Downward dog, meet chopping wood: Behchoko gets elders moving with 'Tlicho yoga'

When residents of a seniors home in Behchoko, N.W.T., were reluctant to join in with modern exercise programs, program coordinators found a culturally-relevant solution: marrying yoga practice with traditional movements.

Program gives elders culturally-relevant exercise and helps jog memories, say program coordinators

Regina Lafferty, left, and LilyAnn Richardson pose in front of the Jimmy Erasmus Seniors Home's namesake, Jim Erasmus. The pair are day program co-ordinators at the home, which has become a community gathering spot in Behchoko. (Rachel Zelniker/CBC)

"We're going out on the boat! Paddle, paddle, paddle," yells day program co-ordinator LilyAnn Richardson, holding court at the Jimmy Erasmus Seniors Home in Behchoko, N.W.T. 

Surrounded by residents of the home, many sitting in chairs or supported by walkers, Richardson continues to instruct: "We're already landing at Mary Lake! Now we're going out walking. Exercise, you're walking," she says, swinging her arms as the elders follow suit.

It'd be easy enough to take Richardson's instructions as preparations for an on-the-land trip. But instead, she's instructing an innovative exercise class, one that combines traditional motions with modern stretching and calisthenics.

It's cultural, it's entertaining, and it's exhausting: welcome to Tlicho yoga.

'I just like to see them happy'

Since its expansion opened in late 2017, the Jimmy Erasmus Seniors Home has become a point of pride for residents of Behchoko. The facility includes 18 long-term care rooms, a shared dining area for residents, and extra space for community events.

The facility meant that more people could receive care in the community as they age, but with that came challenges, says Regina Lafferty, a day program co-ordinator at the facility. Modern exercise is not part of traditional Tlicho culture, and so it was difficult to convince the residents to get up and moving.

An elder moves his arms along with co-ordinator LilyAnn Richardson during a Tlicho yoga session. Richardson says using traditional movements helps the elders forget they're burning calories, and helps them remember the old days on the land. (Loren McGinnis/CBC)

"Our elders won't participate if it doesn't come with our culture, our language," says Lafferty. 

Lafferty and Richardson's solution? Tlicho yoga — a stretching program that incorporates traditional movements like chopping wood, checking fishing nets, and washing clothes on a washboard.

The program immediately became a hit, says Richardson, adding that many of the elders forget they're exercising.

"We tell them to show us a demonstration," she says. "Checking the nets, you know. Shooting, paddling, holding paddles ... so they forget about what they're doing."

"I just like to see them happy, and feel good," says Lafferty. "Some of them do express how they're feeling, that they're tired when they're done, and they didn't even know they were exercising. That's a plus."

Jogging memories

The program provides more than just physical benefits. According to Richardson, marrying the stretches with movements the elders did in their more mobile days can also help improve their memory.

"Some elders have dementia," she says. "So, if we talk about the olden days, how they used to go hunting, boating, checking the nets, they start to flash back."

As an example, Richardson highlighted one elder who used to sing a love song to her husband while she paddled and checked fishing nets.

The elders chop wood during a Tlicho yoga session. (Loren McGinnis/CBC)

"So [that elder] was just singing away paddling," says Richardson. "It was a really good feeling just to see her singing."

The program's success also extends beyond the residents; for the facilitators, helping those that came before them in their community brings its own reward.

"I like working with the elders," says Richardson. "If they need help, we're there for them."

"So I'm happy, at the end of the day, that they're happy they're here. And working with them ... I feel good inside."

With files from Rachel Zelniker, Loren McGinnis