• SAFER SPACES: Reflections of a Mixed Race Yoga Teacher

    I embody both the oppressed and the oppressor. There is a great deal of messiness there and also a great deal of possibility for both healing and for leading.

    With all its challenges, our collective reemergence from a global pandemic brings with it insights, wisdom, new ways to organize & connect, and for many of us, a deeper commitment to healing. Within our communities, many are awakening to the reality that dismantling systems of oppression is not only urgent & overdue but also an integral part of yoga practice. It’s an incredible time to be a practitioner, a space holder, a healer, and a Yoga Leader®.

    As is true of every aspect of our practice, one size does not fit all when it comes to how we go about dismantling, reckoning, and building anew. Through collaboration or as solopreneurs, in small-scale local offerings and in global summits – there are many paths to practice and to lead.

    The quantity of yoga & meditation offerings led by and for those whose social identities have been historically excluded from the white-cis-het-able-thin “mainstream” is such a welcome shift. Virtual offerings have created more access to training, practice communities, and voices. We have a long way to go, but the message is spreading: equity and inclusion are real goals, real paths, and each of us has a part to play.

    As a mixed-race yoga teacher/practitioner/person, I’ve been navigating between BIPOC only spaces and what was normalized as “mainstream” spaces my whole life. While newer spaces may be intended to be safer for many, my mixed-race kin and I often step into these different-but-same environments that continue to cause harm. What follows are reflections on navigating the development of safer spaces over the past couple of years, invitations to pause and unpack internalized biases, and a promising path of leadership development to keep us moving forward toward collective liberation.

    THE FLUIDITY OF RACE

    Recently, I enrolled in a training course that centered social justice as a pillar of business for yoga teachers. The incredibly gifted instructor took ample time presenting the importance of explicitly sharing our social locations as yoga teachers:

    as people who have chosen to lead by helping others along their paths of healing and spiritual growth, we don’t want to do harm
    we want to support those who have been excluded from yoga communities by creating brave spaces through acknowledgment and vulnerability
    we want to engage and invite our communities in to dismantle systems of oppression
    as practitioners and as leaders, we keep engaging, we keep learning, we keep unlearning, and we model the practices that we teach

    YES to all of that, right?

    The instructor used an image adapted from Sylvia Duckworth’s “Wheel of Privilege and Power” to illustrate identity categories and intersectionality, naming where on the wheel they located their own privileges and disadvantages. When they landed on Race, they explained that although other categories could be fluid, their whiteness was constant. No matter how their location may shift in class, citizenship, age, gender, etc., “Race,” they said, “doesn’t change.”

    But my experience as a mixed-race person is that Race is rather fluid.

    My skin color changes pretty dramatically from season to season. When I enter a group space, I am assumed white, assumed Asian, assumed Latine, or just “ethnic” in a catch-all category of confusion that tries to combine my seasonal skin tone, eye shape, hair color, and body shape into a group that makes sense to the people around me. My Race, in the eyes of others, changes from time to time and place to place.

    I’ll invite you for a moment to pause and reflect on your own interactions with mixed-race people. Have you ever asked these questions of someone or imposed these judgments on others?

    “What are you?”

    “You’re so exotic.”

    “But, you’re not REALLY …”

    “Really? I don’t see it.”

    “Just pick one.”

    Mixed-race people hear these questions and statements All. The. Time.

    Over and over again, we are challenged to prove that we are Black-white-Brown-Asian-Native “enough,” sometimes by complete strangers, by studio owners, by students and clients, as if credentials are required to exist as we are in our own skin.* It’s harmful enough to hear these words from someone outside of our own ethnic/racial groups, but to hear it in “safer” spaces? Yes, that’s harmful, too. Erasure is harmful wherever it happens.

    *To my immigrant, non-binary, and trans kin: I see you. Your experiences of the neither/both/and/enough existence nurture similar wisdom that fuels activism from within the mixed-race community. Please keep reading.

    NAVIGATING BIPOC SPACES AS A MIXED-RACE YOGI

    The rise of BIPOC only yoga/meditation/wellness spaces since 2020 is both welcome and triggering for me, and for many of my mixed-race kin.

    As yoga teachers, we know that people step into our classes carrying a lifetime of experiences that may include individual/collective/ancestral trauma, mental illness, and many other chronic conditions that we can’t see readily. Still (anecdotally), many teachers around me still consider trauma-informed yoga to be a specialization.

    There is great value in BIPOC leaders spotlighting trauma healing and rediscovering joy as core pillars of their offerings. It is right that white teachers step aside and defer to the expertise of teachers from the global majority. We must also be conscious of the burden or any implicit obligation that BIPOC teaches should curate their offerings under the banner of trauma healing at the exclusion of other specializations.

    More teachers trained in trauma healing is a good thing. More teachers from the global majority is a good thing. With the intention of bringing more truths to our collective awakenings, I’ll invite another pause for us to recognize that for mixed-race yogis, those BIPOC spaces can be just as triggering as all-white/mostly-white/formerly “mainstream” spaces.

    Why? Because we humans are hard-wired to search for safety. Our nervous systems are constantly scanning both the outer and inner environments to find cues of safety or danger. In American culture, racial solidarity is one very powerful cue of safety, so entering a space where you don’t see your racialized self reflected in the people around you can trigger anxiety, fear, and confusion. For mixed-race folks stepping into BIPOC-only spaces, this is what’s happening on the inside:

    Will they recognize me as BIPOC?
    Am I Black/Asian/Latine/Indigenous enough?
    Will they call me out?
    Will they kick me out?
    Will they let me speak?

    For mixed-race folks, stepping into BIPOC spaces can often feel like trading in one set of micro-aggressions for another. A hard truth: BIPOC leaders have some unlearning to do, too.

    THE PATH FORWARD

    I embody both the oppressed and the oppressor. There is a great deal of messiness there and also a great deal of possibility for both healing and for leading.

    The social justice centered training I mentioned above was one of the safest spaces I have stepped into in ages, and not because it was populated by mixed-race kin. It wasn’t. It was, however, led by another who knows the neither/both/and/enough experience firsthand as a trans white person, and who has the courage to center that in their work, their words, and their teaching.

    My experience (and those of the mixed-race kin I have been in dialog with), draws us toward a natural alliance between mixed-race and trans communities. People in each of these populations share the lived experiences of being categorized by appearance in ways that demand we erase the intersectional realities of how we exist in the world. I’m assumed white and given privileges or excluded based entirely on someone else’s visual perception of my skin tone. When I’m recognized as “ethnic” or “exotic” I am subject to a line of questioning that is othering, fetishizing, or a challenge to prove myself in some way. My trans kin are similarly questioned about whether they are “really” who they say they are.

    WHAT WE KNOW

    We know that uplifting the most oppressed among us, creating a world where they are safe, healthy, whole, and loved, is our work as yoga practitioners & teachers.

    We know that the mixed race and trans communities include incredible diversity, and for some, privileges.

    We know that coming together with people who might share one similar piece of our intersectional identities can be fertile ground for learning, healing, creativity, support, and expansion.

