Erika Petach: Impacting the Blind and Beyond
Erika Petach reminisces that her parents always had foster kids when she was growing up. “I was very fortunate to have my life enriched in this way. Among the foster kids, we had a child who was deaf, and a child with autism. My parents modelled what it’s like to make a difference in people’s lives, and that really had an impact on me. From my earliest years, I wanted to help people.”
That desire to help people became the pathway leading Erika to the Blind and Vision Rehabilitation Services (BVRS) of Pittsburgh where she serves as President. She leads this nationally accredited nonprofit agency to provide training, education and rehabilitation services helping thousands of people with vision loss to find independence.
The specific services and opportunities that BVRS offers are extensive, including personal adjustment- to-blindness training, vocation and employment services, summer youth programs, vision screening, transportation services, day programs for people with disabilities and more.
“There are a lot of misconceptions about what blind people can and can’t do,” Erika explains. “Those misconceptions can become barriers, which are really detrimental to a person’s ability to thrive and be their best.”
Erika is continually searching for new ways to eliminate barriers and expand enrichment and employment opportunities for people who are visually impaired. Additionally, she is passionate about yoga and its physical, mental and emotional benefits, which she experienced over a 14-year period.
“Yoga can make a huge difference in how you feel in your body. Yoga can benefit all people – and people who are blind shouldn’t be excluded from the experiencing those benefits.”
The idea of starting a new kind of yoga studio, designed especially for blind people, made sense to Erika. That idea became Blue Awning Yoga
Erika quickly got to work on a business plan. She researched and interviewed owners of yoga studios in the area. Could classes be designed specifically for people who are blind? And could blind people teach the classes? The answer was a resounding, “Yes.”
The key involves highly descriptive verbal instruction, something that could be effective – and could be learned.
As Erika continued her research, she also realized that there are other barriers that keep people, especially blind but also sighted, from participating in yoga.
One is accessibility – and offering a remote option, along with in-class instruction, could make a difference to people who have difficulty getting to class. This would help people who have issues of transportation, or have very busy lives with little time to get to and from class.
Another barrier is affordability, with the cost commonly being $25 a class. Offering a lower cost option would enable more people to participate.
Any impairment could be a barrier, and adaptive instruction, geared to the ability of the individual, would open up the possibility of yoga to more people. There could be gentle and restorative classes, such as chair yoga, for people of all abilities – including senior citizens or those in a wheelchair.
Unfamiliarity or fear of yoga often stops people from participating, so care could be taken to make it comfortable and easy to start. This would help all people on their journey to achieve a sense of mind and body.
Also, a yoga studio for people with visual impairments, and all others who are interested, could provide new growth and employment opportunities for people who are blind.
The plan made sense to Erika – and it made sense to the BVRS Board of Directors, too. And so Blue Awning Yoga was born.
There’s nothing else like Blue Awning Yoga. As Erika explains, “It’s the only yoga studio in the country designed for and taught by people who are blind.”
The name Blue Awning Yoga is appropriate since a blue awning marks the entrance to the BVRSP building in the uptown portion of Pittsburgh, where it’s located. It opened in March of 2019 with a beautiful studio and plans to offer extensive classes.
Unfortunately, within two weeks of opening, Blue Awning, along with the rest of the country, had to shut down due to Covid. The plans and facilities languished until Blue Awning Yoga could open again in December of 2021.
Since then, it has been steadily serving new populations of people.
One dedicated Blue Awning member, Elvira, lives in Durham, North Carolina. She has an unlimited pass to participate virtually, and averages eight to ten classes a week.
“They’re very well done,” Elvira says. “I fit the classes into my work-at-home schedule, so that could be the Chair Yoga, Gentle Lunchtime or Slow Power Yoga classes. And the instructors are excellent. Each one brings a different personality to the class, which I really appreciate. You get to know them. Like Monster Molly – and I say that with love! – who really makes me sweat. She’s fantastic. They all are!”
Elvira explains that Blue Awning takes away barriers to open a world of mental peace, relaxation and good health through yoga. As a woman who’s visually impaired and practices yoga, she’s taken many classes in the past 20 years, but was frustrated with the lack of detailed description that’s necessary for her to participate. “I worked on training quite a few instructors! And they didn’t always learn well!” She laughs. All Blue Awning Yoga instructors are trained and adept at providing verbal instruction to benefit all people – those who are blind and those who aren’t.
