yoga during COVID

Frani Green

Frani Green found yoga in 1985 and felt the calling to teach it in 1993. The 60-year-old has a background in theater and dance. She has studied different styles of yoga and has earned several certifications.

Through the years, she has instructed people of all sizes and shapes, and at all levels of ability. “I’ve taught deaf people, blind people, kids, teens, young people, old people and people with disabilities….so all people,” she said.

“The benefits of yoga are different for different people,” Green explained. “I teach yoga to seniors for strength, balance and overall wellness. This practice is paramount to our health, especially as we age, to keep our hips, knees and core strong.”

She said that one of her students is 76 and has been practicing yoga with Green for 20 years. “Another student is 89 and has been with me two years,” she said.

Frani Green

Yoga is something that’s often recommended for older adults. It can help strengthen muscles and allow practitioners to become more focused and flexible. This is especially important to prevent dangerous falls.

YogaJournal.com lists some of the many other benefits of yoga, including increasing core strength and improving circulation. In fact, several organizations that focus on the health of older adults recommend yoga. The American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) has articles and links on its website to help seniors get started, with beginner poses, Chair Yoga and even Wheelchair Yoga.

A 2019 article on the SilverSneakers site notes, “Research shows a regular [yoga] practice not only improves balance and mobility in older adults, but it may also help ease back pain, relieve depression, and even reduce blood pressure for people with hypertension.”

Throughout the Atlanta area, there are yoga studios and instructors available to teach and motivate people to improve their well-being. The coronavirus pandemic has created challenges, but yoga instructors say it also has made their services more valuable.

Something for everyone

Green has taught at locations all around Atlanta, including institutions such as Morehouse College and studios like Kashi Atlanta. For 20 years, she held yoga classes at CNN / Turner Broadcasting and the Coca-Cola Co. in their gyms. Once the pandemic hit, the gyms closed.

“I had corporate folks come to my classes for stress reduction, relaxation, rehab from knee replacements, shoulder surgery, frozen shoulder, sciatica, back surgery and pregnancy,” she said, adding that one woman continued the classes through all four of her pregnancies. “She is still my student on Zoom classes, since all the gyms are closed,” Green said.

In 2020, yoga instructors needed to find a new way to teach, and they’ve done it with [online] platforms like Vimeo and Zoom. “I teach three Zoom classes a week and one class at Kashi Atlanta online,” she added. “I’m grateful that I can still teach and help people.”

Her students shared what they get from the classes. Carl Seville has practiced with Green for more than 15 years and said, “Her classes have helped to eliminate years of frequent back pain and improve my overall mental and physical health.”

Melissa Howard, who has attended Green’s classes weekly for 12 years, added, “They’re a critical component of my overall physical and mental health and well-being. I leave feeling refreshed, relaxed, renewed, stretched, calm and strong.”

Green said that she knows that one thing that holds some folks back from yoga is the mistaken idea that yoga is a religion. “It is not,” she stated. “Yoga is an ancient spiritual practice. Only recently, in the past half-century, did yoga arrive in the West as a way to wake up the body and the mind.”

Also, people think that they must be flexible to do it and are concerned that they’ll need to twist themselves into pretzels. Green stressed that that is also false.

“The only flexibility you need to come to class is to be flexible in your mind…your body will follow,” she said. “What I love about yoga is that anybody can do it. It allows you to create space in your whole being and is beneficial in so many ways.”

Yoga instructor Naima Lewis works with one of her students.

Deep breathing

The pandemic hit shortly after Naima Lewis finished developing a new course she calls “Breathe into Believing.” “It assists people in understanding the oxygen / carbon dioxide exchange,” she said. “Yoga is uniquely valuable because it focuses on the breath.”

Lewis holds a doctorate in education, a master’s degree in dance and is an internationally certified yoga therapist, through the International Association of Yoga Therapists. She is also Founder and Director of HYer DYnamic Health Discoveries (HY-DY), a non-profit program begun in 2002. Through HY-DY, Lewis offers yoga and whole human development classes throughout the Atlanta metropolitan area, as well as online classes, and DVDs and CDs on topics such as meditation and weight loss.

Yoga Intructor

Naima Lewis

Breathe into Believing, offered as a series of online courses, is based on fundamental principles and practices of yoga. Lewis has also had success with her “Shaping Shades of Gray” program for people aged 55 to 75. “I designed the program to shape the aging process and to assist and move the body, mind and spirit as we age,” she said.

