• Marsha’s Dharma: Yoga and Social Justice

    Marsha P. Johnson was a drag queen who climbed a light post and changed the world. When she stood before a judge and was questioned about her gender, she answered blithely that the ‘P’ stood for “Pay it no mind.’

    Born in a time where the language didn’t make space for choice of pronouns or gender that diverged from the binary, she was a crusader for acceptance.It’s arguable that much of the progress we enjoy today can be traced back to those nights in 1969 when she and her friends rioted for gay liberation.

    I’m so grateful for Marsha P. She is an icon, a spiritual figurehead and in that sense, mother to a new way of being in the world. She is the Patron Saint of Being Fed Up with The World’s Bullshit. Her legacy is my self love. My self acceptance is due to the yoga that she did in the world, maybe without even knowing it. Because of her and her Stonewall compatriots, I have the ability to be out. To be proud. To do yoga intentionally.

    Pride is political.

    Yoga is political.

    Those with the luxury to say otherwise are out of touch with the reality of life on Earth. The fact is that the power structures at play are designed to keep people in their place and change comes only in equal measure to the will of the people to protest the status quo. The progress that has been made for inclusivity in our society did not come easily. Women threw stones through Parliament windows as they sought the right to vote. African Americans refused to move to the back of the bus, an act of rebellion that often left them bloodied. At Stonewall TLGBQ threw punches and set fires that said enough is enough.

    Yoga is absolutely an internal practice that helps individuals find their own healing, but inner peace that bypasses the struggle for universal equality is just an illusion. Compassion for the self that falls into this trap of ignoring the suffering of others easily transforms into self centeredness. A more whole compassion says, ‘May WE be happy,’ not only ‘May I be happy.’ Informed with this awareness, the yogi in training should take action…

    Yoga most certainly has a political point of view. One of the moral imperatives built into our practice is Ahimsa, the willingness to seek a path towards non harming. This component of yoga does not imply passivity at all, rather it demands the hard work of digging up the roots of violence.

    Ahimsa is one of the first virtues defined in the Yoga Sutras, and as such the path of the yogi should include deep contemplation of the concept. The classical texts ask us to cause no injury in deed, word or thought. This direction should not be taken as a simple commandment however. We must critically evaluate the actions of others, especially those who enjoy privilege over a minority.

    When powerful and corrupt political and societal factions leverage injury and violence against minorities, the yogic action is to advocate for the reduction of harm against those minorities.

    When you understand that police forces routinely oppressed gay communities, arresting them en masse, then you can understand why it was Marsha’s dharma to drop a brick on top of the paddy wagon.

    When you understand that police are killing black people at alarming rates, then you understand why communities are in the midst of an uprising. From deep inside, a voice of knowing is saying: Act up, speak out, fight now or nothing is ever going to change.

    Unfortunately the world is chaotic and truth can be hard to find. We must be discerning and wary of our fears being used to divide us. Fox News and Mr. Trump thrive on stirring up fear and tapping into deeply ingrained racism and phobias to create an unjust anger. This is an anger that is rooted in the idea that the other will come and harm you, attacking your moral sensibility and stealing wealth from your community. This anger is rooted in the delusion of superiority, the mistaken belief that one type of human being has greater value than another.

    Alternatively, sometimes we get angry righteously, but do nothing out of fear that our anger is wrong. The internet is full of memes and ignorant people that make anger seem like the enemy. Being angry with racists and abusers is not poison and your energy is not wasted by feeling this way… These feelings are catalysts of change.

    The question at hand is not ‘Should I be angry?’, because we all definitely should be. The better question here is ‘‘How do I work with all this anger?’

    Yoga teaches me to pause and take a deep breath and find the space to respond skillfully to the pain of injustice. It’s only by seeking conscious contact with the greater powers of my understanding that I keep momentum and know what action is right. When the world mislabeled my anger as hatred, I must tap my soul’s conviction to keep strong and not back down.

