The Dharma Project works to make yoga accessible and fun

Combined ShapeCaption
Here Are the , Best Morning Workouts.While exercise has a ton of benefits in general, experts argue that early workouts may have more positive effects.Here are some exercises you should do in the morning.Start with a full-body warm up, including stretching and cardio moves, to get your heart rate going.Tree pose will promote “balance and stability in the legs and core,” according to Peloton yoga instructor Kristin McGee.Downward-facing dog will get the blood flowing to your brain and wake up your body.Squats help increase your mobility and prep your body for the day

Lila Miller began regular yoga after seeing a listing for classes for residents of her building in downtown Decatur. The last time she had partaken of the practice was over 50 years prior, and the 74-year-old retired special education paraprofessional sensed there would be a payoff from this latest series of yoga classes she had resumed. She did so with help from an instructor with The Dharma Project, an Atlanta-based nonprofit.

“When I tried to do the first position of sitting straight up, I noticed I couldn’t even straighten my torso out. I was sort of, like, in a ball in the center of my body,” Miller told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

“I realized then how poor my posture had become, and I knew that this was something that was going to be helpful to me.”

ExploreRestorative yoga helps participants age with ‘bounce’ and resilience

Over time, she was able to straighten her body.

And her balance began to improve with chair yoga as she worked her way back from knee surgery.

She also started making social connections — she knew some of her neighbors in attendance ahead of time and met some she didn’t know.

Combined ShapeCaption
Instructors and participants notice an overall feeling of more peace.

Credit: Contributed by The Dharma Project

Instructors and participants notice an overall feeling of more peace.

Credit: Contributed by The Dharma Project

Combined ShapeCaption
Instructors and participants notice an overall feeling of more peace.

Credit: Contributed by The Dharma Project

Credit: Contributed by The Dharma Project

But the thing that’s stuck with her most is a feeling of centeredness after yoga.

“Connecting your body with your breathing and your breathing with your mind — it has a very calming effect besides making you feel stronger,” she said.

“I tend to look toward it every week so that I can get sort of in the present … You deal with yourself right now.”

How it all began

Rutu Chaudhari, a career yoga instructor, founded the Dharma Project in 2016 to make yoga more accessible for those who might not otherwise be able to participate. The program began serving local housing authority residents on a monthly basis in 2017. Eventually, the visits increased to weekly.

Participants are predominantly women 65 and older with “a variety of challenges,” according to Chaudhari. As in Miller’s case, those challenges are often physical, but yoga has a tendency to reach beyond the body. Chaudhari has seen students work to move past preconceived views about who can do yoga.

“When we first started going, there was just so much hesitation,” she said. “The idea of doing something like yoga when all you see is super bendy, super-thin people — women — doing it is so daunting.”

And the health benefits have been numerous. Chaudhari can rattle off participants’ statements about what feels better: alleviated gout, a feeling of restfulness that’s “better than a nap,” loosened hips, and less stiffness in arthritic hands.

“Somebody might say that their back hurts or their knees hurt and things like that, and over time, there’s less pain,” she said. “They feel better for longer periods in their body.”

Yoga, she pointed out, also helps with everyday activities for seniors, whether they’re feeling challenged while sitting up, putting their shoes on, or taking deeper breaths.

She also sees the sort of across-the-board emotional changes Miller mentioned — an overall feeling of more tranquility.

“Just like the emotional changes that happen when you practice something like this — seeing how that’s translating for seniors — just more acceptance and peace — it’s a beautiful thing to see,” she said.

ExploreStudy shows that doing yoga can help reduce anxiety

Special considerations

Sarah Landrum, 65, is the current Dharma Project instructor serving housing authority participants. She stepped into the role last fall when classes resumed after a pandemic break. Like many of her students, Landrum came to yoga later in life at 50.

“I think that gave me a real connection with the elders there,” she said.

She completed around 200 hours of training through the Dharma Project’s Give Yoga, Get Yoga program to be able to serve the demographic.

“You get your yoga training, and the way you paid, either fully or partially was through practicing in the community,” Landrum said. “We’re specially trained to keep people safe, which is especially important with these seniors.”

