THE BLOG
07/21/2015 10:51 am ET Updated Jul 21, 2016

Finally: Accessible Yoga for All

These days, it's a little intimidating if you want to try yoga. Never mind that it's always been a little bewildering watching someone float into a headstand when you can barely move your neck. These days, with "impressive" poses everywhere on social media, that one Instagram shot of a yogi doing a handstand on the edge of a cliff might turn your potential desire to buy a yoga mat into a firm statement: "There's no way."

You are not alone by a mile (or more). More people are in the "no way" category than you think. Nearly half consider themselves beginners, and more than one half of people who practice yoga are in the Baby Boomer generation, mostly likely seeking stress relief and physical healing. More medical programs are supporting the alternative therapy of yoga for treating a huge range of ailments and conditions.

"I think we're moving from yoga for the few to yoga for many," said Jivana Heyman, founder of the first-ever Accessible Yoga Conference, which will be held September 12-13 in Santa Barbara, California. Heyman teaches yoga to people with HIV/AIDS through California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco and is bringing together pioneers in the adaptive yoga movement to help make yoga accessible to everyone regardless of ability or condition.

"I've been teaching adaptive yoga for twenty years," he said in an email after we chatted, teacher to teacher, on the phone. "The basic concept of Accessible Yoga is that we are making the yoga teachings available to a larger population - we're throwing the doors wide open!"

An open door might be exactly what yoga needs right now. With star teachers and bendy beauties seemingly everywhere, some potential yogis with disabilities, chronic illness, or even just tight hamstrings often don't feel welcome in the thousands of sweaty classes offered across the U.S.

"The media tends to show us an image of a yoga practitioner that is not realistic. In fact, I've heard a number of people say, "I'm not flexible enough to do Yoga," which is kind of ironic. It reveals a misunderstanding about the nature of yoga and its benefits," said Heyman. "While yoga may increase flexibility, it's far from the main purpose. Yoga is designed to calm the mind and reconnect us with our inner peace. Yoga is a natural antidote to stress, anxiety and depression."

Heyman believes everyone has a right to learn and practice yoga. "I'm shocked when I hear that students are being discouraged from practicing because classes are "too advanced." In my opinion, the most advanced teachers are the ones who can adapt yoga to the person in front of them. The fact is yoga poses can be adapted to any body. Yoga can be done with props to support the body in a pose, or in a chair, or even in bed. In fact, each person really has his or her own version of a pose. Rather than think of an idealized perfect pose, consider the idea that each pose has endless variations according to every individual body."

At the conference, yoga teachers can get a preview of Adaptive Yoga programs. Students, Heyman promises, will be able to experience yoga without intimidation or fear, which could be life changing.

"The point is that when we're stressed we experience the world through the lens of that stress. When we feel relaxed we experience a completely different world that feels so much better. This is real healing - finding peace and happiness," said Heyman.

Sure, we've all seen the Instagram challenges that invite people to post "bad ass" yoga poses. Heyman has another challenge for yogis, instead. "I would challenge every yoga practitioner and teacher to consider the impact of your pictures and images on would be students. Letting go of the fear of yoga can help you learn how to relax, to be less stressed, to be stronger, and more connected with yourself. "

Despite the commercialization of yoga in recent years, Heyman sees yoga getting back to the people and teachings that are thousands and thousands of years old. "You don't have to be a pretzel to want happiness!"

To find out more about the Accessible Yoga Conference, visit http://www.accessibleyoga.org.