Accessible Yoga

I hear the phrase accessible yoga a lot lately. Basically I think they mean yoga that anyone can do rather than the pretzel stuff only the flexible and strong can do. I worked in a studio once and the owner gave me this advice regarding my budding yoga career, don’t let them put you in chair yoga or you’ll end up being pigeon holed into doing nothing but yoga for old people. Two weeks later she asked me if I’d teach chair yoga at her studio. I said yes.

You know what I learned from saying yes? Old people aren’t as judgmental as young ones. They have just as much pride as young people do when it comes to their practice. When I say, “if you want a challenge, do x,” they try it. It’s the same in my gentle classes. I don’t know how many times I’ve had someone tell me that my gentle classes aren’t gentle because they thought they would be wallowing around on the floor stretching with soft music in the background. My response is, I like a practice with some challenge to it. I offer options if you physically can’t do something like side angle, but I’m going to offer side angle in my practice because to feel better about yourself, you have to step out of your comfort zone. I don’t mean to be uncomfortable in your practice, I mean to see that you are capable of more than you thought you were.

I did not become pigeon holed and that studio closed. I can and do teach more challenging classes. However, I prefer the gentler ones simply because if I’m not trying to cue a weird pose I can talk about other aspects of yoga such as focusing on the breath, drishti, the bandhas, and use sanskrit. I absolutely love when Indians who speak Sanskrit join my class and help me with my pronunciation. That is one of the nice things about America being a melting pot, we embrace other cultures, and I have a lot of respect for Indian history. I also recognize that the yoga I teach is not the yoga they practiced for two thousand years before it became what it is today in America. Yoga in the East is a mental discipline, not a physical one.

That is what I offer whenever I can. To me accessible yoga is finding mental discipline. Whenever I use a block in gomukasana because I’m simply too large to stack my knees without sitting up on one, I close my eyes and settle into the pose that I can do. I set the example I want my students to see. Maybe they can’t see my thoughts but the thoughts I have and hope to project are; soften, relax, find the breath, allow the body to be in an odd shape and still feel safe.

I’m not perfect. Once in a while I get bored and cue a pose that is absolutely not within the range of the folks in my class. I often say, the nice thing about aging is that you learn to say, “No.” They just look at me and wait for me to move on. I put it in the back of my mind, save that one for the vinyasa class. On the flip side, whenever one of my students makes an adjustment to make a pose accessible to them I memorize it so I can offer it to others. I learn from them.

One of the things I’ve learned about Western yoga is that it itself is flexible and adaptable. There is trauma informed yoga, chair, recovery, restorative, yoga for grief, vinyasa, ashtanga, and so on. It has become as varied as the backgrounds in the melting pot of America. Now it’s being called accessible yoga. I tell people if you don’t like the way I teach yoga, tell me what it is you do want and I’ll tell you what teacher to go to. I won’t change how I teach but I know teacher X likes a strong physical practice, teacher Y likes a very gentle practice, teacher Z likes a spiritual one, etc. I go to other teacher’s classes just so I can be aware of who teaches what. Also to learn from them. I’m not in the least bothered if someone doesn’t like how I teach because yoga is very personal, it’s about you the student, not my ego as the teacher. Feel free to tell me you don’t like my style but don’t leave yoga because you think the way I teach is the only way.

Accessible is just another adjective someone has come up with to apply to yoga. What is important isn’t that the adjective create something new and different, what is important is that it encourages people to try something new. Whether you’ve never done yoga before or have done it for decades, the important thing is to take a moment and understand what it is you want from your practice and seek that. There are as many teachers as there are adjectives to describe yoga, find the one that matches your needs. Seek what works for you and let the rest meet other people’s needs.

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