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Peter Oliver, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2002, says yoga has given him a more positive attitude.

Sean McGrath

Take a deep breath and forget about the hyper-flexible, New-Age, spandex-sporting stereotype: Yoga can be beneficial for any body. That's the mission of an alternative yoga practice in New Brunswick at least, which is targeting people with disabilities, chronic illness and other mobility issues to give it a try.

The man behind the Inclusive Yoga courses, Jason Maclean, kicked off a series of three free classes in Saint John on June 1. Maclean's first class attracted 70 participants with a range of physical abilities, including those who are blind, hearing impaired and paraplegic, and he hopes to expand the program to make yoga more available and barrier-free year round.

"Yoga is an effective tool for dealing with emotional, physical and mental pain," Maclean said. "It's very empowering … and the one thing I keep seeing is that anybody can do this … there is always something [in yoga] that is applicable."

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The courses run through a variety of breathing and stretching techniques, hoping to inspire individuals with disabilities to explore their own potential.

"The way I see it is I'm exposing people to a toolkit; they can take what they want out of it," Maclean said.

Doctors and physical therapists are increasingly using yoga for the mind as well as the body. The psychological and spiritual aspects of yoga – meditation, breathing exercises and concentration techniques – are also perceived mental-health benefits that have an impact on overall wellness.

A study published last month in the Medical Care journal of the American Public Health Association found those experiencing the residual effects of heart disease, lung disease and stroke reported benefits from yoga, and symptoms of anxiety were reduced after yoga in individuals who had suffered a stroke. The study found that yoga, in some cases, improved exercise capacity and health-related quality of life, and "may be a useful adjunct to formal rehabilitation programs."

"Doing something is better than nothing," says Dr. Dina Brooks, a professor in the department of physical therapy at the University of Toronto who was part of the team that authored the study. "[When] going for a walk is overwhelming [for those undergoing rehabilitation], yoga is a great place to start. It gives patients more confidence," she said. "I would definitely offer it as an option … though it has to be adapted to their level."

Peter Oliver, 51, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2002. After practising with Maclean for a year, Oliver says he even surprised himself in terms of what he was capable of.

Oliver uses blocks, chairs and the wall to help stabilize postures such as the plank or to support his stance in warrior one. He elevates his arms on blocks in child's pose to recreate the upper body component of downward dog, and uses straps to strengthen his arms when they extend over his head. Oliver says he often incorporates new positions and poses from every new session into his home and gym practice as he gains momentum.

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"It's given me a more positive attitude," Oliver said. Mindfulness, he says, has also been a "boon for his self-confidence."

Today, he is helping to fight the perception that yoga is only for those who are fully mobile.

"It's very easy to see someone that is different and make assumptions … but there are many activities that can be modified slightly to allow people with physical difficulties to get some of the pleasure and benefits from it."

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