5 Themes to Consider When Teaching Older Beginners
Tips for working with a fast-growing segment of the yoga student population
by Rachel Land
Senior Yoga Medicine® teacher Rachel Land shares five factors to keep in mind when creating classes for this demographic.
Older beginners are a fast-growing segment of the yoga student population. According to the 2016 Yoga in America Study commissioned by Yoga Alliance and Yoga Journal, over one in three yoga students in the U.S. were aged over 50 and that number had more than doubled since 2012.
Unfortunately, yoga injuries in older students have increased even more markedly. Another 2016 study found that while yoga-related injuries in the U.S. had become twice as common between 2001 and 2014, they had increased more than eightfold in students aged over 65.
While more than one in three students were over 50, just one in seven teachers was in that age range—meaning most teachers don’t know how it feels to be an older beginner.
These two factors make specialized classes, small groups, or one-on-one sessions the ideal format for older students new to yoga. But the Yoga In America Study highlighted another potential issue: that while more than one in three students were aged over 50, just one in seven teachers was in that age range—meaning most teachers don’t know how it feels to be an older beginner.
The statistics reflect my personal experience. I started teaching yoga in my mid-30s, physically fit, and two decades away from my first time on a yoga mat. I received a new private yoga student as a referral—a woman in her late 60s who was recovering from a spinal fracture related to osteoporosis and highly motivated to see how yoga could help her feel better in her body.
Though I regularly taught experienced students in their 50s and 60s in group classes, it’s no exaggeration to say that I was terrified. My new student was no longer in serious pain but was not capable of, or interested in, flowing through sun salutations or working on peak poses. Even making her way down to the floor and back up to standing involved significant time and effort. I had no idea where to start, but we figured it out together and learned along the way.
Fast-forward to today and much of my work involves teaching students in this age group, many of whom started with me as beginners. They are perhaps the most varied beginner population I have come across, and a highly flexible and individual approach is required. However, I’ve encountered some common themes, and these are my top five to consider when working with beginners over 60.
1. Maintain mobility.
You’ve heard the saying “Move it or lose it.” Many of us become increasingly sedentary as we age, so the adage can apply even more to older beginners. Gentle movements in varied directions can help maintain tissue elasticity, lubrication, and hydration while also circulating synovial fluid in the joints and lymphatic fluid. It can also bring students’ awareness to differences in sensation or range of motion between left and right sides.
Yoga abounds with options to gently mobilize the joints, including:
• Unweighted joint movement, such as lying supine while circling the ankles, hips, and wrists or rolling the head from side to side.
• Gentle backbends, such as cat and cow or rolling bridge, flowing into and out of bridge pose one vertebra at a time.
• Easy side bends, including a variation of cat and cow on all fours, which involves sliding the lower legs to one side and looking over the same shoulder.
• Supported twists. Supine windshield wipers for the knees can release the hips and lower back. The thoracic spine can be mobilized from side-lying with bent knees level with the hips, using the top arm to flow into and out of a gentle supine twist as if opening and closing the cover of a book.
• Chest and shoulder mobilizers, such as circling the arms holding a strap between the hands, or taking supine “snow angels,” where the arms glide out wide and overhead aiming to maintain contact with the floor.
2. Build strength in underutilized areas.
Gentle mobility work is hugely beneficial, but don’t be afraid of challenging your older students. Because muscle mass and function tend to decline as we age, strength work is crucial. Muscles used regularly for work or sport will often still be strong, so look for areas that have been overlooked.
Commonly overlooked areas include:
• The upper body, where strength tends to decline along with a decrease in lifting and manual work. Holding the arms in a T-shape or cactus shape during standing poses like warrior II or chair pose can be used to build upper-body endurance. Weight-bearing on either hands or forearms is also useful; options include tabletop, plank, side plank, downward facing dog, or dolphin pose. Creative options such as using light hand weights or resistance bands in asana practice can also help.
• The posterior shoulder and upper back, where weakness can accentuate the tendency for the upper back to round into kyphosis as we age. Include active backbends like cobra or locust, as well as positions in which arms externally rotate (palms turning forward) or the shoulder blades retract toward the spine.
• The glutes. Include active backbends like locust and bridge pose to target the gluteus maximus, plus side plank, crescent lunge, and single-legged standing balance poses like tree pose to target the gluteus medius.
• The core and pelvic floor. Focus on neutral-spine core work that strengthens the transverse abdominis, such as supine knee lifts and toe taps or the kneeling balance bird dog where we extend the opposite arm and leg from all fours. Learning to engage the pelvic floor can help students feel grounded during pranayama, core work, and standing poses.
