Wednesday, April 28, 2021

To Modify Is to Embodify!

Transparent female dummy showing internal organs, bones,
 blood vessels with raised arms; words "The Body" seen in distance
Photo by John Jackson/Unsplash

by Dielle Ciesco

A friend of mine who recently took up a yoga practice reached out to me to ask me some questions about her asana practice. She was experiencing certain challenges and was hoping for some guidance and clarity. She sent me an email prior to our Zoom session outlining some of her concerns, none of which were all that atypical. For me, her questions, and the fact that I'd heard them before, illuminated what I consider to be the most problematic assumptions students (and even teachers) can make...assumptions that are regularly perpetuated by the Western approach to yoga and often, sadly, unaddressed in the mainstream.

"Is It Me?"

She said that she was modifying poses to protect from pain (as if doing that was a bad thing), and there was some indication that this made her practice "less than." I pointed out that if yoga causes any pain, it is not actually yoga but a form of self-torture. Why do some of us carry the outdated assumption that hurting is good for us? Why do we assume we're the problem, and not the posture itself, if we are experiencing pain while practicing it? Why do some of us suffer the idea that modification is a cheat or a crutch only necessary due to something inherently wrong with us? This mindset is pervasive and deeply embedded in mainstream yoga today. But in my opinion, a yoga practice that can't be modified to the individual isn't actually yoga. It's mere athleticism. And it denies the reality that we are not machines built to standard specifications, but rather unique, living, and constantly changing organisms.

Modification is Ahimsa

Our exchange made me acutely aware of the judgment that lurks within the word, "modification:" "I have to modify what this is supposed to be." Time and again I see a widespread resistance to using props or changing poses to make them more accessible, as if there is some prize to be won for enduring our discomfort or stretching ourselves beyond our true capacities. It is missing the point. Modifying isn't just something that people with disabilities or injuries should be doing. It is something we should all be doing. The need to modify should be assumed, that every body will invariably (and should) find its own way into a pose through that respects the individual.

Maybe modification isn't even the best word. Maybe we should replace it with "variation." There are many variations to a pose that achieve the same if not a better result than the idealized textbook image or social media photo.

In fact, when we resist modification, or variation, are we even practicing something good for us? Are we not forcing, contorting, and imposing our mental will upon our ever-loyal bodies? Don’t get me wrong. This may have its appropriate applications in Kundalini kriyas and when certain foundations of practice are very well-established. But if yoga is about anything, it is about accepting what is true. It is about respecting and honoring the temple in which the mind resides, not constantly overriding it with our misguided ideas. It is the yogic principle of ahimsa...first do no harm.

Another confusion for my friend arose as a result of cuing. A cue is meant to be a starting point, but it should never stop someone from mindful exploration. Yet I see students taking cues such as "don't lean" (as in Camel Pose) or "tuck the pelvis" (as in Bridge) as measures to which they must conform even when their physique (or common sense) demands otherwise. Instead of teaching students to inhabit and trust their bodies, we are often mistakenly reinforcing a cultural denial of them.

To Modify is to Embodify!

I led my friend into some pre-pose body awareness exercises that were a game-changer for her. As a result, she was able to discover an unfolding into Downward Dog that didn't hurt her wrists and relieved constriction around her lower back. She explored a Bridge Pose that didn't fire her sciatica. And she came to accept her body's variation of Camel accessed with ease rather than torquing and forcing according to some rigid cue set. And she was astounded. It will take practice over time for her to really integrate these changes, of course, something we need to give ourselves permission to luxuriate in.

I guided my friend in taking lots of pauses. I guided her in always returning to and then restarting first with the breath. When she moved mechanically or habitually, we stopped, let go, and started from scratch until she could once again find her breath, relate to the ground of support, and allow the body to unfold itself...not by some mental volition based on the construct of a pose. Flowing from pose to pose, speeding from one shape to the next without even allowing the body to settle in one shape before moving to the next may have its place, but it doesn't help us become embodied. And it certainly doesn’t help beginners understand how to listen to their bodies.

Yoga, if we are to allow it to serve its highest purpose, requires that we slow down. It requires that every time we get on our mats, we let go of everything we think we know about it. It requires us to be absolute beginners time and time again. And it requires us to make our own art and science of itself. As a yoga teacher, I feel that sewing these seeds for the appreciation of the body’s innate intelligence to be my primary directive.

