How to Make Yoga Accessible

by Jivana
I trust that all yoga teachers mean well and come to the teaching of yoga out of a love for yoga and a passion for service. With that in mind, I offer the following suggestions for making your yoga classes accessible to all. 

Welcome Everyone to Join

Part of making yoga accessible is welcoming people of all abilities and backgrounds to your classes. The first step is to consider your publicity materials—the marketing imagery you use and the language you use to describe your classes. It’s essential to be clear in your class descriptions about what kind of practices are included: Is the class open to all levels, can people practice in chairs, do you use music, etc.? Getting this information in advance allows for potential students to be more prepared for what they will experience and that evokes a feeling of safety when they come to class.

It’s also important to consider how to make your classes financially accessible. Can you offer sliding scale pricing or scholarships? For many people the price of drop-in yoga classes is out of reach, and yet everyone deserves access to these teachings. 

Invite Each Student to Participate in All Practices

During class, make sure no one is simply left out because you don’t know how to adapt to their needs. Each student can be included in a conscious way, even if their movement is limited, if you find a way to teach multiple levels at the same time. In order to do this, there are some essential elements to include. 

Consider each practice as a spectrum of possibilities rather than a static pose. Rather than approach an asana by teaching one form, instead focus on the over-arching goal and benefit (and even contraindications) of that practice. From this deeper understanding, your students can learn to explore multiple variations. For example, rather than teach a version of Cobra pose as the “full expression of the pose,” first consider the benefits of Cobra, which could include strengthening the back muscles in deep spinal extension, expanding the heart center, and digestive organ massage, among other things. Then consider how you can find those qualities at whatever level the student is practicing, whether it’s in a chair, on the mat, or even standing. 

If you have a new student, and don’t know what their ability is, try a more collaborative approach. Offer suggestions, but encourage self-exploration and self-awareness. In fact, the first thing to do with a new student is to teach them how to practice rather than jumping into specific practices. This means explaining that the breath is a guide to our movements, meaning that if the breath is short or being held, then the body may be straining. 

We also need to teach students that pain is a sign that you’ve gone too far. Of course, some people are in chronic pain and need to be extra sensitive to that experience. Also, some students may have paralysis and can’t feel sensations in a part of their body, so there isn’t any pain. For those students, it’s best to spend time exploring safe movements in a private or one-on-one setting. Also, with a new student it’s always useful to talk about not competing in yoga and about really trying to step back from the edge, that place where challenge turns into pain. 

Offer Variations at Many Levels 

This means that teachers need to learn how to teach multiple levels of physical ability at the same time. I like to think of an accessible yoga class like a jazz ensemble; each student is like a musician playing a riff on a common theme and the teacher is the conductor. It may look chaotic and seem like everyone is doing their own thing, but there is a harmony running through the entire group. This can be a difficult skill to develop, but one that accessible yoga teachers can cultivate over time. 

When teaching a multiple level class, try to find a way to bring all students together for a portion of each practice, even if they’re doing something that externally looks completely different. One way is to set up students in each version of a pose separately, and then give some common instruction to come into the pose together. This creates an opportunity for multiple levels of a pose to be done different ways. 

For example, you can teach chair and mat versions of Cobra pose simultaneously. Bring the students in the mat into a preparatory position with the forehead on the floor, then bring the students on the chair into a preparatory position, lowering their heads down. Now, bring all the students into the pose together using common instructions that work for both. Something like, “Exhale, grounding down, then inhale and lengthen the neck, slowly curling up the head, neck, and chest.” If this is too complicated, at least find a moment when everyone is in their own version of the pose where you can all breath together. Continually reconnecting the group in this way creates a feeling of inclusivity and equity in the class.

You can also demonstrate one version and verbally teach a different one. If you are teaching a chair version of a pose and a mat version simultaneously, tell the students in the chair to watch you as you demonstrate and give verbal cues to the students on the mat.

Another option is to have an assistant demonstrate one version of a pose while you teach a different variation. I would be cautious about using students in this way. It’s not a job of the student to demonstrate for the group, unless you’ve discussed it previously and they are interested in assisting you in this way. 

When setting up the classroom try to make sure that everyone feels like a part of the group. Students practicing in chairs or wheelchairs can be lined up with other students equally. In fact, students practicing in a chair often benefit from having a yoga mat under their chair for additional traction. Physically including everyone in the “circle” sends an important message that all students are equal, rather than creating a subtle hierarchy in the space. 

Give All Students Equal Praise, Support, and Attention

Not every student needs to be praised all the time, but there needs to be an equal share of love for everyone in the room and not just the “advanced” students. Sometimes, just getting out of their house and coming to class is a huge success for someone with a disability or chronic illness. Be careful about always praising physical ability over other forms of ability and effort. What is the goal of yoga anyway, gymnastics or peace of mind? 

Make Sure Touch is Optional 

In a regular yoga class, teachers don’t know each students’ individual medical history and their past experience with trauma. Because of this and for many other reasons, touching without consent should be unacceptable in your class. 

Also, understanding the scope of practice of a yoga teacher is essential before offering touch. Are you adequately trained to offer touch? Yoga Alliance is setting new guidelines for the scope of practice for yoga teachers. It’s essential to understand these guidelines before touching students. Is it legal in your state according to your level of training? In some states it is only legal to touch a client or student if you are medical personnel, a licensed massage therapist, or clergy. 

