"Let all beings everywhere be happy and free"

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Moira Ryan, Central City Concern Old Town Clinic’s Wellness Services Coordinator, works with a number of volunteers, and she witnesses firsthand what Living Yoga volunteer instructors bring to the patients of our community health clinic. In this latest National Volunteer Week blog post, Moira reflects on the many ways our Living Yoga volunteers meet our diverse patients where they are and embody the compassion, empathy, and kindness that we see across all CCC volunteers.

• • •

Starting any movement or exercise practice can be so intimidating, especially for folks dealing with limited mobility, social anxiety, chronic pain, body shame, or an institutionalized mind-set. Walking into a practice like yoga can be even more stressful—“I don’t know the right words, I’ve seen yogis on TV and I know I can’t do yoga the right way,” etc.

One of the many things that I love about Living Yoga (LY) instructors is their gentle encouragement. The teachers don’t single folks out or shame modifications, but instead take the temperature of the room and offer safe options for every body. Just as important, LY teachers don’t assume that people in wheelchairs can’t test themselves, and don’t fragilize folks out of trying new postures. This mix of gentleness and encouragement the volunteers practice allows our clients to feel they have permission to try as well as permission to let themselves guide their practice. Having permission to practice being yourself in this way, and in a room full of people, is so important.

After Gentle Yoga groups, people report feeling stronger, clearer, and better about themselves. Some do leave frustrated with themselves, but many come back to try again. I’ve seen one client practice twice a week for the last year move gradually out of her wheelchair and onto the mat. She uses a chair when she needs one, and more and more, she doesn’t. Two months ago, she successfully worked her body into a beautiful Downward Dog and held that pose for over a minute. She was so happy, so pleased with herself. When new people come in and talk about “not doing it right,” she often interrupts the instructor to let the new person know that that’s ok: “We do what we can. And we’re doing it. You’re doing great.”

LY teachers typically let our classes know how yoga has worked for themselves. They talk about their own anxiety, injuries, or recovery stories, and I think this transparency makes our groups feel less didactic and more individualized and exploratory. Group members often tell me how much they enjoy the different kinds of yoga practice they learn from various teachers. One brings in harmoniums and teaches us chants ("Let all beings everywhere be happy and free" is a favorite). One offers a quieter, more internal practice. One laughs a lot, and makes us work our hamstrings like crazy. One focuses more on balance and talks about aging. One always helps us with some really yummy neck stretches. All are unique models of some different ways to practice, helping clients move away from “shoulds" and toward finding their own yoga.

Aside from the physical practice, I know that offering folks a safe, routine, short practice of meditation has been hugely helpful. It can be really tough to walk into a 30-90 minute meditation group, but not so hard to try meditation for a few minutes at the end of a yoga group. People talk about feeling more open and more peaceful because of the minutes we spend in our final relaxation pose.

Gentle Yoga has been for years one of our most successful offerings. We’ve tried other movement modalities—gentle dance, walking, etc.—but none have caught on like the classes Living Yoga offers.

I really want to thank the behinds-the-scenes team for supporting the instructors and managing the schedules and coordinating with all the programs you serve. This includes Eric Reynolds, CCC's fabulous volunteer manager, who's been instrumental in connecting Living Yoga with the Wellness Program and continues to offer ongoing support. I’d also like to thank those who donate to Living Yoga on behalf of OTC clients, for helping us provide yoga to folks who can’t afford or access studio classes.