Dielle Ciesco
is a certified yoga teacher bringing a lifelong love of movement experiences to students. She started dancing at a young age and continued training into college until a back injury led her first to Hatha and then to Kundalini yoga. Her explorations of movement are ongoing with Scaravelli-inspired yoga, experiential anatomy, and somatic movement practices which have changed her dancer's "obedient body" attitude to a more respectful and sensitive one. She sees movement as a continual process of discovery of the body's natural supports, rhythms and wisdom. Also an experienced meditation, breath and voicework facilitator, she currently lives in the midst of vineyards in western France with her partner, Stuart, and cat, Tigerlily. Visit her website to learn more: or subscribe to her YouTube channel:

This post was edited by Patrice Priya Wagner, Managing Editor of Accessible Yoga blog and member of the Board of Directors.

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Friday, April 23, 2021

Interview with Anna Kichenside from Flamingo Yoga Maya

Two toy flamingos facing each other,
Their necks making a heart shape
Image: Lawrence Makoona

Priya: Where do you teach? Do your students comprise a specific population, and if yes, what is it?

Anna: I teach online yoga from the UK. I want to teach ‘normal yoga’ to ‘normal people’ by a ‘normal teacher' and by that I mean, I don't want to only teach power yoga for the power-driven, action-handstand-junkies, or teach yoga for runners, or pregnancy yoga.

A lot of people join yoga because they want to feel good in their bodies but are swamped by their day-to-day lives. They are ‘normal’ people like you and I. They may not be super-skinny with perfectly defined abs, or flipping into backbends. They possibly just want to bend over and touch their toes without feeling out of place or not good enough compared to what online platforms portray as yoga in the modern world. I teach Vinyasa and Yin yoga, to a lovely bunch of people who simply enjoy rolling out their mats and having a giggle as they practice with me.

Priya: Do you have a special style or manner of teaching that benefits the students who you teach? Tell me a little about how you teach.

Anna: Through my yoga teacher training we did deep transformational work where we covered what our ‘WHY’ is. It’s personal and different for everyone, but I describe your WHY as the driving force, which gets you up in the morning on the days where you really don’t feel like it. 

It’s the connection you have to your WHY which guides you through your yoga practice, on and off the mat, and guides you through life and troubling times. Your WHY, coupled with your breath, are two of the most powerful tools you have to guide you through life, which is why I love teaching about these two areas in my yoga classes. Each time we bring our hands back to heart center, we all come back to our individual WHY’s as we flow through the class.

Priya: Can you share an experience from a class or private session that stands out––perhaps a moment when you or your student learned something new about the practice?

Anna: A particular moment that stood out to me was during my Yin-Yang-Yoga classes, which I teach on Sundays. (This was before the pandemic, so I was teaching in a private studio).

At the beginning of class, we were discussing our WHY and how to find and connect to it.

“Why do you come to yoga?” I asked.
“To be flexible” was the answer most people said.

After ping-ponging the question and answer back-and-forth, people started to get it:

“I want to run around and play with my kids in the garden without being out of breath” one student said. The result was to be fit and flexible. The WHY was his kids.

I had another moment very similar –– at the beginning of class we were discussing our WHY's and I asked my students to come up and write their WHY's on the whiteboard I brought to class. After several minutes of deep thinking, everyone reluctantly came up to write on the whiteboard. We then set to practice and started to flow through our class. About thirty minutes into class, a student stopped flowing and walked over to the whiteboard and added/changed her WHY. This was perfect. This showed that she not only understood the concept of WHY, but that she was connected to it throughout her yoga practice that day. I couldn’t have asked for anything else, it was a perfect moment.

Priya: Do you plan to change or add some new element to your teaching, and if yes, what is it? How will it benefit your students?

AnnaCurrently, there are no plans to change or add any new elements. I teach group and 1:1 private classes, where within the private classes there is more room to dive deeper into our WHYs.

Anna Kichenside is a yoga teacher in the UK with a strong emphasis of asking her students to find their WHY. Connecting and celebrating your WHY is a fundamental part of yoga. According to Anna, “Your WHY becomes your intention for the class. Your intention becomes your driving force. And your driving force changes your life.”

Anna’s WHY is ‘to be strong and confident, on & off the mat’ and she shares her journey of yoga and transformational work, to inspire others. Her scoliosis led her to yoga, and her yoga led her to her WHY.

