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Susan Harsh, RYT, models prayer pose on the Upshur County Public Library's back lawn.

Stressed out? Stretch it out with free yoga for ‘every body’ at UCPL this August

TENNERTON – When she says, “yoga is for everybody,” one Buckhannon-based yoga teacher means literally, ‘every single body.’

A 200-hour registered yoga teacher, Susan Harsh believes anyone who has a body has the capacity to benefit from yoga. Harsh is a big fan of modifying yoga poses, using props and smashing the idea that practicing yoga requires a petite, perfectly toned frame.

“My approach to yoga is that if you have a body, you have a yoga body,” Harsh said. “Yoga is for every body – all ages, all fitness levels, all ability levels. Anybody can do yoga, but what I like to teach is you don’t modify the body to the pose; you modify the pose to the body to make the pose accessible to all bodies, and it’s been such a treat to be able to share that with people.”

Harsh will continue to share her approach via four free yoga classes hosted by the Upshur County Public Library during the month of August. The first yoga class, a vinyasa flow for adults, is scheduled for 10 a.m. this Saturday, Aug. 14. (Due to the recent uptick in Upshur County COVID-19 cases, this session will be conducted virtually.)

The classes – which also include a kids’ yoga class and two chair yoga sessions – are made possible by a grant from the Pallottine Foundation of Buckhannon, said Beth Rogers, assistant director of the Upshur County Public Library. Rogers, a yogi herself, said she secured the grant prior to the pandemic to bolster the library’s efforts to serve as a hub for healthy living. The funding was rolled over into 2021, and Harsh has led classes throughout the months of May, June and July.

August’s series of free yoga sessions will be the last – at least for now – and Rogers hopes community members take advantage of the opportunity.

“One of the things that the Pallottine Foundation funds is healthy communities, and one of the movements in modern librarianship is this idea of, ‘What can libraries do, building on their roles as information and programming providers, to support healthy living in their communities?’” she explained. “It stems from thinking about what different community organizations, like libraries, can do to support healthier lifestyles.”

Not only has UCPL recently updated its physical and mental health and wellness collection, Rogers has also coordinated outdoor yoga classes, and a walking book club.

“The thing about libraries is, we don’t charge,” Rogers said. “Anybody can come because there’s not that economic barrier that there might be to joining a gym, for example. Even if you can only come for a couple of classes, it can give you an idea of first, ‘Do I like this?’ so you can sample what it’s like without having to invest money.”

Harsh, who has been practicing yoga since she was 16 years old, enjoys introducing yoga to people who’ve never tried it out before.

“That’s what excited me as a yoga instructor – that idea of being able to offer it free of charge to the community to get people in who might not otherwise have an opportunity to try a yoga class because of economic barriers given the poverty levels we have in our community,” she said.

Harsh will offer four free yoga classes during the month of August.

Yoga, defined as creating a union between mind, body and spirit, has the potential to boost anyone and everyone’s overall well-being, especially since human beings are not as attuned to their physical bodies as they once were, Harsh said.

“I think in our modern world, we are very disconnected from our own bodies for a variety of reasons, be it a result of body-shaming or being busy all the time,” she said. “For a variety of reasons, we’re not as connected to physically embodying our bodies, and yoga is a beautiful way to be able to reconnect, to really get to know your body – what it can do, what it needs, and I think that brings, in and of itself, a really wonderful opportunity for loving yourself and appreciating yourself more.”

Ensuring the library’s healthy living programming was suitable for a wide audience – one ranging from young kids to people who, due to pain or injury, might not be able to partake in conventional standing yoga – was important to Rogers.

“I think what I like about Susan’s approach is the idea that yoga is for everyone,” Rogers said. “I’m 40-something, and I don’t bend the ways kids do, but learning to appreciate that there are still ways to make my body do things it previously couldn’t do is a rewarding journey. That’s the benefit for me.”

“I’m not an exercise person,” she added. “I’ve never been one of those people who wanted to go run laps. I don’t understand that, so finding something that was a gentler approach to fitness that I could do on my own terms, almost, and in ways that worked for my body was great.”

Harsh initially enjoyed yoga because she found it helped with how her mild spastic cerebral palsy manifested, but later, she derived a whole host of emotional, mental and physical pluses from practicing yoga.

“I have mild spastic cerebral palsy, and I found that it was a way to bring more symmetry to my body and to release some muscular tension that I carry on the regular,” she said. “When I really got back into it in graduate school, I realized how many mental-health benefits I was also getting from it in terms of calming – bringing in those breathing techniques to self-calm and regulate emotions.”

Like Rogers, Harsh has never relished running or competitive sports, but yoga was an appealing method of movement.

“In general, exercise has been found to decrease your depression and anxiety levels – just physically moving your body helps – and for me, yoga is the practice that I choose because it’s relatively kind on my joints,” she said. “So, I think that many people who come to it, if they stick with it, they move from that concrete experience of yoga – the physical poses – to the more abstract subtle impacts of yoga and that is exactly what the eight limbs of yoga are. Every time you come to class, you have that opportunity to practice, you have that opportunity to try on something new … or maybe you’re in a certain mind space and you get a different type of benefit. We’re different every time we come to the mat, but yoga meets us where we are.

UCPL’s yoga adult flow yoga and chair yoga sessions last about an hour and 15 minutes, while kids’ yoga is approximately 45 minutes long. If classes are held in person outdoors, simply bring yourself; a yoga mat if you have one and some blankets if you don’t; sunscreen; water; and any props you might have such as bolsters or blocks.

For more information, call 304-473-4219 or UCPL’s Facebook page.

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