• Marsha’s Dharma: Yoga and Social Justice

    Marsha P. Johnson was a drag queen who climbed a light post and changed the world. When she stood before a judge and was questioned about her gender, she answered blithely that the ‘P’ stood for “Pay it no mind.’

    Born in a time where the language didn’t make space for choice of pronouns or gender that diverged from the binary, she was a crusader for acceptance.It’s arguable that much of the progress we enjoy today can be traced back to those nights in 1969 when she and her friends rioted for gay liberation.

    I’m so grateful for Marsha P. She is an icon, a spiritual figurehead and in that sense, mother to a new way of being in the world. She is the Patron Saint of Being Fed Up with The World’s Bullshit. Her legacy is my self love. My self acceptance is due to the yoga that she did in the world, maybe without even knowing it. Because of her and her Stonewall compatriots, I have the ability to be out. To be proud. To do yoga intentionally.

    Pride is political.

    Yoga is political.

    Those with the luxury to say otherwise are out of touch with the reality of life on Earth. The fact is that the power structures at play are designed to keep people in their place and change comes only in equal measure to the will of the people to protest the status quo. The progress that has been made for inclusivity in our society did not come easily. Women threw stones through Parliament windows as they sought the right to vote. African Americans refused to move to the back of the bus, an act of rebellion that often left them bloodied. At Stonewall TLGBQ threw punches and set fires that said enough is enough.

    Yoga is absolutely an internal practice that helps individuals find their own healing, but inner peace that bypasses the struggle for universal equality is just an illusion. Compassion for the self that falls into this trap of ignoring the suffering of others easily transforms into self centeredness. A more whole compassion says, ‘May WE be happy,’ not only ‘May I be happy.’ Informed with this awareness, the yogi in training should take action…

    Yoga most certainly has a political point of view. One of the moral imperatives built into our practice is Ahimsa, the willingness to seek a path towards non harming. This component of yoga does not imply passivity at all, rather it demands the hard work of digging up the roots of violence.

    Ahimsa is one of the first virtues defined in the Yoga Sutras, and as such the path of the yogi should include deep contemplation of the concept. The classical texts ask us to cause no injury in deed, word or thought. This direction should not be taken as a simple commandment however. We must critically evaluate the actions of others, especially those who enjoy privilege over a minority.

    When powerful and corrupt political and societal factions leverage injury and violence against minorities, the yogic action is to advocate for the reduction of harm against those minorities.

    When you understand that police forces routinely oppressed gay communities, arresting them en masse, then you can understand why it was Marsha’s dharma to drop a brick on top of the paddy wagon.

    When you understand that police are killing black people at alarming rates, then you understand why communities are in the midst of an uprising. From deep inside, a voice of knowing is saying: Act up, speak out, fight now or nothing is ever going to change.

    Unfortunately the world is chaotic and truth can be hard to find. We must be discerning and wary of our fears being used to divide us. Fox News and Mr. Trump thrive on stirring up fear and tapping into deeply ingrained racism and phobias to create an unjust anger. This is an anger that is rooted in the idea that the other will come and harm you, attacking your moral sensibility and stealing wealth from your community. This anger is rooted in the delusion of superiority, the mistaken belief that one type of human being has greater value than another.

    Alternatively, sometimes we get angry righteously, but do nothing out of fear that our anger is wrong. The internet is full of memes and ignorant people that make anger seem like the enemy. Being angry with racists and abusers is not poison and your energy is not wasted by feeling this way… These feelings are catalysts of change.

    The question at hand is not ‘Should I be angry?’, because we all definitely should be. The better question here is ‘‘How do I work with all this anger?’

    Yoga teaches me to pause and take a deep breath and find the space to respond skillfully to the pain of injustice. It’s only by seeking conscious contact with the greater powers of my understanding that I keep momentum and know what action is right. When the world mislabeled my anger as hatred, I must tap my soul’s conviction to keep strong and not back down.

    Donate to the Marsha P. Johnson Institute

    I grew up in a small town in the South. My community and even my family installed a program of self hatred into me. The word faggot was thrown around with venom and teeth. I responded to these wounds with a valiant attempt to self destruct through drugs and alcohol. That I’m still alive today is a testament to the great suffering I found when I reached my rock bottom and my subsequent relationship with yoga and the higher powers of my understanding.

    So yes, the truth is that I am very angry and my suffering was so great that it left my convictions crystal clear. I know the damage that white, heteronormative ignorance inflicts. I also know that the fact that I’m still alive feels miraculous, and I should not let a miracle go to waste. Not everyone is so lucky after all. My hero Marsha had suffering greater than mine, but never the sweet comfort of healing.

    I remain confident of my calling to be a voice for change by tuning into the great mystery within me. Looking inward, I am reminded that the nature of the soul is an unanswered question and as such the divinity within each life force must be considered created equal and that we must be willing to fight and sacrifice for this end.

    Yoga Sutra ll.16 teaches us a bit about things that cloud this divinity. This Sutra tells the story of ‘ego’, casting it as all the things that obscure the true self. It names this quality of being ‘Asmita’. It’s the sense that we are something that we are not. It’s a feeling that our value is related to what we DO IN THE WORLD. A problem here is that one might also come to believe self worth is determined by what the WORLD DOES TO YOU.

    Transphobia. Racism. Misogyny. These all stem from the mistaken belief that one kind of human being is superior to another. When I tap my intuition, I suspect that the truth may be that we are all a kind of transgender being. I suspect the immutable soul does not identify with the genitals. Or skin color. Or religion.

    That said, here we are having a human experience that comes with a sexual identity. And race. And social status. We live in a world where the passionately delusional among us leverage intolerance to increase their own status. They fear scarcity and suffering, so they act in ways that force us all out of balance and towards chaos.

    Yoga reminds of us what we still might be. It reminds us of our potential, the possibility within and beyond earthly dramas. It encourages to look past the veil of Asmita, not as a way of disregarding Earthly strife, but rather as a way of remembering why action is demanded. The evolution of our personal soul and collective consciousness is on the line.

    Practice provides practical tools. It reminds us how even the world of the mind, body and senses rage like war, even though we may bring a little peace to them. When I sit still to mediate, sometimes there is great pain. Great internal battles are fought as I try to maintain stillness. In my asana practice, there is great struggle. Finding steadiness in the pose comes only with firm effort and some amount of physical discomfort.

    Yes, I dare say that acute physical and psychological pain are, in my opinion, some of the selling points of yoga. Practice helps me cultivate the desire to stay present. When my entire personal history and future constantly elaborate themselves, arguing they are fated by powers beyond my control, I stay present. When today’s choices seem bound to mistakes made what feels like lifetimes ago, I stay present. When the legacy of prejudice and oppression exert their force, I stay present.

    Yoga reminds me I am not those terrible things I did before. Nor am I the weak and sickly thing that broken human beings would have me believe.

    When I practice, when I connect to a spiritual community, when I turn inward, I sense that there is so much more to me. I feel a deep longing to seek balance for myself and others. This calling is rooted in a knowing that humanity is destined for so much more and a sureness that we must fight for our right to transform and transcend.

    I am a seeker. I am a gay human. My pronouns are he/they. I am a creature made of universal love, just like Marsha P Johnson.

    She started this work of reprogramming all these old beliefs of ‘him or her’ or ‘us and them’. It’s my honor to continue it, standing up for self respect, societal equality, justice and insight.

    The divine gave us a beacon in the form of Marsha. Fueled by a glimpse of our own Godliness, what can’t we fight?

