Jivana Heyman teaches Accessible Yoga

Jivana Heyman and students at the Santa Barbara Yoga Center. Photo by Sarit Rogers

When I met Accessible Yoga Founder Jivana Heyman, I was struck by how much he lives the values of Accessible Yoga. He is an example of these values in every way. His attitude, demeanor, and approach to teaching are all—dare I say—accessible.

In addition to his grassroots mission to advocate for the growth of yoga beyond the typical class experience, Jivana is the co-owner of the Santa Barbara Yoga Center and an Integral Yoga Minister. Jivana created the first Accessible Yoga training program in 2007 and in the years since, the movement has grown worldwide.

What inspired your commitment to Accessible Yoga?

In the late 80s and early 90s I was an AIDS activist. I feel like Accessible Yoga is a continuation of my disability awareness work.

As I continued to teach yoga for people with AIDS and other disabilities, I saw the incredible healing and growth that people were experiencing through yoga. It wasn’t always a physical healing, but a healing of the mind and a connection with their inner self that was a privilege to witness.

Yoga has been my sanctuary for 30 years, and I feel like I owe a debt of gratitude which I’m paying through my dedicated service. Everyone is equally deserving of these incredible, life-changing tools.

Have you had an experience in one of your classes where you were able to work with someone for whom yoga was previously inaccessible?

Way too many to describe! Through Accessible Yoga, I have seen so many people find yoga who would never otherwise step into a yoga studio or take a yoga class.

I remember one woman who was in her thirties and had rheumatoid arthritis. It mostly effected her hands, which she couldn’t use, but otherwise she was relatively fit and flexible. She told me she couldn’t practice yoga. So I taught her some chair yoga, and how to transfer to the floor using the support of a chair, and she was so excited to practice.

I’ve also taught people with quadriplegia, who have no mobility. Those students get directly to the essence of the practice, which is to become friends with your own mind!

How has your work with Accessible Yoga changed your personal practice?

I no longer beat myself up for not “progressing” in poses and I’ve let go of expectations. At this point, I’m content with what my body needs to do on any given day. I use my asana practice to get relaxed and help me find comfort in a seated position for meditation. As I said, yoga is my sanctuary, not a place for competition or comparison. Don’t we all need a place where we can go to relax and take care of ourselves?

Has your work with Accessible Yoga changed how you teach every class?

I’ve let go of the idea of advanced versus beginner in yoga classes. To me the advanced yogi is the one who is at peace with themselves and offering service to the world. With this understanding, my teaching is based on giving tools to my students to explore their bodies and minds.

Do you have a success story about training teachers in Accessible Yoga?

Accessible Yoga formally began 10 years ago when I created a 200-hour basic yoga teacher training for people with disabilities so they could become yoga teachers.

My success stories include all of the people with disabilities or challenges who go out and serve others. Its so easy for me to feel sorry for myself when I’m not feeling well or when I have a problem in my life, but I have met countless people who overcome adversity on a daily basis in order to serve. I know a teacher with MS who has extreme fatigue. The only time she would leave her house each week was so teach one yoga class. Now that’s dedication!

What are some of the a-ha moments that happen in an Accessible Yoga event or training?

I think the biggest a-ha of Accessible Yoga is that yoga is not about the body! Yoga is a spiritual practice that connects us to our inner essence, our true self. This is the part of us that has always been there and never changes. The body and mind are constantly changing, but there is a part of us that has been the same since we were five years old, or 21, or 50, or 80. The essence of who we are is love. That same love is in all beings, regardless of our physical appearance or ability.

Yoga is designed to remind us of that unchanging essence. Yoga also allows us to release whatever is in the way of that experience. With this understanding, the path of yoga becomes more clear. We have insights and gain awareness of how to practice and teach in alignment with the essential teachings of yoga.

What advice would you give to teachers to help them make their classes more accessible to anyone who walks in the room?

Well, I lead entire trainings on that subject—but I would say there are a few essential points.

  • See all your students as equals, regardless of their physical ability. Each students deserves your respect and attention, and be sure that you are focused on what is best for them.
  • Approach each practice with a feeling of exploration and creativity.
  • See the students as your partners in this exploration, and guide them to find their own way.
  • Teaching yoga is like giving someone driving directions. You can explain where to go, but they have to do the driving without you. You never know what kind of potholes or detours they’ll find on the way.
  • If a student can’t do a pose the way you are teaching it, then that is a challenge for you, not for them. You are the teacher, and you need to have a deep enough understanding of the practice to offer an array of options for each practice. For example, you can do a cobra pose sitting in a chair, standing at the wall, standing in the middle of the room, kneeling, or even in bed.

The next Accessible Yoga training in the Midwest is at Yoga Buzz in St Louis, Missouri November 9-12.

The next Accessible Yoga training in Southern California is January 12-15, 2018 in Santa Barbara at the Santa Barbara Yoga Center.

What happens at an Accessible Yoga training or conference that is unique?

We focus on collaboration and community building. Accessible Yoga Conferences are not commercial yoga events. Instead, we are all gathering together to learn, explore and grow. Our presenters are people who inspire us. The participants are people who are out there on their own finding ways of serving people who may not usually have access to yoga. These include people with disabilities, chronic invisible illnesses, seniors, vets, or people who are homeless, just to name a few examples.

When we come together as a yoga community, without competition, we can accomplish so much. I’ve seen incredible things happen through Accessible Yoga. I’m so grateful for all of our Ambassadors and volunteers around the world who are building a new model of yoga based on accessibility, inclusion and loving service. It sounds crazy, but I think yoga can save the world!

Learn more about the Accessible Yoga Movement at: www.accessibleyoga.org.

Felicia M. Tomasko
Felicia Tomasko has spent more of her life practicing Yoga and Ayurveda than not. She first became introduced to the teachings through the writings of the Transcendentalists, through meditation, and using asana to cross-train for her practice of cross-country running. Between beginning her commitment to Yoga and Ayurveda and today, she earned degrees in environmental biology and anthropology and nursing, and certifications in the practice and teaching of yoga, yoga therapy, and Ayurveda while working in fields including cognitive neuroscience and plant biochemistry. Her commitment to writing is at least as long as her commitment to yoga. Working on everything related to the written word from newspapers to magazines to websites to books, Felicia has been writing and editing professionally since college. In order to feel like a teenager again, Felicia has pulled out her running shoes for regular interval sessions throughout Southern California. Since the very first issue of LA YOGA, Felicia has been part of the team and the growth and development of the Bliss Network.