Empowered Aging: An Interview with Yoga Teacher Ellen Saltonstall

Yoga for Empowered Aging with Ellen Saltonstall with Triangle Pose and props

1 Empowered Aging a new book by Ellen SaltonstallYogaUOnline: We are delighted today to be here with Ellen Saltonstall to discuss her latest book, Empowered Aging: Everyday Yoga Practices for Bone Health, Strength, and Balance. Welcome, Ellen. What inspired you to write about empowered aging?

Ellen Saltonstall: Well, first of all, I’m aging, and many of my students are in their 50s, 60s, and 70s. I have a couple of 80-year-olds and one about to turn 90, so it’s an interest of mine. I’m teaching a lot of things that have developed into an actual system, so why not write it down so that my students can have a reference to remember what I’ve taught? I wanted to explain the yoga practice in enough detail that it was a solid practice with an inviting tone—just the right amount of detail so you wouldn’t get overwhelmed. You could follow along at your own pace. That was my goal. 

YogaUOnline: I especially like how you divide the practice into what you consider to be like a meal. How did you develop the concept? Was it fun to create menus? 

Ellen Saltonstall: I want people to have choices. It was really fun for me to establish those categories. Here’s a category that you can do all in a chair. If you only have 15 minutes, you do this chair series. That’s your menu for today. That’s your light meal.

Ellen Saltonstall and chair yoga for healthy aging.

But if you want to do more, you warm up using some of the preparatory series. And then you do the standing poses, which are the main dishes. Then, the dessert consists of all of the relaxation techniques. 

One of the most fun parts of writing is figuring out which poses fit into each category. And if each category had an identity and a strength in itself, which I hope it does, that people can enjoy that somewhat playful way of organizing the book. 

YogaUOnline: As the title promises, Empowered Aging encourages us to take responsibility, make some choices, and then pay attention to the effects on our bodies and beings. I don’t know the working title, but I’m glad you came to Empowered Aging

Ellen Saltonstall: Well, believe me, the title took a long time to develop with many different options! At first, my focus was osteoporosis, but I didn’t want to limit it to that. That’s why we came to the topic of aging as part of the title. My main message is that you’re empowered to age well

YogaUOnline: Let’s discuss the reader who is not yet dedicated to yoga, someone who is just beginning. What if they say, alright, I’ll give it 15 minutes; if it seems like it’s doing its job, then I’ll keep going? What do you suggest? 

Ellen Saltonstall: Well, try a small amount. That’s why I put the wrist series in a certain part of the menu and the chair series in a certain part. Once you’ve tried it enough times to know how to do it, the chair series takes 10 to 15 minutes.

The supine series is an excellent daily practice if that’s all the time you have. It does a lot, and even though you’re lying on the floor, you use a lot of strength. You’re opening the body’s major joints, strengthening your core, and doing other crucial things. I hope that when people get a taste of it, they like it and then increase the number of things from the menu they’re willing to try. 

YogaUOnline: The tough part is rolling out a yoga mat and getting on it. Once they’re there, they may stay a little longer, and things feel good.

Locust Pose for Empowered Aging

Ellen Saltonstall: One of my teachers had what he called the five-minute rule. So, he would say to himself, Oh, I don’t have time for yoga today, or I just don’t have time for very much yoga. And he would start and say, “Oh, five minutes. Okay. I can do another five minutes now,” and then it would become half an hour or maybe a full hour! 

Luckily, one of my first practices was the Bodymind Ball Work method. This method increases body awareness in a very good way because it makes you more appreciative of movement and the feelings that you get when you move. It also releases tension, making movement more comfortable if you’re stiff or injured. So, that was a built-in support for me right from the beginning in my 20s, and I’m so grateful for that. 

Ellen Saltonstall and Body Ball Method for healthy aging.

YogaUOnline: How were you introduced to the ball work? 