    By Joseph Armstrong

    Donate to the Marsha P. Johnson Institute

    Joseph Armstrong teaches yoga rooted firmly in tradition but with an eye to the future. His search for a more present and peaceful life first led him to the practice in 2008. A few years later he was in India studying intensively. After finally overcoming a long struggle with addiction, Joseph began experimenting with Ashtanga Yoga. He understood quickly that the lineage was calling to him to deepen his practice. He underwent a 2 year apprenticeship program at the world renowned Miami Life Center, continuing his education under his dear teachers Tim Fieldmann and Kino MacGregor. More recently he has completed 2 months of study in Mysore under Sharath Jois. Joseph teaches yoga because attempts to do any and everything else ended disastrously. But when he finally devoted himself to his passion, he became an asset to himself and others. He hopes his practice allows him to be ever more loving and to exist gently.

  • Healing Ashtanga Yoga Through Radical Unlearning and Co-Creation of Community

    In the wake of the most recent and publicized murders of Black men and women at the hands of state-sanctioned systemic violence, seven years after the phrase was coined by Patrisse Cullors, Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi after the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the death of Trayvon Martin, Black Lives Matter has become a public rallying cry.

    I didn’t go to the protest a few weeks back here in Helsinki. I sent my husband and children on my behalf so that I might write, mourn and move through raw emotion in peace. I needed space to bear witness to what might either be history in the making or another cycle of an ongoing pattern we know all too well. I wrote the following on a Instagram post capturing the complexities of the moment: There are many heightened, mixed emotions pulsing through me right now.

    The hopeful energy of Finland’s historical protest.

    The fatigue.

    The rage of how many Black lives it took before Black Lives Matter became a public rally cry.

    The fatigue…of trying to make sense of the senseless, of the insanity of state-sanctioned murder. And the oldness of it.

    The joy and necessity of falling into the arms of my sisters as I make mistakes too, along my own process of dismantling my internalized Anti-Blackness. The sadness I feel when I can’t show up for another sister because my own rage and hurt is too overwhelming. My burden too heavy to carry on my own.

    The cautious hope and wariness that those with newfound consciousness will do the tough, inner work of dismantling their conditioning around whiteness and proximity to power. Of holding themselves and their family, friends, colleagues accountable.

    The suspicion (and proof) of businesses and corporations co-opting the movement because it makes good cents now and they can continue to build their empires off the backs and pain of oppressed people, of Black people. Of who will show up once anti-racism is no longer trendy. This is rigorous, unglamorous work. It’s not sexy. It often hurts and mistakes are many….

    And now begins the real work of many lifetimes. As an Ashtanga yoga practitioner and teacher for 12 years, I’ve been involved in spiritual activism since 2018. I hadn’t planned it, nor expected my spiritual path to lead me towards the seemingly external world of activism. The truth is, as a Kenyan-American, biracial Black woman based in Finland since 2010, I’ve been in need of community. I’ve been part of the Ashtanga yoga world both in Finland and abroad and have gotten to know parts of the Finnish yoga community. However, from the get go, the lack of Black and Brown people in the yoga world globally and in Finland, has never sat right with me.

    As I got more teaching experience and began to get intentional about who I serve as a teacher, it became clear that my target demographic are BIPOC. However, as a teacher responsible for the wellbeing of all who come practice with me, I must ask myself the following questions: How safe would BIPOC be in a predominantly white space? What microaggressions might they need to bear?  How much free education and emotional labor would they be subjected to as they seek to rest, recuperate and deepen in contemplation?

    Ashtanga Yoga has the reputation of being elitist, exclusionary and racist, all of which are true. This leaves much to be desired. In fact, I got so disillusioned by the lack of accountability around the abuse of power and community complicity that I took a long break from the practice to clear my head and gain clarity on where my North Star was guiding me. I was pointed to the revelation that I can love something, engage in it, and be critical about it.

    Much still needs to be unpacked and accounted for within the upper levels of the community. From where I stand, it is not business as usual. It cannot be because it’s essential to not only see the pattern of systemic oppression but to actively work to eliminate it in all its manifestations. Anti-Blackness and racism might seem like distant topics to those who are protected by the systems and don’t have to manage societal repercussions. By contrast, questioning your participation in a culture of complicity within the Ashtanga yoga community is personal.

    The lack of diversity in Ashtanga Yoga is very real and very problematic. However, the solution doesn’t rest in aspiring towards diversity and inclusivity. These terms imply that someone (usually from the dominant group or deeply invested in it) owns the table and can choose who to invite and who to kick out at any time. This implies that there is someone at the top who is the gatekeeper. That there’s someone hoarding all the toys in the playground and won’t share, save for a few throw away knick knacks, which they can take back any time they feel like it.

    My vision for the healing and spiritual evolution of Ashtanga Yoga involves a radical unlearning and co-creation of a community that’s deeply honest, transparent and rooted in equity, joy and justice.

    I offer the following reflections on how we might co-create this together:

    Lean into discomfort:

    This is something we as yogis are trained to do. Every time we step onto the mat and move through the method of linking breath with movement and soft, steady focus, we meet ourselves again and again. Our stuff. Our obscurations. Our breakthroughs. The work of divesting from social conditioning around whiteness and proximity (or distance) to power is similar.

    Learn to discriminate between discomfort and lack of safety:

    When we attempt a new pose for the first time, we don’t generally scold the teacher if we don’t ace it right away. We understand that it takes time, that it is a step by step process to become familiar with and understand the pose. It’s not comfortable to learn new, often painful complexities. This doesn’t mean it’s dangerous. Nor does it mean that the (BIPOC) person offering the lesson needs to say things nicely, calmly and peacefully in order for you to listen. Again, our practice of yoga has prepared us well. It has taught us not to shrink from the first onset of strong sensation. We have honed our sense faculties to determine the difference between discomfort and pain.

    Avoid the smoke and mirrors of performative allyship:

    If white people are centering themselves and profiting from solidarity efforts, you can be sure that institutionalized racism is still firmly in place. It all comes out in the wash in the end. Think about it like this: who will be at your funeral? If your funeral (as a white person) is full of white people similar to your social location, chances are you played it pretty safe and didn’t do a whole lot as a living ancestor to dismantle Anti-Blackness, racism and systemic oppression. However, if the people that you say you stood behind attend your funeral, well, that speaks volumes.

    Mistakes will happen. Keep going:

    Like the practice, we don’t roll up the yoga mat in the middle of practice and leave the room because we skipped a pose. We don’t ruminate for days on end that some poses were done out of sequence. And while the stakes are different in the context of Anti-Black racism, the logic is the same: once a mistake has been made, what you choose to do next is crucial. However, be attentive to not committing the same egregious activity over and over again. Mistakes are great teachers. Learn from them.

    Know your people:

    This speaks to the topic of cultural appropriation that exceeds the scope of this post. However, before and beyond the conditioning of whiteness, people of European descent had their own indigenous practices and cultures too. Know who you are and where you came from. Reclaim your ancestry, no matter how painful and complex.

    Who are you beyond your conditioning around whiteness?

    What does yoga and wellness look like beyond whiteness?

    The last two questions are for ongoing reflection since I don’t know the answers. What I do know is that I offer deep bows of appreciation to all the visionaries, prophets, dreamers and heretics.

    May we bear witness together to this new world that’s on her way and here and being born and is still just a sparkle in the eyes of those brave, hungry, compassionate, nurturing, yearning folk who believe in both the seen and the unseen.

    For those who will plant the seed for a tree under which they will not get to enjoy its cool shade on a hot, summer day.

    For those who did plant the seed for a tree under which they didn’t get to sit under but which I enjoy sitting under now.

