Monthly Archives: May 2015

6 Tips for Starting a Yoga Practice with a Disability


Aimee SterkBy Aimee Sterk, LMSW, MATP Staff

I have been practicing yoga for almost a year now. I started shortly after my first miscarriage—I was looking for ways to heal myself internally and get back in touch with my body which I had/have felt so betrayed by. Yoga has helped me with all of these things and more. I feel centered when I do yoga. I am able to tap into self-compassion. I take deep breaths and set intentions for my practice and my day. My anxiety and depression are definitely improved when I get to do yoga regularly. If I am having a bad day, yoga always helps.

As a person with hidden physical and mental health disabilities, yoga has been a good challenge that has fed my spirit. I’d like to offer some tips for people looking to experience their own healing time on the mat.

6 Tips for Starting a Yoga Practice with a Disability:

1) Find a welcoming yoga community. I had tried a starter class in yoga several years ago and felt very judged at the first class and never went back. How you feel when you enter the studio, how you are greeted, and the love and energy of the people around you impacts your practice—your desire to come to class even when you are not doing well, your comfort with connecting with yourself and the people in class.

Ask friends and check out the websites of potential studios. Honestly, I looked at 4 studios before trying the one I now love—PeaceLab Yoga. Studio websites helped me figure out a studio wasn’t for me—by reading the mission statement and information on the studio, you can see if their philosophy fits with your way of being. Also see if they have a good schedule of a variety of classes at times that work for you. Check out the bios of the teachers, see if they seem like a good fit—and if there aren’t any bios, question why that is the case—do they have high staff turnover? Do they not understand the importance of finding a teacher that fits for you?

2) Visit the studio for a free/cheap starter class to test the vibe. Most studios have an introductory rate for their first class. Take advantage of this opportunity to check out studios. I tried two other studios in person before settling on PeaceLab. I was uncomfortable at one studio, feeling like I was being judged for my body size. Another studio was very nice but the schedule of classes and the more academic vibe didn’t quite fit me—I need a mix of knowledge and personality. My teachers Mary and Melanie fit this perfectly. They are both clearly dedicated to yoga, and can be serious, informative, and supportive. They are also both very knowledgeable and adaptable to meet students’ needs. Also, they can crack a joke, smile and encourage, and take it well when the class is not particularly happy in a difficult pose, encouraging without being a Pollyanna or a drill sergeant. You can’t tell this about them without going through a class with them. At my first class at PeaceLab, I noticed that people of all body types and ages were practicing together, they were open to new people, and yet they had also bonded with each other.

3) Look for beginner classes and restorative classes. There are teachers that are good at explaining techniques, alignment, and modifications—teachers who love to support learning and growing at basics classes and restoratives. If you are new to yoga and have mobility disabilities, definitely call the yoga studio first, make sure they are accessible and welcoming, ask about instructors’ skills in adapting yoga, and come to a restorative class to start.

The restorative specialist at the studio I go to, Leigh is calm and welcoming and adept at adjusting poses, adding props, and planning classes to include people with all kinds of disabilities, medical conditions, pain, or other restrictions. She manages this well during class, carefully and quietly helping with adjustments and checking in on students while facilitating the class as a whole. Be sure to check in with your instructor before class starts so she/he can plan ahead and offer adjustments for poses that particularly impact your disability or medical condition. For example, I told Leigh when I was having trouble with nausea and she offered some suggestions for pose adaptations before class even started so I could do them throughout the class—not bending all the way forward in forward fold (uttanasana), taking breaks in a modified childs’ pose (balasana), and skipping the abdominal twist exercises. I brought a friend to yoga that had burns on her legs that made it hard to bend them. Leigh helped her use blankets and blocks to safely and comfortably sit in poses. Good beginner class instructors can also help with this, but if you have never done yoga before and have physical disabilities, basics/beginner classes can still be challenging. Why not start off where you can get more support at a restorative class?


4) Use AT (assistive technology). In yoga; blocks, blankets, straps, bolsters, walls, mats, and chairs are all AT. And even long-term yogis use these props themselves during practice. As people with disabilities, we tend to use them more often to support getting into poses that work for our bodies. Because there are many versions of every pose, there are adaptations that can be done from a wheelchair, chair, or with supports on the yoga

A woman reclines in a restorative yoga pose with bolster, blankets, and blocks supporting her in the pose. She is laying back on a map with her feet touching and her knees bent to the side. Blankets are under her knees and foam blocks with a bolster and blankets are supporting her under her back and head. Her arms are out to the side with folded blankets under them.

