• 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

  • 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. 

  • 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.