I recently saw a question posted on a yoga teacher message board asking for recommendations about what yoga classes might appeal to those over 50 – “besides restorative.” The question went on to note that some of the prospective class members “have joint issues, prior injuries, or joint replacements, so safe movement is a priority.” In my opinion, safe movement should really be a priority in yoga classes regardless of the age of the participants, but it’s a common reaction to be especially tentative about having “frail” older adults in classes. However, it’s often a lack of activity or fear of movement that creates this fragility in the first place, and if we continue to limit older adults instead of challenging them, we perpetuate the fragility cycle. Oftentimes, adults in the 50 and older crowd can really benefit from more active -- not passive poses. Remember the old “move it or lose it” choice when it comes to physical fitness? Which of those options is your class encouraging your older students to choose?
While the older yoga practitioner might need modifications and may not find power yoga classes appealing (although some do!), we still need to remember as instructors that yoga practitioners over 50 also need opportunities to strengthen their muscles. If we truly want to serve the growing number of older adults trying yoga, we’d be wise to avoid the assumption that advancing in years inevitably prevents one from practicing yoga more fully. While it is important to be aware of medical conditions and past injuries, yoga teachers can also help this population improve their strength, balance, and mobility so that they can participate as fully as possible in their activities of daily living. These gains often translate into greater confidence and independence, which are tremendous positives for many seniors.
I think one of the most powerful ways yoga teachers can help older students avoid fragility and maintain resilience is through exercises and cuing that encourage bodily awareness. Regardless of age, the more we can get our students to understand the difference between challenge and pain, the more safely they can explore movement in their practice. If muscles and joints are not exposed to stress, they will atrophy, causing functional strength and range of motion to be negatively impacted. While sharp pain in a joint should not be ignored and “pushed through,” some challenge to the leg muscles while holding chair pose helps build strength. Work to build strength can be uncomfortable, but that’s different than painful. Helping our students identify and apply “good stress” to muscles and joints will make them more resilient. A more resilient body is a more functional body. That functionality means it’s easier to move and be active, which can result in an increased quality of life. There is work involved to get stronger whether you are 20 or 70. Helping our students safely work (that’s good stress) their bodies offers many potential benefits. We do a disservice to our older clients when we unnecessarily coddle them based on age alone (that’s more losing, less moving).
Simply put, there are many more ways for the older adult to participate in yoga other than restorative classes. Restorative classes can be a great starting point or complement to an older adult’s yoga routine, but don’t assume that’s the best or only practice for them. Educate yourself on ways to meet the unique needs of our bodies as we age, and use your classes to encourage older adults to maintain an active lifestyle. If you are looking for ways to challenge older adults appropriately to help them live stronger longer, seek out some additional training or resources to help you better understand the needs of older yogis. I’ve included some of my favorite resources below to help you get started.
Baxter Bell, MD — links to helpful videos and other yoga-specific information for healthy aging.
Ageing Well — helpful general information and special focus on osteoporosis
Your Body, Your Yoga — Excellent book to help build awareness of individuality in bodies, regardless of age