Senior Yoga Medicine® teacher Rachel Land explains why you may want to focus more attention on this fast-growing demographic.
I started my teaching career in my mid-30s, when I was physically active and mentally driven. Power vinyasa was initially a great fit for me, but when I, quite by accident, started working with older students my perspective shifted. Gradually I moved from fast flows and advanced poses to a practice more geared toward physical and mental balance. I still teach, and love, slower-paced group classes, but much of my time these days is spent working with older students one-on-one—and I wouldn’t change a thing. I never expected to learn as much as I have from working with older people: It is challenging, varied, and fulfilling, and has enhanced my teaching in unexpected ways.
Being a yoga teacher has become increasingly popular, and that trend looks to continue. According to the 2016 Yoga in America study conducted by Yoga Alliance and Yoga Journal, two people were enrolled in yoga teacher training for every person currently teaching, while an additional two people expressed interest in becoming a teacher in the future.
Because of this unprecedented level of interest, it’s less and less likely that graduates will follow the well-worn pathway to teaching only open classes in yoga studios. Many teachers, myself included, have created a more sustainable career by focusing on a specialized student demographic.
Here are my top four reasons for focusing on older beginners.
The Yoga in America study revealed some additional insights into the yoga world:
• More than one in every three yoga students in the U.S. were over 50—more than double the number in 2012—making this population a growing percentage of the yoga market.
• A third of students had been practicing for less than a year and nearly three-quarters for less than five years, meaning that many of the older students attending yoga classes were fairly new to the practice.
• The main benefits sought were flexibility, physical strength and overall health, and mental health or stress relief.
These statistics are consistent with my experience that increasing numbers of older people are drawn to yoga by physical and mental benefits that might feel more and more significant as we age.
At a time when many teachers face pressure to maintain or increase class attendance and secure private yoga bookings, older beginners constitute too large a market to ignore.
Every teacher has dedicated students who show up day after day to practice. But in our 20s, 30s, and 40s life is busy; family and work demands are high and many of us take our physical and mental health for granted. This is not necessarily true later in life.
Firstly, older students often have more time at their disposal. For many, gone are the years of frantic mornings and weekends devoted to childrens’ extracurricular activities. Older students may be retired or have settled into a satisfying area of expertise and no longer have to put in 80-hour weeks to prove themselves.
Secondly, this age group is more likely to be established in their homes and careers and without children living at home. The greater likelihood of financial stability means that older students may have the discretionary income required to pay for small group and private sessions.
Finally, in my experience, older students tend to be more appreciative of their physical and mental health, and committed to practices that support their ongoing well-being. For some, yoga allows them to more fully enjoy their leisure time—whether to help them unwind after work, to maintain the physical health required for their favorite sports, or to keep them limber enough to play with their grandchildren. Others place higher value on improving their posture, breathing, or balance. And for some, regular yoga practice is the difference between putting on their shoes unaided or driving their car and depending on others for help.
Students like these—who potentially have the time, the means, and the motivation to practice regularly—are a gift to any teacher.
While the number of older students practicing yoga has grown, yoga-related injuries in this group have unfortunately increased even more markedly. Another 2016 study found that yoga-related injuries in the U.S. overall became twice as common from 2001 to 2014, but increased more than eightfold in students over 65.
In my experience, many students with a long-standing practice are able to safely attend group classes at any age, but older beginners face challenges that younger beginners do not. As we age, our muscles tend to lose some of their strength and mass, while our connective tissue becomes more fibrous and less readily hydrated. Older students are more likely to feel stiff and may take longer to recover from intense activity. Having lived longer also makes this population more likely to have had injuries or health issues that influence whether or not a group class is appropriate to their needs.
And there’s one more factor. The Yoga in America study found that, while more than one in three students was over 50, only one in every seven teachers were, meaning that most teachers, like myself, have not experienced what it’s like to start practicing yoga in an older body.
Older beginners aren’t weak or fragile, but these factors do suggest that they could benefit from specialized classes or, better yet, one-on-one instruction to learn how to build a yoga practice that safely meets their needs. Giving this demographic the option of tailored practice is a win-win: the potential for fewer yoga-related injuries, plus new teaching opportunities for educated teachers.
Compared with my students in other age groups, older beginners tend to be more interested in real-life outcomes than in ticking off poses, and while yoga offers myriad options, traditional poses and sequences don’t always do the job. Being willing to use tools from other disciplines—like resistance training, Pilates, Tai Chi, and physical therapy—has given me more options to share with all of my students.
In fact, I never expected to learn as much as I have from working with older people. I’ve learned not to gauge a student’s capacity by their appearance. I’ve seen how potent simple practices like mindful breathing and gentle movement can be. I’ve learned to ask questions and listen, because my students’ experience of a pose could contrast hugely from my own. I’ve learned that prevention is easier than cure, but that patience and persistence can overcome even decades of habits. I’ve learned that stopping to laugh, listen, or offer a hug can be a better use of time than fitting in one more yoga pose.
They weren’t always easy lessons to learn, but they have influenced both my own practice and how I teach other populations. I’m more creative in my sequencing, and less dogmatic regarding what constitutes “correct” alignment in yoga poses. I am more aware of common limitations in asana practice, like reduced joint range of motion or pain when weight-bearing on hands or knees. I spend less time on complex sequences and “advanced” poses and more time focusing on real-life benefits to mind and body.
New yoga teachers are being trained every day, and the growing and committed presence of beginners over 60 opens up fresh opportunities for them. Focusing on these students has changed my career for the better in every way. It has led to work that is more varied, more interesting, and more sustainable than rushing from studio to studio to maintain a busy group class schedule. It has also helped to make me a safer and more knowledgeable teacher to students of all ages.