Last April I had the good fortune to teach yoga at UCLA one Saturday morning as part of the Saturday Opportunities for Adaptive Recreation (SOAR) program for individuals with physical disabilities. I didn't really know what to expect when I showed up, but I must admit I was surprised to see some young people in wheelchairs waiting in the lobby area.
One of them, a little boy with a delightfully impish grin, came over to say hi. His name was Ananda and when I told him that means bliss in Sanskrit, he was thrilled, grinning ear to ear. Little did I know at that moment that little Ananda would steal my heart and teach me what yoga is really about: love, service, helping others to feel better, and eliminating suffering.
We had a wonderful couple of hours that morning: Ananda, his sister Nikita, and about four other teenagers with various levels of physical disability. Ananda (11 years old) and Nikita (15 years old) have cerebral palsy, which means their motor skills are impaired and their speech a little slurred. But they're both sharp as dimes and are totally into pop culture and love to ask me questions about my life. The condition means they have to be strapped into their wheelchairs, otherwise they would fall over, and they have little, if any control, over their limbs.
Our yoga session went so well that the program organizers asked me to come back a few weeks later and do another one. Again, we had a blast. Right after that I went to Europe for a month to teach yoga and visit my family, but I kept thinking about Nikita and Ananda, how much I enjoyed spending time with them, and how fulfilling it was to share yoga practice with them and their beautiful smiley faces. So I emailed their mom, and we arranged that I would go over to their house on my return to Los Angeles.
Can I tell you how much fun we've had the few times I've gone over? Can I tell you that I leave there with a profound sense of fulfillment and joy? Can I tell you that these kids are lighting up my life?
It goes like this: Cathay (their mom) and I get Ananda out of his chair and onto the ground on top of a couple of yoga mats on blankets for extra padding. I'll usually place a couple of blankets under Ananda's knees to help release his lower back, and then I lie down beside him and we chat for a while, maybe look at some photos on my cell phone. He loves to chat and giggle, and asks me anything he feels like. I adore him, and since I'm basically putty in his hands, I'm happy just to hang out with him. After a few minutes we change positions, maybe a reclined spinal twist followed by me holding his feet and gently pressing his knees towards his chest to help release his lower back. He loves it when I pull his legs away from his body to stretch his hamstrings.
Sometimes we do a supported backbend with the aid of a bunch of props, or I'll sit back to back with him and lean forward a little so that he gets a chest opener. How far we go depends on the day, no strain is absolutely key. But what he loves most is when I massage his feet and legs with my special lavender massage cream. Nikita loves this too. In fact, they both ask me as soon as they see me: "Did you bring the massage cream?" This tickles my heart to no end, and I consider it my privilege to massage them; it connects me to a place of love and nurturing that makes everything else seem insignificant.
Nikita and I have a similar routine. We hang out on the ground, chatting, stretching and generally having a lark. I know she enjoys the stretches, but I think she mostly loves being rubbed with the lavender cream. Her little fingers are all gnarled up and bent back on themselves because of the motor impairment cerebral palsy can cause, so I spend a little time rubbing her arms and gently working her fingers straight and then moving her hands in circles to stretch her wrists. The huge grin on her face tells me she likes it. And she loves having her calves and feet rubbed, but she's a little ticklish behind the knees! She also likes to tell me about the guys she thinks are cute!
Ananda and Nikita are awesome yogis. They remind me of the importance of slowing down, of really being present in the moment, of kindness. Their joy and cheeky inquisitiveness remind me that childhood is a gift, that we are blessed by the child's wonder and delight. They are my teachers. I guess I must be ready to receive their gifts.