Thursday, August 29, 2019

Discussing the Yoga Path of Service with Jivana Heyman

Wild Lotus by Sarit Z Rogers

Nina: Recently I wrote two different posts for our blog about karma yoga, The Royal Road: Gandhi, Social Activism, and Yoga and Arjuna is Us: Staying Strong When You Stand Up for What's Right, that really seemed to resonate with people. And I know that for you, personally, the yoga path of service is very important. So I think our readers would like to hear something from you, Jivana, about why that is. 

Jivana: Service is my personal path of yoga. It’s the way I practice on an ongoing basis throughout my life. I think of my formal practices of meditation, pranayama, and asana as preparation for the service I do in the world. Those formal practices are the way I care for myself so I can serve more effectively, and they help me get into the right frame of mind to serve. 

Service is a powerful personal practice, but also offers benefit to the world. The point of service, or karma yoga as it is traditionally called, is about working with my own mind. Service isn’t about what I’m doing as much as the way I’m doing it. 

I think of service in the context of spiritual practice as a way to act without focusing on what I’ll personally get out of the action. Just like Krishna explains in the Bhagavad Gita, we are always acting; the question is whether we are acting with or without attachment to the results. 

Service provides a way to bring yoga into all my daily activities by asking me to be constantly watching my mind (specifically my ego). I think the mind and ego are incredibly important, and I don’t want to overly criticize them. But I want to find a way to practice yoga with my mind that allows me to stretch and strengthen it. A strong mind and healthy ego will allow me to be effective in the world and truly be of service. 

Nina: I think that is beautiful. But for people who are used to thinking of “yoga” as the eight-fold path in the Yoga Sutras, it might be surprising to hear that you can be practicing yoga as you go about your work in the real world in your everyday life. Can you explain how engaging in social activism or performing service are forms of yoga? 

Jivana: I often start conversations about service with a discussion of nonattachment because they are closely related. You could say that service is nonattachment in action. Nonattachment is simply letting go of the misunderstanding that happiness comes from outside of us. It’s a powerful and empowering concept that is the foundation for all the yoga teachings. Nonattachment means that the happiness or peace that I’m seeking in my life already exists inside me, as me. 

This is the conundrum of spiritual practice: can I work on myself and contribute to the greater good? The answer is yes, if I practice karma yoga. By looking at my life and seeing where there is tension or a need and putting my energy there without getting caught up in needing a specific result. This is what the Gita refers to as “skill in action.” 

Nina: For those of us who are considering following the path of service, why do you recommend that we do this practice? Is this just because it is the “right” thing to do? Or would engaging in service or social activism as our yoga practice help us improve our lives and enable us to find meaning and inner peace? 

Jivana: Service and social justice are two distinct things, but it can be helpful to look at where they intersect. Personally, social justice is where I see my work in the world and where I get to practice service. But social justice may not be everyone’s path. Each of us has our own battles to fight, and the question is, can you be happy whether you win or lose that battle? 

I think this is the missing piece of contemporary yoga practice. Right now, it seems like most yoga practitioners are using their practice to feel better, get healthier, and build energy. The question is, what do you do with all that energy? If you don’t work on the mind, then that extra energy from your practice may just amplify what’s already going on inside of you. 

Service is an outlet for your energy. It allows the energy that you build in your practice to be used for the greater good—not just for your own personal benefit. This focus on others—and not simply expanding your own ego—is really at the basis of spiritual practice. So, it’s not a matter of right or wrong, but a question of effective vs. ineffective spiritual practice. It’s a paradox: the more I serve you, the happier I will be (as long as I’m also taking care of myself). 

I would also say that social justice is a natural outcome of service. As we shift our attention away from what we want or need out of every situation, we can begin to see ourselves in others. That connection is the key to social justice and to spirituality. It’s a practice of finding unity in diversity. 

Social justice is about caring for others, and putting that care into action to create equality and opportunity for all. It’s about lifting up those who have been marginalized, abused, and discarded. It’s about sharing opportunities with others. 

Nina: When many people in the yoga community think of “service,” they tend to think about teaching yoga as the way of providing it, whether that means teaching yoga in prisons, in hospitals, to children with special needs, or for any underserved populations. But you can practice karma yoga by providing any kind of service to your community as long as you do it with the right mind-set, right?

Jivana: Yes. I see so many examples of service in the world around me every day. I look at people in the service professions who are committed to their work. I remember years ago, I was in the hospital for some minor surgery, and I was blown away by the way that the nurses and staff took care of me. I could feel that they authentically cared for me. It changed my experience of being so vulnerable, and allowed me to relax. They were acting with love and compassion, which is the heart of service.

Service can also be practiced outside of obvious service jobs. I used to be a professional gardener, and I remember how gardening became a practice for me. I would try to focus on the benefits of the plants: were they in the correct location, where they getting the right amount of water, were they in the right kind of soil? Some days I felt present with the plants in a way that’s hard to describe. I think that is service as well—acting with present moment awareness. 

I would say that most yoga teachers that I know are practicing service when they teach, whether it’s to special populations or a studio class. Most of us know that teaching yoga isn’t really a very profitable profession, but we do it for the love of yoga and the love of other people. Teaching yoga is a great way to love other people, and service is love in action. 

