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Learning Tips from a 74-year-old Unicycle Rider

With so much to learn in life, I’m always on the lookout for new tips about learning.

This week’s lesson came from an unlikely source, my friend Joan, a 74-year-old unicycle rider. We talked about how she has learned demanding, physical skills, even in her seventies.

You can apply her lessons to many types of learning.

An aging beginner goes to Circus School

Joan was 64 when she fell in love with circus arts at the School of Acrobatics and New Circus Arts (SANCA), in Seattle.

Learning circus arts requires strength, agility, flexibility, and coordination–not to mention years of practice. Most of the students exploring that world of unicycles, trampolines, German Wheels, Chinese Poles, juggling, and aerial work are young. Although Joan began her studies without the benefit of youth, she brought with her awareness of movement, gained as a dancer, and her great zest for learning.

I always figured that people who do Circus Arts were a different race from you or me. Joan dissuaded me when she described the class she co-teaches a class for people with Parkinson’s and other disabilities, including a traumatic brain injury.

Her students make steady, if sometimes minutely little, progress. While none of them plan to walk the high tightrope or master the German wheel, they have fun. Their training at SANCA  helps their minds to function better and their bodies to suffer less. One participant reported shaking less from her Parkinson’s.

If they can learn, progress and have fun despite significant disabilities, what could be possible for the rest of us?

Tips inspired by how Joan works with her students

Calibrate your expectations–there’s no “there” you have to get to. As long as you can be with the small gains you are making, the world can be yours because you’ll be inspired to keep learning.

Don’t curse your body or lament what you cannot do. We all have limits, and sometimes deal with pain, but we don’t need to add suffering to the mix.

Don’t judge–explore. Use your curiosity to keep your learning fresh and exciting. Don’t waste precious energy judging or comparing yourself with others.

Stay tuned in to your breath and learn to relax. To be able to juggle, (hey, I’m up to one ball!) requires a body that’s in balance, relaxed but tuned. Focusing on your alignment while breathing and relaxing can help all kinds of learning.

Stay in discovery as much as possible. When you come up against increments that give you problems, relax – it’s an opportunity to learn. Try to experiment with adjustments to help you counter pain or find an alternative route to the result that you want.

Discover your strengths as you learn how to move most effectively. Forget aiming to be The Hulk. You’ll find your strength as you learn to use yourself correctly, align your spine, and engage the right muscles, especially your core ones.

Forget “No pain, no gain.”  Instead, use your brain. Who said you had to suffer to learn? Listen to your body. Discover what’s right for you. If the pain comes up, perhaps you can take smaller steps and still enjoy progressing in micro-increments. Smaller moves can keep you from getting hurt while allowing you the pleasure of advancing.

Joan’s guidance is timely, as I work with a left ankle has been troubling me for some months now. Last spring, after a history little twists and sprains, it announced, “no more” and asked me to stop leaping and hopping in Zumba dance class.

I don’t like to rein back my dancing since I want to believe that I can still jump around as I did in my 30’s.

However, I’m using this new (above) approach to become more friendly with my ankle, and curious about what sets off the pain.

Fortunately, the Zumba class I’ve been teaching, my first, is at the local Senior Center where I doubt my students (several in their late 80’s!) have any desire to jump.

In honor of my class, I’ve come up with some new mantras–you’re free to apply them to life.

What you lack in energy you can always add back in attitude.

Make up in sass what you don’t have in steps.


When you can’t do a mile, do an inch, but do it with gusto and a big smile.

Then, don’t forget to give yourself a rousing round of applause.



2 Responses

  1. Sally
    I agree with all of your tips. So many of them pertain to the Movement Intelligence teachings that I do. Patience is a big one for me. Also to enjoy the process because that’s what’s important. Being kind and treating myself like I would a student.

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