Thursday, November 29, 2018

Featured Video: Shelly Prosko Interviews Jivana Heyman



In this short video, Jivana Heyman, founder and director of Accessible Yoga, chats with Shelly Prosko, about a recent study suggesting that yoga and meditation may increase the ego. He talks about the possible shortcomings of how we interpret and practice yoga in the modern world and shares his perspective on yoga as service and ‘non-attachment. He also shares a piece of practical advice.

Shelly Prosko is a Physical Therapist, a Yoga Therapist and a Certified Pilates Instructor. Since 1998, Shelly has been integrating yoga principles and methods into her physical therapy treatments.  She travels across Canada and the United States offering specialty Physio-Yoga Therapy workshops, classes, private sessions, lecturing at University and College programs as adjunct faculty of Professional Yoga Therapy Studies, teaching at YTT’s, and actively promoting the integration of medical therapeutic yoga into our current healthcare system. Please visit www.physioyoga.ca for more information about Shelly’s mission and services.


This post was edited by Nina Zolotow, co-editor of the Accessible Yoga blog and Editor in Chief of Yoga for Healthy Aging.

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Monday, November 26, 2018

Interview with Seth Powell, Part 3: Who Had Access to Yoga in Pre-Modern India

by Patrice Priya Wagner


Great Stupa at Sanchi. Madhya Pradesh, Stone Relief, (c. 50 BCE- 50 CE).
Image from Diamond (2013:28).
While taking an online course “An Introduction to the History and Philosophy of Yoga” with Seth Powell, I became very curious about the origins of yoga instruction for people who weren’t male and from an upper caste in India—the primary demographic we had studied. When, for example, did people with disabilities, women, or other marginalized groups gain access to the teachings of yoga in India? What allowed for these changes to happen? 

Despite Seth's busy schedule of teaching, writing a PhD dissertation, and having a family-life with children, he agreed to an interview to shed some light on these questions. Because the final interview was quite long, with detailed and fascinating answers to each question, I decided to divide it into separate posts, with one question and answer in each post in the series.

Priya: What circumstances in India changed to allow for greater access to yoga—for example, for people with disabilities, of lower castes, and women? Could you explain/describe this for our readers.

Seth: This is very difficult to say. Broadly speaking throughout Indian history, yoga as a discipline was practiced predominantly by a small handful of male ascetics, who retreated from society and devoted themselves religiously to the practice, full-time. Yoga was not viewed as a mainstream activity for cultivating mental, physical, and spiritual health, in the way it is commonly conceived today—both in India and the West. However, at the same time, we should be careful not to view yoga as a singular monolithic, unchanging practice or tradition. There were, and are, many different yogas—plural. With the development of Bhakti, Tantra, and eventually Haṭha Yoga traditions, we can detect the shift from strictly ascetic and initiate traditions, to more public and even householder traditions. In texts from medieval India, we see the proclamation that anybody can engage in the practice. As the fifteenth-century Haṭhapradīpikā (HP), the “Lamp on Haṭha Yoga,” states:

Whether young, old, very old, diseased, or weak, one who practices untiringly attains success in all yogas.” (HP 1.64) 

The Śivayogapradīpikā (SYP), the “Lamp on Śiva’s Yoga,” composed around the same time, suggests particular āsanas for individuals according to their station in life. Lotus Posture (ambuja) is for householders. Adepts Pose (siddhāsana) for ascetics. And Comfortable Posture (sukhāsana) is for all others (ŚYP 2.14). From this perspective, it does not really matter which posture one engages, so long as one is able to hold the posture.

Does that mean there was a medieval “Accessible Yoga” movement in premodern India? Not exactly. But for various reasons, the authors of these texts did feel it important to make these teachings “accessible” to a broader demographic, and continually stress their universality. Though we should keep in mind, the texts were still predominantly written in the elite and Brahmanical medium of Sanskrit, which would have limited their audience considerably. It is unlikely that most yogis in India (past or present) would have actually read these texts. Still to this day, among contemporary sādhu and ascetic orders, the oral and spoken word of the living guru is often valued higher than the scriptures (see e.g., Bevilacqua, 2018). And while the texts speak of a growing householder yoga audience, they are still primarily aimed at ascetic yogis.

Why these shifts took place within Indian society and within yoga traditions is still very much discussed and debated by scholars today. Dr. James Mallinson of the Haṭha Yoga Project, the world’s leading authority on medieval yoga texts and traditions, has recently suggested that many of the Haṭha Yoga texts were likely composed within south Indian monasteries (maṭha) and institutions which received heavy patronage during the early second millennium CE. 

Within these institutional environments, we can detect a range of issues that were being addressed by the authors of these texts, including who should have access to yoga, and of what kind. There were certainly a variety of prominent yoga systems in parlance during this period, and there was clearly some debate about which was the most effective yoga! The proliferation of yoga styles, schools, and lineages, and debates about “authenticity” and “tradition” is thus not a modern problem—though the discourse certainly looks different today in the face of beer yoga, goat yoga, et al.

Savasana, Watercolor illustration, Richard Schmidt, 1908, Fakire und
Fakirtum im alten und modernen Indien, Berlin: Hermann Barsdorf
We can also detect an important functional shift in the Haṭha Yoga texts in the ways in which the body and bodily posture (āsana) was to be practiced. No longer was āsana employed simply as a “firm and comfortable seat” (as in Yogasūtra 2.46 of Patañjali) used to still the body for breath-control and meditation. In Haṭha Yoga, āsana is used more dynamically to stimulate vital energies within the body (bindu, prāṇa, kuṇḍalinī), and we might even say, “therapeutically.” As Svātmārāma states:

Āsana is described first because it is the first auxiliary of Haṭha. One should perform it, for āsana [results in] steadiness, freedom from disease, and lightness of body.” (HP 1.17).

