What is Yoga?
A practice of connection.
Yoga is a practice that originated in South India at least five thousand years ago. That’s respectively OLD. We’re not even sure how many thousands of years old it is, because it existed as an oral tradition in a time before written history. Yoga is a Sanskrit word meaning to “yoke,” or “connect,” so contextually the practice of yoga always involves connection.
It’s crucial to understand the cultural context in which you are practicing yoga, and how culture has influenced the way the practice is presented. If you live in the US or another region colonized by people of white European descent (the West) and have been exposed to yoga through popular media, you may have been shown an incomplete or distorted version of the original practice. Decolonization of yoga, in part, is a movement to correct this distortion and help us to honor the roots of yoga while practicing in our current, but evolving, cultural context.
Yoga began as a spiritual practice intended to prepare the physical body for union with that which cannot be directly observed. Although historically yoga is often associated with Hinduism, yoga is not a religion, and yogis (those who practice yoga) have the freedom to bring their own personal beliefs about god, or God (or quantum physics, if you prefer), into their own practice. The teacher's role in yoga is ultimately to share the practice, and remind students that they are their own best teacher.
Yoga is much more than “asana,” the Sanskrit term for physical postures and poses. It’s the inner experience that matters, not external appearance. Yoga addresses our wellness as human beings from all perspectives, including physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual. There are Eight (8) Limbs of Yoga, which refer to the many different ways we can practice yoga in our daily lives, including concentration practices, ethics, self-discipline, non-judgmental self-observation (radical acceptance), and even deep experiences of connection that evoke feelings of profound joy.
One way that I personally like to think about yoga as a practice is that it is the art of observing and experiencing connection between mind, body, and our conscious awareness. If you are a living human being-- breathing, awake, conscious--- yoga is for you! The practice of yoga does not require anything beyond what you were born with. While yoga gear can be helpful, you don’t need a mat, stretchy pants, or access to a yoga studio, or any specific body parts.
What is Neurodiversity?
TL;DR. All brains are different and all differences are valid.
In this section, Neuro means “pertaining to the nervous system,” which consists of the brain, spinal cord, and all of the nerves that run through your body.
In short, the term neurodiversity refers to the fact that human brains & nervous systems are different. We all think, feel, and interact with the world around us in our own ways. Either we are all special, or no one is.
Although everyone is different, some individuals are so different that they stand out. They may struggle to navigate environments designed with neurotypical humans in mind, and sometimes their environment is so disabling that they need a great deal of support.
There are a lot of labels associated with neurodiversity. Some may be helpful in certain contexts, but not others. Although the current labels can feel inadequate and limited in usefulness, they provide a place to start using a common vocabulary and help give voice to a community that has historically been marginalized. People may self-identify as neurodivergent, and many folks adopt labels as part of their identity for their own reasons, sometimes as a way to reclaim a stigmatized word.
What is Neurotypical or NT?
Neurotypical (NT for short) refers to individuals whose brains and nervous systems receive and process information in the most commonly understood ways. While the majority of human beings are considered neurotypical, a neurotypical person can still have neurodivergent traits. Neurotypical individuals are all different from one another when comparing their traits, but by definition, the degree of difference between two neurotypical people is less significant than between a neurotypical and a neurodivergent person.
What is Neurodivergent or ND?
Neurodivergent (ND for short) refers to individuals whose brain & nervous system works in ways that are very different from a neurotypical person. Neurodivergent folks may be given labels and diagnoses such as Autism Spectrum Disorder, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Bipolar Disorder, Down Syndrome, and Learning Disabilities.
Everyone who is neurodivergent is unique, but some of the traits neurodivergent humans more commonly share include sensory sensitivities, concrete thinking and literal understandings, visual or experiential learners, very particular & intense interests, differences in attention/focus, self-stimulatory behaviors (“stimming”), gender diversity, and differences in social interaction or communication styles. Neurodivergent behaviors often stand out from neurotypical behaviors, but neither is right or wrong, good or bad; differences are neutral.
Often there are also many co-occurring mental and physical phenomena that can be disabling, but neurodivergent ways of being are not a disorder or illness to be cured or fixed. This is my personal perspective, as well as one shared by others involved in the Neurodiversity Movement. Neurodivergence can emerge later in life as a result of changes to the physical structure of the brain caused by things like traumatic brain injury or lots of psychedelic drugs, and that is different from innate or natural neurodivergence that a person is born with, but no less deserving of the same support and acceptance.
