In Praise of Older Yoga Teachers

This entry was posted on Dec 18, 2013 by Charlotte Bell.

Why Older Yoga Teachers Have a Lot to Offer—If You Take the Time to See It

Truth be told, this post has been brewing in me for a while. But today when author and yoga blogger extraordinaire Carol Horton posted this blog on Facebook, I finally decided it was time. (Please note that Carol didn’t write this blog; she found it and posted it for discussion.)

Let me start with this disclaimer: I am an older yoga teacher. I’m 58 years old and have been teaching for 27 years. So you may choose to filter this blog through the lens that it is self serving of me to opine about this issue. But I will add this to that filter: Even when I was first starting out in my 20s, I recognized the difference between a young, newly minted yoga teacher and an older, more integrated teacher and always gravitated toward the latter. I’ve always craved the depth that comes from experience. Deep roots—the unseen foundation that has integrated so fully as to seem like nothing—have always attracted me far more than a showy exterior.

The blog Carol posted posed this question: Should a yoga studio pay an older, experienced teacher more than a younger teacher with much less experience even though the younger teacher may pull in many more students? After some discussion, the blog came to this conclusion:

“… if your community members are telling you, with a five-to-one ratio, that a particular ‘newbie’ teacher, regardless of his or her experience and education, is impacting their lives on a level that far exceeds your more experienced staff, maybe it’s time to listen. After all, aren’t we here to serve the needs of our students, in the end? If the wisdom, experience and depth of your senior teacher truly has value, it will show itself in the form of impact, both in numbers and depth of transformation. Money goes to talent and motivation. Always has. Always will.”

This conclusion overly simplifies the issue. Money, in fact, doesn’t always go to talent. In Western culture, we value youth, beauty and charisma. We value these qualities because they are easy to see at a glance. We don’t have to invest a lot of time and energy into seeing the value of externally manifested qualities such as these. They are immediately apparent, and are in fact, quite attractive.

Depth, wisdom and experience are more subtle. Seeing and appreciating these qualities require a bit more focus, commitment and experience. Depth, wisdom and experience do shine through for those willing to look deeply themselves, but they are not as sexy or as immediately attractive as youth, beauty and charisma.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with youth, beauty and charisma in a yoga teacher. It’s just that there are many qualities that can come together to make a great yoga teacher, and sometimes digging a little deeper to unearth what’s underneath the surface can be rewarding in ways we can’t imagine.

The above-referenced article points out that older teachers are often burned out, not as enthusiastic as newbie teachers. Actually, I don’t think this is true. My observation is that our passion for yoga is simply more integrated. It’s true that we may not be visibly alight with religious zeal over our newfound love of yoga practice. Instead, we have a deep, abiding friendship with our practice that has weathered the inevitable highs, lows and plateaus of any long-term relationship. We understand that yoga—as well as life—is not always sweetness and light. The journey inward is fraught with humbling, sometimes anguishing, obstacles and unanswerable questions. Our practice has been both the light that shone on these obstacles and the lifeboat we’ve clung to for ballast through the most frightening waves. We are much less likely to tell the public what they want to hear, that when you practice yoga it’s all good. But we love our practice precisely because it has given us the opportunity to shine a light on what’s not working in our lives, which gives us the opportunity to make sometimes difficult, but freeing, choices. Our practice glows on the inside.

There is room for many kinds of teachers. Inexperienced teachers have to start somewhere, and I have seen a few new teachers that were competent and wise right out of the chute. I wasn’t one of them. I’m grateful for the students who put up with my religious zeal and naivete in the early years of my teaching. I wore my enthusiasm on my sleeve, and I’m sure that my younger, bendier,  brunette self made for a more immediately attractive package. But one thing I know for certain is that I can’t go back. Nor would I want to. While my attendance numbers are not impressive by today’s standards, every time I sit in front of a class—every time—I feel infinitely grateful for the wise, experienced beings who commit a couple hours each week to yoga and to each other.

About Charlotte Bell
Charlotte Bell discovered yoga in 1982 and began teaching in 1986. Charlotte is the author of Mindful Yoga, Mindful Life: A Guide for Everyday Practice and Yoga for Meditators, both published by Rodmell Press. Her third book is titled Hip-Healthy Asana: The Yoga Practitioner’s Guide to Protecting the Hips and Avoiding SI Joint Pain (Shambhala Publications). She writes a monthly column for CATALYST Magazine and serves as editor for Yoga U Online. Charlotte is a founding board member for GreenTREE Yoga, a non-profit that brings yoga to underserved populations. A lifelong musician, Charlotte plays oboe and English horn in the Salt Lake Symphony and folk sextet Red Rock Rondo, whose DVD won two Emmy awards in 2010.

14 responses to “In Praise of Older Yoga Teachers”

  1. Avatar Danny(MS.) says:

    I tried different yoga classes when I was younger and never felt quite bendy enough. I finally found my niche with yoga and became a certified TriYoga teacher right before my 65th birthday. Yoga is a wonderful part of my life and I teach a mat class as well as a chair yoga class for those who can’t get off and on the mat. I treasure my meditations, breath work and Asanas!

  2. Avatar Suza Francina says:

    Another Pulitzer Prize winning essay from the insightful pen of Charlotte Bell!

    Thank you so much for expressing so beautifully what I also feel after teaching forty five years.

    • Avatar Charlotte Bell says:

      Thanks so much, Suza, Nancy and Danny, for your kind words. And deep bows for the gifts you all offer. I’m honored to find community among the wise men/women of yoga. Thank you for all you do.

  3. Avatar Nancy Long says:

    Beautifully said! I’ve been practicing Yoga for over 40 years, teaching 20 and I never tire of the deep exchange that occurs among students and teacher in classes. I am honored and blessed to share these ancient teachings.

