FEATURED PRESENTER OF THE MONTH
Hamsa Spagnola, C-IAYT, E-RYT 500, T.R.M.
Interview by Sarah McElwain
I am quite passionate about this training. It has been my life’s work. The Adaptive Gentle and Chair Yoga Teacher Training has evolved over many years. I discovered Yoga on TV in the 1960s with Richard Hittleman and then in the ’70s with Lilias Folan, to whom I was very drawn. I loved her gentility, her smile, and how she taught. I was studying ballet at that time. I bought some Yoga books and began my own Yoga practice and research. I met a Yoga teacher, who became my mentor and taught me how to work with people of varying limitations and ages. That was when I made a conscious decision to get formal Yoga training, with the intention of teaching one day.
In 1987 I took my Level 1 Teacher Training at IYINY with Swami Asokananda. I loved the training, especially the philosophical aspects. At that time the training was quite limited compared with how it is today. We were specifically instructed not to touch the students; the only assists were verbal. I noticed that many of the students would not or could not do certain asana, and if they attempted them, their alignment would be totally off and they could potentially injure themselves. I spoke privately with Swami Asokananda and suggested that we create a more gentle class for those who were physically, or for one reason or another, unable to do a regular Level 1 class. He liked the idea. I asked him whether I had to stick to the 14 asana in the Level 1 class, and he said to do whatever I felt would be best to meet the needs of those students. And so it began. I started with one elderly student who had a number of physical limitations. We worked with a pillow and a strap (which I brought with me, since we had no props at that time). Within a few weeks, more and more students showed up, some in wheelchairs, some with canes, some who were elderly and frail, some who simply wanted a gentler class.
I approached Asokanandaji again to suggest offering a Gentle Teacher Training. He agreed, and I put together a manual. Thus began our first Gentle Yoga TT, in 1996. The prerequisite was that the students must already be certified as Yoga teachers, which is true to this day. Shortly thereafter I developed a Chair Yoga Teacher Training and put together a Chair manual.
In 2005 the board of directors in Yogaville decided we needed to create one Integral Yoga Gentle/Chair Teacher Training Manual, which would be applicable to all IYI schools. So, with the suggestion of Swamis Ramananda in San Francisco and Asokonanda in New York and Sarvananda and Suddhananda in Yogaville, and via many phone conferences between me (New York), Jivana and Sambasiva (San Francisco), and Swamis Sarvananda and Suddhananda (Yogaville), we combined our manuals and developed one, specific Gentle and Chair Yoga manual to be used in all the Integral Yoga schools. That manual is a work in progress. We have now added photos of many of the modified asana, utilizing props and demonstrating assists.
Today the Adaptive Gentle and Chair Yoga Teacher Training is about learning to adapt and modify the asana, to make them accessible to people of all ages and limitations: baby boomers who want to stay active but whose bodies may no longer be as flexible as they once were; our elders who may no longer be able to get down on the mat but can work from a chair or standing up behind the chair; the disabled who may be in a wheelchair owing to a stroke, an amputation or a paralyzed limb, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s, or cerebral palsy; people with arthritis, spinal cord injuries, neck injuries, heart conditions, or mastectomies; cancer survivors; or people who simply want a gentler class.
I know from experience that no matter what level of Yoga is being taught, the teacher will encounter someone in his or her class who has an injury or some sort of limitation, and this training will help to make the class experience a positive one for that student. It really takes trusting your own instincts, creating a safe space for the students, and teaching from your heart. The key is to know already many of the traditional asana; from there you can explore variations as they relate to an individual student. If, at the beginning of your classes, you ask the ego to step aside and ask spirit to guide you, your classes will ebb and flow beautifully and your students will leave having received exactly what they need.
In my 35-plus years of teaching, I have been honored, inspired, and grateful to do this work. I have learned much and have made many friends. We have shared much laughter as well as some tears. I could not have asked for a better job. I love my work!
Several people who have been an integral part of this training for many years deserve thanks: Achala Godino, my assistant, photographer, computer geek, and osteoporosis and Raja teacher from 2005 to 2015; Daya Eberhardt, learned in anatomy/physiology as it relates to various conditions; Inga Benson, scoliosis expert; Rev. Sam Rudra Swartz, current assistant and Raja teacher from 2016; and Taravati Turcinovic, current assistant from 2017. Finally, a great big “Thank you!” and a hug to Swami Asokonanda for having faith and trust in my vision and to Swami Ramananda for continuing that when he came to New York.