A woman reclines in a restorative yoga pose with bolster, blankets, and blocks supporting her in the pose.

mat. Because of my size, I use blocks to move from down dog into poses where my feet come forward between my hands. I fold my mat over when doing some poses on my knees for additional knee cushioning. When I was starting, I used more folded blankets to support my knees or hips in different poses. I used straps to stretch toward my feet when I couldn’t reach them. Some friends with disabilities do an entirely different pose instead of chaturunga and cobra—they lean back on their heels and stretch their chest and stomach, opening their shoulders and heart that way.  Well-trained teachers and teachers who specialize in restorative yoga can help you use these props to do the poses you want to do in ways that support your body.

5) Be open to doing your own version of poses. My teacher Melanie frequently reminds us beginners (and people who have been doing it awhile too) that yoga is not a competition. Our bodies are all different. Some people’s hips are more open. Some are more open in the shoulders. Others are very good at yogic breathing (while others experience difficulty with anxiety when practicing breathing). Have patience with yourself. Accept yourself. Find poses that work for you with the support of your teachers.

A woman in a powerchair is twisting to her left side with her right arm on her left knee and her left arm on the back rest of her powerchair.

A modified version of half spinal twist (ardha matsyendrasana) from a powerchair.

Find the inner strength to be ok with doing a pose in a modified way while the rest of the class doesn’t use the modification or modifies differently. Be ok with who you are and how you are moving. Disabled Sports USA has some yoga poses and adaptations you can try yourself at home. Body Positive Yoga has some great pose adaptations for bigger bodies, and a supportive online community on Facebook. When I was looking for adaptations to child’s pose—which is the opposite of relaxing for me because of my body shape and size—the Body Positive community members shared all kinds of options (which actually my teachers had already shared but at other yoga studios the teachers may not be as well versed). The Body Positive website also had a great video and resources on balasana (child’s pose) modifications. Body Positive Yoga’s tagline is “honor the body you bring to the mat today.” Yes! That!


6) Reap the benefits of your new practice. In addition to strength building, and increasing flexibility and stamina, yoga helps you cope with stress, center, decrease depression and anxiety. Setting an intention at the beginning of each practice provides an opportunity to send love to yourself and people you care about, or focus on a new pose, or practice self-compassion, or focus on peace. Notice how your practice impacts many areas of your life. Celebrate the things your body can do and is learning to do. Thank your body for protecting you and serving you in the way that it can and does do. Experience better balance, decreased pain, and increased quality of life. Thousands of research articles have noted benefits of yoga for people with all kinds of disabilities including: rheumatoid arthritis, mental illness, developmental disabilities, fibromyalgia, thoracic outlet syndrome, chronic back pain, and cerebral palsy. The Yoga Journal has compiled several articles with dozens of benefits of yoga for everyone, things you may not have even considered: improving your blood pressure, protecting your spine, making you happier, improving sleep, and decreasing inflammation to name just a few.

I encourage you to take the plunge and try a class—one that meets your needs and serves your heart—in a community of welcoming yogis. It is scary to try new things so take a friend if you can, and see if yoga is right for you—I honestly can’t think of anyone it isn’t right for.

Have you already given yoga a try or are you now encouraged to give it a go? What was your experience? Let us know how it goes!


Considering AT in Tanzania


By MATP Staff Member M. Catherine McAdam

I had an amazing journey – a three week trip to East Africa Tanzania. I brought my digital recorder and captured wonderful sounds of a tropical rain, moaning Map of Africa with Tanzania in redwildebeest migrating across the plain, tussling baby elephants, many birds and some traditional African music.  I had no idea that as a totally blind traveler this highly visual safari land would touch me so deeply.

One main reason I wanted to take this journey was to visit the Olkokola Vocational Training Center. Thirty students live on the site for 18 months and take up trades they can bring back to their communities. People with disabilities are often shunned in their villages. The school offers them dignity, awareness of others, trades, and a chance to be included in their communities.

Tailoring is done with peddle sewing machines as there is no electricity in many villages (we experienced several outages during the three weeks we were woman sitting behind sewing machine, turning wheel on side of machinethere.) Masonry is about shaping and molding bricks to be used for construction. The wood working craft is for building furniture with no screws or hardware, but extremely sturdy and well fitted. And, for the animals on the property there is a veterinary/agricultural class.  All four trades are done with no technology.

We brought some wearable magnifiers for a student to try who was having difficulty finding the exact groove where he was sawing wood. Language barriers and unclear task analysis made it difficult to communicate directly with the student, but with several trials he picked a head set magnifier to try. We discussed color contrast, lighting, and tactile options but again it was difficult to gage how much of this translated to any useful options.

