Thursday, May 30, 2019

Ways to Lessen Exclusion in Yoga

by Susanna Barkataki

I cry tears of joy and release on my mat, frequently, and experience moments of oneness and bliss through practice. Yoga is that powerful for me. And I sure need it.

As an immigrant, brown, skin and bones girl-child, I had integration vertigo for years after we moved to the U.S. I never fit in, couldn’t figure out why, and started to hate myself. I tried to take up as little space as possible. I bumped into everything around me. Hostile territory; my interactions with the world symbolized my inner state of complete disorientation. I was a stranger in a strange land, both inside and out.

I learned to slowly unravel the girl who had turned in upon herself through deep breath and asana. I started to admire rather than fear my surroundings as well as myself. I began to value the power of the brown-skin, bi-cultural, not-neatly-fitting-in perspective where I live. Yoga and breath helped me undo the binds in my body, spirit and mind. I began to love my uniqueness. As I began to accept and love myself, I realized that others experience this same kind of exclusion on various bases—such as race, gender, sexuality, ability, class and other forms of target identities. 

Many people want to act like we are all the same and wish our society was colorblind because they hold the vision of equality for all. Equality is a beautiful ideal. I'd love to invite us to explore how we can celebrate individual uniqueness rather than erase it on our journey towards equality. Perhaps, this might look more like finding equity.

We live in a less than perfect reality. My happiness and success is interconnected with suffering and injustice. This is true in the yoga world as well. True peace and freedom are possible only when they are available to all. In the yoga world of the West, we live in a reality where classism, shame around our bodies, different proportions, ability and disability as well as privilege and racism play into who represents and benefits from the popular face of yoga today.

My practice has been so helpful in reminding myself that I matter, that I am valuable and valid, just as a breathing human being. My practice helps in dismantling internalized racism and self-hatred. I know others like me suffer and could benefit. I know we need to share the practice further and more widely.

So now our yoga can move out beyond the mat.

We can aspire to practice and share yoga to create spaces where ancient wisdom’s’ practical tools are applied to modern struggles, opening up the knots in our voices and bodies, undoing the binds of patriarchy, racism, heterosexism, and all forms of internal and external domination. We are bringing true, full, multi-faceted liberation that is accessible to all anywhere, anytime. Yoga can bring liberation from every construct.

Here are five ways to bring more oneness to our yoga practice while honoring uniqueness:

1. See stories and self-reflect.

We each have our unique, beautiful and powerful story. Yoga is a path of embracing individuality as well as one of universality. So if we allow the practice to open us up, we are called to intimate self-reflection. We can ask ourselves the hard questions about our identity and social context. We observe who is sitting on the mat next to us, who is teaching the class. We can ask “for whom is yoga accessible today and how might any missing links be a legacy of past injustices? How can we use this opportunity to address these injustices through our teaching, practice and our lives?”

2. Don’t feel guilty. Act to uplift.

This isn’t a call to feel guilty or resentful about history and its litany of past oppressions. It is an invitation to focus on the present moment where we have the power to make change. To act where can we make our classes more inclusive, accessible and relevant to a more varied and multicultural audience. Where can we encourage someone to practice who may not have ever thought they’d walk into a studio?
3. End exclusion, own privilege and live compassionately.

We can exclude people without meaning to. Exclusion leads to misunderstanding, alienation, discrimination and even hate. We may say, “Exclusion has nothing to do with me.” This is the nature of power and privilege. Those of us with it are often unaware we are wielding it. It is invisible to us but not to those who lack the very power we so blithely exercise. We can practice responsibly, considering our privilege, acting from inclusion, compassion and care. This may feel uncomfortable at times. By including those who are marginalized we show we are all connected. We can heal the forgotten places in ourselves as well as build a more authentic community of powerful practice.

4. Practice yoga holistically.

We can also increase our experience of oneness by studying yoga holistically. In addition to asana we need to understand, practice and teach all eight limbs of yoga. We can focus on yoga ethics and go deep into considering how to live our practice.
5. Respect individual uniqueness while holding the truth of oneness.

We can be humble with these aspirations and our practice. I too am still working out the beautiful tension of individuality and universality, self and oneness, holding the ideal of inter-being while addressing the beauty of our differences as well as the reality of privilege and power.

Let’s live our own authentic practice while not ignoring time, culture, place and context or the truth of our interconnectedness. That bliss of oneness we feel on the mat is a taste of the true union of yoga. We can amplify this connection in life by practicing a yoga of liberation from every construct, including those of race, gender, class, narrow definitions of beauty, time, space, fixed identity and even history herself. We can practice and teach a yoga of unity while honoring each of our individual gifts and truths to further the evolution of all towards understanding, compassion and love.