Blue Awning also removes accessibility issues, Elvira says. “It provides me the freedom of taking classes when I want, without depending on anyone to take me to and from classes. The sitting and waiting on others is frustrating and a real barrier. With Blue Awning, I fit classes into my schedule and participate when I want. And there are a lot of class offerings to choose from.”
“Blue Awning enables to me to love doing movement. To be able to do that for myself and not ask anyone for anything – that’s freedom!”
Another key barrier, that of cost, is also addressed at Blue Awning. Erika works to keep it affordable by intentionally keeping the cost low and securing support from generous organizations. The PNC Foundation donates grants to provide free classes for individuals in Pennsylvania who have vision loss. Also, the Foreseeable Future Foundation provides funds to teach a virtual national class for individuals with vision loss.
And the price for everyone is much lower than the usual $25 per class most studios charge. Unlimited virtual-only memberships are $50 per month, while in-person and virtual memberships are $90 per month or $900 per year. Individual classes are $5 for virtual, or $15 for in-person, or for students or seniors 60 years or older $10 for in-person.
“I wish more people could know about Blue Awning,” Elvira comments. “People can do it for themselves and their own health benefits.”
Erika says that her faith motivates her to help others.
Her passion to serve God and other people is deeply rooted. “I want to use my position to help others experience new opportunities, so that they can do the things they love,” she explains.
Initially, her heart to help others led her to get a Bachelor of Science in Psychology at the University of Pittsburgh. As she felt an even stronger call to make a difference, she got her Master in Nonprofit Management at Carlow University in Pittsburgh. Today, she’s well equipped to open the doors of education, enrichment and employment for others.
“Breaking down barriers is important,” Erika says. “People with impairments, vision and otherwise, are often pigeonholed. I’m privileged to be able to live out my passion to help people. And I want the same for others.”
“A life not lived for others is not a life.”
– Mother Theresa
The Blue Awing website shares, “Our goal is to create an all-inclusive environment so people of all backgrounds and needs have the opportunity to achieve harmony and awareness in their life.
We provide our students a chance to recharge, achieve balance, and relax in a renovated historic warehouse space in the heart of the Uptown neighborhood.”
Carol Lubecki is one of two blind instructors at Blue Awning Yoga. She has worked as a physical therapist for about 29 years. She has an array of certifications and training with osteopathic doctors in a number of therapies. She offers Reiki, Craniosacral Therapy (CST), and Lymphatic Drainage Massage at Blue Awning.
And she loves teaching yoga. “I understand the anxieties that people who are blind or have any impairments feel when considering yoga. Can I relate to a new class? Can I learn? Will the instructor be able to communicate in a way I understand?”
“When people realize I am blind, it kind of levels the playing field. They know that I understand challenges and will help them through them,” Carol says.
“Whether I’m instructing virtually or in person, I make sure the class members know that communication is a two-way street. They need to interrupt me if they have questions or need more of an explanation.”
She continued, “I like to build relationships, which helps me to better understand what the students are going through and what they need to grow.”
The idea of a yoga studio for all people – those who are blind or are sighted, those with no or advanced ability, those with little or greater resources, and those living near or far – is now a dream come true.
Erika Petach once watched and learned at her parent’s knee the value and importance of helping others. Now, every day she makes a difference in other people’s lives in a multitude of ways at the Blind and Vision Rehabilitation Services of Pittsburgh. Blue Awning is just one more way she is tearing down barriers to enrich the lives of others.
Erika and her husband have two daughters, who are also seeing the reality of what it means to serve others. And someday they, along with others who are around Erika, may choose to embrace a similar calling. It’s something that’s seen and taught.
“Start children off on the way they should go,
and even when they are old they will not depart from it.” – Proverbs 22:6
Information on Blue Awning Yoga is at http://blueawningyoga.com.
Information on the Blind and Visual Rehabilitation Services is at https://www.bvrspittsburgh.org.
VIDEO INTRODUCTION TO BLUE AWNING YOGA