• Embracing the Body Experiencing Invisible Disability Through Yoga

    Yoga helped the light in me never go out. And without the path of yoga letting my soul speak to me, guiding my way forward, I would not be here, writing to you.


    Two years ago, my brain was dying. Misdiagnosed and undiagnosed seven years after a fall, I was living in a pre-dementia state at forty, heading towards being placed in a long-term care facility for severely disabled adults within one-two years. But I didn’t know any of this.

    I still looked normal on the outside. It was impossible for people to understand what I was going through and it was impossible for me to understand what I was going through.

    Living in such a state of ill-health and not knowing why drastically changed my relationship to my body. Only aware it was letting me down, I developed a punishing and harsh way of relating to my body, often wishing I could magically step into another, stronger body while on this earth.

    But even as I wanted to disown my body, I never stopped trying to heal. I always knew something was wrong.

    And I was right. As a Canadian, I followed my truth to America, spent every last cent I had, and finally got a proper diagnosis.

    My brain was in very ill health, as a result of an incomplete cervical spinal cord injury. My cervical vertebrae were out of place causing a whole host of issues, including decreased blood flow to my brain, the blockage of flow of cerebrospinal fluid causing brain toxicity, and systemic issues from pressure on my brain stem.

    Seven years to get to an answer.

    Most of the time now, I am astounded at the strength and resilience I had to keep going, following my truth, seeking my answer.

    What helped me not give up? What helped me listen to my truth, even when I was very sick and had no reason to believe it was true and even when doctors disagreed and wanted to walk me down the path of long-term, very heavy duty pharmaceutical treatment plans because the only thing they knew to say about my invisible illness was…it must be a mental health condition?

    Yoga.

    Processing my experience one breath, one small movement, one mindful moment at a time.

    Yoga helped the light in me never go out. And without the path of yoga letting my soul speak to me, guiding my way forward, I would not be here, writing to you.

    But here I am! I am two years into my healing journey. I still have to use my time on the mat to draw on those resources of strength and resilience. I was living with a spinal cord injury for many years and it is taking considerable time and effort to heal. I have much cognitive function restored but there are still setbacks and there is no end date to my healing.

    Yoga continues to show me the way of patience and compassion. Over the years, it helped me peel away layers, drop false identities, and develop a fervent search for truth in all situations.

    I have also found yoga to be a form of titration through this experience of invisible illness, a way of bringing the disowned parts of my body back on board, softly and slowly over time, little bit by little bit.

    For me, the physical movements of gentle yoga were the doorway in while the body sensing component of yoga nidra supported me to feel my body again. And beyond just feeling it, to embrace it, to love it, to enjoy it even.

    What I have learned, fully and completely, is that this body is spectacular. It never stops working for me, it’s always sending me messages about how to take care of it.

    And it is crying out to be loved, so today I offer it this love letter:

    Dear Body,

    We’ve been through a lot, haven’t we?

    You’re still here, and I’m so thankful. Thank you for holding on through the darkness. Thank you for fighting, fighting, fighting. Thank you for breathing and allowing me to be in the world. Thank you for working with my soul to help me find the answer. Thank you for not giving up on me, even when I didn’t want you.

    I’m sorry for the times I wanted you to go away. I’m sorry for punishing you, hating you, disrespecting you, degrading you. I’m sorry I ever had one bad thought about you.

    I’m sorry I didn’t see the truth for so long. I know now – you’re amazing and strong and you’re there for me. You’re with
    me.

    We’re in this together and we’ll do this together. I’m so grateful to have the best partner on this journey with so much more goodness ahead of us.

    I bow to the power of your wisdom that is beyond comprehension and I will listen to your messages, I promise.

    Love,
    Angie

    NOTE: This post is part of a collaborative media series organized and curated by Omstars and the Yoga & Body Image Coalition intended as a deep dive into yoga & body
    image.

    By Angie Davis

    Angie Davis has emerged from a nine-year journey through invisible injury and illness with an unshakeable
    belief that yoga can help relieve suffering in the world and is powerful for helping those who’ve experienced grief, loss, trauma, injury, and illness find their way back home to self-love. Angie is the founder of Gentle Yoga International and is transforming pain to power by turning the story of being a P.T.S.D., moderate-severe brain injury, and cervical spinal cord injury survivor into purpose as an inclusive and accessible yoga and meditation teacher, entrepreneur, writer, speaker, and brain injury and mental health advocate. Angie is a contributing author to Anxiety Warrior Volume II and a Trauma Sensitive Yoga Teacher, having trained through the Trauma Center at the Justice Resource Institute. She is also a Level 2 iRest® Yoga Nidra Teacher, accredited by the iRest Institute in California. Angie passionately teaches this research-based, complementary therapy that has been proven helpful for P.T.S.D., anxiety, sleep difficulties, and other issues. She is also trained in Mental Health Sensitivity, Mental Health First Aid, and Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training. Visit her online at gentleyogainternational.com

    Sign up for an Omstars membership to take your yoga practice to the next level.

    Click here to start your 14-day free trial today!

  • Mindful Practices for Whole-Body Self-Acceptance

    We can push and strive against our challenges but my key to moving forward began with deep self-reflection and learning to make friends with life. Though challenging and unsettling, my car accident brought so much growth. What once felt like torture now feels like a gift.


    Accepting and embracing my body has been a lifelong journey… the process has continued to be worth every challenge, it’s allowed me to truly make friends with life.

    In times of struggle, inspirational quotes replenish my soul. Stephen Hawking penned one of my favorites: “Look up at stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see, and wonder about what makes the universe exist. Be curious.” Hawking’s words mirror my journey to body acceptance because it took a great deal of curiosity and soul searching to embrace my body after a car accident when I was 19 years old.

    I was diagnosed with a spinal cord injury following the accident and was told I wouldn’t ever walk again. The experience was utterly devastating and I was traumatized by the reality that my life was forever changed. Before the accident, I was a skateboarder, lifeguard, athlete, and dancer/choreographer with dreams of being a choreographer on Broadway. After the accident, fear crept in. My inner and outer worlds were out of balance. I didn’t know how to heal. I put up emotional walls for protection, disconnected from my body and ignored my physical challenges. Instead, I focused on external goals like going to college, earning advanced degrees and becoming an editor/journalist. Pushing and striving toward external goals helped me survive, but deep down, my soul knew there was a better way.

    I longed to reconnect with my body but didn’t know how to begin. By some miracle–and a year and half of physical therapy–I eventually relearned to walk with foot orthotics but embracing my body and living in wholeness didn’t happen immediately or overnight. Gradually I found the courage to lean into the experience and in the process embrace where my body was at, what it needed and how this shaped my identity.

    It took years to learn that I couldn’t simply force or will my body to heal. That’s where my journey to authentically feel my experience radically changed my life and my relationship to self and all there is. What I didn’t know–or wasn’t able to see at the time–was that with every circumstance, health challenge, adversity, or hardship, the Universe was leading me to a higher purpose… leading me to more and more fully embrace my body and embrace my life.

    We all experience trauma in our lives but our challenges don’t have to define us. The truth is: we aren’t put here to suffer. We can push and strive against our challenges but my key to moving forward began with deep self-reflection and learning to make friends with life. Though challenging and unsettling, my car accident brought so much growth. What once felt like torture now feels like a gift.

