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 www.jacksonyoga.ca 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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  1. Thank you Elaine for your thoughts on what yoga is and the effect "accessibility" efforts have on it. I teach a gentle chair class, and like you came from the medical field with all its treatment plans, objectives and paper work. I have similarly come to the conclusion that it is better in some ways to let students figure out their own way of making it accessible while creating as welcoming and as open a way of teaching as possible. I offer options; teach about self-awareness; how to cope with perceived limitations; dealing with having hard days when we feel frustrated or discourage or painful; making healthy and safe decisions for yourself; and more. I know it's not perfect, but I prefer "not knowing" how to make yoga work for everyone, and trust that given the opportunity and safe guidance, students will discover their way.

    1. Thank you for taking the time to comment. Your classes sound lovely, and the topics you describe would be of benefit to anyone, including me! It sounds like you've created a space of safety and acceptance. Glad to know that you're out there doing such good work. 

  2. Patrice Priya here--problem-solving with the Reply to Comments here.

  3. Thank you for sharing your insight on accessible classes, Elaine. I have been thinking lately about what makes a class "accessible" and feeling defeated because I can't figure out how to teach absolutely everyone. Your OT background and accessible teaching experience are helpful to me as I plan for the future of this class. During the pandemic, "carrying the room" has been a skill for me in this class, because the camaraderie it provides is as much a boon to folks as the physical work. Maybe I just need to do my best to serve each person each day and learn to let go of my own need for perfection. Thanks again, Jenny

    1. Thanks Jenny. Your reply is full of insight. I definitely struggle with trying to be all things to all people, and it was a bit of a blow to my ego to realize that my students came as much for each other as for anything I was teaching. But that does take some of the self-induced pressure off. I hope you continue on serving and carrying the room. Thanks for taking the time to weigh in.