This is the first in a series of articles that will cover a number of variations on classical yoga practices in the hopes of supporting teachers in finding safe and beneficial ways for all students to participate.
While yoga teaches us that the source of our peace and happiness lies within, it also connects us with others on a similar journey—our yoga friends. In Sanskrit, this community of like-minded spiritual seekers is called sangha, and the ancient yogis spoke of the power of this sacred community.
Sadly, not everyone feels welcome or is able to join the greater yoga sangha. Many classes simply aren’t accessible to students with disabilities and chronic illnesses, and many people don’t feel accepted in the often exclusive yoga world because of race, class, or size. Additionally, many teachers lack the training to make their classes accessible to anyone who walks (or wheels) in the door. Without proper training it can be scary to welcome these students into our classes, but this is the leap we must take if we're to continue expanding our circle and touching more people with the magic of yoga.
Many classes simply aren’t accessible to students with disabilities and chronic illnesses, and many people don’t feel accepted in the often exclusive yoga world because of race, class, or size.
Yoga Journal and Yoga Alliance's recent study on Yoga in America estimated that approximately 80 million Americans will try yoga in 2016. That sounds like wonderful news. The sad part is that many of those students will be disappointed, discouraged, and possibly injured by their exploration of yoga.
Unfortunately, we see a lot of harm occurring in the name of yoga—both injuries and abuse. As yoga teachers, each of us has the potential to touch the lives of so many, and the power to cause great harm.
Opening the Circle—Integrated, Accessible Yoga Classes
Teaching yoga sometimes feels like simultaneously patting your head and rubbing your belly—doing two or sometimes three things at once. This often means teaching many variations of a pose at the same time, which is an essential aspect of opening our classes to all students. We can even find ways to incorporate chair yoga and mat practice in the same class. An integrated class often means setting up students separately for each practice, and then selecting instructions that help all students move into the pose.
In order to create a welcoming environment in our classes, we need to set this clear intention and to follow through. This means arriving early, chatting with students as they come into class, and connecting with each student (whether new or experienced)—giving everyone equal attention. Our goal is to see the same divine essence in each student, regardless of their appearance or ability. As Swami Satchidananda explains, “To see the unity in diversity is yoga—to see the same consciousness in everyone.”
Centering: A Microcosm of Yoga
The beginning of a yoga class may be the most important moment of the class. As we lead the class through a centering practice, we allow students to release the previous activity of the day, along with any worry and anxiety about the future. Centering is about being in the present moment, which is the only time we can find happiness.
To make this portion of the class more accessible, you need to consider the cultural background of the students and figure out which practice will feel inviting to them. Sometimes this means not using Sanskrit chanting, or being sure to explain the meaning behind any chants you use.
Here are a variety of centering practices that can be adjusted to almost any setting.
We always want our students to move from an elongated spine, and to keep that length as they move through the asanas. The gift of a posture check is the chance for students to increase their proprioceptive awareness, understanding where their body is in space.
Because the breath is always in the present moment, meditation on the breath can be a very effective centering technique. Observing the movement of the breath or experiencing the sensation of breathing is very effective for quieting the mind.
A traditional centering practice of yoga is Sanskrit chanting. These chants, which are usually an invocation of the guru (teacher) or of the teachings themselves, give us an opportunity to transcend the mind through the power of sound vibration. If Sanskrit chanting is not appropriate for the group your teaching, other forms of sound vibration, such as the ones described below, can be effective alternatives.
In order to share the benefits of sound vibration, try singing a folk song like "Row, Row, Row Your Boat," or any song that is uplifting and fun for the students. Singing is a form of pranayama—expanding and deepening the breath.
Making other kinds of vocalizations (like saying "aahhhh!") can be very effective in using the power of sound to quiet the mind and turn our awareness inward.
These days it's normal to hear the chanting of "Om," which is a universal vibration, in yoga classes. But If that's not comfortable for your students, you could try separating out the three syllables of Om into:
“Aaaahhhh…” “Ooooooo…” “Mmmmm…”
Try having students practice this three times each.
Another option is to do a body scan or guided relaxation, noticing sensations in each part of the body, moving from feet to head or head to feet. By connecting with sensations in the body, we shift our awareness away from the busy mind and back into the present moment.
By understanding the nature of yoga practices, we can find variations that work for all students—just as a musician is able to improvise after mastering an instrument. With some effort, our classes then become sanctuaries of inclusion, welcoming everyone to yoga.