The best gift I have received as a yogic student is the knowledge and confidence to practice by myself. Now I know that this may seem a bit obvious as many people go to classes to learn, and then at a certain point, they can do the poses on their own. However, I bring attention to this because doing yoga on my own was the moment I realized that I am free from the constraints of my own body. It was the first time I could work with my limited knee capacity, shortened wingspan, and fused ankles because I did not have to say no. I was not barred from any movements or limited in trying any of the poses. I just had to be creative in finding novel ways to accommodate my body in creating similar experiences to what a particular pose should feel like.
As a physically disabled practitioner, finding challenging and stimulating movement was difficult while still manageable for my body’s needs and capabilities. Yoga wrapped all of those elements into one fulfilling and multifaceted experience. Yoga is often mistaken for simply being physical poses with the occasional closing of the eyes and deep breathing; this is a misperception I also once had when I began my practice. However, that is far from the truth because the physicality of the practice only covers an eighth of what yogic practice could be. My journey through my almost decade-long yogic practice has been filled with many wondrous joys and tribulations because the mat was one of the few times in my week or month that I was allowed to play and be creative without judgment. I had great days, good days, and sometimes bad days, but as I reflect on those one hour and fifteen microcosms that I would practice in, they mirrored the joys and tribulations of the external world I was living in. I found it so incredible how close they reflected because whatever lesson I was being taught that week, either on or off the mat, always found a way into the other sphere of my life.
Throughout those sessions, my teacher and I had the chance to build a unique relationship and learn from one another as we had the ability and privilege to work privately. The one-on-one guidance bolstered my confidence as I was not competing with anyone; it was just us getting to explore what that particular day brought. At the beginning of my practice, those sessions were my foundational building blocks. I built my core strength, improved my flexibility, and learned how to use my breath as a facilitator to carry me into my poses. Those early sessions felt a lot like a workout at the gym, but I now understand that the purpose of those foundational skills was to prepare me for all the beautiful poses that I would soon work to try and get into on my own. My teacher and I dove deep into the specifics of yogic theory, breathwork, and anatomy specific to my body type. I love and still love this hybrid model of practice and learning because I can see the words embedded on the page of whatever book or text we were inspired to read and immediately apply them on the mat and in my life that day.
As we built our relationship through each session, the culmination of all that we learned and shared strengthened our bond as solo practitioners and through our teacher/student dynamic. We developed such a strong connection that we reached a point in our practice where I was helping customize our routine and vocabulary of how we wanted to practice that day. I was starting to grow into my practice by participating in it. Our communication reached a level where we could speak without words, make appropriate adjustments, and practice miles away from each other on FaceTime. Since I had such a solid foundation of mind and body strength, I no longer feared experimenting with new poses; in fact, I craved it.
While I have many lightbulb moments to share from my countless sessions, the most memorable moment in my yogic practice was rising into an unassisted handstand. As an individual with limited hand function and shortened arm length, I was struck by the power of my own body. I physically achieved this feat on my own, with guidance only through FaceTime. I set my props up, and I transitioned slowly into this pose, which is safe to say that it’s pretty advanced. That moment is one that I am still processing and unable to explain fully, but I know that all the prior work that led to that moment set me up for success in achieving this tremendous physical challenge.
The greatest gift a yoga teacher can give is the knowledge and confidence to practice by yourself. I was fortunate to be gifted with such fantastic support, but I know that the appropriate support and resources look different for everyone. I offer this as you take my story with you; you have the same power and strength to overcome your challenges, whether they be physical, mental, or spiritual. It is inside you, but the key is knowing where to start or who may offer a hand. Without my teacher’s care, love, and trust, I would not have flourished into the yogic practitioner I am today.
By Ioana Zanchi
Ioana is a yoga student at the Bella Prāṇa Wellness Collective in Tampa, Florida