A few years ago, if you’d asked me if it was possible to safely teach yoga to older adults over a computer, I’d have been skeptical. As a yoga therapist who specializes in teaching seniors and people with health challenges, I consider it essential to be able to observe my students closely to make sure they are moving safely. In our Integrative Yoga for Seniors Professional Trainings we encourage yoga teachers to continually scan the room to monitor student’s movement—for example, to potentially correct alignment issues that might be harmful to joints and to watch for other signs of possible harm, such as someone who is wobbly and may need to hold onto a support, or someone who is over-exerting and may need ease up on effort.
Since this kind of close observation is difficult or impossible over the computer, I’d have considered virtual Yoga for Seniors a “no go.” Then the pandemic hit.
On March 13, 2020, Covid concerns prompted cancellation of my Gentle Yoga class at Duke Integrative Medicine—all of us hoping this would be temporary. As the weeks of quarantine wore on, however, and anxious students contacted me for support, we arranged to offer my Gentle Yoga class for free on a virtual platform I’d never heard of before—something called “Zoom.” I figured out how to arrange my home yoga space into an on-line studio, and we offered free Gentle Yoga for several months through Duke’s Zoom platform—often having more than 200 people from around the world log onto the class. (Duke recorded a few of the classes, now available on YouTube).
I found it strange and disconcerting to teach yoga while I was all alone in my yoga room, basically talking to my computer. Yet the outpouring of grateful emails I received made it clear that this class was important and helpful to people. As virtual classes were the only option available, it seemed prudent to make them as safe and helpful as possible. For me, this meant getting a 24” monitor that I set up on a special stand above my computer, so I could see students who chose to leave their videos on (albeit in small windows). I kept classes relatively simple, with continuous safety cues, encouraging people to enjoy their practice and be grateful for the precious gift of breath.
After several months, we transitioned from offering free classes on Duke’s Zoom platform to creating a drop-in Zoom class for a nominal fee. This resulted in smaller classes, which generated a wonderful camaraderie among a core group of students—many of them regulars from my former in-person classes–along with some participants from around the country. Now, nearly two years later, vaccines and boosters have become widely available, and these on-line Gentle Yoga classes are scheduled to end in January when in-person (masked) classes at Duke’s Health & Fitness Center will resume.
My experience teaching Gentle Yoga online has offered some unexpected insights into the surprising benefits of virtual classes:
Convenience. Many students enjoy not having to drive somewhere (especially in bad weather), find parking, and get their “favorite spot” in the room. It’s a big time saver, too, when the “commute” to class is turning on your computer and logging in.
Non-competitive. During in-person classes, I continually invite my students to avoid comparisons with others—I’ll suggest they view their mats as their private “yoga island” and disregard the natives of other “yoga islands.” Yet, our culture’s competitive nature is so ingrained that many people can’t help but look around and measure themselves against what others are doing. This is almost impossible to do in the virtual space, where other students don’t appear at all or are only in tiny windows that are difficult to see.
Community. One of the many health benefits of yoga is the “sangha”—a Sanskrit term for being in a community of like-minded people. Even before the pandemic, public health officials were warning about an “epidemic” of loneliness and social isolation that can be as damaging to health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Covid has made this worse, with one report suggesting that more than a third of all Americans (including 61% of young adults and 51% of mothers with young children) feel “serious loneliness”.
While seeing people over a screen is not the same as seeing people in person, I’ve found that it’s still a helpful means of connection. And when other options are limited, connecting virtually can be a lifeline for the isolated.
To encourage sangha, I sign on to classes 10 minutes early and invite students to do the same so we can greet each other and chat. I also stay on for a short while after the class ends, in case someone has a question or wants to share something. While not all students avail themselves of this opportunity, many do–and if a regular student isn’t there, people can reach out to him or her. There’s been a surprising intimacy to many of these interactions—my students see me in my home, I see them in theirs. They’ve met my dog, Shanti, and introduced me to their pets and family members. We get a glimpse into each other’s lives and rejoice in our shared yoga journey.
Yet despite the many benefits of on-line yoga, it’s important to recognize that, like any form of physical activity, yoga also carries potential risks ̶ ̶ with older adults more likely than younger people to get hurt doing yoga. And practicing on your own without a teacher’s supervision, which occurs in virtual yoga classes, may increase the risk of injury.
I offer advice on how to minimize your risk in my article, Six Strategies for Practicing Safe Yoga at Home. Arguably the single most important reminder is to recognize that you’re never too old to try yoga. You don’t need to be fit or flexible or young. The only thing you need to be able to do to practice yoga is to breathe.