Anna is a massive believer in balance and enjoys the balance of strength, flexibility, and mindfulness. “My classes are relaxed and playful, keeping them fun and friendly for all. Enjoying a life lived in balance enables you to practice yoga and enjoy your cheesecake!” 
––– Anna Kichenside 
For more information see:

This post was edited by Patrice Priya Wagner, Managing Editor of Accessible Yoga blog and member of the Board of Directors.

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Tuesday, April 20, 2021

How Vulnerability, Mindfulness, and Yoga Transformed My Parenting: My Path from Confusion to Courage

Man carrying young child on his shoulders, seagull flies by

by Kate Lynch

Parents, your own self-care will create harmony in your family and ultimately change the world. My atypical family still struggles, but we don’t fall apart.


My son was suffering. His inner turmoil bubbled over into meltdowns that shattered my nerves. I felt anxious and powerless. The barrier between us as parent and child was so permeable, that we were emotionally entangled. Our tentacles wrapped until you couldn’t tell whose limb was whose. ⁠

Wasn’t love for a child supposed to be this way? My bliss derived from my relationship with him, and so did my anguish. I rode every wave of his meltdowns along with him, and was unmoored. We clung to each other and crashed through it together. We would both be physically, emotionally, and mentally drained when the storm was over, as if we had survived a tempest.


Many years before my son was born, I knew the transformative power of yoga. It gave me the courage to leave an unfulfilling career and move across the world. In the aftermath of September 11, 2001, yoga called me to become a teacher because I felt I needed to contribute to relieving some of the suffering of the world.

The summer of 2007 I lived in a tent and volunteered at the Omega Institute, a holistic retreat center in Rhinebeck, NY. That’s where I first met Seane Corn. I had never heard of her. It was another teacher’s name that had drawn me to sign up for a yoga weekend for women. I had studied with many amazing teachers. Seane was different. She was the first teacher I had who spoke of her brokenness in class. She did this consciously as a teaching tool. It wasn’t a lack of boundaries. Her boundaries were solid, and she knew just what she could share without crossing them.


Seane talked about her struggles, her imperfection, and her unfinished emotional healing. She did this in front of hundreds of women. We all gathered around close to her, in a huddle by the stage. She told us stories and listened to some of ours, and then she invited us to go back to our mats and move. At the end we meditated in a circle. She invited the pregnant women to sit in the center of the circle. We sent them our love. Then she encouraged all those who longed to be parents to enter the circle. Hesitantly, I joined her and a few others there. My longing to be a parent was visceral. I allowed myself to receive the love of all those around the circle, and to hope. The pain I had carried from my life into the retreat spilled out through my tears. I felt cleansed and purposeful.

I trained further with Seane. Then I returned to Brooklyn. I met my husband. It took us years to conceive. I continued to study with Seane every chance I had. I was there after her dad died, and then her cat. She was able to stay in her truth while holding her center as she taught. She held space for all of us without breaking down. The way she did this was by being authentically herself and respecting herself. I learned from her that vulnerability is not weakness, it is courage.


When my son was born, I wasn’t afforded the false sense of security in my parenting that an easy baby gives other parents. From the start, we were on amber alert. He was born intense and high needs. Our sleep and feeding issues were not challenging, they were agony. I was befuddled and could take nothing for granted. I stopped trusting myself and sought answers from everyone and everything externally.

The Sanskrit term avidya means ignorance––as in not knowing what we don’t know. It is seen as one of the main sources of suffering. Realizing that we don’t know everything, admitting that we are confused, is the beginning of spiritual awakening.

“The recognition of confusion is a form of clarity.”
–-TKV Desikachar

I read parenting books. They talked of developmental benchmarks that only helped to solidify my confusion and shame. The stories didn’t sound like our family. A question loomed over those early years…Was I a bad parent?


I was isolated, overwhelmed, and denying myself basic needs like sleep, movement, and nutrition. I still expected myself to function calmly and kindly under extreme pressure without any fuel at all.

Yes, I taught yoga and meditation, but that was in a box marked "Work." I couldn’t see how to use it to meet my parenting needs, beyond the recommendations of some of my teachers to meditate more. We were in crisis and I just didn’t have the time.

