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In a clinical yoga practice, physiology meets philosophy

Samarya Center in Seattle holds a fundraiser this weekend so it can treat returning soldiers severely injured in Iraq. If the author's experience is any indication, they will be in unusual hands – and they need not be true believers.
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Molly Kenny, co-founder of Samarya Center in Seattle.

Samarya Center in Seattle holds a fundraiser this weekend so it can treat returning soldiers severely injured in Iraq. If the author's experience is any indication, they will be in unusual hands – and they need not be true believers.

To locate the Samarya Center, you cross the street at the Langston Hughes complex on Yesler Way in Seattle, resist the lively conversation outside the Kemaw Grocery, then stop at a two-story building before the Home of Great Bar-B-Q. Here, doors open into a tranquil world of healing that, ironically, was forged by rebellious punk energy. Samarya dispenses an unconventional form of healing - a marriage of traditional yoga practice and neuro-physiology - formally know as Integrated Movement Therapy. This permutation of yoga evolved from service to those in need: mental health and hospice patients, kids with autism or psychoses, adults who face multiple sclerosis, AIDS or other health challenges. Samarya's "Life After Loss" class helps participants navigate bereavement or trauma; other classes serve local residents or homeless people. Some sessions offered are free; the rest cost just $8 per class.

This Saturday, Dec. 1, at their annual holiday party and fundraiser, the center is seeking sponsorship for yet another branch of outreach. Their aim is to raise $25,000 to treat local veterans of the Iraq War, specifically men and women rendered quadriplegic or paraplegic. It will be the second new project Samarya has launched in six months, following September's introduction of "Yoga for Chronic Pain."

Samarya also offers "regular" Ashtanga yoga. But the IMT classes, says co-founder Molly Kenny, are developed "out of special areas of interest or areas where we see special needs." The class for chronic pain is in part a response to our region's demanding pace, which causes more and more people to work despite injuries. Among the fastest-growing industries of the digital age are those predicated on patching up casualties. However, if you lack the funds to access physical therapy, gym time, acupuncture, massage, or medical care, you are left alone with the FAQ at excedrin.com.

Pain morphs into panic when such problems threaten to stop you working, and this was how I initially heard about Samarya. My early informants were a frightened professional dancer, an injured martial arts instructor, and a computer programmer who could barely get out of bed. I was in a similar state, and their fervent testimonials sounded very convincing. But yoga still seemed foreign, too daunting and too time-consuming. After a bout of orthopedic surgery, I finally clicked on the link to their Web site - and noticed the class for chronic pain was to begin that week. Very reluctantly, I dragged myself to their doorstep.

I didn't know a mudra from a biryani and dreaded facing a studio of self-confident colleagues in Spandex. Many years ago, I had done a few yoga classes but my only recent memories came from scenes in Sex and the City. Most of all, however, I worried about a single thing. Today, I hurt all over; tomorrow, would I feel even worse?

That walk through Samarya's door turned out to be the hard part. Inside, a genuine epiphany awaited me - a process that, within three months, has worked what I consider wonders. It was hardly a magical route and I have had my share of lows. However, the ingredients of this special Seattle blend have done more for me than a decade's worth of doctors, drugs, gyms, and other remedies.

I joined in their yoga-infused training and practice: learning to "re-structure" the concept of breath, to stretch and to strengthen, all the while guided by gentle hands and unfailing patience. The class has thought and speculated about where pain might originate, while striving to meet our guides' insistence on working in the moment, rather than "curing" anything.

Instead of how to surmount our problems, we have discussed acceptance, how to achieve it, and what this might entail. "Sharing" in the class has yielded widely different observations (rather than the orgy of self-involvement I half-expected). The biggest change, however, arrived very subtly. Once I made this viewpoint and routine a part of everyday life, what had been ongoing pain for years simply started to lessen. Crippling headaches became less frequent; frozen shoulders came "unstuck"; and, after work, I could suddenly stand up straight - rather than limping or cringing away from the desk. Just as remarkably, unless I am mistaken, classmates who work as servers, performers, and computer programmers seem to be gaining similar strengths and resources.

But then Samarya's whole understanding of pain is singular. As Molly Kenny puts it, "The mainstream model of medical treatment today is always prescriptive. You solve things by taking a pill, undergoing an operation, or agreeing to shoulder blame - concurring it was something you did or are that caused your problem. Even yoga therapists, we find, often prescribe: They will dictate a regimen of poses."

She pushes back a lock of streaked magenta hair. "Here we consider yoga first as a practice for difficult times. Patanjali, who is sort of the major yoga sage, cites five obstructions to happiness, all of which stem from the first one - which is a lack of knowing our true nature. Yoga encourages the embrace of now, of whomever you may be in this actual moment. The practice of yoga, too, is just that ... it's a practice. You work towards change but to make that change requires you practicing."

Kenny has spent years face-to-face with suffering and death. Yet she exudes a vivacious, visceral optimism. How can it flourish while she offers "bedside yoga" to AIDS patients? Or helps a soldier from Iraq whose life was changed in a second?

