Ashtanga Yoga : Say What?

Published on 27 March 2024 at 11:59

Accessibility & inclusion in a style of yoga with an intimidating name and reputation

Ashtanga yoga is a traditional vigorous style of yoga practice that, in my experience, can be a powerful tool to help heal the mind-body system. It is generally and mistakenly considered a practice reserved for advanced athletic practitioners. However, it need not be exclusive. Here are some of my thoughts on the topic of accessibility and inclusion as it relates to yoga, especially Ashtanga yoga. 

  • Accessibility: potential barriers to reaching the practice and the practice reaching you.
  • Inclusion: feeling a sense of safety and belonging. 

If you Google Ashtanga or if you have seen any of the big-name teachers demonstrating Ashtanga, you may think it is a practice for superhuman elite athletes.  I want to remind you that these teachers and influencers are a small number of charismatic, gifted folks who have devoted their lives and careers to the practice. Most of us are what we might call ‘householders’ or average humans working, parenting, and/or otherwise surviving under various complex and often demanding circumstances. The time and dedication required to reach high levels of physical practice may or may not be in the cards for us. However, that doesn’t mean there can’t be the same or even higher level of benefits based on what is meaningful in our lives.

In my opinion and experience, you do not need to be any of the following to practice yoga:

  • Flexible
  • Fit
  • Spiritual
  • Athletic

I repeat you do not need to be flexible, fit, spiritual, or athletic to practice yoga. These characteristics are neither a prerequisite nor a guaranteed outcome. In fact, these qualities are secondary. The core benefits I have experienced include enjoying the practice, beginning to heal the nervous system, building community, and getting to know oneself on a deeper level. There have been other benefits, but those are a few important and widely accessible ones.


Can people with physical disabilities practice yoga?

I have never taught yoga to anyone with a significant physical disability, but I have been thinking about this topic a lot and have read some inspiring stories lately. I am also a speech-language pathologist and have worked with clients with a wide variety of cognitive and physical abilities. I care about everyone having opportunities to experience well-being and healing.  I read a story about one of the big-time Ashtanga teachers teaching veterans who were paraplegic and also teaching people who were blind.  He spoke about teaching breathing techniques, subtle inner muscle engagements, and other supports to guide people to access as much as possible. This was very inspiring. 

Most recently I came upon this stunning YouTube video of Roshni Hosseinzadeh who is a devoted Ashtanga yoga practitioner and is unable to see.  Her testimony changed my life for the better and I encourage anyone interested in practicing yoga to make themselves a hot tea and enjoy her incredible words and presence. 

Link to video of Roshni:

If you have a significant physical disability, you will face different challenges than a physically fit person, of course. It may be that you are jumping into the more subtle and advanced stages of practice without the grounding effect and distraction of full-scale physical practice. However, you may have built up other qualities and gifts that others haven’t, such as resilience, self-awareness, focus, and determination. Each person is unique, and every situation is different.  If you have an interest and desire to practice, that is all you need to start at least exploring.

Can people with other types of medical or physical limitations practice Ashtanga?

I would say yes, but I wouldn’t rely on a yoga teacher to know what you can and can’t do unless you tell them. This is tricky because you might not know either. I have a friend with scoliosis; she was practicing yoga, and her experience was that it made her condition worse. I believe her. I had a student come to me before class and let me know they had a seizure disorder, and they couldn’t do the final resting pose because it triggered their seizures. I believe them.

Besides a general waiver students sign saying they are ‘healthy’ enough to practice, we aren’t going to know what is going on with you. I appreciate it when students come to me before class and chat about whatever condition or circumstance they are dealing with. I encourage and urge everyone to do as much research as possible on their given condition, talk to as many people as possible, and understand that while yoga can be an immensely powerful complimentary healthcare practice, yoga teacher doesn’t equate to medical professional. It’s best to assume others know very little about what is helpful for you to do beyond the universal support offered to everyone. Perhaps some teachers know much more, but my point is for people to approach it from an empowered perspective without assuming others will know everything that is best for you.  Research up on the teacher's background and training and seek out the recommendations of others as well. Keep searching until you find a teacher who is a good fit and will collaborate with you to help you access a yoga practice that works for you. 

Given my professional and personal experience, I recommend yoga for those dealing with focus, attention, and anxiety issues related to trauma, Autism and ADHD. The reasons are straightforward: the breathing and poses require that you shift your attention away from thoughts and onto breathing and the body. This may help strengthen your overall ability to focus and gives you agency over where you put your attention. Deep breathing can also take your nervous system out of fight-or-flight mode (anxiety) and put it into a more restful state. Yoga classes can be a good social opportunity for those who experience social anxiety or awkwardness because there is some interaction involved, but not too much. You have the opportunity to experience a sense of togetherness without a high demand for verbal output.  

