November 19, 2012

Sharing the Practice: Adaptive Yoga and Empowerment. ~ Dara Brown

“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” ~ James Baldwin

I never cease to be amazed by where my yoga practice takes me; I’m sure anyone who’s maintained a spiritual practice for many years can say the same thing. After 15 years of travel and study, I began to realize how much I still don’t know, but also to be confident in what I do.

It is a vulnerable place to be; like a yoga pose that challenges my balance. One moment I feel confident and strong—the next moment, I do not. As a yoga teacher, I find myself teetering on this edge quite a bit.

Sometimes, things work out just as I pictured them in my head. Sometimes, by sheer fluke, things work out. Sometimes, it’s a just a big fat fail. The learning and the practicing never stops.

I had such an experience recently when I started working with a paraplegic student. I had enough confidence in my training and teaching ability to know I would not hurt her but I also did not know how best to serve her. After asking trusted friends in the physical therapy field and searching the internet, I found a teacher who would challenge me to expand my understanding of what it means to practice yoga.

Matthew Sanford is a public speaker, author, founder and president of a 501(c)3 and a nationally recognized yoga teacher. Matthew has dedicated his work to bringing yoga to those living with disability, trauma and/or loss. You may wonder how a guy in a wheelchair teaches yoga and I’m here to tell you, “like every other yoga teacher”—with a deep respect for the teachings, and a willingness to share his own practice. Or in other words, with heart.

I met Matthew last summer and quickly knew I wanted to learn more about the work he was doing. In my eagerness to learn more about adaptive yoga, I went to Minnesota to study more closely with Matthew at his home studio.

Walking through the door, I knew my life was never going to be the same.

After this weekend, I would have a skill set that would enable me to share yoga much more clearly with persons living with disability, and with persons who did not.

I sat with physical therapists, occupational therapists, speech language pathologists, one medical student and a host of yoga teachers from all over North America. All of us were there to help expand yoga into another realm. All of us were willing to be uncomfortable, unveiled and unsure in the presence of strangers—not a small task for a group of pathological givers (and you know yoga teachers tend to be pathological givers).

Vulnerability is a form of strength. To be receptive requires discipline.

These are lines I’ve heard Matthew utter in some form or another. But what really struck me about this weekend were not only the teachings he shared, but what the volunteers were willing to share with a group of strangers. It’s the reason Matthew can’t take this training on the road.

You don’t really understand that logic until you experience it for yourself firsthand, but it’s what changed my perceptions of what it means to be strong, and what it means to share the practice.

I know what it’s like to be looked at strangely for your physical appearance. Being born with amelogenesis imperfecta, a very rare type of enamel disorder, has lent itself to years of personal heartache and many coping behaviors, such as being timid about smiling. However, unlike our volunteers for the weekend, I am very hesitant to open up and share myself or my condition…and I can hide mine.

Our volunteers, who live with a wide range of disabilities—quadriplegia, spina bifida, traumatic brain injury (TBI), spinal stenosis, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, etc.—were amazingly open with us. They were completely willing to share their stories, their experiences living with a disability and their bodies for us to learn from.

You have to imagine this—having five or six people in your face, moving your body for you and you may or may not have any means of protecting yourself, if necessary. When I felt helpless in a new dentist’s chair—being stared at by strangers, and no longer being referred to as Ms. Brown but as “the subject”—I emotionally shut down and cried.

That’s why I hold these open souls in the highest regard. They may have felt like I did at one point in their rehab process or possibly still do. But here, with us, in the yoga studio, they were willing to be completely open.

I asked Tiffany Carlson, a C6 quadriplegic, why she volunteered during these weekends. She said, “I love volunteering because it fills me with joy to be around people that want to learn something so important. I feel honored and humbled to be able to pass on my story and knowledge to others. And I hope the teachers leave feeling empowered and excited by all the possibilities now before them, and no longer see pity, but opportunities to help.”

For yoga teachers around the world, whichever population(s) you work or practice with, I hope you see opportunities to help and share your practice widely.


Dara Brown is a free-wheeling, yet often serious gal who began practicing yoga in the early years of college as a way to counter her gym workout crazed tendencies. Her practice has taught her to speak with more clarity, to listen with more than her ears and to have more patience with others (ok, still working on the last part). As a formerly licensed and certified Anusara yoga instructor, she’s shared her yoga practice with a wide audience in a variety of forums. In the end, she’s happy with her life as a Yoga instructor and public health educator who lives with a dominating, fuzzy cat and everyday is learning to negotiate the dating world. Hang with or message Dara on Facebook.


Editor: Jennifer Spesia

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