• Intersectionality and Ableism

    When we look at Yoga through the lens of intersectionality we must explore how Yoga studios and online platforms can create safe spaces for folks with physical disabilities and the LGBTQIA+ and QTBIPOC communities to be welcomed into. Representation is a big part of this equation and creating offerings where these communities are engaged and involved so they can feel safe, seen and heard.

    Intersectionality offers yoga practitioners and the wider wellness community an opportunity to examine their own biases as well as the structural obstacles on a path forward to inclusivity and accessibility. While there has been increased discussion and action taken to address the overlapping and interrelated nature of race, gender & sexual orientation as well as socioeconomic status and class in recent years, there’s been considerably less attention on ableism and disability rights in wellness spaces (and beyond).

    And the truth is that this is also apparent in feminist spaces where intersectionality as a term and a praxis originated. As Cara Liebowitz wrote for The Body is Not An Apology, “Feminism must be intersectional or it’s simply hypocritical. Disabled people are the world’s largest minority, according to the UN, and it is certainly foolish to alienate a group that could be powerful partners in the quest for social justice.”

    As the blog post by Cara Liebowitiz reveals in its title, it’s crucial to center disabled women in feminism to ensure that feminism is truly intersectional. In Disabilities Quarterly (v.34. No. 2, 2014), Alison Piepmeier, Amber Cantrell and Ashley Maggio wrote that disability is an urgent feminist issue. An authentic turn of attention to disability studies with conscious and clear actions to increase accessibility and inclusivity is an issue that wellness communities must also begin to increasingly prioritize. It is crucial to center disabled people in yoga and wellness if we’re to utilize intersectionality as a lens and framework to increase diverse representation, accessibility and inclusivity.

    Intersectionality requires work and introspection on the part of feminists who continue to ensure intersectionality includes divergent social locations across the spectrum of being human. It also requires increased awareness, education, and action on the part of wellness practitioners and leaders to ensure that we’re truly living our values and commitment to our practice as a tool of liberation for all.

    Dr. Theo Wildcroft of the Centre of Yoga Studies is a yoga teacher, trainer, writer and esteemed scholar. Her research considers the democratization of yoga post-lineage, and the many different ways yoga communities of practice are evolving. In a recent interview on the subject of intersectionality and wellness, Dr. Wildroft offers an additional layer to understanding intersectionality and disability. As she states, “And disability is intersectional – it impacts most those people who are already most disadvantaged. If you are poor, or black, or queer, or female, you are more likely to become disabled, and to have your suffering ignored. True accessibility is more than charity. It is an act of justice, and of healing – not of the disabled individual, but of the broken relationships between us.”

    And that’s not what we always see (and yet what we have an opportunity to do)…

    Cultural Appropriation Feeds Into Ableism

    What do we see when you search #yoga on Instagram? A plethora of glossy photos of thin, able bodied white heteronormative women in acrobatic postures. This has actually got nothing to do with Yoga. Meditation is in fact one of the key limbs of Yoga, not the advanced asana postures that have become so popularized and feed into individualism and ego consciousness which is the antithesis of Yogic philosophy.

    Yoga teachers have popularized the statements “we are all one” and “sending love and light” but unless we actually take actions to make this a reality, they are simply empty slogans and a part of spiritual bypassing which causes direct harm by dismissing the discrimination of those who are marginalized and have disabilities. Yoga is, in fact, social justice and disability justice and incredibly relevant to these times. Burning incense and chanting OM is not enough and never has been. The cultural appropriation of yoga is rampant, and most people have no idea what the essence of yoga is really about, which is a huge part of the problem. This feeds into the narrative of thin, able bodied white women consistently platformed in mainstream Yoga and wellness with everyone else being excluded.

    When we look at Yoga through the lens of intersectionality we must explore how Yoga studios and online platforms can create safe spaces for folks with physical disabilities and the LGBTQIA+ and QTBIPOC communities to be welcomed into. Representation is a big part of this equation and creating offerings where these communities are engaged and involved so they can feel safe, seen and heard.

    Jivana Heyman, part of the LGBTQIA+ community and Founder of Accessible Yoga @accessibleyoga whose background is in AIDS activism in the 1990’s understands and embraces that intersectionality is pivotal when it comes to Yoga. Jivana started teaching yoga so that he could share these practices with his community of people with HIV and AIDS. When Jivana began this work the USA was in the middle of an AIDS epidemic, and many of his students were extremely sick and dying. What he and his students learned together was that yoga offered accessible and powerful tools for healing on a deep mental, emotional, and spiritual level. Jivana shares that his students showed him that yoga could offer them healing even when they were dying.

    Jivana says, “When we overly simplify yoga to just be about the poses, we strip it of its most essential meaning. We appropriate the practice from its traditional roots in India and turn it into a commodity to be sold by capitalist interests. So the issue is more than just one of respect and care for continuing the ancient legacy of the yoga lineage. It’s about holding these precious teachings in a way that respects their purpose, their background, and their proper application. In order to do so, we need to consider the fullness of the practice. The essential teaching of yoga is that we all share the same spiritual essence no matter what our backgrounds or ability may be. We share the same essence whether we have a disability, whether we have a larger body, or if we’re a senior, or a child. We have got to let go of this idea of advanced asana equaling advanced yoga. There really is no correlation between our physical ability and the depth of our spiritual connection. This is why I always say that if it’s not accessible it’s not yoga. Because we all have equal access to the heart of yoga, and it’s up to each of us to find a form for our practice that allows us to unite with the spirit within.”

    Utilizing an intersectional framework to expand our lens, challenge and change the ways that not only we think and operate, but the way the yoga culture and yoga industry thinks and operates, we have the ability and power to re-create what currently exists into something that truly is yoga.

    In closing, as stated by Dr. Tho Wildcroft, “Yoga is a toolkit for liberation, that has too often been appropriated both for oppression, and for well-meaning disempowerment. To heal we need agency over our own choices, to create individualised strategies, to gather personalised resources, for self-regulating our nervous systems, with time and space to integrate them.”

    NOTE: This post is part of a collaborative media series organized and curated by Omstars in collaboration with the Yoga & Body Image Coalition and WOC + Wellness intended as an honest, thoughtful and holistic exploration of intersectionality, wellness and sustainable action with the intention of creating sustainable social change.

    Meet the authors: Anusha Wijeyakumar and Melanie Klein

    Anusha Wijeyakumar is the daughter of Sri Lankan immigrant parents. Being raised in the philosophy of Sanatana Dharma and a lifelong student of Hinduism and Buddhism, she has a vast knowledge in both. Anusha is also knowledgeable in the areas of meditation, pranayama, mantra, and the philosophy associated with yoga. Anusha is very passionate about honouring the roots of yoga and educating people on the importance of decolonizing these practices. Anusha is a sought after motivational speaker around the world on the science of mindfulness and meditation. Anusha is also the Wellness Consultant for Hoag Hospital in Orange County, CA where she is actively engaged on championing mindfulness and meditation practices for maternal mental health programs, early risk assessment for breast & ovarian cancer prevention programs and breast cancer survivorship programs. Anusha is one of the first people to create a meditation program to be used in clinical research at Hoag Hospital. Anusha has over 15 years of international senior management experience working for Fortune 50, 100, and 500 global corporations, charitable organizations & private companies in three continents. Womxn’s health and social justice is at the heart of all that Anusha is involved with. Anusha is on the Board of Directors for the non-profit MOMS Orange County and is very engaged in working with inner city communities to bring the power of yoga for a healthy mind, body and spirit into these localities to nurture and empower change from within. Anusha recently co-founded the movement Womxn of Color + Wellness @wocandwellness which is focused on decolonizing wellness and making yoga and wellness more equitable, accessible, diverse and inclusive. Anusha’s first book Meditation With Intention: Quick & Easy Ways to Create Lasting Peace will be released in January 2021 by Llewellyn Worldwide.

    Melanie Klein, M.A., is an empowerment coach, thought leader and influencer in the areas of body confidence, authentic empowerment, and visibility. She is also a successful writer, speaker, and professor of Sociology and Women’s Studies. Her areas of interest and specialty include media literacy education, body image, and the intersectional analysis of systems of power and privilege. She is the co-editor of Yoga and Body Image: 25 Personal Stories About Beauty, Bravery + Loving Your Body (Llewellyn, 2014) with Anna Guest-Jelley, a contributor in 21st Century Yoga: Culture, Politics and Practice (Horton & Harvey, 2012), is featured in Conversations with Modern Yogis (Shroff, 2014), a featured writer in Llewellyn’s Complete Book of Mindful Living (Llewellyn, 2016), co-editor of Yoga, the Body and Embodied Social Change: An Intersectional Feminist Analysis with Dr. Beth Berila and Dr. Chelsea Jackson Roberts (Rowman and Littlefield, 2016) as well as the editor of the new anthology, Yoga Rising: 30 Empowering Stories from Yoga Renegades for Every Body. She co-founded the Yoga and Body Image Coalition in 2014 and is the co-founder of The Joy Revolution. She has been practicing yoga and meditation since 1996 and currently lives in Santa Monica, CA.

