Mary Sims: Yoga Supports Self Advocacy

This is an interview with Mary Sims, who started taking a community yoga class in 2005 motivated by a major life transition. The class showed her that she is open to discovering new things about herself; she found she was extremely flexible, which allowed her to quickly gain confidence in most yoga poses. After each class, she experienced a great sense of peace, contentment, and well-being, and the classes supported her through a tumultuous and painful period in her life.

She is currently an adult advocate for individuals with developmental and intellectual disabilities at AdvocacyDenver, and founder of the Yoga 4All Abilities Program to support people with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (I/DD).

Rob: What originally motivated you to do this work, and what continues to motivate you?

Both of my passions for yoga and for working with people with I/DD motivate me to offer this program. I want to give back to a community of individuals for whom I care so deeply. This community, for a multitude of reasons, lacks accessibility to mainstream yoga studios. Yoga 4All Abilities will hopefully propel my participants to go to a community class, to have the confidence to step into a community studio. I also hope that with this program the yoga community will become more inclusive.

What is the most rewarding aspect of your teaching experience?

During a recent class, one of my new students came in asking “what is yoga?” and “how do I do yoga?” As we were in “table top” position, twisting with our right arm to the sky, I instructed the class to touch a star. The student who asked those questions said “I got one. I got a star. I’m doing it. I’m doing yoga!” This student’s comment continuously resonates with me. He was, in fact, doing yoga, and he was confident about doing it. As my heart soared, I realized that my class had built his self-confidence and contributed to his overall success in life.

What are some of the things that your students have taught you?

I’ve definitely learned to not take myself too seriously. This group of individuals values the present moment. So now I don’t so much focus on my instruction expertise during classes, because my students are teaching me to be able to laugh at myself.

In what ways do you think yoga addresses some of the societal factors at play in working with people with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities?

Health and well-being are important for everyone regardless of their social or economic status. Sadly, for the most part, the I/DD population does not have access to yoga. There are many causes for this, including lack of transportation, education, financial stability, and confidence. They often lack the confidence to advocate for themselves, and they are mostly dependent on guidance from their care providers for making good choices in lifestyle and healthy practices. Yoga 4All Abilities helps my students become more aware of the mind-body connection while building self-advocacy skills to make their own health and well-being choices.

Often we hear claims of yoga as a means to positively changing the world. What in your mind is the relationship between a practice of mindfulness and greater social change?

When you come to the mat, relax your thoughts, and become aware of the mind-body connection, you enter a state of mindfulness. This state of mindfulness allows you to pause within the struggles of daily life, and gain a wider perspective. This new perspective can strengthen our sense of compassion for others and for ourselves. I believe that if an individual becomes more compassionate, this can affect many others because it has a ripple effect.

What are some of your ideas about, or hopes for, the future of service yoga in American in the next 10 years?

My vision is for yoga to be accessible and inclusive of all populations, regardless of age, gender, shape, or ability. I believe yoga accessibility has the possibility of creating a culture of compassion. If we can create a culture of compassion within all communities, our society can be more mindful of the fact that even with all our differences we are all the same.

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Christine Moore: Sharing Adaptive Yoga

Adaptive Yoga with Christine MooreThis is an interview with Christine Moore, who attended her first yoga teacher training while her son was serving a second tour with the United States Navy in Afghanistan in 2009. She was inspired during that time to teach yoga to veterans, and did so for a few years at the Denver VA hospital. She now teaches yoga to inmates at the county jail in Boulder CO, and adaptive yoga to people with disabilities at Imagine Santa Fe House, a group home. (Her first love being dance, she developed a class she calls “Shimmy~Asana,” where the two ancient arts of belly dance and yoga meet.)

Rob: What originally motivated you to do this work, and what continues to motivate you? 

My motivation to teach veterans came from my desire to grasp what I might be faced with on my son’s return from his tour in Afghanistan. I drove 45 minutes each way to volunteer for an hour, and it was the highlight of my week. I left feeling lifted and inspired by students who made the effort to make it to the mat with challenges too difficult for most of us to conceive. Their passion ignited my own. I never dreamed how deeply the veterans would inspire me and motivate me to continue to learn more about yoga, adaptive yoga, and to dive deep into learning more about myself.

What keeps me motivated is the persistent reminder of how each of us, with all our differences, are really so alike in our shared humanity. I learn every time I’m with my students, not only about yoga, but about life. And I’m motivated by the constant awareness of how fortunate I am to be in the body I inhabit.

What is the most rewarding aspect of your teaching experience?

