Chair Yoga Revisited

March 20, 2015

I have just had the great fortune of finishing up a three-week trip to Australia, where I have been teaching some yoga workshops and visiting friends and family.  It has been an exciting opportunity to revisit the country that formed me – I lived there for almost 20 years – and to bring the first LifeForce Yoga to Manage Your Mood workshop to Melbourne.

After riding high from the workshop experience and hanging out with my “besties,” I had some down time to roam, reflect, do my own practice and simply breathe.  In my journaling time, I had an epiphany of sorts: being an advocate for mental health and wellbeing is my life’s work and calling – I can’t not do it.  That said, everywhere I go, people reveal their stories to me, sometimes within moments of meeting me (even when I am not on the clock) that reveal challenging personal circumstances that often include serious mental health issues.  Since I don’t have a neon sign on my forehead announcing my profession (social worker + yoga therapist), I think these revelations have more to do with being present to people, and that many folks are looking for someone they can safely share their burdens with.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), approximately 1 in 5 adults in the U.S.—43.7 million, or 18.6%—experiences mental illness in a given year.  In addition, approximately 1 in 5 youth aged 13–18 (21.4%) experiences a severe mental disorder in a given year.  For children aged 8–15, the estimate is 13%.

Clearly, problems are on the rise.  We all have mental health, just like we all have physical health.  My take is that our mental health, just like our physical health, changes with time and circumstance.  It comes and goes, or rather, moves along a continuum.  Some months and years we enjoy robust physical health, other times we deal with broken bones, minor or major illness, disease or simply the common cold.  Some of us experience cyclical mental health and find the sunless winters a trigger to the very real Seasonal Affective Disorder.  Or, a tragic life event may precipitate grief or trauma and look a lot like depression and anxiety. 

 As I have sat and visited with friends and family, I am once again face to face with the fragility of our collective mental health challenges as I listen to the stories of others.  I am not simply talking about feeling blue or a little nervous.  I am talking about suicide attempts, potential suicide, addiction, depression, anxiety, overwork and restlessness.  We may live 12,000 miles apart, but culturally, Australians are not that different from Americans. 

I am soberly reminded that the practices I teach every day in yoga and yoga therapy may be a key, a lifesaver and/or a way to “keep calm and carry on.”  Maybe you are teaching these simple truths too.  Yoga has a lot to offer our sanity.  I feel extremely grateful to now have a solid practice that has helped me weather my own mental health ups and downs.

I plan on talking and teaching more about mental health and yoga at the Yoga Service Conference, May 14-17 at Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, NY.  Read more about the conference schedule here:

I hope you will join in this conversation and very practical training opportunity.  I have the good fortune of seeing shifts happen every day with a very basic chair practice in an inpatient psychiatric setting, with yoga groups at a juvenile detention center, and in alternative school settings.  I will share with you the nuances of this mindful movement-based practice.  Come and learn, practice and discuss with a group of like-minded colleagues.  We will all learn from each other. 

To prepare for our time together, will you join me in this pledge #I Will Listen?  Please visit for more information.  In the meantime, my name is Joanne Spence, and I will listen!

See you in May!

Pittsburgh Yogi Honored for Selfless Service

Pittsburgh Yogi Honored for Selfless Service

by Ashley Trentrock 0 Comments

UPMC yoga therapist, Joanne Spence, has gained significant expertise teaching adults and children with mental health challenges the peaceful art of yoga over the years. Through her pioneering work with sharing and teaching yoga to Pittsburgh’s underserved population, Joanne has been one of 13 yogis nominated for Yoga Journal’s Seva Awards. To be nominated for this prestigious award, a yogi must have been volunteering consistently for at least eight consecutive years and have made progress against serious odds in a difficult situation.

Joanne, who has over 20 years of experience in clinical and community social work, family therapy and inpatient psychiatric care, started doing yoga to heal from debilitating injuries suffered in a car accident. Initially, she found yoga very challenging but soon she was pain free.

“It was as if I got my life back,” explains Joanne. “I began studying yoga to try to figure out what had happened to me and how it could help others. The more I learned about yoga, the more I could see how yoga could be a tool for healing.”

During her tenure as a social worker, Joanne tried many different types of social work, from child protection work and family therapist to teen parent coordinator. While she enjoyed her profession, a part of her always wondered if there was more she could be offering her patients. After studying yoga, she began infusing mind-body practices into her work. Yoga’s gentle movements combined with simple breathing practices were a balm for her overly busy mind and it has stilled the mind of her patients as well.

In 2004, Joanne founded Yoga in Schools, a non-profit organization that helps teachers in Pittsburgh Public Schools, Woodland Hills School District and Shuman Detention Center learn yoga techniques that will calm students and prepare them for learning. In 2007, Joanne joined UPMC’s Creative and Expressive Arts team as a yoga therapist at Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic of UPMC, where she teaches yoga therapy at inpatient units and works with adults and adolescents with mood disorders, eating disorders and other mental health conditions.

The public can vote for Joanne as the “most inspirational.” The winner will be awarded a scholarship to help the nominated yogis carry on their selfless work. Joanne plans to use the scholarship to help expand Yoga in Schools. Voting ends Friday.

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