I used to think being disabled meant that I couldn’t do yoga. I bought into the stereotype that yoga was only for skinny, flexible, able-bodied people without health or physical challenges. Adaptive yoga changed my perception. Once I began adapting poses while sitting in a chair, my yoga path was revealed. You can read more about my journey at YogiAble.com.
Now that I’m a certified yoga teacher who teaches adaptive chair yoga, I love dispelling yoga misconceptions. In my view, anyone who does yoga is a yogi. And since we’re all able to do yoga, everyone is yogi able.
In an effort to make yoga classes more inclusive, I’m sharing five ways that we, as teachers, can open our classes to everyone. Some suggestions may seem obvious, but even a small shift in thinking can make a difference for an adaptive student. Your choice to teach more inclusively will deflate yoga stereotypes. Our community grows stronger when we open yoga to all.
Besides arriving early and staying late to answer questions, yoga teachers can do other things to create an inclusive atmosphere. When someone with physical challenges enters your classroom, they may feel vulnerable or too embarrassed to ask for help or modifications. Try to be proactive but don’t interrogate adaptive yogis about their challenges. Develop an open manner in your approach—ask questions with curiosity and kindness. But then, shift your thinking, allowing this to be a growth opportunity for all. The student-teacher dynamic is a sacred bond. Respect the bond by welcoming and encouraging all yogis. Let students know their voices matter in your class and you’re honored to introduce them to yoga. The end result would be a diverse yoga culture that accepts everyone.
In my adaptive classes, I stay away from phrases like “full expression of the pose.” Everyone’s pose will look different because we’re living in different bodies with different challenges. My favorite way to create a more accessible yoga experience is to teach inner awareness as physical sensation. Encourage students to trust their knowledge of their bodies. Share examples of what a sensation feels like in your body, yes, but also ask students to dive into their own experiences. You might ask: What does the sensation feel like? or how does that feel in your body? Focusing on internal success can broaden outdated definitions of yoga and improve the mind and body connection. When we model that yoga can be more than physical asana, we expand stereotypical ideas of yoga.
Modifying poses exercises freedom of choice. Instead of showing the final result of a pose, build poses from the ground up and teach adaptations first. This method not only teaches yoga basics but also empowers yogis to explore nontraditional ways to come in and out of poses. You might use tools such as a chair, a wall, a yoga strap, bolsters, and blocks. Yoga tools help practitioners explore sensations in the body, and they enhance the yoga experience.
Big picture: Yoga is a series of choices that allow us to tailor poses to fit our individual bodies. When we encourage students to choose the movement that feels good in their bodies, we give them the chance to reclaim their own power, which can lead to self-acceptance.
Just because we spent hours creating the perfect sequence doesn’t mean all will go as planned in yoga class. There are many factors and dynamics to consider in a yoga classroom. Leave yourself space to stop, slow down, and instruct a pose slowly with modifications. Remind students that they don’t need to push or strain to receive the benefits of yoga. I love pausing class to encourage play in poses. If a planned sequence gets disrupted, I go with the flow and take things in a different direction. These are opportunities to breathe life into our classes. Don’t be afraid to mix it up—there’s room to be creative in yoga class. Give yourself and your students this gift.
Most yoga teachers are out-of-the-box thinkers. We can teach yoga tradition and still experiment and try new things. For instance, at the end of class or after savasana, have you ever thought about forming a circle and asking yogis to share their experiences? Unorthodox, perhaps, but it’s a creative way to build community. If we want every student to feel part of the yoga experience, sharing inspires connection and spurs yogis to go deeper.
Yoga teachers are not healers; we help students find and accept themselves where they are right now. The power of yoga is within all of us, and once yogis realize that they are the experts on their own bodies, they gain self-confidence and take ownership of their practices. Thinking outside the box is sometimes the best way to serve students on this journey.
Remember: Everyone can benefit from improved access to yoga. Welcoming yogis of all abilities into our classrooms improves our community. It illustrates acceptance. By giving greater access and being of service to all, we build a more diverse yoga community, which gives dignity to everyone.