Teachers, are you accidentally shaming your students?

How to Make Yoga Class More Inclusive

March 9, 2015    BY Amber Karnes

I remember the first time I felt shame in a yoga class. The teacher asked us to interlace our fingers behind our backs, and fold forward into prasarita padottanasana CThe rest of the class easily executed this. I folded forward and my arms barely lifted off my back.

I remember the first time I felt shame in a yoga class.

The teacher called across the room, "Amber, do you need a strap?" Never mind that I had no idea how to use the strap in the first place—of course I said no, as I wanted to do the pose the "real" way with the rest of the class. The teacher then sighed heavily, rushed across the room, grabbed a strap, stood in front of me and said, "Amber, you really need the strap."

Meanwhile, other students were coming out of their poses to look at me and see what was going on. Heart racing, face burning, I felt ashamed and loathed my body. My body wasn’t right for yoga, I knew it.

I am a yoga teacher. I am also a fat woman. I’ve practiced yoga for 10 years now, and have always been in a fat body during that time. I have been in many, many classes where I felt frustrated, where I forced myself into a pose, where I squeezed, stumbled and crunched myself up because my yoga teachers had no idea what to do with me—a student in a large body.

I realize that many asana teachers have never had a large-bodied person in their class. 

I realize that most teacher training programs don’t teach us what to do with larger students.

I realize that if someone hasn’t lived in a large body, they just don’t understand what the heck is going on with us or why we can’t step the foot forward from down dog into a lunge (most of the time, belly is hitting thigh).

But the burden is on us, as teachers, to learn how to teach to a wide range of body types and abilities. As a fellow asana instructor, I implore you to learn modifications and continue to study ways to make your classes more inclusive. Learn new ways to use props, and employ them in your classes.

The burden is on us, as teachers, to learn how to teach to a wide range of body types and abilities.

If you are in an able body that can do the “classic” variation of most poses and you’re not sure what modifications exist for a particular pose, Google it or talk to another teacher who might know. There are hundreds of videos and blog posts out there on modifying everything from gomukhasana to surya namaskara. (See the resources section at the end of this post for further reading.)

And it’s not just large bodies that need modifications to stay safely aligned. People with injuries, athletes of all stripes with tight muscles in various places, aging bodies, bodies recovering from surgery, bodies with prosthetics, and on and on—all can benefit when teachers offer multiple entry points to a pose.

But knowing how to modify poses is not enough. Modifications introduced in a positive way can be empowering, clarifying, and nurturing to students. On the other hand, when we teach modifications without a critical examination of our language and presentation, we can leave students feeling singled out, less-than, and ashamed. I’d like to offer six tips for teaching modifications in your classes and creating a body-positive environment of inclusivity:

Knowing how to modify poses is not enough.

1. Empower students to create their own personalized practice
You may have people in your class who have been doing yoga for many years practicing alongside people who are there for the very first time. Emphasize to your students that their practices are their own. Encourage them to realize that they are each their own most important teacher.

This gives students agency to take their yoga back into their own hands, rather than relying on a teacher to tell them what to do. It can also have ramifications off the mat—helping the student to realize that they have the power and ability to make choices for themselves in other areas of their lives. To begin to create this culture of agency, use language to set up the expectation that each person's practice will be different. Some phrases to try on for size:

  • Trust your instincts.
  • You are the most important teacher in the room.
  • Only you can know what feels good in your body.
  • Experiment with another variation until you find one that feels good.
  • Pick the variation that feels more luxurious in your body.
  • What makes your body happy in this pose?
  • Comparing yourself to others will steal your joy. Stay on your own mat and in your own body.
  • If this doesn’t feel good, please come out of the pose.
  • Your practice is your own.

2. Everyone gets props
At the beginning of class, instruct every student to get the same props. If a student is not educated as to why props are used (for example, to enhance alignment or to find more space in a pose), they may view a prop as a crutch or cheat, or they might think that if they use props they're not doing "real yoga." Offering a student (and only that student) a prop during class can make them feel self-conscious and less-than in comparison to the rest of the class.

At the beginning of class, instruct every student to get the same props.

When you start out your entire class with the same props, you avoid creating shame by singling anyone out. When you introduce the prop and how to use it, a student who needs it can easily choose to use it if it's already nearby, without feeling self-conscious about going and fetching it in front of the whole class.

