“Anyone can practice. Young man can practice. Old man can practice. Very old man can practice. Man who is sick, he can practice. Man who doesn’t have strength can practice. Except lazy people; lazy people can’t practice Ashtanga yoga.”
~ K. Pattabhi Jois
These words from the founding father of Ashtanga Yoga, K. Pattabhi Jois are often quoted in articles that stress the benefits of yoga for everyone. After all, if Ashtanga Yoga, a style known for being physically challenging, is accessible for all (except the lazy!), then surely all yoga is.
But just how true is this in reality? Specifically, how accessible is mainstream yoga for people with disabilities, health conditions or impairments?
I’ve been interested for a long time now in how, as a yoga community, we can practice more of what we preach - making sure that the yoga that we share really is open and accessible to all, not just those with particular privileges.
In researching this article, I contacted ten different organizations who lead Yoga Teacher Trainings internationally, selecting a range of different styles, from Integral Yoga to Iyengar Yoga. I explained I was researching inclusive yoga and asked whether their training would be accessible to a wheelchair user.
I had one clear yes, from Triyoga, who assured me that they make their trainings accessible to everyone.
Two other organizations told me that they may not be able to accommodate a wheelchair user due to accessibility issues in their venue, one citing additional concerns about it depending upon "how far the person in the wheelchair can move."
A further two organizations redirected my question to someone else. I never heard back after that. Furthermore, five other organizations never even got back to me.
All in all, a broadly disheartening response from the yoga community. Thankfully there are organizations out there who are leading the way. Here are a few of them...
1. Accessible Yoga
Accessible Yoga describes themselves as “an international advocacy organization focusing on sharing yoga with all.” Accessible Yoga focus on making yoga available to everyone.
They reach out to communities that have been excluded or under-served, including disabled people, people with chronic illnesses, and people who are in prison. They run conferences and courses, as well as the Accessible Yoga Network.
Through their teacher training courses, Accessible Yoga empowers yoga teachers to create classes that allow all students to practice together. Their training includes examples of how to modify practices, and builds an understanding of common medical issues.
2. Mind Body Solutions and Mind Body Connections Europe
Mind Body Solutions (MBS), and their European counterparts Mind Body Connections Europe, are a nonprofit organization, whose mission is “to transform trauma, loss and disability into hope and potential by awakening the connection between mind and body.”
Inspired by founder Matthew Sanford’s experience teaching yoga after a devastating car accident killed his father and sister, and left him paralyzed from the chest down, the MBS approach to yoga emphasizes the experience of the postures over the performance. Their adaptive yoga draws on the universal principles of yoga, rather than simply modifying asanas. (Learn more in 4 True Purposes for Why We Practice Yoga Asana.)
MBS offer adaptive yoga classes, and they are known for their “Opening Yoga to Everyone” program, which empowers yoga teachers to adapt their yoga teaching, making it accessible for all, including those living with disability, loss and trauma. They also lead workshops aimed at healthcare providers on integrating yoga principles into healthcare delivery.
3. Yoga for All
Yoga for All is run by two inspiring yoga teachers, Dianne and Amber. They are passionate about what they describe as teaching yoga for “people in non-traditional yoga bodies.” This includes those with injuries and disabilities, as well as those in larger bodies who may feel ignored or even shamed in mainstream yoga classes.
In their online training, they teach yoga teachers how to use inclusive, body-positive language, plan classes and sequences that are suitable for different bodies and make the environment more welcoming and accessible.
Dianne also founded Yogasteya, a yoga website devoted to the celebration of students of all shapes, sizes and ethnicities. Their inclusive motto is, “No yogi left behind.” The website offers a range of free online classes for those who may struggle to get to or access a yoga studio.
4. Yoga for the Special Child
Yoga For the Special Child focuses on bringing the benefits of yoga to children with special needs. It was founded by Sonia Sumar, who began teaching yoga to children with special needs after her daughter was born with Down Syndrome in 1972.
They have since gone on to help and support many children and now adults with Down Syndrome, Cerebral Palsy, Microcephaly and Autism Spectrum Disorder through providing training for yoga teachers, therapist and other professionals in their specialised programme of techniques.
Their training includes an early intervention program to support the healthy development of infants and young children. There are graduates of their teacher training programme teaching all over the world now, bringing the benefits of yoga to children with a wide range of special needs.
5. Yoga Quota
Yoga Quota is an UK-based charity on a mission to make yoga accessible to vulnerable groups. They recognise that those who would benefit most from yoga are often those who struggle to access it, including disabled communities and older people.
The money raised by paying students at their Oxford-based studio is used to fund free yoga for those who need it most, and they partner with a wide range of charities to ensure these free classes reach marginalised communities.
Yoga Quota also train yoga teachers in how to make their yoga offerings more accessible. Their teachings cover inclusive language practices, trauma sensitivity, chair yoga and making yoga philosophy inclusive.
So, There is Hope
These organizations are doing game-changing work within the yoga community, ensuring yoga is as accessible, open and inclusive as a practice which is about “oneness” should be. (Learn more in There's Another Yoga World Out There and I Just Found It.)
However, my final message is one of caution. Although it’s fantastic that these organizations are helping make yoga accessible to everyone, let’s make sure that they inspire us, rather than make us complacent.
It’d be too easy to just let someone else do the work, and assume that this is enough. Yoga should be for everybody, and it’s on all of us to make sure that that’s true in reality as well as in principle.
I sincerely hope that with these trailblazing organizations leading the way, it won’t be long until enquiries like the ones I made in my research about accessibility are met with a resounding “Yes, of course!”