• Yoga Obstacles: Setbacks and Plateaus

    Yoga is the effort full path, which entails a road with inescapable obstacles, plateaus, and setbacks. When we are facing a challenge, it is easy to disregard the valuable opportunity we are also presented for gaining new inner knowledge. As we begin to take the necessary steps to overcome our discomfort, more often than not, we’ll gain insightful information and inner strength, as we work our way through on overcoming our road blocks.

    Yoga Sutra 1.14 sa tu dirghakala nairantarya satkarasevito drdhabhumih

    When dealing with an injury, a disrupting life event, or anything else that impedes us from taking daily practice, there’s a sense of defeat that can bring down our spirit a little bit, or a lot. It is important to understand the power of taking mouse bites. Applying effort consistently and steadily is all it takes. It is not about applying full on effort only when you’re feeling 100 when climbing peaks and valleys to then give up all effort when you hit the proverbial wall. Effort also comes into play when we are halted on our journey. It’s the key to overcome that sense of defeat. Compassion towards oneself, as well as time and patience, are necessary and valuable elements to continue on the path. Steady effort, however small, is key. Just like a mouse can break through a wall by taking small little bites at a time, that which hinders progress can be an opportunity for insight, strength, and empowerment.

    Setbacks are great opportunities. 

    Setbacks are great opportunities to observe and study not only the makings of our mind, inner strength, and will power, but also the reasons why we take on a spiritual practice in the first place. Oftentimes, when we deal with injuries in our physical yoga practice, and our ego gets knocked down a pec or two, we realize that inner peace, joy, contentment can still be achieved through the other limbs of yoga; such as: pranayama-breathing techniques, concentration, meditation, etc. We also realize the more subtle aspects of our physical practice and how restorative it is meant to be and feel when we are forced to decelerate and deepen our awareness. When our ego gets poked and deflated, it is easy to loose faith. However, this is the time we have been training for to step forward and handle the way we decide to deal with the new limiting situation.

    The lessons learned will be that much deeper and stronger.

    There is beauty in the humbling power of a setback. We are given the priceless opportunity to become stronger, as we learn and re-learn what we have been doing up until that point. More often than not, we gain a double punch of extra power. We are bound to comeback stronger when we learn to overcome our seemingly insurmountable walls. Fear not your setbacks, for the bigger they are, the stronger the comeback will be. The lessons learned will be that much deeper and stronger. Obstacles and setbacks present themselves in our path, and we are somehow forced to deal with them, unless you simply let it all go, quick, and abandon the practice all together. But, for those of us who have experienced the deep transformational power of a firmly established yoga practice, it is easier to naturally stay the course, despite any down feelings we might be experiencing. It’s, however, a different story when we experience a plateau.

    It helps to know that this too is part of the yoga journey.

    A plateau during our practice can bring a sense of apathy and sadness, a debilitating confusion of sorts, for there is nothing wrong with our practice, we know-feel-and understand we are not better without it. We believe how incredibly powerful it is for our well being to maintain it, but somehow we experience this phase, period, in which it all feels stagnant, nothing is evolving, there are no big shift and changes, no apparent progress. Firstly, it helps to know that this too is part of the yoga journey. Know and understand that we all go through this, and like anything else, it will also pass. With that said, what can you do in the meantime? Stay the course! That, in and of itself, will eventually reap its rewards, and you will look back with a wiser understanding of why the plateau presented itself on the first place. But what about now? When you are experiencing a plateau, and you feel a sense of exhaustion brought about by a seemingly chain of monotonous repetitions. You will not come out of it unless you challenge yourself a little.

    Pick and choose something in your practice that you know could benefit from that deeper focus. 

    The couple of times I have personally experienced a plateau, I have asked myself; “Why am I even feeling like I am plateauing when I know for a fact that there are a lot of loose ends in my practice that need some tightening up?” There are many aspects of my practice that need working, polishing, and being more firmly established. Going through the motions, day in and day out, will eventually land you in that dreadful place. When we create awareness, an honest inner understanding that we could deepen our practice through focus and attention, then the game changes altogether. Pick and choose something in your practice that you know could benefit from that deeper focus, say for example: jump backs and jump throughs, anyone? That’s exactly what I chose when I entered into my first plateau. Attentively working on my inner and outer strength, sharpened my focus when I tried to lift myself off the mat each and every time. It helped me gain back my attention and doubly increase it by journeying inward within the inner layers of my own mental and physical awareness, concentration, and inner strength.

    Maintain a deep inner focus by solely vowing to maintain a steady gaze towards the focal point. 

    My whole practice actually benefited because of it. I was back again in mind-training mode. Remember, this is a mind training practice, it is not about the ultimate expression of a perfect pose, or the floating effect of weightless jump back. You can very well decide on bringing full attention to the quality of your breath from the beginning to the end of the practice noticing with laser like focus each time you loose and apply immediate effort to regain it back by breathing deeply. Or, opt for committing to maintain a deep inner focus by solely vowing to maintain a steady gaze towards the focal point of attention that the asana calls for and not derail your gaze at all. Can you do that throughout the practice? From beginning to need? Not look at the phone, the door, the clock, the phone? Full on inward attention? That’s a tough one, which means it’s a powerful one. A strong mental challenge is what has personally helped me. Choosing an element in my practice that I perhaps even dread and applying all my effort into it has been incredibly liberating and worth it.