Nina: For me, a couple of very different examples come to mind of people who practice karma yoga who don’t do it through teaching yoga. In my post The Royal Road: Gandhi, Social Activism, and Yoga, I wrote about how Mohandas K. Gandhi performed his service in the form of non-violent activism to achieve the independence of India and later by working for religious harmony in India. I also think of my yoga friend Melitta who says that her work as a diabetes advocate (working for improved diagnosis and treatment of type 1 diabetes because many adults are misdiagnosed) is her “karma yoga” practice. What do you think of these examples? 

Jivana: I love those examples, but I think it’s a little subtler than that. Karma yoga isn’t something we can see or judge in others. It’s a way of doing things, not the result. I’m sure there were times that Gandhi was doing karma yoga and times when he wasn’t. 

It’s interesting, because some people think of karma yoga as volunteering, but that’s not the same thing. You can get paid for a job and it can be service if you have the right attitude. In fact, you can volunteer and it isn’t service if you expect that “thank you” afterwards. The ego’s needs are tricky and it can find its way into almost any situation! That’s why karma yoga is an entire path of yoga, a lifelong practice. 

What comes to mind from the examples of Gandhi and your friend Melitta is the passion that they have for their service. I’m interested in understanding what is at the root of their passion for service, and the state of mind that is the key to service. In my experience, that state of mind is transitory but profound. It’s a feeling of openness and connection with others. 

Nina: I think that some of our readers might wonder if this is a path that is open to everyone. If you’re poor and struggling or have a chronic illness or disability, is there some way you can still serve?

Jivana: Yes, we all have the opportunity to practice service in every waking moment. As I mentioned before, it’s a state of mind more than a specific activity. Service is acting without a selfish motivation. But—and this is where it gets tricky—we can also think of self-care as service to ourselves. 

If you have a chronic illness or disability, then self-care can be your service. Taking care of the body may be a full time job for some people and that can be their service. 

Or if you have limited energy or means, you can also offer service by thinking of the benefit of your actions for others or the world around you. Can you walk across the room in a way that respects your body, your shoes, the floorboards, and the space above and below you? Being present in your body as you move in the world is an important service. 

Nina: What about people who are super busy with families, jobs, mortgages, and so on? Does your whole life or your full-time job have to be about service or social activism? Or is there some way to balance performing service with the other things you are doing in your life? 

Jivana: Remember service isn’t what you do so much as how you do it. It’s a personal internal practice that no one else may be able to see from outside. It’s a self-awareness that comes through yoga and other kinds of inner spiritual work. By being conscious of yourself, how you act, and what you say, you can be of service to other people and to the whole world. 

Nina: In that way, it really is householder yoga. Is there anything else you’d like to say to our readers about the path of karma yoga? 

Jivana: Service is a subtle concept and one of the most challenging practices of yoga. This is because your mind always wants to make it about you. What will you get, what will people think of you, and so on. In order to be of service you can start with self-awareness. Notice your thoughts as you are doing a simple action. As I sweep the floor, am I aware of the way I am sweeping or caught up in my mind? If I can focus on the work in front of me with all my attention, that is service. 

My favorite form of service is listening. When someone talks to me I try to notice my mind’s tendency to start coming up with answers before they’re done or to think of how what they’re saying affects me. I practice service by listening to what they’re saying and giving them my full attention. It is also a beautiful practice to simply put yourself in someone else’s shoes. Next time you’re having a disagreement with someone try to pause and think about how they feel and why. Working with our minds in this way is a subtle and powerful way to practice service. 

Nina: Thank you, Jivana.

Monday, August 26, 2019

Speak Up and Yoga: Two Indian Americans Find Their Voices to Change the Yoga Industry

Jesal Parikh (left) and Tejal Patel (right)

By Jesal Parikh and Tejal Patel

Jesal and Tejal will be presenting a workshop at the Accessible Yoga Conference in New York, Oct. 11-13, 2019.

People assume we’ve named our podcast “Yoga is Dead” and our first episode “White Women Killed Yoga” because we are hasty and reactive. That we created our work out of a need to blast anger and frustration without a second thought.

It’s easy to make this assumption since we live in the age of reactivity. Where instant communication allows us to lay our emotions onto each other without hesitation.

Our truth is very different. One where we sat silently in pause for most of our lives. Like that time a boy “jokingly” asked Jesal while riding the school bus: “What did God say when he created a brown person?...Whoops! I burnt another one!” and she sat silently, only crying after making it home. Or that time Tejal’s friend told her “Your God isn’t real because he’s blue!” and she sat dumbfounded in the lunchroom feeling othered and exposed.

A lifetime of not being “Indian enough” or “American enough” instilled in us that sitting silently and keeping our head down was the path to success. It taught us how to live in constant inquiry about our own identity. Perhaps that’s why we both quit corporate jobs to pursue yoga as a career.