    By Wambui Njuguna-Räisänen

    Wambui Njuguna-Räisänen is a Kenyan-American based in Finland, passionate about making wellness through yoga and meditation seamlessly engaged in equity and justice so that more people of the global majority can live well and thrive. Wambui is deeply inspired by spiritual teachers and communities that seek ways to apply the insights from our various practices and teachings to situations of social, racial, political, environmental and economic suffering and injustice. She would like to see wellness spaces engage more in social justice + collective change and activist spaces learn to breathe deeply and practice sustainable self-care in the midst of dismantling systemic oppression. This is her definition of community care. Visit wambuinjuguna.com and @wellnesswithwambui

  • Celebrating International Yoga Day with Yoga Gives Back

    Yoga made me realize that my body is a temple. I am responsible to take care of it so that I can serve others. This was a profound awakening. It also made me realize that practicing yoga is not a selfish act but rather essential if I want to continue to serve others.

    What is yoga to you?

    YOGA is the anchor and light in my life, which totally changed my life. I was a documentary film maker for most of my adult life for nearly 30 years, producing TV programs for Japanese National Public TV on current affair issues. Once I found yoga, it changed my life. I eventually quit my job to dedicate my life for Yoga Gives Back. YOGA grounds me to the core on a daily basis with meditation and asana practices. Slowing my breath and clearing my head is the most important effect of YOGA in my life. It teaches me mind-body connection and therefore, it makes my goal of living well fundamentally meaningful.

    How did you get started with yoga?

    My friend took me to my first yoga class almost fifteen years ago, which was Kundalini yoga with Gurmukh at Golden Bridge, near my home in Los Angeles. I was very happy to find that YOGA offered not only physical but also spiritual practice as a goal. I got interested in learning more about YOGA and started exploring various different classes for a few years, till I found Ashtanga Yoga which totally hooked me into more regular asana practices as well as a deeper spiritual journey.

    What impact has yoga had on your life?

    Yoga made me realize that my body is a temple. I am responsible to take care of it so that I can serve others. This was a profound awakening. It also made me realize that practicing yoga is not a selfish act but rather essential if I want to continue to serve others.

    How have you seen yoga impact the lives of others?

    I continue to receive yoga practitioners’ messages expressing how grateful they are for yoga in their lives and therefore want to give back to India. This shows how YOGA is impacting many lives around the world. YGB is shared now in more than 20 countries, with more than 150 Global Ambassadors (including Kino and Tim) and hundreds of volunteers, raising awareness and funds for YGB’s mission. YGB’s growth shows YOGA’s impact in many lives.

    Can you tell us more about Yoga Gives Back?

    Yoga Gives Back (YGB) is a Los Angeles based nonprofit organization, which engages global yoga communities with gratitude to give back to Mother India, for the gift of yoga we have received.

    We raise awareness and funds to empower underserved women and children in India. YGB is unique in uniting all yoga practitioners regardless of branch or school with one simple cause, GRATITUDE. I am proud that we have been able to reach out to yoga communities in more than 20 countries which support nearly 1400 underserved women and children in Karnataka and West Bengal, India through micro loans and education funds.

    YGB is also unique in connecting our global supporters directly to the fund recipients in India through regular updates of their stories with photos and videos on social media and regular news letters, so global supporters can see how everyone’s contributions are truly making tremendous difference in our recipients’ lives.

    We also offer dozens of short documentary YGB FILMS which I have been filming and producing since 2007 to share how so many lives have been transformed with their dreams coming true. We empower ourselves by empowering others. That is a truly wonderful lesson.

    What has been the most inspirational moment you’ve experienced in the world of yoga?

    I have been most inspired with the incredible response Yoga Gives Back has received since the start in 2007 from so many yogis around the world. This is the testament that the world of yoga is filled with compassionate souls that can make a real difference in this world if we can come together.

    What is the single most defining issue facing the global yoga community today?

    Yoga has unfortunately become a symbol of capitalism. Many yoga businesses accelerate consumerism and competition rather than introducing and emphasizing compassion or the real goal of YOGA to be united with all and relinquish the self-centered ego. I am always so grateful for our sponsors like Omstars who continue to believe in our mission and share it with their own community. YGB has been blessed that a growing list of yoga and wellness businesses support our mission. Their support has been critical for our sustainable operation.

    What do you feel is your dharma–your life mission?

    My life mission is to engage One Million Yogis throughout the world to grow YGB into a more sustainable nonprofit organization that can empower thousands or millions more underserved women and children in India to empower themselves and build sustainable livelihoods.

    Are there any current projects or upcoming events that you are able to share with our community?

    “International Yoga Day” Global Campaign is taking place over the weekend of June 21. While many of us are blessed to have yoga practice that sustains us at this difficult time, many women and children in India are struggling for their lives due to enormous stress added by the nationwide Covid-19 lockdown and the catastrophic Cyclone Amphan (May 20) in West Bengal. India’s COVID-19 nation-wide lock down has caused 500 impoverished mothers of YGB’s micro loans programs in rural villages of West Bengal to lose their jobs and daily income. Many of 700 young girls under YGB’s education programs are facing their family’s financial pressure to drop out of school and get married.

    Cyclone Amphan hit the rural villages outside of Kolkata very hard. Many of our 1200 fund recipients in the region lost their homes. They need to rebuild everything. India has generously given the world the eternal gift of yoga. It is our goal to create a community of #OneMillionYogis to give back especially at this time. Host, take a class, or simply donate whatever you can. I am grateful that so many YGB Global Ambassadors have expressed their support and are hosting or donating classes to inspire many yoga teachers around the world to do the same.

     

    Check YGB Global Calendar for all class listings

     

    Live Classes with Omstars Teachers

     


    Our goal is to raise $50,000 with this global campaign to ensure our assistance to urgent relief needs to rebuild lives as well as YGB’s micro loan and education programs to empower under-served women and children. Are you in? It’s easy.

    Host one class: 

    a- Register your event
    b- Download Event Tool Kit

         (YGB logoFlyer TemplatePress Kit)
     c- Promote Your Event
    (YGB will post your event on Global Calendar and Social Media)

    d- Use this link for direct donation or payment
    * If you use this link for all donation payments, make sure that your event’s attendees mention the host teacher’s name in this payment form.

    Let’s come together as the force of #OneMillionYogis!

    Additionally, there are two other ways to have immediate impact:

    Thank you in advance for your contribution and support of the under-served women and children in India. Any inquiries, please write to info@yogagivesback.org. Namaste.

    By Kayoko Mitsumatsu, Founder of Yoga Gives Back.org

  • Dismantling Racial Barriers in Wellness

    Yoga studios in general have an open door policy. Anyone, of any size, background, ethnicity and sexual orientation is welcomed. Yet, the majority of students and teachers continue to be White. Surprisingly, these statistics don’t shift much with demographic. Even in the most diverse neighborhoods, yoga studios are filled with White bodies. The open door policy is not working.
    Why not and what can we do about it?

    Uncovering your own Implicit Bias:

    The first step to diversifying your clientele as a teacher and studio owner is to be mindful of your own implicit bias. The Perception Institute states that “thoughts and feelings are ‘implicit’ if we are unaware of them or mistaken about their nature. We have a bias when, rather than being neutral, we have a preference for (or aversion to) a person or group of people”. As yoga teachers we know that most of our daily actions are played out without our conscious input. It is imperative to take these biases into account when we interact with BIPOC in our wellness space. Implicit racial bias shows up when we encourage and support certain types of students to attend a teacher training over others. It shows up in who and how we mentor and how we build relationships with our students. It even shows up in deciding which business platforms and organizations to partner with.