    Along the way, I discovered mindful practices that helped me tap into a deeper connection with my body: meditation, journal writing, and inclusive, mindful movement and adaptive/accessible yoga. These practices unearthed whole-body self-acceptance, which led to a desire to share and teach others how to connect internally and find deeper meaning and purpose in their own lives. These mindfulness practices are the core of my transformation and they continue to support me as I continue to navigate this body and this experience of being.

    Every day, I set aside time for mindful movement, meditation and mantras, and explorative self-reflective journal writing. Mindful tools help me ground and maintain a sense of balance. Keep in mind, there is no right or wrong way to begin this practice. The first steps involve listening to our bodies and trusting ourselves. It’s a practice. It’s always worth the time, energy and attention.

    Our journeys may not lead to the same place but our unique higher purpose may be on the other side if we remain open and curious.

    In the end, reconnecting with mind, body and spirit taught me that my body is my home.

    Learning to tap into this truth changed my life.

    This is my mission, to offer this same life-changing possibility to you.

    To get started, here are a couple starter practices in mindful movement and mindful self-reflection.

    Mindful Movement

    Legs Up the Wall is an excellent way to begin or end the day. This practice can reduce edema, increase circulation and relieve tension in the legs.

    Legs Up the Wall

    * Lie on a bed or floor with feet against the wall.
    * Move as close as you can to the wall as you take your legs up the wall.
    * Your body should make an “L” shape.
    * Relax legs and feet.
    * Release arms out to the sides to form a T shape.
    * Lengthen the sides of the neck.
    * Relax muscles in the face, throat, and tongue.
    * Allow the weight of legs to release into the hips.
    * Feel your body let go of the tension.
    * Feel all stress release as you passively allow the reverse effect of gravity.
    * Do several rounds of deep nostril breathing (breathe in and out of your nose) as you relax and release mind, body and spirit.

    Explorative Self-Reflecting Journal Prompt

    Write about a challenging experience that turned into a blessing. If you’re unable to think of one, write about a time when you faced adversity and how that experience changed you. What was that experience? What were the lessons or blessings? How do they support you now? How can you continue to use those blessings as you move forward in your body and your life?

    NOTE: This post is part of a collaborative media series organized and curated by Omstars and the Yoga & Body Image Coalition intended as a deep dive into yoga & body
    image.

    By Mary Higgs

    Mary Higgs, MA, is a respected writer, online educator, speaker, mindfulness coach, and disability advocate. Developing a passion for mindfulness and becoming an Adaptive and Accessible Yoga Teacher transformed Mary’s life in unexpected ways. She loves sharing her message that transformation comes from within. She has published pieces in Yoga International, Devata Active, Yoga and Body Image Coalition, and Mind Body Solutions All-Humanity Newsletter. As a RYT, OYI, and certified Yoga for All and Accessible Yoga Teacher, Mary teaches people to explore and trust their inner wisdom, so they can live more authentically. Visit her online at YogiAble.com.

    Photo by furkanfdemir from Pexels

    Sign up for an Omstars membership to take your yoga practice to the next level.

    Click here to start your 14-day free trial today!

  • Healing The Wounded Black Gay Kid In Me

    But, coming out of the closet was just the first step. It would take nearly two decades for me to get to a place where I could deal with the pain of the childhood rejection I experienced. Yoga would be a conduit for that healing.

    The following is an excerpt from “Embodied Resilience Through Yoga:30 Mindful Essays About Finding Empowerment After Addiction, Trauma, Grief, and Loss” edited by Kat Heagberg, Melanie Klein, Kathryn Ashworth, and Toni Willis, Llewellyn 2020.

    Where I grew up, men were expected to act like men and little boys were expected to act like little boys. During the 80’s and 90’s, statistically, most young black men would be involved in some kind of street violence and would also spend some part of their lives incarcerated. So, many black fathers, grandfathers and uncles who had connections to young boys had to have it in their minds to groom young men that could not only survive the violent streets of Washington D.C., but that could also survive jail.

    I was also a light-skinned kid. So, there was even more reason for concern because light-skinned high yellow boys were seen as weaker. And the men I knew weren’t having any soft-acting, high-yellow black boys coming out of my neighborhood if they could help it. They had to make sure that I would be strong. “You got to be all boy! You got to be the All-American Black Boy!” was what a substitute gym teacher in my elementary school would say to us male youth often, his eyes focused mostly on me, it seemed.

    As we lined up and filed out of the school gym, a classmate’s grandfather that volunteered with the physical education program whispered to me as I walked by him, “Every soldier, every hero finds his own glory, young, man. You’ll find your own glory!”

    He seemed to be speaking directly to my wounded heart. I guess he saw the insecurity on my face. It’s like he was telling me that despite what the substitute gym teacher had just said, that it was all right to be different from the other boys. Like many elder black men in our community, he’d proudly served as a Lieutenant in World War II. Having led so many different kinds of men with so many different temperaments into battle, perhaps he had first-hand knowledge that surviving a war depended upon much more than physical prowess. I felt like this elder was letting me know that he saw my uncertainty and that I was going to be okay. Even though I didn’t fit the image being projected onto all of us, better days were coming for kids like me.

    The All-American black Boy rode mopeds and dirt bikes. The All-American Black boy could handle himself with his fists if someone disrespected him. The All-American Black Boy played sports, knew his way up and down a basketball court and knew how to catch a football. The All-American Black Boy was a champion. The All-American Black Boy was source of pride for the men in his community.

    I never really took a liking to any of those things.

    By my last year in elementary school, I knew that I was gay. I also knew that I couldn’t tell anyone.

    I played with the girls. I jumped double-dutch. I read books.

    I was jumping rope with a group of girls in an alley behind my house one summer day when the words, “That boy ain’t gonna be shit! He’s gonna be gay.” directed to me from the mouth of a loud intoxicated man out of a car widow hit me like a brick.

    Even though there were always slivers of inspiration that would bolster my hope for better days in the future, like the grandfather in my gym class whispering to me, for the most part, the words coming from the mouths of men I looked up to devastated my young spirit and my confidence. I would go through my days and nights with those words echoing through my head. I’d look at other boys my age and wish I could be more like them and less like me.

    Many young boys’ reaction to the pressure to be manlier would have been to become overly masculine to win the approval of others they looked up to. But, that wasn’t my nature.

    I was a gentle spirit. I had a poetic soul.

    By the time I reached my teen years, I felt rejected and alone.

    There were no LGBTQ clubs at D.C. area high schools. There were no gay pride parades happening in Washington. D.C that I knew of. There were no same sex couples raising children that were visible. They were not preaching inclusivity in the church that I went to.

    If you were a gay kid growing up in Washington, D.C. in the eighties and early nineties, you were on your own.

    There were many days when I just didn’t want to live anymore.

    Once I hit puberty, I began to pull away from friendships with males and females.

    I didn’t go out partying like other teens did. I just focused on academics.

    I’d check out a book each week from the library to read during the long bus rides out of my neighborhood to attend magnet schools that I’d been accepted to in Downtown, Washington, D.C.. I’d become what people may consider a ‘gifted child’ and that got me into schools away from my neighborhood. Away from anyone who really knew me, I spent time on the bus with my head buried in books communing with some of the most inspirational minds to ever live. And that’s exactly what a young gay kid like me needed: inspiration.

    James Baldwin, Maya Angelou, Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, the voice of Malcolm X through Alex Haley’s book, Alice Walker, these folks became my allies. These were black writers who wrote mostly about their experiences with racial discrimination in America. But they also wrote very candidly about their experiences as children coming of age and how painful experiences shaped them into activists and advocates for the underdogs of this world. I could relate to them.

