The Basics of Adaptive Yoga

Adaptive yoga has grown exponentially since the 1990s, with rehab facilities across the country now offering it to their patients. It has proven therapeutic benefits and there is anecdotal evidence to back it up. People of all levels of paralysis can benefit from it, and one of the best parts - you don’t have to get out of your wheelchair. 

If you want to get out of your wheelchair, however, that is popular in adaptive yoga too. Many classes will have trained volunteers on hand to help transfer students onto the floor and be there by their side to help them get into the various poses. Sometimes people will be paired with two volunteers. If you need assistance and want to get on the mat but cannot bring someone with to help, make sure to inquire if there are trained volunteers present.

Either way, do not let your level of paralysis sway you. One of the greatest things about adaptive yoga is that it can be catered to various mobility restrictions since it is a very liberal form of yoga. Whereas able-bodied yoga tends to be heavily centered on the pose, adaptive yoga focuses on improving flexibility, balance, strength and breathing through simple poses you can do sitting in a wheelchair or on a mat.

Yoga also can improve your mind-body connection. For many people living with paralysis, it is very difficult living with the disconnection from their bodies. Yoga can help you feel reconnected to your body even when you have a complete injury. It also can help relieve anxiety, as it has proven therapeutic benefits to helping people relax. 

Also, when going to an adaptive yoga class or trying it at home, know it is also ok to have help getting into a pose and holding it. This is referred to as passive yoga and is still very beneficial. An adaptive yoga class will also employ, other than trained volunteers, equipment such as Thera-Bands, yoga blocks, straps, and wooden dowels. All of these things help people with paralysis feel more grounded and aligned, which we will explain in more detail below. 

All Energy Flows Through the Spine

Yoga harnesses the energy flowing through the body and helps redirect it positively to benefit your health. After a spinal cord injury, this is especially important. One of the principles of yoga is that all energy flows upwards through the spine, which is why how we sit for example is so important. The right position throughout the day can make or break the way you feel at night. By doing yoga, you can stretch your back muscles and help your back get into alignment, which helps the energy flow better through your spine.

Get Aligned

Alignment is by far when of the most important aspects of adaptive yoga. Before you do any pose, you must practice getting aligned in your wheelchair or on the mat. This can be difficult when you have scoliosis or paralyzed torso muscles. To feel aligned, get a strong connection with your feet on your footplate or the ground. And you must sit as straight as possible, with your shoulders back. Try to think of your shoulders as angel wings that you are resting behind you. You'll feel your chin tucked in. Next, rest your hands on your lap, palms upward, close your eyes and pay attention to how your body feels.

Be Aware of Your Breathing

Being aware of your breath is another important component of adaptive yoga. After you have found your alignment, hold your hands on your stomach and breathe inward and outward, gently pressing on your belly as you breathe. You can also do the same by holding onto your rib cage as you breathe. Also, make sure to breathe in and out of the nose as you breathe.

Spinal Twists

An easy pose you can do from your wheelchair is a spinal twist. Many people find it beneficial for lower back pain. To do a spinal twist, first grab onto the push handle of your wheelchair with your left arm and with your right arm reach across your lap and grab the left corner of your seat. Next, begin to twist your back to the left. You will feel your spine twisting, which can relieve the build-up tension from sitting too much. You can do the same on the other side as well.

Cat Roll

Another pose you can easily do in a wheelchair is a cat roll. This pose curls the spine forward, then arches the spine back, forward and backward again, which helps create a fluidity in a movement that not only feels good that helps you feel more aligned. Breathe inward and outward with each cat tuck and cat lift. Also, hold onto a table or hold onto your knees as you do the pose.


Also known as the "corpse pose," each yoga session should end with a savasana pose to help you feel ready to rejoin the world. Try to lie flat on your back if possible, then hold your hands by your sides and close your eyes. Feel your body as it’s grounded, connected with the world as you lie on your back. 

If you're interested in trying adaptive yoga, remember not to push your limits. Take your time when stretching and getting into poses so you do not break anything. It is never worth injuring yourself for a pose. And lastly, adaptive yoga has been proven to have the ability to de-stress and relax people with SCI in a recent study, which you can read here: 

Brain Injury Association of Florida, Inc.

Topics: Spinal Cord Injury, Yoga Poses, Yoga Benefits, Yoga Positions, Adaptive Yoga

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