What’s Wrong with Senior Yoga?

It was never my intention to teach senior yoga… or to grow old for that matter!  However, when I heard reports (often from my Mom) of what was passing for “senior yoga” at the local Y, fitness center, health club, community ed,  etc., I knew I had to get involved and rethink the whole genre.

Perhaps the most egregious violation of my yoga sensibilities was the practice of referring people of a certain age to “chair yoga.”  I couldn’t believe all the fully mobile and even active seniors that were doing “chair yoga.”  Now, if you are in a wheelchair, or use a walker, then yes, perhaps chair yoga is your jam.  However, if you’re as able as the folks I saw who were taking it, then the only people being served by chairs are lawyers and inexperienced teachers.  These groups love chairs because the chance of anyone getting hurt (in spite of iffy teaching credentials) is small — even smaller than the likelihood of getting any measurable, meaningful results!

Next on the list of grievances are the number of young, inexperienced instructors teaching a gentler form of their regular vinyasa class and calling it “senior yoga.”  Seniors have all kinds of special issues and until you’ve experienced inflammation, joint pain, vertigo, chronic illness, heart trouble, etc., you haven’t a clue what your students are going through.  While sympathy is great, empathy matters as does the instructor’s ability to teach to bodies of different proportions with different ranges of motion and fitness levels. What inexperienced instructors (fond of chirping, “You can just modify.”) don’t realize is: the whole approach to stretching has to be altered to protect the joints at all costs. Moreover, the attachment to aesthetics in the poses has to be dropped–this is not yoga for Instagram! 

Finally, on the list is the lack of meditative and breathing practices: American yoga in general loves to liberally cut these corners, yet in yoga philosophy, both of them trump asana/ posture practice and are higher up the hierarchy of importance.  In places where yoga is a lifetime practice, pranayama (breathing) and mediation practices are meant to grow as we age so that when the body inevitably starts to deteriorate, the “higher practices” take over and create a rich, immune boosting, mind clearing, relaxing practice that could even be done in a hospital bed.  To not teach these keeps one’s practice in the physical realm at a time when we should be trying to transcend it.

The previous grievance shouldn’t imply that there isn’t a strong physical component to the YogaHotDish approach for this population.  I find many teachers underestimate how much the 50-90 crowd can actually do, as long as students are committed.  Sure, we do planks, dogs, pilates inspired core, and loads of balancing. It’s the way we do it:  long holds, a selection of poses offered with easy transitions and the freedom to pick and choose what works,  Moreover, poses where the “risk” doesn’t justify the “return” have been carefully weeded out over time. I suppose it could also be said that some students are weeded out over time.  Commitment to the small group environment is key.  The non-committal don’t last as they grow increasingly frustrated when those around them continuously improve.  Sure, the hands-on assisting and individual help can make up for a lot, but, it’s not fair to turn the class into one’s own private yoga session either! As an experienced teacher of 20+ years, I know that 12 is about the right number. Be skeptical of large group fitness senior classes–there’s no way the teacher is going to remember your knee replacement, torn rotator cuff etc.

If you’re over 50, you know that there’s not way to make up for experience. I can’t just train anyone to teach this class, as it has been evolving over 20 years.  There is no one else in the area teaching a class like this. When I go out of town, I have to cancel the class–there’s no sub.  Also, there is no “senior rate.”  Why? Because this class takes every ounce of energy and experience I have to execute.  I leave nothing on the mat looking after a dozen people with illness, injury, challenges and assorted issues–I often log around 2000 steps!  In fact, this class is priced at the top of my range at $15/ class.  Sure, you can get those next-to-nothing classes with your “silver sneakers”program but you will get precisely that for which you pay.  There is no comparison which is why though many of my students belong to LifeTime, Shoreview Community, the YMCA, and do Community Ed they still show up every week.  Many students have been with me for decades; in fact, we joke there’s only one way out of this class!

To keep the environment small and inviting, I am delighted to add a new FIt & Feisty 50+ class on Thursdays, 3-4:30 pm in North Oaks.  90 minutes?  That’s how long real yoga takes. Never trust a one-hour yoga class and don’t trust what “big yoga” is marketing as “senior yoga!”   Please check the class out here if you’re ready to be Fit…and a wee bit Feisty!

Shaila Cunningham

Shaila Cunningham

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