    They weren’t talking about being gay, but they were talking about being black and being different and oppressed. They were talking about how black people deserved better; how difference deserved to be celebrated; how difference deserved a voice. Since they were poets and writers, they did all not fit the stereotypes of what men should be or women should be for that matter, but they were successful and powerful.

    Their books taught me that I could pour everything that I was going through as a teen into the arts. I could convert my pain into creativity; into creative projects. And that’s exactly what I did.

    I joined drama clubs, signed up for speech competitions, went away for summers to study in academic programs and I began to shine in those areas. So much so, that I began to win the approval of many people in my community.

    As a teen, my love for the arts and books took me all over the country and eventually away from the streets of my hometown to college. It was in Boston while in college that I was able to find the space to allow my true identity to begin to come out.

    But, coming out of the closet was just the first step; It would take nearly two decades for me to get to a place where I could deal with the pain of the childhood rejection I experienced. Yoga would be a conduit for that healing.

    “You are enough” that’s what yoga says. “Your life matters. You are special. You are a hero on your own journey. Come as you are. Accept yourself for who you are!”

    No one had ever said that to me quite the way yoga teachers had.

    *****

    Yoga brings me to a place where I can watch my thoughts and separate out the voices in my head. I can distinguish between the abusive voices—the ones put there by society and some of the men I grew up around that oppress LGBTQ people—and the voices that are for my greatest good and that uplift me.

    Yoga helps me to constantly assess the damage that life has done to me and creates the space for me to be able to heal that damage.

    Yoga invites me to be my own hero.

    NOTE: This post is part of a collaborative media series organized and curated by Omstars and the Yoga & Body Image Coalition intended as a deep dive into yoga & body image.

    By Dorian Baucum

    LA based singer, Dorian Baucum won yoga studios over with his Dorian’s Live Neosoul & Yoga – a fusion of his conscious, live, feel good neosoul music you can groove to with yoga classes to create a concert-style yoga experience.

    He guest-starred on CSI: Las Vegas with country music group The Rascal Flatts and the hit TV show ER. He’s a registered pharmacist with a Certification in Integrative Pharmacy, Reiki Master, Certified in Bodywork by the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health, served in the Music for Healing Program at Cedars Sinai Hospital in Beverly Hills, holds an MFA in Acting from the University of California, San Diego and a B.S. in Pharmacy from Massachusetts College of Pharmacy. He’s just completed his 200HR Social Justice Based Yoga Teacher Training at The Tree SOUTHLA Yoga Cooperative.

    Dorian has released two albums: EVERYDAY WARRIOR: Acoustic-Neosoul for Your Soul and Turn It Into Gold!

    Website: dorianneosoul.com
    Social Media: INSTAGRAM @dorianwarrior

    Photos by David Young-Wolf

  • Customizing Poses Opens Yoga to Everyone

    Having physical challenges doesn’t mean traditional yoga poses are out of reach. Accessible/Adaptive Yoga Teachers like myself strive to make any pose possible. We see poses with new eyes and try to give students tools for a whole-body experience in their practice.

    Adapting and customizing yoga poses are so important when it comes to body acceptance and diversity. It breaks down barriers to yoga and helps students feel supported and included.

    I’ll never forget the first time I experienced an adaptive/accessible handstand in my practice. I was training to become an Opening Yoga Instructor (OYI) at Mind Body Solutions (MBS) in Minnesota. Since becoming a Registered Yoga Teacher (RYT 200), Yoga For All Teacher, and certified Accessible Yoga Teacher, I’ve attended many trainings that discuss traditional handstand. Yet, I never fully experienced the benefits of this pose firsthand because I have a spinal cord injury; therefore, practicing traditional handstand is ill-advised. Thankfully, Mind Body Solutions offers an adaptive approach that opens yoga to everyone.

    To get into MBS’s adaptive handstand, place the short end of the mat facing the wall and lie down on the mat. You’ll want to make sure to leave enough room for arms to extend and touch the wall behind you. Use bolsters and towels for head, neck, and back support. Once props are in place, lift your gaze and arms above and behind the head while placing hands flat on the wall behind you- this mimics the position of hands on the floor in traditional handstand.

    When I attempted the pose, I was exhilarated. Even though I was lying on my back on a mat, it felt like I was standing upright in traditional handstand. A zip of energy traveled up my legs, arms, and head. I felt alive and connected to my body in a new way. When I released my arms, tears welled up in my eyes. I felt the transformative power of yoga and a deep sense of calm in that moment. I’ll never forget it. It was life-changing.

    Having physical challenges doesn’t mean traditional yoga poses are out of reach. Accessible/Adaptive Yoga Teachers like myself strive to make any pose possible. We see poses with new eyes and try to give students tools for a whole-body experience in their practice. We do this by slowing down movement and guiding students to explore and listen to their bodies. For me, the end goal is not how the pose looks, it’s more about the sensation that occurs in mind, body, and spirit.

    So, the next time you approach a yoga pose, consider slowing down movement and feeling deeply into sensation. You might be surprised how one small adjustment can open yoga in new ways.

    If we agree that yoga can be a vehicle for body acceptance and diversity, opening yoga by adapting and customizing poses empowers students on and off the mat.

    NOTE: This post is part of a collaborative media series organized and curated by Omstars and the Yoga & Body Image Coalition intended as a deep dive into yoga & body
    image.

    By Mary Higgs

    Mary Higgs, MA, is a respected writer, online educator, speaker, mindfulness coach, and disability advocate. Developing a passion for mindfulness and becoming an Adaptive and Accessible Yoga Teacher transformed Mary’s life in unexpected ways. She loves sharing her message that transformation comes from within. She has published pieces in Yoga International, Devata Active, Yoga and Body Image Coalition, and Mind Body Solutions All-Humanity Newsletter. As a RYT, OYI, and certified Yoga for All and Accessible Yoga Teacher, Mary teaches people to explore and trust their inner wisdom, so they can live more authentically. Visit her online at YogiAble.com.

    Sign up for an Omstars membership to take your yoga practice to the next level.

    Click here to start your 14-day free trial today!

  • How to Stress Less (Hint: Trust Your Body More)

    Leaning into trust can shape your life for the better.

    Where do you feel stress in your body? Have you ever noticed?

    Is it a tightness in your chest, or a heaviness in your forehead? It could be a nervous frenzy in your fingers, an unsettling feeling in your stomach, or maybe a combination of all the above.

    The past year and a half has been hard. Like, really hard. As yoga teachers and practitioners, we are fortunate enough to have incredible tools available to us, based on the mindfulness practices we have put into place. Wellness routines and rituals are important, necessary, and SO powerful in some instances.

    And sometimes, we all just need to take a break—a breather from all the breathing exercises.

    At the beginning of 2021, I was feeling some shame around how all of these incredible mindfulness tools I’ve brought into my life just weren’t helping like they used to. The high stress and anxiety that permeates our world now is heavy, and exhausting. So, of course, another juice cleanse should do the trick, right?

    No?

    Okay, maybe a 30-day meditation challenge? Or another virtual yoga class? A run? Order the newest personal development book?

    I realized in my rush to find something to help me cope, I was seeking outside of myself. I was focused on what else I could be doing, and this was leading me away from just being with myself.

