woman practicing accessible yoga with prop modifications

Accessible Yoga Conference Brings Message of Inclusivity to New York City

By: 
Christine Malossi, RYT 200

The mission statement of Accessible Yoga (AY) asserts that the non-profit organization is “advocating for a diverse yoga culture that is inclusive and welcoming.” What better place to nurture inclusivity than Accessible Yoga, Jivana Heyman, Yoga for Every Body, Yoga pose variations, yoga for diversity, Accessible Yoga PresentersNew York City, one of the most diverse cities on the planet? 

The Accessible Yoga Conference recently made its second appearance in New York City (October 11-13, 2019). AY’s first conference was held four years ago in Santa Barbara, California. Since then, the conferences have grown into an international phenomenon, traveling to cities across the United States, Canada, and Europe. 

Integral Yoga Institute New York (IYINY) was a welcoming, spacious, and comfortable venue for the hundreds of participants who came to the conference to both learn and share ways to make the practice of yoga more accessible to all. Some presenters and attendees were New York City locals; others traveled from far-flung places, such as Hong Kong and Australia, which indicates the global reach of the AY movement.  

Opening Night         

The event began on Friday night with an opening ceremony held in a brand-new event space at IYINY. This was the first opportunity for all the participants to gather together, and the buzz in the air grew louder as the starting time drew near. Jivana Heyman, the founder of AY, opened the conference with words of welcome for us all, along with gratitude for the staff members who made the conference possible. 

The purpose of the conference was reflected in Heyman’s aspiration: “Eventually this will just be called yoga, not accessible yoga.” He added that “if it’s not accessible, it’s not yoga,” and reminded us that the universal teachings of yoga are there for all of us. His remarks set a tone of inclusivity, diversity, and openness for the evening and weekend to come. 

The ceremony continued with a chin mudra meditation led by Jesal Parikh and Tejal Patel, creators of the Yoga is Dead podcast. Throughout the weekend, AY board member Kerri Hanlon encouraged us to be aware of the different lenses each of us brings to the concept of accessibility. 

Kristina Graf, managing director of the Yoga Alliance Foundation (a sponsor of the conference), acknowledged that she was there on behalf of Yoga Alliance to “listen and learn.” Nicole Cardoza, the founder of Yoga Foster and Reclamation Ventures, delivered an inspiring keynote address in which she shared her belief that “we need to dismantle how yoga is packaged.” A reception following the ceremony gave attendees and presenters a chance to meet, mingle, and snack on vegetarian fare. 

Diversity of Offerings    Accessible Yoga, Jivana Heyman, Yoga for Every Body, Yoga pose variations, yoga for diversity

Twenty-six sessions were offered over the course of the weekend. Not only were there several classes in which attendees could experience the kind of adaptive asana that AY advocates (such as chair yoga, yoga on the floor, and therapeutic yoga); there were also panel discussions, workshops, and classes that focused on the many ways in which we as yoga teachers can help to make the practice of yoga more accessible. 

This broad range of the concept of accessibility is a shift that’s happened within the AY organization since its inception. Heyman acknowledged this evolution in a discussion he led with Kerri Hanlon on the sustainability and future direction of AY as an organization. Heyman’s background (before founding the non-profit) was in working with students with various physical limitations, such as chronic illness and disabilities. Thus, when AY was in its infancy, making yoga accessible to that population was its primary focus. As the organization has grown, so has its scope. 

This expansion was reflected in the conference’s course offerings, which included workshops on yoga and environmental justice; yoga for veterans; teaching children who have experienced trauma; cultural appropriation; bringing yoga to marginalized populations; yoga for recovery; power, consent, and agency; and yoga and the dying process.  