    Donate to the Marsha P. Johnson Institute

    I grew up in a small town in the South. My community and even my family installed a program of self hatred into me. The word faggot was thrown around with venom and teeth. I responded to these wounds with a valiant attempt to self destruct through drugs and alcohol. That I’m still alive today is a testament to the great suffering I found when I reached my rock bottom and my subsequent relationship with yoga and the higher powers of my understanding.

    So yes, the truth is that I am very angry and my suffering was so great that it left my convictions crystal clear. I know the damage that white, heteronormative ignorance inflicts. I also know that the fact that I’m still alive feels miraculous, and I should not let a miracle go to waste. Not everyone is so lucky after all. My hero Marsha had suffering greater than mine, but never the sweet comfort of healing.

    I remain confident of my calling to be a voice for change by tuning into the great mystery within me. Looking inward, I am reminded that the nature of the soul is an unanswered question and as such the divinity within each life force must be considered created equal and that we must be willing to fight and sacrifice for this end.

    Yoga Sutra ll.16 teaches us a bit about things that cloud this divinity. This Sutra tells the story of ‘ego’, casting it as all the things that obscure the true self. It names this quality of being ‘Asmita’. It’s the sense that we are something that we are not. It’s a feeling that our value is related to what we DO IN THE WORLD. A problem here is that one might also come to believe self worth is determined by what the WORLD DOES TO YOU.

    Transphobia. Racism. Misogyny. These all stem from the mistaken belief that one kind of human being is superior to another. When I tap my intuition, I suspect that the truth may be that we are all a kind of transgender being. I suspect the immutable soul does not identify with the genitals. Or skin color. Or religion.

    That said, here we are having a human experience that comes with a sexual identity. And race. And social status. We live in a world where the passionately delusional among us leverage intolerance to increase their own status. They fear scarcity and suffering, so they act in ways that force us all out of balance and towards chaos.

    Yoga reminds of us what we still might be. It reminds us of our potential, the possibility within and beyond earthly dramas. It encourages to look past the veil of Asmita, not as a way of disregarding Earthly strife, but rather as a way of remembering why action is demanded. The evolution of our personal soul and collective consciousness is on the line.

    Practice provides practical tools. It reminds us how even the world of the mind, body and senses rage like war, even though we may bring a little peace to them. When I sit still to mediate, sometimes there is great pain. Great internal battles are fought as I try to maintain stillness. In my asana practice, there is great struggle. Finding steadiness in the pose comes only with firm effort and some amount of physical discomfort.

    Yes, I dare say that acute physical and psychological pain are, in my opinion, some of the selling points of yoga. Practice helps me cultivate the desire to stay present. When my entire personal history and future constantly elaborate themselves, arguing they are fated by powers beyond my control, I stay present. When today’s choices seem bound to mistakes made what feels like lifetimes ago, I stay present. When the legacy of prejudice and oppression exert their force, I stay present.

    Yoga reminds me I am not those terrible things I did before. Nor am I the weak and sickly thing that broken human beings would have me believe.

    When I practice, when I connect to a spiritual community, when I turn inward, I sense that there is so much more to me. I feel a deep longing to seek balance for myself and others. This calling is rooted in a knowing that humanity is destined for so much more and a sureness that we must fight for our right to transform and transcend.

    I am a seeker. I am a gay human. My pronouns are he/they. I am a creature made of universal love, just like Marsha P Johnson.

    She started this work of reprogramming all these old beliefs of ‘him or her’ or ‘us and them’. It’s my honor to continue it, standing up for self respect, societal equality, justice and insight.

    The divine gave us a beacon in the form of Marsha. Fueled by a glimpse of our own Godliness, what can’t we fight?

