How yoga therapists work: Supporting hospice volunteers

By Joanne Hader

In 2023 I received a grant from the Seniors’ Secretariat in Prince Edward Island (PEI) to share an 8-week yoga for self-care program for hospice volunteers like myself. In working through the details of offering such a program, I knew I wanted to share yoga that was accessible for all bodies, fun, and free of charge to participants. My program met all of the funder’s goals, which included promoting positive images of aging, supporting injury prevention, and addressing social isolation, as well as my own.

Hospice volunteers are generally older, retired people, many of whom have previously taken care of dying loved ones. Many have health conditions typical of an aging population. Being a hospice volunteer also tends to be solo work—in my area we seldom see other volunteers, and the rural setting means we rarely get opportunities to connect in person with our coordinator.

The tools within us

My approach to self-care draws strongly on a belief that we all have the tools within us to heal ourselves, that the best external healers are facilitators that empower us to look deep inside and draw out our own strengths and draw on our own resilience. Drawing on Julie Wald’s self-care framework, my yoga practices have four pillars: movement, stillness, nourishment, and connection. I incorporate some of each in every yoga session with pranayama (breathwork), asana (physical postures), and deep relaxation.

Moving, breathing, and socializing

Sessions in the PEI self-care program were 90 minutes long, with up to 60 minutes of gentle yoga, breathwork, and guided relaxation. I encouraged participants to vocalize what they were experiencing during the physical work and to ask questions, creating what I hoped was a welcoming and accepting space. That was a bit weird for some who were used to group fitness classes, but they adapted quickly. I set aside 30 minutes at the end of every class for the group to socialize. We laughed a lot, had tea, and shared contact information. A couple of individuals even brought the rest of us baked goods on several occasions. One participant, after the initial sessions, brought a joke to share with us every class.

Connected and cared for

After the course, I asked participants about how well they felt we had met the program objectives of fostering connection and reducing isolation. Here are a few examples of what they said:

  • There was a connection to the others in the program through a like-minded self-care approach, and a connection to yourself through the various poses/exercises.
  • Connection with others truly is the unique quality a good yoga program can offer. So enjoyable with seniors as all participants seemed to be comfortable in our group and with our teacher.
  • It was informative, interesting and fun. I gained confidence in myself that I can do this. I learned that I want to do this, as in, take care of my body and well being. I rarely socialize and or participate in events with strangers. I found a courage to try and a happiness that comes from meeting new people. This was one of the best experiences for me.
  • It certainly reinforced the need for regular and ongoing exercise and the value of doing so as a group. This was my first time doing a yoga group class. I looked forward to attending every week. It opened up new possibilities that I wouldn’t have known about otherwise.

Just like many of the participants, I am grateful to have had this opportunity. Their feedback highlighted the program’s success in fostering connection and reducing isolation. Participants said they felt a greater bond with fellow volunteers, a deeper connection with themselves, and newfound confidence in self-care practices.

Joanne Hader, MA, RYT-500, C-IAYT, works primarily with older adults and family caregivers with a self-care lens. She has advanced training in chair yoga, as well as yoga for brain injury, grief, emotional wellness, and mood disorders. Her background in research inspired her to co-create the course “Reading Research and Evaluating Claims” to teach yoga therapists in training critical appraisal skills.