A few years ago, I was asked by a lovely fellow yoga teacher – how can I be a more inclusive teacher? This is something I get asked a lot, and while it’s like second nature to me, I realize many yoga teachers and fitness professionals want to be more inclusive but don’t know where to start. So I wrote this brief primer on the first steps you as a yoga teacher can take to create a more inclusive atmosphere in your classes. I was recently on the wrong end of a nasty fatphobic screed on social media, which drove me to revisit this post and update with a bit more info. I will continue to explore this topic in more depth, so stay tuned!
Let’s start at the very beginning.
- Set your intention as a teacher to be inclusive and welcoming of all bodies. Write it down, stick it on the fridge as Manorama says. Approach each class you teach with an open mind about who might be in attendance.
- Don’t make assumptions. I have this one interaction with a student from years ago that still haunts me. An extra curvalicious lady came to an intermediate/ advanced practice I was leading, the kind with prerequisites. And I saw all her beautiful curves and I assumed she was in the wrong class. And I said something like, “oh this is the advanced class, are you looking for the beginner’s workshop?” The look on her face said it all. There I was, a curvy teacher who ought to know better, bringing the judgment she must have faced countless times over the years because once class started, it was quite clear that not only was she an advanced practitioner, but she probably had been practicing twice as long as I had at the time, and moved with profound grace and ease through every posture on the table. The whole class I felt bad about the way I had greeted her, and I tried to find her after class to apologize, but she left quickly and never came back. Greet each student, learn names, smile, reserve your opinions about what they need as a student until after you’ve seen their practice. The lithe blonde in the head to toe matching yoga outfit might be a runner, and doesn’t know what Warrior 2 is. The grandmotherly lady in her PJ pants might have been rocking her trikonasana since before you were born. Don’t assume.
- The first few times a student comes to your class, leave her the FORK alone. Now, if she’s doing something that you think might injure her, go help. But could his triangle be refined a bit? Their updog opened up more? Let that shit go until you get to know her better. Watch how each individual student moves so you can learn to help that body into and out of a pose.
- Don’t insist on alignment unless it’s for safety. Certain bodies need to make certain concessions when it comes to classic yoga alignment. A great example is legs together poses like Tadasana (mountain pose), Uttanasana (forward fold), and Utkatasana (chair pose). I can’t tell you the number of classes I’ve been in where well-meaning teachers insist on legs together for these poses. Practicing yoga while curvy requires more space. Particularly in forward folds and twists, larger bodies need to make space for lovely soft bellies and for boobies if you are a person that has those. I’m a big fan of the phrase “make space for yourself”, as opposed to calling out specific body parts that might be in the way.
- Teach from the ground up. Use the word “variation” instead of the word “modification”. Teaching side plank pose? Start with the supported knee down variation of the pose. That’s the pose. It’s not a modification, it’s a variation. Give your students permission to stay there then invite them to make it harder if they want too. If you start with the hard stuff and then add “modifications” your students won’t feel as comfortable staying where they really need to stay.
- Avoid categorizing pose variations as a “beginner” or “level 1” variation Vs. “advanced” variations. I take a lot of open level vinyasa classes because I like them, I am often the most seasoned practitioner in the room, and I’m often in what the teacher just called “the beginner variation”. Some yogis get “advanced” poses like wheel and king pigeon out of the box and some like me work for years and years to get them. and while we are at it . . .
- Take the phrase “the full expression of the pose” out of your vocabulary. Knee down side plank might be the best choice for a student for their whole life of practice. That is the full expression.
- Praise the whole room “gorgeous variations everyone!” “beautiful expressions!” “wow, those warriors are great!”
- Once you have established a rapport with your students, start using their names in class, in addition to all your encouraging group praise. Has a student made visible progress in half moon? Say so. That student who could open up their updog still coming back? Give her personal instruction with encouragement the whole room can hear, “lengthen your neck more, Natalie! Good! you got this!” (not everyone likes this – you might want to ask students beforehand if they appreciate being directly addressed)
- Praise your students who are rocking the hell out of the level one variation on the pose. I cannot stress this one enough. So often in yoga, it’s the Cirque du Soleil-style arm balances and the deep backbends that get the attention. Everyone in wheel but one student is working her bridge pose like crazy? YES. She is doing her best practice right there. “that bridge looks wonderful, Grace! Gorgeous!”
- And last for today, but certainly not least, please, take weight loss based and diet culture fueled phrases OUT of your repertoire FOR GOOD. That quiet blonde in the back might be in recovery for an eating disorder, the voluptuous redhead up front might have just started to love every curve. As yogis, we work to better ourselves for the sake of ourselves and the world. I’m not in your power vinyasa class because I’m trying to fit into “that dress”. I know better than to buy a dress 2 sizes too small. I’m not going to do 108 chaturanga push-ups because it’s tank top season. I’m a yoga teacher in Austin. It’s ALWAYS tank top season. Diet culture and fatphobia are rooted in racism and sexism and are an insidious part of our culture at large and, unfortunately, a part of the yoga community as well. People come in all shapes, sizes, and abilities. Let’s agree to work together to welcome and embrace each of our students, just as they are.
Start incorporating these ideas, phrases, and attitudes into your classes, and let me know how it goes!