Life reimagined: Yoga therapy for amputees

By Marsha T. Danzig

Yoga philosophy views every student as whole and complete. A well-designed yoga practice is a specific invitation to re-remember our essential wholeness, regardless of the physical body’s form. Amputees deal with unique challenges—phantom pain, anxiety in relearning daily tasks, grief over limb loss, alignment issues, body-image difficulties—many of which yoga therapy can ease.

On a physical level, certain muscle groups are affected by over- and underuse, so a yoga therapist might address shortened hip flexors and tight gluteals for lower-limb amputees and compensating smaller muscles in the neck and mid-back for arm amputees. Prosthetics can be heavy, potentially straining muscles and tendons, and the muscles around residual limbs need to be strengthened to prevent atrophy because of changes in use as well as compression from a prosthesis.  

Amputees must develop innovative skills for navigating the space around them, and a qualified yoga therapist can build on these abilities. Learning to be present with the body they now possess is vital to amputees’ healing and well-being.

For some, the pain suffered after limb loss can be catastrophic, demanding every ounce of willpower just to get through the day. Such students will benefit from opportunities to feel good in their bodies rather than focusing on healing their pain.

For others, losing the limb is a relief, representing the end of a long struggle and freedom at no longer having to drag around a physical reminder of years of lost enthusiasm for living. These students may enjoy more challenging poses, as well as more moments of stillness to enjoy being present with the body they now possess.

Being an amputee requires much mental energy. After limb loss, amputees quickly learn the art of resilience and mindfulness, but they may also become mentally fatigued and have trouble sleeping because of the daily strategizing it takes to move through the day. Imagine the simple act of walking through a busy store. Now imagine the same task as an amputee, who must continually monitor the floor surface and bodies around her so she does not fall.

Through yoga poses, a steady gaze, and calm breathing, amputees learn to maintain focus, develop better balance (always a plus for leg amputees in particular), and build strong core muscles, which increase physical capabilities, improve gait, and support better range of motion in the upper body. The yogic practice of repetitive movement establishes new neural pathways in the brain, which can help to create a more positive outlook on life.

Losing a limb takes an emotional toll. Yoga therapy’s physical poses and breathing techniques help with releasing strong emotions and staying in the present moment. This builds confidence and helps amputees regain some control over body, mind, and spirit, returning home to themselves.

Marsha T. Danzig, MEd, C-IAYT, RYT 500, is a below-knee amputee, yoga therapist, and founder of Yoga for Amputees.