    By Joseph Armstrong

    Donate to the Marsha P. Johnson Institute

    Joseph Armstrong teaches yoga rooted firmly in tradition but with an eye to the future. His search for a more present and peaceful life first led him to the practice in 2008. A few years later he was in India studying intensively. After finally overcoming a long struggle with addiction, Joseph began experimenting with Ashtanga Yoga. He understood quickly that the lineage was calling to him to deepen his practice. He underwent a 2 year apprenticeship program at the world renowned Miami Life Center, continuing his education under his dear teachers Tim Fieldmann and Kino MacGregor. More recently he has completed 2 months of study in Mysore under Sharath Jois. Joseph teaches yoga because attempts to do any and everything else ended disastrously. But when he finally devoted himself to his passion, he became an asset to himself and others. He hopes his practice allows him to be ever more loving and to exist gently.

  • Exploring Yoga & Body Image with Omstars – The Yoga Network

    Welcome to the “Exploring Yoga & Body Image” Blog Series on Omstars!

    We’ve gathered yoga teachers, social justice activists and inspiring critical thinkers to lead us on a deep dive into yoga & body image! Our new blog series gives you the opportunity to learn from the top thinkers and activists in the field of body positivity, plus,  join a bigger conversation that will create lasting change, both in your life and in the world. This free blog series holds space for this work with inclusivity and compassion. But, it’s not only blogs—we will also be hosting IG and FB lives with each of these powerful voices. The path then culminates with a live discussion panel, hosted in Miami at Miami Life Center which will also be filmed for online viewing and made available via the Chat & Chai podcast. This weekend event, taking place June 7th-9th 2019, will be accompanied by a weekend of workshops for those able to attend. Many of these workshops, if not all, will also be recorded and available on Omstars thereafter, so as to make these vital and potentially world-changing workshops accessible to all.

    Discussing yoga or movement, diet culture, or basically any conversation about body image can be challenging; whether you feel the effects of negative or hurtful comments yourself, or you are unsure how to approach the issue and learn more about the topic. Either way, having clear guidance to navigate both the inner and outer work is needed. Think about this blog series as a kind of community re-education. We seek to bring the discussion of beauty, body and culture to the forefront of awareness, and in doing so, we hope to crack the myths of privilege and mainstream beauty norms. Relying on solid facts and research, our expert team of leaders guide you through a powerful process of self-discovery. We hope you will be engaged with us each step of the way and share your own stories, be active in the comments and join as many of the livestreams as possible.

    REAL inclusivity means being willing to have difficult conversations AND hold each other in a space of vulnerability, tolerance and kindness. When we learn to sit with and hold ourselves in this way, it teaches us how to then hold this space for others. This isn’t just a blog series, this is about creating a movement towards waking people up, opening up an important conversation and creating a safe, caring and supportive space for people to explore their thoughts, feelings and ultimately a chance for people to support each other in a meaningful way.

    But more than anything, we want you to know this— We hear you, we see you and we are here to support you.

    Without further ado, we’d like to introduce you to our esteemed group of experts from the Yoga & Body Image Coalition who are leading the charge on this series for us.

    LAURA BURNS

    Laura Burns is the fierce, fat, feminist founder of Radical Body Love Yoga. She’s obsessed with bringing body-affirming yoga and self-love coaching into as many lives as possible. Her commitment is to helping folks honor their bodies in each moment, regardless of size, ability, age, gender expression, ethnicity, and experience with trauma. She feels called to help people become more present in their bodies, more loving toward themselves, and to move forward toward living the life they want and deserve.

    Through her online courses, workshops, classes, and radical body-love activism, Laura is sharing her personal experience with the life-saving power of yoga and body-positivity with the world. Accessibility, trauma-sensitivity, and body-autonomy are the guiding principles of all her work and interactions with the world. Laura is an E-RYT 200, YACEP, trained and certified by Curvy Yoga, a Certified Punk Rock Hoops Instructor, a Community Partner with the Yoga and Body Image Coalition, and the creator of the HoopAsana and Radical Body Love Yoga philosophies and practices. She lives in Houston, Texas and sets up shop online at radicalbodylove.com.

