At one of the Brooklyn yoga studios where I teach, I am the oldest instructor on the regular schedule. And actually, I am not that old. But old enough. Old-ish. I have grey hair. I have a grown-up daughter. I can’t demonstrate many (any?) poses unless my body is well warmed up. I get dizzy sometimes. One ankle aches. My energy is not infinite.
So it was a leap of faith last year when after a decade of “moonlighting” as a yoga teacher I left a demanding day job so that I could devote more time to teaching. While I still have plenty of other responsibilities, yoga has become the glue that holds my world together. Fortunately I no longer see the so-called “other” responsibilities as limiting my practice or what I have to offer my students. On the contrary; I am guided by B. K. S. Iyengar’s writing on “householders” (those who marry, raise families, and/or work to earn a living), particularly his reminder that it is through our work in the world and within our relationships that we develop as yogis.
In this dominant culture of youth and power vinyasa, how are older teachers faring?
Nevertheless, on some days, with my eyes too irritable to handle contact lenses, I look out of my spectacles—the glass smudged by New York City and my own hurried habits—and occasionally wonder what my dear students see when they look back at me. Were they hoping to be inspired by a super-toned and gorgeous 30-year-old? Do I remind them of their moms? Do they dismiss me as some old hippy? In this dominant culture of youth and power vinyasa, how are older teachers faring?
Okay, let me be specific here. By older, I mean over 50, and by teachers, I mean the people who show up each week to lead classes at your favorite local yoga studios. People like me. I am not referring to the circuit of travelling yoga celebrities, many of whom are also over 50. These teachers fill yoga conferences and festivals around the country and are accepted elders in the teaching community. The long careers they have sustained result in a deep well of knowledge. We travel to pay our respects to their wisdom and experience, but when we return home and hit our mats, whose guidance do we seek?
I decided to look for answers the old-fashioned way: I posted some questions on Facebook. My questions included:
Do you notice the age of your asana teachers, and do you find it to be a significant factor in their teaching, or your interest in/relationship to their classes?
Is there anything that you particularly think older teachers tend to teach better? What about younger teachers?
Do you think the age issue is experienced differently by male teachers than female teachers?
For teachers: Are you conscious of your age as a factor in your teaching? (This could be consciousness of being at the younger end of the spectrum as well as the older end!)
Among the unscientific sampling of those I am connected with, both closely and loosely (and who actually read my posts), not surprisingly the first responses were mostly from the over-50 crowd. But with a little coaxing I got some amazingly thoughtful responses from younger students and teachers as well. Across the board, what I read surprised me.
For example, one 31-year-old teacher wrote about the distance she feels from teachers in their mid 20s who may have “younger physiques[!] and stronger social media presences.” In fact, many young teachers mentioned feeling pressure to be constantly visible online and described social media as a self-marketing necessity. Although not a single older teacher mentioned social media, they cited other pressures. Some noted that a majority of local studios favor a vigorous vinyasa style that had become less interesting to them as practitioners and might more suitably be taught by someone younger.
It’s true; look around the room in many New York City studios and it might seem filled with the young and the restless sweating attractively in $108 leggings. But yoga is finding its way into many other environments too. More than one teacher I queried felt that by focusing on our age as teachers, we were stuck in a self-limiting model, one in which young, athletic people are the only potential students. Older teachers, they felt, might be well positioned to build bridges to untapped populations, and to help make yoga accessible to a wider variety of students of all ages and physical abilities.
It was interesting to get an email from a studio teacher in her mid 50s who lives in a small Southern town. She has found her age to be advantageous in her community where “the older teachers are actually better received than many of the younger ones.”
I was more surprised to hear this sentiment echoed by some of my own students. Although most had experienced great teachers of every age (one said the age of the teacher’s “soul” was most important), a couple admitted that among teachers they did not know, they might more likely trust an older teacher than a younger one. These students, both well into their 60s with strong physical practices, agreed that an older teacher might take increased care in warming up the body and display more personal self-awareness and confidence, as well as greater sensitivity to issues related to aging. As one explained, “It’s the same reason that I would choose a woman gynecologist—we understand each other.”
Among younger students, few felt age to be a significant factor at all—at least not in the way I expected. One young woman who has been facing personal difficulties wrote: “I tend to prefer an instructor that's older than me. More life experience and more body experience and knowledge. Given my struggles that's super-important to me.” Overall, however, students and teachers in my Facebook sangha mostly just expressed a deep love for the practice of yoga and a desire to learn from teachers who feel the same way.
While I totally understand that my responders were something of a self-selecting group, I still have to wonder why I had imagined that uber-popular, physically alluring yoga teachers were running the world. Was it a sense of competition that was growing directly out of self-created issues related to being an older woman in a body-centered business? Of course! We are bombarded by media (social, commercial, aspirational) that doesn’t tell the whole story, and we respond to it—often unconsciously and in a self-limiting manner.
But I do still think there is an important story here. Maybe many stories that we can begin to share more widely. What do we as teachers feel we need to do, and be, in order to attract students? Is there a difference in these perceptions between men and women? Have the fitness and fashion industries hijacked our beloved tradition? And while all of these questions are worth considering, our own perceptions about ourselves as yoga teachers and our places in our own communities are important parts of the conversation too. On a related note, I find it interesting that many older teachers have come to this work later in life. Our feelings may be quite similar to those in other second careers; we bring the same hard-won wisdom and skills, but the insecurities as well.
As I’ve mulled over this topic, I’ve found myself thinking a lot about a conversation I had with a student who told me that she really likes it when she encounters a teacher for whom the asana practices don’t seem to have come easily. Her comment really touched me as recently I have felt frustrated by a spike in injury and illness. But what if rather than worrying about the ways that these challenges might limit my teaching, I truly appreciated the wisdom and grace of living and practicing in a human body over time (decades now)? What if I remembered that the deepening relationship to myself is also an essential part of my ongoing growth as a “householder”?
One teacher in her late 50s wrote to me with great certainty that yoga is a preparation for death, and I do understand that is part of our tradition. I also know that the practice, even now, is still very much teaching me how to live.