illustration by @ksenia_sapunkova

Yoga & Inclusion, Part I: How Can Yoga Teachers Make Their Classes Inclusive?

This article refers to yoga as a practice mainly in pranayama and asana since that is the authors’ and contributors’ experience as teachers and lifelong students – recognizing that these are just two of the eight limbs of yoga.

During this seemingly endless twilight zone of the COVID-19 pandemic, yoga spaces have become more important than ever. Whether virtual or in-person, a yoga class can offer a much-needed pause, a moment to be with breath and body, a way to structure days that seem to meld into each other. For those who have a regular yoga practice, we may take the experience of taking a class—from finding the schedule, signing up, and paying, to entering the space, setting up your mat and props, and doing the practice—for granted. However, this experience of integrating practice into daily life is not universal – and that’s what this article is all about.

Yoga spaces, by their nature, should be inclusive. Yoga may be primarily a physical practice in the Western world (pranayama, asana, meditation), but it is rooted in a philosophy of connectedness: with self, others, and the universal. It is a beautiful, ancient practice that offers a lifetime of benefits for anyone: no matter what shape one’s yoga practice takes, it has the potential to prepare the body and mind for stillness, which is where its deep benefits begin. A regular practice builds resilience to move through life’s challenges, whether they are physical, emotional, or circumstantial—and I think we can all agree that 2020 has brought these challenges to the forefront.

Think about your first ever yoga class. Maybe you were convinced to tag along with a friend, or maybe you passed by a sign enticing you with ‘FREE YOGA FOR EVERYONE’ (that was my entry point). See if you can recall how it felt to enter the space. Did you know where to go? Were there stairs to climb? Was there clear signage? Was there an area where you could change and use the restroom? Was there a tap to fill your water bottle? Could you borrow a mat and props?

When you got into the practice room, did you know where to place your mat? Was the space quiet or full of voices? Did you feel calm or anxious? Did fellow students acknowledge your presence? Did the teacher introduce themself? Did they set expectations for the class?

When the class began, how did it feel to move? Did the instructor cue breath in a way that made sense to you? Did they offer variations of each asana? Did their verbal and/or physical adjustments help you find expressions of poses that felt good in your body? Did you feel pressure to achieve a certain shape? Was there an option to rest if you wanted to?

After class, did the instructor stick around to chat? Did you feel comfortable approaching them with questions? Was there a space to unwind before heading back into the world? Were there class schedules available so that you could plan your next visit? Most importantly, did you feel called to return to the space?

I know: so many questions.

But these are crucial questions to ask if we want yoga to be inclusive. We cannot assume that everyone has a positive experience in yoga spaces. And if we want yoga to truly be available to all, we need to untangle some of the aspects that detract from that positive experience. The unfortunate truth is that for many students, yoga spaces do not feel welcoming.

To gain insights into what building inclusion into yoga teaching looks like, I approached a few of my peers who teach movement and meditation in a way that intentionally invites people in, regardless of where they’re coming from. Their views on inclusion stem from their own experiences as practitioners, as well as their intention to foster supportive communities for students of different ages, abilities, and interests.

Many of the things that make attending a yoga class enjoyable to some (think: a beautiful playlist, incense, dim lighting, challenging sequences, physical adjustments) may cause discomfort, anxiety, and even physical harm to other students. For those with sensory conditions, certain lighting, scents, and music may be problematic. For those who have experienced trauma, physical adjustments may be triggering. For those who are newer to yoga, alignment cues may be confusing. For those with mobility restrictions, a repeated posture like downward dog could cause long-term damage to the body.

Trauma has a deep impact on our entire body – not just our sense of self, place, purpose in the world – but measurable impacts on our physical bodies – from our nervous systems, endocrine systems…heart rate, vagal tone, fascia, tension. It’s important to keep those impacts in mind.
— Marcelle

Marcelle, yoga teacher interviewed by Sarah Bradley

Yoga studios don’t intentionally exclude—but unless a studio actively commits to being inclusive, many current and prospective students may feel unwelcome. How does that manifest? As a studio, you won’t reach a diverse student community. As a teacher, you miss out on the valuable processes of un/relearning some of the assumptions you carry. As a student, you won’t reap the innumerable benefits that yoga offers, like mental wellbeing, physical health, and a sense of community.

With the topic of fostering inclusion in yoga spaces (both virtual and in-person) in mind, I spoke to several yoga teachers in my communities in Toronto and Vancouver, Canada, about what inclusion means in yoga, the importance of making yoga spaces inclusive, and the positive effects of grounding one’s teaching practice in inclusion. They were also gracious enough to share their recommendations on what you can do to ground your own teaching practice in inclusion. So let’s dive into the big question:

Why is it important to make yoga spaces inclusive?

First and foremost, yoga spaces have the potential to make people feel valued and part of a community. Sure, these days it’s easy enough to follow a video at home, but people come to the studio to connect with others. Michelle, who teaches a variety of community movement classes, shared that “People can find a sense of meaning in community and it can make a big city feel like a small town – studios are places that foster deep connections that are often lacking in our other domains of life. This is a human need, something that is increasingly relevant in these times of isolation…we have an important role to play in opening doors for others to find healing through this practice.”

