This is the second individual spotlight in series two of the “This Is What a Yogi Looks Like” (#whatayogilookslike) media series, a collaboration between the Yoga and Body Image Coalition and Yoga International based on the YBIC campaign that launched in 2014 and their continued work in challenging stereotypes, growing community, working collaboratively, and highlighting the diversity of yoga practitioners and yoga practices, as well as their staunch commitment to diversifying yoga media.
Jivana Heyman is the founder of Accessible Yoga, which is an international organization dedicated to sharing yoga with all. Currently, Accessible Yoga offers annual conferences, teacher training programs around the world, ambassador programs, and soon an online registry. Jivana is also co-owner of the Santa Barbara Yoga Center, manager of the San Francisco Integral Yoga Institute, and an Integral Yoga minister.
Jivana, I just love the image on your Facebook page: “Ask me about yoga.” What does it mean to you to be an Accessible Yoga ambassador?
The Accessible Yoga Conference grew out of my teaching yoga for people with disabilities over the past 20 years. I was interested in connecting with other teachers in this field, and I was looking for a way to make that happen. Our first conference last year was an incredible convergence of energy for our community—yoga teachers and students who are dedicated to bringing yoga to people of all abilities and backgrounds. At the conference, it became clear that our community needs a platform to launch from, and I see Accessible Yoga as an ongoing organization serving in this way. When we collaborate and support each other we can be a powerful force for creating a new yoga culture that is inclusive, loving, and accessible.
The Accessible Yoga Conference grew out of my teaching yoga for people with disabilities over the past 20 years.
There are so many amazing teachers out there serving in beautiful ways—bringing yoga to marginalized individuals and communities. I want to support them in gaining a wider audience for their work, and to help potential yoga students find the right teachers. I see Accessible Yoga as an advocacy and professional networking group for anyone who is teaching yoga to marginalized communities, or to people who don’t think yoga is for them. Actually, I think the target audience for Accessible Yoga is the majority of people out there—everyone who looks at the cover of a yoga magazine and thinks, “There is no way that I could do that, or ever look like that.” Those are my people.
The Accessible Yoga Ambassador program is an effort to empower people to share the teachings of yoga. Anyone who's inspired by yoga can be one of our ambassadors. You don't have to look good in leggings, you just have to love yoga and want to share it. “Ask me about yoga” is a motto that inspires inquiry and encourages us to ask what yoga really is. It’s about starting conversations and putting ourselves out there as teachers and leaders.
So, after following your work for a while, I am wondering: why is the accessibility of yoga important to you? What were you like before you started practicing and teaching yoga? Yoga has really always been part of my life. I practiced with my grandmother when I was a child and then again after college more consistently. When I didn’t practice during my teenage years, I found myself disconnected, confused, stressed, and lost. Those years were challenging because I was coming out of the closet as a gay man. Without yoga my problems seemed overwhelming, and now looking back I see it was all a matter of perspective.
Yoga offers a new perspective by lifting us out of worry and anxiety to see our minds and our lives with more clarity. It's like the difference between walking down the street totally absorbed in the world and flying overhead in an airplane, looking down, and seeing the big picture. Life can feel like a maze that we get trapped in, and through yoga we can rise above and easily see the path that will lead us to freedom.
I think yoga has changed my priorities and helped me see the importance of service, which basically means thinking of others and not just myself. When I feel like I'm really being of service I feel most connected with the world and in the flow. Through service I feel like my life has meaning. I have always been inspired by the famous German psychologist Viktor Frankl who talked about man's search for meaning, and showed that meaning—or service—can lift us up and give us the will to keep on living. To me, sharing yoga and connecting people with their own strength has been the most meaningful experience and format for my service.
Yoga has changed my priorities and helped me see the importance of service.
How does yoga promote diversity, positivity, and inclusiveness?
Well, in the Yoga Sutra, Patanjali explains that when we are not in touch with the truth we are simply identifying with thoughts in our minds. Maybe this is obvious, but to me this is an interesting concept: identity is simply identification with certain thoughts in our minds. My point is that to transcend our limited identities we connect with the Source within. This is the goal of yoga and real empowerment. At that level of the Divine Source we are all one, we are all equal, and we are all, in fact, the same. Yoga is a great equalizer.
This is the main way that yoga can promote inclusiveness, diversity, and positivity. Yoga comes out of a positive philosophy that begins with the idea that we are already whole. Our challenge in this life is not to become spiritual, but to remove the obstacles to our own experience of the truth.
The teachings say that we are facing five major obstacles to this understanding (klesha): ignorance of our inner nature, ego, attachment, aversion, and fear of death. Yoga practice is designed to remove these obstacles. Whether or not we intend to confront these obstacles, it happens anyway. A longtime student of mine once told me that he was glad that he had AIDS because otherwise he would never have gone on a spiritual journey and ended up so happy. That blew my mind. I would never have considered the possibility of embracing an illness or challenge to that degree. He taught me not to underestimate the power that yoga holds.
Regarding inclusiveness, I think the social aspect of yoga classes and studios can offer an opportunity to bring these spiritual teachings into the light of day and apply them directly to our interactions. Studios need to look at their marketing imagery, their language, and their pricing structures to make sure that the goal of diversity is part of every decision. Similarly, accessibility for people with disabilities has to be an active effort—not simply a good idea.
Teachers can use inclusive language in their classes—avoiding stereotypes. Teachers can also try to give all students an equal amount of attention, rather than singling students out. They can be aware of judgmental language when they’re talking about students doing well or struggling with a pose. Our words have so much power.
Thank you for such a comprehensive perspective. Can you talk a little bit about your unique model at Accessible Yoga? What makes you different?
The idea behind Accessible Yoga is not unique. In fact, it's the opposite of uniqueness: it's the effort to see our transcendent connection and underlying oneness. Through yoga we realize that we all share the same heart. With that understanding, it’s easy to see that we are all deserving and we are all beautiful. My teacher Swami Satchidananda’s teacher, Swami Sivananda, used to say, “See the unity in diversity.” Yoga does not discriminate. It is our limited understanding that creates discrimination and separateness. The yogi’s job is to see unity and connection.
Through yoga we realize that we all share the same heart.
The goal of Accessible Yoga is to serve all people and to share yoga with everyone. I guess that's a grandiose mission, but it's the truth. This work needs to happen within the yoga community as well as in the mainstream. Accessible Yoga is already expanding beyond our first conference. The next one is coming up in Santa Barbara, California, on September 16-18, 2016, and we’ll be hosting an Accessible Yoga Conference at the Integral Yoga Institute in New York City on May 19-21, 2017.
Our international work is also taking off with the celebration of two international holidays. I had the honor of being invited to share Accessible Yoga at the United Nations in Geneva as part of the International Day of Persons with Disabilities—which is celebrated on December 3rd. It was wonderful to participate in a global event focusing on empowerment for people with disabilities, and to see the interconnectedness of our work.
On June 21st, we’ll celebrate the International Day of Yoga by bringing attention to Accessible Yoga through a variety of global events and a social media campaign. This is a wonderful holiday that the Indian government created to celebrate yoga as part of their national heritage, and we are offering to help them expand that message to be inclusive of people of all abilities and backgrounds.
This is part one of a two-part interview with Jivana Heyman. Tune in for the second part where he shares concrete tools for making yoga accessible, how yoga is empowerment, and what he loves about sharing yoga.
Jivana is #whatayogilookslike. YOU are #whatayogilookslike. You too can show everyone #whatayogilookslike and spread the message by creating your own #whatayogilookslike profile picture to share on social media.
Accessible Yoga Conference: Information and registration.