Fenella Lindsell founded and developed Yoga Bugs, a successful children’s yoga franchise that had a memorable Dragons’ Den pitch in 2006, turning down multiple funding offers from the show. Today she runs a full class schedule in South West London and organises a number of retreats each year. Fenella is also doing some really interesting yoga work with the National Health Service, doctors and private consulting. We spoke with her specifically about her work teaching teens and older adults. You can connect with Fenella via her website Yoga Forever.
Could you give us a brief overview of your yoga work with teens and older adults?
I’ve been teaching yoga for about 26 years and my interest has developed around the different age groups as my life and family have grown. When my children were very small I really focused on teaching yoga to the little ones, which was Yoga Bugs through story style adventures. That was enormous fun, very creative and a lovely way of integrating children of all sorts of abilities. They didn’t need to be able to catch a ball or be very flexible because the lovely thing with yoga is that everybody can do something. It was a very special time in my life and I loved it.
As my children got bigger, my interest in their journey developed and so I moved much more towards the teenage group. That’s been a journey in itself because it’s a time of great anxiety, transition, self-awareness, body image and all of those things. It’s also a very healing practice because I find a lot of the parents come as well, and it’s quite hard to find an activity that a mother or a father can do with their children where there isn’t some great disparity. Yoga just brings them together and it’s rather a lovely experience.
I’ve realised how valuable yoga is at the other end of the spectrum through seeing my own family getting older so I teach around 60 older adults a week, and that has been an absolute joy because I’ve noticed how it brings them together as a community. Now they come very often twice a week because it’s a social activity and it helps them to feel better. It’s great for pain relief and I think it makes the whole ageing process a much more acceptable stage of life.
After seeing the opportunities through your own children growing up and your own parents getting older, how did you transition to rolling out classes for teenagers and older adults and how did you start teaching other people?
The Yoga Bugs grew up and their parents rather longingly looked back at how they loved yoga as children. They’d say, “If your girl comes I’ll bring my daughter or my son.” It’s primarily daughters, I think because boys get very wrapped up in team sports at school. It’s rather lovely because it feels like you planted a little seed when they’re younger. They do pick it up and they come to, “Oh, I remember the snake when I was doing Yoga Bugs!” I don’t tend to call it a snake so much when I’m doing an adult class! By default I invited them to the evening classes that I do, rather than going into schools myself, because I don’t have time in my schedule to do that.
I think it’s a real gift to give children around exam times, whether it’s 11+ or they’re doing 13+, GCSE’s, A-levels. The breathing and the relaxation are really pivotal in helping children to feel less anxious. I think girls internalise the anxiety of exams much, much more whereas boys seem to take them more in their stride. Giving them the ability to breathe and the ability to relax can be very helpful.
Teaching the older adults actually started a number of years ago when a local doctor’s practice that had received lottery funding invited me to teach their patients who were having real long term pain, so a lot of the arthritis and any sort of inflammatory conditions where movement was going to help them. I found it was a wonderful way of bringing them together.
I recently left that doctor’s practice after 15 years because we just don’t have the space. I’ve moved to larger premises just across the road so people can still come. My most magical story was eight years ago one of their patients came to me. She was a widow and her daughter encouraged her to come along, and she said to me she couldn’t get out off the floor. At age 88 now she comes twice a week absolutely without fail unless she’s unwell or travelling, and she’s a legend! She has her spot that she takes every week, twice a week and we all respect and adore her for her incredible, tenacious ability to do what she does.
What’s your advice to any yoga teachers who are perhaps recently qualified or even newly qualified and looking to develop classes in the older adult space?
I remember that I had already been teaching for around 14 to 15 years and I was still incredibly nervous. I was really scared and I thought, “What happens if I don’t know what this illness is? What happens if they have some great long name, and I’ve actually never heard of it?”. I felt I couldn’t say, “Can you tell me what that is?” because that sounds really ignorant.
Then I thought, actually, they know their bodies a huge amount better than I do. So I empower them to make the decision as to whether something feels appropriate and really, really underline that yoga is non-competitive – if they feel tired, if something hurts, then stop and rest and either close their eyes and visualise what we’re doing or simply observe and look at what people are doing and understand the dynamics.
I’m a massive believer in demonstrating, and I adjust a lot. I think a lot of new teachers are very frightened of adjusting – it doesn’t have to be an aggressive adjustment. It can be a gentle touch, a hand on the shoulder, a gentle, soft movement across the ribcage to show which way you’re rotating.
It’s encouraging your own conviction and knowing that you have had a very good training and the way you might not know the intricacies of some of the issues that you’re dealing with, but you can empower people to do what they feel comfortable with and not be too ambitious. Keep it simple and recognise that a lot of older adults really struggle with their lefts and rights. I’ve got some people who are really quite dysbraxic. Put yourself next to them, be right beside them, help them and take away the anxiety.
A yoga class isn’t going to help anyone if they’re really anxious about whether their left foot is forward or their right foot is forward. I think it’s the way you communicate with warmth and compassion and understanding and giving people time and remembering their names. Those are possibly some of the best ingredients.
There’s something very special about recognising what these people bring to you as well, because so much of our lives doesn’t involve older people so if you can help them to feel special in their space with you, I think that’s a very important gift.
What are you most excited about in terms of where this area of your practice and teaching is developing and where you see it going?
I really love the fact that the Duke of Edinburgh scheme, which is very popular across the age spectrum of secondary school kids now really welcomes people doing yoga. I love that because that brings in a lot of young people to the classes. The lovely thing is they tend to enjoy it so much that they then stay on and so as a result of that I’ve got a lovely influx of teenagers coming into yoga. That really is a great platform for young people to start doing yoga very informally at an early stage in their life.
In terms of the older adults, what I have really enjoyed is to take a group of older people away on retreats and share such a different dynamic with them to, for example, taking a younger group of mums away. It’s a very different dynamic, and it’s so enjoyable sitting chatting with older adults and having a very different time for them over a lovely evening near an Italian village or something like that.
Is there anything else that you want to add in terms of things that you’re working on, looking for or want to put out there?
The gaps in between what we’ve talked about are that I teach a lot of adults during the week and I also teach pregnancy yoga. I think what any teacher should be looking at is teaching the variety of different abilities and different stages of life. I personally teach all levels, and I love that variety, because it keeps it a very interesting path for me to sometimes have a teacher and a beginner in the same class. That does come with experience and is not something to rush into. My last piece of advice is to always, always have a lesson plan because it makes such a difference to work from something you’ve pre-prepared, rather than just drifting and teaching what’s going across your mind at the time.
You can connect with Fenella via her website Yoga Forever. To get the inside track on the tools & resources that are inspiring us, sign up to the TPOY newsletter below.
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