Many older people hear or are told that they should try yoga. But there are so many styles of yoga that it can be difficult to know what style to try. And like so much else in this country, yoga has become the purview of the young. Most advertisements for yoga show young skinny barely clad bodies that bear little or no resemblance to the older person seeking to learn more about the benefits of yoga. And frankly, some styles of yoga not only aren’t helpful but can be dangerous for an older person new to yoga.
Lately, I have seen untold ridiculous ads on Facebook purportedly aimed at older people, that use twenty-something models doing poses that would be out of reach for an older person just beginning a yoga practice. Or, ads that claim that “if you just do these three poses” all your aches and pains will go away. As a practitioner for 46 years and a teacher for 25 years, I am happy to see how popular yoga has become. However, like anything that gets monetized, it’s buyer beware.
Being older doesn’t mean you have to take a chair yoga class, but it does mean that because of age-related changes in both strength and flexibility, a teacher needs to understand how poses should be taught and/or modified for the students. I teach several yoga classes where all or the majority of the students are past sixty. Some are very fit and few if any modifications are needed. Others are brand new to yoga and have not been physically active for quite a while. These students may need poses to be modified and they benefit from ample yoga props such as blocks, straps, and blankets.
One popular style of yoga that younger people love is hot yoga. This is a vigorous and athletic yoga style done in a room that is heated to generally over 100 degrees. If you started doing this style of yoga when you were young and are still doing in an older body—great! But it is not a style to start practicing as someone new to yoga and living in an older body.
Vinyasa yoga is another style of yoga that is popular because it moves from one asana to the next in a sequence that is coordinated with the breath. Once a student has learned the basic poses and alignment principles of yoga, vinyasa sequences can be fun, challenging, and safe.
Hatha Yoga, which is the umbrella term for all asana (pose) based yoga, was the only name for physical poses when yoga was first introduced in the West. This style is generally safe for beginning older students because poses are done more slowly giving students time to really tune into their bodies and their breath as they learn the various poses. This style is more conducive to the student learning just how far their bodies are willing and able to go on any given day.
The other big question is how to find the right yoga teacher. I believe it is important for older people to find a teacher who is both experienced and who has continued to train and deepen their understanding of all aspects of yoga. A teacher should be aware of and attentive to the various physical changes that older people experience such as problems with hips and knees for example. Child’s pose, for instance, is supposed to be a relaxing resting pose. But if an older student has knee pain from osteoarthritis, the pose will need to be modified to make it comfortable. A teacher unaware of how to make such a student comfortable may lose a student who never tries yoga again.
Finding the right teacher may take some time but it will be worth it. If you decide to try a yoga studio find one that posts its teachers’ bios on its website. Ask how long a teacher has been teaching. If it’s been less than 3 years I might let someone else help them to build their teaching experience. You will probably need to take a few classes with a few different teachers. What kind of rapport does the teacher have with the students in the class? You can only determine this by being in the class.
I have a class where the average age of my students is around mid-forties—except for one student who is 72 and just started yoga six months ago. I always have her sit right next to me so that I can modify the poses for her or sometimes tell her not to try the more challenging ones. I don’t let my classes get above a certain number of students because I want to be able to observe and assist each student if necessary.
I am a person living in a 75-year-old body. I know unequivocally the profound difference that my yoga practice has made in how I am aging. I also know that it is never too late to start. I read an article recently about a 101-year-old man who started doing yoga 16 years ago. Now that’s what I’m talking about!