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Making Yoga Accessible to All

Jivana Heyman, author of Accessible Yoga, explains how it's important to adapt a pose to the person instead of the other way around.

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If you ask most people what yoga is, they’ll tell you it’s either a bunch of funny poses with animal names or advanced gymnastics that most humans could never do. I wonder, how many people would answer that yoga is actually about calming your mind in order to connect with your heart?

In my book on this topic, Accessible Yoga, I explore the practice of yoga for real people with diverse bodies, with the help of props and pose variations. While, in some ways, Accessible Yoga began thousands of years ago with the first practitioner who sat on a blanket rather than in the dirt, the idea of adapting the pose to the person, instead of the person to the pose, is relatively new. Only recently have practitioners and teachers started to seriously question what’s really happening in yoga on many levels: culturally, psychologically, and physiologically. This inquiry is shifting the focus of the practice more toward individual experience and intuition, rather than having the emphasis on achieving complicated shapes.

Even so, many yoga spaces are not welcoming to people with disabilities, fat students, or anyone who doesn’t fit the commercial image of the yogi.

We can change this limited understanding of who can practice by exploring what yoga really is. Yoga is a diverse group of practices from many different ancient and not-so-ancient Indian traditions. At its heart, yoga is a spiritual practice of self-exploration, self-study, and self-awareness that can be used by anyone at any time—if you know how.

Yoga teaches us another way to view life. When we relax the body and breath, and start making friends with the mind, we may experience a shift. This is the goal of yoga: moving our focus from outward to inward. Ultimately, what we are looking for—clarity, peace, and love—is found inside of us.

And Accessible Yoga, and in particular a form of it called chair yoga, makes the practice doable for those who have chronic pain and conditions such as osteoporosis or multiple sclerosis.

Try this accessible chair yoga sequence I’ve designed to reduce joint strain and boost your concentration, mobility, and strength. These shapes can calm your mind, enliven your body, and soothe your nervous system, preparing you for breathwork and meditation so you can experience the deeper benefits of the practice.

It’s for Everyone

An Accessible Yoga class aims to welcome all, emphasizes checking in with the students, adapts poses to individual practitioners, and centers awareness on the present moment. We prioritize building strength, as we all need it in order to perform everyday activities.

Class Structure

We start with a posture check, where we focus on making each person physically comfortable. We could be working on a pose such as Sukhasana (Easy Pose), and doing so from a chair, from standing, on a mat, or using the wall.

We then bring awareness and mental focus within, through chanting, meditation, or a total-body scan.

Once centered, we work with a balance of mobility moves (such as shoulder and neck rolls) and strengthening practices (like gentle Sun Salutations and standing poses). We adapt these shapes for those in the class and how they are feeling in the moment.

While I have a set sequence I like, I encourage my trainees to teach whatever asana they feel comfortable with, to focus on what is important for their students, and to adapt the poses to whoever is there that day. When I teach, I generally offer one to two backbends and forward bends, plus an inversion and a twist.

The final portion of class gives participants a chance to relax and receive the benefits of the practice, including stillness. After this sequence, spend a few minutes in a self-guided or teacher-led meditation, then rest in any version of Savasana (Corpse Pose).

Adapt a Practice

Working with props may be the most important way that we can make asana accessible. In some public yoga classes, the use of props is discouraged, or there may be a stigma that keeps people from using them. However, these tools offer so many benefits that it’s challenging to think of reasons not to use them.

Props can:

  • Bring the floor to you, making poses more available.
  • Foster safety by keeping your body in alignment as you practice, which can prevent you from over-stretching or straining.
  • Connect parts of your body that may not otherwise touch each other, increasing the feeling of energy flowing through you.

Additionally, you can make shapes more accessible by changing their positioning. Some poses are challenging because of their orientation in space. For example, Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose) can be tough to practice for multiple reasons, one of which is bearing weight on your wrists. To accommodate this, you can bring your hands to a chair or wall instead of the floor.

You can also adapt poses by practicing them in your mind. This might sound like an easy thing to do, but it’s actually one of the most advanced forms of yoga, because it is only possible with a lot of concentration. It also offers a way for people with limited mobility to practice.