    And this makes sense! Society and culture have continued to teach us that we do not fully understand ourselves, and we must seek external experts to find how we can be our “best” selves”. Examples of this can be seen in all areas of life:

    What our bodies should look like

    What degrees we should earn

    What roles we should inherently excel at

    I’ve decided that my “best self” is the self who resides within my own inherent wisdom and that wisdom comes from my listening to my own body.

    Throughout all of this seeking, I was also trying to pick the perfect word of the year. (Another thing I kept pushing down my “self-care task list”.)

    I started to tune in and ask myself, “What am I really trying to solve with my word of the year?” And it came down to stress. I want to be less stressed and less anxious and more sure of myself, ideas, and abilities.

    So I went further: what is causing me stress?

    I wanted to better understand what those outside influences were making me feel internally. I was feeling unsure of myself; I was feeling incapable and powerless and crushing amounts of self-doubt.

    So what did I need to do?

    TRUST.

    When I decided to try on the word “Trust” for my word of the year, the Universe winked and said, “Alright, are you ready for this?”

    Does this sound familiar? You’re working on a project, but your mind is being pulled in another direction because you “should” be working on that other thing instead. So you shift gears, but now you’re feeling guilty for abandoning that other project. But, oh yeah, you’re ALSO supposed to be doing this other thing and people are depending on you and you’re literally just letting every single person down.

    As I was trying on my word of the year, I realized most of my stress came down to me not trusting that what I was saying, doing, or being in that moment was the “right” thing to be saying, doing, or being.

    I would continually second guess if what I was doing was the “right” choice, and in doing so it did two things:

    The quality of my attention and awareness plummeted because I was feeling the need to hold space for multiple different “shoulds” at one time.

    Those physical cues I stated earlier? They would start up in force.

    After making this realization, I created a new intention for myself to help me alleviate and avoid unnecessary stress reactions:

    I am making the right choice because it’s the one I’m making.

    This simple phrase has become an incredible tool for me to shift out of my stress reaction into a place of choice. I encourage you to try out this intention!

    When you notice stress happening (again, I’ll point to those physical cues because our bodies know what’s up), take a moment to go in. Notice, where are you actually experiencing the stress in your body?

    From there, you can chart where the cause meets the effect. If you find yourself doubting your experience, remember
    to trust yourself. And listen to the wisdom of your body.

    Learning that most of my stress is unnecessary and self-inflicted has opened me up to be more creative and curious and joyful in my life responsibilities—it reminds me I am utilizing my power of choice. I am choosing
    to bring my valuable time, attention, and energy to this current thing, which means it’s what I’m meant to be focusing on. Because it’s what I chose.

    NOTE: This post is part of a collaborative media series organized and curated by Omstars and the Yoga & Body Image Coalition intended as a deep dive into yoga & body image.

    By Jordan Page

    Jordan Page is a traveling nomad who takes her love of yoga with her everywhere she goes. She also believes you can learn a lot about someone from their Hogwarts House. After completing yoga teacher training in 2017, she and her husband converted a school bus into
    their tiny home in which they now live and travel full-time. She has taught yoga in multiple states around the U.S. and in 2019 she completed her professional coach training through iPEC and earned her CPC. Through yoga and coaching, she works to empower and inspire women to own the life of their choosing through conscious, purposeful intention. She is purposefully living, while not taking things too seriously.

    Find on on Instagram here and here.

    Photo by Ismael Sanchez from Pexels

  • Intersectionality and Ableism

    When we look at Yoga through the lens of intersectionality we must explore how Yoga studios and online platforms can create safe spaces for folks with physical disabilities and the LGBTQIA+ and QTBIPOC communities to be welcomed into. Representation is a big part of this equation and creating offerings where these communities are engaged and involved so they can feel safe, seen and heard.

    Intersectionality offers yoga practitioners and the wider wellness community an opportunity to examine their own biases as well as the structural obstacles on a path forward to inclusivity and accessibility. While there has been increased discussion and action taken to address the overlapping and interrelated nature of race, gender & sexual orientation as well as socioeconomic status and class in recent years, there’s been considerably less attention on ableism and disability rights in wellness spaces (and beyond).

    And the truth is that this is also apparent in feminist spaces where intersectionality as a term and a praxis originated. As Cara Liebowitz wrote for The Body is Not An Apology, “Feminism must be intersectional or it’s simply hypocritical. Disabled people are the world’s largest minority, according to the UN, and it is certainly foolish to alienate a group that could be powerful partners in the quest for social justice.”

    As the blog post by Cara Liebowitiz reveals in its title, it’s crucial to center disabled women in feminism to ensure that feminism is truly intersectional. In Disabilities Quarterly (v.34. No. 2, 2014), Alison Piepmeier, Amber Cantrell and Ashley Maggio wrote that disability is an urgent feminist issue. An authentic turn of attention to disability studies with conscious and clear actions to increase accessibility and inclusivity is an issue that wellness communities must also begin to increasingly prioritize. It is crucial to center disabled people in yoga and wellness if we’re to utilize intersectionality as a lens and framework to increase diverse representation, accessibility and inclusivity.

    Intersectionality requires work and introspection on the part of feminists who continue to ensure intersectionality includes divergent social locations across the spectrum of being human. It also requires increased awareness, education, and action on the part of wellness practitioners and leaders to ensure that we’re truly living our values and commitment to our practice as a tool of liberation for all.

    Dr. Theo Wildcroft of the Centre of Yoga Studies is a yoga teacher, trainer, writer and esteemed scholar. Her research considers the democratization of yoga post-lineage, and the many different ways yoga communities of practice are evolving. In a recent interview on the subject of intersectionality and wellness, Dr. Wildroft offers an additional layer to understanding intersectionality and disability. As she states, “And disability is intersectional – it impacts most those people who are already most disadvantaged. If you are poor, or black, or queer, or female, you are more likely to become disabled, and to have your suffering ignored. True accessibility is more than charity. It is an act of justice, and of healing – not of the disabled individual, but of the broken relationships between us.”

    And that’s not what we always see (and yet what we have an opportunity to do)…

    Cultural Appropriation Feeds Into Ableism

    What do we see when you search #yoga on Instagram? A plethora of glossy photos of thin, able bodied white heteronormative women in acrobatic postures. This has actually got nothing to do with Yoga. Meditation is in fact one of the key limbs of Yoga, not the advanced asana postures that have become so popularized and feed into individualism and ego consciousness which is the antithesis of Yogic philosophy.

    Yoga teachers have popularized the statements “we are all one” and “sending love and light” but unless we actually take actions to make this a reality, they are simply empty slogans and a part of spiritual bypassing which causes direct harm by dismissing the discrimination of those who are marginalized and have disabilities. Yoga is, in fact, social justice and disability justice and incredibly relevant to these times. Burning incense and chanting OM is not enough and never has been. The cultural appropriation of yoga is rampant, and most people have no idea what the essence of yoga is really about, which is a huge part of the problem. This feeds into the narrative of thin, able bodied white women consistently platformed in mainstream Yoga and wellness with everyone else being excluded.

    When we look at Yoga through the lens of intersectionality we must explore how Yoga studios and online platforms can create safe spaces for folks with physical disabilities and the LGBTQIA+ and QTBIPOC communities to be welcomed into. Representation is a big part of this equation and creating offerings where these communities are engaged and involved so they can feel safe, seen and heard.

