by Jivana Heyman
My background is in AIDS activism, and in the 1990’s I started teaching yoga so that I could share these practices with my community of people with HIV and AIDS. We were in the middle of an epidemic, and many of my students were extremely sick and dying. What my students and I learned together was that yoga offered accessible and powerful tools for healing on a deep mental, emotional, and spiritual level. My students showed me that yoga could offer them healing even when they were dying. Since then, I’ve been trying to honor their legacy by sharing this message with the yoga community. The message is that yoga is not about physical achievement or even physical healing; yoga is about a deep internal spiritual connection.
What’s really remarkable about yoga is that it allows us to engage every aspect of our being –– our body, our breath, our mind, and our actions –– in our spiritual journey. This is unusual since most spiritual practices don’t offer us such powerful techniques for incorporating the body in our practice. Yoga offers us the opportunity to allow the body to flow in the moving prayer of asana. But we can’t let the beauty and power of asana fool us. Yoga is not about the body.
The truth of yoga is that the body and mind are temporary, constantly changing, and mortal, but the spirit is immortal, everlasting, and pure. This is the lesson of The Bhagavad Gita, where Sri Krishna explains: “You were never born; you will never die. You have never changed; you can never change. Unborn, eternal, immutable, immemorial, you do not die when the body dies.” (Easwaran 2.20)
When we overly simplify yoga to just be about the poses, we strip it of its most essential meaning. We appropriate the practice from its traditional roots in India and turn it into a commodity to be sold by capitalist interests. So the issue is more than just one of respect and care for continuing the ancient legacy of the yoga lineage. It’s about holding these precious teachings in a way that respects their purpose, their background, and their proper application.
In order to do so, we need to consider the fullness of the practice. The essential teaching of yoga is that we all share the same spiritual essence no matter what our backgrounds or ability may be. We share the same essence whether we have a disability, whether we have a larger body, or if we’re a senior, or a child. We have got to let go of this idea of advanced asana equaling advanced yoga. There really is no correlation between our physical ability and the depth of our spiritual connection. This is why I always say that if it’s not accessible it’s not yoga. Because we all have equal access to the heart of yoga, and it’s up to each of us to find a form for our practice that allows us to unite with the spirit within.
Jivana Heyman, C-IAYT, E-RYT500, is the founder and director of Accessible Yoga, an international non-profit organization dedicated to increasing access to the yoga teachings. Accessible Yoga offers Conferences, Community Conversations, a Blog, and an Ambassador program. He’s the creator of the Accessible Yoga Training, and the author of the book, Accessible Yoga: Poses and Practices for Every Body (Shambhala Publications, 2019). Jivana has specialized in teaching yoga to people with disabilities and out of this work, the Accessible Yoga organization was created to support education, training, and advocacy with the mission of shifting the public perception of yoga. More info at jivanaheyman.com
This post was edited by Patrice Priya Wagner, Managing Editor of Accessible Yoga blog and member of the Board of Directors.