• Breaking the Code

    “Broadly, code-switching involves adjusting one’s style of speech, appearance, behavior, and expression in ways that will optimize the comfort of others in exchange for fair treatment, quality service, and employment opportunities.”  Harvard Business Review 

    Before I start, I must state that being Black is not a monolith. While code switching is common in the Black community, there are people for whom this does not apply.

    My first memory of code switching is when I was 4 years old. My mother was going to pick up a check from a local business. Before we went inside, my mother taught me how to behave around White people. I was to smile, be polite and not speak unless spoken to. When we went inside, I hardly recognized my mother. She looked the same of course but her mannerisms, tone of voice, pitch, and use of language were totally different. Her voice was a few octaves higher. She was smiling…a lot…more than normal. She constantly said “Yes ma’am and no ma’am.” She somehow shrunk her almost 6-foot frame to fit her diminutive mannerisms. She laughed a lot…but not in a joyful way. The way she used words was different. The musicality of the African diaspora was missing. It was a strange scene to behold.

    I was too young to understand exactly what was happening at the time but going to elementary school taught me what it was all about. From K-12, I only had two Black teachers. I quickly learned that when I acted like, well myself, I was treated differently than when I code switched or took on mannerisms that made White people feel comfortable. When I smiled a lot, made my voice higher, switched out of the vernacular used by my Black family and friends, and dressed more like the White students, White teachers lit up. They treated me better. I was seen as smart. I was recommended for “advanced” programs.

    Code switching is a trauma response called fawning. Fawning is when we put aside our own feelings, emotions, wants, and needs to make someone else comfortable because we feel our safety depends on it. Safety is not just a fear of harm to the body. Being safe means that we have the power to control our lives. In the United States, colonization, slavery, Jim Crow, redlining, and many other events, resulted in White people holding power and having access to resources that Black people need to feel safe. This 400-year head start , not only gave White people the seat of power, it also gave them the ability to center American culture around themselves.

    White culture is centered as normal culture. For instance, when White people say that someone is “tall, dark and handsome”, it is immediately understood that they are not referring to skin but hair and eye color. Think about the books you have read. If there is no mention of skin color, the default is White. Nude, by default, is a tan color. Movies & shows with primarily White actors are well…just movies/shows. If there is a predominantly Black cast, it is marketed as a Black movie and primarily to Black People. If a book has primarily Black characters, it is African American fiction/nonfiction, etc. Books with mainly White characters are well…books. History, that centers White people, is well…history. When it centers Black people, it is African American or Black history.

    White people also have the seat of power. Just do an internet search for companies, lawmakers, leaders, communities, elected officials, etc that are major movers and shakers in the world and you will most likely see White cisgendered males. It is not for a lack of available Black people. The most educated group in the United States is Black women. If you need another number to prove how much power and access White people have in America, the median wealth held by White families is $171,000. The median wealth held by Black families is $17,000. Let that sink in.

    Code switching, technically is not just a Black thing. It happens whenever someone, who does not have power, needs to make those with power feel comfortable in exchange for opportunities, fair treatment, and safety. I am going to present another code switching situation that may help you understand what happens when some Black people code switch.

    A situation, in which many people code switch, is in corporate jobs. Let’s juxtapose this against code switching in the Black community.

    Code Switching Behaviors

    Changing vernacular and other components of speech: Many memes and movies have been made about “corporate speak” or the language that people use in corporate meetings, presentations, and dealing with customers that they would never use in their normal life. For example, “Let’s take this offline and circle back so we can pivot and possibly move assets to increase our bandwidth and be more agile in the fiscal year 2022.” Softening language is also very common in corporate America.

    “If it would be okay with you”

    “If you would like”

    “Maybe consider”

    “Have you thought about”

    Question marks and exclamation marks in emails are also quite common. Making the voice deeper, louder or higher, depending on the situation, is also normal.

    These same behaviors happen when Black people code switch around White people. Many Black people have a certain cadence to our walk and words, use slang, and have cultural practices that are unique to our communities. These are often seen as “ghetto”, “uneducated”, “uncultured” or unprofessional. Our cultural mannerisms, when paired with a hoodie after dark, can and has gotten us killed by White people who were uncomfortable with it.

