Monday, February 4, 2019

Yoga and Advanced Aging, Part 1: Teaching in Assisted Living, Skilled Nursing, and Memory Care Spaces

Music, Dorrit Black, 1928
By Carey Sims

Carey will be presenting a workshop “Yoga and Advanced Aging: Teaching in Assisted Living, Skilled Nursing, and Memory Care Spaces” at the Accessible Yoga Conference in St. Louis, May 31-June 2, 2019.

Part One: Shifting Expectations and Embracing Possibilities

When we use a phrase like “Yoga for Seniors,” what do we mean? Who are we referring to? Most often we think of students in their sixties or seventies who are ambulatory, independent, and adjusting their practice to accommodate their changing bodies and brains. But what about students in later stages of the aging process? Or students with dementia? What techniques and practices would be beneficial for them?

I often say that if you can effectively teach yoga in an assisted living or skilled nursing facility, then you can teach to anybody anywhere. Teaching in a senior care facility is a lot like teaching in a gym; the energy of the space is often antithetical to what you are bringing in and looking to share (which is all the more reason to be there). These can be challenging environments to navigate and are not always ideal places for yoga classes. 

For instance, in my experience, having a dedicated yoga space is usually not feasible. The majority of my classes take place within a larger communal room and the energy outside of our yoga bubble is often frenzied and chaotic. We may hear the TV blasting from a resident’s room down the hall, or nurses and staff holding conversations within earshot, other times a confused resident roams about anxiously, or a family member arrives to take a loved one out of class for a visit or doctor’s appointment. All of these distractions and disruptions can be quite frustrating. Students feed off of my energy and I have learned to let those little annoyances go. When I embrace creativity and adaptability, my students are able to stay engaged, focused, and calm.

Conversely, the collective mood in the building is at times depressed and languid. This is only natural. Many residents are heavily medicated and are negotiating a great deal of pain, illness, and loss. On the days the energy is off or a bit low, getting students to participate in class can be a struggle. This is where I need to look for small hints of connection. There are many times I feel like I am practicing by myself, but careful observation reveals focused effort and participation. Students that look like they are napping are actually breathing on cue and others perform small movements in the feet and fingers when I am demonstrating larger movements in the limbs. Unity is revealed in simplicity.

The real joy is noticing a shift in the communal energy at the end of class. The grounding is usually palpable. From the outside it may not have looked like a lot was going on, but we touched something deep within our shared humanity through our smiles, our breath, and our community. Isn’t that what we are after in our yoga practice—the experience of connection?

Carey Sims, RYT500, E-RYT200 lives in Charlotte, NC, where he teaches at NoDa Yoga and offers Chair Yoga at various senior living centers in the Charlotte area. He is a student of Adaptive Yoga pioneer Matthew Sanford (Mind Body Solutions, St. Louis Park, MN.) His mission is to use Yoga to help students explore their bodies in an accepting and non-judgmental way. 

This article is part of a series exploring the practical application of yoga in Assisted Living, Skilled Nursing, and Memory Care spaces. Carey will share some of the challenges he has encountered teaching in these environments and offer practical techniques that he has found useful in sharing yoga with this population.

This post was edited by Patrice Priya Wagner, co-editor of Accessible Yoga blog and member of the Board of Directors.

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