    Connect: melaniecklein.comybicoalition.comyogaandbodyimage.orgyogarisingbook.com

    Photo by Anna Shvets from Pexels

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  • Intersectionality x Wellness: Personal Explorations on Power + Possibility

    Being an ally and accomplice to change begins with each individual person.

    We firmly believe that intersectionality and wellness are complementary spheres in healing as well as supportive partners for both individual transformation and collective liberation. Together, we can take accountability, see and hear one another in new ways, unify our efforts and create new possibilities and pathways forward.

    As we stated in our last article in this ongoing series, “Intersectionality is the path forward and the future of wellness so we can be more inclusive of all marginalized voices and experiences. Intersectionality allows us to examine the truth in a holistic way without giving in to denial, a distortion of reality, or leaning out of the conversation due to guilt or shame. Intersectionality, like our lived yoga practices, allows us to step out of perceived and socially constructed binaries and hold the full spectrum of experience, range of emotions and move into conscious action to create social change. This is yoga in action.”

    We also firmly believe that excavating and understanding our own experiences through this lens and sharing our stories of our awakening, healing, and evolution offers others the opportunity to do the same. Not only does this process offer a catalyst for ourselves by offering us to reclaim and proclaim our voices, but we also allow opportunities for others to connect from their hearts and create new bridges of understanding and, hopefully, sparks of inspiration, courage, and strength.

    With that intention, we humbly offer snippets of our personal stories and what intersectionality and wellness have offered us on our individual paths, and how these two spheres continue to offer inroads toward the horizon line.

    Melanie’s Story @melmelklein

    I’ve said it many times, and I’ll say it again, intersectional feminism helped me understand, deconstruct and reframe the world around me as a young woman. My yoga and embodiment practices allowed me to reframe my relationship with myself and how I interacted with and showed up in that world around me. To me, these two spheres overlapped organically, and both spokes originated from a hub centered on raising consciousness and taking action.

    As intersectional feminism espouses, feminism is not just about but for womxn in all their diversity. Feminism is a praxis. We do our feminism. We live our feminism. Similarly, as I fully immersed myself into my embodiment and mindfulness practices, it immediately became clear that this wasn’t about the time I spent on the mat or the cushion, but how I applied these teachings and practices to how I was living moment to moment.

    Together, feminism and yoga have utterly transformed and supported me over the last 27 years. They are the two primary variables responsible for my growth, empowerment, and sense of agency. While my personal understanding of the systems and structures of oppression, as well as my individual (and continued) liberation, is an important outcome of that equation, my ability to see my place in the world and in a larger spectrum of experience among womxn is even more important.

    While my experiences and challenges have been and are real… my experiences, my challenges, and my truth isn’t the only truth that exists. There’s a larger interwoven social fabric that exists composed of countless realities, narratives, struggles, and triumphs. Being introduced to intersectional feminism as a young woman versus being welcomed into a version of feminism that only centered my experiences as a cisgender white woman allowed me to heal and empower myself while offering me the opportunity to identify my position within a larger spectrum of power and privilege. This has been vital in my personal growth as well as my continued growth and evolution as an ally, advocate, and agent for social justice, equity, accessibility, and representation for everyone and every body.

    Too often, I’ve seen both feminism and wellness rejected because they have not represented or been accessible to various marginalized groups. And I’ve seen proponents of both feminism and wellness communities get in their feelings when critical questions have been raised and calls to action have been taken to change them. When we’re deeply committed to either, it behooves us to pause and listen deeply. It’s vital for us to truly reconnect to the core teachings of each practice/praxis and live from these truths.

    This is what feminism and yoga have offered me and what has fed and fueled my personal and professional work. My work, my commitment and who I am and how I show up continues to grow and evolve. Feminism and yoga continue to shore up the foundation for that growth, and I firmly believe in their ability to help co-create a world in which we connect heart-to-heart authentically and deeply without the spiritual bypassing and marginalization that is rampant as well as create deep, meaningful and sustainable social change. This is my hope and my offering.

    Anusha’s Story @shantiwithin

    You would never know the real meaning of yoga given the spiritual bypassing and co-opting of this ancient spiritual Indian practice in the west. Search #yoga on Instagram, and your feed will be filled with white, thin, heteronormative able-bodied women in scantily clad clothes focused on the acrobatics of yoga and an over sexualization of the practice. Let’s be clear, this is the antithesis of yoga. For myself, someone who was born and raised in the philosophy of yoga and Sanatana Dharma, more commonly known as Hinduism, it’s particularly jarring to see how far we have come from the true essence of the practice, which is unity and freedom from suffering for all.

    As the daughter of Sri Lankan Tamil immigrants, my ancestors had to resist 443 years of colonial rule in Sri Lanka under three different colonial powers to hold onto our indigenous faith. Their courage and resistance is something I never take for granted. However, having to now fight against the continued colonisation and commoditization of yoga in the west is deeply saddening and problematic.

    My faith is not here to be misappropriated and desecrated by the modern yoga practitioner. Let’s be aware that cultural appropriation is a form of racism. Unless BIWOC are represented in wellness, we will continue to have our voices silenced by the mainstream. Modern feminism and intersectionality must include BIWOC at more than just a surface level and must include greater representation of womxn of color in general of all races, abilities, classes, and sexual orientations. At school, we were never taught the brutal history of colonization or slavery. The constant whitewashing of history is a problem and must be dismantled. This is what allows racism and white supremacy to thrive and flourish. We can’t have unity without accountability and repair. A big part of this process is enabling BIPOC to write our own stories and rewrite the narrative with the truth. When a white man tops the 100 books on Hinduism, we have a problem.

    Real change is required to move beyond tokenism to sustainable activism, and representation is a pivotal part of this change. It is one reason why the word Feminist never resonated with me as I never saw myself or people who looked like me included in this framework. The whiteness of wellness must be unpacked so we can work towards creating a system where we can all be seen, heard, and well. There is nothing wrong with having privilege, it is what we do with our privilege that counts. The first step is acknowledging the privilege we have and then take steps in order to utilize this as agents of change in our communities and wider society. This is yoga in action.

    The toxic spiritual bypassing in Yoga is how we became anti-science but not anti-racist. Unity can only come through accountability and recognition of white supremacy by the majority i.e. white folks. White silence or gas lighting simply causes more harm. Denial and blame shifting is not a solution. We have seen far too much of this in the wellness space. Take this opportunity to take the onus and responsibility of dismantling this unjust system that you benefit from that has kept BlPOC oppressed and marginalised for centuries. This is the first step towards reconciliation. This is intersectionality in action and being an accomplice to change that is long overdue.

    Conclusion

    In conclusion, we want to invite you all to think about some ways in which you can create sustainable ways of impacting change in your communities by amplifying marginalized voices. Being an ally and accomplice to change begins with each individual person. A great first step in supporting the work of BIPOC and QTBIPOC is buying their books, signing up for their workshops and trainings. Platforming and profiling folks by sharing their work on your social media. Economic empowerment is a key aspect of intersectionality. For additional resources, please visit @wocandwellness and @ybicoalition on Instagram.

    NOTE: This post is part of a collaborative media series organized and curated by Omstars in collaboration with the Yoga & Body Image Coalition and WOC + Wellness intended as an honest, thoughtful, and holistic exploration of intersectionality, wellness, and sustainable action with the intention of creating sustainable social change.

    Meet the authors: Anusha Wijeyakumar and Melanie Klein

    Anusha Wijeyakumar is the daughter of Sri Lankan immigrant parents. Being raised in the philosophy of Sanatana Dharma and a lifelong student of Hinduism and Buddhism, she has a vast knowledge in both. Anusha is also knowledgeable in the areas of meditation, pranayama, mantra, and the philosophy associated with yoga. Anusha is very passionate about honouring the roots of yoga and educating people on the importance of decolonizing these practices. Anusha is a sought after motivational speaker around the world on the science of mindfulness and meditation. Anusha is also the Wellness Consultant for Hoag Hospital in Orange County, CA where she is actively engaged on championing mindfulness and meditation practices for maternal mental health programs, early risk assessment for breast & ovarian cancer prevention programs and breast cancer survivorship programs. Anusha is one of the first people to create a meditation program to be used in clinical research at Hoag Hospital. Anusha has over 15 years of international senior management experience working for Fortune 50, 100, and 500 global corporations, charitable organizations & private companies in three continents. Womxn’s health and social justice is at the heart of all that Anusha is involved with. Anusha is on the Board of Directors for the non-profit MOMS Orange County and is very engaged in working with inner city communities to bring the power of yoga for a healthy mind, body and spirit into these localities to nurture and empower change from within. Anusha recently co-founded the movement Womxn of Color + Wellness @wocandwellness which is focused on decolonizing wellness and making yoga and wellness more equitable, accessible, diverse and inclusive. Anusha’s first book Meditation With Intention: Quick & Easy Ways to Create Lasting Peace will be released in January 2021 by Llewellyn Worldwide.

