(Photo by Sarina Tracy)
By Sarina Tracy, Globe Correspondent
On Tuesday mornings in the North End, visitors to the ABCD North End/West End Neighborhood Service Center leave shoes at the door-- all in the name of yoga.
Located on Michelangelo Street, the center hosts a weekly yoga class for seniors, aimed at rejuvenating their muscles. Instructor Tatiana Nekrasova, 54, originally from Russia and now a Winthrop resident, ventures to the North End to spread her yoga practice to some of the area’s older residents.
“It takes a really long time to understand how to use our bodies,” said Nekrasova. “It’s especially important for people of a certain age. They start losing their balance. They start having problems with walking. So I start by getting their confidence back, in both their feet and their bodies.”
By using chairs as a prop, the class goes through yoga exercises tailored for them. There are no mats, no fancy poses -- just bare-feet and a metal chair.
“No, nothing on the floor,” said student Gloria Lerra, 77. “I don’t think I could get up!” Lerra credits the yoga practice with helping her apply anti-anxiety measures she uses in her everyday life.
“There’s one exercise called ‘counting it out’. We basically count with our fingers, four-to-four, then back again. It clears my mind, almost like a meditation. I do it when I’m waiting in the doctor’s office -- waiting and waiting. It helps.”
And the mind is not the only thing yoga helps with.
“My arthritis has improved greatly from this,” said Lerra. “It makes me feel good when I leave. At this stage in my life, Tatiana teaches me what I feel is the proper yoga.”
Nekrasova has developed expertise in modification of necessity. Both when she experienced back issues decades ago and when her father suffered from asthma, she had to modify her yoga practices. Since then, she said, she has made it her mission to spread her knowledge and instruction of this discipline.
“I took everything from a regular class, maintained the same integrity and energy of every movement, but [made it] accessible for this group,” she said.
“It’s an alternative to grabbing a pill, which can seem so much easier. But doctors help us only for a little bit. It’s our job to help ourselves.”
Dorothy Raymond has lived in the North End for years. She said the class has been essential for her as she navigates the North End’s hilly streets.
“I have trouble with my feet,” Raymond said. “It’s hard to get enough exercise, so I’m not walking as much as I could. But this class is really, really valuable. There’s more flexibility just by doing the movements. I live about two blocks away, there’s no excuse not to come. I feel stiff when I don’t.”
The service center, which provides advocacy and aid resources to the low-income members of the North End and West End, has many elderly clients.
Lia Tota, its director, said that’s a reflection of the neighborhood’s demographics.
“Our main goal is to help those of low-income,” said Tota. “And what that ends up being around here are a lot of elderly people, those on fixed incomes. They have nowhere else to turn.”
And so, free of cost, more than a dozen senior citizens congregate to the center every week looking for help in moving and strengthening their bodies.
Nekrasova begins class with chime-heavy meditation music streaming from her smartphone. As the class sits around her in a circle, barefoot if possible, she reminds the students to notice their movements and body processes.
“This is the most important part of our practice,” she said. “Our body is supported by the energy that keeps us who we really are. Start listening to the music of your breath. Notice your mind.”
Throughout the hour-long yoga class, emphasis is put on moving, stretching and maintaining control of arms, legs, feet and hands. Extension of legs, the elongation of the upper body and the control of specific muscle movement are all mainstays of this modified practice.
“You are in control of your body,” assured Nekrasova. “You know what to do and when to do it.”
After using their metal chairs as props during a standing pose, a few members of the class audibly exclaimed, with fervor, something that Nekrasova aims for with every class.
“Oh, that feels good,” said 72-year-old John Tosi.
“What’s that John? How do you feel?” asked Nekrasova.
“Feeling alive,” Tosi said. And he smiled.
This story was produced through a partnership between the Globe and Emerson College.