In my opening talk at the first annual Accessible Yoga Conference at the Santa Barbara Yoga Center this September, I asked that all who were present unite in our love of yoga and our desire to share it more broadly. I focused on the need to build a strong community that would both sustain the Accessible Yoga movement, and also support each of us individually. I was told by those who attended that it was unlike any conference they had been to previously, with the main difference being a refreshing absence of competition and a sense of community. The feeling of support was palpable.
As yoga teachers and practitioners, being part of a strong Accessible Yoga community supports both our efforts to share yoga and our own personal practices. According to my teacher, Swami Satchidananda, sangha, or community, is one of the most essential elements of a strong practice. He explained: “The spiritual path is a slippery road. When you are part of a sangha, if you slip, others will lift you up. That is the benefit of sangha. We need the support of others, so let us walk together.”
As yoga teachers and practitioners, being part of a strong Accessible Yoga community supports both our efforts to share yoga and our own personal practices.
Natalie Dunbar, a participant from Los Angeles, said that the highlight of the conference for her was “the feeling of community, the stories shared, and practicing together with people of all shapes, sizes, and abilities.”
The expressed goal of the Accessible Yoga Conference was to ignite the potential that already exists within our diverse yoga community. There were 125 attendees from all over the world. Most were yoga teachers already working to bring yoga to diverse populations and to those with limited access to yogic teachings. There were also yoga practitioners of all abilities, looking for inspiration and community. Katja Sandschneider, who traveled from Germany to attend the conference, said that the best part of the experience was “meeting other yoga teachers with disabilities and having the feeling that I'm not alone in this.”
Our presenters were experienced teachers who had built programs to increase access to yoga: Matthew Sanford, who created Mind Body Solutions; Judy Weaver, founder of Connected Warriors Free Yoga for Vets; Dianne Bondy, creator of Yoga for All; Cheri Clampett, founder of Therapeutic Yoga; JoAnn Lyons of Piedmont Yoga Community; Marsha Danzig, founder of Yoga for Amputees; Haris Lender, creator of Accessible Kidding Around Yoga; Melanie Klein, cofounder of the Yoga and Body Image Coalition; and Jessica Rhodes, director of Yoga Seed Collective.
In order to support the amazing work being done by all of the participants and presenters, we named them Accessible Yoga Ambassadors—diplomats in the field of Accessible Yoga. These Ambassadors are beacons of light, bringing yoga teachings to communities normally without access.
What we really need to stretch is our own minds and our image of what a yoga practitioner looks like.
Communities without access include people of all shapes and sizes, all colors and kinds. They include people with physical disabilities, developmental disabilities, and invisible disabilities such as chronic illness, emotional challenges, and PTSD. They include seniors, veterans, people with vision or hearing impairment, people with larger bodies, and people who simply don’t feel comfortable in a mainstream yoga class setting. In other words—most of us! This list reminds us that what we really need to stretch is our own minds and our image of what a yoga practitioner looks like. The reality is that if you have a body and a mind, you can do yoga.
Issues of accessibility and inclusivity extend also to race, sexual orientation, and gender identity. Dianne Bondy explains: “Accessible Yoga is about identifying the barriers that keep underserved and marginalized populations away from yoga. Accessible Yoga is about having a place for everyone on the mat, whether it is asana, philosophy, meditation, contemplation, or self-expression. The message of yoga is that all beings are welcome!”
Financial accessibility is another major consideration. We were able to offer 27 full scholarships to the conference and are committed to continuing to do so for future conferences. For classes, workshops, trainings, retreats, and conferences to be truly accessible, they need first to be financially accessible.
The time has come for us to take yoga back. Yoga isn’t owned by corporations or clothing companies. It is a beautiful gift to the world that we can all unwrap and enjoy. Yoga provides tools that offer us moments of peace and can lead to lives of dedication and fulfillment. We can all be Accessible Yoga Community Ambassadors by making a commitment to reach out to people without access to the teachings of yoga, and by continuing to practice and embody the teachings in our own lives.
We’re planning next year’s Accessible Yoga Conference for September 16-18, 2016, in Santa Barbara, California. To get more information and to find out about becoming an Accessible Yoga Community Ambassador, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org or visit our website, www.accessibleyoga.org.