This is an excerpt from Adaptive Yoga by Ingrid Yang & Kyle Fahey.
Popular yoga systems provide little guidance to those with physical disabilities, leaving many, if not most, people with disabilities minimally prepared to manage or improve their health and fitness by practicing yoga. Despite yoga’s numerous potential benefits, scholars and activists have voiced that dominant media representations of yoga and its practitioners may limit how the accessibility of the practice is perceived.13 Published analyses of mainstream yoga media contain limited visual representations of those with disabilities, and these representations have become increasingly narrow, potentially discouraging people from trying yoga despite its health benefits.8
Ironically, yoga is widely advertised as a practice that promotes a variety of health benefits, including lower blood pressure, increased joint mobility, improved quality of life, and reduced stress.5 The asanas (poses) and pranayamas (breathing exercises) practiced in yoga may be especially beneficial for people with physical disabilities5 such as arthritis, chronic pain, multiple sclerosis (MS), stroke, spinal cord injury (SCI), and Parkinson’s disease.1,6,14,15 Indeed, studies that examine yoga participation among people with MS-related disability and SCI suggest that yoga programs are safe and feasible and that participants experienced improvements in quality of life and physical and mental functioning while participating in a regular yoga practice.3,4
One of the keys to yoga as a rehabilitative tool is its nature as an ongoing practice rather than as an end in itself. Yoga is not simply about poses; it is a system and way of living that was created thousands of years ago to help people maintain and live a happy, healthy life. As practitioners who have worked extensively with PWD, we are most affected by how disembodied a patient feels after disability. In some ways, the body has either attacked them (such as in arthritis, Parkinson’s, or MS) or failed them (such as in SCI, stroke, or low back pain). So then, why yoga? Literally translated, the word yoga means “union.” One way to interpret this translation is that yoga is meant to unite the mind, body, and spirit. Uniting the physical poses with your breath, action with thought, and awareness with intention can be the path to peace in the body, mind, and spirit. This allows us to live again with our bodies, which we may have made an enemy of. It teaches us how to use our body again and make friends with it. This allows us to become “in-bodied” again.
Take for instance the simple practice of breathing. This is something we all do every day without conscious effort or thought. But when you become aware of what a powerful tool breathing is, and of how your breathing affects every part of your body, it becomes an object of magnificence and wonder. As you learn how to focus awareness on your breathing, you can observe how your mind can feel calmer and your body more relaxed. In this manner, mindfulness in thought can lead to actual physiologic changes in your body. This is how yoga is different from other forms of exercise: the connection to mindfulness, conscious thought and effort, and the human spirit.
And the poses themselves? Each pose is designed to stack your joints optimally and to utilize your body weight to improve your strength and flexibility. The poses support the body’s joints, muscles, structure, and function, and we encourage you to modify the poses to their simplest form as you begin. As you gain confidence and ease in the poses, you can try variations and challenges. This is the beauty of yoga and why it is for everyone. It is not about lifting the most weight or hitting the ball accurately or even running the fastest; it is about modifying movement for your goals and your body’s needs. You can be standing, sitting in a chair or wheelchair, or even lying on the floor or in bed—wherever you are most comfortable at that point in time. We encourage you to use the tool of visualization to combine breathing while imagining yourself performing the poses, which can help you move in the right direction when you have reduced mobility.
We also advise that you speak with your health care provider before you begin a yoga practice and discuss any questions or concerns that you or they may have. Your health care provider should be able to support you through your journey in yoga, and may even be able to educate other patients on yoga, borrowing from your experience.
The benefits of yoga can be experienced in just a few minutes of practice, whether it be through poses, pranayama, or a mindfulness practice. You should always feel better after practicing yoga than when you started. Struggling or suffering through a practice is not the purpose. The journey will present challenges; each day and each practice will be different. Some days may feel impossibly hard, other days you will feel more spacious and present. Stick with it. The answers will come and will make sense when the time is right. And at times, you will wonder whether yoga is something you can really do. It is. Be with it, and with all the emotions that arise, fully and with an open heart. There will be other moments when you wonder if yoga is too difficult. It is not. Modifications are always available, and we encourage you to take a moment to rest or simply breathe.
Every body is different—in shape, strength, flexibility, mobility, height, weight, tension, energy level, and ability. Day to day, your body will change. It will be different from the body it was yesterday, or an hour ago. And, yes, yoga is for every body.