Tuesday, September 4, 2018

The Beginning of a Movement

by Sam Rudra Swartz
In September of 2015 about 250 yoga teachers and students gathered in downtown Santa Barbara, California for the first Accessible Yoga Conference to share ways in which the practices of yoga and especially hatha yoga can be made accessible to all populations, no matter what their physical limitations may be.

It all started in 2007 when Rev. Jivana Heyman, then the Director of Teacher Training at the Integral Yoga Institute of San Francisco, had a regular group of experienced and earnest yoga students in his adaptive yoga class. He felt that these dedicated and serious students should be able to become yoga teachers themselves and share their practices. It was decided that Integral Yoga would offer an Accessible Yoga Teacher Training so these students, who could not necessarily practice in a mainstream class, would be able to teach a basic level class and would know how to modify the asanas for students with physical limitations. On their own and with the guidance of Rev. Jivana, these students had already learned how to make the necessary modifications for their individual practices. Now not only would these students be able to teach a regular basic hatha class, but from their own personal experience they would be able to teach many others with physical limitations.

When Rev. Jivana and his family moved to Santa Barbara in 2015, he noticed there were several yoga teachers offering classes to very specialized groups of students. One shining example was Cheri Clampett, who offered her Therapeutic Yoga Program at the Cancer Center of Santa Barbara. More and more, Jivana noticed there was a large number of teachers adapting yoga for diverse populations and he felt that there should be a forum to support these teachers. So he gathered together teachers and former students, myself included, together along with new colleagues in Santa Barbara, and we began the planning for the first Accessible Yoga Conference.

The keynote speaker for the first conference was Matthew Sanford, author of the book Waking: A Memoir of Trauma and Transcendence. Matthew became a paraplegic at the age of 13 from a car accident that took the lives of his sister and father. He learned yoga at age 25 while in graduate school in Santa Barbara. At the opening of the conference, during his keynote speech, Matthew mentioned that we are not just getting together for a conference to share ideas but that we are really taking part in the beginning of a movement—The Accessible Yoga Movement. What did that mean?

Several Accessible Yoga Conferences later, we have all seen exactly what that means. More and more teachers who are doing incredible work with diverse populations are coming forward and asking to present their experiences at the conferences while others are coming to support this work. Many teachers and students, both accessible and not, are signing up to be Accessible Yoga Ambassadors (a program offered through the Accessible Yoga Organization) so that they can help expand accessible yoga in their communities. Ambassadors are located all over the world and are committed to bringing yoga to underserved communities of all kinds. What we all have in common is the belief in and the support of the Accessible Yoga Mission Statement:

Accessible Yoga is dedicated to sharing the benefits of Yoga with anyone who currently does not have access to these practices, and with communities that have been excluded or underserved. All people, regardless of ability or background, deserve equal access to the ancient teachings of Yoga, which offer individual empowerment and spiritual awakening. By building a strong network and advocating for a diverse Yoga culture that is inclusive and welcoming, we are sharing Yoga with all.

Everyone who is involved in this movement is dedicated to learning and deepening their practice of the teachings of yoga, which, in turn, deepens their commitment to sharing yoga with all. We understand the benefits of yoga and are inspired as well as wish to inspire others to practice, knowing we are all on a similar journey and the physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual benefits from a complete yoga practice are infinite. We come together at our conferences to share our experiences, to learn and support one another, and to network. As Rev. Jivana has said many times, “If you have a body and a mind you can practice yoga,” a paraphrasing of the Accessible Yoga’s Mission Statement.

One of my favorite teachings from Swami Satchidananda, my guru, is that as practitioners or teachers of yoga we should not go out and proselytize, preach, or recruit people into yoga. He says that through our example, people will see the positive changes and benefits we have received. If they are then curious, they may ask about yoga and what we have done to create these changes. One of my students, a man who uses a wheelchair, came to me initially after striking up a conversation in a coffee shop with a fellow regular customer. He mentioned that he would like to take up yoga but could never imagine rolling into a studio and starting classes. He was pleasantly surprised to find out from his friend that “there is a yoga teacher in a wheelchair down the street at Integral Yoga.” He came by to meet me and we have been practicing together now for three years.

Many people that I have been blessed to meet through the Accessible Yoga Conferences have shared story after story about how they never imagined that they would be doing this type of work or that there was a need for people with physical limitation to practice yoga. Through their own practice, they were drawn to assist others. They were also inspired by others being drawn to them so that they could learn, having heard the benefits of practicing yoga. We have a growing online network with social media and hold two conferences per year (upcoming conferences are: October 2018 in Berlin May 2019 in St. Louis, and October 2019 in New York City,). We will continue to meet, share stories, ideas, and fellowship.

When I began using a wheelchair 11 years ago, I did not imagine that I would ever teach yoga or that I would meet so many people dedicated to sharing yoga with such diverse populations. But now we are all blessed to come together and continue to grow through the Accessible Yoga Movement.

Rev. Sam Rudra Swartz is an ordained interfaith minister and Integral Yoga Minister. He is certified as a Hatha Yoga, Meditation, and Raja Yoga Teacher. He received a Bachelor of Music in Brass Performance from Boston University’s College of Fine Arts Music School in 1996. He participated in the Integral Yoga Institute of San Francisco’s Accessible-Yoga Teacher Training, Raja Yoga Teacher Training in 2012 and the Meditation Teacher Training from Satchidananda Ashram Yogaville Virginia in 2011. In 2016 Rev. Rudra was ordained into the Integral Yoga Ministry and serves on the Accessible Yoga Board of Trustees as Treasurer.

This article originally appeared in Light on Light Magazine—International Day of Yoga Special Edition. It was edited by Nina Zolotow, co-editor of the Accessible Yoga Blog and Editor in Chief of Yoga for Healthy Aging. She made a few minor changes to the original article, including updates to the content and a few corrections to grammar.

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