In the middle of a typical busy day at a senior living community, yoga class is a quiet oasis.
Instructor Mikah Horn gently guides a small group of residents, all seated, through a series of breaths and motions designed to help them relax deeply and mindfully.
“Inhale and reach up as far as you can,” she says, raising her arms above her head. “Then exhale and bring your hands to your heart.” Residents follow along, bringing palms together in the prayerlike “namaste” position.
Horn is leading chair yoga for independent living residents at The Vantage at City View, a senior living community operated by The Arbor Company in Fort Worth, Texas. It has proved a popular option for residents.
“Chair yoga basically modifies classic ‘mat yoga’ to allow students to get all of the benefits of yoga without risking their safety,” she explained. “Chair yoga teaches breath awareness, gentle movement and mindfulness techniques.”
Before the pandemic, Horn taught two classes each week in The Vantage’s independent living neighborhood, a weekly class in the assisted living section and daily classes in the memory care area. Recently, she was able to resume the program for independent living residents, with safety measures in place.
Everyone in attendance wears a mask and is seated 6 feet apart. (Horn trained another Arbor employee, Tonya Weaver, to continue leading classes for the memory care residents, as visiting instructors in that section of the community are currently limited for safety reasons.)
Resilience in isolation
Residents were eager to have the classes resume, Mikah noted.
“The community aspect of the yoga class is really important, especially during this time when seniors are feeling isolated,” she said. “Yoga is not only relaxing and enjoyable, it helps residents with symptom management for all sorts of health issues, including chronic pain, arthritis, diabetes and nerve damage.”
Horn has been teaching yoga to people of all ages for five years. She underwent additional training for her work with seniors, learning to adapt yoga poses for older adults. She has completed the American Council on Exercise (ACE) Senior Fitness certification, the Silver Age Yoga certification and all of the certifications offered through the Silver Sneakers program.
“There are particular motions that you learn to avoid when teaching seniors, but the basic elements still remain the same, which is the connection of breath to movement, the resting, the mindful breathing,” she said. “We avoid deep forward folds and deep twists, for example, because we want to be careful with residents’ spines, especially given that some may be affected by osteoporosis.”
When she teaches residents in memory care – all of whom are living with Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia – she focuses even more on the breathing.
“It really helps focus them and makes a difference,” she said. “If you can get them moving and breathing – it’s really amazing. They listen and stay engaged.”
Horn adds that yoga can aid residents in managing the stresses that have accompanied the changes necessitated by the pandemic.
“Yoga helps with resilience and helps you deal with stress, which is so important right now,” she said. “You learn to manage uncertainty in a more positive way. You can stay calm, empowered and healthy.”
Class starts with participants seated and with their eyes closed. Horn encourages them to focus on their breathing and starts with some deep, long breaths. Residents might try the “Buzzing Bee” exercise (bringing the lips together and humming while exhaling as slowly as possible) or alternate nostril breathing, where the resident closes one nostril, breathes in through the other, then closers the other nostril and breathes out through the other. Sometimes Horn will lead the class in a guided visualization, where participants envision a relaxing scene – an ocean or a fireplace, for example, and imagine it in vivid detail -- or a body scan, where the participant closes his or her eyes and slowly relaxes every single part of the body, starting from the top of the head and moving down to the toes.
Class ends with Horn bringing her hands together and extending a “namaste” to all present, with the residents responding in kind.
“Namaste a word that has a lot of different meanings, a little like ‘aloha,’” she said. “One meaning I share is, ‘The light in me honors the light in you.’ The residents love that.”
Participants tell Horn how much they enjoy each session and how they leave yoga classes feeling relaxed and carefree. That relaxation effect in turn helps reduce anxiety or depression and helps residents manage chronic pain and to sleep better at night.
While yoga also offers the benefits of stretching, participants need not attempt the “bendy” positions typically associated with yoga practice.
“The big benefit of yoga is its effect on your nervous system,” she said. “Yoga stimulates the parasympathetic system, putting your body in “rest-and-digest” mode. When you add the breath, the mindfulness, the meditation, that’s when you get the real magic.”
Residents say they’ve seen the benefits firsthand.
“Given that we are staying in all the time, I need exercise badly, but I have complications with my shoulder and neck,” Joyce McCown said. “I can’t do even light exercise without causing pain. But I can adapt to yoga and it does not hurt me to do it. [After class, I feel] better, and I think it even helps the limited movement I can do with my arm and shoulder — it helps the pain on that. It seems less.”
Janice Collins also leaves each class feeling relaxed.
“I like to stretch,” she said. “I like the association, the community. I like to go to class. I like being with people. That means something. And Mikah and I both love music and dancing. That's been my life since I was a little bitty girl. I feel like yoga and dancing go hand in hand, the grace of it.”
Said Betty Tennison: “I just enjoy the serenity and relaxation of yoga and the good feeling I have after.”
Those residents’ experiences are common, Horn says.
“Sometimes it takes some convincing to get people to show up the first time,” she said. “But once they try it, they’re hooked.”