• The diaphragm. Many students find it challenging to breathe without using accessory muscles in the neck and at the top of the rib cage. Learning to use the diaphragm more effectively by practicing relaxed abdominal breathing can have a surprisingly positive impact on posture, neck tension, digestion, balance, strength, and endurance.
3. Improve stability and coordination to prevent falls.
We know that stability tends to decline and that falls can have more serious repercussions on our lives as we age. It makes sense to incorporate balance and coordination exercises with older beginners, though it might be sensible to ensure that your student can reach a wall or prop so there’s no risk of falling while they build stability.
Here are some possibilities:
• Introduce movements or poses that coordinate opposite sides of the body—like circling the arms in opposite directions, practicing eagle pose, or extending the opposite arm and leg in locust pose or bird dog.
• Kneeling balance work is a great option to maintain hip, spine, and shoulder stability without risking a fall (though the student’s knees or wrists may need cushioning). Bird dog is one of my favorite options. A kneeling version of half moon is also a fun challenge, as is the side plank variation with the bottom knee on the floor.
• Placing one or both feet on soft foam yoga blocks during standing poses is surprisingly challenging and a great way to awaken neuromuscular connections in the legs and feet. This option works in mountain pose, fierce pose, warrior I and II, and crescent lunge.
• Traditional one-legged balances like tree pose, eagle pose, half moon pose, or warrior III are always options. If your student needs a little extra support, suggest they use a wall; placing their back to the wall will feel much steadier, but if they are ready to up the ante, a student could also play with positioning themselves so that one knee (in the case of tree pose), one hip (for eagle pose), or the lifted foot (for half moon and warrior III) is pressing into the wall.
• Working with one or both feet on tiptoes is another way to build foot and ankle strength and improve stability. Crescent lunge is one example, so is lifting the front heel in warrior II, or taking mountain pose or fierce pose on tiptoes.
• Training stability during movement is also key to maintaining keen proprioception and coordination. Starting in a low lunge with the back knee down and slowly lifting the hands and torso is a challenge for many students. Walking in a straight line as if on a tightrope—both forward and backward—can also help. Stepping forward, sideways, or backward over an obstacle like a yoga block is also good practice for avoiding real-life tripping hazards. For variety, take inspiration from smooth, slow-moving practices like tai chi (also called taiji).
4. Down-regulate the nervous system.
Reflective and introspective practices like pranayama and meditation emphasize the parasympathetic nervous system, which creates the “relaxation response”—decreasing feelings of vigilance, lowering heart rate and blood pressure, stimulating digestion and immunity, and eventually reducing chronic inflammation. These changes benefit any age group but are particularly relevant for older students, especially those managing chronic medical conditions or injuries.
Consider including some or all of the following:
• Mindful movement and embodiment practices.
• Restorative postures, guided relaxation, yoga nidra, and savasana.
• Calming and balancing pranayama, including diaphragmatic breathing, 2:1 yogic breathing, bumble bee breath (brahmari), left-nostril breathing (chandra bheda), and alternate-nostril breathing (nadi shodhana).
5. Cultivate acceptance.
Whether we like it or not, change is inevitable. If we are lucky enough to enjoy a long life, we will see changes in how we look, feel, and view the world; we will have to let go of some things and embrace others. Building on a foundation of asana, pranayama, and meditation, the philosophical practices of yoga can help us navigate these changes more smoothly.
Yoga philosophy teaches us that change is inevitable but that the suffering that sometimes accompanies change is not. Yogis believe that suffering can stem from either desire (raga), defined as clinging to a person, possession, ability, or situation, or aversion (dvesha), the fear of pain or suffering. Freedom from suffering requires the practice of non-attachment or equilibrium (vairagya). As a teacher of older students, you may want to introduce these concepts, and invite your students to create space for deeper reflection and self-study (svadhyaya). In fact, seeing how this depth of practice supports my older students has reaffirmed my own commitment to it.
Working with beginners over 60 can seem daunting to begin with, especially if, like the majority of teachers, you are currently in a younger age group. But this population isn’t weak or fragile; in fact, they have weathered a lifetime of storms. When you really get down to it, the real-world outcomes many of them seek—the need to maintain mobility and strength, to support themselves through the uncertainties of life—can benefit students of all ages. Devising creative ways to meet these needs is some of the most challenging, but also most satisfying, work we can do as teachers.