Michelle Brusseau was only 16 years old when a blood vessel tore in her brain, causing the stroke that impaired her speech and ability to walk. Among other therapies, four years ago, Brusseau, now 30, began yoga therapy at Elevate Yoga Center in Orlando with Ella Duke, a yoga therapist who specializes in instructing individuals with ADHD, autism, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, muscular dystrophy, stroke and other disabilities.
“I needed a form of exercise that revolved around stretching,” Brusseau explains. “Yoga was made for stroke survivors! I find myself to be a lot more limber, [plus] it helps with my mental well being and it increases my stamina.” Brusseau is not alone; many individuals with disabilities are significantly benefiting from yoga therapy.
Thanks to personal encounters with a diverse yoga student population, including individuals with chronic conditions, Dr. Amanda McCune, a yoga instructor and physical therapist, proclaims: “I became an advocate for adaptive fitness and recreation, which led me to explore yoga-related [medical] research.” She discovered that science supports yoga therapy. “I found studies suggesting that yoga and mindfulness practices — i.e. guided relaxation, breathing activities, etc. — are effective in improving balance, range of motion and strength, while also reducing anxiety, depression and stress and/or stress-related conditions like blood pressure.” Yoga therapy, as defined by the International Association of Yoga Therapy, is the process of empowering individuals to progress toward improved health and well-being through the application of the teachings and practices of yoga.
Brusseau is a member of the Bcenter, a nonprofit organization for stroke survivors and their families. During a recent Bcenter support group meeting, she empowered fellow survivors with a yoga demonstration and informative chat alongside Duke.
“Yoga helps stroke survivors, among many benefits, with (1) balance and (2) weak or tense muscles. We can work on balance postures and on releasing muscles with a goal, for example, to build back confidence if a fear of failing is there [because of weakened muscles],” states Duke, noting that goals are always personalized. “Warrior 2 is my favorite because it stretches me and it’s the most advanced pose I can do,” Brusseau says, though she modifies many stances to match her body’s needs.
Yoga props ─ such as a block, bolster, blanket, chair (especially for wheelchair users) or aerial hammock ─ offer added support to safely achieve poses while maintaining healthy alignment. “Props can help people relax and feel more confident to explore yoga,” says Dr. McCune; Duke agrees: “When we come into a resting posture using a prop, we are not only working on flexibility – for example, butterfly pose with your feet together and knees separated to release the hips– but these restorative postures kick in a relaxation response to balance the nervous system, lift the immune system, enhance digestion and set the body up for deep healing.” Healing that, according to Duke, impacts the mind, body and soul. “Yoga provides physical benefits with movement; social aspect through the community of a group class or one-on-one with a yoga therapist; and, in some cases if the student wants to take it there, a spiritual aspect to find inner strength and inner peace. That can be very powerful and grounding.”
Yoga therapy is flexible – pun intended – to match individual needs and goals! “Yoga doesn’t see your disability as an obstacle but rather an opportunity. Yoga is not [solely] for the strong or flexible; it is for the willing. So, as long as you are willing, there is a teacher willing to help you find your own practice.”
Note: Before beginning any exercise, including adaptive fitness, talk to your healthcare provider.