  4. Avatar Suza Francina says:

    This especially resonates with me:

    “We understand that yoga—as well as life—is not always sweetness and light. The journey inward is fraught with humbling, sometimes anguishing, obstacles and unanswerable questions. Our practice has been both the light that shone on these obstacles and the lifeboat we’ve clung to for ballast through the most frightening waves. We are much less likely to tell the public what they want to hear, that when you practice yoga it’s all good. But we love our practice precisely because it has given us the opportunity to shine a light on what’s not working in our lives, which gives us the opportunity to make sometimes difficult, but freeing, choices.”

  5. Avatar Maria says:

    Thank you for this, Charlotte! But even though I’m one of those “older” teachers myself, I believe that it’s really about the length, depth and breadth of the teacher’s practice, study and experience, not their age.
    Sure, there are lots of young, talented, newly-minted teachers out there, but even the best among them are “diamonds in the rough.”
    However, I know several stellar “young” teachers that have been teaching and practicing for 10+ years. All of them were wise beyond their years even when first I met them. But years of teaching have honed their skills; years of practice and living their yoga have cut and polished them into sparkling gems. They are the hope and future of Yoga; relevant and youthful enough to have much more “impact” (ahem!) on the next generation of students than us “old-timers” (cough…choke!)
    As the current harder, faster, hotter “Asana Workout” trend fades (and it will), they will shine bright, guiding students back to Yoga.

    Kali Ray, Jennifer, Rachel xoxo

    • Avatar Charlotte Bell says:

      Hi Maria,

      Thanks for your comments. What you say is very true. I do think that the range of life experiences we have lived through as we get older creates a depth that is hard to imagine when we are younger. (I just attended my high school reunion last summer. I so enjoyed the fact that no one was trying to impress anyone. It was such a contrast from my 10th reunion, when we were still all so much more cocky.) But teaching experience, practice experience and willingness to go deep enough to be uncomfortable are all factors as well.

  6. Avatar Shoosh Lettick Crotzer says:

    Charlotte: I hope we, the older yoga teachers, are not the only ones reading your insightful column! Of course we have more life experience, more experience with our yoga and our teaching, but often the attraction of the day is youth. Youth is how and to whom yoga is marketed these days. But, those youthful classes can be the doorway that excites students to eventually see what else yoga can offer them, and at that point, they might see the value in our type of classes. Give them time. Meanwhile, we older teachers can see the lack of wisdom in Carol’s blog that only comes from youth! Maybe we should suggest to Carol that classes taught by older teachers should cost MORE, if she is only thinking about profit. That would balance it out, and the higher fee might also tell some students that there is higher value? Well, at least WE know we are worth it and so do our students…

    • Avatar Charlotte Bell says:

      Shoosh, thank you so much for your comments. I agree that over time, some of the people who are currently practicing workout yoga will want to look deeper. There will be some who stick with it. You are also right that the exercise yoga classes are a gateway. I didn’t start out with meditation either. I started with physical practice–a physical practice that is much different from what I do now.

      I do want to clarify that Carol didn’t write the blog that I referenced. She found it somewhere and posted it on Facebook for discussion. She is completely on board with what you and I are saying.

  7. Avatar jane fryer says:

    Thank you Charlotte, I have been itching to contribute to this conversation. But, from a bit of a different slant. What if we started to teach classes for those over 60, who can get off the mat and don’t need a chair? As I approach my 65th birthday this Summer, am questioning why this option is not available. And, since studios will not make a profit, of course it won’t happen in that venue. But, what about retreats? i, for one, would love to attend/lead a retreat that is opening the field for this practice. Who are we now? what draws us? where are we passionate in our choices? where do we feel somewhat done or even dead?

    With respect and smiles,

    • Avatar Charlotte Bell says:

      Hi Jane,

      Thanks for your comment. There are many more people over 60 who can practice without chairs than there are people who need chairs. I taught a class through OSHER, a continuing ed program geared toward people over 50, for a while. There were people in their 80s in that class who did just fine. Out of 20 people, most of whom were over 65, none of them needed to use a chair. Your idea for a retreat sounds wonderful. Bringing in questions about life at 60, and the filters our culture lays on top of aging in general, is a great idea. You should do it!

  8. Avatar Jody Meese says:

    Hello Charlotte, my longtime (on and off ) teacher Tony Briggs posted a link to this blog post with the following comment: “Here’s an interesting article about older yoga teachers, or really about anybody living a while on this planet.” I am so warmed by your wisdom and impressed with your beautiful writing! Bruce and I were in classes with you in Eliot Hall oh so many years ago, and still in touch with Cita (with whom I had dinner in Santa Fe last July). As a nonprofit preschool director, I am the oldest person on campus every single day and have begun to notice more than just a touch of ageism in my dealings with the parents on the Board. This is a good reminder to have confidence in the value of my 20-plus years of experience! Thank you for this.

    • Avatar Charlotte Bell says:

      Hi Jody,

      Wow! So nice to hear from you. I’ve thought about you and Bruce throughout the years and wondered how you were doing. Are you still flauting? Thank you so much for your kind words. It’s hard for me to believe that yoga of all things has fallen into the Western ageism trap, but it definitely has. Of course, Yoga itself hasn’t fallen into the trap, but yoga culture certainly has, and it’s true that ageism reaches into all corners of our lives.

      On another note, I went back to playing my oboe about 20 years ago and have been playing oboe and EH in the Salt Lake Symphony since 1996. It’s such a joy!

      Thanks again for your comments. Greetings to Bruce.

  9. Avatar Austeja Pozeraite says:

    Very Nice Post!

    Actually, Our bodies are full of natural imbalances and the aim of Yoga is to balance the body and the mind.
    Thanks for sharing.

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