    DIANNE BONDY

    Dianne Bondy is a social justice activist, author, accessible yoga teacher, and the leader of the Yoga For All movement. Her inclusive approach to yoga empowers anyone to practice—regardless of their shape, size, ethnicity, or level of ability. Dianne is revolutionizing yoga by educating yoga instructors around the world on how to make their classes welcoming and safe for all kinds of practitioners.


    Dianne is the author of Yoga for Everyone (DK Publishing, Penguin Random House) and a frequent contributor toYoga International, DoYouYoga, Yoga Girl, and Omstars. She has been featured in publications such as The Guardian, Huffington Post, Cosmopolitan, and People. Dianne’s commitment to increasing diversity in yoga has been recognized in her work with Pennington’s, Gaiam, and the Yoga & Body Image Coalition, as well as in speaking engagements at Princeton and UC Berkeley on Yoga, Race, and
    Diversity. Her writing is published in Yoga and Body Image Volume 1, Yoga Rising, and Yes Yoga Has Curves.

    Find Dianne online on IG, Facebook and Twitter or at diannebondyyoga.com and  yogaforalltraining.com

    CELISA FLORES

    Celisa Flores: Since obtaining a Master’s degree in Counseling in 2007 at CSU Fresno and a PsyD in Clinical Psychology from The Chicago School of Professional Psychology in 2013, Dr. Flores worked as a therapist and program director in a wide variety of mental health treatment setting. This diversity of experience allowed research and training to expand her skills as a Feminist therapistwith emphasis on Eating Disorders, Mindfulness and women’s issues.

    With a history of providing individual, group, family, and couples counseling services, as well as therapeutic yoga services, Dr. Flores has focused on evidence-based practices, providing guidance and support in Mindfulness in Recovery, Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT), and other self-empowerment strategies. In addition to training as a therapist, she is a Certified Yoga Teacher, also trained in Mindful Stress Reduction, Reiki and as a doula. By integrating a variety ofholistic tools into recovery and wellness, she works to create a long-lasting, sustainable wellness plan.

    Now proudly with Center for Discovery, providing clinical outreach for Orange County and the Central California region.  This role has included national and international training and speaking engagements on eating disorders, mindfulness, yoga, body acceptance, and professional wellness, as well as facilitating accessible, body-affirming yoga annually at the Los Angeles NEDA walk.  With a passion to support other therapists and community members with understanding eating disorders and treatment as well as self-care and overall wellness, she is always working to share information, research and training.

    MELANIE KLEIN

    Melanie Klein, M.A., is an empowerment coach, thought leader and influencer in the areas of body confidence, authentic empowerment, and visibility. She is also a successful writer, speaker, and professor of Sociology and Women’s Studies. Her areas of interest and specialty include media literacy education, body image, and the intersectional analysis of systems of power and privilege. She is the co-editor of Yoga and Body Image: 25 Personal Stories About Beauty, Bravery + Loving Your Body (Llewellyn, 2014) with Anna Guest-Jelley, a contributor in 21st Century Yoga: Culture, Politics and Practice (Horton & Harvey, 2012), is featured in Conversations with Modern Yogis (Shroff, 2014), a featured writer in Llewellyn’s Complete Book of Mindful Living (Llewellyn, 2016), co-editor of Yoga, the Body and Embodied Social Change: An Intersectional Feminist Analysis with Dr. Beth Berila and Dr. Chelsea Jackson Roberts (Rowman and Littlefield, 2016) as well as the editor of the new anthology, Yoga Rising: 30 Empowering Stories from Yoga Renegades for Every Body. She co-founded the Yoga and Body Image Coalition in 2014 and is the co-founder of The Joy Revolution. She has been practicing yoga and meditation since 1996 and currently lives in Santa Monica, CA.

