Jivana Heyman: Peace of Mind, Activism, and Accessible Yoga

A gentle but straight-talking yogi gets real about yoga, the misconceptions brought about by commercialism, and making it available to all.

Starting his practice at a young age with his grandmother, Jivana Heyman eventually began using yoga for himself as an activist and to help others, first people living HIV/AIDS and eventually growing to anyone who doesn’t feel comfortable in a traditional class (which is most of us).

Jivana is the founder of Accessible Yoga, co-owner of the Santa Barbara Yoga Center and an Integral Yoga Minister. With over twenty years of training and teaching in a traditional yoga lineage, he has specialized in teaching the subtle practices of yoga: pranayama, meditation, as well as sharing yoga philosophy.

Jivana has taught with the Dean Ornish Heart Disease Reversal Program through UCSF, California Pacific Medical Center’s Institute of Health and Healing, and the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. He has led over forty yoga teacher training programs over the past two decades and created the Accessible Yoga Training program in 2007. In 2015, Jivana taught Accessible Yoga at the United Nations in Geneva for their International Day of Persons with Disabilities.

I interviewed Jivana to learn more.

I read that you started yoga when you were a kid with your grandmother.

The amazing part of that story is that she studied with lots of different teachers including Swami Satchidananda who founded Integral Yoga. It was in the 1960s, and I was so young, so I mostly watched her. And she was amazing. She practiced every day until about two years before she died in her late 80s. What she really showed me was how much you can use yoga through your whole life. I never thought of yoga as something for young, able-bodied people because that’s not how it was presented to me.

Then later when I was an AIDS activist in my early twenties, I was having stress-related health issues, so I went for a massage. They also offered yoga which turned out to be Integral Yoga which I connected to right away because of my memories of my grandma. I felt comfortable there and with that practice. Coming back to that same practice was great.

Tell us more about your work with AIDS victims.

I came out when I was about seventeen and then after college became really involved with Act Up; an AIDS activist group. All the gay men I was meeting were either sick or dying. It really was a crazy time. I was living in New York for a short time and then moved to San Francisco. Both of those communities were just utterly devastated.

I was young, new to it all, and very excited to be out. But then I started realizing what was going on so I tried to do what I thought was helpful and that was activism. I was angry because it was so hard to see these great people getting sick and dying but not getting the support I thought they should get. There was no awareness, so the activism at the time was about raising awareness. But, of course, there was a lot of anger behind it.

At the same time, I was getting more into yoga and my practice. I wanted to help and serve, and I realized that the anger wasn’t serving anyone. I had been studying yoga for many years, but I didn’t do an official teacher training until 1995. Then I started a class for people with HIV and AIDS in San Francisco right away.

What was the response to your early teaching with that class for people living with AIDS?

As a gay man, I was already connected to the community, so it was easy for me to connect with other gay men and get them to come to class. We started at the Integral Yoga Institute in San Francisco where I took my teacher training. Then I quickly started a second one at a local hospital because they had so many HIV/AIDS patients. I ran that class for twelve years because it kept going and growing. Eventually, I expanded it to include people with other disabilities and chronic illnesses.

I also included a group support aspect after the class. I had gotten a job with Dr. Dean Ornish, a cardiologist, who showed that yoga could reduce heart disease through double-blind, scientific studies almost twenty years ago. I was able to teach yoga for him and see his work. Then I applied what I learned in my own way to the HIV/AIDS class and those with different disabilities.

His program included stress management, which was yoga and meditation, exercise, which was thirty minutes of walking per day, a very low fat diet, group support, and quitting smoking. The patients that did more yoga, meditation, and group support had better, quicker results. So I brought group support into my classes. It’s very much about supporting each other as a community and creating a feeling of being loved and cared for. He helped me realize the importance of community, and I’ve brought that into my work from then on.

My goal in life is to connect people, and it comes from that and learning from those experiences. We really need intimacy and healthy relationships to survive. I saw this helping my students because some of the same people stayed with me for almost twelve years and that was really amazing. For people with disabilities and chronic illnesses, yoga might be the only thing that they do all week. Other than that, they may never see anyone else, and that can be so isolating.

I would just say that there’s a misconception in the world about what yoga is. The general public has a misunderstanding and believes that yoga is about doing complicated postures. Yoga practitioners and teachers know better, but somehow we haven’t communicated that to the public.

