Wednesday, November 7, 2012

A Lesson in Breaking Free of Confines

Tom's hoping Mitt Romney wins the election. He's not bold about it, but merely suggests it by way of a good-natured, Florida drawl. His eyes are gentle and wet; the left one, he says, still recovering from Glaucoma surgery. He glances back toward the TV as Wolf Blitzer taps states on an interactive map "red" and "blue."

"Northern Florida tends to be conservative," Tom offers pleasantly. "The South is a bit more liberal, with all the Northeast folks making their way down there."

I'm sitting on my rolled-up yoga mat on the floor next to Tom's wheelchair. He's parked next to a simple hospital-like bed with mismatched linens; the whole brown-and-beige room looking like something out of eastern Europe. Some pressed polo shirts hang from 60s-style cupboards, and only a handful of items - lotion, a trinket made by a child, etc. - pepper his nightstand. In the two years he's been here, he's hardly decorated; either because he doesn't believe he's staying for good, or just prefers simplicity.

Santosh Maknikar, the founder of Yoga For People, is standing nearby, checking his phone for an update from "Angie."

"Looks like she'll be a little late," Santosh says. "So, let's get started with Pranayama breathing."

I slip into the ancient exercise alongside Tom, whose breath flows less freely than mine. His neck tucks into his chest, and his chest leans towards his stomach, restricting the flow. But still, his inhale and exhale grow long and relaxed, a testament to his quiet determination.

This is Tom's third, private, adaptive yoga session with Yoga For People, a non-profit providing yoga to everyone, unconditionally. Because Santosh volunteers his yoga coaching, 62-year-old Tom - who's in limbo until government benefits kick in - can engage in free physical therapy. Otherwise, he's confined to his room all but one hour a week; that's all the time the nursing home can afford to take Tom from his room, down to the modest-at-best exercise area for what Tom calls "excruciatingly painful" range of motion drills.

"I can't get on the machines by myself," Tom later laments. "So I'm glad ya'll come do yoga with me."

We're just finishing the breathing exercise when "Angie" shows up.

"Sorry, I overextended myself today," she says apologetically.

Angie is Tom's nurse assistant, who has returned after work AND another volunteer effort just so she can be there when Tom does his yoga. He's been telling her he'd like to do it ever since she started working at the home in May. Apparently, Tom used to practice before Multiple Sclerosis took over his body two decades ago. Angie, a yoga enthusiast, found Yoga For People and scheduled Santosh to come down and help Tom.

With every feature of an athlete down to the neon Nikes, young Angie's tall, lean body pushes Tom out of the room, and we make our way down to the exercise facility. There, a few archaeic machines make a perimeter, and a dusty, fake tree in the corner is someone's attempt at making the place a little more homey. The brown and beige has taken over this room, too, washing it with a vintage vibe. I do, however, notice a Wii console and fully stocked game stand.

It takes a motorized contraption called a "sit to stand" to get Tom out of his chair and onto the low, wide, padded table on which Santosh will coach him through basic movement. This will be Tom's yoga - lift your leg here, rotate your wrist there, tuck your chin, BREATHE.

"The breathing is the most important thing," Santosh says to Tom as he struggles to lift his left arm. "Don't hold your breath."

Though not a doctor, Santosh is a lifetime yogi who holds a deep awareness of his body. During yoga, you feel every muscle, get to know every joint, feel breath awaken every artery. So it's interesting to see him apply this knowledge toward rehabilitation efforts that appear to get results with really just the simplest movements.

Yoga For People founder Santosh Maknikar talks Tom through breath and movement

As Santosh coos out commands, Angie applies some loving pats to Tom's arm; fixes his shirt; lends a hand with an arm lift; even muscles him back into sitting position. When Tom's eyes were closed, her loving gaze watched out for his wellbeing. It was beautiful how much she enjoyed seeing Tom get some therapy, and clear his mind.


"I usually slouch in my chair, but I'm sitting up straighter," Tom says with that post-yoga calmness. And it's true. It seems he's grown an inch, but more important than that, he obviously feels empowered. He starts slowly running through a list of his improvements, from deeper breathing to his loosened up shoulders.

Tom (right) has been asking for yoga as therapy for years. His CNA Angie recently connected him with Yoga For People.

Tom used to work for the IRS. His last workday was in 1990. And after both hearing about his determination in finding physical therapy, as well as his commitment to each pose in today's session, this does NOT seem like a man who's okay with not having a job.

This is a man confined in so many ways: In his depressing nursing home room; in his wheelchair; in his own body. But with Yoga For People, Tom has found a toolkit to chisel away the cement encasing his life. He's found breathing to unburden his mind, and yoga to loosen his body and add movement to his world. Tom's gentle eyes are filled with hope, and I'm grateful at YFP won't let him down.

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