Teaching yoga moves to seniors is often considered an entry-level job for a yoga instructor. After all, older adults aren’t likely to need help with complicated postures or esoteric practices. Unfortunately, this ill-informed attitude often puts the least-trained instructors with the most challenging students. The reality is that older adults are arguably the most demanding—and most rewarding—yoga students. Of all age groups, seniors are the most complex and varied, with some able to run marathons and others unable to get out of bed. More than half of Americans over age sixty-five have a disability—such as difficulty hearing, seeing, or walking—and more than a third have a severe disability. More than 87 percent of seniors take at least one prescription drug, and nearly 60 percent take three or more. Even fit older athletes have vulnerabilities that are often not understood by many yoga teachers.
Commonly-Taught Yoga Moves Risky for Seniors
For example, these commonly-taught yoga moves may be risky for seniors:
Forward Bends with Straight Legs
One of the central yoga moves in Sun Salutations, which are a staple of many classes, can be potentially dangerous for vulnerable older adults. Straight-legged forward bends – including the postures Uttanasana and Paschimottanasana – may increase the risk of vertebral fracture for people with low bone density, which is common in people over age 50. More than half of all American women and one-third of all men aged 50 and older have low bone mass, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. We encourage students to hinge at their hips (not at their waist), bend their knees and keep their spine in a neutral alignment when folding forward.
The common yoga move of twisting as far as you can—then “cranking” the twist by pushing against a body part with a hand or elbow— may also increase the risk of vertebral fracture in vulnerable seniors. The Osteoporosis Foundation advises people with low bone density to avoid deep twists and deep hip stretches. While it’s helpful to maintain the spine’s ability to rotate (how else would you back your car out of a parking space?), it’s essential to do so safely. This means keeping twists in mid-range and using a fluid quality of motion.
Holding the breath can affect blood pressure and is inadvisable for people with heart disease and/or hypertension. Extreme breathing practices such as Kapalabhati and Bastrika may also be problematic. More than 74 percent of Americans over age 60 have high blood pressure. We remind students to keep their breath flowing and comfortable.
Teaching Yoga Moves to Seniors
Our deep commitment to non-harming – the yogic principle of ahimsa – is why we launched our first Integrative Yoga for Seniors Professional Training at Duke Integrative Medicine back in 2007, to give yoga instructors the skills and confidence to safely and effectively teach older adults. As yoga teachers working in medical settings, Kimberly Carson and I sought to combine the best of current, evidence-based medicine with the ancient wisdom, experience and tradition of Yogic teachings. We invited Duke faculty experts to present talks on age-related health issues such as heart disease, arthritis and osteoporosis, and used the science-based movement considerations they recommended to inform our approach to teaching yoga to seniors.
Integrative Yoga for Seniors Professional Training
Today our program has evolved into an annual 50-hour master training that features lectures by Duke physicians, physical therapists, and health psychologists along with hands-on training in teaching skills specific to older practitioners with varied health concerns. A prerequisite for enrollment is completion of at least a 200-hour yoga teacher training or equivalent, and the course text is our book, Relax into Yoga for Seniors: A Six-Week Program for Strength, Balance, Flexibility, and Pain Relief. We offer an abridged version of this training in other locations, including the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health, and have created a 20-hour on-line Teaching Yoga to Seniors Certificate Course that allows yoga teachers to learn this information conveniently, in their own home.
A Mature Approach to Yoga Moves
Along with the challenges involved in teaching yoga to older adults come unique opportunities. Seniors, perhaps more than any other age group, recognize that yoga moves are only one part of the practice, and they tend to be extremely receptive to the profound benefits offered on all levels by yoga practice: physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual. Unlike younger practitioners who are often distracted by the desire for a shapelier body, older adults typically have an eagerness and deep appreciation for the experience of ease and union, which is the true heart of yoga. They are also typically more interested in function than in form—that is, rather than striving to look like an Instagram influencer, seniors are more often motivated to practice so they can do things that are important to them, such as play on the floor with their grandchildren, climb stairs, and/or avoid falling.
Honoring Each Person’s Journey
Over nearly two decades of teaching yoga to people facing health challenges and age-related issues, we have gained a deep respect for individual differences and the importance of honoring each person’s unique journey. We begin by encouraging people to start where they are, not where they think they should be. Then we offer appropriate tools of yoga—including postures, breathing, meditation, and principles—to help them deepen their awareness and find ease. We use inclusive, nonjudgmental, and encouraging language that validates each person’s experience. Our priority is creating a safe and welcoming environment for each student. Equally essential is ensuring that this imperative of safety does not create a sense of fear or limitation but rather invites the empowering recognition of yoga’s highest teachings that our true nature is already whole.