Ellen Saltonstall: In New York in the 1970s, people crossed between different art forms: visual art, dance, and music. All the arts were very much intermingled in those days, and they still are somewhat. I was a dancer. The teacher I first worked with with the balls was a filmmaker and a choreographer. I started attending her classes because one of my dance teachers said, “Oh, you have a sore knee; why don’t you go see Elaine Summers?” 

That was a pivotal moment. I’m still teaching the ballwork all these years later, and I’ve developed the method quite a bit since I spent time with her. It has been essential for me to provide a way to take care of my body in a practical and profound way. To practice Bodymind Ballwork, all you need to do is lie on the rubber balls and move very slowly for fifteen minutes or so, and you will feel completely different.

Over these years, I’ve had a good time researching different kinds of balls, textures, and sizes. I go to the Toy Fair whenever it’s offered in New York. It used to be once a year; now, it will be every other year. I buy new products and have invented new techniques with different kinds of balls, and it’s been fun. But the original set was only three sizes. Now, I offer many more choices to fit each person’s needs.

YogaUOnline: Is it useful for people with osteoporosis? 

Ellen Saltonstall: It helps people with osteoporosis like it helps everybody by loosening the muscles and fascia. This gives you more awareness of where you might be closed off in your body, where you don’t even feel that part of the body or cannot move that part very easily. And that’s true for all of us. So, ball work is a wonderful support for keeping the muscles and fascia healthy, allowing you to move more freely and enjoy your movement. 

YogaUOnline: People have injuries or limitations, and yoga is still adaptable. You wrote that of all the things one can do; yoga may be the most accessible for the aging process because it is adaptable. It can be for everybody.

Ellen Saltonstall: Yoga offers variety in the movements of your joints, the demands on your muscles, and the demands on your balance, and that’s really worth a lot. 

YogaUOnline: What do you find so useful about practicing with props? 

Ellen Saltonstall: Well, my first real training in yoga was Iyengar yoga. Mr. Iyengar really made prop usage so much more popular because he showed why it was helpful. You can get support in a pose that is beyond your range of motion and still learn because you have the support of the props, which include the wall, the chair, the belt, blocks, and blankets or bolsters. So, there are a lot of different ways the props are used.

Generally, using props helps you be more accurate in your alignment. For instance, let’s take a pose like Warrior III [Virabhadrasana III], which is fairly challenging. Ideally, according to the training I received, your pelvis should face directly toward the floor. But many people can’t do that. Intuitively, they try to turn a little bit, to put their weight on the standing leg so that they don’t have to work so hard to face the floor. 

You can learn how to face the floor when you have a chair right there. Then, when you’re ready, take your hands away from the chair. It’s magical to go from wobbling all over the place to being successful at this demanding pose. 

Warrior lll using a chair for increased balance

People think that if they use props, they aren’t working hard enough or are weak. This is not true at all. Everything depends on how you do it. You could use a prop to make things easier, but it could also make you work harder because you’re in a better alignment than you could be without the prop.

YogaUOnline: I want to close our interview with a quote from the preface of your book. The last paragraph says, “The practice reveals its benefits as we do it.” It’s just beautiful. I love that the mystery reveals itself as we live and practice our way into it. 

Thank you for that beautiful gift and the book, Ellen. 

Ellen Saltonstall: Thank you, Sarah. It was a pleasure to talk to you.

Sarah Bell

Sarah Bell (ERYT-500, YACEP) has been teaching yoga for more than twenty-five years. She was on the faculty of the Yoga Works Teacher Training Program for fifteen years, having trained hundreds of teachers in both the 200-hour Introductory Courses and the 300-hour Professional Programs throughout the country and abroad. She is the creator of Speaking of Yoga, a voice and communication course for yoga teachers, as well as Beyond the Postures, a  course that introduces yoga philosophy, anatomy, pranayama, and meditation to curious yoga practitioners. She mentors yoga teachers along the path as they find their voice and refine their skills. For more information on her upcoming retreats, courses, and classes, find her at www.sarahbellyoga.com

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