Monday, July 22, 2019

Accessibility in the Yoga Alliance Standards

By Jivana Heyman

Just a few weeks ago, Yoga Alliance USA (YA) announced long-awaited updates to the basic, 200-hour yoga teacher training guidelines. I was involved in two of the working groups that YA convened to offer ideas for these new rules – the Inclusion and Code of Conduct groups. I found the conversations within these groups to be compelling and incredibly interesting. And I knew that YA would have to work hard to integrate the feedback from these groups, as well as their public survey, with the rules that they currently have.

Unfortunately, I don’t think the new standards go far enough to address accessibility for people with disabilities, seniors, students with larger bodies, or anyone who doesn’t feel comfortable in a traditional yoga studio. I do see the beginning of some really useful changes, but I’m not convinced yet. My main concern is that accessibility is not woven into the way that yoga teachers are being trained. How much flexibility will schools have to cover whatever they want? YA needs to add specific training to the core curriculum about making asana accessible. This isn’t a topic we can leave to teachers who happen to be interested in serving people with disabilities. It’s an essential aspect of creating equality in yoga.

On the positive side, I’m excited that YA is going to release a new Code of Conduct, which I believe will address the way that people with disabilities are being excluded from the practice. But until I see the final language, I have no idea how far this document will go. Also, how much impact will a Code of Conduct have? While I feel strongly that clear and powerful ethical guidelines will be an essential tool for yoga students to be treated fairly, I’m also realistic.

Since yoga is not a licensed profession, YA has limited authority and is in an awkward position. They don't certify teachers, and they can’t take teacher’s certifications away for abusing the rules. I keep hearing them say, "No one wants us to be the yoga police." But is that true? Don't we need someone to be looking out for the students who are abused, disenfranchised, or injured?

I’m also happy to see that YA is requiring a new ten-hour “Equity in Yoga” course, which will address ways in which yoga is currently not equitable. There are essential issues around racism and cultural appropriation that need to be addressed, and I’m excited that accessibility will be included in that training. But there is an additional aspect to contemporary yoga that still needs to be considered: modern postural yoga is basically a discriminatory practice. Modern yoga is 90% asana – and there is a hierarchy of “advanced” practices that are taught by most major yoga schools.

Isn’t it time we asked ourselves some serious questions: What is the relationship between “advanced” poses and inner peace? Does someone fail at yoga because they get older or injured? Is someone advanced at yoga because they have hypermobile joint syndrome? Isn’t yoga really about coming home to yourself, calming the mind, and finding some peace? If so, does a focus on performance and appearance move us away from the goal of yoga?

There is another way to teach yoga. Asana can be taught without this hierarchy of “more is better.” Instead, asana can be taught in an inclusive, accessible way. This means poses are offered as a spectrum of possibilities, focusing on the essential benefits and exploring ways to find those benefits at any level of practice. Poses can also be taught at multiple levels at the same time, so that students with different levels of physical ability can be integrated into the same class. Teachers need to be highly skilled to teach this way, but isn’t that a worthy goal?

By nature, yoga is accessible. It is the way we are teaching asana that makes it inaccessible. Teachers need to learn how to adapt practices to any student who comes to them. People with disabilities shouldn’t be required to find a yoga therapist if they want to do yoga. Shouldn’t anyone be allowed to go to a yoga studio just because they want to practice? Do people with disabilities have to go to special classes? Isn’t that a form of segregation?

To me this is similar to the question of “special education” for kids with disabilities. Study after study reveal that kids with disabilities perform better when they are mainstreamed rather than segregated into “special” classes. But American yoga is more segregated than most other activities, and this seems to be the approach that YA is supporting.

The only way to address ableism is through education and integration. All public yoga classes should be accessible yet teachers are constantly telling students with disabilities that they aren’t welcome in their classes, either explicitly or implicitly. This is actually illegal, and yet it happens all the time. These changes to the YA standards actually reinforce cultural norms around segregation by allowing schools to continue to teach their same curriculum without mandating specific training in making asana accessible.

Accessibility also means considering that most people have had trauma, and therefore training around consent also needs to be a required aspect of all yoga teacher training. My recommendation is that YA consider adding specific modules within the new “Professional Essentials” category addressing accessibility and consent. I appreciate the hard work that YA administrators are doing, but I think we need to look into the future to imagine a different yoga landscape that offers a welcoming practice for anyone who is interested in participating. Then we can plot a course to get there through improved awareness and education.

Jivana Heyman is the founder of Accessible Yoga, co-owner of the Santa Barbara Yoga Center and an Integral Yoga Minister. With over twenty years of training and teaching in a traditional yoga lineage, Jivana has specialized in teaching the subtle practices of yoga: pranayama, meditation, as well as sharing yoga philosophy. His passion is making Yoga accessible to everyone. Accessible Yoga has grown into an international advocacy and education organization, and now offers two Conferences per year, trainings around the world, an ambassador program and online Network. Jivana has taught with the Dean Ornish Heart Disease Reversal Program through UCSF, California Pacific Medical Center’s Institute of Health and Healing, and the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. He has led over 40 Yoga teacher training programs over the past 16 years, and created the Accessible Yoga Training program in 2007. On December 3rd, 2015, Jivana taught Accessible Yoga at the United Nations in Geneva for their International Day of Persons with Disabilities. Jivana’s strengths are sharing esoteric and complex teaching in a readily accessible way, and applying the ancient teachings of Yoga to our day-to-day lives.

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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