Meeting the special needs of an older demographic—through yoga

Yoga instructor Toni Small (center first row, wearing black) and the yoga-instructor students who took the “Yoga for Seniors Teacher Training” at the 47 Main Street studio in Tenants Harbor on Columbus Day weekend. The training was offered as an educational module through the 300-hour training level by Shiva Shakti School of Yoga in Union. Additional instructors were Kirshna Perry, Dr. Richard Kahn, Katie Snow, P.T. and Donna Gioia, P.T.

The week after Toni Small’s father, Comstock Small, died in 2007 she drove to Rockland to take a salsa dance class. She was surprised to find that her father’s doctor was also in the class. “That made the second time that week that I had seen him, which I sort of loved.” She realized that both she and he were probably there for the same reason—to lighten up and move as a means of relieving the stress and grief of caregiving and loss.

Small and her mother, Linda, had at Comstock’s request brought him to live out his life in Port Clyde in 2006. Then for the next 18 months the two cared for him at home. “One of the fallouts of caregiving was not moving,” Small says. “During those last months of my father’s life he had become more and more tender, more needy, more fragile, so we felt pretty tethered to the house. And both my health and Linda’s health began to deteriorate to the point that there were diagnoses and symptoms that were obviously from the stress of caregiving. I realized I had also stopped moving. As caregivers we had really suffered. I realized then that for my mental health as well as for my physical health it was really important to keep moving.”

For Small, who before this had “always been a mover” through dance and periodically studying yoga, that salsa class was the beginning of not only reconnecting with what had been an important part of her life, but also of exploring a new sense of vocation that came out of her experience caring for her father.

First, reconnecting with her movement past involved Zumba, with which she became familiar in 2009. “It was a way to move that was fun, was definitely dancelike and fitness oriented.” She began Zumba teacher training soon after and began teaching classes in 2011.

Then, almost as soon as she began teaching Zumba, Small also began training to become a yoga instructor, studying with mentors at the ShivaShakti School of Yoga in Union to become certified. But in addition to her desire to learn how to teach yoga basics, she was also feeling the tug, as her Zumba “Gold” classes were already attesting, to apply the principles of yoga to a “senior” demographic, one that would not only include caregivers, but also people in need of care.

“What I started looking for were yoga programs specifically designed for family caregivers, who are often approaching seniority themselves, and for other seniors dealing with physical limitations, whatever the cause.” Eventually she discovered the work being done by Kimberly Carson and Carol Krucoff at the Yoga for Seniors program offered at Duke Integrative Medicine. The two women had developed an eight-day training program for Western yoga instructors in how to adapt yoga practice to the needs of older people, people “whose breathing, mobility, strength, flexibility, balance, joy, and overall peace of mind may feel impinged upon by our aging, by pain, or simply by the effort to avoid feeling lost in the midst of an ever-accelerating Western civilization,” as Duke Professor of Medicine/Cardiology Michael Krucoff notes.

Small journeyed to North Carolina in November of 2014 to take the Carson/Krucoff training, which included not only senior-appropriate yoga practices but also a rigorous program of lectures from Duke’s medical staff about physiological and other factors relevant to seniors that instructors should bear in mind. When she got back to St. George she began integrating what she learned at Duke into her classes at the 47 Main Street studio in Tenants Harbor. This past Columbus Day weekend, she took the step of holding her first workshop for other yoga instructors on a ‘Yoga for Seniors Teacher Training’ in association with Union’s ShivaShakti School of Yoga.

“Here in the West, the focus of many yoga classes is on posture practice,” Small explains. “Basically yoga has been about sport, about fitness. But there is more to it than that—it’s the breath work, the mindfulness work, meditation as well. As [Kimberly Carson and Carol Krucoff] point out, if reaching a peak pose equates with spiritual enlightenment, we have a problem.”

Small goes on to explain that there are now yoga instructors who have been teaching for 30 or 40 years or more who themselves have repetitive movement injuries and are getting hip replacements, which is causing them to question whether their focus on head stands and forward-folding postures makes sense for every student.

“So there’s a way the yoga-teaching community is growing up,” Small says with a wry smile. “For me, the beauty of focusing on the ‘senior’ demographic is you can meet the needs of a wider range of people, a demographic that has special needs. Some people have said I’m teaching ‘permissive yoga,’ that I’m letting students do what they want. But what I’m trying to do is to give a program that moves students through balance, strength and flexibility but at the same time that asks them to pay attention to what is working for them. Yoga is about learning how to take care of yourself, so that a student learns, ‘I have the resources to take care of myself, I know what to do to invigorate myself when I’m feeling sluggish, what to do to calm myself when I am stressed.’”

So Small tells her students that they are in class “to be present in your own body and to take on the discipline of doing your own practice.” Moreover, she says, “mindfulness on the mat leads you to practice that in every other realm—yoga is about heart, body and mind. It is about approaching life in a balanced way.” In this respect, she adds, “If I had been doing yoga when I was caring for my father, I think I could have coped better. In our Western culture we deal with poor health by saying here’s the pill, the surgery, the diagnosis. But I think we have more power than that.”

Referring specifically to the older demographic she is trying to serve, Small reflects, “Just because we are winding down doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be dancing and moving. We have so much more capacity than we give ourselves credit for. We can invite ourselves to challenge what aging means.”—JW

[For more information on Toni Small’s classes go to oryxworx.com. For more information on the yoga-for-seniors program pioneered by Kimberly Carson and Carol Krucoff at Duke Integrative Medicine see their publication, Relax into Yoga for Seniors: A Six-Week Program for Strength, Balance, Flexibility and Pain Relief, New Harbinger Publications, Inc.]

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