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Teaching yoga to seniors: Lessons in simplicity, creativity and self-love

Four years ago, Nina* walked into my first community class and my heart sank a little. She explained that it had been years since her last yoga class but she remembered how good it made her feel and was looking for the right place to return to it.

“I don’t think yoga studios and gyms are for me,” she said with a laugh. “I’m hoping this will be a good fit.” I replied that I hoped so too even as I felt a twinge of anxiety.

Nina is in her sixties. She was my very first senior student and also the only student in that class for the next three months. By the end of that third month, two things were clear. One, Nina was my teacher as much as I was hers. And two, everything I thought I knew about seniors, she threw out the window.

That class has now grown to six regular practitioners. All of them seniors and practicing yoga for the same reason – to continue living a full life. They’ve shown up every Thursday evening for the past four years, ready to move into familiar poses or explore the shape of new ones.

At the end of each class, my heart is filled with gratitude at being given the privilege of teaching a group that inspires, challenges and surprises me at every turn. And of everything they’ve unknowingly taught me, these three lessons have stuck with me the most.

Simplicity is both powerful and underrated

All six seniors are perfectly happy to live the rest of their lives without ever knowing what it’s like to stand on their head or hands. What they are determined to work hard at, however, are the basics. Finding balance on one leg in tree pose, for example. Or finding the most comfortable seated position to practice breathing exercises.

It intrigues them that such simple poses can challenge their strength, balance and self-talk so intensely. And because they have to practise it for longer, they have a better understanding of the poses and a bigger celebration when they finally reach their best version of it.

I remember the astonished delight on one of their faces when she realised she could stand in tree pose without wall support. It had taken a year but consistently keeping her practice focused on the basics had gotten her there.

It’s also a gentle reminder for me that a good class doesn’t have to include advanced poses or an elaborate sequence. A little creativity often goes a long way in helping them ease into a pose. Which brings us to the next point.

A yoga mat is a blank canvas for creativity

The first time I brought yoga blocks and straps into the class, the seniors weren’t quite sure what to do with them. They were, after all, used to depending solely on their own body to get them into each pose. Within a few lessons, the props had become their new best friend and an outlet for creativity on the mat.

These days, I’ll show them the usual way of using a prop in a particular pose and they’ll go on to experiment with other ways of using it to support themselves. The mental notes that I take while watching them are invaluable.

Practicing with props** in class has also helped them see ordinary households item or fixture as a props in disguise. One of them once shared how she had found a particular balancing pose easier when she rested her foot on a coffee table than when she leaned against the wall. We recreated that discovery with the props and everyone agreed that she was absolutely right.

There can never be too much self-love on the mat

One of the seniors has an old surgery scar that makes forward bends almost impossible. Another has tender wrists that don’t take kindly to any weight bearing. And yet another has had a hip replacement that makes sitting cross-legged on the floor a pipe dream.

These are the bodies they bring to the mat. All with a story to tell but none accompanied by discontent or wistfulness. They’re clear about what their bodies can and cannot do, and prefer to focus on the former rather than rue the latter.

Sometimes they laugh when I demonstrate a pose. To humour me, they will attempt it. At times they surprise themselves, at other times not. But that’s irrelevant. What matters is that they’ve given it a shot without judging their body over the result. And in teaching them, I have learnt to do the same on my own mat.

I spent my early years as a teacher in classes filled with practitioners like myself and I learnt heaps from them. Yet it was only when this seniors’ class found me that I understood what it really meant to teach yoga and the joy that comes with it.

At the end of each year, I thank the seniors for the honour of bring able to share in their practice. They’ve shown me how to take yoga off the mat and into everyday life. And that has not only made me a better teacher but also a better student.

*Name has been changed for privacy purposes.

** Props are used in classes for seniors, but not in Yogahood's classes for those considered at-risk.

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