One of my favorite teaching experiences was leading chair yoga to a small group of women with advanced stages of dementia out on the lawn of their care facility.  The grass was wet, but given the choice, it was unanimous that they all wanted to do the final resting pose (savasana) on the wet grass. After the final rest, they dubbed themselves the "wet butts". They were fantastic. 

Can you practice yoga if you use drugs and alcohol regularly?

This is a subject that is close to my heart because I used to use alcohol and cigarettes to regulate my nervous system, aka deal with immense stress/buried trauma.  I don’t like the word “addict” because it carries misplaced shame with it, and there is nothing inherently wrong with using substances to survive and to try to feel okay. We all do it.  For example, drinking coffee is a socially acceptable form of this. There is an excellent teacher named Gabor Mate who specializes in treating trauma, and he reminds us that it is extremely hard to acquire an addiction to drugs and/or alcohol without the presence of significant childhood trauma.  In my case, I didn’t know anything about addiction and trauma, and I didn’t know I was numbing discomfort originating from adverse childhood experiences.  

Knowing what I know now, my perspective is that if someone is using substances to numb, I’m going to assume their body has a good reason, and it has nothing to do with weakness or a character flaw. 

In my experience, yoga has been an excellent practice for moving stagnant or buried energy through your body, cultivating a sense of grounding and peace, and turning attention inward to the root of suffering -all of which could be helpful if there are complex and potentially challenging energies, blockages, or we can call it trauma- in our system.  I would just remind you that Ashtanga yoga will likely push these energies to the surface of your awareness, and any numbing substance will likely function to push the energies back down out of your awareness, which is not the best dynamic. 

In my case, yoga and drinking contributed to a perfect storm for an eruption of energies and buried traumas all at once, which I don’t recommend, to say the least. There may not be a way to avoid this altogether, but please treat your yoga class as strong medicine. After the yoga buzz wears off, you may have uncomfortable energy, feelings, emotions, and intense physical sensations coming up.  This is excellent news, in my experience, because these energies emerge to exit your system, but it doesn’t feel great, so be aware. I would not wish for anyone to deal with these uncomfortable and painful energies and the stories they may carry, especially not alone. Set the intention or ask the universe to bring you the right people to support you (therapists, medical professionals, healers, community groups, etc.). That might not sound like enough, but awareness and intention are at least a start. 

I would avoid heavy drinking or drug use directly after a strong yoga practice if possible.

Final thoughts on accessibility

So many amazing online yoga classes are offered these days, which is a great way to start exploring yoga if you aren’t ready or able to attend an in-person class. I subscribe to Glo yoga, and it is incredible. There are different styles of classes, different levels, and many different teachers. You have some of the most experienced teachers in the world who are on demand right in the comfort of your own home. You can also find many free classes on YouTube. The downside is that you may be doing poses wrong, and you don’t have a live person giving you feedback. The other downside is you don’t get the feeling of togetherness and the palpable support that in-person group energy provides. Try not to go too long doing online-only classes so as not to build bad habits.  Yoga studios, YMCAs, and individual teachers may offer scholarships if cost is an issue. It never hurts to ask. My classes cost as low as $6 a class. There have been times in my life when I didn’t have $6, so affordability is important to me, and thanks to the low rent of the space I teach in, I can offer this low rate. I wish medical insurance covered yoga classes because yoga, for me, has absolutely served as primary, complementary, and preventative healthcare. Nobody can tell me otherwise because I have experienced the benefits firsthand.


If you have a condition or circumstance that sets you apart from others in a group, it will likely be more challenging for you to experience a sense of belonging. This can be viewed as a barrier, or it can be seen as an opportunity, depending on your orientation to life. The spiritual teacher Ram Dass would call such adversity “Grist for the Mill.” In a nutshell, this viewpoint is when you view life as a teacher providing you with challenging experiences and assignments so that you can free yourself from within instead of waiting for the world to change.

Regarding yoga, if you have to sit in a chair and practice breathing while everyone else is standing on their head, that likely won’t feel great.  If you look, act, talk, or dress differently from others or are a different size, shape, or age than the others in class, that might not feel great. It depends on the person. Some people are proud to stand out or wouldn’t mind sitting in a chair.  I have an average build and light olive skin, and I have a background as an athlete.  I have also encountered intense suffering related to adverse childhood experiences. I only know how it feels to be me in a yoga class. I don’t know what it feels like to be you. However, I do know what it feels like to be humiliated. I do know what it feels like to be terrified. I do know what it feels like to be rejected and feel completely alone.  These experiences can keep us from putting ourselves out there and doing and saying what we want, or if you don’t give up, they can be the doorway to a greater sense of well-being, freedom, and self-expression. I vote for freedom and hope you find a yoga practice and community where you feel safe and welcome. 

It is impossible to speak to every condition and every circumstance when it comes to accessibility and inclusion as it relates to yoga, but I hope this helps.

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