YogaCity NYC's Elysha Lenkin sat down with Elizabeth Plapinger, architect and director of this unusual class, to learn more about using yoga for mental wellness.
Elysha Lenkin: Your program takes place at TBP, hospitals, and community centers. How did this get started?
Elizabeth Plapinger: It was founded by Bess Abrahams, a yoga therapist, back in 2004, as a pilot program for the BP. I joined Bess in the late fall of 2004. I began as her assistant and was mentored by her. (That mentoring work remains a facet of our program today). In 2005, we began co-teaching, and then I took over the program, with Bess as my co-director. The same mentoring to assistant to co-director pattern was followed with our third YMW partner, L. Ruth Kalvert. Currently, I run and direct the program, and my partners provide support as needed.
EL: How did YMW get into hospitals and community mental health programs?
EP: Our first hospital assignment was at Mount Sinai in 2006. Bess took us there. She was working with a young woman who had been routinely hospitalized since she was 16. Bess visited her, and started the yoga program for the young adults.
EL: What is the difference between your classes at the different locations?
EP: My teaching changes given the resources of the room and the abilities and needs of the students. The studio is fully stocked with props. At a hospital or community mental health center, the poses I teach can also vary depending on the props that are available. But the skills and ideas I teach are always the same.
If I only have chairs, I start students seated in them for the opening breath and meditation work. Then I teach standing poses, using the chair or wall as a prop (e.g., modified down dog), and then seated poses, and finally, chair savasana.
EL: Why chairs?
EP: I use chairs in all my classes for several reasons. They are a non-threatening way to begin a practice, whereas floor work can be intimidating, particularly for those who are not comfortable getting up and down. Additionally, we often find ourselves sitting on the subway or bus, at work, or at the dinner table, and I like to teach students to explore the possibilities of decreasing anxiety and stress in those situations. We may be able to interrupt anxious or depressed thoughts by bringing awareness to our breath in a balanced sitting posture.
In all my classes, I focus on standing and walking. Again, bringing attention to habitual actions can interrupt unhelpful thought patterns and introduce us to the rich resources of our bodies.
I use mindful walking to teach balancing poses, noting that with each step we take, we shift weight and move through a balancing pose. When students realize that they are balancing with each step, poses can become less daunting.
EL: Can anybody attend this class?
EP: There’s no litmus test. Anybody can take the class. Our students live with a range of emotional, mental, and physical issues that bring them to classes, including distress caused by grief, job loss, and other stressors, as well as chronic and persistent mental illnesses. We get students from their late 20s and early 30s through age 60—both new and old yogis like.
There are people who are having a hard time, and want to come because they think it’s valuable, and then there are people who have been in the mental health system for many years.
During the recession of 2009, a lot of students attended who had lost their jobs and were dealing with the turmoil of losing their incomes. Yoga can be a respite from anxiety. You come to your mat and, for at least an hour, if you’re following all the crazy instructions—like push down your big toe mound, and raise your little finger to the ceiling—your mind is occupied and you are finding the link between breath and movement. There’s this “Ah, I’ve been without those thunderstorms in my head and now I can look at things in a different way.”
EL: What’s one way you encourage your students to get out of their heads and tune into the resources of their bodies?
EP: I help my students find their feet, and the support of gravity. And I teach them to notice all of the movement that run through their bodies, so that they feel the support and strength of their bones. We do a lot of downward pushing, with upward momentum. The body rebounds from the floor.
EL: Why do you cap the class at eight at TBProject?
EP: To foster a sense of community. Small groups, support groups, can be very healing. I see it in students who are severely ill, they’re outside of the job market—they may be living on disability, or in supportive residences—and they’re really isolated, for lots of reasons. This becomes an important part of their lives—the connections they make, the friends. We treat them like valuable adults. I think illness can weaken your sense of self, purpose, and livliness.
EL: When did you first recognize the healing powers of yoga?
EP: During a period of turbulence in my life. My yoga mat became a place of support. I found that I would come into my yoga classes at the Hoboken Y (taught by Jillian Pransky) worrying about something, and I’d come out with a new perspective because of the respite, and because I had been treated as a valued being. To be told that you’re perfect in our culture can be very powerful.
EL: What do you enjoy most about YMW?
EP: Seeing people who don’t smile very often find delight and confidence in having done something that they thought they couldn’t do.
I was practicing tree pose the other day, and I couldn’t find my balance! Usually, it’s not a problem, but it was gone. So instead of saying "Oh, I wish I was like that...or I wish I could do what I did 20 years ago...," I found delight in being where I was, and looked at the moment with curiosity and compassion.
Classes are held twice a week at The Breathing Project. Click here to learn more.