Accessible Yoga: Challenges and Lessons

Nathan is a graduate of our Yoga Teacher Training and has begun teaching all-abilities accessible yoga in the KW community. In this post Nathan shares some fantastic suggestions for teaching accessible classes, and acknowledges where the yoga world needs to change and grow in relation to folks with disabilities. If you appreciate this kind of perspective and want a deeper dive into these themes, check out Reforming Yoga Culture, where we are bringing together innovative teachers who are
transforming the yoga world from the inside out. Now, here’s Nathan!

Everyone deserves fair and equal access to yoga. I know that’s hardly a controversial statement, but in reality many people encounter barriers when trying to engage with a yoga practice. This can be especially true for individuals living with disability. Many of these barriers extend beyond the context of yoga and find their roots in larger systems of oppression and injustice. While on a more subtle level, without appropriate care and
reflection some of these same prejudice can find a presence in the very language and methods by which yoga is taught.

As a facilitator of accessible all-abilities yoga classes, I’ve learned that my
attentiveness, choice of language, and ability to hold space are just as important as poses and movements when it comes to making yoga truly accessible.

I discovered yoga during a time of personal need. In the spring of 2015, over a series of few days, my sight quickly faded until I could hardly see. After three days in the ER and a series of jabs and scans I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis — an auto immune disease that causes a breakdown in the central nervous system’s ability to
communicate with the rest of the body. At first, the effects are temporary but over time can lead to permanent disability.

Yoga became a lifeline for me in those early days. The moments of calm that emerged during and following my practice provided me with enough space to slowly begin to process and accept my new reality.

It’s this experience that ultimately inspired me to want to share this practice with others and pursue accessible-focused teaching.

Stepping into this role has been a journey marked by fundamental word-view-changing opportunities for learning. Here are a few discoveries that I hope other yoga teachers might find useful to incorporate into their teaching, especially when working with a
range of abilities.

1. Don’t push people to extend their capacity

After one of my first classes, I received feedback from a participant, about an experience of being pushed beyond their capacity in a previous class with a different instructor and how happy they were that I had led the practice in a way that allowed them to participate. It pains me to say that I have heard similar stories from many other
students.

There’s a common myth/belief within fitness culture that by pushing someone to extend their capacity you’re actually helping them to achieve their goals. While teaching in this way may in fact be motivating to a small number of students, it can also cause physical harm and create barriers to participation. I am not advocating that as teachers we should remove the opportunity to engage in challenging activity from our classes but rather a shift in attitude. A shift towards the idea that…

2. Everything is optional.

Permissive teaching explicitly outlines that everything presented is optional and creates a space where the student has the agency to engage with the practice on their own terms. In a practical sense this might look like presenting an exercise at a level of modest engagement, then inviting the option of further exploration into more challenging territory. As a rule, I always try to model the most inclusive option and only show something more strenuous if it would be truly beneficial. If I do, I’ll return to what
I first presented after a few moments. The goal here is to give every possible signal that pursuing more strenuous exercise is entirely optional and not an expectation. This empowers students to take a more central roll in their practice by deciding how they would like to engage (or not engage) with what you’ve presented.

3. Create a ‘container of safety’

A ‘container’ refers to a collection of practices and assurances that are designed to help individuals know they’re safe from harm. As a teacher, I take on the responsibility (and the privilege) of facilitating such a space. Before I share practical considerations for the creation of a container, I want to briefly make a case for why such a space is so
important.

Feeling safe is a privilege. The reality is that we currently do not live in a fair and equal society and some individuals face great adversity for simply being who they are. Some of this hardship is systemic and some is intentionally inflicted abuse. It’s a heavy consideration, but essential when working with a marginalized population. The intention of the container is to create a space that’s free of persecution and protected from the shortcomings and injustice so prevalent within our culture.

Creating a container goes beyond the physical space and begins with your marketing and communications. How you choose to name and describe your class, the people/groups you’re intending to reach, and who is present (or not present) in your photography are all important considerations.

A container has an inside and an outside. As such, you may choose to make your classes exclusively open to a certain group or population. The purpose of these boundaries it not so much the exclusion of others but rather to support the integrity of the group within. Strong and defined walls can help to create a space of safety and inclusion and perhaps even lay the ground work for community to emerge.

When beginning a class, I always introduce myself and define my role. As an able-bodied presenting instructor, I feel that it’s important to say a little about my experience with MS and how that lead me to want to share yoga with others. I offer ways to engage with the practice by inviting student to follow their intuition and move in ways that feel good to them. I balance this with a suggestion to avoid any movements that don’t feel good. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I talk about the way in which I hope student will relate to my instructions. As a facilitator, my role is to guide people to have their own experience and I want my offerings to be seen as optional
invitations for exploration.

4. Teach responsively (Have a back-up plan)

To help prepare for my first accessible class, I reached out to my mentor and YTT co-director Emma Dines to help navigating the unknowns of this new teaching venture. Of all her advice, what came to the forefront for me was her suggestion to teach responsively.

Emma used the example of a neck roll exercise. She suggested I start by leading a simplified neck movement. By closely observing my students’ response, I’d be able to have a good indication as to whether I should continue into the full neck roll movement or instead move onto something else.

Up until this point, I had planned all my classes in advance to quite a high level of detail before ever presenting them to students. Responsive teaching would mean to go off script and to adapt my classes based on my observation and intuition. To an experienced instructor, this is often second nature but as a beginner the prospect seemed rather intimidating.

To honour the reality of where I was at in my teaching journey, I decided that planning additional content for my classes would be the way to go. For my first hour-long class I planned twenty minutes of extra content. This way, if I noticed the movement I was offering wasn’t landing well with the group, I could move on to another exercise without fear of running through my whole sequence before the end of class.

Being able to teach responsively is a hugely resourceful tool for any instructor, but in my case practicing this way of teaching also highlighted the distance between my own lived experience and that of my students. So, as this post comes towards an end, I’d like to take a moment to briefly speak to the ethical consideration of leading accessible
classes as an able-bodied person.

When I began this journey, I had hoped that my experience with critical illness would serve as a bridge to understanding a reality much different than my own. In some way it has helped but I would limit this only to better informing my position as an ally. My heart tells me that someone with real lived experience should be leading these classes.

Unfortunately, the same barriers to entry that individual’s experiencing disability encounter when pursuing a yoga practice are further amplified when it comes to pursuing yoga teach training. There are few accessible training programs available and little representation of accessible-focused teachers in mainstream yoga culture.

I believe that accessible yoga is in a period of transition. A period where those of us with privileged positions have the responsibility to encourage, empower, and make space for those within the community to take their rightful place to teach from the lived experience of disability. I hope the day soon comes that I can step aside from my role as facilitator to make space for someone with lived experience. Until then, it’s an absolute privilege to be in this position.

2 Comments

  1. ndenoble says:

    Thanks for sharing this thoughtful piece of advocacy, Nathan.

  2. Wendy says:

    Fabulous blog post, Nathan. Thank you!

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