From Pain to Possibility
Episode 4: Yoga Therapy and the Older Adult
Intro: You're listening to From Pain to Possibility, with Susi Hately. You’ll hear Susi’s best ideas on how to reduce or even eradicate your pain and learn how to listen to your body when it whispers so you don't have to hear it scream. And now here's your host, Susi Hately.
Susi: With this episode, I'm delighted to introduce you to Ruth Ann Penny. Ruth Ann has been an educator for 40 years, having taught, coached, consulted, and advised people of all ages, nationally and internationally, of both genders, privately and in classroom, as well as corporate settings. Early in her career, she became very interested in how adults learn: What motivates a mature, experienced person to take on new and often challenging learning tasks? What obstacles prevent learning in older people? What does an adult bring into the learning environment that a youth cannot? Those questions led her to a master's degree in adult education with a focus on leaders and the elders in our midst.
When she became a yoga practitioner almost 25 years ago, as an active, ambitious person in her mid-40s, she had a coming-home feeling. Over time, she began to see that her body, with its own unique history, would dictate the kind of yoga practice she would cultivate. As she has aged, she has confronted the reality that there is no yoga practice that suits everybody, no perfect pose to be achieved. There is no guru who knows what you know about yourself. As an educator, I am completely convinced that we construct our own learning based on our own experience and environment. We learn from the inside out. We seek, take in what we need, adapt, hopefully grow, and leave the rest.
Recently, in learning more about somatics and working with committed and knowledgeable teachers, I have come to understand that inefficient movement habits, muscle tension, postural imbalances, and lack of connection to our breath are energetically draining. She wants to work in that space and create possibility.
So with this episode, I am delighted to welcome Ruth Ann Penny.
Welcome. I am delighted to be interviewing Ruth Ann Penny. We have been talking lots about older adults, and yoga and the older adult, and what yoga can do for the older adult. And before we started recording, we were talking a little bit about how a lot of yoga and exercise programs for the older adults are around—how did you put it, Ruth Ann?—the rollie. Isn’t that cute and a bit dumpy?
Ruth Ann: Yeah.
Susi: So we are doing this recording because we want to provide a different input to the conversation about yoga and the older adult. And we're going to be talking for probably 40 minutes and how this isn't about being old and dumpy, but rather how life is full of transitions. And the transition through to our 60s and our 70s and our 80s can be one that is generative and not necessarily degenerative, although there are some physical realities that take place as we get older. And I wanted to bring in Ruth Ann because Ruth Ann and I, we're going to talk about later, we're running a program specifically for health professionals and yoga teachers to learn more about programing for the older adult and to take in these ideas into their program.
So welcome, Ruth Ann. I'm delighted to have you here.
Ruth Ann: Thank you. Great to be here. Lots of fun.
Susi: So, there are realities to becoming older, and there are some realities that can be mitigated quite a bit by yoga. Let's get into some of those realities and then some of the challenges that you have seen as you have been working with older adults, because most of the people that you work with are in their 70s and their 80s. You yourself are 69.
Ruth Ann: Sixty-nine years old. Yeah, I work exclusively now with older people, and it's a great delight. I love it. I love watching, as you say, how people work with both the realities of their aging process, their life process, and how they approach the opportunities for new learning that are infinite, that are in front of them. It’s wonderful.
Susi: A lot of times, when we think of older adults, what comes to mind is something to not look forward to. When I was younger, when I first started my career in my late 20s, I was really fortunate because almost all of my clients were older than me, much older than me at that stage. Many of them were in their late 50s, 60s, 70s. I had a handful in their 80s. In fact, my oldest client was 91, and I remember being dumbfounded. This was probably—it was my early thirties at this point. And she actually got out of pain faster than all of my clients. So it threw on its head what I had learned from my kinesiology degree, which is the older you get, the slower it takes to get better. Now, there are realities tissue wise around healing, but, in fact, getting more functional, that doesn't actually show to be true and that there can be this other reality that is possible.
Ruth Ann: Absolutely. And I guess what I observe is that notwithstanding the fact that everyone's mortal and that we're all going to die of something someday, how physically, mentally, socially, spiritually we approach that reality and deal with it is, in fact, going to determine how fruitful the, say, last third, last quarter of our life is going to be. And since we're all living longer, the question is, now, I think, starker and sharper than ever, is how are we going to spend those years? In 1900, the statistics—and these are American statistics, out of their census in 1900—I think the average age of death was 48 for females and 46 for men. And in a hundred and something years, we've almost doubled our lifespan. We know now that people are living into their hundreds and are functioning into their hundreds. And the question is really big now, particularly if you retire in your 60s. How are you going to live well for the next 35 years, 40 years?
