I was living in San Francisco right after college. I had come out of the closet at seventeen, and that’s when my life suddenly opened up. I found a new excitement and hopefulness that I’d lost in my closeted adolescent days. I was experiencing a freedom I’d never known. Although that freedom came from being out, it was actually an internal experience that came from accepting myself for who I am.
So moving to San Francisco, the gay mecca, seemed like the beginning of a new chapter for me. Unfortunately, rather than finding the carefree life I had imagined, I found myself surrounded by a world of illness and death because so many of my friends were getting sick and dying of AIDS.
AIDS offered a quick lesson in the most painful aspects of our human condition. While most twenty-year-olds were out having fun, I found myself marching in the streets with ACT UP (The AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), volunteering at an AIDS hospice, and working for an underground AIDS newsletter.
One of the patients at the AIDS hospice where I volunteered, John, was about the same age as me, in his early twenties, and near death. He was so angry about dying that he wouldn’t allow any of the hospice volunteers to come into his room other than to bring the food he could barely eat. He would just yell at them to leave him alone. When I started to volunteer, the staff thought John might be willing to talk to another young person. So they sent me to try to talk to him. I was afraid to enter his room because he yelled at all the other volunteers and was angry all the time. Eventually, I got up the courage, and John hesitatingly let me come in. He even teased me about it and asked if I thought I was a saint for coming to visit him. He had a sharp wit and equally sharp tongue that seemed unimpaired even as his body failed.
We got into a routine, and I would visit him a few days a week. Most of the time John would rant about how angry he was about being sick and talk about how much he wanted to be out having fun. He grilled me for details about my life out in the world. Where did I go, who did I see? I remember feeling guilty for having a social life. I did my best to listen to his anger and fear and try not to get too caught up in it myself. But it was impossible.
I remember one time John was so angry he stood up on his bed, almost naked, jumping up and down screaming like a child having a temper tantrum. The reason he wasn’t wearing any clothes was because his body was covered with open sores that wouldn’t heal, and his clothing was sticking to the sores making them more painful. It was impossible to witness his suffering without getting angry myself. I was furious with a world that didn’t care about John and his pain. And it was an anger I held on to for many years.
This anger carried me through years of protesting in the streets with ACT UP and getting arrested for civil disobedience on many occasions. One time a small group of us chained ourselves to the inside of a subway train during rush hour in San Francisco in an attempt to gain attention for our loved ones who were getting sick and dying. Looking back, it seems so extreme, but I was completely committed to serving those who were suffering. My anger was the only outlet I had.
I was having serious stress-related digestive problems and stumbled into a yoga class with a teacher named Kazuko Onodera. I found myself returning week after week. I was reminded of some of my earliest childhood memories, which were watching my grandmother practice yoga every morning. Slowly the yoga crept up on me. What seemed like simple stretching, breathing, and relaxing was actually transforming me. Without realizing it, I was growing and healing.
After some time, I went to an ACT UP protest where there was a counter demonstration going on. The two groups were on either side of a single metal police barricade yelling at each other. I noticed two men at the front, standing on either side of the barricade, who were screaming at each other furiously. Both men were red-faced and fuming. In that moment, I realized that in their anger these two men were basically the same. It dawned on me that in my anger I could only accomplish so much. I was tired of yelling and screaming, when what I really wanted was to help my friends heal.
I slowly started backing away from the crowd and walked away down the street. The noise from the yelling lingered in my ears. As I walked away from the demonstration that day, I began to feel the deep sadness and loss that were at the root of my anger. The anger had been covering up my grief over the loss of my friends and the loss of my innocence.
From the outside, yoga may seem self-indulgent and exclusive. But much of what we think of yoga is really a modern, Westernized practice. At its heart, yoga is about love and service, not yoga pants and Instagram followers. Yoga wasn’t stopping me from being an AIDS activist—it was showing me how to be a more effective one. In fact, yoga is designed to amplify our voices by giving us tools to make us stronger and clearer. It’s designed to make us peaceful warriors. We can use yoga to deepen our connection to love and truth; to speak up for those who don’t have a voice.
In a way, the story of Accessible Yoga began thousands of years ago with the first yoga practitioner who sat on a blanket instead of in the dirt. Or with the first yogis to use a strap to support their legs so they could sit longer in meditation. (This is actually the earliest example of the use of yoga props from more than two thousand years ago.) But the idea of adapting the pose to the person, instead of the person to the pose, is a relatively new one.
Only recently has there started to be some serious questioning about what’s really happening in yoga on many levels: culturally, psychologically, and physiologically. This questioning is shifting the focus more to the individual’s experience and intuition, and to a deeper understanding of the practice.
Unfortunately, modern postural yoga has stumbled many times. There has been an unacceptable amount of abuse and injury. Now we need to find a new way to approach the practice.
The fall of traditional Indian gurus led to the rise of a Westernized practice that reeks of colonization and commercialization. As yoga becomes more intertwined with capitalism, the yoga community must grapple with many questions, including: Who has the right to the teachings and practices of yoga? Is yoga reserved only for people with a certain body type? Is yoga mainly a physical practice of putting the body in various prescribed poses? How can we practice in a way that is in alignment with the long tradition of yoga?
By shifting our understanding of yoga away from the perfect images we see in magazines or on social media, we can expand our understanding of yoga and how it can serve the diversity of humankind. Like light through a prism, Accessible Yoga expands the teachings of yoga to expose their endless variations and applications.
Images on this page: (1) a photo of Jivana teaching four different variations of ardha matsyendrasana to four students, (2) a photo of Jivana with his arm around his friend Kurt, who died of AIDS in 1995, (3) an arial photo of protestors, including Jivana, at a Queer Nation march in the 1990s, (4) Jivana instructing multiple variations of an inverted asana to two students.
Join my email list to receive updates on new writing, courses, and events right in your inbox.