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Yoga has increased in popularity in recent years, with students of all ages becoming interested for a variety of health benefits. Some look to connect more with their bodies, others aim to lower their stress levels, and some use it to deepen their spirituality. No matter the goal, many people assume that straining to hold yoga poses is what it takes to get there.

But for Natasha Baebler’s students, traditional yoga poses must be re-examined. That’s because many of her students have physical or mental disabilities requiring modifications that many traditional yoga instructors don’t fully understand.

“My job is to help you get the full benefit of each pose and for you to feel things differently in your body than you would on an everyday basis,” Baebler says. “And that’s particularly important when it comes to adaptive yoga, because a lot of the students that I work with may have spinal cord injuries, cerebral palsy, a visual impairment or a hearing impairment, and they’re not used to putting their bodies in certain ways.”

Baebler, the founder of UDyoga, specializes in universal design or adaptive yoga, an inclusive practice that recognizes and removes barriers to yoga for underserved communities. Because students in her classes may be dealing with a variety of impairments or traumas, Baebler offers different modifications to suit each individual’s needs. For example, for “tree pose” – in which a person traditionally balances upon one foot while resting the other foot on his or her inner thigh – one student may keep both feet on the ground, while another may hold onto a chair for balance.

For some students, stretching and moving in comfortable ways can be a revelation.

“They may have been sitting in a wheelchair with their knees together since their injury, other than lying flat on their back in bed. So for them to be able to transfer down onto the floor, spread their legs out, lean over and reach toward one leg … Just to feel that in their body again,” Baebler shakes her head and pauses, remembering. “I mean, I’ve had students go home crying. They were like, ‘I haven’t done this in 15 years!’”

Baebler understands where her students are coming from. As someone who is legally blind and has been through countless physical and occupational therapy sessions for her own impairments, she’s had to figure out how best to make her way independently through a world that’s centered upon able-bodied people. It hasn’t always been easy, but Baebler says that these experiences help her to anticipate her yoga students’ needs and to develop ways she can assist them.

“The reason I can do it is because I know so much about doing it, myself,” Baebler says of her yoga practice. “It’s just using what I’ve been taught and implementing every tool I’ve been given in its appropriate scenario.”

Baebler believes that she is one of only two registered yoga instructors in the country with the requisite 200 hours of training under her belt who also happens to be legally blind. She further differentiates herself with a Master of Arts degree in special education and a second master’s degree in rehabilitation counseling, ensuring that she’s fully prepared to lead stress-prone students through yoga in ways that instructors in traditional studios typically overlook.

“Most of them don’t come into it through an educational background that would make them think, ‘I wonder what else could be going on in this person’s life right now?’” Baebler says. “But you can’t have a teacher who starts class without even talking to the students and asking, ‘Is there anything I need to know? Do you have any injuries that I’m working around? Are you comfortable modifying yourself? Do you feel like hands-on adjustments today, or do you not want me to touch you at all?’”

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Through UDyoga, Baebler teaches universally designed yoga classes, which encompass both physical accessibility and being trauma-informed, in her home, at area studios and through entities like Paraquad and the Special School District (SSD) of St. Louis County – all in physically and emotionally accessible spaces. Baebler says that most of her young students in the FitAbilities yoga program through the SSD have visual impairments, and they take Baebler’s lessons on movement and space to heart, engaging more in their classes and looking to her as a model for how people who are blind can succeed.

“For many of them, they’ve never met another blind adult, much less a blind adult who is out in the real world and not being dragged around by somebody who’s sighted,” Baebler says. “But I hope that by having somebody who is out there living their life despite a disability, they know that if they want to, they can learn how to be out on their own and independent, too.”

“We’re breaking new ground here and showing people that the benefits of yoga are real,” Baebler continues. “For the past two years that we’ve had the program, we’ve gotten hardcore data to show not just social-emotional development or resiliency score growth, but also direct relation to extended core curriculum and direct relation to academic goals for kids.”

For Baebler, that progress means everything, and she anticipates that even more is on the horizon. But for today, knowing that she’s helping people reconnect with their bodies is enough.

“Everybody deserves to be able to do yoga. You can be using an iron lung and still do yoga. It’s just the way yoga is – it transverses any of that ability,” Baebler says with a smile. “You may not physically be doing yoga in your body, but you’re mentally doing yoga. The world needs to know just how universal yoga is, and it’s the whole drive behind what I do.”

UDyoga, Kirkwood and throughout the St. Louis area, 314-628-0345, udforyoga.com

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