So I see in my population of students, a real interest in making their lives rich and filled with good opportunities for learning and opportunities for easy, enjoyable, relaxed, functional movement, opportunities to minimize their pain, and just be as fully alive as they can possibly be. And I think it's wonderful working with those people. I think they have a lot to teach us.
Susi: Now, the potential of possibility here for someone who is in their 60s and cresting through towards 70s and 80s is that there are no distinct markers for getting older. Whereas, when we're younger—and I can attest to this with having three-year-old twins—is that there are very definitive markers that you can measure against and that there's generally, even if there are people who are—there’s everyone's unique way of growing. When they're little, there's these general markers that occur through our life. Whereas, in the older years, that's not it at all. So it really provides an opportunity to chart your own course.
Ruth Ann: Absolutely. Well, you just think of what the arc of a lifespan when you’re three, four, five, six, seven, eight. You have very little mileage behind you, and your developmental path is pure, as it were. Now, having said that, look, for example, at the heart-wrenching stories of the Romanian orphans from 25 or 30 years ago, kids who had absolutely no physical touch from the moment they were born and the kinds of developmental markers that got totally screwed up or destroyed in their early years.
But for children living, I'm going to say, normal, healthy lives today, those developmental markers are clear. When they're between the ages of six and seven, they're going to lose their first teeth, and their permanent teeth are going to come in. Probably most of them are going to be 100 percent able to read by the time they're nine, if not much earlier. But there are these developmental markers, when girls become sexually mature, all of those things are predictable within windows.
But by the time I get to age 50 or 40, I will have head injuries. I will have had losses, life experiences, successes, failures, whatever. My life will have started to unfold in a way that, I'm not going to say clouds, but impacts the organism, the body that I live in. And so when I come to menopause or when I begin to experience cognitive deterioration or when I begin to lose my peripheral vision, and so forth, which are things that happen to most people, the when of that happening is a window of maybe 20 or 30 years. There could be people who are experiencing those things in their mid-50s and people for whom that has absolutely not happened until their late 80s.
Now, I'm not—one thing I do not know a lot about are the genetic patterns that are behind that. I'm sure they're significant. But when we look at people coming into yoga studios or into our therapeutic settings, we're not thinking so much about that. We're looking at the body in front of us and the experience of that body has had in its environment, what has happened to it over time.
Susi: And when we provide a stimulus of breath or movement or a stillness, whether that stillness is a nidra practice or a shavasana practice or a meditation practice, then tissue can change.
Ruth Ann: Absolutely. And I see this all the time. One of my great—he's friend, I have to say. He is just a lovely guy. One of my students is an 83-year-old man who is legally blind. He has glaucoma. And so a lot of feeling and sensing is what he's been forced to do. He's been forced to kick something into gear that he didn't “need” before. Because he's lost his vision, he has to up his game with his other senses. And he said to me one day, after probably 16 months of working with him, he was so excited. He said, “Ruth Ann, I can actually feel my shoulder blades moving back and forth for the first time. I can really feel it.” And he was utterly delighted that that tissue had begun to move and that he had the capacity to feel that richness. And that change alone in his tissue then liberated him to take the risks to start moving better in his upper body generally, which then led to a more confident walk. It was a beautiful set of changes, all that started in this very small area of the middle of his thoracic spine between his two shoulder blades. It’s great. Totally plastic.
Susi: And that's a great example. He's 83 years old. And it's a great example that even though the 83-year-old is not going to become 23; that's not the idea. It’s that there are realities of life that have occurred. There are stackings of compensation patterns and traumas and injuries and illnesses and just the life experience that our bodies have, and our minds and our spirits have responding to those, and so there are these realities.
And we outlined five realities in the PDF document that people, in the show notes, can download if they'd like. And one of them is the chronological reality of aging, as time passes. That is reality. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. Onward we go.
And then there are these other four, which we can impact quite clearly the social reality of aging and how social we are, biological reality of aging in that while we do, we can deteriorate, that we can provide stimulus that can support the biology that we do have.
The psychology reality of aging, that there can be some concern or anxiety around loss of autonomy and control, and that this idea of self-concept can deteriorate. And the story you just told about the 83-year-old client, that how that grew simply by improving one's movement, that can shift that mindset or psychological reality.
And then there's spiritual reality of aging, and just thinking about eternity versus time, and our purpose on the earth. And again, how this greater and more intimate connection with ourselves for who we are and where we're at. And that can be impacted quite a bit by the practice of yoga.
