What does your practice look like?

Are you a yoga practitioner that is drawn toward an intense physical and mentally challenging practice? Are you inspired by your community to care for social justice and environmental issues that serve your “Big Picture” of yoga? Are you motivated toward wellness and a thoroughly supportive practice? Are you there to heal and balance your chakras? Are you practicing for a sense of connection to all living things, and a sense of purpose?

As we begin to practice beyond our routine of “Yoga. Coffee. Sleep. Repeat”, we begin to ask ourselves, is there more?

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Ask a Yogini: Why do people practice yoga?

Students, friends, family and colleagues often ask me questions about yoga. I decided to post them here and try to provide some perspective on what I’ve learned so far. I will be making regular posts and invite anyone to contact me with a burning yoga question! I’ll try to answer from my perspective as best I can!

This is the next question asked by a good friend of mine. “Why do people practice yoga?”

 

I realized my answer was a complex one. Not that I can’t come up with a swift and simple answer, rather I think it’s difficult to translate an experience into language. I decided to try my hand at answering a small part of my attempt to answer this question using a video. Please enjoy

 

“Why Yoga?”

Yoga Can Be Accessible

Students, friends, family and colleagues often ask me questions about yoga. I decided to post them here and try to provide some perspective on what I’ve learned so far. I will be making regular posts and invite anyone to contact me with a burning yoga question! I’ll try to answer from my perspective as best I can!

This is a part two answer to my cousin’s question in the last post. I saw that she was raising a much larger question: “Is Yoga Accessible?”

The answer:

“Yes. Yoga can be accessible.”

 

 

It doesn’t seem possible does it? When you look on Social media, in advertisements on television or in magazines. Typically you see young, fit, predominantly white women performing Cirque du Soleil worthy poses with the appearance of ease. That socioeconomic and genetic lottery combo of privilege, physical prowess and effortless beauty that cameras love and industry banks on. It’s intimidating, and these images promote that which goes unspoken: ableism, elitism, and unrealistic body expectations (ultimately leading to shaming).

These images are not what drew me into yoga. That’s not what drew many of us old timer “weirdos” into yoga. Not the ones I knew at the time anyway. We were on journeys of spiritual enlightenment and wellness. For me it was a combination, but it was wellness that was the gravitational pull back to my mat every time (spiritual enlightenment is another topic entirely).

 

Yax Zootopia

Yoga pre-2004 (when yoga seemed to explode globally): We may have gone vegan, stopped shaving our legs, worn patchouli deodorant and burned endless sticks of nag champa, but we were ready to experience something profound. We practiced in moldy community centers, garages, parks, backyard gardens and living rooms. We didn’t care what we wore, as long as it was roomy enough to move in.

 

 

I confess, however, that my first experience in yoga wasn’t spiritual. It was from a fitness perspective. At the time it was the only type of yoga I was exposed to in late 80s/early 90s suburban Toronto. My mum and I practiced 20 minute sun salutation with Jane Fonda in our basement. I admit, it was this very first exposure that cemented ideas that took me a long time to overcome.

 

I managed to find the cover image and you can still apparently purchase a copy of it on amazon! (#janefondarules)

 

 

This wasn’t what glued me to my mat. Neither did my next attempt, which was at the UofT athletic center as an undergrad. I would go on many a Saturday morning to a Kundilini yoga teacher who made some of the more exotic aspects of yoga seem more accessible and fun. He also gave me an opportunity to consider yoga as a way to relate to part of my genetic heritage. My great grandmother was from Old Delhi, and the thought of learning an Indian practice that was deemed socially acceptable for a white girl like me to practice seemed accessible. Let’s face it- these days, with the arguments around cultural appropriation, it’s difficult for someone like me to relate to hotly contested topics. My experience was seeped in the multiculturalism of urban Toronto, with the 90s obsession for identity politics raging. I was constantly asked where I was “really from”, as if being Canadian somehow wasn’t enough. Add to the fact that my genealogy didn’t run in a straight lineage of exclusive Anglo-Saxon British Heritage, where I was quickly excluded from white Canadian cultural events as a result. Well, not entirely. My best friend got me into Finnish folk dancing for a number of years (I am fairly certain there is no Finnish blood in me, but it was nice to be accepted). I bring this up however, because it does help me understand why People of Color can feel excluded from a predominantly whitewashed Western version of Yoga. There is also a lot of class divide in the current yoga model, something that bars anyone who struggles to survive from participating in the hyper branded yoga and leisure lifestyle yoga advertises. There is also a culture war in yoga, that can easily make anyone who feels unwelcome if they have conservative or religious values. Liberal values, atheism and slick social media quickly excludes anyone who fails to run with their pack, and modern yoga is their choice of exercise.

