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A framework for Inclusive Yoga Teaching

inclusive yoga Mar 31, 2023
Photo by Tim Mossholderon Unsplash

Firstly- I’d like to acknowledge the incredible heritage & lineage of yoga from South Asia & the relationship of myself as a white British (Irish heritage) woman, and of this land my country as oppressors of the Indian subcontinent. I share this from a position of knowing I cannot be perfect since there is no such thing. That I cannot please everyone. Accepting this I believe is fundamental to the work of daring to offer this teaching and practice with any depth & integrity. 

The yoga philosophy and practice rests on the understanding that the genuine liberation must be for all beings. That “no one is free until we are all free.” (Martin Luther King)

A few statistics from the UK TODAY- that show that our inclusivity can be a way to normalise the normal, stats of those considered overweight alone stand at 65% of adults. Ie the majority who might not fit into the confinement of the yoga stereotype. The folks who come to yoga- who most need yoga are often those with anxiety, traumatic stress. We need to welcome those in larger bodies as movement is THE most important factor in maintaining health of body & mind.  

This is the very humble and tentative beginnings of a framework for increased inclusivity in yoga. Rather than saying yoga is “for everyone”, we can be more specific who the class or offering is for. So that we don’t inadvertently exclude those who don’t fit the “everyone” framework thereby making them “invisible”.  So here’s a teaching framework in the making that we can adapt for different populations of students and thus carry out teaching inclusive yoga. I’d love to have any input or hear your reflections. 

Here I outline the broader environment that frames our offering and gives us food for thought and a path for personal reflections. The last blog outlined a more practical framework. Enjoy! 

A Framework for Teaching Inclusive Yoga

1. Philosophy

Yoga philosophy and practice have often been at odds as regards inclusivity. Whereas the practice of asana today is often the domain of the athletic, slim, white woman; in ancient times it was often the practice for men, often of the higher Brahmin caste.  But the philosophy abounds with the idea that we are all interconnected.  The purusha or consciousness that animates matter or prakriti. The form prakriti takes includes all life we know- so it is varied and ever changing. But the purusha remains the same, whatever form it moves into, it remains unchanged. So we can trace our way to consciousness without form (nigunas) and from there realise the ultimate truth and liberation. Or we can reflect on prana- the force supports all life, and animates all matter, that affects our bodies and minds, as well as reaching to the furthest galaxy as Maha prana or the great prana. 

The Chandogya Upanisad (6-8 BCE) describes how the clay already has the “pot” within it, the “pot” also has the clay within it. They are distinct but fundamentally the same. 

The teaching on the koshas or the 5 layers or sheaths of our existence also describes how we seems to be separate from the position of the physical form- the annamaya kosha. But there is so much more. Pranaymaya kosha describes the subtle body, the prana which animates both mind and body. Manomaya kosha describes the changing realm of thought and feeling. Beyond this is the wisdom realm- the higher mind that we can tap into when we sit with our truth, or connect to spontaneously. The Anandamaya kosha- the realm where we realise all these other aspects are simply reflections of the whole Self. That we are as vast as expansive as the universe! 

Where yoga so often appears to be physical nowadays with the mats, the poses & the leggings, the body is simply the training ground of the mind.  So that we can realise “I am not just this body. I am not just this mind”. 

The irony is this philosophy which seeks to uplift humanity from our identification with the dense, difficult physical realm; has become so focused on the body. Exploited as a way to fetishise yoga and the female form. 

The most fundamental tenet of inclusive yoga is shifting the perspective to where it always should have been- away from the physical. I advocate as a part of this the realization that rest might be the pinnacle of the practice! Moving away from a complex hierarchy of postures. Away from “beginner” or intermediate” having anything to do with the poses. To a respect for the ability to pause, to relax. This could be the healing of both body, mind and the planet as we shift from “doing” and accumulating to pausing and protecting. 