    Not Being Open or Honest About Feelings: In corporate America, you are suspected to be in a good mood and ready to work. Your personal life is supposed to have no effect on what happens at work. If you are tired, depressed, anxious or anything that can be viewed as detrimental to your job performance, you have to keep it to yourself. There is an exception to this rule…lunch or after-work events. At happy hour, you are expected to be open but not too open. If you don’t commiserate or share in just the right amount, people start to think that something is wrong with you, you are not to be trusted, or not really part of the team. You are hiding something. And heaven forbid you don’t really like these events and don’t come at all. People really start to get uncomfortable.

    For Black people who code switch, this means that talking about our feelings about the latest killing of an unarmed Black man by White police or Critical Race Theory being taught in schools is way too much. Instead, we essentially share extremely surface-level parts of our lives and take out any cultural nuance that we would have to explain too much. In the world of code switching, comfortable White people means safety, opportunities, and open doors.

    Changing the way you dress, do your hair, wear your makeup or express yourself through appearance: In corporate America, there is an accepted way to dress that often has nothing to do with the job being performed. Construction workers need hard hats to be safe. You do not need to wear a suit to answer a phone or make a spreadsheet. While some people feel like a suit makes them feel more confident, I am sure you can find just as many people who just feel itchy. It is a cultural thing. A long time ago someone decided it was the standard for business culture and we all have to suffer for it. Other standards of corporate dress are neutral makeup, hair in natural colors, and no piercings. For Black people, it goes even further. Often our hair, which for many of us, grows out of our head in an afro, is not seen as professional. It has to be straightened, curled, and made to look more White.

    What happens at most corporate jobs when you don’t fit in with the culture and you violate the rules above? You risk losing your job and not having the money that you need for you and your family to have a safe place to live, food to eat, heat and water, and a place in society. You may gain a reputation of being uncooperative, not a team player, militant, disruptive, a trouble maker, hard to work with, and unprofessional. This reputation may follow you and result in a loss of opportunities, closed doors, and burned bridges.

    Before we leave this corporate analogy, being someone else 40+ hours a week is exhausting. When I worked in corporate America, I never had a problem with my job duties. It was always the drama surrounding the culture that burned me out. Whenever I had to go to work, I always felt like I could do the same job at home in my pajamas in half the time. However, I had to go into work where everything was complicated by culture, procedures, and people that ultimately slowed me down. How about you? We will come back to this in a moment.

    Omstars is a yoga platform so you may be asking, what does code switching have to do with yoga? Most yoga classes in the United States are predominantly White. It means that White people still hold the power in these spaces and that the culture still centers on norms associated with being White. It means that after spending the whole day being someone else to be safe, which is exhausting, many Black people have to walk into yoga spaces and code switch yet again. Yoga is about connecting with our true selves. How can someone do that if they cannot let their guard down and be themselves?

    You might be saying, “Yes, my studio is predominantly White but we are very welcoming.” That may be true but trauma responses become automatic. After trauma, a part of the brain is stuck and will immediately go into fawn mode in any situation that resembles the past trauma. Bessel Van Der Kolk, world-renowned trauma researcher and author of The Body Keeps the Score, says, “Niceness does not rewire neural pathways.”

    This is why some people teach BIPOC only classes. It is not because they want to bring back segregation or be divisive. It is to give Black Indigenous People of Color, who don’t feel safe in predominantly White yoga spaces, the ability to access the full power of yoga that goes beyond asana. In these environments, traumatized BIPOC folk can let go, be themselves, feel safe and access the connection with the Self that yoga provides. Once this connection is firmly established, new neural pathways are created. In yoga, we call this, creating positive samskaras. It will take a long time to close the gap of power and wealth that exists between White and Black people. It is my hope that one day, the power differential will change and everyone will feel safe and we can break the code. That day is not today. Ahmaud Arbery was recently murdered by White men for exercising. Tamir Rice was playing. Elijah McClain was killed for “looking suspicious. I could write a whole other blog post on the unarmed Black people who have been murdered because armed White people felt uncomfortable or scared. No, that day is not today.

