June, 1995. I’m sitting cross-legged on a thick plastic gym mat in a basement conference room at Davies Hospital in the Castro neighborhood of San Francisco. The AIDS crisis is raging and this is an epicenter. The floors above us are populated by people with HIV, a disease that targeted gay men—including so many of my friends. I ache. But yoga had saved me from the deep grief and despair that I had plunged into. I believe it can help. Now, I’m about to teach my first yoga class for people with HIV/AIDS.
I had just finished my 200-hour yoga teacher training a month earlier. My heart is pounding so loudly I worry that my students will be able to hear it. Unfortunately, what they will hear instead are voices over the hospital loudspeaker. Every once in a while we’re startled by, “Code Blue! Code Blue!” which means that someone is having a life-threatening emergency on the floors above us.
The dirty gray carpet is covered with stains and the room smells like hospital food since the cafeteria is next door. I’ve moved the tables and chairs to one side of the room to create space for a small group of students who are slowly arriving. The floor is scattered with gym mats and hospital pillows. One student comes up to me and says he can’t sit on the floor. He knows he won’t be able to get back up.
Other students have different physical challenges. One has a form of neuropathy that causes numbness in his feet so he can’t balance on one leg. Another, who is extremely thin, tells me that he has extreme fatigue.
All of a sudden I feel inadequate and unprepared. How am I going to make this work for them? What in my 200-hour yoga training has prepared me for this moment?
Are We Teaching With the Right Intention?
I know I had the right intention, but I didn’t have all the practical teaching skills I really needed to make the impact I had hoped for. I wasn’t sure how to make the experience effective for all the students who came to class that day.
Even before starting my 200-hour training, I had the incredible luck of spending four years apprenticing with a masterful yoga teacher, Kazuko Onodera. I spent days with her—practicing yoga, studying philosophy, gardening, and cooking. It was a profound yoga education.
As a frontline AIDS activist with a group called ACT UP, I had also done countless trainings on anti-racism and community-building. I appreciated it all, and I felt full of yoga knowledge. But my knowledge, good intentions, and appreciation of the practice weren’t enough. The thing is, I didn’t have adequate tools to share it with others. My yoga teacher training hadn’t prepared me to teach real people with real bodies and real problems. Even after the deep yoga apprenticeship, my 200-hour yoga teacher training still felt like drinking from a firehose.
The Training Yoga Teachers Need
There were two specific areas where I felt I was lacking in my teaching skills. One was in adapting the practices for all my students. The other was in my ability to serve them all at the same time.
After that first class in the hospital basement, I realized I needed more training to learn how to make my teaching accessible to everyone. I found opportunities to assist a number of skilled and experienced teachers, but ultimately I realized I had to find my own way to teach. The challenge was finding the confidence to break out of old thinking. I wanted to respect the tradition I was part of, but I also wanted to truly serve the students who came to me.
Over the years, I found ways to think more creatively and teach each yoga practice as a spectrum of possibility. I developed specific techniques for teaching truly mixed-level classes where students with different abilities and disabilities can practice together. These are skills that I wish someone had shared with me before I stepped into that first class.
Bending from Anger to Action
October, 2016. I’m standing in front of a few hundred people who have gathered for the second annual Accessible Yoga Conference at the Santa Barbara Yoga Center in California. It’s unbearably hot and there is no air conditioning. We’ve come to the last session of the conference, and I open the floor to comments and questions. I’m exhausted from running the conference and ready to go home.
But the energy in the room is electric. Over the noise of the fans, people start sharing their frustration, and even anger, at the yoga world for excluding them. Person after person shares their stories of how they’ve been left out of contemporary yoga.
A disabled person describes being told they were too slow to keep up with the class, so they should stop coming. Someone else describes the shame they felt when their teacher told them that if they lost weight they could do the poses more easily. Almost everyone in the room has a painful story. It’s like I’ve opened a valve and all these strong emotions start pouring out.
Finally, the conversation turned to the fact that most teachers were not being trained to make their classes accessible, and how much benefit could come from more emphasis on accessibility in teacher training programs. We discussed Yoga Alliance standards for 200-hour yoga teacher training programs. Their basic requirements for how teacher trainings are run include a minimum number of hours of instruction in certain areas of study. But they didn’t call for any specific training around making yoga accessible. In fact it wasn’t required anywhere. We agreed that needed to change.
Advocating For Inclusion
Out of the discussion that day, we formed an Accessible Yoga Advocacy Team. Our first task: to petition Yoga Alliance for change. Amazingly, it seemed to work. The next spring, YA launched a new initiative to update standards for 200-hour yoga teacher trainings. I end up on a committee focused on creating a revised Code of Conduct. The final result, instituted in early 2020, includes powerful language around diversity and inclusion:
Under Code Principle 6, Members MUST NOT discriminate against and SHOULD actively include all individuals. Members are expected to go beyond basic legal prohibitions against discrimination and, within their scope of practice, actively include, accommodate, and welcome all who wish to be included in the practice of yoga.
It goes on to say members must not discriminate against anyone “on the basis of age, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, culture, national origin, religion, body type, personal appearance, physical or mental ability, socioeconomic status, marital status, political activities, or affiliation or any other basis.” It says members should actively include and welcome people who are typically excluded, and provide accommodations for people with disabilities, considering safety and accessibility.
The language was clear and forceful. (Even those capitalizations are in the code.) I love the idea of active inclusion, and I was impressed with Yoga Alliance for taking such a strong stance in this regard. With renewed hope for contemporary yoga, I imagined a world where all yoga was accessible, and where people who had been excluded would be welcomed in all yoga spaces.
Waiting for the dream
Today, 2022: A few years after its implementation, I’m still waiting for that dream to materialize. We’re still seeing ableism, racism, fatphobia, and so many other forms of prejudice within the yoga world. I wonder if YA registered teachers and schools are conscious of what they’re agreeing to when they click that little box that says they will abide by the Code of Conduct? How do they interpret the commitment to “actively include, accommodate, and welcome all who wish to be included in the practice of yoga?” How can they put it into practice?
I’m not sure if the updated 200-hour standards have made any substantial improvement in this aspect of yoga teaching. In the process of creating an Accessible Yoga teacher training, I’ve been deep in contemplation about what a beginning yoga teacher needs to know. When they complete a typical 200-hour teacher training, are yoga teachers able to share yoga with all their students? Could they teach a mixed-level class where there are disabled people, older people, fat people—real people who each have individual needs and abilities?
Unfortunately, I think not. We have the lofty goal of active inclusion, but most teachers who complete basic teacher training will lack the skills to make that goal a reality. This disconnect creates a dangerous gap that many students fall through. A gap filled with students who think, “I’m not flexible enough to do yoga.” “I’m not young enough to do yoga.” “I’m not skinny enough to do yoga.” And worst of all, “I got injured in yoga, so it’s not for me.”
It seems as if yoga teacher trainings devote little time to teaching skills and methodology that would allow new teachers to quickly become proficient in making yoga truly accessible and welcoming to everyone.
I don’t see the standards addressing the issue of how to acquire the practical skills that teachers need to fulfill the high calling of that Code of Conduct. So, it comes down to us. It is the duty of every yoga teacher and yoga school to reflect on the powerful words in the Code of Conduct, and ask ourselves if we are doing all we can to actively include anyone who is interested in the practice of yoga.
Jivana Heyman is the founder and director of Accessible Yoga, and the author of Accessible Yoga: Poses and Practices for Every Body and Yoga Revolution: Building a Practice of Courage and Compassion