Yes, you can get a good workout with gentle yoga! I consider myself proof positive. Last year, I tried several online yoga classes that were all good, but none seemed like the right fit for me. Then I discovered Martha Williams from Soulfire Yoga and Healing. I found her through the Thomas Memorial Library in Cape Elizabeth, which was offering many fabulous online resources, including a monthly chair yoga class with Martha. I tried it and ended up joining her regular online class. I now attend her weekly gentle yoga class at the South Portland Community Center.
Gentle yoga when healing
I credit Martha with helping my broken shoulder heal. The surgeon told me I could return to her class immediately as long as I did not use my shoulder until I got his ok. Little by little I was able to get it moving again and along the way, Martha made suggestions about how various poses or postures could be modified to accommodate my lack of mobility. Speaking of mobility, now nearly six months out, I have about 95% mobility in my shoulder. Thank you, Martha, and also, a thank you to Michelle Sirois, who was my wonderful physical therapist at Northern Light Mercy Physical Therapy.
Even before I had my injury, I appreciated how Martha offered modifications or suggested how we could use props to help us do various yoga poses. I’m 73 now and my body isn’t as agile, flexible, or as strong as it once was. With her approach, I have options and I am also encouraged to listen to what my body is telling me.
Martha says the influence behind listening comes from Kripalu yoga, which is what she learned when she started her practice several years ago.
Kripalu yoga is all about listening to your body, being gentle with yourself, and feeling into whether this works for you. You can give yourself permission to modify a posture if that’s most supportive. A big phrase in Kripalu is what does your yoga look like today? Today, your yoga may be that your elbow is lifting up and over instead of your arm fully extended and next week you may be able to extend that arm.Martha Williams, Gentle Yoga instructor
Gentle yoga props
When Martha decided to train to become a yoga instructor, she was introduced to Iyengar yoga, which is where she learned about using props and modifying poses.
B.K.S. Iyengar, a well-known Yogi who has since passed away, was one of the first to use props, such as blocks, straps, and bolsters. He was very focused on alignment and he recognized that not everyone can do certain poses without props and stay in alignment. He was more about I don’t care if your fingertips touch the ground, I want your legs and spine in alignment, so use a block for your fingertips if you have to.Martha
The wonderful thing about yoga, gentle yoga definitely included, is that it’s not just about having your body in alignment.
It’s good for the body and the soul and the mind, and then in the midst of the pandemic to be able to calm the nervous system, even just a little bit, is huge.Martha
Gentle yoga experiences
Sometimes, at the end of class, when we’re in the Shavasana pose and gradually relaxing every part of the body, I feel as if I am floating. I’m always amazed that I don’t fall asleep, but I never feel sleepy, just relaxed and energized.
Here’s something else that amazes me. I don’t feel like I have to do every pose perfectly. Even that time I was trying to stay balanced doing a lunge and nearly wiped out the woman next to me (six feet away!), I didn’t cringe with embarrassment or feel like quitting. Maybe it’s that I’ve reached an age where I can shrug things off or maybe it’s the atmosphere in Martha’s class.
You don’t want to force yourself into something that doesn’t work for the body and that’s hard for a lot of people when they first come to class. They may think they need to imitate what the teacher’s doing, who likely has many years of yoga practice under their belt and is probably a lot more flexible than somebody who may be new to yoga. And then our mind may tell us that we must look like others, that we’re less than if we can’t get our foot all the way back in a high lunge or if we can’t balance without the use of a wall. We can do a number on ourselves.Martha
Self-awareness is an aspect of any kind of yoga, but with an important distinction.
It’s very much about awareness and thoughtfulness and being kind to ourselves, and also trying to get to a place that Swami Kripalu said is the highest form of spiritual practice, which is observation without judgement. Can you observe your body, how you’re coming into a posture, how you feel in the posture, your experience of the posture, your limitations within a posture? Can you observe that without judging yourself?Martha
We often do repetitive sequences of poses in class. An important thing that I have learned is that I may not be able to do something the first time, but I often can by the third time. It is such a satisfying feeling. And as I’ve mentioned, I’m grateful when Martha offers some options or variations. Taking her class has become a priority for me.
Gentle yoga video demos
If you’re curious, here are three short videos of Martha demonstrating some modified poses. By the way, if you have any health or joint issues, you should always check with your doctor before starting any new exercise.
In this video, she shows how to do the child’s pose if you’ve got some issues with your knees.
As we age, it’s not usually a good idea to do a deep spinal twist. In this video, Martha demonstrates a gentler variation.
And finally, Martha demonstrates the traditional downward facing dog posture followed by some modifications.