    Please consider donating to my non-profit, YFR Foundation. YFR provides yoga resources, teaching, training, and immersions for those recovering from trauma and addiction. We help provide safe environments for BIPOC folks to learn about and do yoga and training for BIPOC folks who want to bring yoga to their communities. The fundraiser ends December 24 2021 but you can also donate at YFRFoundation.org.

    Click here to donate.

    By Shanna Small

    Shanna Small is a writer and Yoga teacher who speaks to the intersectionality of Yoga and social justice. She has practiced Ashtanga Yoga and studied the Yoga Sutras since 2001. She has studied in Ashtanga in Mysore with Sharath Jois. Shanna studied Sanskrit, the Yoga Sutras and the Hatha Yoga Pradipika with Laksmish in Mysore, India. Shanna’s finds joy in making the Ashtanga practice accessible for all. She studied with Amber Karnes and Dianne Bondy and is Yoga For All certified. She is a regular contributor for Yoga International, OmStars and the Ashtanga Dispatch. She teaches diversity and inclusivity, Yoga Sutras as well as accessibility trainings and workshops. She is a founding member of Yoga For Recovery Foundation, a non-profit that helps those recovering from addiction, trauma and systemic oppression. Shanna is also certified in the Trauma Conscious Yoga Method.

    Shanna is a graduate of Georgia State University and holds a bachelor’s in business with a concentration in marketing. Before becoming a full time yoga teacher, Shanna was a recruiter and ad account executive.

    For information on workshops, please e-mail shanna@shannasmallyoga.com.

    Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

  • Simple Ways to Teach Ashtanga Yoga with a Trauma-Informed Lens

    There are many reasons you may choose to teach Ashtanga from a trauma-informed lens. The stories of sexual assault regarding the father of Ashtanga Yoga, Pattabhi Jois, has left many in the Ashtanga community confused, angry, sad, and questioning the safety of continuing to practice within the Ashtanga community. While some are still asking for the lineage to be reshaped by the Jois family, the process of healing has largely been in the hands of individual teachers, students and communities.   

    For all those who have experienced the power of Ashtanga to help with addiction and trauma, bring health to the body, release suffering and awaken the spirit,  Ashtanga is worth saving.  Ashtanga can be reconnected to the roots of yoga where non-harming is the key component of an 8 limbed system that leads to freedom.  Trauma-informed teaching can help the community heal and prevent some of the problematic behaviors that create environments where abhorrent behaviors thrive. Diversity and inclusivity is another reason to teach Ashtanga from a trauma-informed lens. The yoga community has been grappling with how to diversify practice spaces as they have realized that most yoga classes are filled with skinny, White, affluent women. 

    Often when people of color are asked about why they don’t attend class, the answer is, “I don’t feel comfortable.” Some of this discomfort can be linked to trauma. From a young age, many Black people were taught that, if they are to survive, they have to act differently around White people. Even now, when unarmed Black people like Breonna Taylor and Jacob Blake are murdered by cops, many White people ask, “What did they do wrong?”   However, when Dylann Roof, a White armed male, kills 9 Black people worshiping at church, the cops bring him in alive and take him to Burger King. People want to know about his troubled past because surely he has a good reason for killing innocent people. As a Black woman,  this society taught me that I had to constantly fight to show that I am one of the “good” Black people who can comply and fit into a society that centered White as inherently good and Black as inherently bad.

    This dynamic doesn’t just stop when a Black person steps into a yoga class. A class full of White people tends to inherently be White centered. The languaging, the music, the jokes, the locations, the pose choices, the culture of the studio will continue to center White people.  For a POC, this can be triggering and continue the trauma that they deal with on a day to day basis. A trauma-informed framework, along with diversifying the space, being anti-racist, and taking a deep look at systemic oppression and its effects on POC, may help. The last reason, I will mention in this post, is that, as teachers, we are not involved in a student’s day to day life. We may or may not be aware of traumatizing events from the past or even from that morning. Operating from a trauma-informed framework acknowledges the shared human experience of pain and suffering. The Yoga Sutras of Pantanjali says “suffering, that has not yet come, should be avoided.” The journey to healing belongs to the student. However, as the teacher, you can help mitigate, at least in our yoga space,  the suffering that has not yet come. 

