A few months ago, the members of a fitness centre for older people auditioned and chose me to teach a weekly yoga class. All swotted up on information about working with injuries and the positive effects of yoga on aging bodies I was all set to ‘instruct’ and completely naïve to the real life lessons that were in store for me. Here is what I have learned from those who have learned how to live.
1. How to ‘say it like it is’
As a general rule, I hate those people – the ‘say it like it is’ brigade. The phrase often comes just before someone stomps all over your finer feelings. It’s their subjective opinion disguised as a fact - not empathetic or objective.
Saying it like it is for you, however, is something completely different, I’ve discovered.
From the moment I entered my very first and unexpectedly full over 60's yoga class, I was surrounded by yogis keen to inform me about what they wanted and did not want from their yoga sessions. And they’ve kept me up to speed ever since, providing me with a running commentary of likes and dislikes before, during and after the session, in fact.
This vocal approach to yoga participation felt really odd to me at first. Apart from the Darth Vader style surround sound of ujjayi breath and closing ‘namaste’, I find most classes to be pretty quiet, both when I’m teaching and when I’m practicing. Often, the only gauge I have about what a person thinks about the session is whether or not they come back. I admire my older yogis for their ability to recognise what’s going on for them right there in that moment and to communicate their needs, just as they come up. They have confidence in their voice and in their value, which I think is something that many of us moving silently through our yoga class are still learning.
At first, I took too much to heart their ongoing requests and feedback. I heard their critiques as evidence of my failings as a teacher and of me personally. It was only when I let go of the teacher ego I had built up that I realised their comments weren’t criticism, but signs of wholehearted participation in their practice.
Thankfully, they’re as quick to tell me that they’re walking better without a stick or that their knee pain has been eased as they are to tell me when they’ve had enough of downward facing dog. Nowadays, I listen actively and respond to feedback from the group as we go. By expressing themselves without inhibition, they have created an environment in which we move together, collaboratively through the yoga practice.
They have taught me a valuable lesson about the freedom and the togetherness created when you say what’s going on for you and feel free to be just who you are.
'They have shown me the power of gratitude for what our bodies can do and the error of admonishing them for what they can’t'
2. How to love your body
Teaching yoga to people in their 60s and 70s has shown me the vast and invaluable difference between doing exercise to yourself and doing it for yourself.
What strikes me about this class is that no-one pushes themselves to go further than feels right for their bodies. There’s a patience and a capacity to accept and be with what is. There is a kindness towards their bodies, which I often forget in my own pursuit of self-development.
We have a tendency, particularly in the west, to view our bodies and minds as separate and to pay attention to our bodies only to scrutinise and assess how fat, thin, attractive or unattractive we think we are. Exercise can become a tool for punishing disobedient bodies, rather than a way to look after ourselves. My older yogis find joy in the activity itself and in what it enables them to do off the yoga mat, from playing with grandchildren to taking up hiking.
They have shown me the power of gratitude for what our bodies can do and the error of admonishing them for what they can’t.
'I have learnt that for every yoga pose, there is a life-hack!'
3. For every hurdle, there is a step-ladder
A stranger spying in on our class would think we were engaging in a peculiar, new wave form of yoga practice, I’m sure. Sometimes I look around the class and it appears that everyone is doing something totally different. And they are in some ways, but - if you look closely - they’re not.
I am constantly inspired by the creativity and tenacity shown in the way this wise and weathered group modifies movements to make them work for them. I have learnt that for every yoga pose, there is a life-hack!
No downward facing dog – no problem: hands and knees. Bad knees require plentiful mats and a cushion. Can’t cross your legs? Legs outstretched works fine. A yogi with a heart condition can’t manage the flow of a sun salutation sequence. Instead, she joins where she can, swan-diving into a forward fold and back up to her salute.
There is much to be learnt from the willingness to see beyond barriers in life to find the possibilities available to you.
Miriam Christie has recently joined our team at The Counsellors Cafe and we're delighted to have her with us. Miriam is a wellness and lifestyle writer, yoga & pilates teacher and qualifying Counsellor. You can get in touch with Miriam via Twitter.