Unity Woods Promotes Active Aging With Yoga
Unity Woods Yoga Center is a regional yoga center providing quality yoga
instruction to local residents. It is part of a larger social movement that has challenged
the “disease” model of Western allopathic medicine and advocated for a “wellness “
model. Along with other “integrative,” (Birkel, 1998, p. 23), mind-body, or wellness
therapies such as Tai Chi, Authentic Movement, Chi Gong, expressive dance, Alexander
Technique, Feldenkrais movement, acupuncture, acupressure and massage, yoga helps
older adults enhance their quality of life by improving posture, balance, strength, and
flexibility, reducing stress, relieving pain, and quieting the mind. Yoga encourages older
adults to take an active role in their own well-being, and ultimately, to face death with
grace and equanimity.
Historical Background and Theoretical Underpinnings
For thousands of years, yoga has helped individuals improve their health. Yoga is
a philosophical system and practical training that promotes physical, mental, and spiritual
awareness, with social benefits accruing to the family and society at large. Active aging,
as defined by the World Health Organization is “the process of optimizing opportunities
for health, participation and security in order to enhance quality of life as people age.”
(Hooyman, Kiyak, 2008, p. 7) Active aging is not the goal of yoga, The goal of yoga is to
quiet the mind and achieve a state called samadhi or self-realization, but optimizing
health one of the is one of many benefits of a regular yoga practice.
Individuals of all ages who care about their health and peace of mind are drawn to
the practice of yoga. Because yoga poses are done slowly, don’t put harmful pressure on
the joints, focus on physical alignment and steadying the movement of the breath, yoga
can be started at any age and is well suited to an older population.
Modern gerontological theories help us “develop interpretive frameworks or
lenses, based on our experiences, by which we attempt to explain the aging process.”
(Hooyman, Kiyak, 2008). Role theory, disengagement theory, and gerotranscendence
theory are three modern theories that share common ground with yoga philosophy
regarding the life stages of an individual.
Role theory states that “individuals play a variety of social roles across the life
course,” and form “the basis of self-concept and identity,” (Hooyman, Kiyak, 2008,
p. 307). As far back as “the middle of the first millenium BCE,” (Feurstein, 1996, pp.
18) Indian authorities encouraged a system of four successive life stages that would
minimize social disruption -- “the student, the householder, the forest dweller (in late
maturity), and the freely wandering ascetic (in old age.)” (Fuerstein, 1996, pp.18-19).
According to this ancient Indian social model, older persons (men, for the most part)
were freed from familial and other social obligations to pursue a life of yogic
This accords with disengagement theory, which views “old age as a separate
period of life, not as an extension of middle age,” (Hooyman, Kiyak, 2008, p. 310) and
gerotranscendance theory, in which there is “a shift away from activity, materialism,
and preoccuptation with the physical body,” and a “connection with the cosmic world
expressed as wisdom, spirituality and one’s ‘inner world’.” (Hooyman, Kiyak, 2008,
In ancient India, yoga techniques and philosophy were passed down from the
teacher (guru) to the disciple (sisya) on a one-to one basis in the home of the guru. In
modern times, this has changed. Most Western yoga classes are public. Students pay a set
fee to attend classes, and classes can hold up to 50 students. Living yoga master B.K.S.
Iyengar who is largely responsible for popularizing Hatha yoga in the West and training a
large number of U.S. teachers, has held classes with 600 or more students.
B.K.S. Iyengar was schooled by his guru, Shri T. Krishnamacharya, of Mysore,
India, in the 8-limbed (ashta-anga) system of Classical Yoga as expounded by Patanjali
(second century A.D.), author of the Yoga Sutras. Patanjali is credited with synthesizing
extant yoga philosophy into 196 short aphorisms or sutras, and with expounding the
eight practices that encompass classical yoga. These include: moral observance (yama),
self-discipline (niyama), posture (asana), breath control (pranayama), sense withdrawl
(pratyahara), concentration (dharana), meditation (dhyana) and self-realization
Although posture (asana) and breath control (pranayama) constitute only two
limbs of Patanjali’s eight-fold yoga system, they are the main focus of yoga classes
taught in the United States. In his book The Tree of Yoga, B.K.S. Iyengar states, “The
original idea of yoga is freedom and beatitude, and the by-products which come by the
way, including physical health, are secondary for the practitioner.” (Iyengar, 1989, p.
