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I is for Inclusive

If you were to judge yoga by its portrayal on social media, “inclusive” is probably not your first impression.


Read on if you are yoga curious but have thought “I couldn’t do that”; or if you have been practicing yoga but have ever felt excluded or “not very good at it”; or if you are a yoga teacher who wants your classes to be more inclusive.


More than asana


I want to address this first, because whilst it’s a recurring theme through this blog that there is more to yoga than asana, the reality is that for most people, when they think of yoga, they are thinking of the physical poses. It's the doorway into yoga for most practitioners. Therefore, this post will focus on inclusivity within asana.


Yoga’s got an image problem


One of the ways that yoga leaves people feeling excluded is through imagery that conveys yoga asana as requiring huge flexibility, long limbs, thin bodies, strong muscles and hypermobile joints. Images of yoga usually show ranges of movement beyond what is functionally required. Things like deep backbends or sandwich-like forward folds, gravity-defying arm balances, or gymnastic type splits that would qualify for the Olympics.



This is compounded by a false premise that these types of shapes are possible for anyone who develops an “advanced” practice. “Practice, practice, and all is coming” implies that anyone can do it if they just practice often enough, and for long enough, to develop the strength, flexibility and technique required.


But the reality is that for a large majority of the adult, able bodied population, many yoga poses (as presented in their traditional alignment) are simply beyond the range of movement that their skeleton will actually allow – ever.


My experience


I’ve practiced yoga fairly consistently for nearly a quarter of a century. And I spent a large chunk of that time – 16 or so years – feeling inadequate at it. There are so many poses that I can’t do; from seemingly “easy” or “beginner” poses to those commonly described as “advanced”.


I have students that can do some poses with more ease, or closer to traditional alignment rules, than I will ever be able to do.


Thankfully, I no longer feel this way, but the huge advantage this has given me as a teacher is an empathy and understanding of what it’s like for many of my students. I know what it’s like to feel frustrated, limited or restricted in my yoga practice.

 

Students: How to find inclusive yoga


If you are new to yoga, or haven’t found an environment that makes you feel welcome, included or seen, here are some tips for you:


  1. Try other teachers. Not all teachers have the same knowledge, training, experience, focus or interests. This really applies to any scenario where you haven’t resonated with the teacher, for any reason. I’m going to use a food analogy here: not all Thai restaurants serve the same green chicken curry. There are two in my local area and one has a green curry I keep coming back for, the other doesn’t. Same dish, similar ingredients; different recipe, and very different outcome.

  2. Try other styles. Some lineages/styles of yoga are very rigid in their approach to poses. Some, like Iyengar, Bikram and Ashtanga, tend towards the stricter end of the spectrum on alignment. (This is a generalization of the styles. Within each style there will be teachers with different interpretations and applications of that style, as per the previous point). Others, like Yin Yoga, are at the other end of the spectrum where rules and dogma are stridently rejected. Vinyasa and Hatha are probably somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. To continue my food analogy, this would be like trying different cuisines. You might want something hot and spicy, but Thai will be very different to Indian or Mexican. Or perhaps Italian is more to your liking!

  3. Remember that you are your own best teacher. Only you know what you are feeling in a pose. When you develop the ability to listen to your body, and question what your mind and ego are telling you, you will be able to experiment with little tweaks and adjustments that make a pose feel better in your body. Over time you will develop the confidence to know when a teacher’s suggestions will work for you and when to make an alternative choice.



Tips to be a more inclusive yoga teacher


Teachers: I know that you want to be inclusive. But perhaps you feel ill-equipped to cater for bodies of different sizes, shapes, agility, mobility or range of movement.

So here are my top tips for being more inclusive:


  1. Examine your own blind spots: in what ways are you assuming that your experience is that of your students? Are you projecting your own ability, or inability, to move in a certain range or direction onto your students?

  2. Reconsider the idea that some poses have “advanced” versions compared to those more “beginner”. Some are simply more athletic, or require a bigger range of movement, rather than being something that is attainable with more practice. There are beginner students who will have the required range of movement, strength and flexibility to do the so called “advanced” poses from day one. There are also students who have had a dedicated practice for decades who will never achieve certain poses.

  3. Watch your language: are you using phrases that convey that one version of a pose is superior to another? As above, are you saying “beginners can do this, advanced students: take the full expression of the pose”? Even things like “If you need to, you can bring your knees to the floor” can contain implicit judgement. A better phrase would be “You might choose to…”

  4. Be mindful of your demonstrations: are you just giving lip service to modifications and variations but only demonstrating one option? Remember that actions speak louder than words. It might take more time to demonstrate various options, but it will make for a more welcoming and inclusive environment.

  5. Observe your students: are you actually standing back and watching them? Can you see where they are struggling? Are they physically capable of doing asana according to the alignment suggestions you are giving? Are they doing so with ease? Most students won’t give you verbal feedback, you need to observe to gain insight.

  6. Unlearn alignment myths: many alignment cues still in use today are outdated and anatomically incorrect. At the very least, most fail to acknowledge the vast differences from one person’s structure to the next. As Paul Grilley says, there is no such thing as a perfect pose and every pose has the potential to be ineffective or unsafe for somebody.

  7. Deepen your knowledge of anatomy. Most initial teacher trainings will offer a very standardized, muscle focused understanding of the human body. But it’s not enough. Not only do you need to understand the physiological reasons why people can vary so much, you need to understand how to apply this knowledge to the student in front of you.


Thankfully, in my 11+ years of teaching I have seen a big shift towards making yoga more inclusive. There is still a long way to go, but in the meantime I will continue my mission to make yoga more inclusive and accessible for all.

 

PS Yoga teachers: I run yoga teacher training on how to make yoga more inclusive by diving deeply into anatomy, pose variations and language. If you’d like to join the waitlist for the next round, head to this page: https://www.santosha.com.au/ytt

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