• Muted to Empowered….Journey To Finding My Voice

    This practice saved my life. I began to connect with my body in ways I had been unable to previously. My relationships with my family and others began to heal.

    NOTE: This post was written Fall of 2020.

    Part 1

    Let me tell you the story of my first memory, setting the stage for a lifetime. I was 3 years old. Being first-generation Latinx from Colombia, we spoke Spanish in our home. My mom’s English was very limited. I had no concept that English and Spanish were two separate languages.

    Every day, I would watch from the living room window as the older girls in our neighborhood played jump rope. I longed to join them. I begged my mom to let me play with these girls, and she was hesitant to do so.

    One day it happened. My mom asked these girls to let me play with them and they agreed. I was ecstatic! When it was my turn to start jumping rope, I was excited to show these older girls how smart I was, to show them I knew how to count. I jumped in and gleefully sang “uno, dos, tres, cua —.” The rope stopped. The girls were laughing and pointing at me. A deep clenching grip took hold of my inner being, and I thought, why did they stop holding the rope? Why are they laughing and pointing at me? One pointed at me and said, “What are YOU SAYING? What IS that?” As they all laughed and pointed.

    I immediately felt a deep shame come over me. That was the moment when I first noticed I was different. My skin was darker, my hair was darker, and what was this I was speaking? I ran home in tears, full of anger and a deep shame that I had never felt before. I was furious at my mom for not telling me to speak English — for not telling me that our language was different. After that, I refused to speak and later refused to speak Spanish. As I learned to speak English or speak publicly, I could not do so without stuttering. I was a stutterer for years, afraid to use my voice for fear of being shamed.

    The disassociation and internalized shame continued. Yes, my family had many privileges other BIPOC people do not. We were middle-class. We never suffered from housing or food insecurity. We had access to schools. Yet, we were also one of the few families of color in our suburb. With that came many micro and not-so micro-aggressions.

    My sister and I and our dear Black friends and neighbors were turned away at block parties because “our mothers worked.” We were told to leave because we didn’t “live in that cul-de-sac” (we literally lived in the one right next door and it was an entire block party).

    Being asked if I was adopted because my father is Jewish and white. The paralyzing fear of going somewhere with him, being asked this question and having to explain, yet again, that he is my real father.

    Being asked, where are you from? I was born in Portland, was the reply. And the inevitable, no I mean where are you really from? You’re so exotic.

    The mortification that came with teachers calling my sister and me Colombian coffee beans, yelling it at us from the front of the classroom.

    The list goes on and on….

    With every micro-aggression, I just became muted and smaller, hoping no one would notice.

    Part 2

    These experiences further perpetuated my internal belief that I was not worthy of equal treatment.

    I remained muted later on as a pre-teen when I experienced sexual abuse. I did not speak out. Later as a young adult, while living in abusive situations, I hid the paralyzing domestic violence. Then came debilitating drug addiction. These were very dark times. I was desperate, sick, and drowning in an addiction I could not see my way out of.

    I could not use my voice to ask for help. And I could not use my voice to scream SEE ME! I am a human. I am worthy, and I need help.

    The trauma ran deep within me. This internalized oppression and ingrained belief that I was not deserving of equality had not only robbed me of my voice but enforced my belief that somehow this abuse was deserved. The violence continued and after almost dying due to a violent attack, I was taken to the ER via ambulance after being revived. Neither the police nor the hospital staff treated me with any dignity. I was left on the ambulance gurney in the ER hallway for all to see: beaten, strangled, and bruised. They did not believe me or my story, as there was evidence of addiction. I was just another woman of color, a single mom in the system who was deserving of this attack and violence, not even worthy of the privacy of a treatment room.

    I somehow started the slow climb back to life through treatment, family support, and some inner drive. There was something greater than myself that loved me enough to show me, guide my way out.

    I began to change my life, raising my twin sons as a single parent and trying to be the best parent I could be. Juggling work and school, I somehow managed to finish college. Loving and raising my twin sons and providing for them was my driving force, my lifesaver. I began a career.

    When I started my new “professional job”, as a healthcare executive, I was asked if I was the new housekeeper. Another time I had an episode where a white older woman came to my office and with a condescending pat on the knee, asked me “how did you get this job honey?”

