For me, as for most people, the past couple of months haven’t gone exactly the way I had planned. In a way, though, this period of social distancing has brought full circle my whole experience of learning to teach yoga.
Recently, from my living room, I taught my first yoga class and graduated from my yoga teacher training. I was supposed to be in Richmond, Virginia, with my friends teaching in person. But my amazing teacher, Amber Karnes, saw the writing on the wall and shifted us to an online format. During that time, many yoga teachers and students found themselves struggling to adapt to a rapidly changing world.
Listen, yoga teachers. I understand that teaching online can be disorienting at first. You can’t see me or your other students. You can’t support us in the same ways you have in the past. You may feel that teaching this way is a frustrating form of sense withdrawal. I get it, it’s different. But, for some of us, this is how out of necessity we’ve learned for years. For some of us, the internet isn’t a last resort; it’s where we have maintained community for years. It is my hope that by sharing my experiences I can help highlight some of the ways new online teachers can empathize with those who’ve felt safer practicing online, and draw in new students through a trauma-informed, accessible practice.
For some of us, the internet isn’t a last resort; it’s where we have maintained community for years.
Before we get too far into this, I’d like you to know that I’ve been fat my whole life. This isn’t a problem—it’s a fact. I could write a book on the way being fat has affected my life. Or about all of the tests, diets, and disorders I’ve engaged to try to change that fact. But this article isn’t about that. This article is about how yoga saved me from a life of constantly trying to prove my worth despite my physical appearance. It's about how, without online spaces, I’m not sure I ever would have been able to pursue yoga in any meaningful way. Hopefully my experience can shine a light on how to build inclusive and welcoming yoga spaces.
As someone in a larger body, yoga wasn’t marketed toward me. Yoga pants weren’t made in my size. Before size inclusivity became more common, I had two stores where I could purchase clothes. Both were grossly out of my demographic age-wise, and this was way before athleisure clothes were commonplace.
As someone in a larger body I wasn’t taught to love or connect to my body. It was through a recommendation by my therapist that I sought out my first yoga classes online. I had experience with physical poses that were often incorporated into fitness routines I liked, but I had had no previous experience with spiritual and philosophical elements of yoga practice.
It was the spiritual and philosophical elements that led me to explore different ways to practice yoga, and ultimately toward more accessible and inclusive communities. It offered me some of my very first experiences of being in a “space” in which my interest to show up for myself was more important than my ability to achieve any pose.
While it took me a long time to learn the depth of what yoga has to offer, I can say confidently that it was through yoga that I recognized I deserved to have a deeper connection with my body. But I could never answer the questions: “How do I do this asana with my body? What is it supposed to look like?” Now as a teacher I can answer those questions for students, and it has been such a rewarding experience.
Here’s the thing: If you are reading this, it’s likely you know the benefits yoga can bring to individual lives. I know yoga works because it has been healing for me and has opened up a world where I can benefit from a deeper connection to my body. The difference between my experience and that of many other yoga practitioners is that I had to go beyond traditional spaces to find a community in which I felt safe.
I only bring this up to highlight the difference in perceived accessibility in traditional yoga spaces. I have, for example, experienced teachers making assumptions about my stamina (while they don’t make those same assumptions about people in smaller bodies). This is discimination based on a presumption of health and fitness. I’m not suggesting that anyone has intended to cause harm, but rather that their response is a result of the culture they are steeped in. The reality is that many bodies are stigmatized in all aspects of society, and the powers that be in the wellness community have deemed my body the worst-case scenario. They call it out as something that needs to be corrected.
This tradition of “calling people out” instead of “calling people in” is in no way the true spirit of yoga. During this time of reflection and isolation, perhaps we are discovering that it also isn’t a true spirit of humanity. We are fighting a simple concept: There is a hierarchy of health.
This hierarchy operates like a caste system, keeping people isolated and limiting their access to both equal health care and physical opportunities. It stunts our ability to be in deep connection with our bodies. It deprives us of the opportunity to find joy in relationship with ourselves. The wellness machine has monetized this hierarchy. Thankfully, many online accessible yoga and movement spaces have from the start banished this concept.
These digital spaces blew the world of yoga wide open for me. For the first decade or so that I practiced yoga, a traditional studio was difficult for me to access. It’s hard to explain what it’s like to feel unwelcome in places touted as being welcoming to everyone. It reinforces the message that “This is literally for everyone else, but not for you.” Where there is a belief that fat is the result of someone’s behavior or lifestyle, there is an assignment of responsibility for changing it. In those yoga studios, the price of admission was always to lose as much weight as possible.
A true relationship with yoga wasn’t really accessible for me until online communities made me feel that I was allowed to do yoga without changing my body. This was key. It propelled my relationship with yoga from a hodgepodge of poses I’d collected and practiced alone in my room to something bigger and more connected. For the first time I saw bodies like mine practicing challenging poses, teaching classes, and creating communities.
A true relationship with yoga wasn’t really accessible for me until online communities made me feel that I was allowed to do yoga without changing my body.
I was so inspired by those experiences that I wanted to teach. But I didn’t want to participate in the same system I felt had stigmatized me. That’s where Amber came in. Her yoga teacher training was equity-focused and accessibility-driven. She brought us together from all over the country to teach us how to create the spaces that I craved as a younger yogi. My first in-person yoga class was in that training.
In the early days of the coronavirus crisis, I watched Amber and Accessible Yoga founder Jivana Heyman channel a great deal of time and energy into pulling together critical resources for yoga teachers. Many flocked to the Accessible Yoga community on Facebook, fearful and in need of advice on how to operate outside traditional yoga spaces. Some of those teachers had already been part of the community, but many joined during that time, referred by friends and looking for answers. Yoga teachers were seeking advice on how to maintain classes and engagement online, and this community had a reputation for being able to meet people where they are.
