It’s never too late to start learning.

Posted on: February 22nd, 2018 by ECY

IMG_0681The sunlit conservatory of a care home in south Edinburgh is a far cry from a conventional yoga studio.

There are no mats, blocks, bolsters or burning incense. Instead a number of high backed chairs are arranged in a circle, with small gaps to tuck in walking aids and bigger gaps for wheelchairs.

But in this lovely space, which is full of light even on the dullest days, a group of dedicated and enthusiastic yoga students have been turning up for an hour of gentle, seated asana and pranayama practice for almost a year now.

They are all residents of the care home, and the Monday morning classes are tailored to their specific needs. Most of those who attend are in their 80s and 90s, predominantly women but with a good number of men. Some use a wheelchair, others walk using a Zimmer frame or walking stick.

Several have had knee or hip replacements, a few have dementia, a couple are recovering from a stroke. They all know the aches and pains of old age – but they don’t treat them as limitations.

The care home yogis are a lively, entertaining and open-minded bunch. They work hard during class, challenging themselves in postures that don’t come easily and giving themselves over entirely to savasana at the end.

They don’t wear workout gear, preferring the comfort of their own clothes. And we don’t do the class barefoot.

Other than that, the flow of the chair practice is similar to mat-based yoga classes.

I started teaching this class for Edinburgh Community Yoga a few months after completing my YTT 200 Hour course. Chair yoga wasn’t covered in my teaching course – I doubt it’s included in many basic trainings. But there are experienced and imaginative chair yoga teachers out there and I spent long hours poring over their YouTube videos and studying their sequencing.

I also used my 87-year-old Dad as a willing Guinea pig, trying out seated practice sequences with him and getting feedback on how the poses felt to someone who lives a sedentary life and was new to any form of yoga.

It turns out many asanas can be adapted for chair yoga. Sun salutations, the “standing” postures and twists can all be done seated, and offer the same benefits.

IMG_0669Pranayama and mindful breathing don’t require a mat and savasana can be enjoyed in a chair.

We start the class with some mindful breathing exercises and a body scan to see how everyone is feeling.

There are joint warm up exercises, seated sun salutations, asanas focused on bringing mobility and releasing tension in the lower back – built up from long periods of sitting still – and seated twists, again to help spinal movement.

We do work on the legs and ankles to build up strength and improve mobility. Falls and loss of balance affect many elderly people. Exercises that utilise quads and develop greater ankle flexibility can help overcome a fear of falling.

From the beginning the feedback from the care home yogis has been reassuringly positive. One man said that his son had commented on an improvement in his walking, which he attributed to the yoga.

Another woman said that the time we spend on pranayama is one of the few times her mind isn’t racing with things to do or worries about her family.

Only one of the residents had any previous yoga experience. She went to classes in South Africa where she lived as a young woman. She is now in a wheelchair after suffering a stroke, but she remembers the connection of breath and movement and brings it to her chair practice.

And one woman who didn’t realise you could do yoga in a chair, and thought she would be expected to use a mat, said: “I could get down on a mat, but I definitely wouldn’t be able to get up again!”

After class there is a chance to catch up over tea and biscuits, which is when the residents share the rich and varied stories of their lives. It’s one of my favourite parts of the morning.

The chair yoga class is entirely voluntary for residents, and it is heartwarming to see how many ‘regulars’ keep turning up to practice.

Yoga in care homes is relatively new and not widely available, but this innovative care home offers a range of activities, all driven by the residents themselves. As the activities manager explained: “The residents run this place. We only facilitate it for them. And they asked for yoga.”

With a wealth of evidence highlighting the benefits of yoga throughout life, and an ageing population, the opportunities for chair yoga and other modified practices are growing. It would be great to see more residential homes and sheltered accommodation providers offering yoga to older people. IMG_1119

As the Edinburgh care home yogis show, the combination of movement and breath can benefit everyone. Chair yoga might not be the acrobatic, designer-legging yoga of Instagram, but gentle, seated asana practice, and pranayama is still yoga, in its purest form.

And in the care home conservatory, the residents flowing through their seated sun salutations are proof that it’s never too late to start learning.

Gillian Harris ECY yoga teacher.