Ruth Ann: Absolutely. I want to go back to the psychological reality. One of the most interesting things, and I think one of the most important things, that has struck me as I've been developing ways of teaching older people is that there is the underlying self-concept. You know, I understand myself to be a person who is creative, or my self-confidence is high, or I'm a great athlete, or I'm a good mother, or I am a successful businessman, or all these things that contribute to one's overall sense of one's self in life. There's that. And people have various degrees of self-confidence, self-awareness, self-love throughout their life. But their concept, one's concept of aging or one's self as an old person is a different thing. So you can have extremely confident, able people in general who, if they were talking to the—if there was a psychological report made on them, the psychologist would say, “Great self-esteem, high levels of autonomy,” and so forth. But if that same person says, “Old age is a horror show. I'm going to die before I'm 75. My parents all died young,” that's a different thing that layers itself over talk of general self-concept.
I have—one of my dearest friends is my cousin, my first cousin, and she was a competitive swimmer, a gymnast, a truly beautiful skier. And she is 70, and she is sedentary. She believes she calls herself an old woman. And yet she still thinks of herself on the one hand, “I've got a strong self—. You know, I'm who I've always been, but oh boy, I'm old.” You know? So I think when we work with people in a yoga setting, one of the things that we can empower them with is that that image of aging is self-imposed and it's ephemeral. We can change that image of the aging self. We can palpably change it. And that's, to me, a really great—what shall I say?—it’s a great way of thinking about a yoga practice. What can I do, working with this, as a teacher, working with this older client, or with myself as a yogi, what can I do to bring that energy back into the body? because again, there are ways.
Susi: Now, typically, though, a client will not come to yoga because they're looking for that energy to come back in. They may not articulate that per se.
Ruth Ann: That's true. That's true.
Susi: However, they may come because of back pain or of arthritis or of concern about balance or breathing capacity because of COPD or other scenarios or posture, because they're feeling like they're getting more stooped, or maybe they're feeling old and they want to improve their posture. I know that was something my dad would say to me about wanting to improve posture. So they might come in for that. And so that becomes something very measurable that they can perceive as changing. And then there's also the measurable—it’s more of a qualitative measure in terms of how they feel. And then that's when they're saying, “I feel 25 years younger,” which is what you just mentioned, bringing that energy back into—because my dad, he started practicing yoga at 79, and he continued because his legs felt 25 years younger. That's a great example of this energy kind of renewing itself, if we can say that, inside of this system.
Ruth Ann: Right. So it's a very interesting—you're quite right. People contact me and will come to my classes, who say, “Oh, I'm just feeling so stiff,” or “I've got some pain in my knee,” or whatever. You're right. They come with a movement problem or a sensation or a limitation that they're hoping can be somehow improved. And what they don't necessarily expect, perhaps I can say, or aren't explicitly asking for is this energetic response, which we know is at the heart of yoga. We're not just offering an exercise program. We're offering an experience that has at its core the very, most fundamental principles of yoga.
And when they are, therefore, in a program that we offer, and we begin to help them explore their bodies, explore their felt sense, you're right. Not only does their primary concern start to be addressed. “Oh, gee whiz, look at that. I can stoop down now. I couldn't do that before.” But as you say, sort of as a by-product, which I actually think is the primary product, their energy rebounds, almost. And then the door is opened to incrementally, I think, I wouldn’t call it faster, but richer, deeper movement benefits.
I really think that's just a wonderful, beautiful paradox, is that they don't come looking for energy, but energy is what they get. And energy’s then what propels them into better movement. Interesting.
Susi: I remember when my dad sold the house, which was a three-story house, and so there are lots of stairs. And he had to take the garbage out. My mom had passed away, oh, gosh, six years prior. So he was in the house on his own. And so he was taking the garbage out, taking the recycling out, taking care of the house. And when he sold the house and he was moving to a place, to an apartment, mostly because we didn't have a bathroom on the main floor, and so he was recognizing that being, I think he was 80 when he sold it, I think, but he was certainly older than 75 when he sold it. But in any event, I was expecting decline, and he, I think, was expecting decline because he didn't have the stairs any longer. He’d have an elevator, and you don’t need to take care of as much stuff around an apartment as you do a house.
What I found fascinating, though, was to watch just how fast and how much the decline occurred. So he sold the house and moved in November. And by February, he became older, quite a bit older, because of this lack of movement. That's when I mentioned something to him about, “Hey, Dad, did you notice this?” And it's sort of, he noticed it, but he didn't really notice it, because even though from an outside observer you can see these changes, but we don't necessarily see them inside of ourselves until we can really feel it.
