Jivana Heyman Has a Revolutionary Idea: Make Yoga Accessible to Everyone
Yoga Journal|January - February 2022
For the Accessible Yoga co-founder, "anyone can do yoga” isn’t a feel-good social media slogan—it’s a lifelong mission.
By Dakota Kim, Photography by Ian Spanier

In the soft 7:30 a.m. Santa Barbara sun, Jivana Heyman walks down the green wooden steps into his backyard garden. He admires the herb bed where lavender, oregano, and thyme flourish. Scratching his short auburn beard and adjusting his glasses, he moves on to what he calls his “three favorite Ws”: watering, weeding, and wandering. Many living things in his personal oasis call for his attention: prolific lemon and orange trees, an eggplant-and-pepper patch, an itinerant inedible fig tree that he can’t seem to bring himself to cut down. As he tends to them, he takes time to think. This space for reflection is part of what Heyman, co-founder of the nonprofit organization Accessible Yoga Association and author of Accessible Yoga, loves so much about gardening.

Heyman sits down at the table on his back porch. He pulls up some old snapshots on his phone and laughs wistfully at one, taken at a 1990 march associated with the New York City Gay Pride Parade. In it, Heyman, in his mid-20s, clad in white and wearing sunglasses, marches behind a banner. His hands are lifted enthusiastically in mid-clap.

In some ways, the calm yoga teacher and father of two grown children bears little resemblance to the fiery activist in the photo. But Heyman is still passionate about making change, and the fire that stoked the ardent young demonstrator still burns brightly. The focus of the flame has just shifted. Now, he is committed to making yoga accessible to everyone.

Finding Yoga

In the early 1990s, Heyman was living in San Francisco, the epicenter of the AIDS epidemic. People all around him were dying—his best friend, former lovers, and many close friends. Heartbroken, angry, and afraid, he joined the HIV/AIDS activism group ACT UP to protest the lack of accessible, affordable treatment.

“I was completely overwhelmed and in grief,” Heyman says. “It was horrific. I was partying, drinking, and demonstrating. I desperately needed help.”

Heyman was literally sick with sorrow; he started having digestive issues. He visited the woman who would become his mentor, Kazuko Onodera, for a massage. “She had a picture of Swami Satchidananda—who was also my grandmother’s yoga teacher—on her wall.” When he mentioned that connection, she invited him to take one of her yoga classes. Over the next few years, Onodera taught him not only yoga, but also cooking and gardening. “She understood the fullness of the practice,” Heyman says. “She saved me.”

Heyman protesting in San Francisco

As Heyman delved deeper into yoga, he stopped partying and drinking and started volunteering at a local AIDS hospice. In 1995, he received his yoga certification and began teaching classes for people living with HIV/AIDS and those suffering from the grief of losing loved ones to the disease. “I wanted to bring people together who were isolated and lost and struggling,” he says. His classes started with an hour-long check-in session, followed by 60 minutes of asana. “It was like a support group. The check-in session was the yoga to me.”

Heyman speaking and leading a practice at an Accessible Yoga conference

Yoga allowed Heyman to process his feelings and grieve his friends’ deaths. It also helped him become emotionally mature enough to enter a loving, stable relationship: “I thought, ‘I’m ready to settle down, yoga is calming me down, and I’m ready to be with someone healthier.’” He met his husband, Matt Fratus, through ACT UP in January 1993; they were married on August 31, 1997, at the Integral Yoga Institute of San Francisco.

Heyman speaking and leading a practice at an Accessible Yoga conference

As yoga studios multiplied exponentially in the early to mid-2000s, a desire to build an alternative yoga community began to bubble up in Heyman. “It felt like a lot of us were left out—that we were the outsiders,” he says. He had been teaching yoga to people with disabilities since 1995. “Over the years, I saw how dedicated many of my students were and I kept trying to get them to take the 200-hour teacher training programs I was running,” Heyman says. “But they often felt that teacher training wasn’t accessible to them. It finally dawned on me that I could make the teacher training program accessible for them.” In 2007, he developed a program to train those students to be teachers themselves.

Heyman started using the name Accessible Yoga to create an inclusive yoga movement welcoming to people of all abilities, financial circumstances, ages, races, and identities.

Accessible Yoga can take the form of chair yoga. It can be demonstrating pose variations that allow those with osteoporosis or arthritis to participate. It can also be accepting “a busy mind” rather than encouraging a quiet one—a supportive action to resist neurotypicality and support mental health and mental diversity. Accessible Yoga might be diffusing the competitive spirit among yogis that can develop during a class by allowing advanced poses without paying special attention to them.

“Yoga is a spiritual practice, and the whole idea of yoga is that the same spirit exists in all of us, so if it’s not accessible, it’s not yoga,” Heyman says.

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