Embracing the Zen with Adaptive Yoga

It seemed to happen overnight, constantly running into fellow co-eds on my University of San Francisco campus who were either a hot sweaty mess or all Zen'd out or both. Only about a year after my above-the-knee amputation, I considered myself very active and was ever eager to find new sports and movements I could do, new feats of physical prowess that would wow my peers and provide the redemption I needed to show all the nay-sayers just how disabled I wasn't. But yoga? That granola non-workout isn't for me, I thought as I passed the downward dogging and the Om chanting fad and sauntered on to the pool to swim my daily laps.

Adaptive Yoga for People with Disabilities

Yoga Was Everywhere, but Was it for Me with AK Amputation?

But yoga is difficult to ignore in a place like San Francisco where studios are greater in number than Starbucks and Peet's combined; where practitioners and their neatly rolled yoga mats slung across their backs can be seen all over the city—picking up their kids from school, briskly walking into one of the Financial District corporate offices, on the bus, on the beach, in the park, in a school yard…you name it.

What I thought was just another of the city's fleeting trends began to warm up to me. But then there was my harsh perception that would rattle me out of my daydream. Yoga, in all its colorful, diverse, varied glory (I used to think) seemed only to discriminate against one group of people—those with disabilities.   As I, incredulous, watched the yogic contortionists through studio windows, I thought, "How could I ever do that? With or without my prosthesis, how would that even work?"Again, I'd just walk on by to another physical activity or workout, owning, regretting, that yoga simply wasn't for people like me.

Years later, as my personal trainer and I walked across the cardio area of the gym toward the hand-cycle, she finally mentioned what I'd known, and feared, for a while. "You're limping a lot more these days," she stated bluntly. The emotional floodgates had been opened. I thought for sure my disability had caught up with me, that my uneven gait—and the increased phantom and muscle pain I'd experienced as a result—was some indication that I'd no longer be as active and able. And, now, not only did I notice, but everybody else could tell, too!

Adaptive Yoga for People with Disabilities

"This is the beginning of the end," I mourned silently. "Goodbye, cruel able-bodied world!" But after navigating through my fears, my trainer simply explained that my muscles were almost too strong. My hips, especially, were too tight to allow me to walk well, and swinging my prosthesis unevenly for years without stretching only further exacerbated a bad situation. No wonder I was experiencing back pain, repetitive stress disorders, knee and ankle pain in my one remaining leg, and a ton of mental and emotional stress on top of it all. The discomfort was so draining that I often had tension headaches and upset stomachs; the energy required to fight with my tightly wound muscles made me fatigued mere hours into each day. I was a mess. But here I thought it was because I was getting older (though I was only 25); here I feared this is what having a disability really means. I was so very wrong.

Adaptive Yoga Made Me a Believer

My trainer referred me to her friend, an RN-turned-yogi with a medical-grade understanding of the human body and the tenacity to create a yoga practice catered to me. We took it slow, going through all the basic poses, both with and without my prosthesis and crutches, on my own and with her help and props, until we hit the sweet spot in my hips and core that needed the most work. I quickly learned that I was, indeed, very strong, and having a disability made me no stranger to creativity and persistence.

Soon, I was practicing yoga daily in the narrow hallway of my Mission flat and began to attend group classes not only with my yoga instructor, but with different teachers and at different studios. I had become so familiar with my own personal practice and the modifications we had created for me, that I could easily apply my lessons anywhere, any time. Within just months, I was able to undo years' worth of tightness and stress. My gait evened out and my muscle and joint pain dissipated. Though I hadn't lost any weight, I felt lighter on my feet, even more able-bodied than ever before. But I'd soon learn that my relief from yoga had only just begun.

Yoga Breathing Techniques to Manage Emotions and Pain

One day, in a class in a new studio, the instructor, whose husband was also an AK amputee, told the class that our virabhadrasanas (say what?) were great, but we weren't practicing yoga correctly. "You need to breathe, everybody. Otherwise, you're just exercising. You're not doing yoga unless you breathe.  Focus," she told us. She taught us the box breath, in which you inhale for four seconds, filling your lungs as much air as you can, hold your breath for four seconds, exhale all the air in four seconds, and then hold your breathe for another four seconds, and repeat. This exercise was extraordinarily difficult for my brain to do. Only seconds into one box my mind would start to wander and I'd lose count or forget if I was supposed to exhale or inhale. I felt totally insane, sitting there, struggling to breathe and think at the same time.

Yoga for People with Disabilities

But that is precisely the point: yoga isn't just about strength, stamina and endurance. For somebody like me, it's more than creative modifications and having an able body. I needed to shut my mind off to the distractions, to my fears, to the pain, and focus on my body, on simply existing and finding satisfaction in that. After much practice, I was able to box breathe through an entire yoga class and soon practiced that focus and control as I moved about my days—as I felt some road rage coming on, after a long day at work, when the phantom pain left me writhing in bed for hours and even during the labors and deliveries of both my daughters. Breathing, something so accessible, was a great way to focus my mind and manage not only my outlook on my body and my abilities, but also on any pain I was feeling. 

Five years later and I'm still forehead-deep in my yoga practice, singing its praises to people of all abilities, because there's truly something in it for everyone. I always knew that I would never let my disability control me or limit my happiness, but through yoga I've been able to achieve so much more for myself—a fact that has had a lovely trickle-down effect for my husband and kids. In retrospect, I wish I had cast away yoga's trendy reputation and started sooner. Because for me, this fad of tuning out any stress and pain I'm feeling and tuning in to the fact that my body, however broken, however different, is strong, able and alive…and it isn't going anywhere.

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