After the death of their UA classmate, Jessica Stebbins, a group of students brought to life her dream of creating a yoga program designed for individuals with low mobility. A little more than one year after Stebbins's death, UA students have founded the Yoga for Any Body club and a class under the same name.
Stebbins, who used a wheelchair, was quite fond of yoga, but she found it was not always approachable or accommodating for those with limited mobility. She began speaking about the issue with her peers in the UA Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health, which eventually led to the creation of a club and yoga class that now is being offered at the University.
"She saw something in yoga that could be beneficial or helpful for people who used wheelchairs," said Sheila Parker, a lecturer in the Health Promotion Sciences Division at the College of Public Health who taught one of the last classes Stebbins would take.
"She wanted to increase the awareness of what yoga is and what health benefits exist," Parker said. "That goes beyond what one does in the classroom."
Stebbins died suddenly in December 2011. But driven by her memory and motivated by her infectious enthusiasm, a group of UA students continued working toward introducing an adaptive yoga class on campus.
And after her peers founded a club and spent more than one year learning about the practice, gaining professional training and conducting an assessment for need, they also completed protocols necessary to launch a course.
"I didn't meet her, but I felt so motivated by her," said Karen Rios, a public health senior and the club's president.
For their work, the club's members earned the UA's Inclusive Excellence Award, which goes to individuals and organizations who make important contributions to creating and enhancing a diverse and inclusive community at the University.
With a flush face and eyes filling with tears, Rios said she could feel the passion Stebbins carried even after she was gone and despite having never met her.
It was by interacting with her collaborators – including UA alumni Drew Donnellan; students Elizabeth Brewer, and Blanca Delgado; Honors College student Megan Morales as well as Eve Hampton, an academic adviser – that Rios began to rethink how she conceived of disability and ability and how she could continue to aid in launching the course.
"It's not about targeting a specific group," Rios said, speaking about the club and class. "It's about the unity of everyone; of everyone being able to participate in the practice of yoga."
Stebbins had been friends with Brewer for years through their studies in the College of Public Health. It was after Brewer began giving presentations on the benefits of yoga that Stebbins learned she practiced and taught yoga.
Eventually, Stebbins asked Brewer to teach her. Later, Brewer approached Parker about completing an independent study with Stebbins on the benefits of yoga for individuals with physical disabilities, said Brewer, the club's vice president.
Stebbins died shortly thereafter, and on the night of her death, Brewer reached out.
"I invited group members working on a project with the two of us who were having a difficult time dealing with Jessica’s passing to come to my yoga class that evening," said Brewer, a public health senior who has been teaching yoga for four years.
"After class, they came up to me and said, 'What was Jessica’s dream?' This was a moment I will never forget," she said. "After Jessica passed, I knew I couldn't do the independent research project on my own. I asked them if they would help me follow through with Jessica's dream, and they said 'Yes.'"
At that moment, Brewer, Rios and others pledged to establish what would become Yoga For Any Bodyand would later connect with other students who either knew Stebbins personally or were devoted to her idea.
"Before I knew it, there was a large group of them interested," Parker said, adding that eight students committed to the independent study. "They are very much a self-propelled group of students. I have never had a group of students so motivated."
Parker guided Brewer and the other students through a general needs assessment and additional research about launching a club and eventual course at the UA.
After a major drive to raise funds, and having earned a grant from Mel and Enid Zuckerman, three of the students traveled to Minnesota during the spring of 2012 to study with nationally known yoga instructor Matthew Sanford, founder of Mind Body Solutions.
"Although Jessica is no longer in our lives, we have brought her dream to life," said Brewer, a certified PiYo instructor who completed the adaptive yoga level one teacher training for disabilities with Sanford.
"Bringing yoga for every single body, whether standing or in a wheelchair, to the University of Arizona is a contribution I am proud to be bringing to this very special school," Brewer said. "Yoga is not only a practice, it is a way of life and everyone should be able to have the joy of practicing. This is one of the sweetest joys of my life."
Creating a class for any body
Yoga for Any Body soon will launch at Campus Recreation. "There is a lot of emotional excitement around the launch," Rios said.
After receiving their training in Minnesota, the student leads returned to Tucson, teaching student volunteers how to serve as grounding assistants, individuals who will aid others with upper and lower body moments during the class and ensure their safety. Of about 45 club members, 12 are serving as trained grounding assistants.
"You can feel the impact of the yoga, and not just the physical impact, but the emotional and meditative impact," said Rios, one of the trained grounding assistants. "It is very meditative and relaxing."
The class, which will be offered Friday evenings through April 12, will cover the centuries-old practice of yoga, offering sessions in the seated position for both able-bodied individuals, those with disabilities and others with mobility challenges due to conditions like arthritis, for example.
"Spreading loving kindness is my personal mission in life. As an instructor, I have the opportunity to teach loving kindness everyday," said Brewer, who is also certified through the Aerobic and Fitness Association of America as a personal trainer and group fitness instructor.
"I plan to use yoga as an expansion beyond the classroom into all areas of our community as a vehicle for wellness, healing and personal transformation," she said.
Brewer said she hopes that, above all, those who participate will be able to experience "'metta,' which means loving kindness, toward themselves their mind and their body."
Alan Beaudrie, who worked with Stebbins after she switched her major to public health in the spring of 2011, said it is one of the strongest examples he has since of students organizing around a shared idea.
"They continue to amaze me. This is something unique, but I can see that this is something that could easily be replicated on a national level at universities across the U.S. I believe that," said Beaudrie, the assistant director of undergraduate advising.
"They're not doing this just because they want to start a club and put it on their resume. It's a different attitude and a very good one, in a positive way," Beaudrie said.
He recalled Stebbins and her desire to help others through the health profession.
"I think this may have been the start of something she, herself, could have gotten into. Not just with yoga, but with working with people with disabilities and helping them to live healthy lives," Beaudrie said.
In the end, Parker said she was even more impressed with the group because not only are they working to manifest an idea, but also because they took a course project and transformed it into a long-standing commitment.
"Some were new to yoga; others were involved for some time," Parker said. "They are just wonderful examples to other students of what you can do when you put your minds and hearts to it."