If the system of yoga included only asanas many people in the world would be excluded from practising it. Fortunately the original tradition of yoga deals not only with the physical aspect of yoga, but takes a complete and integral approach to human life, addressing all the layers of the personality by using all the branches of yoga. This is how physically disabled people can also benefit from it.
This is a story of a woman who not only became a student of yoga, but also a sincere and committed practitioner despite her difficult condition. When I met her she already lived yoga. In theory she did not know anything about yoga, but she expressed a yogic attitude in action, thinking and behaviour, being one of the most intelligent, positive and optimistic persons I have known.
One day a friend asked me to meet a paralyzed woman with the view to help her through yoga. I asked him, “How do you think I can help this lady?” He said, “You are the yoga teacher, go and find out.” So I went. She was waiting for me, sitting in a wheelchair. We had a chat and she told me that she was 60 years old and had had a car accident nearly 20 years ago in which her neck vertebrae and spinal cord were broken, paralyzing her from the neck down.
She explained to me that there were different degrees of paralysis, with some still being able to move their upper body, the arms and hands. She was paralyzed to an extreme degree, which allowed her just a slight movement of her head, and so she required the care of nurses 24/7. She also added that she was looking forward to our yoga sessions very much as my friend had told her that it would help her. Frankly speaking at that moment I had no idea what to do with her, but I offered to come and see her twice a week.
Before our first session the only thing which came to my mind was yoga nidra, where the body has to be still, which was very much the condition of her body. I started to teach her yoga nidra. In the beginning I had to slow down the tempo, as it took her longer to navigate through the body with her awareness than for a healthy person. For the first time after so many years she became aware of and felt into her body parts. After a few weeks I could increase the speed to normal and she was able to follow it with ease, and gradually we progressed to the full yoga nidra with sankalpa, visualizations and opposites. Then I recorded a CD so that she could practise when I was not there.
Weeks and months passed and we met twice a week, continuing with yoga nidra. After the sessions I stayed with her for some time to chat. On one of those occasions she told me that she was very grateful that we had met, because yoga nidra was helping her considerably. She said that by the end of the practice all her pain was gone. This had already happened at our first session, but she could not believe that it was because of the yoga nidra. However, this occurred each time we met, so she was sure that it was yoga nidra which caused this painless state, which was an unimaginably great relief for her.
She explained that this pain is called central nervous pain and is a well-known phenomenon for paralyzed people. When I asked her to describe the degree of the pain she said, “Imagine that you deliberately make a very deep cut on yourself with a razor blade and try to feel that pain in a thousand places in your body simultaneously.” She added that most times it is unbearable, so doctors normally treat it with morphine which reduces the pain but has many negative side effects. The first gift for her was yoga nidra which helped her to manage the pain. Since then she has been practising it on a daily basis.
The second big positive change in the quality of her life happened through pranayama. I noticed that she was lying in her bed covered with a minimum of two blankets even on hot summer days as her body temperature is lower than normal, due to the lack of physical movement and activity. Another consequence of this is low blood pressure which especially in the mornings causes dizziness and general discomfort. It took her about two hours every day to recover from that extreme state to her more normal one.
I decided to teach her some basic breathing techniques starting from simple breath awareness, to abdominal breathing to full yogic breathing. We were progressing slowly as she had to develop the right breathing patterns first, which was quite difficult for her. Then one day when we were practising abdominal breathing I told her to speed it up little by little. Eventually it became a kind of bhastrika, which she enjoyed very much and called ‘snuffle’. The next time, she was already sitting up in her bed and smiling. When I asked what had happened she said that this snuffle had changed her life.
Now, the first thing she does in the morning is bhastrika and it immediately raises the blood pressure and body temperature, so instead of two hours it takes her only ten minutes to normalize her condition.
I was very glad to hear that it helped her, and the first thing which came into my mind was that all this would not have been possible without our tradition and gurus. This shows the power of yoga, that even the simplest practices can have profound effects and can indeed bring about positive change in one’s life.
—Swami Bhaktananda, Hungary