Suzanna Barkataki is a diversity coach, inclusivity trainer, and yoga culture advocate. She helps yoga teachers, studios, nonprofits, and businesses become leaders in equity, diversity, and yogic values so they can embody thriving yoga leadership with integrity and confidence. She is the Founder of Ignite | Yoga and Wellness Institute. She has an Honors degree from UC Berkeley, a Masters in Education, is an E-RYT 500 Teacher as well as an Ayurvedic practitioner. She is honored to have worked in education, training and social justice for over two decades. She studied with her family and Masters in India and the United States in the Hatha Yoga tradition. Susanna loves to support clients in expanding their leadership integrating equity with yoga and wellness. Learn more and get your free Yoga Manifesto gift for 15 ways to Honor Yoga at

This article originally appeared in the conference proceedings of the Accessible Yoga Conference in St. Louis, May, 2019 and also in a longer version on

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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° 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, May 27, 2019

Bringing Yoga into Prisons with Amma María Fandino

This interview with Amma María Fandino is by Elliot Kesse, Accessible Yoga Ambassador.

Elliot: How did you get into teaching yoga in prisons?

Amma: I became a yoga teacher when I moved to Santa Barbara, California, with my family in 2014 and soon connected with the Accessible Yoga vision of sharing the benefits of yoga with anyone regardless of ability or background, especially with communities that have been excluded or underserved. In 2017, the last year of my stay in the US before returning to my home country, Colombia, I had my first experience teaching yoga in a prison. I don’t know why, but I’ve always felt an empathy for incarcerated people and wondered how it would be to experience this difficult situation. Ginny Kuhn, Director and Founder of Prison Yoga Santa Barbara, gave me the occasion to achieve my dream. I taught a group of young women participating in the drug and alcohol recovery program at the Santa Barbara County Jail.

At the end of 2017, I went back to Colombia and started to look for an institution that could help me bring yoga to a prison. I found Fundación Acción Interna, a non-profit founded in 2013 to dignify and improve the quality of life of inmates and those that have already been released in Colombia. The founder and director, Johana Bahamon, gave me the opportunity to participate as a volunteer teacher at the Buen Pastor women’s prison in Bogotá. I’m so grateful of being able to continue with my passion of teaching in prisons, sharing the practice with one of the most vulnerable and marginalized populations in my country.

Elliot: What is the attitude like in the prisons towards you and yoga?

Amma: At the Santa Barbara County Jail they had a specific space for the practice, like a classroom, that was comfortable and the staff was very supportive of the yoga program. The inmates were very interested in the classes especially because the incarcerated population had very minimal sunlight hours each week, and only about 10% of them had outdoor activities to do throughout the day. 

On the other hand, the experience with the Colombian prison has been very different. Although the staff and inmates have been very welcoming, the conditions to teach there are extremely precarious. At the beginning we had to move from one place to another within the prison until we finally got a spot that fulfills the basic conditions to teach a yoga class. So far, both the staff and the students seem very happy with the program. There’s even talk of teaching yoga to the guards.

Most people would probably be kind of afraid of a prison or a jail and working with inmates of any kind. What were your thoughts before and what would you tell somebody who may be interested in it but isa little nervous?

Well, for me, I always had a connection and desire to go there so I think that makes a difference. But I will say that as a yoga teacher, the most important thing to remember is what the essence of the practice teaches us—recognizing that the light that you have inside is the same pure light present in any other person regardless of their external conditions or the situation they are facing. Teaching in a prison is one of the most beautiful opportunities for a yoga teacher to cultivate the yoga values. It’s the perfect environment if you want to grow as a yoga teacher.

Elliot: You’ve talked about this a little bit already but can you say more about how teaching a class at a prison is different from teaching a studio class?

Amma: I think the most general and useful advice about teaching in a prison is one of Swami Satchidananda’s teachings: “adapt, adjust, and accommodate.” For me, those three actions are the main attitudes you have to take with you when teaching in a prison. I know they apply also to many situations in life, but they are especially valuable with the unpredictable environment of a prison. So, if you have a plan, it is very likely that you will have to change it.

The second thing I would say is very important to keep in mind is that the purpose of teaching yoga in a prison is to find ways to help with the rehabilitation process of the inmates. This means teaching a class that will assist the inmates deal with the aspects of their daily life. Some of the inmates are addicts, some have been abused, some are homeless, or have experienced a certain level of violence. These conditions have made them very reactive and violent. Also, many have lots of shame regarding their past actions. From my experience, it has been very useful when I approached the class in a very practical manner.

