• 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.


    Photo credit: Wanda Koch Photography. 

  • What does it mean to be at peace with your body

    What does body positivity really mean?

    I’m struggling with the term, “body positivity” these days. It seems as though the term has been watered down from its original roots in the fat acceptance movement, which began in the 1970’s. Nowadays, the term “body positivity” has become a hollow shadow of its former self. The focus has been redirected from genuine acceptance, back to heteronormative standards of beauty. Body positivity is now being used as trope. It is a buzzword that minimizes what it means to be at peace with who you really are. More often than not, we see the term being utilized by major clothing brands in an attempt to sell us the “one sizes fits all” guarantee. This is not acceptable – body positivity has to mean more than that.

    Body positive should mean justice and visibility for all bodies – regardless of their size, color, ability or sexual orientation. We’ve brought the term body positivity into our mainstream culture, but now the message has been co-opted. As a result, I’ve decided to move away from the term body positivity, and instead, am embracing a more introspective connection to my body. My new, more peaceful approach to connecting with my body allows me to experience the full range of my human emotions. This means that some days I feel great about my body, and other days I don’t. Some days diet culture gets a hold of me, but I remember that I have the knowledge and power to break free from those destructive thought patterns. In my new definition of body positivity, I aim to remind myself and others that, above all else: you are enough.

    The Quest for Making Peace with Your Body

    Making peace with your body may seem like an impossible task. It’s hard find peace in a world that has a vested in keeping us entrenched in feelings of dissatisfaction. Our western culture is imbued with a drive towards perfectionism. We are told that the goal is always to be better: to work harder, to be thinner. Fighting for peace in my body often leaves me feeling as though I am toeing the thin line between seeking outward validation and finding inward acceptance. How can I make peace with my body in a world that doesn’t fully appreciate the diversity of humanity? We live in a culture that is continually seeking to reinforce the status quo, making it harder for us to break free from the social constructs that hold us captive to the drive for perfectionism. The desire to lower my blood pressure has recently lead me on the quest for better cardiovascular health. As a result. I’ve found myself back in the world of fitness, with all the negative trapping of diet and fitness culture. Our body image is influenced by the people around us, and it is hard to be around people who are constantly preoccupied with how they look over their level of physical fitness.

    These are the people who are exercising as a form of punishment, in order to burn off what they ate. Or, the ones who are perpetually trying to lose those “last 10 pounds”. The scale in the locker room is a trigger that reminds me that being fat is not the desired outcome – regardless of my cardiovascular health. I’ve reached an interesting point in my journey towards making peace with my body. Three years ago, I was diagnosed with a hyperactive thyroid. Hyperthyroidism, or Graves Disease, really messed with my head. As a person dissatisfied with the shape of my body, this disease gave me everything I ever wanted: I could eat anything I wanted and still lose copious amounts of weight. Graves disease had an internal dialogue with my history of disordered eating, which always lingers beneath the surface, regardless of where I’m at in my journey towards self-love. To make matters more challenging, I’ve found that triggering an eating disorder is comfortable, if not celebrated, in a culture that uses eating disorders to push the “wellness” culture. We see things like specialized diets that exclude entire food groups, fasting and excessive exercising as normalized behaviors.

    So, how do we make peace with our bodies in a world of conflicting messages?

    I believe the limiting outside influences and creating a personal dialogue about our bodies, is the first step in making peace with our bodies and improving our body image. We need to reinforce our internal dialogue with practices that make us feel worthy. It’s a tall order. The first step is awareness. Who are your peers and how do they talk about their bodies? Studies have shown that who you hang out with impacts your life and your self-worth. What if you could create a circle of friends and peers that aren’t excessively focused their bodies? What if you created a circle of friends who just enjoyed life as it comes? “Our research suggests that social context has a meaningful impact on how we feel about our bodies in general and on a given day,” said Kathryn Miller, PhD candidate in clinical psychology at Waterloo. “Specifically, when others around us are not focused on their body it can be helpful to our own body image.” For me, this means that it’s time to break away from social norms and create my own custom path to body acceptance.

    Finding My Way

    To improve my relationship with my body, I needed to surround myself with people who weren’t hyper focused on the way their body looks. I changed my relationship with exercise from a place of counting steps to a place of enjoying nature, hanging out with friends and exploring my strength and endurance outside the gym. I began to marvel at my connection to my body, and my understand of my body’s purpose evolved. My body wasn’t something I needed to fight with, she was my co-pilot in experiencing the intricacies of my life. Above all else, my body had been my friend all along – I had just chosen to listen to all the wrong things. It is freeing not to care about what others think. My body shows up the best she can in all circumstances. Once I figured out that my body was my friend, not my foe, I could begin to deconstruct the forces that kept me feeling small and insecure.

    Cultivating a positive body image is a practice. In fact, it is a very challenging practice given the hundreds of years of social conditioning that we must first unlearn before we can begin to befriend our bodies. Being media savvy, changing your perspective on your body, and focusing on the entirety of your life experience – are essential in overcoming the idea that there is a perfect way to be in this world. Rather than framing your experience of life based on the number on the scale, start by challenging yourself to experience life by living, tasting, feeling, exploring existing mindfully in each moment. Stay strong and be brave enough to end toxic relationships that diminish your sense of self-worth. To begin repairing our relationship with our bodies, we must stop looking outwards, and venture deeper inwards.

    By Dianne Bondy

    Seek Up interview with Dianne Bondy

    Dianne Bondy is a social justice activist, author, accessible yoga teacher, and the leader of the Yoga For All movement. Her inclusive approach to yoga empowers anyone to practice—regardless of their shape, size, ethnicity, or level of ability. Dianne is revolutionizing yoga by educating yoga instructors around the world on how to make their classes welcoming and safe for all kinds of practitioners. Dianne is the author of Yoga for Everyone (DK Publishing, Penguin Random House) and a frequent contributor to Yoga International, DoYouYoga, Yoga Girl, and Omstars. She has been featured in publications such as The Guardian, Huffington Post, Cosmopolitan, and People. Dianne’s commitment to increasing diversity in yoga has been recognized in her work with Pennington’s, Gaiam, and the Yoga & Body Image Coalition, as well as in speaking engagements at Princeton and UC Berkeley on Yoga, Race, and Diversity. Her writing is published in Yoga and Body Image Volume 1, Yoga Rising, and Yes Yoga Has Curves. Find Dianne online on IG, Facebook and Twitter or at diannebondyyoga.com and  yogaforalltraining.com.

    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.