    Enter your challenge with indestructible will power, and awaken your inner Spartan.

    Taking in fully the challenges people, practice, and events life brings you, is the ultimate training ground. Getting in the arena getting your ass kicked is the prerequisite for victory over your difficulties. Enter your challenge with indestructible will power, and awaken your inner Spartan. Gladiators are not extinct in antiquity, they are dormant within. It’s not people and animals waiting in the arena, but the obstacles and the challenges that need facing intelligently. Awaken your primal hero, that archetype available to all of us, and slay the dragon! Be your own hero!

    By Patricia Amado 

     

    Practice with Patricia Amado on Omstars

    Patricia Amado embarked on her yoga journey in 2010 leading her to find the Ashtanga Yoga system in 2011, a practice she has remained devoted ever since. In 2013, she completed Miami Life Center’s very first training under the guidance of Kino MacGregor initiating her passionate path of teaching and sharing the Ashtanga Yoga method. She traveled to Mysore, India in 2015, 2016, and 2019 to study with R. Sharath Jois. Most recently, she completed a two year apprenticeship program at MLC under the guidance of her mentor and MLC Director Tim Feldman.  She is also a student of Yoga philosophy and Sanskrit recitation of the old scriptures with Professor Rao, Dr. M.A. Jayashree and Professor Sri. M.A. Narasimhan.  Patricia aims for her students to experience the stress-relieving and transformative benefits that a committed Ashtanga Yoga practice can bring into their life. She is dedicated to teaching in the authentic tradition of Sri. K. Pattabhi Jois.

  • Yoga Mythology Series: Krishna’s Flute

    It was almost time for the dusk to set in, the sun had turned orange and the entire village was soaked in a calm that comes after a hard day’s work. Birds flew past the clouds returning home, and farmers ambled back with the bovine. At the edge of the forest sat Devkinandana Krishna the God of compassion under a mango tree playing his flute with a calf sitting at his feet.

    The enchanting music could be heard deep into the forest of Vrindavan where each being was immersed in the divine melody. A group of gopis (cowherd boys) and gopikas (cowherds girls) returning from the forest were drawn to the music knowing well it could be no one else but their beloved Krishna playing his flute waiting for his cowherd to return.

    And like any other day the group of boys and girls, hearing the music could sense a deep emotion of love and belonging. They followed the music and saw their Krishna playing the flute surrounded by the cows. Vishakha, the cowherd girl walked up to Krishna’s feet and kept staring at him while he played his flute with his eyes closed resting his back against the tree. She gently touched Krishna’s arm

    “Oh Krishna who do you play this flute for, for whom is this beautiful music for, please tell us?” She asked him as other gopis and gopikas kept looking at him with devotion and love without blinking an eye. Devkinandan gently opened his yes, the most beautiful eyes, eyes that could make you fall in love with.

    “Vishakha, I play it for you”, he replied with a gentle smile and started playing the flute again. Overwhelmed hearing this from dear Krishna, she closed her eyes and started swaying to the music. Vishakha opened her eyes again to get a glimpse of her Krishna; he was standing next to her now playing the flute for her. She kept dancing to the melody.

    While swaying to the magic of the music she saw Krishna standing next to the Sridhama the young cowherd boy too, as he danced looking at Krishna next to him. Anuradha too had Krishna next to her playing the flute for her as she danced. Krishna was there next to Amsu the most mischievous boy in the group as he was raptured in the divine tune. Lalita and Tungvidya and all other cowherd boys and girls had Krishna standing beside them playing flute as they all danced with their eyes closed in devotion. Vishakha saw Krishna standing next to all her friends, playing his flute for each of them so that they could dance to the melody.

    “Krishna you said you are playing the flute for me, then why are you next to all other gopi and gopikas while they dance to your music”, Vishakha asked Krishna with drop of tear in her eye.

    “My Vishakha, I am here for you because of your unconditional love for me, I am with you because you are immersed in the faith you have in me as you dance with your eyes closed. How can I not be with Tungvidya, Amsu and other boys and girls when they devote themselves to my music with their eyes closed in love? All of you have opened up your heart to me being in the moment of spontaneity with no other intention,” Krishna had a smile on his face as he spoke to Vishakha.

    Free of all doubts, you all present me with your truest emotion of love with innocence; I have to be beside all of you to reciprocate this love and devotion. I am with all of you, because you are thinking of me without pretense and without an iota of doubt that it is my music that you hear and that I play it for you. You are free from fear and true to yourself and for what you feel or me, I have to be close to you”.

    Hearing this Vishakha let go all of her jealousy and desire to have Krishna all to herself, she felt the love of her dear Krishna which was as much hers as for all other gopi and gopikas who were devoting themselves to the divine music of Gopala.

    “Oh Krishna please tell me how can I always have you close to me in every moment…please tell me,” requested Vishakha.

    Krishna looked at Vishakha in her eyes as he spoke, “Keep me in your thoughts and think of me in all your actions, show unrestrained love and equanimity and I shall be close to you always.”

    “Is it that easy to have your presence beside us?” Vishakha asked again.

    Krishna smiled and replied, “Yes it is, do what you have at hand with utmost concentration, simple dignity and a feeling of affection while relieving yourself of all other thoughts, you will find peace and satisfaction within yourself, and that’s who I am. I am you in your most peaceful state.”

