“You’re not going to catch me trying to wrap my foot around my head.”
“Yoga? No way. I don’t bend like that.”
“Me? Do yoga? You’ve got to be kidding.”
These are some typical comments people make when presented with the opportunity to practice yoga. However, in the last few years people of varying ages, abilities and disabilities seem to be more receptive to the idea.
“Adaptive yoga or just yoga is awesome,” said Tyler Carter, a 17-year-old alpine ski racer who is a below-the-knee amputee. “I was a little skeptical at first but love it now. It is calming, relaxing, and a great way to end the day.”
It is this quality of relaxation that not only attracts people to yoga, but turns them into long-term beneficiaries.
“The stress release and calming effect are the biggest benefits,” said Adaptive Sports Foundation (ASF) Race Team member John Eckbold, a mono-skier born with spina bifida. “I feel some physical improvement, but the mental aspect is what I notice the most.”
Many people are motivated to try yoga for physical reasons. They hope that practicing yoga will relieve body pain, increase flexibility and improve strength. Most, however, come to find the mental and emotional benefits equal to or greater than the physical benefits.
“Adaptive Yoga has impacted my recovery tremendously by increasing my strength, balance, flexibility and pain tolerance,” said SFC Diane Cochran, US Army Retired. Diane sustained a spinal cord injury while serving in Afghanistan. She regularly attends women’s and summer events for wounded warriors at ASF. “When I do yoga I find myself doing things like walking down a hill instead of using my wheelchair. As an added benefit, I find that I am more focused and at peace,” said Diane.
Last winter, Tyler and John both attended an ASF race camp for alpine skiers with disabilities. At the end of each day, a mat or chair yoga class was held for participants.
“It was a little challenging at first trying to adapt and adjust some of the poses, but once we did, it felt really good,” said Tyler. “I think adaptive yoga provides people with disabilities a sense of accomplishment, a feeling that they can do whatever they want and that no one can hold them back.”
Determining what type of yoga to teach a group of individuals with physical and cognitive disabilities can be challenging. At ASF we teach a combination of breathing techniques, yoga postures and a deeply rejuvenating practice called Yoga Nidra, which means focused sleep. Yoga Nidra is a guided relaxation practice where the body and the mind relax at a very deep level and healing and destress occur.
After one of these sessions at ASF, Russell Dean, MS, LMHC, said “I haven’t felt that relaxed and pain free since the last time I had anesthesia.” Russ, a Vietnam veteran with back injuries, is the Wounded Warrior Project’s Manager of Project Odyssey, a health and wellness program for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans with PTSD.
To insure success, a yoga teacher must evaluate her students and determine what combination, type and level of yoga practice is appropriate. What are the student’s abilities and disabilities? What are the students’ goals? Flexibility and injury-avoidance? Strength? Focus? Relaxation? Centering? Stress-relief? The goal is to introduce practices that individuals can incorporate into their lives on an on-going basis.
Whether a yoga class is geared towards able bodied or disabled students, adaptability is key. By learning to pay attention to your body and mind, a practitioner learns when and how to adapt to poses. With proper alignment and mindful attention, you will experience increased levels of energy and feelings.
The key to all of this is the creation of a set of tools you can access to bring not only your physical being into balance, but your life into balance as well.
For example, when you pay attention to your breath, whether in a yoga class or while going about your day, you tune into your state of being in that moment. Quick, uneven, short breaths often indicate high levels of anxiety or stress. The general yoga instruction is to practice a slow even breath: a long inhale followed by a long exhale. This practice generally increases calmness and reduces anxiety and stress levels on and off the mat.
“By utilizing the relaxation and breathing techniques I’ve learned at ASF I have been able to gain more control over my anxiety and stress,” said Matt Bonchi, SSG US Army Reserve. Matt was injured by a Vehicle borne Improvised Explosive Device (IED) in June 2006 and again in January 2007. “Since the first Warriors in Motion event I attended at ASF, I have been able to use these techniques to relax and get a full eight hours of sleep, without medication, for the first time since 2006.”
Everyone experiences ups and downs in life. How we deal with these changes defines our state of being. Yet it is not only how we deal with these experiences but how we interact with them and learn from them. By cultivating awareness of yourself and paying attention to your thoughts and feelings, you learn to listen to and trust your intuition.
The fast pace of life and the stresses we endure often keep us from taking the time to slow down, tune in and listen. So often we are defined by what we do, our jobs, our abilities and our disabilities. We allow those external things to define us and we lose track of who we are. By practicing yoga – postures, breathing and meditation – we give ourselves the chance to slow down, pause, and take a moment to feel what is going on inside and get back in touch with who we are. By practicing yoga we can just be.
Jo Kirsch is a Registered Yoga Teacher (RYT) who has met 500 hour standards; a certified Professional Ski Instructor; and the Marketing and Development Director for the Adaptive Sports Foundation.