This Yoga for Seniors Class Gets a Little Unruly


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The air is buzzy before class as yoga therapist Stacey Reynolds tries to settle down her students. However, the chatty back row is behaving like a teacher’s nightmare.

The mischievous bunch shakes with laughter as they tell jokes and share gossip. The ringleader, Susie, is a cusser who throws out the f-bomb whenever she practices a challenging pose and always requests that the playlist include ZZ Top.

Susie is 86.

At Blue Yoga Nyla in North Little Rock, Arkansas, this is a typical weekday morning for Reynolds, whose classes are packed with dozens of students. With few exceptions, they range in age from 60 to 90.

“They’re wild, like a bunch of kindergarteners,” says Reynolds, who started working with senior adults at a nearby church in 2001. Though her free classes served all ages, it was heavily attended by retirees. Juanita, then 87, was the first to sign up. Suffering from scoliosis, she was a tiny four feet, 10 inches tall. She was also a popular and vocal spitfire among her friends. Suddenly the class was overflowing with seniors to the point that Reynolds had to offer additional classes.

Reynolds continued to teach free classes to a loyal community at the church for nine years. When she opened Blue Yoga Nyla in 2010, Juanita and crew followed.

“They love coming to class and being together,” says Reynolds. Many of her students plan their day around the weekly 10 a.m. class. The regulars arrive early to chat and set up the classroom together, hustling to get out class essentials, whether chairs, mats, or props. They pitch in and take responsibility, she explains. By the time Reynolds arrives to start class, students are amped up and ready to go.

For those who can’t make it to the studio, Reynolds goes to them. Several times a week, she heads off-site to teach at a nursing and rehabilitation center and an independent and memory care center. She also developed YogaBLUEprint for Advanced Age and Living, a program which allows her to work with local senior facilities and train other yoga instructors to work with the elderly. It is accredited by the International Association of Yoga Therapists.

These off-site chair-based classes bring Reynolds in contact with seniors suffering from various levels of decline. Some are memory-care residents, others stroke victims encountering serious cognitive challenges, while others are rehabilitating from hip, knee, or shoulder surgery—and yet they don’t miss class.

Nine out of ten students are in wheelchairs. “I had a 104-year-old lady who wheeled herself in every week for yoga in her wheelchair until she passed,” recounts Reynolds. Most of the remaining students use walkers. Some will drift in and out of sleeping during class. Others are completely nonverbal.

Several of Reynolds’ students are deaf and watch her movements to participate. A 101-year-old student who was almost blind sat in the front row directly opposite Reynolds. He never left after class without hugging her and saying “namaste.”

(Photo: Courtesy Karen E. Segrave Photography)

The Benefits of Yoga for Seniors

Seniors tend to experience enormous health benefits when practicing yoga, says Reynolds. She has observed that some students cease to need walkers and has heard secondhand that doctors tell them to continue “whatever they are doing.” The changes are that dramatic.

Research supports the profound effects that practicing yoga can have on aging individuals, including enhancing balance and mobility as well as slowing cognitive decline.

“People sorely underestimate what they can do physically,” says Reynolds, explaining that many seniors surprise themselves. During weekday morning classes, which attract mostly retirees, instruction covers those in chairs and those doing poses on mats, or a combination of both chair and mat—while some classes may be solely chair-based.

The mat classes provide a gentler practice, with longer held poses and incorporating props, such as bolsters and straps. Chair classes are more difficult, she says, involving Down Dog or Plank positions while seated. Reynolds says her classes target strength, stability, agility, flexibility, and blood flow, although core-strengthening poses are prioritized, she says, because a strong core affects stability and balance as well as back health, all issues that can creep up with old age.

Yoga offers a cognitive workout as well. The process of following a sequence and developing new neural pathways is mentally beneficial. One student with Alzheimer’s attends classes daily. Although she sometimes has to be asked to return to the parking lot and turn off her parked car, her friends tell her that her memory has improved since she began practicing yoga.

Emotionally, seniors derive enormous benefits from yoga. As yoga is a body-mind-spirit practice, she typically starts class silently, having her students send a breath or prayer to wherever there’s a nagging “worry weasel.”

Also, being a regular in class provides a ready-made community where valuable relationships can be formed. That camaraderie fends off loneliness and anxiety and helps ease the losses common to this stage in life. Reynolds explains that this age demographic harbors deep stress from losing spouses and facing challenging diagnoses. “They stand in the gap for one another,” she says.

