Yoga with Cerebral Palsy: Ryan McGraw's Story

Laura McMullen

Have you ever tried yoga? It's not just for the thin, fit and athletically-inclined. Just about anyone who can breathe can practice yoga to some extent and reap its many benefits. We'll prove it. In this series, U.S. News talks with people who are changing the face of yoga.

Ryan McGraw is a 30-year-old yoga teacher who grew up in Detroit and now lives in Chicago. He also has cerebral palsy. While the symptoms of the group of disorders can vary significantly from one person to the next, cerebral palsy often impairs movement and coordination--two skills we often think of as crucial for practicing yoga. But, as we learned while researching yoga for people in wheelchairs, the principals of yoga don't discriminate. It's true that McGraw doesn't quite look like the yogis in most fitness magazines, and he doesn't anticipate sweating through a session of power yoga anytime soon. He doesn't fit the mold, which is fine, because he's molding yoga routines to fit his needs. Below, McGraw tells U.S. News about his yoga experience. His responses have been edited.

Ryan, I've read on the National Center on Health, Physical Activity and Disability website that your mother first convinced you to try yoga when you were a teenager. How has it affected your life since then?

I think the main factor of yoga that's affecting me--more now than ever--is in the mental aspect of my life. I'm more tied to myself and have a more positive outlook on life. Physically, having cerebral palsy, I need to keep active and keep the muscles healthy. In yoga, you really have to keep your body aligned, and I feel that has helped my flexibility, balance and coordination. And it's also helped me become more conscious of my breath.

What's been your biggest challenge with yoga?

When I started with yoga, I wanted to go through the whole expression of the poses, and about my sophomore or junior year in college, my yoga teacher taught me that you need to adapt the poses to meet the needs of your body. So once I discovered that, I didn't have many other challenges. I realize that power yoga is never going to be for me, and I'm OK with that. And I haven't had any challenges with discrimination in the yoga community because it's very accepting of all people, including people with disabilities.

Do you have any advice for beginner yogis with disabilities?

I think if you're in a chair, or with any disability, it's key to know that poses can be adapted to meet your body, and you need to find the right thing for you. Do not get discouraged by what we see in magazines; yoga can be inclusive to people with all abilities with the use of props. There are adaptations are out there, and adaptations don't mean that you're doing any less. You're still doing the pose, and you're still getting the benefits of it.

I really want to be clear that yoga is for everybody. And anyone can find their place in yoga, even if it's breathing exercises and meditation, because those are to key elements of yoga.

Speaking of adaptations, what's your favorite pose to do?

Child's pose (as pictured above).