A Disabled Yogi’s Journey

“Disability is not a brave struggle or ‘courage in the face of adversity.’

Disability is an art. It’s an ingenious way to live.”

Neil Marcus, author, actor, and playwright active in the development of disability culture

Today, July 26th, marks the 30th Anniversary of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), a civil rights law signed by President Bush Sr, which exists to promote and provide protections against discrimination of people with disabilities. As an individual with a physical disability, I admit that I have never truly paused to reflect on the ADA’s historical significance and the magnitude of what it means to fight for societal inclusion and participation until I had to learn how to do it for myself. The curiosity and desire to deepen the understanding of my own identity as an individual with a disability stemmed from my yogic practice. The practice provided me a space that helped illuminate the way I recognize how the ADA has changed my life.

I grew up with an immense amount of support from many of those who surrounded me as a child, but I never really gave much thought to my disability because I didn’t see my daily day to day life as being anything different from anybody else’s. I filled my time up just as my able-bodied peers were doing. I went to school, played with my friends, participated in sports, and spent time with my family. However, I quickly realized that once I stepped into the real world – a world beyond the safety of my family, close friends, and school – I would not always be met with the same love and support I was once surrounded by. I entered a post-sheltered world not realizing that I could no longer rely on my rose-colored glasses and, while well-intentioned, naïve assumptions. A fair-share of mistakes have been made as I have matured day-by-day and year-by-year, but I would like to take the opportunity to reflect and share what today means to me and how my path of growth has brought me to where I am today.

For me yoga was a huge part of that growth and becoming the person I am presently. My introduction to yoga and the journey to a more content mind, body, and soul began as a young and impressionable high school student. I was slowly recovering physically and emotionally from the aftermath of a two-year surgical process and was no longer able to physically move as I once had been able to. The activity levels, strength, and discipline I once grew and sustained as a para-swimmer, slowly atrophied. In search for a different medium to transition from what my past two years of sedentary life-style looked like into a more fluid and mobile one, a family-friend suggested I try yoga. With no references to draw from and knowing absolutely zero people who practiced, I made the very incorrect assumption that yoga was only about the intricate twists, outrageous contortions, and effortless looking hand-stands. I saw pictures of what I now know as the plank, half-moon, fish, boat, shoulder stand, and triangle among the many others that I have learned and remember being both perplexed and amazed at how the human body could be swiftly molded into those beautiful poses with such grace, ease, and power. Little did I know in the infant stage of my practice, that all of those poses were not only physical achievements cultivated through strength, resolve, and vulnerability, but also mental achievements connected to something that changed my world: my breath.

It is undisputed that our breath is an immeasurable life sustaining force, but I was unaware of how powerful of a tool it is to re-center and focus the mind. Without our breath we would not be able to maintain ourselves as the extraordinary life sources that we are. The breath is a phenomena that is indispensable yet so simple and its import for our bodies is so easily forgotten. I entered my practice with rapid and shallow breaths, and while there is no right or wrong way of breathing, a slower and deeper inhale and exhale allows for increased lung capacity which in turn allows for a larger air intake. Beyond the physical benefits of a fuller and more oxygenated breath, I was more astonished by the gifts breath control mentally and emotionally imparted on me. I remember at the beginning of my practice thinking that the world as I knew it was slowing down and that there was finally more time to observe what was happening around me. Now I realize, the world was and is still not the one racing; my mind perceptively was the race car with no functioning breaks.

My breath taught me how to access freedom in moments of uneasiness and fear, both on and off the mat. Many times I have succumbed to my fear of failure and sadness, but I am reminded through my breath that for a moment I am “okay” just as I am. The heavens won’t rise, but the ground underneath me will not crumble and sometimes in the midst of whirling chaos the “okay” moment is perfect. On the mat I fear that I am not doing it “right,” I do not look “right,” the music is not “right,” the vibe is not “right,” but then I breathe and focus on my breath and none of that matters anymore. On the mat, the physical limitations imposed by my disability should have inhibited me, but on many occasions, I have surprised myself. As someone with no forearms, half a functioning knee, a fused leg and ankle, and four functioning fingers I should not be able to do a back bend, a free-standing triangle or find myself independently undulating in a handstand. But I do. I do it with the support and encouragement from kind, compassionate, and creative teachers who indulged my desires to find solutions and possibilities. I would not have been able to explore as much as I have without their knowledge and mutual trust, and I am forever grateful for it.

I learned to slowly trust the body that I have and appreciate that what I was doing was not going to be “right” because I was doing it my way. Blocks became my extensions, blankets my support, and bolsters my platform. Hands and legs adjusted, pulled, pressed, and lengthened so that I could experience the essence of a pose even if it looked nowhere close to what it was supposed to look like. Coupled with my props and my breath, I feel that anything is possible. Knowing that I can innovate myself into a pose and breathe into any fears that I might have, there are no limits to what can be accomplished on and off the mat. I did not understand the connection my mat work had with my real-world experiences, but the self-discovery I do on the mat is parallel to the work I do off. Self-discovery is intimidating and labor-intensive, but it is the most rewarding when you allow yourself the time and space to do so. I hope to take the gifts of patience, compassion, empathy, and courage that my yogic practice and reconnection to my breath has given me and share that despite what cards you may be given, you can always choose how you play those cards.

Fifty, forty, even thirty years ago, our society looked vastly different and I cannot really imagine what it would have looked like for an individual with a disability. I am neither just disabled nor a yogi, but I am an individual with a disability who is finding a way to play her cards. To me the ADA is like my breath, a representation of courage, of life, and of prosperity. Today is not just a momentous day for me, but also for anybody who is reading this.  As I am on my own path, I encourage you to learn to respect your self-discovery excursion and your breath: to understand them and to make them your friends. I encourage you to remind yourself of your own prosperity, however it may look or define it, and celebrate it. You are life, you are light, but most importantly you are part of the unwavering breath that sustains humanity.

With much love, wishing you light onward

Contributed by our dear friend and student, Ioana Zanchi

Our mission at Bella Prana Yoga and Meditation, Tampa, FL is to serve the community with affordable yoga, meditation, and an overall holistic wellness experience in a neutral space for students of all beliefs, abilities, races, sizes, needs and ages – from in utero to seniors.  We are proud to offer adaptive yoga for people with differences and disabilities.  Voted Best in the Bay!