In some ways the coronavirus pandemic has proven to be a great equalizer. In many places, students and teachers who are comfortable practicing in person are no longer able to access in-person classes. Those who can, struggle with challenging restrictions. Most had found themselves forced into an online setting and rethinking the whole structure of how their studio operates. In a way, through these limitations, they are experiencing the same thing I had felt when looking for a way to deepen my practice.
The tools most sought after right now are those that have been honed by communities of people who had carved out little corners of the yoga market for themselves because they sought safety that was not readily available in existing physical spaces. In that way, the Accessible Yoga community was well prepared to help facilitate and support people as they faced the daunting task of pivoting their businesses to an entirely new format, almost overnight.
During this time of isolation, you can’t help but notice how connected we all are. Right now, we are staying home to protect each other. I would like to ask you to use that feeling as a seed for how you grow your practice. We all have a responsibility to not cause harm, and to support and trust one another. We have the opportunity to call in, not out, and to learn lessons from people who have been structuring their communities this way for a long time.
All of this is to say that the acceptance found within online communities is there because marginalized folks have set the tone. Practicing online has always felt safe and nurturing for us because dominant culture’s arbitrary rules don’t apply there. As I’ve mentioned, I didn’t step foot into a brick and mortar yoga studio until I attended Amber’s Body Positive Yoga teacher training. I was terrified, acutely aware of the trauma built up from years of feeling shame about my body from the judgment placed on me, and from the years of literally trying to squeeze my body into spaces not built to support it.
I remember at one point my nervous system taking over, losing my breath, and my classmate witnessing it and calmly saying, “It’s okay, you’re okay.” In that moment, I knew what it felt like to just be a person, in a yoga studio without prejudgments. I was just a person in a room who had been given permission to exist. I realized I had always deserved this experience, and that I had been deprived of the opportunity—not by my fear alone, but by the cultural norms traditional yoga studios supported, instead of investing in a larger wellness philosophy.
There are some simple ways to avoid this, and I implore all teachers to utilize them, both online and post-coronavirus in their community spaces. Think about this: What would you do if all the voices that told you “no” or made you feel “other” disappeared? You can make that happen for your studentswith a few minor changes in your already existing teaching practice.
The ultimate goal is to destigmatize differences. That's easier than it sounds. Below, I’ve listed a few points for you to consider when building more welcoming yoga classes during this time of online experimentation—and whatever comes next.
Watch what you say. Eliminate hierarchy from your classes. Don’t accidently reinforce destructive messaging. Offer variations. Saying something as simple as “If you can’t access this pose...” is significantly more damaging to a practice than a teacher may intend. By saying that, you are reinforcing all of my negative self-beliefs. Worse still, it can completely sever the connection I’m trying to build between my brain and body. Always offer additions instead of unrelated alternatives, working from a baseline pose and then adding on. Asking someone to “Just take child’s pose” during a difficult pose doesn’t provide opportunities to grow.
Props are your friend. Consider them enhancements to the practice and encourage everyone to use them. When in person make them readily available, and incorporate them in all class levels. When offering online content suggest creative alternatives such as using a textbook as a block or belt as a strap. Encourage autonomy and exploration. Don’t put me in a position of trying to prove to you that I can do a pose or transition without props, because I’m always trying to prove that I’m capable in other aspects of life, and I don’t need that in my yoga practice.
Trust me, I know my body. If I say I can, I probably can. If I say I can’t or I’m not ready, then I’m probably not going to do it that day. My practice needs to be founded in building a trusting relationship with my body—not the expectations of a teacher.
There is no perfect. There is participation. Reinforce that your students are enough as they are. Invite your students to be curious and explore. Even lying on the ground can provide the opportunity to explore my breath and interact with my nervous system. My performance on any given day is a reflection of my journey and my body’s needs and not your success in teaching me.
Remember: I’m here for yoga. Don’t worry about what I’m eating, or how I’m taking care of my mental health. Yes, yoga can absolutely play a role in healing, but it is not in a yoga teacher’s scope of practice to provide advice in those areas. Many of us already have therapists and dieticians for that. As yoga teachers, you are not privy to people’s personal history but often have direct access to trauma stored in their body. Teachers need to respect that and not cause more harm than good.
Being in community is enough for some of us. Not all students are in yoga classes for the asana. It is your job to maintain and support a safe environment for every body. I could be there to learn to connect to my body. Or maybe I’ve been told by my therapist that yoga is a good way to de-escalate my nervous system. I might join a class for the community or because it’s just the yoga class that best fits into my schedule.
Model the yoga, and practice non-attachment. You don’t need to prove that you are a good teacher—students show up because you can foster connection. As a teacher, I’m sure you have a fantasy of what your ideal studio, class, or community may be. You’ve formed it over time based on your own learning environments and the interactions you’ve had within the community. But attachments like those can hinder our ability to live in the moment and rise to the present challenge. Adapting to the present is more important now than ever. By exercising flexible thinking, free from attachment to your own needs from the community, the community’s needs then come into focus, and you’re better able to serve the students who are practicing with you.
The final suggestion I’d like to share with you is to support, promote, hire, and praise all underrepresented yogis of all kinds. It wasn’t until I saw bodies like mine doing incredible things that I stopped listening to the voices that told me I couldn’t and started exploring ways that I could. That realization is more important than finding the “truest” form of a pose. It’s something that can change lives.
Seek out people doing cool things with unique voices. Share their content and sign up for their workshops. Buy their books. Celebrate them. Celebrate all of us. We’re all in this together.