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Donna Noble Talks Accessible Yoga With Jivana Heyman

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Jivana Heyman is the founder of Accessible Yoga, an international advocacy organisation which offers Conferences, an Ambassador program, an online network and trainings. Donna Noble had the privilege of meeting Jivana Heyman in person and interviewing him during his recent visit to London and subsequently in Berlin.  Jivana was visiting the UK to deliver the Accessible Yoga Teacher Training and then the Accessible Yoga Conference.

I love how social media played a part in my connecting with Jivana.  He reached out to me earlier this year and invited me to be a presenter at the First Accessible Yoga Conference in Berlin.  Of course, I said yes!!!  It was an amazing experience.

Let’s join Donna and Jivana as they discuss accessible yoga.

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Let’s start where it all began…

How did you discover yoga?

Luckily, my grandmother had a daily yoga practice, and some of my earliest memories were watching her practice. She was an early adopter of yoga here in California in the 1950s and 60s.

Then I rediscovered yoga after I went to university. It was the late 1980s, and I was struggling with stress and anxiety from having so many friends get sick and die from AIDS. Yoga helped me stay grounded during such a painful time. It was my sanctuary when the world seemed to be falling apart. In fact, the current political climate reminds me of those years, and once again yoga is keeping me sane (or nearly!).

What does the essence of yoga mean for you?

That’s a great question. Because I think the biggest challenge in teaching yoga is that people have very different ideas about what it is, and may be looking for very different things. To me, yoga is a powerful spiritual practice that brings me home to myself, back to my heart. Yoga helps me remember the truth of who I am – a spiritual being having a temporary human experience (not the other way around).

Ironically, the physical practices are just the tip of the iceberg. There is so much more to yoga. In fact, it’s really a mental practice – learning how to befriend my own mind (the person I’m always with). I would say the essence of yoga is a collection of practices and teachings that help us calm the mind and free the heart.

How has yoga evolved since you started practising?

I think we’ve gone a bit backwards actually! Just in the past twenty-five years since I’ve been teaching, I’ve seen a new emphasis on advanced physical practice. I’m concerned that if people think advanced asana are the goal of yoga, then they’ll think that yoga is not for them. And yoga is for everyone. After all, yoga is about working with the mind, and that’s something we all need help with. I always say, there is no correlation between physical ability and peace of mind.

On the other hand, it’s wonderful to see the expansion of yoga around the world. I think yoga offers some of the most potent practices and resources for self-discovery and self-care. And that’s what we all need more of these days – ways to learn about ourselves and take care of ourselves. Yoga is helping us mentally, emotionally, physically and spiritually.

Now that there is so much yoga out there, the next step is for yoga students to become more discriminating about different styles of yoga. It’s important that anyone who is interested in practicing spends a good amount of time trying out different styles of yoga, and different teachers, to discover the right combination that works for them. It is not one size fits all!

You were obviously a pioneer – tell us about the reaction to your work with AIDS victims?

I was lucky enough to teach yoga to people with AIDS during the AIDS crisis in San Francisco, and to share yoga with people with many different disabilities over the years. Honestly, I find that people who are facing serious challenges in their lives are more willing to look at themselves. Many of my students with disabilities embraced yoga in such a profound way and used it for the exploration and self-care that I mentioned. They became my teachers, guiding me through their process of being ill and even, in some cases, dying. It’s a journey that we’ll all need to take eventually.

How do you take yoga into your everyday life?

I ask myself, how can I love and serve others more? That’s always a good question for me. What’s happening in my personal relationships? That’s the first place we can practice yoga – by loving the people around us.

But that doesn’t mean allowing them to abuse us. I’m experiencing this right now with my teenage daughter. She’ll get angry at me for absolutely nothing, and I get to watch how I react. The question is: Do I ignore her, or do I respond? I’m working on trying not to get emotionally involved when she is looking for a fight. I’ll say something like, “I see that you’re upset, but you can’t treat me that way.”

