When I was in my 40s, I went to a yoga studio for classes, but I stopped because it made me feel “different.” I was trying to replicate the poses with a yoga instructor and I pushed myself to make the poses look the same as the non-disabled people. I ended up straining my hip, which required several months of rest. That scared me off and I never went back to yoga. It was not the instructor that pushed me. It was me wanting to look "normal."
Fortunately, I am over trying to be the same as everyone else. As I get older and wiser, I am more comfortable with my disability, and I have stopped comparing myself to others. I want to be the healthiest version of myself, period.
Recently I’ve become interested in adaptive yoga again. As it turns out, I’ve been doing it without even knowing for years! I have always known the importance of stretching and staying flexible. Sitting all day causes stiffness and soreness, I relieve this by stretching and practicing deep breathing exercises daily in my home. Getting into certain poses often requires me asking for help from another person. Depending on your specific disability, you may need additional assistance, but I think the time and effort is well worth the investment. Even if that means meditation and breathing exercises are the most you can do without assistance.
Each and every one of us should feel empowered to take control of our own health through exercise. Those of us in a wheelchair may need to do things differently, but we all share the same goal of living a happier and healthy life.
If you are looking to start getting into adaptive yoga, I highly recommend the book, Yoga For Everyone
, by Dianne Bondy. Dianne grew up with her mother practicing yoga as a way to relieve stress. As an African American woman with a solid frame she often felt like she didn't fit in with the other slim-framed people attending yoga classes - her body simply didn't move the same way. She struggled to learn poses that came quickly to her classmates. When Dianne became a yoga teacher she developed techniques to help people of all shapes, sizes and levels of ability to participate and feel welcome in the practice of yoga. In the book she features people with various levels of ability doing variations of each pose, including a model with Multiple Sclerosis and a double amputee who uses a wheelchair for mobility. The book might not show pictures of your specific disability, but it gives excellent ideas on variations of poses.
Here are ten poses shown in the book I think are the most easily adaptable for paraplegics, as well as how I personally adapt them. There are many more, but these are a good start:
Happy Baby (Ananda Balasana):
This is a pose where you are lying on your back on the floor with your legs
pulled up against your chest and your feet in the air. I pull my legs up to my chest with my arms and hold them in place. You can also use a strap around your feet and hold it with your hands.
Easy Pose (Sukhasana):
This is essentially sitting with your feet under you, cross-legged with your hands resting on your knees. I use my hands to bend my legs and put my feet under me. You then lift your chest and relax your shoulders. People with upper body impairment my need another person to pull their shoulders back.
Child’s pose (Supta Balasana):
I get out of my wheelchair onto the floor for this one. I put a chair in front of me with a blanket on the seat of the chair and lean my torso toward the seat of the chair, stacking my forearms on the seat, and resting my head on my fore arms.
I lay on my stomach for this pose and put my palms on the floor. I then push my chest up off of the floor with my arms fully extended. It really helps me to lengthen the front of my body and strengthen the muscles in my back and upper body. It is also a great stretch for my hips.
Low Plank (Chaturanga Dandasana):
This position requires some additional equipment. I place a large oblong bolster under my torso, but you could also use extra pillows. With my stomach facing the floor, I put my palms on the floor at my sides.
In this I lay on my back on the floor. I tie an exercise band loosely around my thighs to hold them together. Next, I have a friend put my lower legs on top of an exercise ball. You can also use a folding chair.
Hand to Big Toe (Supta Padangusthasana
): This is usually done standing up, but I do it laying on the floor. I pull my leg up toward my chest and hold the outer edge of my foot with the same hand.
Head to Knee Forward Fold (Janu Sirasana
): I do this on the floor with my legs straight in from of me. I bend forward at the waist toward my toes, putting a strap around the ball of my foot and pulling on it so my toes point toward the ceiling.
Wide-Angled Seated Forward Fold (Upavistha Konasana)
: I lay face down on the floor and push my legs out straight at the widest angle possible. Then I place my hands flat on the mat in front of me and lengthen my spine through the crown of my head.
Wind Relieving (Pawanmuktasana):
I lay on my back with my legs extended and my arms relaxed by my sides. I then use my arms to pull my right knee to my chest. On an exhale I bring my left leg toward my chest. I sometimes need assistance in getting my leg bent and up to my chest.
This pose is usually done standing up, but can be done lying on the floor or a bed, on your belly with your legs extended. I place my hands and forearms near my head. I have someone bend my right knee and give me my right foot so I can hold it at my ankle.
Butterfly (Baddha Konasana
): I do this on the floor and pull both of my feet in toward my body. I put the soles of my feet together and place my hands around my ankles, keeping my head and back aligned. On an exhale, I bend at the waist, lean forward, and place my elbows on the sides of my knees.
I lie on my belly and then lift my head slightly off the mat. I have a friend bend my knees up and hand me my feet one at a time. I then hold my feet at the ankle. After I finish the pose I have someone gently put my feet back on the floor.
I find that having different sized bolsters, blankets, a folding chair and yoga blocks are helpful for executing adaptive yoga poses. I can do some of the poses independently, but I need another person to assist me with others. Each person is different and it will take some trial and error to see what works for you. This is where having a professional yoga instructor is also helpful to make sure you are in alignment and are practicing the poses correctly.My introduction to adaptive yoga came from a book and a set of CDs created by Matthew Sanford, a quadriplegic who runs a non-profit organization called Mind Body Solutions
. Their mission is to help people who experienced trauma, loss and disability awaken the connection between their mind and body.
As a licensed yoga instructor Matthew believes his disability is an advantage in the practice of yoga because he
has fewer distractions. While he can't feel his legs, it's easier for him to focus on the prana (Vital Life Force) that flows through his being. I love hearing that in the practice of yoga having a disability can be an advantage!
One beneficial resource on the Mind-Body Solutions website is a list of yoga instructors in each state that have completed the adaptive yoga training with Mind Body Solutions. I found two people in the state of Louisiana and I plan to contact them for some private lessons soon. I am feeling stronger and more balanced from the poses I have been practicing recently and am looking forward to learning more.
Dianne Bondy and Matthew Sanford both thought they didn’t fit the mold of the typical yoga practitioner. Their bodies were different and that can be intimidating. Despite their initial fears about how they would practice yoga, they have both become internationally known yoga instructors, devoting their lives to helping people understand that yoga is for everyone. They have instructed people with quadriplegia, amputations, Multiple Sclerosis, Cerebral Palsy and many other types of disability. They both teach that any yoga pose can be adapted and varied to suit the needs of the individual. I am thankful that their adaptive yoga techniques are now easily available for anyone who wants to explore the physical, mental and spiritual benefits of yoga practice.
There are many instructors online. You may even be able to find a class or private instructor in your area. I have found many videos available on YouTube where you can follow along from the privacy of your home.
Now go forth, do some adaptive yoga, and live your best life possible!