In Carol Ann’s Words…
As a Physical Therapist (PT), I've always enjoyed working with people who have disabilities. In my 25 years of being in the profession, I’ve work in rehabilitation centers, skilled nursing facilities, hospitals, and homecare. My specialty was neurologic physical therapy, which includes brain injuries, strokes, multiple sclerosis, movement disorders and spinal cord injuries. I've also done research and taught PT.
As a young person, I knew I wanted to work in health care. I tried candy striping, but knew nursing wasn’t for me. My mother has spina bifida and she had a PT when she was young, so it was my mom who encouraged me to shadow a physical therapist as part of high school career day, so I did. After that, I decided to take a job as a PT Aid and it just evolved from there. I have always loved the work. It's very rewarding to assist people in recovery or to help them adjust to a body different than it was before. The resilience of the human spirit is powerful and it has been a gift to be a part of that energy with the many people who have shared their journeys with me as their therapist.
In the last ten years or so, as I had my kids, I decided to back down my work to be a stay-at-home mom for a while. When it came time to re-enter professional life, I saw it as an opportunity to take my work as a PT in a different direction; to do something new. That’s where yoga comes in. I've always loved yoga. It's the one exercise I always come back to. I love that it addresses your mind, body, and spirit. I leave each class feeling stronger, taller, more centered, and more at peace. What's better than that?
In 2016, I decided to enter into a yoga teacher training. At the time, I thought it would either deepen my practice and/or I could use what I learned to integrate it with physical therapy. Through the process, I decided I wanted to share accessible yoga with people who are older or who have physical challenges, similar to the patient population I used to work with. Many of these people think they could never do yoga. But of course, it’s not true. Accessible yoga by definition is truly for everyone. No matter the physical challenges, everyone can glean positive results from yoga.
Chair yoga, in particular, benefits people who find it challenging to get on and off the floor or have difficulty with balance. Students come who are healing from injuries, or simply feel more comfortable having a seated option. Either way, my students report feeling surprised at how much of a workout they actually can get from sitting in a chair! So, while chair yoga offers a safer option, it doesn’t mean it isn’t a challenge.
In my chair yoga classes, I usually start with a warm up to work all the joints, starting at the neck and going all the way down to the toes, just loosening everything up. We do breath work to calm the nervous system, and then I bring in flow with breath, almost a moving meditation. Depending on who is in class, sometimes I incorporate standing postures, though they can also be all done sitting. Like, for example, Warrior One can be done sitting on the chair or standing. And of course, there's savasana at the end of every class just like any other yoga class. We prop up with bolsters and two chairs, sit reclined against the wall, or some people do choose to lie on the mat.
I almost always have a theme to the class, too. Just a reflection, something to think about. Sometimes, I bring the theme into our practice physically, other times, it’s just a reflection or a quote. One theme I chose recently was in honor of the sunflower while they were in full bloom in my garden. I love the symbolism of the sunflower, being one of strength, long life, nourishment, all the while facing the sun receiving positive energy.
Along with group classes, I offer private sessions. I actually prefer being able to see a student for one or two sessions privately in order to better understand their bodies and needs, so I can be even more helpful to them in a group setting. It’s one reason I decided to add the new four-week series, Yoga for Healthy Movement. It’s designed for someone who experiences movement challenges and wants to learn more how they can use yoga in their daily lives to function better at home. My goal is to be able to provide students with a tailored, individual approach, whenever possible.
Yoga for Healthy Movement is going to include one private assessment before the weekly group sessions start. Not necessarily a full physical therapy assessment, more like a PT screening to assess strength, flexibility, and balance and to get to know participants in a deeper way. So many people as they get older are fearful of falling and a screening like this can help people to know exactly their risks, strengths and challenges. The private session also gives students the chance to look at their intentions or goals for the four-week series. To keep a high quality of individual attention, the series will have no more than six students. I will also provide poses, homework and/or handouts to do at home.
I can't separate myself from my background as a PT. So, as I observe students in yoga class, I look at their bodies carefully. And even after class is over, my mind is thinking, “oh, that person needs a little bit more of this, so next week I will design the class to address that need.” It’s very satisfying to see how my regular students benefit from yoga.
I notice that the people who come regularly to yoga class are able to sit a little taller and go a little bit deeper into poses. Stronger legs can alleviate a fear of falling, tight shoulders can loosen enough to be able to raise arms overhead. Someone came recently and talked about her fear of falling and so we did some modified chair poses to work on leg strength. A student with a stiff spine who was coming to the chair yoga class, expressed how chair yoga opened up his world simply because he was able to look directions other than forward. It just widened his whole perspective.
This spring, I attended a training for Accessible Yoga with Jivana Heyman and currently, I'm looking into a teacher training for adaptive yoga with Mind Body Solutions. This non-profit was founded by Matthew Sanford who was paralyzed from the waist down at age 13. He found healing in yoga, became Iyengar trained and founded Mind Body Solutions. He is nationally known for his work teaching yoga teachers and health care professionals how to share the benefits of yoga for people who have experienced trauma and disabilities. So adaptive yoga classes would be geared more towards doing fewer sustained postures including getting down on the floor with assistance to help open up and hold positions out of the confines of a wheelchair. For those in a wheelchair who have some movement of their arms and legs, a chair yoga class would be fine. But if you don’t have any movement, then more of an adaptive class is what’s needed. It’s something I feel passionate about providing in the future. And for sure, Dayaalu Center is a great place for that population.
I really could not be happier about teaching at Dayaalu. When my family moved back to Bainbridge, after being away for over five years, I knew it was the perfect time to explore my dream of working in a new way, and I kept putting that intention out to the universe. I had been researching the resources already available on BI and found Sue’s bio and story on the Dayaalu website. I thought, “I want to do something similar to what she's doing.”
One day, I was speaking with a friend of mine and told her that I was attending an accessible yoga training and that I wanted to offer a chair yoga class. She happened to know Sue, and mentioned that Sue was looking for someone to do a chair class at Dayaalu. I guess it was meant to be!
And, Sue’s been wonderful about opening up her doors to me, and providing mentorship. It's been really lovely. And what better way than to come to a studio where overall health is supported, with a naturopath on site, massage and acupuncture, nutrition, and a beautiful community of teachers and students alike.
Studies continue to show the benefits of yoga for all types of health challenges, and active movement is one of the pillars of health. There are limited options to maintain fitness and wellness in a safe and supportive environment when you have mobility challenges and or have been discharged from formal rehabilitation. My hope is to change that.