Anyone who has attended a yoga teacher training has likely learned the traditional definition of “yoga.” For a refresher – it comes from the Sanskrit root “yuj,” meaning to “yoke” together. This definition refers to how yoga unites the body, mind, and spirit within each individual who commits to the practice.
In my nearly two decades of dedicated yoga practice, I’ve experienced firsthand how yoga joins together different parts of myself. But I’ve also witnessed how it brings people together on a larger scale.
Although yoga has steadily gained worldwide popularity throughout the last century, the demographics of yoga practitioners unfortunately do not reflect the beautiful diversity of our communities. As yoga teachers, we are responsible for recognizing this disparity, examining why it exists, and taking steps to create more inclusive environments within the yoga community.
As a yoga teacher, I am also a lifelong yoga student, always striving to expand my knowledge and understanding. With this article, I aim to share some insights by highlighting specific areas of inclusion we can all strive to be more mindful of and provide tips, inspiration, and resources for my fellow yoga teachers.
Inclusion and Accessibility in Yoga
At its heart, yoga is absolutely an inclusive practice. Consider the yamas – the first “limb” of yoga that provides ethical rules for living. Several of these founding principles apply directly to creating inclusivity in yoga.
- Ahimsa (Non-violence): We should not harm others through prejudice, personal bias, or unthoughtful words.
- Asteya (Non-stealing): Allowing an environment where someone might feel uncomfortable will rob them of experiencing yoga meaningfully.
- Aparigraha (Non-possessiveness): Be willing to share your knowledge as a yoga teacher without any gatekeeping – even if it is unintentional.
The general perception of yoga culture is a community of acceptance and inclusivity – yoga is for everybody, right? This ideal is reflected in the development of modern yoga practices using props to modify asanas and accessible styles like Chair Yoga.
The reality, however, could be better: only some feel welcome within yoga culture or the fitness industry. A comprehensive study published in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine found that most yoga practitioners identified as female, white, educated, middle-aged, and with upper socioeconomic status.
Because of this, marginalized communities often feel stigmatized, misunderstood, or like they don’t belong in yoga and fitness spaces. Race, ethnicity, weight, and body image are just a few factors that influence people’s comfort level in certain workout environments.
In theory, yoga is universally inclusive and highly adaptive. Renowned teacher T. Krishnamacharya, the “father of modern yoga,” said that yoga must adapt to the individual, not vice versa. However, his student K. Pattabhi Jois also pointed out, “Yoga is 99% practice and 1% theory.”
Even if the founding theories of yoga offer inclusion for everybody – and every body – it’s useless unless we put it into practice! Providing an inclusive environment for your students is an important responsibility, but it can be easier than you think.
By being mindful of specific issues and implementing small changes to your teaching, you can ensure a welcoming and supportive environment for all your potential students.
Topics of Inclusion Every Yoga Teacher Should Know
Most reputable yoga teacher training courses cover the basics of inclusive teaching, exploring how to offer modifications in asana practice and using positive language. Some might even teach a trauma-informed approach when offering hands-on adjustments.
However, as society is constantly evolving and we learn more about other people’s experiences navigating the world, it’s vital that we also expand our knowledge around creating welcoming and supportive spaces.
Let’s look at a few different areas of inclusion and how you can address them in your yoga classes.
Our words can hold significant meaning, even when we don’t realize it. Being mindful of your language as a yoga teacher is one of the most effective ways to create an inclusive environment where all students feel welcome. Here are some tips for using inclusive language in your yoga classes:
- Avoid comparative or hierarchical language: This includes referencing the “full expression” of a pose or referring to pose variations as “more challenging” or “more advanced.”
- Use invitational language: Rather than giving commands, offer your students empowering choices. Invite them to deepen a stretch if it feels accessible or to explore what alignment feels right in their body.
- Avoid assigning labels: What feels like a “nice” stretch to you might feel intense for someone else, so allow each student to have their own experience.
- Use positive language: Replace “if you can’t…” with “if it’s available to you” or “you can try…”
- Use gender-inclusive language: Not everyone identifies with the collective term “ladies” or “guys.” Instead, try using terms like “everyone,” “yogis,” “folks,” “friends,” or even “y’all.”
Physical Accessibility and Body Positivity
Perceived physical limitations and weight stigma in fitness spaces can present barriers to participation. Make everyone feel capable and strong with these strategies:
- Offer adaptations and variations or prop-supported options for all poses.
- Let go of what a pose should “look” like, recognizing that all bodies are different.
- Highlight functional strength rather than the physical image, for example, building core strength versus getting 6-pack abs.
- Incorporate gratitude practices into your classes that focus on what the body is capable of rather than dwelling on perceived limitations.