    It was almost dark and the cows were heading home, Gopala put his flute on his lips again and started walking behind the cowherd playing for tired souls of Vrindavan and slowly disappeared in the mist as Vishakha stood still with a warm feeling in her heart and a sense of fondness.

    By Ankur Tunaak

    Ankur Tunaak has been an Ashtanga yoga practitioner for over a decade, studied with Shree M. Vishwanath who was one of the first students and nephew of Shree Pathabhi Jois. Also, an alumnus of Bihar School Of Yoga, one of four premier Yogic Studies Institutions in India. Ankur is a storyteller and photographer, currently teaching yoga in New Delhi, India. Portrait photography by Ankur Tunaak.

    Read More Yoga Mythology Stories by Ankur Tunaak

  • How to Reduce Stress with Awareness

    Stress, panic, anxiety and emotional breakdowns. Ever since we have been quarantined, many near and dear ones are complaining about all these emotions hitting them hard. Here’s my take and personal experience on dealing with such breakdowns.

    Make it a vehicle to meditate upon.

    Consider being totally aware of when this comes to you. Don’t try to get rid of it or avoid it at any cost. Instead be desperate to get hit by them. Make it a vehicle to meditate upon. Remember everything that troubles you is in fact a method a tool that can take you inward.

    Watch who it is that actually suffers.

    With full awareness every day, try to introspect the panic, the fear, or whatever that troubles you, as if you want to have a deep dive into it while you watch who is it that actually suffers. What part of your identity suffers it? I want you to feel what happens in you when this emotion takes over you. What body part feels it first then how does it move along. Consciously watching and analyzing every single intricate details taking place within you.

    Look at the panic or stress as the object.

    Look at the panic or stress as the object, while the one who feels it as the subject. And as we contemplate on it, gradually we no more identify with both the objectivity and subjectivity, developing a sense of rootedness with the observer behind them both.

    Where ever you take the candle the darkness instantly disappears.

    It’s simple, just like trying to find darkness with the help of a candle. Where ever you take the candle, the darkness instantly disappears. Your awareness and will to search and analyse your fears without the intention of getting rid of them is the candle. Carry your flame with you. As the last words of Gautama Buddha says: “Appo Deepo Bhava,” “Be a light onto yourself” अप्प दीपो भव ||

    Namastey.

    By Rajat Thakur

    Practice Hatha Yoga with Rajat on Omstars

    Rajat Thakur is a Mountain Guide, Climber, Skier and an authorised Yoga teacher from the Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Foundation. He comes from a small town ‘Manali’ in the Indian Himalayas and never leaves a chance to express his devotion & love for the Mountains. Rajat has been traveling around India to places like Rishikesh, Kerala, Mysore, Himachal Pradesh, learning from Swamis and Gurus different ancient forms of Yoga methods. Before taking up Yoga as his life long journey, he use to give Asana and Pranayama lessons to people who had a hard time acclimatizing to the high altitude on expeditions he lead. Even though the classes were never part of the itinerary, Rajat began to find immense joy in helping others. This joy and sense of personal satisfaction led him to integrate Yoga more deeply and he currently disseminates the profound knowledge of Yoga in his Home town (Manali). He believes that it must be our commitment to everyday invest some time on our personal practice, our well being, self love & self care. Because once we give it to ourself we can give it to the world and through this act of giving one can open doors to self realization.

    Photo is done by luke cg aka Gitesh Gupta 

  • Yoga Mythology Series: Samrat Yayati – Ceaseless Desires

    Yayati the mighty King had conquered the world and become a Samraat; monarch of the universe. It is said that with his sheer power he conquered the world in six days. He was known to be the bravest of the kings. Yayati had lived a fulfilling life in roles of a husband, a father and a scholarly king. One night Yayati felt restless for reasons unknown.

    He couldn’t be in his bed any longer, he got out of his bed, dressed majestically and went and sat upon his throne. As he sat on the throne overseeing his most beautiful palace, alone, death appeared in front of him. “O King you have lived your life’s course and it is time for you to leave with me”, death informed Yayati as he sat on his throne. Hearing this Yayati said that we wanted to live only hundred years more, that the last hundred years of his life went in performing his duties and that he never got a chance to enjoy his life. Now that he had conquered the world, had amassed all the wealth and power, he wanted to enjoy it.

    Hearing this from the wise king, death was amused but decided to grant the king his wish to live for another hundred years on the condition that he will have give away one of his sons to death in return.  The following morning Yayati went to his eldest of the hundred sons he had. The eldest son was eighty years old and refused to comply to his father’s request to go with death. “I am just eighty years old”, he thought, “my father who has lived hundred years still not content, how can I be content at the age of Eighty”, and ignored is father’s request. Yayati was deeply disappointed in his eldest son. He called all his other sons and told them about the condition that death had put before him to spare his life. All his sons stood in silence looking at each other; no one came out in support of their father’s wish.

    After a while, the youngest son stepped out and spoke, “I am ready to go with death”, he looked at death and spoke again, “O death please spare my father’s life and take me with you”. Death was surprised to hear the young boy, and asked him when his elder brothers who were eighty years old, seventy five years old, sixty years old were not ready to go with him, why he wanted to go with him when he was all of twenty years and not lived his life enough. The young boy replied saying that when his father was not content after having lived a hundred years, his brother wanted more and were not satisfied even at the ages of eighty years, seventy five years …and had not been able to live fully even after so many years, he did not see a reason to continue his life till the next hundred years in discontent and that it was better to leave with death.

