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When Yoga Met Sally

By Christine Brahmi Romero

SAT JAN 09, 2021

Bella. Hallelujah.” The woman in the wheelchair softly greeted me.

“That’s all she’s said since she got here two months ago,” an aide commented. “Her name’s Sally.”

I lowered down to Sally’s eye level and said, “Hello. I’m Brahmi, your Yoga teacher.”

Bella, bella,” she replied. Despite the woman’s friendly expression, her eyes were lit with fire. “Bella,” she repeated.

We were in the skilled nursing section of an assisted living community. In a class with six wheelchair-borne seniors, Sally stood out. She was in her early 70s, about a decade younger than the others. Her body was swollen, her legs unmoving. She slumped to the right side. I smiled at the assembled class. “Okay. Let’s practice Yoga.”

As we age, our bodies change—sometimes rudely. Suddenly. Violently. Sometimes slowly. The routine of life moves along, and one day we realize we’re not taking the stairs two at a time anymore. Acknowledging changes and a willingness to vary our routine help us to adapt, adjust and accommodate our aging bodies.

The focus for a Yoga class of younger students may be on ability, big challenges, and amazing feats. In a senior Yoga class, the instructor recognizes transitional limitations and offers alternatives for students when required. Emphasis on keeping the body machine well-oiled, balanced, and nurtured allows seniors to enjoy Yoga practice in a non-judgmental setting and is an investment in a healthy life.

Senior Yogis are a diverse group—some new to the practice, some experienced practitioners. Along with each individual’s level of experience, an instructor must also be aware of any health issues that can affect an older student. The student should make sure the teacher is aware of any concerns.

Sally did not speak beyond “bella” and “hallelujah,” and because the facility could not share her chart with me, an outside contractor, I had no clue about her background. Did she have a stroke? A brain tumor? Was she married? There was no ring on her swollen hand. Did the “bella” mean she was of Italian descent? Not knowing the answers to these questions meant my Yoga instruction must be based on direct perception.

Joint-freeing exercises—taking each set of joints through their range of motion—help seniors to “warm up” and lubricate their joints for a more pain free session. This allows them to become aware of any restrictions in their body that day, and it allows the instructor to observe them as well.

Watching Sally that day, I began to formulate a plan: Eye movements stimulate the body/mind connection as they are attached directly to the brain via the optic nerve. Sally’s fierce eyes showed understanding as I explained the practice to the group, and she was able to follow the directions: up and down, side to side, diagonally, and in clockwise and counterclockwise circles. After our first class, I wheeled Sally back to her room, made a drawing of the eye movements, pinned them to her wall, and asked her to practice every day. “Hallelujah,” she said, as I left her room.

In the hallway, another Yoga student from the independent living section of the community approached. “Isn’t it a shame about Sally?” she asked. “They say she was a rocket scientist at Goddard before this happened.” I had no way of knowing if this was true, but the thought that Sally was a scientist only months before brought to mind a teaching from Sri Swami Satchidananda:

“With sound vibration you can break or make. Modern science proves it very well. You can heal or you can produce disease. You can make somebody laugh; you can make somebody cry with your sound. You can make somebody into an animal who will go and fight. You can pacify a baby. You can enchant a cobra with your sound. Plants grow with nice music. The efficacy of sound is well proven in this age. And that was the key practice behind almost all the religions. Choose a sound and repeat it. That will clean up your system, build up your system. Your jewelry is cleaned with ultrasound, and so your mantra japa practice is the same.”

In the past 20 years, the science of what is known about the brain has grown tremendously. Yet, the ancient yogis seemed to understand this organ and intuitively developed practices to stimulate the connection between the brain and body. The Sa Ta Na Ma Kirtan Kriya used in Kundalini Yoga, involves touching the fingertips to the thumb, and chanting each syllable on successive fingers beginning with the index finger out to the pinkie. Messages from the fingertips flow to the part of the brain where memory is stored. Chanting soothes the internal vibration and develops breath control. The Sa Ta Na Ma syllables are seed sounds, translating as birth, life, death, rebirth. Sally was able to move her fingers, and as best she could, vocalized a sound for each finger.

Being restricted to a wheelchair has its consequences. When the body is not active, elimination slows down and toxins build. This can cause both mental agitation and physical lethargy. Any level of movement accomplished would be of benefit for Sally’s group.

I adapted a Sun Salutation for wheelchair Yoga. Instead of lunge pose in the classic version, each knee is lifted toward the chest, putting pressure on the ascending or descending colon. Gentle spinal twists follow this sequence.

