Many people are intimidated to try yoga asana, the physical practice of yoga, because they worry that they won’t be flexible enough or strong enough.
Some assume you need all the right gear, down to the pants and yoga mat. Others have neurological deficits or physical limitations that they think will prevent them from doing a physical activity like yoga.
But all you need to do yoga is a body — in any form.
In fact, Matthew Sanford, founder of Mind Body Solutions, told Healthline that no physical or neurological limitation has ever stopped him from teaching yoga to someone. He has taught yoga to individuals without limitations, those in wheelchairs, and even people in comas.
Sanford began teaching adaptive yoga in 1997. At the time, he was one of the first yoga teachers living with a spinal cord injury and complete paralysis. His classes and other adaptive yoga classes around the world prove that yoga really is for every body.
Adaptive yoga is a style of yoga that considers all bodies and abilities. It’s accessible to everyone, and multiple variations are taught, allowing the poses to be adapted to specific needs and abilities. Accessible yoga or adapted yoga are other common names for this practice.
Adaptive yoga classes tend to be quite individualized and are often taught in smaller group settings. They also move more slowly than most traditional classes, but don’t let the pacing fool you! You will still work up a sweat.
JoAnn Lyons, who has been teaching this style of yoga for 25 years, feels that all classes should really be taught as adaptive, as each of us should adapt the poses to fit our individual needs.
The senior teacher explains, “All yoga practices are personal, and every body is different.” However, she finds the title to be a helpful distinction for people of all abilities to know there’s a class style that suits them.
Based in the Bay Area, Lyons observes that many people may think that they can’t do yoga due to abilities, their age, or bodily changes. But adaptive yoga is focused on tailoring the poses to work for every body.
Adaptive yoga is a style of yoga that’s accessible for every body. Multiple variations are generally offered, allowing the poses to be adapted to people’s unique needs.
Adaptive yoga is an umbrella term that can include yoga for specific conditions like multiple sclerosis, yoga for people with physical disabilities, or even yoga for older adults.
If you have a specific injury, condition, or ability level that requires some degree of modification in a traditional yoga class, you might want to give adaptive yoga a try.
In addition to general adaptive yoga classes for all bodies and abilities, many teachers like Sanford offer specialized classes, such as “Yoga for Ambulatory Individuals,” which are classes for people who can walk but live with impaired mobility or balance issues.
There are also class offerings that are exclusively for people who have partial or total paralysis or other disabilities that may affect their ability to walk or stand, such as spina bifida or cerebral palsy.
Lyons’ classes are described as being for people with disabilities and chronic conditions. She began teaching adaptive yoga in 1996 at the Cerebral Palsy Center, now known as Ability Now Bay Area, and still teaches there today.
In a number of the in-person adaptive yoga settings, teachers may have multiple assistants who offer physical assistance, including using their own bodies as teaching tools to help people feel the alignment of a pose.
Adaptive yoga truly is for all bodies and abilities.
Besides the overarching benefits of yoga that everyone reaps when practicing, there are a few key benefits that are especially relevant to those with injuries, chronic conditions, physical disabilities, or age-related challenges.
- Can improve quality of life. A 2017 study among a broad range of individuals and abilities found significant improvements in their quality of life, as measured by their mental and social well-being (
- May be a safe and effective treatment option for those with Parkinson’s disease. One study found that in addition to improved physical mobility among patients with Parkinson’s disease, adaptive yoga led to a reduction in depressive and anxiety symptoms (
- Can increase self-compassion. Many disabilities present as physical impairments, but their mental effects can weigh the heaviest. One small, 6-week study found that yoga may improve the psychological effects of spinal cord injuries, including self-compassion (
- May improve balance. One study found that adapted yoga classes may improve balance ability among those living with brain injuries (4).
- Can improve daily function. One study found that participating in adapted yoga improved walking speed and balance among people with brain injuries (5).
- Can bolster a sense of community and support. Melissa Crisp-Cooper and Owen Cooper, both of whom have cerebral palsy (CP), have been taking adaptive yoga classes for well over a decade. They love how the bilateral stretching offered in yoga helps loosen their muscles, which tend to be tight and spastic due to CP. While they appreciated the option to do yoga at home during the height of the pandemic, they’re glad that in-person classes have resumed, as they missed the camaraderie.
In addition to offering the same benefits as traditional yoga, adaptive yoga has been shown to benefit overall well-being, daily function, balance, and more.