    What I’ve learned through navigating the expanding safer spaces of the past few years is that being mixed-race allows me to invite vulnerability, learning, unlearning, and reckoning in safer spaces for people with *more* privilege than me. There is work to be done, and I’m here for it.

    I’ve also learned that spaces for neither/both/and/enough people like me to be safe and whole need to be created. Binary thinking won’t get us there. Embracing the complexity of our intersectional identities to find new ways to work together, heal together, hold space for each other, might. Those of us in the in-between are out there in the world teaching and leading others toward individual and collective healing. We need spaces of refuge, too.

    With gratitude for those who have contributed to my awakenings, and in solidarity with all who lead toward our collective healing.

     

    NOTE:  It’s been a while since I’ve put myself out there in words, but here’s a new blog post (link in bio) that I hope will spark new conversations of connection and healing, and open new paths of leadership for many.I write from a mixed race place, and I hope it rings true for many in other both/and/enough identity groups like immigrant & trans/non-binary people. We all have so much to offer from our unique intersectional constellations of privilege and rooted wisdom.Before you dive in, I must offer an apology: conditioning goes deep, and I was not mindful of my word choice in the title: “YOGI” 🙇🏻‍♀️I am a yoga practitioner, a yoga teacher, and teacher trainer in the U.S. I’ve studied for years and am proud of the leader I have become. The title YOGI/YOGINI is one that is bestowed on someone of much more experience than I have, and the way that I have used it over the years is dismissive of that. I know better, but overlooked it in this instance. I apologize for the harm it does when I speak or act from a place that diminishes others that I would much rather uplift. I hope that South Asian teachers and practitioners who come across this blog post, especially those who are immigrants/diaspora and/or mixed race, might accept my apology and read the whole blog. There are connections to be made and I’m here for that 🙏🏼

    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 Jennifer Winther

    A firm believer in practice as the path of joy, Jennifer Winther (she/her/Ph.D./E-RYT-500) leads yoga & meditation retreats and teacher trainings that center individual and collective healing. Jennifer is a mixed race Japanese, French, and Norwegian, cis-gender woman – 50-something –a breast cancer survivor and parent living in what is now known as Los Angeles. Her mission as a teacher is to help you build, find refuge, and stay engaged in, a practice that feels like home.

    Connect with her through her website: https://jenniferwinther.com

    Image by 👀 Mabel Amber, who will one day from Pixabay 

  • From Surviving to Thriving: How yoga therapy and narrative medicine restored my relationship with body, breath and mind – and why I help others do the same

    Over time, I ended up feeling disconnected from myself and my purpose – and it made me sick – literally. But I wasn’t clear on how telling this story impacted me or how buying into it deepened my experience of disconnection.


    I don’t fit.

    Whether I was trying to squeeze into a sample size pair of designer jeans, pose for a group photo with my cohort of yoga teachers, or sit comfortably in my own skin, I didn’t know what fitting in felt like. I was the fat kid on the playground because of a stress-triggered chronic pain that made playing sports virtually impossible. I had been the new kid in high school from a different country and culture. There was no escape from the feeling of not fitting.

    To be able to make it through my day-to-day experience of not being thin, white, or blonde enough, I developed patterns of disordered eating and body dysmorphia. They were my subtle ways to cope with not fitting in and the silent exclusion. Being excluded causes emotional, mental, and physical pain because the need to belong is hardwired into our DNA. Neuroimaging studies go so far as to indicate the similarities between the pain experiences, which support our understanding of the impact of exclusion.

    To survive that pain, I learned to ignore what my body, breath, and mind were telling me. Ignoring the quiet and then louder indications of damage being done to my physical and psychological self meant I could focus on my academic work. It made it possible for me to attend the best schools in the country, win awards, and hold leadership positions. Silencing those signals meant I could be goal-driven, high achieving, willing to work 20-hour days on caffeine and painkillers and give it all for success. It meant I could accelerate my career growth. My only limit was my body, and I told myself it didn’t matter. I didn’t need to eat or rest. I was not going to be held back by the parts of me that didn’t fit, that weren’t enough.

    This became part of the story I told about myself and shaped my reality. Over time, I ended up feeling disconnected from myself and my purpose – and it made me sick – literally. But I wasn’t clear on how telling this story impacted me or how buying into it deepened my experience of disconnection.

    I know I’m not alone in this experience. At one time or another, many of us will struggle with pain, discomfort, and a sense of disconnection. It’s what living in this world does. It can be exhausting. Feeling fatigue, pain and burnout is challenging.

    It is easy to be overwhelmed by the drive to achieve goals and by the drive to be enough while letting the things that maintain well-being fall by the wayside. I forgot my capacity to listen deeply. When I did occasionally tune in to what I was experiencing, I didn’t have the words to share how I was feeling.

    This disconnection, which helped me survive in the short term, had harmful negative effects. It kept me in a dysregulated fight/flight state as my baseline for being. For a long time, it prevented me from thriving.

    Fortunately, the principles of yoga have been part of my life long before disordered eating and body dysmorphia. As a child, I remember students sitting at my grandfather’s feet as he lectured about the Bhagavad Gita. I watched my family live out the values outlined in the yamas and niyamas without thinking much about it.

    When I decided I wanted to develop a consistent yoga asana practice, my tendency for perfection and drive to achieve drove me to hot, body-focused Ashtanga classes until a shoulder injury forced me to stop and really consider the sustainability of what I was doing.

    Perhaps because the eight limbs of yoga were so integrated into everyday life, I didn’t really understand the potential of yoga as a true vinyasa – or a systematically guided progression through practice towards healing broken connections between the body, mind, and self – until I deliberately studied it.

    In an effort to better understand the complete practice of yoga and to learn to modify practice so I wouldn’t continue to harm myself, I signed up for yoga teacher training, where I very clearly didn’t fit since I was older, fatter, and the only person of Indian ancestry.

    In an effort to be of better service to my students and to shift away from a “one-size-fits-all” corporate approach to yoga, I trained to be a yoga therapist. This additional study gives me the skills to apply all eight limbs of yoga in a way that provides therapeutic benefits for my students.

    It was in this training that I returned to the philosophy that grounds yoga. Listening to my teachers talk about connection, which is the basis of yoga, reminded me of what I had learned as a child and forgotten. Learning about ayurvedic daily routines added clarity to what I had observed two generations of my family do every day, albeit without the Sanskrit names. Reading the Bhagvad Gita as an adult gave me a new lens on my grandfather’s teachings.

    Sitting with this wealth of knowledge as an adult has helped me come home to myself in a way I didn’t think was possible. It has started to clear my vision of what I look like, and who I am in a way that allows for change and growth. While I still have a way to go, since that training, my personal practice remains an essential way of checking in with myself regularly so I can adapt my approaches to stay rooted in generational wisdom, while growing more into the connected self I can be.

    My personal therapeutic yoga and narrative medicine practices help me manage my pain and maintain my mental well-being so I can achieve my goals and thrive. It’s made me want to help high achievers heal chronic pain, fatigue, and disconnection, so they have the energy and focus they need to realise their dreams.