When we met in 2015, we sat in a training where the white woman studio owner inflicted this same trauma on us that we experienced in our childhoods. We’ve been asked why we didn’t simply get up and leave after feeling so affronted. To understand our choice to stay and be silent is to understand our life experiences and those of our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents who learned that success was built on silence around white people. We left that first week of training silent but internally reeling, and hoping the next week of training would be better.

Our connection with each other was a turning point for us both. Our relationship gave us space to breathe and question why we were still staying silent when we knew we had the education (we both did yoga trainings in India), the life experience, and the heritage to afford us authority and credibility.

We went on our own teaching journeys after that training and continued to run into conflict with folks in the yoga industry. We leaned on each other for support in unpacking those experiences. When Tejal proposed starting a podcast, we spent nearly a year pausing and considering our stories. Reflection for us also meant doing a boatload of research. We processed, unpacked, recontextualized, and ultimately, we started over. It took us months of thoughtful debate to decide on a name. From there we worked out our point of view. We edit each episode in an attempt to be as mindful as we can.

Nearly four years since we met, we’ve come to some very serious conclusions about the yoga industry and we’re now able to provide helpful actions, steps to improve conditions for everyone. We’ve learned that taking time to reflect, research, unpack, and process are essential components for spiritual growth. And while silence isn’t always the pathway to success, there is no way forward without learning how to listen.

Tejal Patel, E-RYT 500, has been teaching yoga since 2013. She is trained in trauma-informed mindfulness-based practices through the Lineage Project, studies Prenatal techniques and pelvic floor with​ Living Now Yoga​, and traveled from NY to Kerala, India for several yoga teacher trainings focused on vinyasa, hatha, and restorative yoga. She started POC + Allies Collective Yoga to honor inclusivity and diversity and leads free​ Yoga for All in The Battery​ in New York's landmark 25-acre public park, now in its sixth year. She leads retreats with topics covering asana workshops, trauma informed practices, and pelvic floor anatomy. She is the creator of​ abcdyogi​ village, an international community for any born conscientious desi yogi of South Asian descent to reclaim the yoga and mindfulness space by sharing their personal stories and practices with the world. She was featured as​ 19 Women of Color to Watch in the Yoga World in 2019​. Tejal also offers group vinyasa and restorative yoga classes at​ Humming Puppy NYC​ and private yoga and reiki sessions.

Jesal Parikh has been teaching since 2010. She is certified in prenatal yoga, Functional Range Conditioning Mobility, and has completed over 200 hours of yoga anatomy and biomechanics training. The focus of her teaching is, in her words, “Stress-free living for non-yogis. No acrobatics. No mystical bs. Just useful, practical stuff.” She aims to offer a practice that supports her students in finding practical, functional movement and lasting change in their day-to-day lives, and in her teaching with private clients focuses on addressing pain, injury, posture, and mobility. She also teaches on staff at​ Maha Mama,​ frequently offering free prenatal classes through the alumni program, as well as volunteering with​ World Spine Care Yoga Project.​ She co-created the list of​ 19 Women of Color to Watch in the Yoga World in 2019 and she is a proud member of the​ abcdyogi​ community.

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, August 22, 2019

Jivana Heyman's Article and Videos on Yoga Journal

Photograph by Natalie Faye

We're excited to announce that Jivana has two videos and an article (with a sequence!) on the Yoga Journal web site, which  all of you can view. Here are the links:

In the short video Jivana Heyman is Making Yoga Accessible to Everyone Jivana discusses his mission and the goals of Accessible Yoga, the organization he founded.

In the video An Accessible Yoga Practice You can Do In a Chair Jivana teaches a 17-minute sequence to release tension and fear.  

In the article Try This Sequence to Confront Your Fears and Unleash Your Inner Warrior Jivana says that he always felt that yoga offered more than a great stretch or workout and that "It gave me a way to connect with others and myself at the same time." He provides a complete sequence, with photos and detailed instructions, which he hopes will provide "a bit of that feeling" for you, too.

We hope you enjoy these offerings!


This post was written 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, August 19, 2019

The Importance of Inquiry and Agency in the Asana Practice

Photo by Sarit Photography
by Carey Sims

Some of the things that make our asana practice so effective can prove problematic if we start to misinterpret or misuse them. Many of us have experienced the hypnotic effect of linking breath, movement, and awareness. The endorphins released after a Vinyasa Flow class can be downright intoxicating and simply taking time to pause for a few minutes in Savasana can seem revolutionary in a society perpetually in the fast lane. I don’t mean to discount these experiences; I too love a good yoga buzz and am a sucker for a long Savasana. But my query is, when are we turning off our own physical and emotional feedback mechanisms and engaging in unhealthy practices in the name of transformation?

We are told that yoga is more than exercise and that yoga is inherently good for us. In many cases these things are indeed true, but when we become addicted to the routine, the blissful feelings of our practice can cause us to tune out instead of tuning in. And if we dissociate in our practice we might not sense when the body is telling us to slow down or stop, causing us to go beyond our safe edge and careen into pain or injury. Conversely, we might be acutely aware of those signals and simply not yield to them under the guise that there is something larger at play. The solution is to stay reliably curious in our practice and keep tabs our personal agency. We will then begin to notice places of potential and also of unwitting harm.

