• Marsha’s Dharma: Yoga and Social Justice

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

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

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

    Pride is political.

    Yoga is political.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Donate to the Marsha P. Johnson Institute

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    By Joseph Armstrong

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

  • Finding a Balanced Path

    Yoga seems to be full of contradictions.  For instance, in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, a text that codifies the path of Raja Yoga, Sage Patanjali lists running from pain/aversion as a Klesha/obstacle to yoga but then says “Pain, that has not yet come should be avoided”. 

    Patanjali says that we should practice non-attachment but we also should maintain a daily practice for a long time, without stopping and with faith and devotion.  The Hatha Yoga Pradipika, a text that explains the path of Hatha Yoga, says that the yogi should follow no rules but then says you need a Guru and you should follow his/her rules.

    What is a yogi to do?

    Patanjali states that everything exists for our soul’s sake.  We are either here to experience the world or to liberate ourselves from the world. Everything in existence has characteristics that bind us or liberate us.  Everything has both/and.  You choose how to work with the universe/God’s creation/nature’s creation.

    At the very beginning of the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali introduces the concept of both/and.  He lists thought patterns that can be both harmless and/or harmful.  For example, one of the thought patterns mentioned is memory. Without memory, we cannot do basic functions like drive a car or make breakfast. However, dwelling on events from our past can cause pain in our futures. Remembering why we come to our mats can help us maintain a consistent practice but clinging to our past physical accomplishments on the mat results in comparison and suffering. Our memories can be both a blessing and a curse all at the same time.

    To get a deeper understanding of working with paradox on the spiritual path, let’s go back to the examples in the first paragraph.  Should we or should we not avoid pain? In order to change, grow and evolve, we often must become uncomfortable.  For example, if you want to become more physically fit, you must endure the pain of sore muscles. This is good pain.  If you use improper form during your workout and become injured, this is the pain that should and could have been avoided.  Another type of pain, that may be beneficial to work with and not avoid, is emotional pain that keeps you yoked to fear, shame, anger, guilt and hate.  This type of pain keeps you locked in the Klesha of Avidya, ignorance of your true nature.  Avidya is an obstacle to yoga. On the flip side, if you had an unhealthy relationship with your ex that you healed from and they ask you on a date, that may be a type of pain that you would want to avoid.

    Now let’s look at yogic practices. If you have a mental tug of war whenever you miss practice, you are most likely attached to it.  This is not all bad. Sometimes, we have to baby step change. Going straight from stressed out mess to enlightenment may be too much of a stretch. A daily practice provides a systematized way of gradually working with our neurosis. As we slowly create new healthy patterns, it is important to occasionally reevaluate our practice and ask ourselves if our practice is leading us to freedom of bondage. The practice, when done properly, should create more freedom in your heart, soul and mind. As you become freer, you grow less attached to yogic techniques. Eventually, the yogi can keep his heart and mind light without the use of yogic techniques.

    Our last example will be Swami Svatmarama’s, the author of the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, declaration that yogis should not follow rules, however they should follow their teacher’s rules.  While there have definitely been sages that didn’t make rules or honestly, even want students, who managed to teach students, yogic practices generally come with rules. Even if a teacher shows many different variations of Down Dog, there is still some idea of the general shape or purpose of a Down Dog which means there are rules for Down Dog.

    We cannot get around rules. The universe has rules. If you jump off your roof, you will not float up…unless you have super powers. We also will most likely always need someone else to teach us about rules. Our parents or care givers were our first teachers. They taught us that, even with a cape, if we jump off the roof, we will not fly but fall straight down.

    Though yoga is ultimately an individual journey, a yoga teacher ensures that the yogi has a good map for their journey.  So, when do we not follow rules? Swami Muktibodhananda, a teacher and commentator on the Hatha Yoga Pradipika says, “As far as social rituals and religious doctrines are concerned, it is unnecessary that they be maintained for spiritual progress. Sadhana (practice) is not dependent on social morals nor are its effects promoted by religious practices. Adhering to rules makes one narrow minded. Yoga is meant to expand the consciousness, not to limit it. A yogi should have a free and open mind.”

    As we practice, we get to know ourselves. Discernment grows and we understand what actions lead us further on the yogic journey, which ones are inconsequential and which ones stop progress.   Any rules that don’t serve the yogi or the greater good are questioned and possibly cast aside.  A great example of this is Gandhi, who used civil disobedience to protest British colonial rule.

    The quote, “A yogi does not do what is right. A yogi does what is appropriate” by Sadhguru is a really beautiful way of looking at paradox in the spiritual world. Every moment calls for a new and different action. What is right for one moment, may not be appropriate for another. Within every moment or person there lies the seeds of good and evil, death and life, growth and stagnation and/or liberation and bondage. Traversing the slope of paradox calls for a strong heart, a willingness to stay open and the ability to forgive.  We are human and flawed.  Because we hold the possibility for both/and, sometimes we will not do what is appropriate and we will not do what is right. Luckily, we can find our way back on the spiritual path as many times as we need. No effort is wasted and no one is ever permanently lost.

    By Shanna Small

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    Practice LIVE with Shanna Small on Omstars

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

    Photo credit: Wanda Koch Photography.

  • The Difference Between Intent and Impact

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

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

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

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

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

    Anybody can do yoga

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

    Classes in exchange for cleaning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    We are all one

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

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

    By Shanna Small

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

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

  • Maintaining Peace, Equanimity, and Authenticity

    I want to talk with you about what it means to maintain peace, equanimity, and authenticity in your walk in the world.

    As a yogi, it’s traditionally understood that you are held to a higher standard, which means that, as a yogi, you constantly have to tune back into yourself.  Maintaining an equanimeous mind and a compassionate open heart that simultaneously maintains the dual vows of what’s called in Sanskrit, Ahimsa, which means non-violence and truthfulness, or Satya.

    These two together will help you walk in the world, and truly live the yogi’s life. For it is not enough to only be truthful but you must also be compassionate.  And it is not enough only to be compassionate, for you must always be truthful. So, as a yogi in the world, it’s inevitable that you will come into contact with difficult situations, but you always have the benchmark of your daily practice.

    If you get on your mat everyday it will bring you back into your center, and if you don’t know how to act because you have interacted in the world or been stimulated by negativity, then the yogi’s teaching, or the yogi’s path, is to not act in anger. To not act out of jealously. To not act out of negativity, but instead, to remain calm, to redirect your mind back into the inner body until your mind maintains a calm and equanimous center.

    And only after the mind maintains a calm and equanimous center then compassionate, rightful action, that is simultaneously truthful and compassionate will be presented to you. And it will unfold almost like light shining on the path ahead.

    Continue this lesson with Kino on Omstars

     

    By Kino MacGregor

    Kino MacGregor is a world renowned yoga teacher, the youngest ever teacher to be certified in Ashtanga Yoga by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, author of several yoga books, and the founder of OMstars.com