One day, when I was around 55 years old, I decided to pop in and enjoy a morning class with the yoga teacher trainees in Heartwood’s 200-hour program. It was a beautiful winter day in Florida with the sun shining bright, the temperature a perfect 75, and a teacher who had had tipped me off that she intended to deliver a mindful, nature-oriented practice. The class was being held outside to take advantage of the gentle breeze, the blooming flowers, and the peaceful ambience of Heartwood in November. I set my mat up in the back thinking I might pause and take a picture or two for the group to enjoy later. This kind of class was just what I needed today, and what a treat it was going to be to be a student rather than the teacher for that hour.
I was truly enjoying myself, but halfway through the practice, the flow got a bit more dynamic than anticipated and I dropped into child’s pose to take a break. A thought ran through my mind. Wow, I’m certainly glad I took my yoga teacher training at 48, because this is hard. I would have a hard time getting through the demands of a 200 program if I tried getting certified today.
After the practice, as I was sitting in the garden with a cup of tea watching a few students practice teaching sun salutations on the lawn, I began considering my yoga journey and all I have done and continue to do to contribute to the world through yoga. For the first few years after gaining my certification, I taught classes, but soon after, I opened a studio. Within a few years I opened another, then another. I eventually founded Heartwood Yoga Institute and began training teachers and developing what today is a 7-acre yoga facility that offers a profound healing and educational experience for hundreds of people yearly. As my career evolved, my involvement in yoga found its own cadence and purpose and in the last 15 years I have trained literally thousands of yoga teachers at the 200-, 300- and 800-hour yoga therapy level with a continually evolving career that fills me with purpose, meaning, and a respectable income. I’ve touched the lives of many people, both the students I teach directly and the students I teach indirectly as my graduates move on to create yoga communities of their own. I’ve also worked as a yoga therapist and had the honor of impacting the lives of many, many individuals whom fate had the foresight to bring to Heartwood at just the right time for us both.
What a shame it would have been if I had avoided taking that step to formally gain a yoga certification at 48 because I didn’t want to be the “older student” in a course with mostly 30-somethings. What if I had listened to that voice that said I was too old to learn something new, and besides, what really am I going to do with yoga at this stage in life? Worse yet, what if I had waited until I was 54 to consider yoga training? At 48 I was still teaching dance and had energy, flexibility, and stamina. Little did I know what was to come just down the road, both physically and personally. I faced unexpected health challenges in my 50’s. I began having issues with arthritis, had both feet operated on, and was unprepared for the weight gain and other shifts that came with menopause. I had new personal challenges to maneuver, including a financial crash, a devastating divorce, my children leaving home, and the loss of beloved family members. Add a few more years to my maturing self and I had a massive heart attack to add to the mix. Could I have possibly gotten through a 200-hour yoga teacher training during that decade? Probably not! Did yoga help me accept and move through that decade with grace and positivity. Absolutely! How much harder life would have been without my deeper relationship with yoga, gained thanks to a yoga certification program.
I felt good from the practice, albeit slightly frustrated that I struggled a bit, and I sat there considering my yoga journey, thankful I had done my training when I did, but also realizing that had I avoided taking that step for whatever excuses I made up, it would have been a huge loss to the world. Had I not become a yoga teacher at the ripe old age of 48 (or if I had waited longer) dozens and dozens of people whose lives I have changed would be in a very different place, not the least of which includes my own. Heartwood would not exist, and frankly, many other studios would have failed to manifest since so many of my graduates were inspired by my teaching and as result, opened businesses and forged careers and made waves of their own in the world. In my very own “It’s a Wonderful Life” moment I took stock of the measurable ways my becoming a yoga teacher was central to my service to the world. I can say with absolute certainty that my involvement with yoga was the best decision I ever made, at any age, and my maturity has never held me back. In fact, I believe my age and coming to yoga at midlife made my reinvented career a richer experience.
It was in that moment, feeling my age, a little tired and sore from the yoga practice, but deeply aware of how important my yoga journey had been to both myself and others, that I decided Heartwood needed to offer a yoga teacher training for ages 50 and up. I imagined how many dynamic beautiful souls were out there with wisdom and compassion to share, who might miss the opportunity to embrace the role of yoga teacher due to perceived physical obstacles or doubt standing in the way. Yoga teacher training shouldn’t be a physical hurdle we must get past. It should be an inspirational, positive beginning of a lifetime love affair with a practice that makes life ever more poignant and meaningful. I knew in that moment Heartwood needed to create a special program for ages 50 and up that took into account some of the challenges YTT presents to those who are not in their prime physically.