I have a student, Allison, who started coming to yoga because of spinal stenosis and back discomfort. I recently saw her grimacing in a posture, and when I asked her if she was okay, she shook her head “No.” I inquired why she remained in the shape if she was physically hurting? She didn’t have an immediate response, but she became interested in seeking an answer. She later revealed that she stayed in the posture because she thought the intensity meant something was “shifting.” Allison suffers from intense chronic pain and has learned to ignore her body’s feedback; something she hadn’t really explored until my question. She can sit through a level of pain that many of us can’t imagine. This can be dangerous. I never want a student to hurt in a shape or movement. There is always a way to find equanimity; it just takes curiosity and exploration on the part of the student and teacher. This particular posture clearly wasn’t working and we found another option that she connected with.

A few weeks later Allison pulled me aside after class told me that she’d started keeping a pain diary and is becoming aware of places where she is powering through her discomfort. Her yoga practice is one of those places. She has been ignoring her pain as a way to live with it. Letting the volume of her pain get too loud would be debilitating so she let it become white noise beneath the surface. I encouraged her to listen to the loudest parts a little at a time and she gathered the courage to do so. She now modifies her shapes and we check in before, during, and after class to see how she is doing. An observation in a yoga posture and a simple conversation offered her a reflection into her experience—a place she’s become curious about. The relationship to her body, mind, and spirit has the potential to shift as a result.

At its core, our asana practice is a practice of inquiry. The shapes are merely blueprints of possibility. Our personal practice is a conversation between our body and breath where respectful listening is key. It is a process where the outcome is not as important as moment-to-moment presence and attentiveness.

For the student and the teacher this practice of inquiry centers on relationship. As yoga teachers, we are partners with our students. When we collaborate with our students we avoid the trap of thinking we have the answers, we stay open, and we both learn. We must embody the same spirit of curiosity and skillful observation we are asking our students to employ. Our students know their bodies better than we ever will; their autonomy is key. Yoga teachers do have specific knowledge and techniques we can offer our students, but it is up to each student to explore a technique and decide if it is working for them or not.

Students, you can empower your practice by realizing that your teacher simply guides you to places you can chose to explore. Yoga teachers offer options, not answers. Your physical and emotional anatomies are uniquely yours and something that works for others may not necessarily work for you. Talk with your teacher and develop a rapport that allows you to signal them when something isn’t resonating with you—it may be an alternate posture or a simple wave of your hand. If they are resistant then it may be time to find another teacher. Calling something healing, or spiritual, doesn’t necessarily make it so; our relationships to others and ourselves determine those values.

For all practitioners, here are a few questions to consider:

1. Where might I be ignoring my body’s feedback? Why?

2. Where can I be more curious in my practice? Where can I listen more attentively?

3. What myths do I hold about my yoga practice? How do they shape how I practice?

4. Where have I given away my power? To whom or what? Where can I reassert my agency on and off of the mat?

This article originally appeared on the Yoga for Healthy Aging blog 11/27/18.

Carey Sims E-RYT500 lives in Charlotte, NC. His mission is to to help students explore their bodies in an accepting and non-judgmental way. He teaches “Gentle Back Care” at NoDa Yoga and offers Chair/Adaptive Yoga classes at various senior living centers in the Charlotte area. He is a student of Adaptive Yoga pioneer Matthew Sanford and an Accessible Yoga Ambassador and leads continuing education workshops on Chair Yoga and Adaptive Yoga. Carey holds degrees in Psychology from Winthrop University and Religious Studies from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte teaches modules on Yoga History and Ethics for several 200Hr Yoga Teacher Trainings.

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, August 15, 2019

The Royal Road: Gandhi, Social Activism, and Yoga

Gandhi March by Nandalal Bose
by Nina Zolotow

“It contains the profound idea that nothing done is ever lost, that there is no sin in the path of action. This is the royal road. This path is the path of Truth.” —Mohandas K. Gandhi 

Mohandas K. Gandhi is known worldwide for his work as a social activist and for developing the practice of non-violent passive resistance (satyagraha), which inspired the social activism of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Nelson Mandela, among others. However many people don’t realize that Gandhi was a dedicated practitioner of yoga. No, this doesn’t mean that he practiced 108 Sun Salutations every morning or even that he meditated for days at a time. What it meant was that his lifelong work as a social activist was inspired by his practice of “yoga in action” (karma yoga) as described in the Bhagavad Gita: 

II.40 Act thou, O Dhanajaya, without attachment, steadfast in yoga, even-minded in success and failure.
Even-mindedness is yoga. Work without attachment, being firmly established in yoga. —Translated by Mohandas K. Gandhi 

This meant that in all the social activism that Gandhi engaged in, whether he was fighting for the independence of India or working for religious harmony in the country after independence was achieved, he practiced a form of yoga called “skill in action.” Skill in action means accepting both success and failure with equanimity and doing your work without being attached to the results it will bring. As Gandhi put it: 

“He, who, being thus equipped, is without desire for the results and is yet wholly engrossed in the due fulfillment of the task before him, is said to have renounced the fruits of his action.” —from The Bhagavad Gita According to Gandhi 

This is the “royal road” to inner peace and ultimately to self-realization or liberation. As the Gita says: 

3.19 "Therefore, do thou ever perform without attachment the work thou must do; for performing action without attachment man attains the Supreme.” —translated by Mohandas K. Gandhi 

The philosophy of the Bhagavad Gita was so important to Gandhi that he even did his own translation of it, The Bhagavad Gita According to Gandhi, which includes a commentary based on lessons he gave to students at an ashram about the Gita. (There are different editions of this, so if you want the one with the commentary, be sure you buy the right one!)