The Haṭhapradīpikā and other texts describe particular āsanas which are prescribed for specific ailments in the body. For example, the hand-balancing Peacock Pose (mayūrāsana) is said to destroy stomach ailments and diseases, while the famous Corpse Pose (śavāsana) is said to ward off fatigue and bring mental relaxation. I have suggested elsewhere that this shift in theory and praxis seemed to open up new anatomical potentials for the creative ways in which the body was used in Haṭha Yoga practice, and may help to partially explain why we see a surge in the number of āsanas taught in texts after the sixteenth century—as Dr. Jason Birch has recently shown.

As with contemporary sadhu culture in India today, it seems clear to me that historically Haṭha yogis came from a range of social backgrounds, and were certainly not all of elite Brahmin caste. Recently, at a South Asia conference in Madison, Wisconsin, I heard a great paper given by Jason Schwartz (PhD Candidate, UCSB), who spoke of a very particular lineage of artisan, goldsmith, Śiva yogis in medieval Maharashtra. These were sculptors from what is typically considered a “low caste” who were well versed in both traditional temple-construction arts (śilpaśāstra) and yoga! As scholarship continues to progress on these traditions, we are getting a better idea of who actually had access to the practice of yoga in premodern times.

Seth Powell is a longtime practitioner of yoga and a scholar of Indian religions, Sanskrit, and yoga traditions, and is the founder of Yogic Studies. He is currently a PhD Candidate in South Asian Religions at Harvard University, where he is writing his dissertation on the history, theory, and practice of medieval and early modern yoga traditions. Seth also holds degrees in the study of religion from the University of Washington (MA) and Humboldt State University (BA). He has taught and lectured for numerous university courses on the religions and literature of India, Hinduism, Buddhism, and yoga traditions, and presents his research regularly at international conferences. Seth conducts online courses and teaches regularly on the history and philosophy of yoga at studios, teacher trainings, and universities around the country. You can find him online at www.yogicstudies.com.

Further Reading:

Bevilacqua, Daniela. 2018. “Let the Sādhus Talk. Ascetic understanding of Haṭha Yoga and yogāsanas.”Draft.

Birch, Jason. 2018. “The Proliferation of Āsana in Late Mediaeval Yoga Traditions.” In Yoga in Transformation: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives, edited by Karl Baier, Philipp A. Maas, and Karin Preisendanz, 97-171. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht Unipress.

Diamond, Debra, ed. 2013. Yoga: The Art of Transformation. Washington, D.C.: Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

Jones, Jamal Andre. 2018. “A Poetics of Power in Andhra, 1323-1450 CE.” Ph.D. dissertation—University of Chicago.

Mallinson, James. 2011. “Haṭha Yoga.” Brill Encyclopedia of Hinduism 3: 770–81.

Powell, Seth. 2017. “Advice on Āsana in the Śivayogapradīpikā.” Guest blogpost for The Luminescent.

Powell, Seth. 2018. “The Ancient Yoga Strap: A Brief History of the Yogapaṭṭa.” Guest blogpost for The Luminescent.

2018. “Etched in Stone: Sixteenth-century Visual and Material Evidence of Śaiva Ascetics and Yogis in Complex Non-seated Āsanas at Vijayanagara.” Journal of Yoga Studies (1): 45-106.

Singleton, Mark. 2010. Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


This post was edited by Patrice Priya Wagner, co-editor of Accessible Yoga blog and member of the Board of Directors.

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Yoga and Human Rights

By Jivana Heyman
Mural of Human Rights: The Seeds that Give the Fruit (Detail) by Via Zanetti
Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world, Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people.” — Universal Declaration of Human Rights, United Nations, 1948

I imagine that for most people talking about yoga and human rights in the same sentence may seem strange. But this connection became clear in my mind when I had the privilege of attending a special event at the United Nations Human Rights Commission in Geneva in 2015. The event was the celebration of the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, December 3, a holiday established by the UN. That year, I was invited to teach Accessible Yoga as part of a variety of offerings focusing on the positive steps that people with disabilities can take to achieve full equality and human rights. 

Most of the other presenters were leaders of disability rights groups from around the world. They spoke about how people with disabilities make up the largest minority group in the world: well over 1 billion people! And they discussed the basic human rights that they are seeking for people with disabilities. In 2006, the UN’s Human Rights Commission set the gold standard for these human rights in their Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. They declared: 

The purpose of the present Convention is to promote, protect and ensure the full and equal enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms by all persons with disabilities, and to promote respect for their inherent dignity.” Article 1, United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities

I was struck by the correlation between basic human rights, and the fundamental teachings of yoga philosophy. According to the yoga tradition, each person has a spiritual essence, which is called the atman or purusha. The work of yoga, the poses, breathing practices, ethical living, and meditation, are all about opening the pathways to the experience of that essence. I’ve always loved the fact that yoga begins with this positive assumption. The idea is that every single one of us has an atman, and that there is no differentiation made between the atman of any two people, regardless of their ability or background. Yoga begins with equality, as we are all equal in spirit. And because we are all equal in spirit, yoga is equally powerful in helping anyone, of any background or ability, to find the inner peace that we all crave.

