Who is eligible to become a yoga teacher? Those with X number of years’ experience? The most adept practitioners? Anyone who wants to?
People like Elizabeth Kueny of Windsor, Colorado, don’t ask such questions; they just teach. Drawn to yoga because of debilitating pain—even getting out of bed or bending down was an ordeal—Kueny discovered the practice through an online search for “pain management.” Just 36 years old at the time, she had visited several doctors who suspected autoimmune illness but found no evidence through lab tests. They prescribed steroids, but the results were transitory and disappointing. Luckily, yoga was the answer.
Over several months of group practice and from individual consults with her teacher, her pain subsided, and Kueny knew she would share this practice with others. Still, her children were young, and she wasn’t the most adept at yoga, so she waited.
She continued to practice, working with props to master poses that were just out of her reach. When her children were old enough, and she and her husband could manage, she started a teacher training, moving ahead with trepidation but intensely motivated by a vision in her head of sharing yoga with people, who, like her when she was sidelined with pain, had mobility issues.
Struggling With Teacher Training
For both mental and physical reasons, the training was difficult. “I was very intimidated,” she says. Most of the people in my class could do very advanced things, and basically I felt like I would be faking my way through, and then telling people how to do poses even when I couldn’t.”
But she didn’t give up. Though the training wasn’t perfect for her, at times seeming too rigid and other times misguided, she began to confront both her limitations as well as those of her program. She accepted the challenge of new and more advanced poses, learning to do several of them with the aid of straps and blocks.
When her training ended, she stumbled across inexpensive space, rented it, and started teaching, integrating her own challenges into her style of teaching. In fact, her reason for starting yoga and her inability to easily master poses became her primary strengths as a teacher.
Kueny was upfront about her own limitations and demonstrated how to do many poses with props. “How do I tell people I’m not the best yogi, I’m not the perfect yogi, without sounding like I don’t know what I’m doing?,” she wondered. The truth was that many students she encountered said they went to a yoga class and never returned because it was too difficult, or it hurt. She decided to call her new business “Yoga for Real People.” “That just said it all, that our class is about people who are real—not that the people who can bend and do all these inversions aren’t real, they are—but that’s not the majority of people.”
Adapting Yoga For Real Bodies
Kueny forged ahead, teaching what she knew—how to adapt poses. She even devised ways to help people do poses that she could not yet do. “I’m not a fake person, and so it just made sense to say, you know what, I can’t do them either.” For example, she says, she explained how more flexible yogis might bring their palms together in eagle pose, but that a good alternative would be to bring the backs of one’s hands together. Or she might say that traditionally in warrior one, your feet are lined up, but you may be better able to square your hips toward the front of the room if you just take a little bit of a step out with your back foot. Kueny tells people, “It’s better to come just a little bit out of the form than to try and force your hips to do something they’re not wiling to do, or ready to do yet.”
When people attend her classes, Kueny’s self-deprecating sense of humor and smart pose adaptations put them right at ease. Kueny blasts the misconceptions that people need to be flexible to do yoga, or to be young, or to have a certain body type, and many people are drawn to her classes. She tells them, “I’m not looking for you to do the perfect posture, I’m looking for you to get the most out of the posture and for you to adapt the pose because I don’t want you to hurt yourself.” She encourages people to truly engage in a posture rather than just hang out.
In the meantime, her approach has attracted more work. The ARC of Weld County, which serves people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, found her online and asked her to teach a class for their clientele. Then two city recreation centers asked her to develop adaptive yoga classes.
Today Yoga for Real People is three years old, and classes consist of people from a range of ages and abilities. The classes are small enough that Kueny can provide individual help to students who need adaptations as well as those ready to advance. If you drop in and watch a class, you see new students relax when they learn that the teacher has struggled (and sometimes still does) to do anasana, and older students enjoy the freedom to move more deeply into their practice. The approach looks fun, like a celebration of people’s experience in their bodies, in the moment. That must be real yoga.