ON FLEXIBILITY: WHAT TEACHING SENIOR POPULATIONS TAUGHT ME

May 30, 2022

ON FLEXIBILITY: WHAT TEACHING SENIOR POPULATIONS TAUGHT ME

Written by: Giorgia Liviotti

About 9 months ago I relocated to my home country, Italy, after 20 years spent in China. I had a lot of baggage in terms of life experience and the idea that I wanted a fresh start. I wanted to teach yoga seriously. In other terms, I wanted it to be a full time occupation - and a paid one. While I postponed opening my own business to 2022, for the first months I just operated for free, looking around for potential clients, teaching my old Beijing group, now online and also taking up the challenge to teach my father, a 76-year old with several issues, including Lewy Body Dementia and Parkinson’s disease. His progress was slow but steady. After the first few weeks he was the one who would ask for his daily dose of yoga, seeing how his mobility and stability had changed, and how breathing would calm him. He even said he was starting seeing muscles in his arms – probably you could argue that he just believed he saw those muscles, but it was his way of describing what he sensed and felt in his body.

LESSON #1: one recipe doesn’t fit everybody Driven by my father’s progress, I decided to offer chair yoga to the town senior citizens’ centre. I entered the place, made a proposal, offered a couple of karma classes. And when I finally launched the course, nobody signed up. Had I done a bad job? Taught lousy classes? Were they too simple, not challenging enough? Had I missed the signs? Finally, what did those people want and why did I fail in meeting their expectations? Yes, a resurge in COVID had had an impact, but still… it was hard to swallow. It made me think that maybe I was not a good teacher after all.

LESSON #2: keep going I mourned a little over what looked, sounded and tasted like failure. And then, again, I acknowledged that yes, I had probably made mistakes, but I had still faithful clients who appreciated the way I teach, and my father was there to show that I could do something good. I travelled to the town nearby, introduced myself to the local senior citizens’ centre and asked them if they wanted a yoga teacher. As it happened, they did want one. They were perplexed at me offering chair yoga, though. They had never heard of it. Their chairwoman told me very directly: “We don’t want to be called old, or senior, or elderly. We are a group of very active women, we might be retired, but we’re not old. We’ll use your chair, if you like, but we also want to be on the mat.”

LESSON #3: know thyself, but especially get to know your clients It was exactly what I needed. They had told me – without me even asking - precisely who they were and what they wanted. And I gave it to them, blending chair yoga with yoga without a chair, fulfilling their rightful aspiration to not be stigmatized as “old”. But also, slowly, bringing them to see that the chair was not a symbol of weakness or old age, but a clever prop to help with stability, mobility and balance, both physically and mentally. 

LESSON #4: flexibility Some yoga teachers specialize in teaching flexibility. It means they will help you loosen up your tight hamstrings or your tight shoulders to work towards challenging poses like the splits or wheel. On the other hand, we are told we do not need to be flexible to practice or teach asana. But what teaching chair yoga and senior populations have taught me is a kind of flexibility. Flexibility of the mind. Understanding your clients is key to offering the best you can come up with, to honour their needs and aspirations. My father was not the incarnation of every other senior citizen around. You don’t have to annihilate who you are as a teacher, but keeping your ego at bay - the one which says: “I teach this way, take it or leave it” - could really help you meet your clients where they are. Talk to them, get to know them, no matter their age group or else. Some will offer their insights without being even asked (as in my case) – but sometimes you’ll need to ask (which I failed to do with the first centre). The way you teach will be enhanced, not belittled, by this newly acquired knowledge of who is in front of you. And your business will benefit, too