Along with teaching asanas, I usually try to give the participants insights about how to invite a personal connection with the different attitudes of the postures, explaining how it would help them to deal with different life situations. For example, child’s pose will invite a sense of surrender, a sense of acceptance about what you are currently experiencing in your life. For women, warrior poses have been very important to empower them and allow them to feel that they have the possibility to transform their lives and to not give up.

I have found it very useful to teach practices that help with impulse control. Following Viktor Frankl's teachings, I encourage students to be attentive to their reactions, "to be aware of the space that always exists between what is happening on the outside and the response; that space is where they can find the freedom to choose how to respond." I have received testimonials from students of how this teaching has begun to make their lives in prison a little different.

Mindfulness practices are important too; that is, observing the self and connecting with the emotions in a non-judgmental attitude. Incarcerated students need the space to be present and the willingness to take responsibility for their past actions in order to heal. A mindfulness practice may prompt them to deal with their emotions and with their current situation, facing it, and taking responsibility for it, as a primary condition to make change. It may help a lot in the rehabilitation process.

Another aspect that I love to apply in my teaching practice at prison is to encourage students to connect with their bodies. Most inmates have experienced trauma, and a resulting disassociation from the body is a very common effect. It is very likely that they keep living in their head without any connection to the body. So during the practice, I usually keep encouraging them to feel the sensations of the body and any other subtle sensations or emotions.

The words you use are important. As James Fox says, instead of saying “Be aware of your breath,” you could say “Feel your body breathing.” Promoting that connection with the body is very important to allow incarcerated students to come back to their bodies with confidence and love. This is one of the biggest challenges because inmates have done things that perhaps make them hate themselves. So a good way to start everything is to begin with the body.

Maintaining simplicity has been important for my classes in prison. For example, I do a very basic asana practice that the students learn and practice by themselves during the week. I love to give options to practice the poses in their bunks telling them to start their day with a yoga practice and stretching, even though they don’t have much physical space. For example, they do many asanas in bed including knees to the chest, bridge pose, and reclined twists.

Because inmates are often inactive, I have found many have issues with their neck, back, and even digestion. I offer adaptations and gentle options for the postures and avoid Sarvangasana (Shoulder Stand) and Sirshasana (Headstand)that put pressure on the neck. You have to be very attentive to prison students’ specific conditions because of their inactivity.

Because of the inactivity, students in prison want to move. I love to put in practice the dynamic sequences I learned from my training with James Fox, founder of Prison Yoga Project. For example, beginning the class with jogging in place is a beautiful way to help raise the energy of the class. So I do a very active warm-up then I go to Tadasana (Mountain Pose). I tell them to place their palms on their heart and their belly and then to just feel the sensation of their body and of their heart beating. I have found that they just love it and it’s a beautiful way to regain self-love and self-appreciation. Usually, I focus on the heart as a theme for the class, promoting connection, self-acceptance, and love. It is very, very important.

I also keep the language simple. I don’t use any Sanskrit for the poses. Students love Cat/Cow and other poses with animal names. Sometimes they like to chat and comment on different things about the class, at the beginning especially. I have found that they’re in need of community and a different space from their cells that allows them to connect in a different way. So I try to give them the space to chat a little bit, to comment on things. After that, they shortly come back to the practice.

Another thing I’ve learned is that it's very helpful to have students arranged in a circle for the class. The circle means unity and it gives everyone the opportunity to make eye contact with each other. Since prisons can be threatening spaces, the students appreciate the feeling of safety and, when in a circle, no one is behind you.

I give the option to practice with closed eyes or not by saying: if you feel comfortable, close your eyes, but if you don’t, keep your eyes open with a soft gaze downward. In the same sense, when doing Savasana (Corpse Pose), you have to be very attentive because this is a very vulnerable pose. It can remind them of traumatic experiences. I always give them the option to lay down on their side if that would help them feel more protected.

Finally, I’d say that you need to show students that they can trust you. I’ve found that this space becomes really important to them so it is important to honor that. Usually, students approach me to tell me that they have been waiting the entire week for this class. This is huge; I feel I have the responsibility to show up every week on time and try not to miss any class, so they know I will come.

Elliot: Any final words of wisdom?

Amma: Every time I go to the prison, I feel that I get way more than what I give. You can’t imagine the love and appreciation that you get from the inmates. They are just in need of attention, in need of kindness, and in need of connection and interaction with someone in an equitable way. They’re always receiving orders and sometimes mistreated, so the possibility to relate to someone in another way is so valuable for them. And in this sense, they just give in return the best of themselves — love, appreciation, kindness, always with a smile. It’s so beautiful.

