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Yoga's appeal broadening to disability community

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  • Yoga can be adapted for people with health conditions, disabilities
  • Poses are modified for those with limited range of motion, balance issues
  • Instructor: Regular yoga can increase joint mobility
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By Georgiann Caruso
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ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- A middle-aged woman arrives at yoga class, a guide dog beside her wheelchair. She slides onto a mat on the floor and begins warming up with help from the instructor, stretching her knee and leg muscles to the side.

Adaptive yoga takes into consideration the individual's limitations but still provides the benefits of stretching.

Nearby, a man lying on a bench gets an assist from a class helper as he lifts his leg and brings his knee toward his body. Another person, an overweight student, sits and places his feet on brick-like props to enable him to stretch higher.

This is the scene at the Shepherd Center in Atlanta, Georgia, where students attend weekly adaptive yoga class. Derived from traditional yoga, poses are modified for those with disabilities or health conditions.

Hundreds of miles away, longtime instructor Karen O'Donnell Clarke says the limitations could have a number of sources: multiple sclerosis (which she has), a sports injury, fibromyalgia or even a sedentary lifestyle. Post-surgical conditions, Parkinson's disease, stroke and arthritis may also cause some impairment. "Pretty much if you name a health condition, yoga can help with it," she says.

Physical therapist Sarah Knopf says the class' popularity is due to many patients asking what else they can be doing to strengthen their bodies or overcome a health challenge quicker.

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"The adaptive yoga will take into consideration the patient's limitations," Knopf says. "A lot of patients with MS, for example, don't do well if they get overheated. So, with adaptive yoga, the instructor will take things nice and slowly, focusing more on breathing and relaxation.... If you are doing yoga in a gym, it's a little faster-paced."

Instructors say one benefit of adaptive classes is that more than one or two people in the group are doing something differently.

Evette Abron, who attends weekly adaptive yoga class at Jai Shanti Yoga in Atlanta, has MS and suffers from poor balance. She says she feels less self-conscious in this environment. Because of the personalized attention, she doesn't feel bad if she can't do something correctly or even at all.

Adaptive yoga is not just for those who have balance problems. People in wheelchairs can also benefit. The poses are modified in a way that anyone can take part.

Steven Kruger, who uses a wheelchair because of a car accident in 1998, says he took yoga about four times a week before his injury. Since the accident, he's found adaptive yoga to be relaxing. "Life with a disability sometimes can be a little overwhelming," Kruger says. The classes help him stretch muscles he can't stretch on his own, so he's more comfortable physically, especially with leg tremors. "Since I've been coming to the yoga classes, because of all the stretching, the tremors are a lot less, and when I do have them, they're a lot less painful."

Bill Hufschmidt, his instructor, says any consistent practice of yoga will help the student strengthen his or her body and increase mobility in the joints. He adds, "People who do this practice regularly have more awareness of their breath, and by taking deeper breaths, by taking longer breaths, there is a greater sense of vitality in the body, in their life."

Breathing exercises help prevent wheelchair patients from developing poor posture, Knopf adds. She says someone with poor posture may find it very difficult to take a deep breath, and yoga opens the chest.

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Concentrating on breathing techniques is a major focus, says instructor Terri Leonard. She also likes to teach students to break awareness down into sensations of pain, how to relieve them, tightness in the body or numbness.

"If you have a disability and you're struggling with managing your body, managing your symptoms, coming to a yoga class is all about slowing down, and really focusing on your body in a way that perhaps you didn't focus before your injury or illness," Leonard says. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

Georgiann Caruso is an associate producer with CNN Medical News. Producer Mariana Hoysa contributed to this report.

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