    A trauma-informed framework acknowledges that harm has been done and that the community and/or student is actively embarking on the process of recovery.  The teacher, through a relationship with their students and the community, learns the signs that a student may have been triggered or that community harm has happened and they respond immediately.  The teacher actively works against re-traumatizing the student or the community. 

    Before we continue, let us define trauma. Trauma is a disturbing event that is so overwhelming that the person cannot cope with or integrate the feelings and emotions from the experience. It is important to understand that something can be fine for you but completely traumatic for someone else.  It is also important to understand that trauma is not limited to “big” experiences like war, sexual assault, or childhood abuse. It can happen in day to day interactions such as someone constantly hearing comments about their weight, a gay man being sneered at when he walks down the street, a Black person experiencing systemic racism, and off-color remarks about a woman’s body at the office water cooler.  It is not about how you would have felt in that situation, it is about how that person felt and how it affected them.

    When someone tells you something traumatized them, it is not your job as the teacher to judge them. It is your job to help create an environment that is not re-traumatizing and allows them to comfortably practice yoga.  Lastly, have compassion for yourself. You will get it wrong sometimes. Acknowledge it, make amends, and come up with new and creative ways to work with students in the future. The list below is not exhaustive and only a starting point for creating a trauma-informed Ashtanga space for your students. 

    Establish clear and transparent practices, policies, boundaries and procedures

    When students know what to expect and what is expected from them and the reasoning behind the process, policies, and procedures, they feel safer.  Policies and procedures around reporting abuse, injury, racism, sexism, ageism, etc lets students know that you take these issues seriously which makes them feel safer and gives them a clear way of reporting violations and communicating when they feel harm has been done. This also prevents the culture of silence that happens when students, who are not the victim, protect the perpetrator and invalidate the victims. They are more likely to speak up, help, and support the members of the community that have been harmed. Gone are the days of Gurus playing mind games with students. Practices like withholding poses to “teach a lesson”  or leaving students guessing about why you did or didn’t give them a certain series is re-traumatizing.  

    Give the student a voice through the offering of choice

    Traumatic events usually involve a loss of agency.  The teacher can be a part of the process of helping a student find their voice and rediscovering trust in themselves and the world. The practice must be put in the hands of the student. This does not mean that the student does whatever they want with disregard for their own safety and the efficacy of the method.  Practice becomes a collaborative process where the student can slowly move towards elements that are effective at a speed and pace they are comfortable with. For example, for some students, closing their eyes makes them feel unsafe. It takes away their agency to see what is going on around them and to act accordingly. Instead of insisting that the student closes their eyes the first class, the teacher can, over time,  help the student feel comfortable and invite them to close their eyes as they feel safe.

    Another example would be a pose that a student is visibly uncomfortable with. Say you ask a student, in a Mysore one-on-one setting, to do chaturanga and you can see their eyes start to dart around the room looking for an exit, their breath speeds up, they start wiping their sweaty palms on their shirt, and their speech patterns change. These are all signs that the student is being triggered. From a trauma-informed lens, the teacher may pause instruction and have an open, clear, and transparent conversation on what is coming up for the student and how they can help. They then give the student the choice of doing chaturanga or other options that will help them build the strength for chaturanga. As trust is built, the student may choose to give chaturanga a try.  In a guided class, the teacher can give some other options and discuss it with the student later.  

    Another way to give choice is to announce, at the beginning of class, that students should feel free to make the adjustments they need. Talking with students before giving them the next pose or the next Ashtanga sequence, getting them involved in the process, and asking before adjusting or touching a student also gives them agency.

    Avoid loud noises, a loud voice or tempo changes

    The melodic, even tempo of a guided Ashtanga class is perfect for calming the nervous system. Avoid yelling at students from across the room.