This was peak enmeshment. Of course I sought help. Yes, my son eventually had therapists. Still, I’m the one who was there all the time, and I’m the one he broke down with. The waves of panic and exhaustion that comprised my life as the primary caregiver of a toddler with autism, and the yogic concept of detachment (vairāgya) didn’t coexist in my mind. It wasn’t until I reframed vairāgya as being “lovingly with him in his feelings, but not enmeshed” that I could begin to explore the concept. ⁠⁠

My parenting journey was unexpected. My son was on the path to getting Early Intervention services. One doctor we consulted said, “Your son is complicated.” It had been a year that I hadn’t had three consecutive hours of sleep. It was beyond complicated.


I went to see Seane Corn at a Yoga Journal Conference around that time of peak sleep deprivation. I actually got to do something for myself and my career and be away from my son. It had been a traumatic year, and I was dissociated. In my distress, I stood up in the big group to ask for help in my struggles. Seane was empathetic, but she said, “I’m not a parent, I don’t know what you should do.”

I remembered that she had been sitting in that circle with me, years earlier. I was the lucky one. I knew I should be grateful. Being a parent was my dream fulfilled.

Another yoga teacher who is also a parent approached me afterwards with some gentle support and guidance. She gave me a practical suggestion. Today, in my "right mind," it seems so logical and intuitive. It was simple, delivered at the right time with compassion, by someone who has been there…


She shared a variation of the lesson I’ve had to learn over and over again: Your kid can have their experience and feelings, and you can have yours, and they are all understandable, and all allowed. In the moment of stress, be present in your body. If you can feel your feet on the ground, something might shift you slightly away from panic mode, just enough to take a slightly deeper breath and realize that neither of you is dying in this moment. You can trust that your kid can learn how to overcome the struggle in their own time.

That night, I remembered to ground my feet. I stood just outside my son’s door, and sang him “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,” while feeling the soles of my feet sink evenly into the floor. I’m not saying this was a miracle cure for his sleeplessness. My own tension did ease, and my breath lengthened as I softly sang. Feel your feet. It was the reminder I needed at the time. It is simple, and I invite you to try it.


A few years later my son was diagnosed with autism. The confusion lifted. I found my community, and my son started to get the help he needed. I embraced his diagnosis, because it helped me understand and support him better.

He also welcomes his diagnosis, because he sees nothing wrong with having a different brain, and he has friends who understand him. Still, our culture is ableist, and he will experience bias in his life, even as a middle class, cis-gender, white male. He already has.

That is why I’m so passionate about what I do. I write about empathy, inclusivity, and the importance of parent self-care. Once parents are out of distress, we can advocate together for equity and inclusion. By speaking my truth, I can pry open the vault of silence and secrecy that has been allowing shame to infect atypical families. Sharing my own vulnerability may make it less intimidating for the next family who finds themselves in distress. They will feel empowered to seek out support.


Our family’s challenges are not in the past. They are evolving, and we must continue to relearn and revise. My ten-year-old had a meltdown tonight.

I’m still the one he turns to when he’s overflowing with stress. He screamed a lot, and now he knows bad words. He got a little violent. Of course, I never want him to suffer, but I saw it coming and didn’t panic. I knew that if I stood firm he would be upset, but it was best for him in the long run for me to say no. I refuse to walk on eggshells, no matter how explosive he is. It hurts to see him unhappy.

While he was in the thick of it, I felt both irritation and compassion. The crucial thing is, those were my emotions, not his. I was able to feel my feet, breathe, and stay steady for him. I was able to check in with myself, modulate my voice, and wait him out. I was available to calmly respond to him, rather than reflexively react.

I was “lovingly with him in his feelings, but not enmeshed” ––vairāgya. I held space for him without falling apart. We were both able to recover easily after his storm passed. We even laughed together.


I learned a powerful lesson from my yoga teacher Seane Corn—that I could teach my values by telling my story. Working with my own vulnerability and courage within our family’s struggles, I found my calling as a teacher—I empower anxious parents of atypical kids to feel calm, connected, and joyful so their families can thrive.

I want parents to know that focusing on your own self-care will bring your whole family more harmony and joy and move us all closer to this vision. The simple self-care tools I teach are therapeutic and accessible.

I’m grateful to my kid for being someone complicated, who caused me to question myself and my ideas about parenting. He came into my life and turned it on its head. The insight I’ve gained is owed to him.

