The First Annual Accessible Yoga Conference Brings Adaptive Yoga to the Forefront

April 10, 2015    BY Kathryn Ashworth

Yoga International recently had a chance to chat with Jivana Heyman, founder of the upcoming First Annual Accessible Yoga Conference, whose aim is to make yoga more comfortable and accessible for practitioners with disabilities and chronic illnesses. Learn how you can get involved, and follow the movement at accessibleyoga.org.

The First Annual Accessible Yoga  Conference   is approaching. Can you tell us about it?
As far as I know, this is the first yoga conference dedicated to adaptive yoga. Current yoga conferences don’t specifically address these populations and the Accessible Yoga Conference will attempt to remedy this situation by offering training, networking, and general awareness of adaptive yoga. This is an opportunity for yoga students with disabilities or chronic illnesses to study with some of the leaders in this field—all in one place. They will get to meet other adaptive yoga students and build community. We’ll also provide further training for yoga teachers who would like to make their [current] classes more accessible, [and those] who would like to learn how to bring yoga to special populations. Most of the presenters at the conference lead their own teacher training programs, so this will be a good way to give exposure to all of these programs at one time.

As far as I know, this is the first yoga conference dedicated to adaptive yoga.

What is the mission behind this movement?
Thanks for referring to the Accessible Yoga Conference as a movement. I think that’s really the point. Yoga has been misunderstood in the West as a physical practice for the very flexible. This is unfortunate because yoga has so much to offer those of us who aren’t flexible. Actually, yoga has so much to offer all of us!

This movement is about sharing yoga with everyone. Yoga is an empowering practice that offers us a chance to heal ourselves spiritually, emotionally, mentally, and physically. It provides tools to help us reconnect and find peace in our own hearts. These relatively simple techniques of asana, breathing, meditation, and lifestyle can spark little revolutions.

Over the years, I’ve met countless yoga practitioners who say that yoga has offered them a new lease on life. Yoga has given them a different perspective on their particular challenge, illness, or disability. Years back, I remember being shocked when a longtime student of mine told me he was glad that he has HIV/AIDS. He said that if he hadn’t gotten sick, he never would have gone on a healing journey and ended up so much happier.

The fact is, all of us will eventually face disease and death. Why not look for ways to use yoga tools now for our own healing and share these tools with our families, friends, and community who may be in need of healing?

The mission of the First Annual Accessible Yoga Conference is to provide a forum where the yoga community can come together to connect, share, and support those who wish to expand access to the yoga teachings to people with disabilities, chronic illness, seniors, and people who may not feel comfortable in a regular yoga class.

The Accessible Yoga Conference is about collaboration and community. We want to shine a light on the beautiful work that is already being done. There are many programs out there doing amazing work sharing yoga with people who don’t have access, and we’re hoping to bring those people together. The conference is about forming a strong network of support for yoga teachers who are teaching adaptive yoga (or would like to be), and creating connections for students who are working on their own practices.

The Conference is a platform for these experienced teachers to inspire others, and so far we have some of the most inspiring practitioners in the field including:

  • Matthew Sanford: Mind Body Solutions
  • Martha Danzig: Yoga for Amputees
  • JoAnn Lyons Piedmont: Yoga Community Disability Program
  • Stacie Dooreck: Sunlight Chair Yoga
  • Haris Lender: Accessible Kidding Around Yoga
  • Judy Weaver: Connected Warriors (free yoga for vets)

In what ways does yoga fail to be accessible? What infrastructure or teaching techniques are we lacking?
Honoring where people are in their practice right now, fostering a respectful environment, and being open to all students regardless of their physical ability or physical appearance are all ways we can make yoga more accessible.

Many of us ignore the needs of students with disabilities because we don’t know how to serve them. I'm a firm believer that all yoga teacher training programs should include adaptive yoga. Anyone who has taught yoga for any period of time soon realizes that many people don’t fit the classic asanas and that injuries can quickly change the way that someone practices. Training in adaptive yoga can offer teachers a full spectrum of skills to serve all of their students equally.

Many of us ignore the needs of students with disabilities because we don’t know how to serve them.

Two other important factors that limit access are a lack of reliable information about adaptive yoga and financial support for yoga students who can’t afford classes or trainings. My hope is that a community connected through the conference can help bridge these two gaps. We plan to have break-out sessions at the conference to look into some of these issues more deeply.

The conference is not just about physical access to classes or adapting poses, rather, it’s about making sure we see all students as equals, empowering people with the tools of yoga, and finding new and inspired ways to share these beautiful teachings. I’m looking forward to the conference myself [because I want] to hear new ideas about how we can proactively engage communities who are not currently practicing yoga. True accessibility is not reactive, but rather an active approach to teaching, learning, and sharing.

What are your goals for the next five to ten years? What kind of effects do you see Accessible Yoga having on yoga culture at large?
The Accessible Yoga program started in 2007, when I created a basic teacher training program which was designed to train people with disabilities to become yoga teachers. I’ve seen many of my students transform their lives through yoga and become powerful teachers.

Yoga can help us unlock our potential by raising our awareness above the limited perspective of the ego-mind. This is empowering for everybody, and especially for those of us who have been labeled by society as "less than." Yoga can transform us from patient to caregiver, from student to teacher, from human to divine. Imagine how much benefit can come from expanding yoga’s reach further into the world. I love the idea of serving more and more people through yoga.

Yoga is at a tipping point in our society. I see a renewed interest and acceptance of these ancient healing techniques, so now is the time to make these teachings available to everyone. My hope is that the Accessible Yoga Conference supports the transition from "yoga for the few" to "yoga for everybody."

In [the next] five to ten years, I see a society that embraces yoga as a source of healing and a yoga culture that embraces all bodies.

One big challenge is that the image of the yoga student in our popular media is very limiting. Most of us don’t look like the people featured on the magazine covers. If we want to reach more people with yoga, we need to project a different image that is more inclusive. In [the next] five to ten years, I see a society that embraces yoga as a source of healing and a yoga culture that embraces all bodies.

Finally, how can people get involved?
In order for the Accessible Yoga Conference to be a movement, we have to get a lot of people involved who are interested in sharing yoga more broadly. If each of us became a point of contact—an access point—we could reach a lot of people.

If people want to get involved, they can become “access points” as yoga teachers, students, volunteers, or sponsors. This is the next step in our project, and the conference will be a launching pad for this next phase. As a student, you can be a mentor to someone new to yoga and help guide them to find the right yoga class. As a volunteer, you can help us run the conference. As a sponsor, you can provide funding for someone to attend the conference for free.

Thank you so much for your interest in the conference and for all the work you do at Yoga International to educate people about yoga. Here are the details about the conference:

The 1st Annual Accessible Yoga Conference
September 12-13, 2015
Santa Barbara Yoga Center
32 E. Micheltorena St.
Santa Barbara, CA 93101
805-965-6045
www.accessibleyoga.org

Kathryn Ashworth
Kathryn is an associate editor at Yoga International. She found her way to yoga one starry night in Portugal at Monte Sahaja (the ashram of advaita master Mooji). Now she lives at the Himalayan Institute, where she continues her studies. She views yoga primarily as a healing practice that can re-awaken a sense of wonder, purpose, and (to quote one of her teachers, Rolf Sovik) "relentless optimism."