Who is yoga for? Who most needs the teachings, and how do we share them? Most importantly, how do we make yoga safe and accessible for everyone?
These are the questions Jivana Heyman, creator of Accessible Yoga and the Accessible Yoga Conference (AYC), is devoted to answering. Heyman’s mission is to share the benefits of yoga with anyone who currently does not have access to it, and with communities that have been excluded or underserved. “Originally, I wanted to create a platform for teachers who were doing the kind of work I admired,” Heyman says. “There was no platform to highlight these people because there is little support for yoga teachers who work outside of the traditional, corporate model. Yoga is deeply meaningful and effective when there’s pain and struggle in your life, and commercial yoga is not interested in serving that population. Essentially, we’re hoarding by not sharing it. We’ve hidden it and disguised it as something it’s not—[implying] that you have to be a fit or athletic person to do it. This conference is about making yoga safe, inclusive, and welcoming to everyone—and making the world a better place by being kind and loving, by getting over yourself.”
This June 22 to 24, Toronto is hosting an AYC conference. One of the keynote speakers will be Dianne Bondy, celebrated yoga teacher, social-justice activist, and leading voice in the yoga-for-all movement. “I’m excited about the Accessible Yoga Conference in Toronto because the Accessible Yoga Conference is one of the only yoga conferences in the world that takes into consideration that all bodies are yoga bodies,” she says. “AY teaches the collective that everyone deserves access to this practice. The conference trains teachers to be more understanding and more in tune with the needs of students who are practicing in nonconforming bodies. It’s a great way to take your teaching to the next level. Toronto also happens to be my favorite city in the world.”
At the Toronto conference, classes will be offered in inclusive chair yoga, yoga for large bodies, pranayama for diverse populations, feminist yoga and the ethics of care, developmental movement, yoga for underserved seniors, living and teaching yoga with mental health challenges, best practices in therapeutic yoga, yoga for the special child, working with cancer patients, yoga for stress-related illnesses, yoga service and social justice, yoga for PTSD, building a sustainable practice, and consent and gender in yoga.
One of the presenters, Tobias Wiggins, will be covering the “hot” topic of consent in yoga. “The topic of consent has risen to the forefront in mainstream media of late, but what larger dialogues sometimes overlook is how consent (or the lack of it) is a part of the subtle fabric of everyday life,” Wiggins says. “In yoga class, this often manifests in adjustments or touch without established consent, a dynamic that is compounded further by the gender identity of students and instructors. I love that the AYC is taking steps to expand [the conversation] about accessibility to [also address] social issues—like race, gender, class, and sexuality—these are topics that have a huge impact on our yoga practice and overall health.”
Physical therapist Shelly Prosko will also be at the Toronto conference, offering a workshop called Your Brain on Pain: Bridging Science and Yoga in Pain Care. According to Prosko, “There is a good chance that people in pain will be participating in our yoga classes since there are approximately 100 million Americans, 1 in 5 adult Canadians, and 1.5 billion people worldwide who suffer from persistent (or chronic) pain. There are more people living with chronic pain than diabetes, cancer, and heart disease combined. We also have growing evidence supporting the use of yoga as a potentially safe and effective approach to reducing pain and improving functional outcomes for people with persistent pain and pain-associated disorders. Yoga classes in the community are often not appropriate or accessible for people in pain for a variety of reasons, one of which is that yoga teachers may not have the appropriate training to work with people in persistent pain and they may not understand or be informed by contemporary pain science. So the common advice given is to listen to your body and stop if it hurts. Although this may appear to be sound advice in the short term, it often isn’t effective as a long-term pain self-management technique. This is one of the issues we will be addressing in my workshop.”
Writer, editor, and speaker Linda Sparrowe will also be presenting, offering “Yoga is Now,” an interactive talk that will use the lens of the yamas and the niyamas to explore common questions students ask themselves, such as How much weight should I lose?, How much more flexible should I be?, and Should I be stronger? “Even longtime students and yoga teachers have goals of becoming, Sparrowe says. They want yoga to help them become stronger, more flexible, more balanced, kinder, or more spiritual. That’s not what yoga’s about. We get enough of that in our day-to-day lives—we strive to be better parents, smarter or more capable bosses and coworkers, friendlier neighbors, and more engaged community leaders. Who wants to then go to yoga and continue striving? Who wants a practice that keeps us feeling ‘not enough’ or ‘not quite yet’? I want my practice to help me discover who I already am, help me acknowledge and embrace all of me with loving curiosity. Yoga is not about getting somewhere else or being someone different. It’s about opening to where and who you actually are. It’s about being in relationship to all you are. It’s about living life on purpose.”
The list of Toronto presenters also includes:
- seasoned yoga teacher Diane Bruni, who will lead participants in developmental movement, addressing the fear related to getting up from the floor that frequently occurs as people age
- physician and yoga therapist Shailla Vaidya, who will provide a bottom-up practice for stress release that is accessible to those with chronic inflammatory illnesses
- Vice President of the Yoga Service Council Carol Horton, leading a workshop on exploring thoughts and feelings related to direct service work. Guided meditation, simple movement, journaling, and partner work will be offered.
“I remember when I first started doing this work, I felt so isolated and alone, and now I feel like I’m part of something much bigger,” Heyman says. “The conference has been the support for this worldwide network to grow and expand, which is why the theme of our Toronto conference is Embracing Community. It’s ironic how the yoga practices are so internal and personal, but they don’t really work in isolation. We need the external support of sangha, spiritual community, to be able to dive deep within ourselves.”
And the Toronto sangha promises to be substantial. In celebration of the International Day of Yoga on June 21, the conference will be hosting what may be the world’s largest Accessible Yoga Class. Jivana Heyman, Mary-Jo Fetterly, and Dianne Bondy will lead conference participants, Accessible Yoga Ambassadors, teachers, and students around the world in a 30-minute chair yoga class via Skype.
For more information about the Accessible Yoga Conference in Toronto , and to purchase tickets, visit accessibleyoga.org/toronto.