Inclusion Matters – Even in a Yoga Studio!

I had an interesting discussion with some of my mentees yesterday. A question was raised about the religious implications of the “Om” mantra. Some of the teachers had noticed that in select yoga studio locations, their practitioners were not participating in the standard end-of-class chanting. It was unquestioningly assumed that the Om mantra might not be congruent with some of the practitioners’ religious beliefs.

Now, while this article is not to discuss the religiosity of the practice (that conversation demands its own article space), it is however an important one to have when it comes to the inclusiveness of the studio practice itself.

Yoga studios, by themselves, are not places of worship. They are spaces dedicated to a mind-body practice which involves spiritual connection, depth and focus. Today, most studios cater to a posture-heavy ‘asana‘ focus. The teachers leading the studio classes, more often than not, are just getting onto the path of exploring the practice and not necessarily experts of the philosophy or even the pedagogy. Well, how much can a 2 month (or lesser!) yoga teacher training program actually instill in the participants?

Anyway…

Most current yoga teacher training programs, in their bare minimum requirements, have a core element of teaching methodology – teaching teachers how to teach! Many schools are now recognizing the need to include a component on keeping classes inclusive. Well, to be honest, not all schools & studios are inclusive, but the efforts are on to make them so.

So this discussion with my mentees highlighted and observation of full classes of maybe 30-40 students where the majority would refrain from chanting. We weren’t speaking about the usual case where one or two were not included – we were talking majority!

This observation brought out two important points as far as I could tell:

  1. The teacher was at a loss to explain how the nature of the practice was not necessarily religious. And..
  2. The classes were consistently not inclusive.

Many of us tend to sometimes follow ‘rules’ or prescribed ‘formats’ verbatim to ensure compliance and avoid conflict with management – especially where standardized procedures are concerned. Where all outcomes are not carefully considered, this approach usually stands the risk of causing discomfort and harm to a section of the stakeholders. And well, it also creates and perpetuates an impression of the organization not being open to change (although in reality it may very well be open to it!). A learning organization would do well to constantly be on the lookout for ways to improve processes and evolve.

The observation of this chanting incident was not something that couldn’t be fixed. The teachers were proactive in enriching their own understanding of the philosophy and reached out to me to clarify how to answer this question.

So that took care of the first issue. The teachers now know the theory and philosophy (to some extent).

Still, this was just theory and only the beginning.

Addressing the situation at the studio needed a relatively different approach.

If indeed the practitioners were resistant to chanting Om because it clashed with their religious beliefs, then that needed to be addressed – and yes, there was a way to go about it.

Communicate & give options! And keep it inclusive!

A studio session isn’t exactly the place to lecture at length about the secularism of the mantra, but short proactive sentences to assure them with correct information was one way. If people were still uncomfortable, the best way would be to avoid chanting Om altogether! Better still, replace it with humming instead – the sound of bees! Still created a tranquilizing vibration and there was no religious connection with the humble bumble bee either!

Oh, and it still is a yoga practice!

Keeping yoga classes inclusive is an hot topic in the yoga industry recently. But it doesn’t have to be a drag trying to keep things inclusive. Inclusive and accessible don’t only refer to physical inclusion and accessibility towards people with disabilities (that is also very important and we’ll get it that, too, some other day)… In yoga spaces, Diversity, Inclusion Equity and Accessibility also are a huge component of what we say and do and how we say and do it. This also involves making the practice and wellness accessible to people of all body shapes, sizes, physical and cognitive limitations, race, gender, orientation, economic status, etc. Inclusion includes recognition of the trauma experienced by being Othered and not fitting in with the norm.

Inclusion requires empathy. It is not a check in the box. It is when we draw in our audience to be a part of what we offer – through words, deeds and mannerisms.

Inclusion is not just a business requisite.

It is a human requisite.

What do you think of this? Have you experienced something similar in a yoga studio / wellness center / gym or any other space? What other ideas would you offer that I haven’t mentioned here?

Let me know in the comments below! Stay well!

First published on LinkedIn here.

Day 9: Impact Over Intention

This is the third time I heard the phrase, ‘Impact over Intention’ this week in various contexts. So in a way I have been contemplating this for awhile.

Setting an intention has been the theme for many of our mind-body-spirit practices. It is almost like a cliché centering thought in many yoga classes too, so really introspecting the practical influence of considering intention over impact was a worthwhile pause.

This prompt has been with the backdrop of inclusion and being aware of the harm that an intention without considering the impact could potentially create. So, while I thought of my intention to create inclusive safe classes, I wondered about the impact of some of those well-intended choices.

I have always wanted to work with the LGBTQ community. As an ally, I just felt too strongly about individuals and communities who were marginalized. In India, the pride marches and persistent awareness drives were a constant reminder of us knowing of a section of our community who felt left out, unsafe and targeted until gay marriages were decriminalized this September. Anyway, somewhere around that time, when I was thinking of bringing yoga to this community and was in conversation with someone in one of the Pride groups I am a part of, he asked me, “Why just the LGBTQ?” Of course, I didn’t want to have an exclusive class just for them, but although my intention was no to discriminate and to have my classes anyway open to all, I realized that my communication was probably creating a different impact – one of exclusivity.

