Why Teaching with a Disability Makes You an Invaluable Teacher

September 3, 2015    BY Shakti Bell

I have been living with multiple sclerosis since 1997. I became a yoga teacher after years of living with disability and exploring the healing benefits of yoga. Although my initial introduction to yoga was in a group setting geared toward people living with MS, most of the classes I took in those early years were filled with able-bodied students and teachers. For many years I studied with an Iyengar teacher who embraced the challenge of adapting poses for my differently abled body.  I then moved on to develop a practice at home with the help of a physical therapist who studied yoga. I dedicated myself to that practice until I began working with what I learned in the Integral Yoga Accessible Teacher Training. 

We arrive with our wheelchairs, scooters, walkers, canes, and crutches and gather in a small carpeted studio at the Pacific Cultural Center in Santa Cruz.

Since becoming a teacher, I have been able to share this healing practice with others. My class, Yoga for Healing, meets every Friday and is filled with students seeking healing—most of them also living with MS. We arrive with our wheelchairs, scooters, walkers, canes, and crutches and gather in a small carpeted studio at the Pacific Cultural Center in Santa Cruz. We pack an intimate space that is easy for me to navigate. Sometimes we have family, friends, or caregivers in our midst, and sometimes an able-bodied assistant or two are present. Two of my students have assistance dogs at their sides. We work together to pull down the props we will need, and we get settled on our mats. We catch up on new social developments of the last week, and I attempt to get started on time. The excitement settles as I guide them to watch their breath. This internal journey creates a calm that spreads throughout the room, and I lead them into a gentle warm-up.

Our practice together continues at a pace that accommodates everyone. I often need to creatively help a student into a posture that may be challenging to access or requires an alternative expression of the pose I am teaching. My students know that sometimes they may be in a pose for a little longer than someone who needs extra assistance. They’ve learned to listen to their bodies when it's time to come out of a pose. I usually don’t move especially quickly, navigating in a wheelchair or simply crawling to reach students. Those who have practiced with me know that nobody is ignored or left behind. Often one student helps another. At the end of class, the energy has softened and we quietly put away the props. I am often pleasantly surprised when I turn around and see a clean room magically appear!

Just as understanding a pose through your own experience of that pose informs your teaching, the same concept applies to teaching with a disability. Your limitations are ones your students may also experience, and they help you see how a pose needs to be adapted. Our own limitations are an opportunity to explore ways to adapt a pose and learn from the inside, as well as experience benefits of a pose without stress, pain, or other obstacles. Personal illness or injury can be an opportunity to learn more about how to teach a practice that will support and heal as you care for yourself and experience your own healing.

A teacher sharing their experiences with disability can break down barriers of isolation that students with disability often experience. Seeing how you navigate with a limitation can inspire them and strengthen their trust in the practice. This is also why I believe practicing with a group of people who experience similar limitations can be extremely valuable. Community forms around commonality. This helps us to step outside of our own stories, watching others with a compassion that develops out of our own struggles. My students find their strengths and use those abilities to accomplish the task at hand. Everyone finds their value in the best expression of who they are—mind, body, and spirit—and our hatha yoga practice prepares the body for its best expression at this moment. We encourage the ego to recede as we watch thoughts without judgment, and we begin to see how we are interconnected and interdependent.

Seeing how you navigate with a limitation can inspire them and strengthen their trust in the practice.

Being a teacher with a disability means you will need support as well. Accepting support teaches graciousness. It also means that the flow of a group practice is about everyone working together. Having able-bodied people in the class as students or assistants can also be extremely helpful. Being in the class allows them to experience this interconnection as they participate in the flow of the practice.

Having a disability doesn't mean you need to seek out students with similar limitations. You can be an inspiration to anybody who feels intimidated by the prospect of being in a yoga class. During my training, a colleague who is deaf chose to teach recovering addicts. I spent years teaching a group struggling with mental illness. If a new student sees a teacher using a wheelchair or navigating any visible disability, it may open their eyes to the healing potential of yoga.

There are challenges to teaching with a disability. Sometimes I teach a pose that I am not able to demonstrate. If I can guide at least one student into a pose, then they can help others by visual reference. My mobility limitations can also keep me from some of the more physically demanding work sometimes necessary to help students find alignment or to offer healing touch. There are usually ways to modify a pose, and often you simply have to work with a student to creatively solve a problem. Working with the same students over time allows you to build upon what you learn together.

Teach your students to expand their view of what a yoga student looks like, and don’t limit yourself to an idealized image of a yoga teacher. Navigating the room in a wheelchair means I have had to let go of being a teacher who can nimbly move around the maze of bodies and props to help everyone who needs assistance. I have a strong desire to help every student in my class get the optimal practice, and everyone can work together toward this goal. Assistants can help with much of the physical tasks of a class, while a teacher can offer guidance and direction where needed. In this setting, students are encouraged to use intuition to come up with solutions. Often my students and assistants come up with practical methods that can be offered to other students as well. This encourages students to be active participants in creating their practice.

Teach your students to expand their view of what a yoga student looks like, and don’t limit yourself to an idealized image of a yoga teacher.

There is not one set way to practice an asana. What matters is the intention behind how we practice. Connecting with our true selves is at the core of everything we do in class. Keep the practice mindful. In this way all becomes yoga.

As a teacher with a disability, here are five simple but powerful actions that can help your students:

  1. Be a role model. You can show others how the healing benefits of yoga have helped you.
  2. Learn from the inside out. You have the unique opportunity to feel how things can be adapted to the limitations of your body. This can build trust with your students.
  3. Be gracious and accept help. If they see you accept help they will be more likely to accept it for themselves.
  4. Encourage others to try yoga. A teacher with a disability shows there are no boundaries to having a yoga practice. 
  5. Share your experiences. We are not alone. Let your students know that you have struggles too.

Every one of us has limitations, and yoga is a practice that embraces us as we are. Yoga encourages us to find the best expressions of ourselves every day, whether we are full of vim and vigor or unable to get out of bed. Teach this to your students with humble graciousness, through your own challenges. Let them see the power of yoga through you, and then let them experience it for themselves.

#teaching advice Images provided by Shakti Bell.

Shakti Bell
All my classes are designed to bring yoga to populations that may have had difficulties accessing yoga. I help people uncover their own healing power, just as I learned for myself. This year I am on the planning committee for the first Accessible Yoga Conference scheduled for September 12th and 13th of 2015, in Santa Barbara, Ca. I have been sharing the teachings of yoga in Santa Cruz since moving here in 2009.