As Tisha Satow stretches into the standing yoga pose known as Warrior II, she encourages Shaun, one of her students, to adjust his feet...

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As Tisha Satow stretches into the standing yoga pose known as Warrior II, she encourages Shaun, one of her students, to adjust his feet. Clad in sneakers, jeans and a Seahawks T-shirt, Shaun playfully calls his instructor a “pumpkin head.” Across from Shaun, fellow yogi Susan, who travels with a baby stroller occupied by three teddy bears, grips a metal folding chair for balance.

The dimly lit, brick-lined gymnasium is noticeably devoid of the soft world music, wafting incense and pricey spandex that mark most Seattle yoga classes. Instead, the room fills with Shaun’s cheerful buzzing about football and Susan’s intermittent declarations that she’s doing the best she can (each time earning her an encouraging thumbs up from Satow).

Welcome to yoga therapy, one of the newer recreational activities available to clients of Seattle Mental Health on Capitol Hill. Shaun and Susan, adults who live in group homes and are diagnosed as both developmentally disabled and mentally ill, are regulars in this class, taught weekly by Satow or one of her co-workers at the Samarya Center, a Seattle nonprofit organization devoted to providing yoga to everyone it can, regardless of health issues or finances.

What is yoga therapy? Simply put, it’s the adaptation of yoga breathing, stretching, even chanting techniques to help people with health issues alleviate pain, gain energy and basically feel a heck of a lot better. Who can benefit from it? Anyone from typical backache sufferers to the terminally ill.

“Science is beginning to catch up to this, is beginning to validate this,” says John Kepner, director of the International Association of Yoga Therapists, which has about 1,400 members worldwide. He points to an unprecedented study by Seattle’s Group Health Cooperative published in a December 2005 issue of Annals of Internal Medicine, which finds yoga more effective at relieving low back pain than conventional exercise or thumbing through a book on the topic.

For the Seattle Mental Health clients, who often attend less glamorous classes such as anger management and checkbook balancing, yoga seems a breath of fresh air. Shaun, who’s shy yet quick to share a laugh with his classmates, says he likes the stretching best. And Susan, who calls yoga “fun” and likes that it gives her a chance to “see people,” shows off her biceps after class so instructor Satow can feel how strong she’s getting.

Get yourself in a twist


Interested in taking or teaching a yoga class that caters to or welcomes students with various physical or life challenges? These studios and organizations can help:

Samarya Center in Seattle: Classes, individual movement-therapy sessions and teacher trainings that benefit adults and children with chronic pain, illness, injury, autoimmune disorders, and other challenges. Works with clients on site or off. Sliding-scale and free classes available (www.samaryacenter.org or 206-568-8335).

Yoga Barn in Issaquah and Fall City: Gentle, adaptive yoga for people who need a slower pace and extra TLC. Beneficial for those with autoimmune disorders and structural challenges such as chronic back and neck pain. Also holds a public class for seniors at Overlake Hospital in Bellevue. To register, contact Overlake Hospital (425-688-5800) or the Yoga Barn (www.yogabarn.com or 425-427-0038).

Plus-Size Yoga (one-day class): One-day gentle yoga workshop for students and teachers taught by plus-size, San Diego — based instructor Lanita Varshell. Held Jan. 28 at 8 Limbs Yoga on Capitol Hill. (Registration: 206-325-8221 or www.8limbsyoga.com/events/
advanced_training
).

Punk Rock Yoga in Capitol Hill and Belltown: Yoga in unconventional spaces using unconventional music — sometimes even live musicians. Everyone welcome, no matter what your shape, age, or hair color (www.punkrockyoga.com, info@punkrockyoga.com).

Street Yoga: Free yoga and wellness education to homeless youth in the Pacific Northwest. Teachers should contact: Joaquin Uy at the 45th Street Clinic (206-633-7639 or Terry Monaghan, terry@streetyoga.org, www.streetyoga.org).

Jailhouse Yoga: Promotes awareness of the opportunity to teach yoga within correctional and detention centers locally and throughout the country. Teachers should contact: Gary Fernandes at (freedom@jailhouseyoga.com or 425-269-6658, www.jailhouseyoga.com).

Michelle Goodman

“It’s something they do that’s normal,” says Molly Kenny, founder and director of the Samarya Center, which also brings “bedside yoga” to terminally ill residents of Bailey-Boushay House, a Seattle hospice facility for AIDS patients.

