People with SCI are joining the yoga craze in adaptive classes that boost mental and physical wellness.
As Joe Dailey sat in his first yoga class, all he could think was, “This is going to be a complete waste of my time.”
Dailey ran marathons. He loved that indescribable feeling that came with crossing the finish line after running 26.2 miles — a feeling of liveliness.
“There’s a feeling you get that you need to experience rather than have described to you, but every part of your body is alive,” Dailey says. “There’s not a part of your body you’re not aware of when you cross that finish line.”
After a motor vehicle accident 11 years ago, Dailey thought he would never experience that feeling again. The 49-year-old from Prior Lake, Minn., sustained a C-6/7 spinal-cord injury (SCI) and spent all of his time in a wheelchair or in his bed. Looking to add more activity into his life, Dailey tried a yoga class where he was able to relive that crossing-the-finish line experience for the first time since his injury.
“I thought that experience was lost to me, and we were in a yoga pose one night and I got that experience again. There wasn’t a part of my body I wasn’t aware of,” Dailey says. “And now I’m reaching for that again.”
Dailey started yoga four years after his injury.
While researching more exercise ideas, he read an article about Matthew Sanford, yogi, wheelchair user and founder and president of Mind Body Solutions — a nonprofit that works with people with disabilities to build a connection between mind and body, mostly through adaptive yoga.
Thirty-six years ago at age 13, Sanford was in a car crash leaving him with a T-4 SCI. After waking up from a coma and learning about his new injury, doctors told Sanford he would never walk again and was going to have to learn to drag his now-paralyzed legs through life.
Matthew Sanford (right) travels the world teaching yoga to both adaptive and traditional students. Here, he and assistant Julie Welle help student Beth Rosenberger.
“I’m beginning to think about what my life is going to be like and [the doctors are] telling me, ‘You’re paralyzed below your chest and you won’t be able to feel anything.’ I kept saying to them, ‘No, I can feel something, it’s like a tingling or a hum; it’s an overall buzz kind of,’” Sandford says. “They were worried I thought that sensation meant I was going to walk again. They told me it wasn’t real, that it was like phantom feelings, like my legs had been amputated and I thought I had legs when I didn’t.”
For the next 12 years, Sanford believed them, but by the time he was 25, he was done dragging his body through life. He wanted to feel connected as a whole again.
“I was told to overcome my paralyzed body. Get my upper body really strong and learn to drag my paralyzed body through life, basically,” Sanford says. “You know that’s fine on one level, but I just missed my body. I wanted to find a way to feel more connected to my whole body. I wasn’t just looking for a form of exercise. I wasn’t just looking for a form of relaxation. I was looking for a way to feel more vibrant in my whole body.”
Yoga made that connection for Sanford.
He started practicing 23 years ago before the big yoga-craze, but immediately found an instructor who was willing to help him explore and find a way to adapt yoga to work for someone in a wheelchair.
Six years later, Sanford took his new skills to teach adaptive yoga at a rehab center and now he teaches all over the world, has released an at-home adaptive yoga DVD and runs Mind Body Solutions, which offers six weekly adaptive yoga classes in the Twin Cities area of Minnesota.
Surprisingly, few adaptations are truly needed to make yoga accessible. Sanford likes to get his students out of their wheelchairs and onto mats on the floor where volunteers help move and lift them into various yoga poses. So, rather than having his students force the poses and concentrate on how they look while doing yoga, Sanford teaches them the basic principles and take-aways from each pose.
“In every yoga pose, no matter what you are doing, no matter what it looks like and who’s doing it, there’s a principle. You have to go down and push down in order to truly expand up. So that would be something you can teach anybody, even a paralyzed person. Or, you have to go inward and increase your inner awareness as you move outwardly. That’s a core principle in yoga,” Sanford says. “You’re not just mindlessly doing movements but increasing your awareness you have as you’re moving.”
“Yoga is not so much of everybody getting into the same position, it’s everybody getting into a position to the best of their ability,” Dailey says. “So, we don’t all have to look the same if we’re in the same pose, because each pose is different for everybody.”
An Open Attitude
Debbie Moore, lead recreation therapist at Sharp Rehabilitation in San Diego, follows a similar regimen when teaching adaptive yoga.
While some of her students can transfer to the mat, others stay in their chairs. The major adjustment she makes for those in chairs is to have them ground themselves through their sit bones, rather than their feet, so they can continue with the moves from the waist up. But, rather than focusing on the pose itself, Moore challenges her students to focus on what they can get out of each pose.
“I found that people who want to do yoga have an open mind, and if they’re willing to adapt it, then they can get all of the benefits,” Moore says. “My philosophy is if somebody has an open attitude, they are going to get so much from it from the breathing, the meditation, the stress management, movement. I mean you can take a simple movement whether you are able-bodied or physically challenged and get so much out of it if you do it mindfully.”
While each person joins yoga for a different reason — exercise, stress management or for a mind-body connection — it has the ability to fulfill all of those needs and more, especially for those who use wheelchairs.
“I think physically for someone in a chair it’s good to counteract the flexing posture of sitting by doing the opposite extension poses,” Moore says. “So a lot of benefits are for their posture, their spine, their neck, get a forward head also in their chair.”
In class, Moore tells her students it’s more important what happens off the mat than what’s on the mat. By teaching the main principles of yoga, her students can use them in everyday life to help with breathing, posture, stress management and overall awareness of body and self.
A Changing Voice
Being aware made a tremendous impact on Sanford’s life.
Through his yoga practice, he achieved that tingling feeling throughout his body he felt after first being injured. Although he knows it won’t help him walk again, he says it helps clue him into when he is developing a pressure sore or when he should use the bathroom.
“With a spinal-cord injury, your mind never stops talking to your body or your body never stops talking to your mind. It just changes its voice,” Sanford says. “It’s like your body has laryngitis and your mind can’t hear it, but it’s still communicating and some sort of mind-body practice allows you to
recognize that there’s still a lot of dynamic flowing through mind and body — it’s just much more subtle.”
Just as it helps mentally with the mind-body connection, yoga has the same effects of any good exercise — building strength, increasing flexibility and balance and boosting energy levels.
These advantages have impacted Dailey, who, before yoga, had a lot of trouble transferring. Sanford taught Dailey how to push through his feet to ground himself to the Earth, rather than dragging his bottom half along.
“I never really had a connection to the Earth, and when they lifted me out of the chair and put me on the floor on the mat, it’s hard to put into words. But I was part of the group and part of the room, and the injury didn’t matter anymore,” Dailey says.
As Dailey returns home from his weekly yoga class, he transfers seamlessly to the couch, something he’s never been able to do before. Seven years after his first class, Dailey is hooked on yoga and never turning back.
For more information, visit sharp.com/rehab or mindbodysolutions.org.