Teaching the Forgotten

I teach yoga in a nursing home, or what is better known now as an assisted living/long-term care facility. Regardless, when you walk in as a chair yoga teacher, you feel both blessed and overwhelmed by the opportunity to help, because it is place where people are truly in need.

There are many elderly in need. The US population is aging and people are living longer in bad shape. According to a recent NY Times story , the number of older Americans who fall and suffer serious, even fatal, injuries is soaring. Along with poor health, entering a facility often coincides with the loss of one’s home and status, and for many, the loss of loved ones.

It’s not a happy story, however there are several residents where I teach who fall into the sub-acute category, in other words, they are functioning well enough to follow directions and derive benefit.

One of the residents who attends my class wears a bib and doesn’t move very much, but his eyes light up from time to time, and when I encourage him, he responds. Most are elderly women, over 75, in wheelchairs. Most say little. Most look very tired. One who uses a walker, J, is fighting hard, lines of pain and determination streak her face. She says that I work them hard and she always thanks me. Another woman complains: “I don’t like yoga” but she likes to wear the Chinese jump ropes around her neck instead of using it stretch her arms.

This is my yoga. The studio classes, private sessions, and kids’ classes give me a lot, but teaching chair yoga at Alaris Health in Jersey City, NJ feeds me on a different level. For starters, I am fortunate to live close by, so I feel a connection to the place by virtue of living in the neighborhood, but it goes deeper than that. I should preface this by saying that I am not a particularly religious person, but each Tuesday morning when I walk over there, slowly because I can, I feel as though I am walking toward God. I don’t have a definition of God, so it’s a feeling that is ultimately mysterious, but teaching itself has always felt like a spiritual act, and in the nursing home is where I experience it most directly.

I am the product of older parents, and at some level even when I was young, I was aware of it, that and the fact they would age faster than I wanted them to. There was also a generational gap between us that was difficult to bridge at times, as well as a sense that they were more settled in their own worlds than in mine or brother’s worlds. But now as an adult in her 40’s, I feel lucky to have had older parents. It gave me a pragmatism and sensitivity that I have been able channel into my work, all of my work, but especially this kind: I kind of get old people because I feel old myself.

What do we do together? We breathe. We stretch from head to toe… We salute the sun. We frequently “return” to sitting Mountain pose. I play George Winston or Mozart in the background. One of the men told me the other day he likes the Mozart I play because it’s the same as the music in Bugs Bunny show. I give them really good citrus smelling lotion to put on their hands and we massage our hands. We punch the air. We breathe. And we end with savasana.

I find that the more I get to know them, the more I am comfortable abandoning the plan and just going with what I feel they really need… Mostly heart-openers. I watch their chests rising and their eyes opening a little wider, so we lift our arms many, many times. I know that they don’t have as much privacy as they would like, so next week I will do a guided meditation.

It’s simple in its way. It’s also frustrating. I would like to work there three times a week – the mental/emotional benefits of chair yoga are lasting when practiced more frequently, and the physical ones are essential for good circulation and balance, particularly for those using walkers.

And it’s hard. Already one resident who was coming regularly hasn’t been there in a few weeks. I asked a few of the residents where she was and didn’t get a straight answer. I haven’t yet asked the staff because I’m not ready to.

–Kathleen Kraft



  1. This is a really lovely reflection on how what you give is reflected back to you. I am a companion to an elderly woman, and we do a bit of yoga as she stretches on her bed. I am going to incorporate some of your ideas into our short routine. “We punch the air. We breathe. And we end with Savasana.” That’s life in a nutshell.

  2. Thanks for your lovely comment. Keep up your good work and your cool website. Mine is kathleenyoga.com. Cheers.

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