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Unconditional teaching.

One of the things I hear from discouraged students is the bad experiences they've had with other yoga instructors. Unfortunately, these complaints often come from older or less fit students who need help most. Dr. William Rhoades with Nesset Geriatrics, associated with Advocate Lutheran General Hospital, tells his senior patients that besides quitting smoking, exercise is most important when trying to improve health. "We know from recent studies that exercise is not only good for cardiovascular health, but can also hold off Alzheimer's and other mental ailments," he says.

Abilities Aside

Lucille Caiafa, a 72-year-old fibromyalgia patient, used to follow a televised workout daily. She now prefers to take regular classes. Since she started attending my yoga class, her fibromyalgia has improved; she sleeps better and doesn't get the bad headaches she used to. "I look forward to it all week," she explains. "I don't feel my age anymore. I don't think about it. I can move around. I can do yoga. People hear I'm taking yoga and they say, 'Oh my God, I can't believe it.' I tell them it's great. They should try it."

Teachers need to ask how they can make their classes more hospitable. This includes creating a space in which every person is welcome, regardless of abilities. When Caiafa started out, she constantly apologized for needing extra help and worried the class might be held back because of her. She needed a lot of reassurance that we really were happy to have her. I don't think there is anyone in class who hasn't been inspired by her enthusiasm and tremendous progress over the past three years. Nevertheless, certain problems arise when students of varying athletic abilities take the same class. Teachers often try to deal with this by offering special needs classes. The problem is nobody wants to be relegated to the "dummies' class." This system tends to discourage people at a beginner level from even trying.

Instead, I keep my classes relatively small. This way, I get to know my students and give individualized instructions. For any exercise, I have a few options in mind for students with differing abilities. However, I set the base level of the class at the ability of the least physically fit student. Nobody wants to feel they are falling behind. For those who are able to, I might offer more advanced poses. Few people object to moving ahead of the class.

Cautious Corrections

Another tricky area is making adjustments. It's a good idea to ask new students about health issues or impediments before class. It may not occur to them to tell you about themselves, but they will be upset if they feel you are endangering them by pushing against their physical limitations. Also, if students say there is something they can't do, don't force them. You may be right that with a little extra help students could manage the pose, but is it worth taking the responsibility? Even if you are right, you may create resentment, which will cause them to quit altogether. Another danger is making too many corrections and adjustments, which may unintentionally send students the message that they aren't good enough. This is especially true if they aren't physically capable of following your instructions.

My student, Caiafa, is a good example. A 72-year-old in a room full of 45-year-olds, she was doing nearly everything wrong and had a difficult time following verbal directions. The trick was keeping things in proportion. When there is no danger of injury, let the student practice at his or her level; most mistakes will eventually be corrected by practice. I would pick one or two things in each class to help Caiafa with, focusing on adjustments I felt she could make, even something trivial, such as pointing a foot in a different direction. This made her feel like she was improving and increased her self-confidence, because she recognized, time and again, that she actually could make adjustments. With extra help came extra reassurance: I constantly reminded her of exercises she did well and pointed out her improvements. I complimented her on attendance and the extraordinary courage she showed by being there at all. Being reminded of other virtues she displayed in such rich abundance made up for whatever inadequacy she may have felt for her lack of physical ability. Three years later, she has little trouble keeping up with the class and does nearly everything right.

Being a good teacher for seniors is really just about being a good teacher. It's up to us to let everyone know progress doesn't happen overnight. Injuries happen overnight. Progress is a drawn-out process requiring the discipline of regular, long-term practice. I find such teaching very satisfying. I look at Caiafa, who nobody expected to show up to yoga class, much less have a successful experience, and know I've made a difference in the world. Or, at least, I've made a difference in one student's life and perhaps that's enough.
Senior Fitness Programming

                                              INTENSITY/       TIME TO
       MODES                  GOALS            DURATION       MEET GOAL


                       * Improve             * 55/65%-70%    4-6 months
* Large muscle         cardio-respiratory    Hrmax or 40/
activities, e.g.,      fitness and joint     50%-65% HRR
walking, line          range of motion
dancing, low-impact,                         * 3-5 days
water and seated       * Manage weight       per week
chair aerobics
                       * Increase energy     * Build to
                                             20-30 minutes
                       * Increase            or at least
                       endurance             2-3 10-minute
                                             bouts per day


* Progressive          * Increase muscular   * 60-80% RM     4-6 months
resistance training    strength and          (repetition
exercises              endurance             max)

* Ball squeezes        * Manage weight       * One set of
                       * Reduce risk of      repetitions
                                             * 2-3 times
                                             per week


Gradually increase     * Increase muscular   * Minimum 2     4-6 months
difficulty of:         strength and          times per
                       endurance             week
* Heel raises
                       * Improve balance
* Tandem and           and coordination
one-legged stand
                       * Reduce risk of
* Ball activities      falls

* Tai chi


* Static stretches     * Improve joint       * Hold          4-6 months
                       range of motion       stretches
* PNF stretches        and mobility          10-30
                                             2-3 days per

SPECIAL                Level of fitness      Chronic         Medications
CONSIDERATIONS                               conditions

Source: Gladwin, Laura A. "Senior Fitness," Fitness Theory & Practice,
Sherman Oaks: Aerobics and Fitness Association of America, 2002.

Anna Poplawska has been a yoga instructor for 15 years and is currently working to open her own yoga studio in Oak Park, Illinois. She has written articles on health, yoga and spirituality for numerous publications, including YogaChicago. She can be reached at
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Title Annotation:Senior Fitness
Author:Poplawska, Anna
Publication:American Fitness
Date:Jan 1, 2005
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