It gave me room to pause & think on how to be more mindful and what would be a better way to meet the need of this. It made me realize that although everyone gets boxed and categorized in one way or the other, giving exclusive attention with the intention of inclusion may further aggravate a situation and cause more harm than good. But being mindful of how we choose to say and act is probably a better way to navigate through this.

Still learning… still navigating my way.

 


 

This blog is a part of a very unique yoga challenge led by my dear friend and fellow yogi, Susanna Barkataki – the Dare to Discuss Yoga Challenge. Both of us feel quite deeply about cultural appropriation and bring an authentic purpose to shine through constructive discussion, dialogue and education to make people (yogis & non-yogis) aware – to ‘lessen the appropriation and up the honor’, in Susanna’s words. In support of the challenge and the work, I shall be blogging my introspection and reflection here to share the conversation and build the cumulative effect.

Day 7: Dare: Practicing Radical Inclusion

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Inclusion is a big thing for me – one of my biggest values. As I was preparing for the New Season of my Focus Talk Series in 2019, I realized that there was a small element missing from my focus talks. A small element of big meaning. I realized that my focus talks weren’t implicitly inclusive.

That’s when I considered offering scholarships to my programs. It was a feeling of great joy and warmth and I loved the idea of making the program more accessible to those who might not be able to afford it in their circumstances. I firmly believed in how the Universe always opened up space when the intention of giving freely was firm. I acknowledged the many times I had been given freely and abundantly by the Universe and here was my opportunity to return the favor back to the Universe with gifts that I was able to give.

I knew what I wanted to do.

And just as quickly, as is the case with many wonderful ideas, that annoying voice of ‘what-if‘ started whining, “What if people took advantage of you?“, “What if someone abused that gift?

Slowly, I felt my heart sink and my energy took on a heavier, sulk.

I took a day to really allow myself time to process what this yucky feeling was all about.

Trust…. it was all about trust. It was about my ability to trust my instinct and trust my own ability to make a good choice – for my good and for the higher good.

So I took a deep breath and made a choice prompted by today’s dare to be radically inclusive.

I choose to fully trust my instinct, and know that Divine Guidance will lead the right and authentic deserving participants to the scholarship program. For everything else, I shall leave it to karma without worrying too much about the results – or at least I shall try to.

The scholarships have been announced – full and partial – with a special focus on those who probably are in similar situations as I have experienced – single mums or those with disabilities.

The doors are open.

Que sera sera!

 


 

This blog is a part of a very unique yoga challenge led by my dear friend and fellow yogi, Susanna Barkataki – the Dare to Discuss Yoga Challenge. Both of us feel quite deeply about cultural appropriation and bring an authentic purpose to shine through constructive discussion, dialogue and education to make people (yogis & non-yogis) aware – to ‘lessen the appropriation and up the honor’, in Susanna’s words. In support of the challenge and the work, I shall be blogging my introspection and reflection here to share the conversation and build the cumulative effect.

 

10 Tips for Inclusive Yoga Classes in India

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I’m a yoga teacher. I teach in India. I’m an Indian.

There, I’ve checked all the right boxes to assure you that I am speaking from the corner of the play arena where I hope to see change in.

My reasons are simple – if yoga is defined as ‘union‘, then there’s all the more reason for the teachers to bring in a sense of inclusive unity in the classes they teach. I know for a fact that not all yoga teachers out there are trained in the soft skills that they would do well to embody. And, well, not all schools and yoga teacher training programs in India have a curriculum that goes beyond expertise in asana and teach the deeper aspects of what it takes to be a yoga teacher.

So I thought today, being Accessible Yoga Day, I’d put together a few pointers to help yoga teachers make the Indian yoga studio experience a world-class one – inclusive and accessible to a diverse audience, while still maintaining it’s heritage, integrity and authenticity.

1. Smile

It couldn’t get simpler than that. During my earliest studio experiences as a practitioner, it was unnerving to get into the studio where the teacher was grumpy. And grumpy, disconnected, haughty teachers created grumpy, disconnected cultures and left their students (all of them) grumpy and disconnected. A smile emits the energy of friendliness and approachability allowing your students to feel safe to be in your class.

2. It’s not all about asana

I’ve noticed that many yoga teachers focus on asana – on themselves and with their students. Go deeper and invite your classes to take away more than the physical practice. Give them insights on the philosophy and energy of the asana. Educate them throughout the class so they have a little something more to take back with them that just the ‘workout’. Speaking of workout…

3. Make the asanas accessible.

Yoga doesn’t have to be challenging every step of the way. And no asana has to be done only in the way of the one text book example image. Recognize what the asana is intended to achieve and find options for your students to explore. Understand that different bodies may need to approach asana differently – even through props, if required. Allow them to really experience their asana as well its energy!