    Melanie Klein, M.A., is an empowerment coach, thought leader and influencer in the areas of body confidence, authentic empowerment, and visibility. She is also a successful writer, speaker, and professor of Sociology and Women’s Studies. Her areas of interest and specialty include media literacy education, body image, and the intersectional analysis of systems of power and privilege. She is the co-editor of Yoga and Body Image: 25 Personal Stories About Beauty, Bravery + Loving Your Body (Llewellyn, 2014) with Anna Guest-Jelley, a contributor in 21st Century Yoga: Culture, Politics and Practice (Horton & Harvey, 2012), is featured in Conversations with Modern Yogis (Shroff, 2014), a featured writer in Llewellyn’s Complete Book of Mindful Living (Llewellyn, 2016), co-editor of Yoga, the Body and Embodied Social Change: An Intersectional Feminist Analysis with Dr. Beth Berila and Dr. Chelsea Jackson Roberts (Rowman and Littlefield, 2016) as well as the editor of the new anthology, Yoga Rising: 30 Empowering Stories from Yoga Renegades for Every Body. She co-founded the Yoga and Body Image Coalition in 2014 and is the co-founder of The Joy Revolution. She has been practicing yoga and meditation since 1996 and currently lives in Santa Monica, CA.

    Connect: melaniecklein.comybicoalition.comyogaandbodyimage.orgyogarisingbook.com

    Photo by Gemma Chua-Tran on Unsplash

  • Embracing Growth and Continuing to Commit to Body Acceptance

    Viktor Frankl once said what counts is not what lurks in the depths of challenge but how we face the future. Frankl’s words remind me that I don’t have to fix everything to embrace growth. My body doesn’t have to be perfected. In fact, in my experience, long-lasting personal growth flows from imperfection.

    I’ve spent decades working on my relationship with my body and cultivating body acceptance. For the last 5 months, I’ve been relearning important lessons about body acceptance. The call to continued growth, to re-engage with this work in progress, hit without warning yet profoundly revealed how resourcing myself and renegotiating the relationship with my body are crucial to my sense of well being. Up until now, I thought I lived these practices and beliefs from the core of my being. Yet nothing is ever fixed and a recent health issue jarred my reality, invited me to look a little deeper and make adjustments.

    As I’ve written about previously, I survived a devastating and near-fatal car accident when I was 19 years old. I was diagnosed with a spinal cord injury, and the experience completely altered my life path. Before the accident, I was a dancer/choreographer with dreams of dancing on Broadway. After the accident, it took a year and a half of intense physical therapy and deep soul searching to come back into my body and restart my life. By some miracle, I relearned to walk with the aid of below-the-knee plastic braces, but my journey back to self changed my life in incredible and surprising ways.

    For example, after years of disconnecting from my body after the accident, I discovered adaptive and accessible yoga and eventually became a 200-hour Registered Yoga Teacher (RYT), certified Accessible Yoga Teacher, Yoga For All Teacher and Opening Yoga Instructor from Mind Body Solutions. These experiences taught me how to listen to and live in my body in the present moment. They also led to my mission of teaching people to trust their body by tapping into and exploring their inner wisdom. But along this path, I mistakenly thought I made peace with my body and assumed there was little room for growth. I falsely assumed that relearning to walk would be the biggest challenge of my life. I was wrong.

    My lesson occurred when I awoke one day and couldn’t make a fist or bend my hands without intense pain. As a freelance writer and online English instructor, I was shocked when my hands became immobile. My arms, legs, and back were affected too. I couldn’t lift my arms past my shoulders without sharp shooting pains throughout my body. My legs felt like cement. I could barely walk without hunching over and holding onto walls for stability. My symptoms took a toll, mentally and physically. For months, I couldn’t sleep due to throbbing pain. When I finally went to several doctors, it was a puzzling, marginalizing process that took over 5 months of doctor visits, tests, X-rays, and uncertainty. I started to feel stuck because the senses and body parts I once relied on after my spine injury shifted. Old triggers and disempowered storylines from the past surfaced. I fell back into the assumption trap that I didn’t know how to adapt or adjust. There were moments when I felt traumatized for not knowing how to use my mindful practice to calm mind, body, and spirit. Then, my ego kicked in, and I started to stuff my feelings and suffer in silence.

    Normally, when physical challenges appear, I feel empowered and lean into the unknown. My car accident taught me to adapt no matter the circumstance. But this challenge felt different. I felt powerless and unsure of how to trust my body. It was as if I forgot all my mindfulness training and was back at square one. The body parts I once relied on wouldn’t function as they did before. I felt trapped. At first, I was afraid to say anything outside of close family and friends. I thought my challenges would disappear on their own. Of course, they didn’t.

    Usually, I’m very connected to my internal guide. As a mindfulness teacher and practitioner, my inner guide knows what I need mentally and physically. I’ve learned to trust that sense of inner knowing; it always leads me to the truth. But recently, it took many hours of renewed self-care, mantra and breathwork, and the conscious reprogramming of negative self-talk to get back there. And in truth, “getting there” is both familiar and brand new on my body acceptance journey.

    So far, doctors say I have severe carpal tunnel and arthritis, but they still don’t have the answers. Even though I’m still going through tests to uncover the root of this challenge, I’m feeling more at home in my body. Thankfully, I’m able to walk and move more easily. I know whatever lies ahead is doable if I continue to trust and accept my body no matter the challenge. My mindful practice looks different these days. I’m learning new ways to slow down and connect internally, and this gives me hope.

    In the meantime, what I’ve come to know for sure is that the rhythm of our bodies is unpredictable. No matter how alive we feel in our bodies, life can change, and we must learn to adapt. I’m also relearning that the beauty of mindful practice is that there is no end to this work. The time when we feel good in our bodies is not the time to look away. Our practice is ongoing. We need to stay consistent. Even in regards to politics, social justice, and mindful practices, growth stems from consistency. When we remain open, curious, and committed to learning, wholeness is achievable. Once again, acceptance is the most powerful step. I’m grateful for this lesson.

    Viktor Frankl once said what counts is not what lurks in the depths of challenge but how we face the future. Frankl’s words remind me that I don’t have to fix everything to embrace growth. My body doesn’t have to be perfected. In fact, in my experience, long-lasting personal growth flows from imperfection. Once we embody and embrace this truth on our own terms, nothing can stop us.

    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.

    By Mary Higgs

    Mary Higgs, MA, is a respected writer, online educator, speaker, mindfulness coach, and disability advocate. Developing a passion for mindfulness and becoming an Adaptive and Accessible Yoga Teacher transformed Mary’s life in unexpected ways. She loves sharing her message that transformation comes from within. She has published pieces in Yoga International, Devata Active, Yoga and Body Image Coalition, and Mind Body Solutions All-Humanity Newsletter. As a RYT, OYI, and certified Yoga for All and Accessible Yoga Teacher, Mary teaches people to explore and trust their inner wisdom, so they can live more authentically. Visit her online at YogiAble.com.

    Photo by Bart LaRue on Unsplash

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  • How I Called a Truce with My Body

    I learned to deeply listen to my body and honor and meet its needs. I experienced joy as I moved mindfully. I began to accept what was present in the moment over what I thought it “should” be. I created space for silence. I sat with discomfort. I prioritized what I was feeling versus what my body or my yoga practice looked like. I learned what it meant to practice moderation and forgiveness with myself. I called a truce with my body. I embodied gratitude.

    Perpetual fad dieting was modeled for me.

    Compulsively exercising to override shame and guilt was standard sport.

    Groaning over the body I had and yearning for the bodies in MTV videos was normalized.

    Comparing and competing with others was standard fare in my household and among my peers.

    Rapport talk deriding and degrading my body and scrutinizing the bodies of others was ordinary peer group binding, completely sanctioned and expected.

    Denying my body’s needs and prioritizing my intellect’s desires was part of my socialization process as I moved from adolescence to young adulthood. It set the tone, the template and the foundation for my relationship with my body, myself and the way I showed up in the world. I was relentless, merciless, and unforgiving with myself and my body.

    And, damn, it was a painful, abusive and limiting experience. It was my greatest obstacle to personal freedom and empowerment.

    Understanding and unlearning these taken-for-granted values, norms, and rituals of behavior through feminist theory, sociology and media literacy education opened my eyes to the systems of oppression at work… and how my experiences were part of a statistical pattern.

    I stopped obsessively reading nutrition labels and logging everything I ate in food journals. I began to read liberatory texts deconstructing and challenging diet culture, the fitness and fashion industries, patriarchy and white supremacy while calling out ageism, ableism, sizeism, homophobia, consumer culture and the ways in which bodies are sexualized, objectified and controlled. I began logging the thoughts, feelings and aspirations that I embodied but hadn’t identified or expressed beyond the plate and the treadmill.

