By 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
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.
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!Tweet
Great points, Aimee. As a person with hearing loss, I found that trying to learn yoga was particularly challenging. I’ve tried the cheap route first – there is no charge for the classes at the gym that I have a membership. The yoga instructors insist on playing very relaxing, soft music, but they also talk at a very low volume. I’ve mentioned this to the instructor, and they have spoken louder, but eventually resort to their “normal” tone of voice. I did not give up, but resorted to sitting close to the instructor and struggling to watch their body movements. This takes away from the relaxation that yoga is suppose to give. I know I wasn’t breathing the way that I think I was suppose to. It was also uncomfortable keeping my head facing the instructor. I’ve had similar experiences with other yoga schools.
So sorry to hear this! I wonder if an FM system would help or if a studio with a loop might work–though maybe that is wishful thinking that the studio would voluntarily get these accommodations. One thing I like about my studio is that there is no background music during beginner classes or advanced classes–only during flow. Also, there are some powerful women with pretty powerful voices for those classes. I wonder if the online yoga community might have suggestions for more welcoming studios in your community. Being able to hear the instructor is so important, especially if in order to center yourself you like to close your eyes during some of the poses. Where do you live?