Thursday, April 18, 2019

Featured Reprint: 5 ways to make your yoga class more inclusive

As teachers, we should guide and support our students and avoid lifting barriers and making them fit pre-established models.

by Mar Munoz

Aside from yoga, I work making digital services and products simple and effective to use (apps, websites… that kind of things).

Not long ago, I worked on a project using the best practices developed by the Government Digital Service. To make services more accessible, we did things like breaking long processes into single steps, using common words or increasing the contrast and size of elements in the screen.

Some accused us of ‘dumbing down’ the designs, but luckily, the outcome proved us right when more people starting using them, and it resulted in better user experience.

Now zoom back to my double life as a yoga teacher. I can see how much of the same rationale applies to the way we organise our classes and teach.

The goal of making our classes more inclusive is to get more people to practise yoga so that they can experience their benefits.

Below are some simple ways in which we can do this: 

1. Start using consent cards 

Consent cards are double-sided cards or chips made out of different materials (paper, cardboard, wood…) that are handed out at the beginning of the class. Generally, on one side they say something like “Yes please” and on the other, ‘No thanks’. This way, students can express their consent or refusal to adjustments (physical and verbal). 

Isn’t this a bit over the top? 

The use of consent cards comes as a much-needed measure after the numerous abuse scandals and injuries derived from the traditional approach in which teachers felt entitled to manipulate their student’s bodies at their will. With consent cards, students can let the teacher know whether they want to receive adjustments to be left alone. 

The truth is that when we are adjusting students, we have no idea of what they are going through physically, mentally and emotionally. It doesn’t matter if you did a 1-month teacher training in a tropical island or if you have a solid grasp of anatomy and can name every muscle, bone and insertion point in the body. You, as another person, are not connected to the nervous system of your students, end of the conversation. 
How to use them 

Consent cards are most effective if every student gets a card at the beginning of the class and if these are turned to show the “No thanks” side first. This way, they can opt-in to adjustments instead of having to opt-out… plus, they don’t feel signalled out. 

It’s also essential that the teacher explains how the cards work, that they won’t take it personally if they say ‘No’ and that they are free to change their mind at any point during the class. 

But what if I am a non-intimidating small/petite/friendly woman/old lady/gay person/whatever? What if I’m super-nice? What if I’ve know Lucy/Cindy/Matt for a long time? 

Ask them anyway. 

We already did consent cards last week. Do I need to do it again?

Yes. Every day is different, and we’re different every day. Don’t assume you know how your students feel. 

Will the studio mind? What will other teachers think? 

If the studio says anything, you can show them this article, and they will probably sigh in relief. If other teachers criticise you, feel free to ignore them. 

Where to get them 

Yoga Consent Cards (, Lauren Dawson Yoga ( on Etsy or you can make your own and print them. 

2. At the beginning of the class, ask if anyone is new to yoga

New students will generally be disoriented and require more attention than those that have been attending classes a while. The latter ones hopefully would have a more developed sense of proprioception and already be familiar with common asanas. When it comes to nerves and insecurities, newbies will also feel they’re ‘doing it wrong’ most of the time. By knowing who they are, we can come and demonstrate the poses closer to them, give more specific cues or ease the strain we place on them. 

Of course, it is expected that most teachers would ask about injuries and if anybody has anything that would prevent them from doing certain movements at the beginning of the class. But to help new students, we can also ask things like: Is there anyone relatively new to yoga? or Is there anyone in their first 5/10/15 classes of yoga? 

One nice way of asking is while everyone is in child’s pose, at the beginning of the class, so that the newbies can raise their hands without drawing attention from other students. Lastly, it also helps to say something about letting go, not putting too much pressure on oneself, not comparing themselves to others and saying that they can always come and ask questions at the end of the class. 

3. Let students wear whatever they want 

A long time ago I use to go to class with this strict, old-school yoga teacher who would rant against anyone who wore socks to class. I get it, ok? Socks are not recommended in most yoga classes, and while we can certainly explain why it’s better to practise barefoot (improved grip, the awakening of the feet, using the ‘Pada Bandha’ and yadda yadda yadda), it is never ok to make others feel bad about themselves. 

