Photo: Isabelle Khurshudyan

Disabled find strength in adaptive yoga

Instructor provides class for students with paralysis, spinal injuries

Dara Brown regularly hears excuses for why someone “can’t” do yoga, so the instructor laughs when recalling how Sherwood Toatley told her he just isn’t flexible after his first class.

She responded the way she would to any other student. Yoga will help make you more flexible, she told him.

That interaction felt typical for Brown, who teaches yoga at USC, Columbia College and private studios throughout town, but the class was far from what most people perceive as an average yoga class. And Toatley isn’t an average yoga student.

Toatley is a quadriplegic and one of the 12 people with varying spinal cord injuries who participated in Brown’s first adaptive yoga class through the South Carolina Spinal Cord Injury Association (SCSCIA). The March class was a demonstration for the upcoming, full-time course Brown will start May 15.

Her vision of yoga is an experience for everyone — the inflexible, the unbalanced and, now, the disabled. She views the overwhelming support she’s received in Columbia as an increased acceptance of yoga within health care as a beneficial physical activity.

“One of my missions as a yoga teacher is to break down barriers to practice — both those that are real, like outside of yourself, and those that are in your head that you perceive, like when people say, ‘I’m too blah, blah,’ or whatever,” Brown said. “I just felt that this [adapted yoga class] was so needed in Columbia.”

When Brown took on Yanisse Adrian-Silva as a private client through City Yoga, the Five Points studio where she teaches, she had no idea how yoga could help the student’s spinal cord injury.

Adrian-Silva said she started yoga because she thought it was just about stretching, developing a good posture and linking the breath to movement. Since her spinal cord injury is T7, she’s a paraplegic with complete control of her arms and shoulders. She says she never thought her injury could prevent her from doing yoga.

Brown spent the following weeks looking for answers and doing research, eventually hearing about Matthew Sanford, a paraplegic who began studying the ancient art and teaching yoga instructors and health care professionals how to adapt the exercises for people with disabilities.

“[Brown] is a person that will go above and beyond to make sure that her clients are getting what they need and that she’s well-researched and well-versed in the matter,” Adrian-Silva said. “She wants to try and make everyone happy with the result.”
Brown says she started to stalk Sanford, attending a workshop he hosted in Asheville, N.C., followed by another in Atlanta. Eventually, she signed up for his training program in Minnesota through Mind Body Solutions.

Yoga is defined as a philosophy teaching the suppression of all activity of body, mind and will so the self may realize its distinction from them and attain liberation. This is usually practiced through a series of poses that link breath, movement and alignment. Mind Body Solutions teaches that the foundational principles of yoga don’t discriminate between the able-bodied and the disabled, but the poses do.

Rather than teaching the outer alignment and manifestation of the pose — and Mind Body Solutions does some of that — it focuses on teaching the experience of the pose. In

Triangle Pose, for example, the experience is extension in the side body, grounding in the back leg and opening in the chest from turning it slightly toward the ceiling. For adapted yoga students, the pose may be changed to get the same feeling when in a chair or on the floor.
“For someone with a spinal cord injury in particular, yoga presents principles that allow for people to reclaim a vibrant sense of wholeness within their whole body,” Sanford said. “Yoga presents a way to pay attention to principles of alignment, breath and things that allow you to get an overall sense of your whole body again. There are just sensations that are in yoga poses regardless of the physical action, like the sensation of grounding or the sensation of expanding within your body.”

Barbara Lutz, a registered nurse and research assistant with the South Florida Spinal Cord Injury Model System, said developing better flexibility, posture and balance, which yoga aims to do, is beneficial for everyday life as a paraplegic or quadriplegic. She said there’s no danger for someone with a spinal cord injury to do yoga.

“People with spinal cord involvement over the years from wheeling their wheelchair and doing all of their transfers and everything, they end up with a lot of shoulder pain and problems,” Lutz said. “If you’re slouched down all of the time, your shoulders become rounded, and because that’s not a normal position that can contribute to the problems when you’re wheeling your wheelchair. You’re not using your shoulders correctly. Sitting in a wheelchair correctly with balance and posture is very important.”