So I would tell other yoga teachers to not be afraid. What you’re giving is what you’ll receive back. If you give love, you’ll receive love. It’s as simple as that. And the yoga philosophy states this universal principle. It’s in the difficult environments that make you feel afraid or intimidated where you can really prove yourself about what you've been cultivating as a yogi. At least that has been my experience.

Amma María Fandino is a biologist with a Master's degree in environmental management from Yale University, and a devoted yogini with 27 years of dedication. As an Integral Yoga and Accessible Yoga teacher, Amma's passion is to contribute to the construction of a community that advocates a broad, diverse, and inclusive yoga culture. Under the support of his main mentor and teacher, Jivana Heyman, she has been an active member of the Accessible Yoga organization (AY) since 2015 and currently acts as a representative of the regional group of AY for Spanish-speaking countries.

She was certified as a yoga instructor (RYT-500) in the United States and her initial teaching experience was in Santa Barbara, CA, where for more than two years she taught Integral Hatha Yoga and Accessible Yoga classes at the Santa Barbara Yoga Center, to older adults and people with different physical and health conditions. She was also part of the Accessible Yoga teacher´s team of the program offered to patients in the Cottage Hospital Rehabilitation Unit, in the same city. Upon her return to Colombia, her home country, and in her interest to share the practice of yoga with those who do not have access to it, Amma offers Accessible Yoga classes to terminal cancer patients and their caregivers in the Integral Center for Palliative Care of San Ignacio University Hospital in Bogotá. Another area of interest of her vocation is the teaching of yoga to people with conditions of anxiety, depression, and addictions. Thus, Amma offered Accessible Yoga in Santa Barbara County Jail, CA, to inmates who were part of the drug and alcohol recovery program. At present, Amma gives classes to the inmates of the Buen Pastor women's prison in Bogotá. Her most recent commitment, about she feels honored and fortunate, is to support the training of yoga teachers interested in taking the practice to all people without distinction of conditions, health or history.

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 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.

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

Thursday, May 23, 2019

New Study on Yoga and Lupus

by Christa Fairbrother, ER-RYT 200/RYT-500 and lupus patient

I’m excited to share with you that in preliminary research, yoga showed qualitative improvements for women living with systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE). The study Yoga for systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE): Clinician experiences and qualitative perspectives from students and yoga instructors living with SLE  looked at the feasibility of expanding the research conducted in A pilot study of yoga as self-care for arthritis in minority communities to people living with SLE. 

For the study, three yoga teachers living with SLE were interviewed to offer input on adapting yoga to those living with lupus, such as including restorative postures, alternatives for challenging inversions, and cooling breath practices. Some of the key features of lupus are fatigue and pain, which are episodic when the disease flares, so the yoga classes in the study focused on teaching hatha yoga postures for strength, flexibility, and balance, and breath work and meditation. 

Three research participants completed the eight-week (sixteen 60-minute sessions) study and reported positive outcomes, including reduced pain, increased relaxation, and improved general well-being. 

The authors conclude that yoga appears to be safe and adaptable for people living with lupus and further research would tease out variables, such as correct dosing for yoga with SLE, and adapting for co-morbidities. 

This study was reported in Complementary Therapies in Medicine Volume 41, December 2018, Pages 111-117.

For Christa Fairbrother, living with arthritis caused by mixed connective tissue disease and teaching yoga are integrated. She had arthritis for more than 20 years before she knew about it and had a hard time reconciling everything she'd had achieved and her relative lack of pain with all her joint damage. She gave her lifelong yoga practice the credit and now helps other people get more comfort in their joints and use the tools of yoga to manage their health. She reaches out to the world at

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

° 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, May 20, 2019

Digestive Health and Yoga

by Ram Rao

Digestive health is paramount and crucial to the body’s overall well-being. The digestive system breaks down foods (solids and liquids) into their chemical components—carbohydrates, fats, proteins which the body absorbs as nutrients and uses for energy for growth, maintenance, and repair. Digestion happens in three phases: first in the mouth, then the stomach, and finally in the small intestine. After the last phase, the digested food is absorbed and transported into the bloodstream. 

Like any piece of complicated machinery, the digestive tract is susceptible to breakdown. Some of the general factors that can impact our digestive health include diet, sleep, exercise, physical or mental stress, chronic disease, environment, travel and medicines. In some cases the problem could also be genetic.