LGBTQ Yoga, Amy Hughes

Posted on: October 23rd, 2017 by ECY





This autumn I began teaching a free LGBTQ yoga class at Santosa Yoga Studio. I have long felt that some groups are underrepresented in mainstream yoga studios. With the growth of the ‘yoga industry’ (an oxymoron if ever I heard one), yoga has become increasingly popular primarily amongst middle class people who can afford the gear and the sometimes prohibitive class prices. Likewise, the focus on the external body beautiful and fitness fashion (gone are the suggestions of loose clothing) can deter people who cannot, or preferably choose not, to see themselves in this way. Combine this with them being increasingly gender normative spaces with gendered changing, clothing and postural descriptions and we may have some reasons for the limited demographic. Certainly over 20 years of practice, I have seen the community change a lot and whilst more people are doing yoga, not all yoga classes and spaces feel inclusive.

On the flip side of this organisations like Edinburgh Community Yoga (ECY) and studios like Santosa are making a real rather than token effort to keep yoga accessible. ECY bring yoga to all sorts of groups and whilst many LGBTQ folk access non-LGBTQ classes, it felt important to me, and many of the LGBTQ people I spoke to, to offer a safe and supportive space to bring our community together and provide another valuable LGBTQ Health and Wellbeing community group for folk who have accessed this support service. Janis and her staff at Santosa have made us very welcome, they have a gender neutral changing area and welcome students to use the café to socialise pre class. They also offer the space for free and I am exceedingly grateful as we could not run it as it is without their generosity.

I had originally thought to run a trans and gender non—binary class as my partner Tom is trans and he found yoga invaluable during his transition, a time when he felt a more intense version of what many of us struggle with in terms of learning to love and accept our bodies and find a quiet mind. This feeling about the therapeutic benefits of yoga and meditation for gender queer folk is reiterated time and again in online forums and communities for Trans and LGBTQ community. Regularly, over my 13 years of teaching I have seen yoga’s potential to change people’s relationships with themselves and their bodies in truly transformative ways. LGBT Health and Wellbeing suggested we open it up to the broader LGBTQ community suggesting that all might benefit.

We recently completed the proposed eight week pilot and have decided to continue, as the uptake has been incredible. We have had over thirty people in attendance over the eight weeks it has run, with a crew of steady regulars too. Many have already spoken of the physical, mental and spiritual benefits and interestingly some suggested they felt nervous of going to other classes.

The class is gentle, with traditional asanas conducted in a mindful way with attention to the breath so that the focus is not just on strength and flexibility but also on relaxation and mental quiet. Students also regularly comment on the energy and atmosphere of the studio at Santosa, which is very special. Janis the owner suggested that it was a little piece of Nepal and I think she might be right – there is a steady spiritual quiet there that supports our practice. Namaste face shot

Amy Hughes



Offering unconditional positive regard, an ECYOutreach update

Posted on: July 6th, 2017 by ECY

Edinburgh Community Yoga’s Outreach projects update.  Edinburgh Community Yoga final outreach-01



Edinburgh Community Yoga is a not-for-profit social enterprise which means every penny goes back into the organisation to develop our outreach projects. That means by joining our classes, attending our retreats or supporting our fundraisers you help us to do what we do best; making yoga accessible to everyone! So a huge thank you for all your support and here’s a wee update on what we’re up to..

Edinburgh Community Yoga’s outreach projects continue to go from strength to strength. Our ambitious programme of classes and workshops now extends to veterans, women affected by trauma, psychiatric in-patients, prisoners and NHS staff.

At the heart of everything we do is the notion of unconditional positive regard. Many of the people we work with are battling with mental health issues, chaotic lifestyles, addiction, poverty, social isolation and low self-esteem. We believe that while we may not always like an individual’s behaviour, as yoga teachers and therapists a fundamental part of our role involves looking past the behaviour and offering a compassionate attitude to whoever finds their way onto a yoga mat.

Being accepted and respected may be an unfamiliar experience for many of our outreach students and in offering a genuine non-judgmental space in which to open and let go we aim to allow a seed of healing to be planted.

Most of the time offering unconditional positive regard is easy. We often find our outreach students to be the warmest and most open. But that isn’t always the case. In those more testing moments we rely on our own practice to ground us in the fundamentals of yoga – non violence, compassion, respect and truthfulness. This doesn’t mean disregarding our own right for respect – when working in prisons and secure hospitals our own safety is of course of the upmost importance – but our belief that offering respect invites it, does seem to serve us well.

We are often asked how, when teaching a group of convicted violent criminals, do we continue to show unconditional positive regard? The answer is very simple; by seeing the person not the behaviour. Yoga is about oneness and connection. If you as the teacher can create a safe space, and practice with an honest intention, the barriers begin to dissolve. We are simply humans, moving and breathing together.