“The yoga program is an amazing way to bring a new type of health care to an audience that likely wouldn’t have any other exposure to it,” says David O’Neal, program manager for the developmental-disabilities program at Seattle Mental Health. “How rewarding is yoga! We’re giving them the physical exercise, we’re giving them the social connection.”

Yoga, redefined

Back at the Samarya Center — which boasts a sunny, inviting studio in the Central District — Kenny and business partner Stephanie Hager, both longtime yoga teachers and licensed clinical therapists, continue to revise their definition of yoga.

The center specializes in working with adults and children battling injuries, illness, chronic pain, grief, depression, ADHD, autism and other hardships, both in the public classes and individual movement-therapy sessions they offer on a sliding-scale basis. And though the studio’s classes draw the usual youthful, agile crowd, the gentler sessions are often peppered with people older than 70, on crutches, or overweight.

“At the Samarya Center, they don’t just say, ‘do it,’ they figure out how to make it work for you,” says Deborah Rosen, 37, who weighs more than 200 pounds and has been frustrated in the past by yoga instructors who couldn’t help her adapt the poses to suit her plus-size physique.

Kenny knows that a budding yogi (the term for one who practices yoga) doesn’t want to be singled out for her physical differences or made to feel like she can’t participate in a regular class.

“People have told us that if they go to an MS-specific class, they feel like, ‘Now I have MS and I’m going to be identified as that,’ ” she says. “Rather than the perspective of clinical pathology — ‘you have MS and you have something wrong with you’ — we look at people and say, ‘Wow, you’re interesting. How can we make your life easier?’ “

Joanne Hjort, 61, who has multiple sclerosis and walks with crutches, credits her three years of classes at the center not just with making her life easier, but with helping her stay on top of her game physically and spiritually.

“They are very adaptive,” she says of the studio’s instructors, who will give her a chair to support herself during standing poses. “They operate from a point of view of do what you can with what you have, rather than striving for more.”

“Small center of peace”

People with unique physical and mental needs aren’t the only unlikely populations in town benefiting from yoga. Thanks to a handful of volunteer instructors aligned with organizations such as Portland-based Street Yoga and Seattle-based Jailhouse Yoga, local homeless youth and prisoners are getting a turn on the mat, too.

At the 45th Street Clinic in Wallingford, which offers health services for homeless youth, a tiny waiting room doubles as a mini yoga studio once a week. Christina, the lone student on a stormy December evening, was thrilled to hear about the free class from someone she met at the University District’s Wayward Café earlier that day. Although the second-floor room reverberates with the chatter of clients and case workers in the downstairs lobby, Christina, who’s been doing yoga for seven years, immediately shuts her eyes, inhales deeply, and softens her face as she eases into the first stretch.

“I think there’s a small yet dedicated group who utilize homeless yoga because they find one small center of peace within the hurricane of their lives on the streets,” says Joaquin Uy, lead outreach worker at the 45th Street Clinic. On the street, teens live moment to moment, always on guard, always in survival mode, he explains, adding, “It’s not always guaranteed you’re going to get into a shelter or find a Dumpster to sleep in.”

Jailhouse Yoga

Gary Fernandes, who founded Jailhouse Yoga in 2001 to help ease the minds and bodies of adult and teen prisoners, is bursting with tales of people living at King County Jail and Juvenile Detention Center finding that momentary respite — even euphoria — through yoga.

“It seems like the inmates themselves are the ones that sell the program,” says Fernandes, who’s an electrical engineer by day. From the get-go, his students at King County Jail were bringing yoga back to their cells and teaching their fellow inmates the poses. Many have told him they plan to continue the practice after they’re released. And at the youth detention center, blissed-out, love-drenched expressions and comments like, “Whoa, what did you do, hypnotize us?” are not uncommon at the end of class.

But it’s not just the stretching and deep breathing the inmates respond to. Fernandes has incorporated chanting into many classes, even a children’s song with the lyric, “I am happy, I am good,” which yogis at King County Jail not only sang, but accompanied with hand movements similar to the age-old “Itsy Bitsy Spider.”

“Imagine men at a jail singing this song!” Fernandes says. Yet “it has an immediate impact on them. You suddenly see them laughing, giggling, and you see their stress melt away.”