One particular digestive issue is Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), that affects the large intestine (colon). The chief complaints of IBS are cramping, abdominal pain, bloating, gas, diarrhea, and constipation. This digestive condition is somewhat of a mystery since people with IBS show no physical damage to their stomach, intestines, or colon. While the exact cause of IBS is unclear, the risk factors include those that were mentioned above for overall digestive health. Additionally, the balance of gut bacteria may not be optimal in IBS or the condition may also have something to do with the peristaltic movements in the gut that help to move digested food downstream. In some people the wave of movements may be too fast or too slow.

Whatever be the reason, this digestive condition is a clear example of the gut-brain nexus since in the majority of people there is a close relationship between stress (physical, mental or emotional) and the onset of IBS symptoms. It is currently unclear whether chronic digestive problems create mental stress or whether a heightened level of mental stress makes the gut overly sensitive to certain foods. However, it is clear that people with IBS find that lifestyle changes such as following a routine, working on better sleep habits, and/or reducing stress improves IBS symptoms.

The effective stress-reducing benefits of yoga, including a well-balanced yoga asana practice together with a simple mindful meditation and pranayama practice, could help bring the gut to balance and reduce IBS symptoms. It is well known that practicing yoga for physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing also supports overall digestive health. Several anecdotal reports claim that a continuous practice of yoga resolves digestive problems such as bloating, cramping, irregularities in elimination. In conditions like Irritable Bowel Syndrome, practicing yoga helps to bring the digestive system back into balance during flares.

A meta-analysis report Effect of yoga in the therapy of irritable bowel syndrome: A systematic review on the effectiveness of yoga in relieving IBS symptoms arrived at the following conclusions:

  1. Yoga appears to be safe for all people with IBS.
  2. A gentle yoga session such as Iyengar yoga, when practiced twice weekly for 60 minutes per session, may be effective at improving IBS symptoms. The emphasis on alignment as in Iyengar yoga and the duration (practicing yoga for 60 minutes twice a week) likely plays a role in alleviating stress and modulating the brain–gut axis. 
  3. Asana practice (postures) in combination with other practices like walking, meditation, or breath practice provides respite from the stressful life and improves IBS symptoms.
A few yoga poses are especially helpful for IBS and overall digestive health such as:

Forward bends: Seated or standing forward bends relax the stomach muscles, tone the hips, and improve circulation of blood to the abdominal organs through a massage-like action of the abdominal organs.

Knee to Chest Pose: This pose provides the same benefits as forward bends. Also known as gas relieving pose, this asana stimulates sluggish digestion and bowel movement.

Twists and Side Bends: Twists and side bends have a wringing effect on the abdomen and are helpful for a sluggish gut characterized by bloating and constipation. Twists and side bends improve digestion, improve circulation to the abdominal organs and have a stimulating effect on the abdomen.

Gentle Inversion: Viparita Karani (Legs Up the Wall pose) can be very relaxing both at the start of the session and towards the end of class. The pose is very helpful for an overactive gut with cramping and a tendency for diarrhea as it improves digestion and relieves symptoms of diarrhea.

In addition to asanas, the practices of pranayama and meditation help in combating mental stress. Mental stress affects normal breathing and is reflected in an individual’s breathing state which can be uneven, shallow, rapid, or restrained. Meditation and pranayama encourage breathing to become smoother, deeper, and more rhythmic. This relaxes the intercostal muscles and the abdominal muscles of the belly, stimulates salivary gland secretion, accelerates digestion, and promotes normal movement of food through the gut. In addition, the central nervous system is encouraged to transition to a relaxing “rest and digest” mode. Naturally, these benefits will bring a sense of inner peace thereby freeing up the gut and brain from inner turmoil.

Rammohan (Ram) Rao comes from a family of Ayurvedic practitioners and Vedic teachers in India tracing back to the illustrious Vedic-acharya Rishi Kaundinya (although Ram admits he cannot do the Eka pada or Dwi pada Kaundinyasana). With a doctorate in Neuroscience, Ram was a Research Associate Professor at the Buck Institute for Research on Aging. He focused on various aspects of age-associated neurodegenerative diseases with emphasis on Alzheimer’s disease. In addition, Ram completed the academic training at the California College of Ayurveda (CCA) and received his certification as Clinical Ayurvedic Specialist. He has been a faculty member of the California College of Ayurveda and teaches in their Nevada City location. Ram is also a dedicated Hatha yoga practitioner and is a Registered Yoga Teacher from Yoga Alliance USA. In his spare time he offers consultations in YAMP techniques (Yoga, Ayurveda, Meditation & Pranayama). Ram has published several articles in major Yoga/Ayurveda magazines and has been a featured speaker in several national and international meetings and symposia. He is a member of the National Ayurvedic Medical Association (NAMA) and is on the Research Board of the Association of Ayurvedic Professionals of North America (AAPNA).

