Yoga for Every Body: Practicing with a Disability

By: 
Liz Rosenblum

Yoga is challenging. No doubt about it. It pushes us mentally and physically. It forces us to dig deep and find strength, and it forces us to accept who we are and where we are. On the flip side, when we push through, we uncover incredible rewards waiting on the other side. We learn to love ourselves and others and to keep normal, everyday frustrations from getting the best of us.

Like many yogis, Elizabeth Wojtowicz turned to yoga as a way to cope with the challenges of life and a way to calm her active mind. But Elizabeth’s journey to the mat is a bit different than most. She was born with cerebral palsy, a neurological disorder that impacts the part of the brain responsible for muscle movements. It requires her to use crutches or a walker and causes her muscles to fatigue easily. But to hear it from Elizabeth, the disability makes her practice that much more empowering, and the practice makes her disability that much more of a tool.

Acceptance

For Elizabeth, the physical limitations on her body were often at odds with her fierce drive to take on new challenges and achieve the ordinary milestones of others her age. As she puts it, she realized that she had to do something to keep from going crazy. That was when she learned about yoga classes near her home and decided to give a restorative class a try. She recalls feeling overwhelmed, falling off her mat, and fighting her tight muscles as she attempted each posture.

But the same determination that compelled Elizabeth to attend that first class also kept her coming back for more—and more and more and more. From anti-gravity yoga that is easier on her body to a workshop with renowned instructor Seane Corn, which she calls the most intense and challenging class she’s ever done, Elizabeth continued to seek out new opportunities to learn and push her abilities.

Like able-bodied yogis, Elizabeth says she has good days and bad days, but instead of getting angry with her body and giving up, the teachings of yoga have helped her learn to listen to how her body feels, adapt postures as needed and, most important, accept where she is and what she brings to the mat each day. Over the years she’s come to accept her disability and realize that by taking ownership of her condition she can achieve things she never imagined possible.

Most important, she says, “ … is how you want to show up for your intention and what’s in your heart. You’re exactly where you’re supposed to be, even if it’s not where you want to be.”

Just show up

That strength may be what opened Elizabeth up to what became the biggest turning point in her life when she attended Wanderlust in Vermont. It was there that an instructor recognized her passion for the practice and recommended she register for 200RYT training. In that moment, Elizabeth says she realized why she has cerebral palsy and how she can use it to help others overcome their personal challenges.

Admittedly, says Elizabeth, there were times that she struggled through the training and began to question how she could teach physically abled people, but she dug deep, pushed through, and says the experience was life changing.

Today she brings that love of the practice to her classes where she teaches both able-bodied students and modified classes with a focus on helping others learn to be one with their bodies and their breath.

“It feels really good to be able to be on the other side and help people realize and tune into their own abilities—whether they’re physically challenged or not.” She says what matters most is not whether you can get your leg over your head, but that you show up, “ … and when you show up for yourself, you show up for others.”

Find the light

Elizabeth doesn’t let her disability keep her from continuing to dream, testing her limits, and learning what she is capable of accomplishing. “I’m just like the next person that has a little more challenge. I’m as curious, as passionate, as strong, and as daring as the next person.” Instead of getting frustrated by her added challenges, she asks herself how she can use where she is to get where she wants to be. The mat is a safe place to play with who that person is and what she can do if she remains open to possibility.

Elizabeth says it took her 22 years to accept her condition, but now, instead of being angry at her body and her situation, she wakes up every day excited about all her future holds.

At 28 years old, with a degree in psychology and a world of possibility in front of her, she dreams of moving from her parents’ home in Florida to California (the motherland, as she lovingly calls it), working with others who live with disabilities similar to hers, and writing a book that helps others find their strength the way she has.

Through it all, though, the practice helped Elizabeth realize that despite her physical disability, everything is going to be ok. “It’s those dark moments that bring you to the light.”

Learn more about Elizabeth Wojtowicz at elayoga.com

Another great article from YogaUOnline and Shara Rutberg-How Yoga for MS Can Help ( And It's Not Just About the Poses).

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Liz Rosenblum

Liz Rosenblum found her way to the yoga mat as a way to find peace and calm in her crazy former life as a journalist and these days as an Account owner for one of the world's largest ecommerce websites. Over the years her practice has ranged from an alignment-based style as a way to find relief from chronic hip pain to power yoga to a home practice, but it was Ashtanga where she found her true home and received her RYT-200 at White Orchid in Clearwater, Florida. Liz is passionate about the power of yoga to heal the mind and body, and continues to be amazed that no matter how many times a posture is  practiced, one slight adjustment can change it exponentially. She is thankful to have the online yoga community of YogaUOnline as a place to share her passion and learnings with others.