I was keenly aware of how much my own life has been influenced by technology as I read books on my iPod and texted messages home.  Many people use cell phones, but not necessarily smart phones, and the language barriers are a key issue. Android 4.3 lists  Kiswahili support  and instant messaging but Swahili is not listed for I-devices. There are several dictionary apps, and bible translations across platforms. There is a notation that windows based software developed software for the Swahili language for windows 7.  It is not clear if the Android text to speech TalkBack will work for full support, but magnification features should work.

I’m guessing none of this would help the immediate need of the student carpenter and yet I found myself wondering about practical applications and wanting to know and do more. There are times it is important to step back and remember the basic needs of our worldwide disability members.

I will be spending some time looking at real life applications, outcomes of this training program and funding options to keep it going. A challenging question is how and if assistive technology could add to the dignity and independence of these students as they return home. Please let us know of your thoughts and suggestions!


AT Shaming, Health, and the Spoon Theory


By MATP Staff Member Laura Hall

Recently. I saw a facebook post about the “Beware of Chair” campaign.  Now shut down after objections from the Disability Community, the campaign’s original intent was to “Prevent the preventable: Osteoporosis”.   I did find it offensive, because Osteoporosis is not preventable for all people, and portraying the wheelchair or the inability to ambulate as a scary and terrible fate is hurtful to me and my identity as someone with disability and AT pride.  It feels shaming (for an excellent analysis of shame and it’s impact on disability see my colleague Aimee Sterk’s posts “Let’s Talk About Shame: Part 1 and Part 2).

Yet, I’ve had to examine my own feelings after seeing this.  I was recently diagnosed with Osteopenia (pre-Osteoperosis) in my early 30’s.  This was surprising and a little alarming to me.  For me, it reaffirmed a choice I had made previously to focus on my diet and heath through physical therapy (walking in a walker) and participation in adaptive sports 2-3 times a week.  I am proud of my progress and in the changes to my strength and weight.  I am also exhausted…and realizing that focusing on health limits other areas of my life.

Spoons laid out in a fan shape with labels: "morning routine", "Feeding the Dog", "Shopping", "Cleaning", "Running out of Spoons"Among people with disabilities and those who have chronic pain, this juggling act a balancing your activities and energy is often called “The Spoon Theory”, with spoons representing units of energy.  Some days you have more spoons than others, and each activity you do throughout the day costs a certain amount of spoons.   You only have so many spoons, and once you’re out, you’re out until you can rest and replenish them.  Doctors, therapists, family and even ourselves sometimes feel as though we should do everything we can to maintain every bit of ability and mobility that we can (and beware of the chair).   At what cost, though?  I could devote all of my spoons to staying healthy and building muscle, but I couldn’t also be the type of employee, leader, friend, and fiancee I want to be.

I think the matter of maintaining your physical health and living a full life requires a certain balance. Only the person with a disability can decide what that balance is, and they cannot make a wise decision if they are feeling shamed, either by others or internally.

Assistive technology devices are tools to live an easier, richer, more independent life, not equipment to be avoided until you can absolutely no longer do something for yourself.

Have you dealt with issues of shame surrounding assistive technology?  How do you balance your physical activity with your energy level and other responsibilities in your life?


Lansing and UP Short Term Device Loans Expanding


By Aimee Sterk, LMSW, MATP Staff

Michigan’s Assistive Technology Program piloted a short term device loan service over the last 8 months with our partners CACIL—Capitol Area Center for Independent Living (Lansing), and SAIL—Superior Alliance for Independent Living (Marquette). This program allows you to borrow equipment, free of charge, from our inventory, after you participate in a demonstration of the device(s).

Device loans are useful if you are considering a purchase and want to “test drive” a particular product, especially devices that are more complicated or devices that you will use in multiple settings. This way, you can see if the device works for you in the places you would use it.

Please be aware that our short term device loan program is not intended as a loan closet, not a loaner while your equipment is out for repair, nor to meet the need for a device for a temporary disability. However, we do partner with multiple loan closets throughout the State of Michigan and will help you connect with them if that is why you need a device loan.

Reports from SAIL and CACIL are 100% positive. Everyone surveyed who has participated in a short term device loan has been highly satisfied or satisfied. So far, 18 devices have been loaned out. Vision devices have been most popular but devices for hearing, computer access, and cognition have also been well-received. These included magnifiers, big button telephones, reminder clocks, Livescribe pens, adapted keyboards and mice, and TV amplifiers.

People have also tried out devices they might use in transitioning out of the nursing home, back to the community.

The program has been so successful; MATP is making it a permanent part of our program as of July 1st this year. We are looking to expand to other areas of the state as well.

If you would like to borrow a device for a short period of time to see if it might work for you in your day-to-day life, contact:

Kellie Blackwell, CACIL (Lansing) 877-652-0403

Carolyn Boyle, SAIL (Marquette) 800-379-7245

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