It seems like there is a new yoga style invented almost every month, although with careful investigation these often look more like a cardio workout than yoga. But beyond the swirl of voices that surrounds mainstream yoga, a growing number of people are joining together to enjoy a calm and healing form of adaptive yoga. With that in mind, I would like to talk about Accessible Yoga.
I learned how to teach yoga in a way that can be done from a chair. Does that surprise you? Twenty years after my 1988 multiple sclerosis diagnosis, I became certified as an instructor in Integral beginner level yoga and continued my training to learn how to teach people with disabilities. What I’m talking about excites me because it involves modifying poses for students with disabilities or physical challenges as well as doing breath work, guided relaxation, and meditation.
When I was first introduced to yoga, I benefitted from the serenity I would carry home with me after class. MS put me in a state of nervousness, in varying degrees, except when I slept, swam or practiced adaptive yoga. More and more doctors told me to avoid stress, so I did more adaptive yoga and reaped benefits I had never imagined. I learned breathing exercises to help me stay calm, stretches to facilitate better blood circulation, and poses to strengthen my abdominal muscles and correctly align my spine to avoid lower back pain.
In 2007 I enrolled in the first Accessible Yoga Teacher Training that was created by Jivana Heyman, director of Teacher Training at San Francisco Integral Yoga Institute, to accommodate the needs of people with a disability, chronic illness or injury. Trying to graduate from a mainstream teacher training was unrealistic since it squeezed 200 hours of required curriculum into 10 days or less, and severe fatigue was my toughest symptom. However, this program was stretched out over eight months with three-hour classes held twice per week — I could handle that!
Still the Self-Doubts
Having a disability shaped my experience from the first class I took as an awkward beginning student, through my basic training to become an instructor, and into my advanced studies. As a student I didn’t want to look different, so although the instructor gently placed a chair within my reach while I struggled to balance in a standing pose, it took me months to use the chair to stabilize and gracefully hold the pose. If my first instructor, JoAnn Lyons, hadn’t intuited how headstrong I’d be about accepting help, who knows if I’d have continued with yoga.
During teacher training, my voice of self doubt whispered in my head as it brushed over surface issues such as my appearance: You don’t look like a yoga teacher, especially when you’re sitting in a chair. You don’t even sound like a teacher. I explained there is no requirement that a yoga teacher look like a nondisabled person and how does anyone know what a teacher should sound like anyway? When I chanted Om, the nearby dogs howled along with me, so at least they thought I sounded yogic!
Failing to discourage me by questioning external appearances, my self doubt dove deeper going into my muscles, tendons and bones where it yelled at full volume: If you can’t balance or bend as well as your students, how can you teach them? I stated that if I know how to teach with words that safely lead students into and out of a pose, it doesn’t matter how well I can balance or bend. While I’m instructing, the focus is on my students’ abilities.
Still unable to stop my advancement, my self doubt tried to delve into my thoughts and emotions, only to find compassion there. Compassion has been woven into my mind and body from threads I’ve gathered along the pathway of 27 years living with increasing physical and cognitive challenges. It has shaped my journey by creating a motivation for me to observe, ask questions and find the right modification or prop to help a student experience comfort in a pose that previously eluded them.
After having quieted the voice that doubted my ability to teach yoga, I not only taught people with disabilities, but also joined the planning committee for the inaugural Accessible Yoga Conference, another cutting-edge creation by Heyman to expand the reach of adaptive yoga. “Yoga is at a tipping point in our society,” says Heyman. “My hope is that the Accessible Yoga Conference supports the transition from yoga for the few to yoga for everybody.” The conference took place on Sept. 12-13 in Santa Barbara, Calif., and was so successful we’re already planning next year’s.
Two of my former classmates from Teacher Training were also on the planning committee for the conference and, after conversations with them, I came to understand their differing perspectives on how disability shaped their experience of becoming a yoga teacher.
Sharing Their Practice
Shakti Bell has been living with a mostly progressive form of MS since 1997. She told me, “I took my first yoga classes shortly after being diagnosed … I started attending classes offered at lunchtime at my work. I followed this Iyengar teacher to her studio — upstairs even! — and through her instruction, learned that I could stand in a healthy and strong way again,” says Bell. “I was the only person with a visible disability because her classes were not modified for accessibility, but she did her best to help me. I tried other classes, but didn’t feel like there was any point to it. I spent most of these classes in child’s pose since most of what was being taught felt too physically challenging.”
