Against a backdrop of soft lights, soothing music and the fragrance of brewing tea, two women in white lead simple stretching, breathing and relaxation exercises with gentle, melodic voices.
But the setting isn’t a yoga studio. Welcome to “chair yoga,” a free weekly class hosted by the Wellness Initiative of the Department of Psychiatry at UMass Medical School and UMass Memorial Medical Center. Open to the public as well as faculty and staff, the class offers all a convenient opportunity to try out chair yoga and experience its benefits in just one hour.
Chair yoga adapts traditional Kundalini yoga movements and breathing exercises that can promote physical and mental well-being to be done while seated in a regular chair, making it suitable for individuals of all ages and abilities, including those with physical limitations. Classes are taught by certified yoga instructors Andrea DiRigiero and Diane Pingeton, MD.
“Kundalini yoga is very effective for all populations. Anyone can breathe and get positive effects just from that,” said Dr. Pingeton. “You don’t have to be a pretzel on a mat.”
Kundalini yoga employs exact combinations of postures, breathing and sound intended to balance body, mind and soul and increase mental clarity and physical vitality.
Pingeton, now retired from her obstetrics practice, and DiRigiero, a business owner, both first tried yoga to reduce stress in their busy professional lives. They were so impressed by how the practice benefitted them individually that they were inspired to engage in the years-long process of learning how to teach it to others. They also founded Yoga for All Worcester, a coalition of Kundalini yoga teachers who offer free classes at several locations.
While it was not created as a therapeutic tool, yoga can be helpful to patients experiencing health challenges. “Research shows that yoga and meditative practices decrease your sympathetic tone [fight or flight reaction] and increases your parasympathetic tone [relaxed state], mediated mostly through the vagus nerve,” Pingeton explained.
“It brings me an inner peace,” said class member and UMass Memorial labor and delivery nurse Anne Dolan, RN. “I’m attending graduate school and whenever I have a test, I do the hum that I know will bring me back to center before I get to school.”
“We in the medical and mental health professions have become increasingly convinced that practices such as yoga can be beneficial for our patients and ourselves,” said Robert Carey, PhD, assistant professor of psychiatry and associate director of the UMass Memorial Medical Center’s Outpatient Psychiatry Clinic, home to the weekly classes. “We are fortunate to have such knowledgeable and dedicated instructors offering this unique approach.”
“The Kundalini yoga sets that we do are like recipes—put together in a specific way to have a specific result. We do things that more of the general population can do so that you feel the effect of it faster,” said DiRigiero, “There’s a lot written about the benefits of yoga, but experiencing it is the best way to understand for yourself.”