The Integral Yoga ® Institute of San Francisco launched a pilot program in October 2007 that has now grown into a global movement: Accessible Yoga Teacher Training. Initially founded for people with physical challenges who want to become Yoga teachers, this inspiring program has expanded to Accessible Yoga—an international grassroots organization dedicated to sharing Yoga with everyone. Now, a non-profit organization made up of volunteer teammates on seven teams that plan and orchestrate the Accessible Yoga Conferences, and advocate world-wide as Accessible Yoga Ambassadors.The teacher training programs are offered in accessible spaces and with many other features that help to make it user-friendly for people with physical challenges. In this interview from 2008, founder Rev. Jivana Heyman talks about the inspiration behind the program’s early stages.

Integral Yoga Magazine: What inspired you to develop this Teacher Training program?

Jivana Heyman: For the past 12 years I’ve taught Yoga to people with disabilities. When I took Integral Yoga Teacher Training (TT), my best friend was dying of AIDS. So immediately I was clear I wanted to serve people with AIDS. That idea expanded to include my desire to teach people with different chronic illnesses and disabilities. I was inspired by the classes I was teaching for the Dean Ornish program, where I saw the healing power of Yoga. I began working with the Multiple Sclerosis Society and with the AIDS program of a local hospital after realizing these same principles could be applied to people with different types of disabilities. I know a lot of people with disabilities don’t see themselves as teachers. But, many of my students were so deeply committed to their practice and had an amazing understanding of Integral Yoga. I felt that they would make great teachers even if they didn’t see it. Sri Gurudev taught us that Yoga is not about the body, that Hatha Yoga is the calling card and it is only the beginning of true Yoga.

IYM: What range of disabilities do the trainees have and what are the challenges?

JH: There are ten people in the training, with a range of disabilities: Some have multiple sclerosis and are very mobile and one person is in a wheelchair; one person has a spinal cord injury and is paralyzed from the waist down; one person has AIDS; and there’s a partially deaf woman with a brain injury.

The challenges are different from what I anticipated. What I found is that generalizations can’t be applied—each person has completely different abilities and disabilities. The area in which one person needs extra help is different than for someone else. But, the biggest surprise was how advanced these students are in their understanding of Yoga. Most people coming to basic TT are relatively new to Yoga, whereas the average length of practice for the students in this training is five years. Even though their practice looks different than an able-bodied person, they have a deep understanding of Yoga. So there are certain things I can go into more deeply and then there are other areas that must be approached more slowly.

IYM: How is the program different?

JH: Our basic Integral Yoga TT program is so amazing, there isn’t that much we needed to change. It’s so well planned and there’s so much beauty in our basic class. Anyone who walks in at the beginning of TT is going to leave as a good teacher. Why throw that all away and start with something new? These trainees need to learn the fundamentals of Hatha Yoga and have a firm understanding of Integral Yoga Hatha so they can teach our basic class. So that’s what we are doing. What is different is the way they are learning the poses. I am allowing them to modify the poses somewhat but they still have to fit within our traditional class. In our regular TT, we already teach modifications for many of the poses, such as shoulder stand, so I am just using as much adaptation as we have in our regular program and expanding it a little. Some of the students have cognitive impairment—slow thinking, slow mental ability or impaired memory. So memorizing the script becomes more of a challenge. Since this is the method we use in Integral Yoga, I made the program much slower—eight months long—to address this.

I try to engage every aspect of a person’s ability to learn, making the classes diverse and not just a lecture format. We need to focus on our strengths and if we can bring all auditory, visual and kinesthetic learning styles in, it helps students absorb the material. We have one student who is almost deaf, so that’s been another challenge. She can speak and she can participate but she also signs and plans on eventually teaching to the deaf community. She knows of almost no Yoga in the deaf community, so she’s really excited about having this opportunity and potentially serving in that way.

IYM: How often do you meet?

JH: We meet twice a week for three hours at a time, with a long break. The total hours are the same as our basic 200 hour certification training but I’ve added an extra weekly review session. We are doing digital recording of every lecture and creating an archive so they can review this online any time they want. Many of the trainees want to be able to teach others with disabilities. They will probably need more training for this—Gentle Yoga TT, or maybe a special program someday.