Brown took what she learned in the Mind Body Solutions class and applied it with Adrian-Silva, but she also left the class with a new passion for teaching yoga to the disabled and recognized its potential in Columbia. She eventually met a former chairman of the SCSCIA board and was subsequently introduced to Diane Epperly, the association’s executive director.

While Epperly said she had very little knowledge of yoga at the time, she knew Brown was working with Adrian-Silva, a member of SCSCIA, and she’d seen Zumba, a dance fitness program, adapted for people with spinal cord injuries, so she allowed Brown to lead a 20-minute adapted yoga class during a Breeze Group meeting March 26.

Brown knew she would need an assistant for every student, so she enlisted the help of people she knew from her classes who had yoga experience and might be interested. She originally had 15 volunteers, but after a few last-minute cancellations, 12 volunteers remained. Luckily, there were exactly 12 participants in the class.

“I don’t think that happened by chance,” Brown said.

Brown told the volunteers not to give instructions but to merely assist if need be — giving resistance, providing an extra chair or extending a leg. If someone didn’t want to do a pose, Brown said they probably had a good reason, so the volunteer would have a conversation and just make the person feel as comfortable as possible.

“To be there and to go through the poses and assist, and then to be present afterwards and feel that energy with those individuals, was just overwhelming,” said Joanna Whiteside, one of the volunteers for the class. “My whole approach to it was just out of sheer joy and excitement. It was just tremendously powerful.”

Before Whiteside was approached by Brown to assist in the class, she said she had a conversation with a quadriplegic about yoga. She told him what yoga is and the experience it gives her. When he told Whiteside he wished he could do yoga, she asked, “Well, why not? I don’t know why you couldn’t try it.”

She said the man looked at her like she “had three eyes.” She told him yoga isn’t about the way you move your limbs but rather how you link your breath, body and energy. Not long after, Brown told Whiteside about her vision for an adapted yoga class.

“I just knew that it was possible, and I just knew that for everything that yoga is, there had to be a way,” Whiteside said.

Toatley said he had heard of yoga but didn’t really understand it, and he’d doubted he could actually do the poses. His spinal cord injury is C1-2, one of the most limiting spinal cord injuries.

“This yoga is really tough,” Toatley said. “You’re having to hold the posture and breathe at the same time. With me, if I’m straining to do something, I tend to hold my breath to do it. It’s a little tough, but I’m going to try it.”

When Brown asked the group if anyone would be interested in a regular yoga class, Toatley and several others raised their hands.

“The energy in that room was just incredible,” Epperly said. “I think it’s one of the best meetings we ever had. A lot of people didn’t know what yoga was, didn’t have any exposure to it or just figured, ‘How is yoga going to help me? I’m paralyzed.’ But by the end of it, people were like, ‘Wow.’ It just opened up their minds that there was something else out there to take advantage of.”

To instruct a separate class, Brown said she needed a separate set of supplies, like yoga mats with atypically thicker padding, as well as additional bolsters, blankets, blocks and straps. When she added up the costs, she said the total came to about $2,500.

She had already secured a previously unused, handicap-friendly space at the Yoga Masala studio on Bluff Road for the class, but she still needed funding to buy the necessary supplies.

Brown said she doesn’t usually like to ask for help, but she wrote a description about the class on her personal blog with a link to where readers could donate. Within a week, Brown had raised enough money for the class.

“This community stepped up in a way that I couldn’t imagine,” Brown said. “The response has been amazing.”

She said she won’t make any money from the class, providing it as a service. She’s recently had contact with the Babcock Center and discussed bringing in the traumatic brain injury group. Brown made contact with the local muscular dystrophy association chapter Wednesday with hopes to get them involved.

Toatley and others with spinal cord injuries may seem like atypical yoga students now, but as Brown’s adaptive vision progresses, yoga has the potential to be as prolific for those with spinal cord injuries as it is for the able-bodied.

Brown already notices the similarities between her students with spinal cord injuries and her other students — like saying they’re not flexible enough.

After the short, seated Shavasana — a pose of total relaxation at the end of a yoga class — Brown asked the disabled participants how they felt.

“Really relaxed,” someone said.

“As a teacher,” Brown said, “it’s always rewarding when you see the light bulb go off in someone’s head when they get it.”



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