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.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Featured Video: Christa Fairbrother's Exercises for Arthritic Hands

We love these simple exercises that can help both those with rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis in their hands. These exercises will relieve joint pain, reduce swelling, and build strength in the hands needed to support the joints as well as improving flexibility. Moving your joints within their range of motion helps maintain their health as movement brings nourishment to the joint structures.


For Christa Fairbrother, living with arthritis caused by mixed connective tissue disease and teaching yoga are integrated. She had arthritis for more than 20 years before she knew about it and had a hard time reconciling everything she'd had achieved and her relative lack of pain with all her joint damage. She gave her lifelong yoga practice the credit and now helps other people get more comfort in their joints and use the tools of yoga to manage their health. She reaches out to the world at

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

° 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, May 13, 2019

Core Qualities of Yoga, Part 2: Grounding

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 is grounding? I like these two answers to that question. The first is by Marilyn O’Malley from her Huffington Post article How to Ground Yourself and Why.

“Grounding is a quality, goal or value that connects you to your self, your body, breath and mind and then to the earth. It allows you to be more authentically in your body, in the present moment, and receive nourishing energy.”

The other is by Ram Rao, Ph.D., from his post Staying Grounded: The Healing Benefits of Earthing Therapy in the Yoga for Healthy Aging blog.

“Grounding or earthing refers to connecting directly with the earth. It refers to direct skin contact with the surface of the earth, such as with bare feet or hands, or with various grounding systems.”

The benefits of grounding, either from direct connection with the earth or sensing a connection through your breath or mind, are associated with feelings of safety, security, and support.

One example of language that sharpens this association is the phrase ‘stand your ground.’ Feeling at home and relaxed in your body can be an indication that you are grounded. However, many of us may not feel at home in our own skin because:

1. We have not made peace with our body (too fat, too thin, too tall, too short, etc.),
2. We have a disability that limits our movement and our ability to be active,
3. We may have lost touch with parts of our body due to a past or present trauma.

Fortunately, we can choose to integrate the quality of grounding into our yoga practice and begin to consciously experience internal feelings of safety, security, and support.

Those of us able to stand firmly on our yoga mats, walk barefoot in the grass or on sand at the beach can experience grounding through a direct connection with the earth. If we are able to transfer from standing to sitting or lying down we connect even more of our body to the earth through poses like Child’s Pose or Savasana (Corpse Pose often done for relaxation).

But what if you are unable to transfer up and down off the floor or connect your body directly to the ground? What if your feet go no further than wheelchair footrests or if parts of your body are missing due to amputation or surgery? If our goal is to provide Accessible Yoga to those are unable to make that direct connection to the earth, floor, or yoga mat, we need ways to approach grounding with slightly different but equally workable modifications.

Research suggests that practicing visualization promotes relaxation, enhances sleep, reduces pain, and increases creativity. So we can use visualization as a grounding tool to increase feelings of safety, security, and support.

The Roots Visualization is my favorite visualization practice for grounding. I learned it many years ago from a teacher during my 200-hour yoga training. I still use it to ‘stand my ground’ in stressful situations instead of giving in to my first impulse to flee or freeze. I also practice it when I’m feeling spacey and distracted and need to focus.

In a class you can guide your students through it or self-guide as needed. If all or parts of someone’s body is missing due to amputation, or removal by surgery, it is important to know that the missing parts are often experienced energetically and this should not prevent anyone from experiencing the benefits of grounding through the practice of visualization. If you need confirmation, read Matthew Sanford’s book Waking, a Memoir of Trauma and Transcendence. Matthew is a yoga teacher who was paralyzed from the waist down as the result of a tragic automobile accident when he was 13 years old.

Roots Visualization, Instructions

1. If appropriate and accessible, take off your shoes, connect your bare feet to the ground and close your eyes.

2. If you find yourself in a situation, place, or time where you cannot take off your shoes or close your eyes, direct your attention to your legs and feet to sense a deeper contact to the earth, floor, or wheelchair footrests beneath you.

3. Begin to visualize roots growing from your body, starting from the base of the spine. Feel roots reaching down through your legs through the bottoms of your feet to pierce through the earth’s crust.

4. Visualize your roots branching and spreading, growing stronger and reaching deeper into the earth. Sense the strength, support, and the stability that your branching roots send back to fill your entire body.

5. With each inhale, begin to draw in strength, support, and stability and allow that feeling to deepen your connection to the physical world and your place in it.