Mr. Iyengar published is first book, Light on Yoga in 1966. This book gave
detailed instruction on how to practice yoga postures and persuaded many Westerners to
take up the practice of yoga. It also includes a now classic introduction to yoga
Unity Woods Yoga Center director John Schumacher was born in 1945, at
the beginning of the baby boom. Schumacher was a young adult in the 1960’s, as yoga
was becoming more popular in the U.S. He read and taught himself from, Light On
Yoga, studied at retreats, classes or events with Swami Satchidananda,
Vishnudevananda, and Joel Kramer. He began teaching to the public and opened
Unity Woods Yoga Center in 1979. He became a student of B.K.S. Iyengar in 1981.
Twenty-seven years later, Unity Woods Yoga Center holds classes in
four locations in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan community with headquarters in
Bethesda, Maryland. Its mission is to, “improve health, foster serenity and expand aware
ness.” (Schumacher, 2007, p. 1). Its purpose, is “to offer yoga to
as extensive an audience as possible by providing uncompromising quality yoga
instruction. All classes teach the Iyengar method, based on the teachings of B.K.S
Iyengar. This rigorous approach emphasizes a balance between strength and flexibility,
builds endurance and develops Self-awareness through precision in movement and
attention to the subtleties of body, breath, mind and spirit.” (Schumacher, 2007 p.1).
Unity Woods offers yoga classes in posture (asana) and breath control
(pranayama). Students must study yoga postures for a full year before they can
study breath control. This is in accord with the dictates of B.K.S. Iyengar who instructs
that the body and mind must be cultivated first with the discipline of yogic postures,
because pranayama demands more skill and attention and works with the more subtle
energy of the nervous system.
Unity Woods is a for-profit yoga center that offers weekly classes to 1800
students. Class sessions are taught on a quarterly basis, with classes running
approximately 47 weeks per year. Out of 1800 students, 220, or slightly over 1/9th of the
student body, are over the age of 65. Unity Woods classes are not age segregated. There
are students over 65 in all levels of general classes. There is one class weekly at the
Bethesda location called “Seniors.” In addition, there are three classes weekly
called “Gentle” and one class weekly called “Back Care” that draw a more senior
Students pay for the yoga classes, class fees are $18/class for a one and a half
hour class and $16/class for an hour-long class. Students pay on a quarterly basis and
quarterly sessions vary from 9 weeks in the summer to 11 or 12 weeks in fall, winter and
spring. A ten per cent discount is offered to students 65 and older. There are scholarships
and work-exchanges available for those who can’t afford the tuition, and students may
pay the tuition in installments.
No student has ever been turned away due to lack of tuition. The number of
scholarships vary by semester depending on demand.
In addition to weekly classes, Unity Woods offers special workshops with
teachers from around the world, as well as workshops on special topics taught by local
teachers, some of which appeal to seniors, such as, “Yoga From A Chair,”
“Restorative Yoga,” and “Yoga For Depression.”
Director John Schumacher, also offers free discussion groups to students and
their family members. “Yoga and Aging” was a recent theme of one of those
Teachers who teach at Unity Woods undergo rigorous training in the Iyengar
method. Teachers in training are expected to maintain a minimum daily yoga practice of
one hour or more in duration in addition to their teaching load, and apprentice with a
senior Iyengar-certified teacher for many years. Before applying for the certification test,
these candidates must teach public classes for a minimum of three years.
The three-day certification test and credential are given by senior-level teachers
who sit on a the certifying committee of the national Iyengar Association. (IYNAUS).
This test includes knowledge of asana, yoga philosophy, and therapeutic applications,
and has a written component as well as a requirement to teach students in front of the
committee. Many of these candidates have been to India to study with Mr. Iyengar who,
while formally retired at age 89 is still practicing yoga vigorously on a daily basis, and
assists his daughter, Gita Iyenger and son, Prashant Iyengar informally as they teach
public and medical classes at the Ramamani Iyengar Institute in Pune, India.
Teachers at Unity Woods come from varied backgrounds and include or
have included a licensed physical therapist, and nurse. Other teachers have
completed graduate work and undergraduate work in exercise physiology, anatomy,
kinesiology, health education, occupational therapy, cardiac rehabilitation, special
education, applied linguistics, social work, philosophy, psychology and Laban
Unity Woods currently has 19 teachers. The director, John Schumacher, is in his
early sixties. Other teachers range in age from late 50s to late 20’s with the majority in
their 40s and 50s.
