Editor’s Note: Texas native Sara Schaffer has been practicing physical therapy for over a quarter of a century and has worked in both the neurological and orthopedic fields. Also a long time yoga practitioner, she has trained under some of the best in the industry. When aerial yoga came onto her radar a few years ago, her personal experience with it as a student led to the development of an innovative approach to therapy for wheelchair users. She now holds adaptive aerial yoga classes in Denver, Colorado, with the aim of helping students improve their overall health.
I've always been a seeker of new ways of doing things, and I try not to be set in one train of thought on how movement can happen. I've practiced yoga for probably 15 years and have trained with Matthew Sanford and various other yogis. When I moved to Colorado a couple years ago, I started taking aerial yoga classes. Basically, there is a silk that hangs from the ceiling and you can place body parts in it to achieve different positions. I found it to be very therapeutic, calming, and decompressing, so I decided to get certified in the Volo aerial yoga method developed by Harmony Hoefner. Certification is a very serious process because you can get hurt if you don't know what you're doing. After I got certified, Harmony came up with the idea to collaborate using her in-depth knowledge of aerial yoga and my physical therapy and neuro-orthopedic background to create adaptive aerial yoga. We wanted to get people with disabilities in the silk to see how we could help them get moving.
In the physical therapy and rehab world, if we’re paralyzed from the waist down, we don't pay much attention to our legs anymore. But our legs are critical to our breath and posture.
Aerial yoga is an opportunity for individuals who use wheelchairs to move in new ways and create new space.
Our students start in their chair with the silks strapped under their arms. It compresses under the armpits and helps flush out their lymphatic system. They get oscillation and decompression in their spine, and it releases their lats. If you’re a full-time wheelchair user, that whole area gets pretty tight. Using the silks aids in lengthening the fasciae around the joints which increases joint mobility.
Some of the feedback I get from folks is that the fear of falling backward in their chairs is always there. With aerial yoga, the silk supports the thoracic spine so they can extend or go into an arched position without the fear of falling. Inversions, getting the head below the heart, are a challenge to create on your own, but the silks give you that option. You can place the legs in the silk while lying on the floor so that blood is flowing toward your head and heart.
We know this has an impact on mood and depression.
People who have pain management issues come back after a class and say they had a significant reduction in pain and medicine use. That's something I’d like to track and study long-term. Many students say they experience more ease of breath in daily activities. They are able to elevate their chest more easily and their arms are more open. They learn how to ground themselves into their chair to lift their sternum.
Another important element is that our students have fun. We get them in the silks prone on their stomachs about a foot off the ground, and they use their arms to push off the floor and fly. It's like being on a swing. People get creative and come up with all kinds of cool ideas.
We alter positions so that each person has the ability to do as much as they can on their own, but having trained assistants is critical to helping students get into the silks. Assistants go through a two-hour training program. They learn where to place their hands, how to help someone get in and out of the silk, and when and how it is appropriate to touch the student. Usually, assistants are people who are interested in yoga in general or are studying physical or occupational therapy. Sometimes students will bring their own assistant which is helpful because they know that individual so well.
We would love to write a curriculum for the adaptive aerial yoga method we created and get healthcare facilities to offer it. I could see this in recreational therapy programs and hospitals. There are a ton of options, but we're just in the baby phases right now.
This is a great starting place for getting active because the movement is controlled and supported.
Our steadiest group of people who attend are individuals who are aging with their disability. They're dealing with arthritis, degenerative disc disease, and regular wear and tear on joints. This has been a great option for them.
Editor’s Note: For more information on the Volo aerial yoga method, visit www.voloyoga.com.
Betsy Bailey has a diverse background including experience in marketing research at American Express, business operations and client relations with 601am, travel and culinary writing with VegDining, and playing volleyball professionally overseas.
Betsy is excited to get back into writing, something she’s adored since childhood, and thoroughly enjoys the process of getting to know her interviewees. On top of her work with Wheel:Life, she also teaches students learning English as a second language, speaks French fluently, and travels any chance she gets!