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Chair Yoga Becomes A Breakout Hit

Self-compassion, compassion for our fellow humans, and community. These have always been the hallmarks of Gigi Boetto’s teachings. And these tenets inspired her to bring Chair Yoga to Williamsburg’s Abhyasa Yoga Center. It's a respite from the week where people of all ages have started to come and do a form of yoga that can heal body, heart, and mind.

Something very special has developed with the growing class—the regulars have become a family.

“Do you want to take class?” asked Boetto, as I entered the studio. “I want to warn you, we do a lot of talking!” I told her I was fine with that. Then everyone's eyes widened at the student entering behind me, who carried a batch of giant zucchinis from her garden to share with the group. We burst out laughing at their enormity, and the tone of the afternoon was set. “As a symbol of growth, and abundance, I’m putting my zucchini up front!” announced Boetto, as she placed it at the foot of her mat.

The class is for yogis with limited mobility and anyone who wants a more subtle practice. It's mostly comprised of women, of middle to retirement age, plus others from the Abhyasa community.

“This is the core group right here!” beamed Boetto. They’re a close-knit bunch. She explained that Marie, was the catalyst behind the class. She started taking class at Abhyasa after a challenging series of changes. “I can’t kneel down, and can’t get up if I fall because of my artificial knees,” Marie explained to the teacher, who happened to be J. Brown, the studio's founder. “So I improvised some of the other students' motions.” It was then that another student went out and brought her a chair. “Now you can do the same as us!” Brown told Marie, who soon became a regular and starting bringing friends along. And they brought friends, and so on…

Boetto was thus inspired to launch Chair Yoga in January 2013, thanks to Marie, who she describes as "Street-smart tough. Tough as nails but soft as a pussycat." The whole experience has become as profound and rewarding an experience for the teacher as it has for the students.

“I always referred to this group as my 'Chair Ladies',” said Boetto. “And we always talk at the beginning of class. And I do a lot of talking. I bring my own ‘stuff’ to class too. We share and sometimes we cry. And I get really good advice from them, too. And now, I refer to them as my 'Yoga Moms'! These things matter, just having their presence is really important.”

One absentee, a regular named Cullen, is referred to by the others as their “grandson.”

“Cullen said that he wanted to explore gentle yoga, and I said ‘pull up a chair'!” Boetto remembered. “He tried this and told me he realized that he was overpushing in his regular classes. It’s a much more subtle practice in many ways.”

And then we all talked, vented, and laughed, and when we were ready, we eased into asana. As Marie said, “Get your head together, and then get everything else in place.”

We sat up on our chairs, found a place where we felt sturdy, and closed our eyes. “Settle in to the grounding of your feet,” said Boetto. “Bring your attention to your breath without controlling it. You might notice movement and sound. See if you can notice other parts of your body.”

We moved on to Sun Salutations. “Strong, fluid Sthira Sukha,” instructed Boetto, as we performed a seated Mountain pose, and then chanted “Om Shri Shri Namaha” as we tried modified Baby Cobra. We next brought our legs out parallel, grabbed the sides of the chair and dorsiflexed our feet, wiggled our toes and then added circular ankle movements. “Notice if your knees and hips get involved,” said Boetto, “and then just go back to bringing attention to the toes.”

We brought our shoulders to our ears and inhaled, sighing gratefully as we dropped them back down. “Let’s just do that for the rest of class,” suggested Boetto to nods of agreement.

Instead, we carried on to Warrior Two, widening out our hips, “in a place that’s not too strenuous.” We kept our chest facing forward as we spiraled our arms up and turned our heads to the side. “Go at your pace with your breath,” Boetto reminded us.

Even as we breathed and stretched, everyone continued to chat and laugh. It was such a warm and relaxed atmosphere.

“We all have different personalities and backgrounds,” said Marie, “but the one common thing we all have is that we’ve all had happiness and tragedies. And we’re able to be here to support one another. We have camaraderie here. It made me realize I’m not in this all by myself. We’re not alone.”

“I know that my mother and her friends and even female teachers, feel that as they get older, they are disappearing from society,” said Boetto. “I think many older women—and men—stop feeling seen or heard. I think our culture tends to view older folks as 'cute' instead of whole beings that have been through a ton and can teach us a thing or two. I want to make sure these ladies are seen and heard. They’ve had some very beautiful journeys and I want to hear what they have to offer to the world.”

Chair Yoga is every Tuesday at Abhyasa Yoga Center, from 2pm-3:30pm, and is only $9.

Try it!

—Jim Catapano

—Illustration by Sharon Watts (to see more of her work, click here.)

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