I recently heard this completely true story:
A student in a YTT was asked to do Bakasana, Crow pose. She did a lovely pose. Another (much younger) student said, “Thank God, because I can’t stand it when old people come to my classes and I have to modify the whole thing.” The student who did the demonstration was 50, and according to the U.S. Census, people over 50 now make up half of the world’s population.
So how do we handle and reach out to older yoga students? From a purely service perspective, with the obvious benefits of yoga, it’s clear that an army of well trained yoga professionals are needed!
What’s more, Baby Boomers probably have the most disposable income of any generation. From a purely business standpoint, they are the perfect target market. But first, we have to learn to get along.
Even though I am a yogi of a certain age (52), I can sympathize with the young teacher who complained about having older yogis show up to her class. Who hasn’t had a room of strong and eager students, and then had to modify everything for the one student who couldn’t hold Downward Dog whether it was from age or illness? But I also know how rewarding it can be when that student comes back because that one modification I gave made a difference in their life!
Teaching older yogis isn’t easy. We can be cranky (it’s true). Our bodies often hurt and creak and groan with age. We don’t do well with heat. And we can be frustrated with our diminished capabilities. To add insult to our injuries, those cute yoga clothing companies pretend we don’t exist.
But yoga means to unite or connect, so let’s find a way to bridge the generation gap and make everyone feel welcome on the mat.
Things you might want to consider when teaching yoga to older students:
Should older yogis have their own yoga classes?
Yes and no. I teach a Wisdom Warriors ™ class once a week created by Desiree Rumbaugh, designed for seasoned and adventurous yogis age 50 or older. It is wonderful to have our own space to explore the limits of our practice.
On the other hand, I encourage my older students to practice with mixed-age classes. It keeps us strong trying to keep up with youth. We can get a little whiny when we’re talking about the benefits of prunes versus Metamucil. To stay young at heart often means we need to be with the young and not shut ourselves in an early retirement home.
Can younger teachers teach older yogis?
Yes! To teach older yogis, a teacher needs experience with alignment, therapeutic training, injuries and chronic illness. But most of all, a teacher needs compassion. However, that doesn’t mean the older yogi will trust the younger teacher. The relationship is built over time. However, if a teacher has only trained in a style that does not emphasize alignment or the use of props, she may not be the right fit for an older yogi.
Are there some things that older yogis shouldn’t do?
Yes! But this is also true for younger yogis, pregnant yogis, ill yogis and tight athletic yogis. There will always be things we shouldn’t do, but it’s not necessarily depending on our age. Mr. Iyengar, 94, does a headstand every day, and so do I. But someone with neck pain or disc issues probably should not.
Before an older yogi starts any physical regimen, they should seek approval from their physician. Use care and caution when teaching inversions. Realize that falling in your thirties might mean a few uncomfortable days. A fall in your seventies could mean a broken hip, a shattered shoulder and damaged mobility for the rest of one’s life. Always balance the risk with the reward.
Can older yogis tolerate heated yoga?
I have a hard time with heated yoga, but I believe it is wonderful for detoxing the body. In a heated class I place all my new students by the door and cool them off until they get used to the discomfort.
In general, I think heated yoga can benefit stiff students, but it can also cause harm by allowing us to stretch more than we should.
Is there anything special I should do when an older yogi comes to my class?
The most important thing is to make them feel welcome. I am often the oldest one there! We might feel out of place, but a warm welcome goes a long way. Also, suggest ways to modify if they seem to need it. Otherwise, they are the same as everyone else.
One caveat is that many older yogis may have fragile bones or osteoporosis. I have actually had my foot broken twice in yoga when the instructor stepped on it, once in Half Moon Pose to stabilize my foot, and once in Cobra to weight my leg. Be mindful!
Older yoga students tend to be extremely dedicated once they find an activity that is challenging, yet safe. They can be so accountable to showing up that they’ll even email others in the class to let everyone know when they can’t make it! When an older student knows there is a warm, supportive community waiting at the studio, they’ll be your most committed students.
Build community by forging conversations before and after class, get to know your students, offer things like fruit or tea after class, and introduce students to each other!
How can I reach out to the older yogis in my community?
Many appreciate having their own class. There are yoga classes for women, teens, men, and I’ve even seen “yo-gay,” for the gay community. So a class for Boomers says, “We love you.” However, do not be surprised if it is under-enrolled. Some of us refuse to be shunted off to an old person’s class.
Another option is to offer alignment-based, non-flow yoga classes without heat. These are generally the most accessible formats for accommodating all kinds of students.
Lastly, some studios offer discounts for yogis starting as young as 50. Nothing, and I mean nothing says “I love you” like a discount. Older students may be on a fixed income, but they also have the time to take class, especially if they feel welcomed and part of the community. So open your door, and your heart, and see them fly in Bakasana. It may just surprise both of you.
Michelle Berman Marchildon is The Yogi Muse. She’s a contributor to 90 Monkeys, an award-winning journalist and the author of two books on yoga. Her book, Theme Weaver: Connect the Power of Inspiration to Teaching Yoga, is for yoga teachers who want to inspire their students. She is an E-RYT 500 Hatha teacher in Denver, Colorado. You can find her at www.YogiMuse.com.