• 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.