    Male colleagues and supervisors asked me to get their coffee or make their hotel reservations for work travel. All the while I continued to stay muted, putting my head down in shame, complied, and just worked harder to show everyone I was worthy. Taking on more tasks than my colleagues and working longer hours. I had much success in the field. I climbed the corporate management ladder.

    I learned not to speak. When I did speak about mistreatments, I was told I was difficult or reactionary, a too fiery (Latin) woman. I knew I had to continue to be an over-achiever, wear blinders, smile, and stay muted for there was no room for a woman of color to speak up and cause trouble. That was made perfectly clear. You went along with the game if you wanted to move up. I wanted nothing more than to provide for my young sons and better our living situation. So I silently allowed the racist assumptions, the micro-aggressions, the discrimination, and my own internalized oppression, believing this is simply how it was.

    Later, I married a non-binary trans person. Yes, I was ‘out’. We were out and proud as a couple, yet co-workers would intrusively ask me to educate them. It was exhausting to explain to everyone why the pronouns they/them. It’s confusing, they exclaimed. I don’t understand, they stated. Why can’t we just use he/him? Why can’t you all just be a lesbian couple, that would be easier for us to understand? Again, I was the outsider looking in, continuing to compartmentalize my life, never able to show my authentic self. And worse yet, still never realizing or fully knowing how muted I truly was.

    I continued to struggle with addiction and alcoholism. Addiction has been my fight since my early teens, with bouts of short and longer-term sobriety, often exchanging one substance for another, or supplementing with disordered eating. Relapses are a part of my journey.

    I found myself trying to get sober yet again. I had heard yoga could help. I drug myself to a very popular studio and teacher. My leggings had holes and I had a Punk Rock t-shirt on, smelling like the night before. There were at least 100 students packed in this studio–all white, primarily thin, and they all seemed to know each other. They greeted each other with hugs and kisses, love and light for all.

    NOT ONE PERSON SAID HELLO. Not one person said “welcome.”

    I only got abundant sideways glances. Let’s pretend we don’t see her. I became keenly aware I was not fitting the part, so I just stayed quiet and found a spot. I looked around, noticing no other people like me. I also noticed the fancy clothes. What were these clothes all of these people were wearing? I guess you needed to wear certain clothes to do yoga?

    During this class something magical happened. I was transported into a spirit-body-mind state I’d never before experienced. I went from feeling mortified and unseen to something unknown to me. There were no words for it. There was just a realization at that moment that I was connected to something very profound and sacred. A calling home.

    Despite the shame of my first experience, the gift the yoga practice gave was bigger. I was determined to return. I went home and immediately googled the various logos of the clothes I saw people wearing as next time I was going to fit the part. Perhaps I could just blend in unseen, versus being the recipient of awkward side-ways glances. I found the clothes and then found the prices. Holy shit! I immediately got some pants with said logos for $6 via EBAY and my journey began.

    The Divine Spark was lit… my transformation began.

    It wasn’t long before I began a daily practice, and as a result, I started to heal. I had not realized how much trauma I had stored in my body and how much emotional, physical and spiritual pain I was in as a result. And though I was never really fully part of the yoga studio crowd, the transformation and healing received from the practice was stronger than the feelings of being unseen, or the micro-aggressions experienced from others around me.

    I discovered I was stronger than the stories I told myself about something being wrong with me.
    This practice saved my life. I began to connect with my body in ways I had been unable to previously. My relationships with my family and others began to heal. Instead of being called angry, reactionary, and quick-tempered, people commented on how I was calm and caring. People started asking me for advice on how to handle conflicts in their lives. I began to let go of some long-held resentments. The deep shame lessened and I began to see the world more clearly.

    My teacher at the time was leading a 200-hour teacher training and he mentioned it could be an opportunity to go deeper and learn more. I had never thought about teaching, but I jumped at the chance to go deeper. I applied and was accepted. Halfway through the training, my person, Ami and I moved from San Francisco to Portland. It was during this time that my friend, mentor, and teacher Khristine Jones asked me to go start a Yoga Punx collective in Portland and expand the community of donation-based, harm reduction, inclusive yoga. She started the original Yoga Punx collective in San Francisco and Oakland and had created a community there that was healing, inclusive, and really quite magical. I was terrified to start one in Portland, yet I did what she asked. I was going to teach yoga.

