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Senior Speak Out

Senior Yoga students “teach” future doctors about the benefits of Yoga, movement and elder care. A Yoga teacher polls her class, and the answers may surprise you.

Every year, I am asked to talk to first-year medical students at the Mt. Sinai Medical Center in New York City about Yoga. This year, I asked the attendees of my senior Yoga class at the hospital if they had any messages they wanted me to relay to the doctors of tomorrow. The students’ answers were insightful and wise. Some were specifically about yoga for seniors and other activities, but others included broader suggestions, though most were still grounded in what they had learned about their bodies through movement. One 81-year-old woman literally wanted to be seen. She said, “Before prescribing a hundred pills, the doctor should look at the patient, see how they walk and move their weight. They should look at the whole person.” The seniors also want doctors to be sensitive to their situation. “Doctors should imagine what it would be like if they were older and couldn’t do certain things. It makes people feel inadequate,” said C., another student. “It can be frightening to see the doctor because something could be wrong with you, so they should do everything they can to make people feel comfortable,” noted one 83-year-old man. Not surprisingly, since the class focuses on balance, many spoke of the benefits of Yoga for seniors and exercise in general. “Balance is the most important thing because you can’t do anything if you can’t balance,” said C. N. who is 88, said, “I can get up from a chair without using my arms because of what I learned here. Changing directions is important.” (Students learn to make abrupt changes of directions so they can get out of the path of a speeding bus or car when they are crossing the street.) Though my students are supposedly retired, many suffer from stress, anxiety and insomnia. Said J., 67: “Relaxing and calming the mind reduces stress and anxiety and helped my blood pressure go down.” Her thyroid function also improved after beginning Yoga. They all enjoyed the health benefits of Yoga for seniors, but J.M., 78 noted, “Yoga is very useful especially in rehabilitation therapy.” E., 83, added that the Yogic breathing and meditation kept the mind, body and soul in harmony. “Yoga gives us the energy to do most of the things we try to achieve,” he said. “Yoga helps movement, walking, general flexibility and circulation.” The students in my Yoga class urged the future doctors to encourage people to be physically active. “People need to know they can still do Yoga and Tai Chi, but at another pace,” many said. M., 67, urged doctors to encourage people to take up physical activity if they don’t already do it. “Teach them the right way to do it,” added another student. C.’s advice was simple: “Keep walking.” All the students enjoy the spiritual aspects of Yoga, which they describe as:
  • peace
  • meditation
  • self-love
  • a positive feeling about self and what you’re trying to achieve
  • self-awareness
When the medical students arrived for my class, I asked them if they wanted to hear the messages from my students. They did, and listened attentively to the seniors’ words. After experiencing the class, one med student said, “Everyone should do this every day. I would like to drop one lecture a day and do this instead.” Deborah Quilter is the Director of Yoga at the Martha Stewart Center for Living at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York City. She also teaches at H&D Physical Therapy in Manhattan, and presents regularly at the International Yoga Therapy Conference and the Rocky Mountain Institute of Yoga and Ayurveda. She is working on a book about balance, and can be reached through her website,