And I believe that this philosophy, which allowed Gandhi to attain some measure of inner peace and supported him as he developed and engaged in non-violent social activism—where he often put his own life on the line—can help everyone who is engaged in social activism or service of any kind. 

Now you might be wondering how Gandhi, who was such a believer in non-violence (ahimsa), could find the story of a warrior being encouraged to fight by Krishna a lodestar in his own life. These types of questions come up for almost everyone who reads the Gita these days: How can Krishna encourage Arjuna to enter a battle where he will surely kill people, including relatives and respected elders? Isn’t an important part of yoga the practice of ahimsa (non-violence)? Gandhi himself saw the war in the Gita as a metaphor:

“Even in 1888-1889, when I first became acquainted with the Gita, I felt it was not a historical work, but that, under the guise of physical warfare, it described the duel that perpetually went on in the hearts of mankind, and that physical warfare was brought in merely to make the description of that internal duel more alluring.” —from The Bhagavad Gita According to Gandhi 

Yoga scholar Georg Feuerstein supports this interpretation. He says that in the Bhagavad Gita “Arjuna found himself in a significant personal quandary—a struggle between right and wrong that is symbolic of all of life’s great predicaments.” 

So you can think of the impending battle in the Gita as a war in your own mind between good and evil or as any kind of battle you find yourself in in your life. For example, perhaps you are engaged in a fight for social justice for marginalized people, as many Accessible Yoga members are. Or, perhaps you are doing service of some kind, such as volunteering to help those in need. And for all of us, as I said in my post Arjuna is Us, there will come a time in life when we need to stand up for what’s right. For all those battles, the yogic approach—the approach that allows you to achieve some measure of inner peace—is to practice skill in action, doing your work “without attachment” and “even-minded in success and failure.” 

Obviously, it’s hard to remain detached from results when you’re “fighting” for a just cause, working for positive change, or standing up for what is right. But we can try our best and the Gita says those efforts alone will be rewarding. 

II.40 “Here no effort undertaken is lost, no disaster befalls.
Even a little of this righteous course delivers one from great fear.” —translated by Mohandas K. Gandhi

Gandhi explained this passage by saying: 

“A beginning made is not wasted. Even a little effort along this path saves one from great danger. This is a royal road, easy to follow. It is the sovereign yoga. In following it, there is no fear of stumbling. Once a beginning is made, nothing will stand in our way.” from The Bhagavad Gita According to Gandhi

I hope that you will find these ideas inspiring and that this message will help you find a way to live your yoga through your work in social activism or service. 

However, I want to conclude by saying that I realize some of you may have heard disturbing things about Gandhi, such as that he was a racist, supported the caste system, and engaged in sexually abusive behavior (see A New Biography Presents Gandhi, Warts and All). 

Certainly it now appears that Gandhi was a seriously flawed man. I read his autobiography years ago and even that was somewhat disturbing. Since then I have never called him “Mahatma,” which means “great soul,” for that very reason. But for me, I feel as long as we keep in mind that Gandhi was just a human being and, to be honest, something of a religious fanatic, and we exercise critical thinking as we evaluate his teachings, we can still learn from him. As Georg Feuerstein says about the Bhagavad Gita: 

“We do not have to accept the Gita’s—or any other scripture’s—teachings uncritically. In fact this would prove unhelpful and even adverse for us. The only proper way to relate to this type of knowledge is with an open mind, which is by no means a sieve through which anything can pass freely, without critical inspection.” —from The Bhagavad-Gita: A New Translation

Monday, August 12, 2019

Claiming Our Space: Not Just for Curvy Students

Yoga Teacher Amber Karnes
By Rose Bak

For years I hid in the back of yoga classes, making myself as small as possible.

As a plus size person, I was always very aware that I was the largest person in any yoga class. It made me uncomfortable. I would see people moving into positions that I couldn’t access easily, either because of the size of my body or because half of my spine is fused and doesn’t bend.

Back then I thought that everyone had to look exactly the same in yoga poses, like those synchronized swimmers you see in the Olympics. I was the oddity, the one who didn’t fit in. So, I tried to be invisible.

For the most part, my yoga teachers ignored me hiding back in the corner, because they didn’t know how to teach someone like me. Someone whose stomach got in the way in a forward fold. Someone whose spine can’t bend to do a wheel pose. Someone who needs an extra step to bring their feet to their hands when moving in and out of lunges.Someone who needs blocks and straps to move into certain poses. Someone who can’t do yoga the “right” way.

