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Yoga, Disability, and Community

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Yoga, Disability, and Community

By: Lynda McCullough

Seven years ago I found a copy of yoga teacher Matthew Sanford’s book Waking: A Memoir of Trauma and Transcendence, in the local used bookstore. The book lit me on fire: Not only did Sanford’s story of loss and healing profoundly move me, his deep and unique experience with yoga’s ability to transform touched into my own and inspired me to teach to people with disabilities.

Just as Sanford’s work with yoga ultimately connected him with many other people who experienced trauma and compelled him to educate doctors about yoga’s relevance in healing, my teaching experience acquainted me with people with all kinds of disabilities and the struggle for accessible recreation. Ultimately I’ve had the lovely experience of seeing people from various walks of life come together to practice adaptive yoga in a community recreation center. From seniors with arthritis to young women with fibromyalgia, and people with muscular dystrophy using wheelchairs, we practice together in a city yoga program.

A year after I read Sanford’s book, I landed a position in an independent living center in northern Colorado serving people with disabilities. I had yoga on my mind, and when I interviewed for a job there, I told the director I wanted to teach on-site. She consented to a chair yoga class, but I longed to do more. Luckily it wasn’t long before I learned of a grant that helped me expand my project, take it to the rec center, and involve the whole community.

With two teachers, I created workshops at the city recreation center. The workshops provided an option for people with disabilities to do yoga and also to participate in the recreation center’s activities, which at the time were not accessible to them at all. The classes also provided space and props to help people really experience poses and the deep relaxation they foster.

We got the grant, and with $10,000 to hire yoga teachers, purchase all the props, and pay the entrance fees of participants, we helped people stretch out, unwind, and breathe in ways they hadn’t been able to experience in many years. With the help of the local paper, we spread the word and soon attracted 16 people, from those I already worked with to people from the local brain injury center, to women recovering from surgery or people simply wanting a gentle class. There were seniors recovering from hip surgery, middle-aged women with shoulder or back injuries, and a couple men who were seeking a gentle class because of achy knees or backs. We had people recovering from strokes or living with multiple sclerosis and epilepsy.

Some stayed in chairs or wheelchairs while others used mats on the floor. We employed props liberally, so each individual could find poses that were ideal for their bodies in the moment. Our teachers were therapeutically trained and were able to truly meet people where they were, whether they had tight muscles from muscular dystrophy, shaky legs from multiple sclerosis, or needed to release pain from fibromyalgia. As people anxious to do yoga but intimidated by other classes called about ours, I was pleased to assure them that the class was gentle and would honor their bodies. I heard relief in their voices.

Currently the teachers, other organizations, students, and I are working with the recreation center to establish adaptive yoga as a regular part of their programming. We are participating on an adaptive recreation board to plan and develop further adaptive programming to meets the community’s needs, moving the yoga program to the city auspices, improving accessibility in the rec center physically, financially, and socially. Staff from the rec center, the developmental disability organizations, residential disability centers, are working together with “consumers” together in this community-wide effort.

It is a unique collaboration, one that addresses the need for inclusivity in our segregated society. I’m grateful to be a part of it, humbled by the lessons learned and courage of the students, and now a part of a community myself of people who care about movement, healing, and connection. Like Sanford in the arena of medical rehab, we are developing a larger web and catching new practitioners, drawing together disparate players in a new alliance, and making yoga available to all.




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