Yoga for the Elderly

Sannyasi Mitrananda

Two things made me start teaching yoga to the elderly. First of all the Satyananda Yoga system has such a many sided and profound range of techniques that it could be very useful for older people. Secondly, I was, and am, convinced that yoga is applicable for all people, for any target group and, as a teacher, it is always a challenge to use the students' capabilities. The elderly had my special interest because my own parents and my mother-in-law are becoming older. Seven years ago I was given the opportunity to start teaching yoga to people over 60, and my oldest student is 83 right now. The proportion of elderly people in our society is increasing, and will increase even more in the next decade. This makes the application of yoga for the elderly even more important.

There are several reasons why it is so important to teach yoga to elderly people. Anyone over 60 has grown used to living their life with different expectations to the way they are having to live their life right now. They have probably always been very busy and are accustomed to the idea that one has to work, to do something useful and to keep busy. In today's society they now have to find their way into the 'spare time' culture and to learn to enjoy 'doing nothing'. They have to find other aims and a new purpose to life. Yoga can help them in this transitional process of finding a place in today's society and a reason for living through body awareness, breath awareness, relaxation, preventing stiffness in the joints, and mental alertness and awareness. Yoga can help to slow down the process of ageing in the body, even to reverse this process. Once one is aware of how to mange this process, and of the capabilities one has, subtle qualities can appear such as wisdom, tranquillity and maturity.

How older students may differ from younger ones

What is different and special about teaching older people, compared with the average students that come to yoga classes? Over the years I have become aware of some facts:

  • There is almost always a generation gap between the students and the teacher.
  • Older people generally have very poor awareness of their own breathing processes.
  • Older people have specific concerns that have to do with their advancing age. They are coming to the completion of their life's journey and may feel afraid of the future. They have a lot of memories and may live in the past. They may have to cope with and try to compensate for the loss or deterioration of some of their faculties, mental or physical.
  • The body structure changes as one gets older. It becomes less supple. Healing takes much longer. Conditions arise such as mature onset diabetes, heart failure, high blood pressure or cholesterol levels, poor circulation and breathing difficulties. One may need to wear glasses, hearing aids or false teeth. Muscular strength declines and weight may increase, making getting around more difficult and exhausting. One feels changes in temperature more keenly and may suffer from aches and pains in the joints. One becomes physically weaker, which can lead to illness.
  • Medication prescribed for certain conditions may have unpleasant side effects, particularly loss of balance, lethargy, fatigue, depression and obesity.
  • Some older people are very fit and well, whereas others are not. A person's fitness levels may also vary dramatically from week to week, so nothing can be taken for granted.

General precautions

There are some general precautions to keep in mind when teaching yoga to elderly people. They might have a specific physical problem but, due to the fact that they probably always have something or other to contend with, an elderly person usually doesn't tell a teacher about it in a regular class. I suggest that the teacher should also refrain from asking questions, but always take some precautions in order to prevent difficulties and minimize any risk such as:

  • No full head rotations, just gentle neck movements with the breath - forward, backwards, sideways and turning (greeva sanchalana stages 1, 2 and 3, Pawanmuktasana part 1).
  • No holding of the breath in (antar kumbhaka), only holding of the breath out (bahir kumbhaka).
  • Never bring the head down lower than the heart in standing poses.
  • Only a few breathing techniques (pranayama) are recommended: simple 'humming bee breath' (bhramari pranayama); inhaling, counting slowly to 4 and exhaling counting slowly to 8; natural 'deep' breathing, abdominal breathing, eventually practised in combination with postures (asanas); yogic breathing (might be difficult); simple alternate nostril breathing (nadi shodhana).
  • Breathing with awareness of the psychic passage in the spine (ujjayi pranayama) is recommended.
  • No throat locking (jalandhara bandha) or navel locking (uddiyana bandha) should be performed.
  • Exercises to strengthen the pelvic floor are very important: 'pulling up from underneath' (moola bandha), bladder sphincter control (vajroli mudra) and anal sphincter control (ashwini mudra).
  • Rolling the tongue back (khechari mudra) is fine, but should be performed gently and without effort.

Suitable techniques and modifications

Satyananda Yoga has such a rich and profound range of techniques.

  • One of the most powerful for the elderly is the antirheumatic group of movements (Pawanmuktasana part 1). One can do this series either sitting on the floor or sitting on a chair. One can then also hold on to the back of a chair for the standing postures.
  • The digestive/abdominal group of movements (Pawanmuktasana part 2) should be done with careful attention to the back - for instance the raised leg pose (utthanpadasana) can be done one leg at a time. Raising both legs together is not recommended.
  • Most of the movements for increasing energy (the shakti bandha series in pawanmuktasana part 3) can be done with no special precautions. The 'salutation pose' (namaskarasana) can be modified so that it is done sitting on the floor rather than in a deep squat. The same applies to 'chopping wood' (kashtha takshanasana) and 'abdominal stretch pose' (udarakarshanasana). Standing and squatting alternatively (vayu nishkasana) and 'crow walking (kawa chalanasana) are not suitable for elderly people.

I will not go any further into the details of postures that are either suitable for the elderly or can be modified for them. The most important point is to be always aware, as a teacher, of who is sitting in front of you and to adapt accordingly. This is one of the very important rules of the Satyananda tradition.

What the teacher gains

Teaching yoga to the elderly has enriched me very much. It has made me more aware of becoming older myself. It has helped me to deal with this fact and to interact better with the elderly people in my surroundings. In my classes for the elderly I see people starting to take care of themselves - they come almost 'dressed up' for their yoga classes. One other aspect that makes me feel privileged to be teaching the elderly is their surrender during relaxation, and even more during the deep final relaxation (yoga nidra). They long for their yoga nidra.

Two inevitable aspects of life that a teacher of yoga to the elderly has to be aware of are bad illnesses like cancer, and death. It has a big impact on one as a teacher to go to the funeral of a student. One also has to be able to talk in the class about these subjects with the other students.

The following are some nice examples of reflections that elderly students have given me over the years:

  • A person who has sleeping problems always falls asleep during the final relaxation.
  • A medical doctor is suprised by the better condition of his patient's bad hips and asks her what she is doing to achieve this. The condition of her hips has improved instead of the expected decline!
  • One student feels relaxed, refreshed and aware when counting the breath in for 4 and out for 8 when walking in the woods.
  • The best of all the good qualities of yoga for the elderly is the chanting of Om at the end of every class. Breathing, concentration and awareness all flow together. The students love it.