Here’s Why Yoga is for Everyone
Shepherd Center’s ProMotion Fitness Center yoga therapist explains why yoga is beneficial for people with disabilities and those without.
By Terri Leonard
Shepherd Center Yoga Therapist
Yoga is for everyone – for people with or without a disability. Practicing yoga can increase physical strength and flexibility, respiratory efficiency, improve sleep and calm the nervous system. Yoga is very popular in our culture because we are so busy, distracted and plugged-in. We crave the quiet and calm the practice of yoga can create.
Yoga is not just a workout routine, though it is offered in this way in our modern fitness culture. Yoga is widely used as a complementary or stand-alone therapy, with a growing body of research from a variety of health care settings. Yoga is used:
- to treat and manage pain
- for trauma, including post-traumatic stress
- for depression and anxiety
- for caregiver burnout and job-related stress
- for mental illness
- in cancer treatment
- in managing heart disease
- for insomnia and other sleep issues
One of the most useful benefits of yoga is increased body awareness. Developing body awareness means getting better at noticing and feeling subtle changes or sensations in your own body. This can be especially helpful when a disease like multiple sclerosis dulls nerve connections, or when cognitive and physical abilities are scrambled or eroded because of brain or spinal cord injury. With science’s new awareness of neuroplasticity – the ability of the brain to reroute or even regenerate neural pathways – increased body awareness can help create a more finely tuned relationship between the nervous system and physical body. In yoga, this is done through breathing practices – slow body movements coordinated with the breath. Practicing yoga in this way is a form of mindfulness.
Mindfulness is simply slowing your mind to focus only on the present moment. In yoga, we use the breath as a tool for distracting the mind from thinking, worrying and planning. We slow down and become mindful of the breath. In this way, we are better able to notice small details and sensations in our bodies during and after movement. Yoga is just one way of practicing mindfulness.
Yoga can be adapted for disability. At Shepherd Center, yoga is practiced in the ProMotion Fitness Center in a group setting. Here, students and caregivers can join together and work with a teacher and volunteer helpers, some of whom are yoga instructors themselves. In this way, people with all abilities come together and practice in a group.
Each class is similar, but every class is different. All students can participate and benefit by learning breathing and mindfulness practices, even when no body movement is possible or when there is profound cognitive impact or dysfunction.
Seated in chairs or in a wheelchair, we practice using props, such as foam blocks, soft cotton bolsters, straps and cloth sandbags to adapt postures and bodies for the best support and benefit. Practicing in a group, no matter how recent or how severe your disability, can help you manage feelings like isolation and stigma, and help with socialization. Yoga can help you de-stress, unplug and practice quieting the mind for one hour of the day with long-lasting impact.
Don’t believe me? Find a yoga class in your community, or come to one of ours on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 10 to 11 a.m. in the Livingston Gym at Shepherd Center. Ask some of the other students who have been coming for many years – folks you would never see wearing tights or getting close to a yoga studio. You must be an inpatient or member of ProMotion to join the class, but visiting is always allowed. Caregivers and the curious are welcome, too, with or without the person you assist. And, we love calm dogs.
I’ll leave you with the final greeting we say to each other at the end all yoga classes: “Namaste,” pronounced, Na-Ma-stay. It means, “The light in me sees the light in you.”
TERRI LEONARD is a yoga therapist at Shepherd Center, where she has conducted classes at ProMotion for people with disabilities since 2005. She also conducts classes and works with individuals in various settings, including Emory University’s Winship Center (for people undergoing bone marrow transplant), Side by Side Clubhouse (for adults with brain injury), Skyland Trails (for people with mental illness), in Decatur, Ga., with veterans and others in a therapeutic yoga class. If you have questions, you can reach Terri via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In the media
Shepherd Center, located in Atlanta, Georgia, is a private, not-for-profit hospital specializing in medical treatment, research and rehabilitation for people with spinal cord injury, brain injury, multiple sclerosis, spine and chronic pain, and other neuromuscular conditions. Founded in 1975, Shepherd Center is ranked by U.S. News & World Report among the top 10 rehabilitation hospitals in the nation. In its more than four decades, Shepherd Center has grown from a six-bed rehabilitation unit to a world-renowned, 152-bed hospital that treats more than 743 inpatients, 277 day program patients and more than 7,161 outpatients each year in more than 46,000 visits.