3 ways to make yoga more inclusive

Ever been to a yoga class and felt like you were in the wrong class? Perhaps you came with certain injuries or limitations or personal circumstances that didn’t quite feel catered for?

Perhaps you left feeling a bit over-extended, a bit invisible or even slightly agitated?

As teachers, creating a space that feels inclusive not only helps our students feel great, it can make the practice more effective and importantly, much safer. To teach according to the needs of the people in front of us is at the heart of the guiding principle known as viniyoga.

Below is a list of a 3 areas to consider next time you’re planning or teaching your class, to help you create a more inclusive space for your students.

1. Consider your students

If you know who your students are ahead of time, that will help you with understanding and planning ways you can be more inclusive in your class.  Do you have students who are pregnant? Or maybe students who are less mobile? What about levels of experience? Perhaps having an understanding of trauma informed care is needed for your students or class.

Remember, not all limitations and disabilities are visible.

Knowing a bit about your students beforehand can help you to be aware of particular adjustments you may need to make to your teaching style, asanas or communication.

Perhaps you or your studio requests new students to complete a student profile form?  This can be a useful way of collecting valuable insights into students background, such as injuries, experience levels, and conditions (including both chronic  – such as high blood pressure, for example – or temporary – such as pregnancy.)  

If circumstances prevent you having visibility to such information on file, you may wish to check-in with each student upon arrival as part of their welcome and invite a quiet discussion about their state of health and being.  This can include mood and energy levels. 

Students may readily disclose musculoskeletal issues to a teacher they’ve just met, but may choose to withhold or not think to tell you about other issues such as cardiovascular issues, eye health or anxiety, for example.  

Adapting to what is known about the student in front of you is good practice for thinking on your feet, but by also remaining mindful of potential contraindications for certain practices, we can invite safer and more applicable alternatives.

This also provides you with an opportunity to encourage them to bring awareness to their body and to take care of themselves too, as they are the only ones who know how it feels in their body.

2. Consider your physical tools

Consider the yoga tools you want to include in your class and how you can support your students using these. For example, if you’re considering using asana (yoga postures) you could consider a couple of things such as props, adjustments, modifications or even alternative poses.

Props

Yoga props including yoga bolster, blocks, strap, mat and blanket

If you have access to props, you can consider offering support to students through the use of blocks, straps, bolsters or blankets. 

If you don’t have access, or perhaps are teaching online and your students don’t own props, you could suggest a few everyday items they already have on hand including:

  • using the wall or chair to support poses
  • a thick book in place of blocks
  • a belt or scarf in place of a strap
  • and towels or pillows in place of bolsters or kneeguards.

In either case, it’s useful to advise students of possible items to gather around them before the class commences so they’re readily at reach. 

Adjustments, modifications and alternatives

Considering different options for adjustments or modifications will allow you to be more inclusive to different student’s abilities and body needs. 

For example, if you were planning to teach the reverse warrior (Viparita Virabhadrasana) and had a student with shoulder or upper back pain, offering a modification to lower the arms to the back can allow them to do the pose and limiting strain. 

Or maybe you are planning to do a twisted chair pose (Parivrtta Utkatasana), but have a student who is pregnant present. Offering them the option to stay in chair pose or take a symmetrical modification while the rest of the class moves into a twist, allows them to be included with the rest of the class while considering the needs of the individual student. 

Be mindful however, the timing of possible alternatives is almost as important as the alternative itself;  If you have already cued the twist before offering an alternative, there’s a chance your pregnant client has already attempted it!

If you are planning to teach pranayama or meditation you may also want to offer physical adjustments such as the use of a pillow to sit on for meditation or if your student has pain or stiffness with their hip flexors, lying down may be a more comfortable option. 

3. Consider your communication tools

In addition to the physical elements, communication is crucial when it comes to being inclusive or your students. 

There are many elements of communication, from being the speaker to being the facilitator, then to being an active listener. Considering how you communicate to your students is important when it comes to bringing more inclusion to your classes.

Here we look at a few channels of communication including:

Cues

How you verbally and physically cue your students can make a big impact on how your students feel in a class.

This could include positive cues such as advising students to do something. Instead of being told what not to do, allow your students to feel invited to take alternatives.

Instructing your students on what to do instead of what not to do, creates a more positive, inclusive environment.

For example if you were teaching tree pose, you could educate students about where it may be hazardous to place their foot without telling them where not to put it. Instead, you could consider positive guidance to place their foot gently against their opposite ankle, calf or above their thigh.  

Another cue consideration can be refraining from advising students how they should feel or prescribing what they will feel.

You could consider, instead, encouraging students to be curious about how a pose feels in their own body.

Language

Consider the language you use too. Is it supportive or limiting your students? Are the words you’re using placing judgement on a student’s abilities?

Yoga teacher assisting student

For example, you may have a posture with modifications that support different levels of experience or mobility. Instead of saying “the easy option is to do this, or “most experienced yogis, do this” consider more neutral language such as “option 1 is to do this, option 2 is to do this”.

This allows your students to feel more included in decision making of how they place their body, as well as removing any artificial “experience” barriers to your students. 

When was the last time you heard someone say child pose or down dog were “resting” poses? For some of your students they may be easy “resting” poses, for other students however, they can be really challenging. 

Next time you’re teaching, consider offering alternatives or even suggesting to your students to choose the resting pose of their choice. 

Other examples of language considerations, could be the use of gender or culture specific words, or even the use of complex language or jargon that may leave students feeling left out or confused.

Content & Visualisations

Ever been in a yoga class where a teacher told students to “just melt into the mat”? Or perhaps a guided meditation involved imagining you were swimming out to sea, amongst the deep blue colour of the water? Some people may find certain imagery very relaxing, for others it may brings up past trauma or fears. 

You never know what someone has been through or affected by, so consider the type of content & visualisations you use in the class.

Reflect

After you’ve taught your class, consider reflecting on any feedback your students gave you or your own observations made, while teaching the class. Paying attention to physical and verbal feedback from your students helps you to assess if your communication is clear and appropriate.

You can also avail yourself of input and feedback from a trusted yoga teacher friend or a mentor. 

Every teacher has classes in their past they wish they could do differently, so if your reflections lead you to be self-critical, be kind to yourself, safe in the knowledge you are doing your best.  Even the most experienced teachers are continually learning and refining.

Through reflection, you have the opportunity to do it differently in the future! 


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