Yoga: How We Serve People With Disabilities and Physical Limitations

"The only assumption I operate with now is that suffering is something we all share. I have also come to trust that few of us really want to be identified with our limitations or the story of our pain, so we might go to great lengths to prove that we are something else."
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This is an interview with Karina Mirsky, who in 1997 became an apprentice of disabilities management massage therapist Rebecca Pearce, with whom she learned how to massage quadriplegics and paraplegics. Around that time she started studying yoga with Rod Stryker and began using ParaYoga tools like systematic relaxation, breathing, and imagery with these clients with solid results. In 2003 she survived lymphatic cancer and opened Sangha Yoga in Kalamazoo, Mich. A year later she started working with Ryan, a yoga student with cerebral palsy, who continues to teach her that the limits of the body are not the limits of the human being.

Rob: What originally motivated you to do this work and what continues to motivate you? How, if at all, has that motivation changed over time?

Alleviating suffering has always been, and continues to be, motivation for the work I do. The original motivation was, of course, my own suffering. I grew up with feelings of persecution, shame, and abandonment. As a young adult, I identified with others who felt discriminated against, misunderstood, or wounded. This identity drove me to want to fight injustice and to be of service, but it also yielded confusion and pain. I sought clarity, healing, and a true sense of happiness and belonging. I found those things in yoga. So it became my mission to share the teachings with anyone seeking self-awareness and freedom.

My own experience with cancer motivated me to want to serve others facing diagnosis and treatment.

Is there a standout moment from your work with people with limitations in physical ability?

There are many, but one comes to "heart" in this moment. I co-facilitate yoga and service retreats in Costa Rica each winter. Last year, Ryan (mentioned earlier, who has cerebral palsy) came. We took the group zip lining in the jungle. The terrain was very difficult for Ryan to manage, and there was a lot of climbing. He cautiously persevered and rode the lines tandem with our guides. There was an opportunity for Ryan to ride on a swing alone over a huge valley. He hesitated but finally chose to do it. In that moment, our decade of history together as teacher and student began to flash before my eyes. I was reminded of all of his tremendous efforts in his life, including his years of dedicated yoga practice. What I witnessed on his face in that moment awed me to tears. As I watched him soar fearlessly and joyfully through the air, he seemed free of any limitation. Ryan was embodying one of the ultimate goals of yoga, "moksha" true liberation.

What did you know about the population you are working with before you began teaching? What were some of the assumptions you had about this population, and how have those assumptions changed?

My years as a disabilities massage therapist made me aware of many of the struggles of this population. As a cancer survivor, I knew that recovering from surgery and managing drug side effects and fear can alter normal energy and activity levels.

At one time, I may have assumed that people with pain and mobility issues would "do less," so they might have less daily stress. As I observed my clients, I witnessed them push on with their daily lives in spite of physical limitations. Some are the most ambitious people I have ever known. Some are workaholics, addicts, or martyrs in their relationships. Most have endured physical or emotional trauma or both. All want to be loved.

The only assumption I operate with now is that suffering is something we all share. I have also come to trust that few of us really want to be identified with our limitations or the story of our pain, so we might go to great lengths to prove that we are something else.

What are two distinct ways that your teaching style differs from the way you might teach in a studio, and what are the reasons for these differences?

There is really no difference in my teaching style, because I aim to teach as a response to what students can successfully and safely do in any setting. However, the two most significant differences between teaching group asana classes to able bodies, and working one on one with those with disabilities or illness, are:

1.Some folks need to stay seated in a chair or wheelchair for the entire length of the session. So, in order to attain a certain physiological function, the form of a yoga pose is often nontraditional.

2.When physical mobility or energy levels are limited, there may be less time spent focusing on asana and more time focusing on breathing, imagery, relaxation practices, as well as discussing worldview and how to create the inner and outer conditions needed for healing or peace.

What has been the greatest challenge in your teaching experience, and what tools have you developed for addressing that challenge?

Paradoxically, my greatest challenge as a teacher is also my greatest tool. The challenge is that I don't always know how to best help someone. This is also the greatest tool, because "not knowing" humbles me to an opportunity to learn. In these moments I try to stay anchored in curiosity, compassion, and a genuine commitment to helping, which invites open communication and creates an opportunity for shared learning.

What advice would you give to anyone who is going to teach the population you work with?

I'm reminded of the Buddhist term "everything nothingness." I would suggest bringing the fullest compassion and willingness to help someone with a physical limitation, without assuming that you know exactly how to do that. Some other thoughts are:

•Remember that people don't want to be identified with their limitations. We all want to be known for who we are and what we are capable of; seek to discover these things. Take the time to ask what they hope yoga can do for them.

•Stay in the inquiry about how to make something truly accessible. Think out of the box, don't be attached to processes, forms, or agendas. Take it slowly; less is often more.

•Have advanced breathing and systematic relaxation training. (Himalayan Institute, ParaYoga, iRest, and Viniyoga are a few of the experts.)

What are some of your ideas about or hopes for the future of "service yoga" in America in the next decade?

One hope is that more yoga studios and teachers will want to reach a wider audience by expanding their definition of yoga practice beyond asana (yogic postures). The yoga tradition is rich with ways to alleviate suffering. The philosophy, contemplative practices, breathing, relaxation, and meditation techniques can be accessible even to those who cannot perform the physical exercises. Sadly, people with physical limitations often think that yoga "isn't for them," so they often won't even consider coming to a yoga studio. I'm hopeful that more yoga teachers will seek out opportunities in their local communities to serve those who feel excluded and create ways to reach them. We may not all be able to do a downward facing dog, but we all deserve the peace of mind that comes from resting awareness in the True Self, which is the ultimate promise of yoga practice.

How has this work changed your definition of service? Your definition of yoga? Your practice?

It hasn't. It just makes me want to convey those definitions to a larger audience. So I'm deeply grateful for this opportunity to share here.

What other organizations do you admire?

I'd like to acknowledge three of the organizations I work with directly. I'm grateful to my teacher Rod Stryker, founder of ParaYoga, for instilling in me a holistic and inclusive view of yoga practice. The Himalayan Institute is my spiritual home, where I continue to learn the value of selfless service. CREER Service Projects is a branch of True Nature Education; I run outreach retreats with them in Costa Rica.

Editor: Alice Trembour

Are you a yoga instructor giving back to underserved or un-served populations? Email if you're interested in being interviewed for this series. Thank you for all you do in the name of service!

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