The Centro Yoga Satyam, based in Seregno, Italy, has been offering courses for older people for the past five years. There is a unique experience to be had in being among the elderly, and the benefits that yoga can bring to this group in particular are profound. Five classes are currently being held in the Northern Milan area and there are continued requests to offer more classes. There are ten to fourteen people in a class, with ages ranging from seventy to ninety-five years. The participants come from nursing homes and daycare centres.
What can yoga offer? One must start off by understanding what it means to be elderly. The physical, emotional, mental and spiritual aspects of life as an older person can change dramatically from the experiences that we have when we are younger. Typically, there are problems with blood circulation, rheumatic and arthritic pains, cramps and rigidity that severely hamper their liberty of movement. Many lose full control of their bodies and become embarrassed to the point of not even wanting to look at themselves in the mirror.
Compounded with the physical difficulties, there may be a gradual decrease in the mental ability to remember things clearly, or their reactions may not be as quick as they would like. They may sometimes be excluded from family activities and common feelings include loneliness, helplessness and feeling unwanted. There is also the impending closeness of death, more than during any other period of one's life.
At first the participants come to the classes with curiosity, having no idea what to expect. We start by encouraging them to talk, which releases tension. This often takes the form of reminiscing about their life and loves. One immediately realizes how much older people have to offer but are no longer able to express. Many have a fear of death and some say that they want to die. It is touching to see them taking turns to console each other.
Yoga has to be adapted to the needs of older people. The asanas taught help increase the circulation and decrease rigidity, thereby allevating arthritis, pains and cramps. By teaching the elderly how to do the asanas on their own, often for the first time in their lives, they come to realize that it is within their own power to help themselves. They are surprised to learn of methods that can help to change their situation. Some are so pleased that they take the practice of yoga back to their rooms. They consider the movements like a game, and are as happy as young children performing them.
In fact, one comes to realize that older people are like children, only they are also wise, and for this reason it is a wonderful area to teach in. Due to their special nature, the bonding between teacher and students is particularly important. Older people need a lot of encouragement and reassurance and to be given a sense of security. The self-healing process is slow. Often there is tension caused by constantly living in the past instead of the present. There may be a fear of death coexisting with the wish to die, and a feeling that nothing new can be learned or that no more personal growth can be achieved. However, there are instances of people who have come to class saying they wanted to die, but who have then gradually changed their view on life.
Yoga nidra is very important from this perspective. Coming from a non-self-centred generation, when asked to make a wish or choose a sankalpa, at first they express desires for the benefit of others. Eventually, by learning to make a personal sankalpa, it acts to reform their own hopes and desires for personal improvement, and helps them to re-establish a purpose in life. Often the participants do not want to lie on the floor during yoga nidra, so they can perform the practice from their chairs instead. The instructions are very slow and gentle and the timings are a little different to usual. Many older people suffer from insomnia, but they soon acknowledge the help of yoga nidra and simple abdominal breathing practices in reducing or solving this problem. Eventually they come to like yoga nidra so much that they do not want to come out from it.
Even though only simple yoga techniques are taught, over time the benefits can be seen in the renewed vitality and spirit among the participants. Serving them, it is possible to rediscover our own true nature as a child, one that becomes wiser through the years.