It’s not the wheelchair that makes you disabled. It’s the lack of a ramp into the building – social model of disability
Recently, Dianne Bondy and the YBIC, quietly sponsored by Gaiam, have been promoting a 7-day #propitup challenge on social media. There’s lots for me to love about this. I really enjoy seeing YBIC popping up on my social media feeds with a wide and inclusive diversity of images of yoga practitioners of all kinds. I think they’re making a profound and gentle difference to how we imagine yoga within transnational, globalised culture, and pushing back hard against the overwhelming ad copy that uses exactly the kind of models it uses outside of yoga: thin, white, young, able and highly mobile, manipulable female bodies in sexualised positions. Following the YBIC means seeing big, aging, black, queer, trans and disabled bodies in all the strength, power, integrity and beauty they can embody. These are images I can relate to. They look like the yoga practitioners and teachers I most admire and love. However, I am starting to wonder what our community-produced social media would consist of if our slogan was less ‘this is what a yogi looks like’ and more ‘this is what a yogi feels like’, but that’s a whole other post. This is good work by the YBIC, and I want to champion and support it, but there was one insistent point trying to get my attention, and it took me a while to work out what it was.
It’s about props. I am lucky, because of my work, to find myself connected to a wide and often wild diversity of alternative and innovative transnational yoga culture. As an animist, and a theorist of lived and material culture, our relationship to those parts of our world that we call ‘things’ fascinates me. And taking those two aspects together, people I admire within this culture have some mutually contradictory attitudes to props.
There are people like the YBIC, finding ever more innovative ways to use blocks, bolsters and straps, to adjust the yoga environment to make the practice more available for a wider range of people – if you can’t reach the floor in trikonasana, why strain? Use a block. We all need a little help once in a while. If you’re a wheelchair user, you need a ramp to get into the building.
Then there are people embracing more and more primal, natural movement within their practice – people like Chris Gladwell and Diane Bruni, who have left props behind, taken their yoga off the mat and out into the world quite literally. They’re asking how our practice allows us as human beings to adapt to our ecology, rather than shaping the world to meet our needs. If your yoga practice doesn’t enable you to move naturally and with grace through the world as it is, what’s the point? Roll your mat up, put your props away, and maybe we can start moving beyond the safe, linear, familiar confines of our practice. There are no ramps in the wide, wild forest.
There are those people working with yoga and autism who tell yoga teachers that props will always be a distraction, like Yoga for the Special Child. There are others, like Yoga4Autism, that teach you how to use props of all kinds to find common points of interest and sensory play together. There are even trauma-sensitive yoga teachers like Hala Khouri, Tiffany Rose and David Emerson, who will point out that many props, especially straps, can be dangerously triggering to students, and you should think carefully about even having them in the practice space.
There’s something very interesting going on here, something beyond the fact that these people have different motivations, which shape the practice accordingly. We could start by criticising those among natural movement people who have a very narrow, exclusive, normalising conception of ‘nature’; which excludes anyone who isn’t fit and healthy and doesn’t move through the world like Tarzan through the jungle. Some of those people are using ‘nature’ in their most idealised, artificial sense of the word – one in which we are fully mobile, fully agented, fully adapted to our ecology at all times, and anyone else just isn’t part of the picture. While this is a fair criticism of a few people I won’t mention, it’s important to remember that there are other natural movement people, like my friend Debbie Farrar, who actively work with disabled students, and bring all these worlds together.
But the idea of not ‘relying’ on props as being somehow purer, more authentic, or more advanced, is one of those insidiously common unexamined issues within transnational asana practice more generally. It tends to make invisible some very real oppressive choices that we make at a cultural and societal level. After all, why is a chair ‘normal’ and a wheelchair not? Why would our modern-day primitive wear clothes and carry a knife, but not a cane?
What we call disability is as natural as any other aspect of our world. Plants and animals recover and adapt to post-traumatic growth. Tribes, packs, and forests alike contain members with impairments. Life endures and thrives in a weird and wild diversity of shapes and abilities. In fact, that’s one very clear defining characteristic of life: it doesn’t just give up because an apple turned out asymmetrical. It carries on.
The social model of disability can really help us understand the unspoken oppressions behind our uses of words like ‘natural’ and ‘normal’. Too often these are words that essentialise what are in fact wholly culturally constructed qualities. It’s always useful to examine who gets left out of these definitions. Often it’s queer, disabled and neuro-diverse people, even though all of these populations exist not only throughout human history, but among many other species as well.
It is both entirely natural and an act of social justice to re-adapt a human world that has been constructed to exclude you. Mobility aids and communication aids and all the other tools someone might use to engage with a world made uncomfortable for them are radical objects – not props, but aids to a small amount of liberation from social oppression. So we add a ramp to a building that was constructed only with people with two typical legs in mind; or we code a text-to-speech programme to translate information that was broadcast only with people with typical sight in mind. Seen in this way, yoga props are similar aids: a block to help you reach the floor in Triangle if you’re stiff; or a strap to make it easier to breathe in Shoulderstand if you’ve ample breasts. They can bring a practice we know and are familiar with; one that often claims it is suitable for everyone but isn’t, to a much wider population of people.
