Help the disabled live better with yoga

By Ishananda Swaraswati

June 8, 2017 : The disabled. Everything around them has fallen apart. But yoga can transform them and help them live better. I receive requests from an ever-increasing number of yoga teachers, who wish to apply yoga in the social and health fields, to help the physically, men- tally and psychologically disabled people. I myself have eight years? experience in teaching mentally and psychologically disabled people, aged between 14 and 50 years, in Social Therapeutic Centres and also to mentally ill residing in the Residential Communities.

Yoga techniques can be used in three specific areas of intervention: Educative preventive; rehabilitative, re-integrating into society and therapeutic. 

Qualified yoga teachers can operate in the first two areas and in the third only with the help of a doctor, a psychologist, by carrying out a therapeutic strategy that uses yoga practices in support of the medical-pharmacological therapies.

The approach indicated by the World Health Organisation in promoting rehabilitation of dis- abled people is twofold: On the one hand trying to reinforce those functions that are healthy in each individual, thereby working on something that already exists, but at the same time using a combination of different treatments that work together on the unhealthy or injured parts in order to improve their function and render them more efficient.

Yoga develops awareness in them

Yoga techniques have proved to be efficient tools for helping disabled people to develop a deeper awareness of their body and its movements; to reawaken the memory capacity; lengthen the attention span; sharpen powers of observation; imitation, and understanding; to help them overcome limitations and resistances; to develop a greater autonomy; to improve general physical health and to rebalance the emotions.

Through yoga we can indeed both educate and rehabilitate a person because we can help him/her to develop their inner characteristics, express their latent potential and gain the right to awareness.

The disabled people with whom I have worked, and who have experienced the benefits derived from yoga techniques, present different types of handicap to a greater or lesser degree: Downs? syndrome, cerebral palsy, mental retardation, epilepsy, etc. Others suffer from mental pathologies such as neurosis, psychosis, autism, schizophrenia.

 All of these have in common a relevant psychobiological vulnerability. They are also often subject to personality disturbances and the side effects caused by their intake of high dosages of drugs.

They long for closeness

In my years of experience with severely handicapped people, I have developed the certainty that you should never think that they cannot understand when you speak to them. I am also certain that, even if they don?t take part intellectually or actively in the practices, they are nearly always ?attuned? to the teacher. They pick up on our sincerity or lack of truth, and they are sensitive to the thoughts and intentions of anyone close to them.

They are more subtle than us

Therefore, instead of thinking of them as human beings who lack certain skills, we need to see them as human beings who are sometimes more subtle than we are in their ability to communicate.

The yoga practices that we propose for them should be very short because their attention span is very short. Often it is necessary to demonstrate an exercise many times, giving very clear instructions, repeated in different ways. Also we need to use other visual methods to help them to understand?such as drawings, pictures or slides?that illustrate what you want them to do.

However, it is also important to sustain the rhythm of the activity because they have energy in abundance and this needs to be channelled in a constructive way to avoid it becoming destructive for themselves or others. It is very important to establish a routine in the sequence of the practices, since some of the students feel reassured by an unchanging environment and extremely repetitive actions. We also need to maintain the same routine for some time to avoid a state of anxiety and tension being provoked by unexpected changes.

When we are working with disabled people, the proper sequence of yoga practices should be maintained regularly: movements and postures (asana), breathing techniques (pranayama), relaxation and meditation are proposed through games, imagination and fantasy.

In the beginning a yoga class will not last more than half an hour. In time it can gradually increase up to an hour or even more. I have developed a form of passive yoga to give seriously disabled people confined to wheelchairs and those who are called ?people on the car- pet? (bedridden) in the handicap environment, the opportunity to practice yoga.

Ishananda Saraswati, trained at the Bihar School of Yoga and at Research on Yoga in Education, Paris, lives in Italy. She teaches in various areas of society, using Integral Yoga in its traditional form as well as exploring the educational, rehabilitation and therapeutic application of it.

Opinions expressed by contributors are their own. None of the facts and figures mentioned in the story have been created by is not responsible for any factual errors. This article was first published in Joyful Living magazine, sister publication of

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