How do we want our children to care for themselves and their loved ones as adults? That is what we must model for them, by caring for ourselves. How do we want to treat each other as a society in the future? That is how we must relate to our children. In one generation we can eradicate shame. Our atypical kids can grow up thriving in an inclusive, equitable, and empathetic world. Focusing on your own self-care will bring your whole family more harmony and joy.

It took a while to find my footing, but with help I found a courageous, grounded, and values-based parenting path.

Mindfully parenting my atypical kid isn’t easy, but it has been the most transformative journey of my life. I’m committed to changing the world with this work.

Kate Lynch.
 Parent of an amazing atypical kid, meditation coach, inclusive yoga teacher, and author. Kate has been teaching and cultivating community since 2002. She is the creator of the podcast and upcoming book, Mindfully Parenting Atypical Kids. She writes for The Mighty, Autism Advocate Parenting Magazine, Mutha Magazine, Accessible Yoga Blog, and Medium’s Better Humans, Family Matters and Age of Empathy. Kate specializes in empowering parents of atypical kids to build resilience to anxiety. Instagram.

This post was edited by Patrice Priya Wagner, Managing Editor of Accessible Yoga blog and member of the Board of Directors.

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Thursday, April 15, 2021

Ahimsa is Love in Action

Bearded man seated in subway station holding sign saying Seeking Human Kindness
Photo by Matt Collamer/Unsplash
by Jivana Heyman

I keep hearing yoga teachers talking about taking yoga off the mat without explaining how to do so. I think that’s because practicing yoga in life can be really challenging, and it’s much easier to get lost in the details of an asana practice. To be honest, how many of us are willing to look at our own behavior––especially when we are causing harm? Unfortunately, that is the key to not just practicing yoga, but putting yoga into practice.

Similarly, we talk about ahimsa in very general terms without considering how we actively practice non-harm in our daily lives. Ahimsa is the first teaching of yama, which is the first limb of ashtanga yoga. It’s where yoga begins. In many ways, Ahimsa is the place where love seeps into our practice.

These concerns came up for me again recently when I saw a comment on Instagram defending the rights of yoga teacher Katchie Ananda to share transphobic remarks on J Brown’s yoga podcast. The comment was, “Ahimsa is a personal practice.” This stuck in my head, and I’ve been ruminating on it ever since. I understand that ahimsa is an internal practice––of course, all of yoga is. But the whole point of ahimsa is about not causing harm to others.

The podcast with Brown and Ananda was a good example of himsa, harm. The trans and queer yoga community responded in pain and shock that this type of discussion was happening on a yoga platform. Trans yoga teachers and activists Tristan Katz and Maygen Nicholson explained, “Cis folks don’t get to decide what is or what isn’t transphobic; cis folks don’t get to say what is or isn’t harmful to the trans community. Social justice and equity are about centering the needs of those most impacted, not denying their lived experience or gaslighting those communities, arguing against the very real harm they are experiencing.” (You can read their full comments here.) In other words, practice ahimsa.

In her translation of the sutra on ahimsa (2.35) Nischala Devi explains, “Embracing reverence and love for all (ahimsa) we experience oneness.” Devi brings a new approach to this teaching, and shows that the term ‘non-harm’ is actually a double negative which means love and reverence for all. When I’m actively not causing harm, I am being loving and kind. In fact, this quality of loving kindness is the hallmark of a yoga practitioner, and to be honest, the hallmark of a spiritual practitioner from any faith or tradition. It is the essence of spirituality compressed into one extremely simple, yet extremely challenging, concept––“love thy neighbor as thyself.”

This is what children learn when they’re young. They learn that we all need to respect each other's boundaries, and that the whole world doesn’t revolve around us. As children, we are often bullied, or we bully other kids. As we mature, we learn that other people are not objects but are people, who have feelings as deep and real as our own.

In particular, we start to understand that some people have marginalized identities and the world tends to bully them. Social justice is about standing up for people who are bullied by a system that’s unfair and unequal. It is about seeing the ways that white supremacy is the school bully that still haunts us in every aspect of our lives. Social justice is about seeing that other people share the same heart as we do, and simultaneously acknowledging that their lived experience is completely different than our own.