Some people don’t feel comfortable exposing their feet. It might be for hygienic or cosmetic reasons. They might have pain, be cold or feel ashamed of their ugly toes. For most mortals, unless you are a foot model and have spent your life walking on white sand and getting a regular pedicure, your feet are going to range between ‘meh’ and ‘oh-my-god-take-that-thing- out-of-my-sight’. Again, as teachers, we can suggest, but never force or shame others. 

I’ve also taught elderly students with reduced mobility who had difficulty getting their socks on and off. Did I want them to be barefoot? Yes of course. But to me, it was more important that they felt comfortable, accepted and were able to focus on other aspects of their practice. 

I’m talking about socks, but it could be anything. Someone wearing a tacky t-shirt, see-through yoga pants (spoiler: most yoga pants are see-through anyway), leg warmers and other offenders. As long as they’re not hurting anyone, simply ignore it and let it be. 

4. Name poses in English too, please 

Sanskrit is an ancient Indian language used in yogic scriptures, a bit like Latin or Greek is for Westerners. It is the ‘language of yoga’. It might be beautiful, magical and many other wonderful things, but it’s certainly not accessible. In my view, there are a few reasons why any teacher would insist on using Sanskrit in a normal class nowadays: 

1. Let’s face it, some will use Sanskrit simply because they want to appear more knowledgeable and ‘authentic’. Authenticity is a big thing amongst yoga teachers since many of us are not Indian and some might even suffer from impostor syndrome. Of course, by heavily using Sanskrit names, we can reinforce the fantasy that we are not just teaching mindful movement, we are doing yo-gah. We are not doing ‘Downward dog’, we are doing ‘Ado Mukha Svanasana’. If that makes the yoga teacher feel better, good. Unfortunately, it comes at the cost of excluding our students, or even worse, keeping only the ones who like to speak in secret code.

2. Sometimes, teachers might want to use Sanskrit to refer to a pose with multiple names in their own language (e.g., baddha konasana, which in English is known as cobbler’s, butterfly, bound angle pose or diamond pose…). In that case, students generally would prefer if they stuck to just one English name, but knowing the Sanskrit translation might come in handy for the teacher when arguing in a closed facebook group or at the annual teachers’ retreat. 

3. But other teachers genuinely believe that there is something mystical on the sound of Sanskrit pronunciation. In that case, assuming that they are part of the minority of people who can pronounce asana names correctly, they can go and throw benign spells over the class. But hopefully they will make sure to give the English name as well, so students can remember. 

4. Lastly, a valid reason could be that the Sanskrit name is more common or easier to remember than the English name. An example of this would be ‘savasana’ instead of ‘corpse pose’ or ‘janu sirsasana’ instead of whatever ‘janu sirsasana’ is called in English (OK I just remembered, it’s ‘head-to-knee forward bend’). 

Before anyone gets offended, let me say that I personally think it’s great if some teachers want to name the poses in Sanskrit. But please make sure you always give the English too (first, if possible), and check that you’re not giving students too much to think about during class. Remember that is about prioritising what we teach and making everyone feel welcome. 

5. Focus on the action, not the shape 

People come in all shapes and sizes. What’s difficult for some might be easy for others. It is unjust to judge everyone the same.

Not only that, it can be unfruitful, frustrating and discouraging for our students. 

There is a story in the Ramayana, one of the major epics of ancient India, that talks about this. (Um… because you know, yoga teachers need to quote Indian texts from time to time, see point 4.1). 

“Hanuman and his army of monkeys were building the bridge to Lanka by lifting big heavy rocks. They suddenly noticed a little squirrel that was trying to help by carrying pebbles in his mouth. The monkeys found it amusing and started to make fun of the squirrel, and the bears soon joined in. The disheartened squirrel went to see Rama, who listened to him and stroke him gently, in gratitude for his effort (according to the story, that is how these Indian squirrels gained the vertical stripes on their back).” 
What this story means is that the greatness of our effort is proportional to our circumstances. Every endeavour should be given importance, however small it might seem. We need to maintain trust in ourselves and continue to try our best without comparing us to others. 