    Power with not power over

    There is no teacher without a student and there is no student without a teacher. The teacher/student relationship is a shared nurturing experience. Yes, the teacher has more knowledge and experience with the subject but they are initiating the student into that same lineage of wisdom with the intent of giving them the same amount of power and agency. For example, if you stop at a gas station and ask the attendant for directions, you stop, listen and learn, not because they are better than you, but because they have the information you need. On a soul level, you are equals. The same is true for yoga. The student respects the process of transmission and that the teacher knows more than them on this one subject, but on a soul level, you are equals. 

    The same is true with student-to-student relationships.  Teachers should avoid creating hierarchies within the classroom.  This one is tricky and requires some vigilance. It can show up as teachers spending more time with  “advanced students”, lots of fanfare when students accomplish something that a teacher considers “advanced” or using “advanced” students as models for what the poses should look like. It can also happen in reverse, spending lots of time with students because the teacher views them as less advanced and needing more help. Instead, a teacher might consider identifying the unique places where each and every student needs help and being attentive to the students when they arrive at that point in the practice. The students understand that the teacher is looking out for every student and helping them where they need it. It is clear and transparent. Also, helping a student in the same spot every day creates a consistency that trust can be built on. 

    Another way to share power is through the placement of the teacher in the room. If the teacher is on a stage or standing over a student giving an assist or instruction, there is this sense of power over.  Even if a teacher is using the stage to be able to see everyone in the room, they should have times in the class where the students are invited to share space at the same level as the teacher. This could be walking up and down aisles or spending time with students at eye level before and after class.  If a teacher is having a conversation with a student in a floor pose, if possible, they should come to the floor or squat down and get close to the same level as the student. 

    Stay in your lane

    Unless you are a mental health professional, it is not your place to diagnose or provide treatment for trauma.  This seems intuitive but it can be tricky. Trying to treat trauma can show up in saying things like, “let it go”, “we are all one” “suck it up” and “do it anyway”. As teachers, our job is to help create an environment conducive to the process of yoga and healing. It is the students’ job to heal as they get ready and in a way that is right for them.  Be okay with the fact that some students are outside of your wheelhouse and you may not be the teacher for them.

    Help Shanna Small raise money to help those in recovery from addiction, trauma, and systemic oppression. Please donate or purchase a t-shirt from her non-profit, Yoga For Recovery Foundation.

    By Shanna Small

    Join LIVE classes with Shanna Small on Omstars 

    Shanna Small is a writer and Yoga teacher who speaks to the intersectionality of Yoga and social justice.  She has practiced Ashtanga Yoga and studied the Yoga Sutras since 2001. She has studied in Mysore with Sharath Jois.  Shanna’s finds joy in making the Ashtanga practice accessible for all.  She studied with Amber Karnes and Dianne Bondy and is Yoga For All certified. She is a regular contributor for Yoga International, Omstars and the Ashtanga Dispatch.    She teaches diversity and inclusivity as well as accessibility trainings and workshops. She is a founding member of Yoga For Recovery Foundation, a non-profit that helps those recovering from addiction, trauma and systemic oppression.  For information on workshops, please e-mail shanna@ashtangayogaproject.com.  Photo Credit: Wanda Koch Photography

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  • Yoga Community, Your Love and Light is Not Working

    Yoga community, that love and light you sent out, it’s not working. It didn’t make it to George Floyd as he fought to breathe with a White policeman’s knee on his neck. It didn’t make it to Ahmaud Arbery as he was brutally murdered by armed White men on his morning run. Your love and light is not a safety cloak that Black people can pull on when their bodies are being threatened.

    White people’s love and light didn’t stop slavery or the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Their love and light didn’t work in the past, it doesn’t work now and it won’t work in the future. 

    I prayed for 20 years but received no answer until I prayed with my legs”

    -Frederick Douglas, Black abolitionist.

    If your love and light has no legs, it will not work. If it is not backed by action, self study and change, it will not work. 

