Last year at the Accessible Yoga Conference in St. Louis, Missouri, I attended a workshop led by Ryan McGraw, a yoga teacher who has cerebral palsy and is a disability rights advocate. I remember Ryan succinctly explaining the difference between the medical model of disability and the cultural model, and how much yoga has focused on the medical model.
The medical model, he explained, perceives people with disabilities as needing to be fixed or needing to be cured. The cultural model perceives disability as an important, potentially beneficial, aspect to someone’s personality and background, much like being left-handed or red-headed. It’s based on an idea of embracing difference rather than hiding or disdaining difference.
Yoga in the West has moved away from a traditional focus on spiritual enlightenment and instead become mostly concerned with two interconnected elements: physical ability and physical healing. Unfortunately, these two elements directly feed into the medical model of disability, in which people with disabilities, chronic illnesses, larger bodies, who are seniors, or whose bodies are perceived as different or “other,” are seen as inferior and needing to be fixed.
Modern yoga culture has elevated a particular body type that has certain physical abilities as better than other bodies. And this idea pretty much defines the term “ableism,” which is “the discrimination of and social prejudice against people with disabilities based on the belief that typical abilities are superior.”
Ableism, like other forms of white supremacy, is so ingrained in us that it can be hard to see the way it has affected our thinking and belief systems. In anti-racism training, we learn that it can be almost impossible to see the ways we’ve been enculturated, just like it’s hard for a fish to see the water it’s swimming in. We have to consciously increase our self-awareness to even begin to notice these habitual ways of thinking.
Be Mindful of Ableist Thinking
Luckily yoga is all about increasing our self-awareness, and the foundational teaching of svadhyaya (self-reflection) is a key component to our practice. Below I offer some ways to address ableism in yoga, but first I encourage you to take a moment to explore your personal relationship to the idea of ableism. Consider these questions:
- If you have a disability does that mean you need to be fixed or changed?
- Does the ability to perform physically challenging asana mean you’re advanced at yoga?
- If you have an illness or injury, or you get older and less mobile, do you become less advanced at yoga?
6 Ways to Reduce Ableism in Your Classes
Here are some suggestions for yoga teachers who are interested in reducing ableism in their teaching. Students can be on the lookout for these common, but non-inclusive, habits too—so they can help their yoga teachers and classes become more accessible.
1. Consider identity. Allow people with disabilities to choose how they want to be identified in terms of what words to use and whether they want to discuss their disability with you. Within disability culture there are many people who are reclaiming the word “disabled,” just like gay people are reclaiming the word “queer.” There is a lot of discussion regarding identify-first language (disabled person) versus person-first language (person with a disability), and the key is personal choice.
2. Use invitational language, instead of command language. Try to use language that invites people to explore their own ability and limitations. For example, for Cobra Pose: “Lengthen the neck and pause here, noticing how you feel, or you may want to extend the chin and begin to raise the head…” This gives people agency over their own bodies and their own practice, versus command language, which implies right and wrong ways to move the body. A command version of those same cues might be, “Lengthen the neck, extend the chin, and raise the head.”
3. Avoid using the word “advanced.” The goal of yoga is finding peace, reducing suffering, and increasing self-awareness. Physically advanced asana can help us learn about our minds, but what feels simple for one person can be advanced for another. Using hierarchical language when teaching yoga can take away from the opportunity for inner exploration. Also, focusing on “peak” poses incorrectly positions some poses as better than others, when it’s your experience in the pose that really matters.
4. Use “variation” or “version,” instead of “modification” when adapting poses. Notice the tendency to focus on one “classical version” of a pose and imply that a variation is less than or not as good. If yoga is really for everyone then we need to move away from this idea that some forms of practice are less worthy, or are modifications, of the “real” thing.
5. Avoid the word “just.” This may be a pet peeve of mine, but try to avoid using the word “just” when teaching. It feels like a misguided attempt to soften our language (“just reach down to the mat”) when what it really does is diminish the challenge that someone may be experiencing, in this case reaching down to the mat. It’s actually a fun game I play in my head–noticing my tendency to say “just,” and then adjusting to say something more like “take care of yourself.”
6. Don’t project your experience. People have extremely diverse experiences of the same situation, so we need to be careful not to project our personal experiences onto others. For example, for neuro-diverse folks, something that you might consider relaxing like a few minutes of silent meditation, may be stressful for someone else. So instead of saying “this will be relaxing” or “wasn’t that calming,” allow people to have space for their own experience. Or consider offering more open-ended benefits, such as “this may be relaxing.”
See also Accessible Yoga: Bed Sun Salutations
Want to learn how to build a potent yoga practice that is accessible to all? Join Chair Yoga 101, our four-week, live-streamed workshop led by Accessible Yoga founder Jivana Heyman. You'll explore safe, effective chair adaptations of yoga asana, along with meditation and pranayama. Class starts November 2. Sign up today!