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  • Writer's pictureCharlie Harrison

Accessible Yoga Reaches Out and Invites Everyone In

Updated: Apr 30, 2019

Learning and Gratitude In February, I attended the Accessible Yoga Teacher Training in San Francisco. I LOVED it for so many reasons. First of all, I love learning in the very dorkiest sense of that phrase. 3 days of explanations and stories and diagrams and taking notes and examples and exercises and all the reading before hand really lights my fire. I know that I am fortunate on so many levels, including attending a teacher training to have had this experience starting with the fact that yoga is in my community that I can afford.  Many wise people have come before me and done a lot of living and have chosen to share their experience. For this and much more, I am grateful. Where, Why and Who From the name, you might think that Accessible Yoga is about one's ability. It might bring to mind images of wheelchairs, ramps and ADA bathrooms. You would not be wrong but really it is about ACCESS. Yoga is for anyone that wants to do yoga. Access is in part about teaching in places that are not simple. I have taught in the basement of a library, in a war museum, on an outdoor gazebo at a festival, in a campground game room and most often in cluttered conference rooms. Why hold classes in these odd places? Because that is where the students are and as a teacher, yoga can be the most beneficial when I can meet the students where they are, physically/mentally/emotionally/spiritually. In this training, I was reminded that yoga is happening in all kinds of interesting, non-traditional places. If you want yoga at work during lunch, ask a yoga teacher. If you are reading this you know at least one yoga teacher. If you want yoga at your house, with a few friends, occasionally, ask a yoga teacher. If you know of a non-profit that could use yoga classes for their clients, talk to a yoga teacher. There are ways to work out financial solutions. Be mindful that yoga teachers can not pay rent by volunteering. Next time you are in a yoga class, look around you and notice who is in class with you. Just like you notice your hamstring in Warrior 1. No judgement. No drama. Bring your awareness to the bigger picture of yoga. Consider who feels welcome, consider who feels that this is a place for them. Consider who feels they deserve these benefits, too. We hear that yoga is for everyone, so start to notice who believes it is for them enough to show up in a class.  Do they generally look like you? Do they live in the same area? Are they the same age as you are? Are they similarly shaped? Are they the same gender? Access is also about who we see in our classes as teachers and students. (Personal finances play a huge role in health and wellness access for students and teachers. Maybe I’ll write about that another time.)

Language Matters The words that we choose have an impact. Accessibility in language during a yoga class means that the teacher is not teaching class to an individual doing a single type of practice. It is important for teachers to say upfront that they encourage you to listen to your body, that is in no small part why we are in a yoga class. (There are, of course classes labeled by levels and it is expected that you will have certain skills to participate.) You may have heard or said, “the full expression of the pose”.  For every person, the “ full expression” is different. For example, consider that a person with scoliosis (there are 9 million people with this condition in the US so they could easily be in a yoga class next to you) is in a class in Warrior 3. Keeping their hips square to the mat may not be an option for them so instead they can move their hips towards square. None of us knows exactly what is going on in another person’s body let alone where they have come from. Each of us has a different expression of each pose to some degree. We all come to the mat with different bodies that have lived different lives. Our life experience leaves its mark on our bodies. Furthermore, each day is different. My ‘full’ Warrior 3 used to have both arms rigidly extended out in front. These days, I tend to keep both hands at heart or extend one arm at a time. Maybe someday, it will look different than that.

When we speak in language that is hierarchical, there is implied judgement. This style of speaking positions one thing as superior to another. People assume that we are all going somewhere, like there is a physical goal to in this practice. If that were the case, there would be an end, but there is no end to yoga. You do not finish, there are no winners. That is something else, like a game. Yoga is a way of living with a physical practice as an element. This shines a light on the fact that most yoga students are not aware that the physical movements are one of 8 Limbs of a yoga practice. The poses, asanas, prepare the body for the other parts of a yoga practice. In the physical practice, Tree pose with the foot on the floor is not less of a Tree pose then the one with a foot on the inner thigh and arms spread wide. These are 2 different versions. What does Tree pose teach us? Balance, steadiness of focus, tenacity, the release of comparative thinking, to calm the ego, to be humble and joyful in balance. None of that has relationship to how high up your foot is on your thigh. The student has the right to do their version of Tree and feel all of the same lessons/experiences regardless of where their foot is. Invitational language encourages students to participate. Language that is inclusive does not assume things like gender, flexibility, health or even fitness. By giving options to explore a pose, students develop their own practice. Acknowledgement and connection are fundamental to a next level positive experience. And permission to be right where you are without pushing through or looking for something else is a relief for so many people. Many Points of View The teachers that took this training with me self identified as Japanese, Chinese, female, new to yoga, Pacific Islanders, trauma survivors, Latinas,  immigrants, African American, larger bodied, foreign, gay, married, chronically ill, male, in a wheelchair, never taught a yoga class, scraping by financially, seniors, CIS, wealthy, muscular, young. Many viewpoints were represented and many were not. From all of those points of view came insight into specific needs within the communities that we each teach and live in. We had the opportunity to share ideas about variations in the way that we teach, think, speak, assist and live. We focused on teaching classes to students with various abilities at the same time. We taught a class with people standing and people in a chair and learned how to to address both sets of needs efficiently. For me, this training supported a sense of ease about teaching. I have been able to move away from ideas that I had about teaching yoga the right way to teaching yoga in a way that is right for each person in front of me. Several times throughout the weekend we were reminded that the student knows their own body best. We are each the expert on ourselves and when  we come to yoga we connect to that knowledge. If you are not familiar with Accessible Yoga, I invite you to check out their website  Jivana Heyman is the founder of Accessible Yoga and lead trainer. He and his partner live in Santa Barbara, California with their kids. He owns Santa Barbara Yoga Center. Another thing that I loved about this training was a personal intention that Jivana shared with us. He said that he kept coming across teachers that were doing cool work but were disconnected from a shared sense of community because they taught outside of the typical yoga studio settings. He wanted to help create more support and connection for those teachers and their students so he created Accessible Yoga. As I finished typing this, I realized that his intention has been felt in my life and Erica’s life. I met Erica at the training and she is a yoga teacher for people in larger bodies. She and I have partnered to bring her workshop Big Body Bliss to the studio that I teach in. Accessible yoga as an idea means that we in the yoga community are inviting others to join us literally. We can speak about yoga in an invitational way, we can bring people to classes, we can talk to teachers that we feel connection to, we can say hello to the new person at the studio, we can spend our money with businesses that actively promote the things we think are important.  We can live a life that is connected to our core values. We can live in balance, with alignment between what we say and what we do. We can take the lessons that we learn in our physical asana practice out into our everyday living. This is skill in action. This is effective yoga.

Charlie Harrison,200RYT

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