Personal Growth Practice

And Yoga for All

on
May 9, 2021
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Making this beautiful practice safe for everyone.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Can Everyone Stand on Their Heads??

We all remember certain iconic commercials from our childhood. Whether they shocked, irritated, or amazed us, their quirkiness made them unforgettable. The commercial that sticks in my memory is one for a local furniture store in my hometown of Jacksonville, North Carolina.

At its conclusion, the owner shouted his iconic slogan: “I’ll stand on my head to please you!”

Then the frame would flip, making it appear as though he was standing on his head!

An incredulous kid, all I could wonder was if this older man on television could actually stand on his head.

Having practiced yoga for thirty years and taught classes for twenty of them, I know beyond a doubt (and am happy to share with you) that older individuals can, indeed, stand on their heads.

But do seniors need to flip upside down to practice yoga? That’s the real question.

We’re All Different, and We Should Be Treated Accordingly

In their book, Relax into Yoga for Seniors, Kimberly Carson and Carol Krucoff, yoga therapists at Duke Integrative Medicine and Oregon Health & Science University, say seniors aged 65 and older account for the fastest-growing population group in the United States.

This expanding age demographic presents both an extraordinary opportunity and a significant challenge for yoga instructors. We must simultaneously be a resource AND a guardian of safety. 

As an instructor, I have found that each student comes with their own set of unique needs. Seniors can have multiple health issues, so the predicament arises:

How do yoga teachers keep everyone safe while still encouraging progress in a class?

Ahimsa is the Sanskrit word for “nonviolence.” Saying ahimsa during class serves as a gentle reminder for students, regardless of age, to seek a balance when they are challenging their bodies yet minimizing the chance of injuries. The concept of nonviolence is about how we act towards others, and it also encompasses how we treat ourselves.

(Cathy Carter pondering Ahimsa)

Rather than being inflexible with a routine I prepared beforehand, my favorite experience as a teacher is adapting a class to fit the students’ needs and goals. Accordingly, I try to teach inclusively by offering modifications for difficult poses. Some of these involve using a chair or lying on the floor or in a bed.

New, elderly, and those with health concerns can learn to invert their bodies without risking life and limb.

More specifically, students with glaucoma might need to avoid head-down poses because of elevated eye pressures. Students with hypertension should consider minimizing back-bending postures that add stress on the heart and circulatory system.

Source: Depositphotos.com/Megapixelina

Why Adjust?

Inversions and backbends are generally part of yoga practice. However, instructors should consider that 80% of ‘‘average’’ older adults in America have at least one chronic health condition, and 50% have at least two.

“Most seniors face a broad array of health challenges, ranging from arthritis and incontinence to hip and knee replacement, heart disease, and cancer,” according to an article in The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine.

Still, gentle practice can benefit seniors despite these obstacles.

“Physically, yoga practice can improve focus, breathing, balance, strength and flexibility over time. It can help people of all ages address issues of bone mass, blood pressure, breathing, anxiety/depression, and mental stimulation, while also having a little fun,” explains Howie Shareff, director of You Call This Yogain North Carolina.

In my opinion, leading a senior yoga class requires additional preparation and training. Being a well-rounded fitness instructor means having the skill set to teach to all bodies, not just the young or physically fit.

Possessing the tools to instruct older individuals can extend to trauma-sensitive students as well.

Conscientious Yoga Can Help More Than Just the Sick or Elderly

According to this article in Military Medicine, complementary and alternative medicine practices such as meditation and progressive muscle relaxation can be “adapted across various populations.” The authors note that mind-body stress reduction, consisting of meditation, gentle yoga, and slow breathing, can reduce post-traumatic stress disorder in veterans.

So, I decided my path was to teach yoga to all. Whether my students be older, physically impaired, or emotionally wounded, I set out to learn ways to safely offer them value through what I love.

While I often enjoy the intensity of more physical practice, knowing I have helped a senior citizen acquire the skills to get up after a fall or a combat veteran learn to manage their emotions with breathing techniques is profoundly important to me.

My joy is in seeing results that might look small to the average person. But to the student and I, they are physical and mental milestones– cause for jubilant celebration!

(Cathy Carter and Anne Davis, mother and daughter appreciating the moment together)

Focus On the Journey, Not the Destination

To teach students of all ages is to embrace the moment and encourage others to be appreciative of the body they woke up in. Yoga is not about the perfection of a pose. Rather, the practice itself is what’s important.

“It’s about the journey, not the destination.”

If you attend yoga classes, you’ll have heard that frequent saying. So, talk with your doctor, seek out a class that fits your needs, and find a teacher that understands your unique physical and emotional body.

Most importantly, practice, practice, practice, and be safe.

. . .

Learn Anne’s thoughts on PPE here. And if you really want to get crazy, check out her take on what it’s like dating a medical student.

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SOHAIL MERCHANT
Youngstown, Ohio

Medical Doctor (M.D.); Research Fellow at Lumen Foundation Artificial Intelligence Division

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