Eventually I found a studio that specializes in accessible yoga. At my new studio every pose was offered with numerous options. The teachers talked about working with your own unique body mechanics, and the teachers were unique as well, some larger, some older. Because the studio had a motto of “unconditionally welcoming,” for the first time I was in classes with other larger people, with people who have disabilities, with people who didn’t fit the young, thin, Pinterest yoga model stereotype.

It was like coming home. I felt empowered and gradually I moved away from the back corner. I began to take up space. When I stopped worrying about how I looked, my practice flourished, and I started connecting more with yoga.

A few weeks ago in yoga class we were talking about this concept of taking up space. It was a “Curvy Yoga” class for larger people, taught by someone who is also curvy. As our teacher talked about the ways larger women in particular are trained to make ourselves as small as possible, I could see every head in the room nodding.

The teacher encouraged us to stretch our arms wide, widen our legs, to breathe deeply using our diaphragm, and to use all the props we wanted. Seeing the women in my yoga class use the expansiveness of their poses to take up space, I was heartened.

Taking up space isn’t just about the physical space around your mat. Taking up space is also speaking up when the teacher asks if anyone has any requests for class. It’s about asking questions or waving the teacher over when you need assistance. It’s about deciding that a few moments in child’s pose is a better option for you than what the rest of class is doing. Taking up space is about getting all that you want and need out of your practice.

Earlier this year I became a yoga teacher. I enrolled in the very first accessible yoga teacher training cohort at the studio where I practice, and there we learned how to teach people of all shapes and sizes and abilities.

“How would you adapt this pose if someone recently had a knee replacement?” our instructors would ask. “What would you suggest as an option if the person can’t get down on the floor? What if they only have one arm?”

The central focus in our training was on how to make the practice work for everyone’s unique body. We were encouraged to teach the “heart” of the pose instead of one perfect shape for the pose. We learned that it’s not about doing a magazine-cover perfect pigeon pose, it’s about stretching the hip; we learned that you can do a sun salutation without ever getting up off the floor and still get the same benefits.

I teach classes at two studios now. The owners at both locations studied under the same teacher, so both studios share a commitment to fully accessible yoga and creating an inclusive and welcoming environment.

When I used to practice at more mainstream studios, I was usually crammed into a room with thirty or more students, our mats only a couple of inches apart. It was difficult to claim any space in those classes, even if I had felt comfortable doing so. For me, the crowd was distracting, and took away from my practice.

Both the studios I work and practice at now intentionally keep their classes small, with as few three students, but never more than fifteen. This gives us all a larger “bubble” around our yoga mat so we can stretch out, use a chair or other props, move and reach without fear of intruding on another student’s space. We can each take up as much space as we like.

As a teacher, the small classes allow me to provide individual attention to each and every student. It gives me the ability to truly focus on guiding my students, to answer questions, offer options, and provide assistance when needed.

I was a substitute teacher at that same Curvy Yoga class a few weeks after the class where we talked about claiming space. I wore a tank top despite my jiggly arms, because part of taking up space is allowing my body to be comfortable in hot weather.

As we moved through the practice, we spread our arms wide and reached up towards the sky, without worrying aboutif our shirts were riding up and showing our stomach rolls. We widened our stance to allow space for our stomachs in forward fold. We used blocks to support our knees as they opened wide into cobbler pose.

I looked around the room, and every single student looked different in their poses. This was not "perfectly synchronized yoga!" All the students were focusing on the heart of the pose in a way that honored each of their unique bodies. The practice was expansive, fun, and joyous.

At the end of our time together, we put one hand on our heart and another on our stomach, took three slow deep breaths, and offered gratitude to ourselves and our bodies for the gift of our yoga practice. We made space for ourselves and it was beautiful.

Rose Bak is a RYT-200 registered yoga teacher with the Yoga Alliance. She offers both private and group classes, including gentle yoga and flow yoga. Rose is passionate about teaching yoga to people who say “yoga is not for me”, including people living in larger bodies, people with disabilities, people who are middle-aged or older adults, people with scoliosis or back issues, and anyone who thinks they are not “bendy” enough.

Rose is also a freelance writer and author, living in Portland, Oregon with her family and special needs dogs. For more info see:

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, August 8, 2019

Featured Photo: Teaching a Student with Brain Injury via Skype

This photo shows yoga teacher Stacie Wyatt sharing yoga with a student through Skype. This student is a young woman with a brain injury, who lives across the country from Stacie in South Carolina.  Following a car accident and being hospitalized for nearly a year, the student was working really hard to regain her ability to speak and walk. Stacie says that in their sessions, they worked on crossing the midline and stabilizing her core as well as on strengthening her weaker right side. They also did some general stretching to keep her body fluid. She is now able to walk short distances with support. To help her with speaking they practiced breathing techniques to fill her body up with air so that she could speak more forcefully. —Nina

Stacie Wyatt, RYT200, believes that it is her life purpose to share the gift of yoga with anyone who is willing to say yes. In addition to being an advocate for those with disabilities, Stacie is founder of Embracing Spirit Yoga which specializes in bringing adaptive yoga into community centers and rehabilitation clinics. Bringing her depth of compassion to the mat—or the chair—she offers students the opportunity to grow as an individual in all aspects of their life.