    Khristine always saw in me what I could not see in myself. The only community I ever felt accepted in and seen was the punk rock community. The commitment to freedom, to social justice, and the connection of people committed to community was incredible. The Yoga Punx community was an extension of this accepting culture and created a sanctuary for healing.

    Part 3

    My life changed dramatically once I arrived in Portland. I started a regular Mysore Ashtanga practice. I founded and started teaching Yoga Punx PDX. Our classes quickly grew from 1 time per week to 3 times per week, to more. The opportunity to open a studio presented itself, and within a year of moving we owned a Shala, our community continued to grow, and suddenly I was a yoga teacher, and Ami and I were studio owners.

    We deepened our studies, traveling to attend various workshops. The students rarely engaged with us at these other studios, and if we mentioned we owned a studio, the response was always “you DO?”. We are two people of color who are heavily tattooed–one femme and one non-binary 2 Spirit trans person–who don’t fit the mold of the young, white, thin practitioner. Most of the time we were just left alone and ignored, but we loved the practice and continued to study.

    I was a new teacher and we were growing our yoga community. The feeling of not really having a voice within the yoga world at large grew. I became a teacher later in life, I was not the stereotypical teacher, and my lifetime of feeling muted continued in this space–yet much, much worse.

    For our first trip to India, I begged Ami to make the trek to Mysore. It was my dream. After spending a beautiful month in Kovalam studying with our teacher, David Garrigues, we went to Mysore to study. Quickly, it was apparent that we were not seen here. We had left Kovalam where we were seen by our yoga community and our teacher, from being included and welcomed to something much different. No one really interacted with us. We attempted small talk at various yogi hang-out spots, but really no one was all too interested. Not letting this deter us, we quickly made friends with locals. We found and studied with less popular local female teachers, often being two of four students in their Shala. Although we never really connected with the yoga community in Mysore like we did in Kovalam, Mysore was a beautiful and growing experience. Our teachers in Mysore were inspiring and accepting. We continue to go to India every year.

    My teaching grew. I started a school. I started a Mysore Ashtanga program. We expanded our classes and established our non-profit, Yoga Punx PDX. Yoga Punx PDX’s mission is to bring the healing transformation of yoga and indigenous practices to all, regardless of ability to pay, removing financial and physical barriers to the practice. We create radically inclusive and brave spaces. We take yoga to those who cannot access studios by bringing it to treatment centers, nursing homes, shelters, and beyond.

    We have taught in needle exchanges. We have taught in camps where our houseless friends live. We have taught for DHS to a group of newly immigrated people, who spoke five different languages. We use a harm reduction, trauma-informed approach.

    We were and are always on the fringes. I never felt I had a voice in the larger yoga world; I was just an older, darker woman, serving those like us: people who otherwise did not feel welcome in other yoga studios. Looking back, I see I started the school, the studio, and its programs to create an urban sanctuary for healing to unfold. A place to honor the lineage of the practices — Bhakti and Ashtanga — that saved me, and to offer its sacredness to others who never felt a “part of”.

    Service. Harm Reduction. Community.

    These are our guiding principles and we strive to never water the practice down.

    Then the world changed. The George Floyd murder highlighted the injustice, oppression, and police brutality that Black Lives Matter and other anti-racist and social justice groups have long been fighting for. Demands for justice grew. Justice for Breonna Taylor, Ahmoud Avery, Elijah McClain, and hundreds of others. BIPOC voices were amplified. These cries for justice are finally being heard on a larger scale. It was long overdue.

    I found and participated in a social media challenge. I rarely do such things. But, as an activist here in Portland, the “Amplify Melanated Voices” challenge spoke to me. Part of the challenge was to mute white influencer accounts and follow BIPOC yoga teacher accounts. I quickly went through who I was following on Instagram, and was surprised that the majority of the accounts I followed were of white yoga teachers. I found and followed BI & POC accounts. By the second day, I was TRANSFORMED! A veil was lifted. Every day, instead of feeling resentful, small, and insecure from scrolling through my feed, I felt excited and invigorated I found these accounts gave me strength, inspiration, and pride. I was amazed and inspired by these strong voices! I realized by day two how I was living my life muted. I realized by day two that I felt small and unseen. By day two, I clearly began to see and believe that I too have a voice, I am a teacher. I have a place in this yoga world. I BELONG. I began to reach out, make connections, and network with strong and inspiring BIPOC yoga teachers. I am no longer alone. I am just a few weeks in with so much to learn. But I am ready. Ready to speak, to use my voice, no longer muted and no longer small.

