BOEC in the News

Yoga and Disability

Posted January 23, 2012 by Bruce

The benefits of yoga and massage therapy are far-reaching.  Yoga helps us connect our mind to what is happening in our body, through focusing on and moving with the breath.  Massage therapy also promotes awareness of our body; it provides us with an opportunity to relax and release tension we may be holding.  I have been fortunate to have volunteered with the BOEC, teaching adaptive yoga and giving massage therapy to clients who are living with a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), Multiple Sclerosis (MS), or Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS).  There are several factors to consider as a yoga instructor and massage therapist when working with individuals from these groups.  Their motor functions and range of motion will be limited; there may be reduced sensation, and spasticity or rigidness in the body; there may be learning and cognitive difficulties, or emotional volatility.  In my experience so far, the clients who are staying at the Griffin Lodge carry a positive outlook and have been optimistic about their yoga or massage sessions. 

The adaptive yoga I teach has been done in a group setting, with clients and counselors joining in together.  The counselors have been invaluable as they are able to assist clients in performing a stretch.  The group environment encourages social interaction among the clients and a feeling of camaraderie.  Many of them are testing their limits in the yoga class and it is helpful to have the sense of togetherness.  Some clients, who are experiencing rigidity and spasticity, utilize the counselors to fully move them into a posture when they cannot do it on their own.  Others, who have limited range of motion and mobility, also benefit from the counselors’ gentle support in moving deeper into a pose. 

The yoga is adaptive in that the class is done while sitting in a chair or wheelchair, as is often the case.  We start with the pranayama portion, which means “breath work,” and emphasize deep breathing techniques.  Starting in a relaxing, mindful way sets the pace for a peaceful class rather than a vigorous one that may cause pain and strain.  It is important to have bodily awareness so that we perform within our limits, while still receiving the rejuvenating benefits of yoga.  We then move into a series of asanas, or “poses,” which is the stretching portion of class.  We stretch the neck, the shoulders, the arms, forearms, wrists and hands in different ways.  For many, this is doable albeit with some limited range of motion:  straps are used to help clients get deeper into a pose.  Next we stretch the muscles of the back, moving into forward bends, chest opening exercises, and spinal twists to promote movement and lubrication of the vertebrae.  We stretch the legs as much as possible, doing leg lifts, hamstring stretches, and ankle rotations.  If it is not possible for the clients to move their lower body on their own, we simply massage the leg, knee, and calf area.  This self-massage improves blood circulation and is important in preventing complications such as decubitous ulcers.  We end the class with a final relaxation, which allows the clients to rest after their exercise and gives their bodies a chance to integrate the stretching.  Clients often feel calmer after a yoga class. 

At the Griffith Lodge, I have given massage therapy to clients who are living with a TBI, MS, or ALS and to their partners, who are also affected by the circumstances.  Giving massage therapy has been a joyful experience.  These practices are restorative for the body and healing for the psyche and allow us ways to find pleasure in our selves, improving quality of life.

Massage therapy is performed for patients and their spouses, which is a healthy way for all to relieve the stress associated with living with a chronic illness.  Massage therapy can be performed in a wheel chair if necessary, or clients can be helped onto a table using a body board.  For clients with ALS, the heat produced by the mechanical nature of massage is therapeutic for controlling muscle spasms.  For clients who have had a TBI, massage helps to maintain healthy muscle and connective tissue, as it brings blood supply and oxygen to the tissue and carries away metabolic waste, and it can be an integral part of rehabilitation.  Only light effleurage or nerve stroking, which are gentle, low-pressure techniques, are done to areas where there is limited sensation.  For clients with MS, massage is wonderful as a stress-management technique that can promote wellness and prolong remissions, as stress has been shown to exacerbate symptoms among some patients.  Massage is indicated during subacute stages to maintain the health and mobility of tissues.  Light massage, energy work, and nerve stroking are more appropriate during acute stages. 

Erica Ragusa
Certified massage therapist, yoga instructor, and Ayurvedic specialist
Website: Breckenridge Massage Therapy

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  1. Great Post! This is why the BOEC is such an incredible organization- because of people like you who bring healing and restorative practices to people of all ability levels. Anybody can ski, and anybody can experience the deep benefits of a yoga practice.

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