Yoga Education with Special Needs Elders
Today, more and more elders, ages 65 to 95, are living active, interesting lives.
Some live at home and explore activity and learning opportunities at senior citizen centers or adult day care facilities. Others are residential participants at retirement communities or assisted living facilities. As health care improves and becomes more widely available, this age group will grow to become a large portion of the population. Roughly one-fourth of the U.S. population will be over 65 by mid-century.
Many of these older people appreciate a yoga education that addresses their special life situations. Two age-related circumstances that elders often face are mobility impairment and intellectual impairment. As people age, they may experience illness such as arthritis or injury from a fall and need the assistance of a cane, walker, wheelchair, or a motorized scooter. Some elders experience sporadic or sustained memory loss or a speech impediment as a result of Alzheimer’s disease or stroke.
Loss of mobility and intellectual quickness are not best thought of as limitations on life activities. They are simply the particular circumstances of an age cohort, and all age groups have their special needs.
Establishing an Elders’ Yoga Program
A regular yoga practice offers health benefits to people of all ages. (Timothy McCall (2007), Yoga as Medicine: The Yogic Prescription for Health and Healing. New York: Bantam Books, especially Chapter 4).
Elders’ Yoga brings demonstrable benefits to older practitioners in the form of:
(a) improved posture
(b) better breathing
(c) enhanced flexibility and mobility
(d) an ability to quiet the mind.
In the case of elders with special mobility or intellectual needs, Chair Yoga is a safe and effective practice. All four of Elder Yoga’s benefits are addressed through an educational class that sits and stays in the chair.
Elders’ special needs necessitate thoughtful collaboration. When approaching a senior citizens’ center, day care center, retirement community, or assisted living facility, yoga education begins with staff.
The typical elder service organization has an Activities Director, and that person’s support is crucial to the yoga program’s success. The yoga teacher will want to fit a 45-50 minute class into the activities schedule at that facility. The class will need a quiet, climate controlled space equipped with chairs that have no arms arranged in a semi-circle facing the instructor. One will want to clearly explain the four benefits: posture, breathing, flexibility, and quieting the mind.
The Activities Director will need to understand that the participants will remain seated throughout the class. It will be helpful to demonstrate or show illustrations of what Chair Yoga exercise involves. One explanation technique is to offer a sample class to staff. The Activities Director or another designated staff member should be encouraged to be a regular class member to insure good communications and participant follow-up.
Crafting the Elders’ Yoga Class
A regular class routine might start with a simple review of the four benefits as participants establish good posture in the chair. Recall that these participants commonly have memory issues, so it never hurts to always start at the beginning.
Posture. In adopting a good seated posture, all participants are asked to “sit tall” in their chairs with their feet and knees hip distance apart. Bare feet or sock feet are a great option to ground the sense of balance on the flatness of the floor. Establishing good upper body posture is achieved by asking all participants to lower their arms beside the chair with their hands facing each other under the seat. Then ask them to rotate their hands outward so that they can feel the upper arm bone settle back into the shoulder socket. Briefly talk with them about how good posture can help allay “stooped shoulders” and attendant stiff neck and shoulder soreness.
Breathing. Sitting tall with the shoulders back and down allows the lungs to inflate freely within the chest cavity. Explain how deep inhalation brings needed oxygen through the lungs into the blood stream and how full exhalation expels dust, pollen, and pollutants from the bottom of the lungs. Share some deep breathing exercises, “excusing” any coughs needed when expelling stale air from the lungs.
Exercise. One exercise strategy is to work from the head down the body using chair yoga techniques appropriate for the neck, shoulders, back, hips, and legs. Each yoga teacher will want to craft his or her own routines and variations. Some available resources include:
Edeltraud Rohnfeld (2012). Chair Yoga: Seated Exercises for Health and Wellbeing. Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publications: first seven chapters.
Alice Christensen (1999). Easy Does It Yoga: The Safe and Gentle Way to Health and Well-Being. New York: American Yoga Association.
Anna Shapiro (2015). Gentle Yoga with Great Benefits: For People who are in Recovery, Over the Age of 60, or Have Physical Limitations. Lulu Publishing Company (privately published): except pages 75-92.