So don’t think less of John if in class he needs a foam block under his bum to help him keep his back straight in Seated forward fold (Paschimottanasana). Or even if he has to flex the knees a little bit to give him some release in the hamstrings, although that he has been practising for a couple of years. Don’t compare him to super flexible Beth. She might be doing the ‘full pose’, but is she getting the same benefit as John? Does that make her a more advanced student? Everyone needs something different, and poses are tools for us to modify and help them make the most of their practice.
And as we all know, yoga is not just about flexibility… some students will naturally have better balance, others will find it easier to focus, some will be strong and able to do a handstand, others might never leave the wall and stand in the centre of the room… Whatever it looks like on the outside, all is good as long as everyone feels accepted and is allowed to practise at their own rhythm. 

Also, think about how you introduce the different variations of a pose. In my experience, most students will always want to try the most advanced version offered to them, even if it’s the first time they encounter it. What can we do to minimise judgmental connotations? 

Hopefully, these ideas will leave others thinking of other ways in which we can make our classes more open to different types of students.

I hope you’ve found this article useful, and that if you are a Sanskrit-lover sock-hater yoga teacher, you won’t feel too offended by it and will consider opening your classes to more students. 

All illustrations © by Mar Munoz, please don’t use without permission.

Mar Munoz is a yoga teacher based in London. She looks at each student as an individual, adapting the teachings to their own unique qualities and circumstances. Mar teaches with humour, kindness and compassion to anyone who wants to experience the benefits of the practice, and also writes and creates illustrations about yoga. Website: Social: @vidalunayoga.

This article originally appeared at

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, April 15, 2019

Core Qualities of Yoga: Part 1

Stanley Whitney, Wonderland, 2009

by Elizabeth Gibbs

This post is part of a series that explores a variety of core qualities and suggested practices to consider for inclusion in your classes and private sessions (whether on a mat, in a chair, or a combination of both).

What are core qualities and how can we integrate them into our yoga classes? A core quality is a specific characteristic, strength, skill, or essence that is already part of one’s being. Examples of these might be clarity, alignment, moderation, openness, endurance, integration, balance, contentment, or surrender.

We may think that these qualities are external and are goals we need to work for but consider this phrase: “To see the world in a grain of sand...” from the poem Auguries of Innocence by Robert Blake. If we are that grain of sand, we are also the world and everything that is in the world, including core qualities in us. Yoga recognizes this and suggests that the way we experience our lives, and its joys and problems, can be attributed to how we realize and activate that understanding.

Qualities can be expressed in positive or unhelpful ways. For instance, openness without boundaries can be unhealthy, surrender without wisdom can be premature, and endurance without balance may lead to exhaustion. However, when consciously realized and viewed through our yoga practice, qualities are more likely to be expressed in positive ways.

Of course, this is easier said than done since the journey to Self-Realization is long and often difficult. Our job as yoga teachers is to find ways of helping ourselves and our students understand this. Linking core qualities to our yoga practices is an effective way to help students experience the deeper aspects of yoga. It brings in elements of the energetic and psychological benefits inherent in all yoga practices. Here are a few examples.

Asana: Anodea Judith, in her book Chakra Yoga, offers Tadasana (Mountain Pose) as a way to embody, sense, and feel the core quality of alignment in both the physical and the energy body. She explains that when the body is vertically aligned from the feet to the crown of the head, our energy anatomy (the chakras, for example) aligns with the physical body. When practitioners find physical ease in holding the pose it is possible to sense the quality of alignment physically and energetically.

Pranayama: In The Breathing Book, Donna Farhi suggests using a four-part breath inquiry, that she calls The Essential Breath, as a way to explore the quality of surrendering into the pauses at the end of inhaling and exhaling. 

Here is how to do it:
1. Come to a comfortable seated position
2. Bring your awareness to your breath3. Notice that at the end of your inhalation there is a slight pause, or gap, before you exhale
4. Notice that at the end of your exhalation there is a slight pause, or gap, before you inhale
5. Let your breath come and go naturally---don’t try to change it in any way6. Simply observe the ebb and flow of the natural, essential breath.

Mudra: Mudras can be thought of as a global positioning system for realizing a desired quality. In Mudras for Healing and Transformation, Joseph and Lilian LePage highlight the core quality of integration, loosely defined as sensing and feeling that all the separate parts of self are integrated into the whole, which is the ultimate goal of Yoga. Here are instructions on how to do Hakini Mudra (see image at top of post).

