Accessible Yoga

As many of you reading this blog will know, for the past few months I have been teaching weekly yoga classes on the Mental Health and Addictions floor of St. Joseph’s Health Centre.  I lead one class for in-patients (patients who are staying over-night at the hospital, many of them long-term) and one class for out-patients (patients who have been discharged but are enrolled in a 3-week program from 9-5 each day to help them gain the skills they need to transition to living independently).

It has been such a rewarding, challenging, and emotional experience for me.  It can be difficult to see the wide range of illnesses upfront, and to see some of the obvious issues in the mental healthcare system (I only have good things to say about the caring staff at the hospital, though). It can be heartbreaking to see that many of the long-term patients are the same elderly people, who I see week after week trudging along. There are also many moments where you just have to laugh, such as when I asked an elderly woman if she wanted to join in for yoga and she yelling in a booming voice, “Yoga in HELL?! NO THANK YOU!” 

There are challenges in terms of leading the yoga classes, which are continually teaching me how to become a better teacher and make yoga more accessible. Some of the hurdles that am I learning the most from:

  •  Working with small, cramped, and unconventional spaces
  • Working through interruptions – blaring “code” announcements, patients walking in and out the space, patients getting pulled out for appointments, the list goes on...
  • Moving away from the “shoulds” and the expectations that are common in yoga language such as “you should feel….” I am continuously thinking about my language and how to avoid pushing expectations onto the patients, so that they can have their own experiences. And at the same time, trying not to be too harsh on myself when I accidentally say something that I later realize I didn’t intend to say.
  • Many of the patients have trouble following verbal directions and instead need to see visual cues for them to copy, which can be challenging when doing lying-down poses.
  • Offering different options within one pose: some people do not want to lie on the ground, some only want to lie on the ground. Some want to move a lot, some barely want to move. So adapting poses and sequences has been a really important part of the learning experience, and I look forward to learning even more about this through working with the Accessible Yoga community.
  •  When offering different options, not making one option seem like the “best” or most “advanced” – this means switching up the order I instruct the different options, watching the language I use surrounding the different options, and making sure I demo all of them and often chose to stay in the more “beginner” version, since many will just imitate what you are doing.

Working through these challenges, learning to become a better teacher, learning more about the mental health system, and the amazing positive feedback that I get from the patients has been so rewarding. One woman told me she was doing some of the poses before bed and they were helping her fall asleep. Another young woman told me she had a yoga practice before she got sick and that these sessions have helped her learn how to reincorporate movement back into her life.

Connecting with others through the Accessible Yoga community has given me lots of food for thought on different ways to make yoga accessible and ideas for classes. Lucky for me, the Accessible Yoga Conference is taking place in Toronto from June 22-24th and I am so excited to participate! The founder of Accessible Yoga is Jivana Heyman, and you can hear a really awesome interview with him here if you are interested in finding out more about Accessible Yoga.

Some of the workshops that I am super excited to attend during the conference are:
Your Brain on Pain: Bridging Science and Yoga for Pain Management”, “Adaptive Yoga as a Therapeutic and Best Practice Tool from Hospital to Home”, “Yoga for Stress-Related Illnesses”, “PTSD Yoga” and more!!


P.S. If you want to read a book about living with mental illness, I recently read the memoir, “My Lovely Wife on the Psych Ward” by Mark Lukach. It is beautifully written, uplifting and heartbreaking at the same time.