Cultural appropriation is a hot topic in many yoga communities. Always approach yoga with a sense of appreciation rather than appropriation. Here are some ways to do that:
- Incorporate some of the philosophical elements of yoga into your teaching to honor its spiritual foundations
- Include traditional Sanskrit names of poses to recognize yoga’s cultural origin in Ancient India
- Check your pronunciation of Sanskrit terms to show respect for the language
- If you include chanting in your class, be clear about the translation, meaning, and use of a mantra
- Educate yourself about the proper use of images and artifacts; use them respectfully rather than as superficial decor.
LGBTQIA+ Support Visibility
Most yogis and yoga teachers I know are loving, accepting individuals. However, people in marginalized groups are often so used to discrimination that we can’t assume they know where and with whom they are safe to be themselves. Try to show your support visibly, for example:
- Hang symbols or signage indicating that your studio is a welcoming environment; Pride flags, inclusive symbols, or supportive messages are simple ways to create an affirming space.
- Advertise welcoming class policies explicitly stating intolerance of discrimination based on gender identity or sexual orientation.
- Provide gender-neutral changing areas and bathrooms.
We never know what someone experienced before arriving in our classes. Many people turn to yoga for its calming effects or as part of internal healing. Being sensitive to possible triggers will ensure your students feel safe and supported. Here are some things to be mindful of:
- Use only verbal adjustments rather than hands-on
- If you offer physical adjustments, do so only with consent
- When asking consent for physical touch, do so discreetly. For example, ask students to give you a “thumbs-up” while their heads are down in Child’s Pose.
- Approach students from within their field of vision rather than coming from behind
- If you use a music playlist to accompany your classes, take the time to put it together yourself rather than letting songs stream on an app. Try to use instrumental tracks or carefully review the lyrics of each song to avoid potentially triggering topics or language.
Neurodiversity can appear in many ways, from learning styles to movement patterns. Help neurodivergent students feel accepted and empowered by creating a neuro-inclusive experience with some of these tips:
- Provide visual demonstrations in addition to verbal cues to accommodate auditory processing difficulties.
- When leading or guiding meditations, include a combination of visual imagery, metaphor, and clear breath cues.
- Be mindful of lighting, smells, and noises in your yoga studio
- Embrace Savasana techniques that might be non-traditional for students who might have a difficult time remaining still
Expensive studio memberships and class prices can make many folks feel like yoga isn’t for them. Of course, if teaching yoga is your profession, you can’t just offer free classes all the time. But there are many ways you can accommodate individuals from different socioeconomic backgrounds:
- Use a sliding-scale payment option that allows students to choose a fee based on their financial means.
- Offer occasional donation-based or free community classes.
- Offer discounts for special groups like seniors, college students, or minors.
- Collaborate with community organizations to bring yoga classes to underserved populations.
This list of inclusivity strategies is by no means exhaustive. But, for conscious yoga instructors interested in incorporating more inclusive practices into their teaching, it hopefully provides some ideas and inspiration.
Inclusivity Resources for Yoga Teachers
Here are some recommended resources if you’re ready to dive deeper into the topic.
- Jivana Heyman, author, teacher, and founder of Accessible Yoga Association, shares his knowledge in his book The Teacher’s Guide to Accessible Yoga.
- Dianne Bondy, accessible yoga teacher, offers diversity training for yoga teachers and centers accessibility in her 200 and 300-hour yoga teacher trainings. Her book, Yoga for Every Body: 50 Poses for Every Type of Body, is also a fantastic resource.
- Yoga teachers interested in deepening their knowledge of inclusion in the yoga space can review this list of podcasts and articles.
- Consider signing up for a continuing education course, like an Adaptive Yoga or Trauma-Informed Yoga certification.
Final Words of Encouragement
Our responsibility as yoga instructors is to create an inclusive experience. Diversity and inclusion can be sensitive subjects for people of marginalized communities. There certainly is a lot to learn about!
However, don’t let yourself become overwhelmed. If you teach yoga from an earnestly mindful and empathetic place, you’re already off to a fantastic start. Be open to learning and remember that you are also human – you won’t get it perfect every time. Listen with a compassionate heart and curious mind if a student offers you feedback.
Consider how much yoga has evolved in the last century, adapting new styles to fit the needs of a global community. We also must continue to evolve as teachers to meet the needs of an increasingly diverse student population.
Ironically, yoga’s ancient and foundational teachings are the trunks that support your evolution as a teacher. Stay rooted in the principles of ahimsa (non-harming), aparigraha (non-possessiveness), and svadhyaya (self-study), and your teaching will become naturally welcoming to all as you expand your knowledge and practice of inclusion.