1. Sit with your spine comfortably aligned and soften your chest and shoulders
2. Hold your hands facing each other a few inches away from your solar plexus
3. Touch the tips of the fingers and thumb of your left hand to the corresponding fingers and thumb of your right hand
4. Create space between your hands as though you are holding a ball
5. Relax your hands in your lap, with the pinky sides of your hands, your wrists, and your forearms on your thighs or in your lap6. Close your eyes or keep them slightly open and gaze down at the floor
7. Hold the mudra and sit quietly for 2 - 5 minutes as long as you are comfortable
8. Focus on your natural breathing process
9. When you are ready to come out, release the mudra, and stretch your body in any way that your body needs to stretch.

We can add a core quality to classes we design for students of all abilities to help them experience yoga on all levels of being. Introducing a core quality with a clear focus requires creativity and flexibility. As Carey Sims pointed out in his post on this blog "Yoga and Advanced Aging: Teaching in Assisted Living, Skilled Nursing, and Memory Care Spaces, Part 1":

“The majority of my classes take place within a larger communal room and the energy outside of our yoga bubble is often frenzied and chaotic. We may hear the TV blasting from a resident’s room down the hall, or nurses and staff holding conversations within earshot, other times a confused resident roams about anxiously, or a family member arrives to take a loved one out of class for a visit or doctor’s appointment.”

This rang SO true! I teach several of these classes and recently had very different experiences with two separate classes on the same day when I decided to work with the core quality of grounding. I prepared a three-minute presentation that ended with a short poem to inform and hopefully inspire. Here’s how creativity and flexibility showed up.

At the Large Residential Rehab Center: In spite of the distractions, late arrivals, and vocalizations from one resident that might have been a symptom of Tourette’s syndrome, I shared the information and then reinforced the importance of grounding with postures, breathwork, and guided relaxation. One resident acknowledged after class that she needed to work on grounding because often felt distracted and ‘outside’ of herself.

At the Small Nursing Care Center, a half hour later: When I arrived, the energy in the room felt distant and distracted. Taking time to do the educational piece did not feel appropriate. So I internally set an intention and presented the core quality of grounding through my selection of postures, breathwork, verbal comments, and guided relaxation.

Yoga practices can be presented with more than one core quality. It depends on who our students are, what they need, and how we facilitate the class to meet those needs. Let’s take Balasana (Child’s Pose) as an example. Depending on our intention, we can present the posture with the core qualities of grounding, surrender, alignment, support, protection, or restoration. We might ask students to:

Hold the pose with prop support to sense grounding, protection, support, or surrender;
Facilitate a step-by-step process to enter and exit the pose to sense physical alignment; or
Offer several modifications to help students find the one that is most restorative for them.

Placing focus on one or more core qualities offers students an opportunity to deepen their experience of yoga and perhaps move them a bit further along on the path to Self-Realization.

Elizabeth (Beth) Gibbs, MA, C-IAYT, is a certified yoga therapist through the International Association of Yoga Therapists and is a faculty member of the Kripalu School of Integrative Yoga Therapy. Her masters’ degree in Yoga Therapy and Mind/Body Health is from Lesley University in Cambridge, MA. She is the author of Ogi Bogi, The Elephant Yogi, a therapeutic yoga book for children that is available through her website at:

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, April 11, 2019

New Accessible Yoga T-Shirts!

Did you know that we have a selection of Accessible Yoga t-shirts for sale in our online shop? The t-shirts shown above are just our latest design. In fact, there are four different t-shirts: Accessible Yoga logo, Outer Ability ≠ Inner Peace (shown above), which comes in three different styles, Yoga is for Everybody, and I "heart" AY. There is also a Accessible Yoga stainless steel water bottle and fabric tote bag.
You can find all these things at:

Because we're a non-profit, the money we earn from these products is used bring yoga to people who don’t have access to it or who have been underserved, such as people with disabilities, chronic illness, seniors, children with special needs, and anyone who doesn’t feel comfortable in a regular yoga class.

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

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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.