    Racism in America is systemic and forms the foundation of American culture. It is not just someone wearing a white hood, using the “N” word or physically harming Black bodies. It is the culmination and combination of over 400 years of oppression and ignorance. It is not just front page news events keeping this going. It is also little events done for over 400 years that have concretized the White supremacy that is as American as apple pie. Therefore, small things done by millions of people, can have a big impact. Little drops of racism become normalized. Those drops become an ocean that forms tsunamis that destroy the lives of Black folks.  The “new normal” should not just be a Covid-19 slogan. Create a new anti racist normal for America as well.

    I am going to use a Yoga scenario to drive this home but do know that racism and your Yoga problems are not in the same ballpark. This is just to get you thinking.  Think of a Yoga pose, that you eventually mastered, that was extremely challenging for you.  One that felt almost impossible. For me, that pose was a deep backbend, where you reach back and grab your heels,  called Kapotasana. For years, I worked on Kapotasana. I would make huge strides and then seemingly move backwards. I would go months with no visible difference at all. I studied every book, read every article, watched every Youtube and Instagram video I could find on Kapotasana. I went to workshops and practiced with many different teachers. Every day, I got on my mat and did my part, which was to apply all that I learned and to do the best Kapotasana I could do that day for my body. One day, I grabbed my heels.  Have you had this experience with a pose or with some seemingly Mount Everest sized problem in your life? At times, did it seem like you were going nowhere and nothing was happening? I certainly did. However, my body was shifting even when I thought I was standing still.

    Let’s use this example to illustrate how the Yoga community can give love and light some legs. 

    Ways to Give Legs to Love and Light

    1. Acknowledge that fighting racism will sometimes feel impossible, hard, difficult, frustrating, tiring and futile.

    Do it anyway. Just like working on your Yoga pose caused little changes that added up, every little thing you do chips away at the bedrock of White supremacy.  

    2. Study and learn.

    Just like you looked for people who could help you understand and support you while you worked on your Yoga pose, actively seek out people who are involved in anti racism work. Go to their workshops and lectures. Read their books and follow them on social media. It is also important to study yourself. In order to do Kapotasana, I had to understand everything that was going on in my body that was preventing me from achieving the pose. You must understand every part of you, including the culture you live in, the environment you were raised in, and the privilege you hold that allows racism to continue. 

    3. Apply what you learn.

    Practicing your pose every day and applying what you learned resulted in change. The same is true for anti-racism work. It must be done consistently each and every day.  

    4. Accept nothing but your best.

    Every day, I left my mat knowing that I gave Kapotasana the best effort that I could. I had no tolerance for laziness and apathy.  You also need a zero tolerance policy for racism. Black folks’ lives are at stake.

    5. At the same time, practice self care.

    In order to have the energy for my morning practice, I had to take care of my body and mind. I set clear boundaries with family and friends. I surrounded myself with people who respected my boundaries and supported my journey. Anti-racism work is difficult and tiring. Carve out daily time for self care.  Seek out a community that understands you and respects your work.

    6. Give Back.

    As a teacher, I passed on everything that I learned about Kapotasana. I sent videos to my fellow teachers. I emailed articles to my students and taught them everything I knew.  As a student, If I saw a fellow yogi struggling, I offered access to resources and helped where I could. Pass on information about racism and uplift the voices of Black people. Use your resources and privilege to help those who lack access. Don’t idly stand around and watch people drown in the current of racism when you have the ability to help.

    By Shanna Small

    You can follow Shanna here @wellness_yogini 

    Photos by: Wanda Koch

    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

  • 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 Myth of the Pain-Free Practice

    With your first heartbeat, you sign up for a ride called life. Life is a Self or God choreographed sequence sprinkled with crazy experiences, joyous events and untimely disasters you couldn’t even imagine ever happening to you. What an amazing ride.

    Not knowing everything that is going to happen in the game of life is par for the course.

    Doing everything “right” will not shield you. Following all the rules does not guarantee results because, when you signed up, you were not given the rule book in the first place. You can only do your best and follow what you think are the rules. Life comes with no guarantees. And even if it did, it is locked away in the same forgotten place you put the rule book.

    When you get on your mat, you are still within the parameters of the game of life.

