adaptive yoga

Jaque, an adaptive yoga assistant, helps a participant settle into a pose.

Over a decade ago, John’s long body is stretched out on the blue yoga mat unrolled flat across my living room floor. “I can’t figure out what he’s doing with his right leg,” John says as he hears me enter the room. I know next to nothing about yoga or the finely sculpted Asian man speaking to John through the magic of the DVD player.

John is blind. He attempts to let this man’s smooth, calm voice guide him through a series of complex, acrobatic-like yoga poses. This works until John gets lost on this particular pose. I place my hand on his right calf, then describe how he should move his leg until it mirrors the leg of the man on the TV screen.

As John finishes the first series of increasingly crazy poses, I study the DVD case. Rodney Yee stares back at me. He sits cross-legged atop a large rock with an undisclosed tropical paradise as his backdrop. I flip over the case and read about his yoga journey and philosophy. I learn that he has attained some sort of yoga guru/master status.

I know that my cerebral palsy would never allow my uncoordinated body to fold into any of his hyper flexible, super balance poses from the DVD. Still, I am intrigued by the mind-body-spirit connection detailed on the cover. Plus, I have always been fascinated by bodies in motion. I love dancing in my wheelchair and watching gymnastics during the Summer Olympics.

Fast forward six months: John and I decide to end our relationship. I have a serious case of the post break-up blues, and desperately need a reason to drag my sad self out of the house. I read a short write-up about a community yoga class for beginners in the local parks and recreation guide. Although I know that the majority of exercise instructors are used to working with mostly able bodies, I hope for the best and complete the brief on-line registration form.

“Are You Sure You Signed Up for the Right Class?”

Melissa performs down dog with some help.

I consider trying to contact the instructor listed in the guide to give her a heads-up about my disability. Instead, I decide to go with the element of surprise and show up on the first day of class. I expect her baffled reaction. She asks all the questions that those of us with visible disabilities often hear when nondisabled people encounter us in unexpected places. “Are you sure you signed up for the right class? Are you here alone?”

She warns me that this class might not work for me. I smile and ask if we can give it a try. She looks at me like I’ve lost my mind, hesitates for a beat, then she finally agrees.

My poses look nothing like the poses of my upright classmates. It is difficult to keep up with her instructions. Yet, as she sees me adapt each pose to the way my body moves, she begins to relax and occasionally suggests a modification. At the end of one class, she places her hands heavily on my thighs and says, “If you remember to keep your feet planted firmly on your footrests, your brain will develop new neuro-pathways.” I take this comment as a sign of acceptance; a sign that she is attempting to understand how to apply some basic principles of typical body mechanics to the way my atypical body works.

The class ends up being exactly what I need to start to mend my battered heart during that warm Sacramento summer. My new friend helps me unroll my mat and arrange a few other props. Our class moves together inside the small recreation room shaded by the treetops of this suburban park. I begin to understand the mind-body-spirit connection Rodney Yee wrote about on the back of John’s DVD cover.

I may not be a full convert to the mystical powers of this ancient practice, but I am beginning to believe in the power of connecting to your body and community.

All Kinds of Bodies

Eighteen months after my suburban Sacramento yoga class, I decide to move for love. I have been transplanted to Oakland, just east of San Francisco. While I adore my new boyfriend, Owen, and enjoy exploring the Bay Area, I need to meet people and develop a routine.

One afternoon, I discover the website for a local recreation program for people with disabilities. A listing for an adaptive yoga class catches my eye. I do more investigating into these classes designed for people with disabilities and other needs. I am interested in learning how this program modifies poses for bodies like mine. This time, I email the instructor. I intend to make sure that my disability is appropriate for her class before I roll the mile and a half to the yoga studio. The instructor, JoAnn Lyons, promptly replies to my email. She thinks adaptive yoga might be a great fit, and that I should give the Thursday class a try. I don’t have anything to lose, so I show up at the yoga studio.