    My training has given me the skills to collaborate with my students to create a personalised practice that helps restore their relationship with themselves in a positive, balanced, sustainable way. After practice, they are more empowered, energised, and much more connected to themselves.

    After our time together, they often say, “Hey! I forgot I could feel this way. I’m so happy I can return to doing what I love. Thank you for reminding me that I have what I need to look after myself. I am invested in holding onto this, no matter what.”

    There’s this beautiful moment that happens when someone finally finds the words to share their experience and feels heard and that they’re not alone, but with a community that says, ” I hear you, I feel you, I get you,” and for that to land in a way where they feel really respected and understood.

    I’m grateful to my teachers for supporting me in my journey to move from a place of surviving to one of thriving, and look forward to sharing what I have learned with my students so they can do the same.

    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 Niya Bajaj

    Niya Bajaj helps high achievers heal chronic pain, fatigue and burnout so they can start feeling at home in their bodies while realising their dreams. She is an award winning mentor, philanthropist and poet in community. As a queer woman of colour she brings her interdisciplinary insights to her work helping leaders be their best selves, as well as to her practice and the organizations she leads and advises. Connect with Niya at https://holisticyogatherapy.ca/ or on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/holisticyogatherapist/

    Photo by Aditya Saxena on Unsplash

  • Rewiring our Mind-Body Physiology

    Knowing that the mind and body are interconnected informs us that it’s possible to rewire our brain-body dynamic to reduce our own stress and anxiety and live with improved physiological health.

    You already know how to live in a state of chronic low-grade stress. We all do. Low-grade chronic anxiety and worry are woven into our conditioning from societal to personal levels. Our society validates and enables hyper-vigilant and perfectionistic tendencies- glorifying our rational mind as the seat of our genius. Albert Einstein once said, “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift, and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.”

    Recent research proves the interconnected functions of the mind, body, and emotions and shows us the possibilities for rewiring our physiological circuitry to live happier, healthier lives.

    Our primal brain formed instincts and survival mechanisms at the stem. Then as endocranial size increased, the frontal area became taller and the cerebellum larger to support our higher-functioning capabilities. Over time we continued to evolve behaviors like the ability to manipulate abstract thoughts and symbols through art and developed more complex skills of reasoning, language, self-awareness, and meta-cognition. These latest brain developments gained recognition as our modern technology, as our “higher” capacities.

    Our Western society came to accept our higher functions as the source of our human intelligence, power, and wisdom. With the introduction of medical and psychological models, the brain became separate from the body. Emotions like anxiety and worry were treated as mental, thought-based reactions with interventions targeting healing through cognitive, talk-based, top-down approaches. From recent evidence using brain scanning technology, we now know that our brain and body are in constant communication.

    The top-down approach is only one way inward and is often not the most effective to heal unconscious or unspoken ailments or traumas that live within the body. As in art therapy, our deep healing work is best supported when both methods are employed; top-down and bottom-up, cognitive and intuitive, mind and body. Knowing that the mind and body are interconnected informs us that it’s possible to rewire our brain-body dynamic to reduce our own stress and anxiety and live with improved physiological health.

    Until recently, it was believed that the human brain was “fixed” by adulthood. That our 100+ billion neural cells could not generate new ones. Today, however, neurogenesis has been scientifically proven to be possible with certain areas of the brain capable of generating fresh cells and new neural pathways throughout our lives, making it possible to establish new patterns and functions. Further evidence shows that our emotions, like anxiety and fear, exist in our nervous system, which connects our brain and body; our emotions therefore exist in our physiology.

    Since our physiological health determines our quality of life, actively rewiring our nervous system is not only possible but critical. In our modern adaptation, our stress-response is chronically triggered, not only in response to external cues but also to internal ones. Below conscious awareness of our neural circuits are ceaselessly monitoring and assessing for risk and threat- a concept called neuroception.

    The vagus nerve acts on our brain-body surveillance system, informing our brain of the status of our visceral organs. Anxiety, for example, is a bodily response that sends neural signals up through our brain stem by way of the vagus nerve to identify the emotion as anxiety in our thoughts. In response, we experience anxiety as a physiological state of threat. In a state of threat, we are physiologically restricted- all our systems are preparing to activate our stress response.

    Defenses are up, and their restrictions limit the functions of our brain and body and inhibit the effectiveness of therapy. So the precluding step to our physiological health restoration is to counteract cues of threat/risk by introducing cues for safety. Cues of safety inspire feelings of calm and downregulate our systems into homeostatic ease. This state gives us access to all the resources of our mind-body intelligences.

    For most of us we can start to rewire our physiology by learning to experience the feeling of safety. When we can access safety, we allow the nervous system to downregulate from sympathetic arousal to a state of calm. Since safety and connection are led by the ventral vagal, we can evoke these states through the various access points of the vagus nerve.

    Stephen Porges, PhD conceptualized The Polyvagal Theory which explains how we feel when we are not in a state of fight, flight, or freeze. In this state, we feel safe and secure, and have access to playfulness, energy, creativity, and desire for social connection. This state is ideally our baseline.

    The Polyvagal Theory provides an explanation as to why purely cognitive, top-down approaches are ineffective when we feel stuck in fight/flight/freeze, because changing thoughts does not address issues related to brainstem and vagal responses. Verbally going over painful thoughts, known as rumination, can be experienced in the body as if it is happening again in real time. As pain is carried through the body via the spinal-thalamic route, so pain is felt in the body and in the mind.

    Instead of a rational, talk-based practice use your breath and body to tap into your intuition. Allow your intuitive wisdom to take the lead for a few minutes every day by trying these simple body-based approaches to start rewiring your mind-body connection and build physiological harmony:

    1. Vibrational Humming: The vagus nerve passes through the vocal cords and the inner ear, and the vibrations of humming is a free and easy way to influence your nervous system states. Simply pick your favorite tune, and you’re ready to go. If yoga fits your lifestyle, you can “OM” or use Bhramari Pranayama aka Humming Bee Breathing to practice building your vibrational wellbeing. Notice and enjoy the sensations in your chest, throat, and head. *Get the guidance on the Createful app: Click here to see videos of therapists guiding you through your vibrations.

    2. Sound Entrainment: also called rhythmic synchronization, is an expressive arts approach that supports self-regulation, co-regulation, and shared regulation. When the rhythm of one experience actually synchronizes with the rhythm of another, we can repair our internal rhythm and shift away from activating memories. Our mother’s heartbeat was our first experience of entrainment. This time around you can use your heart rate to find your internal rhythm, then play a song that matches your heart’s beating metronome. Try a song with a different tempo and notice any internal shifts. Similarly, a therapist’s voice and prosody can be used to promote regulation. *Get the guided version on the Createful app: Click here for videos of therapists guiding you through sound entrainment.

