If you’re thinking about teaching a yoga class for older adults—or even if you’ve been teaching one for a while now—there are a few things you might want to consider so you can best serve these students.
The first thing I’d ask you to consider is the way we tend to define “advanced yoga” and how we might want to redefine it, thus changing our perspective and perhaps refocusing our teaching to better reflect the deeper goals of a yoga practice—and the interests and needs of older students.
Many studios offer classes labeled “advanced” that are geared toward the strongest and most flexible yogis—they include deep backbends, arm balances, binds, and novel inverted poses—but is physical prowess in asana the only thing that “advanced” means in a yoga practice? Isn’t yoga, ultimately, about moving inward and toward a deeper understanding of the subtle aspects of our progress through life? Isn’t advancement in yoga more about improving our daily lives than it is about getting our toes to touch the back of our heads?
The most advanced yoga practices do not necessarily entail the most skill in asana. In my years as a yoga teacher and yoga therapist, I’ve observed that yoga practice can become quite advanced regardless of physical aptitude and that some of the most advanced practices can evolve in a wheelchair.
A truly mature practice might be one in which some gentle bilateral or core-engaged movement opens the nostrils and you become fully aware of the eyebrow center or are able to nestle attention at the heart. Try it yourself: Check the swara, the quality of breath in both sides of your nose, by closing off each side, one at a time, by pressing a finger against the nostril. Then do some simple twisting, take a walk, or do an abdominal lift or two. You may find that both nostrils are more clear afterward and that your mental focus is better. This type of practice requires neither a young nor an athletic body, but a willingness to dive deeper into the dwelling place of yoga.
The first thing I’d ask you to consider is the way we tend to define “advanced yoga.”
Teaching people over the age of 60 or 70 is the most challenging and creative work I do—because often for these students yoga is not just about “doing poses” anymore. When I was a young teacher, I might not have appreciated this challenge because of my passionate romance with yoga poses. I wanted everyone to experience the soaring delights of doing full splits while in a headstand, or to assist them in completely revolving their torso in parivrtta janu sirsasana (revolved head-to-knee pose), or at least perfecting trikonasana (triangle pose)! I didn’t see that something besides “mastering” challenging poses might be more desirable to some students. Many people came to my classes in those days and decided that “yoga wasn’t for them” because my goal of perfecting poses was not achievable or even interesting.
While some older students may come to yoga class with the goal of learning difficult postures and many yogis enjoy a rigorous physical practice all of their lives, what proved to be of interest to many of my older students was not mastering challenging poses but using asana to explore ways to unwind painful patterns in their bodies, correct physical tightness or weakness, and melt the grip of stress so as to generally improve their daily lives. If you feel called to teach older people, keep in mind that asana can be more of a means to an end than an end in itself—which is, of course, true for all of us, but perhaps especially for more mature students.
In my observation, many older students, to the extent that they are less driven to “perfect” poses than younger students are, may also be more open to exploring meditation and breathwork to manage stress or more appreciative of practical advice, such as how to move more mindfully when standing in line at the grocery store.
Finally, when teaching yoga to this population, consider the concerns and needs that come with their stage of life. Here are some issues you may want to address in your classes and ways to do so:
• Menopause—assisting with hormonal stress via calming twists, yawn-like lateral movements, and vagus-nerve-toning deep breath (this cranial nerve cues the body to calm down, and deepening the breath is one way to stimulate the vagus as well as encourage the production of happy hormones like dopamine and serotonin).
• Prostate health—working with the pelvic floor and with strong standing postures, which encourage better muscle tone and circulation to the lower body.
• Bone health—weight-bearing standing poses and repetitive kriyas (actions), which might involve squats or arm circles and strengthen the muscles to better support the joints.
• Joint stabilization—movements that focus on muscle balance and engage agonist and antagonist muscles, like biceps and triceps or hamstrings and quadriceps, for better joint support.
• Lymphatic support—circling or moving through every joint, self-massage techniques.
• Upper-body strength—weight-bearing poses (plank, downward dog, dolphin).
• Stamina—holding poses for five or more breaths, repetitive kriyas such as breath of joy, thoppukaranam (hands to ears), or “ha” kriya.
• Memory—breathing practices (such as brahmari, “bumble bee breath”), cross-patterning (movements that cross the midline, such as eagle pose, or ask the two halves of the body to do different things, such as oppositional arm circles), and meditation.
• Fall prevention—rising up on the balls of the feet and single-leg balance poses.
• Honoring individual fascia and bone structure—patterns caused by injuries, surgeries, and postural differences require unique modifications and mindfulness to know when it’s okay to move deeper and when to back off. Scoliosis or joint replacement, for instance, may result in some asymmetry, and alignment may not look the way it does in textbooks.
The work of helping people of any age lead fuller, better lives is the underlying vocation of a yoga teacher.
My dad was in his 90s and could no longer walk when he learned breathing and meditation techniques that made his eyes shine brighter and gave him a happiness that he’d looked for his entire life. I count sharing those methods with him as among the most important teaching I’ve ever done. The work of helping people of any age lead fuller, better lives is the underlying vocation of a yoga teacher, and when we move beyond the idea that mastering poses is the be-all-and-end-all of a yoga practice, we make room for more refined work that can help us understand that we have a body but are not the body. We are so much more. Yoga can be such a reminder.