3. Don’t glorify the “full expression of the pose”
I'm intentionally putting "full expression of the pose"  in scare quotes because I loathe this phrase. There are as many variations on poses as there are yoga teachers. If you want to create an environment of inclusivity, don't assign value to modifications or variations on a pose. Leave words and phrases like "full expression," "real pose," "beginner," "more advanced," "cheat," and "if you can't do the full expression of the pose, try ____" out of your teaching language.

Instead, offer variations. Enhancements. Stuff to work on. Again, this gives your students the agency to take back their yoga and pick their variation, their enhancement, their chosen area to work.

When you introduce a difficult pose, one technique is to talk about "places to work," and then let your students pick. For example, in utthita hasta padangustasana, you might introduce the pose and then tell students:

You can take it to the wall and work on:

  • finding the shape of the pose
  • getting really strong through the standing leg
  • finding more freedom to bring the lifted leg a little higher
  • see what it's like to take the toe with the peace fingers vs. using a strap (keeping the leg bent, or starting to straighten)

Or you can stand on your mat and work on:

  • focusing on your balance
  • finding your drishti
  • finding strength and stability in the standing leg and keeping the other knee bent
  • finding an energetic lift from the foot all the way up to the crown of the head

4. Emphasize foundations of a pose before you introduce variations
When you introduce a pose, first focus on the foundations of the pose: rooting, grounding, the energetic actions of the pose. Then introduce variations like taking the foot higher, lifting the arms, a bind, and so forth. That means starting everyone out in the same place, and introducing variations without assigning value ("beginner," "advanced") to them.

When you introduce a pose, first focus on the foundations of the pose.

5. Be mindful of using body landmarks in your language
If you want to encourage body diversity in your classes, please keep in mind that no two bodies are the same. Using body landmarks as alignment cues can be problematic or confusing. For edification, here are a few common cues I've heard over the years, followed by the reasons I am unable to follow the instructions in my large body.

  • "Stand with feet touching." If I do this, the size of my thighs makes my legs internally rotate and my knees knock together.
  • "Fold forward until the chest is resting on the thighs." My belly is resting on my thighs, but my chest probably never will.
  • "Fold forward and place the hands flat on the floor in uttanasana." My hands don't go flat on the floor because my belly hits my thighs. I just can't get down there.

Body dysmorphia or poor proprioception (sense of one's body) can play a role here, as well. I've cued students to "step the feet hip distance apart" and seen more than one student stand with feet as wide as her mat.

Instead of cueing body landmarks, think of other reference points you can use to cue alignment, such as measurements (3 feet, 6 inches), places in the room (the ceiling, the front of the room), the long or short side of the mat, or the body in reference to itself.

6. Don’t pick the bendy student to demonstrate
I personally think it’s a terrible idea to pick naturally bendy students to demonstrate things. In fact, I don’t ask students to demonstrate unless I physically cannot do a pose (the thigh wrappy thing in garudasana is a common challenge for larger bodies, or shooting the tricep past the bent leg in maricyasana C).

Every class has a student that can throw himself into natarajasana without warming up. Maybe that person is you. But picking a bendy student to demonstrate a pose is misleading at best and injurious at worst. First, it singles out that student. What if the hypermobility that makes it easy for them to take this pose has caused them injury in the past? What if they simply don’t want to be singled out as the "special" one in the class?

Picking a bendy student to demonstrate a pose is misleading at best and injurious at worst.

It also glorifies a certain form or shape as the "full expression" of the pose. It implies that this shape is the goal that the rest of the students should strive to reach. It also implies that this shape is healthy (or even possible) for any student in the class. All of these things create an environment where students will be more prone to strive for a shape instead of attuning to their own unique asana practice that works for their body.

Thank you!
The fact that you are reading this post means that you care about your students and that you value body diversity and inclusivity in your classes. For that, thank you. I believe we as teachers can change the face of yoga one class at a time, while showing students that they can get all the benefits of yoga in their unique body, the one they bring to the mat today.

Further exploration & resources

Amber Karnes
Amber Karnes is an aspiring yogi, RYT-200 yoga asana teacher, and a lifelong student of her body. In Amber's classes and workshops, students of all shapes and sizes will find tips, tricks, and modifications to make yoga asana work for their unique body, instead of being squished into poses for the sake of form over function. She emphasizes safe alignment and mindful transitions, and guides each student to honor the body they bring to the mat today, while being empowered to learn about the... Read more>>