Meet Jivana Heyman
By: Melanie Klein
Welcome to the fourth interview in the Gaiam/Yoga and Body Image Coalition “Yoga for Men/Men in Yoga” series. We’re honored to introduce readers to Jivana Heyman, the founder of Accessible Yoga
– a community that offers teacher trainings, conferences and networking. Accessible Yoga’s vision is to bring yoga to excluded and underserved communities, support yoga teachers, and advocate for accessible yoga. Jivana believes, “if you have a mind and a body, you can do yoga!” We couldn’t agree more!
If we’re lucky, the yoga seed gets planted early. Even if it falls dormant for a period of time, those early experiences with yoga can flower years later and create much beauty in our lives. Long before “kid’s yoga” was a thing, Jivana Heyman was fortunate enough to be introduced to yoga as a child and re-discover it as a young man.
“My grandmother introduced me to yoga when I was a young child. She lived with us so I was aware of her daily practice and I enjoyed watching her. Sometimes, she’d let me practice with her which is a joyful and special memory for me. My grandmother had studied with Swami Satchidananda. It wasn’t until years later when I fell into a yoga class after college that my personal practice began in earnest. I was having health issues, digestive and back problems, which inspired me to pick up yoga seriously. Funny enough, when I stumbled upon yoga on my own, I discovered Integral Yoga founded by my grandmother’s teacher, Swami Satchidananda. So I had the beautiful experience of rediscovering it as a young man after having done it when I was a child.”
Yoga offers us timeless gifts as well as offering us something new and different at each stage of life. And this certainly applies to Jivana’s experience of yoga at various life stages, from a fond memory of time spent with his grandmother to creating a full blown paradigm shift and nurturing introspection and insight as a young man.
“Yoga was a revelation to me. I had so many spiritual questions that I could not find answers for – no matter where I looked. When I re-discovered yoga, I found those answers. Yoga and meditation had them all. Yoga philosophy is so profound and clear in offering answers to these basic life questions that I had searched for, such as “why are we here?” and “what is our purpose?” It was an incredible gift to find all these answers at that point in my life because I was pretty lost. I had come out as a gay man when I was 17 and I had always felt separate, different and out of place. Yoga helped me find some clear direction, redefined my life, and gave me purpose in wanting to practice and then share what I found with others.”
Little did Jivana know the extent to which yoga would change his life or the ground-breaking ways in which he would share it with others.
“Discovering and becoming part of the gay community was when I felt I had finally met ‘my people.’ Yet so many of them were sick and dying around me. All of my friends and my peers were devastated by AIDS in one way or another. It was a crazy time and my reaction, like so many people, was anger and frustration. I became involved with Act Up, the AIDS Coalition for Unleashed Power, an AIDS activist group that sprung up as a result of the AIDS crisis in the late 80s and early 90s. I got arrested many times at protests, and spent years trying to organize and advocate.
Then my best friend, Kurt, died of AIDS in 1995, which was a transformational time for me. Most people in their early 20s aren’t thinking about illness and death, but I was surrounded by it. Luckily, yoga helped me get through that time. Through the practices and teachings of yoga, I recognized that we are spiritual beings – that we’re all the same, that we all have this center inside, this place of peace – a divine essence. That teaching of yoga is what got me through the death of Kurt and so many other friends – it helped me find some peace through that difficult period. All of a sudden I realized, “Wow, I have these amazing practices that have changed my life and I want to share them with the people around me.” So I started teaching yoga to people with HIV in 1995, the same year that Kurt died.”
And the teachings and practice of yoga have continued to support Jivana through difficult and challenging times as well as share the practice with others so they may do the same.
“What can we do in the face of huge challenges, obvious wrongs and injustices that we see in the world? That’s the question that is coming up again today. I think it’s a real challenge for yogis because, on the one hand, we say, “accept everything, have nonattachment.” It’s true, that through acceptance and nonattachment we find peace. But, I think there’s a bit of a misunderstanding as to how to be in the world as a yogi, and how to engage with the world. During the AIDS crisis, I realized that just being angry wasn’t actually serving anybody. I needed to process my feelings, and then I could truly be of service. I think the whole point of nonattachment is that you process your feelings enough to be of service in the world.
That’s still how I feel right now in the face of gross social injustice, fear and fear-mongering. In order to be of service, and to help change this situation in our country, we all need to process and channel our feelings productively so we can serve. That service is spiritual activism. To be of service means you’re acting without selfish intentions, and you’re actually trying to do the best you can in the world. In fact, I think the resistance that we’re seeing is basically a peaceful protest movement coming out of service, people wanting to do good and take care of each other – and that’s yoga.”
While Jivana’s practice has changed over the last 20+ years, he is compelled to continue practicing. In fact, the more he practices, the happier he is and that is reason alone to continue.
“The minute I start to feel some discomfort in my body, or a painful emotion, I think ‘I need to practice more.’ I know from experience that practice is the way out of suffering. If I can get on the mat, or go sit, then I’ll feel better. Every time. It may not be immediate, but I trust that I’ll eventually get to that place because I’m connecting with part of myself that’s beyond suffering. That’s the thing that I finally found after all these years – that there is part of me that’s fine, no matter what’s going on around me, or what’s happening in my body. At the core, I’m okay – I’m whole and complete. The more I can connect with that place – the witness – the more I acknowledge it, the happier I am.”
Jivana has dedicated his life to sharing that gift with everyone and every body.
“My life’s work is dedicated to making yoga accessible for anyone who’s interested in practicing. I do that through Accessible Yoga, which is an organization dedicated to advocating for making yoga available to people who don’t currently have access either because that population is not served or they’re marginalized in some way. It could be that there isn’t a yoga studio in that neighborhood, or the yoga classes aren’t taught at an appropriate level, or because the imagery out there for yoga is not inclusive so people think yoga is not for them. There are so many ways that yoga is currently not accessible. What’s even worse is if someone tries yoga for the first time, and they end up feeling out of place, ignored, or they get injured.
I am compelled to do this work not just because it’s morally or politically “the right thing to do,” but because the essential teaching of yoga is that we’re all one. This means that we have that same essence inside. Given this knowledge, it’s just logical that everyone can practice. We just need to find a way to make yoga work for everyone – and that is what I’m here to do.”
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By sharing stories with one another, we can inspire even more yogis to get started with their yoga practice, and empower one another to keep coming back to the mat. Regardless of who you are, how old you are, what size you are, what color your skin is, and how much experience you have, you are a yogi if you want to be!AUTHOR BIO: Melanie Klein, M.A., is a writer, speaker, and professor of sociology and women’s studies at Santa Monica College. She is the co-editor of Yoga and Body Image: 25 Personal Stories About Beauty, Bravery + Loving Your Body (Llewellyn, 2014) with Anna Guest-Jelley, a contributor in 21st Century Yoga: Culture, Politics and Practice (Horton & Harvey, 2012), is featured in Conversations with Modern Yogis (Shroff, 2014), a featured writer in Llewellyn’s Complete Book of Mindful Living (Llewellyn, 2016) and co-editor of the new anthology, Yoga, the Body and Embodied Social Change: An Intersectional Feminist Analysis with Dr. Beth Berila and Dr. Chelsea Jackson Roberts (Rowman and Littlefield, 2016). She co-founded the Yoga and Body Image Coalition in 2014.