6. Draw the quality of grounding through the bones of your feet and legs to the base of your spine and all the way up to the crown of your head. Feel your entire body safe, secure, stable and connected to the physical world allowing you to stand your ground and speak your truth.

As you do this you may feel some tingling or pulsing in your feet and legs. That’s a good thing because energy flows where intention goes. You can shorten or lengthen the visualization as needed to stand your ground assertively, appropriately, and confidently.

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.

° 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.

Thursday, May 9, 2019

Accessible Yoga Book Now Available for Preordering!

Jivana Heyman's forthcoming book, Accessible Yoga, which will be released on November 5, 2019, is now available for pre-ordering on both Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Indie Bound (for independent bookstores). You can also just walk into your local bookstore and ask them to preorder it for you.

Preordering not only enables you to get the book the very day it is released, but it helps provide good publicity for the book, allowing us to bring Accessible Yoga to more people worldwide.

And don't you just love the cover design? The rainbow symbolism is so appropriate. 


Monday, May 6, 2019

Yoga and Advanced Aging, Part 4: Teaching in Assisted Living, Skilled Nursing, and Memory Care Spaces

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 4: Grounding, Rhythm, and Movement

“It’s your birthright to live into your entire body.” —Matthew Sanford

In Part One of this series we explored the atmospheric challenges of teaching in Senior Care spaces and focused on being creative and looking for hints of connection. In Part Two we discussed the importance of creating a welcoming community that can heal and transform by encouraging students to bring their stories into the space. We also looked at a few movements we might avoid with this population. Part Three was all about breathing and the body’s brilliance in using the breath as a problem-solving mechanism. We considered shifting our cueing in order to help students develop a more subtle relationship to the breath and body. In this fourth and final installment we will explore the grounding, rhythm, and movement.

Don’t Forget the Feet

I recently had a conversation with a yoga teacher who asked me to describe what it is I do. She said, “So, you get your students into parts of the shapes?” I replied, “I would argue there are no ‘parts of the shapes;’ you are either teaching a sensation of wholeness or you aren’t.” One of the things I frequently notice when observing Chair Yoga classes is that teachers often forgo mentioning the importance of how the feet and legs relate to spinal awareness and functional movement of the body.

“Chair yoga is not yoga from the waist up. Don’t forget the feet,” is something I preach in my workshops. The fact that many students with advanced aging sit for prolonged amounts of time, use wheelchairs, or need the assistance of walkers is all the more reason to cue them to use their legs to support their spines. By cueing through the feet and legs, not only are we building strength in the lower body and core, we are also getting more of the nervous system online.

We start the movement portion of my seated chair classes “walking in place.” As we move our legs, I ask students to walk their feet all the way out in front of their bodies and bring their awareness to how out of balance they just became from the waist up. We then walk our feet underneath our chairs and explore sensations from that position. I have them find the midpoint between those two extremes and ask them to notice the support the legs provide in this position. I cue them to firmly press down through their feet and use the strength of their legs to help them sit up a little taller. From there we explore how much effort we need to expend to maintain this posture. Efficient integration of our outer bodies leads to access into subtler spaces inside ourselves.

Rhythm is Powerful

Keeping the legs active in the posture above (aka Seated Mountain Pose), I ask my students to bring their awareness to their belly. Borrowing a cue I gleaned from renowned yoga therapy teacher Doug Keller, I playfully ask students to, “Imagine you’re putting on a ‘snug pair of pants.’ They've been in the dryer just a little too long. Button up those pants and keep them buttoned as you relax your ribs and breathe.” From there we begin to sway side-to-side, slowly creating circles, and rocking forward and back. All the while, I am cueing the feet, belly, and spine.

This sequence is the glue of my teaching and is my go-to transition. Knowing that rhythm is a powerful inroad to the nervous system, and swaying is usually accessible in some form or fashion for my students, I incorporate this sequence early and often. The repetition creates body memory and an anchor that students can return to if something we just attempted was difficult or challenging. In most cases, I will lose my students if I ask them to sit still in contemplation. So, we contemplate in movement.

Slow rhythmic movements are very calming and can be used as a grounding tool in chaotic environments. I had a student fall in class recently. We were all understandably concerned and dysregulated. While nurses and staff attended to the injured student, I led the students through a rocking and tapping sequence. We held our classmate in our hearts and extended our compassion to her. The energetic shift in the room was palpable within minutes. We were able to reset and continue with class as she received the medical care and attention she needed.

