For the past decade, yoga teacher Dianne Scott has focused on working with seniors, offering instruction that takes into account both the limitations of older bodies and their capacity for renewal. She spoke to Tricycle about the importance of meeting all students where each one is in the moment and about yoga’s potential to transform, empower, and unify.
As a dancer, Scott has performed professionally with Forces of Nature Dance Theatre, Kairaba West African Dance Company, and Ballet Bagata. For 31 years, she was a special education teacher at New York City public schools. She has been practicing yoga since 1995.
When did you first start practicing yoga? It’s a long beginning, I’ll tell you that much. I was a dancer. On my 42nd birthday, I wanted to do something celebratory other than a party. I had noticed a yoga studio in my neighborhood, and so instead of going to the Bubble Lounge with a friend who has the same birthday, I decided to take a yoga class. I didn’t know anything about yoga. My only reference was the Beatles going to India and meeting the Maharishi.
I liked it, in no small part because I was anonymous, which is quite different from dancing in an ensemble. My instructor was a very popular teacher with a vigorous yoga style. His class was not, in fact, the class to take if you were just starting out. One day—because yoga instructors tend to be transient—there was a young woman teaching us instead, and her approach was wonderfully gentle. I thought, Oh my goodness, is this yoga too? And I started to investigate different traditions.
Was this in New York City? Mostly. I would take trainings at Integral Yoga and the Open Center [in New York City], and at Kripalu [in Stockbridge, Massachusetts]—places that emphasize yoga’s spiritual component. At the time I was teaching kids with special needs in New York City public schools. I took a teacher training course called Yoga for the Special Child that was offered at Integral Yoga and started to incorporate yoga into my curriculum. I found that it helped the kids process things that were bothering them. Instead of immediately reacting to something, they would think about how it felt in their bodies and then respond, and the responses were more self-regulated and what we might think of as socially appropriate.
We did yoga every Friday, with some mindfulness exercises. And I realized that my kids were becoming more radiant. I said to myself, We are sending these radiant children home, and their parents are probably wondering what on earth is going on. But I had the support of the school, and after a while I had the parents’ support as well. Sometimes the principal or the teachers would participate—chairs and tables pushed back, mats laid out, and everyone breathing together.
That became my focus: developing my own yoga practice while taking trainings that would help me better help my kids.
How did you come to concentrate on working with older people? I retired at 57, with 31 years in the school system. Finally I had the free time to take all the classes I could never take before. But I was surprised there weren’t more people my age in these classes. I decided to start offering yoga to older students.
I had a friend whose mother wasn’t well. She had cancer. And my friend said, “I would love it if you would do yoga with my mom.” I met the mom and started driving out to Queens every Friday to work with her. She was in a book club, and pretty soon the book club ladies were doing yoga too.
I began to get more referrals, and I started senior yoga classes at studios in Boerum Hill, Clinton Hill, and Bedford–Stuyvesant in Brooklyn. Eventually I had little pockets of people around the city to whom I was giving classes or one-on-one lessons. And it was not unusual for students to go out for coffee together after class or to meet up for lunch every few weeks. After a while it becomes all about community.
Building community does seem to be a big part of your practice. I can only think that it comes from having immigrant parents. My parents came here from Trinidad and Tobago in the late 1940s. For them, as for many immigrants, community was vitally important. Growing up, I learned the importance of connecting with others, which for my parents was through music, dancing, and food.
Later, as part of the dance community, and then as a teacher, I’d initiate gatherings instinctively. I just love to see people together.
You also teach classes through the city’s teachers’ union, the United Federation of Teachers (UFT). Is that correct? I do. I was hired by the UFT—the same union I belonged to—to fill in for a teacher who was leaving. That was five years ago.
“People are more open than they think they are, if you can make them feel comfortable.”
Are your students largely retirees? Yes. They are also doing drama, taking writing classes, singing in choruses, and learning salsa. I thought, I’ve finally found my people. Every week I teach between 70 and 80 students over three days. I started with gentle yoga because I didn’t want to frighten anyone. Then I added a little meditation.
How do you approach that with people for whom elements of yogic practice like meditation or chanting might be unfamiliar and strange? When I was teaching children, I learned I had to build trust, because if they didn’t trust me, they weren’t going to listen to anything I said. I needed to cultivate a relationship with them, not just as a teacher but as someone who cared about them.
People are more open than they think they are, if you can make them feel comfortable. I was privately teaching a woman and asked her to think of a sound or a word that resonated with her to use as a mantra. I told her it could be OM, it could be AH. Or, I said, it could be a word from the Bible—Amen or Peace. And I could see a lightbulb go on in her mind.
What do you think you bring to the table when working with seniors? In part, my training as a dancer in body awareness. I can see when people are uncomfortable—sometimes even before they become aware of their discomfort.
But also, I have my three decades of teaching children with special needs and my ability to help others feel empowered.
I want everybody to be seen, heard, and most importantly, supported. Someone might start off in a chair, and I’ll say to them, Why don’t you try getting on a mat? There’s a room full of people here who will help you get back up.
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