One of my students, who is in her 40s, has Down Syndrome. She has very little use of her arm and an arthritic hand. I watch her hands unfold as she slowly brings them into Namaste. It doesn’t matter how long it takes to get there; the persistence and determination warms my heart. After much effort, the smile that breaks across her face when her palms touch is priceless.

If I can facilitate a person’s inner ability to have this take place, I feel rewarded and honored to witness this. If I were to describe to you the colors of a sunset, it would never be the same as seeing it with your own eyes. Sharing my yoga in this way is like that, witnessing true beauty. These beautiful people teach me to cherish and be resilient; there is little that is as gratifying as that is to me.

What are some of the things your students have taught you? 

One of my students left me with a challenge to question my motivation. She was uncomfortable in her body, and the staff at Imagine told me that she had been screaming nonstop for weeks. She seemed frightened in her wheelchair with her feet dangling in space, unable to stop the world from spinning around her. It resonated with me that this client’s proprioception was challenged. I sat across from her at eye level and grounded her feet by placing them on blocks. I looked in her eyes and gently held her knees. After a few moments she stopped screaming.

One day when I came to teach I was told she had died during the week. My grief unnerved me. I thought that I should be happy for her that she was released from a body in such pain. She had only ever shared two words with me, “yes and no,” and yet our connection felt deep and genuine. I spent several weeks examining myself, and learned a great deal about my ego, my judgments, and even my frailty in this human body.

In what ways do you think yoga addresses some of the societal factors at play in working with people with disabilities?

In response to this work I’ve had people say, “How does that work, how can you teach yoga to someone in a wheelchair?” I ask that same person how they find Tadasana (standing mountain pose) in their own body when they are sitting. The sensation is the same. This creates a feeling of connection rather than separateness, as it reveals our similarities and unravels what we see as division. The more people see the abilities in others, the fewer barriers there are between us all. Social misconceptions break down and we all gain from these stories. The practitioners build greater confidence and better ability to participate within society. My hope is that this allows others to see people with disabilities in a new light.

What, in your mind, is the relationship between a practice of mindfulness and greater social change?

Mindfulness helps to stimulate the prefrontal cortex (PFC), allowing us to regulate our behavior rather than responding with our primitive and reactive fight-or-flight reaction. If we can respond to others in a mindful way, we may be able to recognize the commonality between us and “the Other,” enhancing our ability to accept differences. This perception of difference was crucial to our survival in primitive times. Mindfulness enhances our ability to slow down and notice that we are safe. Empowering ourselves this way can create a huge transition in consciousness and enable social change.

What advice would you give to someone who is going to teach people with disabilities? What would be the most important thing for them to carry? 

Expect that everything will be different from what you imagine. Be comfortable with critical thinking. Be compassionate and patient with others, but first with yourself. Things move very slowly, so results of any kind might be subtle or unnoticeable. Have a tool box of yoga skills to dive into at any moment with confidence.

Attend workshops to learn specific techniques for adaptive yoga and trauma. Matthew Sanford’s book Waking: A Memoir of Trauma and Transcendence is a must-read for anyone considering this work. His teachings have been a huge inspiration for me.

We are never fully healed, yet our work supporting others comes from having processed the things that drive us to do the work. It is possible to transform judgment, fear, and loss into compassion and the enthusiasm to be present with others.

What are some of your ideas about, or hopes for, the future of service yoga in America in the next 10 years?

I hope to see yoga become more available to children and youth, and to those who do not have the financial means to easily access yoga. I hope that within the next decade it will become a required and regular practice for healing.

I have a friend who walked into her daughter’s 3rd grade class of 75 children and they were having their daily quiet meditation practice. Imagine 75 children sitting in silence. Those children’s lives and relationships will be transformed by this simple practice. The transformation has a ripple effect that can help dissipate hatred and fear. I want that for everyone! The outcome would benefit us all.

We are living in tumultuous times, and my biggest hope is that yoga will help us re-vision our relationships with self and with others.

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 Join us in sharing the gift of yoga with those who can benefit most. Learn more about our nationwide initiative this November to give back yoga.

YogaReach: Yoga For People Affected With Parkinson’s Disease

char-grossman-yogareachThis is an interview with Char Grossman, a Therapeutic Yoga Movement Specialist and a Nationally Certified School Psychologist. In 2004, Char founded YogaReach, a therapeutic adaptive yoga movement business. She was inspired to start this work after experiencing the power of yoga personally as it aided her complete and miraculous recovery from a traumatic medical incident. As her business grew and she learned more methods to strengthen the mind-body connection, Char developed an affinity for working with the Parkinson’s disease community to strengthen its physical, mental and social competency. YogaReach’s Mindful Movement therapeutic yoga classes are offered alongside a multitude of other Parkinson’s disease classes and support groups.

