In October 2017, accomplished big-wall climber Quinn Brett was 15 pitches and roughly 1,500 feet up the Nose of Yosemite’s El Cap when she fell over 100 feet, hit the top ledge of the Texas Flake, and tumbled down behind the semi-detached rock feature. The impact broke her back and left her paralyzed from the waist down. Despite the life-changing spinal-cord injury, at least one thing has remained constant: “Yoga,” she says, “is still there.”
The adventurous athlete explains that it’s been no small challenge to adapt to her new body, and she’s still learning. “I used to be so acrobatic in my yoga and loved doing arm and balance poses,” she says. “It’s frustrating that those aren’t available to me now, but I’ve been trying to work on what I can.” Now Brett teaches mixed group classes for both able-bodied folks and those in wheelchairs at her studio in Estes Park, Colorado, works with yogis one-on-one online, and also has a virtual video series called Yoga for Paralysis.
She explains why the benefits of yoga are more important than ever since her accident. “My legs don’t move. They’re always in this static, sitting position,” Brett says. Over time that causes certain muscles to shorten and joints to seize, so she depends on yoga to stay limber and help her do adapted versions of sports, like biking. “It’s important to maintain a range of motion, especially in my hips, so I can transfer in and out of my chair, get into a canoe or on a horse, or swing my leg over and around the handlebars of my bike,” she says. Furthermore, sitting all day strains her back, shoulders, and neck. “Tension in my neck is extreme if I don’t do just a little daily routine,” Brett says. “I also have a lot of nerve pain, particularly in my hips. Doing activity doesn’t make the pain go away, but it’s a good distraction, and it just feels like I’m doing something good for my body.”
Brett aims to do yoga at least every other day for 30 to 45 minutes. She is still able to use most of her core, which allows her to move around on the floor and enter certain poses. But she’s had to get creative with modifications and different yoga tools, such as stretching straps and blocks. Below she shares her personal yoga practice for paralysis. This is what works for her, but every person and spinal-cord injury is different. Adapt these moves as necessary.
Since she lacks sensation in her affected limbs, Brett relies on other cues that she may be overstretching to avoid injury. “Know what your body does when you have a pain-type response, and pay attention to that so you’re not hurting yourself,” she says. “I have noticed my legs do a certain involuntary activity when they’re in pain. Like, if cold water hits them, they kind of spasm.” When you meet resistance, pause, then ease into the stretch. Over a few days or weeks, pay attention to the progress you’re making and how your body reacts.