    Death took the young boy away and spared King Yayati’s life for another hundred years as promised but before leaving death said to him the even next hundred years of his life will also not satisfy the King’s lust for pleasures and he would still be going in circles chasing same, unsatisfied always. King Yayati represents each of us, where instead of experiencing life every day we are in pursuit of new pleasures that might come the next day. We mistake momentary pleasures for enjoyment or eternal happiness and that is the reason we all are chasing something new, something more, being in state of constant unrest and a never ending desire for more and more. Yayati was a scholarly monarch with all the wealth and ruled the world, yet it was not enough for him. We too seek happiness from things and people around us. The reason for this constant search for pleasure is that we often mistake pleasures as happiness.

    Life can be experienced in its true nature when one strives towards a smooth flowing life that comes from living the best possible version of ourselves moment to moment.

    By Ankur Tunaak

    Ankur Tunaak has been an Ashtanga yoga practitioner for over a decade, studied with Shree M. Vishwanath who was one of the first students and nephew of Shree Pathabhi Jois. Also, an alumnus of Bihar School Of Yoga, one of four premier Yogic Studies Institutions in India. Ankur is a storyteller and photographer, currently teaching yoga in New Delhi, India.

    Portrait photography by Ankur Tunaak.

  • Five Steps to End Unrealistic Beauty Standards Once and For All

    When we were growing up—in the 80’s—there was only one real beauty standard (white, thin, blonde), and only a few media channels through which we were educated (magazines, newspapers, television, and the movies). Now, there are many, rapidly-evolving ideas about what is beautiful, thanks to modernized attitudes about diversity, representation, and inclusion. There are infinitely more channels through which multitudes of beauty standard ideals—some of which are more toxic than ever—are being disseminated, faster, and with even more high tech photo-altering capabilities.

    Over the weekend I was at a meditation retreat and was telling two participants about my new book, Your Body, Your Best Friend: End the Confidence-Crushing Pursuit of Unrealistic Beauty Standards and Embrace Your True Power. These women had a great question: Do you think that it’s easier to do this now than it was when we were growing up? I said, “It’s complicated.”

    In this environment, which is arguably more accepting, it seems that young people are, ironically, forced to make more difficult choices about their bodies and identities, more swiftly. Social media also has encouraged everyone to falsify their reality, by only showing the “highlight reel.” The promise of beauty, perfection, and leisure still has a strong hold over all of us.

    The cult of thinness hasn’t disappeared in a sea of diversity. In fact, it just may have gotten stronger. But there’s an upshot to the sharply increased volume of imagery, precisely because it shows a multitudes of possibility. It reveals a pathway, and an answer to how to end unrealistic beauty standards once and for all. This answer is simple, but not easy. Like yourself. Like your body, simply because it’s yours. Like your nose, simply because it belongs to you. Like your voice, just because it’s yours.

    How to begin to like yourself? Here are five simple, but not easy steps:

    1. Take the time to get to know yourself.

    It is impossible to determine if you actually like yourself if you don’t know yourself. In yoga, this is the discipline of svadhayaya. Approach getting to know yourself as a lifelong journey of friendship.

    2. Resource your friends to help.

    Unsure what is likable about you? Ask your friends. There is a reason they want to spend time with you, that has nothing at all to do with how you look, or the shape of your body.

    3. Identify the sticky points.

    Everyone has things about themselves they don’t like. These are places of opportunity and growth.

    4. Determine if the sticky points are really you, or simply habits you’ve acquired.

    Sometimes the things we don’t like are not true or real to the core of our nature. This is where yoga is so helpful. Practice will encourage discernment or the ability to identify what is you, and what is unhelpful conditioning or samskara. (Note: samskara aren’t inherently bad! We can also have helpful conditioning).

    5. Rid yourself of unhelpful habits; embrace the true core of you.

    Sometimes what and who you really are isn’t what you would have hoped for. Being ourselves frequently has consequences, some that can be painful. Our task as humans is to like our core selves, no matter what. When you do the work of liking yourself, everything about you becomes beautiful. People who like themselves have a luminosity that eclipses the physical body. And, this is how we will, collectively, end unrealistic beauty standards once, and for all. Will you join me? Now, of course, what I’ve presented here is an incredibly condensed map. If you’re intrigued, and want to know more about making friend with your body, I hope that you will take a deeper dive, by reading my book. 

    Diversity in representation shows that liking yourself could emerge from looking like yourself, instead of like someone else. Paradoxically, body image acceptance isn’t really about your body at all. It’s about your spirit and your soul. When you like yourself—the being that lives within the body—the body is a joy, a gift, a delight, no matter what it looks like or what it can do. And when everyone likes themselves, then unrealistic beauty standards just bounce off boundaries composed of kindness and affection, and everyone simply goes on about their day unaffected emotionally, intellectual, spiritually. Simple. Not easy. If liking ourselves were so easy, we would have a very different world!