Accessible Yoga, Jivana Heyman, Yoga for Every Body, Yoga pose variations, yoga for diversity, yoga conference presenters

 

As an attendee of the conference, the one downside for me was being able to pick only one class from several offered for each time slot. With so many sessions offering such a variety of topics to be explored, I was faced with some tough decisions! Here are a few highlights of the sessions I had the opportunity to attend: 

 

Yoga for Veterans Panel Discussion: Molly Birkholm, Pamela Stokes-Eggleston, Swami Paramananda, and Sean Weir discussed their experience teaching yoga and meditation to veterans. Birkholm equated military service to true Seva (selfless service) and said it is an act of compassion to teach veterans in a way that serves them. Weir, who served in the Royal Air Force, shared that other veterans have told him that yoga saved their lives. Swami Paramananda, a veteran of the Israeli Special Forces, said that after serving in the military, meditation allowed him to acknowledge the pain that he held inside him and allowed a purpose for his life to emerge: to bring an end to the suffering of war by sharing meditation with others. Stokes-Eggleston emphasized the importance of specialized training for those teaching vets.

Teaching Towards Healing: Supporting Children Who’ve Experienced Trauma: Jennifer Cohen Harper warmly and unreservedly shared the wisdom of her experience working with young children who have endured trauma. She encouraged teachers working with this population to ask if the practices they’re offering cultivate self-awareness and personal power. She offered techniques for helping children to find their internal anchor and inner capacity for resilience by attuning them to their body, breath, and mindset. She said that we, as yoga teachers, can help traumatized children by providing a space in which they can experience choice, embodiment, agency, and attunement. 

Yoga Interventions for Cancer Patients and Survivors: Tari Prinster discussed how to use yoga as part of a well-rounded protocol for dealing with cancer, in combination with medical interventions such as chemotherapy and radiation. She delved into the latest research, emphasizing that yoga can be used both to help people deal with the side effects of their treatment as well as to help strengthen the immune system - which in turn might lower the odds of recurrence.

Yoga, Compassion, and the Dying Process: Cheri Clampett gave an incredibly moving presentation based upon her personal experience of accompanying people through their final months, days, and moments. She challenged the idea of dying as a failure, countering that, in fact, we heal through the dying process. She emphasized how important it is to center yourself before visiting someone who is sick or dying; to enter the room slowly and take in the environment; to honor the person’s beliefs about dying; to acknowledge what you are feeling and simply let that be; to choose being over doing; and to find the beauty in grief.    Jivana Heyman, Accessible Yoga, Yoga for Every Body, Conference leader, director of Accessible Yoga, Writer

On Saturday evening, after a day chock-full of learning, sharing, and practicing, all attendees were invited to a premiere book launch event to celebrate the publication of Heyman’s first book, Accessible Yoga: Poses and Practices for Every Body. 

Closing as a Community

All of us once again gathered for the closing ceremony on Sunday afternoon, which culminated in a rousing keynote address from Kerri Kelly of CTZNWELL. Kelly emphasized the collaborative nature of the conference, affirming that unity and wholeness can’t happen on an individual level. Her message about power, agency, inclusion, and responsibility was powerful and forthright. She believed that the future of wellness was present in that room and that it would grow through our collectivity: “We’ve got our work cut out for us, y’all. But we’ve got each other.”

It was that spirit of collaboration and synergy that remained with me after the weekend was long gone. The Accessible Yoga Conference is a beacon of the potentiality that springs forth when we, as yoga practitioners, work in our many distinct and diverse ways toward the common goal of a yoga community that is accessible to everybody. 

 

Christine Malossi began practicing yoga in 1999. Based in New York City, she offers an alignment-focused, slow Vinyasa practice that cultivates awareness and equanimity. She is currently enrolled in an 800-hour course on the History, Literature, and Philosophy of Yoga (taught by Brenda Feuerstein, designed by the late Georg Feuerstein). Christine is a Registered Yoga Teacher with Yoga Alliance and has additional certifications in Therapeutic Yoga, Restorative Yoga, Accessible Yoga, and Functional Anatomy for Movement and Injuries. She attended the University of Pennsylvania and NYU and also spent many years studying classical ballet. Find her at christinemalossi.com.

 

Jivana Heyman, Accessible Yoga, Yoga for Every Body, yoga trainings, yoga conference leader

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, trainings, and a popular Ambassador program. He’s the author of the book, Accessible Yoga: Poses and Practices for Every Body (Shambhala Publications), co-owner of the Santa Barbara Yoga Center, and an Integral Yoga Minister. 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

 

 

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