    I stepped on to the yoga mat for the first time. I began to meditate. I learned to deeply listen to my body and honor and meet its needs. I experienced joy as I moved mindfully. I began to accept what was present in the moment over what I thought it “should” be. I created space for silence. I sat with discomfort. I prioritized what I was feeling versus what my body or my yoga practice looked like. I learned what it meant to practice moderation and forgiveness with myself. I called a truce with my body. I embodied gratitude.

    No two people share the same path to personal acceptance, freedom or peace. This just happens to be a window into how unraveling my upbringing and cultural conditioning began and propelled me into my life’s work. And while there may be some similarities and differences to the path another walks, I know one thing to be true in every single situation… something needs to shift, a person needs to try something new and different.

    I dare you to imagine something different for yourself and your body relationship. What would that look like? Feel like? Sound like?

    You have full permission to drop what isn’t working, what’s harming you and holding you back from stepping into the fullest version of yourself with apology or shame.

    What’s one thing you can do differently right now?

    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.

    By Melanie Klein

    Melanie C. Klein, M.A., is an empowerment coach, thought leader and influencer in the areas of body confidence, authentic empowerment, and visibility. She is also a successful writer, speaker, and professor of Sociology and Women’s Studies. Her areas of interest and specialty include media literacy education, body image, and the intersectional analysis of systems of power and privilege. She is the co-editor of Yoga and Body Image: 25 Personal Stories About Beauty, Bravery + Loving Your Body (Llewellyn, 2014) with Anna Guest-Jelley, a contributor in 21st Century Yoga: Culture, Politics and Practice (Horton & Harvey, 2012), is featured in Conversations with Modern Yogis (Shroff, 2014), a featured writer in Llewellyn’s Complete Book of Mindful Living (Llewellyn, 2016), co-editor of Yoga, the Body and Embodied Social Change: An Intersectional Feminist Analysis with Dr. Beth Berila and Dr. Chelsea Jackson Roberts (Rowman and Littlefield, 2016), Yoga Rising: 30 Empowering Stories from Yoga Renegades for Every Body (Llewellyn, 2018) and the co-editor of the new anthology, Embodied Resilience through Yoga (Llwelleyn, 2020). She co-founded the Yoga and Body Image Coalition in 2014 and lives in Santa Monica, CA.
    melaniecklein.com/
    Instagram: @melmelklein @ybicoalition

    Photo by Sarit Z. Rogers/

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  • Wellness and Intersectionality

    Intersectionality is the path forward and the future of wellness so we can be more inclusive of all marginalized voices and experiences. Intersectionality allows us to examine the truth in a holistic way without giving in to denial, a distortion of reality, or leaning out of the conversation due to guilt or shame.


    We are all one, yet we are not the same.

    We may be one in our shared humanity, but the details of that human experience are incredibly different, especially for BIWOC and QTBIPOC. We need to stop pretending that this isn’t true and overlooking the historical and contemporary evidence that indicates and affirms this truth.

    Let’s stop glossing over the distinct contributions and the unique issues and concerns facing the many members of our local and global society who face racism, sexism, gender bias, classism, homophobia, transphobia, and many other factors that continue to feed into oppression and inequality.

    This is the truth of our collective experiences and can be the source of our individual and collective strength. Once we do, we have the opportunity to commune, cultivate solidarity, consciously support one another authentically and with a sense of integrity, collectively heal, and use our position, influence, and voice to advocate and activate powerful change.

    Perhaps you have experienced challenges, obstacles, and systematic oppression yourself.

    This is real and it’s worthy of acknowledgment.

    But we want to offer you the gentle but firm nudge to look beyond your immediate experiences and see those around you. Acknowledge how you may share similar experiences while simultaneously differ in one or more ways.

    We want to encourage you all to hold the bigger picture in your hands and take action from that place. To do so, it’s important that you can acknowledge the ways you may experience one or more forms of privilege while experiencing one or more forms of oppression. We are not defined by our gender or race alone. We’re multidimensional beings and we occupy multiple what sociologists call “social locations.”

    Yet it’s common for people to overlook that and center or “foreground” the ways in which they may experience oppression while overlooking the various forms of privilege in their lives. Many white womxn during the 1960s and 1970s centered on the fact that they had experienced sexism and sexist oppression while ignoring or overlooking the ways in which they experienced white skin privilege. In this way, they centered or foregrounded their sex. At the same time, many black men centered or foregrounded the racism and racist oppression they’d experienced while not taking stock of their male privilege. Both the sexism and racism were real, yet so was the white skin and male privilege respectively.

    We may share a specific identity or social location with others, yet we also differ in our experiences, opportunities, and concerns. For example, not all womxn share a universal or monolithic experience with other womxn simply because they’re womxn living within a patriarchal or male-dominated system. Nor do all men share a one-dimensional experience with other men. It’s possible to experience sexism and benefit from racism. It’s possible to experience racism but experience heteronormative or class privilege. It’s possible to experience homophobia but benefit from sexism or ageism.

    We must consider the myriad ways we intersect, overlap, and diverge from one another. We must consider the various forms of privilege (or unseen and taken-for-granted) advantages we may have by virtue of the social locations we occupy. It’s important to acknowledge the well of resources we have access to based on our position within any social location. Do we occupy the dominant or subordinate category when it comes to sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, race, ethnicity, religion, age, size, class, and physical dis/ability?

    Just as important as it is to shine a light on the ways we’re oppressed or challenged, we must take stock of the ways in which we’re privileged and not assume others that share a social location with us have identical experiences, challenges, or needs.

    This is “intersectionality” as a concept and a practice.

    What is Intersectionality?

    Black feminists have been speaking to these varied and overlapping differences since the late 1960s. bell hooks has referred to it as the “matrix of domination” and Audre Lorde spoke to the concept of “the mythical norm.” The more commonly used term “intersectionality” was first coined by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw in 1989. She used this term as a metaphor to specifically explore the multiple forms of oppression experienced by black women given that most antiracist and traditional feminist ideas excluded them in positions of leadership and beyond.

    As Crenshaw explains, “Intersectionality was a prism to bring to light dynamics within discrimination law that weren’t being appreciated by the courts. In particular, courts seem to think that race discrimination was what happened to all black people across gender and sex discrimination was what happened to all women, and if that is your framework, of course, what happens to black women and other women of color is going to be difficult to see.”

    Wellness must also be explored through the lens of intersectionality to find ways of dismantling the multiple systems of oppression and supremacy that feed inequity in yoga and beyond.

    Intersectionality is a theoretical framework and mode of analysis and understanding that considers multiple social locations as factors in one’s experience of oppression and/or privilege. Rather than only considering one axis of analysis or one social location such as race or gender, an intersectional lens considers the relationship and intersection of multiple social locations in shaping our world view and our experiences.

    It also recognizes the fact that while people may share one social location, such as sexual orientation or age, there are variations within that experience based on additional factors.
    We must not try to diminish or ignore the power and truth in our differences.

    Our Yoga practice offers us the tools through Svadhyaya self-study one of the Niyamas our personal observances, second limb on Sage Patanjali’s eight-limbed path of Yoga along with Viveka discrimination or discernment to go deeper in unpacking our own biases so we can unlearn and relearn. We must utilize both of these in order to dismantle so much of the harmful spiritual bypassing, cultural appropriation, sexual objectification, ableism, sizeism, ageism, and commodification of yoga practice as well as the concept of the “yoga body” that has occurred in Yoga in the west.

    Intersectionality is the path forward and the future of wellness so we can be more inclusive of all marginalized voices and experiences. Intersectionality allows us to examine the truth in a holistic way without giving in to denial, a distortion of reality, or leaning out of the conversation due to guilt or shame. Intersectionality, like our lived yoga practices, allows us to step out of perceived and socially constructed binaries and hold the full spectrum of experience, range of emotions and move into conscious action to create social change. This is yoga in action.

    Meet the authors: Anusha Wijeyakumar and Melanie Klein

    Anusha Wijeyakumar is the daughter of Sri Lankan immigrant parents. Being raised in the philosophy of Sanatana Dharma and a lifelong student of Hinduism and Buddhism, she has a vast knowledge in both. Anusha is also knowledgeable in the areas of meditation, pranayama, mantra, and the philosophy associated with yoga. Anusha is very passionate about honouring the roots of yoga and educating people on the importance of decolonizing these practices. Anusha is a sought after motivational speaker around the world on the science of mindfulness and meditation. Anusha is also the Wellness Consultant for Hoag Hospital in Orange County, CA where she is actively engaged on championing mindfulness and meditation practices for maternal mental health programs, early risk assessment for breast & ovarian cancer prevention programs and breast cancer survivorship programs. Anusha is one of the first people to create a meditation program to be used in clinical research at Hoag Hospital. Anusha has over 15 years of international senior management experience working for Fortune 50, 100, and 500 global corporations, charitable organizations & private companies in three continents. Womxn’s health and social justice is at the heart of all that Anusha is involved with. Anusha is on the Board of Directors for the non-profit MOMS Orange County and is very engaged in working with inner city communities to bring the power of yoga for a healthy mind, body and spirit into these localities to nurture and empower change from within. Anusha recently co-founded the movement Womxn of Color + Wellness @wocandwellness which is focused on decolonizing wellness and making yoga and wellness more equitable, accessible, diverse and inclusive. Anusha’s first book Meditation With Intention: Quick & Easy Ways to Create Lasting Peace will be released in January 2021 by Llewellyn Worldwide.