    By Erica Mather

    Practice with Erica Mather on Omstars

    Author, Yoga Therapist, Forrest Yoga Guardian, and Master Teacher Erica Mather, M.A. is a life-long educator. She teaches people to feel better in, and about their bodies. Her book Your Body, Your Best Friend: End the Confidence-Crushing Pursuit of Unrealistic Beauty-Standards and Embrace Your True Power (New Harbinger, April 2020) is a 7-step spiritual journey helping women befriend their bodies and utilize them as tools and allies on their quest to live their best lives. Her Adore Your Body Transformational Programs help overcome body image challenges, and the Yoga Clinic of NYC supports students, teachers, and health professionals learn about empowered care for the body. Mather is a recognized body image expert and a Forrest Yoga lineage-holder, hand-selected by Ana Forrest to guide and mentor teachers while they learn about Forrest Yoga. She lives in New York City and teaches at PURE Yoga. Visit her at www.ericamather.com.

  • Nine Tools To Help You Stay Calm & Reduce Anxiety

    The feeling of anxiety is palpable right now. It’s present for me too. I’m not immune to the waves that get triggered by the latest news headlines. But I do have some tools to help me stay calm. If you’re panicking, you’re more likely to make bad decisions. If you let anxiety drive your choices, you’ll most likely regret your course of action. Here’s what I do when the nervousness reaches a fever pitch.

    1. Sit

    As little as five minutes of mindfulness makes a qualitative impact on your mental health.

    2. Tune out

    Switch your phone to airplane mode and disable WiFi. Taking a breather from the endless stream of push notifications does wonders for peace of mind. Give yourself at least an hour a day without the deluge of information and disaster scenarios.

    3. Go outside

    Being cooped up all day inside that can make you stir crazy. Sit outside even if only for five minted without your phone. Breathe the fresh air. Listen to sounds of nature, like a bird chirping or the wind rustling through the leaves.

    4. Curb your enthusiasm

    Do less. Instead of stock piling things like toilet paper, or forcing through hasty decisions, press pause for a moment and calmly evaluate your course of action.

    5. Be honest

    Don’t deny it if you’re feeling anxious. Instead journal about it, talk to your therapist and do your own process work to get to the bottom of the pattern. Find out if your fear is rational and you need to take corrective action or if you’re overreacting and acting irrationally. But, either way, you can only work through what you’re willing to admit. A spiritual bypass won’t make anxiety vanish.

    6. Yoga

    Just practice. Life is always better after practice. I’ll be doing a free live class on Tuesday at 1 pm. If you‘d rather stay home and practice you can always find me on Omstars!

    7. Nourish

    Eat good food, drink lots of water and be kind to your body.

    8. Self-care

    Whether it’s a massage, cleaning out your closet, or sitting by the pool, do something you truly enjoy, even if only for a few minutes.

    9. CBD (Cannabidiol)

    It helps me and might help you too.

    What do you do when you feel anxious?

    By Kino MacGregor

    International yoga teacher, Kino MacGregor has over 20 years of experience in Ashtanga yoga & 18 years of experience in Vipassana Meditation. She is one of a select group of people to receive the certification to teach Ashtanga Yoga & practice into the Fifth Series of Ashtanga Yoga. With over 1 million followers on Instagram & over 500,000 subscribers on YouTube & Facebook, she spreads the message of yoga around the world. To Kino, yoga is more than making shapes. It is a daily ritual where people tune deeply into their spiritual center & experience the peace of the Eternal Divine. Her goal is to make the tools of traditional yoga accessible for all different sizes, shapes, ethnicities, & ages. She believes yoga is truly for everyone. Learn more from and connect with Kino on Instagram!

  • Truth Beyond Assumptions: Check Your Gendered Language, Reduce Harm

    If you’re cisgender, meaning you identify with the gender you were assigned at birth, you may not yet have considered the way your gender impacts your body image.

    Maybe you have–as a society, we’ve certainly begun to reckon with the impact that popular representations of men and women have on our ideas about our own bodies. Perhaps you’ve recognized that the lack of body diversity represented in media has made you self-conscious or critical of your weight or that it’s formed the basis of how you present yourself, from the way you dress to the haircut you choose. When it’s constantly reinforced that the ideal female form is slim, waifish, and demure, and that the ideal male form is muscled, tall, and hyper-masculine, it’s not unlikely that you’ve set goals for your appearance that align with the stereotypes that shroud your gender–acceptance is a basic human need. It’s possible you’ve found yourself falling short of the normalized ideal and that it has been a source of strife in your life.

    When you’re transgender or non-binary, meaning you identify with a gender other than that which you were assigned at birth, expressing your gender comfortably can be extra challenging. External pressure to conform with the stereotypes and norms associated with your gender assigned at birth can feel extra heavy when they’re not only unrealistic for many cisgender folks, but also completely out of alignment with your self-understanding. And indeed, research shows that trans folks are particularly vulnerable to struggles with body image–”gender dysphoria,” the psychological distress of feeling like your body doesn’t match your gender, is a common (though not universal) experience for trans folks and is still used as a diagnostic reference and criteria in the DSM, and studies indicate that rates of disordered eating are likely higher among trans individuals.

    I was assigned female at birth and raised as a girl, though I’ve come to understand myself as agender, a non-binary identity that denotes a lack of identification with any particular gender. I now understand that gender is not a binary, nor even one consistent spectrum, but rather a number of intersecting spectrums with infinite possible combinations. There is no universal experience of gender. After years of work to dismantle my learned self-hate around my fatness, I generally feel pretty neutral about my body. I appreciate it for what it is: the vehicle through which I get to experience this life. In this neutrality, there’s nothing about myself that I desire to change.

