Yoga for Every Body
Adaptive Ways Ease Pain and Immobility
by Marlaina Donato
Taming chronic pain, restoring energy reserves, improving heart health and relieving symptoms of depression and anxiety are only a few of the science-backed perks of spending time on a yoga mat. However, misconceptions about this ancient practice can make yoga seem intimidating for individuals that could benefit the most from it.
Adaptive yoga, designed for people challenged by injury, chronic pain, autoimmune disease or debilitating conditions like multiple sclerosis, can foster perhaps unexpected gains through the use of props, chairs, wall space and even countertops. From wheelchair-bound veterans to seniors with compromised balance, adaptive yoga offers new horizons for achieving well-being.
Yoga’s gentle influence goes beyond physical benefits. A 2017 British study published in the Journal of Pain Research found people with spinal cord injuries that took sitting yoga classes twice a week for six weeks were less depressed, more self-compassionate and more mindfully in the moment than those in a control group.
Empowerment, Not Perfection
“Yoga is for any body, no matter the size, shape or color. It’s not about designer clothing, athletic ability, talents or perfection in the pose. Adaptive yoga is a movement to change this misconception and mitigate the anxiety to try yoga,” says Mindy Eisenberg, a Detroit-area certified yoga therapist and author of Adaptive Yoga Moves Any Body: Created for Individuals with MS and Neuromuscular Condition and the accompanying Adaptive Yoga Cards. For Eisenberg, the focus is about the internal experience, healing and most of all, “the sense of joy that comes from a regular practice.”
Ora Ramat, owner of the Wagging Tail Yoga Studio, in Bethel, New York, witnesses remarkable, everyday mastery in her students through adapted poses. “Many of my students are 40 to 95 years young, and the range of modification I do with them is endless,” says Ramat, who underscores the importance of listening to the body. “I learned the hard way 17 years ago when I first became a teacher. I am gentle with myself if I am unable to do a pose and embrace the modification. I go deeper in my poses now than when I was younger.”
Freedom Through Support
“Our students have a wide range of health conditions including spina bifida, arthritis, MS, cerebral palsy, Parkinson’s disease, fibromyalgia, stroke, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, paraplegia, epiphyseal dysplasia, Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, chronic back pain and more,” says Miranda McCarthy, CEO of Wavelength VR (WavelengthVR.com), a healthcare company that produces a library of science-supported content for pain management without medication. The London-based creator of Adaptive Yoga LIVE, which offers seated online classes, knows firsthand how yoga can change lives.
“Until I found adaptive yoga, I felt like I was constantly at war with my body,” she says. Diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis at the age of 2 and the youngest recipient of bilateral hip replacement surgery in the U.S., McCarthy thought she knew her body inside and out. After 40 surgeries and decades of rehabilitation and medication, she went through a radical shift in perspective. “When I discovered adaptive yoga, I soon realized my relationship with my body had only just begun.”
Eisenberg highlights the internal process that adaptive yoga can catalyze: “The energy and sensation that yoga students feel on the inside is much more important than what the pose looks like on the outside.” Items such as chairs, blocks, straps, blankets and bolsters are used to make traditional postures more accessible to those with physical challenges and to ensure safety. “Using props is not a sign of weakness or inferiority. We even use ambulatory devices such as a cane as a prop. Those who require assistive devices cease to see them as a hindrance. In fact, they become an accessory,” says Eisenberg.
For McCarthy, the biggest takeaway is simple, yet profound self-acceptance. “I no longer judge myself or compare myself to able-bodied people. I gained a newfound love for my body and a love for myself.”
Eisenberg affirms, “It’s exciting to realize that our bodies are so much more capable than we thought, and we learn that we are not defined by our individual disease or limitations. As my teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn says, ‘As long as you are breathing, there is more right with you than wrong.’”
Marlaina Donato is an author and composer. Connect at AutumnEmbersMusic.com.