How You Can Reap the Benefits of Wheelchair Yoga

 In Disabled Living, Life in a Wheelchair, Wheelchair Activities

Have you heard of wheelchair yoga? Many people don’t realize it, but even people who use wheelchairs can reap the many health benefits of doing yoga.

Health Benefits of Wheelchair Yoga

When people think of yoga, they often think of it as a Hindu religious practice that prepares the body for meditation. While that’s true, performing the yoga poses and practicing controlled breathing helps people relax. It improves their health in many other ways as well, such as:

• Greater flexibility
• Pain relief
• Reduced stress, anxiety, and tension
• Lower blood pressure
• More restful sleep
• Improved focus and clarity
• Higher energy levels

Many studies have shown that while other forms of exercise also can yield these benefits, yoga delivers them to a greater extent. This is especially true for stress reduction.

How does yoga provide these benefits? First, yoga involves a lot of gentle stretching. This helps gradually loosen tight muscles. As those muscles ease, the strain on joints is relieved. For example, tight hamstrings can flatten your lumbar spine, which can cause back pain. Stretching these muscles relieves the pressure on the spine and the pain caused by that pressure.

As your tight muscles loosen, your flexibility improves. This will improve your posture, which relieves back, neck and other pain.

Yoga also encourages you to focus on the present by concentrating on breathing and holding the yoga pose. By doing this, you give your nervous system a break from thinking about any problems or difficulties you have. Levels of the stress hormone cortisol are also reduced.

This leads to a sense of calm and helps lower blood pressure. When people feel calmer, they fall asleep faster, sleep longer and feel more rested in the morning. All that sleep improves your ability to focus and gives you more energy.

People doing wheelchair yoga can reap all these benefits and more. One other reason yoga is so good for people in electric wheelchairs is that it stimulates blood flow. As any wheelchair user knows, staying in one position causes stiffness and discomfort. Anything that stimulates blood flow helps relieve these problems. This is why any wheelchair exercises that your able to do are recommended as they will help your overall health.

While the focus of wheelchair yoga sequences is the upper body, the practice of wheelchair yoga is still very beneficial. The twists and bends of the various wheelchair yoga pose work the upper body and core, improving blood flow and stimulating the internal organs.

Don’t worry about needing a special chair to participate in wheelchair yoga. The main idea of wheelchair yoga is to adapt the poses to what you can do.

Because of this, you can do yoga from your wheelchair, no matter what kind of chair you have. Just make sure the brakes are firmly on. You don’t want a moving chair to distract you from holding your pose or causing any kind of safety issue.

If you have enough use of your legs and upper body to sit up without support, you can do yoga from a straight chair. This can work well as you won’t have armrests getting in your way. In either case, rest your feet on the floor or on some kind of secure footrest.

If you’re interested in wheelchair yoga, by all means, give it a try. But first, consult your doctor. Find out if she thinks it will help. She may have suggestions for modifications or poses you should avoid or poses and sequences you should definitely attempt.

Getting Started with Wheelchair Yoga

After you’ve received the ‘all clear’ from your doctor, then you’re free to try some wheelchair yoga poses. Any time you do yoga, keep a few safety rules in mind:

• Always have someone else around, such as a friend, family member or caregiver.
• Breath normally and steadily throughout your yoga session.
• Challenge yourself to stretch as much as you can. But only stretch to the point that it’s a little uncomfortable, not to the point of pain.
• If you do feel pain, stop and consult your doctor.

Keep in mind that able-bodied people find they have good days and bad days when it comes to yoga. Some days they’re able to do more, to hold the poses longer or stretch a bit further. Other days they can barely get through their routines.

The same will be true for you. Yoga teaches you to listen to your body and to adapt poses as needed. Yoga helps you accept that what you have each day is what you have to work with. And it’s a way to take ownership of your disability, work through it and overcome personal challenges.

Remember that yoga is not a competitive sport. It’s all about you challenging yourself to do the best you can each time you practice it.

The intensity of your session will vary by what you want to do and are able to do. Hatha yoga, which is the most commonly practiced form of yoga in the west, is gentle and slow. This is the form best suited for most wheelchair users.