A Yoga class geared toward seniors does not have to be done sitting in a chair. Many seniors can accomplish a full practice until the end of life. Their practice matures as well. Years of wear and tear in daily life can affect joints, particularly of the feet, knees, and hips. By the age of 50, the sacrum may begin to fuse to the pelvis, inhibiting mobility in the hips and spine. Arthritis or osteoporosis may be present. Heart conditions, surgeries, or other medical issues are important for the Yoga teacher to know. Vision and hearing loss can inhibit a student’s understanding of instructions.

In current classes of seniors 60+, I have observed among women shyness about their bodies, reflecting the mores of their generation. Some women doubt the strength in their arms. Yet those arms built loving homes and raised children—even buried children. They are indeed strong. Some older men don’t believe they are flexible, and initially contract their large muscles to pull themselves into poses. Learning to relax their muscles in order to accomplish a pose represents a new way of thinking about their bodies. Getting to know themselves from the outside in is an exciting revelation.

Indeed, when the brain learns to do something new with the body, it gets very excited, increasing the ability to learn new things and at a faster rate. Senior yogis discover new flexibility, strength and stamina, which translate to an active, varied life. I’ve seen timid, rigid thinkers melt over time and become engaged with other students. Nervous habits that border on disruptive during class—such as constantly digging in their bags, insisting their mat be in a particular spot in the room, or their blanket folded precisely—slowly fall away. Students report they sleep better, and serenity is conveyed into their lives.

Practicing Yoga in a group also has benefits. A social connection is made. Typically, the first five minutes of my senior class is a check-in with my students, but also between the students themselves. The opening chants of OM may be squeaky, but by the end of class, the closing OMs vibrate with a harmonic resonance that carry us the rest of the day.

Over time, Sally began greeting the others in the wheelchair class, calling “Bella!” and “Hallelujah!” as aides delivered them to the room. She would laugh as they greeted her in return.

In fact, a simple Laughter Yoga exercise became part of our routine. For several minutes, we would clap our hands together, saying “Ha, ha! Ho, ho, ho!” This nourishes the body with fresh oxygen and strengthens the abdominal muscles and diaphragm. The rhythmic clapping also strikes acupressure points in the palms, pumps the lymph glands under the arms, and stimulates the brain.

Pranayama—breathing practices—are an important part of any Yoga class. Breathing clears toxins from the body. Vitality is boosted with fresh oxygen and prana (the life force energy, also known as chi, carried by oxygen). The expanding of the muscles around the ribs triggers a calming reflex in the body. The movement of the inflating lungs presses on the other organs, massaging them. Digestion and elimination are improved. Sally’s class practiced deep breathing, and also alternate nostril breathing, which has been shown to balance the right and left hemispheres of the brain and soothe the nervous system.

After the exercise and breathing practices, I led Sally’s class in deep relaxation, Yoga Nidra. We were in the arts and crafts room. Before the group assembled, I would push aside tables and chairs, straighten up the art supplies, and create a tranquil, sattvic area for our practice. Closing the door blocked the sound of soap operas blaring from the TV in the nearby common room. Dimming the lights, the space was set. The group tightened and relaxed each part of their body, closed their eyes, and was invited to go beyond the body, breath, and mind.

Following this very deep practice, I was always astounded by the shift. Most of Sally’s group had some degree of dementia, or were otherwise withdrawn as they moved toward the end stage of life. After Yoga Nidra, their eyes shone brightly and smiles lit their faces. The aides returning to retrieve the students frequently commented on how happy the group appeared.

Over the past decade teaching Yoga to seniors, students have suffered strokes, broken bones, had knee replacements and other surgeries. While recovering from these events and unable to participate in asanas—the physical postures—they have continued the breathing practices learned in class, along with gentle joint-freeing exercises. Many have told me these techniques, along with meditation, were integral to their healing and enabled them to return to class more quickly. Embarking on this path of teaching was with a personal faith in Yoga as a science of wellness. Seeing its benefits in students year by year inspires me daily.

I knelt next to Sally’s wheelchair and took her hands in mine. It was my last class at this facility. For three months, twice a week, we stretched, twisted, clapped, breathed, and chanted together. This was goodbye. Sally closed her vibrant eyes. When she opened them, they were rimmed with tears. Very quietly, slowly, she spoke. “Doctors stood over me. Said I would never talk again. You believed in me.”

A huge lump rose in my throat. With heartfelt gratitude to all my teachers, it was my turn to say “Hallelujah!”

“Nothing can be destroyed, only the names and forms are destroyed or changed. Because it is all God’s Image. You are the Spirit. You change bodies to fulfill your desires, but the Spirit never dies.”

~Sri Swami Satchidananda

This article was originally published in Integral Yoga® Magazine, May 2015