Yoga for People with Disability

Yoga originated more than 5,000 years ago and the first documents related to it were found in India. Although, there are claims that the philosophy itself dates even earlier than this and points to the Akashic records and yoga being practiced by tantric civilizations.

This ancient perspective observes yoga not only as a mere physical activity as opposed to how yoga is perceived nowadays in Western culture with sole emphasis on physical benefits.

Yoga aims to unite the mind, the spirit, and the body into one. This balance is achieved through meditation, breathing awareness, energy control using muscle contractions (bandhas) and finally through yoga positions. Practicing these can lead an individual towards establishing a balance at all levels of their existence, a balance followed by enlightenment as ultimate yoga goal.

Personally, I believe that for us, as three-dimensional beings, enlightenment, in this world of ours, represents an opportunity to become fully aware and present in the moment. It represents an opportunity to grow and maintain awareness that the past and the future are just mere illusions and that the only aspects that exist are HERE and NOW.

With this perception of yoga, we see that the yoga practice can highly benefit the people with disabilities, both on a mental and physical level. Moreover, it is believed that people with special needs (blindness, multiple sclerosis, paraplegics, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, Down syndrome, arthritis, traumatic brain injury, Attention-Deficit / Hyperactivity Disorder, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, cerebral palsy, etc.) have much more benefits from yoga practice compared to people who are considered to be “healthy”. Unfortunately, the “healthy” people are not even aware of how disconnected they are from their inner self.

My personal experience (10+ years) in working with different types of yoga practitioners, “healthy” people need much more time to achieve a balance between mind, spirit, and body. While on the other hand, people with special needs find that missing flow and connection much faster.

People with disabilities have better focus and a far greater desire to work on themselves. An inner voice simply resonates with them, a voice that wants to be heard, a voice that believes and wants to live present in the moment.

They live in the NOW.

“Healthy” people tend to be overcontrolled by their ego not giving them a piece of mind.

Yoga practiced with people with special needs is often called adaptive yoga, yoga mobility, yoga therapy or so-called chair yoga. The fundamental aspect I point out in working with people with disabilities, is the practice of meditation and various breathing techniques.

Breathing itself, as an involuntary action, is very difficult to become aware of it in the right way, especially to become aware of it in such a way that we turn it into a voluntary action. Therefore, breathing is a major factor when talking about the correctness of yoga practice. There are different breathing techniques, but for people with special needs, I would like to emphasize the following breathing techniques: three-layer yogic breathing, sound S breathing and nadi shodhana.

In three-layer yogic breathing, it is very important to be aware of segmental breathing, abdominal breathing, lung breathing and lung tip breathing. During this breathing, the exhale should be twice as long as the inhale. Besides of the awareness of breathing through the stomach, lungs and the tips of the lungs, this breathing releases toxins from the lower part of the stomach, releases stagnant air and completely relaxes the entire nervous system. We inhale and exhale exclusively through the nose.

With the sound S technique, practitioner works to strengthen the nervous system, and at the same time restores the balance of his nervous system. Inhale through the nose, exhale through the mouth with a sonorous S sound.

Nadi shodan technique is great for calming the thought flow. We can never completely calm our mind. Our thoughts are the proof that we are alive, but what we can achieve is not to attach ourselves to them and not to overanalyze them. In this breathing technique, it is important that the inhale and exhale are of the same length. Breathing is performed exclusively through the nose. At the same time, this technique is great for clearing the sinus canals and establishing a balanced flow of energy throughout the body, especially at the energy level of our existence.

In addition to breathing, meditation is as important in yoga practice, especially for people with disabilities. Given the fact that there is a large number of different meditations, yoga instructor should know which meditation is appropriate for people with special needs. Of course, it depends on the problem, but one meditation that is easy to apply and that I think is important for the beginning of meditative practice itself is the so-called Zen meditation.

Zen meditation is a type of meditation that naturally follows three layers of breathing. Zen meditation means that the practitioner’s attention is completely focused on his own breathing. The first phase of this meditation involves focusing on breathing through the nose, and the flow of air through the nostrils, on moving the hairs in the nose, with each inhale and exhale. This is the initial phase. Other phases include awareness of the flow of air through the larynx, the tips of the lungs, the lungs, the abdomen, and around the navel.

