Updated: Sep 26, 2022
More studies are seeing Yoga applications for managing disabilities such as multiple sclerosis and cerebral palsy by incorporating therapies such as wheelchair yoga, physical therapy and more.
How Can Yoga Serve People With Disabilities?
Yoga has long been embraced as a practice that can improve spiritual, physical, emotional, cognitive, and psychological wellness alike. Yoga is known to boost the immune system, improve mental health, boost resilience levels after trauma, and even decrease the risk of heart disease.
It stands to reason, then, that people with cognitive, physical, and/or psychiatric disabilities could particularly benefit from yoga. But many yoga practitioners and teachers don’t have direct experience with adaptive yoga and don’t teach their classes with disabled students in mind.
These are some of the ways in which yoga can be particularly beneficial for people with disabilities, according to peer-reviewed research and experts in the field.
Yoga for Practitioners with Intellectual Disabilities
There are many ways that yoga can improve the lives of cognitively disabled individuals.
People with intellectual, or cognitive, disabilities are at higher risk for obesity than nondisabled individuals. In additional, intellectually disabled people are more likely to be less physically active than their nondisabled peers. A recent study in the International Journal of Yoga concluded that young adults with intellectual disabilities exerted themselves more during structured yoga exercise sessions than during unstructured “free exercise” sessions at school. They also reported that they enjoyed each yoga class more than the previous one, possibly indicating that they were achieving a higher level of fitness as they gradually became more accustomed to physical activity.
Why is yoga so beneficial for individuals with intellectual disabilities? For one thing, yoga is a structured practice in many ways, and is ideally led with compassion by an expert instructor. This classroom dynamic is often more helpful for intellectually disabled individuals than other learning environments.
Additionally, people with intellectual disabilities are likelier than their nondisabled peers to experience comorbid mental health symptoms. They are also sometimes likely to develop maladaptive behaviors, whether due in part to their disabilities or due to mistreatment from others because of disability-related discrimination and bullying. Mindfulness-based practices like yoga are beneficial in easing many of these symptoms and restoring practitioners’ confidence in themselves.
Yoga for People with Physical Disabilities
Making yoga more accessible to people with physical disabilities is an important step for the yoga community, not least because disabled practitioners stand to benefit greatly from yoga in a variety of ways.
One study in AYU: An International Quarterly Journal of Research in Ayurveda indicated that, for children with cerebral palsy, yoga could improve motor functions over time. Examples included both fine motor skills, such as using the thumb and index finger and throwing balls in every direction, and gross motor skills, like standing, walking, and hand-clapping.
In her work in teaching adaptive yoga for people with disabilities, Britney Byfield (a Ketanga Fitness Retreats Coach and yoga instructor in New York), found similar results in motor function and body awareness. Of the improvements she witnessed, she says that yoga can help with “body awareness”: “knowing where your body parts are in space without looking at them directly,” as well as breath and focus. Stability and balance, too, can be steadily improved with yoga, says Byfield: “When poses and positions are challenging, it brings total awareness to that moment. This is extremely beneficial for people who have a hard time quieting the mind” due to pain or other symptoms.
People with physical disabilities, like all yoga practitioners, can also find greater body acceptance through yoga. Yoga, when practiced correctly and led ethically, promotes body positivity and diversity.
As Beth Shaw, founder of YogaFit, explains: “Yoga is a gentle teacher of self-acceptance. We bring our insecurities to the mat and realize through practice that our ‘imperfections’ are in fact a fundamental, and beautiful, part of our journey. As such, it's also the ultimate bridge between a disconnected body and mind, a significant contributor to the underlying depression and anxiety that can accompany disabilities. Furthermore, and depending on the disability, yoga is a healing science that is proven to sooth inflammation of the brain and body.”
Ann Swanson, M.S. in yoga therapy and the author of Science of Yoga, teaches accessible yoga to people with a wide variety of disabilities. She agrees that yoga is, first and foremost, about meeting every body where it already is: “Yoga recognizes a person as whole just as they are--not in need of "fixing." Yoga poses (asana) and practices (meditation, breathwork, etc.) can be adapted for everybody. In essence, if you can breathe, you can do yoga.”
Swanson adds that yoga can be adapted to be accessible to virtually anyone with a few changes. “Yoga can be done completely in a chair, wheelchair, bed, or hospital bed,” she says. “You can use yoga props (like blocks, straps, or bolsters) or items around the house (like pillows, blankets, or the couch cushions).”
Yoga for Mental Health
Yoga can improve the mental health of almost any practitioner, but it can be especially important for people with psychiatric disabilities, such as depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or schizophrenia.
Yoga is particularly helpful in boosting mood, decreasing symptoms of anxiety, and helping people with high degrees of stress and emotional arousal to relax more regularly. Overall mindfulness, says Dr. Ann Saffi Biasetti (PhD, LCSWR, C-IAYT), a certified psychotherapist, yoga teacher, and yoga therapist, can be significantly improved through yoga: “Slower-paced, more mindful types of yoga, such as Hatha yoga, slow-paced vinyasa, and restorative yoga, all call for the participant to be engaged with sensory or body-based awareness and in-the-moment concentration, which helps to increase mindfulness both on and off the mat. This increase in mindful awareness is a necessary step toward improving mood and outlook in life.”