    But frequently when I meet new people, they look at my body and make the assumption that I’m a woman. It hurts every time. Whenever a teacher walks into our yoga class and addresses the group as “ladies,” or a classmate refers to me as “she,” I feel an immediate physical tightness and emotional distress. I experience second-hand harm even as a bystander to another person’s misgendering.  This happens everywhere, but it hits me particularly hard in yoga spaces. I see yoga as a spiritual practice that’s oriented towards non-harm and a search for truth beyond our assumptions, but this is not what I experience when I’m misgendered in yoga spaces. That sharp dichotomy between the perception of yoga spaces as welcoming and sheltered from harm and my lived experience trying to exist within them makes the sting of misgendering feel like a particularly potent betrayal of the supposedly shared ethic.

    And here’s the thing–not only does misgendering make me feel deeply unseen, something I’m hoping to escape when I come into a yoga space, it actually triggers harmful thoughts about my body. When someone looks at me and then addresses me as “ma’am” or “she,” when I feel so deeply unseen, I start to hate those parts of my body–my breasts, my wide hips, my short stature–that I know the other person is drawing on as the basis of their assumptions. This particular form of negative self-talk is particularly hard for me to combat, because I feel like my only two options are to accept the body I have and live with perpetual misgendering or to express myself inauthentically, making changes to my body that I don’t want and shouldn’t have to make. Neither option feels good or just.

    You can never tell someone’s gender by looking at them. There are plenty of trans and non-binary people who, like me, are still searching for a presentation of gender that is both authentic and publicly legible, or who are still “in the closet” for reasons all their own. There are people who don’t feel a need to change their gender expression to match external, constructed expectations of gender readability, but still deserve to have their gender and pronouns respected as much as anyone else.

    Respecting trans people and making sure you’re gendering people correctly is part of a larger practice of non-harm. I recognize that deconstructing our gendered assumptions is an uphill battle and have empathy for everyone who has been conditioned to make these assumptions–fighting our conditioning, regardless of context, is a tough task. It’s set up to be–that’s exactly how systemic oppression perpetuates, by making it difficult to change the status quo and move towards equity.

    If this is a concept you’re just starting to explore, maybe take this moment to ask yourself how many times a day you look at someone and assume their gender. Or, you could think about all the times your gender is assumed by someone else–how often does your yoga teacher greet the class with gendered language, a restaurant worker call you “ma’am” or “sir,” a public speaker address the crowd as “ladies and gentlemen,” an author write the phrase “he or she?” You may just be noticing how frequently you encounter this, but for me and many other trans and non-binary folks, it feels omnipresent.

    I’m calling on my fellow yoga practitioners to be our allies in reducing this ongoing harm. Both inside and outside of yoga spaces, practice avoiding assumptions and use gender-neutral language with people you don’t know, help normalize the practice of asking every new person you meet what their pronouns are by doing it consistently, add your own pronouns to your email signature, your Twitter bio, and your next conference nametag. Extend your ahimsa practice to trans folks. Just as you can never know who you might be hurting when you assume gender, you never know who you’re helping to exist in their body when you don’t.

    By Melanie Williams

    Melanie Williams is an East-Coast-based, fat, queer, non-binary yoga teacher and self-love advocate, called to create profoundly accessible spaces for self-inquiry and the inward journey by integrating mindfulness and adaptive movement practices with the spirit of social justice. They believe that the goal of yoga, as of life, is collective liberation and in turn challenge contemporary yogis to dismantle the systems and beliefs that hold us all back. In addition to teaching group and private yoga classes, Melanie offers workshops that explore queer identity and body image, leads adaptive yoga teacher trainings, helps coordinate trainings internationally for Accessible Yoga, champions diversity and inclusion in the yoga industry as a member of the Yoga & Body Image Coalition leadership team, and serves leading industry groups as an expert advisor on diversity and accessibility.

    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.

  • Yoga Mythology Series: Rishi Dadhyanga, Life’s Purpose

    Dadhyanga was a born to Santi and sage Atharva. The boy was innately calm and beneficent. As he grew older he became known for his unswerving devotion for Lord Shiva the omniscient yogi the supreme being worshiped as a great God; one who can transform the universe.

    Dadhyanga immersed himself in devotion to Lord Shiva. He spent most of his time meditation upon Shiva and used the remaining time of the day helping and serving people around him to his truest ability. His conscious efforts to live a selfless life devoted to welfare of others and devotion to supreme being made him a revered rishi (sage) amongst all gods and devas; the celestial beings.

    After many years of seclusion in the Himalayas, rishi Dadhyanga came back and started living on the bank of Sabarmati river. Anyone who came to his hermitage seeking help never returned disappointed. Sage Dadhyanga did everything in capacity to help the needy. With extreme devotion towards leading a selfless life made his body and soul purge all impurities that came as a part of human existence.

    During those ages there were several wars waged by the asuras (demons) on the devas (celestial beings) and celestial gods to take control of the three worlds. Once during such wars between the asuras and the devas, Vrtraasura, a very powerful demon king captured swarg loka (the heavens) with his might, defeating the gods. The gods tried everything possible to regain their control over swarg loka but failed in all their attempts as Vrtraasura defeated them each time.