    3. Art Attunement: engaging in a creative activity encourages our parasympathetic nervous system to relax our body, digest food, heal internally, regenerate brain cells, and activate neurons in your brain to keep producing those anti-inflammatory, feel-good chemicals. Grab a pen/pencil/any art tool you can find and a piece of paper. Touch your pencil to the paper, and as you inhale, move the pencil across the paper. Pause your pencil at the end of your inhale, then continue to move the pencil during the duration of your exhale. Keep going until the movements of your breath and the movements of your pencil coordinate. Notice what it feels like when breath attunes to creative movement. *Get the guided version on the Createful app: Click here for videos of therapists guiding you through art attunement. 

    Find about 5 minutes each day to practice these vibrational, rhythmic, and creativity activating methods to start amping up a healthy vagal tone. If you prefer to be guided, all of these practices and hundreds more are available on-demand on the IOS app for therapeutic healing arts called Createful. Createful brings colors, movements, and clays to the therapy space and gives you a place to go for trustworthy guidance. Createful’s video library of vetted, licensed art therapists offer vagus nerve-activating experiences through creative arts. Follow-up sessions with the therapists are also available to continue your creative processing using talk-based therapy. Check out the link below to experience more or get in touch with me to share your experience using arts and yoga therapies for physiological rewiring and homeostatic restoration.

    From what we now know about the vagus nerve, taking charge of your mind-body connection and restoring your intuitive and creative wisdom is simple, easy and highly rewarding to your holistic health.

    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 Lenna Salbashian

    Lenna’s work as a Licensed Art Psychotherapist and Life Coach is dedicated to helping adults engage underutilized parts of their brain and body through the creative process. Her clients from all over the world enjoy the benefits of Expressive Arts Therapies for health empowerment through self expression, self exploration, and self mastery. Lenna’s art embodies her own journey to self-love amongst the chaos of being a first generation Armenian-American woman. Her art, like her therapeutic approach, serves as a catalyst for emotional resilience, identity acceptance, and spiritual transformation through creative connectivity. Currently, Lenna runs Creative Health Inc., a public benefit organization pioneering digital therapeutic experiences accessible on the #1 holistic creative therapy app, Createful. You can find her private practice at www.creativehealththerapy.com and the Createful iOS app at https://linktr.ee/createful.

    https://linktr.ee/createful
    https://www.psychologytoday.com/profile/474828
    https://www.linkedin.com/mwlite/in/lennas

    Photo by Chris Thompson on Unsplash

  • I Choose Self – Love: How Yoga Taught Me to Accept My Autism Diagnosis

    Yoga has allowed me to accept myself in a life-changing moment seeded in stereotypes and preconceived notions of worth tied to neurotypicality: the moment I was diagnosed with autism. For many years autism has been seen as a flaw, a mental disability. However, that is not the case. The only difference between being autistic and being neurotypical is ease.


    I have always felt the world to be sharper than how others describe it. Whether that be intense scents, piercing sounds, or blinding lighting, the world has always overstimulated my senses. With time I began to toon out unnecessary stimuli and information, which led me to tune out my own needs. I began to conform myself to spaces that left me feeling drained and overwhelmed. It wasn’t until I began yoga that I was able to tune back into the stimuli and information within that I had shut out over the years. Along my yogic journey, I found myself craving answers to why I experience life so intensely. And the answer was autism.

    Autism is commonly misconstrued as a debilitating mental disability. Decades of preconceived notions of what autism looks like have left many individuals undiagnosed. While a diagnosis does not change autism in an individual, it does name the experience. As someone who has been recently diagnosed with autism, I know this to be true. Autism, or “autism spectrum disorder (ASD), refers to a broad range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech, and nonverbal communication” (autismspeaks.org/what-autism). While I cannot speak for the experiences of other autistic individuals, I can speak to my own experience.

    Most research on autism has been done on young white boys, with very little research done on girls or people of color. Due to the disparities in research on autism, girls are much less likely to be diagnosed with autism than boys. The main cause of this is because of the way autism presents itself in boys versus girls. Girls are much better are masking their autistic traits and mirroring the behaviors of those around them, making them seem neurotypical. I was not diagnosed with autism until I was 20 years old. I spent 20 years feeling the effects of a neurotypical world trying to mold me into what I have never been— imagine trying to put a star-shaped block into a square-shaped hole. While a diagnosis would have provided me with a road map to life, it would not have protected me. I had to do that myself, with or without a diagnosis. It was not until I started practicing yoga that I was able to dig through the rubble I had caused chiseling away at a star for years trying to fit into a square-shaped world.

    Yoga came into my life when I most needed it. Fresh out of high school and grieving the loss of my 20-year-old cousin, my life felt as though it was crumbling at my feet. At just 18 I experienced a loss that almost broke me. My cousin Nathalie took her own life at 20 years old, leaving everyone who adored her questioning what they could have done differently, including myself. This is when yoga found me, drained and constantly on the verge of tears. In the next few months, yoga provided me stability through routine and gave me a safe space for my thoughts and feelings.

    While I didn’t know it at the time, yoga allowed me to grieve my cousin in the healthiest and safest way I could. I found myself using yoga as a coping mechanism, turning to it when I felt angry and ready to lash out at those around me. It started as 30 minutes of gentle yoga. In those 30 minutes, I found that I grew calmer and kinder to myself and the thoughts of others.

    I continued practicing yoga every day throughout that summer. Almost as if it were a take-as-needed prescription, and boy did I need it. As my body and mind grew more comfortable with yoga, so did my schedule. I began to practice yoga every day for an hour in the morning. In this hour I found my body and self-love. As someone who has struggled with self-esteem issues my entire life, turning to the mantra, “today I choose self-love” allowed me to remind myself of the love I deserve.  Not only did these five words fill my yogic thoughts, but they resided with me as I continued throughout my day.

    That summer I worked on a boat. As an individual with autism, I thrive when I am comfortable. Let’s just say spending all day on a boat covered in seawater, blistered from the Florida sun, and being yelled at by other employees is not for the faint of heart. In moments when I became extremely overwhelmed, I turned back to my mantra, because even if the external world wasn’t showing me love, I still could. And it worked! I was able to regulate and self-soothe. Something I still do to this day in overly stressful situations. With emotional stability came mental stability. Grounded and at peace, I was able to listen to and accept my bodily needs. Whether that be practicing a gentle flow for the day, or giving myself extra nutrients, yoga allowed me to dive deep into my being. When I started college I continued practicing yoga and mindfulness, especially through journaling. However, it wasn’t until I was away from home that I could start healing.

    They say you can’t heal in the place you got sick. While I wasn’t physically sick this saying still rang true. No matter how hard I tried to heal my internal wounds, they wouldn’t budge. Constant reminders of past pain stuck me in fight or flight mode, leaving my body tense and vulnerable. While yoga made my body feel good, it took listening to and respecting my needs to begin healing. In the quiet moments, I carved out for myself every day I found myself listening. Digging through debris that was left from unhealed trauma I was able to find myself, and there was a lot to discover.

