A man enters the room with a walker, unable to walk on his own because of a debilitating disease. Hanging on the walls are pictures of disabled people hiking, camping and rafting. The man struggles to sit down in his chair. He might fall because his legs lack the strength to hold him up. Two women follow him in, aided by canes while they walk. The last woman enters, and the students take their seats. Francesca Nicosia, their yoga teacher, awaits them.
The five are in a large room in the Center for People with Disabilities at 1675 Range St. The class, Yoga in Chairs, meets every Tuesday at 3:45 p.m. The center helps people stay out of nursing homes. The yoga class helps their bodies relax.
Nicosia is 26 and younger than everyone in the yoga class. She went to DePauw University and majored in sociology and anthropology. After college, she got a job with a non-profit that works with disabled people. She then worked with elder people in a hospice. She received her certified nurse’s aide training from Front Range Community College. She received her yoga certification from Shoshoni Yoga Retreat and found her current job.
“I have a lot of people in my family with disabilities,” Nicosia said. “I got this job, which is great because of the philosophy we have here. It’s an independent living philosophy. We help people stay out of nursing homes.”
Some yoga students live in transitional housing units provided by the center. The center also offers classes in cooking, finances and computers. Nicosia said she wanted to expand her teaching skills when she discovered the Yoga in Chairs concept.
“There is not a lot out there as far as written material or videos for people with disabilities specifically,” Nicosia said. “I had only been working here for a few weeks, and I ran across the Yoga in Chairs Web site.”
The program’s founder is Liz Franklin. Franklin said she developed the exercise after watching an older woman struggle to keep up with other people in a normal yoga class. Franklin realized that almost anyone could participate if the exercises were limited to chairs.
“I took that part of yoga out,” Franklin said. “The Yoga in Chairs class I teach now, everything can be done in a chair.”
Nicosia said she found out Franklin sponsored teacher training. She applied and got a grant to receive the training. The training took a week. She said her adapted version is aimed at people with multiple sclerosis, but it also extends to other disabilities.
“It’s been really useful,” she said. “I’ve been able to adapt, because we have people with all sorts of disabilities come to our center.”
People coming to class have a variety of disabilities, including brain injuries, mental illness, Cerebral Palsy and blindness.
Nicosia started the first chair yoga class, held on Thursdays, in May this year. The center added the Tuesday class in September.
“I think they find that they can’t wait to come to class, particularly people with disabilities,” she said. “They focus on something positive instead of other things that happen in life.”
Nicosia said many of her Yoga in Chairs students did regular yoga before they got a disability. Some disabled people get discouraged by an inability to do regular yoga.
“A lot of the hatha yoga classes are more fast paced,” Nicosia said. “People have an idea of yoga that they can’t do it because of popular images.”
The poses are slower in the chairs class than in other classes, Nicosia said.
“It’s about meeting people where they are, at the level where they can do things,” she said.
Sometimes the disabled person has a caretaker or family member come with them.
“They participate in class or they help that person do things because they’re not able to use their arms as well as other people,” Nicosia said.
The classes are free to those attending. Nicosia said her goal was not personal profit. “My mission is to make yoga accessible and affordable to people,” she said.
Sheila Sullivan, 50, is one of the students taking the class. She has fibromyalgia, a disease where constricted blood flow causes a person to become stiff. She comes to class hoping to ease the pain.
“I’m trying to limber up and teach my body to relax,” Sullivan said.
She said she is stiff when she wakes up and uses yoga exercises to stretch.
“The first rule after sleep is to stretch,” she said. “Yoga is very slow, extreme stretching.”
Franklin was pleased with how Nicosia adapted her class.
“Francesca is doing a great job from all I can tell,” Franklin said from her Kansas City school. “She did all of her training here and seemed to take it to heart.”
Much of the class focuses on relaxing muscles by slowing down breathing. One woman relaxed so much that she fell asleep during the exercises. She snored while the others continued the yoga class. Nicosia shook her foot and tried to wake the woman up, but failed to do so. Nicosia laughed afterwards about the incident.
“That happens all the time.”