Functional Movements

Another way to incorporate rhythm is to gently move the joints. Shrugging the shoulders, wiggling the fingers, swinging the legs, lifting the heels and toes, shaking the head yes and no are all familiar access points into the body. When taught with mindful intention, these movements are great opportunities to create connection by layering in the breath and/or adding detailed focus.
Here are a few examples: 

1) Shake out your hands, breathe in, and sigh it out.
2) Lift your shoulders up and breathe in, lower them down and breathe out.
3) Wiggle your fingers and then touch your fingertips with your thumbs.
4) Open your hands wide, now make a fist, open your hands wide and breathe in, breathe out as you make a fist.

Movement Across the Midline

Moving across the midline is a staple of my sequencing; the midline is an imaginary line down the center of the body that divides it into left and right. This type of movement stimulates both hemispheres of the brain, but for students with a stroke history, coordinating movement across the midline can be challenging. Choosing an accessible pace and teaching with patience encourages students to problem solve.

Here’s an example: Cross your arms and take your opposite hand to your opposite leg, slide your bottom arm out and place it on top, once you start moving keep moving. You may notice that one arm is easier to move than the other, that’s okay, go as slow as you need to. Notice your breath. Breathe out and take a gentle breath in and a slow breath out.

I usually shy away from using left/right cues. Left/right discrimination is one of the things that students with age-related cognitive decline and dementia struggle with. When I do cue lefts and rights, I start a sequence on a specific side and see how the class responds. If I feel like they’re able to follow those instructions fairly well, I will keep using left and right language as a cognitive exercise. If I find the class is having a hard time, I get creative with my approach.

Let’s take a look at a few different ways you could cue a sequence that requires bilateral coordination:

1) Lift your right arm up toward the ceiling, now lift your left leg.
2) Lift one arm up toward the ceiling, now lift your opposite leg.
3) Let your hands rest on your legs, take one arm up toward the ceiling, now lift the leg that you’re touching.

The sequence we just explored in the last paragraph requires students to move in multiple planes at once, i.e., across the midline and in the upper and lower body. You may have noticed that I cued movement in the upper body first, then the lower body. This allows the students find precision on one side before they cross the midline and add on. My pace is usually slow and deliberate. I might eventually layer in the breath or ask them to lift the legs and arms at the same time once they have settled in to the sequence. If students are having a difficult time managing a task, let them move without expectation of outcome. Sometimes things work, sometimes they don’t. Non-attachment and going with the flow are necessary when working with this population.

I thank you for reading this series, and encourage you to connect with your students, find your unique voice, and get creative as you share yoga with this population. Things that may not look like “yoga” can be incorporated into your classes when practiced in the spirit of unity and connection. Feel free to reach out to me at if you have any questions and I hope to see you again soon on the Accessible Yoga Blog.

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 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.

Thursday, May 2, 2019

Accessibility in Yoga is a Radical Act

by Amber Karnes

Accessible yoga isn’t just about being politically correct or a “nice” thing to do.

Accessibility in yoga is a radical act.

When we ensure that our teaching and community spaces are equitable and accessible for folks of all abilities, shapes, sizes, ages, races, genders, ethnicities, socioeconomic backgrounds, we redistribute power.

Power and social currency is (and has historically been) systemically and individually withheld from people with marginalized identities. When, as teachers, we go through the process of seeing and affirming a student with ALL of their intersecting identities, when we create a space where no one leaves part of themselves at the door when they come into our class, we redistribute power.

We remind students of their agency and create a container where they can safely use it. By seeing individual human beings and their needs, what their bodies require, and giving them the permission to advocate for that and to be in charge of their own bodies, we redistribute power.

Whether we deserve it or not, as yoga teachers, we are in a position of power. Folks look to us for, at the very least, a class where they can move their bodies safely, but many are coming to us for more: healing body image and self-worth, spiritual guidance. We have a sacred responsibility to honor the unique human beings in front of us. And then go through a process of negotiation, collaboration, consent, and creation. Every pose or practice is a puzzle: how can we personalize this to meet your needs, to meet you where you are today?

How can we voluntarily redistribute some of the power we hold, and reinstate that power to our students, especially those who are disempowered and disenfranchised systemically and individually by our culture?

THAT is why this work is vital. Not so we can “be nice” or coddle people’s feelings. But because it is a revolutionary and radical way to chip away at the systems of oppression (capitalism, patriarchy, white supremacy) we are all living under. Accessible Yoga is revolutionary work.

As I write this, we’re heading into day 2 of the Accessible Yoga Training today in Hershey, PA.

Come learn with us. Scholarships are available so just reach out for details.

Upcoming dates with me:

Madison, WI June 14-16, 2019 :
Ruckersville, VA August 23-25, 2019:
Pittsburgh, PA November 15-17, 2019

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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