Fitness Friday: how do I address the hesitation associated with using yoga as a “healing” modality, by some in the disabled community? This was a question posed to me by a disability activist recently, and I loved the question (I’d rather go deep and talk social justice than almost anything else).
Backing up a bit first: I do not identify as disabled, though I do have several chronic medical conditions that could be considered disabilities. So I write not as a disabled person nor do I claim to speak for them or desire to center myself over their wisdom. Please do listen to and learn from disability activists for the variety and breadth of the “disabled” experience and perspectives on ableism.
When considering his question above, we should start with “healing” – what does that word even mean? It likely depends on the person. Often, we think culturally of fixing something. But the assumption that someone would “fix” their medical condition or disability if they could is ableist. Some people value or even pride themselves in their disability or medical condition (but those that want to fix or change their situation are allowed to feel that way too – this doesn’t make them a “bad” disabled person, but I know this is a contentious discussion). Further, focus on the disability, medical condition, or impairment is reductionistic – whittling down a person to one component (maybe the most important component to them, but still a narrow view) is related to the biomedical model of health. The biomedical model makes the medical providers experts on disability (not the disabled person) and focuses on the sickness, impairment, or the disability, while attempting to make the person appear “cured” or “normal”. This is in stark contrast to the current and more humanistic model of disability, the social model, in which we recognize that society is what makes and accentuates disability, by not being accessible to a variety of folks.
I do work with people with disability. I am a physical therapist and yoga instructor and focus my professional offerings on community-level, post rehab continuum of care (ie making long term fitness and wellness goals accessible for a variety of identities, abilities, and sizes). Most clients utilize my offerings around my complementary modalities like yoga, reiki, and sexuality counseling, rarely fitness and almost never for physical therapy. So I see clients with disability for yoga fairly regularly, and most of my regular clients are for yoga specifically.
I have never suggested to clients that yoga would “heal” them, of their MS, or their stroke, or anxiety, or _________. Yoga is not a one-and-done, solve the world’s ails, magical movement elixir. Instead, yoga is a supplemental tool that can be framed in a way to fit a person’s fitness or wellness needs. Further, yoga is phenomenal at being able to address many needs and facets of a person, and yoga reflects back what you bring to it. If you approach yoga for strengthening needs, it will meet you there. Relaxation?, check, balance?, sure, mindfulness?, abolustely, reduced pain?, yep, sexual well-being? you betcha – yoga can adapt to these desires and more.
But, yoga it isn’t for everyone – some people hate it (in that case, don’t do it). Additionally, yoga can’t change the fact that a person had a stroke or has MS, but it might help address personal, specific goals, such as less pain, augmented sleep, or trying something new that feels good in a person’s body and meets them where they are. And maybe that is “healing” – finding comfort and joy without the need to change/fix/cure.
The nectar of yoga isn’t in the body folding postures, which many our culture assume, and this assumption makes yoga appear limiting to certain bodies. Rather, yoga’s magic is in the mindfulness component. All a practitioner needs is the capacity to breathe and an attention span that allows attention to the task at hand. Slowing the mind down and cultivating presence and awareness has significant personal benefits (scan research on yoga using PubMed – you won’t be disappointed) and even societal benefits – yoga encourages kindness, connection, and prosocial behavior by improving vagal tone. And, here, yoga can be “healing” too – a more mindful society is a more connected, loving, accessible society. That said, who knows, maybe yoga can be another tool to dismantle ableism.
Additional resources for readers:
- Discussion of healing and disability https://medium.com/the-salve/in-disability-i-am-finding-wholeness-without-healing-7eccbcb4ad48
- Adaptive yoga offerings and trainings (I have completed trainings with Mathew in the past): https://www.mindbodysolutions.org/ , Also see Mathew’s book called Waking
- Disability activists to follow and support (not exhaustive but a starting point): @disabethany (Bethany Stevens), @erin.claiming_disability_llc, @andrewgurza_ (Andrew Gurza), @rebirthgarments, @sitting_pretty (Rebekah), @emilyladau (Emily Landau), @theheumannperspective (Judy Heumann), @disability_visibility (Alice Wong)
- Article on yoga and vagal tone: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5835127/
Written by Dr. Allison Mitch, PT (DPT), CHEK practitioner, RYT500, sexuality counselor and educator; copyright protected, please cite accordingly. I am a physical therapist, yoga instructor, and personal trainer that specializes in general fitness and well-being for all bodies, genders, and sexualities. I offer one on one work with clients as well as group yoga sessions, such as yoga for sensuality. Find more information on my website or by emailing me: email@example.com
The image is from Pexels.
Please consider becoming a Patreon supporter to assist in making my work and educational efforts more sustainable. https://www.patreon.com/ignitewellbeing