“The path of yoga has convinced me 100 percent that I don’t have any handicaps and there is no disability within me,” says Marsha T. Danzig, who lost a leg to cancer at age 13 and has taught yoga to other amputees for nearly two decades now. “And when I say that, it’s a perspective; it’s different from somebody making a motivational speech about how they can overcome a disability or ‘You can do whatever you want to do in your life.’ For me, it’s much deeper. Sometimes the American way is to prove things – you know, the sports mindset: ‘You can do it.’ That can be helpful, but I think that’s still an exterior layer. My idea is that yoga is all about the inner source of things; and when you reawaken that, it creates an energy, a bigger sense of who you are that’s beyond attachment to the body. The body, mind and spirit work together, and even though a limb may no longer be there, there’s never a separation from you and the rest of humanity and the rest of life. It’s going to the deeper understanding of what it is to be a whole person.”
Danzig’s trademarked system, Yoga for Amputees, offers videos, trainings for amputees and clinical certification for yoga teachers and therapists. She works one-on-one and in groups with students from all walks of life, from war veterans to those who lost limbs due to disease. She has written a book, Yoga for Amputees: Finding Wholeness after Limb Loss: A Guide for Yoga Students and Teachers, with an anticipated publication date of March 2017 through the Monkfish Book Publishing Company in Rhinebeck.
The Ohio-based Danzig will be in the Hudson Valley next weekend to offer a yoga class for amputees on Saturday, April 2 from 2 to 3 p.m. at Woodstock Yoga Center, located at 6 Deming Street in Woodstock. The class will be free of charge to all amputees. Yoga teachers and physical therapists who are interested in learning to assist amputees are also welcome to attend, as are partners of amputees who want to share the experience. The class is for adults only. Registration is done through Paul Cohen of Monkfish Publishing at (845) 876-4861 or [email protected].
On one level, yoga benefits amputees in the same way that it helps anybody, says Danzig, developing strength, flexibility and balance, in terms of physicality, and reducing stress and anxiety from the mental perspective. But there are very specific benefits for amputees who practice yoga, including pain and trauma management, building confidence and returning the person to a sense of wholeness in their body.
The work is not without its challenges, however. “There are overused and underused muscles for amputees, and joint problems as well. And a large percentage of amputees lost a limb through vascular disease [diabetes]. So that could mean they’re a lot more inactive now, or they can only do so much.”
The modifications from standard yoga practice for an amputee can be minimal or can be quite extensive, according to many variables that include whether the person is a double amputee, where they lost a limb (above or below the elbow, for example) and their level of fitness prior to losing a limb. “It really depends on the person,” says Danzig, “what type of prosthetic they have, if they have a lot of phantom pain and/or chronic pain, or if their prosthesis is extremely uncomfortable and they’re doing their best to be in it and trying to stay present. I think there’s a lot more mental action with an amputee doing yoga.” What it comes down to, she says, is teaching the person to explore, “Who am I in space and how can I feel united with my sense of self?”
Danzig’s path to where she is now began while growing up in Albany. She remembers as a young girl being “obsessed with yogis and what they do with their bodies,” looking at pictures in a book that she had, and as a gymnast, trying out some of what she saw. “Then, when I lost my leg, I kind of retreated, basically, from being in my body. I was 13 and there was a lot of body-image stuff. And prosthetics weren’t that good in the ’70s, so I didn’t pursue a lot of movement and it was hard to walk.”
Her first yoga experience was at Joshua Tree in California. And after moving back to the East Coast in the early ’90s, she got a new and better prosthesis, which inspired her to try dancing. “It was very freeing,” she says. “I did Afro-Cuban and Afro-Haitian dancing in New York City, and that got me over my fear of being seen.” She hadn’t anticipated getting into yoga, but when her kidneys began to fail in her 30s, Danzig began to “do a lot of spiritual work to find ways to feel safe and ways to reconnect to my body.” After getting what she terms “a very clear internal message” that she needed to teach yoga, Danzig found herself at Kripalu a few weeks later.
She felt called to teach yoga to children with special needs at first, developing a pediatric yoga program that she has put on the back burner for now in favor of focusing on adult amputees. Danzig has a special place in her heart for veterans, she says, who find that doing yoga with a female amputee allows them to relax. “I’ve never been in the military, but I’m tough. I haven’t seen what they’ve seen, but there’s a common thread to what happened to our bodies; and I understand traumatic events. They can tell me things about their suffering, and it’s a place where they don’t have to be brave. And I really appreciate that.”
When yoga is taught to amputees, it’s usually in a clinical setting or a support group at a conference, says Danzig. But her goal is always to move the person toward being able to take a standard yoga class “safely, mindfully and intelligently, using what they have. Part of the whole limb-loss thing is feeling normal again, and you want to be able to participate in a yoga class.”
An amputee needs to have some tools at his or her disposal before doing that, however. Not all teachers understand how to work with someone who has a prosthetic, so finding a teacher with a background in physical therapy or another related modality beyond yoga is helpful. And Danzig recommends finding a class that is more alignment-based. “Especially as an amputee, it’s easy to slip into some kind of injury with something like Vinyasa [flowing movement]. We spend a lot of time in transitions from pose to pose, which is where I think most of the yoga is happening. It’s more, ‘How can I mindfully and with compassion step into this next pose? How can I be creative and adaptive, as opposed to frustrated and irritated with myself?’”
Amputees already have a significant amount of body awareness, says Danzig, which works for them when it comes to yoga. “You’ve already had to adjust to an environment that’s obviously not set up for millions of amputees. There’s a lot of tweaking in everyday life all the time, navigating getting in and out of spaces, up and down hills and different textures of the ground.”
According to the Amputee Coalition of America, there are 185,000 new lower-extremity amputations each year within the US alone. The estimated population of American amputees is two million, expected to nearly double to 3.6 million by the year 2050. The main causes of limb loss are vascular disease (54 percent), including diabetes and peripheral arterial disease, trauma (45 percent) and cancer (less than two percent).
Ultimately, yoga practice for an amputee is really about developing a perspective that’s whole, Danzig says. “It’s about learning how to reconnect. The point is, you can still find your ground. I’ve seen whole-bodied people in a yoga class, and they might do advanced yoga poses, but they don’t look connected to the yoga part; they look more connected to the physical achievement part. That is a good feeling, especially for an amputee; but my hope is always that they’ll actually get to yoga – that the layers will peel away and the sacred practice will emerge and there will be that integration of body, mind and spirit.”
Yoga for Amputees class, Saturday, April 2, 2 p.m., free, Woodstock Yoga Center, 6 Deming Street, Woodstock; (845) 876-4861, [email protected], www.yogaforamputees.com. Yoga teachers and physical therapists who are interested in learning to assist amputees are also welcome to attend, as are partners of amputees who want to share the experience. The class is for adults only.