What is the Neurodiversity Movement?
The Neurodiversity Movement seeks to rethink the way that we categorize neurodivergent folks from being “disordered” or having a disease to simply being who we are: a natural variation in the human genome. Advocacy includes an effort to remove any value judgment or stigma from innate neurological differences. That means there is nothing “wrong” with a neurodivergent brain any more than a neurotypical brain is “right.” Neurotypical is not to be confused with “normal;” if neurodiversity means all human brains are different, then either everyone is normal or nobody is. A normal nervous system is a myth.
Put another way, if all brains are different, differences are normal and neutral. Neurodivergent human beings have always existed on our planet, and neurodiversity is as critical to the survival of the human race as biodiversity is necessary for the survival of an ecosystem. Therefore, neurodivergence by itself is not a disorder to be fixed, but rather something to be understood, accepted, and supported.
This perspective is not shared by everyone. It depends on whether you tend toward a medical/pathologized understanding of disability versus a social understanding of disability.
Many neurodivergent individuals are so disabled by their environment that they can’t get through the day without significant support. Some folks do not support the Neurodiversity Movement because they believe that it minimizes the very real pain and suffering that people experience as a result of extreme sensory sensitivities, for example. Some believe that where people are suffering, there must be disease, and therefore, a cure. They believe that we should focus on fixing brain differences or researching treatment that will help a neurodivergent person better fit into a neurotypical environment. The perspective that a neurodivergent person can or should be made to behave the same way as a neurotypical person is ableist at its core, despite the well-meaning intent by folks who believe this is the best way to relieve suffering. Pathologized understandings of neurodiversity are a characteristic of the medical model of disability.
Within the neurodiversity movement, advocacy instead focuses on the humanity of neurodivergence, and nurturing an environment that is accepting and attuned to diverse needs. This kind of thinking is at the core of the broader disability rights movement, and is characteristic of the social model of disability. Attempts to cure or fix neurodivergent people generally just create more suffering. Instead, a more therapeutic approach is to create a sociocultural environment that is safe and inclusive of all human differences. Neurodivergence is intersectional. "All human differences" includes race, religion, gender, sex, and any other identity for which a person might be marginalized.
When damage has been done as a result of being a neurodivergent person trying to live in a world designed for neurotypical folks, our bodies do their own healing when we are truly able to rest within an environment of support and acceptance.
Yoga is for everyone and encompasses the entire being, so saying “yoga for this or that” is a bit misleading.
It’s the approach or intention that makes a yoga practice “for something.” You can practice yoga with the intent to manage pain, to calm the nervous system, to promote digestion, or to improve concentration. However, regardless of your intent or focus, you are still getting other benefits from practicing yoga even if you’re not aware of it.
“Yoga for neurodiversity” is just yoga.
That said, my mission with the Yoga for Neurodiversity project is to help fellow humans approach the practice of yoga with an awareness of the differences in the way our bodies and brains receive and process information. We may think, feel, and experience the world in different ways from our peers, and we might not know how to communicate this, but our experiences are valid.
Yoga is a lifelong practice; there is no "end" and the journey looks different for each person, but you always can start exactly where you are each day. Practicing yoga over time can result in subtle and not-so-subtle changes in the way we feel about who we are regardless of how we may look to other people. Yoga does not cure anything, nor does it take the place of professional medical and mental health care when we are ill, but it helps create an environment within the physical, mental, and spiritual body that promotes health and healing. By practicing all eight limbs of yoga, we have an opportunity to gradually change the relationship we have with ourselves, and by extension, our environment, including the other people in it. We can learn to use our focus and breathing to regulate our nervous system so that emotional regulation begins to feel more accessible. We can learn how to feel our physical bodies in different ways, including from the inside, to improve balance and motor control, and strengthen ourselves to help prevent injury and disease. We can learn to change the relationship with have with our thoughts, especially our thoughts about ourselves, to improve our self-esteem and even embrace our different ways of being in the world. By getting to know ourselves more intimately on a physical, mental, and spiritual level, we can learn to more easily identify and name our needs so that we can ask for support and advocate for what we need more confidently.
We are each responsible for our health. Whether you identify as neurodivergent or not, we all can benefit from learning about ourselves so that we can better meet our own needs and communicate those needs to others. The practice of yoga provides opportunities for self-study and exploration that are expansive and deep, so no matter how many lifetimes you practice, you will never stop learning and discovering!
What is Yoga for Neurodiversity?
Well, it's just yoga.