Monday, April 8, 2019

Be a Tree: Yoga For Amputees

Claude Lorrain, Landscape with Shepherds--The Pont Molle, 1645, Oil on Canvas
By Marsha T. Danzig

Marsha will be presenting a workshop on “Wholeness: A Yoga Approach to Working with Amputees” at the Accessible Yoga Conference in St. Louis, May 31-June 2, 2019.

Years ago, I planted a tree in front of my home. It grew quickly, with huge solid branches and thick leaves. One day, after a major wind storm, while I was pulling into my driveway, I suddenly stopped the car, put on the brakes and ran out of the car to my tree. A large branch had been severed from the tree, and the effect was quite tragic for the tree itself. I had this instinct to hug and comfort the tree. As soon as I did, it was as if the tree spoke. “Why are you comforting me? It is the branch who has lost its tree.”

That moment catapulted me into developing a yoga program for amputees, as well as provoking me to dive deep into my story of “losing a limb.” What if me, the tree, has always been intact, in spite of the loss of one of its major branches? What if it is the limb that needs comfort, a time to grieve the loss of its home? What if that limb has been transformed and absorbed into the divine mother to be used to benefit the world in some other way? What if that limb is now part of our collective oneness? As a 'medical kid' with many long term effects on my body, I have faced life-threatening medical situations so often that when I fill out a health form at a doctor's office, I now just write “too many to name.” 

Through all my years of both medical care and holistic practices, there has been one constant---my body. My body with one leg missing, my body on dialysis, my body with a new kidney, my body moving, my body healing, my body, my body, my body. What yoga has given me is the truth that my body IS the tree.

The comforter in me can console the missing branches, show them how to be of service to the world, and then send them on their way. Or they can be grafted back in to me in some new way, and their energy can continue to be part of me. My left leg was rattled with bone cancer. Her sacrifice, to willingly be cut off from her home, has kept me alive. And she has served medicine well by offering clues on the treatment of cancer.

A tree is medicine for the world. The private story of my limb loss is a collective story of all beings and our wholeness. We all have losses and ways of addressing those losses. Our broken wide open human journey is our oneness, our connection. Those pieces we feel are cut off from us are actually our seeds being planted. Our own self-perception, our dreamy eyed egos, our sleepy walks through magical days, our judgments of ourselves and others, all are illusions of separation. Like all good illusions, we can sometimes be easily fooled into believing that they are true. But we all know they are not. A tree is always a tree. 

Science has found that in every forest there is one mother tree. She is related to all trees, but she can be of any genus. The trees in her "treedom" receive communications from her. Trees with disabilities and trees without disabilities have equal footing in her forest. As yoga professionals and practitioners, let's see the wholeness within each one of us, and acknowledge that trees thrive best when they are connected to each other.

Be a tree.

Marsha Therese Danzig, Master of Education, Harvard, is an Advanced Yoga Therapist, Energy Healer, and Speaker. Marsha, a below knee amputee, pediatric cancer survivor, and kidney transplant recipient is the Founder of Yoga for Amputees® by Marsha T Danzig, a yoga program to help amputees move forward in their lives. She is the author of From the Roots, a candid memoir about choosing joy in the face of insurmountable obstacles. Yoga for Amputees: The Essential Guide to Finding Wholeness After Limb Loss has recently been published. Marsha has been featured in Good Housekeeping, Yoga Journal, Huffington Post, PopSugar, and Oprah Magazine. She is a lifelong flamenco dancer. Marsha’s mission is to show people how to find beauty in all circumstances. She is passionate about imparting her lived experience of bridging the chasm between suffering and joy through yoga and embodied movement. Her website is

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, April 4, 2019

Featured Video: Pigeon Pose Variations by Amber Karnes

This video was originally posted on Body Positive Yoga.

Amber made this video to help people who are having trouble with classic Pigeon pose due to knee pain or pressure, who feel unstable in the pose because the hip of the bent leg not touching the floor, or who are uncomfortable or unable to be on hands on knees to set up for those pose. She provides several modifications for the pose, on both the floor and a chair. We think that all these options will make the pose accessible to a very, very wide range of people!