Of course, embracing diversity is an essential part of human rights, and the disability community is extremely diverse. There is currently a shift in the disability community towards disability pride, towards embracing difference. As a gay man, pride has a special meaning to me. I grew up thinking that being gay was a deficit, and learning to be proud of my differences has been a great source of my healing. Now, I am not only proud of being gay, but I see how being different makes me stronger.

Swami Sivananda, a famous yoga master, used to say that spiritual life was about seeing the “unity in diversity.” This means being able to see that we are all connected, and to simultaneously embrace our differences. Yoga and human rights both stem from this dual vision—the ability to hold both equality and diversity simultaneously. It’s really a paradox: we are all the same and yet all unique. This perspective is challenging in a modern world where some people are empowered and some are not, a world that is filled with division and the separation of groups based on race, class, gender identity, political affiliation, etc. Our job as yoga practitioners, and human rights advocates, is embrace those differences and at the same time to see the same essence in everyone we meet.

According to the Bhagavad Gita, one of the most essential texts of yoga, as we become more in tune with ourselves, we begin to experience that underlying connection with others. Lord Krishna, who is teaching Arjuna how to be a yogi, explains:

As your mind becomes harmonized through yoga practices, you begin to see the Atman in all being and all beings in your Self; you see the same Self everywhere and in everything. Those who see me wherever they look and recognize everything as my manifestation, never again feel separate from me, nor I from them. Whoever becomes established in the all-pervading oneness and worships me abiding in all beings – however he may be living, that yogi lives in me. The yogi who perceives the essential oneness everywhere naturally feels the pleasure or pain of others as his or her own.” (6.29-32 translation by Swami Satchidananda).

Just seeing through the diversity of nature to experience the oneness of creation isn’t enough. Krishna is teaching us that once we go down that path, we will literally feel the pleasure and pain of others as our own. That’s the ultimate level of awareness – true connection. And that is the first step on the path to equality and human rights. If we feel intimately connected to others, then we automatically take care of them. But this can only happen if we understand our personal privilege and the perspective we are coming from, otherwise that concept of oneness can be used to avoid the harsh reality of human rights abuse and leave us complacent. This is called spiritual bypassing.

Spiritual bypassing perpetuates the idea that the belief “we are one” is enough to create a reality where we are treated equally and as one. It is not. Spiritual bypassing permits the status quo to stay in place and teaches people that if you believe in something and have a good intent that is enough. It is not.” —Michelle Cassandra Johnson

Those of us in positions of power and authority can use our yoga practice to reveal hidden truths in our own behavior and attitude—things we may not want to see in ourselves. The practice of svadhyaya, or reflection, is an essential part of yoga. In svadhyaya we attempt to witness the workings of our own mind, to see our ego and its prejudices. In the self-reflection that our practice brings, we can consider this question: Are my efforts reinforcing the status quo or is my practice inspiring me to actively work on achieving human rights for all?

Regarding ableism specifically, yoga teachers can reflect on whether unknowingly they may be teaching yoga in a discriminatory way. For example, am I teaching in a wheelchair-accessible space? Am I teaching in a way that values physical ability as superior or advanced? Am I giving all students the same respect, attention, and kindness regardless of ability? Are my offerings advancing equality in the yoga community? What can I do to cultivate svadhaya in myself, in my students, and in my peers?

We can also examine our language: Am I reinforcing stereotypes that I am also the victim of? For example, do I hide my own physical challenges out of an effort to seem like the perfect yogi, rather than honestly share with students about where I am at? Can I examine the culture of the yoga studios I teach or visit to see if they are in line with my own beliefs? Do the social media accounts I follow make me feel better about myself or reinforce insecurity and self-doubt?

For those of us who are oppressed or lacking in human rights, we can use our yoga practice as a source of power and healing. That means seeking out supportive yoga communities that don’t make us feel less than but rather help to lift us up. In this way, we can use yoga as self-care and as a source of empowerment. According to Audre Lorde:

Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.

This paradox of unity and diversity is at the heart of yoga and at the heart of human rights. With practice, self-awareness, and action, we can deepen our experience of yoga, connecting with our true self and simultaneously begin to honestly and openly address human rights and discrimination of all kinds. 



Jivana Heyman is the Founder and Director of Accessible Yoga, co-owner of the Santa Barbara Yoga Center and an Integral Yoga Minister. With over twenty years of training and teaching in a traditional yoga lineage, Jivana has specialized in teaching the subtle practices of yoga: pranayama, meditation, as well as sharing yoga philosophy. His passion is making Yoga accessible to everyone.

Accessible Yoga has grown into an international advocacy and education organization, and now offers two Conferences per year, trainings around the world, an ambassador program and online Network.

Jivana has taught wth the Dean Ornish Heart Disease Reversal Program through UCSF, California Pacific Medical Center’s Institute of Health and Healing, and the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. He has led over 40 Yoga teacher training programs over the past 16 years, and created the Accessible Yoga Training program in 2007. On December 3rd, 2015, Jivana taught Accessible Yoga at the United Nations in Geneva for their International Day of Persons with Disabilities. Jivana’s strengths are sharing esoteric and complex teaching in a readily accessible way, and applying the ancient teachings of Yoga to our day-to-day lives.

This post was originally published on the 
Yoga for Healthy Aging blog, where it was edited by Nina Zolotow.

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Friday, November 23, 2018

What It Means to be an Accessible Yoga Ambassador

                                                                                                                                     

In this video, Mary Sims and Ryan McGraw talk about what it means to advocate and be an Accessible Yoga Ambassador.


