Physical inclusivity in yoga

13/02/22 (7 Minute Read)

View Author Info: Serenity Yoga 

About The Author Image - Serenity Yoga

About The Author: Serenity Yoga

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Back when I first started practising yoga, as a rather unathletic 15- or 16-year-old, it was purely because I wanted to be able to touch my toes without bending my knees. It also helped that I’d seen someone very pretty and perfect touching their toes on the poster advertising the class, and I figured if I could do that, then maybe I’d be a little prettier and more perfect too. 


I’m sure you’ll be shocked when I tell you that touching my toes did not make me prettier or more perfect.  What did happen though, for quite some time afterwards, was a feeling of not quite being good enough or of fitting in. 


I’ve gone to numerous yoga classes, bought loads of yoga DVDs (remember this was well before YouTube), and in more recent years saw loads of people doing yoga online in various places. Every person I saw leading the class was invariably young, thin, and very flexible.  Although I was young for much of this, I’ve never managed to be as thin or flexible as ANY of the teachers and online yogis I saw. I’ve never had the matching, perfectly fitting outfits, or the designer yoga mat, or the perkiness that they always seemed to have.  I spent years thinking that I had to change to suit yoga, that I had something missing and had to be better.


I was eventually persuaded to take on a yoga teacher training course in my early 30s, after much persuasion that it was ok not to be an expert to learn to teach yoga to others.  It was during this time that I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and suspected arthritis in my hands.  I was devastated, and not just because I had a chronic illness that was only going to get worse with time.


I was upset at the thought of never getting to be a yoga teacher after all – because surely if I couldn’t do all those poses, those amazingly perfect and bendy or balanced asanas all over Instagram, then how could I possibly teach? Who would ever come to the yoga class of someone who was in too much pain to do a forearm balance, or was finding their joints stiffening ever more as time went on and couldn’t do the splits anymore?  Surely no one would want me to teach them, because there was only one right way to do yoga, and that was something I couldn’t do any more.


But I did finish my teacher training, I was pretty close to the finish line at this point, and I figured, well you’ve put all this effort in so why not at least get the certificate and have something to show for your year of training. I’m so glad I did!  As time went on, and I continued with my yoga practice, I noticed that I was feeling better than other people like me in the fibromyalgia Facebook groups I’d joined. The mental aspects of yoga and meditation were helping my feelings of depression at the pain I was in and the knowledge that I wouldn’t get better, and the physical side was helping my joints stay a bit looser and in less pain than they otherwise would have been.


It got me thinking… if yoga was helping me then potentially it could help other people like me as well?


By the time I’d finished my teacher training, I’d started to come up with the beginnings of a plan… and I was on the path to radically changing how I thought about yoga. I started off teaching classes at a powerlifting gym while I studied and researched and read. The more I studied, the more research I did, the more I started to find that there were several variations for each asana, depending on the flexibility or physical makeup of the person doing it. I also discovered a huge number of different asanas aimed at a specific injury or physical need.


Most of these I was already familiar with from my practice – but not once at any class I’d been to had I been shown the variations or told that this specific asana would help this physical injury or need. Not once. It had always been “you do this specific asana in this specific way or you’re wrong”. It was a complete revelation! My mind was completely opened, and I couldn’t believe that I had never heard anything like this in almost 20 years of doing yoga.


I worked hard to introduce the different variations to my own practice, and to my classes, while continuing to research the beginnings of yoga and how it had been seen thousands of years ago. I began to realise that although I’d loved the practice, something never sat right with me at how yoga was shown in the western world. Not just the idea that you weren’t “doing it right” if you didn’t get the asana completely ‘correct’, but also that you had to be flexible, or thin, or healthy to do yoga, that you had to have the matching outfits from the ‘right’ brand, that you had to always be striving to achieve the next cool or impressive asana, that you had to be showing off how great you were at it. 


If I’m completely honest – I hate that people see yoga in that way, and it doesn’t match the spiritual side of yoga, the Yamas and Niyamas that make up the moral codes of yoga. These should be the foundation of our practice, but how can that be the case if you have to look a certain way to even do yoga?


I began to realise that to fully live yoga, and not just practice it as a physical activity, I had to fulfil my dharma – my purpose that felt to me like a drive to help others like me see the benefits of yoga and have a more pain-free life. To help others with physical limitations to see that yoga is for everybody, and for every body. No matter what you look like, how flexible you are, how thin, old, physically fit; yoga is for you.


Yoga is what needs to change to suit your body – you don’t change for it. That the variations of an asana alter it to fit whatever body you are in right now. 


I started really working with people who have physical limitations, chronic pain and stiffness, arthritis, Parkinson’s, the elderly – anyone who could benefit either physically or mentally from yoga. I worked with people who could do advanced asanas, people who wanted to practice sitting on a chair, people who needed a mix of both. People of all ages, sizes, physical ability, and fitness levels. I focused on one-to-one sessions with people who didn’t have the physical ability to go to a ‘regular’ yoga class where variations are not focused on and everyone has to follow along or didn’t have the confidence.


Seeing my students grow in confidence, feel a reduction in their pain or achieve physical goals they never thought they could, fulfils me in a way that I never thought possible. And it shows me that I’m on the right path.


The yoga I practice and teach may not be the yoga you see in any class you’ve been to before. You’ll recognise the asanas, and may recognise the hatha or yin styles, but the mixing of styles, the variations on each asana and the tailoring of yoga to that particular person and their physical limitations or needs is something that is unfortunately lacking in the majority of the yoga classes I see and have been to – which is a huge shame.


I think the internet is making things better with more articles on how yoga can help with a certain injury, or that you don’t have to be thin to do yoga. However, there is still a huge way to go to get away from the perception, unfortunately coming from quite a few yoga teachers as well the general public, that you have to do each asana ‘right’ to be doing yoga properly.


I am passionate about physical inclusivity in yoga, and in bringing the mental and physical benefits of yoga to everyone no matter what their physical limitations, flexibility, fitness levels or size, and I’ll continue to work hard to overcome the lack of it in the yoga industry.


Read more about Lesley and contact her directly from her profile HERE