The Beauty and Versatility of a Chair Yoga Practice in Institutional and Clinical Settings by Joanne Spence

 In Yoga Service, Yoga Service Conference, Yoga Therapy

The Beauty and Versatility of a Chair Yoga Practice in Institutional and Clinical Settings

by Joanne Spence

I have just had the great fortune of finishing up a three-week trip to Australia, where I have been teaching some yoga workshops and visiting friends and family. It has been an exciting opportunity to revisit the country that formed me – I lived there for almost 20 years – and to bring the first LifeForce Yoga to Manage Your Mood workshop to Melbourne.

After riding high from the workshop experience and hanging out with my “besties,” I had some down time to roam, reflect, do my own practice and simply breathe. In my journaling time, I had an epiphany of sorts: being an advocate for mental health and wellbeing is my life’s work and calling – I can’t not do it. That said, everywhere I go, people reveal their stories to me, sometimes within moments of meeting me (even when I am not on the clock) that reveal challenging personal circumstances that often include serious mental health issues. Since I don’t have a neon sign on my forehead announcing my profession (social worker + yoga therapist), I think these revelations have more to do with being present to people, and that many folks are looking for someone they can safely share their burdens with.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), approximately 1 in 5 adults in the U.S.—43.7 million, or 18.6%—experiences mental illness in a given year. In addition, approximately 1 in 5 youth aged 13–18 (21.4%) experiences a severe mental disorder in a given year. For children aged 8–15, the estimate is 13%.

Clearly, problems are on the rise. We all have mental health, just like we all have physical health. My take is that our mental health, just like our physical health, changes with time and circumstance. It comes and goes, or rather, moves along a continuum. Some months and years we enjoy robust physical health, other times we deal with broken bones, minor or major illness, disease or simply the common cold. Some of us experience cyclical mental health and find the sunless winters a trigger to the very real Seasonal Affective Disorder. Or, a tragic life event may precipitate grief or trauma and look a lot like depression and anxiety.

As I have sat and visited with friends and family, I am once again face to face with the fragility of our collective mental health challenges as I listen to the stories of others. I am not simply talking about feeling blue or a little nervous. I am talking about suicide attempts, potential suicide, addiction, depression, anxiety, overwork and restlessness. We may live 12,000 miles apart, but culturally, Australians are not that different from Americans.

I am soberly reminded that the practices I teach every day in yoga and yoga therapy may be a key, a lifesaver and/or a way to “keep calm and carry on.” Maybe you are teaching these simple truths too. Yoga has a lot to offer our sanity. I feel extremely grateful to now have a solid practice that has helped me weather my own mental health ups and downs.

I plan on talking and teaching more about mental health and yoga at the Yoga Service Conference, May 14-17 at Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, NY. Read more about the conference schedule by Clicking Here.

I hope you will join in this conversation and very practical training opportunity. I have the good fortune of seeing shifts happen every day with a very basic chair practice in an inpatient psychiatric setting, with yoga groups at a juvenile detention center, and in alternative school settings. I will share with you the nuances of this mindful movement-based practice. Come and learn, practice and discuss with a group of like-minded colleagues. We will all learn from each other.

To prepare for our time together, will you join me in this pledge #I Will Listen? Please visit for more information. In the meantime, my name is Joanne Spence, and I will listen!

See you in May!

Joanne SpenceJoanne Spence will be presenting at the 2015 Yoga Service Conference, May 14-17, at the Omega Institute.  Joanne is a social worker, yoga teacher, and an international speaker/trainer for health and wellness. She works primarily in schools and hospitals and is known for her ability and passion to empower, encourage and motivate teachers. Self-care and self-awareness are the hall- marks of her trainings. Joanne brings 20 years of social work experience to her work. She is the director of Yoga on the Square, a state-of-the art yoga studio in Pittsburgh’s East End and the founder and Executive Director of Yoga in Schools, a non-profit organization that currently reaches over 20,000 children with innovative children’s yoga programming as part of Physical Education to schools both locally and nationally. She also works part-time at Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic teaching yoga and staff developer.

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