Jessica Parsons is a remarkable young woman… I am a little biased as she is my daughter but she has shown me and many others how capable a person with Down syndrome can be.
Yes, she needs on-going support and guidance, and no, she could not write this article for herself but all that aside, she is amazing in what she can do. And she can teach yoga!
With Jim and I as yoga teachers, Jessica has practiced yoga with the family all of her life. Even with so much exposure to yoga, we were still surprised to find her at 12 years old, doing yoga on her own. She had a 40 minute routine that she would practice daily in her bedroom. She would practice by herself and review some of the postures that were most difficult for her. Flexibility was never a problem but she had other issues that made yoga a challenge. She was born with scoliosis, hyper-flexibity and low muscle tone. These issues are common for people with Down syndrome and our doctors told us they were the cause of some of her early delays in speech and mobility. But she never noticed, she persisted. For Jessica the most challenging postures were (and still are) the balance poses – Tree Pose and Warrior 3. She “loves to hate” all of the core strengthening postures such as Plank, Leg Lifts and Boat Pose. She is still working on the inverted postures, Shoulder and Head Stand. She gets frustrated and sometimes she becomes upset but she keeps trying.
When we brought our studio into our home it was a safe space for her to practice yoga with students other than family. She enjoyed being part of the group and loved the social and community aspects of the classes. She showed many others how much she could understand and how well she could interact with the group. She remembered every student that came to class and looked forward to helping me get set up and ready for their arrival.
As time went we on we included Jessica is our teachers trainings, at first just for fun and then we decided that she was willing and capable of taking the next step. We adapted the written material in the training so that she could understand the lessons fully and become certified. We worked with her and tested her verbally so that we felt confident that she understood, not only the poses but how to help others in the class.
Again she surprised us by teaching in the group settings, knowing way more than we expected. Jessica became a 200 hour certified teacher when she was 18. During those trainings she met an an angel named Molly Pennette. Molly was becoming one of our 200 hour teachers and she befriended Jessica. Molly wanted to help Jessica and others with disabilities and through the support of the Down Syndrome Association of Santa Barbara County, Molly and Jessica started “Yoga for All “- a class for kids with disabilities and their staff. Molly and Jessica made up yoga games and songs that were a big hit and the class was a huge success. One fateful day Molly was ill and Jessica did not have her as a helper. Jessica insisted that she could teach the class on her own. We decided to be there to support her but we let her teach the class alone. To our amazement she taught the class from start to finish! She remembered every pose, every game, every song and even added a few extra poses that she knew the kids loved!!
She has been teaching ever since. She has taught at the Alpha Resource Center, she has taught for a variety of fundraisers and conventions. And for the last three years she has taught an adult class, “Inclusive Yoga for All“ through the City of Santa Barbara Parks and Rec. at the Carrillo Rec Center. She is the first yoga teacher with Down syndrome in the country!
Jessica has taught for all abilities. She gets it that not everyone can do everything she teaches. This does not faze her one bit. She knows that everyone can do something! She knows that even if someone’s legs don’t want to move they can sit and she teaches yoga poses that can be done seated. She knows that some students need to use the wall for balance or a strap or a block for assistance. Some of her students come with their aides and she loves for the aides to do yoga, too. Everyone is included. Most of her students are developmentally delayed. Some are non-verbal or have difficulties with speech, some are blind, some are in wheel chairs and need more help than others, some need no help at all. She teaches students with Down syndrome and students with Autism. She does not know their labels and does not seem to see their disabilities. She allows each student to contribute and interact with the group in their own way. She encourages each student to do their best. She even gets the group to join together with the sound of Om!
We support Jessica teaching her classes. We are sure that she always has a fellow yoga teacher assist her in class, just in case there is a large turn out or a problem that she could not address on her own. All of her support staff, Jim and I included, have felt that we have gained so much by helping her in these classes. We are able to interact with people that we may not have been fortunate enough to meet in any other way. We also have found that the non disabled students help the disabled students just by being there. It seems to “raise the bar” so to speak and the students all take class a little more seriously and try a little harder.
It’s hard for me when sometimes a non-disabled new student will come into class and take a look at her and her students and turn around and walk out the door. Maybe they felt this class was not for them, or like me a while back, felt that they wouldn’t know what to say or how to communicate with a disabled person. Such a loss… a loss for everyone. I have found that the more “normal” I can treat a disabled person the more we connect. Everyone wants the same thing… Everyone wants love and connection. Everyone wants to be treated with respect and kindness. Seems to me that everyone wants to be a part of a like minded community, to laugh and have fun together.
If you want to do something that’s good for you and that will help others, I highly encourage you to attend Jessica’s yoga classes and other accessible yoga classes like hers. Not only does she teach a variety of awesome yoga poses, but you will not feel any pressure to perform the perfect yoga pose. There will be no competition, just come as you are, you will feel welcomed and accepted. You will contribute to the disabled community and help others just by being present and just by being yourself. You will be amazed at Jessica’s abilities and inspired by the abilities and determination of the students in the class. You will contribute just by saying hello or sharing an insight, and you just might end up making a new friend. You may touch another or be touched in deeper ways than you can imagine. I guarantee you will leave smiling.
Jessica teaches Wednesdays 4-5 pm and Thursdays 10:30-11:30 am through the City of Santa Barbara Parks and Recreation Adaptive PE Program located at Carrillo Rec Center, 100 Carilllo Street, Santa Barbara. $32 for a series of six. No charge for support staff.
You can learn more about Jessica at JessicaParsonsYoga.com.
Contributed by Sue Anne Parsons – Director of Let It Go Yoga.