And so we got him out walking, had him been out a little bit more consciously about his walks and going to a gym facility that he had been going to. But he became just a little bit more conscious about these types of things and started to do more yoga. He brought in somebody to work with him inside the apartment a couple of times a week and just became more conscious. But what was great about it is his function improved. It didn't go right back to what he was when he was in the house, but it improved dramatically. And then he would sort of move in and out, much like any human does. They stay committed to something, and then they come uncommitted, then they stay committed, and then other things come in that become more important.
And he went through another phase where, I think he had gotten sick, and then he recovered, and he was going on a trip with a friend. And I said to him, “If you want to be able to keep up with your friend,” because his friend had quite a good gait and a good walking pattern, and his walking pattern was a little bit slower, I said, “If you want to keep up, you’re going to need to pick up your walking.” And he sort of looked at me. He was like, “Oh, yeah, you're right.” And so then he started to pick it up again and improved once again.
So I mention that because we can have these declines and then gains and declines and then gains and declines and then gains, even at the older years, which I think is really important because the possibility for humans still exists when we're older. And a message that I want listeners to really understand is that there are realities to getting older, but it's not nearly as horrible as one might perceive. It's not a fait accompli that it's terrible.
Ruth Ann: Yeah. A long, unending—a long slide.
Susi: And that this idea of energy, this idea of movement, can significantly shift even as you're in your 83, 84, 85 years.
Ruth Ann: Another thing that I find, along that same line, so interesting is that I'm not teaching anybody big, huge movements. Yes, yes, we start with big joints because those are often—someone says, “I’m stiff in my shoulders.” I can see they’re kyphotic. I can see they have no strength in the front, in the deltoids at all. They've just been crunched over for so long. But even the smallest beginnings of movement, they discover, soon discover, are pleasurable and that there are gains to be made.
I think a lot of the misconceptions that older people have coming into an environment such as my classroom or in my therapeutic setting is that they're going to have to do something big and dramatic with their bodies, and they're not. And so when we teach people often in this older group, we break things down into smaller pieces, start real small, work probably beginning at a slower pace. But honestly, as you say, it doesn't take long at all for them to start to feel physical benefits. Being able to shrug their shoulders right up to the ears and let them drop and then roll them is entirely pleasurable, and they kind of forgot that they could do even that.
So our therapeutic practice has so much potential, I think, because we don't have to be extra-super complex or we don't need to develop elaborate schemes for these people. We can start with simple movement and simple principles and help them fairly quickly, as you said with your dad, feel the gains.
Susi: So, let’s go through some of the challenges and give a couple of examples of things that teachers and healthcare professionals can do with their clientele, and given that some of those clientele are listening to this as well, that they can do for themselves.
So one of the first challenges that across the board can impact people from their 60s through right to the end is balance. And when balance is challenged, there's more of a fear of falling. And particularly where we live, up here in Canada, we have winter, and we have ice, and we have snow, and we have uneven pavement, and that can be an issue. And certainly with my dad, I remember walking with him on trails, and that was challenging for him, too, tree roots and things like that.
So that can lead, that look at fear of falling can then lead to less walking, which then can reduce mobility, and on and on and on. So one of the basic things that I like to teach my older folks is, can you actually feel your feet? And three points of the feet are really great image because it's like a tripod, and it corresponds to the arches of the feet. So the center of the heel, the ball of the foot, the base of the pinky toe. And can you feel those three points, and can you feel the feet planted on the ground, and what do the feet feel like as you move?
Ruth Ann: Yeah. And I've also seen you do it, and I've done it, too, where you have some fun, where you self-massage. You use your own hands to feel your own feet so that there's some kind of external stimulus as well. It’s a deep and sad irony to me that you see a lot of older people wearing pads, these really puffy, padded shoes that are preventing one of the most sensitive surfaces—I think there’s research that the bottom of the foot is the most sensitive surface of the body in terms of proprioception, tactile—and we prevent that surface from touching the ground, so our bodies have no feedback coming from the ground. So the ability, as you say, to feel the whole foot on the ground, to know that you have 10 toes that can move, that there is this—it's very interesting you say, think of it as a triangle, which, of course it is. Those three points form a triangle, and a triangle is the most stable structure known to man—that there is so much possibility once we can find the feet, and it can be real fun. It can be lots fun for them to learn to feel their feet again.