Rob: What originally motivated you to do this work, and what continues to motivate you? How, if at all, has that motivation changed over time?

My original motivation to serve people affected with Parkinson’s Disease (PD) began by working with participants at YogaReach. In addition, my father was (identified) diagnosed with Lewy Body Parkinsonism, so I was familiar with the disease. My motivation grew as I helped build yoga related programming for InMotion, a burgeoning Parkinson’s and movement disorder community-based non-profit center in Cleveland, OH. To teach people to enhance their abilities—not focus on their disabilities—is YogaReach’s mission. This center was a perfect place to reach people who have PD and others affected by the struggles that accompany this illness.

People with symptoms heard about the new center and began to arrive. Not knowing what to expect, I observed their expressions of fear, insecurity, and uncertainty. However, as soon as these new members and their care-partners started participating in the classes, smiles, confidence, socialization, and feelings of empowerment developed. This sent my motivation to teach classes sky high.

What is the most rewarding aspect of your teaching experience?

It’s inspiring to know that by touching people’s lives I can see a positive change within each individual. In the Mindful Movement sessions my team and I instruct participants in learning to breath, to feel energetic, improve posture, develop balance and coordination, express non-motoric emotions, and participate in meaningful daily functions.

Bonnie, one of our participants, demonstrates every day how our Mindful Movement classes promote an optimistic lifestyle. The first day of classes, one year ago, Bonnie arrived and told us she does not exercise and would never do yoga. So she sat on a chair in the Mindful Movement class for three months, with sunglasses on, arms crossed and legs dangling. Beginning in the fourth month, Bonnie walked in and suddenly decided to practice; she has now attended over 90 classes. She has learned that breathing naturally calms her nervous system, improves her motor skills, posture, and she even balances on one foot without holding onto a chair. Bonnie and our other participants has inspired all of us to keep growing our abilities.

What are some of the things your PD students have taught you?

The most important lesson I was taught is to individualize and acknowledge each person’s distinct abilities. Whether the student has been diagnosed with Juvenile Parkinson’s, Young-Onset or Adult-Onset, they deserve to practice yoga with a personal holistic approach.

People affected with PD may display motoric and/or non-motoric symptoms. The person may exhibit a resting tremor, bradykinesia, muscle stiffness, depression, or speech issues. Therefore, we need to be knowledgeable about the diagnosis and make teaching adaptive yoga movements natural so they easily carry over to the person’s daily functioning needs.

Individualized assessment during a group lesson is imperative. Learning to focus attention on each person is vital. I have much gratitude for my students and what they teach me.

In what ways do you think yoga addresses some of the societal factors at play in working with people living with PD?

Prior to the PD diagnosis, driving a car, going to the grocery store, hanging out at Starbucks, picking up a package, sleeping during the night, or celebrating an event with family were all easily achieved. A diagnosis converts all of these simple actions into challenges, which quickly become social challenges. In order to re-establish confidence, awareness, and self-efficacy, our therapeutic adaptive yoga program addresses strategies to increase measured breath, mobility, balance, muscle strength, range of motion, aid psychosocial issues, and build mindfulness and relaxation skills.

By teaching participants hands-on practical exercises, we can help them control and improve the ease of their daily responsibilities. Social activities with friends and family become simpler. Reaching groceries from a shelf and placing them into a basket, and/or holding the coffee cup while opening the exit door at the coffee shop is now easier and fun to do. Anger and embarrassment subside as the person living with PD is now rediscovering her ability to be independent and confident in her everyday life.

What, in your mind, is the relationship between a practice of mindfulness and greater social change?

Mindfulness is the key to positive social change. My personal practice of mindfulness incorporates the simple training of bringing awareness and acceptance to the present moment and releasing concerns and uncertainties. Our inner growth from practicing mindfulness helps us to outwardly promote positive social change. The relationship in my mind between mindfulness practice and social change is that people are more able to focus while building positive relationships, reducing worldly differences, and learning how to live in the here and now.

What are some of your ideas about, or hopes for, the future of service yoga in America in the next 10 years? 

Parkinson’s disease is a chronic, degenerative, neurological disorder. My dream is for hospitals all over the world to incorporate a therapeutic yoga regime as part of their standard care to help this growing population. I see evidence that yoga is beginning to be incorporated into corporate health and wellness treatment, but we are not there yet. By uniting thought and action, our therapeutic yoga standards encourages those who work with us to strengthen skills that may have become weakened, gain new skills we may have thought impossible and continue he to develop rewarding services.

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Join us in sharing the gift of yoga with those who can benefit most. Learn more about our nationwide initiative this November to give back yoga.