Alt text: A diverse group of people, including wheelchair users & people with other impairments, in a bright, light studio practising yoga.
For this month’s blog, I’ve invited my good friend Miranda McCarthy, Founder of Adaptive Yoga Live – https://adaptiveyogalive.com/
I’ve been practising Adaptive Yoga now for about 5-6 years & I absolutely love it! Not only has it helped keep me fit, it’s also great for my anxiety & breathing. In fact, my breathing has improved so much that my team at Brompton & Harefield Hospitals Trust, London, UK, have noticed clear improvements in my lung function tests & sleep studies.
But the best thing about Adaptive Yoga is all the new friends I’ve made & & love that they’ve given me through some very tough years.
Over to Miranda…
“You know it’s inevitable,” I said to him, standing at the bar. “What’s inevitable?” he replied. “Us,” I said with a cheeky smile as I seductively took a sip of my vodka Redbull. He was my younger self’s idea of a dreamboat – tall, blonde floppy hair, Cambridge-educated and with a body of a Greek god. “Why don’t you come by the gym one day then” he prompted. “Maybe I will.”
I saw Gym Bunny (a nickname my twin sisters gave him) only a week later at the local fitness centre – a place I dreaded going into for fear of social judgement and general awkwardness. I have been Disabled since the age of two, have undergone multiple operations, and live with chronic pain from over 30+ arthritic joints. Using gym equipment was never recommended as it can be high-impact. However, I was told gentle weight training could help improve the strength and stability of my joints, so I thought I might as well give it a go.
Being Disabled means there are several moments, on any given day, where you just have to suck it up and face your fears and challenges head-on. This one was BIG. Dream man – nightmare scenario. I headed over to the weights and started looking at them, bewildered. What am I doing here? I asked myself. I glanced in the mirror next to me and saw that Gym Bunny was strutting his way over to me. “Hey you, looking to do some weight training?” “Um yeah, the thing is…”
This is where it started to go downhill. At this time in my life, my disability was almost completely hidden. You couldn’t tell by looking at me that I had titanium hips and knees, that my ankle joints were fused, or that my range of motion was only a few degrees in my upper limbs. That is until I try to pick up a ten-pound dumbell and do a bicep curl.
It was like something out of a cartoon, we consecutively went down in size until I was left holding the smallest dumbbell on the rack, and that’s when it happened. Gym Bunny burst out laughing and screamed across the gym, “Hey, we’ve got a weakling here. Can someone get the purple weights?!” A bunch of other gym bunnies joined in, repeating the question, “The purple weights?” “Who needs the purple weights?” He handed them to me, and said “Don’t wear yourself out!” and walked away.
Needless to say, it put me off from going to the gym and any other mainstream fitness facility for years. The ableism in the attitude and practices of some fitness professionals, who see those living with a disability or chronic illness as people who haven’t done enough to live a ‘normal healthy’ life, is a frustrating reality. Fitness industry standards and expectations still do not include the abilities and needs of people with disabilities. That’s why finding adaptive yoga was such a game-changer for me.
I remember the first day I walked into the tiny studio at the Westway Sports Centre in London. A few chairs were set up, and the teacher was sitting in front of the class. People with various types of disabilities and impairments joined us. People in wheelchairs, on walking sticks, with carers, it dawned on me that this was the first time I had socialised with other Disabled people. I became acutely aware that I was in a safe space, maybe for the first time, where I felt totally free to be Disabled.
Did you know that virtually any yoga pose can be made accessible? Well, neither did I until I saw my fellow yogis all doing different variations of the same pose. Some were seated, some were on the mat, and some were being assisted. Our teacher was able to give verbal cues and adjustments tailored specifically to each student’s needs so that everyone could participate regardless of their level of ability.
Adaptive yoga is designed to meet people with disabilities where they are at in terms of physical fitness. The poses and exercises can be modified or adapted to accommodate any type of disability. I particularly like seeing the ingenuity of my fellow yogis in their use of props such as chairs, blankets, and blocks for support during the practice. When properly supported, the struggle to hold a pose is eliminated, and one can more easily detect the presence and movement of the breath (this serves to unify the physical, mental, and spiritual body – the essence of yoga).
What surprised me the most was that yoga is actually a form of meditation. Even if you are just being aware of the rise and fall of your chest as you breathe, you are practising yoga. This sets it apart from any other form of exercise because it’s not a physical workout; it’s a mind-body practice that produces a change in calm and relaxation on a neurobiological level through mindfulness.
My regular yoga practice has not only increased my physical strength and flexibility, but it has provided a number of psychological benefits, such as reduced stress, improved mood and self-esteem, increased relaxation and mindfulness, increased resilience to my life’s challenges, improved body image and acceptance of my physical limitations.
Additionally, joining an adaptive yoga class provided a supportive and inclusive environment where I could learn from and connect with other Disabled yogis who have similar challenges and experiences. I had found my tribe, my community, and not a gym bunny in sight!
The only problem is, at the moment, 99% of images you see representing yoga are of hypermobile white women contorting themselves into impossible shapes. Different body types and abilities are not represented in mainstream yoga studios, publications, or advertising. Yoga’s global popularity, as well as its proven benefits in terms of physical, mental, and social development, makes it a perfect tool for promoting the inclusion and well-being of people with disabilities.
It’s why I launched my nonprofit organisation adaptiveyogalive.com to provide free-of-charge classes so that everyBODY can have access to yoga regardless of their financial status, shape, age, weight, race, gender, or level of ability!
My yogic lifestyle has supported me on my journey to a new, healthier way of living, and I’ve never felt more connected to myself and to those around me. I am so happy I finally found a physical activity that I could enjoy and engage in, on my terms, without feeling limited by my limitations. I feel nourished, nurtured, and empowered.
From Suzanne: you’d be made so welcome if you want to join in or if you’re a yoga teacher wanting to learn the Adaptive Yoga practice – https://adaptiveyogalive.com/
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One thought on “Ditch the non disabled Gym Bunnies & do Yoga!”
Thanks Miranda and Suzanne for continuing to shine a light on the ongoing, very often unconscious bias (gym bunnies), against people with disabilities as well as race gender and more.
It also shines a light on the positive support that is available.
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