After practicing yoga for several years, Shakti Bell felt drawn to become an instructor. But a teacher training program seemed out of the question. "I don't have much energy, and a lot of these teacher training programs require a lot," says Bell, who has multiple sclerosis and uses a wheelchair. So she was delighted to discover the Integral Yoga Institute's Accessible Teacher Training, a pilot program in Oakland, California, that trains people with disabilities to become yoga teachers. The two-part course focuses on basic teacher training as well as asana fundamentals, meditation, philosophy, breathing, and how to adapt poses for students with a variety of special needs.
While it covers much of the same material as other training programs, it also provides a highly supportive environment where students can work at their own pace and slowly absorb a rigorous three-month curriculum over eight months. The program has attracted trainees with multiple sclerosis, spinal cord injuries, PTSD, impaired hearing, and other disabilities. "I was pretty excited to find a program that was truly accessible," Bell says.
Integral Yoga instructor Jivana Heyman founded Accessible Teacher Training in 2007 after a student with MS dropped out because he fell behind. "It began with the idea that anyone who loves yoga can share it, and that a physical limitation does not limit spiritual growth," Heyman recalls."My goal is to empower people to take on these teachings," he says. "There is a tendency for people who are disabled to become the receiver of care and to always be the patient or the student. "Becoming a teacher transforms the way that people think of themselves—and it's really exciting."
Patrice Wagner, who has MS, says that becoming a teacher renewed her sense of purpose after her illness forced her to exit the working world. "I often used to feel like I couldn't do anything," she says. "Teacher training gave me the tool kit to say, 'I can do this, this, and this.' It also taught me that I can be of service, because I understand where people with physical challenges are coming from."
The program has not only filled a void for would-be teachers, but it has also transformed many a personal practice. "The training deepened my understanding of the poses themselves, so I can see the idea behind the pose," says Ram Hruzewicz, who has a spinal cord injury. Hruzewicz says that because of the progress he has made in his own practice—he can now do Salamba Sarvangasana (Supported Shoulderstand), Adho Mukha Vrksasana (Handstand), and Dhanurasana (Bow Pose), and has greatly increased his mobility in other poses—he can be an example to his students of what is possible: "I can offer my students the confidence that they are on a journey that will be fruitful and beneficial."