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5 Lessons I’ve Learned Teaching Yoga to Senior Citizens

Forward by Yoga Journal: After one yogi took her 200-hour yoga teacher training, she decided to volunteer at a senior citizen home instead of finding a paid job teaching yoga. Here’s how it’s changed her practice—and her outlook on life.

Three years ago, I was walking in Santa Monica and noticed a senior center and for some reason, I felt compelled to walk inside. Maybe it was because I’d just finished my 200-hour yoga teacher training with Annie Carpenter, who urged all of us new teachers to volunteer before trying to find a paying job. Maybe it was because shortly after that teacher training, I spent some time with my grandmother just before she passed away.

I wasn’t looking to volunteer, but my intuition urged me to walk into that senior center and ask the woman sitting behind the front desk if there might be an interest in having me teach the center’s residents yoga. The woman’s eyes lit up. She said they’d love to have me volunteer, and for the last three years, I’ve taught yoga and meditation to a group of seniors at Sunrise Senior Living Center every Monday morning. Since I started working with these senior citizens, I’ve learned some invaluable lessons about teaching yoga—and about life itself.

Lesson No. 1: The smallest movements can sometimes feel like the most advanced.

I work mostly with seniors who have memory impairments, and most are bound to wheelchairs—so we don’t do traditional yoga. I lead my students through seated yoga, which means we sit and breathe and then we do some minimal movements. Sometimes my students fall asleep. Other times I can tell their minds wander off. But I always try my best to keep them present in the moment, because even just a few moments of presence can have a profound impact.

Lesson No. 2: Life is fleeting.

Teaching my amazing senior students has taught me that age isn’t going to get away from any of us. We are all going to be older and slower one day, and when we get there, we may not like the fact that we’re older and slower. Spending time with my students is an important reminder to enjoy my life now, and it’s helped me recommit to my yoga and meditation practices over and over again, since those are the practices that help me get present.

The reality is that we’re all aging. People don’t like to talk about it, but it’s the truth. At the ripe age of 40, I feel some creaks and can’t do things I did at 30. Teaching my senior students has taught me to be more gentle with myself as I get older, so I’m able to practice as long as possible. Tiffany Russo, my SmartFLOW teacher here in Los Angeles, says you want to practice today so you can practice into your 90s. When I teach these seniors, it’s a reminder that I really can practice for the long haul. My students love being in their bodies and gently moving with the breath, and they’re a beautiful mirror of how I will hopefully be practicing one day.

Lesson No. 3: Everyone has a story.

The seniors in my classes have incredible pasts. One was a well-known cardiologist at UCLA; another was a famous architect in North Dakota. I’ve taught former social workers and dental hygienists, teachers and musicians. All too often, we disregard our elders and focus instead on our peers. Yet what I’ve learned is that my students once had thriving careers and interesting lives and experiences that teach me so much. It’s an honor to help bring them to a place that helps them feel truly seen, which I’ve come to realize is all that any of us really crave.

Lesson No. 4: Sticking to the basics can feel like the most advanced practice.

I try to have my students focus on following their breath while doing some sort of movement. When they inhale and raise their left hand, I show them how to move their arm in a way so they feel internal and external rotation and ask how it feels in their shoulders. We’ll do that five to 10 times with the breath on one side, then move to the other. When I do this with them, it helps me feel embodied in a way that I may not access when I’m practicing on my own.

What I’m learning is that the basic movements are actually the key to helping students get truly present. I’m reminded of one moment early on, when I started practicing meditation with the group. I started out instructing them to keep their eyes open while I showed them colored paper, and asked them to imagine the colors on the in and out breaths. I brought in mala beads from my Five Star Hippie collection and taught them use the beads to repeat simple mantras as they meditated. Then, around three weeks in, I asked them to place one hand on their heart and one hand on their belly, and then to close their eyes—something that feels especially scary for many of my seniors, who struggle with memory problems. I asked them to just relax, keep their eyes closed, and to follow their breath.

Watching them in this moment—two dozen seniors in the room, all in wheel chairs, and everyone in complete silence—took my breath away. They were the most present they could be, which in turn created this overwhelming feeling of presence and joy in the room. I still get the chills thinking about it. To see something so basic have such a profound effect was the epitome of yoga to me.

Lesson No. 5: Connections through yoga can be made any time, and at any age.

I started with two students and now I teach two dozen students every Monday morning. Yoga brings community together—no matter what age, race, or gender. It’s been a beautiful thing to see my students get a little bit stronger every week, and a little more able to drop in and get present after every meditation session. And what’s most amazing is how these students have become a cherished part of my life.

With Love & Light,

Janine Forte

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