Yoga is for EVERY Body

This week, Kerri Hanlon, co-founder and creator of the Adaptive Yoga Program at Yoga Home, takes a look at her relationship with adaptive yoga, and the lessons she has learned during her journey so far. 

They enter the studio by walking, wheelchair and scooter. Their diagnoses may be cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, Down’s Syndrome and more. None of this matters. They are yogis.

When I first started exploring Adaptive Yoga, I did it because I wanted to learn how I could better modify the practice for my son, who has severe cerebral palsy. Under the tutelage of Matthew Sanford, recognized as the national leader in Adaptive Yoga, I learned how to modify the physical postures to accommodate varying needs. And as is often the case with yoga teacher trainings, it may take weeks, months, perhaps even years, for the subtle teaching of the training to become known.

Yoga is for EVERY body. Yep, I love this so much, we made t-shirts at Yoga Home to celebrate this notion. I adore my Adaptive students. They are some of the most open, loyal and fiercely determined students I know. While it’s important for me to have background on their disability, it’s rarely discussed in class. As with all of my classes, I’ll ask my students how they’re feeling on any given day, if there’s a specific part of the body that needs a little extra love and how they’re feeling energetically. And from there, we begin.

Let’s say we’re working on Tree Pose, Vrksasana. We seek to find the benefits of this posture: strengthen thighs, calves, ankles, and spine; stretch the groins and inner thighs, chest and shoulders; improve sense of balance; relieve sciatica and reduce flat feet. All we need to do is recognize the unique abilities of each student to help him or her come safely and appropriately into the posture.

My student who is ambulatory, but challenged with her balance may place her hand on a wall, a chair or her caregiver for support. I ask her to set her drishti at eye level, focus on finding all four corners of her foot on the earth, bring the energy of the earth up through her standing leg to allow her spine to grow a bit taller (sound familiar?). Depending on her needs that day, I may challenge her to bring her palms together in Anjali Mudra or extend arms to the sky.

My students who are not able to safely stand are asked to lay on their backs – we simply take gravity out of the equation. They bring one leg to tree, and I ask their caregiver to provide foot-to-foot pressure on their “standing” leg. I ask them to set their drishti, focus on finding their centerline, then allow the expansion of the side body to unfold. Students in these classes often tend to be either hyper-mobile or extremely limited in their mobility. We protect joints and soft tissue by placing blocks or bolsters under the bent leg.

We can look at the physical benefits of the pose, but what about the energetic benefits?   This pose is also known for building self-confidence, calming the central nervous system and relaxing the mind. It’s all there.

Here’s what I’ve learned in my teaching, on a practical level:

  • Less is more. We’ll do far fewer postures in an Adaptive class than in a typical class. Allowing space between postures is critical to allow students to develop a deeper mind-body connection. Allowing time for transitions as well as time for the body to naturally expand when moving from wheelchairs to floor is important.
  • You can never have too many props – blocks, blankets, bolsters, sandbags, chairs – you’ll use more than you think.
  • Keep it simple. The building blocks of grounding, expansion, balance and rhythm will serve you every time.
  • Never underestimate the power of savasana. I ask individuals who require assistance with activities of daily living to come with a caregiver. This is particularly necessary for those who require assistance moving from chairs to the floor. During class, caregivers may be assisting their partners with postures, or if their help isn’t required, they drop into their own practice. But when it’s time for savasana, everyone comes to the mat, gets a bolster under his or her knees (chronic low back pain is common for caregivers), an eye sachet and healing essential oil on third eye center.   These moments of rest may be the only few moments the caregiver has that week, it helps build independence of the student, and creates a higher level of trust between the students and myself, as I let all know they can safely rest because I am here.

On a deeper level, as my teaching has expanded and I spend more time in this space, here’s what I’ve learned:

It’s hard – both physically and from an energetic level. Remember, and this is just my truth, but the demands of the class are real. It’s unlike any other class I’ve taught. Even with limited class size, the level of differentiated instruction is extraordinary and incredibly necessary.   The physicality of transfers and assisting requires me to be consistently vigilant of protecting my body by using proper form. I’m working with individuals who hold so much in their bodies and the energy has to go somewhere. It’s essential I approach class from a grounded, mindful space.

It’s humbling – as much as I might think I know how to adapt a pose, something shifts in my students and I’m challenged to adapt. For eighteen years I’ve been caring for my son with complex needs, and while this is helpful, every student is different.

And with all of this…

It’s the most joyful, fulfilling, inspired class I teach. It’s a constant exploration of trying different props, techniques, postures and breath work to help students access postures and step more fully into their bodies. I approach this class as I do all of my classes – I seek to create an opportunity for my students to more fully discover their true gifts and talents, to celebrate their unique bodies and souls.   For me, this is the practice of yoga.

Kerri Hanlon is co-founder and creator of the Adaptive Yoga Program at Yoga Home in Conshohocken, a Best of Philly Yoga Studio.  She is a contributor to CBSPhilly and shares her experiences about living with and grieving a child with disabilities so others know they’re not alone.  Her practices are available through Yoga Home’s online studio.

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