Fitness Magazine

Yoga for People with Disabilities: Interview with JoAnn Lyons

By Ninazolotow @Yoga4HealthyAge
 by Nina

I've known about JoAnn Lyon's wonderful yoga classes for people with disabilities since she started them here in the San Francisco Bay Area, over a decade ago. And Baxter is one of the yoga teachers who has assisted JoAnn in her classes at the Cerebral Palsy Center. So we're both great admirers of her work. Recently I learned that JoAnn is making an effort to train more yoga teachers to do this work, so I thought it would be a good time to try to help her reach a broader audience. And what better way than to interview her about her important work on our blog so she can tell you about it in her own words! I sincerely hope you readers will help spread the news about JoAnn's work and her teacher trainings, and maybe even invite her to your studio to teach a workshop. (See her bio at the end of this post to find her contact information.)
Nina: How long have you been teaching yoga for people with disabilities and how did you get started? 
JoAnn: In 1996 I moved to Oakland to attend a year-long teacher training at the Piedmont Yoga Studio with Rodney Yee.  It was the first year Rodney taught an advanced training and, during that year, he offered our class an opportunity to try teaching classes at the Cerebral Palsy Center.  I volunteered and found it to be challenging and rewarding. 
In 2002 Piedmont Yoga Studio opened its doors on a new, accessible studio and I began teaching two classes a week there and have continued since then. The Cerebral Palsy Center now offers five weekly yoga classes and there are still two public classes at Piedmont Yoga.
It quickly became clear to me that more than one teacher was needed for a class and Rodney allowed me to teach workshops in the advanced training program at PYS on teaching yoga to people with disabilities. From these classes many teachers are now teaching yoga to people with disabilities in private settings, at the Cerebral Palsy Center, Piedmont Yoga, Clausen House and other venues not only in the Bay Area, but also across the United States.
Nina: Why do you believe that yoga is so valuable for this population? 
JoAnn: Many students with disabilities are hesitant at first to believe that these classes will work for them. Creating a safe space where they can explore the possibilities of moving their bodies in asana—sometimes with the help of assistants—take a conscious, deep breath, and be still for a few minutes, resting in restorative yoga poses that promote healing and relief from a stressful life, bring our students back on a regular basis. We’ve also found that these classes create a strong sense of community. 
Nina: Which particular practices and/or poses do you particularly recommend for this group? 
JoAnn: In my workshops I always stress that teachers must teach the student, not the pose. Especially with this population, one must take into consideration the ability of the student but be aware of the student’s disability. Almost any disability you can name may manifest in myriad ways. I’ve known quadriplegics who can stand and ones who could not move any part of their body except their eyes. I’ve had students with MS (Multiple Sclerosis) who can walk and ones who are in wheelchairs, perhaps permanently and perhaps not. And I’ve had people with PPS (Post Polio Syndrome) who are exhausted and some who are not. 
So, what I recommend is working with the student who is in front of you. If your student has some yoga experience, you can work from that knowledge. But if your student has never practiced yoga before, you need to start as you would any intro to yoga classes and carefully lead the student through easy movements, teaching them alignment, stretching and strengthening as needed, reminding them to breathe frequently and slowly building up to poses they can do. 
Obviously, if a student is paraplegic or quadriplegic, they will not be able to stand to do poses, however, that does not mean they cannot do standing poses in some other way—seated, on a chair or on the floor, lying down and using the wall as their “floor”—or maybe a pose is just not one that student should even attempt. Props are tantamount to a successful class for people with disabilities. I have students with CP (Cerebral Palsy) and paraplegia who do Headstand on a head-stander. Blocks of varying size can raise the floor to a level where a student is able to reach it.  Straps help hold body parts that don’t stay put on their own, and wall ropes and a large exercise ball allow most to safely experience the elongation of the spine in Downward-Facing Dog. Figure out what you want a student to get from a pose, honestly assess what they can do and cannot do, keeping in mind what they probably should not do (commonly called “contraindications”), and then work with your student toward the appropriate parts of that pose for them.
Nina: You are starting to train other teachers now to work with people with disabilities. Where can they study with you? 
JoAnn: I am offering a workshop in Oakland on March 14, 15 & 16, 2014 (see for further info or to register). To begin, I teach a class at the Cerebral Palsy Center to some of my regular students there for the participants to observe. My students at the CP Center are very generous in allowing this class of potential teachers to observe their class because they understand that I am training teachers who may one day teach classes for others with disabilities and they want to help. The last class will be at Piedmont Yoga Studio and we will be working with some of my students with disabilities who attend my public classes.  Most of these students have been studying with me for several years and really enjoy helping and teaching about their yoga practice as well as their disability. In some cases I also offer a private apprenticeship.
Nina: Is there anything else you’d like to add? 
JoAnn: I love teaching classes for people with disabilities. The challenges are great at times, but this is such a rewarding experience. I want more people with disabilities to have the opportunity to take a yoga class anytime they want and that can only happen if more yoga studios are willing to accommodate this population and more teachers are willing to see this as a possibility.
One of the biggest challenges is funding these types of classes. Cost of the classes I teach at Piedmont Yoga Studio is based on a sliding scale; no student is turned away because of lack of funds. Many of our students pay the scheduled price, some more if they are able, and some pay nothing or what they feel they can afford that day. The reality of this is that even if every student paid the full price for classes, by the time a teacher, assistant and rent are paid, what is taken in will not cover those costs completely. We yoga teachers are like everyone else; we have bills to pay and need to be fairly compensated for the work we do. In response to this, we work with a small non-profit, Piedmont Yoga Community, whose mission statement is to serve the community by making yoga accessible to people with challenges. Piedmont Yoga Community relies heavily on grants as well as donations, workshops and events held during the year (see
Yoga for People with Disabilities: Interview with JoAnn LyonsJoAnn Lyons began her study of yoga over 40 years ago in Indianapolis, Indiana and began teaching yoga in 1991 in Vero Beach, Florida. In 1996 she moved to Oakland, California to participate in the first Advanced Studies Program at the Piedmont Yoga Studio with Rodney Yee.  JoAnn also holds an Advanced Relax & Renew Trainer Certificate, from Judith Lasater, and is one of a select group of Senior Teachers assisting Judith. She credits her current teachers Donald Moyer and Judith Lasater with helping her put herself back together again from a very old injury that left her dealing with chronic pain for several years.
Since 1996, she has been sharing her love of yoga in classes for people with special needs and disabilities. Her teaching is grounded in her observation and knowledge of the body, and her intuitive awareness of both the needs and potential of her students. JoAnn offers workshops and apprenticeships on teaching yoga to people with disabilities as well as private sessions. You can reach her at [email protected]

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