    Melanie Klein, M.A., is an empowerment coach, thought leader and influencer in the areas of body confidence, authentic empowerment, and visibility. She is also a successful writer, speaker, and professor of Sociology and Women’s Studies. Her areas of interest and specialty include media literacy education, body image, and the intersectional analysis of systems of power and privilege. She is the co-editor of Yoga and Body Image: 25 Personal Stories About Beauty, Bravery + Loving Your Body (Llewellyn, 2014) with Anna Guest-Jelley, a contributor in 21st Century Yoga: Culture, Politics and Practice (Horton & Harvey, 2012), is featured in Conversations with Modern Yogis (Shroff, 2014), a featured writer in Llewellyn’s Complete Book of Mindful Living (Llewellyn, 2016), co-editor of Yoga, the Body and Embodied Social Change: An Intersectional Feminist Analysis with Dr. Beth Berila and Dr. Chelsea Jackson Roberts (Rowman and Littlefield, 2016) as well as the editor of the new anthology, Yoga Rising: 30 Empowering Stories from Yoga Renegades for Every Body. She co-founded the Yoga and Body Image Coalition in 2014 and is the co-founder of The Joy Revolution. She has been practicing yoga and meditation since 1996 and currently lives in Santa Monica, CA.

    Connect: melaniecklein.comybicoalition.comyogaandbodyimage.orgyogarisingbook.com

    NOTE: This post is part of a collaborative media series organized and curated by Omstars in collaboration with the Yoga & Body Image Coalition and WOC + Wellness intended as an honest, thoughtful and holistic exploration of intersectionality, wellness and sustainable action with the intention of creating sustainable social change.

  • Spanish Yoga Classes in L.A.

    For most us sharing our yoga practice with loved ones is a wonderful & beautiful bonding experience that is almost second to none. For some of us it’s a bit more complicated, although I share my experience with anyone who seems the slightest interested in it, it’s been hard to bring my Spanish speaking community around to a private practice, let alone to a studio class.

    As a Yoga Instructor in South Los Angeles which has one of the most, if not highest, percentage of Spanish speakers, it has been surprising how difficult it is to find an all-Spanish yoga class. For the past 5 years I have been offering restorative and beginners’ classes in English and Spanish. While 90% of my classes were filled with English speakers, I found out that the majority of the students that only spoke Spanish were also there experiencing their 1st yoga class.

    These Spanish speaking yogis were usually over the age of 30 and were being brought in by their children who were mostly college students.  Often times when talking to them after class and asking if the practice was what they were expecting, I found myself having the same conversation, how this one 75 min practice was not at all what they were expecting. Besides the obvious comfort of taking a class in Spanish, these yogis always tell me how they experienced the ‘delicious’ slowing down of their thoughts and ‘real’ rest of their bodies.

    As a Mexican immigrant living in South L.A. I’ve lived this experience. I’m grateful and fortunate for being able to practice all over Los Angeles and the world. This practice is still a novelty with Spanish speakers in L.A. and is seen as something that is only done by the type of people you typically see on magazines, however those that do make this a consistent practice realize that all you have to do is show up to feel and see the benefits of Yoga.

    In Los Angeles the economic gap that you see between the South and the West side is something that I don’t know will ever be closed, but nothing compares to the grounding and humbling feeling of walking into a yoga studio where lululemon is not the status quo. What I do know is that all these Spanish speaking yogis feel empowered and included by this practice because they see all the different skin colors, body types & their neighbors engaging in a communal winding down of mind and body.

    Holding space for each other in a such a diverse Spanish speaking city, can be a challenge. Mexicans, central and south American people are themselves culturally diverse, and have their own indigenous practices that mirror Yoga. Most times these are lost in the unintended assimilations to life in the United States. I have had lengthy conversations over the similarities in these practices, and how Yoga has helped us decolonize our bodies and strengthened our connection to these indigenous practices that were lost and mostly destroyed by colonizers. For me, sharing space to heal through this practice and tuning in to the calls of our ancestors makes holding all Spanish classes unmeasurably valuable and necessary.

    The Synergy and embodiment of yoga is fully expressed, felt, and needed in these all-Spanish Yoga classes.

    By Rita Ortiz

    Rita Ortiz is a Mexican – American, Mother, Wife, Army service woman, and 200 hour certified Hatha Yoga Teacher. She has been teaching at The Tree, an all donation based Yoga Studio, in her sometimes rough and misunderstood hometown of South LA for the past 5 years. A full time Fashion Technical Designer her focus has changed from creating garments to creating a space for this practice where she can offer her community rest and peace by becoming an owner in a Yoga Cooperative that will offer yoga and wellness-equity to her community.

    NOTE: This post is part of a collaborative media series organized and curated by Omstars in collaboration with the Yoga & Body Image Coalition and WOC + Wellness intended as an honest, thoughtful and holistic exploration of intersectionality, wellness and sustainable action with the intention of creating sustainable social change.

  • Let’s Talk About Intersectionality + Wellness: Moving from Allyship to Sustainable Activism

    “Beloved community is formed not by the eradication of difference but by its affirmation, by each of us claiming the identities and cultural legacies that shape who we are and how we live in the world.” – bell hooks

    If systemic oppression is intersectional then wellness should be too. Meet Melanie Klein @melmelklein Co-Founder of the Yoga and Body Image Coalition @ybicoalition and Anusha Wijeyakumar @shantiwithin Co-Creator of Womxn of Color + Wellness @wocandwellness who will be taking you through a series devoted to how we can apply an intersectional lens to our understanding and experience of the world and, more importantly, move into sacred and conscious action.

    The true change happens when we move beyond empty allyship to sustainable activism.

    Through this blog and chat series, we intend to hold space for this deep work with compassion, support and a commitment to community solidarity and uplift. Our aim is to create a thoughtful, nuanced and well – rounded series that will offer insight, guidance and tools to mindfully and effectively navigate the inner and outer work.

    Consider this a kind of community re- education, a journey of self-discovery and community building.

    We invite you to join us on this journey to transform your yoga practice from the inside out….and compel you into meaningful, authentic and sustainable action. We are certainly not claiming to have all of the answers but want to share our own personal perspectives, expertise and accumulated knowledge that we hope can start to ignite wider conversation around these important issues.

    Our goal is to build an inclusive community for dialogue, introspection and direct action. Together we can make a difference and focus on sustainable ways to create change on and off our mats, change that happens within our own hearts and minds as well as the collective.

    Open your heart and listen with discernment, deeply deeply listen.

    Breathe and pause when you’re pushed out of your comfort zone.

    Reflect before you challenge (or discount) the information presented or question anyone else’s experiences or comments.

    Check in with your intention to share before posting your comments, stories and experiences.

    Recognize the humanity and value in everyone.

    Continue to cultivate mindfulness on and off the mat or cushion.

    Allow your practice and this conversation to grow your heart and move you into action.

    Show up and do the work. Over and over. Over and over again.

    Real inclusivity and movement building means willingness to have difficult conversations and hold each other in a space of vulnerability, tolerance and kindness.

    Are you ready?

    Meet the authors: Anusha Wijeyakumar and Melanie Klein

    Anusha Wijeyakumar is the daughter of Sri Lankan immigrant parents. Being raised in the philosophy of Sanatana Dharma and a lifelong student of Hinduism and Buddhism, she has a vast knowledge in both. Anusha is also knowledgeable in the areas of meditation, pranayama, mantra, and the philosophy associated with yoga. Anusha is very passionate about honouring the roots of yoga and educating people on the importance of decolonizing these practices. Anusha is a sought after motivational speaker around the world on the science of mindfulness and meditation. Anusha is also the Wellness Consultant for Hoag Hospital in Orange County, CA where she is actively engaged on championing mindfulness and meditation practices for maternal mental health programs, early risk assessment for breast & ovarian cancer prevention programs and breast cancer survivorship programs. Anusha is one of the first people to create a meditation program to be used in clinical research at Hoag Hospital. Anusha has over 15 years of international senior management experience working for Fortune 50, 100, and 500 global corporations, charitable organizations & private companies in three continents. Womxn’s health and social justice is at the heart of all that Anusha is involved with. Anusha is on the Board of Directors for the non-profit MOMS Orange County and is very engaged in working with inner city communities to bring the power of yoga for a healthy mind, body and spirit into these localities to nurture and empower change from within. Anusha recently co-founded the movement Womxn of Color + Wellness @wocandwellness which is focused on decolonizing wellness and making yoga and wellness more equitable, accessible, diverse and inclusive. Anusha’s first book Meditation With Intention: Quick & Easy Ways to Create Lasting Peace will be released in January 2021 by Llewellyn Worldwide.

