• Healing Ashtanga Yoga Through Radical Unlearning and Co-Creation of Community

    In the wake of the most recent and publicized murders of Black men and women at the hands of state-sanctioned systemic violence, seven years after the phrase was coined by Patrisse Cullors, Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi after the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the death of Trayvon Martin, Black Lives Matter has become a public rallying cry.

    I didn’t go to the protest a few weeks back here in Helsinki. I sent my husband and children on my behalf so that I might write, mourn and move through raw emotion in peace. I needed space to bear witness to what might either be history in the making or another cycle of an ongoing pattern we know all too well. I wrote the following on a Instagram post capturing the complexities of the moment: There are many heightened, mixed emotions pulsing through me right now.

    The hopeful energy of Finland’s historical protest.

    The fatigue.

    The rage of how many Black lives it took before Black Lives Matter became a public rally cry.

    The fatigue…of trying to make sense of the senseless, of the insanity of state-sanctioned murder. And the oldness of it.

    The joy and necessity of falling into the arms of my sisters as I make mistakes too, along my own process of dismantling my internalized Anti-Blackness. The sadness I feel when I can’t show up for another sister because my own rage and hurt is too overwhelming. My burden too heavy to carry on my own.

    The cautious hope and wariness that those with newfound consciousness will do the tough, inner work of dismantling their conditioning around whiteness and proximity to power. Of holding themselves and their family, friends, colleagues accountable.

    The suspicion (and proof) of businesses and corporations co-opting the movement because it makes good cents now and they can continue to build their empires off the backs and pain of oppressed people, of Black people. Of who will show up once anti-racism is no longer trendy. This is rigorous, unglamorous work. It’s not sexy. It often hurts and mistakes are many….

    And now begins the real work of many lifetimes. As an Ashtanga yoga practitioner and teacher for 12 years, I’ve been involved in spiritual activism since 2018. I hadn’t planned it, nor expected my spiritual path to lead me towards the seemingly external world of activism. The truth is, as a Kenyan-American, biracial Black woman based in Finland since 2010, I’ve been in need of community. I’ve been part of the Ashtanga yoga world both in Finland and abroad and have gotten to know parts of the Finnish yoga community. However, from the get go, the lack of Black and Brown people in the yoga world globally and in Finland, has never sat right with me.

    As I got more teaching experience and began to get intentional about who I serve as a teacher, it became clear that my target demographic are BIPOC. However, as a teacher responsible for the wellbeing of all who come practice with me, I must ask myself the following questions: How safe would BIPOC be in a predominantly white space? What microaggressions might they need to bear?  How much free education and emotional labor would they be subjected to as they seek to rest, recuperate and deepen in contemplation?

    Ashtanga Yoga has the reputation of being elitist, exclusionary and racist, all of which are true. This leaves much to be desired. In fact, I got so disillusioned by the lack of accountability around the abuse of power and community complicity that I took a long break from the practice to clear my head and gain clarity on where my North Star was guiding me. I was pointed to the revelation that I can love something, engage in it, and be critical about it.

    Much still needs to be unpacked and accounted for within the upper levels of the community. From where I stand, it is not business as usual. It cannot be because it’s essential to not only see the pattern of systemic oppression but to actively work to eliminate it in all its manifestations. Anti-Blackness and racism might seem like distant topics to those who are protected by the systems and don’t have to manage societal repercussions. By contrast, questioning your participation in a culture of complicity within the Ashtanga yoga community is personal.

    The lack of diversity in Ashtanga Yoga is very real and very problematic. However, the solution doesn’t rest in aspiring towards diversity and inclusivity. These terms imply that someone (usually from the dominant group or deeply invested in it) owns the table and can choose who to invite and who to kick out at any time. This implies that there is someone at the top who is the gatekeeper. That there’s someone hoarding all the toys in the playground and won’t share, save for a few throw away knick knacks, which they can take back any time they feel like it.

    My vision for the healing and spiritual evolution of Ashtanga Yoga involves a radical unlearning and co-creation of a community that’s deeply honest, transparent and rooted in equity, joy and justice.

    I offer the following reflections on how we might co-create this together:

    Lean into discomfort:

    This is something we as yogis are trained to do. Every time we step onto the mat and move through the method of linking breath with movement and soft, steady focus, we meet ourselves again and again. Our stuff. Our obscurations. Our breakthroughs. The work of divesting from social conditioning around whiteness and proximity (or distance) to power is similar.