 

Blonde Camel

I love this photo and admire this young woman’s ability. This is also a lovely escapist image and I don’t see anything inherently negative about it. That said, images like these, and many others, have a tendency to not offer a counter image. The lack of accessibility in this image makes this a political statement in which few can identify. What would this image say to me if I was in a wheelchair? If I was a single mother of three living in a dense urban environment? If I worked at Tim Horton’s with an artificial leg? If I was living in a women’s shelter?

 

 

I state yoga is accessible because of what it offered to me, which was a way to manage pain. My first teacher, Kirsten Hildebrandt, taught at the Beaches Presbyterian Church a few blocks from where I lived at the turn of the millennium. I was experiencing my first long nightmare of a mysterious illness that would become permanent chronic pain. Back then I was barely functional, but very aware of the randomness of my condition. In one moment I would be pain free and mobile, the next I would be flat on my back, writhing in pain. My right arm would suddenly slacken and become useless. An unrelenting sharp pain, like a knife was being dug in between my right shoulder blade and my spine. It would eventually travel up into my head, triggering violent migraine episodes. It would travel down my right arm like a path of burning electric wire. Sometimes it would travel so randomly over my body I was convinced I was going crazy.

I went to Kirsten’s classes sporadically, but I found things felt better after her instruction. I liked how she emphasized working at one’s own pace, and she was the first teacher who ever asked permission to offer a physical assist. Back then I didn’t realize what it meant to be empowered by this simple act of consent, what I can say was it instantly made me feel safe with her. I was pretty broke at the time, and also not truly able to manage what was happening to me. I was running scared in my mind, constantly seeking escape. This had to do with the loss of self image of who I was, or, who I believed myself to be. The thing is, I took my natural strength for granted. I could lift my own body weight with ease, and didn’t think it was much of an accomplishment. I scared boys who pressured me to get off weights at the gym by bench pressing the stack. I worked on a farm one summer, and hauled bales of hay like a seasoned farmer. I protected my friends from big lugs, and could lift my friends out of sticky situations. I liked being tough. I liked being able to stand up for myself in a physically assertive way.

In my mind’s eye, I am still She-Hulk

 

 

 

So imagine my deep sense of inadequacy when my right arm would periodically stop functioning. Or in one moment I could help my friends move, insisting on carrying their couch by myself, and then the next moment a piece of paper felt unbearable and elusive. Even writing this now, a ball of fear sits in the pit of my gut. This fear is of a day, lurking around a corner, when this helplessness might return. That I will lose my ability to use my hands. That I may be unable to turn my head, or lift it. If I were truly honest, there are days when I want to believe this will all magically heal and I will return to my near superhuman strength. In my mind, I was Wonder Woman. And what is she without her abilities? I was rapidly unraveling into a deep valley of depression and anxiety. I could barely concentrate, and my mind became easily distracted. I was moody, and irritable, eventually disturbed by insomnia, an onset of increased asthma, and a rising tide of desperation. And things were getting worse. I started drinking. A lot. Pot smoking was a great release from the pain and helped me keep on working. I used to hide how many bottles of pain killers I was using from my friends and family. I once managed to get some great pills from a friend. I don’t know what they were and at the time I didn’t care. I just wanted to function and focus. I became more erratic and “zany”. I also became highly pleasure seeking, chasing anything that made me feel good. Anything to feel free. My doctor sent me for an x-ray, and then to a chop shop style Physiotherapy clinic where no one seemed to know who I was or what I was doing there. The doctor then decided to offer me her medical advice: to write me a lifetime prescription of pain killers and muscle relaxants and to just “not move much”. This was unacceptable to me. Not only did I change doctors, but I agreed to go to a yoga class my mother was attending. Those classes were taught by Kirsten.

 

Beaches Presbyterian

This is Beaches Presbyterian Church, where I would attend weekly evening classes with my teacher.

 

I remember going to the class that changed my life. I felt my skin was the only dam between the outside world and my cyclone of mixed emotions. I was rejected by Teacher’s College, my pain seemed matched only by my sense of downward spiral into an abyss where I couldn’t see the bottom. I don’t remember the asana, or the pranayama, or even the meditation, what I remember is during savasana I was doing my best to contain myself. I will not cry. I will not cry. I will not cry. This was my mantra despite the hot tears searing down my cheeks, the suppressed sobs wracking my shaking body. When I managed to gain enough control to sit up, I was startled to realize the lights were on, and everyone had left except for my teacher. Kirsten was compassionate. She was kind, she listened. I dared not tell her everything, so I stuck to my lack of acceptance at Teacher’s College.

 

“Have you ever considered becoming a

yoga teacher?”

