For someone with a spinal cord injury (SCI), it can feel like being physically active is an ability that is now beyond your reach. However, while this concern is understandable, it is not necessarily wholly justified — there are plenty of ways that spinal cord injury survivors can stay physically active. Some people with spinal cord injuries participate in inclusive sports and dancing while others hit the gym or engage in various outdoor exercises.
Yoga also is an area of physical activity for people with spinal cord injuries that gained a following around the world in recent years.
Benefits of Yoga for Spinal Cord Injury Survivors
Yoga is one way that SCI survivors around the world are staying physically active. Many SCI survivors practice yoga in addition to engaging in physical and occupational therapy because they think they provide enhanced or different benefits.
Some of the physical and psychological benefits of engaging in yoga for spinal cord injury survivors include:
- Improved posture;
- Increased muscle strength;
- Improved balance;
- Greater muscle elasticity and flexibility;
- Improved digestion, respiration, and lung capacity;
- Enhanced focus and mental clarity;
- Decreased pressure sores (pressure ulcers) and other skin conditions;
- Improve mood and outlook; and
- More restful sleep.
Yoga for spinal cord injury survivors can have different meanings and purposes. For some, it’s about trying to maintain their level of physical fitness, muscle movement, and overall health. They want to stay healthy and reduce the occurrence of secondary conditions, such as circulation and cardiovascular issues, osteoporosis, and diabetes. For others, it’s about exploring the mind-body relationship.
In a video series on the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation website, SpinalCord.com contributor Tiffiny Carlson says that engaging in yoga has helped her enjoy better posture and greater confidence — that she can sit up straighter, keep her chin up and her shoulders back, and feel more confident and attractive. Carlson, a quadriplegic who sustained a C5-C6 cervical spinal cord injury in a diving accident when she was a teenager, says:
“I think the greatest thing about the adaptive yoga that I’m doing is knowing that it’s not a lost cause. I can still become more feminine — there were things that I just thought were off-limits to me... Moving in my body in a beautiful way.”
Iyengar Yoga, created by B. K. S. Iyengar, is a form of yoga that's based on Ashtanga yoga, or what is known as “the eight-limbed path towards spiritual fulfillment.” People call Iyengar Yoga by its name to help distinguish it from yoga practices taught by others.
According to the Iyengar Yoga National Association of the United States, the eight limbs of Ashtanga yoga are:
- Yama, which represents “moral conduct”
- Niyama, which represents “personal disciplines”
- Asana, which represents “postures”
- Pranayama, which represents “control of the breath”
- Pratyahara, which represents “withdrawal of the senses”
- Dharana, which represents “concentration”
- Dyana, which represents “meditation”
- Samadhi, which represents “total absorption”
As the eight limbs suggest, this type of yoga focuses on a combination of relaxation, meditation, breathing control, and posture exercises, among others.
According to an article in the Nursing 2006 Peer-Reviewed Journal of Clinical Excellence, Iyengar Yoga can be incorporated easily into an exercise program for spinal cord injury rehabilitation.
According to the article’s author, Dalia Zwick:
“As individuals with SCI are encouraged to ‘look inside’ and concentrate on their breathing during the yoga practice, they become aware of a deep and positive mind-body experience. The therapeutic focus here is an outcome of improved functional activity. For many reasons, I've found the Iyengar style of yoga to be more adaptable to individuals with special needs than other yoga styles.”
It is important to note that yoga may not be a good fit for everyone with a spinal cord injury. It’s essential for you to contact your doctor before engaging in this type of physical activity.
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