But that only makes sense if the practice itself is as unchangeable as a building, or a 2000 year old document storage library. After all, if you could construct a whole new building to have smooth, mostly flat floors, you don’t need the ramp any more. If you podcast the same broadcast information, text-to-speech becomes unnecessary (and subtitles become vital for others).
The point is, yoga asana is a wide and diverse cultural practice. Almost all of the desired results from the individual postures, pranayamas, meditation techniques and mudras can be achieved from a different shape, practice or movement that is more appropriate for a specific body. Why would you be using props to achieve a shape that is less than optimal for your body’s needs and desires? When I hesitate to reach for a prop, I’m really asking myself: is there a better way to do what I’m attempting here? What is at the heart of what I’m practicing? Whose body is this shape designed to serve? Is this really the shape of a building I want to live in?
In fact, I find that the more non-typical my students, the less I use traditional yoga props. I adapt the practice to them, and work one-to-one when I can. I start from the body in front of me, engaging with it as a complex agent with conflicting desires and needs. I start from that relationship as my foundation, rather than a set repertoire of practice. Cushions and blankets might be involved, but so are a little bottle of oil for massage, and perfumed oils for sensory play. More often than not, my body is the main support for them to lean on.
In this way, access and diversity becomes about much more than adding props to support one body in achieving a physical practice originally designed for very different, normative bodies. It becomes about starting from needs and desires: for sensation, balance, and ease; for stability, equanimity and peace; for comfort, expression and connection. We start to find and adapt a practice as a set of tools to that end. And then the tools themselves, and even the ways they are offered, start to evolve much more radically. This individualisation can be a cultural shift – it’s a way of working we could start to adopt to work with everyone. We start to redesign the building, not just the ramp.
My friend Matthew Remski tells me that props in 20th century yoga originated as tools of paternalistic correction and perfection: being tied into postures or weighed down with stones. Krishnamacharya’s shala was hung with ropes and lined with bars, and the sticks there may well have been used for corporal punishment if boys failed to perform adequately. Matthew tells me how BKS Iyengar used props obsessively to correct what he saw as his sickness and weakness. He tells me that Judith Lasater transformed these corrective tools into an impeccable support, in which the strict but maternal, omniscient gaze of the teacher uses ever more refined layers of blankets to bring the earth up to meet the asymmetrical body of the student.
Meanwhile, my friend Uma Dinsmore-Tuli will surround you with sheepskins and pillows and tuck you in and under and around until you float, womb-like, in comfort. She says “Use a sheepskin under your knees to get more comfortable”.
Chris Gladwell responds with a smile: “…but not too comfortable”.
Things are real. They have life, because we gift them with our histories, and dreams and desires. They are partners in our journeys.
Within the understanding of scholars of religion, yoga props are among that class of fetish objects that gain a life of their own within the practice. One’s own yoga mat is imbued with both the psycho-spiritual grooves of repeated practice, and your sacrificial offerings of sweat and tears. A yoga prop that is a stepping stone to moments of infinity and grace is not a mere thing. Nor is the altar it lays in front of, or the zippo lighter my grandfather kept in his pocket every day, or the murtis my friend Sivani Mata carefully sings to, bathes and feeds every morning.
Within yoga culture, the prop is a ramp to get into the whole library of yoga culture. This section might contain tools for wellbeing; another for esoteric and spiritual transformation; another for trauma reconciliation. You can choose your path, and argue with other people there about what the practice is really about. But once we get in the building, there’s nothing to stop us transforming the architecture of yoga practice the way it transforms us in return. After all, yoga practitioners seem to agree on at least one thing: it’s not really about the shape of the practice. It’s what you’re doing in it; who you’re becoming through it. That’s why the people who want to co-opt yoga for commercial gain are trademarking the wrong part of the practice. The asanas only matter as a library of possible shapes that hundreds and thousands of seekers before you found useful. Other shapes, other practices are possible.
I have sat, eyes closed, with Angela Farmer and Victor van Kooten for hour after hour, wriggling my tailbone like a snake and feeling something in my perineum slowly open like a sunflower. I couldn’t tell you if it was fascia or prana.
I have ridden the sacred waters of the Burren like a river through my bones in yoga nidra with Uma.
I have arced like a fish on a shore trying to develop lungs, only to dissolve into laughter when John Stirk said:
“You can’t teach this, you know. People just want to do Triangle pose.”
What if we stopped accommodating ourselves to a narrow definition of what asana practice could look like – whether it’s for wellbeing or for spiritual transformation? What might we build as a yoga practice, if we started from first principles, and included a wider range of body shapes, abilities and neurologies?
What would that yogi look like?