Expanding Yoga’s Reach: Yoga for People with Disabilities and Chronic Conditions
Over the Pandemic, someone reached out to me to answer a few questions about yoga and people living with disabilities, and I compiled this list of answers, based on my 21 years of experience working with some pretty amazing individuals that are uniquely abled. Although it was originally directed at health care clinicians, I thought I’d share my thoughts with all of you, my blog followers, in case you are interested in working with this group of people or if you consider yourself a part of this group!
Question: There seems to be an assumption in the US that yoga is for able-bodied people and even able-bodied people who are already somewhat fit. Who and what does this assumption leave out?
Baxter: Well, obviously it leaves a lot of people out, in fact the vast majority of people, not just those with disabilities, but those who have been sedentary for a while- those who are getting older, those who may have any number of health issues that limit them in some way. And this assumption really reduces modern yoga to the physical aspect of doing yoga poses or asana, and misses the other powerful practices that are often more accessible to the groups I listed above- such as breathwork, sound practices and meditation- all of which have been studied to some extent and have been shown to have physiologic and mental-emotional benefits.
Question: What are a few of the physical or emotional benefits that you personally have observed in people with disabilities who practice yoga?
Baxter: Since 2001, I have been involved in assisting and teaching classes for adults with Cerebral Palsy in Oakland, CA. If you are at all familiar with people with CP, you will know that the kinds of physical, cognitive, and communicative issues they may be dealing with are wide ranging and can be mild to severe in nature. I see benefits in a variety of areas with my students with CP.
On the physical level, those with muscular spasms often find relief from the intensity after a practice, whereas those with joint movement limitations often find greater ease of movement and improved range of motion. Those with areas of physical weakness often report improved strength over time. And there is often improved communication between the brain and body when it comes to general movements.
Practicing yoga breath techniques improves the ease of breathing, allows for deeper breaths when needed, and tends to focus the mind, improving concentration, as well as calming the mind and emotions.
The meditation practices we do have similar effects as the breath work. Our students also report improved sleep quality, better stress management, and better interactions with family and friends. Research done on the health benefits of yoga mirror my observations, as well as documenting benefits in lowering depression and anxiety. For those interested, a great resource on researched benefits for yoga is the text Principles and Practices of Yoga in Health Care, published in 2016, with 4 physician editors from the US and abroad.
Question: Any final advice for clinicians in terms of not being afraid to recommend yoga to people who have limitations?
Baxter: It is good for your readers to know that there has been a gradual, but quickening interest among those teaching yoga to make it more accessible to those with disabilities in the US and internationally. A colleague of mine founded an organization a number of years ago to train yoga teachers to do just that, as well as to provide training to people with disabilities to become yoga teachers. The organization is called Accessible Yoga, and you can learn more here: accessibleyoga.org.
Also, if you are interested in referring your patients and clients to a yoga class to access all of the benefits of health and well-being I have mentioned, consider looking for local classes or online classes that specifically mention “therapeutic yoga”, or are led by a teacher who is certified by the International Association of Yoga Therapists, with the designation “C-IAYT” which denotes completion of additional training far beyond that of a typical yoga teacher (usually an additional 800 hours beyond the basic yoga training of 200 hours).
And consider looking for a yoga therapist in your community that you can collaborate with to provide a better holistic program for the health of those in your care. A great resource for this is the website YogaTherapy.Health, which has a search feature for finding a yoga therapist in your area.
For yoga teachers in the Bay Area, there will be an upcoming training on working the people with disabilities and chronic conditions this Fall 2022. To be added to the email list for info, please email JoAnn Lyons with your interest: email@example.com.
Finally, the Accessible Yoga organization also leads trainings for registered yoga teachers who wish to work with those with disabilities, also, so the Accessible Yoga website may also provide links to teachers and classes for this special population of people.