    As a yoga practitioner it is easy to to lean into the simplicity of escapism and spiritual bypassing. We say things like, ‘all humans are equal, everything happens for a reason’ or even ‘I don’t see color’. Although these statements might make us feel better in that moment, the only thing they actually do is validate our own inaction. These statements feed into our own ego, and allow us to comfortably rest in complicity. They do nothing to promote and nurture diversity in yoga spaces and classes. The practice of karma yoga asks us to take action. In order to shift the current white washed landscape of yoga, we have to take intentional and actionable steps to uncover our own implicit bias. Even if we are not racist, and we ‘wish’ our classes would be more diverse, if we are not intentionally stepping outside of our comfort zone to implement lasting change in our environment, we are actively contributing to the white supremacy and racial divide in yoga.

    Financial Barriers to Diversity:

    Income inequality is a direct effect of systemic racism and oppression. Inequality.org states that the median White family has 41 times more wealth than the median the Black family and studies have shown that this racial wealth divide only continues to grow. These inequalities directly affect the level of diversity in yoga spaces. Many studios have both strategically and sometimes inadvertently placed themselves in the luxury wellness sector. Studios charge $20+ a class, and yet believe their classes are financially accessible to the public. Clients mostly pay for yoga classes and memberships with disposable income; income that was allotted to them by the intentional oppression of others. Thus, BIPOC have a very different relationship with their money. Further so, self-care, healing and spirituality are often portrayed as a luxury rather than a right.

    Too often the environment that yoga studios cultivate only reinforce this belief system. It is important that we prioritize the well-being of our community as a whole (including Black people) over potential profit margins. In this climate as many yoga studios struggle to keep the doors open it might seem difficult to envision a way to manipulate the current pricing structure. However, even with current business models, an overwhelming amount of yoga classes remain partially empty. Creating inclusion and diversity in wellness spaces is not only our duty as practitioners, it is also good business. Instead of ignoring an entire demographic of people, what would it look like to remove the financial barriers, and foster an economically sustainable relationship?

    Creating a safe space for Black People:

    The reason many Black people do not feel comfortable in yoga spaces is because they are predominantly occupied by white bodies. Historically, Black people have not been safe nor allowed in spaces occupied by Whites. One might argue that the past is the past, however racial segregation was only abolished in 1964. To put this into perspective, that was 56 years ago as of 2020. Now, if we believe that trauma and PTSD can be generational, it is no surprise that certain fears and safety mechanisms are ingrained into the Black community. The trauma is passed down and only validated by the daily racial micro and macro aggressions from White counterparts. To this day, Black people can’t walk into certain establishments without being scared for their life, can’t run through certain neighborhoods without being killed, and can’t even be in their own homes without being viewed as criminals. So why do yogis think that an all white yoga studio would seem like a safe space for Black people who are majorly suffering from conscious and subconscious trauma.

    Creating a safe space doesn’t start with a diverse clientele, but a diverse teaching, management, and desk staff. If potential clients look at your website do they see diversity? When BIPOC enter your studio, do they see themselves represented? As teachers and studio owners it is not enough to just open the doors and hope that diversity will inevitably occur. It is your duty to take actionable steps to define yourself as a diverse culture. This means not being passive and naive, but intentional and aware of the barriers black people encounter when entering any wellness space. It is not enough to claim inclusivity, you must actively challenge white supremacy. Dismantling the status quo and fighting for social justice has to be a daily practice.

    As yogis it is our job to pull apart our own patterns, to evaluate the why behind our actions and to hopefully progress and step into a new way of life. Can we evolve in our opinions and our actions the same way we evolve in our teachings? Through dedication, hard work and the desire to be and do better.  Can we as teachers lean into the discomfort of change the way we lean into our practice? Through patience, action and breath. Now is the time to take your practice off of the mat. This, is the Yoga!

    Patricia Luensmann

    Patricia is a NYC based Yoga teacher, founder of Yoga While Black and lifelong student. Her teachings aim to cultivate mental, physical and emotional well being through yoga, meditation, and reiki. In a society where healing and spirituality have become a trend, her offerings are rooted in digging deep, finding vulnerability, and doing the work. With a belief that healing has no shape, color or gender, Patricia works to bring awareness around the lack of diversity, specifically Black representation, in the wellness industry.

  • We’re listening and we are committed to learning

    Today is not business as usual for us here at Omstars. We are grateful to and for our community of teachers, staff and leaders within and outside of the Yoga community for all that has been shared, expressed and spoken out about regarding the murder of Black human beings and the systematic racism that pervades the U.S, the devastating impact on BIPOC individuals, community and the communities across the globe.

    We are actively taking steps to help support and
    raise up the community around us.

    We may not get it right all the time, but we are committed to doing everything we can to share, to take action, and be part of the solutions that help create much-needed change. The changes needed are not only towards larger governmental and societal change but within the yoga and wellness communities. There are barriers to entry for BIPOC teachers, leaders, and experts that should not exist. We want to be part of breaking these down and lifting up the voices, initiatives, and programs of these individuals.

    We are also grateful and truly honored to share the teaching and work of so many strong voices within the BIPOC community and want to continue to share their voices. We commit to the continuation of sharing our space and platform to write or speak, teach, anything that BIPOC teachers and leaders feel would help to elevate, amplify and empower their voices and the initiatives and efforts they have been working on for many years. In an effort to continue to do better and to be a better ally for the community, we are actively seeking out and speaking with teachers and yoga community leaders within the Black, Indigenous and People of Color community to host talks and teach more classes on Omstars.

    There is always more to be done, and we commit to listening to and amplifying the voices of marginalized communities. We are a platform that shares practices and teachings that help heal, develop compassion, empathy, and connection. But these teaching must also come from many voices, backgrounds, and people in order to honor traditional origins and cultural roots and history of Yoga. And, these voices must also come from a multitude of backgrounds so that the ways in which we can use these practices to heal, can be done so within the content of varying experiences, histories, and lives. We a currently working alongside Susanna Barkataki, learning a lot as we do, and will be releasing a series of articles that she has developed on Yoga and Cultural Appropriation.

    Yoga and mindfulness practices are not separate from the socio-political realm, because racism, prejudice, and marginalization take place within the world of yoga too. We commit to doing everything it takes truly to become an ally for marginalized yoga community members. There is no performance here. We are prepared to do the work. Yoga is for EVERYONE and our mission from day 1 was to make the traditional practice of yoga available to every single person around the world. That has not changed. What has changed is how we show up, who we work with and alongside, and rather than taking a leadership role, we take the role of the learner, the listener, and amplifying voices other than our own.

    We have a summer membership sale starting later this week and as part of another action step to support change, we will be donating $5 from each membership sold to the Coronavirus Fund for BIWoC- Act in Allyship. Additionally, we are sourcing supportive and educational courses for our team here at Omstars so that we can better show up for each other, our community of teachers, and for each and every member, student, and each person that we encounter. We will continue to update this blog as we take new action steps to better support the BIPOC community.

    Lastly, we’re working on creating an ever-expanding resource list. This, like our action steps, is a living document that we will continue to expand and grow. If you have recommendations or resources you think we should add to this list, please send them to info@omstars.com. We are not the experts, and so we defer to the expertise, knowledge, and experience of many inspiring and hardworking community leaders and organizations.