I got to work with the Heartwood staff planning Heartwood’s first RYS-200 program geared to mature students and a few months later we offered our first YTT for ages 50+ to seven enthusiastic teacher trainees. In the 8 years since, Heartwood has hosted dozens of successful RYS-200 programs for ages 50 & up in both a weekly program for local students in a course that spans months, and in a 16-day immersion format for students that choose to join us from all over the country and beyond offered twice a year. I can honestly say that some of the strongest and most successful teachers we’ve trained have come from the 50 plus program, including some of our own staff members. The graduates are in their 50’s, 60’s, even 70 and beyond. Some are extremely fit and others successfully complete the program despite MS, Parkinson’s, Autoimmune issues, Injuries, or just the lack of confidence that comes when you haven’t been in school for decades.
People often ask how the yoga program for age 50 and up differs from the Heartwood traditional 200-hour yoga program where all ages participate. To be honest, the syllabus is the same. All yoga teachers, regardless of age, must learn philosophy, anatomy, alignment, methodology, and take a deep dive into the 8 limbs of yoga. Yoga Alliance defines what a teacher must know to prove competency, and considering I’m older myself, I’ll be darned if I’m going to dummy down the program as if age narrows a person’s capacity in the area of yoga. I’m proof it doesn’t! In fact, at Heartwood we have noticed mature students are often more apt to study, practice, and connect because they are less attached to the expectation or attachment to instant gratification that often is a result of being raised in our complex society today with social media, the quicker pace of everything, and what seems to be endless options making focus and commitment to any one thing harder than it once was.
Since most mature students choose to work with others in their age group, and the teachers too must learn to take care of their own bodies as time will inevitably stress their joints, ligaments and bones regardless of how in-shape they may be, we do spend a bit more time on modifications and contraindications to provide safe and effective practices for aging bodies. We skip aggressive practices such as Ashtanga that they are less likely to use when they begin teaching, and opt to add a bonus training of Chair and Assessable yoga to round out their skillset.
But the real difference between the 50 plus program and the traditional 200 program is mostly the community that joins together to study. People who have been on this earth a little longer have shared experiences and a certain wisdom that comes from surviving life’s ups and down. Most everyone in the program has experienced loss, be it a divorce, financial problem, career change or retirement. Most everyone struggles with the complexity of aging, reinventing themselves as time and circumstance forces life in a new direction. They all wrestle with the complexities of aging parents, family dynamics, children leaving home (or not leaving home), career shifts, dealing with spouses, ex-spouses, and personal trauma. They have witnessed friends or family members pass, become caregivers, dealt with disappointment, addiction, or abuse. They have experienced firsthand the health problems that come with age, be it a torn ligament or bursitis in the shoulder, cancer, heart attack, weight gain, or some other challenge. They know without question that nothing is permanent in this life, and yet they sign up for a yoga training because they want to keep growing as an individual and they believe in the promise of endless possibilities still.
All of this makes an older practitioner uniquely qualified to be a truly remarkable yoga teacher. The empathy that comes with having suffered from and survived life’s slings and arrows opens a person to the full potential of yoga. Most importantly, maturity helps a student keep in perspective the limits of the physical practice in the greater scheme, and ego or romantic notions of being hailed the next big instafamous yoga star takes a backseat to earnest personal development and skill building to share this knowledge with others.
Rarely does the 50 plus crowd care so much about mastering an advanced pose for their next social media post. They are less about documenting the yoga teacher training journey on Instagram and more about applying the teaching to their lives. As they grow stronger, physically, and mentally, they feel deeply inspired and called to help others gracefully maneuver through life’s challenges, the aging process, and shifts in the world. They see yoga not as a vehicle to make a killing in the wellness industry, but as a beautiful and powerful tool for acceptance, insight, and balance. And after years of sacrificing for others, mature students are ready to embrace their right to focus on themselves and to grow spiritually. And one of the greatest things I’ve witnessed in the 50 plus program is the support and acceptance the students show one another as lifetime friendships form, and the students support and empower one another to get past their obstacles and make the later chapters of life remarkable on so many levels.
These results can and should be found in any and all authentic yoga teacher training programs. But for some reasons, awareness and growth comes easier and with more lasting impact in a program where all the students share relatively the same energy, a bit of history, and a broader view of life gained from experience. The RYS-200 Yoga Teacher Training Program for ages 50 Plus at Heartwood is a good reminder that yoga is timeless, and so are we.
Ginny Shaddock is an ERYT-500 Yoga Teacher and IAYT Yoga Therapist and the founder of Heartwood Yoga Institute. Heartwood offers three RYS-200 Yoga Teacher Training Programs a year specifically for ages 50 plus; a 16 day immersion every fall and spring and a one day a week program for local students offered once a year starting in October.