My yoga teaching experience began with teaching yoga to Seniors. There is often a novelty associated with older students practising yoga. Why does it surprise us that older people can do it? In the words of Sri Krishnamacharya, “If you can breathe, you can practice yoga”. Certainly, older students have different needs and we will address these here.
As a teacher, teaching yoga to Seniors is particularly rewarding. You learn as much as you teach. There is an art to ageing gracefully and there is no one better to teach this than a Senior. There is a misconception that classes need to be slower and place more emphasis on the breath for older students. The term “Gentle Yoga” is often used to describe classes for older students. This term is often misunderstood and confused with restorative yoga which is an entirely different practice. It is not necessary to oversimplify the practice for older students. They do not need to be on their backs for most of the class. In short, my classes for older students focus on the following five needs of older students:
Maintaining the mobility of the spine
The function of the spine is to elongate and it is in this lengthening, its elasticity and youth are regained. This is not a battle against old age but rather a regaining of the original suppleness of the spine. The spine is capable of moving in five directions – forward, backward, sideways, slightly upwards and rotation. It is important that a yoga class has a combination of these movements.
Strengthening the core
Yoga practice is often linked to flexibility but the more important aspect is stability. Maintaining a strong core (not just abdominal muscles) will protect and support the lower back, link the upper and the lower body and make the entire structure more balanced, stable and efficient.
The capacity to balance diminishes with age. Falling can be devastating for older students both physically and mentally. It is important to continuously work on maintaining or developing the ability to balance.
This is more about the ability to perform daily tasks with minimum discomfort than the ability to put a foot behind the head. My students simply want to be able to get down on the floor to play with the grandkids, wake up in the morning without feeling stiff and reaching up without an ache in the shoulder.
Synchronising breath and movement
Staying connected to the breath whilst practising and following the way the spine functions during the process of breathing allows students to understand their bodies. The expansion of the body during inhalation and lengthening during exhalation, originating from the spine is the basis of my teaching.
I know from working with older students that most will benefit from longer warm-ups, slower pace, simpler poses and some predictability in sequencing. My students prefer to start on their back, do some breathing work at the end, have longer relaxation and minimal sitting on the floor.
Some students prefer to work seated on a chair and using the chair for support. It is important to understand the individual needs and limitations and develop a practice that works. It is important for older students to communicate their needs to the teacher and inform them if something is causing them discomfort or pain. A well trained and a Yoga Australia registered teacher will be able to develop a class with the appropriate variations for older students. Shyamala Benakovic is CEO of Yoga Australia and a qualified Yoga teacher.