    Connect: melaniecklein.com, ybicoalition.com, yogaandbodyimage.org, yogarisingbook.com

    JENNIFER KREATSOULAS

    Jennifer Kreatsoulas, PhD, E-RYT 500, C-IAYT, is a certified yoga therapist specializing in eating disorders and body image. She is an inspirational speaker and author of Body Mindful Yoga: Create a Powerful and Affirming Relationship With Your Body. Jennifer provides yoga therapy via online and in person at YogaLife Institute in Wayne, PA, and leads yoga therapy groups at Monte Nido Eating Disorder Center of Philadelphia. She teaches workshops, retreats, and specialized trainings for clinicians, professionals, and yoga teachers. She also mentors professionals who wish to integrate yoga into their work with eating disorder clients. Jennifer is a partner with the Yoga & Body Image Coalition and writes for Yoga International and Yoga Journal and other influential blogs. She has appeared on Fox29 news and WHYY’s “The Pulse,” and has been featured in the Huffington Post, Real Woman Magazine, Medill Reports Chicago, Philly.com, The Yoga International Podcast, and ED Matters Podcast. Connect with Jennifer: www.Yoga4EatingDisorders.com.   

    SUZANNAH NEUFELD

    Suzannah Neufeld, MFT, C-IAYT, is a licensed psychotherapist, certified yoga therapist, and mom of two who has specialized in supporting people coping with eating disorders, body image concerns, and maternal mental health since 2003. She is a co-founder of Rockridge Wellness Center, a counseling and health collective in Oakland, CA, where she has a private practice. Suzannah is the author of the book Awake at 3 a.m.: Yoga Therapy for Anxiety and Depression in Pregnancy and Early Motherhood (Parallax Press, 2018). She is also a contributing author in the anthology Yoga Rising: 30 Empowering Stories from Yoga Renegades for Every Body. Learn more at www.suzannahneufeld.com

    SABRINA STRINGS

    Sabrina Strings, Ph.D. has always wanted to write. As a young girl, her parents gifted her a little desk so that she might have a proper place to sketch out the tiny imaginative stories she passed to them when the inspiration struck. Today, Sabrina is constantly seeking ways to combine her love of writing, her passion for yoga, and her devotion to teaching and community service. As a yoga teacher, she offers free and dana-based yoga classes and workshops in low-income, POC-dominant communities like Oakland, Richmond, and East Los Angeles. She the co-founding editor of the first-ever publication dedicated to interrogating the link between race, gender and the modern practice of yoga, Race and Yoga Journal. As a professor, she travels the world giving talks on race, yoga, and women’s history. She teaches courses on feminist theory, social inequality/collective liberation, race/gender and embodiment, and food justice. She is on the Community Resilience Project Faculty Advisory Board, where she helps to organize and promote local actions for environmental and climate justice. As a writer, her social commentary has been featured in The Feminist Wire, Truth-Out Independent News, and Yoga International. Her writings on the nexus of fatness and blackness can be found in Fat Studies, Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, and the Oxford Handbook of Body and Embodiment. Her new book, Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia (NYU Press 2019) explores how the phobia about fatness has been historically related to fears of racial integration.

    MELANIE WILLIAMS

    Melanie Williams is an East-Coast-based, fat, queer, non-binary yoga teacher and self-love advocate, called to create profoundly accessible spaces for self-inquiry and the inward journey by integrating mindfulness and adaptive movement practices with the spirit of social justice. They believe that the goal of yoga, as of life, is collective liberation and in turn challenge contemporary yogis to dismantle the systems and beliefs that hold us all back. In addition to teaching group and private yoga classes, Melanie offers workshops that explore queer identity and body image, leads adaptive yoga teacher trainings, helps coordinate trainings internationally for Accessible Yoga, champions diversity and inclusion in the yoga industry as a member of the Yoga & Body Image Coalition leadership team, and serves leading industry groups as an expert advisor on diversity and accessibility.

    By Kino MacGregor, Anna Wechsel and Melanie Klein