Yoga Without Boundaries

by Trish Downing 5
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Tricia Downing - Adaptive YogaWhen I was younger I was so full of energy. I couldn’t stand to sit and watch TV, and whenever I could, I was out in the yard doing gymnastics, roller skating or having running races with the neighborhood boys. I was extremely physical and competitive and didn’t like having to slow down. As a gymnast, my coach suggested to my mom that I balance out all the tumbling and acrobatics with a ballet class to teach me grace, control and dance moves I would need in my floor exercise routine. But I just couldn’t stand how ballet was so slow moving and deliberate. I preferred running across the floor ex mat doing round off, back handspring, back flips.

I would grow to regret my earlier distaste of ballet, and made up for it by taking the class in college, but even since then, I have done little in the way of activities that made me slow down, stretch my body and really listen to what it was telling me. I mean, I listen to my body every day when I train for triathlons—I know when I can handle more training or need less and what type of nutrition my body is craving and other things like that, but there’s another level of deep thinking and feeling that I had not experienced before I joined a yoga class at a local gym.

Tricia Downing - Adaptive Yoga

I had never given much thought to yoga since my injury and ending up using a wheelchair, but in fact, there are some great yogis out there dedicated to the practice and adapting it for people with different needs. I found one of those instructors dedicated to sharing yoga with folks with disabilities and in this particular class, those of us in wheelchairs.

You might wonder how someone who does not have the use of their legs or core strength can participate in various yoga poses, but I have learned that it can be done…and it’s liberating. I never realized how drawn up my body gets in my chair, the tension I hold in my shoulders from pushing around all day or the lack of a stretch I get in my legs. Even though I can’t walk, stretching my legs (and the rest of my body) is not only important, but it’s a matter of staying healthy. That coupled with the moments of quiet, bringing me back to center, has brought me even more in touch with my body and what it needs to perform at its optimum level.

Tricia Downing - Adaptive Yoga

In the yoga class we do poses both in our chairs as well as on the floor—some are assisted by the instructor, and others we improvise according to ability. I particularly cherish the opportunities when I am out of my chair and feel the freedom of movement that comes with having no boundaries. I’ve often heard people say the phrase “confined to a wheelchair,” and every time I do, I cringe because the wheelchair is not a part of me, does not define me, and I am not stuck in it. There are so many things I can do that don’t involve my chair and yoga is one of those activities that gives me the freedom to move on my own and experience what my body is capable of. Each class I attend teaches me something new about my body, awakens another muscle or motion I wasn’t in touch with before, and helps with things like balance, flexibility and even strength. I have learned that even though I have worked on these things in the past by doing exercises and lifting in the gym, I am able to put a new spin on the execution and experience a slightly different reward and outcome.

Yoga has taught me that it’s okay to slow down, to not compete and to get in touch with what is going on inside of me. I think that taking this time will, in the end, make me better at my sport and make me a better competitor because I am listening to my voice within and making the mind, body and spirit connection that is ever important in a healthy, balanced life.

Photos by Mark Wolcott Photography

Trish Downing is a triathlete who is “redefining able” as the second female wheelchair racer (first female paraplegic) to complete an Iron distance triathlon. Growing up, she was a high school varsity gymnast and swimmer, and a Division I diver... {more»}