IYM: How do you address the issue of how people with disabilities teach poses that they can’t themselves do?

JH: The challenge was to see if they are able to expand their minds and look beyond their own ability and understand the classic pose. So, that’s what I’m asking of them; learn the classic asana, but then modify it as needed. I believe that someone with a disability, who can’t do all the asanas, can still teach the class beautifully and be an inspiring teacher. They also have so much experience with their personal disability and in adapting things, that most of them have a wealth of knowledge already. The Integral Yoga class is so well-suited to those with disabilities because the class is so inward in its structure—it’s not about the teacher and his or her physical ability, and it shouldn’t be.

IYM: Tell us about the funding for this pilot program.

JH: It’s an interesting story. We got a grant from the California Yoga Teachers Association (publishers of Yoga Journal). When I went to meet with them, it was at the Yoga Journal offices. You walk in and there’s this row of their covers that feature thin, very fit and beautiful women in their Yoga clothes. I thought, wouldn’t it be great if one of our students got on the cover! Richard Rosen, the director of Piedmont Yoga Studio (Rodney Yee’s old studio), who is on the CYTA’s board recommended me for the grant. The board asked me, “Can you really see these students being out there in the world teaching? Because, if this just for their education, you should call it something else.” Richard explained that the current Yoga culture expects a teacher to be someone with a perfect body who can perform asanas in a perfect way, and this grant was really about helping to raise awareness that could help to change that culture. He was so amazing and supportive.

IYM: What are you taking away from this experience?

JH: Teaching these classes has been really inspiring for me. I’m surprised to find it’s easier to teach this class than my other TT classes. They get Yoga! These are people who take Yoga seriously and use it as an important part of their life. Their practice is a key part of their medical and spiritual care. It’s not just a pastime. Their seriousness is at another level. They really get what Yoga is about.

There is also something very inspiring about seeing these trainees take on this kind of a challenge and to begin to see themselves in a new light. Often when you have a disability, you become the patient, the one cared for and it can be very disempowering to always be the one who needs to be helped. As Sri Gurudev said, if you are depressed you should serve. This is the same idea for someone who may not be depressed but who may not feel a sense of purpose because of their disability. We are offering them the amazing tool of our beautiful Yoga class that enables them to go out and serve in this new way.

IYM: Are you able to share any personal stories?

JH: There are so many! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve led a discussion group and been blown away by the wisdom my students have gained just from dealing with their life challenges. So many feel grateful for their disability, for the wisdom and experience they feel they couldn’t have gotten any other way. One student said Yoga saved his life. He has AIDS and he was told he would die in a couple of months and that was nine years ago. He explained to me that even though medications and drugs have helped him physically, he wouldn’t have had the willpower to take the meds if not for the Yoga that helped him. Each person has similar stories.

One of the women with MS was diagnosed two year ago. She had basically spent the year since the diagnosis very depressed. She said that it was only after her first class that she felt any lightness in her body. When she left the class, she felt like she was floating, and it was the first time she felt alive since her diagnosis. The other benefit of this program is that the sangha, the community that’s created here is very powerful. Some of these people could have participated in a regular TT but didn’t want to be the weakest one, the slowest one or the one who couldn’t do the pose. This program created a safe, supportive community for them to be able to take on training as a Yoga teacher. Gurudev told us about the importance of sangha, and I’m getting to see this in a whole new light.

About Rev. Jivana Heyman:

Jivana Heyman is the founder of Accessible Yoga, co-owner of the Santa Barbara Yoga Center, and an Integral Yoga Minister. With over twenty years of training and teaching in the Integral Yoga lineage, Jivana has specialized in teaching the subtle practices of yoga: pranayama, meditation, as well as sharing Yoga philosophy. His passion is making Yoga accessible to everyone. Accessible Yoga has grown into an international advocacy and education organization, and now offers two Conferences per year, trainings around the world, an ambassador program, and online Network.Jivana has taught with the Dean Ornish Heart Disease Reversal Program through UCSF, California Pacific Medical Center’s Institute of Health and Healing, and the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. He has led over 40 Yoga teacher training programs over the past 16 years, and  created the Accessible Yoga Training program in 2007. On December 3rd, 2015, Jivana taught Accessible Yoga at the United Nations in Geneva for their International Day of Persons with Disabilities.