4. Keep your classes safe.

Ok, well, I love my yoga anatomy – but that doesn’t make it any less important for any other yoga teacher. It is really important for you to know the structure and function of the human body and how to address any limitations your students may bring into class. When you’re in front of the class, leading a class, it becomes your responsibility to keep your students safe (of course, the students also carry the responsibility to inform the teacher of any health conditions and/or concerns). But, when someone comes in with a limitation, be prepared to know how to present safe options for your chosen asanas.

5. Ask permission to touch.

Yes, Indian culture does put teachers up on a pedestal, but let’s face it, contemporary yoga practitioners are aware practitioners. They read, have access to the internet and are a more present and conscious lot. Even if they weren’t aware of their right to refuse manual adjustment, it would be safe to understand that a teacher does not know the story behind every student who enters the studio. Many of my students have shared their fear of refusing manual adjustment from their teachers. If you need to adjust to keep your student safe, a verbal cue could be just as effective – perhaps even more potent for your student.

6. Go easy on the Sanskrit.

Terminology is important – but honestly, your students come from diverse backgrounds. Not everyone would be able to pronounce the Sanskrit names but many new practitioners would probably have Googled their way to the first yoga class and are expecting to hear ‘Downward Facing Dog’ instead of ‘Adhomukha Svanasana‘. It’s OK to switch.

7. Improvise with a touch of dramatics.

Everyone loves an engaging class – even if it is a yoga class. Adding a touch of humor in your classrooms will lighten your classroom and dissipate any lingering tension.

8. Build your speaking skills.

Monotonous instructions in a yoga class can be drab and a jarring voice instructing the class to come out of savanasa  (dead man’s pose) or kaya sthairyam (body stillness) Learning some verbal cueing options along with tone, inflection and voice modulation would go a long way in building the class energy. Be  mindful, however, of talking too much or too little in your class. Be mindful of the language you use – keeping it encouraging, uplifting and inclusive.

9. Build community through yoga.

People love to be included. Practitioners come in all shapes, sizes, faith, gender identity and sexual orientation. Unless you choose to work in one specific niche, you most likely teach a general yoga class. Upskill yourself with teaching techniques, read up on current affairs, and incorporate sensitivity and compassion in your classroom. Learning to make yoga available to the entire diversity that society presents helps us truly advocate for our community members.

10. Humility

As yoga teachers, we are not faultless. We are human too and it helps to remember that. Not every teacher is able to demonstrate every asana, but they most likely can teach their students how to safely and correctly practice it themselves. And it is fine to accept and acknowledge that. We don’t have to beat ourselves up for not being able to. And most students would appreciate the honesty and integrity.

This isn’t an exhaustive list – everything else comes just from being present and experience. It does take effort and the intent to hold space for yourself and your class, but at the end of it all, it really makes the practice much deeper and beautiful – we really do get an opportunity to inspire transformation… and of course, transform ourselves in the process too.

Best of luck!

Whose asana is it anyway?

Did you know that yoga is one of the most frequently recommended practices to manage stress? It is! And it is recommended by doctors, practitioners and non-practitioners alike – even if they have no clue about the ‘why’ of it – and even if they haven’t ever seen the on side of a yoga mat. So yeah, yoga is recommended as a practice that boosts not just your flexibility and tone, but also works on your moods and stress levels.

Teaching and practicing yoga has shown me that this very practice has the potential to also exacerbate your stress levels so much that you may begin to totally get turned off by the sight of a yoga mat – let alone someone sitting cross-legged in stretchy tights.

There are many reasons for this – and one of them may be that perhaps the practice is indeed not for your after all! Maybe you’re just not ready for yoga yet.

One of my pet lines in my classes is allowing the asana to come to you – whenever – and know that yoga meets you where you are.

But regardless of how we put this thought across, the fact that we are practitioners of the 21st century, pumped on by the rush of competition holds many fresh yogis in its grip and, in my very humble opinion, the role of the yoga teacher here is to gently shine light on this tendency and allow for the practice to unfold – in its own way, in its own time.

And this is also where the teacher needs to remember that demonstration of her absolute asana form need not come forward. This is not the time to show the student how far he has to go, but coach and allow them the space to recognise how far she has come along in the practice! There is no comparative text-book description for an ideal asana – although some perfectionist, orthodox yogis may choose to have you believe otherwise. Yes, there is the way an asana is supposed to look like (thanks to text-book imagery, super-flexible lead teacher demos and those Pittas in the class), but more importantly, there is a deeper way in which an asana is supposed to make you feel and experience its energy and influence – in its own way, in its own time.

And a reasonably good yoga teacher, with his/her intention set on bringing you the experience of yoga, will be a wonderful hand-holder through this perfectly personal journey.

Your body is your own – unique and perfect just the way it is…. there are no ‘should’s in yoga – just ‘be‘s.

So…

1 simple rule to follow

Make your practice your own.

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