2. Psychology of yoga

This then leads us to the mind- the Patanjali Yoga Sashtra opens with the definition of yoga as the ability to still the mind. Of the nature of mind as being inevitably restless, the text then proposes many options as to practices we can explore to find more ease, more stability, less affiliation with the mind or the body.  One of the most healing paths for me personally has been the realization that it is the “nature of the mind” that gives rise to our relentless thoughts and supports so many feelings. This can help us to move away from feelings of shame or blame that are so prevalent for those with traumatic experiences.

This also supports those of us, with an upregulated nervous system, and a mind that finds it hard to settle- to realise its not a personal failing. This can be such a comfort compared to the moralistic teachings of the Judeo Christian tradition. 

3. Privilege & Prejudices 

We can however examine our thoughts and feelings through self-study swadyaye, one of the yamas in Patanjali’s system of yoga. This is key to inclusive yoga as it is inevitable that our mind is coloured by cultural norms and assumptions. So we will need to “check our privilege” to acknowledge we may be making assumptions about others experiences based on our own and failing to acknowledge the challenges of those affected by racism, or poverty, of different sexual orientations or non-binary, those in larger bodies.

As a “rich, skinny white” woman it is so tempting to try to tidy up the universe! To assume “things happen for a reason” “I can manifest my own reality” to believe that my power or purity made it possible for me to for example buy a yoga studio. In denial of the economic advantages I have had etc. Again theres a certain humility in seeing this. But it makes the work of inclusion possible. 

The flip side of this is to look at how different power dynamics affect each of us and a study of Intersectionality is useful here. As well as acknowledging we dont need to create a hierarchy of traumas. Pain and suffering are very real for everyone. 

4. Power

When it comes to power within the yoga class where we're teaching yoga, between teacher and student, we want to get over the idea of ourselves as THE expert, so that we can liaise with students & let them find the practice that is working for them physically, emotionally & mentally. We can also guide students towards their own inner teacher. “With great respect and love I honour my heart, my inner teacher”

5. Personal practice

This brings us to yoga as a personal practice, able to meet the needs of each unique person. There are so many paths and practices within the yoga tradition. Even the sutras of Patanjali lay out so many diverse practices and this is only one text. It is estimated there are 300 million yoga texts in India, the vast majority not yet translated! So the practice fits the person not the other way around, even before we get to the asana. Asana might not be the way.

6. Prana & nervous system

Prana regulates both body and mind, as such it equates, I believe to the nervous system. The most useful concept & perhaps most powerful healing of yoga comes about through the ability to alternately up and down regulate the nervous system. Ie moves us between more sympathetic and parasympathetic states. In neurodiverse conditions and mental health conditions, as well as coping with relentless daily stresses, the NS state can become stuck and lose its adaptability. 

7. Physical

This is another reason to move away from the concept of yoga as exercise. Because there are other, better forms of exercise. Need cardio? Do cardio. Need strength work- lift weights. Need NS regulation- do yoga- asana, meditation, pranayama, philosophy. The whole thing. Don't try to turn yoga into weights/ cardio or anything else, because you lose the healing power of an adaptable nervous system. 

Down-regulation involves being able to rest, to pause, to unhook from work and worry.  I advocate this as the healing practice of our time. Healing personally, and for the planet. Less stuff & more stillness. 

NEW COURSE - Inclusive Yoga 

The Inclusive Yoga uses this broad framework and fills in the practical side that will make it possible to teach more students with confidence. Those who tend to come to yoga are those who have aches and pains or want to feel more mobile. Those who perhaps have experienced traumatic stress or are anxious. 

This course will make it possible for you to meet all these needs within one type of class. It is the exact way I had classes with 20+ students and waiting lists because students knew they could come and feel safe and seen.

I hope to share it with you, and answer your questions along the way, and help you to continue your advanced yoga teacher training.

Purchase the Inclusive Yoga course and see your confidence in teaching yoga grow and your students thrive.

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