Making yoga a practice that is truly for everybody

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Instructor Toni Small, left, demonstrates chair yoga stretches for Deborah Cotton and Nancy Hamilton.

When yoga comes up in conversation, it is difficult not to immediately think of supple bodies assuming impressively complicated postures, whether in a standing, supine or prone position. While the benefits of yoga’s stress-relieving emphasis on deep breathing and meditation may be attractive, a person who has had a leg fracture or suffers from hip or lower back pain or other limitations would probably think yoga is for them a non-starter. But happily, says Toni Small of Oryx Worx Fitness, the practice of chair yoga is changing that perception.

“Chair yoga offers people who have severe mobility issues who wouldn’t be able to get down or up from the floor an opportunity to practice aspects of meditation and the postures without worrying about falling because they have the chair to support them,” says Small, who teaches a chair yoga class each week at her studio at 47 Main Street in Tenants Harbor. She also teaches traditional yoga, along with Zumba.

“Traditional yoga classes usually involve some level of strengthening and toning in addition to a big stretch,” Small explains, “but I find with chair yoga you can really sort of subtly enliven all the body parts working from the ground up. I find that with chair yoga more happens in the body than you would suspect. It feels like a self massage.”

One of Small’s regular students, St. George resident Deborah Cotton, underscores this point. “I have always been interested in yoga—I like the fact that it is not just physical but also mental and spiritual. But for some reason I haven’t been able to do it without getting dizzy. I was excited to hear about Toni’s chair yoga class, thinking that if I was seated I wouldn’t have as far to fall. It has been even more than I expected. It is very gentle but at the same time deep. I feel muscles, ligaments and tendons I haven’t felt for years, but I am never dizzy.”

Cotton adds that breathing exercises, too, are key, something with which Small agrees.

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Toni Small

“I think relaxation is something we’ve given up in our culture—the conscious stopping, feeling, sensing,” Small reflects. “The mechanics of breathing, especially, are often neglected just because we are always on the go. Even people who have slowed down, say through retirement, are on the go. Once you begin to ask, ‘Am I breathing and taking a full breath?’ and find yourself straining you wonder what’s happened. Because although the air comes into the lungs, it’s all the muscles of respiration that have to be toned and stretched and reconditioned in order to take a full breath. Your brain needs oxygen, your body needs oxygen.”

Small believes the impact chair yoga can have on an aging population is particularly important.

“I think Maine could use a chair yoga class in every community because there is such a high number of older people. I really wanted to be able to offer this class because the people I know in this community who are older and facing challenges that come with aging, they’re still fiercely independent and want to remain at home. If you want to remain at home you have to be able know how to shift your weight to get out of bed or navigate the bathroom. There are all those activities of daily living that require enough mobility. And if they are still driving, they have to be able to turn their head and look over their shoulder. So there are actually practical pieces in a class like this where you are encouraging people to maintain those muscles so they are not at risk.”

While the aim may be to teach students techniques they can use in their daily lives to improve strength and mobility while reducing stress, Small is of the opinion that the classes themselves are valuable because of the “element of community” they offer. “I think there is something powerful about people moving together, practicing together. And because the people who come to class are also people I know in the context of this  community of St. George, I know everybody’s name and I have a general sense of what is going on in their lives. That influences the way I design the class. That makes it really unique—it is a special component of teaching here.”

Down the road, Small says she would like to see yoga classes that combine traditional and chair yoga practices. “Having classes where there’s a combination is something I hope to develop at some point. Doing this would broaden the community of students and it would offer the people who are fully mobile an opportunity to see that chair yoga is actually still just as profound.”

Another regular chair yoga student, Constance Chandler-Ward resonates with this perspective. “As someone who cannot easily leap upright when I am lying down, I chose to try chair yoga. The surprise was that I felt that I had a good workout when it was over. What is more, I was energized and painless. I would even recommend it to people who can leap up from a lying position!”—JW

For information on Oryx Worx Fitness class schedules check out the Oryx Worx Fitness Facebook page or call 372-8610.

PHOTO: Julie Wortman

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