How to Make Your Yoga Class More Inclusive / by Lauren Minear

Teaching a body positive yoga class takes both self-examination and preparation. Many teachers come to this line of work because they enjoy their yoga practice and/or because they are good at it. Teaching from an advanced practice may serve similar people and teachers well, but it might also exclude those in non-stereotypical yoga bodies.

This random screenshot of recent Yoga Journal covers illustrates my point:

The majority of these bodies are female, thin, white, and athletic; which does not accurately represent the population of humans who are able to benefit from practicing yoga. 

For any teacher who is interested in developing body positive yoga teaching skills, I have compiled a list of suggestions and guidelines for teaching an inclusive, body positive yoga class.

Instruct and Demonstrate Pose Modifications.

Students who practice more advanced expressions will explore them on their own. You can also cue those verbally. However, I always instruct and demonstrate a modified pose for several reasons: 

  1. My students are looking to me to set limits. I can tell them verbally to listen to their bodies and modify poses as needed, but if I don't embody that, then I risk shaming those do. 
  2. I'm also modeling self-care and safe practice. It is not safe for me to stretch my body into an advanced posture when I am not warmed up. Many teachers get injured this way.
  3. My teaching is not about showing off my practice. It's about creating a safe healing space for students. The version of a pose that I can or cannot do is irrelevant.
  4. It discourages competition. Yoga philosophy teaches that yoga is not a competitive sport, but the reality is that we live in a competitive society. I find that people will compete with themselves and others and push their bodies past their limits unless I expressly give them permission not to.

Don't Assume That Transitions Are Simple or Easy.

Someone in a larger body, for example, may not be able to transition from sitting to standing quickly if given the cue to "stand up". For others, lunging forward is inaccessible. I would teach every phase of transitions - roll to one side, come to all fours, press into the hands, tuck the toes, etc...This not only increases access to your class, but it teaches non-violent movement to all bodies. With a short cue such as "come to stand", many people will jerk themselves up and reverse the benefits of previous work. For lunges, you can instruct a step back from a forward fold, rather than a step forward from downward-facing dog.

HINT: To figure out how to cue transitions that feel seamless in your body, break them down into small movements that oppose gravity.

Don't Use Competitive Language.

I promise you that most of your students have self-critical, competitive tapes on repeat already. They don't need another one.

Don't Make Body or Food-Related Comments

My single biggest pet-peeve when taking a yoga class (and a quick way to ensure that I never come back) is commentary about food & body. Yoga teaches non-violence and non-attachment. Neither are practiced through "burning off turkey" at Thanksgiving or "shaping your bikini muscles" in the summer. I understand why teachers do this, and believe that their intentions are good, but I cannot emphasize enough how exclusionary, traumatizing, and shaming food & body comments can be for students in larger bodies, students with different abilities, students with trauma, those in recovery from an eating disorder, student with negative body image, and of course, me.

Be Trauma-Sensitive

Yoga is incredibly healing. Parts of the practice can also be quite triggering (e.g. deep breathing, closing the eyes, unexpected touch). Don't physically adjust people you don't know, and always offer compassionate alternatives to breathwork and meditation. Rather than focusing on the breath, you can cue people to focus on a spot in the room or a beautiful, soothing memory. Rather than closing the eyes for meditation, you can cue people to soften their gaze. Make sure to explain what that means (soft smile, droopy eyes, fixed gaze). If you need help learning trauma-sensitive teaching techniques, please contact me for a consultation.

Be Kind to Your Self

Model what you teach. Allow for pauses and mistakes. Breathe, smile, and make eye contact. Compassion is contagious.