So once we've animated the feet like that, then you can begin to work on, what does it feel like to press into the ground? What does it feel like to roll along the foot, which is the walking movement? What does it feel to go sideways on the edge and then come back all three points of the triangle? What does it feel like to push down and have weight all through your feet? All these sensations can be taught, broken down, if you like, and become the source of terrific learning,, physical learning for them, which then starts to breed confidence.
You see older people or anybody walking on the ice—funny you should say the Canadian winter—we often—I don't know about you—but when I'm walking on a really icy surface, I tend to hold up as though if I could somehow levitate, I wouldn't fall. Well, I suppose if I were off the ground, I wouldn't hit the ground if I fell, but you know what I mean. We have this ironic need to pull up where the best thing we can do for ourselves is find the ground with our feet. Pretty basic, but it's really a source of empowerment for older people who have lost that sense of where the ground is underneath them. And they feel they need to hold onto something else. Something else has to be the ground for them.
Susi: Yes. And I remember early on teaching yoga, and I worked at a place in Calgary called the Kerby Center. And all of the students in my classes were over 60, and some of them had balance issues and were concerned about winter. And I remember I started teaching in the late fall and just being stunned at how impactful the practice of yoga was. I mean, I was an early yoga teacher at that time, and so it was one of those experiences where I was so excited with the practice and then actually seeing it working for people and seeing the impact of how much more confident the students were to be out in a snowy, icy environment, that now they were being able to get out and getting about and being a lot more confident.
So it's a powerful place that someone can begin feeling feet. And then, as you'll hear in the other challenges, and some of the considerations we have of supporting someone moving better, which leads us into the second one, which is breathing capacity and how COPD and postural habits can have an impact on breathing, and really simple interventions can support. And so one consideration can be, how is the breath moving in the body? And what I like to bring people's awareness to is what does the overall texture of the breath feel like? And does it feel full, or does it feel thin? Does it feel warm or cool, or rapid or slow? And where does the breath move in the body?
Lots of times, I find that teachers can focus on where someone feels tight and where does it feel closed, and then open that which is closed. Whereas, I tend to focus in on where do you actually feel it being open? And what I've noticed is when people focus on where it feels open, like where there's movement, whether it's the rib cage or whether it's the belly or whether it's just feeling the breath coming in through the nose or the mouth, that then where attention goes, awareness grows, and energy flows, that then more starts to feel more open, more starts to feel more fluid, because that's where our attention is. And so when we can pay attention to those qualities and then where does it feel good or easier, open in the body, then things can start to move a bit.
Ruth Ann: I think that’s absolutely true. And I think when you're faced with people who have a pulmonary disease, whether it's asthma, or as they get older, it may be emphysema, or maybe they've had some heart and lung difficulties over time, the mindset is where is the next inhalation going to come from? That's the fear. There won't be one. And some of the simple breathing exercises that allow us to feel the breath just simply leaving the body to trail it as it goes out, as you say, could simply by placing your hand on your belly, feeling the changes, and turning the attention towards not just the overall quality of the breath, but the fact that the exhalation, when it leaves your body, is the signal for the next inhalation to come. You don't have to worry about doing something fancy to get the air into you.
And so often some of the things we do when we begin to tie—after a lot of time is spent, I know this just helping people become aware of the breath in their bodies, you say—and I shouldn’t say just. That's huge, people becoming aware of the sensation of the breath in their body—then to be able to ask them to focus on one aspect of the breath and perhaps to change it just a little bit—I'm talking about a slightly extended exhalation—can be a wonderful way of showing that the inhalation will follow naturally. And there doesn't need to be a gasp or the overused, this often happens with people with chronic lung diseases, is they tend to animate the high-up muscles in their chest, the scalenes. You can feel them [taking breaths] lifting up those muscles and tensing those muscles. And a lot of that is a learned behavior because it's fearful when you can't get your breath in. So I think it, once again, to go back to—I don't want to sound like it's all so simple, because it's not all so simple for these people. These are hugely embedded habits that are slow in some cases to unwind or are layered with other medical issues. But it is possible, as you say, to move incrementally into a place where the sensation is not a negative one, but a positive one.
Susi: Well, to add to that, I remember the first class that I took my dad to, and it was a restorative yoga class. And we left, and I was with my husband and my dad, and we left and went for breakfast. And he was sort of moving his shoulders up and down. And I was like, oh, maybe that was sore in his neck. I didn't say anything. I just kind of let him do his thing. We went for breakfast. And he still sort of moving his head around and looking a bit perplexed, not in a bad way, but just like not quite out of sorts, but of that sort of a genre. And then as we're walking back to the car, I said, “So what's up?” And he said, “I can't find the pain. I’m trying to find—where did it go?” And he was a bit stunned by it. And that's what the perplexedness was.