My work is supporting and educating yoga teachers but also educating the general public about what yoga really is. It’s not about the physical practice. You can come to Shavasana (Corpse Pose) and be doing yoga. It’s almost the opposite of what people think it is. It’s about getting beyond your body and to release it for a moment. If you have a body that’s in pain, yoga may be able to give you relief from that.

I know we’re constantly demonizing the commercial yoga industry, but there’s a basis for our complaints. They’re using an aspirational marketing model showing people doing advanced poses. They want us to aspire to be like those models, and for some people, it may draw them in. But for most people, it turns us away and makes us think we can’t do it. It’s a misunderstanding of what yoga is. We need to redefine it ourselves.

The Integral Yoga Institute in San Francisco. Source: IntegralYogaSF.org.

How did you let go of the anger without minimizing the situation?

Because of my yoga practice I was just lucky enough to move through it. But I can speak about it from my perspective now. There’s nothing wrong with the anger or any emotion itself. If you have feelings, you don’t want yoga to suppress them. But the point I try to make is that it’s disempowering when you let someone take away your peace of mind.

The most precious thing we have is our peace of mind. We don’t really value that in general, but that’s what we’re rediscovering in yoga. The ultimate benefit of yoga is that peacefulness that connects us back to our own power.

Another way of explaining it is with one of my favorite yoga sutras. Book 2 Sutra 1 is called Kriya Yoga and the first part is ‘tapas’ which is learning from your pain or spiritual growth through painful situations. It tells us that our own suffering is showing us where we need to grow so that we can be at peace and have that happiness that we’ve been giving away.

It’s not like you would say to somebody else, “Oh, pain’s good for you.” You can’t say that. If you’re the one feeling pain or anger, then I could say, “You know, if you look at what you’re attached to, what do you think you need from outside of you to be happy. And if you don’t get it, what are you disappointed about?” That will give you a clue into what your attachment is and what you’re giving away. Yoga is all about taking back our power and taking back our peace of mind, which is the most essential thing in the world. I mean, health is nice, but, really, peace of mind is gold.

What are people missing in their understanding of yoga?

Yoga is a spiritual practice based on the philosophy that we’re whole and complete, spiritual beings. The body and mind are just temporary, lasting only the limited time we’re here on this planet. Yoga is really a technology of spiritual reconnection and is about healing the mind. We completely identify with the body and mind, but yoga is about connecting to that deeper place that’s already full and perfect and whole no matter the condition of the body.

We’re all going to get sick or die or both. And denial of our mortality is the basis of our problems. If you believe that you’re just your body, then you’re going to a have a painful and limited experience of life. There’s so much more going on. It doesn’t have to be called ‘spirit,’ but there’s an interconnected oneness that is at the essence of our being and everyone else’s. That’s what we’re trying to connect with regardless of what you call it.

That’s what’s so beautiful about yoga. It’s not a religion. You don’t have to follow a particular path. It’s just the technology to lead you there or to give you that experience of getting the mind quiet and opening your heart. That’s another way to say it: opening the heart. That’s the most beautiful experience in the world, and everyone can do that. Every single person can have that experience. It doesn’t matter if you touch your toes or not.

Why do people get so hung up on looking good when practicing yoga?

Someone said, “It doesn’t matter if you can touch your toes, it what happens on the way down.” But I would add, “It doesn’t even matter what happens on the way down. All that matters is that you get relaxed and that the mind is soothed and calm.”

Yoga is becoming friends with your own mind. For me, the greatest gift that yoga has given me is a better relationship in my own mind, with myself. We don’t talk enough about that inner relationship. We’re often very critical of ourselves, and that inner voice is our undoing. You can say that meditation is really the ultimate practice of yoga. You’re observing the thoughts in the mind, and listening to that inner dialogue.

If you think of prayer, what is it? It’s a dialogue with the divine. But when are we not in prayer? And if you believe that part of yourself is divine and the mind is always talking, then you’re always praying. You’re constantly in prayer, but most of the time you’re saying some horrible things and praying for really bad things. We’re obsessively negative which not only creates a negative state of mind but also a negative life experience for us. Positive thinking sounds so overly simplistic but it’s about working on that inner dialogue. Like Amber Karnes said, to be at home with yourself, with your own mind. That’s the goal of yoga.

What is the true value of yoga?

Yoga gives us a way to connect with our consciousness. It allows us to begin to differentiate between the role of the mind and the consciousness. It allows us to listen to the dialogue that’s happening inside through a process of concentration. Whether it’s an asana (postures), pranayama (breathing exercises), or meditation, the point is to learn how to focus the mind.

