While it’s true that we can’t cater to all of everybody’s needs all the time in everything we do, we can still increase our inclusivity. Doing anything is better than doing nothing. Remember that our bodies are unique anyway, so by simply increasing the variation or adaptability of the things you offer, you can increase the number of people who feel represented in your classes. In order to decide what kinds of options you can choose for the content of your classes, we need to return to a default mindset of ‘Who might this class/instruction/question be challenging, impossible or traumatic for? Why? How can I avoid that?’ Let’s dive into ways of including everybody and every body when teaching English yoga classes while we analyse health conditions, femininity and beauty standards.
Every body is unique and it defines how we experience life:
Our minds and bodies define how we move through the world and what opportunities we have had. When finding ways of including everybody and every body when teaching English yoga classes, we need to consider how a person’s mind and body could affect their experience of our classes. Then we need to maintain an awareness of their experience and consider it in our class plans.
While in our last blog we discussed ways of being inclusive in regard to religion, countries and continents, this blog aims to highlight three new areas where you can start to develop the inclusivity of your teaching. Remember, being aware is the first step to learning. Start introducing changes once you’ve done your own research and thinking after reading this blog. There is some guidance here and we hope you can use it to inform your own independent research of your existing or potential students.
Health conditions in your English yoga classes
These paragraphs aim to raise awareness of the possible experiences your students might have relating to their bodies, which you need to be able to identify or accommodate in the future. Health conditions are countless, so I’m going to focus on the one we speak about a lot in yoga but don’t think about much because it isn’t visible: breathing.
If we’re at a yoga class we can assume everyone there is breathing, but how are they breathing? And what’s their present experience of breathing? Is it something they need to think about day by day, hour by hour? Yes, is the answer for people with asthma, cystic fibrosis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancers, and the list goes on.
If you have a disease affecting your breathing, it might be physically painful and/or a source of fear and trauma. Therefore, finding out about your students’ health conditions can help you to accommodate their experience while you teach. Don’t underestimate how reassuring it is for a person with a condition like this simply to know that their teacher is being responsible. If you ask a new student if they have any health conditions and they mention something you don’t know anything about, say that.
It’s ok to say that, at this moment, you don’t know.
It is a sign of respect and reliability to say ‘I am sorry but I feel I know very little about your health condition and I will need to find out more before I can give you the right recommendations or instructions.’ Then go away and seek information from reliable medical sources. For this class, tell them only to do what they decide is safe and what they feel comfortable with, and offer options. Example: ‘in a minute I will lead a short breathing exercise. If you have a condition that affects your breathing, [do x, y or z] instead’.
Remember that while you may have learned or read that yoga ‘can help’ or ‘improve’ certain conditions, you have to be fully educated on how and why yoga is proven to benefit people with those conditions. It may be that only certain aspects of it can be practised by them safely, or done in a particular way to be beneficial, not detrimental. There isn’t one size fits all and our bodies respond differently to different conditions. You don’t have to be a doctor, but it’s part of our responsibility as teachers to work with our students to find out in a responsible way what is best for them. This shouldn’t be rushed and it can be a team effort.
Periods, femininity and identifying as a woman
While female empowerment and feeling happy in your body is a wonderful thing, this is an area where we risk excluding some people. Even if we don’t think it will directly affect someone in our class, our acknowledgement of diversity is part of having an inclusive mindset as a teacher. Here we’ll explore ways of including everybody in your English yoga classes by becoming more aware of how we can avoid non-inclusive ideas that are centred around gender binaries and cisgender normativity.
Often we refer to the idea of a cycle. Sometimes that’s the lunar cycle, but also the menstruation cycle. This can happen especially in classes where there are only people there who identify as women.
If we are going to refer to menstruation and/or female identity, we should remember that these two things are not dependent on one another. For example it is not only cisgender women who experience periods; therefore we exclude both people who are transgender and people who just don’t have periods, including cisgender women.
Gender identity aside, while for one person menstruation may be something they enjoy and love, it is also a real source of trauma for others. For some people who bleed, it is upsetting because they do not feel like their body and its functions belong to them as a person, or it could be that they have had damaging experiences from conditions such as endometriosis or unsuitable contraception.
