What Is Accessible Yoga?
Although "Yoga" is commonly understood as physical postures...
Yoga is not = Asana
Asana is one part of Yoga.
What is Asana?
The word asana, in use in English since the 19th century, is from Sanskrit: आसन āsana "sitting down" (from आस ās "to sit down"), a sitting posture, a meditation seat. Asana and pranayama (breath control), are the physical components of Yoga.
Accessible ASANA means I start with the student and figure out what they need. These are questions for THEM:
Do you have any injuries?
Any medical conditions I should know about?
Any recent surgeries?
Are you pregnant?
What is your current activity level (sedentary vs active)?
Do you have any pain in your body (chronic or current)?
Are there any movements or positions that are painful for you?
What would you like from your practice?
As an accessible asana teacher, I offer postural variations and the use of props. This is to fit the posture to the student (not the other way around) - so that regardless of body size, shape, colour or physical ability, students feel seen, valued and validated in my class.
Recently, I had a conversation with a fellow Yoga teacher on our teaching styles. She said (quite proudly) that if she had planned to teach a handstand in her class that day, the class would not end until every student had done a handstand.
Why is this problematic?
Not every student is physically capable of doing a handstand. This would include anyone with wrist / elbow / shoulder instability or injuries; vertigo, retinal or eye pressure issues. Some studios have handled this by labelling their classes "beginner", "intermediate", "advanced"; or specifying clearly that students can expect inversions in the intermediate / advanced classes. But this is not without its issues because...
Not every student is mentally prepared to do a handstand. This is where the experience, wisdom and character of the teacher necessarily come through. They must know how far they can physically prepare the student (by breaking down the posture into its individual components and teaching those well) as well as how much they can encourage the student to attempt the posture. Someone can be physically capable of doing the posture, but for whatever reason, may not wish to on that particular day. I am not a circus ring leader holding a hoop for my students to jump through one by one. We teachers tell students: "Listen to your body" - but when they do, we don't listen to them.
At the heart of my teaching philosophy is the question: Am I teaching poses, or am I teaching students?
In my early teaching years, students would tell me they liked my clear instruction and sequencing. Great, I thought, I must be doing something right. Almost every one wants to learn asana to get strong and flexible. That is the physical component of the practice which is fairly easy to teach. But then there is also the mental / emotional / psychological component which each student embodies in their own unique way.
Some students crave peace & quiet - for them, yoga is their down time. Many like to chat with me - about family, relationships, politics and current affairs, food and health. And more than a few have cried during their time with me. Last week, after getting up from savasana, one of my students started chatting with me about her family. Then she asked: "Do you have a class scheduled after this? Can I lie down?" I laughed and fortunately for her I did have a few free minutes. "This is like therapy," she added.
I'm not saying that chit-chat time is a part of Yoga or being a good teacher - but that Yoga is more than Asana.
Teaching accessible asana means my students learn strength, control, proper breathing, proprioception, improve their flexibility, mobility, etc. That is the "outside stuff". The magic happens when you use the outside stuff to access the inside stuff...
Accessible YOGA means I start with the student and figure out what they need. These are questions for ME:
Is this their first time meeting me?
What is their body language (tense / hesitant vs relaxed)?
How is their manner of speaking (shy / reserved vs loquacious / talkative)?
How are they breathing?
How can I read safety (or fear / tension / anxiety) in their being?
How are my words, tone of voice, body language affecting them?
How can I convey safety (verbally / non-verbally) to them?
Ultimately, my purpose as a Yoga teacher is to guide them toward making their inner stuff accessible to themselves. This is something that cannot be forced or controlled. The yoga class is a safe space for my students to be present physically and mentally with their bodies, their selves.
So too, if a student has practised with me long enough, they notice that I often re-direct their questions back at them (Them: "Should I point my toes or flex my foot?" Me: "Which feels better / more stable?"). They begin to:
Develop awareness of their physical body
Trust their bodies as strong / capable
Trust themselves i.e. their own inner authority over my outside authority.
There is a synergy of flesh, blood and bones into embodied presence.
Recently, one of my students (a gifted young woman in her early 20s currently in medical school) couldn't stop laughing as she tried and repeatedly failed to do a sit-up into boat pose that I'd explained / demonstrated. "I can't!" She said laughing uncontrollably. At first I smiled but after a few times, I got a little short with her and said: "You can't do it because you're laughing and not trying."
Most of the time when teaching asana, I've been able to strike a balance between being gentle/supportive and giving my students a nudge out of their comfort zone. Most of the time, they are surprised and delighted that they can do something they didn't think they could, safely and without pain.
This time however, I was quickly humbled when she turned to me and told me that her wrists and fingers were so weak that they didn't have the strength to support her head even while using her core strength to come up. I apologised, feeling my cheeks burn with regret at my unkind words. Her laughter was a protective mechanism against anxiety or simply a natural light-hearted reaction which I had misinterpreted as her not taking her practice seriously.
Creating safety for my students means that when I fall short, I take responsibility and apologise immediately. This shows that their teacher is not above them; that their intuition is wisdom. When they see their teacher trusts them, they begin to trust themselves and step into their own freedom.
In the book 'The Little Prince', it is written: 'And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.'
Can I guide my students toward recognising the essence of themselves?
Le Petit Prince video animation by @lyli_arte