Amber Karnes is the founder of Body Positive Yoga and the creator of the Body Positive Clubhouse. She works with humans who want to make peace with their bodies and build unshakable confidence. For her, yoga has been an integral part of a decade-long journey toward self-acceptance and body positivity—a journey of making peace with my body and helping others to do the same. See for more information.

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, April 1, 2019

Dharma: It Ain't What It Used To Be, Says Mark Singleton

Mark Singleton, March 2019, at Nest Yoga, Oakland, California
by Patrice Priya Wagner

A few days ago, I had the good fortune to hear Mark Singleton, author of Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice and Senior Research Fellow at School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, speak about dharma and its role in contemporary society. The lecture delivered all that was promised and more; concepts were accessible to the new yogi as well as long-time teacher familiar with ancient yogic texts. The material presented was full of suggestions of books for further study and more ideas than there is room to include in an overview of the main points raised during the two and a half hours. But I thought I would share some of the highlights with you today.

To most modern yoga practitioners, dharma refers to your purpose in life and how you embody that. Finding your dharma has become an “industry” that is so relevant, successful, and promises to show you what life is for and where you're going because there's no steady ground under our feet. You can find books on dharma for your golfing, parenting, your dog, and many other things. Singleton asked: How do we know what life is about in this confusing world where truth is lies and lies are truth, fake news abounds, and climate catastrophe is in full tilt?

Dharma, the word and concept, has a history of thousands of years and has transformed over the centuries especially in modern times. As Singleton explained, the prevalent understanding of dharma in Vedic times, 1500-500 BCE, was that it involved primordial laws, emphasized universal stability, maintained lawfulness and regularity of the cosmos, and meant enactment of this eternal lawfulness in the self (svadharma). In Vedic times, there existed a rigid caste system that determined exactly a person's role in society from the moment of birth. For example, a male born into the kṣatrīya caste was a warrior and, as we'll see below, he'd be duty bound to go out and fight to defend his people. Unlike current notions about dharma, it was not something that just happened; you had to perform in order to uphold it.

Singleton pointed out how over the years, the meaning of dharma shifted as religion and rigid societal structure became less dominant in people's lives. Fast forward to the 19th and 20th centuries when the exchange of ideas between the East and West greatly increased, causing many ways of commerce and society to change and transforming the sense of dharma as well.

For example, many people who practice yoga are introduced to dharma by the Bhagavad Gītā: "It is better to follow one's own dharma imperfectly than that of another well; better to die in one's own dharma; the dharma of another brings danger. (3.35)" This verse refers to Arjuna, the main character, questioning his dharma; must he do his duty as a warrior although it means fighting, and possibly killing, people he knows and loves?

But although the passage pertains just to one man born into a societal system with rigid rules to live by, writer Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, 1838-1894, uses it to justify his interpretation of dharma as an individual duty to carry out in the world, not necessarily according to the societal norms he was born into. Chatterjee asks if non-Indians also have a svadharma, concluding that there is a universalization of dharma regardless of nationality.

The Prime Minister of India, Sarvepalli Radhakrishna, 1888-1975, a great thinker, writer, and modernizer of India, wrote "Each individual has his inborn nature, svabhāva, and to make it effective in his life is his duty, svadharma...We should introduce changes today and make the content of Hindu dharma relevant to modern conditions." Radhakrishna asserted that dharma doesn't have an absolute and timeless content as many had been told but "an elastic tissue to enclose the growing body," justifying India to keep in step with the modern world by not sticking an old-fashioned concept of dharma.

As psychology became more widely recognized in both the East and the West, concepts such as Sigmund Freud's (1856-1939) three parts of the human mind, Ego, Super Ego, and Id, came into play. According to Freud, we're strangers to ourselves and may not know who we are unless we explore uncharted parts of our mind. 

Yoga teacher and writer Stephen Cope (1945-) takes this concept of going inward to find ourselves and connects it to dharma. He wrote:"...When we drill down into this issue, we discover that our dharmas...are based...on what is already mysteriously in us at birth: our fingerprints....You can only expect a fulfilling life if you dedicate yourself to finding out who you are." Cope states in The Great Work of Your Life, 2012, that dharma is your unique vocation, admittedly changing the meaning of the word. There are many modern thinkers and writers who added to this notion including Ekhart Tolle (1948-).

