“When I first came into a yoga class I wanted to do every pose to its fullest extent. I wanted to touch the floor in Trikonasana!” Ryan McGraw said confidently over skype in late January. Ryan was introduced to yoga by his mother at age 19 in an effort to strengthen his posture and increase flexibility while living with Cerebral Palsy. Ryan noted the physical and mental benefits of Yoga from his first class. It wasn’t until Ryan’s third year of practicing that he realized something wasn’t right. He went to a level ⅔ Hatha class, and for the first time,
“I thought, ‘I shouldn’t be here.’ I needed to respect the needs of my body.”
The same teacher that allowed him to participate in level ⅔ that day introduced him to chair yoga. This gave Ryan the excuse and the inspiration to explore a modified personal practice. “Now I put a block there, a chair here, if I need to!”
It was in his junior year at Kalamazoo College that he first heard a little voice in his head telling him he should teach. The motivation, he said, didn’t manifest for another six or seven years. Working at the National Center on Physical Activity and Disability as a graduate assistant helped him build his confidence. And the support he gathered from the Chicago disabled community forced him to grow. Now, certified with 200 hours from Prairie Yoga in Lisle, Illinois, Ryan teaches private and small group classes in Chicago. He practices primarily Hatha Yoga at Yoga Circle with the incomparable Gabriel Halpern. Despite years of experience, education, and practice Ryan admits to being his harshest critic. “The struggle I have as a person with a disability going into teaching a (yoga) class of able bodied is: am I going to be taken seriously? And with teaching people who have a disability I have doubts I’m not doing something right. I’m constantly looking for constructive criticism.”
Personal empowerment is a key component of Ryan’s teaching on and off the mat. As co-coordinator for Chicago ADAPT, a grassroots disability rights organization, it’s Ryan’s job to encourage persons with disabilities to live independently. When Ryan isn’t practicing yoga he’s often a man about town. Going to concerts, or to the theater, swimming, biking, and running. I (your humble author) met Ryan at a Paratriathlon training camp with Dare2Tri, where athletes of various disabilities are trained to swim 500 yards, bike 15 miles, and run a 5K. Though, I’m not sure many yogis would agree, Ryan McGraw would describe the process as exhilarating! The sport had been on his mind for a number of years and as one of the most confident athletes I would have thought Ryan a seasoned pro. It wasn’t until we had a few hours of downtime that I discovered it was his first camp, and that a strong yoga presence underlined his enthusiasm. As we reminisced during his interview he was keen to remind me that it was he who told me about the First Annual Accessible Yoga Conference last year.
Ryan received one of Accessible Yoga's scholarships to last year’s conference and an opportunity to study with Matthew Sanford. Ryan is fast to compliment the conference and training for it’s inclusion.”More often than not you see therapeutic training but you rarely see a person with a disability there. The Accessible Yoga movement really puts its money where its mouth is. Where persons with disabilities are included.They understand them.”
Ryan is clearly passionate about changing the concept of what yoga is. Ryan doesn’t teach a lot, but when he does he tries to impart on his students with disabilities to strengthen their bodies and take care of themselves. He prides himself on his ability to adapt to the needs of his students, and have a sense of humor in class. “I take a lot from my own practices into my teachings, “he says, “I would like to teach and show to as many people as possible that yoga can be accessible to all, no matter what their ability level is.”
Ryan is a 200 hour certified Yoga instructor, has a Masters Degree in Disability and Human Development from University of Illinois at Chicago, and is currently breathing/teaching in Chicago, Il. You can find him teaching Hatha Yoga with Dare 2 Tri on a monthly basis and adaptive Yoga workshops across the country. His website is www.Access2Yoga.com