    Jivana Heyman, part of the LGBTQIA+ community and Founder of Accessible Yoga @accessibleyoga whose background is in AIDS activism in the 1990’s understands and embraces that intersectionality is pivotal when it comes to Yoga. Jivana started teaching yoga so that he could share these practices with his community of people with HIV and AIDS. When Jivana began this work the USA was in the middle of an AIDS epidemic, and many of his students were extremely sick and dying. What he and his students learned together was that yoga offered accessible and powerful tools for healing on a deep mental, emotional, and spiritual level. Jivana shares that his students showed him that yoga could offer them healing even when they were dying.

    Jivana says, “When we overly simplify yoga to just be about the poses, we strip it of its most essential meaning. We appropriate the practice from its traditional roots in India and turn it into a commodity to be sold by capitalist interests. So the issue is more than just one of respect and care for continuing the ancient legacy of the yoga lineage. It’s about holding these precious teachings in a way that respects their purpose, their background, and their proper application. In order to do so, we need to consider the fullness of the practice. The essential teaching of yoga is that we all share the same spiritual essence no matter what our backgrounds or ability may be. We share the same essence whether we have a disability, whether we have a larger body, or if we’re a senior, or a child. We have got to let go of this idea of advanced asana equaling advanced yoga. There really is no correlation between our physical ability and the depth of our spiritual connection. This is why I always say that if it’s not accessible it’s not yoga. Because we all have equal access to the heart of yoga, and it’s up to each of us to find a form for our practice that allows us to unite with the spirit within.”

    Utilizing an intersectional framework to expand our lens, challenge and change the ways that not only we think and operate, but the way the yoga culture and yoga industry thinks and operates, we have the ability and power to re-create what currently exists into something that truly is yoga.

    In closing, as stated by Dr. Tho Wildcroft, “Yoga is a toolkit for liberation, that has too often been appropriated both for oppression, and for well-meaning disempowerment. To heal we need agency over our own choices, to create individualised strategies, to gather personalised resources, for self-regulating our nervous systems, with time and space to integrate them.”

    NOTE: This post is part of a collaborative media series organized and curated by Omstars in collaboration with the Yoga & Body Image Coalition and WOC + Wellness intended as an honest, thoughtful and holistic exploration of intersectionality, wellness and sustainable action with the intention of creating sustainable social change.

    Meet the authors: Anusha Wijeyakumar and Melanie Klein

    Anusha Wijeyakumar is the daughter of Sri Lankan immigrant parents. Being raised in the philosophy of Sanatana Dharma and a lifelong student of Hinduism and Buddhism, she has a vast knowledge in both. Anusha is also knowledgeable in the areas of meditation, pranayama, mantra, and the philosophy associated with yoga. Anusha is very passionate about honouring the roots of yoga and educating people on the importance of decolonizing these practices. Anusha is a sought after motivational speaker around the world on the science of mindfulness and meditation. Anusha is also the Wellness Consultant for Hoag Hospital in Orange County, CA where she is actively engaged on championing mindfulness and meditation practices for maternal mental health programs, early risk assessment for breast & ovarian cancer prevention programs and breast cancer survivorship programs. Anusha is one of the first people to create a meditation program to be used in clinical research at Hoag Hospital. Anusha has over 15 years of international senior management experience working for Fortune 50, 100, and 500 global corporations, charitable organizations & private companies in three continents. Womxn’s health and social justice is at the heart of all that Anusha is involved with. Anusha is on the Board of Directors for the non-profit MOMS Orange County and is very engaged in working with inner city communities to bring the power of yoga for a healthy mind, body and spirit into these localities to nurture and empower change from within. Anusha recently co-founded the movement Womxn of Color + Wellness @wocandwellness which is focused on decolonizing wellness and making yoga and wellness more equitable, accessible, diverse and inclusive. Anusha’s first book Meditation With Intention: Quick & Easy Ways to Create Lasting Peace will be released in January 2021 by Llewellyn Worldwide.

    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.comybicoalition.comyogaandbodyimage.orgyogarisingbook.com

    Photo by Anna Shvets from Pexels

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  • Intersectionality x Wellness: Personal Explorations on Power + Possibility

    Being an ally and accomplice to change begins with each individual person.

    We firmly believe that intersectionality and wellness are complementary spheres in healing as well as supportive partners for both individual transformation and collective liberation. Together, we can take accountability, see and hear one another in new ways, unify our efforts and create new possibilities and pathways forward.

    As we stated in our last article in this ongoing series, “Intersectionality is the path forward and the future of wellness so we can be more inclusive of all marginalized voices and experiences. Intersectionality allows us to examine the truth in a holistic way without giving in to denial, a distortion of reality, or leaning out of the conversation due to guilt or shame. Intersectionality, like our lived yoga practices, allows us to step out of perceived and socially constructed binaries and hold the full spectrum of experience, range of emotions and move into conscious action to create social change. This is yoga in action.”

    We also firmly believe that excavating and understanding our own experiences through this lens and sharing our stories of our awakening, healing, and evolution offers others the opportunity to do the same. Not only does this process offer a catalyst for ourselves by offering us to reclaim and proclaim our voices, but we also allow opportunities for others to connect from their hearts and create new bridges of understanding and, hopefully, sparks of inspiration, courage, and strength.

    With that intention, we humbly offer snippets of our personal stories and what intersectionality and wellness have offered us on our individual paths, and how these two spheres continue to offer inroads toward the horizon line.

    Melanie’s Story @melmelklein

    I’ve said it many times, and I’ll say it again, intersectional feminism helped me understand, deconstruct and reframe the world around me as a young woman. My yoga and embodiment practices allowed me to reframe my relationship with myself and how I interacted with and showed up in that world around me. To me, these two spheres overlapped organically, and both spokes originated from a hub centered on raising consciousness and taking action.

    As intersectional feminism espouses, feminism is not just about but for womxn in all their diversity. Feminism is a praxis. We do our feminism. We live our feminism. Similarly, as I fully immersed myself into my embodiment and mindfulness practices, it immediately became clear that this wasn’t about the time I spent on the mat or the cushion, but how I applied these teachings and practices to how I was living moment to moment.

    Together, feminism and yoga have utterly transformed and supported me over the last 27 years. They are the two primary variables responsible for my growth, empowerment, and sense of agency. While my personal understanding of the systems and structures of oppression, as well as my individual (and continued) liberation, is an important outcome of that equation, my ability to see my place in the world and in a larger spectrum of experience among womxn is even more important.

    While my experiences and challenges have been and are real… my experiences, my challenges, and my truth isn’t the only truth that exists. There’s a larger interwoven social fabric that exists composed of countless realities, narratives, struggles, and triumphs. Being introduced to intersectional feminism as a young woman versus being welcomed into a version of feminism that only centered my experiences as a cisgender white woman allowed me to heal and empower myself while offering me the opportunity to identify my position within a larger spectrum of power and privilege. This has been vital in my personal growth as well as my continued growth and evolution as an ally, advocate, and agent for social justice, equity, accessibility, and representation for everyone and every body.

    Too often, I’ve seen both feminism and wellness rejected because they have not represented or been accessible to various marginalized groups. And I’ve seen proponents of both feminism and wellness communities get in their feelings when critical questions have been raised and calls to action have been taken to change them. When we’re deeply committed to either, it behooves us to pause and listen deeply. It’s vital for us to truly reconnect to the core teachings of each practice/praxis and live from these truths.