    Melanie Klein, M.A., is an empowerment coach, thought leader and influencer in the areas of body confidence, authentic empowerment, and visibility. She is also a successful writer, speaker, and professor of Sociology and Women’s Studies. Her areas of interest and specialty include media literacy education, body image, and the intersectional analysis of systems of power and privilege. She is the co-editor of Yoga and Body Image: 25 Personal Stories About Beauty, Bravery + Loving Your Body (Llewellyn, 2014) with Anna Guest-Jelley, a contributor in 21st Century Yoga: Culture, Politics and Practice (Horton & Harvey, 2012), is featured in Conversations with Modern Yogis (Shroff, 2014), a featured writer in Llewellyn’s Complete Book of Mindful Living (Llewellyn, 2016), co-editor of Yoga, the Body and Embodied Social Change: An Intersectional Feminist Analysis with Dr. Beth Berila and Dr. Chelsea Jackson Roberts (Rowman and Littlefield, 2016) as well as the editor of the new anthology, Yoga Rising: 30 Empowering Stories from Yoga Renegades for Every Body. She co-founded the Yoga and Body Image Coalition in 2014 and is the co-founder of The Joy Revolution. She has been practicing yoga and meditation since 1996 and currently lives in Santa Monica, CA.

    Connect: melaniecklein.comybicoalition.comyogaandbodyimage.orgyogarisingbook.com

    NOTE: This post is part of a collaborative media series organized and curated by Omstars in collaboration with the Yoga & Body Image Coalition and WOC + Wellness intended as an honest, thoughtful and holistic exploration of intersectionality, wellness and sustainable action with the intention of creating sustainable social change.

    Blog Header Photo by Anna Shvets from Pexels

  • Yin Yoga: Who Needs It?

    A flow class will get your juices flowing, a restorative class will bring you to a state of deep relaxation, and a yin class will make you ache. Fun, right?  Yin and Yang are two parts of a beautiful whole but most of us are robbing ourselves of half of the gifts that yoga has to offer. I am a huge fan of Yin yoga and want to share it with as many students as I can, and even better, train more teachers to teach it. But I didn’t always love it. In fact, for a time, I really hated it.

    Perhaps you’re indifferent, skeptical, or have convinced yourself that you don’t need or like Yin yoga. I hope that the seeds I plant here might get you to consider working Yin yoga into your regular practice for a month or two to see if you start to feel like you’ve tapped into something really big and incredibly healing. Maybe you’ll even decide to train to teach Yin yoga to others.

    My Yin Yoga Journey

    My first introduction to Yin was in what was supposed to be a restorative class with a beloved teacher in my early yoga days. We always ended with a long restorative pose or supported savasana, but the rest of the class was a pretty intense Yin practice, and that’s exactly the way I liked it.  This practice, and this teacher, saw me through an auto-immune disease diagnosis, a cancer diagnosis, and treatment. After surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy for breast cancer, my body was wrecked. That’s the point, right? Chemotherapy lays to waste everything from the inside out. It’s a rough journey. An incredibly painful one. But it was worth it, because here I am, nine years later. I practiced yoga as I could during treatment, but the cumulative effect was harsh, and my physical recuperation took more than a year after treatment ended. During that time, I leaned into Yin yoga a lot. Naturally flexible, it had always been a go-to for me, and some days I just couldn’t muster the strength it took to take even a heavily modified flow class. I understood that my muscles weakened during treatment, so the many months it took to even attempt a modified chaturanga were not in the least bit frustrating.

    I knew I had to rebuild strength, so I just kept at it as energy allowed.  But I didn’t understand the effect of chemotherapy on my joints and connective tissue. No one talked about that. Not my doctors, not my yoga teacher, not my acupuncturist. It seems obvious now, but really, how much do we pay attention to the strength and vitality of our joint tissue? Injured athletes pay attention. Pregnant women pay attention, for a time. Those with RA and other joint-related chronic illness pay attention. The newer trends of functional mobility exercise pay attention now. But nine years ago? Not so much. So what happened to turn me from love to hate to love again in my yin yoga practice? During my cancer treatment recovery, I went way beyond the limits of my joints in deep, long-held pigeon poses, twists, folds, backbends, and hamstring stretches that were even more accessible to me with weakened, thinned joint tissue throughout my whole body. Most painfully, I damaged my SI joint and herniated a disc which sent ripples through my torso and legs and debilitated me just as I was starting to notice more strength overall. It was a physically painful and emotional setback that took months to recover from. Fast forward through three years of an increasingly strong vinyasa flow practice and I found myself in yoga teacher training. I couldn’t get enough yoga. The anatomy, the philosophy, the practice. It was a magical time. Until we got to Yin yoga week.

    One of my teachers seemed surprised and shocked to see me raise my hand in the “hate Yin yoga” camp. I assume it was because I was naturally flexible and seemed to find the poses relatively easy, but I’m not sure. I never asked him why. I did give him my reasons, though: debilitating injury not completely healed and fear of making it worse. His answer to this shocked me. Yes, he said, these are injuries that you will have the rest of your life. What?! I have a defiantly independent feminist streak in me and although I didn’t say it out loud at the time all I could think was NO, I don’t accept that. This person is not going to tell me that I’m broken. Of course, we’re all broken in some ways, but that wasn’t the point. The point, at the time, was that I knew that there must be more resources out there and it was time for me to do some deeper healing. So I asked around to other yoga teachers and physical therapists and found ways to strengthen around the damaged, weakened connective tissue to find a better balance of strength. Those spots are still vulnerable, of course. But nothing like what they were, even at the height of my strength in athletic style yoga practice. With years of both Yin and Yang practice since that time, I have found ways to work with chronic illness and injury along with a desire and need for strength and athletic conditioning.

    The Physical Practice

    Yin yoga is a complementary practice to the more active and athletic Yang style yoga (Iyengar, Ashtanga, Power yoga, Vinyasa, Hatha). In Yang styles, we focus on contraction of muscles to stimulate, strengthen, and stretch. In Yin yoga, we focus on the dense connective tissues around and within muscles and joints to stretch and strengthen. Our objective in a Yin practice is to stimulate, strengthen and revive tissues that are less emphasized in the active styles of yoga. We move the body into a Yin yoga pose where we stay, passively, while feeling a moderate sensation. We relax and find relative stillness, holding the position for 3 to 10 minutes.  We stimulate dense connective tissue (bones, cartilage, fascia, tendons, ligaments, blood, fat, lymph) to promote its strength and vitality and to hydrate and revive it.

    Those knots in your neck and shoulders aren’t just muscle, but contracted fascia. Likewise with those “tight” and shortened hamstrings: you can try to lengthen the muscle all you want, but if the fascia is contracted and dehydrated, you will return to the same, shortened resting length over and over again.  You get to choose how deeply you go into a yin yoga pose, just as you choose to use 50%, 80%, 100% of your strength and concentration in a power flow class. But in Yin yoga, we slow it way down and keep reminding ourselves to go for the moderate sensation, not beyond. Holding a 10 minute pigeon is no joke, and if you start way beyond your edge, you’ll injure yourself quickly. If you stick with the moderate ache, you will see over time that the range of mobility changes. And even after one class of moderate aching, you will feel freer, lighter, clearer energetically almost immediately.

    Subtle Body Effects

    If connective tissue is, as many energy workers suggest, the biological substratum through which energy flows and communicates within the body, a Yin yoga practice that focuses on the connective tissue promotes energetic circulation and flow. As yogis, we often experience emotional release in our practice. We understand through experience that with or without scientific research, our tissues hold unprocessed emotion. Movement in and out of poses in an active practice as well as long holds using compression, tension, and stretching in a still,

    Yin yoga practice unlock pathways for our emotions to emerge and release. Consider also the mental aspect of your yoga practice. In an active practice, we are asked to concentrate and focus on our breath while tuning into physical sensation. We’re often reminded that yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind, and too often, that translates in practice to controlling the mind. In a Yin practice, we are asked to be receptive, to increase our capacity for receptivity, to allow for what is, and to cultivate inaction.

    Isn’t Yin Yoga Worth A Try?

