I’ll be perfectly honest with you here – when I was first asked, eight years ago, to run an exercise or stretch class at a rest home once a week, I didn’t really do a lot of prep for it. I pretty much thought it’d be a piece of cake. I’d run a gentle yoga class, modify some poses, and that would be that.
When I arrived and was introduced to the group awaiting me, I realized that I needed to rethink my strategy. As we chatted a bit before class, I learned that Catherine* had a frozen shoulder, Betty* had undergone two hip replacements and Jack* was recovering from a stroke and physically couldn’t do a lot of anything. Whilst I had understood that there would be some limitations in this over-65 group (I do have people of this age in my regular classes!), I really hadn’t considered just how specialized and different teaching them as a group would be.
And while I’m being honest, I’ll tell you that I felt quite ashamed and embarrassed that I hadn’t really thought this through properly, and that I hadn’t given these students the same care and attention when preparing their class that I give to everyone else. But as the saying goes, when we know better, we do better, and in the years since then I have tried to make up for my initial lack of care by growing my knowledge in every way I can, and cultivating a thorough understanding of how I can best help my senior students.
It seems that every second week I see an ad for a kids’ yoga teacher training, or a class offered for teens, but very little is available in the way of education and training to help yoga teachers learn how to best serve this growing sector of the population. Because of this lack of available training, I spent a lot of time in person with an incredibly knowledgeable and generous friend who happens to be a physio with an interest in elder care, researching and learning what I need to take into consideration for these students so that I can serve them best.
Physically, mentally and emotionally, there are unique challenges when teaching seniors. Even lumping them all into one category, “seniors”, doesn’t begin to address the fact that there are some in the over-65 age group who, while maybe a bit slower than a 30-year-old, can still get down to the floor (and up again!), some who can’t do that but can still stand and move around, and some who may be chairbound and can’t do any standing work at all. But of course the elderly, as much as (and perhaps even more so than) their more youthful counterparts, need to move and take care of their bodies, need to learn how to still the chatter of the mind, need to remember to be present and to breathe.
Failing physical and mental health, loss of independence, loneliness and isolation are huge issues for many of our elderly, and the magic and beauty of yoga is that it is can help these students, just as it does the rest of us. It’s a beautiful gift that works on so many levels. To see my senior students stand taller, and regain balance and strength they thought they’d lost; to hear an 80-year-old student tell me how she falls asleep at night more easily using her “yoga breathing and relaxation”; to have another student comment that she wishes the rest home would have me in every day because it’s her favourite activity and she feels “happier and calmer” – these are the moments that put a smile on my face and make my heart happy.
I currently teach a weekly class at two different rest homes, one for more mobile, independent apartment residents – we start with seated work, and then progress to standing, using chairs for support as needed; and one for rest home residents – generally this group are older, less mobile, and several have various degrees of dementia. Many are assisted in by the staff, and I joke that they’re my captive audience as they can’t just leave on their own! They are seated for the whole session. It can be a challenge to keep these classes interesting and still accessible, but it’s one I am thankful for and look forward to each week.
*Not their real names.
Michelle has practiced yoga for over half her life and gets a buzz from knowing that there’s still so much to learn. She is passionate about delivering yoga classes that are fun and accessible for everyone. You can find her here: http://www.michellekeenan.com/
© The Yoga Connection 2017