    This is what feminism and yoga have offered me and what has fed and fueled my personal and professional work. My work, my commitment and who I am and how I show up continues to grow and evolve. Feminism and yoga continue to shore up the foundation for that growth, and I firmly believe in their ability to help co-create a world in which we connect heart-to-heart authentically and deeply without the spiritual bypassing and marginalization that is rampant as well as create deep, meaningful and sustainable social change. This is my hope and my offering.

    Anusha’s Story @shantiwithin

    You would never know the real meaning of yoga given the spiritual bypassing and co-opting of this ancient spiritual Indian practice in the west. Search #yoga on Instagram, and your feed will be filled with white, thin, heteronormative able-bodied women in scantily clad clothes focused on the acrobatics of yoga and an over sexualization of the practice. Let’s be clear, this is the antithesis of yoga. For myself, someone who was born and raised in the philosophy of yoga and Sanatana Dharma, more commonly known as Hinduism, it’s particularly jarring to see how far we have come from the true essence of the practice, which is unity and freedom from suffering for all.

    As the daughter of Sri Lankan Tamil immigrants, my ancestors had to resist 443 years of colonial rule in Sri Lanka under three different colonial powers to hold onto our indigenous faith. Their courage and resistance is something I never take for granted. However, having to now fight against the continued colonisation and commoditization of yoga in the west is deeply saddening and problematic.

    My faith is not here to be misappropriated and desecrated by the modern yoga practitioner. Let’s be aware that cultural appropriation is a form of racism. Unless BIWOC are represented in wellness, we will continue to have our voices silenced by the mainstream. Modern feminism and intersectionality must include BIWOC at more than just a surface level and must include greater representation of womxn of color in general of all races, abilities, classes, and sexual orientations. At school, we were never taught the brutal history of colonization or slavery. The constant whitewashing of history is a problem and must be dismantled. This is what allows racism and white supremacy to thrive and flourish. We can’t have unity without accountability and repair. A big part of this process is enabling BIPOC to write our own stories and rewrite the narrative with the truth. When a white man tops the 100 books on Hinduism, we have a problem.

    Real change is required to move beyond tokenism to sustainable activism, and representation is a pivotal part of this change. It is one reason why the word Feminist never resonated with me as I never saw myself or people who looked like me included in this framework. The whiteness of wellness must be unpacked so we can work towards creating a system where we can all be seen, heard, and well. There is nothing wrong with having privilege, it is what we do with our privilege that counts. The first step is acknowledging the privilege we have and then take steps in order to utilize this as agents of change in our communities and wider society. This is yoga in action.

    The toxic spiritual bypassing in Yoga is how we became anti-science but not anti-racist. Unity can only come through accountability and recognition of white supremacy by the majority i.e. white folks. White silence or gas lighting simply causes more harm. Denial and blame shifting is not a solution. We have seen far too much of this in the wellness space. Take this opportunity to take the onus and responsibility of dismantling this unjust system that you benefit from that has kept BlPOC oppressed and marginalised for centuries. This is the first step towards reconciliation. This is intersectionality in action and being an accomplice to change that is long overdue.

    Conclusion

    In conclusion, we want to invite you all to think about some ways in which you can create sustainable ways of impacting change in your communities by amplifying marginalized voices. Being an ally and accomplice to change begins with each individual person. A great first step in supporting the work of BIPOC and QTBIPOC is buying their books, signing up for their workshops and trainings. Platforming and profiling folks by sharing their work on your social media. Economic empowerment is a key aspect of intersectionality. For additional resources, please visit @wocandwellness and @ybicoalition on Instagram.

    NOTE: This post is part of a collaborative media series organized and curated by Omstars in collaboration with the Yoga & Body Image Coalition and WOC + Wellness intended as an honest, thoughtful, and holistic exploration of intersectionality, wellness, and sustainable action with the intention of creating sustainable social change.

    Meet the authors: Anusha Wijeyakumar and Melanie Klein

    Anusha Wijeyakumar is the daughter of Sri Lankan immigrant parents. Being raised in the philosophy of Sanatana Dharma and a lifelong student of Hinduism and Buddhism, she has a vast knowledge in both. Anusha is also knowledgeable in the areas of meditation, pranayama, mantra, and the philosophy associated with yoga. Anusha is very passionate about honouring the roots of yoga and educating people on the importance of decolonizing these practices. Anusha is a sought after motivational speaker around the world on the science of mindfulness and meditation. Anusha is also the Wellness Consultant for Hoag Hospital in Orange County, CA where she is actively engaged on championing mindfulness and meditation practices for maternal mental health programs, early risk assessment for breast & ovarian cancer prevention programs and breast cancer survivorship programs. Anusha is one of the first people to create a meditation program to be used in clinical research at Hoag Hospital. Anusha has over 15 years of international senior management experience working for Fortune 50, 100, and 500 global corporations, charitable organizations & private companies in three continents. Womxn’s health and social justice is at the heart of all that Anusha is involved with. Anusha is on the Board of Directors for the non-profit MOMS Orange County and is very engaged in working with inner city communities to bring the power of yoga for a healthy mind, body and spirit into these localities to nurture and empower change from within. Anusha recently co-founded the movement Womxn of Color + Wellness @wocandwellness which is focused on decolonizing wellness and making yoga and wellness more equitable, accessible, diverse and inclusive. Anusha’s first book Meditation With Intention: Quick & Easy Ways to Create Lasting Peace will be released in January 2021 by Llewellyn Worldwide.

    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.comybicoalition.comyogaandbodyimage.orgyogarisingbook.com

    Photo by Gemma Chua-Tran on Unsplash

  • Embracing Growth and Continuing to Commit to Body Acceptance

    Viktor Frankl once said what counts is not what lurks in the depths of challenge but how we face the future. Frankl’s words remind me that I don’t have to fix everything to embrace growth. My body doesn’t have to be perfected. In fact, in my experience, long-lasting personal growth flows from imperfection.

    I’ve spent decades working on my relationship with my body and cultivating body acceptance. For the last 5 months, I’ve been relearning important lessons about body acceptance. The call to continued growth, to re-engage with this work in progress, hit without warning yet profoundly revealed how resourcing myself and renegotiating the relationship with my body are crucial to my sense of well being. Up until now, I thought I lived these practices and beliefs from the core of my being. Yet nothing is ever fixed and a recent health issue jarred my reality, invited me to look a little deeper and make adjustments.

    As I’ve written about previously, I survived a devastating and near-fatal car accident when I was 19 years old. I was diagnosed with a spinal cord injury, and the experience completely altered my life path. Before the accident, I was a dancer/choreographer with dreams of dancing on Broadway. After the accident, it took a year and a half of intense physical therapy and deep soul searching to come back into my body and restart my life. By some miracle, I relearned to walk with the aid of below-the-knee plastic braces, but my journey back to self changed my life in incredible and surprising ways.

    For example, after years of disconnecting from my body after the accident, I discovered adaptive and accessible yoga and eventually became a 200-hour Registered Yoga Teacher (RYT), certified Accessible Yoga Teacher, Yoga For All Teacher and Opening Yoga Instructor from Mind Body Solutions. These experiences taught me how to listen to and live in my body in the present moment. They also led to my mission of teaching people to trust their body by tapping into and exploring their inner wisdom. But along this path, I mistakenly thought I made peace with my body and assumed there was little room for growth. I falsely assumed that relearning to walk would be the biggest challenge of my life. I was wrong.

