As yoga educators working in schools, we do our best to ensure all of our students feel safe, that the practice is accessible, that all of our students know that they belong. However, LGBTQ+ youth face unseen barriers to a yoga practice. LGBTQ+ youth often feel targeted for being different from their peers, may struggle to safely connect with their bodies, and are more likely to have experienced trauma when compared to their cis, straight peers.
If you want to create classes that allow LGBTQ+ youth to have a positive experience with yoga, there are four simple principles you can follow. While the following recommendations are written with in-school educators in mind, this can be adapted for various settings.
1. Show, Don’t Tell.
In recent years, it has become common for people to say that “this is a safe space”, meaning that LGBTQ+ folks are welcome there. Rather than tell students that this is a safe space, show them that you are an ally. Normalize LGBTQ+ people and their relationships by speaking of them positively. Challenge gender stereotypes by emphasizing that all bodies can do all things. Incorporate books that include LGBTQ+ characters. Share your pronouns and offer the opportunity for others to share their pronouns as well.
2. Make No Assumptions
Most of us have been conditioned to assume someone’s gender or sexuality simply based on societal norms. However, we’ve come to know that the only way to know someone’s gender or sexuality is to ask, and it’s okay to ask. Use gender neutral or gender inclusive language; for example, use words like “everyone” and “y’all” instead of “boys and girls”. Refer to parents or family instead of assuming your students have both a mom and a dad. Create general apparel expectations with your students rather than reinforcing different clothing standards that do not apply to everyone. Avoid separating students by gender, or assuming who your students may be attracted to or more comfortable with. Remember that gender and sexuality are fluid, and that our own understanding of ourselves can shift over time.
3. Use Trans-Informed Cues
Trans youth in particular can benefit from a teacher carefully considering how certain cues could have an impact on someone who experiences gender dysphoria. Gender dysphoria is a negative, sometimes overwhelming feeling caused by living in a body that does not reflect one’s gender identity. This experience varies greatly from person to person, with some trans people experiencing gender dysphoria about much of their body, and some experiencing little to no gender dysphoria at all. The easiest way for cisgender teachers to understand what cues may cause gender dysphoria, is to note how the female body differs from the male body and vice versa. Any pose or cue that calls attention to those areas (chest, shoulders, hands, feet, etc.) could induce gender dysphoria in your student. For example, asking a student to put their hand on their heart may make them uncomfortable if they experience chest dysphoria.
4. Options, Options, Options
Give your students options. Allow your students to have multiple ways to communicate their comfort level throughout practice, such as the opportunity to verbally request another variation of a pose, or turn over a card by their mat to show that they are taking a break from the physical practice. Give students the opportunity to introduce themselves to the group with their pronouns, or to pass. Invite them to pick their own partners for partner poses. Give them permission to practice poses or rest quietly on their mat. Learn several variations of poses, such as legs straight or knees bent in Downward Dog, or reaching through the spine or reaching with the arms in Sunrise/Sunset Breath. The more options you give your students, the more opportunities they have to decide for themselves what’s most comfortable for them.
Teach your students to listen to their own voice first before taking your suggestions as a teacher. While you may have extensive knowledge about the human body and yogic principles, students always know themselves best. Trust in your students, and encourage them to trust in themselves. Yoga at its core is the sacred art of listening.
In order to continue the work of being a better ally to the LGBTQ+ youth in your life, consider the following:
Follow the work of LGBTQ+ yoga educators on social media:
Engage in activist efforts to stop legislation designed to negatively impact LGBTQ+ youth access to sports.