This post was edited by Patrice Priya Wagner, co-editor of Accessible Yoga blog and member of the Board of Directors.

° FOLLOW Accessible Yoga on FacebookTwitterInstagram, and YouTube

° REGISTER here for our next conference. 

° DONATE here to help us bring yoga to people who don't have access or have been underserved, such as people with disabilities, chronic illnesses, children with special needs, and anyone who doesn't feel comfortable in a regular yoga class.

To preorder Jivana Heyman's forthcoming book Accessible Yoga, go to AmazonBarnes and NobleIndie Bound (for independent bookstores), or your local bookstore.

Monday, November 19, 2018

Yoga and Mental Health

by Tiffany Rose


Edgar Degas, Young Woman and Ibis, 1857, Fresco

Now, more than ever, fewer people are able to access professional help for mental health challenges. In Canada, the US, and the UK, we are living through the dismantling of community-based supports and access is limited to those who can afford to pay for it. So many folks who are looking for relief, care, connection, and peer-based support are turning to yoga. 


Yoga has long been praised for its ability to help with several mental health challenges, such as depression and anxiety. Yoga certainly can be a wonderful tool for anyone who is searching for a connection to themselves and to community and is a great way to notice our inner landscape, connect to our experience, and to plug us into a sense of belonging. Through practices that encourage nervous system regulation we have also seen massive inroads for those living with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and other issues that impact nervous system regulation.

However, when we as teachers aren’t aware of contraindications, such as seated still meditation for PTSD, yoga can also harm those seeking care and direction by driving people deeper into psychosis, suicidal ideation, and pattern dissociation (when an event reminds them of a past trauma).

This is why​ ​offering the practices as optional tools for individuals to try, keep, or discard based only on their own body’s response to them is paramount. It doesn’t matter if the yoga tradition teaches us that X practice heals X affliction, if the individual practicing X had an adverse experience, we need to be clear that the tools are optional. So, it is essential to first honour the student’s experience without alienating them from the practice or the community and to empower each individual to express their agency in choosing what works for them.

Yoga teachers have a responsibility to be aware that yoga is an individual practice and just because one person may find a practice or technique healing does not make that practice inherently healing. In addition, consent and autonomy are important guides for yoga teachers, ensuring that we aren’t projecting our own practice or beliefs onto our students.

When someone with mental health challenges enters the yoga room and shares about their challenges, it’s helpful to affirm that they are welcome and accepted even if their experience differs from those of the majority of our students. And please refrain from labeling someone as “negative” or pushing them to see the “positive” or the “bright side,” especially if they are sharing what is true for them.

Compassion and humility in our approach is important to ensure that everyone feels included and welcome.

Some ways we can encourage a more autonomous, safe(r) environment include:

  • Provide consent cards for touch in asana practice, along with ensuring we are clued into non-verbal consent cues from our students. 
  • Give options for gentle movement in Savasana and allow for eyes open for those who need it.
  • Do not walk around in Savasana. 
  • Practice optional language rather than commanding language in asana, such as “if you’d like to, you are welcome to join me...” 
  • As options for seated meditation, offer walking/movement meditation options, eyes open, and/or mala beads.
  • Listen when a student shares personal experiences but do not take on the role of therapist.
  • Do not give advice or offer treatment options, such as “I’ve heard neti pots two times a day cure X.” 
  • Don’t judge people for being on medication or using other Western forms of treatment or ask them to change their current treatments. Yoga can be an excellent adjunct for Western forms of treatment. 
Yoga is one tool that we can share with people who are seeking relief and options for many of life’s challenges. Mental health challenges are a part of the human experience and people who live with them deserve dignity, respect, inclusion, access, and representation. Yoga teachers and fellow practitioners can form a loving community which, in and of itself, can be so very healing for all of us. Yoga can’t be everything to everyone, but if we treat our students as individuals and respect their lived experiences, yoga has the potential to provide something of value for a very wide range of people. 


Tiffany Rose is a PTSD Yoga educator and facilitator in Alberta Canada. She owns LacOMbe Yoga and is on the faculty of several teacher training academies. She is the lead instructor at LacOMbe Yoga and facilitates mentorship style training for yoga teachers there, and she also facilitates learning spaces for people who serve and support those who may be living with the effects of trauma. She works and facilitates around the topics of inclusivity and accessibility, LGBTQ inclusion, and mental health activism.

Prior to her career as a yoga teacher, Tiffany Rose worked in the nonprofit sector for over 10 years as a marketing and public relations professional. She loves to create art, connection, community, and collaboration. She lives in Central Alberta with her daughter, her cats, and her cute puppy Hufflepuff, who is often assisting in yoga classes at LacOMbe Yoga. Tiffany Rose is a queer trauma survivor, living and teaching openly with CPTSD, DID, and chronic pain disorder. She uses she/her pronouns.


LacOMbeyoga.caUnguru.ca, Facebook: unguru Instagram: Ungurutiff tiffanyrose@lacombeyoga.ca

This post was edited by Nina Zolotow, co-editor of the Accessible Yoga blog and Editor in Chief of Yoga for Healthy Aging.

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Thursday, November 15, 2018

Featured Video: Carey Sims' Chair Yoga Sequence for Improving Balance



Carey Sims, RYT500, E-RYT200 lives in Charlotte, NC, where he teaches at NoDa Yoga and offers Chair Yoga at various senior living centers in the Charlotte area. He is a student of Adaptive Yoga pioneer Matthew Sanford (Mind Body Solutions, Minnetonka, MN.) Carey’s mission is to use Yoga to help students explore their bodies in an accepting and non-judgmental way. 