    I struggled with writing this story — my story. Trying not to succumb to and believe the internal chatter that tells me: No one cares. No one wants to hear from you. I don’t want this to be a story of all the wrongs and mistreatments and abuses. Yes, these are definitely a large part of my story and cannot be ignored. But I also want it to be a story about the power of VOICE. The power of seeing others like you — and when they have a voice, how healing can happen. This is the power of rising up. The power of feeling welcomed, safe and SEEN.

    I share my story so that you can look within your communities and see those who are muted, unseen and small. Yoga claims inclusivity — but I share my experience so you may see how exclusive this “yoga club” truly is.

    I want you to ponder: Could someone in your community be having a similar experience? How can we learn to be better and do better? How can we make room, space, and safety for all?

    We all deserve access. How can we make our spaces and communities a welcoming sanctuary? You never know a person’s story- and your Shala, your space, your class could be the lifeline that they are barely hanging onto to pull themselves back from despair. You could be their last chance.

    I have much to learn. I see the many privileges afforded me that others do not have. I am ready to do the work, study, seek mentors, and use my privilege to help others. Will you join me?

    By Sandee Simon-Lawless

    Sandee firmly believes it is never too late to start a yoga practice. Although she came to the yoga mat at various times in her life, it didn’t resonate with her until her mid-40s, when she came to heal from emotional, spiritual, and physical pain. As she physically healed, she found unexpected gifts of love, resilience, patience and acceptance. She learned she was no longer a victim; she was a survivor. With this conviction, Sandee set upon a path of liberation for the collective.

    Sandee is the founder and Executive Director of Yoga Punx PDX, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization committed to breaking down barriers to yoga accessibility and supporting those most impacted by oppression and systemic racism. She firmly believes that no one is free until those most marginalized are free. Yoga Punx PDX is a community that offers donation-based yoga, meditation, sound healing, and indigenous healing practices, taking classes to communities who otherwise would not have access. It also provides scholarships to QT, BI & POC, as well as folks in recovery for the Heart of Vinyasa Yoga Teacher Training.

    Sandee is the owner and director of Burning Spirits Yoga in occupied land now known as Portland, Oregon. The Portland Metro area rests on traditional village sites of the Multnomah, Wasco, Cowlitz, Kathlamet, Clackamas, Bands of Chinook, Tualatin, Kalapuya, Molalla, and many other tribes who made their homes along the Columbia River creating both permanent communities and summer encampments to harvest and use the plentiful natural resources of the area.”

    She, along with her co-teachers, guide the Mysore Ashtanga Program and the Heart of Vinyasa Yoga School, which is committed to education in Yoga philosophy and the Eight-Limbed Path. Along with her co-teachers at Burning Spirits Yoga and with Yoga Punx PDX, Sandee is committed to social justice and anti-racism and providing de-colonizing offerings from an intersectional and trauma-informed lens.

    Lastly, Sandee is a healer — a Curandera working with energy, guidance, yoga, and plant medicine to guide folks to self-healing.

    Sandee is forever grateful to the teachers and ancestors who came before and made this work possible. Without their labor, this practice would not be. She would like to thank her teachers, past and present: David Garrigues, Dianne Bondy, Tim Miller, Saraswati Jois, Khristine Jones and her life partner, Ami Lawless.

    Sandee holds an MBA- Healthcare, BA in Gerontology. Sandee is a EYRT 200, completed 100 hours of advanced Bhakti Flow, current 300-hour student with Dianne Bondy, Primary Series Teacher Trainings, apprenticed for 3 years with her teacher, David Garrigues. Sandee is a Level 1 Reiki practitioner, and has completed intensive trainings in herbalism, channeling and energy healing.

    You can follow Sandee on Instagram https://www.instagram.com/sandeelawlessyoga/

    Facebook https://www.facebook.com/sandeelawlessyoga

    Support their work at https://www.yogapunxpdx.com and https://burningspiritsyoga.com

    Photo by Matt Duncan on Unsplash