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Adaptive yoga aimed at those with disability, mobility restrictions | Live Well

Gazette - 8/13/2019

Aug. 13--Some might think yoga is off-limits to a paraplegic person or those suffering conditions like a traumatic brain injury or cerebral palsy.

They'd be wrong. A traditional yoga practice might be a stretch, but that's where adaptive yoga comes in, as a perspective and approach to yoga for people with permanent disability and progressive mobility restrictions. It's aimed specifically at those with physical disability.

"With an adaptive yoga perspective, it's not the students who adapt," said Morgen Thomas, who teaches adaptive yoga classes at Cambio and Yoga Studio Satya. "It's the belief that students come into the studio with yoga already in them. The adaptive part comes in through the teachers. We adapt our perspective, get creative and focus on the sensation of the postures, not what they look like."

After Thomas broke her back in 2001, yoga saved her spine. About seven years later, she embarked on a quest to learn how to adapt a foundational yoga practice for people with mobility restrictions, such as partial or full paralysis. That eventually led her to the work and training of Matthew Sanford, the "grandfather of adaptive yoga," she said. Paralyzed at 13 in a car accident, adaptive yoga helped Sanford reconnect his body and mind and develop a new relationship with his body.

"He came to view it as not broken, and as completely whole," said Thomas. "Yoga helped him internalize that message."

Thomas also will give an Intro to Teaching Adaptive Yoga workshop Aug. 25 at Yoga Studio Satya. All are welcome, including students, yoga teachers, doctors and occupational therapists.

While the same postures done in a traditional yoga class are used in an adaptive class, there's more emphasis on sensation and what the pose feels like.

Instead of doing a traditional warrior two pose in a standing position, one might do it seated in a wheelchair, while another does it reclining on the floor. They all look different, but they're still questing for the same thing.

"Two people are experiencing the same sensation, even though their relationship to space might be different," she said. "Let go of what the posture should look like. What is it that we're after? Are we getting a sense of balance, of rhythm? Are we understanding boundary? Where my body ends and space begins, which is important for paralysis."

Kris Harty started attending classes weekly a year ago. After living with rheumatoid arthritis since she was 7, yoga seemed out of the realm of possibility. The arthritis affects all of Harty's joints, including her spine and neck, and limits her mobility, making it hard to move and be flexible. Walking can be a challenge, though she's able to live independently and work full time.

While the practice has increased her mobility slightly, it's been beneficial in other ways.

"I'm looking for small additional movements and range of motion," said Harty. "It helps me mentally to think outside of that box I've put myself in: I can't do that, I can't do yoga. It helps me mentally to stretch myself physically. To think let me try that. I can adapt it to what I can do."

Making the space diverse and inclusive is a priority for Thomas, who thinks traditional yoga has a lot of work to do to make non- traditional students feel welcome. It's important to make zero assumptions about any student and their abilities. Sometimes this includes telling an adaptive class they're going to work on handstands, which can be done even in a wheelchair. Again, it's about sensation.

"It's grounding and supportive through the upper body, with a sense of support through the hands," said Thomas.

If somebody can get on the ground, she has them lie on the floor with their hands pressed against a wall, so they can get that sense of grounding. She has them push against the wall while she provides resistance on their feet.

"They're really working on extension and expansion. And it's an inversion. I ask them to tilt their chin up and look at the wall between their hands. It tricks the brain into thinking it's upside down due to the proprioceptors in the brain. They tell me they have the sensation of being inverted."

Those in wheelchairs can still practice headstands. Thomas might place her hands on their feet so they get that sense of grounding, have them raise their arms overhead, tilt their chin up and find length through their spine.

"It's a creative endeavor. It's collaborative," she said. "There's a lot of talking. We're always checking in with students about sensation. We're totally willing to try things. It's a grand experiment and we're all in it together."

Contact the writer: 636-0270

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