A number of adaptive yoga and accessible yoga classes use chairs, as sitting can be an accessible way to approach various postures. They’re particularly helpful for people who have difficulty transferring from a chair or wheelchair to the floor.
Many adaptive yoga classes involve sitting on the floor or even lying down. But if you feel you may need a chair, look for the word “chair” in the title or description.
As every pose and class is personalized, Lyons recommends checking with the teacher to see what props you may need. Many studios offer any necessary props, but with more adaptive yoga classes happening virtually, it’s helpful to have a few key items for your at-home yoga space.
These items might include two blocks, a bolster or variously sized pillows, blankets or towels that can be rolled up or folded, and a yoga strap. When looking for an appropriate chair to practice yoga in, you’ll want a sturdy chair with a low back and no arms.
But in the end, remember that all you ever need to do yoga is your body.
Many poses are modified using a variety of props. It helps to have two blocks, one bolster, one strap, and one chair, but you only really need your body.
Adaptive yoga is generally offered both online and in live settings.
However, because many students who practice adaptive yoga are immunocompromised, many in-person offerings have paused during the COVID-19 pandemic. The good news? Virtual classes can be enjoyed anywhere you have a Wi-Fi connection.
Find an adaptive yoga class that’s right for you
Mind Body Solutions (MBS). Matthew Sanford founded this nonprofit organization in 2002. Though it had in-person offerings in the Twin Cities area of Minneapolis, MBS went entirely online at the start of COVID-19. All classes are free. Students can find teachers and classes in their area here.
Adaptive Yoga Live. Created by Miranda McCarthy in April 2020 as a response to the forced isolation many faced due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Adaptive Yoga Live offers free classes led by a variety of well-trained instructors multiple times a week.
Accessible Yoga Classes with Jivana Heyman. Rev. Jivana Heyman, who founded and directs the Accessible Yoga Association, offers a variety of on-demand courses through a variety of sources. Some courses are free via YouTube, while others are paid courses. Heyman also wrote a book titled Accessible Yoga: Poses and Practices for Every Body, which can support building a home practice.
Yoga for All. With more than 50 years of combined training, adaptive yoga teachers Dianne Bondy and Amber Karnes (who founded Body Positive Yoga), created the Yoga for All online training to train teachers worldwide. Check out the Yoga for All teacher’s directory to find a teacher and/or in-person class near you. Both Bondy and Karnes also have online offerings, which are accessible via their respective websites.
Yoga Moves MS. This nonprofit offers classes for those with multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, and other neuromuscular conditions. Classes are donation-supported. Please note that while Yoga Moves MS used to offer a variety of in-person classes across the state of Michigan, offerings are entirely virtual right now due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Piedmont Yoga Community. With grants provided by the Yoga Dana Foundation, the Bay Area-based Piedmont Yoga Community offers online and in-person classes in Oakland, CA. Most classes are free or on a sliding scale. Offerings include Yoga for Disability and Yoga for Cancer. JoAnn Lyons offers in-person and online classes via the organization.
Adaptive yoga classes are available both in person and online. Make sure to speak directly with the teacher of the class to ensure it’s the right class for you.
New students should arrive at or sign onto classes early to discuss their needs and concerns with the teacher. Lyons emphasizes the importance of being honest about your disabilities and health issues, as each disability can have a myriad of expressions.
She explains, “Just saying that a person has multiple sclerosis or CP doesn’t give the teacher a clear enough picture of what’s actually happening in that person’s body. It is helpful for the teacher to know more.”
On top of entrusting the teacher, Owen Cooper encourages new students to “trust in their own abilities and limits” and know “that those will change every day.”
Lyons reassures new students that they may need to try several classes before finding the right one and reminds them to be patient with the process. Sanford emphasizes seeking a connection with the teacher when looking for the right class.
Adaptive yoga students Crisp-Cooper and Cooper remind newer students that they aren’t ever committed to a particular teacher or class. If they try one and it doesn’t feel like a fit, simply try another one.
Perhaps most importantly, the couple — whose wedding was officiated by their adaptive yoga teacher — want all new students to remember to simply have fun!
Make sure to speak with your teacher about your specific needs prior to class, as everyone’s necessities vary. Don’t forget to have fun!
There are many benefits to be gained by practicing yoga — regardless of whether you have physical or neurological limitations. And now, with so many yoga studios turning to virtual classes, adaptive yoga classes are extremely accessible.
Adaptive yoga proves that yoga is truly for every body. With the right teacher, the right support, and the right community, you may find that adaptive yoga makes you feel better than ever.