    Educate and Stay Informed

    Books To  Read

    White Fragility by Robin Diangelo

    How to be an antiracist by Ibram X Kendi

    Me and white supremacy by Layla F Saad

    Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race by Reni Eddo-Lodge

    I’m still here: Black dignity in a world made for whiteness by Austin Channing Brown

    White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide by Carol Anderson

    Biased: Uncovering the Hidden Prejudice That Shapes What We See, Think, and Do by Jennifer L. Eberhardt

    Why are all the blacks kids sitting together in the cafeteria by Beverly Daniel Tatum

    Uprooting Racism: how white people can work for racial justice by Paul Kivel

    Accounts to Follow

    If you decide to follow more BIPOC leaders and community members to your social media feed, make sure that your first step after hitting follow is to learn about their boundaries, their community framework, and expectations. Most of these individuals have been doing this work for a long, long time. They are not here to meet our needs, expectations, or to answer our questions. It is up to US to learn, to find resources, to use google, and to find answers. WE must do the work, support their work, sign up for their courses, and donate to their causes. 

    @rachel.cargle
    @chnge
    @privtoprog
    @shaunking
    @mixedfatchick
    @blackandembodied
    @jessicawilson.msrd
    @ibramxk
    @laylafsaad
    @wellness_yogini
    @iamrachelricketts

    Websites and References:

    https://www.embracerace.org/

    https://blacklivesmatters.carrd.co⁣

    ⁣https://blacklivesmatters.carrd.co/#educate

    https://www.standuptoracism.org.uk/

    https://www.theconsciouskid.org/about/

    https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/29/books/review/antiracist-reading-list-ibram-x-kendi.html

    Children’s Books:

    Viola Desmond Won’t Be Budged by Jody Warner

    Sweetest Kulu by Celina Kalluk

    Very Last First Time by Jan Andrews

    Julian Is A Mermaid by Jessica Love

    By Kino & the Omstars Team

  • Yoga Community, Your Love and Light is Not Working

    Yoga community, that love and light you sent out, it’s not working. It didn’t make it to George Floyd as he fought to breathe with a White policeman’s knee on his neck. It didn’t make it to Ahmaud Arbery as he was brutally murdered by armed White men on his morning run. Your love and light is not a safety cloak that Black people can pull on when their bodies are being threatened.

    White people’s love and light didn’t stop slavery or the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Their love and light didn’t work in the past, it doesn’t work now and it won’t work in the future. 

    I prayed for 20 years but received no answer until I prayed with my legs”

    -Frederick Douglas, Black abolitionist.

    If your love and light has no legs, it will not work. If it is not backed by action, self study and change, it will not work. 

    Racism in America is systemic and forms the foundation of American culture. It is not just someone wearing a white hood, using the “N” word or physically harming Black bodies. It is the culmination and combination of over 400 years of oppression and ignorance. It is not just front page news events keeping this going. It is also little events done for over 400 years that have concretized the White supremacy that is as American as apple pie. Therefore, small things done by millions of people, can have a big impact. Little drops of racism become normalized. Those drops become an ocean that forms tsunamis that destroy the lives of Black folks.  The “new normal” should not just be a Covid-19 slogan. Create a new anti racist normal for America as well.

    I am going to use a Yoga scenario to drive this home but do know that racism and your Yoga problems are not in the same ballpark. This is just to get you thinking.  Think of a Yoga pose, that you eventually mastered, that was extremely challenging for you.  One that felt almost impossible. For me, that pose was a deep backbend, where you reach back and grab your heels,  called Kapotasana. For years, I worked on Kapotasana. I would make huge strides and then seemingly move backwards. I would go months with no visible difference at all. I studied every book, read every article, watched every Youtube and Instagram video I could find on Kapotasana. I went to workshops and practiced with many different teachers. Every day, I got on my mat and did my part, which was to apply all that I learned and to do the best Kapotasana I could do that day for my body. One day, I grabbed my heels.  Have you had this experience with a pose or with some seemingly Mount Everest sized problem in your life? At times, did it seem like you were going nowhere and nothing was happening? I certainly did. However, my body was shifting even when I thought I was standing still.

    Let’s use this example to illustrate how the Yoga community can give love and light some legs. 

    Ways to Give Legs to Love and Light

    1. Acknowledge that fighting racism will sometimes feel impossible, hard, difficult, frustrating, tiring and futile.

    Do it anyway. Just like working on your Yoga pose caused little changes that added up, every little thing you do chips away at the bedrock of White supremacy.  

    2. Study and learn.

    Just like you looked for people who could help you understand and support you while you worked on your Yoga pose, actively seek out people who are involved in anti racism work. Go to their workshops and lectures. Read their books and follow them on social media. It is also important to study yourself. In order to do Kapotasana, I had to understand everything that was going on in my body that was preventing me from achieving the pose. You must understand every part of you, including the culture you live in, the environment you were raised in, and the privilege you hold that allows racism to continue. 

    3. Apply what you learn.

    Practicing your pose every day and applying what you learned resulted in change. The same is true for anti-racism work. It must be done consistently each and every day.  

    4. Accept nothing but your best.

    Every day, I left my mat knowing that I gave Kapotasana the best effort that I could. I had no tolerance for laziness and apathy.  You also need a zero tolerance policy for racism. Black folks’ lives are at stake.

    5. At the same time, practice self care.

    In order to have the energy for my morning practice, I had to take care of my body and mind. I set clear boundaries with family and friends. I surrounded myself with people who respected my boundaries and supported my journey. Anti-racism work is difficult and tiring. Carve out daily time for self care.  Seek out a community that understands you and respects your work.

    6. Give Back.

    As a teacher, I passed on everything that I learned about Kapotasana. I sent videos to my fellow teachers. I emailed articles to my students and taught them everything I knew.  As a student, If I saw a fellow yogi struggling, I offered access to resources and helped where I could. Pass on information about racism and uplift the voices of Black people. Use your resources and privilege to help those who lack access. Don’t idly stand around and watch people drown in the current of racism when you have the ability to help.

    By Shanna Small

    You can follow Shanna here @wellness_yogini 

    Photos by: Wanda Koch

    Read More Insightful Articles by Shanna Small

    Shanna Small is the author of, The Ashtanga Yoga Project, a website that teaches how to live the wisdom of Yoga in modern times. Shanna began her Yoga journey in 2000 and her teaching journey in 2005. She has studied the Yoga Sutras, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, chanting and Ashtanga at KPJAYI in India with Sharath Jois and Lakshmish. She received her Yoga Alliance registration for Vinyasa Yoga in 2005 and served 4 years as the director of Ashtanga Yoga School Charlotte. She has written for Yoga International, Omstars and Ashtanga Dispatch Magazine. Photo Credit: Wanda Koch Photography

  • In Support of POC and Marginalized Folks in the Yoga Community

    To understand why I feel strongly about providing resources to POC and marginalized populations who want to practice Yoga, I need to tell a little bit of my story.

    From a very young age, I learned that being Black was not desirable or of importance to the larger world. My mother would go to multiple stores in search of Black dolls. They were often sold out because it wasn’t as important to manufacturers and stores to carry as wide of a selection of Black dolls as it was White ones. One Christmas, in order for me to have a Black doll, She had a woman hand-make one. When I opened my gift, I cried. Why couldn’t I have the popular dolls that the White girls received instead of a knock off?

    White girls were the stars of the shows I watched and the Black girl was the sassy sidekick. One of my favorite Saturday morning shows was Saved By the Bell, a story of a group of high school kids in California. Even though the Black character, Lisa Turtle, was pretty and stylish, she rarely had a love interest. Though she definitely had episodes where she was featured, she was not centered. For a Black person to be featured, the show pretty much had to be about Black people. Shows like A Different World, the Cosby Show, and reruns of Good Times and Sanford and Son were a part of the hand full of shows that centered Black people living day to day life. Other then the sassy sidekick funny homeboy/girl who supported the White character or was killed first in horror movies, Black people on TV were largely entertainers, i.e.basketball players, singers, dancers etc, or criminals.