This post was edited by Nina Zolotow, co-editor of the Accessible Yoga blog and Editor in Chief of Yoga for Healthy Aging.

° FOLLOW Accessible Yoga on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube

° REGISTER here for our next conference. 

° DONATE here to help us bring yoga to people who don't have access or have been underserved, such as people with disabilities, chronic illnesses, children with special needs, and anyone who doesn't feel comfortable in a regular yoga class.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Interview with Seth Powell, Part 2: Early History of Yoga for Women

by Patrice Priya Wagner
Female guru and her disciple, Mughal dynasty, c. 1650
Watercolor and gold on paper, Museum Rietberg, Zűrich
While taking an online course “An Introduction to the History and Philosophy of Yoga” with Seth Powell, I became very curious about the origins of yoga instruction for people who weren’t male and from an upper caste in India—the primary demographic we had studied. When, for example, did people with disabilities gain access to the teachings of yoga in India? What about women or other marginalized groups? Despite his busy schedule of teaching, writing a PhD dissertation, and having a family-life with children, Seth Powell agreed to an interview to shed some light on these questions.

Because the final interview was quite long, with detailed and fascinating answers to each question, I decided to divide it into separate posts, with one question and answer in each post in the series.

Priya: What is the earliest textual evidence we have of women in India gaining access to yoga asana and meditation practice?

Seth: That’s a big and important question. The historical record (including texts, sculptures, paintings, etc.) suggests a predominantly male and renunciate culture and demographic of yogi practitioners. However, there are important exceptions to what were, by and large, predominantly patriarchal traditions—especially when we look at the broader history of Indian religion. The Upaniṣads feature some important learned female sages, such as Gargi, who famously questions Yajñavalkya about the nature of reality in the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad. Buddhist and Jain institutions have for most of their history included both male and female monastic orders. During the medieval period, with the rise of devotional Bhakti and Tantra traditions, challenges were waged at issues of caste, gender, elitism, and the “orthodoxy” of the male Sanskritic Brahmanical traditions. (These are, to be sure, very complex and multidimensional issues that we are only very loosely summarizing here).

Many of the Bhakti poet-saints were female, low-caste, or even illiterate; singing and performing their religiosity through poetry, song, and dance, and often in the local vernacular languages specific to place, rather than the elite language of Sanskrit—which was a linguistic register typically limited to the highly learned and elite. While these were not always “yogis” as such, the language and poetry of Bhakti is often highly infused with yogic terminology and themes, such as the meeting place of the inner rivers (nāḍī), or the notion of God as the ultimate lord of the yogis (yogeśvara), or the annihilation of the egoic self (ahaṃkāra).

A Tantric mystic and poetess from fourteenth-century Kashmir known as Lalleshwari (or Lal Ded) is remarkable in this respect, and her poetry is evocative of someone with a deep personal commitment to yogic practice. Here are a few of her exquisite poetic sayings (vākh):
Modern painting of Lalleshwari. Artist unknown.
My mind boomed with the sound of OM,
my body was a burning coal.

Six roads brought me to a seventh,
that's how Lalla reached the Field of Light. (Vākh 51)

I trapped my breath in the bellows of my throat;

a lamp blazed up inside, showed me who I really was.
I crossed the darkness holding fast to that lamp,
scattering its light-seeds around me as I went.
(Vākh 52)


To the yogi, the whole wide world ripples into Nothingness:
it splashes like water on the water of Infinity.
When that Void melts, Perfection remains.
Hey priest-man, that’s the only lesson you need!
(Vākh 114)


— trans. Ranjit Hoskote, I, Lalla: The Poems of Lal Ded

In the scriptures known as Tantras, we can witness a broader shift to house-holder yogic traditions, with yogic practices (typically ritual, visualization, breath-control, mantra) aimed not only at ascetics who had renounced the world, but those living and working in the world.

This shift is echoed in the medieval Haṭha Yoga texts, which promote a certain type of “yogic universalism,” we might say. For example, the Dattātreyayogaśāstra, or “Dattātreya’s Yoga Treatise,” (c. 12-13th century CE), one of the first texts to teach a system named Haṭha Yoga, states the following:

"If diligent, everyone, even the young or the old or the diseased, gradually obtains success in yoga through practice. Whether Brahmin, Ascetic, Buddhist, Jain, Skull-bearer or Materialist, the wise man endowed with faith who is constantly devoted to his practice obtains complete success. Success happens for he who performs the practices—how could it happen for one who does not?” (DYŚ 40-42, trans. James Mallinson)

This rhetoric of inclusivity is echoed throughout many of the Haṭha Yoga texts. The idea is that regardless of one’s social or religious background, anyone can do the practices, so long as one does the practice. The Dattātreyayogaśāstra also mentions that this yoga should not be limited by one’s gender.

“A man should strive to find a woman devoted to the practice of yoga. Either a man or a woman can obtain success if they have no regard for one another’s gender and practice with only their own ends in mind.” (DYŚ 155-56, trans. James Mallinson)

These are powerful statements for a medieval Sanskrit yoga treatise. However, as a historian of yoga, I always seek to tread carefully when encountering such lofty proclamations. It is important to understand that these are often “prescriptive” and thus idealized yogic texts, describing particular visions of how yoga should be practiced, but are not necessarily “descriptive” of what is actually happening on the ground. We should be cautious here, then, and still ask who would have actually had access to the practices of yoga? And who would have been reading such yoga texts? Though we see occasional references to householders, and even female yoga practitioners in the Haṭha Yoga literature, they still appear as outliers to the broader audience and culture of male ascetic yoga.

