From Wheelchair to Walking: For This Teen, Yoga Therapy Brought a Miracle

Fourteen year-old “Mary” had been debilitated by chronic pain for years. Despite two surgeries to treat gastro-esophageal reflex disease (GERD), she suffered from incapacitating abdominal and chest pain, vomiting, depression, anxiety, sleep and eating problems, and weight loss.

By the time she met Lonnie Zeltzer, M.D. of the UCLA Pediatric Pain Program (PPP), she was unable to sleep, attend school, or socialize with her friends, and was confined to a wheelchair. Traditional medical treatments, including surgery, anti-depressive medications, and psychotherapy were ineffective in treating her fear of eating, vomiting and pain.

After meeting Mary and learning of her complex medical history, Dr. Lonnie Zeltzer prescribed Iyengar yoga as complementary therapy. Mary was asked to attend 2, one-hour yoga classes per week. The Pediatric Pain Program at UCLA offers Iyengar yoga practices specifically targeted to the individual’s health concerns. The program described for Mary included yoga postures to develop strength, improve mood and ease symptoms of abdominal pain.

“Mary was very thin, weak and withdrawn when I met her,” says Beth Sternlieb, a yoga instructor with the UCLA Pediatric Pain clinic. “She had been through so much that she had lost faith in her body.”

Sternlieb initially selected upright, seated, restorative postures to elongate Mary’s throat and abdomen, and allow her to relax. Chairs, bolsters and other props permitted her to hold restorative, back bending poses for 5-10 minutes each.

Mary took to the practice readily. “She learned to distinguish between pain that indicated something is wrong and pain that comes from healthy movement as a result of breaking up of scar tissue, weakness, and restricted movement,” says Sternlieb. “The support of props allowed her to be less vigilant about protecting her throat.”

After receiving her own props, Mary regularly practiced restorative poses at home and became very committed to her practice. In the course of several months she moved from a wheelchair to one-legged poses and advanced forearm balances thanks to Sternlieb’s systematic, incremental approach to building strength and confidence.

For Mary, the results were nothing short of miraculous. By the midpoint of her treatment she experienced less abdominal pain and was able to eat more and gain weight. She no longer required a wheelchair and became physically stronger, trying increasingly more demanding poses. She became more empowered and willing to face her fears.

Four months after beginning treatment Mary’s eating patterns had returned to normal and she had reached normal body weight. She was sleeping well, her mood had improved, and her abdominal and esophageal pain had disappeared. Within a year she was symptom-free, and had returned to school and an active social life.

Mary’s improvement was so dramatic that researchers at UCLA decided to publish a paper about her case in the journal Alternative Therapies.

“A lot of people don’t realize that they will be able to do yoga,” says Subhadra Evans, PhD, lead author in a case study paper. “Self efficacy and self confidence really opens” as a function of yoga practice. This was definitely the case for Mary.

“It was remarkable to have the opportunity to do something like this,” notes Sternlieb. “It was like watering a flower, she became perkier and perkier… The body has a remarkable capacity to heal. You have to meet the person where they’re at. If you meet them [there] a lot of change becomes possible.”

UCLA’s Pediatric Pain Program is an exceptional example of integrative medicine at its finest. Their mission is to develop new models of health care that integrate a diverse array of complementary healing arts and sciences such as acupuncture, yoga therapy, and art therapy, and to train professionals to use these modalities. Their family-focused model empowers children and their families to select tailored treatment approaches that meet their individual needs.

The program includes research on the effects of yoga therapy for children with rheumatoid arthritis, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and other chronic pain conditions. The sky is the limit according to Dr. Evans, who hopes to receive additional funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to continue to better understand how yoga works, for whom and how much is needed to have an effect.

This is truly a brave new world for modern health care, and Mary and children like her are at the forefront of a yoga therapy revolution.

B Grace Bullock, PhD, E-RYT 500 is a psychologist, research scientist, educator, author, yoga and mindfulness expert and creator ofBREATHE: 7 Skills for Mindful Relationships. Her mission is to reduce stress, increase health and wellbeing and improve the quality of relationships. She offers classes, workshops, writing and research that combine the wisdom of applied neuroscience, psychophysiology, psychology and contemplative science and practice. Her goal is to empower individuals, groups, leaders and organizations to reduce chronic stress and increase awareness, attention, compassion, mindfulness and effective communication to strengthen relationships, release dysfunctional patterns and unlock new and healthy ways of being. Dr. Bullock is a Certified Viniyoga Therapist and Faculty at the Integrated Health Yoga Therapy (IHYT) Training program. She is the former Senior Research Scientist at the Mind & Life Institute and former Editor-in-Chief of the International Journal of Yoga Therapy. For more information see

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