    When I started school, I noticed that the closer you were to White, the more attention you received from teachers. When your skin was lighter and your hair straighter, you were called beautiful. The girls with kinky hair and dark skin were told that they had “pretty faces” or the boys talked about their “nice bodies”. We were never called beautiful. By the time I saw Grace Jones, an avant-garde Black supermodel on TV, I was so confused and I didn’t understand why she was in the James Bond Series which was known for its half-naked “beautiful” White “Bond” girls. Were they making fun of her? Did James Bond really like her or was she a joke?

    One year, I was having trouble with math. The immediate assumption was that it was because I must have come from a bad home and not that I had a horrible teacher who tripped over herself to help White students but berated and yelled at the Black ones. And don’t let me get started on education. Except for Black History month or brief mentions of slavery, Black people didn’t exist. We definitely were not kings and queens from advanced societies that predate White culture. The mini-series, Roots, was the first movie I ever watched that hinted at Black people having an existence before slavery. These are just a few stories and hopefully enough to see where I am going.

    As a Black child, I was surrounded by beautiful Black people from my family, my church and my community. They were not all football players or singers and they were definitely not criminals. In my life, stunning and amazing Black people were everywhere, yet, we were erased from every other aspect of culture that extended outside of my own neighborhood. The message I received as a child was that Blackness was not important to the rest of the world. It was only important to our own community. Outside of my community, no one wanted to see color or talk about it.

    To keep everyone else comfortable, I had to become complicit in my own erasure. Because when White people were uncomfortable, bad things happened. Sassiness is cool when you play the sidekick in a cop show but might get you killed when stopped by a cop in real life. They needed to be comfortable with my hair, my dress, my walk and the way I talked or teachers would not like me, I would not get a job, or people may feel that I am a threat. If I wanted to be considered attractive, I had to downplay my African features and alter anything that could be molded into something that resembled White standards of beauty. I needed to smile all the time to get the position of sassy sidekick, which from what the media taught me, was the quickest way to a good life. A supporting roll in a White centered world was a blessing and something to strive for.

    Can you even begin to understand how hard it is to thrive in a world that is hell-bent on erasing your culture from existence? The pain of it? The daily struggle to keep living and breathing in a culture that only seems to mention your people when you can entertain them in some sort of way or a crime has been committed?

    You would think that this narrative would stop when I started practicing Yoga. Yoga is about love, liberation and oneness, right? Well, it didn’t. The same dynamic is in play. People in the Yoga world are constantly talking about how to make “people” comfortable enough to try Yoga. Have you ever stopped to think about what “people” they are referring too? I will give you a hint, it is not POC. Making a Yoga class more “comfortable”, “accessible” and less “intimidating” are often just code words for erasure. Think about it. What often gets taken out? Chanting, Sanskirt, mentions of South Asian deities and concepts. What gets added in? “Popular” music or music that is popular among mainstream Whites. If a studio does play chants, they are usually performed by White people like Krishna Das or Dave Stringer. Information is conveyed in ways that White people vibe with. Stories from the Gita are replaced with Brene Brown quotes. Om symbols are replaced with pictures of skinny White people in Lululemon.

    Even though I have done a lot of work unpacking the trauma of being raised a Black child in a society that doesn’t really value her existence, when I teach in a predominately White studio, I have to use the same survival mechanisms I use anywhere else. I thought I didn’t because this is Yoga and we are all “woke” and love each other right? Wrong. A White Yoga studio owner told me to smile. They wagged their head and used their “sassy black woman voice’ when they quoted me. I got feedback from students that they thought I didn’t like them because I wasn’t smiling at them. People didn’t understand why I didn’t like the popular Yoga clothing brands that did not fit my curvy body and insisted that I was just wearing them wrong. I made playlists I hated because they did not reflect me or my culture but that my White students loved. I would greet people on their way to class who looked at me like “why was I talking to them” who would be shocked when I walked into class and said I was teaching it. I have been in countless meetings and wrote countless blogs where I have said things that were ignored but were listened to when a White person said it. Like my childhood examples, for the sake of brevity, I am going to stop here but do know that I can keep going. If you are thinking about commenting on this article and gaslighting me, it won’t work. I know what I experienced and am still experiencing.

    When I speak on these things, people often ask, “what are you doing about it?” I think to myself, “You mean besides continuing to live on this earth, teach and practice Yoga while experiencing microaggressions and race-based trauma on a daily basis from the community I love and wish would just love me back?” Sometimes I have to laugh to keep from crying. After one of these conversations, I was like, “you know what, I will start an organization to help.” I didn’t start it to let those who perpetrate the erasure of POC off the hook. I started it as a way to be of service to those who experience what I experience. To make it a little bit easier for them to move in the Yoga world if they so desire. I started the organization to help end the idea that comfortable Yoga is White, binary, and heteronormative.

    When I started talking about wanting to start an organization that gave scholarships to marginalized groups who wanted to practice Yoga and educated people on inclusion and honoring the roots of Yoga, a White colleague in the Yoga world immediately wanted to be an ally. In the end, four women who have a passion for offering Yoga to folks and their families struggling from various traumas such as addiction and abuse, came together to form Yoga For Recovery Foundation Inc. The trauma that POC and other marginalized populations endure by systemic erasure from practices and societies that they helped create, is where I chose to put my focus.

    By Shanna Small

    Read More Insightful Articles by Shanna Small

    Shanna Small is the author of, The Ashtanga Yoga Project, a website that teaches how to live the wisdom of Yoga in modern times. Shanna began her Yoga journey in 2000 and her teaching journey in 2005. She has studied the Yoga Sutras, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, chanting and Ashtanga at KPJAYI in India with Sharath Jois and Lakshmish. She received her Yoga Alliance registration for Vinyasa Yoga in 2005 and served 4 years as the director of Ashtanga Yoga School Charlotte. She has written for Yoga International, OmStars and Ashtanga Dispatch Magazine. Photo Credit: Wanda Koch Photography

  • Mind Your Own Body, and I’ll Do the Same

    Why Commenting on People’s Bodies Needs to Stop. How often do you find yourself commenting on your friend’s appearance? Why is it that our go-to compliment is, “Wow – you look great” even before we connect over the changes or news in our lives? Why is it that we praise one another for losing weight, even if that weight loss was due to a traumatic event or a health crisis?

    Why do we feel the need to comment on each other’s bodies at all? As if it’s not enough to be bombarded by messages from the media reminding us of how we are supposed to look. Society has done a great job of conditioning us to size each other up.

    Former fitness guru and celebrity trainer Jillian Michaels was recently asked to comment on the body-positive movement, and how it relates to stars like Lizzo, who openly celebrate a body that has traditionally been deemed unhealthy. Unsurprisingly, Ms Michaels reached for the “health” argument in relation to Lizzo’s physical appearance. Without being a medical professional, or having any idea of what Lizzo’s health records have to say about her physical wellbeing, Ms Michaels told the public that Lizzo was a candidate for diabetes, and disease wasn’t to be celebrated.

    So why do we immediately comment on the size and shape of other people’s bodies – as if we can determine their experience of life-based on their jean size?

    Being in the public sphere has been challenging for me. I am an activist and I represent a movement that I am so deeply passionate about. The people that follow me, and those that I care most deeply about, rely on me to live out my values regarding health at every size. This is the message that I advocate for day in, and day out.