After Shakti graduated from the same basic teacher training as I did in 2008, both of us enrolled in Yoga for Healing. Shakti shared with me, “The fluctuating abilities of my body helped to inform ideas on how to adapt poses, and Yoga for Healing showed me how to adapt a practice to other disabilities.”
Shakti teaches yoga for people with disabilities or illness in Santa Cruz, Calif. When asked how yoga has affected her life, she replied, “First, learning that yoga could help me stand with strength and energy was very exciting. Later yoga taught me how to sit with a tall and supple spine and helped me maintain a healthy back — despite spending so much time in a wheelchair that lacks good back and seating support. Both yoga and Buddhism helped me loosen my attachment to the ups and downs of the physical body. Whatever the state of my physical body, my happiness and well-being can stay intact. This has been yoga’s greatest gift of all.”
Rudra Sam Swartz took beginner yoga classes as a fully able-bodied student in 2001 because his condition was relatively dormant. He explained to me, “It’s a strange form of arthritis — a rheumatologist once called it kind of rheumatoid arthritis and kind of ankylosing spondylitis,” says Swartz. “It’s really neither and kind of both.”
It wasn’t until Swartz started using a wheelchair in 2007 that he had to use the knowledge gained in yoga classes from prior times to adapt his practice to meet his needs. Now he teaches at the Integral Yoga Institute in New York City where he verbally instructs as though his body were able to do the poses, although it actually can’t.
Swartz states emphatically that he’s a student of Swami Satchidananda/Integral Yoga and his philosophy has always been, “You don’t teach anything, you share your practice.” When Swartz teaches gentle yoga and the students’ bodies work similar to his, it’s straight sharing. He explains about other teaching circumstances: “Because my body is limited, I’m better able to see what adjustments I need to make based on what my students can or cannot do. I came into yoga with an ideal that by practicing yoga I would somehow be magically healed. I’ve since learned that there is no magic healing potion.”
“Yoga is designed to keep your mind calm no matter what your situation,” says Swartz. “Life is all about the condition of your mind. If your mind is peaceful, it doesn’t matter if you have a sickness or difficulty moving. It’s just a matter of what condition your mind is in and your body is just a tool to quiet your mind by having a Hatha yoga practice.”
Swartz summed it up nicely when he said, “Yoga has helped me quiet my mind, find peace with where I am and what I’m doing, or how my body is … be content that ‘the situation’ is ‘the situation’ and to not let my mind get disturbed about it.”
Patrice Priya Wagner teaches yoga for people with MS in Oakland, California, and is already starting work on the Accessible Yoga Conference 2016, tentatively scheduled for Sept. 16-18, 2016.
• Accessible Yoga Conference, AccessibleYoga.org.
• Rudra Sam Swartz, Integral Yoga Institute, 212/929-0585; iyiny.org
• Mathew Sanford, Mind Body Solutions, 952/473-3700; matthewsanford.com
• JoAnn Lyons, Piedmont Yoga Community; piedmontyogacommunity.org
• Yoga with Shakti, Shakti Bell, Shaktibell.com
Yoga Practices Defined
Accessible Yoga — A movement dedicated to sharing yoga with people with disabilities, chronic illness, seniors, and anyone who doesn’t feel comfortable in a traditional yoga class.
Adaptive Yoga — Yoga instruction and practice for each body in ways that are safe, comfortable and makes sense to the student; particularly helpful for students with limitations in mobility, range of motion or who are not able to practice on a yoga mat.
Hatha Yoga — The physical aspect of yoga practice, including poses (asanas), breathing techniques, meditation and more; many styles of Hatha yoga exist such as Iyengar, which emphasizes correct alignment and Vinyasa, which focuses on coordinating breath with movement.
Integral Yoga — Founded by Sri Swami Satchidananda, who brought it to the United States in the 1960s, this is a spiritual form of yoga that combines movement with breathing exercises, chanting, and meditation to calm the mind and become aware of the inner self.
Iyengar Yoga — Named after its founder, B.K.S. Iyengar, this form of Hatha yoga emphasizes detail, precision and alignment in posture and breath control.
Sun Salutation — A series of poses often done at the beginning of a class to limber up before doing more challenging poses.
Sun Salutation in Chair, Short Version
Sun salutations help students warm up and become centered before launching into more challenging poses. Here is a short sun salutation practiced from a seated position, as modeled by Patrice Priya Wagner.
