Yoga instructor Marsha Cooper (left) instructs her class of seniors at the Emeritus College on Second Street on Thursday afternoon. Cooper's yoga class will be shut down after next week. (photo by Brandon Wise)

SMC — Natalie Lewis can’t believe that at 78 years old she is able to do a handstand.

She gained the strength and flexibility to accomplish the feat in a yoga class at Santa Monica’s Emeritus College; a class she has taken for 10 years and said she could not have done it without her teacher, Marsha Cooper.

“There’s alternatives, but I love that class because she teaches traditional poses, and some poses are stretches that are phenomenal for an older person,” Lewis said.

But come Saturday, the last day of the summer session at Emeritus, Cooper’s section of the yoga class will no longer be offered.

With public colleges across California scrambling to compensate for state budget cuts, an unlikely demographic in Santa Monica has been caught in the crossfire — senior citizens.

“A lot of people are really heartbroken,” Lewis said.

As administrators at Santa Monica College, which runs Emeritus, planned its fall schedule earlier in June, it cut 3 percent of all offerings to account for decreases in state funding. Those cuts included four classes at its senior citizen program. Last fiscal year, SMC’s budget was $341.4 million.

“The college doesn’t want to make cuts at all,” said Katharine Muller, dean of external affairs for SMC. “In tight budget times, everybody wants it to be something else. The cuts made are not an indictment of value. Making cuts is not easy, and the decision is not made lightly.”

The ratio of cuts from Emeritus amounts to the same as SMC’s credit program, Muller said. Two sections of yoga, one section of tai chi and one section of aerobics were cut from Emeritus’ fall schedule.

Emeritus received a $1.038 million donation in March from the estate of Zelda Herman, a former student who died in May of 2009. Some who have been affected by the decrease in class offerings said they think the money should go toward paying salaries to avoid cuts, but Muller said the money has been put in the endowment, called the Santa Monica College Foundation.

“You can’t subsidize salaries with foundation money,” she said.

The professors at Emeritus are never guaranteed their class will be coming back, as they are part-time and adjunct faculty hired on a semester-to-semester basis, Muller said. They have not technically been laid-off, as that term does not apply to part-time or adjunct faculty.

Still, Cooper, the yoga instructor, said she does not understand why part-time and adjunct faculty are not protected from cuts when they are members of the SMC union, Santa Monica College Faculty Association.

With 60 students, Cooper said her class is one of the most popular at Emeritus. When her students found out her class was cut, they wanted to “create havoc” and went to talk the dean of Emeritus, Ron Furuyama, out of the cuts, but were not able to meet with him. The students also created a petition, but Cooper said she does not think anything will come of it.

Cooper said with the class’ popularity and its health benefits to senior citizens, she does not think the cut is fair.

“Why not be fair and cut everyone a little bit,” she said. “They’re cutting all the exercise classes. How about cutting reading classes? They can do that in the library. Half of them fall asleep in class, anyway.”

While Cooper said she is frustrated by what little explanation she has received regarding why her class was cut, others who have been cut said they have not had that experience.

Kathy Cass, who has been teaching the 40-student “Feeling Fit” aerobics class for a year and a half, said when she received a call two weeks ago saying her class was cut, she was told little more than its was due to budget constraints. But she said the dean and his staff were very apologetic.

“They were very sympathetic and thanked me for understanding their difficult decision in an awful situation,” she said in an e-mail to the Daily Press. “I did not see it coming, but I was not surprised, either. I know there are instructors who have a lot more seniority than me, and I am well aware of the budget crisis in California.”

Currently, there are no plans to cut additional classes at Emeritus in the future, as SMC decides on cuts on a semester-by-semester basis, Muller said.

Still, senior citizens in the classes that were cut remain upset at what has already been done.

“This class is too beneficial to lose,” said Mary McGuirk, who is also in Cooper’s yoga class. “It keeps us alive.”

Taylor D’Andrea contributed to this report.

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