So it can happen that fast. I think that's the important piece. And what I've learned over the years is that when the body makes a change like that, then it tells me the body can have a change like that.
Ruth Ann: Right.
Susi: And so now there needs to be consistency in enabling that change to become a new pattern. But the key of it is that it can happen, and it can happen that quickly. I also like to say that when the body gets the stimulus that it needs it, it unravels rather quickly. I really should say the body and mind, because the two of them are so intertwined.
Ruth Ann: Absolutely.
Susi: So it becomes very curious, right?
Ruth Ann: It does.
Susi: So when you’re feeling something shift in that way, just take a note of it, that that could actually be something that could happen long term if you practice consistently.
Ruth Ann: Right. And one thing can affect another. We were talking about a person who has some difficulty breathing will often hunch their shoulders forward, which means they're going to be—their head will start to fall forward, too, right? Everything's looking down, closer, which means they're probably not looking up and able, therefore, to walk forward with confidence. So maybe indirectly this restrained or constrained breathing practice is also affecting their balance and their ability to walk with confidence.
So one thing is going to hook into another and hook into another. So if you can feel these lovely gains, however small or incremental they begin, as you say, that the tentacles could spread out fairly quickly into other areas of functionality. It’s wonderful to see.
Susi: Which lead us into the declining mobility in big joints. And this is big. I mean, this is one of my favorite areas in the body to work simply because there's so many degrees of range in the shoulders and the hips that when you can improve in those areas—that stuff through up the neck, down to the elbows and wrists, and then through the back, and of the knees and the ankles—can change so much just because there's so much potential and availability and so much, what I like to use the word is, congestion in addition to immobility and compensation. So we can improve that even when there's osteoarthritis, even when there's skeletal degeneration, you can still improve neuromuscular communication. And I think that's so important because people can hear the word arthritis and then say, “Oh, all right. This is the beginning of the end.” And in fact, it's not.
I remember, getting my training in India, when it really struck me because there was lots of interesting mobility patterns in the training that I did of the people who came for practice there, because the studio where I learned from was all therapy, and it just struck me the impact of what yoga can do. And so this highlights this, right? So stiffness and loss of range is very, very common, and when we start to focus in on improving those large-joint movements, then a lot can change. And keeping in mind, of course, bone-density loss and compression fractures and other things that have maybe factored in through one's life to be smart about how we utilize improving mobility. But when we focus in on optimal movement, and what I mean by optimal movement is given all that the person is bringing to the table physiologically, anatomically, biomechanically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually, then what movements to support improving the mobility, improving the stability, improving the strength, what movements can support that and improve that?
Ruth Ann: Absolutely. I think this, too, when you're looking at big-joint stiffness or limitations in the big joints, I think this is where you also begin to talk almost right away about pain and about what kinds of sensations people are having. I feel when I work with people around moving their big joints that it's a great opportunity to start improving—or I don’t want to say improving—expanding the vocabulary around sensation. Someone said, “I can't raise my arm because of my shoulders, too much pain in my shoulder.” “Well, let's see you raise your arm.” And they mean, “I can't get it up to the sky.” Then we begin to work on doing less, which I know is one of your favorite topics, Susi, that moving a little bit less, not moving into pain, reteaching the brain that there is a place where movement happens that is not painful, is a wonderful central part of the teaching around regaining mobility in these big joints.
I just had this with my good old friend Allen two weeks ago. He said, “Ruth Ann, I can't do that sidestepping because it hurts. My stenosis kicks in.” And I said, “Well, let me see you do it.” And he tried to sidestep about two feet. And I said, “Well, how about you just literally sidestep three inches instead, okay? That hurt?” “No.” “How about six inches? That hurt?” “No.”
So this idea of being able to begin small and move to a place where there's actually a fair bit of range without going into pain, and to have at the same time this wonderful opportunity to talk about changes in sensation while you're at it so that they begin to understand that there are some places where pain isn't there, and there are some places where there's a bit of a sensation, but do we need to call it pain? Could we call it something else? Tightness, stickiness, ache? I don't know.
Susi: And that’s what leads to the next one, which is brilliant because it's a great segue into general body awareness and how even the language—it's not being euphemistic about pain, but it's helping improve the connection to one's body and mind by way of being clear of what the sensation actually is. And so maybe, perhaps, for some people growing the vocabulary of what they feel, and so is that, yeah, it is that pain, or is that stiffness, or is that ache, or is that... And being able to have a greater spectrum. And again, we’re not being euphemistic here; it's being really clear about what is what because when you can understand the spectrum, then you're more clear on what's actually a whisper here and what's actually a scream. And then when you're clearer on what your body is actually communicating, then you can be that much more specific and accurate with what intervention is needed, which then improves the scenario further. It's not that they’re just throwing things against the wall and hopefully something will work. But as you grow that awareness, as you grow the vocabulary of what you're in fact feeling, then so much can improve. And the mobility work and those small movements help to grow that awareness.