    Yoga has taught me to accept myself no matter how I show up in the world. I learned that strength and flexibility keep me healthy, both mentally and physically. I found that change will come no matter how hard you try to fight it. I never liked change without structure, but realistically, change is a part of life that can not be structured. To structure change is to interfere with the beauty of growth. Being flexible to change and strong in moments where I feel vulnerable comes from the power of yoga.

    Yoga has allowed me to accept myself in a life-changing moment seeded in stereotypes and preconceived notions of worth tied to neurotypicality: the moment I was diagnosed with autism. For many years autism has been seen as a flaw, a mental disability. However, that is not the case. The only difference between being autistic and being neurotypical is ease. It is much easier for neurotypical individuals to live in a world socialized to fit their needs. Being autistic is a superpower. I might be hypersensitive but I have amazing hearing and smell. I am empathetic and observant. Being diagnosed with autism did not change who I was. I have always been autistic, now I just know that I am not alone in the way I experience the world.

    I have flawlessly accepted that this was the right diagnosis because, through yoga, I was able to listen to my needs and find who I really am underneath all the societal conditioning forcing me to present as neurotypical, when I never have been and never will be.

    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 Raquel Alexandar

    Raquel Alexandar is majoring in Philosophy and minoring in Legal Studies at the University of Oregon. She has been practicing yoga for 3 1/2 years. Yoga has been both a physical and emotional outlet for Raquel as she navigates her identity and her college experience. She is a certified Dive Master and enjoys spending time in nature. It is her goal to use her education to spread awareness about neurodivergence and make neurodivergent individuals, such as herself, to feel less alone in this world.

    Photo by Chelsea Gates on Unsplash

  • The Importance of a Positive Body Image

    “I felt like shit about my body most of my life.”
    – Melanie Klein in Yoga & Body Image: 25 Personal Stories About Beauty, Bravery and Loving Your Body

    I remember when this cute pixie of a woman walked into class on the first day of my massage therapy training at the School of Integrative PsychoStuctural Bodywork over 20 years ago. I was absolutely certain she had it all going on. She was fit, adorable, energetic, and bright… she just oozed confidence and self-assuredness. I felt even more awful about myself.

    Disappointment with my body, frustration, dissatisfaction, and shame started at an early age and lasted years. I know a lot of people can relate and have had similar experiences no matter their age or background. Statistics show that toxic body image issues have increased in scope and severity across sex and gender, sexual orientation, age, size, socioeconomic status, race, ethnicity, and culture as well as physical (dis)ability. Discomfort in our bodies, shame about our bodies, efforts to manipulate and control our bodies despite its protests and needs, as well as the endless negative self-talk denigrating our bodies is all too familiar across the human spectrum.

    My story isn’t groundbreaking. Not at all. That’s what makes it so important. It’s far too pervasive and incredibly toxic. Your body image story and body relationship is important.  It’s important because a negative body image impacts our mental, emotional and physical health in a laundry list of ways. Far too many people experience overwhelming low self-esteem and spend an exorbitant time, money, and energy trying to “fix” the perceived problem. Not only does this impact and limit the individual, but it also strikes a blow for the entire society.

    What if we utilized these personal and social resources to cultivate skills, talents, and interests outside our “body project”?

    What would become possible?

    What if we saw ourselves as enough?

    What if we accepted ourselves as we are at each stage of life?

    What if we moved beyond accepting our bodies and began to truly embrace them?

    What if we spent less time focusing on the size, weight, and shape of our body (or the bodies of others) and spent more time focusing on the critical political, social, and economic issues that need attention?

    So, no… body image issues aren’t groundbreaking and new, but they’re more important than ever to solve. Let’s not allow this normative pattern of negative body image experiences to be considered “normal.” It’s not and this can be changed.

    Do you know a great place to start?

    Make a decision and a commitment.

    As I wrote in Yoga & Body Image, “Feminism freed my mind and yoga freed my body.” That’s where I began to understand, deconstruct, challenge, and reject the messages I’d absorbed my entire life.

    This is how I began a shift in my body image paradigm.

    And then I stepped onto the mat and learned to listen to my body. I learned to be present with what my body needed moment to moment. I learned how to practice acceptance, forgiveness, and gratitude. Yoga, meditation, and mindfulness practices are a powerful way to practice and embody a new body image paradigm.

    That’s how my shift was deepened.

    Are you ready to make a shift of your own?

    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 C Klein

     

    Melanie C. Klein, M.A., is an empowerment coach, thought leader and influencer in the areas of radical self-acceptance, authentic empowerment, and supercharged confidence. 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 (Llewellyn, 2020). She co-founded the Yoga and Body Image Coalition in 2014 and lives in California. melaniecklein.com/

    IG: @melmelklein  @ybicoalition 

    Connect: melaniecklein.com, ybicoalition.com, yogaandbodyimage.org, yogarisingbook.com

    Photo by Diana Feil

  • Overcoming Agonizing Body Image Dissatisfaction with Yoga

    I now feel at peace with my body. I appreciate what my body can do. There are times when I feel triggered by social media, but yoga philosophy has taught me how to become more resilient to these triggers.

    I remember the day my life changed.

    I sat on my yoga mat after my first 75-minute hot yoga class. I was drenched in sweat when class ended. I experienced a feeling that I hadn’t felt before, gratitude. During the hour and a half class, my body bent, twisted, and inverted in ways that I hadn’t experienced before.

    I was so proud of my body for what it accomplished on the mat that day. I was proud of myself for what I accomplished on the mat. It was such a cathartic moment because I had never experienced this feeling before.

    See, ever since I could remember, I hated my body. I remember being four years old and wanting to wear a t-shirt swimming to hide my belly. I did not have the language at the age to articulate what I was feeling; however, I did have the ability to avoid situations where people would look at me. As a child, I would avoid my friends’ pool parties in the summer by faking sick. I wouldn’t play sports because I did not want people to see my body jiggle when I ran around.

    My body image issues got worse as I got older. At six and a half feet tall, I stood out from my peers when I desperately wanted to fit in. In the high school locker room, I would have a hairy chest when my peers were all bare-skinned. And despite having braces, the shape of my front teeth caused me to have a small gap that would never go away.

    I went all-in on diet culture as a teenager as well. I would starve myself so I could fit into the slim fit clothing all my friends would wear. I would feel guilty when I ate too much so I would excessively exercise to burn off those excessive calories. I would stand over a trash can and shove a cookie in my mouth, chew it up a hundred times and spit it out just so I could experience the flavor without having to consume the calories.

    I was a hot mess.

    My body image issues and self-hatred landed me on a couch in my therapist’s office. She suggested that I try going to a yoga class to help my body image.

    I absolutely refused. I told her about the first yoga class that I had taken. I was a broke graduate student, and a cheap Groupon deal enticed my friends and I to sign up for a yoga class. Throughout the class, the teacher would come by and adjust my posture. Every time she touched me, I flinched. I hated being touched by a stranger. Moreover, I got so stuck in my head worrying about what I looked like and worried that I was doing yoga wrong.

    The experience was so terrible that I vowed to never do yoga again.