At the same time, I think we can look at such references as what Wendy Doniger has called, just the “tip of the iceberg.” If the Dattātreyayogaśāstra casually mentions that there are women “devoted to the practice of yoga,” there is surely a broader social phenomenon beyond this statement, that we are only getting a glimpse of through the male gaze of the redactors of these Sanskrit yogic texts. A unique seventeenth-century Mughal painting, for example, depicts a female ascetic guru and her male disciple, in front of a yogic hut (see image above).


For as much as we know about medieval yoga texts and traditions, there is far more that has yet to be uncovered! It is a very exciting time in the academic field of yoga studies, as new research and developments are unfolding all the time. 



Seth Powell is a longtime practitioner of yoga and a scholar of Indian religions, Sanskrit, and yoga traditions, and is the founder of Yogic Studies. He is currently a PhD Candidate in South Asian Religions at Harvard University, where he is writing his dissertation on the history, theory, and practice of medieval and early modern yoga traditions. Seth also holds degrees in the study of religion from the University of Washington (MA) and Humboldt State University (BA). He has taught and lectured for numerous university courses on the religions and literature of India, Hinduism, Buddhism, and yoga traditions, and presents his research regularly at international conferences. Seth conducts online courses and teaches regularly on the history and philosophy of yoga at studios, teacher trainings, and universities around the country. You can find him online at www.yogicstudies.com.

Further Reading (pertinent to all posts from the interview with Seth Powell—only the second and third on the list are directly related to this post):

Birch, Jason. 2018. “The Proliferation of Āsana in Late Mediaeval Yoga Traditions.” In Yoga in Transformation: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives, edited by Karl Baier, Philipp A. Maas, and Karin Preisendanz, 97-171. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht Unipress.

Dattātreyayogaśāstra. Mallinson, James, ed.and trans. 2013. Draft translation.

Diamond, Debra, ed. 2013. Yoga: The Art of Transformation. Washington, D.C.: Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

Jones, Jamal Andre. 2018. “A Poetics of Power in Andhra, 1323-1450 CE.” Ph.D. dissertation—University of Chicago.

Mallinson, James. 2011. “Haṭha Yoga.” Brill Encyclopedia of Hinduism 3: 770–81.

Powell, Seth. 2017. “Advice on Āsana in the Śivayogapradīpikā.” Guest blogpost for The Luminescent.


Powell, Seth. 2018. “The Ancient Yoga Strap: A Brief History of the Yogapaṭṭa.” Guest blogpost for The Luminescent.


2018. “Etched in Stone: Sixteenth-century Visual and Material Evidence of Śaiva Ascetics and Yogis in Complex Non-seated Āsanas at Vijayanagara.” Journal of Yoga Studies (1): 45-106.


Singleton, Mark. 2010. Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


This post was edited by Patrice Priya Wagner, co-editor of Accessible Yoga blog and member of the Board of Directors.


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Thursday, November 8, 2018

Newspaper Article on the Accessible Yoga Conference Europe, 2018

From Die Tageszeitung (Taz), October 23, 2018, Anne-Sophie Balzer, translated by Katja Sandschneider

Relax, it's just yoga!

Bigger bodied, physically limited or sick people are often excluded from yoga. A movement from the USA wants to change this.
Photo: dpa
RHEINSBERG taz | Dörte takes a deep breath through her nose and puts her hands over her head. She stretches and stretches her body, breathes out and goes into a deep bow. Breathes in and steps back, brings her knees and upper body to the ground, breathes in, stretches her upper body into a backward bend and changes to the downward facing dog as she exhales. It is the first part of the sun salutation, millions of people practice it every day in the world. But Dörte has a bigger body – and for many that doesn't fit into the image of a yogi. A short research in social media shows a uniform picture of those who practice yoga. Almost 60 million users post under the hashtag #yoga on Instagram and the bodies of the yogis correspond to one type with few exceptions: they are young, white, female, very slim and very flexible.

This is where Accessible Yoga comes in, a grassroots movement from the US whose supporters met last weekend at a conference in Rheinsberg, Brandenburg. The aim of Accessible Yoga is to include all of those who have had little or no access to yoga classes so far: people with physical or mental illnesses, old or fat people in wheelchairs and people of Color. The motto of the movement: "If you have a mind and a body, you can do yoga". That's clear, one might think.

“We don't want to start anything less than a revolution, an inner one and an outer one," explains founder Jivana Heyman. The inner one is to use the philosophy of yoga to find happiness and serenity in life. Its basic idea is radically anti-capitalistic, at the center is the transience of all things, which makes striving for money or prestige seem downright ridiculous. For Heyman, outer revolution means being a social movement that sets limits to the commercialization of yoga and transforms the idea of who can practice and teach yoga and what a yogi looks like.

Heyman himself came in touch with yoga via death. The American had his coming-out in the midst of the AIDS epidemic of the 80s. He lived in San Francisco and had to watch how his friends were sick and dying in rows around him. Full of anger, he marched the streets, chained himself to metro trains. The rage, he says, didn't get him any further, his friends kept dying. He began to work in a hospice and teach yoga there. "Death and illness were already quite normal for me in my mid-20s," says the 51-year-old.

