Teaching yoga has taught me many things. The greatest lesson has been sensitive adaptability - not only in my own life, but also in my approach to teaching my students who are nervous novices, disabled, and elderly.
I was introduced to my newest Senior Citizen yoga group in the midst of a hot and heavy round of Bingo. These elders, regulars at one of Newark's Senior Community Centers, groaned when they were told that the city was providing them with free yoga. I can't blame them.
Yoga looks intimidating to the average person. A new seeker can leave a yoga class feeling shamed, unworthy, and frustrated. There is a strong, competitive "showing off" that can happen among students, and especially emitted from a clueless, disconnected, self-absorbed teacher.
Imagine what yoga looks like to people who have worked their whole lives to find that their overworked bodies have rebelled against them. Painful limbs from repetitive reaching and heavy lifting. Twisted, arthritic fingers from endless typing, plucking, sewing, folding, and fixing. Numbed lower extremities from extended secretarial sitting. Inflamed feet from continuous floor walking. Permanent muscle strain. Ripped rotator cuffs. Weakened backs. Add the ravages of disease and disability to it all. Yeah, winning at Bingo sounds more comforting than painful reminder of what retirement has rewarded them with.
With a humorous quickness, I promised the elders that I had no intention of twisting them up like a pretzel.
"Oh, GOOD!" I heard.
"We'll be doing chair yoga," I continued. We begin in the chair, we use the chair as a prop if you choose to stand, and it's all about achieving your personal best. It's not about competing. It's not about trying to keep up with whatever your neighbor is able to do. It's about YOU. Listening to YOUR body. If it doesn't feel good, stop. If you get tired, stop. If you need a little break, stop."
I further explained the health benefits of yoga. Improved breathing and blood flow. Better internal organ support. Stress reduction. Strength and flexibility. Improved range of motion. Yes, even from a chair.
Sharing how yoga has been part of my life since age twelve brought added interest - especially when I explained how own practice has changed over the years. I listen to my body, which bears the remnants of illness, strained muscles, and broken bones. Some yoga poses are no longer relevant to my life, nor will improve certain injuries. I've learned the hard way. LISTEN TO THE BODY. I must admit that my personal experiences with aging, injury, and illness have given me greater credibility and relatability with older audiences.
After providing a quick fifteen minute mini class, I was greeted with excitement. "You're coming back, right?... Will we work on the legs too?... Wow, I feel good!" Two days later, I walked into a room of thirty anxious seniors, ready for their sixty minute work out. We flowed through movements the entire time, incorporating realistic breath work and rest periods. We've been having a ball ever since then. My joy has been in seeing how, over the months, those who were reluctant at first are now actively engaged. Those who stayed seated during the whole session can now stand and participate from a new position of strength. The entire group is more energetic. There is no sense of competition or frustration. There are satisfaction smiles when we finish. The biggest grin is mine. I leave feeling happy. It's the same with my general yoga classes.
The gentle approach brings greater results. I don't stand above people, repositioning them into better alignment (which is embarrassing to students). I allow them to find how to "get there" by observing me. If there is confusion about the stance, I gently give them verbal directions. I make the class about "us" and "our" healing journey. We share laughter in appropriate places, and I laugh at myself. My approach is not from a holier-than-thou-place. And I applaud everyone at the end of class. I truly want everyone to feel a sense of peace and accomplishment. It's a workout that works.
Recently, I read an article in which Shirley MacLaine, the Oscar winning actress who popularized New Age practices, stated that she regretted giving up yoga because she'd started to find certain positioned too difficult as she'd gotten older. I was shocked to know that she had quit. She can adapt. Yoga doesn't require retirement because a full lotus pose has become painful. It simply means that you modify. Watch how happy your body becomes. See how your mood elevates.
Don't give up. Your body wants to be better. Help it to improve, not by unrealistic challenges, but through reachable goals. Don't let your mind stop you from believing you can do yoga. Weight challenges, limited flexibility, disability, age... Yoga is for us all. See you in class!