How has your work with accessible yoga changed the way in which you teach your classes?

Accessible yoga is about exposing the heart of yoga, rather than just focusing on the external physical form. I want to share the subtle, spiritual teachings of yoga with everyone who is interested. Yoga has transformed me and given me a lot of peace in very difficult times. I still struggle, but I know that yoga is there for me no matter what. I hope for the same for others. I want to give them the solace of yoga when they are struggling or suffering in any way.

What are your thoughts on the current image of yoga?

Actually, I think organisations like Accessible Yoga, the Yoga and Body Image Coalition, the Yoga Service Council and others are helping us to redefine who gets to practice yoga. We’re moving away from the limited image of the thin, young, white female practitioner. Magazines like Yoga Journal are even starting to realize that this limited image of the yogi is not reflective of the truth. It’s not in line with Satya (truthfulness), which is one of the most important teachings of yoga. Anyone who is in a position of power within the yoga industry needs to ask themselves if they are being honest in the way they are depicting yoga.

I’m feeling positive about the direction we’re going, and in the coming years, we’re going to see a big shift in the way yoga is depicted.

Who in the world of yoga inspires you?

You do! And so many others that I don’t even know where to start. I literally spend my days looking for presenters for our Accessible Yoga Conferences. And I can’t tell you how many amazing teachers I find who are doing service in their communities with little to no recognition. These are the people who really inspire me – the teachers who live in the spirit of service, in the spirit of yoga!

Service, seva or karma yoga is the way we bring yoga into our lives. It’s not enough to just practice for ourselves so that we can be flexible, healthy and peaceful. We have to use the energy that our practice produces for the good of others. Otherwise, we won’t grow spiritually.

I also think that for those of us struggling with oppression – ableism, racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, etc. – we need to find that love for ourselves first. That can take a long time, but that’s the first priority. Love yourself so that you can love others.

How can the wider yoga community make yoga more accessible?

I think we all need to speak up about what the truth of yoga is – that it offers effective tools to help reduce stress, anxiety, and depression. That it can help you inhabit your body in a more comfortable way. If we start focusing on these benefits, maybe we can help the general public realize that there is tremendous benefit here.

We need to let go of our obsession with advanced poses, and realize that being an advanced yogi isn’t about standing on your head, but standing on your feet! It’s about kindness and service. We need to start posting real yoga images on social media. Real people doing real yoga!

How does yoga promote connection, diversity and inclusivity?

I think those are the essential qualities of yoga – and of spirituality in general. The spirit within all of us is equal regardless of our ability or background. We each have the same essence regardless of how we look on the outside. The real beauty of yoga is to connect with that essence and still appreciate the differences and diversity of life.

That’s the real challenge of yoga, embracing diversity and inclusivity at the same time: honoring difference and similarity.

What is your hope for the future of yoga?

I definitely have a vision for the future of yoga. I see a renewed interest in the spiritual side of yoga – connecting to the deeper teachings. And of course, a practice that is equitable and accessible to everyone who is interested. I see yoga classes where people of all shapes, sizes, and backgrounds practice together to find common ground.

I hope that yoga can help us all find peace in our lives, and in turn, treat each other with respect and love. As I mentioned, service is the mark of yoga in the world, and we need that more than ever. There is so much division and tension right now, and I honestly think that yoga is the answer. If we can take the time to come home to ourselves and make peace with our own minds, then we can create a beautiful and healthy world that reflects the inner landscape of our minds.

To be honest, we don’t need to worry about yoga. We need to worry about ourselves. I hope that each one of us can use our practice to calm our minds and free our hearts. What an amazing world it would be!

Jivana Heyman’s next Accessible Yoga conference is taking place May 31st – 2nd June in St Louis.  Find out more at: https://accessibleyoga.org/st-louis/

I certainly wish that I could attend, as the European Conference left me a changed yogi.  I got to meet some amazing individuals all working to making yoga accessible.  Thanks Jivana and his awesome team for bringing us all together. Donna Noble

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