“Yoga makes me feel powerful,” says a bubbly Jessica Parsons as she readies for instructing her weekly Inclusive Yoga for All Abilities class at Santa Barbara’s Carrillo Rec Center. Parsons connects deeply with her students through her own yoga accomplishment — possibly being the first and only person in the country with Down syndrome to become a certified yoga instructor.
“I’ve been teaching yoga since I was born,” says Parsons jokingly as she explains growing up as the daughter of two yoga instructors in a household that hosts clinics, meditation classes, and even yoga-themed musical celebrations. “She really didn’t have a choice,” says Jessica’s mother, Sue Anne Parsons, who founded Let It Go Yoga in Santa Barbara with her husband, Jim Parsons, in 1986.
Jessica Parsons’s expansion from being a daily hatha yoga student to being an instructor happened while she was assisting her friend Molly Pennette with a class at the Down Syndrome Association. “Molly got sick one day, and I just took over,” says Parsons. “Now I teach.”
“We were just so surprised that she could teach the whole class,” says her mother, who explained that many instructors find verbally leading an hour-long class quite challenging. “So that kind of changed it around, and she started to be the teacher, and Molly assisted her.”
Parsons has since received more than 200 hours of teaching instruction and has released a yoga instructional DVD with two of her sisters, Lauren and Emily, called Yoga by Teens. She also teaches a class at the Alpha Resource Center in addition to her many other yoga engagements.
“She teaches a really great class,” says her mother, who emphasizes that Parsons enjoys teaching students who may or may not have a disability. However, Parsons’s classes focus on helping people who might face physical and mental challenges to feel confident and relaxed by ameliorating the class poses and pace. “I think that they are all improving, which is really amazing,” says her mother.
All her hard work is paying off for Parsons in other areas of her life, as well. She now uses yoga to supplement her swimming training for the Special Olympics. “We do a warm-up right before we get ready for the pool where we do lots of yoga stretches,” she explains. She also enjoys crafts, ceramics, art, and training on her bike with her father on the weekends.
Parsons teaches through the City of Santa Barbara Parks & Recreation Adaptive PE Program at the Carrillo Recreation Center (100 E. Carrillo St.) on Tuesdays from 4:30-5:30 p.m. and Thursdays from 11 a.m.-noon. Classes are $33 ($30 for city residents) for a series of six or $8 for drop-in students. Call (805) 897-2519 or visit santabarbaraca.gov/InclusiveYoga.