Accessible Yoga is an organization dedicated to expanding access to the yoga teachings through education, community building, and advocacy. We are writing regarding the inclusion of people of all abilities, sizes and backgrounds in the practice of yoga, and the impact that Yoga Alliance policies are having on these populations. In particular, we are concerned that YA’s new policy on yoga therapy will have the unforeseen consequence of discouraging YA-registered yoga teachers from taking trainings that focus on bringing yoga to sensitive and under-served populations.
The main issue is that “yoga therapy” and similar terms are often associated with yoga practices that are designed to be accessible for these special populations, and therefore regulation of yoga therapy needs to be approached with sensitivity to the impact on these communities. Since YA is the source for national standards on yoga teaching, and in effect international standards, it is essential that YA consider this impact when making major policy changes.
Generally, the inclusion of people with disabilities in any activity demands special attention, and cannot occur simply by accident or good will. Formal accommodations are often needed to include these groups in the activities of daily life. Recently, we have been working with the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, Catalina Devandas, to educate the yoga community and to heighten awareness.
Ms. Devandas has expressed interest in yoga because it offers so much benefit and empowerment for people with disabilities, of which she estimates there are over one billion around the world. With a clear understanding of the yoga teachings, it’s easy to see how these powerful practices can be adapted to anybody, regardless of physical ability. In fact, it’s the duty of the yoga community to find ways to share yoga with people who are currently being excluded from traditional classes.
In the US, we are celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which details the challenges that individuals with disabilities confront, and demands that we create public policy based on that understanding. “Individuals with disabilities continually encounter various forms of discrimination, including outright intentional exclusion, the discriminatory effects of architectural, transportation, and communication barriers, overprotective rules and policies, failure to make modifications to existing facilities and practices, exclusionary qualification standards and criteria, segregation, and relegation to lesser services, programs, activities, benefits, jobs, or other opportunities.” Americans with Disabilities Act section 12101. #5
Yoga Alliance’s Yoga Therapy Policy
With YA’s new yoga therapy policy, yoga teachers are in effect being discouraged from taking special trainings that would educate them in creating accessibility in their classes. YA administration has defended this policy by stating that they will “work with individual schools” to try to allow their current yoga therapy curriculum to be included. Working with schools individually to find ways around a policy is not an effective solution. It leaves the enforcement of the policy up to the whims of the individual at any given time.
The fact is, some schools may choose not to register their trainings with YA because of this policy, and some curriculum may be denied by YA as falling into the banned areas of yoga therapy. This policy places a burden on yoga teachers and schools who offer yoga therapy classes and training. Instead, YA should be supporting this work as a way of increasing access to the yoga teachings.
Some of the words that YA has banned from their directory, such as “therapeutic,” “treatment,” and “symptom,” may make it hard for yoga teachers to describe their offerings when trying to advertise classes for these communities. Also, by demanding that yoga therapists incorporate disclaimers on their materials and external websites, YA is completely divorcing themselves from these types of offerings. This will be interpreted by the public as a criticism of yoga therapy in general – which as we mentioned often refers to the offering of yoga to marginalized communities.
YA’s decision to delegate these training hours to the “supplemental” category is not an acceptable solution. When yoga teachers are working toward their RYT500, or getting CEU’s, they should be encouraged to take trainings that give them the skills to work with special populations.
The assertion that YA’s yoga therapy policy is designed to protect the public is hard to accept. If YA is sincerely interested in protecting the public, then the focus would be on reducing injuries in yoga classes – which are occurring at epidemic proportions. Or, creating policies around reducing sexual harassment and improper touching in yoga classes. Instead, YA seems to be choosing to protect itself from lawsuits at the risk of disenfranchising the most sensitive segments of the yoga community. In actuality, it is a lack of understanding of the needs of sensitive populations that creates liability and places students at risk for injury.
We ask you to remove this policy and take further action to address these issues by actually encouraging training for all teachers so they may better serve special populations. For example, you could add language specifically stating that you are allowing training hours in adapting yoga practices. Or, you could consider the definition of yoga therapy that the IAYT, International Association of Yoga Therapists, has produced, and review their scope of practice. YA’s definition of yoga therapy is actually outside of the scope of practice that the IAYT has approved. With this perspective you might reconsider some of the banned words and topics in the current policy.
Perhaps YA could move away from the current concept of banning specific terms, and focus instead on banning actions that cause harm? How about a policy that states YA’s position against yoga therapists practicing outside their scope of practice?
We assume it is the potential actions of some yoga therapists that is behind this policy – someone practicing outside of their scope of practice. Yet, we are unaware of these dangerous activities occurring. On the contrary, Accessible Yoga is supporting hundreds of yoga teachers and yoga therapists who are out in the world serving and sharing yoga with people who don’t usually have access to traditional classes. Why create a policy that lumps all of these teachers together and harms the ones who are in the world doing such good work?
Fostering Inclusive Yoga Environments
It’s irresponsible to expect yoga teachers to make their classes accessible to people with disabilities without specific training in how to do so. YA curriculum standards should demand that 200-hour yoga teacher training programs include a module on inclusivity of marginalized individuals. This training module would include techniques for adapting the practices of each individual school, as well as sensitivity training, and information on the requirements of yoga teachers in following the ADA. This module could also include information about keeping students safe in class, guidelines for physical adjustments, and additional education about sexual harassment.
Yoga teacher training schools are also required to follow ADA guidelines, and YA could help schools by encouraging them to include people with disabilities in their teacher training programs. There is a common misunderstanding that yoga teachers need to be expert asana practitioners. To fully empower people with disabilities, we need to shift that belief. We can encourage people with disabilities to take on the role of yoga teacher rather than always being the student.
Training programs could offer special assistance to individuals with disabilities in their programs – in fact they need to by law. Reasonable accommodations are required, and from our perspective they are generally not offered. Among other things, this could include accessible classrooms, large type manuals, extra time to complete assignments, tutoring, and more.
YA is in a powerful position to effect the direction that yoga teaching is taking in this country, and worldwide. Unfortunately, the yoga therapy policy is moving in the wrong direction by potentially reducing the breadth of training that yoga teachers need. Instead, YA could be proactive and support a growing movement of people of all abilities, sizes, and backgrounds in the pursuit of individual empowerment and personal growth through yoga.