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Yoga, Tai Chi Give Seniors Sense of Renewed Well-Being

  • Residents Avis Hutchins, left, Helen Harkay ,and Pat Parkins hold their hands in prayer position at Valley Terrace in White River Junction, Vt., on Oct. 4, 2017. Residents participate in a class combining yoga and tai chi. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Valley News — Jennifer Hauck

  • Yoga instructor Pippa Drew leads residents Joan Cohen and Ted Barrett during a class that is a combination of yoga and tai chi at Valley Terrace in White River Junction, Vt., on Oct. 4, 2017. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Valley News — Jennifer Hauck

  • Valley Terrace resident Avis Hutchins gently puts her hands on her neck during a yoga combination tai chi class in White River Junction, Vt., on Oct. 4, 2017. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Jennifer Hauck

  • At the end of class Valley Terrace resident Sherril Rafferty holds her hands in prayer position on Oct. 4, 2017 in White River Junction, Vt. Rafferty attends a yoga combination tai chi class at the facility. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Jennifer Hauck

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 10/4/2017 11:37:18 PM
Modified: 10/4/2017 11:37:18 PM

Wilder — Yoga instructor Pippa Drew understands that many elderly residents cope with various forms of loss while they age. At Valley Terrace senior living facility, Drew’s classes aim to help residents recover some of their physical and emotional well-being.

Drew, of Post Mills, leads twice-weekly sessions of chair yoga that incorporate elements of both Kripalu and Iyengar practices, the former emphasizing more free-flowing movements and breathing patterns, and the latter centered more on structured movements and stretches.

Aside from the physical benefits of yoga in the realm of balance, coordination and flexibility, Drew hopes Valley Terrace residents embrace yoga’s meditative qualities to find a sense of peace in their lives.

“I enjoy helping (the elderly) reduce stress because as we grow older, we experience a lot of loss and it can be difficult to manage,” Drew, 68, said prior to a Wednesday class that drew 11 women and two men.

“We experience the loss of mobility, the loss of friends and relatives, sometimes the loss of our homes or the places we are familiar with,” Drew said. “There are a lot of changes, and yoga allows us space to rediscover the essence of ourselves, to observe our thoughts and let go of them, to open up different sides of our bodies and minds and make connections between the two.”

As a warmup prior to Wednesday’s class, Drew invited pupils to “let your eyes drop and your faces relax” and to breathe deeply, allowing bellies to fill up with air.

“Feel it fill up all the way to your chest,” she instructed. “Inhale and exhale and allow the breath to be soft. Try to find that quiet place inside.”

It being the first class of the month, Drew on Wednesday began and ended the class with the reading of the poem October by Robert Frost.

“Oh hushed October morning mild, thy leaves have ripened to the fall/Tomorrow’s wind, if it be wild, should waste them all/The crows above the forest call,” Drew read.

One pupil, 89-year-old Pat Dempsey, appeared to recall the work. “Good old Robert Frost,” she said with a relaxed smile.

The group was prompted to place its hands together for the traditional om chant, meant to elicit a sense of oneness with the universe, before segueing into physical exercises.

Placing their hands on the arms of their chairs, the group leaned to tilt their pelvic bones and were encouraged to open their chests and curve their spines.

The theme of generating heat continued with a transition into rubbing exercises, and the class was encouraged to apply gentle friction from their shoulders down to the backs of their legs. The hands came back to the neck area for self-massage before they were instructed to form small fists and lightly punch themselves on each shoulder.

“We’re going to be black and blue!” joked Sherry Rafferty, 72.

Focus shifted to visualization exercises involving the sitz bones, or lower pelvis, as well as the torso and core area.

Exercises involving tai chi principles were later introduced, again with emphasis placed on balance and using the breath to relax.

Twisting motions ensued, incorporating mild cognitive work, the class was instructed to consciously turn their heads to the left while their bodies shifted to the right, and vice versa.

“Pay attention to the different directions. It opens up pathways to your brain and allows us to center ourselves,” Drew instructed.

After some tension-and-release exercises, including the squeezing of knees toward the chest, the class was led through alternating single-nostril breathing, long practiced in yoga to promote healthful respiratory patterns. It’s one of Drew’s favorite techniques, crediting it for helping her overcome chronic migraine headaches.

More mind-body fusion work came to light as the class continued to focus on torso and spine movements.

“See if you can find that inner energy and that center,” Drew said. “If we have thoughts, that’s all they are is thoughts. We have a choice — we don’t have to follow every thought that we have. It’s an interesting concept. Try it.”

Attention then shifted to extremities, which Drew noted become harder to feel and control as we age. “Clasp your hands into a prayer position and rotate your wrists,” she said. “Feel the synovial fluid flowing through your joints and making them nice and warm.”

The class wound down with a variety of movements known as sun salutations, followed by a self-massaging of their faces. Drew then encouraged an expression of self-love.

“Give yourself a compliment and admire yourself,” she said. “You deserve it because this was a huge effort today.”

Ted Barrett jumped at the idea. “Admire myself? No problem,” he said. “I can do that.”

The class concluded with the repeating of Frost’s October followed by the chanting of om and namaste, a the latter a classic yoga phrase meaning, “I honor the light within you.”

Most of the class’ participants primarily valued its physical benefits. Carolyn Hartling, 81, uses an oxygen tank and feels the exercises help her breathing, while Pat Parkins, 79, said it’s helping him regain balance and flexibility following a bicycle accident two months ago.

Drew acknowledged it can be challenging for some senior citizens to embrace the more holistic elements of yoga, in part because of the independent characteristics of their generation.

“A lot of them view pain and discomfort as something you kind of just buck up and get through. Many of them haven’t been introduced to a lot of mind-body work,” she said.

Some, however, enjoy the spiritual aspects of the class. Dempsey, a Washington-area native who moved to Valley Terrace less than two weeks ago, called Drew’s sessions “a great way to find quiet.”

Avis Hutchins, meanwhile, found parallels with attending church.

“I spend a lot of time praying,” the 90-year-old said. “To me, (yoga) is another form of prayer.”

Jared Pendak can be reached at or 603-727-3225.

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