Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Interview with Pranayama Mama (aka Myra Rubinstein) on the Breath


Accessible Yoga Blog: Where do you teach? Who is the population?

Myra: I have been volunteering as an assistant in adaptive/accessible yoga classes sponsored by Brooks Rehab Adaptive Sports and Recreation in Jacksonville, Florida. It is the high point of my week and one of the greatest joys of my life.
Our population includes people with a range of conditions, illnesses and injuries including traumatic brain injury, stroke, multiple sclerosis, arthritis, cancer, amputees, and congenital conditions. Some of the yoga students use a wheelchair while others are ambulatory.


One of the things I’ve noticed is how supportive the class participants are of each other. For this population, some of whom are homebound except to attend various sports activities offered by this program, the social interaction and support is as important as the class content. 

In the yoga classes, there are no standing poses used and poses are adapted to be done on a mat, chair or wheelchair. The classes are taught by Melissa Hirschman, my mentor, with several other very experienced teachers. In addition, volunteers from the community and local colleges assist by working one-on-one with students.

Accessible Yoga Blog: Can you share an experience that stands out?

Myra: They call me the Pranayama Mama because I feel very strongly about breath and even went for a degree in respiratory therapy because I felt the call to help people with their breath. It is the first thing we all have in common at birth as well as the last, at death. And yet, like so many things, we take it for granted.

I see breath as the most essential piece of yoga and one which can be helpful for every single student. I have one student who has no movement from the shoulders down, only a little control of his face, arms and hands. When he breathes “consciously” with me, it is pure joy as he connects his mind with his breath and his bodily sensations. His slight smile and eye contact tell me we have made a connection that we both value. Another student has built a new life for herself around going to the different sports activities offered by the program. But one day she was having family problems and having a bit of an emotional meltdown (it happens to all of us sometimes). Through some progressive relaxation and alternate nostril breathing, I was able to not only help her get through that present moment but also to take the breathing skill home to use again and again.

Accessible Yoga Blog: Why do you teach this group or this population?

Myra: I believe that even the most fit person with a healthy body can find themselves needing to adapt poses sometimes.From the beginning of my own yoga practice, I’ve learned ways of adapting yoga poses to suit my large-size body. When I took an adaptive yoga workshop taught by Melissa Hirschman, I fell in love with the content of the training andlater learned more when I took the Accessible Yoga 30-hour training with Jivana Heyman.

Accessible Yoga Blog: What are you excited to do next with your students?

Myra: I am excited to bring what I have learned at Amrit Yoga Institute to my students, whether or not they are in the specifically “adaptive/accessible” classes. The Amrit Method, known as Meditation in Motion, breaks down each pose with very specific instructions and includes a pause for awareness of bodily sensations between each pose. Sensation is the way our body speaks to us and allof us need to listen to our body whether we are adapting a pose or doing it perfectly to its fullest expression.


Myra Rubinstein lives in Jacksonville, Florida, with her husband, Leo. She has completed a 200-hour yoga teacher training at Amrit Yoga Institute in Salt Springs, Florida, and an Accessible Yoga 30-hour training with Jivana Heyman.

This post was edited by Priya Wagner, co-editor of the Accessible Yoga Blog and a member of Accessible Yoga’s Board of Directors.

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Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Alzheimer's Disease and Yoga

by Carey Sims
I teach Chair Yoga to seniors. Students of different shapes, sizes, and mobility levels come to class with their canes, walkers, and wheelchairs. Some are blind and others hard of hearing, but many have a less visible disability—Alzheimer’s disease. I smile, learn their names, and listen to their stories. Presence is my first and most important tool as a yoga teacher.

Aging is a slow path towards disability. Attempting to walk this path with grace is nothing less than an act of extreme bravery. For someone with Alzheimer’s, this path leads to an abyss of unknowing. Imagine someone is randomly editing your life’s story. The loss of context leads to loss of meaning. Memories lose texture. Experiences lose their weight. The current Self recedes and new personalities arise.

This is unsettling and extremely frustrating not only for the individual, but also for family members. In a society that privileges youth and autonomy, aging coupled with mental illness strips away dignity. The losses feel cruel. Alzheimer’s ruptures time; it isolates.

I am wary of using “Yoga for …” with anything. This language sounds prescriptive and curative, and let’s be clear: Yoga will not cure Alzheimer’s. I wish this were the case, but it’s not. So what does Yoga offer someone with Alzheimer’s? I believe the answer is simple: Yoga equals connection. In a world where context is unraveling, finding company within a group and connection within your body is for healing the soul. As a yoga teacher, I want people to experience connection, even if it’s temporary, because the body remembers when the mind cannot.

My classes are a community where we explore what’s possible and find humor in seemingly easy tasks that prove a challenge. We begin practice by grounding our feet and aligning our spines. In many cases the alignment isn’t very precise, but I want students to feel the sense of relief and integration that grounding offers. We layer in rhythmic movement by gently swaying side-to-side, moving in circles, and rocking forward and back. I return to some form of grounding and rhythm in between almost every sequence. Class is a dance of accessible movements and shapes with a focus on moving across the midline and in two planes at once. My objective is to access the body, calm the nervous system, and stimulate the brain.