    Learn to discriminate between discomfort and lack of safety:

    When we attempt a new pose for the first time, we don’t generally scold the teacher if we don’t ace it right away. We understand that it takes time, that it is a step by step process to become familiar with and understand the pose. It’s not comfortable to learn new, often painful complexities. This doesn’t mean it’s dangerous. Nor does it mean that the (BIPOC) person offering the lesson needs to say things nicely, calmly and peacefully in order for you to listen. Again, our practice of yoga has prepared us well. It has taught us not to shrink from the first onset of strong sensation. We have honed our sense faculties to determine the difference between discomfort and pain.

    Avoid the smoke and mirrors of performative allyship:

    If white people are centering themselves and profiting from solidarity efforts, you can be sure that institutionalized racism is still firmly in place. It all comes out in the wash in the end. Think about it like this: who will be at your funeral? If your funeral (as a white person) is full of white people similar to your social location, chances are you played it pretty safe and didn’t do a whole lot as a living ancestor to dismantle Anti-Blackness, racism and systemic oppression. However, if the people that you say you stood behind attend your funeral, well, that speaks volumes.

    Mistakes will happen. Keep going:

    Like the practice, we don’t roll up the yoga mat in the middle of practice and leave the room because we skipped a pose. We don’t ruminate for days on end that some poses were done out of sequence. And while the stakes are different in the context of Anti-Black racism, the logic is the same: once a mistake has been made, what you choose to do next is crucial. However, be attentive to not committing the same egregious activity over and over again. Mistakes are great teachers. Learn from them.

    Know your people:

    This speaks to the topic of cultural appropriation that exceeds the scope of this post. However, before and beyond the conditioning of whiteness, people of European descent had their own indigenous practices and cultures too. Know who you are and where you came from. Reclaim your ancestry, no matter how painful and complex.

    Who are you beyond your conditioning around whiteness?

    What does yoga and wellness look like beyond whiteness?

    The last two questions are for ongoing reflection since I don’t know the answers. What I do know is that I offer deep bows of appreciation to all the visionaries, prophets, dreamers and heretics.

    May we bear witness together to this new world that’s on her way and here and being born and is still just a sparkle in the eyes of those brave, hungry, compassionate, nurturing, yearning folk who believe in both the seen and the unseen.

    For those who will plant the seed for a tree under which they will not get to enjoy its cool shade on a hot, summer day.

    For those who did plant the seed for a tree under which they didn’t get to sit under but which I enjoy sitting under now.

    By Wambui Njuguna-Räisänen

    Wambui Njuguna-Räisänen is a Kenyan-American based in Finland, passionate about making wellness through yoga and meditation seamlessly engaged in equity and justice so that more people of the global majority can live well and thrive. Wambui is deeply inspired by spiritual teachers and communities that seek ways to apply the insights from our various practices and teachings to situations of social, racial, political, environmental and economic suffering and injustice. She would like to see wellness spaces engage more in social justice + collective change and activist spaces learn to breathe deeply and practice sustainable self-care in the midst of dismantling systemic oppression. This is her definition of community care. Visit wambuinjuguna.com and @wellnesswithwambui

  • Dismantling Racial Barriers in Wellness

    Yoga studios in general have an open door policy. Anyone, of any size, background, ethnicity and sexual orientation is welcomed. Yet, the majority of students and teachers continue to be White. Surprisingly, these statistics don’t shift much with demographic. Even in the most diverse neighborhoods, yoga studios are filled with White bodies. The open door policy is not working.
    Why not and what can we do about it?

    Uncovering your own Implicit Bias:

    The first step to diversifying your clientele as a teacher and studio owner is to be mindful of your own implicit bias. The Perception Institute states that “thoughts and feelings are ‘implicit’ if we are unaware of them or mistaken about their nature. We have a bias when, rather than being neutral, we have a preference for (or aversion to) a person or group of people”. As yoga teachers we know that most of our daily actions are played out without our conscious input. It is imperative to take these biases into account when we interact with BIPOC in our wellness space. Implicit racial bias shows up when we encourage and support certain types of students to attend a teacher training over others. It shows up in who and how we mentor and how we build relationships with our students. It even shows up in deciding which business platforms and organizations to partner with.