These safety considerations aren’t that unusual for the general population she said, but they become more significant as people age. She keeps an eye out for preexisting conditions such as high blood pressure and glaucoma and a history of stroke or heart conditions. Sometimes, it’s necessary to modify activities — participants with high blood pressure, for example, shouldn’t have their heads lower than their hearts for extended periods.

Combined ShapeCaption
A community partnership has made the classes accessible to The Dharma Project participants, who have reported positive changes in their mental and physical health.

Credit: Contributed by The Dharma Project

A community partnership has made the classes accessible to The Dharma Project participants, who have reported positive changes in their mental and physical health.

Credit: Contributed by The Dharma Project

Combined ShapeCaption
A community partnership has made the classes accessible to The Dharma Project participants, who have reported positive changes in their mental and physical health.

Credit: Contributed by The Dharma Project

Credit: Contributed by The Dharma Project

“Just being aware of those kinds of things and helping them be aware of it,” is important, she said, although she wants her students to “still not to be afraid of moving around.”

And that movement goes a long way in making everyday life more navigable for her senior students. Like Chaudhari, Landrum has seen practitioners reap physical benefits, including relief from arthritis and relief for worn joints.

“The more you move with it and bring synovial fluid to those joints and just keep them moving — I think there’s a tendency if something hurts from arthritis not to want to move it, but those gentle movements of yoga are actually good for those joints and bring more cushioning back to them,” she said.

Her students also tend to improve their balance. One recently suffered a fall on a public train when it suddenly stopped.

“She’s on a walker, and she said, ‘You know, if it hadn’t been for yoga, I don’t think I would’ve been able to get up,’ so that made me feel really, really great,” Landrum said.

“She said she was able to fall really gently and kind of roll with the fall instead of being stiff, and then she said ... because of having more resilience … she was able to get up again.”

Her students use an asana or pose, called “chair,” which Landrum said helps them improve their ability to stand up on their own.

“You use those muscles that you use to sit up and down in a chair, but the chair’s not there, so it makes you really strong,” she said. “One of the main reasons that seniors go into care situations is that they can’t stand up and down alone, so I think about that a lot, too.”

ExploreStudies show how yoga may help boost age-related areas of brain

A yoga success story

Yoga through the Dharma Project has not only strengthened its participants physically but it’s brought them together as a group.

“We laugh so much. We get tickled at each other,” Landrum said. “They tease each other a lot, and that’s just really lovely to see, too. Isolation and loneliness can be such a problem as we age, and especially, loose partners.”

A desire to lean toward wellness through yoga has borne networking efforts outside the classes from the beginning. Allison Ericson is a staff member at the Wylde Center, a Decatur nonprofit that manages several green spaces. She noticed a few years ago that the participants in a senior gardening activity she leads might benefit from mobility and strength support.

“It got to a point where I felt like the program could use a little bit more in terms of wellness, so I contacted someone through the Dharma Project for a yoga program,” she said.

And so began the project’s participation with the housing authority residents. Ericson noticed the gardeners who were participating in yoga were feeling better.

“I’ve had verbal feedback from the participants saying that they feel stronger and that they feel more balanced and that overall, they’re feeling better,” she said.

Seeing organizations come together to provide a unique opportunity seems to gratify Ericson.

“It’s always great to pull in other partners when you see needs, to be able to reach out, and people come in and do what they do best to help make a program more cohesive and benefit everybody involved, so it worked out really well,” she said.

Now, the Dharma Project enrollees have made the practice their own, setting aside time for yoga outside of class, Chaudhari said. And for her, that fact indicates a victory for those who have sought to bring yoga to a population that might otherwise not have known its benefits.

“Us being dispensable is a huge success,” she said. “When people start to learn these practices and do them on their own and we’re no longer needed, that is a wonderful thing for us.”

The Dharma Project works to bring yoga to other underserved populations, including incarcerated men, women, and youth, along with refugee women and girls. For more information, visit thedharmaproject.org.

To get specialized news and articles about aging in place, health information and more, sign up for our Aging in Atlanta newsletter.