Blog, Social Justice

The Problem of Accessibility in Yoga

woman of color balancing in tree pose

At the beginning of 2022, SELF magazine launched a special issue of their magazine, calling it The Future of Fitness Issue. Its focus was on inclusivity, and it included pieces on anti-fatness in fitness, finding joy in movement, and body positivity. But anti-fat bias isn’t the only barrier to inclusivity and accessibility we see within the fitness world (though it’s a major one), and the topic shouldn’t be relegated to a single issue.

(And with the announcement of the magazine’s new Future of Fitness Advisory Board, hopefully, it won’t be.)

The Trajectory of My Yoga Practice

I began practicing yoga over a decade ago. At the time, when the instructor led us through seated forward folds, I couldn’t even reach my toes.

Pretty quickly, however (I was attending classes 4-6 days a week, the studio a refuge during a shaky spot in my marriage and struggles with infertility), my hamstrings loosened and I was able to clasp my hands around the arches of my feet. Soon after, I lifted my legs into a headstand for the very first time. Eventually, I was able to pike down from that headstand… to fling myself at the wall into a handstand… to catch air in crow pose without face planting.

Well, sometimes.

As I deepened my practice, I came to feel gratitude for the sense of strength and flexibility yoga imparted, and I eventually went through a yoga teacher training program. My practice was an exercise in steady forward momentum.

The first time this forward momentum faltered was after giving birth to my child. Though I continued to engage in a mostly unmodified practice throughout the majority of my pregnancy, only switching to prenatal yoga near the end of my third trimester, things seemed to shift once I was a mom. My twists were no longer as deep, and I’d slide right out of side crow. I was afraid to lift up into a headstand from prasarita padottanasana. Though I was no longer carrying another life inside of me, I felt off-balance.

Several years later, I began experiencing pain in my right kneecap when in anjaney asana. I went to physical therapy and, later on, yoga therapy. I began modifying certain poses in order to strengthen muscles that had been neglected.

Now, at the age of 41, teaching Zoom yoga from my living room, I have come to grips with the fact that my yoga practice will never be what it was. But as Jivana Heyman points out in Accessible Yoga, we should be adapting the yoga postures to each person who comes to the practice… not forcing our bodies to adapt to the poses. And so I take the poses as far as they want to go, never forcing them further. Meanwhile, the area around my mat is crowded with blankets and bolsters, straps and knee pads, and I am unashamed about using them liberally. And though I know my students want to move, I try to also incorporate breathwork, meditation, and self-reflection.

What Yoga Culture Sometimes Ignores

I’ve watched my body and my practice change for a number of reasons and, so, I’m intentional about helping students modify their practices, whether because they are in a postpartum body, a fat body, an aging body, or a disabled body. I like to tell students (like a broken record, probably), Listen to your body more than you’re listening to me!

I was lucky to develop my own practice in a studio that was welcoming to all bodies, so I feel sensitive to the fact that yoga culture in America tends to glorify young, thin, white bodies, bodies that can contort and lift themselves into poses in a form of showboating that feels inaccessible to most. What about the rest of us? How might yoga better serve them?

As a white, able-bodied woman, I am also sensitive to the fact that, by teaching yoga, I am complicit in a system of oppression and appropriation, one that has taken yoga from South Asian and African people and twisted it to create a corporatized version of an ancient practice, one in which BIPOC folks are made to feel unwelcome by those who colonized them in the first place.

Teaching modifications and encouraging prop usage only go so far. How can we work toward decolonizing yoga and honoring its roots?

Further Reading on Decolonizing and Increasing Accessibility in Yoga

Fat, aging, postpartum body aside, it would be presumptuous of me to try to provide the answers to many of these questions. It’s just not my place. As a Feminist Book Clubber and all-around book nerd, however, I can provide you with a reading list.

For information on how to make yoga more accessible to larger bodies, you can pick up books like Laura Burns’ Big & Bold and Jessamyn Stanley’s Every Body Yoga. Burns is the founder of Radical Body Love and an advocate for fat liberation. Similarly, Stanley is a body positivity advocate and the creator of the wellness community The Underbelly. She is a queer femme who gained notoriety for showing Instagrammers of the world what it looks like when a plus-size Black woman does yoga.

To go even deeper into yoga for folks of varying abilities, social justice activist and accessible yoga teacher Dianne Bondy published Yoga for Everyone in 2019. A year later, she teamed up with Kat Heagberg Rebar to write Yoga Where You Are.

When it comes to cultural appropriation, Susanna Barkataki is perhaps the loudest voice in the field. A self-described inclusivity promoter and yoga culture advocate, she’s written a ton of pieces about appropriation versus appreciation and, in 2020, she published Embrace Yoga’s Roots. The book aims to help teachers and practitioners alike integrate their own values into their yoga practice while also respecting ancient yoga philosophy.

Finally, I want to acknowledge that yoga has proven an effective tool for those who struggle with trauma. Because I am a teacher, I have Brendon Abram’s Teaching Trauma-Sensitive Yoga. But I’m also a fan of David A. Treleaven’s Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness, David Emerson and Elizabeth Hopper’s Overcoming Trauma Through Yoga, and Bessel van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score. Zahabiyah Yamasak also recently came out with Trauma-Informed Yoga for Survivors of Sexual Assault, which I can’t wait to get my hands on. And Gail Parker published Restorative Yoga for Ethnic and Race-Based Stress and Trauma just the other year.

The yoga we see in magazines and on Instagram does not provide the whole picture. Not even close. It’s just the most visible and omnipresent one.

You couldn’t be blamed for seeing those images and thinking that maybe yoga isn’t for you.

But the practice does too much good to confine it to one slice of the population, a segment that, oftentimes, doesn’t honor the entire practice. I hope the books above help illustrate that.

Steph Auteri is a journalist who has written for the Atlantic, Pacific Standard, VICE, and elsewhere. Her more literary work has appeared in Poets & Writers, Creative Nonfiction, Southwest Review, and other publications. Her reported memoir, A DIRTY WORD, came out in 2018. She is the founder of Favorite Genres: horror, comics, horror comics, and narrative journalism.

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