Thursday, April 18, 2019

Five 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 (www.yogaconsentcards.com), Lauren Dawson Yoga (www.laurendawsonyoga.com) 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: www.vidaluna.yoga. Social: @vidalunayoga.

This article originally appeared at medium.com.

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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