Learning to Listen to My Body: An Adaptive Yoga Journey

Finding your true self is a lifelong journey. While there are usually fits and starts, every step creates possibility if you can remain open. My journey thus far has led to the transformative power of yoga. It took a life-altering car accident at the age 19 that resulted in a spinal cord injury, and more than 30 years, to unearth a passion for this practice. Since then, learning adaptive yoga and becoming a certified yoga teacher has transformed my life in unexpected ways.

Before the car accident, I felt invincible. I was a dancer, swimmer, lifeguard, cheerleader, pom pom girl, choreographer, and athlete. I knew who I was and what I wanted to do after high school: go to New York to become a choreographer/dancer on Broadway. I felt physically strong, and I knew I could complete any task. I never gave up on my goals.

After the car accident, I awoke to a devastating blow. I had a crushed spinal cord with partial paralysis, and I was told I would never walk again. In 24 hours, my life was forever changed. I felt alone and lost. My Broadway dreams were shattered. The physical and emotional trauma of the accident numbed my senses and led to disconnection from my body. When you’re a dancer, your body is your instrument, and if that instrument no longer plays as it once did, your connection to it is broken; it’s very easy to feel ungrounded.

It took a long time for me to regain a sense of self and create a new life. While I experienced spurts of empowerment, I did not want to accept my disability or a life of limited mobility.

My journey began in a wheelchair. After a year of intense physical therapy, by some miracle, I learned to walk again with the help of forearm crutches, a cane, and foot orthotics. While I’m grateful for having survived the car accident, the emotional trauma initially made me resistant to living life fully. I also used to think that talking about my physical challenges made me weak. So I went out of my way to avoid asking for help or accommodations; I wanted to do everything myself. Because I didn’t want to be judged for physical limitations, I acted as if they didn’t exist. I’ve learned a lot since then.

It took years for me to learn that a strong will or ego doesn’t always equal a strong mind and body. It took even more time to shed my “survival story” for a deeper understanding of myself and my health challenges.

But gradually I found the courage to own my body, in both present and past forms. Adaptive yoga was one catalyst for this. It taught me to stop, go within, and reconnect mind, body, and spirit. More importantly, I discovered hope within trauma and loss. I now know a different kind of strong.            

Finding Adaptive Yoga Felt Like Coming Home

After the car accident, I struggled with having to let go of my old life as a dancer and I had no idea how to move forward. I dreamed of trying yoga, or something else that was physically demanding, but doctors warned it could re-injure my spine. While their advice was meant for my safety, it mostly instilled fear. In addition, I felt self conscious about my physical limitations. When I thought about yoga, I imagined able-bodied skinny girls bending and stretching in every direction. Going to a studio also felt intimidating because yoga is generally practiced barefoot, and I needed my shoes to walk. I didn’t want to feel judged or marginalized for limited mobility. In short, my preconceived ideas about yoga kept me from trying it.

I was 51 years old when I finally gained the courage to take my first yoga class, and doing so was one of the best decisions of my life. My self-consciousness didn’t change immediately, but I eventually found my place. I no longer felt embarrassed about not being able to do handstands or backbends; I no longer worried about not being able to take my shoes off in class. Instead, I sat in a chair and modified or adapted any poses that put a strain on my body. Yoga felt natural in my body. It felt like home and I felt free.

And once I experienced adaptive yoga and began adapting poses to fit my body, I wanted to share this practice with everyone—especially those with physical challenges. I knew there must be others who could benefit from experiencing this practice. This led me to adaptive yoga and to attend the first Accessible Yoga Conference (AYC) in Santa Barbara, California.

There are many different ways to define adaptive yoga. Simply put, adaptive yoga is a creative and mindful approach to adapting poses for the body. This can include using a chair, wall, or yoga props. In my view, adaptive yoga is any form of yoga that teaches integration of mind and body sensation over simple physical asana.

Attending the Accessible Yoga Conference was life changing. Meeting others on a similar mission—bringing yoga to everyone regardless of ability or background—was inspiring. We were activists bound by our goal to change perceptions of yoga and to make its practices and teachings accessible for all. We wanted to create a yoga community that embraces everyone.

I met many inspiring yogis at the AYC, including Jivana Heyman (the founder of Accessible Yoga), and other trailblazers such as Matthew Sanford, Dianne Bondy, Melanie Klein, Marsha Therese Danzig, and Cherie Hotchkiss. Some of the yogis I met were cancer survivors with prosthetic limbs, or car wreck or other trauma survivors; others managed muscular dystrophy (MD), multiple sclerosis (MS), or cerebral palsy (CP). Most had faced incredible challenges. Still, everyone felt empowered and couldn’t wait to share the ways in which yoga had transformed their lives.

And once I experienced adaptive yoga and began adapting poses to fit my body, I wanted to share this practice with everyone.

Attending the conference ignited my passion to teach. I eventually enrolled in a general 200-hour teacher training program but I had no idea what I was getting into. All I knew for sure was that I wanted to deepen my yoga practice, connect with other yogis, and spread an inclusive adaptive yoga message.

At that time, having a 200-hour certification was a prerequisite for the adaptive teacher training I wanted to take. But when I took my teacher training, I realized there was a need for more adaptive elements within traditional 200-hour programs. There were parts of my training that simply did not accommodate people with physical limitations. Nonetheless, my experience was wonderful thanks to the knowledge, guidance, and support of my teacher and our group. Their encouragement felt like divine intervention. I kept moving.

Completing the 200-hour teacher training inspired me to seek additional training. I started with Jivana Heyman’s Accessible Yoga certification, then took Barre training with Jessa Voos, and then a teaching mentorship with Alexandria Crow. I’m currently working on Open Yoga instructor certification with Matthew Sanford, and Yoga For All certification with Dianne Bondy and Amber Karnes. I’ve met many compassionate guides along the path, and I’m grateful for their wisdom. It fuels my commitment to adaptive yoga.

Adaptive Yoga Teaches Inner Strength

If yoga teaches us anything it’s self-acceptance and trust of our inner selves. Doing yoga is an empowering experience; it develops calmness in the face of difficulty, ease in place of tension, and stillness of mind and body. With every inhale and exhale, yoga reveals something new. As we observe the breath to feel grounding and expansion, our goal is to feel and embrace our bodies in the present moment. Doing so has the ability to bring balance and wisdom into our lives.

Finding adaptive yoga helped me to embrace my whole self and reclaim my power. For me, yoga is not about the poses; it’s more about paying attention to my body and gaining inner strength. In the end, I see yoga as a personal, noncompetitive experience—a transforming path to self-awareness. The first step involves listening to what our bodies need.

I encourage my students to let their inner wisdom guide their practice. The beauty of yoga is that everyone’s practice is individual and unique and tapping into this awareness can change lives. The power of yoga is within all of us, and it’s available anytime we need it; all we have to do is find stillness and then listen and accept what we hear. These discoveries live at the heart of my daily adaptive yoga practice.

Practicing yoga has brought my life full circle: Being an adaptive yoga teacher makes me feel like a choreographer again. I make up poses and I’m free to explore…it’s a wonderful adventure that keeps me centered. In many ways, however, my yoga journey has just begun. I’ve only been teaching for one year, but my passion grows every day.

As I continue my journey, my heart-based mission is to encourage anyone—no matter size, shape, or physical challenge—to try yoga.

Yoga changed my life. I know it will do the same for you.

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Mary Higgs

Mary Higgs

Mary Higgs, M.A., is an Online English Instructor for Butler Community College in Kansas. She’s a writer, motivator, seeker, and social justice, disability advocate. As a YogaWorks RYT 200 and... Read more>>  

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