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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° 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.

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