This week, I was thrilled to host my first monthly Yoga Teacher TuneUp call via Google Hangout. As part of my "Wonder • Learn • Integrate • Share" model of teaching, these calls are designed to get people thinking about the tools we can synthesize to create experiences that are compassionate, brave, inclusive, and empowering. This first discussion was all about language. Maybe more than any other tool that we have, language has the unique ability to strengthen or weaken each of the four pillars of our practice (compassionate, brave, inclusive, and empowering). I was so thrilled to have so many heart-centred, responsible teachers join me on the call.
Those who know me or have studied with me (or read this blog) know that I am very particular about language on and off the mat. It’s super subtle sometimes, but the way that we use language has the potential to empower or demoralize and injects energy into - or draws from - our purpose. When we discuss language in the studio or gym setting, we could talk about supporting different types of learning styles with our choice of words, the volume of our voice, creating biographies and class descriptions, etc. This conversation can evolve and branch out in tons of interesting directions; however, in the interest of time, this call was really just focused on vocabulary choices while you're teaching in a studio space or gym.
We are so fortunate to be witnessing an ongoing growth, expansion, and diversification of our communities to include the full spectrum of the human experience: whether it be by age, race, body size, ability, gender identity, and so on. So, as yoga teachers, we need to constantly be asking ourselves "How can we teach in a way that includes and resonates with everyone at once?" For me, this translates to: how can we, as teachers, connect to our compassionate hart, bolster our understanding through education, be mindful with our words, and empower through our practice. This starts with cultivating a sensitivity to and awareness of cultural and social norms that are unlike your own.
So how do we do that?
Let me first paint a picture for you: I often see teachers advertising their classes as "Yoga for EveryBODY". While I believe that many studios intend to be inclusive and accessible, the reality is that a safe container conducive to learning and transformation doesn't manifest from good intentions alone. Take a look at these yoga studios' websites ... oftentimes, all the images are of thin, white, flexible women. All are well-dressed with perfectly coifed hair in branded yoga clothing and matching accessories. Then, when you arrive at the studio, it's on the second story of a building with no elevator access. The yoga mats are two inches from one another and there is nary a block or strap in sight. When you are represented in the photos you see, your able-body allows you to climb the flight of stairs no problem, and your strength and flexibility allows for you to access most asana unassisted, it's easy to feel like this space is welcoming because it's welcoming to you. Can we really say that this class is for everyBODY?
When yoga teachers/studios want to be sure that they are not just paying lip service to accessibility, they can start off by reading up on conversations about inclusivity in other contexts. You see, yoga may only just be on the verge of accessibility, but conversations about diversity have been going on beyond the yoga studio for decades now. Think about the corporate world, academia, the tech world, and so on. How did these communities tackle the questions that you may have about accessibility?
There are also incredibly positive examples in the yoga world that we can align ourselves with. The Yoga and Body Image Coalition, the Yoga Service Council, and Accessible Yoga are just a few. Seek out these leaders. Like and Follow them and the people/groups that they feature. Integrate their best practices and be sure to post on your own social media images and representations of the practice that embody the full spectrum of life.
Examine and acknowledge your privilege and power with compassion. If we want to talk about yoga as a tool in social change and whether all bodies are welcome, we need to understand how our privilege grants us access to the practice and the studios with which we practice. It is important to recognize your privilege in order to recognize those who do not have the same privileges as you.
If you look outside of your own experiences and want to reach out to discover and support the needs of people who aren’t like yourself, it is necessary that you collaborate with the communities that you wish to serve. Volunteer and listen to their stories so that you can cultivate sensitivity to and awareness of cultural and social norms. Get real about conscious/unconscious assumptions that you may make with the desire to overcome them and learn to work with this community in a way that doesn't inadvertently offend, demoralize, dismiss, or exclude.
Lastly, when we're embodying progressiveness, we have to be willing to change the way we think about things (including ourselves). Be humble. Admit when you made a mistake or misunderstand something. Seek to know better and do better and consider everything as an opportunity for learning. Take it to heart, but don't take it personally.