Ruth Ann: And also, I think, Susi, really reduce fear. I think fear is such an impediment. If you have a 40-year-old habit of not lifting your arms up because you had a frozen shoulder when you were 42, and now you're 82, and you still have—you know what I mean?
Ruth Ann: That being able to move in a way that doesn't hurt or in which the sensation is not what you're used to or it's diminished somewhat then it's such a liberating thing, and you begin finally to overcome a fear. Can you imagine the fear that's constantly lurking over that many decades, and how once you unlock that or say, “You know what. That's not so bad. I think we can go there,” and they do, and they don't feel frightened, then, as we were saying earlier in this conversation, then doors open to more gain and rapid gain because the fear is diminished.
Susi: And that leads to improvements of strength. And that's a biggie in terms of one's independence. When you don't have the leg strength to get up off the toilet or out of a chair, and then you're really losing your balance because you can't get up and out, or if you were to fall and you can't get up, that becomes a real independence challenge, which then leads to a whole other set of decisions that have to be made.
So when we can integrate strength gains along with the mobility and the awareness and the balance, a lot can be maintained and improved upon. And so one consideration is—like the story I told of my dad and after he sold his house and moved to the apartment and how the daily activities of daily life changed dramatically, which changed his experience dramatically. So he had to start to integrate more things into his world in order to maintain and grow his abilities. So you're choosing well, and to consider the—like as we started off the—I think we said this before the recording happened, but also, I started off the podcast about how a lot of seniors’ classes can be about, you know,—you said it so well, Ruth Ann, about oh, aren’t you so cute, little bit dumpy, but here's some chair yoga support you. And I'm not by no means am I dissing chair yoga, by any stretch. But sometimes seniors’ yoga and chair yoga are cited in the same breath. And in reality there's so much more capacity that's available. The key is to be smart about what your—based off of your own awareness of your system and what your system needs and how you do strengthening type of work.
Ruth Ann: And I think to, as you say, that's because maintaining strength and of course, muscles, we just lose muscle mass. It just happens. We lose muscle mass, and we lose bone mass. No avoiding it. But so the strength is being built—building strength is a bit more of an uphill battle when you're in a state of natural decline anyway. But I think that for a lot of folks, here's where, for people who are interested in teaching the older adult, that, again, you can take some very gentle versions of ordinary yoga poses, like utkatasana, just teaching people to bend their knees and stand back up, teaching them how to do that in a way, what Jill Miller calls reversibility. Can you descend a little bit? And then can you ascend again? Can you turn to the left and then turn back? Can you go forward? Can you go backward? Do you have enough muscle strength to be able to go into something and out of something? In other words, what I'm saying is there is a lot to be taught about—this is where the functionality comes in. It’s not just building strength for strength’s sake. It is really where the ability to be by yourself, and as you say, to know how to lift yourself up off the toilet, such as your center of gravity is over your base is supported, you're not going to topple is huge. And the strength building is kind of the pinnacle for a lot of people, right?
Susi: Mm-hmm. And it's interesting. I had a client who was younger, and she wanted to put in a toilet that was taller. Not for any particular reason. And I just made a side comment about how the idea of being able to sit and then stand is important. And so when you think about the activities of daily living, that you're shifting up, whether it's the shoes that you're choosing or the chairs that you're choosing, and in some cases—and again, I'm not trying to suggest that I'm saying that those things are a bad choice. It's recognizing the impact of that choice because some people need to have more comfortable shoes—but to step back and say, “Well, hold on a second here. What's actually really going on here? And is there something we can do to support the overall function without needing to have an intervention that could actually reduce your ability to have strength or balance or mobility or fill in the blank?”
Ruth Ann: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. So it's an equation, right? You have to think on balance, if I do this, what's going to happen on the other side of the equation over time? And is it really going to be a benefit over time, or can we mitigate? And that word mitigation is, I think, something I think about a lot in teaching older adults is not curing, not making them younger. This is not fountain of youth in a real sense, because you can't turn back the clock. But mitigating decline, increasing, as we were saying I think before we started to record, this sense that you may not be able to regenerate dead cells, but you can become a generative, energized, psychologically more positive, more of a risk taker. You can become a little bit more out in the world than you thought you could be.
