Making Yoga Accessible

“Alright, I’ll give it a try.” –Luke Skywalker, Jedi-in-training
“No. Try not. Do. Or do not. There is no try.” –Yoda, Jedi Master

Can everyone do yoga? The answer is yes, but only if you—the teacher– makes it accessible to them.
Many times people say “I’ll try this pose,” or “I’ll try this yoga class.” They immediately state doubt that they can actually DO it. I think that’s what bothers Master Yoda so much in Star Wars. Luke has given up before he’s even started because he doubts his own Jedi abilities and does not trust his teacher to guide him towards success. Enter Andrea’s yoga practice:
For myself, I started this training not in my best shape. I knew this would be hard and Master Paulu encouraged me that if I had in me before that I could find it again and maybe just do things a different way. He always noted my determination, motivation and focus in the first few weeks: It said “CAN!” For the first few weeks, every day I worked with Katrina I made excuses about old injuries and lived in the past of what I used to be able to do. I had to work through this doubt to get to a point where I just DID the pose with assistance, spotting or modification. What helped me push past this obstacle (doubt) was how the trainers made poses accessible to me.
For example, on day 1, I could not do shoulder stand. Keven and Paulu came in and lifted my legs up over my head. I was scared at first because I had not inverted since before my baby was born—about 18 months ago. But I did it with assistance and it was done. By the third day, I could push myself up to shoulder stand without props and without assistance. It wasn’t “try to do it,” as if there might not be success. It was “just do it.”
Another example, in the first week, I could not do reverse plank. I could not even lift one inch off the ground. Again, Keven and Katrina provided adjustments and assistance so that I could feel the weight on my own arms and start to build some strength as well as confidence. By the start of week two I was able to push myself up into reverse table top then reverse plank without assistance. Pretty soon, I moved on to wheel pose and was successful.
When you have students in your classes that may be out of shape, overweight, injured, sick or handicapped, it is possible to make yoga accessible to them by offering not only assistance in adjustments, but also by using props such as straps, pillows, blocks or even the wall.
Straps can be most useful for any forward-bending postures where a person is unable to reach their feet, as in seated forward bends (paschimattanasana ) and standing poses such as utthita parsvasahita. Straps also come in handy on twists (marichyasana) or when a person cannot reach behind their back, as in prasarita padottanasana B.
Pillows come in handy for supporting a low shoulder stand as well as to raise the hips in the marichyasana poses.
Blocks are standard issue for standing postures like triangle and extended angle, as it gives the practitioner a stopping point that keeps them in alignment and not out of their range. Blocks also can help in the floor vinyasa if it is difficult to lift one’s body up to swing legs through easily or even just to enable one to build strength by lifting up onto the block in preparation for such movement at the next level.
Use the wall to help practitioners balance better in standing poses like triangle and extended angle, as well as to enable them to open their shoulder and chest to get the full benefits of the pose. Use the wall also for stability in balance poses like tree and balancing half-moon.
Modifying your approach to teaching can also make your yoga class accessible to other populations. Some examples:
Yoga for blind people: Focus on your verbal cues, as this is how they “see.”
Yoga for deaf people: Focus on your visual demonstration, as this is what they “hear.”
Physically handicapped (wheelchair): Focus on asanas for the body parts that do work—think of wheelchair athletes who play rugby (called Murder Ball). They have tremendous upper-body strength and could rock the Eagle Arms pose or even plank if you held their legs. For less ambulatory people you could focus on yoga of the hands—yoga mudras—which still connect with air, water, space, fire and earth. You could also do lots of breathing which provides many yogic health benefits for those with mobility issues.
Children with ADHD (attention deficit)—Focus on playing yoga games like yoga pose freeze tag and making the class move quickly to their consumption level by making them learn vinyasas. Tire them out by letting them burn their energy off. Then try to bring them to focus at the end with gentler stretches or even meditation. They can do it!
There are many other examples.
Most importantly, do not underestimate anyone! Give people the opportunity to practice yoga by making it accessible to them, for their needs and strengths, and see what kind of result you get. Be creative and confident in your yoga knowledge and use it to help others who would “try” yoga to instead “do” yoga.
–respectfully submitted, Andrea McKenna Brankin, July 2013
“There is no try.”