    As a result, my body is often the topic of conversation, and it makes me uncomfortable. I am a survivor of both sexual abuse and an eating disorder, and as a result, having my value accessed based on my looks is triggering. When my body is evaluated, dissected, and discussed, it feels like a fundamental invasion of my personal boundaries – and it’s scary.

    This has been especially confronting as I’ve undergone a dramatic weight loss due to illness. I’ve been public about my struggle with Graves disease, and what it’s meant for my relationship to my health and wellness practices. But, nothing really prepared me for the cognitive dissonance I experienced when the world kept telling me I looked great, even when I felt like I was dying.

    Since my formal diagnosis, recovery has been a slow process. As I navigate my health challenges, new and old triggers often combine. It is hard to own lifestyle changes as empowered choices when the world is so intensely focused on the physical changes.

    The gym used to be a place that fueled my eating disorder. In my youth, working out was a punishment. It was something I did to make up for the things I ate (or didn’t eat) and a socially acceptable way to execute self-hatred. My attachment to seeking outside approval was reinforced in this space, and I was scared that returning would re-open those past traumas.

    But in truth, I love to workout, and I’ve worked hard at making peace with my body. I sometimes lose sight of how far I’ve come, and how much more appreciation I have for the body I’ve been given – especially after fighting for my life in many ways. These days, the gym is no longer a place where I punish my body for what I ate or a place to look for external validation. It has become a place to celebrate feeling good in my body and a space where I can safely disrupt any narratives that say otherwise. I practice my activism by shutting down any fat or food shaming. Getting well has been a real struggle and a confronting space to be in, and I never want to take my health for granted again.

    Our fixation on accessing each other’s bodies is strange and it keeps us from focusing on what is really important. Happiness cannot be attained through the constant seeking of outside approval. Happiness cannot be achieved by people-pleasing, and no one’s body is anyone else’s business.

    Commenting on other people’s bodies is unnecessary, intrusive, and harmful. It reinforces gender stereotypes and it perpetuates unattainable standards of beauty. We need to find new ways to interact positively with one another, and we can start by giving each other compliments that celebrate our positive energy. We can connect to one another by sharing our thoughts and emotions, and how we make each other feel. We can talk about pop culture or god forbid even politics. Either way, it’s time to stop this hyper-focus on what we look like. Our external appearance is seldom an accurate mirror for our internal world. Mind your own body and health and I will do the same.

    By Dianne Bondy

    Dianne Bondy is a celebrated yoga teacher, social justice activist and leading voice of the Yoga For All movement. Her inclusive view of yoga asana and philosophy inspires and empowers thousands of followers around the world – regardless of their shape, size, ethnicity, or level of ability. Dianne contributes to Yoga International, Do You Yoga, and Elephant Journal. She is featured and profiled in International media outlets: The Guardian, Huffington Post, Cosmopolitan, People and more. She is a spokesperson for diversity in yoga and yoga for larger bodies, as seen in her work with Pennington’s, Gaiam, and the Yoga & Body Image Coalition. Her work is published in the books: Yoga and Body Image and Yes Yoga Has Curves. https://diannebondyyoga.com/

    NOTE: This post is part of a collaborative media series organized and curated by Omstars and the Yoga & Body Image Coalition intended as a deep dive into yoga & body image.

  • The Difference Between Intent and Impact

    Why Knowing the Difference Between Intent and Impact are Important on the Yogic Path.

    An important part of the yogic principle of Ahimsa, non-violence, is understanding that intent and impact are not the same.  There is a lot of wisdom to unpack in the old Christian saying, “The road to Hell is paved with good intentions”. Even if our intentions are good, if our actions result in negative outcomes, we still have to pay the piper.  As the saying suggests, if we don’t atone for our behavior, the results will be the same as someone who had bad intentions; both are going to Hell. For you, this Hell may not be a lake of fire and brimstone, but instead a world full of pain and suffering.  If we are to call ourselves yogis, we must own up to how our actions, even when we didn’t mean anything by them, cause harm.

    There is no way to live on this earth and never harm anyone. Ahimsa is the practice of doing the least amount of harm possible; emphasis on “least”. Ahimsa is a part of the Yamas or Great Vow, that a yogi on the 8 limbed path of Patanjali or Raja yoga, takes.  When a yogi takes this vow, she cannot break it regardless of class, time, place or circumstance.  She is always asking herself, “is this the least amount of harm I can cause in this situation?” Nonviolence is the most talked about Yama in yoga because it is pretty easy to grasp and apply and it is palatable to most humans. Most of us can agree that we don’t want to be hurt.  Ahimsa, when things are going our way, is simple.   However, are we also using it when things become uncomfortable?

    The easiest way to shut down (attempt to anyway) an uncomfortable topic in the yoga world is to belabor positive intent.  The yoga world is seeing the rise of people speaking up against the commercialization and commodification of yoga, the erasure of the culture it came from, the worship of able bodies, inaccessibility, privilege, appropriation, spiritual bypassing and corruption.  If you are being accused of any of these, stop, breathe, then ask yourself, “Does my intent actually match the impact?” Understand that, as a yogi who has taken the great vow of Ahimsa, it is your duty to consider the impact your actions have on the world and to seek to do as little harm as possible. It not only means that you must change your words but you also have to change your actions. At the very least, own up to it and apologize.

    If you look back in your memory, you will probably see that you have been hurt by someone who had good intentions. Someone who had no idea how deeply their actions impacted your life but they did. Is it unreasonable that you may be guilty of the same? Can you give someone else the apology that you yourself have always wanted? Can you exemplify the changed behavior that was not exemplified for you? Can you give the kindness and understanding you craved to someone who is also seeking kindness and understanding? As a yogi, I should hope so. This may be uncomfortable but without examples, it is easy to purport innocence.  It is easy to act the saint of  the yoga world. These examples are meant to get you thinking. They are meant to empower you with higher levels of discernment that increase your capacity to apply Ahimsa and contribute to the reduction of harm.

    Anybody can do yoga

    The intent of is to present an open and welcoming environment for people who are new to Yoga. However, what happens when they actually cannot do your class? Maybe the class is moving so fast that you cannot stop and help them. The class might be so busy that you cannot spend time helping them. Do you truly know options that anyone can do and can you give the student those options as they practice? What is the possible impact to a student who cannot do the practice you just presented? They could leave feeling not only that yoga is not for them but also feel there is something wrong with them because they cannot do a class that, according to you, everyone is supposed to be able to do.

    Classes in exchange for cleaning

    The intent is to provide a means for students who cannot afford yoga, to be able to practice. What are some possible negative impacts? Instead of feeling like they are a part of the community, they feel like “the help.”  Most people have an unconscious bias towards people like waiters, handymen, or house cleaners. They are expected to be in the background.  They move around doing their work and are largely ignored. This student could easily spend their time at your studio on the fringes feeling isolated and alone.

    Not having anyone of color represented on your staff, on your list of presenters, your book or magazine.

    The intention is simply to hire good teachers and present the best information.  In this case, they all just happened to be White. What are some of the possible negative impacts? POC feel excluded, unwanted and that their expertise is subpar. Another negative impact is that you have a staff or panel of people who have an implicit bias toward the experience of being White. This results in a very skewed, and often times unrealistic and untrue view of the information presented.

    Thrust me, being White in the yoga world is a different experience from being Black or Brown in the yoga world.  You may say, “information is information”. Take a breath and really think about it. It is well known that historical information is always skewed towards the people talking about it.  Take this excerpt from History.com on the Civil War, “Northerners have also called the Civil War the War to Preserve the Union, the War of the Rebellion (War of the Southern Rebellion), and the War to Make Men Free.

