Many yogis are vegetarian and it is often said that the way we treat animals in society is a sign of our spiritual progress. Although I agree with this I sometimes wonder if those people have been inside a residential care home, and seen the way that the elderly are treated.
In a society that idolises youth, old people are often marginalised. Commercial companies wanting to sell products designed to make us look young – make-up, expensive creams, botox etc – reinforce the adoration of youth.
But what is so bad about getting older? Many view old people as being slow, stuck in their ways, a drain on resources, stubborn, forgetful etc. Modern society values qualities associated with youth e.g. dynamism, strength etc. and those associated with age e.g. wisdom, experience and knowledge may not be so highly valued. People are also fearful of older people because they remind us of our own unavoidable journey towards frailty and death.
When I returned from my first teacher training in 2011, I started teaching gentle chair based yoga on a voluntary (karma yoga) basis at Tower Bridge Care Home. This has been a wonderful journey for myself and the residents. Through trial and error I have developed a number of full body routines that include gentle joint movement, singing, breathing, visualisation and meditation.
We normally start with singing and I have taught them a lovely version of lokah samastah sukhino bhavantu (may all people everywhere be happy and free). I’ve been surprised at how well they have learnt the words and embraced new ideas. After we’ve settled in with our song and some breathing we work through the whole body. I often start with some eye exercises and then we do face and neck, followed by shoulders, waist and then onto legs and ankles. We do quite a few made up movements e.g. picking fruit (to give them a nice gentle side stretch), playing the piano (to keep the fingers moving) and also swimming and running – which they love. I then always finish with a guided relaxation which helps with relaxing and letting go – such as an imaginary visit to the park.
I generally would get about 6 to 8 residents in my class ranging from the quite young and mobile, to those in their 90s in wheelchairs. At first it was quite a challenge to ensure I can included suitable exercises for all of them. Some of them are quite lucid, where as others often doze off in class and don’t join in everything. I learnt how to adapt the classes to suit different ability, and energy levels.
I had some really lovely residents and one time when my class was cancelled I used the hour to go and chat to the residents. I made some wonderful discoveries for example one resident used to be a lawyer, another lent me a copy of his life story which had a fascinating account of growing up in London during the war years. A lot of younger people think that they don’t have much in common with old people but chatting to my class made me appreciate how much in common we actually have despite the age difference.
Older people, who are approaching the ends of their lives, are often closer to god and sometimes I sense this when I teach with them. Teaching my class also helped me develop compassion. Some of my pupils have said lovely things to me i.e. ‘it would be lovely if you could come and give me yoga nidra just before I go to bed’, and some residents that come to yoga don’t join in any of the other group activities. So it is wonderful that they come out of their rooms and are willing to try something new.
I believe that yoga is a practice suitable for everyone and the benefits of yoga are immense! If through offering this gift of yoga to older people, I can help improve their life experience one bit, this helps my sadhana (spiritual practice) immensely. Also on a selfish level I feel an urgent imperative to improve the lives of those living in residential care homes, as it is highly likely that one day I will be that old person sitting in a chair, and when I get there I want to be doing yoga and not just sitting around waiting to die.
Through this journey I started in 2011 at the Tower Bridge nursing home I now feel really grateful to have received a grant form the Foundation of Innovation in Nursing Studies, together with Marlborough Court Nursing home to run a ‘yoga for dementia’ project which will start early next year! Will post some more news about it soon….
With gratitude to all the ‘students’ at Tower Bridge Nursing home, who were ultimately my teachers and especially Reg (pictured above) who passed away last year!