Limited cultural narratives surrounding body image and thus self-worth seem to come with the yoga territory, leaving many people feeling either unwelcome to the yoga mat or uncomfortable in studio spaces that pack largely homogeneous crowds. But yoga belongs to everyone: people of all abilities, ethnicities, genders, sexual orientations, and ages. This is the message of Accessible Yoga—a movement founded by adaptive yoga teacher Jivana Heyman.
According to Accessible Yoga’s mission statement, their goal is to share the practices and benefits of yoga with anyone who doesn’t currently have access to them: “By building a strong network and advocating for a diverse yoga culture that is inclusive and welcoming, we are sharing yoga with all.” Acting on this mission, they’ve held conferences since 2014 to unite teachers and students committed to inclusivity. Previous conferences (one of which YI filmed, and you can access it here) have been held in North America, but this year, to expand the growing network of progressive yogis, the conference is headed to Europe—specifically Germany, October 19 to 21.
Heyman is particularly excited that the AYC found a hotel outside Berlin that is owned by a disability advocacy organization and designed from top to bottom to be completely accessible. “[The hotel] will be the perfect place for us to spend a weekend together connecting and learning about the essence of the practice and how we can reach more and more people,” Heyman says enthusiastically. “Accessible Yoga is about disability rights and human rights. Many yoga spaces are inaccessible and exclusive, which often means that those who need access to the practices don’t get them.”
"The need for yoga is percolating today through the most subtle layers of societies."
We at Yoga International support the mission to make yoga more inclusive, and across the globe many yoga teachers are also on board: “The need for yoga is percolating today through the most subtle layers of societies,” Alessandra Umi Cocchi, a co-organizer of AYC Europe, emphasizes. “As Accessible Yoga trainers we are being called in many countries to develop teachers’ understanding and abilities toward accessibility. So many teachers are already making yoga accessible without even knowing about a dedicated organization. This conference comes up as a bell ringing in a city center. It is a great continuing education opportunity that offers empowerment, knowledge, clarity of vision, and motivation for us all.”
Among the class offerings at AYC Europe are yoga for larger bodies, yoga for people with autism, chair yoga, yoga for people living with disabilities, and more.
If you’re a large-bodied yogi or teach to a larger-bodied population, you’ll want to check out the workshop taught by Curvesomeyoga founder Donna Noble. “Yoga is for every body, and yet there’s a misunderstanding that it’s for a select few—that it’s a ‘pretzelesque’ practice for highly flexible and thin people,” she says. In her workshop, she will explore customizable practices that meet practitioners where they are, making the postures work for the individual. “You can bring your questions and we’ll remove barriers to the poses that make them feel less accessible in your body,” Noble adds.
If you’re more inclined toward the cerebral, or your body just needs a break from the physical practice, scholar Theo Wildcroft will be exploring the various ways we are “moved” by the practice of yoga. “Yoga is one route to understanding how we are shaped by differences in mobility, emotional expression, and empathetic understanding,” she says, adding, “Understanding that there are many ways to move and be moved is at the heart of all forms of yoga that aim to be inclusive and accessible.” Her session will shed light on how practitioners and teachers can use insights from movement researchers, combined with their personal experience, to explore new ways of relating to one another. “Through those reflections, we can bring more awareness and compassion to how we meet our students, clients, colleagues, and ourselves,” Wildcroft shares. “And from that place, we can help each other to find more agency, and more ease, in how we allow ourselves to move and be moved.”
"Making yoga accessible to everyone is not an act of giving. It is not something that one group does for another. It is ultimately an act of truthfulness."
And the keynote speaker of AYC Europe will be Matthew Sanford, the author of the remarkable memoir Waking. “The yogic insights of connectedness and unity are infinitely vast, and this levels the playing field for all practitioners,” says Sanford. “In some profound sense, this means there are no ultimate teachers and there are no students. There are only people participating and sharing in yogic realization. Making yoga accessible to everyone is not an act of giving. It is not something that one group does for another. It is ultimately an act of truthfulness. The principles of yoga do not discriminate, but the ignorance of people does. Together, this is something we can change.”
For the full schedule and list of presenters visit the Accessible Yoga website. And for additional resources, watch the online 2015 conference and take this “sit or stand” Accessible Yoga class that we filmed at the Accessible Yoga Conference in Toronto this year.