In my early days as a yoga attendee (bear with me here, I was age 20 at the time), I thought that accessibility meant that there were straps or blocks or bolsters nearby, and that maybe other people needed them, but not me. Even if it meant straining and forcing, I was bound and determined to do those yoga poses the “right” way. I thought there was pride associated with not using any props.
20 years of practicing yoga later, I have two requirements for attending a yoga class. I must feel comfortable. And I must feel blissful.
Comfortable: Not comfort in the sense of is the room too hot? Or did I wear clothes with the proper freedom of movement?
But comfort in terms of whether I feel safe showing up exactly how I am today. Am I trulyseen for who I am (gender-wise, body size and shape-wise, and mobility-wise). Are teachers using gender neutral terms like pecs or chest, instead of breasts? Do they offer suggestions “for those in the room that have tight hamstrings,” instead of saying “for the guys”?
Does the teacher really deeply understand what it might be like to have limitations in yoga poses (asana) arise, not because of a lack of flexibility or strength, but simply because of tissues of the body physically touching each other. If you have a big belly, you can only reach so much flexion in a forward fold before your belly hits your thighs for example. I because acutely aware of this situation when I was pregnant, but however a yoga teacher needs to experience this, that concept needs to present in the back of their mind.
You can’t draw assumptions about what a student’s asana is going to look like, based solely on how they appear. And you have no idea what injury or trauma or other lived experience is lurking below the surface. So you need to cue for possibilities, cue for exploration, cue for wonder and playfulness, and only then can the asana blossom.
Now, let me get one thing clear. I’m not asking to be spoon-fed rainbows and unicorns. (I can eat those quite skillfully with my own silverware, thank you!) And I know that I’m responsible for my own bliss (you know that state you get to…when your breath is smooth and you’re working hard and your body feels warmed up and your mind is clear). But there are some subtle things yoga teachers can do to allow the time and space for that to happen for a student.
Here’s a big one:
“Do what feels good to you.” Yoga teachers say this a lot. I’m as guilty as the next. And it’s a lovely thing to say, provided that you truly mean it and have an understanding of what it might mean to people of differing sizes and levels of mobility. And if it comes across as believable.
You know how some yoga teachers will say “do whatever feels good for YOUR body” and then they proceed to demo the full expression of a tricky pose right in front of your mat, sighing contentedly as if bending into that twisty pretzel position (that I could not have even achieved when I was a toddler) was the easiest part of their day?
Well, that never seems blissful to me. There are a handful of power yoga teachers here in Oakland (cough: Rachel and Whitney at Left Coast Power Yoga) who have mastered the art of offering lots of options while keeping things playful. They’ve found the delicate balance between not taking ourselves too seriously, and trying to push yourself just a bit, but only if it is blissful.
Remind us to breathe. Be playful. Remind us that it’s no big deal if we fall out of a pose. And also, it’s no bid deal if we “nail” a pose, whatever that really means, anyway. Offer sitting and breathing as an option if we aren’t feeling twisty-pretzel-asana-version B. Or offer lying down if that’s what your body is asking for. And again, remind us to breathe.
And here’s one important word to avoid:
Just. Just twist into this complicated challenging pose, and then just lift your bottom arm over your top leg. Yes, just like that!
When we say just, it infuses the assumption that this should be easy for all bodies.
Luckily I’ve learned enough throughout my two decades of yoga practice about what works for my body and what doesn’t, to safely chose options and movements that feel good to me and still generally stay within the flow and energy or the group class. But what if I were a beginner?
It’s up to the yoga teachers to keep students safe. The responsibility extends in both directions, I do think you need to speak up if you have particular injuries or conditions that you aren’t sure yet how to navigate in a yoga class. But teachers, it’s up to you to keep us safe both physically and mentally.