• Sit on your chair leaning slightly forward
• Press your sitting bones down into the chair
• Bring the palms together in front of the chest with fingertips pointing upwards
• Elbows can be facing down or to either side of you
• Take a deep inhalation through the nose, gently elongate the spine, and exhale slowly
• Stretch the arms out in front, parallel to the floor, palms facing down, and lock the thumbs
• Inhale and stretch the arms up toward the ceiling until the arms are alongside the ears, or as far up as comfortable, then unlock thumbs
• Stretch up from the sitting bones through the spine, shoulders and arms
Position 2 Variation
• Sit up straight, place one hand on the thigh for balance
• Inhale and stretch the other hand out in front parallel to the floor with palm facing down, then raise the hand and arm up
• Exhale and release the outstretched hand down to the same side thigh
• Inhale and stretch the other hand out in front parallel to the floor with the palm facing down, then raise the hand and arm up
• Exhale and release the outstretched hand down to the same side thigh
• On an exhalation, release the arms down alongside the outer thighs, lean forward from the hips, keeping the back straight, and lower the torso toward the knees
• Keep stretching out through the spine as you lower down
• Let the head and arms relax down toward the floor
• Inhale, lengthen the spine, raise the head back up and with a flat back raise up to seated
Position 3 Variation
• Same as above Position 3 except hands remain on thighs for support
Position 4 (This can also be done with hands remaining alongside the body)
• Inhale and take hold underneath the right thigh with both hands
• Lift the right thigh toward the chest, keeping the spine straight and chest facing forward
• Release the thigh back down, place the hands on top of thighs
• Repeat with the left thigh
Repeat Position 3 and Position 2
Repeat Position 1 starting with “Bring the palms together in front of the chest”
Release your arms down, close your eyes and take a deep, full inhalation through the nose and a slow,
Talk with your doctor before starting any new exercise program
Catching My Breath — How Yoga Helps My MS
by Josie Byzek
Life with multiple sclerosis is an unpredictable pain in the ass. Since my MS is still more-or-less relapsing remitting, by the time I get used to living with whatever new disability I’ve developed, it starts to get better.
Well, that’s how it used to happen. Now, I’m at the stage where symptoms come, but don’t completely go.
My most recent debilitating relapse (as opposed to “just” annoying) was at first misdiagnosed as adult-onset asthma. But then I was informed by a specialist that the reason I could not take a deep breath was because my MS had weakened something or other very important somewhere in my left side. Really, I kind of knew. Even when I’d take a shower, I could feel it ballooning out, and swimming was no longer fun since the water squeezed me too hard.
“What can I do?” I asked the respiratory specialist. Well, I could try allergy shots which may or may not help. Eventually I could use oxygen. It’s not asthma, but inhalers help some people with restrictive lung disease. “So, nothing then, huh?” Probably not. “Figures.”
But I remembered some years ago Tim Gilmer wrote a story about jazz singer Lisa Thorson, a quadriplegic who couldn’t use her diaphragm for projection, as musicians are taught to do, so she exercised a muscle in her back — and it increased her lung capacity. If she can do that, why can’t I do something similar?
I tried and failed to teach myself breathing exercises off the Internet, so then I decided to take a yoga class at the local Jewish Community Center since I heard yoga had something to do with breath. It was brutal. Obviously I couldn’t keep up. Some of these folks were even standing on their heads! I did well to not face-plant. I thought I might die.
“Keep breathing,” said the instructor. “If you’re not breathing, it’s not yoga.” Easy for her to say. And anyway I thought yoga was supposed to be gentle.
And then came the magic moment. While on our backs, we pulled our knees up and flopped them over to the right side, stretched out our arms and looked over to the left side. I did this, and suddenly I could breathe! I took in the deepest breath I’d had in years and it felt so heavenly.
I’m a regular now. I am getting stronger and my breathing, while not perfect, is much, much better. Also, the day after class I pee almost normally, and the Metamucil works much better. I’m not nearly as stiff and have even regained some fine motor control I had lost in my right hand. And for a few hours after class, I feel like I’ve had a lovely glass of wine.
Most of all, the biggest change is how I see myself. One night while practicing yoga in a room with a mirrored wall I looked down at my fat little toes and thought, “I love you, fat little toes,” and had a wave of love and compassion for my body, which has taken me through so much suffering, but also so much joy. I remembered what I had forgotten: It’s not my body’s fault it has MS. It is no one’s fault. It just happened.
I realized it has been a long, long time — far too long — since I had felt so forgiving and loving toward my body.
So if you are at the JCC in Harrisburg on a Monday or Wednesday night and see a whole bunch of fit people standing on their heads and one middle-aged woman with her butt up in the air trying to do a graceful child’s pose — the default rest position when you can’t do what everyone else is doing — that’s me. And I’m fine. I’m just catching my breath.