yoga practitioner with disabilities

Tom Valencia practicing yoga. Photo by Robert Sturman (

6 ways to create yoga classes for people of all abilities and body types

It was 1995. It was the second yoga class I ever taught. I remember it vividly because it was terrifying; it was a beginning level class, and in walked a woman who was probably in her 80s with her leg in a brace. The butterflies already racing around that my stomach did an extra flip.

I decided that all I could do was teach the basic class I had been trained to teach and pray for help. Once we got started I saw that she had a very advanced practice, and I realized that she didn’t need me at all. In fact, she was teaching me a valuable lesson: Don’t make assumptions about people’s abilities or experience levels based on their outward appearance.

This eye-opening experience, and the fact that my best friend was very sick with AIDS, led me to start teaching Yoga classes for the HIV/AIDS community in San Francisco. My interest grew as I saw the dedication of my students with disabilities and chronic illness. Many of them embraced Yoga as a source of healing—not always a physical healing, but a radical personal healing that offered a deep peace. They inspired me to dig deeper in my personal practice and to consider innovative ways to open the doors to Yoga.

Yoga teachers want to serve their students to the best of their abilities. But, we don’t all receive clear training in how to make our classes user-friendly for people of all abilities and body types. Here are some ideas that might help:

    1. See all students as equals. We often hear the expression, “We are one.” As teachers we can put this teaching into practice by seeing that spark of the Divine in each student. On a simple level, this means saying hello to each student and looking them in the eye, giving each student equal attention during class, and seeing beyond the physical body to respect each person regardless of their physical appearance or ability.
    2. Open the door for all students. Keep your mind open to each student’s potential. If a student is unable to do a pose the way you are teaching it, consider it a challenge for you! In my experience, advanced Yoga teachers are the ones who can make a pose—or any Yoga practice—work for every student who comes to them. The more physically limited a student is, the more creative the teacher can be. This may mean asking the student to collaborate with you in finding a form that works—or trying a few different variations of a pose to see what’s most effective.
    3. Move beyond right and wrong.  Identify your motivation for teaching Yoga. Are we teaching gymnastics or cultivating an inner connection? When we consider all the amazing benefits of asana practice can we really say that someone is doing a pose wrong? Perhaps the only wrong way to do a pose is a way that causes injury. For some students with chronic illness or a disability, simply getting out of the house and coming to class is a great achievement that can be celebrated.
    4. Break down the pose. Asana can increase energy flow, improve digestion through abdominal massage, lengthen the spine, calm the mind, and so much more. If a pose is too challenging for your students, consider breaking it down into parts according to its benefits. For example, a seated forward bend (Paschimottanasana) offers a stretch to the hamstrings as well as an inward surrender. For students who struggle in this pose, consider offering Staff Pose (Dandasana) for a hamstring stretch, and Child’s Pose (Balasana) for the experience of surrender. By breaking poses down by their benefits we can work towards offering all students the experience of a full and effective practice.
    5. Inspiration instead of competition. Generally, when teaching we offer a form of a pose to the whole class, and then if an individual student is struggling we offer them a “modification.” Consider a different approach: teach the whole class a modified form of a pose, then offer individual students other variations. Or, offer a few different variations of a pose and have the students choose which they want to practice. Remember, students want to please you and can be competitive, so they will often try to do the most challenging form you offer. Be conscious of your language in suggesting that one variation is more “advanced” than another. What is “advanced” Yoga anyway? My teacher, Swami Satchidananda, used to say that “Yoga is not just standing on your head, as many people think, but learning how to stand on your own two feet.”
    6. An invitation to practice. Sangha, spiritual community, is the most important element in our spiritual practice. Building a community that is welcoming to students of all abilities is a wonderful way to support them—but this is just a start. Actively seeking out students of different abilities is the way to invite everyone to practice. This invitation can be reflected in your marketing materials as well as your language. Even in the intention that you set for your teaching practice, you can envision yourself serving all students equally, and sharing the blessing of Yoga with everyone who is interested.

The Second Annual Accessible Yoga Conference will be held September 16-18, 2016 at the Santa Barbara Yoga Center. This is an opportunity to study with senior adaptive Yoga teachers from around the world.