The way we reconcile this seeming paradox––that we’re the same and yet completely different––is through the practice of compassion. Compassion is the essence of ahimsa. Without compassion we wouldn’t care what other people or animals experience. The point of the yoga teaching on ahimsa is to force us to think outside of our own ego and to expand our consciousness to include others.

Ahimsa leads us to the most essential yoga teaching: we all share the same essence. But that essence is individual in its appearance. The one appears as many. Our job as yoga practitioners is to transcend that limited view of separation and limitation. As Swami Sivananda used to say, the goal of yoga is to see the “unity in diversity.” Our job is to transcend our individual egotistical nature and see that we all share the same heart. That’s what ahimsa allows us to do. That’s what yoga allows us to do.

With this understanding, perhaps we can all ask ourselves these questions:
  • Am I willing to embrace ahimsa as a core element of my practice?
  • How do I respond when I’m called out for causing harm?
  • How can ahimsa help me to expand my consciousness?

Jivana Heyman
C-IAYT, E-RYT500, is the founder and director of the Accessible Yoga Association, an international non-profit organization dedicated to increasing access to the yoga teachings. Accessible Yoga offers Conferences, Community Forums, and a popular Ambassador program. He’s the co-founder of the Accessible Yoga Training School, and the author of Accessible Yoga: Poses and Practices for Every Body (Shambhala Publications), as well as the forthcoming book, Yoga Revolution: Building a Practice of Courage & Compassion (Nov. 2021). More info at

This post was edited by Patrice Priya Wagner, Managing Editor of Accessible Yoga blog and member of the Board of Directors.

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Tuesday, April 13, 2021

When Is Accessible Yoga Actually Accessible?

Three women seated in Baddha Konasana; photo: Sriyoga Ashram
by Elaine Jackson

I fell into accessible yoga by accident many years ago. I’d been an Occupational Therapist for sixteen years when I did my first yoga teacher training, and modifying activities to work around barriers was second nature. When I went to work in studios, my classes were recommended for people who were unable to manage Vinyasa Flow. Eventually I found myself leading chair classes, and a group that my students refer to jokingly as the “Heavy Metal” gang, since almost every person in the class had a joint replacement or metal implant.

As I realized that I’d become the “go to” person in my community for accessibility, I struggled with the idea. For one thing, I thought it would be better if all yoga teachers had more knowledge and more inclination to be inclusive. And I realized that physical limitations were really only a small part of the story. And what is meant by the label?

Accessible can be construed to mean that the facility where the yoga is taught is wheelchair or mobility-aid friendly, or that anyone of any ability can arrive in the class and feel at home, or that classes will be low-cost or free. But there are always complications. The studio I am teaching from at the moment is not wheelchair accessible, and I struggle to create groups that balance diversity and cohesion. I try to include enough options and gradients of challenge to keep everyone interested, while at the same time make sure that everyone present can do something without feeling singled out.

I’ve decided that for my current classes the students must be able to cognitively follow at least two-step instructions, manage self-care (I can’t interrupt the class to take them to the bathroom), and not call out or talk at inappropriate times—so I am excluding people. The term “accessible” always comes with conditions. It’s impossible to work successfully in a group of people without creating a safe “container” with agreed-upon boundaries.

I’ve spent many years pondering what yoga is, and what I’m actually teaching. As I’ve often noted, the students in my “accessible” classes often have better concentration, more interest in philosophy, and better self-study skills than the general population. And although as a teacher I’m responsible for planning the content of the class, my students teach me as much as I teach them. 

I’ve struggled to figure out what the end goal of my “accessible” classes actually is, and I don’t think it’s any different than any other yoga class. We all have problems yoga can help with (relationships, self-esteem, stress) but the label “accessible” implies difference, when, at heart, the reasons for coming to class may be the same. I’d prefer to say I teach a slow, gentle style of yoga that we can customize as needed.

My fear is that accessible yoga will become more “medicalized” and as more teacher trainings proliferate, the new levels of expertise will change the dynamics. For example, will documentation, “assessments,” and goal setting become the norm? As a former Occupational Therapist, my experience has been that the mechanics of this professionalization can drive a wedge of objectification into the student-teacher relationship. The student’s body/mind becomes a problem to be solved, and the production and measurement of outcomes, or lack thereof, become the priority. The organic processes of play, relationship-building, and exploration can be killed in the process.

