I’ve been teaching yoga to seniors for eighteen years, and when I was asked to write an article about the benefits I asked myself, who is going to read this article? Yoga teachers? Seniors? Young people who think they are indestructible and will live forever? Are these groups really any different in what they need? I have twenty year old students who can’t touch their toes, and I have eighty year old students who can do eka pada sirsasana (if you don’t know what that is – don’t even think about it!). Every individual is so different – what can I say?
The reason yoga can benefit seniors is the same reason it can benefit anyone (and the list of possible benefits is very long). But the magic ingredient that can make it all happen is often overlooked: you have to take class from a teacher that’s right for you.
If you went to a restaurant and had a bad experience, does that mean you should never go to a restaurant again? That would be crazy! There are lots of different restaurants, and you should be able to find one that you really like. I’m surprised by how often I meet someone and they tell me that they tried yoga and it “isn’t for them”. There is so much variety in terms of styles, studios and teachers that I would hope there is at least one place and person that you would enjoy so much that it would be a pleasure to practice yoga on a regular basis. And if you don’t enjoy it on a regular basis then it’s pointless to talk about benefits because you’ll never see any!
So here are some things to look for in a class, regardless of age:
- You should feel welcome and treated with respect.
- The teacher should instruct clearly enough that you have a fair chance of understanding what is happening – even if you’re new to yoga.
- The class should not be so fast that you’re uncomfortable or feel stressed. The class should not be so slow that you are bored and thinking about what to make for dinner tonight.
- You should feel like you worked – more than if you had been sitting on the couch eating potato chips. It’s normal to feel sore the next day, especially if it has been awhile since you did physical activity on a regular basis. But yoga is not supposed to make you feel bad – not right after class and not the day after when you wake up.
I have been doing yoga since 1972. I’m of a generation that’s starting to get older and feel older. Since the great popularity of yoga is a fairly recent phenomenon, it’s my generation that is on the learning curve of how yoga and a yoga practice changes with age. There is a lot I could say about this, but it is an individual journey – an individual journey that we are all taking together!
So to do my job properly (describe the benefits of yoga for seniors) let me provide a couple examples of where you might feel the benefits of yoga:
- Improve your range of motion. If you are familiar with the proverbial little old lady in the grocery store who can’t reach something on the shelf – this is a very real thing. As we get older, correct posture becomes difficult and the upper body and the shoulders get especially tight. Everyday activities like reaching for something on a kitchen shelf or turning your head when you’re parking your car can become uncomfortable, uncertain movements. Doing yoga of any kind to stretch your arms and upper body can make these daily activities easier and enjoyable again.
- Better balance. Many older students are concerned about balance – I’m the same, not as steady on my feet as I once was. The simple fact is that anything you do to improve leg strength and flexibility can improve your balance. In yoga, we spend a lot of time strengthening the legs and hips and stretching them too. You can improve your balance and you can improve your strength and flexibility.
A few final thoughts before I go:
- You DON’T need anything fancy. You don’t need the “ultimate gourmet” yoga class from the world’s biggest yoga expert. You don’t need fancy esoteric poses that nobody else can do. If you are looking for enlightenment it can be found in the simplest pose – it can be found in the way you lay your mat down on the floor.
- You DO need a well balanced class with a full range of movement. The most basic poses can provide that. If a basic classic pose doesn’t work for your body – join the human race! We all have poses that we can do, and poses that are impossible for our particular body. A good teacher should be able to offer an alternative pose if something doesn’t work. And a good teacher should love you just the way you are.
- It’s not just physical. If you resonate with the spiritual side of yoga remember that breathing, meditation and thoughtfully considering your actions in daily life are excellent yoga practices. Your body may be most obvious, but it is only a part of who you are.
The only reason I have done yoga regularly for as long as I have is because I have made sure that the practice is enjoyable. Find a teacher that you really like and you can do that too. Then the benefits will come – including some you could not have dreamed of!
John Gaydos has been practicing yoga since 1972 and teaching at YogaWorks in Santa Monica since 1997. He used to be a professional dancer and started to teach yoga when he retired from dance. One of his specialties is teaching yoga to dancers and he has taught yoga in the dance departments of California Institute of the Arts, California State University at Long Beach and Loyola Marymount University. At YogaWorks he mainly teaches classes for beginners and also for seniors. He teaches all levels, but really loves introducing yoga to people who have never experienced the practice before – everyone can enjoy and benefit greatly from the practice. He has been leading YogaWorks Teacher Trainings for almost ten years and usually leads a Teacher Training in Santa Monica at least once a year. He also does YogaWorks Teacher Trainings all over the world – including Santa Barbara, San Francisco, Orange County, Boulder, Vancouver, Paris, Osaka, Tokyo, Oslo, Nuremberg and Beijing. He is the Director of Teacher Trainer Development in Los Angeles (mentoring other trainers) and also teaches in the YogaWorks Professional (300 hour) program. Learn more at johngaydosyoga.com