What do you think of when you hear the word “yoga”? Maybe a young Vancouverite doing the downward dog, or a Buddhist meditating?
But what about those diagnosed with early on-set dementia, rehabilitating from drug or alcohol addiction, or a young person in custody?
In the latest of our CKNW Health Series, reporter Shelby Thom explores how yoga is transforming lives in the Lower Mainland.
Yoga, the physical, mental and spiritual practice that originated in India, has found mainstream acceptance here in North America.
For many, yoga studios are as much a part of Vancouver as coffee shops and sushi joints.
But yoga is also increasingly becoming a tool to help those facing challenges with mental health, addiction, poverty, violence, trauma, and imprisonment.
At a downtown Vancouver hotel, a group of men and women diagnosed with early onset dementia gather to practice yoga.
Executive Director of Paul’s Club, Nita Levy, says the exercise is incorporated into the one-of-a-kind day program where the diagnosis is left at the door.
“All of our members have lost their jobs.With this diagnosis, you cannot work, you lose your drivers’ license as the disease progresses. You lose your friends because they don’t know how to talk to you because you have short term memory loss, and because they just feel awkward. The person becomes socially isolated.
“For families it is devastating as well. Also financially it is devastating because if you are 46 or 51 you haven’t got your RRSP’s lined up, you haven’t got your pension sorted out, so it is financially devastating. But we know that the more you keep people with this diagnosis socially integrated, physically active, and stimulated, the better they will do, and the better their family will be able to cope.”
The fifteen participants, the youngest aged 46, are called members, not patients.
Casually dressed, they sit in black metal chairs, intently following the movements of their yoga instructor.
Deep breathing, shoulder roles, wrist circles and back twists.
Program Director Chelsea Redburn says the stimulation and engagement is invaluable.
“But the thing that is most important to us and what we’ve noticed the most after yoga especially is just the mood improvement. How much more alert people are. Sometimes we arrive in the morning and everyone is a little bit sleepy and just trying to figure out the day, what that is going to look like for them. I’d say on our way to lunch after yoga everyday people’s moods have significantly improved and they are far more alert than they were prior to going into the class.”
Some of the instructors are volunteers through an not for profit Vancouver-based organization called Yoga Outreach.
The organization partners with community groups, social service agencies, and correctional facilities to provide mindfulness-based yoga to often overlooked adults and at-risk youth.
Board Chair Laura Track says all volunteers must complete at least 200 hours of yoga teacher training, and undergo an intensive weekend training session on trauma-sensitive yoga.
“The most important thing in a trauma-sensitive yoga class is to really convey and reiterate over and over again that the participants are in control. They are in control of their experience, they are in control of what they do what they don’t do. We let them know that it is fine if they just want to lie on their backs in shavasana for the entire time. Trauma sensitive yoga class is very much grounded in consent.”
Track teaches a class on Thursday nights at Vancouver’s Pacifica Drug and Alcohol Treatment Centre.
A client, who asked not to be named, says yoga is used as a tool in her recovery.
“I have dealt with the abuse of alcohol under some fairly extenuating circumstances over the last couple of years. There has been a significant amount of stress and ongoing anxiety and I began to use alcohol as a coping strategy. I have always been athletically inclined and into sports, but yoga I always blew off as abit of a hippy dippy not going to get me too fit, not going to burn too many calories type of exercise. But the way it is incorporated into a program of recovery is very complementary.”
Another client, Ang Morris, says yoga has transformed her life.
“I am in rehabilitation for mental health and addictions. I am really enjoying the yoga that we have here. It really is a blessing, I feel so grateful that we have it. The reason that I love the yoga is because it gives me a reprieve from the daily stresses that I have. It is a chance for me the practice mindfulness.”
Yoga is even being introduced to youth in custody.
29 year old Will Fulcher who is a civil structural engineer by day and yoga instructor by night, teaches at the Burnaby Youth Custody Services Centre.
“I think it comes down to tools. For the physical postures it is a lot about calming and tuning into your body and your breathe. When we do the yoga sometimes people say oh this would be really good for going to bed, I heard some of the kids say that. I heard another comment, a guy said, I have to go in for trial and I am actually going to use some of this, this could really help me calm down. The kids have a really hard time controlling themselves. They get angry and especially in the system it can be really tough. These kids are in a rough spot, and if you can give them any ability to slow, or to take a step back from their life and say there is something else here, I can breathe and make a choice not to act on violence or act on anger.”
Yoga Outreach is stretching to new heights, proving yoga really is for anyone, and everyone.
“That is one of the things that is really great about doing yoga, you make it your own and you do what is comfortable for you. I never feel like a failure when I’m doing yoga, ever, and that is a really really important thing for me” says Morris.