In the Seehotel in Rheinsberg, an all-accessible domicile, 100 participants and 18 Speaker gathered, in order to report in Workshops and lectures on their work, to interlace itself and to do yoga. Almost all participants are teachers themselves, some come in wheelchairs, others have less visible disabilities. The participants came from all over Europe and the US and the conference will be simultaneously translated into three languages. As it is usual in yoga, significantly more women than men have come, many of them over 50 years of age. Instead of tight tops cozy onion layers and warm socks dominate.

There will be lectures and workshops on a wide variety of topics, such as the visibility of people of color in yoga, working with autistic children, the benefits of yoga for people with psychoses or the media visibility of marginalized groups.

Yoga on the chair

Even before breakfast Liz Oppedijk asks to a Chair Yoga class: "Get fit where you sit” is her motto. The lively Englishwoman with curly grey hair came to yoga only in her 50s after an injury. "We always see young and fit people doing yoga. But older people in particular can benefit immensely from a gentle program," explains Oppedijk. Sitting on a chair and meditating may well be imaginable. But how does a sun salutation actually work on a conference chair or in a wheelchair? And how do you move your body from one position to the next without your backside slipping off the seat?
Photo: Karola Riegler/Accessible Yoga
Yoga has many meanings in its Sanskrit translation, but one of the most used ones is calming of the mind. From its origin, the technique has little to do with positioning his slender, lightly dressed body on the beach, holding a leggin with a visible label in the camera, clamping his foot behind his head and posting the whole thing on instagram.

Almost always, these images are thwarted with messages that propagate inner rather than outer flexibility and tell of the erroneous pursuit of perfectionism, but all under the label of body positivity. The difference between image and text could not be larger, because you only read about life crises, inner and outer injuries while the images in social media show yogis who could also appear in Cirque du Soleil with their advanced exercises.

How can a lumbago be properly staged? How to pose with a torn inner meniscus? Both are frequent injuries in yoga. The lecture by the Berlin orthopaedist Günter Niessen, who specialises in yoga, also deals with injury prevention in yoga.

Donna Noble can tell us about another form of invisibility: "I was often the only woman of color in my yoga classes – and I was the teacher," says the woman from London, who has developed a special program for bigger bodied women. Friends had come to her again and again. "They wanted to do yoga, but didn't dare because they felt too fat, too clumsy, too unathletic or didn't have enough money for the fancy studios."

Thighs too big for yoga

One participant of Noble's workshop in Rheinsberg tells us that she has even more problems with her body after her teacher training, which she just completed. She was treated like an outsider by her teacher, according to the motto: "You and your thick thighs can try this alternative if it doesn't work out otherwise.”

Yoga teacher Noble hears such stories all the time. Her program "Curvesomeyoga" therefore wants to offer a protected space that is supposed to make the basic idea of yoga – i.e. to calm the mind – possible without students having to fear that someone else in the room will judge the aesthetics while they are in yoga positions like the downward facing dog.

Noble sees the movement of body positivity as ambivalent. For large companies and brands in the yoga scene it is easy to buy an activist and have maximum effect without changing the company policy. But of course partnerships increase representation.

Many stories at the conference make it clear that inclusion cannot always be a goal. Some groups need sheltered spaces where they can feel and get to know their bodies and feel the joy of movement.

"We will never be a mass movement," says founder Jivana Heyman. But the group is growing, the conference is taking place for the sixth year in a row, after stops in the US and Canada, it found its way to Europe and Germany for the first time. For several years, Accessible Yoga has had its own Teacher Training Program, more than 20 Facebook groups in ten languages, and supporters worldwide.

The fact that Shannon Roche from Yoga Alliance, the World Association of Yoga Teachers, came to Rheinsberg shows that the yoga world is also slowly developing an interest in diversity. And if only because the over-representation of hundreds of thousands of hyperflexible yogis is deadly desolate.


This post was edited by Patrice Priya Wagner, co-editor of Accessible Yoga blog and member of the Board of Directors.

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Monday, November 5, 2018

Breast Cancer, Fear, and Yoga

by Dobrina Gospondinoff
Photo by Sarit Z Rogers
When you receive a diagnosis of breast cancer, everything seems to change in one blow and fear explodes like a bomb in your life. I speak from my personal experience, as I myself had breast cancer 10 years ago. What a challenging, deep, and transformative encounter. Fear becomes an uncomfortable companion that you have to deal with day and night. You may perceive it disguised as shame or disbelief or hiding behind your anger, anxiety, or depression. 

First of all, there is the enormous fear of the sickness itself and possible recurrences, even many years later. Cancer has been the one of the most feared illnesses in the past decades. We all know people who died from it and we all have heard many sad and frightening stories about it. Then there is the fear of mutilation and its consequences in our relationships, in our life, and in our often already so weak self-esteem. Last but not least, of course, we also face the fear of the treatments, and their strong and clearly visible side effects. What a tremendous struggle, we can really feel surrounded, threatened, and alone like a fat turkey on the eve of Thanksgiving! This is where Yoga, the Union, can really help.

There is a growing amount of research about how Yoga fosters cancer recovery by strengthening the immune system, reducing the inflammatory response and oxidative stress, and increasing GABA neurotransmitters and lastingly decreasing cortisol levels (both of which have a significant prognostic value for breast cancer). The results are really encouraging, both in the short and long term. As Yoga teachers, it is not bad to keep up to date with this research, as we can offer some scientific evidence to our students, helping them feel comfortable and practice with confidence and optimism. We also can provide specific practices to address certain side effects or conditions, including active or restorative asanas and vinyasas to prevent lymphedema, to help restore shoulder mobility after surgery, or to aid in recovery from extreme fatigue. 