Queen-of-the-back-row Susie gets rides to and from class from fellow yogis who include her in their outings and cocktail parties. The whole back row, in fact, is thick as thieves, plugged into a text thread to coordinate what color clothes they’ll wear to class.

The seniors seem to appreciate time together so much that Reynolds initiated a post-class coffee hour. She says it’s the “party after the party.” The students mingle and exchange news, gossip, and phone numbers while experiencing needed relevance and relationships. Reynolds provides the venue and instruction but understands that far more is taking place. It’s yoga in its fullest form.

A yoga for seniors class of students sitting in chairs and stretching at Blue Yoga Nyla with teacher Stacey Reynolds
(Photo: Courtesy Karen E. Segrave Photography)

Sharing Affordable Yoga as a Sustainable Business

To be true to her mission to make yoga available and accessible to all at her studio, Reynolds offered weekday morning classes using a pay-what-you-can system for her senior students, many of whom were on fixed incomes and accustomed to free access to yoga. She knew that she’d need to get creative or lose these devoted students who benefited from the classes. The only rule was that you must give something, a requirement explained on her website. Sometimes she discovers coins and other times she finds a 100-dollar bill. All other classes require purchasing single or class packages.

Reynolds recalls that family members laughed and said this strategy wouldn’t work. She acknowledges that giving away one third of her classes is an unusual approach to running a business and is quick to celebrate more traditional models for running a yoga studio. “We are all following what we’re supposed to be doing,” she says.

With three full-time employees and a dozen contract teachers, Reynolds holds things together by teaching off-site three times a week and conducting yoga teaching trainings. She also runs a private yoga therapy practice where she works in collaboration with traditional therapists and health providers to support those fighting trauma, grief, and addiction.

The studio also occasionally conducts fundraisers. Once the studio put together a senior yoga calendar to raise funds. A professional photographer captured the class doing yoga poses. The seniors were tickled and the community response was tremendous.

Leading free classes at church enabled her to reach and attract the very following she’d later need to successfully launch her studio. Students from her church days regularly attend studio classes and wear Blue Yoga Nyla t-shirts around town, essentially functioning as walking advertising for the studio.

Reynolds explains that teaching free classes at church turned into something that’s brought seniors lasting effects and created longtime cohorts. And, she says, if you’re looking at who has the time to come to yoga and who understands its benefits, that’s the 75-year-old student. One 87-year-old student has studied with her for 23 years and recently graduated from her rigorous teacher training course.

Why Reynolds Feels Drawn to Teach Seniors

To appreciate what motivates Reynolds to offer yoga to seniors, it’s essential to understand her background. An only child of teen parents, her grandparents grounded her tumultuous childhood. As a child, she struggled with anxiety and depression. As a teen, she endured a condition that required repeated surgeries and resulted in an autoimmune disease diagnosis. At one point, she was essentially sedentary, healing from one surgery only to face the next. She found herself in a dark place.

What happened next was sort of a spiritual experience, explains Reynolds. She heard a whisper to try yoga, which she didn’t know anything about at the time. The first six months of mat-based yoga were rough, but she kept at it. Eventually, she began to experience more good days than bad.

“Yoga started strengthening me from the inside out, healing me from the aspect of anxiety and depression,” says Reynolds. One-and-a-half years into yoga, Reynolds began training privately with her Iyengar-based instructor.

The practice of yoga grew to be a resource she would return to as she continued to endure serious health crises, including a traumatic brain injury and cancer. “Every health challenge has been a fierce battle,” Reynonds says, crediting yoga for helping her get back on her feet.

It’s no wonder she feels the sufferings of others and wants them to experience the life-changing benefits of yoga. “I’m held together with duct tape and glue like everyone else,” she says.

After teaching seniors for 23 years, Reynolds has a different image of what an advanced yoga practitioner looks like. She says it’s the 90-year-old student in hospice who is looking her in the eyes and doing breathwork. “They are the forgotten demographic,” muses Reynolds.

Despite all she shares, Reynolds insists she’s getting so much more out of her teaching. As she explains, “The imprint these people have left on me. It’s beyond words.”

For more information about Stacey Reynolds’ YogaBLUEprint for Advanced Age and Living course, email Blueyoganyla@gmail.com.

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