Have you ever been in a yoga class ready to dive into the practice, only to have the teacher demonstrate a posture you were certain would not work for your body? Did the instructor then offer an adaptation of the pose that you could comfortably accomplish, or did you struggle to complete the pose as shown by the teacher? Did you feel you were risking injury while attempting the pose?
If the instructor offered an adaptation, you’ve experienced accessible or adaptive yoga, which offers solutions that allow people of all abilities and body types to successfully practice and benefit from yoga.
An adaptive yoga pose may look different from the traditional pose, but it offers similar benefits. For example, some of the benefits of triangle pose include stretching the hips, groin, hamstrings, calves, shoulders, chest, and back muscles. Someone who uses a wheelchair may be able to gain the benefits of triangle pose while seated in their chair by tilting to the right and placing their right hand on another chair of similar height, and then reaching their left arm to the sky. Another adaptation (in this case for someone who may not feel balanced when standing in triangle pose) would be to stand with their back to the wall and placing a hand onto a chair instead of the floor. Of course, there are several other variations of triangle pose that can give yoga students the same benefits of the classical pose as well. Since all bodies are unique, one adaptation of a pose will not be suitable for all.
Students of all abilities and body types may come through the door of a yoga class; thus a teacher should have the skills needed to teach them all.
While 200-hour yoga teacher trainings accredited through Yoga Alliance cover many different topics—yoga postures, breathing techniques, meditation, the history and ethics of yoga, etc.—they often teach only one version of a posture or breathing technique, which is usually the classical form. However, the classical form of each posture may not be accessible to all students. Students who have disabilities or injuries, are sore or are curvy, may need a different form of some postures.
Students of all abilities and body types may come through the door of a yoga class; thus a teacher should have the skills needed to teach them all. That’s why it’s important for teachers to learn how to adapt yoga poses in their teacher training.
One might ask, “Given the time limitations of a teacher training, how could teacher trainers teach how to adapt each yoga posture?” Answer: They can simply change how each pose is taught in the training. Jivana Heyman, founder of Accessible Yoga and creator of the Accessible Yoga teacher training advises: “Rather than approach a posture by teaching one form, instead, focus on the overarching goals and benefits (and even contraindications) of that posture.” When using this methodology, teaching the “correct” or “classical” form of a posture becomes secondary to enabling future teachers to help their students experience the intended benefits of a pose—whether through the classical form or an adaptation—and a whole array of possibilities are then opened for teachers and their students.
Heyman uses cobra pose as an example for trainers: “Instead of teaching cobra pose as the classical pose, first consider the benefits of cobra, which could include strengthening the back muscles in deep spinal extension, expanding the heart center, and digestive organ massage, among other things.” After you have discussed the benefits of cobra (or any other pose), the training group can then, Heyman explains, “consider how you can find those qualities at whatever level the student is practicing, whether it’s in a chair, on a mat, or even standing.”
Learning how to adapt poses allows the trainee to see how to help any student accomplish the goal of a posture, or gain its benefits, by using different forms. By observing their instructor engage in the process of finding suitable adaptations for people of various abilities and needs, trainees at any level learn how to do this themselves.
Karina Ayn Mirsky, director of Sangha Yoga in Kalamazoo, Michigan, explains how she incorporates adaptation into her teacher trainings: “I’m always experimenting with individuals and trying things with them until comfort and stability are realized [in yoga postures]. In other words, trainees witness me exploring with a person what works for them [and] then defaulting to the wisdom of that person’s body.”
After this process of experimenting, Mirsky invites the individual to share with the rest of the class what’s happening for them. “The person with the limitation teaches all of us,” Mirsky adds. In this collaborative process the teacher learns as much from the student as the student learns from the teacher. The student’s body guides the teacher as to how the teacher can best adapt the posture for that body. The goal here is not to fix the student with the limitation, but instead to allow that individual to experience the benefits of the yoga pose.
The Americans with Disabilities Act requires that all yoga teacher training programs be accessible under federal law. In addition, allowing people with disabilities to feel welcome in yoga studios and making sure that they can successfully participate and benefit from yoga classes is vital to encouraging students of all abilities to become yoga teachers.
Lori Gasper, the owner and director of Prairie Yoga in Lisle, Illinois, says, “Opening yoga teacher training to people with disabilities mutually benefits trainees with and without disabilities. It allows trainees without disabilities to see the benefits of making yoga accessible from the very start of their teaching journey, at the same time as allowing people with disabilities to realize the possibility of teaching.”
If adaptive/accessible yoga is to be taught successfully in teacher training, teacher trainers must have experience and knowledge in methods of making yoga practice accessible. Gasper, herself a director of teacher training for 15 years, first apprenticed under Iyengar master teacher Gabriel Halpern, working one on one in his gentle class with students who had different disabilities or injuries. She stresses, “You cannot just learn about accessible yoga conceptually, you must work with people of all abilities.”
Currently, instructors who lead Yoga Alliance 200-hour teacher trainings are not required to have any background in accessible yoga or adaptation. The only requirement is that the lead teacher trainer be a registered teacher with Yoga Alliance at the 200-hour experienced level (an E-RYT). This means that there are probably many yoga teacher trainers who lack knowledge in how to make yoga accessible.
At the present time, Yoga Alliance is undertaking a teacher training Standards Review Project. Many people within the accessible yoga community sincerely hope that Yoga Alliance will add the teaching of accessible yoga practice adaptations as a curriculum requirement for completing teacher training. The long overdue inclusion of this requirement is essential—not only to keep students safe, but to make practitioners of all abilities feel welcome in classes, both as students and as potential teachers of yoga.