Michelle, yoga teacher interviewed by Sarah Bradley

Although we can’t practice together in physical spaces, there are still ways to reap the benefits of studio communities, for example by committing to practicing with your local studio online. Not only will you be supporting teachers and staff financially, but you will also contribute to those intangible connections that keep students returning to a studio space when they could just as easily practice at home.

Similarly, Montana, an Integrated Wellness Educator, said that inclusion begins with the intention to make each student who comes to class feel welcome. Marcelle, who teaches healing practices grounded in movement and mindfulness, echoed that grounding yoga in inclusion—from physically accessible spaces to verbal cueing that works for all bodies—creates a better experience for everyone. She urges teachers to remember our initial experience with yoga and teach from that place of curiosity and empathy.

We all equally deserve access to these powerful, magical, ancient teachings of yoga, which at their heart, offer individual empowerment and a platform for spiritual development.
— Marcelle

Since systems of oppression and their resultant power dynamics are ingrained in Western yoga, it can be hard to talk about these things and understand our complicity. Inclusion requires self-study (the niyama of svadhyaya) and self-inquiry. A good place to start is recognizing the ways in which we yield and share power in yoga spaces. For example, what if you thought about teaching as facilitating rather than directing? How can you entrust power onto your students so that they can practice in a way that works best for them? A good teacher can design and lead a beautifully sequenced class; a great teacher can foster spaces that create union, both on and off the mat. Which brings us to our next question…

How do you foster inclusion in yoga spaces, both physical and virtual?

Surprise: there is no formula or set of rules. It’s more about an ongoing commitment to create a culture of access, agency, and empowerment. When in doubt, return to the yamas and niyamas: the guiding principles of yoga that underpin a practice that heals rather than harms.

Marcelle suggests simply taking the time to get to know your students: eventually, you’ll be able to gauge what would serve them on a particular day. Ask people how they are doing and remember their stories, checking in when there is time and space to do so. Inclusion relies on deep listening, not only for verbal expression, but also body language and nonverbal cues. A one-on-one conversation can go a long way towards creating a positive experience for your students.

I think one of the main reasons someone will return to a yoga class is because they felt included. This means we have an important role to play in opening doors for others to find healing through this practice.
— Montana

Montana, yoga teacher interviewed by Sarah Bradley

Michelle and Montana, whom I both met while teaching outdoor sunset yoga (their radiant energy palpable from across the park) urge studios to think about physical or financial limitations and to get creative to address those barriers, whether it’s teaching outdoors, bringing extra mats, offering family-friendly classes (silliness encouraged!), old-fashioned poster advertising, or having a discrete donation jar so that students can contribute without needing a credit card. Montana shared that “it felt incredible to not put any pressure on people to pay anything more than what they could afford; I think they were able to see that I truly was trying my best to serve them, and contributed in return whatever they felt was a fair exchange.”

For virtual spaces, make space for your students to introduce themselves as they feel comfortable before beginning class. Keep in mind that some students will prefer to keep videos off – that doesn’t mean you can’t connect! Make use of the chat feature in Zoom or whichever platform you’re using to accommodate students who are more comfortable introducing themselves and asking questions in the chat rather than being on video.

The main difference between a free Youtube class and a live video class is personal attention: strive to hold space for your students and support them in their practice. Don’t underestimate the value of making time for questions or chit chat at the end of class before we retreat into our separate worlds. If you have a regular group of students, consider putting a callout before class for ‘requests’ so that you can offer a class that meets students where they are on that particular day.

When it comes to language, strive to use universal cuing that centres on how a pose should feel, rather than how it should look. Your instructions should resonate with students regardless of their bodies, musculature, flexibility, mobility, and strength. This is especially important in virtual classes where it’s harder to give each student personal attention. The more thoughtful your cueing, the better your students will be able to follow and experience the positive effects of yoga practice.

And that brings us to the third question: what are the positive impacts of creating inclusive yoga spaces?

If your students feel welcomed, seen, and heard, they’ll likely keep coming back. Michelle mentioned that, as a new teacher, leading inclusive community classes allowed her to quickly build up a group of regulars. Students who were brand new to yoga now feel confident to approach her with requests, allowing her to tailor her classes to their needs. Montana attributes her success as a teacher to developing non-hierarchical relationships and offering direction and cues as invitations rather than clear-cut instructions. By empowering students to cultivate their own practice, she gets to witness them moving in a way that allows them to find freedom and joy in their bodies. This takes time and vulnerability, and it’s up to each teacher to determine where their comfort level is in sharing their own experience and inviting students to do the same. Trust that the work is the practice, and it is an ongoing journey that manifests differently for every teacher.

Sarah, the curious yogi, and author of this article

So what can you do, as a yoga teacher, to ensure you’re actively creating inclusive spaces? Stay tuned for part two: Practical tips to ground your yoga teaching in inclusion.

Resources & wisdom nuggets

Chronically Surviving: Accessible mindfulness resources 

Chronically Surviving: Free yoga and meditation library

Montana Skurka (Integrative Wellness Educator) blog and videos

The Mentor Sessions podcast

SU&Y articles

How to use language to make yoga classes more inclusive by Carly Stong

Yoga Is Social Justice: How to be a co-conspirator for liberation by Harpinder Mann & Irene Lo (Womxn of Color Summit)

Interview with Susanna Barkataki, Indian Yoga Guide and Author of Embrace Yoga’s Roots

Edited by Ely Bakouche

Illustration by Ksenia Sapunkova

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