Commercial industry became familiar with these concepts in hopes of improving sales of products to consumers. In particular, the idea of people belonging to a type appealed to advertising and marketing executives. American psychologist Abram Maslow (1908-1970) created a Hierarchy of Needs for self-actualization that follows this line of thinking. By categorizing people into types, a company could brand a product according to the specific preferences of each type.

The idea of dharma types, as embraced by some psychotherapists and popular writers, puts people into simplistic and limiting boxes. There appears to be a fundamental contradiction when popular dharma discourse informed by psychology tells us we are individual and idiosyncratic, but at the same time insists we identify with one of a handful of types.

Singleton concluded the lecture with: "I propose that dharma, like freedom, has become an empty signifier that can mean whatever you want it to mean, and to justify whatever action you want it to. Just as freedom can become a justification for your favorite drug, hate speech, or the invasion of Iraq, dharma can justify everything from one's lifestyle choices to military nuclear testing. Today, in the world of global capital, it is intimately bound with the psychological project, all manner of self-help literature, and, arguably, the neo-liberal machine (to use a loaded phrase.)"

Well, this certainly raises a lot of questions for me about the concept of dharma and how it is being used in the modern yoga community. What do you think?

Patrice Priya Wagner, RYT 500, C-IAYT, teaches yoga to people with disabilities in Oakland, California, and has been published in New Mobility Magazine, Works and Conversations, Artweek, and the Accessible Yoga Blog. She is a co-editor of the Accessible Yoga Blog.

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, March 28, 2019

Our Upcoming Accessible Yoga Conference: St. Louis, Missouri, May 31-June 2, 2019

We're super excited about our upcoming Accessible Yoga Conference in St. Louis: Reimagining Yoga.

In this conference, we will be exploring topics that allow us to search for the deeper meaning of yoga, such as yoga and wellness, yoga and rehabilitation, yoga therapy for illness or injury, race and yoga, indigenous consciousness, yoga to support underserved communities and folks with marginalized identities, and living our values while still operating in systems of oppression. There will be 26 sessions on a wide range of topics, including yoga service, radical self-acceptance, race and yoga, creative prop setups, peace-filled parenting, and yoga for cancer, for amputees, and for queer and trans folks, bedside yoga (yoga for the terminally ill), and more. Presenters include: 

  • Jivana Heyman
  • Michelle C. Johnson
  • Jules Mitchell
  • Susanna Barataki
  • Amber Karnes
  • Marsha Danzig
  • Dara Brown
  • Elizabeth Regan
  • Camella Nair
  • Kelly Carboni-Woods
  • Kathy Randolph
  • Lori Pierce
  • Cheryl Albright
  • Amy Samson-Burke
  • Ryan McGraw
  • Carey Sims
  • Amina Naru
  • Mary Sims
  • Molly Lannon Kenny
  • Sandra Sudheela Gilbert
  • Natasha Baebler
  • Haley Laughter
  • Kimberly Dark

Here is a sample schedule:

Most importantly, however, we will connecting, supporting, and rejuvenating people who are dedicating their work and their lives to helping the world see the humanity in one another. 

We hope you will join us in reimagining yoga! See here for further information or to register for the conference.

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

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° 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, March 25, 2019

Yoga and Advanced Aging, Part 3: Reconsidering the Breath

Music, Dorrit Black, 1928

By Carey Sims

Carey will be presenting a workshop “Yoga and Advanced Aging: Teaching in Assisted Living, Skilled Nursing, and Memory Care Spaces” at the Accessible Yoga Conference in St. Louis, May 31-June 2, 2019.

Part Three: Reconsidering the Breath

Many of us have discovered that connecting with our breath is where the rubber meets the road in our practice. But some of the breath techniques we find effective in the general population may not always apply to adaptive and senior students. In this article we will rethink how we cue the breath and explore the challenges our students may be facing when we ask them to breathe in certain ways.

How many times have we been encouraged to take a deep breath in a yoga class? Probably more than we can count. But for some students with advanced aging, a “deep” breath can feel invasive and even violent. I often kid that handing out a cough drop or a cup of water counts as an assist in my classes because breath work inevitably ignites a coughing spell.