    My experience with therapy wasn’t the greatest. I would sit on the couch and list all the reasons why my body is the worst. My therapist would grow frustrated with me and tell me that my thoughts were not objectively true.

    Though, I found that it didn’t matter what was true or not true. What mattered was how I felt about myself.

    My therapy sessions ended abruptly soon after, and I poured myself into my work. Meanwhile, I would tell myself that I would always hate my body, and I would just need to learn to accept it.

    ==

    My life changed when my then-boyfriend convinced me to go to a yoga class at a studio by our house. I reluctantly agreed to go. We checked in, and the instructor was by the front desk, and I blurted out, “Please don’t judge me for how bad I am at yoga.” She laughed and told me that nobody was bad at yoga.

    So here I was on the mat, having this amazing feeling of accomplishment.

    I was hooked. I immediately bought a pass to the studio and took all the classes I could take.

    Over time I stopped hating my body for what it wasn’t and started to appreciate everything my body could do. It was different than any other form of physical activity because the emphasis on mindful breathing got me out of my head. Yoga was different than running, rowing, or cycling because I wasn’t trying to burn calories. I was just trying to be present. I wasn’t trying to compete against anyone, and I never felt like I needed to compare myself to anyone.

    My enjoyment of yoga led me to learn more about yoga philosophy and the eight limbs of yoga. I started to become mindful of the values of my life. I was able to shift my mindset from a place where I felt inferior to a place where I felt empowered.

    I now feel at peace with my body. I appreciate what my body can do. There are times when I feel triggered by social media, but yoga philosophy has taught me how to become more resilient to these triggers. It is so liberating to feel this way.

    I am grateful for everything that yoga has given me. I want to share my love of yoga with the world by enrolling in a teacher training this year. I want to specialize my teachings so that way I can help others who struggle with their own body image so they can feel all the positive benefits of yoga.

    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.

    By Cory Harris


    Cory Harris is a body image coach who overcame his own agonizing body image dissatisfaction through the practice of yoga. His yoga journey began in 2019 after being convinced to take a vinyasa class with his friends. The experience was life-changing and yoga became his obsession. Cory aspires to become a yoga teacher in 2022 so he can teach yoga to individuals with body image dissatisfaction.

    Cory can be found on Instagram at @cory_does_yoga.

    Photo by Fares Hamouche on Unsplash

  • Embracing the Body Experiencing Invisible Disability Through Yoga

    Yoga helped the light in me never go out. And without the path of yoga letting my soul speak to me, guiding my way forward, I would not be here, writing to you.


    Two years ago, my brain was dying. Misdiagnosed and undiagnosed seven years after a fall, I was living in a pre-dementia state at forty, heading towards being placed in a long-term care facility for severely disabled adults within one-two years. But I didn’t know any of this.

    I still looked normal on the outside. It was impossible for people to understand what I was going through and it was impossible for me to understand what I was going through.

    Living in such a state of ill-health and not knowing why drastically changed my relationship to my body. Only aware it was letting me down, I developed a punishing and harsh way of relating to my body, often wishing I could magically step into another, stronger body while on this earth.

    But even as I wanted to disown my body, I never stopped trying to heal. I always knew something was wrong.

    And I was right. As a Canadian, I followed my truth to America, spent every last cent I had, and finally got a proper diagnosis.

    My brain was in very ill health, as a result of an incomplete cervical spinal cord injury. My cervical vertebrae were out of place causing a whole host of issues, including decreased blood flow to my brain, the blockage of flow of cerebrospinal fluid causing brain toxicity, and systemic issues from pressure on my brain stem.

    Seven years to get to an answer.

    Most of the time now, I am astounded at the strength and resilience I had to keep going, following my truth, seeking my answer.

    What helped me not give up? What helped me listen to my truth, even when I was very sick and had no reason to believe it was true and even when doctors disagreed and wanted to walk me down the path of long-term, very heavy duty pharmaceutical treatment plans because the only thing they knew to say about my invisible illness was…it must be a mental health condition?

    Yoga.

    Processing my experience one breath, one small movement, one mindful moment at a time.

    Yoga helped the light in me never go out. And without the path of yoga letting my soul speak to me, guiding my way forward, I would not be here, writing to you.

    But here I am! I am two years into my healing journey. I still have to use my time on the mat to draw on those resources of strength and resilience. I was living with a spinal cord injury for many years and it is taking considerable time and effort to heal. I have much cognitive function restored but there are still setbacks and there is no end date to my healing.

    Yoga continues to show me the way of patience and compassion. Over the years, it helped me peel away layers, drop false identities, and develop a fervent search for truth in all situations.

    I have also found yoga to be a form of titration through this experience of invisible illness, a way of bringing the disowned parts of my body back on board, softly and slowly over time, little bit by little bit.

    For me, the physical movements of gentle yoga were the doorway in while the body sensing component of yoga nidra supported me to feel my body again. And beyond just feeling it, to embrace it, to love it, to enjoy it even.

    What I have learned, fully and completely, is that this body is spectacular. It never stops working for me, it’s always sending me messages about how to take care of it.

    And it is crying out to be loved, so today I offer it this love letter:

    Dear Body,

    We’ve been through a lot, haven’t we?

    You’re still here, and I’m so thankful. Thank you for holding on through the darkness. Thank you for fighting, fighting, fighting. Thank you for breathing and allowing me to be in the world. Thank you for working with my soul to help me find the answer. Thank you for not giving up on me, even when I didn’t want you.

    I’m sorry for the times I wanted you to go away. I’m sorry for punishing you, hating you, disrespecting you, degrading you. I’m sorry I ever had one bad thought about you.

    I’m sorry I didn’t see the truth for so long. I know now – you’re amazing and strong and you’re there for me. You’re with
    me.

    We’re in this together and we’ll do this together. I’m so grateful to have the best partner on this journey with so much more goodness ahead of us.

    I bow to the power of your wisdom that is beyond comprehension and I will listen to your messages, I promise.

    Love,
    Angie

    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 Angie Davis

    Angie Davis has emerged from a nine-year journey through invisible injury and illness with an unshakeable
    belief that yoga can help relieve suffering in the world and is powerful for helping those who’ve experienced grief, loss, trauma, injury, and illness find their way back home to self-love. Angie is the founder of Gentle Yoga International and is transforming pain to power by turning the story of being a P.T.S.D., moderate-severe brain injury, and cervical spinal cord injury survivor into purpose as an inclusive and accessible yoga and meditation teacher, entrepreneur, writer, speaker, and brain injury and mental health advocate. Angie is a contributing author to Anxiety Warrior Volume II and a Trauma Sensitive Yoga Teacher, having trained through the Trauma Center at the Justice Resource Institute. She is also a Level 2 iRest® Yoga Nidra Teacher, accredited by the iRest Institute in California. Angie passionately teaches this research-based, complementary therapy that has been proven helpful for P.T.S.D., anxiety, sleep difficulties, and other issues. She is also trained in Mental Health Sensitivity, Mental Health First Aid, and Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training. Visit her online at gentleyogainternational.com

  • Mindful Practices for Whole-Body Self-Acceptance

    We can push and strive against our challenges but my key to moving forward began with deep self-reflection and learning to make friends with life. Though challenging and unsettling, my car accident brought so much growth. What once felt like torture now feels like a gift.


