Yoga for People in Wheelchairs

Laura McMullen

Fit folks bent like pretzels. Gymnast-types on their heads. Women and men evoking the warrior pose--arms to the sky, head up, one leg bent in front and the other in a deep stretch backward. This is how many people perceive yoga, so where could a wheelchair possibly fit? How could legs with little feeling, if any, deliver the balance and strength that these poses demand? Well, it's not really about the poses. People need wheelchairs for a wide range of reasons and fall on a spectrum of abilities, but just like everyone, they can reap the benefits of yoga by focusing less on the postures and more on the principals of yoga and mind-body relationship. We'll explain.

Rather, Matthew Sanford will explain. Sanford is a yoga teacher, public speaker, author and founder and president of Mind-Body Solutions, a national nonprofit with the mission to "transform trauma, loss and disability into hope and potential by awakening the connection between mind and body." Sanford became paralyzed from the chest down at age 13 in a devastating car accident, and now he teaches yoga to those of all abilities through his classes and DVDs, and here, in the advice below. His words have been edited.

Could you describe this mind-body relationship?

We're all living on a continuum. If you tickle the bottoms of my feet, I don't feel it; I don't get the same level of sensation through my whole body as someone else does. Similarly, when you're really busy or stressed out, you bump into things more; you're not as present in your body. Right now, if you lean back and slouch in your chair, you'll feel less in your legs. If you sit up straight and tall and press down through your heels, you feel more in your legs. I define mind-body connection as where the mind experiences the body, and it's in constant flux. People in general--not just people in wheelchairs--aren't paying enough attention to what they're feeling within their bodies.

Why is it important to pay attention to what's happening in our bodies?

It improves the quality of living, and it's a great way to manage stress. This doesn't just mean paying attention to the pain in your body, but trying to have good experiences within your body, too. When people are riddled with chronic diseases or other issues, or even aging, they end up only listening to the pain or what's wrong in the body, as opposed to also listening to what feels good. That's natural for all of us.

How does mind-body connectedness relate to yoga for people with disabilities?

A lot of my work and approach to adapting yoga for people with disabilities and in wheelchairs is predicated on the fact that there are many sensations that are more subtle in the mind-body relationship than just those when you flex a muscle. These subtle sensations are affected by your breath, alignment and posture, as well as how well you move and how grounded you are. That level of awareness is never going to make me walk again, but it's going to help me feel whole--like I'm living in my whole body. Our bodies stay healthier when they move; they feel more vibrant. So how do you live in your body fully if you're not able to exercise and move in the same way as everyone else? That's where our approach really starts happening.

And what's that approach?

The principles of yoga do not discriminate. In our approach to working with someone in a wheelchair, we think about what's universal to every pose, regardless of how complicated it is. Rather than specific poses, we focus on the sensations--the sensation of feeling grounded, sensation of feeling balanced, sensation of expansion and sensation of rhythm. If you start thinking about what the yoga poses are teaching you and what's universal, we can make yoga happen in almost every posture.

The way you get access to yoga if you live with a physical limitation is to start exploring what's universal to each yoga pose and recreating that in your own experience. Another practical step in adapting yoga is breaking down parts of the pose, and thereby getting a sense of the whole.

For people with physical limitations, how do they get started? Who instructs them?

Usually, going right into a standard yoga class is not only going to be emotionally challenging because you're not going to be able to do a lot of it, but it may not be safe. I would suggest finding a teacher, and then having a conversation with him to discuss the best way to proceed. A good teacher who doesn't know what to do will say so. Develop some sort of rapport and connection with a teacher, maybe start with a one-on-one session, and see where you might fall on that continuum.

There's such a spectrum of mobility for people sitting in wheelchairs. There's no one size fits all in how you teach it. You need a teacher who is willing to explore with you, and the reason why we have a nonprofit is to get more teachers out there who can meet a student in a wheelchair or an elderly person and know how to teach them.

You mentioned safety. Even if you meet with an instructor who meets this mold, should you still talk to a doctor first?

I never want to be teaching something that a medical doctor has said the student shouldn't do. Have a discussion with both the doctor and instructor. Ask: What are the things a doctor does and doesn't want me to do? So, you also need to find a teacher that isn't so into what they know that they're willing to take risks with you that they shouldn't.

It seems like finding the right teacher is key. Any advice for finding a keeper?

For people in wheelchairs, many teachers tend to only teach the part of their bodies that can move well. Just because you may be limited in how you move, that doesn't mean you can't live vibrantly in your whole body. There's a whole world of dynamic sensation that's available for someone in a wheelchair. It's not rocket science: If you feel more connected with your whole body, you're going to have a better life. The problem is that there isn't a lot of this training. But if you find a yoga teacher who's learned to listen and love yoga enough to explore how yoga works in your case, that's what you need.