She is a Registered Yoga Teacher with Yoga Alliance, Life Wellness Coach, Senior YogaFit Instructor, Mind/Body Personal trainer, Stress Reduction and Meditation Instructor, Pilates Instructor, and Barre Instructor. She is also certified in Integrative Movement Therapy. Stacie brings her personal life experience of raising a daughter with a disability and over 12 years working in special education to her everyday yoga classes. In addition to teaching classes at a variety of local centers and health clubs, Stacie also continues to offer Yoga and Wellness coaching individually to those seeking private sessions.

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, August 5, 2019

Teaching Yoga for Kids with Disabilities: Helpful Hints

Breakfast in Bed, Mary Cassatt, 1897, Oil on canvas
By Sarah Henderson, E-RYT 200

As teachers of Kids’ Yoga, we love the idea of harmony and inclusion, don’t we? And yet, if we are deeply honest, we can have a little fear in our hearts when it comes to including kids with disabilities or special needs in our Kids’ Yoga classes. Like most of our fears, this is rooted in the unknown or lack of control. However, with the right attitude and a few adjustments, kids with disabilities can be as much a part of your group as anyone.

Here are some tips to get you started:

Kids with disabilities or special needs are kids first.This means they are more like other kids than they are different from them. They will (most likely) like to play, sing, make friends, have fun. When we see the commonalities, they outshine the differences.

Keep an open line of communication. Kids with disabilities, their parents, and caregivers (i.e. teachers, assistants, 1:1 workers) are great resources. Ask a lot of questions. Find out what strategies support this child in their life off the mat and look for ways to include those same things in the yoga class. Don’t be afraid to admit you’re new to working with a certain condition or need. Be curious and open to learning.

Remember that every child is unique. Just because you’ve worked with other kids with the same diagnosis, whether its autism, Down syndrome or something else, doesn’t mean you know everything you need to know about this child. Sometimes we have stereotypes about certain kinds of disabilities (e.g., kids with Down syndrome are always happy) that may stop us from getting to know each kid as an individual. We try not to make judgments about people along race or gender lines...let’s do the same for dis/ability. There’s a saying in the disability community that goes like this: if you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met One person with autism. :)

Be persistent. If one method doesn’t reach a child, continue to use your creativity until you can connect with your student. Some kids will benefit from being taught auditorily, some will benefit from visual demonstration, some will need physical help to learn, i.e. being guided into a pose with assistance. (Always obtain the child’s permission/consent for physical assistance.) Most of us learn with a combination of styles.

Watch how non-disabled peers interact with the child with special needs. Sometimes, our students are our best teachers. Observe what makes your student laugh, engage, and listen, as well as withdraw or disengage.

Avoid deciding what your student with a disability can and can’t do. Give them the same directives you give other kids, then provide additional support as needed. Maybe a student with cerebral palsy will need an assistant to help them spread their arms wide in Warrior 2. Maybe a child with autism will benefit from looking at a picture of someone doing the pose.

Invest in your own learning. There is so much good stuff out there on how to work with kids with disabilities and special needs in yoga. Pioneers like Sonya Sumar (Yoga for the Special Child) and Louise Goldberg (Yoga Therapy for Children with Autism and Special Needs) are great thought/practice leaders. Shawnee Thornton Hardy has an amazing prop kit and helpful book (Asanas for Autism and Special Needs). Organizations like Mind Body Solutions(Matthew Sanford) and Accessible Yoga (Jivana Heyman) are doing important work to make the yoga mat more inclusive. As you learn, you become part of the movement to make Kids' Yoga inclusive for all kids.

Remember, it’s always yoga practice, never yoga perfect. Some days we will feel awesome about the way we teach our kids. Other days, it will feel like a swing and a miss. This is normal to feel when teaching kids with disabilities, too. Sometimes you’ll try something and it isn’t quite right. But don’t give up! Trust your training, trust your intuition, trust your heart for all kids, and trust that the connection IS there. We belong to each other, and yoga reminds us this is true.

Sarah Henderson, E-RYT 200, has been teaching yoga since 2010 and Kids' Yoga since 2011. She is a graduate of the Accessible Yoga Training, Matthew Sanford’s Mind Body Solutions Opening Yoga Instructor Program, and Yoga for All with Dianne Bondy and Amber Karnes. She teaches yoga to people in Kindergarten and assisted living centers and every age in between. Her life changed at age 4, when her baby sister was born with Down syndrome. For 20+ years, she worked with children and adults with disabilities and their families in support and resource coordination roles. Teaching yoga seemed like a career change until one day when she found herself sharing yoga with a group of developmentally disabled teens and young adults. Her passions merged and she began to study and teach adaptive and accessible yoga. She is passionate about making yoga available for people with all abilities and mentors other yoga teachers to empower all students, no matter their unique needs.