Experiencing trauma is familiar for many of the people we work with, so developing a trauma informed approach is close to our hearts. We recently had the good fortune to receive funding from First State Scotland to run a weekly yoga class and weekend yoga retreat for women in recovery and affected by trauma as part of a year long project with Womenzone, run by local charity Comas. What a privilege it was to witness women growing together in a weekend dedicated to healing, self-compassion and cultivating calm. One of the attendees wrote afterward: “My idea of yoga was bending into shapes that seemed impossible, how wrong could I be? Yoga teachers who just get you, they take you on a journey of emotional discovery through breathing-you can find peace.”

Lorraine Close, the outreach director for Edinburgh Community Yoga has been running a weekly class for these women over the past year and between them they have built an extraordinary healing sanga, which continues to grow and develop. Sadly the project is threatened due to loss of funding but we are hopeful that this will be resolved through continued fundraising efforts.

Undeterred by the current climate of austerity we continue to seek funding for our projects and to grow and develop.

We have recently launched an innovative venture working with Scottish military veterans. We are running yoga classes for staff and residents at Whitefoord House, a Veterans residence, as part of a 12 month project funded through the Scottish Veterans Fund. Our work is in collaboration with the Veterans Community Café and Keith McKenzie, a mindfulness teacher and Buddhist Chaplain for the military. Keith is also a veteran and his support in this project is invaluable.

Many people who have served in the military find themselves in difficult circumstances on return. Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a common occurrence, as is homelessness and drug and alcohol misuse. In offering the transformative practices of yoga and meditation to this community we hope to provide valuable new ways of coping as they adjust to life outside of the forces.

Meanwhile our addiction recovery programmes roll on for a fourth year with classes running at Lothian Edinburgh Addiction Program, Comas and Penumbra Milestone house which rehabilitates people with Alcohol related brain damage (ARBD). Penny Horner, one of our valued outreach team, who teaches the eight-week course, writes of her work for Penumbra:

“Yoga is one of a number of activities offered to residents to help them on their journey. ARBD is caused by heavy alcohol consumption over a period of time. It presents differently across individuals. There might be both cognitive impairment and physical disability, in varying levels of severity, caused by the brain damage and compounded by falls, poor nutrition and so on as a result of heavy drinking. Withdrawal from alcohol dependency itself brings its own issues. Anxiety, inability to sleep, depression and lethargy are common experiences. It is incredibly rewarding to hear from participants how the session allows them to feel more relaxed than they have felt for a long time and to pass on tools from nidra and meditation for people to use themselves when they find themselves becoming anxious or distressed in a way that is safe and accessible for them.”

Our classes supporting psychiatric in-patients also continue to thrive. At the Royal Edinburgh hospital in Morningside our drop-in class (which began in 2012) is still going strong with another one of our outreach teachers, Eva Alberiche offering a place of calm and safety. The class has become extremely important to the regulars who attend and helps serve as a stepping-stone to rehabilitation for patients making the transition back into the community.

Over the past year Lorraine has been running a trauma informed class for people who self-harm with the support of Merrick Pope, Clinical Nurse Specialist from the self harm service. Self harm is a complex issue that is often a result of repeated traumatic life experience. The class allows people to begin to safely explore physical sensation in the body, experience the present moment and make choices in the way they move and breathe. One participant says of her experience:

“The benefit of yoga has been physically accepting the body and its failings – being able to touch the body without feeling repulsed.”

And another:

“Being more connected or in tune with your body – not treating it as separate entity or a punch bag when anxious , stressed . Learning how mind can control body and body can control mind – feeling ‘whole’ and centered.”

At ECY we believe that yoga should be adapted to fit the person not the person the yoga. In our continued efforts to make the practices accessible to everyone Eva also runs a chair based class which allows some of our more mature students and others who may be living with long term health conditions to gain the deeply relaxing and immune boosting benefits of a more gentle approach. Eva’s ability to pitch the class just right for the participants offers students accessible ways to move and breath mindfully. Gillian Harris a new recruit to ECY, is taking her interest delivering chair yoga into a local care home where the residents enjoy a series of chair-based stretches and postures designed to improve mobility and mindful breathing exercises for relaxation.

Financing our work remains an uphill struggle so we are always delighted when organisations commit to continuing our classes. We have just had the go ahead to continue with the classes currently running in a secure psychiatric hospital in Lanarkshire. I run weekly yoga therapy groups with in-patients and staff. In the morning I work with two groups, one with additional learning needs where we work on developing focus and concentration through movement and breath and a second class specifically designed to work on issues around mental health Our practices focus on developing an internal connection, learning to regulate emotions, self-compassion and respect. My visit ends with a staff class who are always grateful for the chance to nurture themselves.

Love Laura x

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