Sex Toys, Love, And Death: The Unexpected Joys of Yoga In A Senior Center

My 92-year-old client cornered me in the senior center where I teach yoga. She wanted me to buy a vibrator. Hers had shorted out.

“I like the little kind, honey, not the great big ones,” she said. Since she broke her hip running to dance class, she used a walker. She couldn’t just dash to Duane Reade, even for a personal massager.

I stared at her. This nonagenarian — my student who lived across the street from me — vaguely reminded me of Nancy Reagan in a crisp suit and leopard shoes. A free-spirit, my neighbor lady had said yes to everything, including Studio 54, while the former First Lady “just said no.” From now on, I will refer to my friend as Nancy, to protect her identify, and because it would make her giggle.

“Nancy,” I said. “I can’t buy you a vibrator. I’m your yoga teacher. I draw the line at sex toys.”

We laughed for five minutes, something I never did when I taught in the gym circuit. Now a recreational therapist, I served older adults in Washington Heights. But in my early 30s, I was buff and serious. Fresh out of yoga school, I traveled from Crunch to upscale residential buildings, trying to make my classes “transformational” using hip music and cool moves. Admittedly, my Type A pupils came to class feeling crappy; they left feeling less crappy.

“Transformation” happened to me. After hearing myself use a sexy, dis-embodied voice to talk about abs, glutes, and spiritual healing, my real self clawed her way to the surface: “Gurrrl, you’re depressed and injured. Why’s a nice Christian girl like you using that porn voice for Sun Salutes?”

I had lost my yoga, which was painful. No twisted half moons could bring me back to the glow I had come to rely on. No kirtans broke through my constant body aches and gray moods. If a Lululemon employee appeared too happy, I wanted to drop kick her life goals — or at least muss up the pants display.

The fast-paced yoga that once felt so good drained me like a toxin. Distraught, I found a therapist who helped me hash out new possibilities. As the only New Yorker in my family, I missed my Midwestern grandmas who lived 600 miles away in Indiana. Most of my friends were married with children, leaving no time for Girls Nights Out. Lonely, I liked chatting with my older neighbors, which was a clue to my therapist. “You like community and old people,” he said. “And isn’t that a blessing?” It was. Currently, more than 2.6 million New Yorkers are over 65. In 2040, that number will rise to 4.6 million, according to the New York State Office of Aging. If I geared myself toward an older population, I could sustain an enjoyable career.

I enrolled in grad school. After finishing with a Masters in Health Education, I got my full-time job in the senior center, where I served lunch, scheduled activities, and supervised the cardio room. I established a better yoga program, where essential props — like mats and straps — went missing less often.

I found most of my students couldn’t speak English, much less touch their toes. Some of them were Holocaust survivors. Others refused to remove their high heels and freely answered cell phones in the middle of demonstrations. “I’m in yoga, Arlene,” one shouted to her speaker phone, to my dismay. “Yoga. YOGA, ARLENE. Not yogurt.” One woman with Alzheimer’s frequently wandered into class looking for her book, which was about Alzheimer’s. When I coaxed her to stay through meditation, she said: “My brain feels good.”

After two years of working with older adults, my brain felt good too. Despite the inconvenience of working with aging neighbors — or because of it — I realized I worried about losing my vitality. Who was I if I couldn’t chataranga? Almost 40, I secretly feared getting sick, of fading away. But my students were already at that precipice. Outside of class, I ran into them in the library, the post office, and the bank. On New Year’s Eve, Nancy — before she broke her hip — bought me a mojito at the local bar. It was 3:30 p.m., and she wanted to drunk dial my mom, telling her how much she loved me on the last day of 2013. Here I was, sitting in a bar getting tipsy with savasana itself. It felt so natural. And not without humor.

My students didn’t need me to be transformational; they just wanted me to show up. And within my instruction, I had to face the heartbreak of loving people I would inevitably lose.

As for Nancy, she felt comfortable talking about sex. She also talked about death.

Once she arrived 20 minutes late to my half-hour chair yoga class. She loved the meditation part. When I rang my bell to end the quiet, she wanted to meditate again. “I’ve been to three funerals in one month,” she told me. “My friends are dying, and their funerals are all over me. Can you shake them off me?”

Not knowing what to do, I took a breath and brushed her coat sleeves. She grasped both of my hands in hers and held my gaze, which scared me and moved me to tears.

–Ann Votaw



  1. […] to YogaCity NYC for posting my blog about teaching yoga in a senior center, where we have a robust wellness and […]

  2. Tracy L Noble · · Reply

    Beautiful story….I feel the same way….I used to teach regular yoga for years. Then major back issues led me to chair yoga for older people. It is enough for me these days and I love them so much. I agree….the hardest part is when I lose them. Their chair sits empty but I don’t forget the things they taught me. Keep up the good work!

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