    Fluidity in movement, better coordination, stronger joints, body awareness, less injury, emotional release, mental receptivity and clarity. Aren’t each of these benefits of Yin yoga worth an investment of your time? As my personal practice and teaching continues through the years, awareness of Yin and Yang imbalance has become my focus when deciding how to practice each day. Some days I need a strong sweat and strengthening, some days I need release and stillness, and some days I need both. I’m guessing you are the same, so I invite you to build Yin yoga practice into your regular weekly schedule and tap into this powerful other half of yoga.

    By Jennifer Winther

    Jennifer Winther. LA based Yoga Teacher Trainer. Retreat leader. PhD. Writer. Traveler. Camper. Hiker. Walker. Cyclist. Meditator. Breast cancer survivor. Motherless mother. Karateka. Libra. Art Lover. Creative dabbler. Bi-racial hapa. Scout leader. Community builder. Novice chef. Advocate. Ally. Community member YBIC. Badass ninja mom.  @JenniferWintherYoga

    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.

  • For Yogis with Chronic Illness or Cancer

    In the spring of 2011 I was diagnosed with Breast Cancer. I was really lucky. Not only did I catch an aggressive form of cancer just before it started to spread, I also had a supportive yoga teacher and community already in place.

    My world came to a standstill when I learned the diagnosis. Actually, a tailspin is more like it. Whatever my everyday life was, that disappeared. What I experienced was constant and intense fear and anxiety at the deepest levels, fueled in part by the trauma of losing my own mother to cancer when she was my age and I was only 11 years old. I remember telling a friend that I should never have had children because now they will lose their mother just like I did. I had spent the last 30 years with “40 = cancer = death” etched in my heart and soul, and then there I was.

    Over the year and a half preceding my diagnosis, I had been practicing regularly with a very special teacher. When we met, I had recently been diagnosed with Hashimoto’s disease (an autoimmune disease that was knocking out my thyroid) and this teacher seemed to know exactly what I needed to hear. Sprinkled into her delightfully sweaty and athletic yoga sequences were words that sparked my curiosity and touched my heart. Her yin and restorative classes reset every part of me like nothing I had ever experienced. After classes, she would often sit with me and go a little deeper into chakras, koshas, and ayurvedic elements. With her guidance, I became much more in tune with my own, inner resources and healing power, and more importantly, I became willing to face what needed to be healed inside me.

    When the cancer diagnosis came crashing down, my teacher was determined to get me as strong as possible before the long months of surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy started. During treatment and after, this teacher cared for me in the best ways she knew. Some things were just right, but we made a few mistakes, too. Now a full-time yoga teacher and teacher trainer myself, I’m honored to guide others living with chronic illness or going through cancer treatment drawing on both advanced training and years of personal experience. While chronic illness and cancer treatment are different conditions, many of the same guidelines of practice apply.

    In my own journey through chronic illness and cancer, my yoga community has been an important anchor in my life. Not only has my yoga practice connected me to generous and supportive people, it has taught me more about illness and healing from the inside out.

    My yoga practice continues to change year to year, month to month, and day to day and I encourage you to let yours evolve and change, too. We all age differently, and with chronic illness or a cancer diagnosis, our bodies may seem a lot older than they are. That can be frustrating, but yoga teaches us to respect our bodies, love them, and do no harm. Even at your fittest, there is never a need to compete for the fanciest pose or the deepest stretch. We work with what we have and start where we are, each time we practice. Chronic illness and cancer survivorship continue to teach me to turn away from self-criticism for what I can’t do and in favor of the powerful healing that my body is guiding me toward.

    Honor your energy level each time you choose to practice

    Practicing with an experienced and knowledgeable teacher is always recommended, and if you find the right one, s/he/they will be guiding you always to learn to hear your own inner teacher. Remember that if you are going through chemotherapy, your joint tissue as well as your muscles are affected, and you may be hypermobile in your joints similar to women who are pregnant. Going too far in stretches when the joint tissue is very weak is strongly discouraged.

    With a teacher or on your own, use these energetic, moderate, and gentle movements as an opportunity to notice the before and after, the shift in your energy physically, mentally, and emotionally. Choose just one at a time or string them together to suit your needs.

    Yoga for Fatigue:

    Studies show that even just a little bit of mindful movement can help energize us. Less minutes more times per week have a greater effect in blasting fatigue, so it’s important to change it up during the week if you get easily bored with repetition. And remember, a little inversion goes a long way!

    • Energetic: Sun Salutations (modify as you like; as few as five can do the trick! And a mala of 108 is almost sure to get you out of any funk you can create)
    • Moderate: Seated or standing forward fold to open the energy channels on the back of the body followed by a seated twist (if you like, go for double pigeon with a folding prayer twist to rest your elbow in the arch of your top foot).
    • Gentle: Viparita Karani (legs up the wall, props or no props) for 15 minutes

    Yoga to Reduce Inflammation:

    Stretching helps stimulate the healing process to combat inflammation, so get into those joints as much as you can tolerate. Chair stretches work just as well as more athletic versions of poses if what you’re going for is stimulating joint tissue and stretching, so use all the props that you need.

    • Energetic: Sanding forward fold followed by downward facing dog. Take your time in these poses to lengthen, strengthen, and release where you can. Next: camel pose, flow into it if you need to then hold or do a few rounds, always keeping your lower spine long, your breath expansive, and your shoulders drawn away from your ears. Take a childs pose to reset.
    • Moderate: Lizard pose variations to target the stretched hip flexor (stretch the back toes back and keep the spine upright and lifting with props under hands), the compressed hip flexor (get low and sink into it a bit), the inner thigh (open it up) and the spine (one hand down, open it up into a twist)
    • Gentle: Supported reclined bound angle pose for 15 minutes

    Yoga to Stimulate the Lymphatic System:

    Lymph does not flow automatically like blood does but we need it to move those white blood cells around to help the body get rid of toxins and waste. Yoga poses and sequences that stretch and compress major clusters of lymph nodes (leg-hip joint; armpits; cervical spine) do just that.

    • Energetic: shift between low lunges with one knee down to half splits; move with each breath or hold each for a few breaths, alternating between the two poses for up to 5 sets of 5 on each side. Let the arms rise with each lunge and the spine lengthen in each half splits. On the last lunge of each set, interlace your hands behind your lower back and pause, breathing deeply with a long spine and strong core for 5 breaths before resting between sets. Follow this sequence with neck stretches, neck rolls, or a neck massage.
    • Moderate: self-healing Qigong tapping is a fantastic complement to a regular yoga practice.
    • Gentle: Supported child’s pose for 15 minutes (use all the bolsters, blocks, and blankets that you like)

    Nervous system:

    For cancer survivors, regular monitoring appointments can bring on mild to severe anxiety. We’ve lived through watershed moments when our mortality is brought right in front of our eyes and when our lives change in an instant. Healing from trauma over time includes regular testing that can trigger fears of death and anxiety. Many who suffer from chronic illness or past trauma experience anxiety and other conditions that compound any physical symptoms. When repeated stress becomes chronic, our sympathetic nervous system stays on and floods the body with hormones that overtax just about every other system. Shifting into the restful parasympathetic nervous system is an essential part of our healing and rejuvenation.

    • Energetic: Goddess pose squats with big arm movements to breathe and move the spine in all directions (lateral side stretches with one arm up and over the head followed by arms opening to the side on the inhale and forward on the exhale with flexion and extension of the spine). Follow a few sets of these big breaths with a standing straddle fold hold (but this whole sequence can be done in a seated straddle, too). If you enjoy the pose, try a reclined virasana before spending 10 minutes in savasana.
    • Moderate: flowing bridge pose up and down a few times before holding (supported on a block is OK, too), followed by supine twists and savasana
    • Gentle: Supported savasana with a bolster along the spine and two bolsters under the knees for at least 15 minutes

    However you decide to practice on any given day, let the principle of ahimsa, doing no harm, guide you. Listen to the cues in your body that ask for a little more or a little less. Whether you’re living with chronic illness, cancer treatment, or survivorship, your body, heart, and spirit are asking for you to care.

    Reach out for help when you need it. Advocate for yourself. Stay open to new knowledge from the outside and from within. Learn to respect the way that your body is trying to guide you and give yourself a yoga break to rejuvenate and reset whenever you can.

    By Jennifer Winther

    Jennifer Winther. LA based Yoga Teacher Trainer. Retreat leader. PhD. Writer. Traveler. Camper. Hiker. Walker. Cyclist. Meditator. Breast cancer survivor. Motherless mother. Karateka. Libra. Art Lover. Creative dabbler. Bi-racial hapa. Scout leader. Community builder. Novice chef. Advocate. Ally. Community member YBIC. Badass ninja mom.  @JenniferWintherYoga

    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.

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  • It’s Time to Make Peace with Your Hormones

    PMS making you crazy? Hot flashes? Anxiety? As women, our amazing and beautiful bodies take us on rides that sometimes feel empowering and strong, and sometimes like an out-of-control circus ride.