Although Unity Woods itself does not have faculty 65 and older, its guiding light,
Mr. Iyengar, is 89 years old, and a role model for active aging. He and his method have
always drawn students of all ages and several of first western pupils, such as the Italian
yoga teacher and author Vanda Scaravelli, who studied with Iyengar in the 1940’s and
1950’s taught up until her late eighties.
Since yoga puts a great emphasis on awareness, is an experiential practice and
is not primarily learned through the study of texts, its practitioners bring increased
experience to their teaching as they age. It is rare for a yoga teacher to retire, though a
few do. This may also be partly due to Indian cultural norms which honor elders. India
has a history of Indian gurus teaching throughout the duration of their life.
How Services are Organized to Meet the Needs of Older Adults
Classes at Unity Woods are offered during the day and on the weekends. Each of
the main studios is accessible by elevator and is wheelchair accessible, or accessible to
those who have impairments and or walking difficulties. In addition all locations are
situated near a Metro stop so students can use public transportation. Public parking is
available within one or two blocks of the studio.
The main studio is in Bethesda, located on the 16th floor of an office and
residential high-rise. Some older students have mentioned discomfort or fear of being on
the top floor of a tall building, and are concerned about the difficulty parking in a public
lot. More outreach could be done to reassure potential older students that the classes are
welcoming, and parking is surmountable.
One of the unstated benefits to older students of coming to a yoga class is
becoming part of a caring community. As Hooyman and Kiyak state, “with children
typically gone from the home and without daily contacts with co-workers, older people
may loose a critical context for social integration.” (Hooyman, Kiyak, 2008 p. 333).
Because yoga is an open-ended learning laboratory whose subject is vast and
never mastered, students tend to study over many years. This can lead to a sense of
community with other students in the class and ease feelings of loneliness. In addition,
the relationship between teacher and student is a foundational aspect of the learning
process. Traditionally, the teacher or guru is one who brings the student out of darkness
and towards the light. Though this is less true today, with large public classes, than it was
in ancient times, for many students, the bond with the teacher can provide support,
direction, and meaning. In a good teacher-–student relationship, trust and mutual care
develop and a yoga teacher may provide hope and good role modeling. Teachers coach
their students with their voice, tell jokes and stories, demonstrate poses and correct
students with the use of touch. Touch can be a form of appropriate intimacy, “defined as
the freedom to respond to and express human closeness—love , attachment, and
Some teachers organize social functions, i.e. trips to museums, a shared meal after
class, parties, informal classes. Unity Woods annually sponsors a softball game, picnic,
and end-of-year holiday party for students and their friends and families. These extra-
curricular social events help break down isolation and give students a sense of belonging
to a “family” not based on biology, work identity or shared living quarters.
Survey of Unity Woods Students
In preparing this paper I sent out a questionnaire to students at Unity Woods. Of
the 39 responses I received, the breakdown in age was as follows:
60-64- 4 students
65-69- 18 students
70-74- 7 students
75-79- 4 students
80-84- 6 students
85-89- 0 students
90+- 0 students
Years of Study
age 60-64: the minimum years of study was 2, maximum 12 years.
ags 65-69: the minimum years of study was 1 and 1/2 , maximum 13 years.
age 70-74: the minumum years of study was 9 months, maximum 14 years.
age 75-79: the minimum years of study was 5 years the maximum 20 years.
age 80-84: the minimum years of study was 2 years the maximum 10 years.
Improvement Attributed to Yoga
I asked students if they’d improved in any of the following areas and how they measured their improvement. Most said their measurement was subjective, they judged by how they felt. Self-reported improvement was as follows:
In the following areas have you: Improved (39 responses total)
Stress reduction/relaxation 24
Joint problems 20
Heart condition 4
Chronic Fatigue 3
Lung condition 2
Others: Pain management 1
Interpretation of Data
This in no way represents a longitudinal study. Since there was no testing prior to
beginning yoga, the data showing areas of improvement only reveal subjective
experience. Students who respond to a survey would likely be students whom yoga has
helped, and it’s possible that other activities besides or in addition to yoga contributed to
these improvements. Nonetheless, the areas where students do report improvement
strongly suggest improved quality of life. “Active aging is consistent with the growing
emphasis on autonomy and choice with aging, regardless of physical and mental decline,
and benefits both the individual and society. … a growing number of studies support the
importance of active aging for physical, psychological, and social well-being in the later
years. (Hooyman, Kiyak, 2008, p. 7) This also supports changes I have observed in my
own students in the course of teaching at Unity Woods over 16 years.