    My lesson occurred when I awoke one day and couldn’t make a fist or bend my hands without intense pain. As a freelance writer and online English instructor, I was shocked when my hands became immobile. My arms, legs, and back were affected too. I couldn’t lift my arms past my shoulders without sharp shooting pains throughout my body. My legs felt like cement. I could barely walk without hunching over and holding onto walls for stability. My symptoms took a toll, mentally and physically. For months, I couldn’t sleep due to throbbing pain. When I finally went to several doctors, it was a puzzling, marginalizing process that took over 5 months of doctor visits, tests, X-rays, and uncertainty. I started to feel stuck because the senses and body parts I once relied on after my spine injury shifted. Old triggers and disempowered storylines from the past surfaced. I fell back into the assumption trap that I didn’t know how to adapt or adjust. There were moments when I felt traumatized for not knowing how to use my mindful practice to calm mind, body, and spirit. Then, my ego kicked in, and I started to stuff my feelings and suffer in silence.

    Normally, when physical challenges appear, I feel empowered and lean into the unknown. My car accident taught me to adapt no matter the circumstance. But this challenge felt different. I felt powerless and unsure of how to trust my body. It was as if I forgot all my mindfulness training and was back at square one. The body parts I once relied on wouldn’t function as they did before. I felt trapped. At first, I was afraid to say anything outside of close family and friends. I thought my challenges would disappear on their own. Of course, they didn’t.

    Usually, I’m very connected to my internal guide. As a mindfulness teacher and practitioner, my inner guide knows what I need mentally and physically. I’ve learned to trust that sense of inner knowing; it always leads me to the truth. But recently, it took many hours of renewed self-care, mantra and breathwork, and the conscious reprogramming of negative self-talk to get back there. And in truth, “getting there” is both familiar and brand new on my body acceptance journey.

    So far, doctors say I have severe carpal tunnel and arthritis, but they still don’t have the answers. Even though I’m still going through tests to uncover the root of this challenge, I’m feeling more at home in my body. Thankfully, I’m able to walk and move more easily. I know whatever lies ahead is doable if I continue to trust and accept my body no matter the challenge. My mindful practice looks different these days. I’m learning new ways to slow down and connect internally, and this gives me hope.

    In the meantime, what I’ve come to know for sure is that the rhythm of our bodies is unpredictable. No matter how alive we feel in our bodies, life can change, and we must learn to adapt. I’m also relearning that the beauty of mindful practice is that there is no end to this work. The time when we feel good in our bodies is not the time to look away. Our practice is ongoing. We need to stay consistent. Even in regards to politics, social justice, and mindful practices, growth stems from consistency. When we remain open, curious, and committed to learning, wholeness is achievable. Once again, acceptance is the most powerful step. I’m grateful for this lesson.

    Viktor Frankl once said what counts is not what lurks in the depths of challenge but how we face the future. Frankl’s words remind me that I don’t have to fix everything to embrace growth. My body doesn’t have to be perfected. In fact, in my experience, long-lasting personal growth flows from imperfection. Once we embody and embrace this truth on our own terms, nothing can stop us.

    NOTE: This post is part of a collaborative media series organized and curated by Omstars and the Yoga & Body Image Coalition intended as a deep dive into yoga & body image.

    By Mary Higgs

    Mary Higgs, MA, is a respected writer, online educator, speaker, mindfulness coach, and disability advocate. Developing a passion for mindfulness and becoming an Adaptive and Accessible Yoga Teacher transformed Mary’s life in unexpected ways. She loves sharing her message that transformation comes from within. She has published pieces in Yoga International, Devata Active, Yoga and Body Image Coalition, and Mind Body Solutions All-Humanity Newsletter. As a RYT, OYI, and certified Yoga for All and Accessible Yoga Teacher, Mary teaches people to explore and trust their inner wisdom, so they can live more authentically. Visit her online at YogiAble.com.

    Photo by Bart LaRue on Unsplash

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  • How I Called a Truce with My Body

    I learned to deeply listen to my body and honor and meet its needs. I experienced joy as I moved mindfully. I began to accept what was present in the moment over what I thought it “should” be. I created space for silence. I sat with discomfort. I prioritized what I was feeling versus what my body or my yoga practice looked like. I learned what it meant to practice moderation and forgiveness with myself. I called a truce with my body. I embodied gratitude.

    Perpetual fad dieting was modeled for me.

    Compulsively exercising to override shame and guilt was standard sport.

    Groaning over the body I had and yearning for the bodies in MTV videos was normalized.

    Comparing and competing with others was standard fare in my household and among my peers.

    Rapport talk deriding and degrading my body and scrutinizing the bodies of others was ordinary peer group binding, completely sanctioned and expected.

    Denying my body’s needs and prioritizing my intellect’s desires was part of my socialization process as I moved from adolescence to young adulthood. It set the tone, the template and the foundation for my relationship with my body, myself and the way I showed up in the world. I was relentless, merciless, and unforgiving with myself and my body.

    And, damn, it was a painful, abusive and limiting experience. It was my greatest obstacle to personal freedom and empowerment.

    Understanding and unlearning these taken-for-granted values, norms, and rituals of behavior through feminist theory, sociology and media literacy education opened my eyes to the systems of oppression at work… and how my experiences were part of a statistical pattern.

    I stopped obsessively reading nutrition labels and logging everything I ate in food journals. I began to read liberatory texts deconstructing and challenging diet culture, the fitness and fashion industries, patriarchy and white supremacy while calling out ageism, ableism, sizeism, homophobia, consumer culture and the ways in which bodies are sexualized, objectified and controlled. I began logging the thoughts, feelings and aspirations that I embodied but hadn’t identified or expressed beyond the plate and the treadmill.

    I stepped on to the yoga mat for the first time. I began to meditate. I learned to deeply listen to my body and honor and meet its needs. I experienced joy as I moved mindfully. I began to accept what was present in the moment over what I thought it “should” be. I created space for silence. I sat with discomfort. I prioritized what I was feeling versus what my body or my yoga practice looked like. I learned what it meant to practice moderation and forgiveness with myself. I called a truce with my body. I embodied gratitude.

    No two people share the same path to personal acceptance, freedom or peace. This just happens to be a window into how unraveling my upbringing and cultural conditioning began and propelled me into my life’s work. And while there may be some similarities and differences to the path another walks, I know one thing to be true in every single situation… something needs to shift, a person needs to try something new and different.

    I dare you to imagine something different for yourself and your body relationship. What would that look like? Feel like? Sound like?

    You have full permission to drop what isn’t working, what’s harming you and holding you back from stepping into the fullest version of yourself with apology or shame.

    What’s one thing you can do differently right now?

    NOTE: This post is part of a collaborative media series organized and curated by Omstars and the Yoga & Body Image Coalition intended as a deep dive into yoga & body image.

    By Melanie Klein

    Melanie C. 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), Yoga Rising: 30 Empowering Stories from Yoga Renegades for Every Body (Llewellyn, 2018) and the co-editor of the new anthology, Embodied Resilience through Yoga (Llwelleyn, 2020). She co-founded the Yoga and Body Image Coalition in 2014 and lives in Santa Monica, CA.
    melaniecklein.com/
    Instagram: @melmelklein @ybicoalition

    Photo by Sarit Z. Rogers/

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  • Yin Yoga: Who Needs It?

