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Yoga for the Disabled (less abled)

--Erin Stewart

Erin is a yoga teacher of Yoga Vidya Gurukul from Newzealand. This article discusses the application of yoga to the les abled people. The benefits they can derive from the simple practices of yoga.

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Yoga for the Disabled (less abled)

yoga for disabled

“Everything we learn in schools and elsewhere should bring us nearer to the point of world unity, where all differences dissolve and merge into unity.”
~Swami Satyananda Saraswati

            Yoga is for everyone/everybody.  The principals and benefits are applicable to every life. Yoga Asanas can be taught and modified to/for people who are less able, so that they to can connect and join.

            In 1990, the World Health and Education Conference pledged to ensure equal rights for all people, regardless of individual differences.  The concept of ‘special’ education was reframed: ‘Inclusive Education’.  A document was created to ensure that inclusiveness was applied to all education settings. 

            It is important for Teachers offering inclusive yoga classes to be well informed and educated.  Knowledge of specific conditions and disabilities is imperative.  This is important for many reasons, but most often to prevent underestimating, overestimating, injury prevention, and damage that may worsen a condition.  One of the most important factors when working with mixed abilities is to see each person as an individual.  Maintaining independence is crucial for all people.  According to Spicer(d. unknown), the goal of teaching someone with a disability is not to “fix” the person to be like a fully able person, but rather empower them to control and then celebrate their own achievement.  This point made by Spicer can also be applied to a fully able person.  Do we assist them into a difficult asana by applying pressure?  Or, do we encourage them to try and find the position themselves?

            Furthermore, Spicer discusses the point that too often teachers are quick to overcompensate by creating specialized classes and unnatural learning environments.  While it is nice to have these options for the less abled, it is not ‘inclusive’.  Instead, Spicer suggest that teachers should try to modify/adapt asanas where needed.  He also suggests using a variety of teaching/learning aids such as visual signals, demonstrations, and vocal cues.  Spicer’s advice for practitioners is to offer assistance where needed, but provide the least amount of support- so that the learner develops independently. 

            In 1987 Swami Niranjanananda developed a yoga program for the hearing impaired at a place called ‘Van Asch” in Christ Church, New Zealand.  Niranjanananda started the program with a series of Yoga Nidra, which had very good results for the children involved.  He developed a system of ‘touch’; to introduce the children to yoga.  He also used sign language to communicate with them.  For example, when the Yoga Nidra session was over/finished he would gently touch their foreheads three times to let them know.  Niranjanananda also used processes such as yogic breath, pranayama, and visualizations.  Over time, the students at ‘Van Asch’ improved so much that they started to make strong, controlled sounds in their voice boxes!

            Asanas can be modified in many ways and will depend on each individual.  However, some examples are: offering support (such as holding their hands in ‘Veerasana’ for balance), using daily activities, and introducing physical aids such as cushions or straps so that a student who is less able can access the asana.
Asanas can also be performed in Wheelchairs or slings if the person is more comfortable in a supported structure.  Modifications can be made so that the person can be included.  Furthermore, teachers should try to accommodate wheelchairs by providing a ramp at each entrance/exit.

            Because yoga joins the body and the mind and teaches the individual to accept their strengths and weaknesses, yoga can help people who have experienced loss, trauma, or brain injury.  Five years ago I worked with people who had brain injury.   My role was to help them regain independence while supporting them in the daily routine.  Part of the routine was called “passives”.  This is an exercise routine where the person supporting would move the limbs in a series of movements.  However, I found that when the individual completed the ‘stretch’ (asana), they felt more satisfied, positive, and in control.  This reinforces Spicer’s point earlier in this essay.

            According to Swami Nishchalanda Saraswati, the exact application depends of the individual’s disability.  He discusses the effect that yoga has on a less abled person. “Yoga asanas can often improve sluggish blood circulation in defective limbs, to utilize/improve, and stimulate nerve functions and to develop weak muscles and bring them under conscious control.” (Swami Nischalananda Saraswati, 1990 pg 83)

            Swami Bodhananda (1990) also comments on yoga as a therapy.  He suggests that children with abnormal emotional disabilities can develop in a positive way through yoga.  A skilled yoga practitioner could prescribe relaxation techniques, yoga nidra, and pranayama.

            Yoga is for everyone and everybody and all should have the right to learn to connect and join their mind with their body.  Making yoga inclusive and accessible for all people should be the goal of all yoga teachers.  We cannot create full connections of atma and paramatma if we are excluding people who are less able.

            Creating unity and equality in life is my passion and goal in yog.  I believe that these two concepts can be applied to all aspects of yog.  We are all children of the universe, and just like the sun and the moon, we all have a right to be here.

Erin Stewart
(Yoga Teacher)

Reference List
Spicer P(date unknown) Exercise for Individuals with Developmental Disabilities.  Accessed on 8/7/2010 from www.dswfitness.com

Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati (2008)
“yoga education for children” (volume 2). Yoga publications Trust; Bihar, India 

Swami Satyananda Saraswati (1985)
Yoga Education for Children.
Yoga Publications trust, Mumlger;  Bihar, India.

Note - The views expressed in this article are solely the views of author and does not reflect the views and style of Yoga Vidya Gurukul.



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