This interview was originally posted on SF Yoga Mag
by Dana Lee
Jivana Heyman, founder of the Accessible Yoga Conference, admits that he is jealous of the talented people he knows teaching yoga at the conference in San Francisco October 6 – 8th. He laughs when he says this, exposing his staggering humility. He seems completely unaware that through his radiant love, he has transformed the suffering of others into inclusivity, healing and hope, and developed a worldwide sangha dedicated to bringing yoga to all people, regardless of ability. He works to change our skinny notions of what a yoga teacher should be. His passion to include everyone in the healing circle of yoga resounds in something he says often: “community is key to the resurrection of hope.” This incredible weekend conference will include asana classes, workshops, and panel discussions with senior yoga teachers on ways we can make yoga available to everyone. It was my honor to talk with him, learn about the sangha he is growing, and to feel his tender heart of love.
What was your path to growing a passion for accessible yoga?
I was always searching for answers, like everyone else. I am gay, and I guess I’ve always felt different than everyone else. I think it was a gift because it caused me to ask deeper questions. I feel lucky because I’ve had a chance to practice yoga since I was a kid. My grandmother practiced yoga. But it wasn’t until after college when I stumbled into a yoga class. It was an Integral Yoga Class – founded by Swami Satchidananda. Yoga helped me to find some peace of mind. Later, I became an AIDS activist and got involved with Act Up. So many of my friends were suffering and dying. I was an angry man. This brought me closer to wanting to help those that are sick and dying. In 1995, my best friend died of AIDS. That was the same year that I completed my yoga certification.
Truth is a big part of who you are. Tell me about that.
I was around 17 when I came out. I decided I wasn’t going to lie anymore. Period. In yoga, the main teaching is how to be peaceful, how to find satya in all areas of life. It has set me free to help others. Truthfulness – as deeply as I can express it – extends to the broader community yoga practice as well. We have a misunderstanding about what yoga is as physical practice and as able-bodied persons. Who deserves the teachings of yoga? Everybody. Your life expands when you start realizing that yoga is not exercise. It’s more than that.
Do you see any shifts in the way yoga has been promulgated in our Western culture regarding adaptive populations? How can our view of Teacher Training improve?
We’ve got to work on ourselves as a yoga community first. I don’t think we’re being honest most of the time. Our culture believes that yoga is for thin, flexible people. Our idea of yoga is based on falsehoods. We don’t always value teachers who look differently than our cultural norms. Some of our best yoga teachers are disabled and our program produces teachers of all backgrounds. I think we need to come to terms with the reality that our population is aging. Teachers need to learn how to reduce the skyrocketing rates of injury among elderly students. Accessible yoga should be required in every 200-hour teacher training course so that teachers can obtain the skills to teach anyone. We need to be available to anyone who comes to us and learn to keep them safe, engaged, not hurting themselves or others. We also have a highly specialized training for disabled children that is fantastic. We all need more training. It is never ending.
What styles of yoga tend to be the most useful in an accessible manner?
Accessible yoga is not a style of yoga. My teacher/lineage is Integral yoga. I’m not trying to create a style of yoga, but to support the yoga community so that every style of yoga is accessible. It depends on the teacher, their training, and their consciousness. When I do a training, I’m not telling people to teach like I do, because everyone deserves yoga. I am a disability rights activist. Everyone is equal, no matter their abilities. We are all aging, and we are all going to die. Statistics show that around the world we are living longer. Life expectancy is about 85, but generally, we are going to have more elderly people than ever before. It’s expected to be a crisis in Europe. We in the yoga community need to wake up and be of service to the elderly.
How can the broader yoga community help to create more space for everyone?
People who are aware of what yoga really is should feel confident to step up, form community and make change happen. That means truly engaging, organizing, and speaking out. Come to the conference, do your own thing – write a blog, start a book group, teach a class, talk about what yoga really is. Speak out over a commercial yoga industry that has a lot of money for marketing. We have to overcome it at a grass roots level. The Yoga and Body Image Coalition is really changing the perception of who is a yogi. I think the danger is in thinking that “Yoga is not for me. I’m not flexible enough to do yoga.” I am always saying that it’s like I’m too dirty to take a bath.
Tell us about your panel at this conference?
This will be our 4th conference. We first started in Santa Barbara, then expanded to NY, and now we are spreading all over the world. We try to focus on local teachers who are making yoga accessible, who are doing impactful work but aren’t famous. Most of the yoga teachers who are doing this work are out there isolated. So many are bringing yoga to people with no support. You know, I used to be jealous of these talented teachers when I lived in Santa Barbara. It caused me pain to feel this way. So, I thought, I need to overcome it. Kriya yoga talks about accepting challenges and accepting pain. I’m going to accept this challenge that I’m feeling jealous. I’m going to turn it around and support those that are doing the good work. It’s kind of a miracle, kind of a Jesus moment. I shifted my thinking, and suddenly there was all this energy. When I made it about others I got the energy right. The feeling of wanting to support people who are doing the work I admire, lifting them up and give them a platform.
Get your tickets to the Accessible Yoga Conference happening here in SF from October 6-8th here.