What is Accessible Yoga and Why is it Important?

By: Steph Ball-Mitchell, ERYT500, RPYT, RCYT, YACEP, CAADC

What is Accessible Yoga and Why is it Important?

accessible yoga

What is accessible yoga?

Accessible yoga is an inclusive practice that adapts the yoga posture to each individual body rather than trying to force bodies into specific shapes. What we're going for in accessible yoga is the opposite of a one-size-fits-all mentality.

Accessible yoga, sometimes known as adaptable yoga, honors all people, all bodies and all things that come up on any given day. It recognizes that no two people are in the same physical or mental place and therefore gives us permission to customize our yoga practice, making it accessible for the skin that we’re in. As practitioners of yoga, that means we have compassion for ourselves and recognize our own needs. As yoga teachers, accessible yoga calls on us to care for our students so much that we plan for them, offering them as many options as possible to accommodate them. We want to create a safe space for our students to make choices that are right for them, teaching them to tune in to their own bodies. Accessible yoga acknowledges that only the student knows what is right for the student’s body.

Why is accessible yoga important?

No two bodies are alike.  

Many yoga teachers are trained in a way that emphasizes very specific alignment with precise positioning of the feet, placement of the joints and forming an exact shape throughout the entire body. Traditionally, this was the way of yoga. As we acquire information, we evolve. We now know that this practice of cookie cutter yoga is not helpful or safe because no two bodies are the same, which is why accessible yoga is so important. Our yoga needs to adapt to our bodies, not vice versa. 

We all have our own unique bodies and no two bodies are alike. We are born with unique bodies that are like no other, and from there, we customize our body experiences with every breath we take, further individuating ourselves. The differences between bodies are both beautiful and profound. We are born with our own unique bone structure, which cannot be duplicated. We then make choices for our movement, what we put into our bodies and our level of activity. We have other factors that are beyond our control, such as injury and illness that have a major impact on our bodies. And our mental health and emotional state can also play a role in where we are with our with movement. Then, there are energetic factors that may change from day to day, or even moment to moment. 

Just think of all the choices we make for our bodies. We choose whether or not to participate in many activities, and these activities can cause injuries, tightness, strength, flexibility, stamina and balance or a lack thereof. A middle-aged person who has practiced Ashtanga daily for almost 30 years may have a lot of flexibility but perhaps not as much stability in the joints and muscles. A lifelong runner may have a lot of strength in the legs but not as much flexibility. People who sit in chairs all days could have tight hip flexors. Moms who carry babies or small children all day may have back pain. Those who haven’t moved much may have limited range of motion, flexibility and reduced stamina. 

These are all simple examples, but most movement stories are more complex. Most of us have periods of time in our lives where we move more frequently than other times. Most of us engage in more than one movement modality over our lifespan, and the different movement modalities have different effects on our bodies and our experience in them. 

People also have illnesses and injuries that can affect the way their bodies move. Neurological conditions can develop that may affect our balance. Illnesses can change the level of cardiovascular activity that is safe for people and can also create needs for modifications for safety. Digestive issues can create discomfort in certain postures for people. Hip, knee and shoulder injuries are quite common and can change the way that people practice yoga. 

There are other lifestyle factors that can change the way people feel in their bodies. What we choose to put in our bodies has a direct effect on our energy level. The medications that people take can cause all sorts of side effects that impact movement and mindfulness. The quality of sleep that we experience has bearing on our ability to show up and be present for asana practice. Lifestyle choices such as smoking or consuming alcohol can also affect movement. 

Also important to consider is mental and emotional health. Depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues can change the way we feel in our own bodies and the way that we move. When people are experiencing anxiety, it is harmful to overstimulate them, but can be helpful to burn out the anxiety. When people are depressed, it can be helpful to help them open through movement. Past traumas create long-term effects and certain postures may feel too vulnerable. There’s no way to know how someone is feeling in any given moment which is why it is so important that we offer many options and points of access. All people need different things from their yoga practice. This is what accessible yoga is all about. 

Once we accept that no two bodies are alike, it seems silly to expect that everyone should force themselves into the same shape in the same way. As yoga teachers, it is pertinent that we learn how to help our students adapt the yoga postures we teach to their own bodies rather than forcing their bodies into a specific shape that may not work for them. Accessible yoga is the way of the future and the only way that we, as ambassadors of yoga, can help spread wellness to all people.