There are a variety of ways to make touch optional in your classes. First, you can give a general announcement at the beginning of the session telling students that they have the right to not be touched during the class and giving them the tool to do so. For example, you can use consent cards, which students can turn on one side to say they want touch or turn over to say they don’t want touch. However, consent cards may not work well with chair yoga students or visually-impaired students. So consider three important qualities of consent: informed, ongoing and enthusiastic. 

Informed consent means knowing if the students actually understand what you’re asking their consent to do. For example, telling a student simply, “Can I give you an adjustment in that pose?” is not enough information for a student to decide if they want an adjustment. Instead, say something specific like, “Can I move your arm up?” 

Ongoing consent means that if a student gives you consent at one point in the class that doesn’t mean that you have consent to touch at another time. So you need to continue to get consent each time you touch a student, regardless of their previous affirmative response. Ongoing consent means that we open up a dialogue with our students during class, rather than expecting the silent obedience that is the earmark of certain yoga classes. If you feel like you have too many students in a group class to achieve this type of consent, you may need to avoid touch, get assistants, or teach smaller classes. 

Enthusiastic consent means that a non-answer is not giving consent. The student needs to give an affirmative response to being touched. Remember that the teacher is in the power position in this relationship and the student may defer to your judgement even if they don’t fully agree with what’s happening. That’s why these guidelines are essential for creating a safe environment in yoga. Also, it’s more challenging to get consent to touch students who are non-verbal or who have dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. In those cases, it’s best to avoid touch as much as possible or work with that person’s care team to come up with effective communication tools.

Focus on the Positive

We all have judgmental minds, but it is the work of a teacher to find something positive in your students. Can you find something to celebrate in what the students are doing, rather than focus on correcting and adjusting all the time? 

Make Your Teaching Collaborative and Creative 

Support students in uncovering their own self-awareness through the exploration of yoga practices. This can be done by constantly emphasizing their own experience versus what you think they are experiencing. If you teach a practice and say that it’s calming, what happens if the student doesn’t find it calming? Does that mean their experience is invalid? How do they reconcile their own experience with the experience you are wanting them to have? On the other hand, a collaborative and creative approach means that the entire practice is experience through a lens of exploration and present moment experience. Through collaboration with the students rather than a top-down approach, we can encourage our students to take responsibility for themselves. 

Also, encouraging your students’ creativity can deepen their yoga practice if we teach them to approach every practice as a new opportunity—a new moment. We can teach them to bring fresh eyes and an open mind rather than rely on past experience. Rather than building a practice based on what they “should” experience, creativity means that they are open to what they are experiencing. That creativity is expanded when the student is offered a safe container for exploration where questions are asked rather than answered.

Focus on the Essence of Yoga, Connecting with Inner Peace

Remind your students that yoga is a spiritual practice and everyone shares that same essence equally, regardless of what they look like or what they can do. It’s so easy to get competitive with asana practice and think that more is better. Always remember outer ability does not equal inner peace. 

An important part of yoga is learning to befriend yourself and quiet the inner conflict in the mind. That inner cease-fire comes through acceptance and self-love, not necessarily through gymnastic ability and outer achievement.

Make Individual Empowerment and Community Building Your Goals 

The goal of teaching yoga is to empower your students to find peace of mind through their own practice and not to become reliant on you. So encourage them to build a home practice, even if it starts very slowly. To do this, we need to focus on empowerment by teaching general techniques regarding how to practice and why we practice. Empowerment also comes from being told that we’re worthy of spending the time taking care of ourselves and that finding time to get on your mat is an essential part of self-care.

Community building actually goes along with this. Many people are isolated and don’t have a community. Yoga classes can act as social networks, and many people with disabilities and seniors, in particular, need that kind of support. So can you spend time helping to build those social connections? Can you have the students introduce themselves at every class? Can you spend a few minutes checking in and asking people how they are doing? Can you spend a few minutes after class socializing and encouraging the students to talk to each other?

Focus on Service and Love 

The goal of yoga is self-realization, and, simply put, self-realization is the experience of pure love—beyond the ego-mind’s endless desires. So taking yoga off the mat means to come from a place of love, which is known as service, or karma yoga. As a yoga teacher we have the opportunity to practice karma yoga when we’re teaching. To teach from a place of love for our students can simply mean putting their best interest first and considering what would be most beneficial for them, as well as being kind, patient, and loving in our approach and demeanor. 

Working on all these levels, we can begin to open the practice of yoga to people of all abilities. What’s so powerful is that by doing so we simultaneously open our minds to a deeper understanding of the meaning of yoga. We can experience the truth of yoga—that it is a pathway to connect with our true self. This true self resides in all of us, regardless of our physical ability, past trauma, bank account, race, gender identity, or any kind of identity. It’s not a question of including people who are usually left out; it’s about understanding the truth behind all these labels: that we are ultimately all made of that same essence. Like I always say, yoga is not about having a flexible body, it’s about having a flexible mind, a mind that is clear enough to allow for the truth to shine through. 

“In my view, making yoga more accessible is not fundamentally a moral or social justice issue. One version of such a moral thought process might be that everyone has a ‘right’ to do yoga and we ‘should’ make this possible. While I believe that this is true, it does not get to the crux of the matter. Rather than being fundamentally a moral issue, making yoga accessible to everyone is revealing the truth about yoga. The ultimate heart of yoga is open to all comers. The underlying yogic realization is not exclusionary. I think this distinction is important. It means that everyone has equal access to the heart of yoga because of the true nature of yoga, not because social justice demands it.” —Matthew Sanford 

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