By Jivana Heyman
I’ve had so many people tell me, “I’m not flexible enough to do yoga.” Of course, flexibility doesn’t really have anything to do with yoga! So hearing this over and over can be incredibly frustrating. Honestly, it hurts my heart to think of all the people who avoid yoga, or worse, have negative experiences in yoga, because they think it’s about being flexible, strong, and agile.
If only they could see that yoga is about coming home to yourself, and that yoga is a practice for everyone.
I wonder how we got to this point? I guess it’s a combination of factors; a competitive industry with lots of money at stake, a colonizer mindset always looking to brand something, and our generally competitive nature. In many ways, the universal spiritual teachings of yoga are at odds with capitalism. So we’ve had to distort yoga to fit into our cultural norms.
The truth of yoga often isn’t shared or taught because it’s about giving people agency over their body and over their lives. It’s about empowering people to be truly independent. And that kind of independence may not be good for business.
Yoga teachers have an essential role in changing this dynamic. Here are 6 tips for yoga teachers moving toward greater accessibility in our yoga classes.
Before focusing on adapting practices, I ask teachers to start by instructing students in what yoga really is - an inward journey. The first step is to let go of the external orientation of performing poses in order to look a certain way. Rather, begin to explore interoception and the way the mind works. Consider the relationship between the mind and the breath, and the way the mind responds to movement, challenge, and relaxation. Spend time studying yoga scriptures to get a feel for what the ancient teachings hold as the purpose and goal of the practice.
Teaching needs to begin with keeping students safe and empowering them to explore their own limits and potential. Alignment is not a prescribed thing but a way of moving safely. This means understanding common contraindications (such as spinal flexion with osteoporosis), and not judging one form as better or more advanced than another. Yoga is about self-awareness not gymnastics. As Matthew Sanford says, it’s about working from the inside out. Focus on finding the energetic alignment, or the subtle experience.
There are many helpful techniques to make asana accessible, which is a big part of what we explore in the Accessible Yoga Training. These techniques include using props to support the body, changing the orientation of poses, dissecting poses into parts, etc. Teachers can also personally benefit from having experience with adapting poses - since we’re all getting older, and most of us will get injured or sick along the way!
Consider the tone of your instructions. Are you commanding students to move their bodies in particular ways? Or, are you inviting them on an inner exploration? One way to invite students on a journey is to offer many variations of a practice and help them find the level that is best for them. We need to go of the idea that more is better, or that physically advanced asana equals advanced yoga, and we have to be skilled at seeing the practice as a spectrum of possibilities rather than a finite thing.
By offering multiple levels of the same practice we can integrate people of different abilities into the same class rather than constantly segregating people by ability. This is an essential step toward true inclusion of people with disabilities.
Teachers need to find a way to teach practices in an integrated manner - that means teaching to all their students at the same time, rather than teaching one level of the practice to one group of students and then another (usually more gentle) version to another group of students. We can create a unified experience in the class even though from the outside it may look like the students are all doing different things. This integrated experience creates a powerful feeling of equality and cohesion in the group, rather than a hierarchy of "advanced" or "beginner" students.
I'm a big proponent of chair yoga, and I spend a lot of my time trying to show students how you can get much of the benefit of yoga from chair practice. Chair can also be combined with standing/wall work, or bed yoga. The chair is a prop that can add a wide range of participation, and can provide an empowering and positive experience for people who think that yoga is not for them.
With some effort, yoga teachers can transform the way that yoga is taught and practiced to be more inclusive and accessible. We have the power in our hands to open yoga to so many people who may be afraid to practice, or who have been injured or discouraged in the past. In doing so, we are embodying the key teaching of yoga – that we are all connected in spirit.
Join Jivana for a free information session all about the upcoming Accessible Yoga Training Online. At this live webinar, Jivana will address the connection between trauma-informed yoga and accessible yoga, lead a short asana and meditation practice, and hold prize drawings (including a free spot in the training). If you attend live, you'll also get a link that's good for $55 off the training price for 24 hours only.
Jivana Heyman, C-IAYT, E-RYT500, is the founder and director of Accessible Yoga, an international non-profit organization dedicated to increasing access to the yoga teachings. He’s the author of Accessible Yoga: Poses and Practices for Every Body (Shambhala Publications, November 2019), co-owner of the Santa Barbara Yoga Center, and an Integral Yoga Minister. He lives with his husband and two children in Santa Barbara, California.
Jivana has specialized in teaching yoga to people with disabilities with an emphasis on community building and social engagement. Out of this work, the Accessible Yoga organization was created to support education, training and advocacy with the mission of shifting the public perception of yoga. In addition to offering Conferences and Trainings, Accessible Yoga offers a popular ambassador program with over 1000 Accessible Yoga Ambassadors around the world.
Jivana coined the phrase, “Accessible Yoga,” over ten years ago, and it has now become the standard appellation for a large cross section of the immense yoga world. He brought the Accessible Yoga community together for the first time in 2015 for the Accessible Yoga Conference, which has gone on to become a focal point for this movement. There are now two Conferences and over thirty-five Accessible Yoga Trainings per year, as well as a strong underground yoga community supporting them.
Over the past 25 years, Jivana has led countless yoga teacher training programs around the world, and dedicates his time to supporting yoga teachers who are working to serve communities that are under-represented in traditional yoga spaces.