My inner child can still recall how the raised therapy mat supported my young body as Gretchen’s voice attempted to guide my unruly muscles through a series of simple movements.
“Press your feet down into the mat. Use the muscles in your belly to lift your behind. Hold your butt up for as long as you can. See, your body looks like a bridge. Come down slowly. Control your movement,” she ordered in a calm and structured voice. Gretchen said all the words, but I did all the work.
My 9-year-old self did not like physical therapy one bit. Even then, my developing psyche had received the message that my cerebral palsy, my constant companion, was a problem in need of solving. So by extension, I was a broken being in need of fixing. After all, none of my nondisabled classmates were yanked out of science to have their tight hamstrings stretched, range of motion measured, or gawked at in their underwear while the special clinic doctor recorded their yearly progress. Needless to say, I was not the happiest or most cooperative kid during my time on that raised mat.
Trading Old PT Memories for New Yoga Ones
Twenty-five years later, I traded in those sour old memories of that therapy mat for a set of happier memories on a yoga mat. Even before I had any notions of beginning my own practice, I knew yoga was the latest, hottest fitness craze among the nondisabled population. Plenty of these folks regularly twisted themselves into all kinds of interesting poses on a weekly basis. To the best of my knowledge, they did this of their own free will. No one forced any of these limber yogis into the studio each week in order to fix some major physical defect. In the beginning, the idea that yoga served as an exercise class for the general population was a big part of what piqued my interest.
Plus, I wanted to learn how to twist my body into all those funky poses.
Now my husband, Owen and I are regulars in an adaptive yoga class in Oakland, California. Soon after we began taking the class, our teacher, JoAnn Lyons began guiding us through an eerily familiar set of movements. “Ground down through your feet. Use the muscles in your stomach and your hamstrings to lift your butt off your mat. Hold the pose. Come down slowly. Control the movement. That’s Bridge Pose,” she concluded after our butts had returned to our mats. I heard Owen, who also has cerebral palsy, laugh in agreement when I mention experiencing a strong sensation of déjà vu.
Later, we laughed again when we heard someone describe yoga as a form of “glorified physical therapy.” This isn’t far from the truth. When it comes to proper body mechanics, yoga and physical therapy have a lot in common. They both focus on strength, balance, and body alignment. Yoga, however, may have a more holistic view of these three concepts. Owen always comments on how yoga forces him to engage the left side of his body, his weaker side. He typically favors his right side, so yoga can be a great reminder that the two halves of his body really do make a whole. In our adapted class, we are encouraged to define our own sense of balance either through moving our bodies into each pose or practicing meditation to calm our active minds.
Those Damned Physical Therapists Were Right!
As I entered my mid-30s, I began to notice some unwelcome changes in my body and mobility. My neck, shoulders, and knees ached from years of adapting my everyday movements in weird and sometimes destructive ways. My range of motion had decreased. In short, those damn physical therapists from my childhood were right! Yet, yoga, age, and experience have been great teachers. They have taught me that part of loving and accepting my gimpy body is finding ways to preserve my functional abilities, decrease pain, and stay active. This often means applying pieces of my yoga practice to my everyday life. I try to stay aware of my posture and how I move my body. I was not built to do either of these activities perfectly, but there’s always room for small improvements.
In class, JoAnn frequently reminds us that the first rule of yoga is Ahimsa, meaning to do no harm. For me, this translates to being kind to myself and being patient with my body.
If you happen to find yourself in Northern California, come take an adaptive yoga class and learn more about the Piedmont Yoga Community at the Abilities Expo in San Mateo – October 27-29. Owen and I will be at the Piedmont Community Yoga table at the Abilities Expo on October 28th. Come say hi!