Research indicates that people with schizophrenia who practiced yoga, including postures, breathing exercises, and relaxation techniques, experienced lowered levels of depression and paranoia after eight weeks, among other psychological benefits.
Findings like these are especially promising, as they indicate that yoga can make a significant difference in an individual’s mental health in a relatively short amount of time. Another study found similar results with respect to yoga for people with disabilities like depression, schizophrenia, sleep disorders, and ADHD.
Similarly, a study of the effects of yoga on alcohol-dependent patients in an inpatient facility found that a regular yoga practice lowered levels of stress hormone levels like cortisol in participants, which could have profound implications for all yoga practitioners with psychiatric disabilities.
In addition, disabled people are overrepresented in marginalized populations. Women, incarcerated people, socioeconomically disadvantaged people, people of color, and LGBTQ+ individuals are all statistically likelier to be disabled. Individuals in these populations are also likelier than others to experience a high level of stress, which often contributes to corresponding negative mental health symptoms.
Yoga presents one possible intervention in environments where disabled people are experiencing high levels of stress due to poverty, trauma, and discrimination. Mentally ill incarcerated women who practiced Iyengar yoga regularly for 12 weeks, for example, experienced significantly lowered levels of depression and marginally lowered levels of anxiety at the end of the yoga program.
Yoga as a Trauma Intervention
PTSD is a serious disability that affects many survivors of trauma. People who are disabled in other ways, such as physically, are also statistically likelier to have experienced trauma in comparison to nondisabled individuals. Yoga presents one possible intervention for people who have experienced trauma or who have been diagnosed with PTSD. Yoga therapy is already used in many programs aimed at easing the aftermath of trauma, particularly for war veterans and sexual assault survivors.
One study that tracked the results of yoga in women with PTSD found that participants experienced less hyperarousal and fewer symptoms of anxiety, both significant symptoms of PTSD and other trauma-based disabilities.
One of the benefits of yoga for healing from trauma-based mental health symptoms in particular, says Dr. Biasetti, is the anxiety reduction the practice can promote by encouraging practitioners to regulate their breath. She explains, “The methods used, such as slow, mindful movements in the body (asanas) along with breath regulation (pranayama), and concentration practice (meditation), have shown significant shifts in the reduction of anxiety levels and a brighter, more hopeful outlook on life.”
Yoga can also serve as an intervention for neurologically or physically disabled people who have experienced trauma or injury to the mind and/or body. Chuck Rockey, a Princeton-trained software engineer who later became a certified yoga teacher after a stroke, explains how yoga aided in his own rehabilitation after the event: “Practicing yoga can be very beneficial to a stroke survivor. It can help rewire the brain and physical movement back into positive patterns. Many times, stroke survivors must relearn basic bodily actions; yoga can aid in this rehabilitation process both physically and mentally. I find working on balance, strength, graceful transitions and proprioception to be particularly therapeutic.”
Building Confidence and Independence with Yoga for People with Disabilities
The practice of yoga is built around the individual. Practitioners of yoga are meant to come to the mat with an open mind and to engage fully in the moment without indulging in judgment of themselves or others. Because of this atmosphere, many people have found greater confidence in their bodies (especially about their perceived flaws) and in themselves through yoga, as they seek only to commit to the practice and not to compete with anyone around them.
Through breathing and balance exercises and other techniques, many people also experience a greater sense of self-mastery and independence through yoga. In particular, being able to self-regulate more effectively in terms of emotion, stress, and behavior is often a key benefit of practicing yoga, whether practitioners are disabled or nondisabled.
Many disabled individuals experience bullying or are underestimated by their peers, mentors, or even family members and teachers. That’s why yoga, for people with disabilities, can be so beneficial, as it can slowly restore confidence and a sense of autonomy over time.
One 2013 study in the Journal of Occupational Therapy, Schools, and Early Intervention found that elementary school children with disabilities who participated in yoga during school hours experienced increases in independence, attention, and emotional and behavioral self-regulation. Just 20 minutes of yoga a day helped the students prepare their minds and bodies for the classroom setting and gave them greater confidence in their ability to master their own environment.
A similar study from the American Journal of Occupational Therapy found that yoga was an effective intervention for autistic elementary-aged students, whose levels of emotional arousal were significantly reduced by daily yoga.
Another study, from Clinical Neurology and Neurosurgery, had similar results in terms of yoga’s ability to boost selective attention performance, this time among yoga practitioners with multiple sclerosis. The ability to concentrate effectively is an important source of confidence and self-esteem, as it improves learning, communication skills, and quality of social interaction. Through breath and flow, yoga practitioners focus on the moment at hand, which can improve many symptoms that may be associated with a given disability and could also improve confidence levels over time.
Meredith LeJeune, certified yoga instructor, explains that the lack of judgment in yoga is part of what makes it so accessible. “The yoga journey is individual to each student, so there are no feelings of having to be at someone else’s level,” she shares. “You are on your own unique path.”