    A flow class will get your juices flowing, a restorative class will bring you to a state of deep relaxation, and a yin class will make you ache. Fun, right?  Yin and Yang are two parts of a beautiful whole but most of us are robbing ourselves of half of the gifts that yoga has to offer. I am a huge fan of Yin yoga and want to share it with as many students as I can, and even better, train more teachers to teach it. But I didn’t always love it. In fact, for a time, I really hated it.

    Perhaps you’re indifferent, skeptical, or have convinced yourself that you don’t need or like Yin yoga. I hope that the seeds I plant here might get you to consider working Yin yoga into your regular practice for a month or two to see if you start to feel like you’ve tapped into something really big and incredibly healing. Maybe you’ll even decide to train to teach Yin yoga to others.

    My Yin Yoga Journey

    My first introduction to Yin was in what was supposed to be a restorative class with a beloved teacher in my early yoga days. We always ended with a long restorative pose or supported savasana, but the rest of the class was a pretty intense Yin practice, and that’s exactly the way I liked it.  This practice, and this teacher, saw me through an auto-immune disease diagnosis, a cancer diagnosis, and treatment. After surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy for breast cancer, my body was wrecked. That’s the point, right? Chemotherapy lays to waste everything from the inside out. It’s a rough journey. An incredibly painful one. But it was worth it, because here I am, nine years later. I practiced yoga as I could during treatment, but the cumulative effect was harsh, and my physical recuperation took more than a year after treatment ended. During that time, I leaned into Yin yoga a lot. Naturally flexible, it had always been a go-to for me, and some days I just couldn’t muster the strength it took to take even a heavily modified flow class. I understood that my muscles weakened during treatment, so the many months it took to even attempt a modified chaturanga were not in the least bit frustrating.

    I knew I had to rebuild strength, so I just kept at it as energy allowed.  But I didn’t understand the effect of chemotherapy on my joints and connective tissue. No one talked about that. Not my doctors, not my yoga teacher, not my acupuncturist. It seems obvious now, but really, how much do we pay attention to the strength and vitality of our joint tissue? Injured athletes pay attention. Pregnant women pay attention, for a time. Those with RA and other joint-related chronic illness pay attention. The newer trends of functional mobility exercise pay attention now. But nine years ago? Not so much. So what happened to turn me from love to hate to love again in my yin yoga practice? During my cancer treatment recovery, I went way beyond the limits of my joints in deep, long-held pigeon poses, twists, folds, backbends, and hamstring stretches that were even more accessible to me with weakened, thinned joint tissue throughout my whole body. Most painfully, I damaged my SI joint and herniated a disc which sent ripples through my torso and legs and debilitated me just as I was starting to notice more strength overall. It was a physically painful and emotional setback that took months to recover from. Fast forward through three years of an increasingly strong vinyasa flow practice and I found myself in yoga teacher training. I couldn’t get enough yoga. The anatomy, the philosophy, the practice. It was a magical time. Until we got to Yin yoga week.

    One of my teachers seemed surprised and shocked to see me raise my hand in the “hate Yin yoga” camp. I assume it was because I was naturally flexible and seemed to find the poses relatively easy, but I’m not sure. I never asked him why. I did give him my reasons, though: debilitating injury not completely healed and fear of making it worse. His answer to this shocked me. Yes, he said, these are injuries that you will have the rest of your life. What?! I have a defiantly independent feminist streak in me and although I didn’t say it out loud at the time all I could think was NO, I don’t accept that. This person is not going to tell me that I’m broken. Of course, we’re all broken in some ways, but that wasn’t the point. The point, at the time, was that I knew that there must be more resources out there and it was time for me to do some deeper healing. So I asked around to other yoga teachers and physical therapists and found ways to strengthen around the damaged, weakened connective tissue to find a better balance of strength. Those spots are still vulnerable, of course. But nothing like what they were, even at the height of my strength in athletic style yoga practice. With years of both Yin and Yang practice since that time, I have found ways to work with chronic illness and injury along with a desire and need for strength and athletic conditioning.

    The Physical Practice

    Yin yoga is a complementary practice to the more active and athletic Yang style yoga (Iyengar, Ashtanga, Power yoga, Vinyasa, Hatha). In Yang styles, we focus on contraction of muscles to stimulate, strengthen, and stretch. In Yin yoga, we focus on the dense connective tissues around and within muscles and joints to stretch and strengthen. Our objective in a Yin practice is to stimulate, strengthen and revive tissues that are less emphasized in the active styles of yoga. We move the body into a Yin yoga pose where we stay, passively, while feeling a moderate sensation. We relax and find relative stillness, holding the position for 3 to 10 minutes.  We stimulate dense connective tissue (bones, cartilage, fascia, tendons, ligaments, blood, fat, lymph) to promote its strength and vitality and to hydrate and revive it.

    Those knots in your neck and shoulders aren’t just muscle, but contracted fascia. Likewise with those “tight” and shortened hamstrings: you can try to lengthen the muscle all you want, but if the fascia is contracted and dehydrated, you will return to the same, shortened resting length over and over again.  You get to choose how deeply you go into a yin yoga pose, just as you choose to use 50%, 80%, 100% of your strength and concentration in a power flow class. But in Yin yoga, we slow it way down and keep reminding ourselves to go for the moderate sensation, not beyond. Holding a 10 minute pigeon is no joke, and if you start way beyond your edge, you’ll injure yourself quickly. If you stick with the moderate ache, you will see over time that the range of mobility changes. And even after one class of moderate aching, you will feel freer, lighter, clearer energetically almost immediately.

    Subtle Body Effects

    If connective tissue is, as many energy workers suggest, the biological substratum through which energy flows and communicates within the body, a Yin yoga practice that focuses on the connective tissue promotes energetic circulation and flow. As yogis, we often experience emotional release in our practice. We understand through experience that with or without scientific research, our tissues hold unprocessed emotion. Movement in and out of poses in an active practice as well as long holds using compression, tension, and stretching in a still,

    Yin yoga practice unlock pathways for our emotions to emerge and release. Consider also the mental aspect of your yoga practice. In an active practice, we are asked to concentrate and focus on our breath while tuning into physical sensation. We’re often reminded that yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind, and too often, that translates in practice to controlling the mind. In a Yin practice, we are asked to be receptive, to increase our capacity for receptivity, to allow for what is, and to cultivate inaction.

    Isn’t Yin Yoga Worth A Try?

    Fluidity in movement, better coordination, stronger joints, body awareness, less injury, emotional release, mental receptivity and clarity. Aren’t each of these benefits of Yin yoga worth an investment of your time? As my personal practice and teaching continues through the years, awareness of Yin and Yang imbalance has become my focus when deciding how to practice each day. Some days I need a strong sweat and strengthening, some days I need release and stillness, and some days I need both. I’m guessing you are the same, so I invite you to build Yin yoga practice into your regular weekly schedule and tap into this powerful other half of yoga.

    By Jennifer Winther

    Jennifer Winther. LA based Yoga Teacher Trainer. Retreat leader. PhD. Writer. Traveler. Camper. Hiker. Walker. Cyclist. Meditator. Breast cancer survivor. Motherless mother. Karateka. Libra. Art Lover. Creative dabbler. Bi-racial hapa. Scout leader. Community builder. Novice chef. Advocate. Ally. Community member YBIC. Badass ninja mom.  @JenniferWintherYoga

    NOTE: This post is part of a collaborative media series organized and curated by Omstars and the Yoga & Body Image Coalition intended as a deep dive into yoga & body image.