Linking breath with movement is powerful, but it can be difficult for students with Alzheimer’s. Knowing this, I rarely lead with the breath. My students struggle with left/right discrimination and moving in two directions at once. Managing these types of movements and coordinating breath at the same time is extremely challenging and often causes frustration. We explore movement first and layer in the breath after we have connected with the body. A simple change in my cueing order creates the necessary rhythm, connection, and space for the breath to benefit rather than impede my students.

As our time together winds down, we place our hands over our hearts, honoring what the heart represents—a space of love, strength, courage, and compassion. I smile and bow, saying, “Thank you for joining me. I honor you.” Yoga equals connection.

Carey Sims, RYT500, E-RYT200 lives in Charlotte, NC, where he teaches at NoDa Yoga and offers Chair Yoga at various senior living centers in the Charlotte area. He is a student of Adaptive Yoga pioneer Matthew Sanford (Mind Body Solutions, Minnetonka, MN.) Carey’s mission is to use Yoga to help students explore their bodies in an accepting and non-judgmental way.

This post was edited by Nina Zolotow, co-editor of the Accessible Yoga Blog and Editor in Chief of Yoga for Healthy Aging.


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Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Interview with Steffany Moonaz on Yoga for Arthritis


Accessible Yoga Blog: Where do you teach? Who is the population?

Steffany: I work privately as a yoga therapist and conduct continuing education programs for yoga professionals. My focus has always been on arthritis and related conditions. This has been the focus of my research for many years and the topic of my doctoral dissertation in public health. I have learned so much and been so inspired by this work; I feel blessed that it is my dharma.

Accessible Yoga Blog: Can you share an experience that stands out?

Stefanny: There are so many that it’s difficult to choose. When writing my recent book, Yoga Therapy for Arthritis, it was important to me that personal stories be included. They really speak volumes about how life can change with these practices, and how even just a change in perspective can completely shift one’s relationship to arthritis or other chronic conditions.

I’ll share a brief story that is also in the book. One of the participants in our research study with knee osteoarthritis had an ill sister living in Florida. The participant was traveling back and forth from Baltimore to Florida and understandably missing a lot of yoga classes in the process. When she returned, I asked her if she had done any yoga practice while she was away. She told me that she only did one pose and it helped get her through this challenging time in her life. That pose was Mountain and during that time, she needed to be a Mountain, strong and resilient, for her sister, her family, and herself. She told me that it worked! She really did feel like a mountain. She even taught the pose to her sister’s kids.

What I love about this story is that it shows how asana are not just about muscles and bones. The poses are also (and perhaps primarily) energetic. I also love that the benefits of this pose were not directly about an arthritis-related outcome. It wasn’t about how her knees felt, it was about how SHE felt. But, of course, how she feels will impact her arthritis and her ability to live with it. I think this demonstrates the potential of yoga for impacting health and wellbeing. It is also a wonderful example of how a very accessible pose (it can even be done seated or lying down) can be so powerful.

Accessible Yoga Blog: Why do you teach this group or this population? What made you choose this specific group?

Steffany: The simplest answer is that my dharma found me. There were a series of serendipitous events that essentially brought this work into my life. I never sought out to work with arthritis and rheumatology. I don’t have a story like many people where my life was directly touched by these conditions either personally or through a loved one. But I can say that my life is very touched by it now, and looking back on my life I can see how many of the events of my life were a perfect set-up to step into this work with a full heart and open mind. To share that whole story would be a very long blog post! Perhaps for another time. It’s a nice lesson in being open to the journey as it continues to emerge, not always knowing where it might lead.

Accessible Yoga Blog: What are you excited to do next with your students?

Steffany: I have recently started to put more content online at arthritis.yoga for people with arthritis and yoga professionals working with them. While it is always ideal to first learn proper alignment and safety in person, live classes and private sessions can be an accessibility issue. Not everyone has safe and appropriate yoga classes available where they live. And some people with arthritis have movement limitations that make getting to a class very challenging, especially during a disease flare or before a needed surgery. Specialized classes can also be cost prohibitive for those on a fixed income such as disability benefits or retirement. Making content available online provides access to the teachings after, in-between, or sometimes instead of live instruction.

Yoga Therapy for Arthritis is now in pre-order and serves as another tool for self-paced learning and home practice. It was important to me that there be accessible yoga practices scattered throughout the book for that reason. I hope that the book will eventually be available in e-book and audiobook formats for even greater accessibility. I look forward to seeing the reach of this work expand and finding more creative ways to be of service to the arthritis community.


Dr. Steffany Moonaz is a yoga therapist and researcher, currently serving as Director of Clinical and Academic Research at the Maryland University of Integrative Health, which offers the nation’s only M.S. in Yoga Therapy. She is the founder of Yoga for Arthritis, an organization bringing evidence-based yoga programs to people with arthritis nationwide, as well as educating yoga professionals to work safely and effectively with this population. Dr. Moonaz collaborates on multiple interdisciplinary research teams and mentors emerging integrative health researchers.



This post was edited by Kathleen Kraft.


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