Feminine or female characteristics and stereotypes
It is not unusual for women to find empowerment in stereotypically, conventionally ‘feminine’ or ‘female’ characteristics. Those might include having ‘curves’ like more defined hips and breasts than is conventionally thought of as ‘masculine’. These problematic binaries ignore our diversity and represent us incorrectly. So, we need to take responsibility and find ways of including every body in your English yoga classes. Because when we reinforce them in our teaching, it can be damaging and traumatic for our students. For example, a person could really want to have the characteristics we mention and not have them. Another might have them and hate them or not identify with them. Someone else might have lost a characteristic due to surgery, treatment or an accident.
We will never know exactly what has happened or is happening in our students’ lives. That’s why, when teaching, we should ensure our content is based on more universal experiences, or speaks to a variety of experiences, free of assumptions.
As teachers we can take care not to exclude individuals from our classes by accommodating students’ experiences and being thoughtful of their possible gender identity and any health conditions or experiences they’ve had. We don’t often share these personal experiences in a professional environment. Neither do we necessarily have to find out about our students’ relationships with menstruation and other aspects of their bodies. We can simply adapt our content to the broader, more adaptable experiences of knowing and caring for your body and other types of cycles such as the lunar one.
Body idealism and beauty standards in your English yoga classes
How many of us look in the mirror and see only our imperfections? I know I do and I know I am not alone.
Sadly most beauty in the world isn’t recognised due to our narrow perceptions of ideal body shape, size and other idealised characteristics of beauty. The funny thing is, these perceptions change from place to place and from person to person. So they’re not even founded in anything real. Promote the recognition of real beauty in your classes! Which is seeing and believing in our own value as a human being, and the value of others regardless of shape, size, colour and personality. Focus on the beauty of loving yourself and others in all our diversity.
There are so many aspects that determine how beautiful we think we are or someone else is. We think about everything from the size and shape to the colour and texture of almost every part of our bodies, from our heads to our toes!
Including every body type in your English yoga classes
While teaching, we can use language that does not suggest or reinforce ‘idealised’ body types or normative and exclusive beauty standards. For example, ‘bikini body’, ‘yoga body’, ‘dancer body’, ‘lockdown weight’, ‘Christmas weight’ and so many more unhealthy labels. Avoid them in order not to fuel our often toxic relationship with beauty. Be careful not to use words that could be associated with eating disorders and body dysmorphia for example, or that could have negative connotations for people who experience such conditions. Use phrases such as ‘engage your core’ and avoid ‘flatten your belly’ or suck your stomach in’. How might those words upset a person who’s suffering from or recovering from an experience where the size or shape of their stomach was a source of fear, anxiety and ill health? How might it affect a mother who’s still trying to navigate all the hormonal changes of her postnatal body?
Helping your students see beauty in themselves and each other as they are is a way of including everybody and every body when teaching English yoga classes. We can use inclusive language to broaden our perspective to understand the true meaning of beauty. We can highlight that true beauty doesn’t have ideals or standards.
Put yourself in others’ shoes!
Creating inclusivity is an ongoing, never-ending path of education and work, and inclusive language evolves like all other languages. For example, I have epilepsy and when I returned to Scotland after four years living in Spain, I learned that I had been using language that was now considered offensive and hurtful to others who have epilepsy. So I’ve had to retrain myself to speak about my own health condition! This goes to show just how much we need to keep up with what is and isn’t currently acceptable language, and also how personal it is. One person with epilepsy can have a totally different experience to another person with epilepsy. Even within one characteristic, there is endless diversity and variation.
So, listening to individual experiences is as key as researching reliable and formally published information such as government guidelines. It’s also about constructively criticising ourselves and others before and as we speak. Acknowledging honestly what we don’t know, then reflecting on how we can, as individuals, be more active to support others and treat everyone as equals. Our bodies and our relationships with them are unimaginably diverse, but perhaps this in itself is something that can unite us. Finding ways of including everybody and every body when teaching English yoga classes can seem like a big task. By choosing our content well, we can both focus on the universal experiences of human existence and offer adaptable, versatile content which represents as many people as possible.
More like this?
And, in the meantime, get access to the 10-Tips for Multilingual Yoga Teachers here. It’s a video series of 10 daily tips to not only help you become more language aware, but also gain confidence and effectiveness in your English yoga classes. You can register here.