Every yoga class I teach is an accessible one. My students will never be subjected to my preconceived notions about what is correct. Tias Little calls his practice a ‘styleless-style,’ and I’ve adopted that term for my own teaching. The yoga should fit the student.
When a student is required to fit the yoga, they either will or they won’t. This happens in every style of yoga that insists on a physical alignment. Alignment is inherently inaccessible to some.
The notion that our bodies are required to look a certain way negatively affects every yogi, whether they identify as having a disability or not. A student could fail at alignment for any number of reasons: their bone structure, or because they have a negative emotional reaction to a pose, or they possess a body type that doesn’t lend itself to the pose, or they’re missing a limb. This results in some people winning and some losing.
Even when students succeed at alignment, their teacher has failed them. Self-study, one of the core tenets of yoga, isn’t taught when a student believes a body part needs to be straight or at a right angle. There’s often no discussion about whether a pose feels stable or helpful, only whether or not it looks correct.
Success measured with a protractor and ruler might work for buildings. But ask any gymnast or ballet dancer what happened to their bodies when they needed to look a certain way every time they performed. This is the difference between mere athletics and yoga.
Eleven years ago I discarded alignment and focused on yoga as a self-study practice in my classes and workshops. As I write in my 300-hour teacher training manual, “we don’t have a posture, we are a participant in our posture. We make decisions about our stance, our breath, and our outlook. It’s an empowering concept that allows us to bring our intentions and histories into the practice.”
I’ve also developed yoga practices that don’t rely on the forms of postures at all. For example, a practice that includes orientation change and pressure in lymph centers encourages lymph movement. Our fluid system doesn’t care what we look like. I’m guiding a weekend of these practices December 7-8 at Schoolhouse Yoga in Pittsburgh.
Our bones are different from one another, which means our fundamental structures are unique. My range is distinct; your range is distinct. Our sensations in poses are distinct. Everybody has a different field they play on. (Check out these pictures from Paul Grilley, which demonstrate how differently shaped our bones can be.)
In addition, our musculoskeletal system is one part of a vast array of physical, mental, emotional and spiritual components that we call a self. Our mental and emotional experiences in our body are inherently different from person to person. Plank pose could bore somebody while the person next to them bursts out in anger. We are all completely distinct in our nervous systems.
A yogi can align their values, hopes and needs in the physical practice. This is the type of alignment a teacher should create space for. I hope my students leave class, not with a mental list of things they can and cannot do, but with insight about what they experienced.
The capacity for insight is one of the most accessible things about the yoga practice. It’s also the only thing that matters.