Having talked to many yoga teachers about teaching seniors, there is usually one overwhelming emotion for those that have had little experience teaching seniors – uneasiness. Yoga teachers are trained in anatomy and physiology and so know the “average” anatomy of a potential student but they also instinctively know that seniors’ anatomy and physiology will be different. But they often don’t know what that means or how to address it in a yoga class.
Yoga teachers are right; a senior’s body is going to be different than the “average” body and it is quite possible that each senior’s body will be different to other seniors in the class. A senior’s body will reflect how it was used throughout its life. Someone that has spent their whole life in hard physical labour will have a different body at 60 years old than one that worked in an office for the past 40 years.
Because of this fear, I have seen inexperienced teachers curtail their senior classes’ poses to very small movements- e.g., while sitting, lifting one knee up slightly – while slightly extending the arms. Seniors are quite capable of doing yoga although perhaps not all of the poses as they are originally taught. But common, though modified, yoga poses are quite possible in a senior yoga class. And these very small movements are not very interesting to students - the majority of which are quite capable of doing much more. Although safely is the first consideration in any yoga class, “dumbing down” the poses to little more than lifting your leg slightly or a slight side bend is not helping the seniors nor will it result in a successful class that students want to attend.
So one thing that a yoga teacher might focus on is body awareness; with a variety of body types and issues, the individual student needs to be very aware of how their body works. Questions like how and why is a particular stretch painful, or why it feels good, or what does the student discover about their body that they might like to work on are questions teachers can ask to begin the process. The goal is seniors’ physical self-awareness to become more attuned to their bodies. As an example, teachers might ask their students to focus on how the muscles feel when the student stretches them: what kind of stretch is it – in the belly of the muscle, close to the joints, how much release do you achieve if you stay gently in the pose, is there any discomfort, can the student breathe easily while in the pose? All of these questions lead to a deeper awareness of how this pose is being performed by their body and how it feels in that moment. Older students may not feel anything in their body and need cues and help to bring attention to how their body is responding.
Concentrating on each student’s individual anatomy is important because the student will learn to find the point in the stretch or the pose where they are challenged but not uncomfortable. The teacher is responsible for getting these concepts across so that the student can find the point that is increasing their abilities but is safe and not likely to cause pain or injury. This allows the student to slowly work on increasing flexibility, range of motion, and building strength.
Other issues that may occur are when poses cause the student to feel nervous, nauseated, or dizzy. With some very common conditions like high blood pressure, some poses are contraindicated. People with high blood pressure can feel quite ill if their head is below their heart. Therefore any pose that puts the head below the heart should be modified e.g., a version of downward dog can be done using a wall so that the head stays above the heart.
But teachers do need specialised knowledge to know those conditions that require modifications. The student may tell you if something doesn’t feel right but there are conditions that have no symptoms until something serious occurs. So inexperienced teachers have every right to be nervous; seniors are going to demonstrate significant variations in how they do poses, students may be dealing with a variety of conditions that require modified poses and sometimes students are unaware of conditions that they have thereby leaving the teacher with less than adequate information. Preparing yourself to teach seniors does require additional training and knowledge but it is very rewarding as seniors embody the ethos of yoga – joining the mind and body to improve the overall emotional and physical aspects of their lives. If you have comments on this blog or wish to know more, contact me through the contact page on this website.