    As a yoga practitioner it is easy to to lean into the simplicity of escapism and spiritual bypassing. We say things like, ‘all humans are equal, everything happens for a reason’ or even ‘I don’t see color’. Although these statements might make us feel better in that moment, the only thing they actually do is validate our own inaction. These statements feed into our own ego, and allow us to comfortably rest in complicity. They do nothing to promote and nurture diversity in yoga spaces and classes. The practice of karma yoga asks us to take action. In order to shift the current white washed landscape of yoga, we have to take intentional and actionable steps to uncover our own implicit bias. Even if we are not racist, and we ‘wish’ our classes would be more diverse, if we are not intentionally stepping outside of our comfort zone to implement lasting change in our environment, we are actively contributing to the white supremacy and racial divide in yoga.

    Financial Barriers to Diversity:

    Income inequality is a direct effect of systemic racism and oppression. Inequality.org states that the median White family has 41 times more wealth than the median the Black family and studies have shown that this racial wealth divide only continues to grow. These inequalities directly affect the level of diversity in yoga spaces. Many studios have both strategically and sometimes inadvertently placed themselves in the luxury wellness sector. Studios charge $20+ a class, and yet believe their classes are financially accessible to the public. Clients mostly pay for yoga classes and memberships with disposable income; income that was allotted to them by the intentional oppression of others. Thus, BIPOC have a very different relationship with their money. Further so, self-care, healing and spirituality are often portrayed as a luxury rather than a right.

    Too often the environment that yoga studios cultivate only reinforce this belief system. It is important that we prioritize the well-being of our community as a whole (including Black people) over potential profit margins. In this climate as many yoga studios struggle to keep the doors open it might seem difficult to envision a way to manipulate the current pricing structure. However, even with current business models, an overwhelming amount of yoga classes remain partially empty. Creating inclusion and diversity in wellness spaces is not only our duty as practitioners, it is also good business. Instead of ignoring an entire demographic of people, what would it look like to remove the financial barriers, and foster an economically sustainable relationship?

    Creating a safe space for Black People:

    The reason many Black people do not feel comfortable in yoga spaces is because they are predominantly occupied by white bodies. Historically, Black people have not been safe nor allowed in spaces occupied by Whites. One might argue that the past is the past, however racial segregation was only abolished in 1964. To put this into perspective, that was 56 years ago as of 2020. Now, if we believe that trauma and PTSD can be generational, it is no surprise that certain fears and safety mechanisms are ingrained into the Black community. The trauma is passed down and only validated by the daily racial micro and macro aggressions from White counterparts. To this day, Black people can’t walk into certain establishments without being scared for their life, can’t run through certain neighborhoods without being killed, and can’t even be in their own homes without being viewed as criminals. So why do yogis think that an all white yoga studio would seem like a safe space for Black people who are majorly suffering from conscious and subconscious trauma.

    Creating a safe space doesn’t start with a diverse clientele, but a diverse teaching, management, and desk staff. If potential clients look at your website do they see diversity? When BIPOC enter your studio, do they see themselves represented? As teachers and studio owners it is not enough to just open the doors and hope that diversity will inevitably occur. It is your duty to take actionable steps to define yourself as a diverse culture. This means not being passive and naive, but intentional and aware of the barriers black people encounter when entering any wellness space. It is not enough to claim inclusivity, you must actively challenge white supremacy. Dismantling the status quo and fighting for social justice has to be a daily practice.

    As yogis it is our job to pull apart our own patterns, to evaluate the why behind our actions and to hopefully progress and step into a new way of life. Can we evolve in our opinions and our actions the same way we evolve in our teachings? Through dedication, hard work and the desire to be and do better.  Can we as teachers lean into the discomfort of change the way we lean into our practice? Through patience, action and breath. Now is the time to take your practice off of the mat. This, is the Yoga!

    Patricia Luensmann

    Patricia is a NYC based Yoga teacher, founder of Yoga While Black and lifelong student. Her teachings aim to cultivate mental, physical and emotional well being through yoga, meditation, and reiki. In a society where healing and spirituality have become a trend, her offerings are rooted in digging deep, finding vulnerability, and doing the work. With a belief that healing has no shape, color or gender, Patricia works to bring awareness around the lack of diversity, specifically Black representation, in the wellness industry.

  • We’re listening and we are committed to learning

    Today is not business as usual for us here at Omstars. We are grateful to and for our community of teachers, staff and leaders within and outside of the Yoga community for all that has been shared, expressed and spoken out about regarding the murder of Black human beings and the systematic racism that pervades the U.S, the devastating impact on BIPOC individuals, community and the communities across the globe.

    We are actively taking steps to help support and
    raise up the community around us.