I have found that replacing the word “deep” with “gentle” allows for a full inhale, but invites softness into the breathing experience. Students are less likely to overexert, grip, and become tense. Example: “Take a gentle breath in and a slow breath out.”

I also give students the freedom to breathe from their nose and/or mouth. Usually most students inhale through the nose and exhale through the mouth, but not always. As teachers, we must constantly ask what we are trying to achieve with a particular cue or technique and allow ourselves to be creative in achieving that goal. Connection to the breath is what matters to me; I don’t get dogmatic about methods.

When teaching movement, consider the breath as a layer of experience. Matthew Sanford has a saying, “Prana follows consciousness more than it follows breath.” This is one of the cornerstones of my teaching. I come from a vinyasa background and this was initially hard to wrap my head around, but once I stopped leading with breath, I began to tangibly see the results in my students’ ability to connect with their bodies. Why would this be?

Students with advanced aging and/or dementia often struggle with left/right discrimination and moving in two directions at once. Managing these types of movements and coordinating breath at the same time is extremely challenging and often causes frustration. I know that linking breath with movement is powerful, but my solution is to explore movement first and layer in the breath after we have connected with the body.

A simple change in my cueing order creates the necessary rhythm, connection, and space for the breath to benefit rather than impede my students. For example, “Lift your arms up toward the ceiling and lower them back down by your sides. Do this a few times and notice how that feels. Now we are going to move with our breath. Breathe in and lift your arms up and breathe out and lower your arms down.” I don’t want my students to feel like they are doing something wrong and become frustrated. If that happens, they may quit participating or decide not to come to yoga the next time. I am not their Physical Therapist or Occupational Therapist— I want them to feel good during our time together.

Another way to teach breath awareness is by exploring function. When we understand the utility of a technique or pattern, we can shift our relationship to it both as teachers and practitioners. Take holding the breath for example. This is natural reaction to being over stimulated. It’s like the brain knows we need to hit pause and regroup for a second or two. The next time you are focusing really hard on a new or complicated task, observe your breathing. If you find that you are holding your breath, don’t admonish yourself; instead be amazed at your body’s brilliance at problem solving.

When I work with my senior students on a new sequence, I often ask them to check in and notice if they are holding their breath. We usually laugh and smile at this recognition. I tell them it’s okay, explain why it’s happening, and ask them to let their body catch up to the posture or movement. From there we breathe out slowly. We simply need to create space for the breath to sort itself out and trust that our bodies know what to do once we get out of the way.

As we just explored, holding the breath is a brilliant stabilizing mechanism for the mind, but I’ve witnessed many times that the body also intuitively supports the spine through breath suspension or retention. Think of an instance where you picked up something a little too heavy and grunted or held your breath for a second. Your body intuitively knew it needed stability and used a pause in the breath to create it. Understanding this function helps me appreciate why some students are breathing the way they are. For many of my students, a movement like lifting the arms overhead is strong. These students often instinctively hold the breath as a means to recruit strength. Recognizing this, I will work with what is naturally happening and layer in a slow exhalation as we lower the arms.

Elongating the breath has a similar stabilizing function to breath retention, but introduces the sensation of ease inside of effort. I may refine the last example further by asking students not to drop their chest as they lower their arms. As we continue we might focus on decelerating the downward momentum of our limbs as we exhale. Example: “Lift your arms up toward the ceiling, keep your chest lifted and slowly lower the arms down as you exhale.”

A friend of mine said something beautifully powerful to me recently. “Carey you are helping your students connect with their bodies before they leave them.” I never really thought of it that way, but it’s true. Many, if not most, of my students’ bodies are steadily declining. I have lost a lot of students over the past few years. This is all the more reason to let our time together become a place of playful exploration. My students don’t need to be concerned about getting things “right,” especially their breathing. Imperfections are welcome.

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, St. Louis Park, MN.) His mission is to use Yoga to help students explore their bodies in an accepting and non-judgmental way. 

This article is part of a series exploring the practical application of yoga in Assisted Living, Skilled Nursing, and Memory Care spaces. Carey shares some of the challenges he has encountered teaching in these environments and offer practical techniques that he has found useful in sharing yoga with this population.

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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° 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.