    Your Yoga mat is not inside a bubble that shields you from unexpected pain. You still don’t have the rule book or even a user’s manual for your body. Scientists and doctors do not completely understand the human body. If they did, you could go to the body story right now and get a new one. You could order the perfect body on Amazon Prime and get one day delivery. You wouldn’t even need Yoga poses because you could order a body that is already primed for meditation. Want to do a handstand or put your foot behind your head? Order a body that can already can do it. Done.

    No one can promise you a pain free life or a pain free Yoga practice.

    I don’t care how many letters are behind their name, how many followers they have on Instagram, what their lineage is or if they know every muscle, bone, organ, ligament and vein in the body by heart. Your body is a complex glorious creation that no one fully understands. Throughout your life, this body is shaped and formed by unique experiences, many of which you don’t even remember. Even the traumas you do remember can shape your body in a way that is completely undetectable by you, your doctor, your pastor or your teacher. A movement, a food, a scenario that has never been a problem, all of a sudden is.

    No Yoga alignment, anatomy or technique training comes with a mind/body/soul reader that allows you and your teacher to see every single trauma, ailment, bacteria, fungus, and diseased cell in your body. No one can see the ticking time bomb that is your existence. Even if this mythical machine existed, you would need to be scanned with it every minute of the day because you are constantly having new experiences and being exposed to new inputs that could possibly become a problem.

    Learning as much as you can about your body prevents most injuries and ailments but not all of them.

    Studying with teachers who know a lot about the body, will prevent many Yoga injuries, but not all of them. If you get stuck on the idea that there is a such thing as a pain free Yoga practice or existence, your Yoga practice will also become stuck. Why? Because there will inevitably be some pain. When that pain comes, you will have the choice of continuing your practice and learning from this new information your body and your life has given you or quitting. You will have the option to grow or stagnate.

    This article is not about pushing through pain.

    This article is not against learning as much as you can about your body and finding a good Yoga teacher who also knows a lot about the body. Do not push through pain. Please find a good Yoga teacher. Use the best technique that you can. Rest when needed. Do all of those things. This article is about the unattainable need for perfection that has also permeated the world of Yoga. If you sit and think, you can come up with many examples in life where you and people you know have done everything right and everything still ended up incredibly wrong.

    But yet, for some reason, you expect that everything that happens on your Yoga mat should and can be perfect. You expect your teachers to be perfect. Your lineage to be perfect. Your community to be perfect. All while knowing that you have never met a perfect human being in your life. Knowing that you have never met a human being that has never had pain, a baby who never cried, a man that has never been sick or woman who could predict everyone’s future with 100% accuracy. However, when you get on your mat, this magical scenario supposedly can be achieved.

    Fear is a great marketing tool.

    The world of Yoga is now bursting with people who can promise you a pain free practice, with no unpleasant feelings…for a fee. There are many charlatans building their platform on the promise that they will never hurt you. Anyone who has been in any long term loving relationship can attest to the fact that all the love in the world is not a guarantee against hard feelings and misunderstandings. Anyone who has worked with the human body for a long period of time, you fall into that category, can tell you that things don’t always go to plan. But for some reason, you feel that this smiling Yoga teacher, who also came into this world without a body rule book, can give you this guarantee.

    Another component of the promise of a pain free practice is the canceling of teachers who speak openly about their injuries. I have seen people on social media use a teacher’s injury as proof of that teacher’s ineptitude, lack of knowledge about the body or to prove that their teachings are harmful. This could be the case for sure. It could also mean that they were yet another person without the life handbook. An old soccer injury reared its head at the very moment they perfectly stacked their joints for a handstand. Or maybe, they fell down the stairs running after a baby wearing slippery house shoes (true story).

    In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra 2:16 it says, “Pain, that has not yet come, should be avoided.”

    This is amazing advice. You should not be seeking painful experiences in your Yoga practice. You should do everything possible to not have pain on your mat. However, without the mind body soul x ray machine, the user’s guide and the ability to know every single thing going on in your body and your student’s body at any given time, total avoidance of pain is not possible.

    By Shanna Small

    Read More 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

  • 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

    Read more articles by Shanna Small

    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.