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What is accessible yoga all about and is it for me ?

Events such as the Paralympic games and The Invictus Games have helped to raise awareness of the ‘ability’ of people who live with a disability. Ability is not limited to the physical either, as supreme strength of mind, discipline and sacrifice go hand in hand with participation at these levels.

Our perceptions and assumptions of the capabilities of people living with a disability are rapidly changing, and it’s about time. Furthermore, disability itself can be visible or invisible.

Being able bodied or having a brain function that is determined 'normal' (what is normal anyway)? is definitely not a pre requisite to achieve excellence in the sports and fitness arena, or any other. As we’re not all athletes at the elite level, I have been heartened to see the emergence of accessible gyms who cater for people with temporary or permanent disabilities. In a similar vein I was excited to see one of my favourite gyms in Canberra Functional Fitness recently nominated in the ACT Chief Minister’s Inclusion Awards for the category of Inclusion in Business ‘for businesses who deliver exceptional services and facilities that empower and include people with a disability and celebrate their contributions’. This didn’t surprise me though; Func as it’s known has always demonstrated incredible leadership and a refreshing approach to fitness.

Awards such as this can be a catalyst towards inspiring businesses to consider how they too can offer services that are inclusive, with the flow on effect of providing diverse experiences for people in the disability community.

Yoga is also evolving, with the term ‘Accessible Yoga’ becoming better known, particularly in the US. Jivana Heyman Founder of Accessible Yoga has created an online academy for accessibility and equity in yoga and written two visionary books on the topic. The academy runs a range of trainings for qualified yoga teachers worldwide, that enable them to learn how to adapt the practice, so it is safe and effective for people living with physical or intellectual disability, people who are in bigger bodies, older or experiencing conditions such as cancer. Practice can be done in a number of ways including on a bed.

Yoga is an ‘umbrella’ term for many different styles of practice, which includes mindfulness and philosophical aspects, encouraging reflection on our thoughts and actions towards ourselves and others.

People drawn to offering accessible yoga classes, to small groups or one on one, enjoy creating spaces that are supportive, inclusive and welcoming for all. In an accessible yoga class people are offered options to practice using a chair, a wall or the floor as well as using straps and blocks to improve safety and eliminate strain and over reaching in postures.

The ‘as if’ principle is also applied if people are not able to move limbs they are guided to ‘imagine’ the movement ‘as if’ they are doing it. This is based upon the concept that actual movement and imagining movement activate similar areas of the brain to improve motor function.

The term accessible is also broad and as well as offering adaptions to practice, it can refer to other practicalities like physical access to venues, affordability and ensuring the promotion of classes is accessible for people with vision and hearing impairment.

There’s a well-known quote in the yoga world by Krishnamacharya, who is often referred to as the father of modern yoga ‘if you can breathe you can do yoga’.

Once our understanding of the intention of yoga evolves, quotes such as this make a lot more sense and can open up a whole new world of possibilities that allows yoga teachers to train and expand offerings to people of all ages and abilities.

Among the growing body of evidence to support the benefits of this mind body practice, Yoga encourages self-acceptance, body positivity and can support mental health. Slow mindful yoga movements can be experienced in any type of class, and encourages interoceptive awareness and proprioception, beneficial for nervous system and brain function.

It’s a shame that the term Yoga can still be dismissed as airy fairy hippy stuff, or having some type of religious connotation within some professions, or segments of the population by people who haven’t caught up with the research. Due to this, the same term can be described as ‘mindful movement’ or similar.

It seems we are doing a disservice to the disability community, older people or anyone who may need a different type of practice if accessible yoga options are not made available to them, especially due to the benefits and possibilities to make a big difference to their health and wellbeing. It’s understandable that the physical aspects of some venues with stairs, other practicalities and not having appropriately trained staff can present barriers to offer accessible services for some people in this emerging client group, however , let’s draw on some yogic philosophy.

The last of Yamas (a set of five virtues) is 'Aparigraha' a sanskrit term which means the practice of non-greed or non-hoarding. If we’re in ‘greed’ or ‘hoarding’ mode it can place us in a scarcity mindset and, for a business owner can manifest as a spirit of competition. Yogic philosophy would encourage us to work in a state of collaboration, support one another’s businesses to aid the healing and growth for all.

In other words if my service wasn’t equipped to provide for someone with a disability, an older person, with a chronic condition or mobility issues, I would openly refer them to a place that does. In my case I would actively seek out businesses that do, and help them promote their services. This would at least raise awareness of the existence of accessible yoga options and foster a spirit of inclusiveness.

I don’t know how many times I have received a surprised look from people when I mention I teach chair yoga. The conversation is predictable, ‘how can you do yoga in a chair? Come to a class and find out’ I reply.

Most are pleasantly surprised, firstly that it can be challenging and overall by the impacts they experience both in mind and body. A recent class member in her 80’s advised, she no longer needs to go to the physiotherapist as often. Many others appreciate the tools we learn in class to support their anxiety and improve sleep.

Following on from the idea of collaboration between yoga businesses and given that the benefits of yoga are being backed up by volumes of scientific research, I’d love to see allied health professionals and general practitioners refer their clients to ‘accessible yoga options’. At this point I am not confident many are aware the option is available. I hope this will change in the future.

There is of course the NDIS that includes activities to support, maintain or increase physical mobility or wellbeing of people living with a disability. Once again raised awareness of the Accessible Yoga options, Mindful Movement, Gentle Movement, Breathing Practices, Mindfulness, Relaxation Techniques or whatever we choose to call it among NDIS Providers will only be of benefit for the disability community.

I believe there is lots to do with regards to raising awareness about the value and availability of accessible yoga options after all 'yoga is for everybody regardless of ability or age'.

Lesley Harris is an Accessible Yoga Advocate and a member of Accessible Yoga

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