When it comes to the yoga positions that benefit the most for people with special needs, it all depends on what the needs are. Not all positions are applicable to everyone.

For people facing ADHD and OCD, I recommend the following positions: Savasana, cobra position (a variation with a slight lift, where the abdomen is gently lifted off the floor), downward facing dog, a tree position, with a mandatory fixed view of one meter, meter and a half in front of yoga mat), the dynamic position of the cat – camel (with the exhale when person enters the position of the cat, and with the exhale when person enters the position of the camel). We should not forget the sitting position, the so-called easy pose, in which one sits in a lotus, half-lotus or simply crossed legs with a straight back. The palms are on the knees, the attention is completely focused on the full three-layer yogic breathing.

People who are visually impaired or completely blind can practice a large number of positions without major problems. Having in mind their sensitivity, working with them must be exclusively individual. It is definitely advisable to put the emphasis on the simplest yoga positions at the very beginning of their yoga practice. If the possibility of adding more complex asanas is realized through working with them, one should feel free to apply them.

When working with people with cerebral palsy, the accent should be on positions that will lead to muscle strengthening in a very gentle way. At the same time, it should be noted that these people may have different degrees of mobility. Accordingly, the instructor himself should be familiar with all possible variations of certain positions. Very often yoga positions that are practiced with people who have cerebral palsy include a chair and are practiced through so-called chair yoga.

People who have suffered brain injuries can also turn to yoga practice. For them, the unwritten rule is that they have to love their brains again. Recommended positions for them are: eagle pose (Garudasana), cactus pose, lateral stretching, leg stretching, dynamic cat-camel pose.

People who suffer from arthritis aim to relieve or reduce joint pain through yoga practice. The goal is to reduce the inflammation that occurs in the joints by doing certain yoga positions. Excellent positions are the bridge pose and its variations, trikonasana, Warrior 1, Warrior 2, tree pose, dynamic pose of cat – camel.

One of the problems with people with Down syndrome is thyroid dysfunction. Accordingly, accent should be on the positions that can affect the improvement of thyroid function. Training session with people with Down syndrome should not last longer than 30 minutes.

Yoga can greatly improve the quality of life of people with Alzheimer’s. The positions that are good for them are: tree pose, Vajrasana, siddhasana, seated forward bend and headstand. The instructor should definitely be familiar with all the existing variations for the stated positions, especially when it comes to standing on the head.

People with Parkinson’s disease prefer the so-called yoga on the chair, where the chair is an integral part of yoga practice. Of course, it all depends on the stage of the disease. There are cases when some people with Parkinson’s disease do Sun Salutation without a problem.

When working with people with multiple sclerosis, it is important to emphasize the positions that affect the improvement of balance and coordination. Which positions will be used in working with these people largely depends on the stage of the disease itself? Yoga with the use of a chair is also very common in this case.

Most positions from so-called chair yoga can be used in working with paraplegics. Moreover, some people can do certain poses lying on the yoga mat, alone or with the help of an instructor.

No matter what kind of people the instructor works with, when it comes to working with people with special needs, you should always keep in mind that CONSTANT ATTENTION AND FOCUS during the whole class is very important. It is also very important to know all the existing variations of position that are used.

Using a chair as an aid, but also a belt, block, pillow can be very helpful and greatly facilitate and improve the yoga practice of the practitioners themselves. Especially if they are at the beginning of their yoga practice.

Working with people with special needs is filled with positive energy and love, and the transfer is mutual. One can typically get the impression that a larger amount of that giving comes from the practitioners. Practitioners who are 99% free of ego, practitioners who truly want to enjoy the present moment, practitioners who unreservedly radiate positive energy and love for the instructor in those 30, 45 or 60 minutes of yoga practice.


About the author

Urosh Martinovic

Urosh Martinovic is a yoga and mindfulness teacher. He has experience in more than 7,000 guided classes. His work includes 1 on 1 online classes and workshops. Uros is a founder of holistic portal for Balkan Moja Solja Joge (My cup of yoga).