How can you not love something that’s a part of you? When you’re disabled, the overriding idea is to eschew parts of your body that don’t work and focus on the parts that do, but that can be detrimental to your emotional and mental health. And this is exactly why I’ve grown to love yoga.
Yoga is much more than just Downwards Dog and one upping everyone in the room, it’s about restoring the mind-body connection. Yoga embraces the idea that our bodies and our minds are intertwined physically and metaphysically, and nothing not even a disability can erase this. A disability however does make it harder to tap into the mind body connection, and is exactly why adapted yoga is so needed.
I had no idea I needed yoga in my life until I went to my first class. My friend who has cerebral palsy was telling me how great it was, and I was intrigued. I had to wait 2 years to finally get into the adaptive yoga class taught by Matt Sanford, adaptive yoga pioneer and author of Waking (a great bio about his life), but upon attending my first class – a hot steamy afternoon in the summer of 2006 – I knew it was worth the wait.
My yoga teacher Matt is a paraplegic, and when you first go to one of his classes don’t think just because he’s also in a wheelchair he’s going to treat you extra special. His classes will push you, and you’ll love him for it. I had no idea what I was getting into when I rolled out his class the first time. On day one, I remember we focused on breathing and sitting. Two simple things, but not simple at all.
He told us to sit up straight, shoulders back, sternum up and balance on your sit-bones (yoga-speak for your butt bones) and don’t forget to breathe (through your nose). Oh man this was getting intense. Doing this all at once made my whole body feel alive again. I had complacently sat in my chair for too long. This awesome “conscious” sitting is what I learned in my first yoga class and I love it till this day.
But perhaps the biggest thing I’ve learned from yoga is how to love my entire body again. When we become disabled or are born disabled, the medical world tells us to forget the parts of our bodies but that don’t work – break your back, make your upper body super strong – but yoga says no way. Every inch of you still matters, and this is why getting onto the mat is one of the greatest things about going to yoga as a wheelchair-user.
In a typical adaptive yoga class, there are volunteers who assist students who need help transferring onto the mat and getting into poses. I was so happy I didn’t have to worry about needing help when I found this out. The first time I was on the mat they lifted me down, sat me back-to-back with a volunteer so I could keep my balance, and another person helped put my legs into a pose. Before I knew it, my entire body was in a pose; my entire body. And then I was hearing Matt tell everyone to push down through their feet, and I was like hold up, I can’t move my feet.
And then he said something profound I will never forget, “Do it even if you can’t.” To tell someone with paralysis to still try to move their leg and to tell them they can still impact said leg is huge. And he was right. I’ve found that there is still an energy that flows from the mind to the body despite paralysis. When you’re in a pose and try to move your foot, it may not move, but something does happen. We see it in class every day.
So I will leave you with Matt’s beautiful words, “Do it even if you can’t.” This overriding idea, a tenet of adaptive yoga, has helped me love my body again and come to peace with my paralysis. Thank you yoga. Namaste.
Have you tried yoga? What do you get out of it?