I also am very concerned that when people come to a yoga practice like this for older adults, that they have a really, how shall I say?, an inquiring approach with their students. And I think that's one of the things that it's going to be sort of a subtext of these six challenges is the way we approach our teaching as an exploration is essential, enabling people to feel that they can be inside their own bodies and explore a bit is in and of itself a big liberation for a lot of people who have been told this and told that by a number of professionals all their lives long.
Susi: Which leads us into endurance, because when we are thinking about the inward experience, and we're able to mitigate, and we're thinking about mitigation or second-order consequences of what we choose, when we are playing around with balance and having fun with balance and improving mobility and breath and strength, then that helps our ability to exert force over a period of time. And so endurance requires both the active being-able-to-mobilize force and do stuff, as well as our ability to rest and recover, because rest and recovery is essential to endurance. And so it's being able to play into that realm of when to push and when to rest and when to be active and when to rest and and how that plays into the work recovery—maybe not work in the way that we know work as a younger adult, but effort and recovery.
Ruth Ann: And I think this is where as yoga teachers we have the opportunity—we don't just say, “Okay, that's great. You've done 10 reps. Now let's stop and rest.” We can instead say, “Let's pause, let's recenter, let's feel the ground again. Let's just breathe for a few minutes. Let's become still for a moment. Not still like a brick, but still like water in a bowl. Let's just still ourselves.” And that kind of yogic approach has a lovely calming effect that I think actually enriches the rest-and-recovery stage and sort of building that into the practice and not saying there's the exercise and then you just got to rest and do nothing. But it's actually part of the dynamic of building endurance is having these tools for quite, I would say—I was going to say beautiful or enjoyable—rest and recovery is, I think, part of the teaching that's essential.
Ruth Ann: So I really enjoy those moments with folks when we say, “Okay, well, that's a lot of activity. Let's come back to center. Let's recalibrate. Let's just settle for a moment. Let's ease down into the chair or the ground or the mat, and just feel what we feel.” And I hear you say those words, “Let’s just feel what we feel.” So these beginnings and endings and even midpoints in a practice where you say, “Okay, now is a time to come back to center and assess my own energy levels,” is a habit that we hope to build, particularly with older people, that allows them, gives them permission to do the rest when they feel tired and to still believe that they can go back and try again and do a little bit more the next time.
Susi: Yeah. And that the idea, too, is that, just to build upon what we've been saying throughout this chat, is that things can change, and things can feel better, and that while there is definitely the—what did you say at an earlier call that we had—it’s the shorter end of the stick. We’re in the sunset years at this stage of the game, and we’re adding more life to those years.
Ruth Ann: We really are.
Susi: And so there's—this is not something about the fountain of youth, but rather it's being able to live in our bodies, to be able to live in our breath, to be able to connect with our spirit in a way that is mitigating and adding more life, adding more energy, experiencing greater freedom from the constraints that conditions might be imposing on them.
Ruth Ann: And isn’t’ that the heart of yoga? Isn't the heart of yoga stilling, stilling the things that are creating noise and difficulty in the system? Isn't it about really finding that equanimity? That's what’s at the heart of it. And that's why I think I feel so happy to be on this side of the coin, really, myself, because—and this is true of the older students—they're not coming in to learn to do asanas. They have no—they couldn’t care less about whether they ever did ardha chandrasana. They're coming to help themselves feel a little better. And so how we as yogis approach them, keeping that in mind as a primary thing, will just be mind blowing for them. They'll be truer yogis, I think, in some ways than people who could do a handstand for 15 minutes or something like that. They're actually using the tools of yoga to live better, which is where it's at.
Susi: And that’s where it’s at.
So if you have enjoyed this discussion, and you are interested in learning more, we are, Ruth Ann and I, are running teaching yoga for the older adult, and that begins shortly. We are optimizing this program specifically for people who daily life is limited by conditions that are reducing general movement capacity and that discomfort is and stiffness exists and that there is a lot of potential to learn, to repattern, adjust, to change, to add life, to add quality, to experience a new possibility that is more generative than degenerative, and to live independently and to regain balance, strength, breath, mobility, endurance. So we would love for you to join us, and the link to have a look at what's been available through that program is down in the show notes.
Thank you, Ruth Ann. This has been a delight.
Ruth Ann: Oh, thank you. This is such fun. I just feel now just even this—I'm interested in this always, but just this last hour has rekindled me. I'm feeling pretty juiced about this, and I hope others are, too.
You all have a great time exploring your own movement patterns. We'll see you next time.