    Southerners may refer to it as the War Between the States or the War of Northern Aggression. In the decades following the conflict, those who did not wish to upset adherents of either side simply called it The Late Unpleasantness. It is also known as Mr. Lincoln’s War and, less commonly, as Mr. Davis’ War.” This same thing happens with yogic information. Trust me. All good teachers can acknowledge their own implicit bias towards the information they are presenting.

    For instance, I absolutely have an implicit bias towards Ashtanga and I totally view all yogic information through the lens of Ashtanga. I absolutely know and acknowledge that I have a filter that looks for information to support my Ashtanga practice and, that If I am not careful, I will throw out or not acknowledge anything that goes against it.  If I were to put together a panel to talk about Ahimsa in the broader context of yoga, to offset my bias, I would need to invite non-Ashtangis to speak. Does this make sense?

    If you just work hard enough, you can do any yoga pose your heart desires.

    The intent is to uplift and motivate. Some negative impacts are people hurting themselves doing poses that are not meant for their bodies, people quitting yoga because, since they cannot do the poses, it is obviously not for them and a feeling of being a complete failure and worthless.

    We are all one

    This statement is dependent on the situation. The intent is to create unity and inclusiveness however the impact can be the opposite. To someone who is communicating that they don’t feel comfortable and accepted, to say, “we are all one” does not address the reason why they don’t feel comfortable or accepted. In this example, “We are all one” is spiritual bypassing at it’s finest. Dr. Robert Augustus Masters, PhD defines spiritual bypassing as, “the use of spiritual practices/beliefs to avoid dealing with painful feelings, unresolved wounds and developmental needs”.

    Saying “we are all one” when someone is hurting because they feel otherwise, shuts the discussion down and stops all positive possible solutions. For instance, if a South Asian practitioner is saying that they don’t feel represented by a panel of White people, “saying we are all one” does not change the fact the they are not represented. I can go on and on with these examples and I am sure that you have many you can add as well. Were you able to see how impact and intent are not the same? In each of the examples, could you see how more Ahimsa or less harm could be done? As a yogi, who has taken the vow of decreasing suffering in this world, do you understand how the question of impact vs Intent must be a part of your spiritual practice? I hope so.

    By Shanna Small

    Shanna Small is the mind behind, The Ashtanga Yoga Project, a website and home for information on how to use the wisdom of Ashtanga Yoga in Modern life. Shanna Small has been practicing Ashtanga Yoga and studying the Yoga Sutras since 2001. She has studied in Mysore with Sharath Jois and is the Director of AYS Charlotte, a school for traditional Ashtanga in Charlotte NC.  She has written for Yoga International and the Ashtanga Dispatch.

    Read more articles by Shanna Small
    Photo credit: Wanda Koch Photography. 

  • Redefining the Role of a Yoga Teacher

    Looking back in time, I realized that I’ve been a yoga teacher for part of my twenties, my entire thirties, and now into my forties. Most of my teaching career developed in New York City and Miami. From learning yoga in a studio that didn’t have yoga mats or blocks, to taking my first group classes in a gym that looked like a dance studio from the 80’s, to teaching yoga classes during the early 2000’s carrying my hundreds of CDs all over town.  It has been a journey.

    But I always come back to that day when after finishing a yoga class in the old Crunch Fitness in South Beach, while crossing Washington Avenue, I realized I was experiencing a heightened sense of awareness, colors were brighter, breaths were deeper. At a somatic level, I began to understand a deeper layer of the work that yoga does on bodies and minds. Recently my job as a full time yoga teacher has shifted, as I’ve become more interested in aspects of yoga that are less explored.

    How many more articles about the proper Chaturanga or the right stance in Warrior 1 or 2 can one read in a lifetime? How many more tutorials about how to do a handstand do I want to watch? To what extent is spending so much of my time trying to learn the latest alignment tip actually taking me away from making a real difference in my life and in my community? How many more scrolls through Facebook or Instagram do I have to take to understand that there’s work that needs to be done now?

    My own life experiences took me to different roads when the yoga offered in the studios, books, and social media was not enough to help me reconnect to myself during life’s difficult times. I experienced unbearable loss, grief, and depression of the greatest kind — and during those stages the yoga I had known wasn’t enough. My mat was buried in my closet. And I simply didn’t have the strength to get up and practice. I shifted my focus and began to learn about what I was experiencing. I learned about mental health, depression, trauma, PTSD, anxiety. And naturally I began to teach in a way that is more inclusive, accessible, and sustainable.

    I understood from the inside out what I was experiencing and by learning more about my own struggles I was able to put a practice together that supported the stage of my life that I was living. And gradually I got back on my feet. The beautiful thing about hitting rock bottom is that you come up stronger, but also you know that you are not the only one suffering. There’s a solace in knowing that you’re not alone, that everyone goes through difficult times. And it brings a sense of responsibility, and urgency towards making yoga available for those who aren’t as privileged.

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    I learned about the challenges that my community was facing, and I made my yoga available to those who were marginalized. I became curious about why there are only certain segments of the population in my classes. I began to ask why yoga is not reaching everyone, although we see it everywhere online. I began to learn about trauma, the trauma that we all go through in our lives, and the trauma of entire communities. I began to understand that I am in a very privileged place as a yoga teacher who can afford to take yoga classes , but there are many who can’t and in their minds they associate yoga with the privilege of an elite few.

    I realized that all the wonderful yoga philosophy I learned over the years didn’t mean anything unless the practice makes a real difference in myself and my community. I began to leave behind, one at a time, many postures that no longer served me in the path of using yoga as a bridge to unite the community. I began to move away from an extremely physical approach to the practice, or promoting the practice through postures, and instead using my experience, and the experiences of those who practice with me, as the message of the practice.

    A message of conscious movement, a message of community, and understanding that there is power in the practice, especially when we practice together, and the yoga that we do, can always and must always help others. I began to understand my place in the future of yoga.

    Why it is important to have a voice on Instagram and Facebook to educate people about a different way of approaching the practice. Why it is important to share our experiences, and advocate for those who have no voice. Why it is important to be a disruptor when all the yoga you see looks very vanilla.
    I currently teach yoga at schools, hospitals and I work full time at Lotus House, the largest shelter in Florida for homeless women and their children. I empower my students — whether they are members at a luxury fitness center or homeless people — with the tools of yoga, meditation, relaxation, and knowledge about science and research.

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    All my classes have shifted to an all-inclusive way of teaching. Teaching postures for their own sake is no longer exciting for me. But empowering people to reconnect to their bodies and create a positive connection — that is what is important. Offering tools to my students to be able to manage their level of stress, to learn when they are not feeling great and how to use the practice in a therapeutic way. This is what excites me these days. As I continue to explore yoga I can only think, what a wonderful thing it is, that yoga keeps growing and sharing its gifts.

    But this doesn’t happen alone, it doesn’t happen through posts, likes or followers or fancy inversions or arm balances. It happens when each of us yoga teachers and students learn about the practice, embody it, distill the teachings, peel away the outer layers, and use this core of wisdom as fuel to help those who need it the most.

    By Adrian Molina

    Adrian Molina has been teaching yoga continuously since 2004. He is a well-known and respected instructor in Miami and New York, with an extensive worldwide following through his platform and school of yoga, Warrior Flow. Adrian teaches online for Omstars and works for the non-profit Lotus House. Adrian is also a writer, massage therapist, Reiki healer, meditation teacher, sound therapist, and a Kriya yoga practitioner in the lineage of Paramahansa Yogananda. Adrian is recognized for the community-building work he does in Miami and beyond.