    Accepting and embracing my body has been a lifelong journey… the process has continued to be worth every challenge, it’s allowed me to truly make friends with life.

    In times of struggle, inspirational quotes replenish my soul. Stephen Hawking penned one of my favorites: “Look up at stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see, and wonder about what makes the universe exist. Be curious.” Hawking’s words mirror my journey to body acceptance because it took a great deal of curiosity and soul searching to embrace my body after a car accident when I was 19 years old.

    I was diagnosed with a spinal cord injury following the accident and was told I wouldn’t ever walk again. The experience was utterly devastating and I was traumatized by the reality that my life was forever changed. Before the accident, I was a skateboarder, lifeguard, athlete, and dancer/choreographer with dreams of being a choreographer on Broadway. After the accident, fear crept in. My inner and outer worlds were out of balance. I didn’t know how to heal. I put up emotional walls for protection, disconnected from my body and ignored my physical challenges. Instead, I focused on external goals like going to college, earning advanced degrees and becoming an editor/journalist. Pushing and striving toward external goals helped me survive, but deep down, my soul knew there was a better way.

    I longed to reconnect with my body but didn’t know how to begin. By some miracle–and a year and half of physical therapy–I eventually relearned to walk with foot orthotics but embracing my body and living in wholeness didn’t happen immediately or overnight. Gradually I found the courage to lean into the experience and in the process embrace where my body was at, what it needed and how this shaped my identity.

    It took years to learn that I couldn’t simply force or will my body to heal. That’s where my journey to authentically feel my experience radically changed my life and my relationship to self and all there is. What I didn’t know–or wasn’t able to see at the time–was that with every circumstance, health challenge, adversity, or hardship, the Universe was leading me to a higher purpose… leading me to more and more fully embrace my body and embrace my life.

    We all experience trauma in our lives but our challenges don’t have to define us. The truth is: we aren’t put here to suffer. We can push and strive against our challenges but my key to moving forward began with deep self-reflection and learning to make friends with life. Though challenging and unsettling, my car accident brought so much growth. What once felt like torture now feels like a gift.

    Along the way, I discovered mindful practices that helped me tap into a deeper connection with my body: meditation, journal writing, and inclusive, mindful movement and adaptive/accessible yoga. These practices unearthed whole-body self-acceptance, which led to a desire to share and teach others how to connect internally and find deeper meaning and purpose in their own lives. These mindfulness practices are the core of my transformation and they continue to support me as I continue to navigate this body and this experience of being.

    Every day, I set aside time for mindful movement, meditation and mantras, and explorative self-reflective journal writing. Mindful tools help me ground and maintain a sense of balance. Keep in mind, there is no right or wrong way to begin this practice. The first steps involve listening to our bodies and trusting ourselves. It’s a practice. It’s always worth the time, energy and attention.

    Our journeys may not lead to the same place but our unique higher purpose may be on the other side if we remain open and curious.

    In the end, reconnecting with mind, body and spirit taught me that my body is my home.

    Learning to tap into this truth changed my life.

    This is my mission, to offer this same life-changing possibility to you.

    To get started, here are a couple starter practices in mindful movement and mindful self-reflection.

    Mindful Movement

    Legs Up the Wall is an excellent way to begin or end the day. This practice can reduce edema, increase circulation and relieve tension in the legs.

    Legs Up the Wall

    * Lie on a bed or floor with feet against the wall.
    * Move as close as you can to the wall as you take your legs up the wall.
    * Your body should make an “L” shape.
    * Relax legs and feet.
    * Release arms out to the sides to form a T shape.
    * Lengthen the sides of the neck.
    * Relax muscles in the face, throat, and tongue.
    * Allow the weight of legs to release into the hips.
    * Feel your body let go of the tension.
    * Feel all stress release as you passively allow the reverse effect of gravity.
    * Do several rounds of deep nostril breathing (breathe in and out of your nose) as you relax and release mind, body and spirit.

    Explorative Self-Reflecting Journal Prompt

    Write about a challenging experience that turned into a blessing. If you’re unable to think of one, write about a time when you faced adversity and how that experience changed you. What was that experience? What were the lessons or blessings? How do they support you now? How can you continue to use those blessings as you move forward in your body and your life?

    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 furkanfdemir from Pexels

  • Healing The Wounded Black Gay Kid In Me

    But, coming out of the closet was just the first step. It would take nearly two decades for me to get to a place where I could deal with the pain of the childhood rejection I experienced. Yoga would be a conduit for that healing.

    The following is an excerpt from “Embodied Resilience Through Yoga:30 Mindful Essays About Finding Empowerment After Addiction, Trauma, Grief, and Loss” edited by Kat Heagberg, Melanie Klein, Kathryn Ashworth, and Toni Willis, Llewellyn 2020.

    Where I grew up, men were expected to act like men and little boys were expected to act like little boys. During the 80’s and 90’s, statistically, most young black men would be involved in some kind of street violence and would also spend some part of their lives incarcerated. So, many black fathers, grandfathers and uncles who had connections to young boys had to have it in their minds to groom young men that could not only survive the violent streets of Washington D.C., but that could also survive jail.

    I was also a light-skinned kid. So, there was even more reason for concern because light-skinned high yellow boys were seen as weaker. And the men I knew weren’t having any soft-acting, high-yellow black boys coming out of my neighborhood if they could help it. They had to make sure that I would be strong. “You got to be all boy! You got to be the All-American Black Boy!” was what a substitute gym teacher in my elementary school would say to us male youth often, his eyes focused mostly on me, it seemed.

    As we lined up and filed out of the school gym, a classmate’s grandfather that volunteered with the physical education program whispered to me as I walked by him, “Every soldier, every hero finds his own glory, young, man. You’ll find your own glory!”

    He seemed to be speaking directly to my wounded heart. I guess he saw the insecurity on my face. It’s like he was telling me that despite what the substitute gym teacher had just said, that it was all right to be different from the other boys. Like many elder black men in our community, he’d proudly served as a Lieutenant in World War II. Having led so many different kinds of men with so many different temperaments into battle, perhaps he had first-hand knowledge that surviving a war depended upon much more than physical prowess. I felt like this elder was letting me know that he saw my uncertainty and that I was going to be okay. Even though I didn’t fit the image being projected onto all of us, better days were coming for kids like me.

    The All-American black Boy rode mopeds and dirt bikes. The All-American Black boy could handle himself with his fists if someone disrespected him. The All-American Black Boy played sports, knew his way up and down a basketball court and knew how to catch a football. The All-American Black Boy was a champion. The All-American Black Boy was source of pride for the men in his community.

    I never really took a liking to any of those things.

    By my last year in elementary school, I knew that I was gay. I also knew that I couldn’t tell anyone.

    I played with the girls. I jumped double-dutch. I read books.