Ready to give wheelchair yoga a try? One great way to get started is to join a class. It’s helpful to have an instructor work with you so you perform the poses correctly.

The instructor will be able to adapt the poses and sequences to match your level of ability. Poses can be adapted for people who cannot stand, or for those who can’t move easily from standing to sitting to lying down. The added benefit of joining a class is that is you will get out into the community, meet other people, and be part of a group.

Wheelchair Yoga Poses and Sequences

Ten of the most popular wheelchair yoga poses and sequences are:

  • Cow

This pose opens the front of the body. Start by holding onto the sides of your chair or resting your hands on your thighs.

Then gently raise your chin toward the ceiling as you inhale and exhale, slowly arching your back.

Hold the pose for a few deep breaths and relax.

  • Cat

The cat pose stretches your back. Start in the same position as the Cow, holding the sides of your chair or resting your hands on your thighs.

Round your upper body forward as you slowly exhale.

Arch your spine just like a cat and drop your chin to your chest.

Hold the pose for a few deep breaths and relax.

Combine the Cat and Cow into a wheelchair yoga sequence by alternating between them.

  • Twist

Put your right hand on your left knee. Put your left arm over the back of your chair. Turn your upper body to look over your left shoulder. Hold this for four slow breaths.

As you inhale, feel your spine lengthen. When you exhale, try for a deeper twist. Return to face forward and relax. Then repeat on the other side.

  • Side Stretches

Place one arm on your chair’s armrest for support. Lift the other arm over your head as you inhale.

Move the stretching arm as far as you can while you exhale.

Breathe deeply for about four breaths while holding the pose.

Return to the center position as you inhale. Repeat the stretch on the other side.

  • Forward Bend

Sit as tall as you can, stretching your spine upwards as you inhale.

Exhale as you bend forward from your waist, holding your chair for support.

Breathe deeply for about four breaths while holding the pose.

Inhale as you sit up.

  • Advanced Forward Bend

This pose is a little more challenging than the forward bend.

Start in the same position as the forward bend.

Allow your hands to touch the floor as you bend over.

  • Raised Hands

Raise both arms to the ceiling as you inhale. Reach upwards with your fingertips as if you are trying to touch the ceiling.

Breathe deeply for about four breaths while holding the pose.

Lower your arms as you exhale.

  • Forward Bend/Raised Hands Sequence

Start the same as the forward bend. Allow your hands to touch the floor and exhale.

Hold for four deep breaths.

Sit up while inhaling and raising hands over your head.

Stretch your fingers to the ceiling and hold the pose for four deep breaths.

Lower your arms as you exhale.

Then repeat the sequence.

  • Eagle Pose

Inhale and lift your arms.

Exhale as you cross your arms at the elbows so that your hands are touching back to back.

Hold the position for about four deep breaths and relax.

  • Relaxation

Use this as your final pose.

Sit tall and relax your shoulders.

Let then fall away from your ears.

Close your eyes and breathe normally for a few moments.

Another Form of Wheelchair Yoga: Aerial Yoga

If these wheelchair yoga poses aren’t enough, you can always try anti-gravity or aerial yoga. This form was developed specifically for people with disabilities. It works by using long, wide pieces of silk. The ends of the silks are hung from the ceiling, forming a long loop. The fabric can be spread to form a hammock or bunched together to form a band. The loops of silk are used to elevate limbs or to suspend the whole body. Many wheelchair users like the additional support the silks provide, since they no longer fear falling over backward in their chairs. You can learn more about how adaptive aerial yoga allows wheelchair users to fly.

Whether you want to try wheelchair yoga for the health benefits, as an aid to meditation or just a way to meet some new people, it’s a great option. If you’re at all curious about it, try the wheelchair yoga poses described in this article, check out some videos or join a class. You don’t need to commit to practicing yoga every day. Just a few times a week will be enough for you to benefit from this form of exercise.

By keeping safety in mind and paying attention to what your body is telling you, over time you’ll realize the many health benefits of wheelchair yoga. So why not get started? All you have to lose is a little pain and stiffness. And you might find a level of health you never thought you’d be able to enjoy.

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