From Asana to Pranayama

People of every ability can practice yoga for fun and fitness

by Amy Madsen on May 1, 2007 - 2:36pm

QUEST Vol. 14, No. 3
Kathy Senecal helps Keith Mullinar do the pawanmuktasana pose.
Kathy Senecal helps Keith Mullinar, who has inclusion-body myositis, do the pawanmuktasana pose, or seated side stretch.

Yoga Master B.K.S. Iyengar once said, "Yoga teaches us to cure what need not be endured and endure what cannot be cured."

More than an insightful play on words, the saying rings true for people around the world — including those who have disabilities caused by neuromuscular diseases.

For thousands of years, people have practiced yoga — stretching and breathing exercises designed to unite the mind, body and spirit into a state of perfect consciousness. Yoga was introduced to the West a little over a century ago, and over the last several decades has become increasingly popular as a form of exercise and an enhancement to health.

There’s a form of yoga to suit almost any taste — from the gentle and relaxing Hatha Yoga, to the favorite of dedicated workout enthusiasts everywhere, Ashtanga, or Power Yoga. Modification and a host of specialized props allow asanas (postures, or poses) to be tailored to almost any ability.

Done from a standing position, or while seated in a chair, a bed, or the floor, poses are combined with pranayama, or proper breathing, in a particular order and for varying lengths of time to stimulate targeted muscles and sharpen mental clarity, while easing stress and tension away.

The activity can be performed alone or in groups. Those with severe physical limitations can work one-on-one with a yoga therapist, who, with proper equipment, including bolsters, props and straps, can help clients achieve the proper positions and gain the same benefits as their able-bodied counterparts.

Increased body awareness

Kathy Senecal leading a yoga class
Kathy Senecal, who has facioscapulohumeral MD (FSHD), demonstrates the seated side stretch. Senecal explains that the pose "releases the spine through the waist area and ribcage, opening up the torso for breathing."

Susan Iannaccone, a pediatric neurologist and director of the MDA clinic at Children’s Medical Center of Dallas, has practiced yoga for two years. She’s also recommended the activity to people with neuromuscular diseases.

Iannaccone says the benefits to be gained from yoga come not only from stretching and relaxation, but also in maintaining strength. Perhaps most important is what those who practice yoga can learn about themselves.

“It teaches people to be very aware of their own body,” Iannaccone says, something particularly important to those dealing with neuromuscular diseases. Increased self-awareness helps people to know where their bodies are in space, as well as whether they feel any aches, pain, strains or stiffness.

Yoga’s adaptability, Iannaccone says, is what makes it a natural fit for anyone looking for a way to help maintain comfort and flexibility. “Everybody can do some of it,” she says.

Of course, as with any activity, individual ability has to be taken into account. “Patients with a lot of orthopedic problems are going to have more problems than others,” Iannaccone says. “The problem is frustration with not being able to do what everyone else does.”

Keith Mullinar does a forward bend from the seat of his scooter.
Keith Mullinar does a forward bend from the seat of his scooter as service dog Coco relaxes at his side.

Still, yoga has something to offer for everyone, a factor that third-grade teacher Kathy Senecal believes has contributed to the growing popularity of yoga and yoga therapy — that and the simple fact that, as she says, "It works."

Senecal, 58, has practiced yoga since 1994, and as a yoga instructor and yoga therapist in Cromwell, Conn., she helps others learn about and experience the activity she believes serves her so well. Senecal, who has facioscapulohumeral muscular dystrophy, knows that yoga has made a significant difference in her health and well-being.

"My personal experience with yoga has been extremely positive," Senecal says, adding that her doctor has attributed her overall good health to the fact that she's been doing yoga for so long.

Reaching deeper muscles

Senecal and Iannaccone agree that, in some cases, yoga can help you reach muscles that can't be reached with other types of exercise or physical therapy.

The jathara parivarttanasana
The jathara parivarttanasana, or rotated stomach pose, is a gentle twist of the spine. It relaxes the neck and vertebrae, opens the chest and lengthens the spine. (Note: Always consult your physician before undertaking any new exercise program.)

Furthermore, she adds, it's something anyone can do.

Like Iannaccone, Senecal believes the quality that makes yoga so accessible is its adaptability. She stresses that it can be continually modified in response to the individual body and symptoms: If someone makes progress, they may move on to a deeper level, and if they encounter difficulties, they can back off and try something else.

"Even someone with severe loss of function can practice yoga," she says. "If a person is propped properly with blankets, bolsters and straps, you can set them at an angle so that tension can be released in the spine."

Physical constraints don't pose as many limitations in yoga as they do in other types of exercise regimens. All anyone really needs before starting yoga, Senecal says, "is the desire to learn what it is and if it's appropriate for them."



American Yoga Association
(941) 927-4977

International Association of Yoga Therapists
(928) 541-0004

National Center on Physical Activity and Disability
(800) 900-8086

Yoga Alliance
(877) 964-2255

Yoga Research and Education Foundation

Wai Lana Yoga
(800) 228-5145

Yoga Props
(888) 856-9642

The American Yoga Association's Easy Does It Yoga: The Safe and Gentle Way to Health and Well-Being
Alice Christensen, 1999, Fireside

Dr. Yoga: A Complete Guide to the Medical Benefits of Yoga
Nirmala Heriza, Dean Ornish and C. Noel Bairey Merz, 2004, Penguin Tarcher

Gentle Yoga: A Guide to Low-Impact Exercise
Lorna Bell, R.N., and Eudora Seyfer, 1982, Celestial Arts

Om Yoga: A Guide to Daily Practice
Cyndi Lee, 2002, Chronicle Books

Recovery Yoga: A Practical Guide for Chronically Ill, Injured, and Post-Operative People
Sam Dworkis, 1997, Three Rivers Press

Yoga for the Young at Heart: Accessible Yoga for Every Body
Susan Winter Ward, 2002, New World Library

Yoga in Bed: 20 Asanas to do in Pajamas
Edward Vilga, 2005, Running Press

Yoga in Bed: Awaken Body, Mind & Spirit in Fifteen Minutes
Naomi Call, 2005, Findhorn Press

Yoga Therapy: A Guide to the Therapeutic Use of Yoga and Ayurveda for Health and Fitness
A.G. Mohan, 2004, Shambhala

Yogafit: The Program for a More Powerful, Flexible, and Defined Physique
Beth Shaw, 2000, Human Kinetics

Chair & Standing, Ageless Yoga - Exercise for All, Including for Seniors & for Arthritis & Disabilities
With John Schlorholtz

Sitting Fit Anytime: Easy and Effective Chair Yoga
With Susan Winter Ward, 1999

Yoga in Bed
2006, Goldhil Home Media

Yogability and You
Shelley Sidelman, 2003

Armchair Fitness Yoga Health
2001, CC-M Productions

Seated Yoga
Carol Dickman, 1999, Yoga Enterprises

Chair Yoga: The Sitting Mountain Series
Lakshmi Voelker, 2004, Lakshmi Voelker

Yoga From Your Chair
With Maureen Lewison, 2004

Bed Top Yoga
Carol Dickman, 1999, Yoga Enterprises

Rest and Recovery With Healing Yoga
Kelly Piper, 1998, Audio Literature

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