Nothing happens too fast in yoga teacher Howie Shareff’s classes.
Students don’t usually stand on their hands or twist their legs behind their heads.
During a recent session, no one even unfurled a mat until the final minutes of an hour-long class, sitting instead in chairs while they made gentle adjustments to their poses.
That’s the way of You Call This Yoga, a Raleigh-based nonprofit Shareff started in 2010 to bring yoga to people who have physical disabilities and to under-served communities.
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Shareff, a former dentist, said he believes everyone can find a mode of yoga that works for them.
“There are plenty of small, significant movements to work on balance, alignment and awareness,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be contortion.”
Recently, he guided four women, two who use walkers, through a class at Crabtree Chiropractic Center, offering a constant stream of tips and encouragement as he moved through the room.
“If it doesn’t make it, it doesn’t mean it’s never going to make it. But don’t force it,” he said as the women lined up pinkies, palms, forearms and elbows in front of their chests while seated in chairs.
Judy Marks, 60, has been coming to class since last year. She first picked up yoga as a teenager, but thought her days of practicing were over before she met Shareff.
She said his ideas for modifying poses are helpful.
“It makes you feel really good to know you’re doing what you can to maintain what you have left,” Marks said.
The nonprofit offers a variety of free or donation-based classes, including chair yoga, gentle mat yoga, adaptive yoga and yoga for those with neuromuscular and joint disorders.
Shareff also teaches a chair class that airs on Raleigh Cable Channel 10 and is available on YouTube.
The group develops classes for seniors, the uninsured, Spanish-speaking populations and women in temporary housing, in addition to those with physical disabilities.
Shareff said he knows well the challenges his students face. He first walked into a yoga class more than 15 years ago, after realizing that years of hunching over a dental chair, playing sports and taking care of a business and family had started to take a toll on his body.
He quickly found himself at home and began looking for ways to make yoga poses best work for him, including as he went through two neck surgeries and a hip replacement.
Ultimately, the second of the neck surgeries put an end to his dental career and left him retired at the age of 52. That’s when he ramped up his interest in yoga, producing an instructional video, becoming a yoga instructor and establishing You Call This Yoga.
“I was looking to create this inclusive community because every day I have to deal with the residuals of my physical problems,” he said.
Sue Karpen, who has multiple sclerosis, has attended Shareff’s yoga classes for nearly a year, seeking both a physical challenge and a gathering place.
“I love the community aspect of this,” she said. “Being with other people who have disabilities lets you compare notes.”
Shareff said he wants to expand the classes and programming the nonprofit can offer. Already the group partners with Y.O.G.A. for Youth, teaches in public libraries and hosts the annual YogaFest NC to bring hundreds of yoga enthusiasts together regardless of mobility and experience.
In June, the group will launch YogaFest Raleigh, a summer class series hosted at the Stockroom at 230 Fayetteville St. Donations from the classes will help fund teacher stipends.
In the time Shareff has been practicing yoga, its popularity has skyrocketed. Now is the time to make sure everyone has access to its benefits, he said.
“The community is ready for it,” he said.
For more information about the group, go to youcallthisyoga.org.