I know this because I’ve lived it. Professional accountability is important but the mechanisms of proof such as the well-worn statement “not documented, not done” have an energetic and relational cost. Although I appreciate the value of personalized assessment and documentation that are part of yoga therapy trainings, I think many yoga students (and teachers) are hoping to escape the project of needing to be fixed or to have bodies that look and behave like the standard issue. It’s very easy to accidentally create an environment where “improvement” is an expectation—it’s useful to keep questioning our motives and our aims.

People are drawn to yoga for myriad reasons, some explicit, some unspoken, and perhaps even subconscious. My intuition is that for many, the sense of belonging in a class can be just as important as anything that is learned there. Many of my students have been with me for over fifteen years now, and their friendships and support of each other matters more than whatever movement or pranayama technique we’re learning.

I don’t have answers. As I’ve puzzled over my “why” as a teacher I’ve come back time and again to Zen teacher Bernie Glassman’s three principles: bearing witness, not knowing, and compassionate action. I have had to learn, painfully and repeatedly, that holding space and really seeing someone in all of the messiness and uncertainty of human relationships is more important than my so-called expertise. Second, the more I can suspend my need to want to “fix” people or solve their problems the more growth happens, the more they figure things out for themselves. And finally, Glassman always argued, and I think he’s right, that if we work on bearing witness and not knowing, compassionate action happens of its own accord. So labels, root problems, and class plans are far less important than vulnerability, kindness, and good ethics. And I really don’t know how you put a label on that.

Elaine Jackson
began working in healthcare as a teenager and was a licensed Occupational Therapist for 29 years. She completed her 775-hour yoga teacher training (Scaravelli Method) in 2003-2004 at Esther Myers Yoga in Toronto. She has been teaching and learning about yoga ever since. In November 2020 she published Enough Already: 7 Yoga-Inspired Steps Toward Calm Amid Chaos. She can be found online at or about ten minutes by car outside of the rural village of Mount Albert, Ontario.

This post was edited by Patrice Priya Wagner, Managing Editor of Accessible Yoga blog and member of the Board of Directors.

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Wednesday, April 7, 2021

How Ableism Shapes Modern Yoga

Man doing handstand with knees bent, legs crossed behind buttocks

Culture, Power, and Modern Yoga: Insights from the East and West (Part 3)

by Anjali Rao and Lorien Neargarder

Changing American yoga culture is an act of love. Relationships take work. In the early years of Lorien's marriage, she and her husband would have what they called, "State of the Union" discussions. The talksgrew out of the wish to be better partners, so these talks were more of an act of love than condemning some action, although they made sure to name what needed improving because to skip over the ugly bits and ignore the feelings of anger, hurt, and resentment in order to keep the peace only made problems fester and worsen.

This is what happens when people gloss over the issues in our American yoga culture and apply the big picture, "We are all one" platitude; when we do this long enough we can start to see the world through a distorted lens. For example, Lorien spent years shifting her fearful/angry/dissatisfied attitude to focus solely on the positive aspects of her life that her yoga practice had amplified for her, a White woman of privilege.

When a friend complained to her about feeling singled out in yoga class because of her size and skin color which doesn't conform to the dominant culture, Lorien was ill-prepared to hear her friend's pain. And instead spouted something about gratitude and how her friend should think about the experience of the other students and not just herself because there is only so much a teacher can do for her, a single student in a full class. Lorien could tell almost immediately that her friend interpreted this response as, "Your experience doesn't matter."

This exchange is an example of how we can fall into the trap of spiritual bypass, the habit of ignoring discomfort and necessary growth by shifting our attention to disconnected spiritual practices and ideas. We love our practices and we don't want to miss any opportunities to be better partners to our BIPOC friends by advocating for more inclusive, safe yoga spaces, or by simply listening to them, believing them and building trust with them; we also don't want to miss the opportunity to be better to ourselves, who we harm by ignoring the discomfort of necessary growth, which is why we need to challenge and disrupt, with love, the parts of the yoga culture that don't work for all Americans.

Ableist Culture

Yoga emerged as a collection of practices and philosophies from Brown and Black people, from the Indus Valley Civilization (modern day Pakistan-India) from over 2,500 years ago. The evolution and the history of this ancient practice is complex and traverses through the region over centuries, and is rooted in deep spiritual meaning; Kemetic Yoga, from Egypt, believed the goal to be the ultimate union of the human with the Divine.