    Since our pre-teen years, we’ve heard, read, and used “Hormones” with a capital H as an excuse for erratic behavior, poor decision-making, physical “imperfections” and generally anything that we’ve done that we don’t want to take responsibility for.  OK, maybe it’s not quite that bad, but let’s be honest: do you love and respect, or loathe and despair over your hormones and the waves they bring?

    Straight up: Hormones are our internal chemical messengers that keep our bodies moving. More than 200 hormones have been identified in the human body that include testosterone, progesterone, estrogen, adrenaline, insulin, and cortisol. We need to start recognizing all of the ways that they work FOR us in addition to the not-so-fun ways.

    Feeling hungry? Your hormones are working.

    Feeling sleepy? Hormones.

    Feeling scared? Hormones.

    Growth spurt in your youth? Hormones.

    Runner’s high? Hormones.

    Pregnancy glow? Hormones.

    Why do guys put on muscle more easily or lose weight more quickly? Hormones.

    Your Hormones are working for you. We all know the prescriptions for increasing those lovely, happy hormones: intense exercise, hugging, laughing, aromatherapy, sunshine, sex, eating spicy foods. Yes. They all work. We know what they feel like when they kick in, and we pretty easily surrender to the wave of positive hormones to ride it as long as we can. We like feeling good, right?

    How does that differ from the way we meet the less-delightful waves of hormones? The spikes and dives? What if we could find a way to meet “negative” hormonal imbalance with just enough surrender to stop fighting and allow ourselves to feel our way to the shortest path back to balance?

    The beautiful martial art of Aikido illustrates how I’m trying to approach my own hormonal waves, whether they’re going up or down. See what you think: Aikido is a practice that always involves two people. Any strike from one person aims to put the opponent off balance without harming too much. A controlled attack is met with calmness and flexibility as the receiver seeks to regain balance and cover vulnerabilities. The attacks keep coming, and in advanced training, they are met with reversal techniques.

    There is a true engagement between opponents to understand the energy and movement of what is coming and going, what is off-balance, what is vulnerable, where there is strength, movement, or potential, and how to feel and respond to an energetic path to find balance.

    What do you think? Could you imagine yourself meeting the lows or spikes of hormone waves calmly? With curiosity and flexibility? Even compassion? Could you approach a spike of anxiety, hot flashes, or a week of PMS with an intention to see your vulnerabilities, strengths, and potential to find balance?

    What Aikido suggests to us is that we can work with the movement and energy of hormonal waves just as we would an opponent that we respect and are willing to engage. If we are willing to give ourselves a pause before the fight begins, we could tune into the energy and movement of our hormonal waves and meet them with calmness and flexibility to regain (an always changing) balance.

    If you’re like me, your relationship to hormonal waves on the inside has produced the outward expressions of fight, flee, freeze, ignore, make excuses or blame, accuse, or lash out. Wouldn’t it feel terrific to make friends with our hormones instead?

    At Home and In Public

    Hormonal shifts don’t just happen when we’re off the job, relaxing at home, or in any of those “free time” moments. Take a moment to think about how you have approached these hormonal imbalances when they rear their ugly heads:

    • PMS
    • Irregular periods
    • Low libido
    • Unexplained weight loss or gain
    • Hair loss
    • Digestive issues
    • Chronic acne
    • Insomnia
    • Fatigue
    • Depression
    • Anxiety
    • Mood swings

    Do you handle them differently when you’re at work, at school, getting ready for a public talk, going out to meet friends, or waking up on a weekend? Thinking about how we respond to inevitable waves of hormones in different situations gives us clues to start to realign our relationship with them.

    Six easy strategies to get to know your hormones

    Self-monitor

    For a week at a time, keep a journal or scribble on post-its, it doesn’t matter, just write it down. How do you feel physically when you wake? Emotionally? Are you motivated? Bloated? Anxious? Energetic? How about mid-morning? Before/after lunch? However many times during the day it’s helpful for you, jot down how you feel physically, emotionally, mentally. Tune in. Use a 1-10 scale or just jot down words. Whatever works for you is right. Commit to a week and go longer if you can. Look for patterns.

    Keep a monthly cycle journal

    PMS symptoms, moods, physical changes, all of it. Start to notice patterns. Make sure to give yourself some mood-boosting music, movement, creativity, stimulation when you know you’re going to need it.

    Elimination approach to healing your gut

    Your gut health is tied to your mental and emotional health. To better manage the ups and downs, cut out or reduce caffeine, alcohol, sugar, and salt. Yeah, this is tough, but even a small change can have a big effect. Do this with loads of self-compassion to see if a little less sugar at different times in your monthly cycle or before/after deadlines really can make a difference. No need to go overboard here, you’re trying to understand an intricately interwoven puzzle, so don’t forget to love yourself while you learn. Probiotics are a great first step, too, but remember that one size does not fit all and you may need to try a few before you find one that is right for you.

    Start an exercise habit

    Do what you like, not what you hate. Do something that doesn’t cost money. Schedule it three times a week or more in times that will actually work for you. Prioritize enjoyment and starting a habit over weight loss or gain. Your lymphatic system (immune system) needs movement to function (yoga is awesome for this, as are many forms of martial arts).

    Words to live by

    A daily mantra can work wonders. Or a habit-busting mantra. Or a PMS/hot-flash mantra. Or a theme for your week/end. Remember that your body, heart, and mind hear everything you say to yourself, so give yourself some verbal cues (silent if you want to) that make you THRIVE.

    Opt outside

    Nature heals and brings us back into balance. Get some sunshine. Move a bit. On your own or with a friend. Walking meditation, triathlon training, cliff hiking, or park bench meditation. Go get your dose of Vitamin D and fresh air. It may not erase every problem or ailment, but it helps. It really does. And it’s free.

    Feather your nest

    Make your bed the most soothing, relaxing, delightfully restful place in your world. Look forward to rejuvenating yourself for at least 8 hours (or more) every night. Your time resting is your body’s time to restore by aligning hormones. Make this your top priority.

    Stronger together

    Painful menstrual cramps, anxiety, fatigue, and any other hormonal imbalances draw us into ourselves because we experience them physically, emotionally, and mentally in our own bodies. But they needn’t trigger a response that isolates us from the support that we need and deserve.

    ALL women experience natural waves of hormonal shifts that whack our systems out of balance even if we don’t suffer from depression, chronic acne, or live through pregnancy and postpartum hormonal swings.

    Periods, perimenopause, and menopause. These are the big three hormone-driven changes that we all experience as women. And they are no joke. And for more than most realize, thyroid imbalance and autoimmune disease often get confused with perimenopause in women over 50.

    Whether you’ve lived through pregnancy or periods, you’ve felt the very real power of hormones affecting your mood, your digestive system, your breasts, and your weight. And more likely than not, you’ve suffered alone more than you’ve been supported. Asking for support can be hard, but like most things, it just takes practice.

    Here are ways that you can start to get support by giving it:

    Get a period friend

    That monthly cycle journal you’re starting? Get a friend to start one too. Compare notes, share stories and strategies. Promise each other to give up sugar/caffeine/salt/alcohol together for however many days will get BOTH of you through your PMS/bleeding cycles. Finding individual hormonal balancing strategies will take some trial and error for each of you but you don’t have to do it alone!

    Reject the comparison game. Together.

    This is a big one. And so powerful. Make a pact with a friend to stop the comparison madness. This means ditching the commentary about other’s bodies. It means encouraging each other to go gray and age naturally. It means taking the competition out of physical activity and the idea that one diet fits all. It means rejecting any “going back to my pre-pregnancy body” or “anti-aging” anything. Why? Because the work we have to do is on the inside of our own bodies at whatever stage of life we are in, whatever the hour of the day, time of month, or hormonal wave we are riding in the moment. Hold each other to higher standards that reflect the awe and respect that you have for your amazing bodies exactly as they are each day without looking forward, back, or to the sides.

    Normalize Women’s hormonal health and life stages

    Educate yourself and talk with your friends about women’s hormonal health. Learn together about how powerful older women are, and what their hormonal challenges are. Contribute, if you can, to campaigns that work to bring menstrual hygiene supplies to those who can’t afford them.

    Be the auntie that splurges on expensive period panties for her nieces. Fight alongside women in your workplace for breast-feeding rooms, maternity leave, paid mental health leave, and flexible schedules.

    It’s time to make peace with our hormones. They’re not going anywhere. Our relationships, workplaces, and personal health depend on how well we can manage the waves that will keep coming. Give yourself time, set your priorities, and team up for better hormonal health.

    By Jennifer Winther

    Jennifer Winther. LA based Yoga Teacher Trainer. Retreat leader. PhD. Writer. Traveler. Camper. Hiker. Walker. Cyclist. Meditator. Breast cancer survivor. Motherless mother. Karateka. Libra. Art Lover. Creative dabbler. Bi-racial hapa. Scout leader. Community builder. Novice chef. Advocate. Ally. Community member YBIC. Badass ninja mom.  @JenniferWintherYoga

    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.