    The gods realized that there was no way to defeat the demon king thus they went to Lord Narayana (the supreme creator of the universe) and took his shelter. Learning about their plight Lord Narayana informed the vanquished gods that there was no weapon strong enough in heaven or earth that could slay Vrtaasura and that it was only Lord Indra the god of thunder and storms who could kill him by a thunderbolt made from the bones of sage Dadhyanga. Lord Narayana told them that Dadhyanga had performed such severe penance that his bones had acquired strength beyond bounds and that he was such a great beneficent that he would offer his bones for the purpose, if requested for. Learning this from Lord Narayana, all the celestial gods and devas went to see rishi Dadhyanga at it his hermitage.

    Dadhyanga welcomed all the gods in obeisance at his hermitage. “What brings all of you here?” he asked looking at Lord Indra, the god of thunder. “Vrtraasura the demon king has captured the swarg loka and banished all of us, we have no place to go to and it is in great agony that we have come to you to seek your help”, Lord Indra replied with much sorrow. Hearing their plight Dadhyanga explained the devas that he was Brahmana and a teacher and it was against his nature to wage a war or assail a demon.  “We have come here to request you to give us your bones to create a thunderbolt so strong that it can slay the demon king because there is no other weapon strong enough in the entire universe to kill him” pleaded Lord Indra.

    Hearing this Dadhyanga assured them with a pleasing smile and said.. “We humans are made for cooperation, like feet, like hands, like the eye lids. To act against one another then is contrary to our inherent nature. We humans do not realize it but our greatest need is to be useful to a fellow human in the purest way possible, that is the only way we can find true contentment and use our time here on this earth in the most fulfilling way possible”.

    Rishi Dadhyanga with folded hands told them that death was inevitable, and the best way to end this journey of life would be to die for the well being of another one.
    “I am going to give up my life leaving my bones for your sake, please use them for welfare of everyone” Rishi Dadhyanga said looking at Lord Indra as other gods looked at him with tears of joy and hope. The sage then sat on the grass closed his eyes and left his body by yogic powers, soon the cows of the forest gathered around the body and licked the sage’s body away until only the bones were left on the grass.

    Lord Indra killed Vrtaasura with the thunderbolt made from Dadhyanga’s bones and order was restored in the universe.

    By Ankur Tunaak

    Ankur Tunaak has been an Ashtanga yoga practitioner for over a decade, studied with Shree M. Vishwanath who was one of the first students and nephew of Shree Pathabhi Jois. Also, an alumnus of Bihar School Of Yoga, one of four premier Yogic Studies Institutions in India. Ankur is a storyteller and photographer, currently teaching yoga in New Delhi, India.

    Portrait photography by Ankur Tunaak.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    By Shanna Small

    Read More Insightful Articles by Shanna Small

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

  • Yogi-Bitionism: How Patriarchy Steals our Female Elders

    Youth, for women, is a tremendous form of currency. And, this is the crux of my problem with yogi-bitionism. Yoga is, presumably, a space where we can find our intrinsic worth. Ideally, it can counteract the poisonous tendency of evaluating women on the basis of their appearance.

    A Christmas Eve yoga practice! Just what I need to relax and stay calm before the Christmas holiday. So many gifts to still wrap. Gotta drive a long, long distance to get to my aunt house tomorrow (although I do greatly love this aunt and uncle and find them well worth the drive). Looking forward to seeing my siblings, too! So right, better get my butt in gear so I can get to class on-time. Only, I’m on this aspartame cleanse using bentonite clay? And the shits be like…anyway. I just gotta hurry this up so I can get to class. OK so what time is it? (pun! zing!) I only have 15 minutes to get to class and it will take me at least 18. $#@! Late again. I pull up only two minutes late (no traffic!) and race to check in. I imagine that I enter class a mere 5 minutes late, which feels utterly respectable. I park my mat on the far side of the room, near the window, and join the class in a little cat-cow. I look up during cow position to see that another lady has come in after me, parked her mat diagonal to my left. Ha! I thought, I wasn’t even the latest $#@! in here.

    We press up into downward-facing dog. I keep my knees bent, articulating my spine, which always feels stiff around the thoracic. I’m undulating, loosening the muscles and tissues surrounding the vertebrae. The instructor calls out “Uttanasana.” I’m feeling pretty open across the shoulders, since I did a practice the day before. I decide to jump forward. Now, before my first jump, I sometimes lift my tailbone and kind of bounce my booty a little bit. It gives me momentum going into the jump. I rock my booty a taste and jump forward, landing softly. Then I hear a cackle, “HA! Ahahaaha!” It’s coming from the late white lady (LWL). She was really getting a hearty laugh out of something. Now, save the music playing in the background and the teacher’s instructions, the room is entirely quiet. No one is cracking a joke. The only things in her line of vision were my swaying bottom, and the wall. True, I wasn’t sure why LWL was laughing. Was she laughing at a thought that just arose in her mind? Was it something the lady next to her—who she clearly didn’t know—said or did? Or could it be, since she was in clear view of my ass, that she found my butt rocking utterly hysterical?

    Thing is, I am usually the lone black person in a yoga room. Sometimes, I am the only person of color amid a sea of white. I can tell you that there have been many times white people have looked at me sideways. Frowning, anxious, fearful, and of course amused. (I can tell you endless stories of white folks getting a kick out of seeing me in a yoga room.) It’s like a bear sighting. I wasn’t entirely sure she found me funny. But, I had a pretty strong feeling that was what got her going. I knew it was going to be a long yoga class. It’s no mean feat to block out a smug, self-satisfied, yoga practitioner when they are in your midst. This is especially true when the yogi is really flexing. Giving the fullest, most challenging expression of every pose, for no particular reason. These “yogi-bitionists” as I’ve taken to calling them want you looking. They’re expecting your eyes, praying/preying on your gaze. You watching them is one of the things that brings them to class. And yes, they’re trolling the $#@! out of you.

