It took just one collective inhale from the group of middle-aged men for Katie Scanlon to realize she wasn’t going to be able to stick to her original plan.
The yoga veteran was out of her element – and so were the men on the mats in front of her.
They moaned and groaned with every movement. They lost their balance just moving one foot forward or backward.
“They asked me to teach them yoga because they were feeling like they were getting stiff,” Scanlon said. “That might be an understatement.”
Three years ago, the group of about eight men in their 50s and 60s approached Scanlon at her Yoga Shala studio on the South Hill and asked her to teach them yoga to help them work on their strength and flexibility. She agreed, on the condition that they would come once a week for a whole year.
“I knew that if we only did it for six weeks, they wouldn’t really notice a benefit from it and then they would walk away from it thinking, ‘Oh, I tried yoga and it really wasn’t that great,’ ” Scanlon said.
They agreed to her terms, and three years later are still coming to class once a week. They’ve also expanded the group to include wives, girlfriends and others their own age looking for an alternative to yoga classes geared toward younger yogis.
“There’s so much of the yoga for the flexible 25-year-olds,” Scanlon said. “And that’s great, but for me this feels like it’s really making a big difference.”
They call themselves the Yoga Fogies – an upgrade, perhaps, from their original name: “old fat guys and their hot chicks.”
Yoga helped with age-related pain
Of Pat Lacy’s friends, many of whom he’s known from childhood or plays golf with regularly, everyone was dealing with some sort of health issue.
Back, knee and shoulder problems were the most common, he said, and several people told them yoga would help.
But the first few times he and a friend attended a class, they weren’t able to keep up.
“There was a wide variation of ability, and we were at the very bottom of ability,” he said.
That’s when they approached Scanlon about a private group just for older folks.
Lacy said the class has made all the difference in his health and has kept him “feeling young.”
“That’s what brought me here, was so that I could continue to enjoy the things I like so much,” Lacy said. “I think this more than anything has contributed to that.”
After taking a monthlong break from yoga last year, Lacy said, his back was “screaming.”
Scanlon said the early days were slow. She used several props, including the wall, chairs and blocks, to help the group with their balance.
“Slowly but surely, they each started to be able to do stuff,” she said. “And then at the same time the whole ability of the whole class started to change.”
The classes are challenging, partly because the room is set at about 85 degrees. Using the wall or any other modification is always an option, and no one is pressured into trying things that make them too uncomfortable. Most of the participants said they are otherwise active people, whether it be golf or skiing, and several of them walk together for an hour on Wednesdays. Their professions range from real estate to massage therapy.
When new people join the group, Scanlon said, they see their peers succeeding and tend to catch up to the rest of the group faster.
Pat Burke, who joined the class about a year ago, said he participates in triathlons and yet he still finds yoga challenging.
“I find myself sore after yoga,” he said. “It’s pretty intense. Much more intense than I thought.”
Lacy said it helps that each person is focused on their own growth.
“Because we all have restrictions at this age, I don’t think there’s any pressure to perform,” Lacy said. “It’s not a competitive thing.”
Other studios following suit
A yoga studio can be an intimidating place. There are unfamiliar rituals and terms – utkatasana, anyone? – and people everywhere who seem to know exactly what they’re doing.
That’s why studios like Scanlon’s are working to broaden their practice so there is a class for everyone.
“If you want to do yoga as some serious study, we have that here, but we just really want people to feel good in their bodies and know how to move their bodies correctly,” Scanlon said.
Other studios have jumped on the trend, including Harmony Yoga, run by 58-year-old owner Alison Rubin.
Harmony’s offerings include a restorative yoga class that also uses props and is perfect for someone who is older and doesn’t have any yoga experience, Rubin said. Steps up from there include a gentle yoga class and basic Yoga 1 class, for those who are more able-bodied but still want a slower pace.
For older adults, Rubin said, strength and flexibility are crucial.
“As you get older, you get tighter if you’re not stretching, or you get weak if you’re not working to strengthen your muscles,” she said. “Injuries can show up for bad habits you’ve been practicing your whole life.”
Rubin said she learned this in her own life and yoga experiences.
Through several health issues, Rubin said she was able to bounce back much faster as a result of yoga.
“At 58, I move pretty much like I did when I was 18 years old,” she said.
Scanlon said the Yoga Fogies have been spreading the word about yoga, both for men and older adults in general.
Yoga Shala is running a free introduction-to-yoga class for men next month.
Scanlon said the interest has been overwhelming, and there is a possibility for another regular class geared toward men or older adults.
The Yoga Fogies class has been as much a learning experience for her as for the group, she said.
Scanlon said they have taught her that change is possible at any point in life and it doesn’t have to be a six-day-a-week time commitment.
“The main thing they have taught me is how much you can benefit from doing a lot less,” she said. “And it’s still really valuable and really worthwhile.”