Expand your awareness and create a balanced body
For people who were born with a limb deficiency, yoga is the best way I can think of to balance out body awareness and find even, whole-body strength. I was born without part of my right arm and have always been a little less aware of the right side of my body, meaning that I am a little more prone to bump into things on that side and that I favour my left side.....
That’s not to say that I don’t use my right arm; I’ve always had a prosthesis and use it quite a lot, but it wasn’t until I practiced yoga in front of a mirror that I noticed how much I unconsciously favour my left side. For instance, though I feel steady and perfectly balanced in Downward Dog, I am usually leaning quite a lot to the left and have to correct my posture; when I am in alignment, I actually feel pretty off-centre because I’m not familiar with using the two sides equally.
Practising yoga regularly has helped me become more aware of how I use my body, and helped me find more balance within my body through the strength and awareness that I’ve developed.
Become reacquainted with your body
I imagine that for amputees and other people who are new to using a prosthetic that yoga would be a fantastic way to become reacquainted with their bodies and could help them feel a more natural connection to their new limbs.
- Start slow - Of course, it’s important to start out slow even if you’ve used a prosthetic your whole life (and if you are new to your prosthetic, to check with your doctor to be sure your body is ready for it). When I first started, I overdid it and actually experienced some pain deep in my right arm because I was unused to putting so much pressure on it.
- Adapt - I think part of the reason I overdid it at first was that I was too stubborn about adapting the poses to suit my needs because I didn’t want my arm to stand in the way. The more I followed Esther’s videos though, the more I realized that when she says things like “find your pose,” she isn’t just talking to me; she’s talking to all the yogis out there. In that sense, having one arm didn’t make yoga any less accessible to me, because everyone has their challenges - that just happens to be mine.
I would encourage anyone with a limb deficiency to try yoga if they feel drawn to it.
Here are some things I’ve learned along the way that might make the journey a little easier:
Tips for working with a prosthetic (and other physical limitations)
1. Straps are your best friend
When I first started doing yoga, there were tons of poses that I thought I would never be able to do because I didn’t think I could get a firm grip or twist my stiff prosthetic into a certain shape. For me, my yoga strap makes most asanas possible and is incredibly useful for those that require me to hold on to another body part, like Utthita Hasta Padangustasana, Natarajasana and Dhanurasana. When I do these poses, instead of holding onto my foot I secure the strap around my food or ankle and hold onto it instead, giving me a much sturdier base for the pose.
2. Use a mirror to check your alignment
I think this is probably pretty good advice for anyone, but people who use prostheses may have a tougher time finding the correct alignment by feeling alone. This is because if you are missing a limb on one side, you probably favor your other side much more, so it feels natural to bear significantly more weight on that side of the body.
3. Don’t always assume you "failed" at an asana because of your limb deficiency
This is a sure fire way to prevent yourself from deepening your practice. It can be tempting, and even sometimes an unconscious reaction, to use your limb deficiency (or any other medical condition) to excuse yourself from trying a pose again. Of course, if you feel your body really isn’t suited to a pose or that it would be dangerous to push it, don’t do it!
However, by using your prosthetic as an excuse every time you don’t get into a pose right away, you cheat yourself out of growth because often times (in my case anyway) it seems like you can’t get into a pose because of your limb deficiency, but really it’s because the rest of your body isn’t ready. For me, that pose was Urdhva Dhanurasana.
Practice and patience - After trying Urdhva Dhanurasana and failing the first time, I was convinced that my body simply wasn’t built for it because I would never have a steady foundation with my prosthesis. The real problem was that I had just started doing yoga and my shoulders weren’t open enough and the right side of my body wasn’t strong enough. After a few weeks of skipping that pose, I tried again and was surprised by how easily I got into it with my then-stronger body. It’s now one of my favorites to practice. By not jumping to the conclusion that your arm or leg is the “problem”, you are more likely to pinpoint what is actually preventing you from getting the pose and are one step closer to achieving it.
4. Find an alternative pose
In one video Esther says - “Your body is not here to serve yoga; yoga is here to serve your body.”
I have found a few poses that just don’t work with my prosthesis, like Parivrtta Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward Dog with one hand reaching for the opposite side leg). I just can’t seem to keep balanced in Downward Dog with only my right hand on the floor. So whenever this pose pops up in a class, I either stay in Adho Mukha Svanasana and work on my stamina or I take Jathara Parivartanasana (supine twist) for an alternative twist. Don’t make getting into the asana the reason to do yoga; focus on what you are trying to do for your body and find a way to do it!
These are just a few things that I have learned while practicing yoga with a prosthetic arm; I’m sure the challenges for those with a lower limb deficiency would be different, but I think what it all boils down to is that everyone’s yoga practice is personal and unique and that we all have to find our own way of practicing. It’s a good thing to identify your challenge, but I also think that in order to grow you have to let it go and just do yoga your way, however you can.
About the Author
Sarah Dasher is a freelance writer and artist living in Atlanta, Georgia, USA. She seeks to promote personal and social wellbeing with her work, be it through advocating for local, sustainable food systems or working and volunteering for non-profit organizations. She would love to one day incorporate her yoga practice into her work and hopes to start yoga teacher training soon.