A feature Article by Melissa Albarran of Yoga Alliance Professionals
for Yoga Magazine April 2020.
Maria Jones is a bundle of joyful energy. A yoga teacher with a passion for serving others, Maria takes immense pleasure from her classes. It is this infectious positivity and good-spirit that makes her teaching so incredible. Maria’s unfaltering enthusiasm is all the more inspiring given her history of debilitating illness, forcing her to leave a career in engineering. Nonetheless, it is in yoga that Maria cites she has found her purpose, to inspire and brighten the lives of her students.
Melissa (MA): First things first, how did you come to yoga?
Maria Jones (MJ): Well long story short I have systemic lupus and related kidney failure. Then, because of the treatment, I got shingles! I couldn’t return to work because my health had deteriorated so much. I ended up being a stay at home mum, so I decided to go back to university to study health sciences and nutrition.
My son was in his toddler years, and I was getting very frustrated in the house so I started to go to evening yoga classes at the gym. I felt an immense relief from the impatience and frustration I was feeling as a new mum. It was nice to get away from the house and have some time for myself.
MA: And what inspired you to start teaching?
MJ: I had already been practising yoga for a really long time when I saw an advert for Rainbow Kids Yoga pop up. So I thought, I’ll just do that. I started teaching children and really loved it, so I did another training with Rainbow Kid’s which incorporated chair yoga in the classroom.
Over the next 3 years I completed various trainings that focused on addressing imbalances through yoga.
I am also a fitness instructor, and after one of my body balance classes, one of the students asked if I would hold classes for the Multiple Sclerosis (MS) Society in Aberdeen. I have been teaching there for a while!
MA: What is it about Chair Yoga that most interests you?
MJ: Initially I was so surprised at how effective it was. One of my elderly chair students came up to thank me, so I asked her “why? I am just doing my job!” She said “I haven’t had a cold or chest infection this year, and I think
it is because of the yoga, and the deep breathing you teach us. I have been practising this in the morning and it has really helped”.
It made me realise the impact I can have on other people’s lives. It gives me goose bumps just talking about it! That is why I continued on this path. It was so very rewarding. Things like this keep happening, and I cannot put into words the satisfaction I get from them, it wouldn’t matter if I didn’t get paid for most of it.
Teaching yoga is so rewarding, which is why I feel I need to put more and more into it.
GET STARTED WITH TEACHING CHAIR YOGA:
MA: That’s so lovely. Why is it important that chair yoga is available?
MJ: The population in the UK is getting older, but this does not necessarily mean the quality of life is better. The nature of yoga is such that it gives you access to functional movement, strength and it gives you awareness of your posture. More importantly, what happens in the classroom filters down to the rest of your life. Say, for example, an elderly person has to move into a care home they can feel lonely and frustrated.
When you bring people together, and you do some art or share some stories, you see their eyes light up.
MA: I suppose isolation coupled with potential imbalance and risk of falling could cause an elderly person to lose their confidence or fear even leaving the house. Yoga can help with both: gaining mobility and socialising more.
MJ: Sometimes we only practise yoga for half an hour anyway! Because I mean, what is yoga?
It is a way of life. It helps that I teach kids. When you teach elderly or immobile groups and things don’t go the way you planned, you just think whatever – let’s have a cup of tea!
MA: Well you can think on your feet a lot more because kids are just so unpredictable! How do you judge the capabilities of your students when you’re working with a new group, given that
MJ: There is a general structure to the class, and each part is built up from the last. Most of the poses are spent seated. Adapting the poses isn’t so difficult because you start really slow and you break it down into the smallest pieces. If for example, you say raise your arms up, those that can do it will do so.
I then stick to the lowest denominator in that class, I always work to the lowest level present. Those that are standing up, they can do all the standing asana and balance practice. There are pretty much always carers to help out as well. The carers are so helpful in the MS class.
You have to work with what you’ve got, ask what the students have to say and offer adaptations. If they feel they are not getting the benefits they are not going to come back. Something I learned in my Special Yoga children’s teacher training is that you are sharing your energy. It is wonderful to spend time with people that are enthusiastic. If the asana doesn’t do it for them, I am hoping that my excitement and hyper energy will filter through instead.
MA: Would you say teaching children yoga is not so different from teaching elderly clients?
MJ: Every day is different, and it’s challenging. There is the element of needing to connect, and talk, and share. It’s a sociable activity rather than being driven by having to achieve something, there is singing and affirmations; and both parties fully engage with this! There are similarities with both groups, although it is a little more structured with the adults. I always find a way to have fun. I think too many people take yoga too seriously.
MA: Do you think there is resistance to practising chair yoga among the younger, or fully mobile yogis?
MJ: Yes, they think it is not for them. If the whole purpose of yoga is to be able to sit and meditate, then you achieve that on the chair – there is no need to strain. I now have family members attend the MS Society classes. The attitude is changing in those who have tried it, but the resistance is definitely still there.
There is no shame. Having a chair enables you to adapt, it gives you access to a wide range of poses that you wouldn’t otherwise have access to. I love that accessible yoga is now being recognised because chair yoga is just one of the ways you can access yoga. It’s still yoga.
MA: Are you careful to speak to your clients about where they’re at and how they are getting on with their practice?
MJ: Yes, I make time. If there is a chair yoga class there is nothing before and nothing after. The class might only be 45 minutes, but I go 15 to 20 minutes before to set up and have a chat and then stay after to take part in different activities such as an art class, coffee, or a health walk.
MA: Is it important for you to spend time with your students outside of the classroom?
MJ:Yes, it’s important to me and it’s important to my business as well. It’s good to
know what your yogis are like and I do that when I can with my other yoga classes. That’s why I offer to send them the class plan and chat. It is nice to connect.
MA: Connection seems to be very relevant to all you do. You recently set up the Chair Based Yoga UK group on Facebook, and it is already really popular!
MJ: I attended a Bootcamp about creating online groups. It said if you’re truly there to serve your members, you need to add value to the group. Anything I find useful I will share in the group, and I think that encourages the members to share back. This is how that group has grown!
MA: For an area that is possibly a bit more niche, having such informative material readily available to yoga teachers is very worthwhile. You are doing something pretty wonderful.
MJ: We need to share our yoga knowledge and create a community! Value comes from serving others and it is really a high priority to
do that. It is so good to create that meaning for others, otherwise, there is not much purpose to what we do. It’s a personal path, and it has come together at the right time for me. My health gradually improved, I had a kidney transplant 5 years ago, I did my teacher training, I studied a lot, did fitness instructing and learnt
how to stand in front of a room of students. It fell into place slowly, and I am so grateful for that.
Chair yoga course for yoga teachers, carers and health professionals