    We may not get it right all the time, but we are committed to doing everything we can to share, to take action, and be part of the solutions that help create much-needed change. The changes needed are not only towards larger governmental and societal change but within the yoga and wellness communities. There are barriers to entry for BIPOC teachers, leaders, and experts that should not exist. We want to be part of breaking these down and lifting up the voices, initiatives, and programs of these individuals.

    We are also grateful and truly honored to share the teaching and work of so many strong voices within the BIPOC community and want to continue to share their voices. We commit to the continuation of sharing our space and platform to write or speak, teach, anything that BIPOC teachers and leaders feel would help to elevate, amplify and empower their voices and the initiatives and efforts they have been working on for many years. In an effort to continue to do better and to be a better ally for the community, we are actively seeking out and speaking with teachers and yoga community leaders within the Black, Indigenous and People of Color community to host talks and teach more classes on Omstars.

    There is always more to be done, and we commit to listening to and amplifying the voices of marginalized communities. We are a platform that shares practices and teachings that help heal, develop compassion, empathy, and connection. But these teaching must also come from many voices, backgrounds, and people in order to honor traditional origins and cultural roots and history of Yoga. And, these voices must also come from a multitude of backgrounds so that the ways in which we can use these practices to heal, can be done so within the content of varying experiences, histories, and lives. We a currently working alongside Susanna Barkataki, learning a lot as we do, and will be releasing a series of articles that she has developed on Yoga and Cultural Appropriation.

    Yoga and mindfulness practices are not separate from the socio-political realm, because racism, prejudice, and marginalization take place within the world of yoga too. We commit to doing everything it takes truly to become an ally for marginalized yoga community members. There is no performance here. We are prepared to do the work. Yoga is for EVERYONE and our mission from day 1 was to make the traditional practice of yoga available to every single person around the world. That has not changed. What has changed is how we show up, who we work with and alongside, and rather than taking a leadership role, we take the role of the learner, the listener, and amplifying voices other than our own.

    We have a summer membership sale starting later this week and as part of another action step to support change, we will be donating $5 from each membership sold to the Coronavirus Fund for BIWoC- Act in Allyship. Additionally, we are sourcing supportive and educational courses for our team here at Omstars so that we can better show up for each other, our community of teachers, and for each and every member, student, and each person that we encounter. We will continue to update this blog as we take new action steps to better support the BIPOC community.

    Lastly, we’re working on creating an ever-expanding resource list. This, like our action steps, is a living document that we will continue to expand and grow. If you have recommendations or resources you think we should add to this list, please send them to info@omstars.com. We are not the experts, and so we defer to the expertise, knowledge, and experience of many inspiring and hardworking community leaders and organizations.

    Educate and Stay Informed

    Books To  Read

    White Fragility by Robin Diangelo

    How to be an antiracist by Ibram X Kendi

    Me and white supremacy by Layla F Saad

    Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race by Reni Eddo-Lodge

    I’m still here: Black dignity in a world made for whiteness by Austin Channing Brown

    White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide by Carol Anderson

    Biased: Uncovering the Hidden Prejudice That Shapes What We See, Think, and Do by Jennifer L. Eberhardt

    Why are all the blacks kids sitting together in the cafeteria by Beverly Daniel Tatum

    Uprooting Racism: how white people can work for racial justice by Paul Kivel

    Accounts to Follow

    If you decide to follow more BIPOC leaders and community members to your social media feed, make sure that your first step after hitting follow is to learn about their boundaries, their community framework, and expectations. Most of these individuals have been doing this work for a long, long time. They are not here to meet our needs, expectations, or to answer our questions. It is up to US to learn, to find resources, to use google, and to find answers. WE must do the work, support their work, sign up for their courses, and donate to their causes. 

    @rachel.cargle
    @chnge
    @privtoprog
    @shaunking
    @mixedfatchick
    @blackandembodied
    @jessicawilson.msrd
    @ibramxk
    @laylafsaad
    @wellness_yogini
    @iamrachelricketts

    Websites and References:

    https://www.embracerace.org/

    https://blacklivesmatters.carrd.co⁣

    ⁣https://blacklivesmatters.carrd.co/#educate

    https://www.standuptoracism.org.uk/

    https://www.theconsciouskid.org/about/

    https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/29/books/review/antiracist-reading-list-ibram-x-kendi.html

    Children’s Books:

    Viola Desmond Won’t Be Budged by Jody Warner

    Sweetest Kulu by Celina Kalluk

    Very Last First Time by Jan Andrews

    Julian Is A Mermaid by Jessica Love

    By Kino & the Omstars Team