It's 4:30 am on Monday morning, and I am sitting in LAX International Airport after a whirlwind experience at the first annual Accessible Yoga Conference (AYC). I am blissfully exhausted, relieved, and proud to have been invited to contribute to such an amazing event.
Only a few short weeks ago, I traveled from my hometown of Windsor, Ontario, Canada, to the sunny and gorgeous city of Santa Barbara, California. As I arrived at the Accessible Yoga Conference, I was greeted by my colleagues from the Yoga and Body Image Coalition, and together we embarked on an incredible journey that would expand my awareness of how yoga and diversity appear on the mat.
As the founder of the Yoga For All movement, my vision has always been to make the yoga world more inclusive. Yoga For All is aimed at creating a brave space for people in larger bodies, the LGBTQ community, people of every race and socioeconomic status, and those in differently abled bodies. Whether or not they are struggling with barriers in asana, these individuals all deserve to feel safe, included, and supported within the global yoga community. The founding principles of Yoga For All have evolved alongside my experience leading and teaching physical yoga practices within my local community and abroad. I've realized that there are many different barriers preventing people with large bodies, those of color, and other marginalized populations from practicing and embracing yoga. The barriers include financial accessibility, able-ism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and geographical availability. In response, Yoga For All began to focus on changing attitudes toward how we see ourselves, how we see each other, our ideas about what yoga is, and what yoga means to people on the margins of dominant culture. I believed we needed to demystify yoga and make it possible for all to feel welcome.
While at the conference, I had the pleasure of meeting Matthew Sanford, a man I have long admired for his role in creating environments of inclusivity in yoga. His teachings focus on the connection between the body and mind, regardless of what body you have. His message is that your body isn’t something that needs to be overcome. In hearing Sanford speak, I realized that I'd never heard his story in its entirety before, and I found myself profoundly moved. I felt connected to the power of his experience and what it means to feel like you don't belong. Matthew became a paraplegic at the age of 13, and I realized that many of his experiences mirrored my own experiences as a person of color living in North America. I had felt different too. His story also shed light on how our lives are often determined by how others view our differences as a burden, limitation, disability, or an "unfortunate" set of circumstances. It reminded me that we must consciously choose how we view our circumstances, and we must advocate for ourselves.
It reinforced for me the idea that we all want many of the same things. We want love and acceptance, and we want to feel our lives matter. We all feel love, anger, and disappointment, and we all have insecurities about ourselves and our bodies (regardless of what bodies we occupy). Our light comes from the same source. It is our bodies, external influences, and our experiences that make us seem different. At the end of the day, we all want to believe in something, be it science, God, or the power of the universe. We desire to connect to the miracle of this existence, even if we view it through different lenses.
At this conference, I felt included. I felt that I belonged. The Accessible Yoga Conference was a one-of-a-kind experience. It was about offering yoga to bodies with varying abilities and disabilities, and I was thrilled to witness a full range of bodies that we don't often see at mainstream yoga conferences. It also seemed that many of the people who attended had a deeper connection to the spiritual practices of yoga, letting asana take a back seat. For me, this was both new and refreshing. From my previous experiences at yoga conferences, I had grown accustomed to seeing mostly young, thin, and flexible Lululemon-clad yogis drinking fancy coffee and exploring advanced asana practices. Because I don't fit that cultural mold, I often feel like an observer at mainstream conferences. But at this conference, I felt included. I felt that I belonged. And it seemed to me that others would be open to a new perspective on yoga teachings. When I first spoke with Jivana, the conference’s founder and visionary, I explained that I wanted to share a Yoga For All class that was full of positive and playful energy. I also wanted to create a supportive environment where everyone could share their personal practice experiences. And while my intention to be as inclusive as possible at the AYC (and as a yoga teacher in general) had long been set, the more practitioners I met and the more I listened to their stories, the more I began to feel that my initial understanding of what "accessible yoga" looked and felt like was changing (and drastically) since first pitching my class to Jivana.
My class was billed as Yoga For All. But as my time to teach approached, I started to ask myself: Was it really for all? Was I ready and equipped to offer something for someone in a wheelchair? Fortunately, I got the opportunity to find out. Rev Rudra, a powerful human being in a wheelchair, arrived willing and ready to share his authentic self as a participant in my first AYC workshop. Rev is a self-realized yoga practitioner, which means that he knows his body better than I (or any other yoga teacher), and he is not afraid to make his yoga experience individual and unique for himself. He connected with his wheels as an extension of his body. His forward folds included a bolster on his lap. He moved with grace and awareness from his chair to the floor. It was amazing to watch this person so connected to his body in a way that was hard for an able-bodied person to truly understand. I was excited to see him enter my space. He did his practice, and he added dimension to class. His poses were beautiful and made me see asana in an entirely different way. Whenever I share a yoga class with students, be it in a local studio or at a large yoga conference, the most important thing I ask them to do is to create their own experiences. It is important to me that students come as they are, use what they have, and do what they can. I never want to single out anyone, or to use a student as an example without their permission. My goal is simply to allow each and every individual to feel included and free to explore their experience of yoga as it unfolds.
I want to create an inclusive space for all. I want to encourage fellow yoga teachers, and our students, to look at our yoga spaces and begin asking: "Why is there a lack of diversity here, and how do we create more? Why are we so afraid to take different approaches to teaching yoga? How can we create classes that help people feel safe? How can we make yoga more socioeconomically and geographically accessible? How do we create classes that invite and celebrate different cultures? Can we be okay with offering a brave space for people of color to practice?" The recent backlash in Seattle around POC classes shows that we are not willing to listen or help people when they tell us what they need. We have yoga for large bodies, women-only spaces, men-only spaces, yoga for children, prenatal yoga, and yoga for older adults. Why are classes for POC so threatening? I have watched people build their confidence in specialized classes, and my experience is that they do move outward to other classes once they feel empowered by the practice. When more people feel more comfortable with yoga, the more specialized classes won’t be needed any longer.
We need to create space and time for the difficult but important conversation on yoga and diversity. Growth happens outside of comfort zones. Engaging in a meaningful way with people who are different from us changes our perceptions of each other and the world. As individuals who practice mindfulness, we simply must walk our walk.
So, as I sit here and reflect on my experiences and all of the insights I gathered during my time at the AYC, I have begun to realize that Yoga For All isn’t just a progressive asana class. Instead, it is a conversation about how we each step into our personal power—as we do a little asana along the way! Yoga For All is about making yoga more of an internal practice, rather than an external one. It happens by confronting and accepting change, supporting each other in the practice of yoga, and embracing the power that comes from sharing our personal stories.
I want to thank all the practitioners, supporters, and conference organizers behind the Accessible Yoga Conference for being true game-changers. Thank you for allowing me to share my vision of accessible yoga and for teaching me about the lessons all around me as we venture to create a yoga experience that is truly accessible for all.
Growth continues, for all of us.