Asana is the physical part of the practice and is considered a very small part of Classical Yoga. Yet, the physical practice has now become synonymous with yoga because it has been taken over by Western sensibilities. A glance at any magazine that has the word "yoga" in it, refers primarily to asana and rarely includes a word about the philosophy and the belief system or culture that birthed it.

This approach harms so many. There is an erasure of South Asian culture, specifically, Indian teachers/practitioners/authors/experts, when the representations of yoga at all levels are predominantly White-centric, able-bodied, thin, young, and hyper-flexible women.

At the root of Western marketing is the exploitation of the human emotions of fear and envy. Look again at those yoga magazines and notice the extreme poses the models take, as if to say, "If you buy what I'm selling (magazines, expert advice, retreats, courses, clothing, accoutrements, etc.) you can look like me!" This implies that this level of physical practice is achievable for everyone (it isn't) and that once you are able to "do" yoga, all your problems disappear (they don't).

Humans come in a wide range visible differences––bodies that move well and those that don't, bodies with a different number of limbs or organs than others, bodies with extra flesh, or bodies with a different level of seeing and hearing, for example.

Humans also come in a wide range of invisible differences. Mental health, persistent pain, addiction, learning abilities, serious illness, and neurological differences don't fit the mold and are left out of the marketing definition of yoga. The picture of brown-skinned, larger-bodied humans whose physical prowess doesn't evoke envy would not sell magazines, so our representations of yoga leave these humans out.

Yoga has an ableist culture problem. We need more accessibility.

We disrupt ableist culture when yoga teachers center their student's experience over their own biases. This requires from teachers a high degree of empathy, trust, and humility which may be challenging for able-bodied teachers but the reward of supporting someone who has had to ask for these things from their teachers all their life is worth it.

Reflection Points:
  • What are the obstacles to build equity and accessibility in your yoga space?
  • How and what can help remove those obstacles? 

Call to Action: Collaborate for Change

This is a movement that needs all of us to come together to call out the exclusion, to call out the racism, to call out the inequity, and call in each other. There needs to be an acknowledgement of the harm done, accountability for the erasure and the silences. We can learn how to practice yoga without harming or taking away from another’s culture, thus practicing ahimsa, non-harming, the first Yama of Patanjali’s Classical Yoga. We can as teachers, center the student’s experience rather than have our own agenda and sensibilities projected onto them. We can, as students, learn from BIPOC teachers, diversify who we view as experts, and use our dollars to cultivate equity and build accessibility into our teaching and practicing spaces.

Diverse teachers encourage diverse students. The good news is that there are many BIPOC yoga activists/diverse teachers/practitioners with powerful voices who are working to disrupt the White capitalistic stronghold in Western yoga. If you identify as White, amplify brown and Black teachers, engage with the community, learn and listen to the stories shared, speak out clearly against White supremacy and ableism. If you identify as BIPOC, take up space, rest, call in and call out allies and accomplices to build a co-culture that celebrates and embraces differences in every way.

Anjali Rao
came to the Yoga mat at nearly 40 recovering from surgery from Breast Cancer. She studies, teaches, and writes about Yoga philosophy/ history from a socio-political perspective and is deeply interested in the intersectionality of race, culture, gender and accessibility of Yoga practices. She aims to make the practice Yoga on and off the mat accessible, helpful and joyful to people across ages, genders and abilities. She is a part of the teacher training faculty in 200 and 300 hour programs in the Bay Area and teaches Yoga for Cancer Survivorship for the Stanford Cancer Program. She serves on the Board for HERS Breast Cancer Foundation, a non-profit that helps survivors and those going through treatment regardless of financial status. She is a lifelong student of Indian Classical Dance, a sucker for puppies, loves dark chocolate, the ocean and old trees.

Lorien Neargarde
r (E-RYT500, C-IAYT) has been offering yoga practices in a variety of spaces since 2004 and has learned from the diverse spectrum of students who show up to these spaces: adult education program, elementary / middle / high school, businesses, family psychology center, psychiatric ward, pain rehabilitation clinic, oncology ward, library and yoga studios. She specializes in working with people diagnosed with cancer and started her own nonprofit in 2018 in order to offer yoga (and other support care) to them free of charge.

This post was edited by Patrice Priya Wagner, Managing Editor of Accessible Yoga blog and member of the Board of Directors.

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