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, August 1, 2019

Arjuna is Us: Staying Strong When You Stand Up for What's Right

by Nina Zolotow
Arjuna and Subhadra by Raja Ravi Varma

“Of the numerous Sanskrit works on Yoga, two scriptures have become favorites of dedicated students of Yoga—the Yoga-Sutra, attributed to Patanjali and the Bhagavad-Gita ascribed to Vyasa. These can be considered foundational Yoga texts. While the former work addresses primarily ascetics, the latter is a gospel mainly for the grihastha-yogin, the spiritual practitioner who is a householder with a busy family life.” —Georg Feuerstein, from The Bhagavad Gita: A New Translation

Although it is very common in the west to hear yoga teachers talk about the eight-fold path outlined in the Yoga Sutras as being the yoga path we should all be following, this is misleading. I’m not saying that the Yoga Sutras has no value for us—in fact, I think it contains powerful wisdom we can use in our everyday lives. But after an in-depth study of the Yoga Sutras, which entailed a close reading of the book The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali by Edwin Bryant, along with regular discussions with a good friend who was also reading it, I concluded that the eight-fold path is not one that we householders can follow in a literal way. First of all, we would have to become renunciates (or ascetics, as Feuerstein says above) because even being attached to people you love, including your family, interferes with your ability to achieve samadhi (liberation). And the path—with its intended goal of liberation from everyday life as we know it—is really quite arduous and severe as we would eventually have to let go of all connection to external reality. 

That is why I have recently decided to embark on in-depth study of the Bhagavad Gita. I wanted to learn more about the yoga path that is for, as Feuerstein says, householders (grihastha-yogin), people with livelihoods, families, and communities who have important work to do in the world. Arjuna, who is the focus of the Bhagavad Gita and to whom the god-man Krishna reveals the wisdom of yoga, is himself very much a householder. He is married to several women (one of his wives is portrayed above) and has children and a large extended family he cares about. His profession is that of a warrior (he is the son of Indra, the great warrior deity) and he has fought many battles in the past. And the battle that he is about to enter at the start of the Bhagavad Gita is a war that Arjuna believes in; he is fighting for his family to win back the kingdom that was stolen from them so that his brother Yudhishthira can take his rightful place on the throne. So Arjuna is very much engaged with the world.

As many of you probably know, the entire book takes place when Arjuna falls into a state of despair before entering the battle to win back the kingdom because he sees that some of his relatives and respected teachers are fighting on the other side. He feels he cannot bear the thought that he might kill some of them. But it’s important to understand that Arjuna is not against war per se. He is a warrior, who has fought many battles in the past and will go on to fight more battles after the one in the Bhagavad Gita. So at this moment, he has not suddenly become anti-war, but rather he is just afraid about the collateral damage that this particular battle might cause. 

When Arjuna confesses all this to his friend and advisor, the god-man Krishna, Krishna urges Arjuna not to withdraw from the battle but to enter into it as part of his yogic path. Had Krishna been advising Arjuna to follow the eight-fold path as outlined in the Yoga Sutras, he would have told Arjuna to withdraw from the battle, to live in the woods, free himself from all worldly ties, and spend all his time meditating. Instead he tells Arjuna, the householder, to stay engaged and fight for what he believes is right. And he then advises Arjuna how to do this “work” with the equanimity by practicing “yoga in action” rather than being tormented by his fears of the possible results of his actions. (This is the reason that Mohandas K. Gandhi called the Bhagavad Gita his “mother” and used its wisdom to do his work—his dangerous fight for the liberation of India—with equanimity.)

So that’s why I believe Arjuna is us. For we are not only householders as he is, but also, like him we all have battles to fight. Whether you are a social activist, who, like Gandhi, is fighting for the rights of marginalized people or you have chosen to engage with the world in other ways, all of us, like Arjuna, must at times search for the courage to do what is right. And like him, when we do stand up for what is right, we risk loss and collateral damage. Sometimes there may even be people—good people—on the other side that we will risk hurting in some way. The Bhagavad Gita can teach us how to stay strong. As Georg Feuerstein says:

“We live in a time of great social and environmental upheaval, and the wisdom teachings of Krishna have, I propose, much to offer us all. Krishna imparted his activist Yoga to his disciple, Prince Arjuna, while he was poised on the battlefield, facing the immediate prospect of killing relatives and honored teachers who for various reasons had gathered on the enemy’s side. Naturally, Arjuna found himself in a significant personal quandary—a struggle between right and wrong that is symbolic of all life’s great predicaments. Today, our battlefield is global, and what is at stake is the survival of our species and all higher life forms on planet Earth. We also are called to fight for the dignity and sustainability of the vast “underprivileged” section of the human population and the mental-emotional sanity of those who live in relative abundance.” — from The Bhagavad Gita: A New Translation

Nina Zolotow is Co-Editor of the Accessible Yoga blog. Formerly, the Editor in Chief of the Yoga for Healthy Aging blog, Nina is a yoga writer as well as a certified yoga teacher and a long-time yoga practitioner. She is the co-author with Baxter Bell of Yoga for Healthy Aging: A Guide to Lifelong Well-Being and co-author with Rodney Yee of Yoga: The Poetry of the Body (with its companion 50 Card Practice Deck) and Moving Toward Balance. She is also the author of numerous articles on yoga and alternative medicine.

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.