When we quiet that dialogue we get a little bit of space and can watch it more clearly. That’s what’s so beautiful about yoga, it’s specifically designed to give us space in our mind. That spaciousness is a natural state we find through a lot of activities like the arts, music, or sports. Musicians and athletes talk about ‘being in the flow.’ Those activities ‘may’ create that experience, but that’s not what they’re designed to do. Yoga is designed to get us in the flow. That’s why yoga’s so powerful and underrated, in a way. In yoga, we’re consciously cultivating that experience. Yoga is often seen as exercise, but it’s so much more.

We’ve gone the wrong way with yoga in general by overemphasizing the physical.

What is the relationship between the mind and body in healing?

It’s like ice, water, and steam. There’s no difference between them. And in the yoga teachings, there’s body, breath, and mind. This means what happens in the mind, occurs in the body, because there’s no separation between them. That’s what yogis have been telling us forever. What happens in the mind immediately affects the body and what happens in the body also affects the mind.

The more subtle part is more powerful, and the more subtle element is the mind. That’s the point of yoga therapy. You want to work with the mind to create some physical healing. I’m creating a yoga therapy program, and I don’t want it limited to the body. I want students to learn about yoga philosophy and go deep into meditation and pranayama. They’ll still get the asana, but I don’t think we solve the problem of yoga being misunderstood by viewing physically healing body as the goal of yoga.

I love the idea of body positivity, but yoga is about transcending the body altogether. We’ve got to get beyond our attachment to the body, and that might start with a better relationship with the body. That’s what body positivity is really about, creating a healthy relationship with your body, but then hopefully it goes further, to our mind. I don’t want to lose track of that.

How is Accessible Yoga evolving?

Accessible Yoga is growing. We’re a non-profit organization, mostly volunteers with a tiny staff. We’re trying to support people with disabilities who are using yoga for themselves and also yoga teachers who are serving people with disabilities, chronic illness, and anyone who doesn’t feel comfortable in a regular class.

Mostly we’re an educational organization, so we’re trying to educate yoga teachers in particular, but also the general public. We do that through the Accessible Yoga Conferences which are twice a year. I try to bring together teachers who are doing this work and may not be that well known. It gives them a platform and is a networking opportunity.

Without the support of the commercial yoga industry, those of us doing this work need to connect on a grassroots level and support each other. So if I see a yoga teacher working on yoga for arthritis, I want to connect them with other teachers doing the same thing. We don’t need to start over, we can build and support each other. It’s a different model, not a competitive model. So that’s what the conferences are really designed for.

Then we have a Network, which is an online directory, that we’re really just starting now but hopefully, it will connect yoga teachers and students to find the right teacher. Because that’s the other thing, yoga students need to find the right teachers and the right class. Because otherwise they’ll either be discouraged from yoga and think it’s not for them if they go to the wrong class or worse they’ll get injured. These are things that are actually starting to happen because yoga’s popularity is shooting itself in the foot.

People who need accessible yoga are going to traditional yoga classes that are not designed for them. So they’re like, “No, no, no, this isn’t for me” or they get hurt, and injury rates are increasing rapidly which is horrible. So we offer an Accessible Yoga Training which is designed to train yoga teachers how to bring people with different abilities into a yoga class. I mostly focus on giving teachers skills, not yoga therapy skills, it’s a thirty-hour training about how to think on your feet, how to be creative and problem solve with your students, how to move beyond your limited thinking about what yoga is, and also how to teach mixed levels simultaneously.

We do chair yoga, bed yoga, and I show teachers how to integrate someone who’s practicing in a chair into a traditional mat class To teach them at the same time as someone who’s doing a mat practice and make them feel equally valued and included in that experience. I’m very passionate about that.

And then we have an Accessible Yoga Ambassador program, which is like a membership. So ambassadors are out there speaking for us, educating the population, and using yoga to support their work and their teaching. Right now, there are over 20 regional ambassador groups in about ten different languages including German, French, Spanish, Greek, Dutch, Portuguese, Swedish, and Italian. Then there are regional groups in the US: Southern California, SF Bay Area, Sacramento, Northwest, Northeast/NY, Southeast, Midwest, and Texas.

We also work on advocacy which means working on the policy around yoga. We’ve had a great reaction from the Yoga Alliance and good things are going to come. They have a new president who is incredible. He’s really wanting to support Accessible Yoga. And they’re sponsoring scholarships to our upcoming conference in Toronto and Europe which is terrific.

To learn more about Jivana Heyman and Accessible Yoga, please visit AccessibleYoga.org.