"I answer that kind of question all the time," says Kenny. "'How can you possibly do that?' or 'How can you possibly help?' The answer is it's not about doing, it's all about being. You are there to witness and do what you can with appropriate tools. You help people stretch, you help them learn to breathe, maybe you teach them techniques of meditation. Yet you are relying on yoga philosophy, because that helps them learn how to answer their own tough questions. Through breath and asana [poses], yogis develop a sense of spaciousness, develop a space in which anything can be accepted."

"It's about yoga," she continues, "but there's much more to it. You see lots of articles with titles like 'Yoga and Asthma.' But the idea that yoga heals things like asthma or AIDS is not what we teach. We don't teach that yoga cures diseases, because we can't say that. However, we absolutely know that yoga can do special things. From the clinical point of view, we teach 'know the diagnosis,' both for contra-indications and to use best practices. But we stress that what you really need to know is the person."

By birth a Jersey girl, Kenny is a natural performer; since 1990, she has sung in three Seattle bands (66 Saints, Matchless, and, now, Siren). But despite the numerous tattoos she sports with pride, Kenny's ruling passion has gradually shifted to yoga, which she deploys more politically than she ever did rock. Integrated Movement Therapy is widely recognized, and numerous yoga journals have acclaimed its perspectives. In 2001, with her business partner Stephanie Hager, Kenny founded Samarya around their method's three core principles: that each student is "already perfect and whole," that both student and teacher have "unlimited" abilities to heal and be healed, and that nothing in the "mind/body/spirit complex" ever works alone."

To this day, Kenny and Hager stand out among yoga therapists. For starters, neither came out of the world of complementary care. Hager trained in California as a clinical social worker, while Kenny has a masters in speech pathology from the University of Washington. During the first five years after her graduation, Kenny worked at Seattle's Group Health Cooperative. It was those years at the HMO, she says, that taught her our mainstream medical system's fatal flaw: "It's about looking at everything through the lens of pathology. You're there to 'fix' someone; get them in and get them out. When a person turns into something to be managed, you don't see their potential, you're not encouraged to really see them."

Her tenure at the HMO was marked by frequent battles. ("I've always been kind of a cocky, confident person.") But it was also at this time that Kenny discovered yoga. "I was a gym buff, and I just ran across Ashtanga. At first, I liked it because it was so physical. But when I got more involved, it was with yoga philosophy."

Then Kenny started a conversation group for stroke survivors - and she realized yoga had completely changed her understanding. "I just saw so many options the clinical setting would not let me cover! Here were people with serious changes in cognition and self-esteem, yet everyone they knew was literally afraid of them. They had undergone bodily changes, so no one would touch them." When Kenny manipulated her clients' bodies through simple yoga poses, she found they responded with delight and relief. Next, she tried a playful version of yoga with autistic children. In June 1999, she "took the leap" and left Group Health, telling her supervisor she had lost belief in their model. She had decided to found a practice of her own.

Hager, says Kenny, was the decision's catalyst. "We make great partners because we both believe in change. Also because this is not traditional yoga therapy. The yoga world still has a lot of preaching to the converted, often without the empirical data to support it. Steph and I both came from the real clinical model, so we know just thinking something might work isn't enough. You have to say, 'Well, why?' and have a solid answer."

Samarya's many programs stem from the duo's conviction that yoga can and should help anyone – no matter their age, finances, or state of health. The center offers two-week, intensive IMT training plus a full certification that requires two years. The training, says Kenny, is "very hard-nosed," and anyone who teaches at the center has completed it. During 2007, as well as the chronic pain class, Hager and Kenny launched the Samarya Community Fund. This provides financial aid for IMT tuition and is available to members "of any group under-represented in yoga." Its first trainees graduated on Nov. 11.

The center's holiday party on Saturday will feature music, a raffle, vendors, and a silent auction - mostly to benefit the upcoming Firefly Project. A partnership with the VA Puget Sound Health Care System, Firefly will offer IMT therapy to quadriplegic or paraplegic vets of the current war. It grew out of a life-changing encounter Kenny had late in the summer. "We got a call from someone whose nephew had returned from Iraq with quadriplegia from a bullet wound in the neck. He was 27. I started with some sessions to address his anxiety, taught some meditation techniques and helped him to explore better breathing and self-calming.

"Then one day he told me he had made a decision - not to go on, to be removed from his ventilator. Instead of trying to change that, I had to respect it. So we started working hard to address the process of dying, and I was really thrown back again on yoga philosophy. In yoga we learn that although you are in this body, it is also a carrier for the spark of divinity. An underlying fear of death and clinging to life are there in each of us. But we can learn to let go if we truly experience our actual, infinite capacity. You let go and let go and let go and let go, until all that is left is that tiny spark of divinity. We always talked about that spark as 'the firefly.'"

Kenny looks up, her puckish face totally tranquil. "You know, as a result of this work, I've written my own living will. Because I've come to understand, in a very profound way, where the integral quality of our lives can reside. And I've discovered that I really believe in that central spark."

The Samarya Center is at 1806½ Yesler Way, Seattle. (206) 568-8335. All classes and schedules are available at www.samaryacenter.org.

Samarya's holiday party and fund-raiser is Saturday, Dec. 1, 7-10 p.m. It is open to all, but parents are requested not to bring children. Included in the raffle and silent auction are contributions of massage, beauty, dining, and travel abroad.

  

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In a clinical yoga practice, physiology meets philosophy