However, while all this information and these practices are wonderful, I do wonder: If we practice Yoga with the focus on preventing, recovering, feeling better, don’t you think we are still practicing from a place of fear? In other words, don’t you think this focus is based on an underlying image of ourselves as sick and vulnerable beings and therefore reinforces this image? Of course, as human beings, we all are vulnerable and often sick (actually, with a hint of black humor, we may consider life itself as a chronic, fatal disease), but, as Yogis, I think we should never forget that, as Swami Satchidananda used to repeat:

“The light is within. It is already there. Take your time to see it.”

Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras actually speaks about the journey from our fearful “poor me!” human identity to our luminous true nature, arising from the deep silence. And, as the poet Rumi beautifully said, “Silence is the language of God; all else is poor translation.”

So, all we need to do is calm down, stay still, and listen to the loving, silent space that shines deep within all of us, in any moment, in any condition. It only needs us to pay attention. It may seem difficult or far away, but it is actually much closer than our hands and feet! And—more good news!—we don’t have to struggle to build it; it arises naturally, whenever our mind becomes a little quieter. This is the attitude I recommend in my classes, as I really believe that it is this attitude—much more than choosing one specific practice over another—which can shift us away from our identity of fear and vulnerability. Let us calm down then; homeostasis, healing, transformation, and power are already here. When we connect with this state of consciousness, there is no more need to fight against fear. Fear may remain there, but now we can accept it as part of our human process and eventually surrender and rest.

When I teach, I guide my students to practice with the clear intention of re-connecting with this deep, silent space through the experience of calming the mind and by feeling the body, the energy, and the breath. For example, while standing in Tadasana, we can start our way home by feeling the steady grounding effect of gravity, then feeling the rhythm and temperature of our breath flow, and then maybe playing around with pretending to be a mountain and feeling what a mountain feels (imagination and fun are two of my favorite tools!). Then, as soon as we begin experiencing any glint of wellness or pleasure, we pay attention to it, enjoy it, and smile in the posture! In a very natural way, we slipped through the five koshas to finally gently approach our true silent Self and simply live the experience. Nothing complicated, nothing too serious. 

Any moment of unity with our inner nature is a personal and unique experience. We don’t need to give it a name. I don’t think there is even a need to speak about our “divine nature,” if you feel a student may not be totally comfortable with these words. After all, the power is in the experience, not in its “poor translation”! My vision is to honor any student by meeting her where she is now, both in the language and in the kind of practices she may feel more comfortable with, in this moment.

Finally, I recommend guiding our attention to this luminous space again and again during our daily lives by using any personal little reminder trick our imagination may suggest. We may stick a few post-it notes around in our home or office or we may try to remember to do it any time we wash our hands or sit in the car. And then, we simply let ourselves slide inwards, in the way that is most natural for us. Some will take a sweet breath with a long exhalation, some will put a hand on their chest and close their eyes, and some may take advantage of any little pleasant moment to consciously enjoy and smile.

In this way, little by little, we become familiar with our invisible friend, we learn to savor it and value each spark of this experience as a treasure. As we slowly get used to living closer to this peaceful silent space, without realizing it, we are moving to the antipodes of the realm of fear. Now we may really start to overcome fear—not struggling and putting on a brave face, but simply forgetting it. As my beloved student P. said once, a few months before passing away, with her body full of all kinds of metastasis, “Last year, when I was sick….”

Dobrina Gospondinoff is an IAYT-certified yoga therapist living in the Canary Islands. She has been practicing Yoga for more than 15 years, but never really got the point until 2009, when she had to deal with an aggressive breast cancer. This difficult experience has been a gift in her life. From that moment on, she felt the deep desire to share Yoga with people dealing with cancer and chronic illness. In 2012 she graduated as a Sivananada Yoga teacher and in 2013 she completed the life-changing Yoga of the Heart course with Nischala Joy Devi. She then continued her education in Accessible Yoga with Jivana Heyman, Yoga for Amputees, Yoga for Cancer, Yoga for Stress and Anxiety, and Yin Yoga. Since January 2015, she has pioneered Yoga Therapy in the Canary Islands, giving weekly Yoga classes in the Nephrology Department of the Dr. Negrín Hospital and in the Gull Lasàge Center for Eating Disorders. She also gives individual Yoga Therapy sessions.


This post was edited by Nina Zolotow, co-editor of the Accessible Yoga blog and Editor in Chief of Yoga for Healthy Aging

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Thursday, November 1, 2018

Save the Date! The Next Accessible Yoga Conference Will Be: May 31-June 2, 2019 in St. Louis, Missouri



Mark your calendars everyone! The next Accessible Yoga Conference will be at the Il Monastero Center at St Louis University, May 31-June 2, 2019 in St. Louis, Missouri.

The Il Monastero Center is located at 3050 Olive St, St. Louis, MO 63103.


When registration opens, we will announce it here on the blog. But you can also check https://accessibleyoga.org/st-louis/


This post was edited by Nina Zolotow, co-editor of the Accessible Yoga blog and Editor in Chief of Yoga for Healthy Aging.

° FOLLOW Accessible Yoga on FacebookTwitterInstagram, and YouTube

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° DONATE here to help us bring yoga to people who don't have access or have been underserved, such as people with disabilities, chronic illnesses, children with special needs, and anyone who doesn't feel comfortable in a regular yoga class.