How Do We Teach Accessible Yoga? 

Learning to teach accessible yoga takes time, training and most importantly, compassion for all people. I’ve taken several trainings on accessibility in yoga. Our 200 hour and 300 hour online yoga teacher training programs have been updated to include training on accessible yoga. We also have guest teacher Dianne Bondy in our 200 and 300 hour trainings who teaches about adaptability for all bodies. 

It’s easy to see the world only through our own perspective. As yoga teachers, this sometimes means that we think about accommodations for our own bodies and bodies like ours, but we may not think of all the possible issues that different bodies come across when practicing a yoga posture. Mindfully thinking our way through the postures we plan to teach can help us to create options for our students that give them a point of access for each posture. As I learned to incorporate accessibility options into my teaching, I relied heavily on two things. First, I leaned on the compassion I feel for my students and second, I relied on my understanding of the purpose of the yoga postures I teach. 

Compassion is the First Key Element to Teaching Accessible Yoga 

When we care for our students deeply, and we have compassion for them, it becomes second nature to find ways to adapt our yoga postures for their bodies. In yoga philosophy, compassion is all about taking the time to study someone deeply enough that you understand their sufferings. Through understanding their sufferings, you are able to help ease their pain. It is through this genuine compassion that we are able to understand our students’ physical sufferings in the yoga postures that we teach so that we can find solutions to ease their suffering. 

Cultivating this type of compassion for individual students takes time. It takes time to study the bodies that we teach and watch what happens as our students move into different shapes. Through mindful observation, we can detect their sufferings and then we are able to create viable options for them. Over time, we develop many options for every yoga posture that we teach. We can read books and visit websites that offer us accessibility options, and those are certainly helpful practices, but I think when we teach from lived experience our students learn in the most authentic way. Our understanding of the accessibility option is better informed when we have found the option through our own practice or teaching. 

Understanding the Purpose of the Yoga Posture is the Second Key Element to Teaching Accessible Yoga

My original 200 hour teacher was Maty Ezraty and this was back when you studied for about 1,500 hours to get the 200 hour certification. We practiced for hours and hours. Maty trained with K. Pattabhi Jois, the father of Ashtanga yoga. K. Pattabhi Jois originally trained with Krishnamacharya, the father of modern yoga. She later got into Iyengar and I remember her talking about how much she loved the fine tuning that Iyengar offers with alignment. Yet, Maty was originally an Ashtanga yogi and strict alignment cues were taught in our trainings. 

In these situations, the ego can take over and it’s easy to get obsessed with “perfect alignment.” I’ve watched many of my colleagues injure themselves in the quest for this “perfect alignment.” Maty definitely taught to go to your edge, but she also taught the importance of understanding what your edge is and knowing the purpose of the posture. Through understanding the purpose of the posture, we are able to create accessibility options. 

For example, when we understand the purpose of Navasana, we are comfortable with bent legs if that means the spine stays long. When we understand the purpose of purpose of Dancer, we know that it’s better to keep the up bend in the chest and not bow forward than to bow forward extensively and lose the up bend in the chest. We realize it’s ok to take a moment to move the belly around to create space so that we can come into a purposeful twist, minimizing compression. Maybe we walk our feet up the wall for support in Bakasana as we get comfortable with shifting weight into our hands. Or we may explore all of the options in Prasarita Padottanasana and how to make it more accessible.

Practice What We Teach

Before we can teach accessible yoga, we must first practice it. We have to love ourselves so much that we give ourselves permission to follow the cues of our own body more than the pictures we see that define today’s trendy shapes of yoga. When we tap into our mindfulness practices, we can slow down and recognize our own sufferings. Through these mindful observations, we can adapt our yoga postures to our bodies. As we authentically adapt our own practices, it becomes natural to teach accessible yoga to our students so that they can experience the wonderment of yoga. 

To learn more about accessible yoga, join us in our 200 hour yoga teacher training, a Yoga Alliance foundational course for yoga teachers. If you’re already a 200-hour teacher, and you’d like to learn more about accessibility, we offer accessible yoga training in our 300-hour accessible yoga teacher training.

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