Not only does Lewis help seniors move into better health, she also provides a way for them to move into yoga as a profession. She began offering a training program about seven years ago. The three-month, 200-hour course is approved through Yoga Alliance, an international, certified organization.

“We encourage seniors to pursue, engage and train to become certified yoga teachers,” Lewis said. “I’m a senior, and I saw that a number of seniors were interested in it.”

She said that many older adults want to do something after they retire, or they look to shift their profession. “Many seniors get to a point where they feel the need to serve and help others,” she said. “That’s what our teacher training offers.”

At least a dozen people over the age of 60 have graduated the teacher training. Three were in their 70s when they completed it. “It is not designed for any one age, race, gender, etc.,” Lewis said. “They just need to have a sincere interest in yoga with a fitness level and the dedication and willingness to contribute to whole human development.”

The program helps participants to understand yoga and learn how to teach it to other adults throughout their lifespan. The next teacher training program will begin March 13, 2021 — as will Breathe into Believing and Shaping Shades of Gray.

Marie, a professor at Life University and graduate of the Shaping Shades of Gray yoga teacher training program, said that it was a wonderful program, “but what I learned was that there’s such a great possibility for the baby boomers to really embrace their bodies and enjoy their life.”

The gentle approach

Twice a week, Springs Yoga in Atlanta offers a Gentle Yoga class, taught by Theresa Barnett. It’s not solely for seniors, but it attracts many older adults. Since the pandemic hit last year, the in-person classes are held according to CDC guidelines, and it’s been made available through Zoom.

“Gentle Yoga is a slower paced practice geared toward all different ages and different abilities,” explained Barnett, a 61-year-old yoga instructor who has been teaching at Springs Yoga for almost 20 years. “It’s gentle, but it’s still moving in a slow, deliberate, paced way.”

yoga on the beach.

Yoga instructor Theresa Barnett practices yoga on the beach.

About 70% of her students are older adults, she said. “I specialize in helping people get in touch with moving.” Barnett said that lot of older people see the yoga poses in books or magazines and think, “there’s no way my body can do that.”

“We celebrate what you can do, and we accept that it may be different tomorrow,” she said.

The way she teaches is a mindfulness practice that focuses on moving and breathing. “It doesn’t matter if you can touch your toes or not,” Barnett said. “I always say that it’s not how far you go, it’s how deep you go.”

Yoga works with balance, she continued. “As we age, things change — like our eyesight, balance, stability. We work on how to use our bodies to stay as vibrant as we can.” Yoga helps to build stamina, endurance, balance and stability, she said. “Let’s do everything we can to prevent falls and stay as healthy as we can.”

Some of Barnett’s students have been with her for a long time. She said that now, with things being closed due to the coronavirus, the classes are something that many of them look forward to in many ways. “To see the friendships that develop is just delightful. We have a community, and we connect with everyone through Zoom,” she said.

Yoga student Fran Gersten, above, strikes a pose.

Ellen Hopkins, a student of Barnett’s, said, “Not only does Theresa’s Zoom yoga uplift me when I’m connected to a supportive community, it helps me to know that it’s Monday or Wednesday. During our COVID challenges, I look forward to her energy and upbeat manner.”

According to Fran Gersten, senior yoga can make you more flexible and stronger. “It also increases your stamina and your endurance,” she added. “It’s wonderful for the soul!”

For 80-year-old Tillie Young, Gentle Yoga calms her breathing and has increased her strength and flexibility. “I feel it helps to counter some natural effects of aging, such as falls and loss of balance. Emotionally, yoga class centers me and deepens my appreciation for others and for nature,” she said. She noted that she is looking forward to returning to in-person yoga classes.

Sandy Gamble shared that she is making a commitment to herself to help sustain her physical and mental well-being, and that she likes doing the yoga in the comfort of her own condo. The yoga classes also help her connect with others. “I am able to enjoy friends that, due to the pandemic, I would not be able to talk and laugh with.”

One positive aspect of holding classes online is that, even when traveling, everyone can still get together for yoga. “I’ve taught from Florida, Ohio, and Dallas, Texas,” Barnett said. “As long as there’s an internet connection, we can still connect and practice.”

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