Meet 84-year-old Jill May, who believes the secret to health and happiness in old age is to stay active and continue learning. Since turning 80, she has qualified as a yoga teacher with the British Wheel of Yoga, specialised in teaching Gentle Years Yoga and has developed a chair-based yoga programme to improve the wellbeing of older adults in residential care. She has made it her mission to help others lead more independent lives and even has a workout channel for Active Essex, a county-wide initiative to get people moving.
But she has always led an active life. From teaching dance exercise classes during her teacher training to becoming a PE teacher in her hometown of Frintonon-Sea in Essex, her appetite for engaging in new forms of exercise has never ceased. She was even among the early adopters of yoga when yoga classes were first taught in the 1960s.
“I was invited to attend a yoga class by the father of two of the children I taught,” she says. “Dr Keki Sidhwa was a hatha yoga pioneer and an inspirational guide who claimed that yoga helped cure him of a deadly strain of typhoid. I enjoyed the classes so much that I began my own dedicated yoga practice based on many of the techniques he taught.”
Yoga became a useful ally ever since, particularly when she studied contemporary dance at Sussex University at 40. While many dancers succumbed to chronic injury and pain in their advancing years, yoga helped May to avoid these challenges by gradually building and sustaining the elements of balance, control and strength.
“Since turning 80, she has qualified as a yoga teacher with the British Wheel of Yoga, specialised in teaching Gentle Years Yoga, to improve the wellbeing of older adults in residential care.”
Dance gave her a new direction and at 45, she set up the ‘Bodyworks’ dance centre in Colchester, offering a wide range of dance disciplines. She launched her own training programme, The Bodywork Exercise Method, and even wrote her first book entitled ‘A Reference Manual for Teachers of Dance Exercise’.
Her work led to her appearance on the BBC Watchdog programme where she was asked to rate workout videos and identify safe programmes for the public to follow. After selling her dance studio to retire, she was then headhunted by the YMCA to quality control its national exercise and fitness programmes so that it could stay one step ahead of the competition. “Working with a leader in the fitness industry gave me valuable insight into how exercise and fitness can inspire future health and fitness professionals. It was immensely gratifying to provide quality training and help people evolve their careers in this industry.”
Moving to Carcassonne in France in semi-retirement, her appetite for learning never waned. She gained her Level 3 Matwork qualification in Stott Pilates and started teaching yoga and pilates to a thriving expat community.
“With my husband less physically able, I recognised the need to teach accessible chair based yoga so he could enjoy the mental and physical health benefits movement brings.”
Her yoga teaching continued after moving back to the UK at age 77, and her resolve to teach strengthened even more after her husband became unwell and required residential care.
“With my husband less physically able, I recognised the need to teach accessible chair-based yoga so he could enjoy the mental and physical health benefits movement brings,” she says. It was an introduction to chair yoga with Peter Blackaby that inspired her to study Gentle Years Yoga, a chair-based yoga programme offered by the British Wheel of Yoga. After qualifying in 2022, she now teaches regular chair-based yoga classes for Clacton Voluntary Services Training (CVST) in Harwich Dovercourt Hub and has devised and launched a ‘Mindful Moveability Chair-Based Yoga’ programme for residents in care.
“It was during my husband’s first care home stay the manager asked me to put together a programme to improve the health and mobility of the residents,” she says. “It is amazing to see how it helps to bring the less able back to a place of comfort and ease in their bodies so they can lead happy, healthy and more independent lives.”
Practice with Jill May on YouTube: activeessex.org/find-your-niche/workout-channel/jill-may/
Learn about BWY Gentle Years Yoga: bwy.org.uk/gentleyearsyoga