ask: “What people?”
“You know,” she said. “Older people.”
“Older people” can mean different things to different people. It might be anyone over the age of the teacher. Or, in this case, the studio was asking for students primarily in midlife. There are 14 million yoga students over the age of 50, according to Yoga Alliance, but you wouldn’t always know that from looking at the studios.
So I asked, “Who do you have teaching them now?” The answer, of course, was young people.
Before I go further, I want to say emphatically that there are some very good yoga teachers out there who are young and trained in alignment, anatomy, and aging. I’ve seen videos on YouTube and pay-for-yoga sites that are excellent for older yogis. They are caring and careful—what more could an older yogi want?
To be seen, that’s what we want.
To be older in our culture is to be invisible. People over 50 have all but disappeared from mainstream magazines and yoga media. Believe me, I get it. There are days when I look in the mirror and I too want to disappear. Today, even books on aging and longevity are written by 39-year-olds. If that isn’t being invisible in mainstream culture, I don’t know what is.
Yoga teachers who specialize in teaching to diverse populations are also mystified as to why many older yogis do not feel included. It’s not that complicated. Aging has a unique set of aptitudes and challenges, and it takes someone in the trenches to get that and get us.
Teaching may happen, but empathy is absent. And neither side then feels seen or heard.
If you’re not in the trenches with us, then please understand that this is not your battle. You may be trying to serve, and you may have the best of intentions. But unless you are with us, it appears you want to cash in on aging. For example, a young person teaching older people how to enjoy their age and their practice has the same resonance as a very thin person holding workshops for large yogis. Teaching may happen, but empathy is absent. And neither side then feels seen or heard.
Here’s the secret to understanding this market: Aging is not all bad. Furthermore, some things get better. In fact, quite a lot of things get better.
“Endurance is not a young person’s game,” said Olympic swimmer Diana Nyad. “I thought I’d even be better at 60 than I was at 30. You have a body that’s almost as strong, but you have a much better mind.” She was right, as she became the first person to swim from Cuba to Florida—at age 64!
The mistake that many young people make when teaching older yogis is to assume that we can’t. Or that we shouldn’t. Or that we’ll break. They think we only need or want gentle yoga. Or that we have to be coddled and pampered. Or that we must use props. Or that, God forbid, we won’t feel successful if we can’t do the things younger yogis can.
We have a body that’s almost as strong, and a much better mind. Some of us have a completely different outlook than younger yogis. While many young’uns want to get the hard poses, we are happy to be here and able to get anything!
Midlife means everything is a miracle!
We are overcome with gratitude in the simplest of poses. We look at every accomplishment on the mat as if it were a miracle. In some ways, we are the easiest generation of yogis to teach because we are used to working hard and have staying power.
There has never been a more kick-ass generation of human beings than our current midlifers and Baby Boomers. We fought wars at home and abroad. For some of us, our idea of fun is skiing off cliffs and bungee jumping. A 56-year-old invented CrossFit, for Pete’s sake! We expect to remain fit, strong, and vital longer than any other generation in history.
So imagine how we feel when a younger person tells us to “Take it easy! Slow down there, Grandma. You don’t want to pull something.”
The difference in teaching “my people” is that it’s necessary to incorporate common sense and caution into the practice. That is a very different thing from automatically putting us up on blocks in the back of the room. Secondly, a dose of inspiration for older students never hurts.
Here are the top ten mistakes young people make when teaching older people.
1. Thinking we are feeble. We may not be as strong as we once were, but we are not weak. And please don’t speak to us as if we are feeble-minded. That could get you hurt.
2. Expecting all of us want gentle yoga. Some of us are strong and want to practice strong. Everyone, regardless of age, can use both yin and yang in their practice at different times.
3. Avoiding inversions. They’re great for us! They just need to be done in a safe and secure manner, such as at the wall. Headstand, however, is not so great. Be careful with our bones.
4. Going too fast. There are many, many things an older body can do, but moving quickly from pose to pose is not one of them. The transition between poses carries as much if not more risk than does any single pose.
5. Ignoring the core. The core loses strength over time, so we need to spend time building it. Gentle yoga will make us softer, not stronger.
6. Putting us in a chair. Unless there is a reason we need to use a chair, such as illness or injury, we should be building our balance instead. If we don’t use it, we will lose it.
7. Seeing diversity as one size fits all. A thin older woman with brittle bones who needs to build strength has a completely different set of needs than a larger person who may need to build flexibility. The only common denominator is that each needs to feel accepted.
8. Thinking that when you demonstrate the pose it’s inspiring. Actually, it’s depressing. You know what’s inspiring? Seeing someone our age doing the pose. If you are youngish and want to connect with your class, then choose an older yogi to demonstrate.
9. Saying “you can do it.” That’s not necessarily true. We may not be able to do every pose! But we can access most poses with props, and then learn from them. Learning is everything. At some point a yogi will move from wanting to "do" a pose to wanting to "know" a pose, and that comes with experience.
10. Above all, avoid telling your students that “you are an old soul.” Ugh. Being an old soul in a young body still beats being a young soul in an old body. We need to enjoy being ourselves just as we are.
Michelle Marchildon is the Yogi Muse, an award-winning author and blogger. She is the co-author with Desiree Rumbaugh of Fearless After Fifty: How to Thrive with Grace, Grit and Yoga, available wherever books are sold.