In a spare, softly lit room, 12 pairs of arms reach to the ceiling and lower to the floor. A shy, pretty 20-year-old, Melissa Cabrera beams as she performs the movements.
It could be any yoga class, with three differences: Most of the students have limited mobility, they perform the yoga in a chair for greater support and the classes, held Thursdays at Coconut Grove’s Dharma Studio, are free.
Cabrera, for one, is recovering from a rupture caused by an arteriovenous malformation she was born with, a condition that paralyzed the right half of her body.
Kelly Messett, a recreation therapist at Jackson Rehabilitation Hospital, started the yoga program in March with a group of her outpatients who were living at home, with an assist from Jackson. The number of regular attendees is 10 and counting.
“It was the community that came together and made it bigger than we ever thought it would be,” Messett says.
Dr. William Schnapp, a neurologist and interventional pain fellow at Jackson Memorial Hospital who founded the non-profit Adaptive Sports, made an immediate decision to fund the classes after attending a session with Messett and yoga instructor Meredith Bass.
“I was blown away by the number and diversity of the people,” says Schnapp, whose foundation supports exercise programs that help people with limited mobility reach their full potential. “But what tore my heart out was that their insurance only covered three or four sessions,’’ he says.
“That’s nice, but unlikely to change someone’s long-term outcome. I wanted to make something consistent, so every week they know there’s going to be yoga.”
Dharma co-owner Natalie Morales didn’t have to be convinced to volunteer her studio. She had seen the benefits of chair yoga while working with Korean and Vietnam War veterans. “I’d been waiting for an opportunity to add a chair class when Meredith approached me. I thought, ‘Finally. Yes.’ ”
“Prana: It means breath. It’s your life force,” Bass coaches the class. “We’re going to take breaths deep in the belly. It’ll sound like Darth Vader if you’re doing it right.”
Bass had worked for 12 years with Shake-A-Leg Miami, the Coconut Grove adaptive water sports program co-founded by Dr. Barth Green, chairman of neurosurgery at UM and chief of neurosurgery at Jackson Memorial Hospital, and Harry Horgan, a sailor who suffered a spinal cord injury in 1980. The sailing program helps to strengthen people with physical and developmental disabilities.
“I have this desire and passion to help people,’’ says Bass, whose brother suffered a traumatic brain injury in infancy.
Motivated by her personal as well as professional experience, she reached out to the community to develop an adaptive yoga program. The free Thursday chair class at Dharma is the result.
“This isn’t a therapy session,” she cautions. “These people have had enough therapy. Yoga gives them small but tangible benefits that they can achieve at home. They feel more ‘normal.’ ’’
Therapeutic benefits aside, ‘normal’ is a mantra of the class, which is open to all comers, disabled or not. Family members participate alongside many of the former patients.
Octavio Llerna, 62, still feeling the effects of a 1994 car accident, comes with his wife Aracely, 60. “I can’t run. I can’t walk fast. But I can do yoga like anyone else,” Llerna says.
Liza Mosquera forms a supported fish pose alongside her 30-year old son Arturo, who suffered a stroke during open-heart surgery. “Arturo is a miracle,” she says.
After six months in the hospital, a year in a wheelchair and three in a variety of therapies, he sits up and walks independently.
As they assume a final relaxation pose, eyes closed, arms extended on either side, Bass moves among the students, touching their palms with aromatic oil. Edwin Phillips, a Royal Caribbean pastry chef disabled by a stroke from an on-the-job accident, bows his head.
The room fills with their voices blending into a sustained, melodic sound. “Ohm.”