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,


p. 311)


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).



Services Provided


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





Service Providers


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


Movement Analysis.


            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


friendship…vital to an older person’s well-being.” (Hooyman, Kiyak, 2008, p. 293).


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)

Balance                                                                30

Posture                                                                 27

Strengthening                                                       27

Flexibility                                                             27

Musculo-skeletal                                                  26

Stress reduction/relaxation                                   24

Joint problems                                                      20

Arthritis                                                                13

Osteoporosis                                                          8

Insomnia                                                                6

Heart condition                                                      4

Chronic Fatigue                                                     3

Lung condition                                                      2

MS                                                                         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 .


According to Evjenth and Hamburg, “Today one in patient in four seeking


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


and breath.


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.



Active Aging


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


tragic ones.



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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C , 2007, Joanne “Rocky” Delaplaine