Are You Giving Your Older Students What They Need?
It’s Not Just Stretching
I’ve read so many books and articles about how to keep an older yoga student safe that I’m ready to barf.
Of course, we need to be safe. I’m not advocating that we do something crazy and hurt ourselves. But what a midlife person often needs has little do with gentle stretching.
For starters, even more than breathwork or asana, older yogis need friends. They also need to feel that they are more, not less, and they need to re-discover their inner badass. Their spirits need as much attention as their bodies in today’s yoga classes.
Older Yogis Need Friends With Benefits
Social isolation—and the depression and anxiety that come from it—afflicts the older generation like none other. Cell phones and internet access have made us more alone, not less. Reliance on social media for interaction has created perhaps the loneliest people in history.
To thrive, older yogis need friends and communities that support us.
In fact, social isolation may soon be the new smoking. Loneliness has been shown to lead to a decrease in mental, physical, and spiritual health, according to a 2015 study by the National Institutes of Health. According to Dr. Alexis Abramson, PhD and author of The Ultimate 50+ Fact Book, a person requires a minimum of 13 physical touches or hugs a day to thrive, yet while writing our new book, Fearless After Fifty: How to Thrive with Grace, Grit and Yoga, Desirée Rumbaugh and I discovered that often an older person is not touched by another human—at all—for weeks on end.
To thrive, older yogis need communities that support us. We need to know we are not alone in the trenches. We need friends who give us the benefit of keeping us on our mats with empathy and encouragement. They keep us going.
Are You Teaching Fear? Or Fearlessness?
Midlife yogis are already afraid. Believe me when I say it’s disconcerting to lose some of your capabilities. We need to hear, “You can do this.” Instead, we are often told, “Don’t do this at your age.”
I’m not saying that we should be reckless. Not at all. But I do believe we should be encouraged. We should never, ever be held back by what someone else thinks we can or can’t do. We should not be pigeonholed into a certain kind of practice by our age. We should be carefully encouraged into the deepest, safest, and strongest practice we can manage with our physical health at any age.
Badassery Is a Learned Behavior
Yoga is the fountain of youth. A supple and strong body leads to a resilient spirit. If an older yogi feels more alive in their body, they will also re-discover their inner badass.
While there is a time and place for gentle yoga (and believe me, I do it regularly), if you always practice this way, then over time you lose your muscles—and perhaps your nerve.
Older yogis need to work twice as hard as we did when we were younger to keep our strength. Our muscles and tendons keep our bones intact, and strengthening our muscles not only helps protect those bones but also keeps our metabolism fired. We should be encouraged to use every bit of muscular energy we can muster and to try the arm balances and inversions when we dare.
Here’s a Checklist:
Here are some ideas for creating a welcoming environment for some of the 14 million yogis who are in midlife.
- Set up a sitting area, provide tea, and encourage students to hang out after classes.
- Be mindful when offering retreats. For example, camping out in an eco-hut without running water may not work for someone who takes medicine at night.
- Offer a discount. Many studios offer a discount for students who are 55 or older, but AARP benefits begin at 50. If you can afford it, offer a discount at 50+ and they will come.
- Feature older teachers. There is nothing more depressing to a midlife person than a twenty-year-old chirping, “You can do it,” when you know, in fact, that she doesn’t understand your body or your physical needs.
- Promote strength for this age group. Ask older yogis to engage their muscles, balance when they’d rather not, and try the arm balances.
Older adults want to walk with swagger. We want to feel the confidence of our youth, combined with the earned grace of age. Studios can support us with yoga—and good company along the way.
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.