How These Services Help Seniors
The Iyengar method of hatha yoga places a very high emphasis on the physical
alignment of the skeleton and muscles in yoga postures. Musculo-skeletal aches and
pains brought me and many students to their first Unity Woods yoga class. Pain relief
and other improvements mentioned above keep them returning .
medical aid does so solely with a locomotor system complaint. Many of the remaining
three quarters of all patients seeking medical aid primarily for other reasons also
complain of stiffness, aches, and painful movement.” (Evjenth and Hamburg, 1996, p 4).
In addition to physical alignment, a regular yoga practice builds strength,
increases flexibility and circulation, and decreases stress through attention to the body
Standing poses strengthen the feet and legs, and can help with balance. “Some
components, such as balance, muscle strength in the lower legs and thighs and flexibility
have been associated with the prevention of falls.” (Birkel, 1998, p.23). Inverted poses
reverse the pull of gravity on the organs, and “increase circulation of blood and nutrients
to the brain.” (Alleger 2002). Twisting poses, bring massaging action or “soaking and
squeezing action” on the organs. Backbending poses stimulate the adrenal
glands. Forward bends pacify the brain. Working with the breath aids focus and fosters
relaxation. Many of my own students have reported diminishment of pain symptoms and
leaving class with a sense of accomplishment and lifted spirits.
Yoga cannot change chronological age but it does enhance functional aging. Yoga
philosophy does not deny the inevitable death of the physical body (although some of its
practitioners continue to send out an anti-aging message.) Yoga when practiced regularly,
maximizes function in the various systems of the body: cardiovascular, pulmonary
hormonal/endocrine, digestive, excretory, as well as the ones already mentioned,
musculo-skeletal, joints of the body, and nervous system. Yoga philosophy teaches that
the body is temporary but the self is eternal, therefore one should cultivate non-
attachment to the physical body. This philosophy helps individuals loosen their
identification with the physical body as it ages naturally and declines. This is one of
yoga’s great and often understated gifts to the older population, and anyone suffering
from pain or chronic debilitating illness. If the death of the body is seen as inevitable, and
the body is seen as a temporary home or temple for the self which is eternal, then one is
less apt to deny aging and death, and better equipped to see them as natural processes, not
Looking To the Future
Older citizens are the fastest growing percentage of the population. (Hooyman,
Kiyak, 2008, p. 5). For maximum benefit to this population, many more teachers (as well
as nurses, doctors, and other care providers) need to be trained to meet the growing
need. According to Atul Gawande, “Despite a rapidly growing elderly population, the
number of certified geriatricians fell by a third between 1998 and 2004” and “incomes in
geriatrics and adult primary care are among the lowest in medicine.” (Gawande, 2007, p.
52). Doctors and nurses could be trained to utilize the complementary services of yoga
instructors and other mind-body practitioners. Ideally, yoga would be available in
hospitals, community-, recreation-, and senior- care centers. A massive public education
campaign would help make its benefits known to all. Yoga needs to be further
evaluated by the medical and scientific establishment.
Ideally, The United States would look more like China, whose older population
regularly practices Tai-chi in public. Federal, state and local jurisdictions could support
yoga classes and related health services to its older citizens. With a single-payer health
system, yoga could be reimbursed and available to all. In the short term, yoga classes
could be reimbursed via Medicaid and Medicare.
These are political and policy issues, and Unity Woods, and studios like Unity
Woods are not primarily concerned with policy and advocacy. Nonetheless, by doing
what they do best, teaching yoga (in the case of Unity Woods) they have helped shape
society for the better, by creating an environment that encourages active aging.
Not so long ago, yoga was seen as something weird, fringe, and for the select few.
It is now accepted as a viable tool for maintaining health and vitality throughout the
lifespan, and is seen as a complement and/or alternative to standard medical intervention.
Scientists doing research on brain function are verifying centuries-old yogic findings on
the nature of consciousness.
In his introduction to Light on Yoga Mr. Iyengar writes, “The yogi’s life is not
measured by the number of his days but by the number of his breaths.” (Iyengar,
1966, p. 43). In a rapidly changing world characterized by such instabilities as
global warming, geo-political upheavals, and human suffering on a world-wide scale,
Iyengar yoga classes at Unity Woods teach older students how to stretch and strengthen
their bodies; how to take a slow, steady breath to calm the minds; how to live ethically,
non-violently, and in harmony with others; and how stay focused in the present to better
face life, aging, and death with courage and dignity.
C , 2007, Joanne “Rocky” Delaplaine
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