This will be my first introduction to a small fraction of the powerful and well-known disability community of Berkeley and the surrounding Bay Area. I am both slightly nervous and a little excited to meet some of the people who live so close to the epicenter of the disability movement. As I roll into the studio, I am struck by all the different bodies. There’s a paraplegic woman, another woman with multiple sclerosis, someone else with cerebral palsy, and a few other people with disabilities that I cannot identify.

Every Pose Looks Different on Each Student

We start the class. Our circle consists of a combination of students sitting in metal folding chairs and wheelchairs. JoAnn leads us through a series of movements intended to loosen up our bodies. We turn our feet in circles, shrug our shoulders up and down, and gently arch our spines to first resemble a stretching cat, then a grazing cow. As I look around the studio, I am aware that every asana (pose) looks a little different on each student. JoAnn pushes certain students to give an asana a little more power. Her assistants help me and a few others move our bodies to maximize the benefit of a particular pose, but no one is encouraged or expected to achieve a pose worthy of a photo in Yoga Journal.

When we disband our circle, most of us vacate our chairs and wheelchairs and lower ourselves down onto yoga mats. JoAnn now leads us through a new series of slightly more difficult poses. I make two unrelated discoveries. First, I am pretty dang flexible. This flexibility, unfortunately, does not quite extend to the next pose. JoAnn instructs us to start with our feet on the floor, and knees bent. Then, she asks us to cross one ankle over the opposite knee. Next, she wants us to draw our bottom knee toward our chest as we breathe out, then straighten our arms and let our leg move away from the chest as we breathe in. Second, midway through this class, I realize that JoAnn’s personable, yet analytical way of describing movement will definitely appeal to Owen’s engineer-type mind.

Our Second Family

Owen relaxes in savasana pose.

I convince Owen to join me for the Saturday class.

This class happens to be filled to near capacity. Again, the students fall into many of the standard disability check boxes. Others do not appear to have visible disabilities.

Owen, who has lived on the outskirts of the disability community for most of his life, has probably never seen this many people with disabilities gathered in one location. I worry this might weird him out. Instead, we both pick up on the warm, welcoming vibe of the class. It is obvious that JoAnn has known many of the students and assistants for years. They banter and tease each other like old friends. These students seem to have developed a trust with both JoAnn and the assistants. I know from personal experience that it can be hard to hand over this trust when you have a disability. Will a new person know how to help you move? Will they know how to help you extend your limitations without causing you pain or making you feel badly about your disability? When we both witness this level of deep trust, we begin to relax and find our place in the class.

I am right about Owen. He talks about the class and analyzes each yoga pose during several conversations over the next week. He even analyzes JoAnn’s explanations of how bodies move and function. We return week after week until we become class regulars. We bond with our new friends over dinner after class, birthday parties, and during many other social outings. JoAnn, the co-teachers, assistants, and a few of our classmates quickly become our second family.

When Owen and I plan our wedding, we both know that JoAnn is the perfect person to officiate our marriage. During our ceremony, JoAnn explains how our yoga styles align with our individual personalities. She describes how I am the dare-devilish type who jumps at the chance to hang upside down or fold my body into just about any funky pose she suggests. Owen, by nature, is slightly more cautious. He likes to understand why she wants him to try a particular new pose. “They balance out each other,” she tells our guests.

Sometime during our early years, we learn that Rodney Yee is a co-owner of our studio. He had helped to plant the seeds for what would later grow into the accessible yoga program. This irony is not lost on me. I smile at the distant memory of Rodney’s voice in my living room in another time and place. One spring evening a few years later, Rodney makes a surprise appearance at a celebration held at our studio. As I watch him interact with the crowd of partygoers, I feel myself tear up a little as I experience one of those rare moments when my life completes one small circle.

If you have any questions or are interested in coming to a workshop, please contact JoAnn at: joannlyonsyoga@aol.com or visit the Piedmont Yoga Community website to learn more about JoAnn and her classes.

An adaptive yoga workshop will take place in Columbus, Ohio, from 2 pm to 4 pm on Saturday, July 14-16, at the Yoga on High Studio. The host studio contact is Marcia Miller,  614/291-4444; Marcia@yogaonhigh.com. Also look for JoAnn at the Abilities Expo in San Mateo, California, this October 27-29.