In a sunroom of a psychiatric hospital, Joanne Spence is leading a yoga class with four female patients. She sits on the edge of a chair, her feet flat on the floor, knees at a ninety degree angle. The women–one in a wheelchair, one hooked up to an IV, two in regular chairs–are leaning on the backs of their chairs, their feet supported by puzzle boxes or books or the floor to achieve the ninety degree angle.
Joanne leads them through the Butterfly Breath: Touch the palms of the hands together and place the fingertips underneath the chin. Inhaling, unfold the palms like the wings of a butterfly, lifting the elbows out to the side. Exhaling, lower the elbows, folding the palms back together under the chin. The fingertips always touch underneath the chin. Feel the expansiveness of each breath.
“We’re moving in our pain-free zone,” Joanne says. For some of the women, this means that lifting the elbows completely out to the side is too much, and their butterfly wings open into an A-shape. Each woman focuses on her breath. Breathing. They add pauses at the end of each inhale and exhale.
Joanne continues, “One of the definitions of yoga is calming the fluctuations of the mind.” As the patients focus on their movements and their breathing at the same time, their attention is drawn away from their anxiety and depression.
Soon, they flow through the six movements of the spine: curling forward, backward; leaning to the left, to the right; and twisting from side to side. The woman with the IV does not move, so Joanne tells her to visualize the movements, to imagine her spine moving in these ways. The woman nods, says she’s remembering everything Joanne is saying.
One of the women in the back is crying. Joanne does not draw attention to the slow tears. She instructs softly and firmly, guiding the women into more gentle movements.
Joanne does not mention God in her words, but her class is no less holy. She is helping these women pay attention to their bodies–one of the most intimate relationships they have, yet often don’t recognize. The Holy Spirit is present in the ruach life-breath of their bodies.
At the end of class, the women again bring their hands together in front of their hearts, palms touching. “This,” Joanne says, “is the yoga pose of offering. Bring your gaze to your fingertips, and take a moment to acknowledge the offering you’ve just given yourself. An offering of time and movement.”
She looks up at and each of the women. “I always like to end class by saying, ‘namaste,’ which means the light in me salutes the light in you. Namaste.” She bows her head to the women, and they bow in return.