In 2002, at age 38, Joe Dailey had his life take an irrevocable turn. A father of two teenage boys, competitive runner, and construction manager, he was in a near-fatal car accident that paralyzed him from the chest down. Joe spent a month in intensive care, the next nine months in rehab, and had to breathe through a tracheostomy tube for almost two and a half years after that. In rehab, he was taught to use his upper-body strength to maneuver in a wheelchair. The message he kept receiving: “Focus on your upper body, on what you have, and forget about the rest of your body.”

But Joe had always loved being active, loved the physical thrill of playing basketball and of running—he’d competed in three full marathons and several half marathons. He mourned this loss of physical prowess, feeling a pang of grief when he’d see runners out on a sunny day. So in 2006, he went looking for an activity he could do despite being unable to move his legs. At a local rehab center, he found an adaptive yoga class taught by paraplegic Iyengar Yoga teacher Matt Sanford.

Joe was hooked on day one. Sanford directed the students to get on the floor, and four class assistants helped Joe get out of his chair and laid him on a mat. In the four years since his accident, Joe had lived his life suspended three feet in the air, in his chair or in bed. “When I got on the floor, I felt connected again,” he says. “I don’t know any other way to describe it. The able-bodied walk on the earth every day, touching the ground. A person in a wheelchair is always hovering above it.”

Joe started taking yoga weekly and began to regain a sense of whole-body awareness that he’d thought was lost to him forever. He learned how to do many yoga poses unassisted—twists, passive backbends, even modified Sun Salutations, which he does by pressing his hands into the back of a couch to stretch into versions of Downward Dog and Cobra. With help, he experiences many other poses, including sitting upright on the floor in Dandasana.

Sanford teaches his paralyzed patients using yoga cues similar to those you’d hear in any class, like: “Sit up tall and push down through your feet.” When he initially heard this, Joe says, “My first thought was, ‘I’m paralyzed from my chest down; I can’t push through my feet. I don’t know what this guy is smoking!’” But he tried, and inexplicably it worked. He experienced an awareness of pushing his feet down into the floor, or into his wheelchair foot pedals. And this awareness has been transformative, improving his balance and body confidence so much that he can now transfer himself from his chair to his bed without assistance, making him much more independent.

The sensation Joe most misses from his pre-accident life is that of crossing the finish line of a marathon: “You’ve run 26.5 miles and there’s not a part of you you’re not aware of. You’re in this place where everything’s quivering and alive and you can feel everything. After my accident, I thought I’d lost that feeling for good. But in yoga, I’ve found it again.”

Originally published in Yoga Journal, Nov 19, 2014

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