Sometimes in human-potential-lectures or from life coaches one may hear, “Age is just a number. You can do anything.”
While it is true that the number of ones’ years on earth is simply that—a number—and not a definition of one’s personality or a barrier through which one cannot ever reach; the number of one’s age gives a great deal of information about the person.
One’s birth year is nestled in ‘cultural norms’, social beliefs and customs as well as an indicator of one’s, loosely put, stage in life.
Some of us in our 60’s and 70’s were raised with the masculine-ruler-bread-winner mind set. Men went out into the world, were strong and “brought home the bacon”. Women married, had children and cleaned house.
Girls of my bygone era, the 60s, were taught to play basketball with only three bounces and then had to pass it away, a game of non-contact.
Some of us believed and acted in our 20’s, 30’s, maybe 40’s, as though we were Wonder Woman in our athletic and educational pursuits—learning to “run” the ball as Title 9 implemented new rights for girls and women.
We were rebels of this time.
Some of us didn’t follow the rules and marry quickly with a “little” degree to be used “in case.” We explored the world through travel, our physical boundaries in exercise and our social limits in professional life.
Now women celebrate and carry on pushing at boundaries; their life roles and expectations have widened much in thanks to my generation of explorers and pushers.
How does this relate to yoga teaching, you may wonder.
Now aging Wonder Women and some Super Men flock to yoga, to maintain that wild wonderful complex, to heal from overdoing it in more vigorous sports for 40 or 50 years and to maintain strength and flexibility.
As yoga teachers we face students of all ages from teens to young adults in their 20’s and 30’s, to the middle-aged in their 50’s and the older ones in their 60’s and beyond all in the same classes.
If we teach with the belief that age is just a number which can be extended to “everyone is the same” thinking, we do our students potential great harm by de-validating their life knowledge or experience or by assuming that their body can do and will respond to yoga activity and poses in the same way as the body of a much younger person.
De-validating one’s knowledge or life experience causes separation and disrespect.
If we treat anyone as though their knowledge, experience or feedback is not important we create a separation between ourselves and the person—in this case, the student.
Older people, now possibly a little stooped, with a little more weight, grey hair or sun spots than when they were in their early twenties, may not bend as others in class, but may have been or still work as administrators, professional educators, consultants, lawyers, writers…people who contribute greatly to society in their profession.
Their career talents are not important when doing downward dog in yoga class, but when discussing anatomy, questions about law or in doing problem-solving their skills may be valuable to you in the studio.
(Or maybe someday that slightly overweight grey-haired student will be the judge in your traffic ticket case).
The human body growth stages are few: birth, infant, child, teen, young adult, adult, elderly.
That’s it from recent research.
I prefer to consider additional stages of mid-life: cresting and retiring before elderly.
The word “elderly” carries connotations of infirmity to me. That’s my concern or trigger.
Webster’s Dictionary defines elderly as, “rather old, being past middle age.”
The fact remains that the term “elderly” is used quickly in human growth literature and many consider “elderly” to mean frail and losing faculties. Using this info, our students in their 60’s, 70’s and beyond are elderly and after elderly, according to “the stages”, comes death.
Whatever connotation this brings to you is your lens to consider when teaching yoga to people of all ages.
The Merck Manual of Health and Aging states that the traditional age considered “old” is 65, but not necessarily based in biological terms. It continues with discussion about how one may be 40 and very inactive while another in their 60’s may be vital, vigorous. However, the occurrences and chances for disease, injury and health impairments increase as one ages.
I am not trying to scare you, new or young yoga teachers, nor myself.
I wish to underscore that as yoga teachers for older students we need to be thoughtful of our words and expectations. We need to be prepared to teach with appreciation those whose bodies show a little wear and tear. We need to be knowledgeable about human growth stages and body changes, physical as well as emotional and psychological.
In older adults, cartilage thins, ligaments and tendons thin and become slightly more brittle, and with reduced career work or activity, muscle is less used. Injuries which can happen to anyone may take longer to heal.
An older person who tells you, their yoga teacher, that he/she cannot do something is not necessarily telling you that he/she is afraid or has set limits on their ability to succeed in life. They may be telling you that with personal body knowledge a knee does not bend so much or a joint will not take complete body weight.
These are honest, direct safety concerns and show a willingness from your student to trust your ability to discern needs and be educated and knowledgeable about different body needs and differences.
I am asking you to really listen to these comments and needs and not jump to “if you say can’t you are making up excuses” or “can’t means you are holding onto fear” simplistic thinking I’ve often heard and read touted in yoga coaching.
Along with physical capabilities come glorious emotional and psychological strengths and weaknesses.
Older students have seen change. They have weathered a few illnesses, disappointments, financial downturns as well as celebrations, births, marriages and much more.
One in their 60’s has had a full life of learning to live with love, sometimes failing and then facing themselves the next day and years.
Lessons learned over a lifetime about forgiveness, acceptance, becoming flexible in one’s career and redeveloping or writing major life choices have great value in the spiritual side of yoga learning and teaching.
Empathy, resilience and persistence are learned best when practiced or observed, not just read about or heard in a lecture. Your aging athletes may provide these lessons modestly for you and other students just by their presence.
All students deserve respect, good teacher listening skills, thoughtful modifications and the expectations that all try and do their best in class. Everyone’s best does not look the same in many poses; older adults may modify poses to fit the needs of a silver “athlete.”
At the same time all students need to empower themselves to listen to their bodies and reflect on their physical fitness states and bodily responses to a pose.
Skilled yoga instructors can include careful, empowering vocabulary in their instruction without diminishing students for modifications needed or because there is something they feel they can’t or shouldn’t do.
Life has many journeys. The paths opened through becoming a yoga teacher may reward us with great joy as we expand and embrace our students’ needs and wonderful differences.
See you on the mat—I am one of the “silver athletes” with a little grey hair and lovely wrinkles, but they don’t interfere with that plank pose.
Cathy Geier is an educator, dancer, yoga practitioner and one-bag-international-traveler. Based in the beautiful Seattle, she continues her dream of teaching, traveling, studying yoga and health and sharing experiences. Cathy has a B.S. in Physical Education, Health and Spanish and is a WA State Certificated Teacher with extensive graduate studies in education, remediation and curriculum design. She supervised student teachers. After 25 years in public education, she is getting her yoga teacher certification to teach yoga in schools and to support seniors in maintaining flexibility and strength with a yoga practice. Cathy writes about yoga, aging gracefully and motivation on MindBodyGreen and on YogaBlaze where she is a Community Manager. She is also a National Yogamonth Ambassador and serves on public education committees.
Editor: Jamie Morgan
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