Tom’s Story: Adaptive Yoga at Work

The steady beep of a distant heart monitor beats faintly through the sounds of a deep inhale, deep exhale.

Tom has his eyes closed. He’s focused on filling his lungs with Pranayam, or life force breath. This is the beginning of his private yoga practice for the evening, taught by Yoga For People founder, Santosh Maknikar.

“Relax your jaw, and fill your lungs to the very top,” soothes Santosh.

Following the breathing exercise aimed at clearing the mind and energizing the body, Tom’s nurse assistant Angie arrives to usher Tom and Santosh to the modest physical therapy room downstairs in the nursing home.

Today, Tom’s yoga included lifting his legs from the hips; a difficult task that he tackled fearlessly.

Angie has been working with Tom at the nursing home since May of this year. Tom, now 62 years old, has lived here for two years; a disease called Multiple Sclerosis taking over his body limb by limb over the past two decades.

Shortly after his diagnosis in 1995, Tom said he attended a hearing to petition for social security and disability benefits. His condition, he says, made attending the hearing difficult; after all, it was held on the fourth floor of a courthouse in California that he says was not wheelchair accessible. Tom recounts the judge coming down to the courthouse steps to meet him, then helping him up to the elevator that then took them to the fourth floor. Once inside the hearing, Tom says, the judge announced that, because Tom made it to the room, he was not disabled, and therefore should not receive benefits.

Tom says he missed the appeal period, so he sits in limbo between now and age 65 when he can receive benefits that will subsidize physical therapy. So all he has to loosen up his retreating motion are two, half-hour assisted exercises a week. Until now.

“The pain is excruciating when they yank my arms above my head too fast,” Tom says in a polite voice, paced by a faint Southern accent. “But with the yoga, we spend time breathing and opening up the shoulders before I slowly lift my arms.”

Angie had been hearing Tom’s talk about yoga for some time. Apparently, the former IRS Agent used to practice before he got sick, and had a hunch the strength and stretching would help his condition. Fate played out when Angie attended one of the SLC Krishna Temple’s Yoga Raves and met Santosh, through whom she learned about Yoga For People, and its mission to unconditionally provide yoga for everyone.

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

This is Tom’s third, private session with Santosh. Because Santosh is a volunteer, Tom doesn’t have to pay for these customized yoga therapy sessions. And already, Tom says he feels the results.

“Breathing is empowering,” Tom glows. “It empowers me to really let the movement happen.”

A lot of progress, in this session, Santosh says. Not only was Tom straightening and lifting his arms and legs on his own, but this marked the first time Tom had motion while on his stomach. This upped the ante on difficulty, but made payoff that much sweeter.

“It’s easier sitting up after being on my stomach,” Tom says, his chin, usually tucked to his chest,
raised slightly higher; his shoulders pressed more firmly on the back of his chair.

“His inhale and exhale is better,” Santosh says. “He’s already made a lot of improvements.”

Luckily for Tom, Angie made the connection with Yoga For People, which now gives him access to mental and physical therapy for free. And to that extent, immense credit to Tom, who simply refuses to be a prisoner in his own body.

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

Amanda Jones, Yoga For People Board Member