    This woman was the most obvious type of yogi-bitionist. We were in a Vinyasa 1 class, the purportedly lowest level of asana instruction. The type of class that gives the practitioners, new and returning, the chance to focus more on alignment and breath work than contortionism. Yet, she was attempting handstands and arm balances at just about every transition. Don’t get me wrong: when you know your body, you will do the expression that you are most comfortable with. I was in one “advanced” class wherein before the class even started the woman to the left of me jumped into a handstand, while the woman on the right dropped back into wheel. I was like, “Oh, it’s this kind of class? I’m here for it.” In terms of mastering the asanas, these two women (who also appeared to be in their 50s) were impressive. Confident and self-possessed. Not there to make friends, but nevertheless kind to the other folks in the class.

    In this particular class though, because we hadn’t warmed up for some of the more advanced postures LWL was attempting, she kept falling out of them. This was seemingly her body’s way of telling her it was not ready for them. In the rare cases when she managed to effectively land an inversion, she’d only be in the pose for a millisecond before the entire rest of the class transitioned to something else, because it was a Vinyasa 1 class. With short holds. At the end of the class, our instructor turned and walked over to this woman. Introduced the lady as her own teacher. It was the first time LWL turned around so we could see her face. She was in her mid-50s. Wearing a crop top and several cute little ponytails. Then, I knew what the whole show was about: wanting to intimidate, instead of being intimidated, in a space full of younger women. It was sad, not mostly because of how she was put together.

    Tomorrow, when I’m in my 50s, I might rock my styles just like that. (Er’ryday it’s a battle not to wear a catsuit because $#@! everybody.) It was discouraging because of what the combination of her hairstyle, attire, and posturing signaled as a unit. It was like she was overcompensating for being older. She seemed to keep her gaze down a lot, and it clearly wasn’t from modesty. Seemingly she was doing it because the face reveals the age. She didn’t want any of us noticing her wizened visage. Instead, she seemed to be goaling toward drawing attention to her performative “mastery” of the asanas, in an effort to appear superior to women two-three decades her junior. The reason is clear. Youth, for women, is a tremendous form of currency. And, this is the crux of my problem with yogi-bitionism. Yoga is, presumably, a space where we can find our intrinsic worth. Ideally, it can counteract the poisonous tendency of evaluating women on the basis of their appearance. Of pitting women against one another to determine who’s got the cutest face and the perkiest tits. Who’s most flexible. This latter point is an underestimated expectation of patriarchy. Not a new one by any means. But one of the reasons why the idea of yoga being performed by young (white) women, has been taken up with such relish in our capitalist, hetero-patriarchal culture.

    The experience was a reminder of what patriarchy has taken from us. It has taken our women elders. How many women over the age of 50 do you know who are competitive with much younger women? (And again, I’m not talking about sexy women of any age living their best lives. Each day I know that because of women like Adrienne Banfield-Jones, anything is possible.) Women’s sexual objectification is the root of the problem. And yet, white capitalist hetero-patriarchy doesn’t have to be the final word. Instead of using yoga for yogi-bitionist aims, yoga can help us move past our objectification. It can help us value ourselves, and genuinely appreciate the humanity of other (cis and trans) women. You can think of it as a form of Aparigraha (non-possessiveness) or alternatively not clinging. Aparigraha tells us that rather than clinging to youth, beauty, age and ability, we can let all that go. In so doing, we can become more generous, and less competitive with others. It suggests that for women who are long-time yoga practitioners, as we age we can view ourselves as worthy of teaching, guiding, leading, or at the bare minimum respecting, the next generation of women. Not remaining in the competition with them for the implied male gaze. Because even without the presence of cis-het men, the visual economy of preferences which they have conjured is still working on us.

    I was reminded of Chris Rock’s indictment of the old man in the club. 37, too old to be in the club. I was 37 when this incident took place, and I’m 40 now. The more I go to yoga studios in southern California, the younger the women seem to get. Perhaps the LWL, in a rebuke of father time, wanted to prove to these young women (in which group I personally did not include myself) that she still had it. It is the opposite of what yoga has been about, historically. But, it is a reflection of what happens when yoga is taken up commercially. I’d like to think of yoga as a space where I can bring my whole self. Where I have a right to practice even when I haven’t got on a new outfit (I’mma tell y’all about that time I was outfit-shamed later.) I’m not going to compensate for aging as a woman by becoming a yogi-bitionist. We all deserve better.

    By Sabrina Strings

    Sabrina Strings, Ph.D. is Asst. Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Irvine. Prior to coming to UCI, she was a UC Berkeley Chancellor’s Postdoctoral Fellow with a joint appointment in the School of Public Health and Department of Sociology. She has been featured in The Feminist Wire, Yoga International, and LA Yoga. Her writing can be found in diverse venues, including Ethnic and Racial Studies; Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, Fat Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Body Weight and Society and Feminist Media Studies. She was the recipient of the 2017 Distinguished Contribution to Scholarship Article Award for the Race, Gender and Class section of the American Sociological Association. Her new book is titled Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia (NYU Press 2019). It has been featured on NPR, KPFA and WNYC, as well as three “must read” lists.

    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.