In many of my experiences walking into into a group home to share Yoga I am often met with much reluctance. I think this is partly because so many view yoga as it is something you do on the floor with a somewhat healthy body in strange shapes.
For someone in a wheelchair this idea seems obviously impossible and out of their ability or comfort zone, and rightly so.
Several years ago I was standing in the kitchen of a home a couple years ago trying my best to cajole a few guys into joining me. I often have to frame it in terms of “hey, come over here and hang out with me for a minute”. I get to chatting and asking them questions and engaging in them, and then usually before long I have them hook, line and sinker. This particular day was just that except that the only person in the kitchen was a large man who made several wisecracks to me about doing yoga.
I started with my usual onslaught of engaging questions like what did you have for lunch, did you see who won the football game, what is your favorite season, how long have you lived in Colorado, etc. Within a few minutes, we are in a deep conversation about the mountains and things we agree make Colorado awesome. After a short while passed and he made another crack about yoga, I giggled and said we had actually just been practicing yoga for the last fifteen minutes.
I explained to him what the definition and essence of yoga is and that is exactly what we have been doing. Gotcha! I exclaimed as he grumbled something about weird yoga people. I offered him a professional foot rub and the rest is history.
Since that day, he and I have met twice a month for 1:1 yoga for over two years.
Here is what it looks like—I arrive and wake up him for a nap, I insist he come out of his room (he prefers isolation and even though I honor his preference, part of the deal with me is some resemblance of boundaries and expectations), he shuffles his large and partially paralyzed body to an easy chair in the living room, I plop down on the floor and rub his feet and then with his permission I move his body for him. I stretch his left side and listen to his horrible wise-cracks and jokes.
Just like that, I was able to get a skeptic to see that Yoga is union, coming together and finding a sense of self in the moment.
In time I have watched as his confidence grew and we went from me moving his left side to him agreeing to arm wrestle me, pull me up from the floor and reach for me. Prior to Yoga he often said “I can’t move my left arm, it is paralyzed”. Now he sees that while it may not be as strong as it was before his accident, it is moving some and he is building strength in his once really strong arms.
After about a year of working with this man I arrived one day to learn he was in the intensive care unit. It didn’t occur to me once to not swiftly drive over to the hospital and complete our yoga session there.
He was intubated but awake when I walked into the strange sights, smells and sounds of an ICU. I introduced myself to his nurse and explained I was his yoga teacher. The quizzical look on her face was something I see often when people don’t fully get what I do. I asked her if I could rub his feet and she agreed that he would probably like that. As I stood next to his head to say hello, his eyes opened and he looked shocked to see me. I teased him that he couldn’t get out of yoga by being in the ICU so we better get busy. His eyes filled with tears and even though he couldn’t speak, I understood what he was saying.
As I finished up rubbing his feet and was packing my things his heart rate and breathing became labored and alarms got louder and louder. His oxygen was tanking despite being on a ventilator. I instinctively put my hand on his chest and said “Watch me. Breathe with me”. After about 30 rounds of deep breathing, his numbers returned to as normal as they could given his situation. The nurse stood with her eyes wide open. I told him I was going to glue a picture of my face to the ceiling so that every time his oxygen dropped he’d see my face and remember to breathe. His eyes twinkled.
It is one of my greatest pleasures to showcase my students’ yoga practice to people who would never see yoga through this particular lens. The first feat is getting the students to see it’s not twisted bodies on the floor, the second is showing staff or caregivers the possibilities. Moving his body for him created not only connection but also the movement his once healthy body still desired.
This beautiful soul had his last foot rub a couple weeks ago and took his final breath this week. I will deeply miss our time together and what he gave my life. It is usually the least likely Yoga students that bring me the most. I hope that he valued our time together as much as I did. He was a special one.
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