    I was jumping rope with a group of girls in an alley behind my house one summer day when the words, “That boy ain’t gonna be shit! He’s gonna be gay.” directed to me from the mouth of a loud intoxicated man out of a car widow hit me like a brick.

    Even though there were always slivers of inspiration that would bolster my hope for better days in the future, like the grandfather in my gym class whispering to me, for the most part, the words coming from the mouths of men I looked up to devastated my young spirit and my confidence. I would go through my days and nights with those words echoing through my head. I’d look at other boys my age and wish I could be more like them and less like me.

    Many young boys’ reaction to the pressure to be manlier would have been to become overly masculine to win the approval of others they looked up to. But, that wasn’t my nature.

    I was a gentle spirit. I had a poetic soul.

    By the time I reached my teen years, I felt rejected and alone.

    There were no LGBTQ clubs at D.C. area high schools. There were no gay pride parades happening in Washington. D.C that I knew of. There were no same sex couples raising children that were visible. They were not preaching inclusivity in the church that I went to.

    If you were a gay kid growing up in Washington, D.C. in the eighties and early nineties, you were on your own.

    There were many days when I just didn’t want to live anymore.

    Once I hit puberty, I began to pull away from friendships with males and females.

    I didn’t go out partying like other teens did. I just focused on academics.

    I’d check out a book each week from the library to read during the long bus rides out of my neighborhood to attend magnet schools that I’d been accepted to in Downtown, Washington, D.C.. I’d become what people may consider a ‘gifted child’ and that got me into schools away from my neighborhood. Away from anyone who really knew me, I spent time on the bus with my head buried in books communing with some of the most inspirational minds to ever live. And that’s exactly what a young gay kid like me needed: inspiration.

    James Baldwin, Maya Angelou, Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, the voice of Malcolm X through Alex Haley’s book, Alice Walker, these folks became my allies. These were black writers who wrote mostly about their experiences with racial discrimination in America. But they also wrote very candidly about their experiences as children coming of age and how painful experiences shaped them into activists and advocates for the underdogs of this world. I could relate to them.

    They weren’t talking about being gay, but they were talking about being black and being different and oppressed. They were talking about how black people deserved better; how difference deserved to be celebrated; how difference deserved a voice. Since they were poets and writers, they did all not fit the stereotypes of what men should be or women should be for that matter, but they were successful and powerful.

    Their books taught me that I could pour everything that I was going through as a teen into the arts. I could convert my pain into creativity; into creative projects. And that’s exactly what I did.

    I joined drama clubs, signed up for speech competitions, went away for summers to study in academic programs and I began to shine in those areas. So much so, that I began to win the approval of many people in my community.

    As a teen, my love for the arts and books took me all over the country and eventually away from the streets of my hometown to college. It was in Boston while in college that I was able to find the space to allow my true identity to begin to come out.

    But, coming out of the closet was just the first step; It would take nearly two decades for me to get to a place where I could deal with the pain of the childhood rejection I experienced. Yoga would be a conduit for that healing.

    “You are enough” that’s what yoga says. “Your life matters. You are special. You are a hero on your own journey. Come as you are. Accept yourself for who you are!”

    No one had ever said that to me quite the way yoga teachers had.

    *****

    Yoga brings me to a place where I can watch my thoughts and separate out the voices in my head. I can distinguish between the abusive voices—the ones put there by society and some of the men I grew up around that oppress LGBTQ people—and the voices that are for my greatest good and that uplift me.

    Yoga helps me to constantly assess the damage that life has done to me and creates the space for me to be able to heal that damage.

    Yoga invites me to be my own hero.

    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 Dorian Baucum

    LA based singer, Dorian Baucum won yoga studios over with his Dorian’s Live Neosoul & Yoga – a fusion of his conscious, live, feel good neosoul music you can groove to with yoga classes to create a concert-style yoga experience.

    He guest-starred on CSI: Las Vegas with country music group The Rascal Flatts and the hit TV show ER. He’s a registered pharmacist with a Certification in Integrative Pharmacy, Reiki Master, Certified in Bodywork by the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health, served in the Music for Healing Program at Cedars Sinai Hospital in Beverly Hills, holds an MFA in Acting from the University of California, San Diego and a B.S. in Pharmacy from Massachusetts College of Pharmacy. He’s just completed his 200HR Social Justice Based Yoga Teacher Training at The Tree SOUTHLA Yoga Cooperative.

    Dorian has released two albums: EVERYDAY WARRIOR: Acoustic-Neosoul for Your Soul and Turn It Into Gold!

    Website: dorianneosoul.com
    Social Media: INSTAGRAM @dorianwarrior

    Photos by David Young-Wolf

  • Customizing Poses Opens Yoga to Everyone

    Having physical challenges doesn’t mean traditional yoga poses are out of reach. Accessible/Adaptive Yoga Teachers like myself strive to make any pose possible. We see poses with new eyes and try to give students tools for a whole-body experience in their practice.

    Adapting and customizing yoga poses are so important when it comes to body acceptance and diversity. It breaks down barriers to yoga and helps students feel supported and included.

    I’ll never forget the first time I experienced an adaptive/accessible handstand in my practice. I was training to become an Opening Yoga Instructor (OYI) at Mind Body Solutions (MBS) in Minnesota. Since becoming a Registered Yoga Teacher (RYT 200), Yoga For All Teacher, and certified Accessible Yoga Teacher, I’ve attended many trainings that discuss traditional handstand. Yet, I never fully experienced the benefits of this pose firsthand because I have a spinal cord injury; therefore, practicing traditional handstand is ill-advised. Thankfully, Mind Body Solutions offers an adaptive approach that opens yoga to everyone.

    To get into MBS’s adaptive handstand, place the short end of the mat facing the wall and lie down on the mat. You’ll want to make sure to leave enough room for arms to extend and touch the wall behind you. Use bolsters and towels for head, neck, and back support. Once props are in place, lift your gaze and arms above and behind the head while placing hands flat on the wall behind you- this mimics the position of hands on the floor in traditional handstand.

    When I attempted the pose, I was exhilarated. Even though I was lying on my back on a mat, it felt like I was standing upright in traditional handstand. A zip of energy traveled up my legs, arms, and head. I felt alive and connected to my body in a new way. When I released my arms, tears welled up in my eyes. I felt the transformative power of yoga and a deep sense of calm in that moment. I’ll never forget it. It was life-changing.

    Having physical challenges doesn’t mean traditional yoga poses are out of reach. Accessible/Adaptive Yoga Teachers like myself strive to make any pose possible. We see poses with new eyes and try to give students tools for a whole-body experience in their practice. We do this by slowing down movement and guiding students to explore and listen to their bodies. For me, the end goal is not how the pose looks, it’s more about the sensation that occurs in mind, body, and spirit.

    So, the next time you approach a yoga pose, consider slowing down movement and feeling deeply into sensation. You might be surprised how one small adjustment can open yoga in new ways.

    If we agree that yoga can be a vehicle for body acceptance and diversity, opening yoga by adapting and customizing poses empowers students on and off the mat.

    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
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    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.

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