Clarissa C. Adkins, Olivette Baugh Robinson, and Barbara Leaf Stewart (2011). Chair Yoga for You: A Practical Guide. (privately published): 14-42 and 61-72.
Which exercises one selects and the order of their presentation is an individual teacher choice, but one might want simple poses and transitions to precede more difficult variations. For example, one might warm the neck joints before starting neck rolls and warm shoulder joints before doing bent arm lifts. Spinal twists can precede forward folds for the lower back, and opening the hips might precede leg lifts.
Quieting the Mind
Elders often have noisy minds. They are constantly stimulated by broadcast media. They have many interactions around the senior citizens’ center, adult daycare facility, retirement community, or assisted-living facility. And elders may be restless with sensitive memories and restive speculations about the future. They often mention how a restless mind disturbs their rest, sleep, meditation, or worship. Their maturity allows them to reflect on this constant mental noise, but a mental impairment such as Alzheimer’s disease previously may have interfered with addressing it. So, toward the end of class, yoga can offer a quiet breathing time.
The posture, breath, and exercise aspects of the class will have quieted elders’ bodies. The students then can relax, breathe, and focus their minds’ attention on the sound and rhythm of their breath. At the same time, the teacher can move around the room, gently massaging each student’s neck and shoulders. Yoga teachers often work with individuals at the later, restful phase of a yoga class. They have always been counseled to ask permission before touching a student, and that advice applies here. Yet over time, elders each look forward to a couple of minutes of appropriate touch. Many of them may be alone and without nurturing touch, and this can be an important part of their yoga class.
Providing Yoga Education
In most yoga classes for younger adults, the teacher leads an often fast-moving series of shapes and transitions. The teacher models the activity, and the student quietly follows the lead.
In yoga education for elders, the teacher still models poses and transitions, but there is no hurry. In fact, with elders the benefits of good posture, improved breathing, flexing and bending, and being still are best accomplished slowly.
Neither is there total quiet. Elders want to express themselves. Communication is an important ingredient in building yoga’s acceptance. Elders want to know how an exercise is beneficial or what options are available if an exercise is uncomfortable. They also may want to ask questions, talk about their sensations, or share a greeting and a smile. This does not mean that discussion gets out of control. But communication is an important part of building trust with a teacher who is bringing yoga’s “new ideas” to their health program.
Educating elders about issues like how their bodies work, patiently listening to where and when they are experiencing stiffness problems, or suggesting which exercises might help them with sleep are hallmarks of a yoga educator (generally see Leslie Kaminoff, YogaAnatomy.net). Seniors are smart, experienced adults. Many of them may have some short-term memory loss, so they won’t mind you orienting each class and teaching each posture anew. Then they are free to relax and enjoy the class without worrying about remembering techniques, mastering terminology, or grappling with an unfamiliar philosophy.
If a yoga teacher is to become a yoga educator for elders, that individual will need to learn about the aging process. Personal experiences with aging parents, grandparents, neighbors, and friends are excellent preparations, but a few examples of helpful reading include:
Ram Dass (2000). Still Here: Embracing Aging, Changing, and Dying. New York: Riverhead Books.
Rachel Naomi Remen (2000). My Grandfather’s Blessings: Stories of Strength, Refuge and Belonging. New York: Riverhead Books.
Mitch Albom (1997). Tuesdays with Morrie: An Old Man, a Young Man, and Life’s Greatest Lesson. New York: Doubleday Publishing.
Rewards of Yoga Education with Elders
A successful yoga educator needs to develop good listening skills and the ability to speak clearly and calmly. Those abilities only come with experience.
Bringing yoga education to elders is a delight. They need to feel healthy despite life circumstances such as mobility loss and intellectual impairment. They are active, eager learners showing interest in yoga and the teacher. And they are appreciative of volunteer time spent at their center or facility. Mentoring flows both ways. The elders learn new health habits, and the yoga educator learns about the wisdom and grace that come with age.
George Cox (Ph.D. Emory University) is a retired university professor teaching Elders’ Yoga in Savannah, Georgia. He completed his RYT200 Teacher Training with YogaWorks in 2010 and the RYT 500 Advanced Yoga Studies program at the Asheville Yoga Center in 2013.