 

I didn’t know it at the time, but these words would alter the trajectory of my life. These words would send me to live in Asia for 4 years. They would send me to India, and foster a long teaching career spanning over 15 years. They would challenge me to learn and to grow.

It’s uncomfortable to discuss the transformative power of yoga, because I know it to be a very personal and very intimate experience. That word – transform- can be very misleading, and also highly prone to being misrepresented. What I can say is that yoga is a very powerful tool for me, and helps me live a full life. It also guided me into my biggest passion – massage. That’s right, I wouldn’t be a massage therapist today if it wasn’t for yoga. I wouldn’t be interested in body mechanics and health if it wasn’t for my chronic pain. I wouldn’t learn how to access a more adaptive yoga if I hadn’t been compelled to by my limitations. It’s made me into a better parent, a better wife, a better friend. It’s made me more humble.

 

Well, mostly. I do feel pretty Super Woman these days.

Even if this is me too. Acceptance is a super power.

 

I also feel I am a better teacher with these limitations. I offer an opportunity for my students and patients to be more realistic with their expectations, and to grow more organically and compassionately as a result. My path led me not only to run my own clinic here in the 1000 Islands, it also led me to start the Amara Vidya Yoga School, a school dedicated to a more accessible yoga approach. All of this learning goes into my professional practice as a Registered massage therapist and it also serves me to help guide my graduates. I have to privilege of working and teaching with students and patients in palliative care, in wheelchairs, who are blind, who have musculoskeletal conditions or neurological conditions that would typically bar them from a fitness class. We work on goal planning, and I can show them that yoga is not just physical postures. There is a lot more yoga offers beyond the mat, and everyone has an opportunity to learn from it. Everyone.

 

Is Yoga accessible? You bet it is!

Ask a Yogini

Students, friends, family and colleagues often ask me questions about yoga. I decided to post them here and try to provide some perspective on what I’ve learned so far. I will be making regular posts and invite anyone to contact me with a burning yoga question! I’ll try to answer from my perspective as best I can!

 

Question: “Are there yoga studios that specialize in teaching yoga to people with disabilities?”

 

This question came from my cousin, and I think it’s an excellent one many studios need to start answering. Our “industry” is rife with ableism; on one hand we say yoga is for everyone, and with the other we show how elitist and exclusionary it can be. This mixed message drives many would-be practitioners to pre recorded online sources, afraid to step out of their home. Now, I’ve had many colleagues argue with me that their yoga is accessible and their yoga studio offers support for those with disabilities.

Ok, let’s measure this.

Continue reading “Ask a Yogini”

Informed vs Implied Consent

In this video we discuss how our school of yoga applies the concepts of Informed versus Implied consent. We look forward to engaging in a discussion with you about this approach. Feel free to leave your comments or questions below or email us at info@amaravidya.com

 

Part 2: How yoga can be an agent of social change

This is a continuation of my attempt to respond to a question posed: “How can yoga address social problems?”

 

On White Privilege.

 

– PART 2 –

It’s easy to judge a photo and make assumptions. We all do it, consciously and unconsciously. Judgement is a part of critical thinking, a method of discernment between that which we will choose to pay attention to, and that which we dismiss. Our brains have an impressive ability to process vast amounts of information quickly; so quickly, we are oftentimes completely unaware of when and where we are making judgments.

How does this judgement operate? If you begin to investigate this, you will see a staggering amount of human thought and research dedicated to this subject in areas like religion, philosophy, science, psychology, sociology and daily discourse. So as I prepare to tackle the complexity of White Privilege, I am acutely aware that I cannot even begin to do this subject justice in a short blog post. In a world of fast, quick and dirty media, we have lost the ability – nay – the ART of paying attention.

That said this is a blog post and we do live in an age of short attention spans, so it’s time to focus on what miniscule contribution I can make at this juncture. I decided to use a photo that illustrates my personal experience of White Privilege. Let’s examine this photo: that’s me, almost 10 years ago in Taiwan, shortly after completing my second yoga teacher training. At the time I didn’t really think about what this picture would come to symbolize for me, nor did I really comprehend the journey I took to arrive at that moment, or where I would go afterward. I simply wanted my ex-husband to snap a few vanity photos of me in one of my teaching spaces for my own personal enjoyment. Even then I was acutely aware that I was indulging in a frivolous and superficial yoga trend. While I was already certified and teaching for many years prior to this point, I never saw the need nor had the interest to participate an ego display of body contortions. This was me, in a moment of joining the fray, because I wanted to revel in the body beautiful too. I also wanted to capture my life at that moment, where I felt happy, secure and complete. Our lives at that time was a blend of stability, financial security, close friends, and a comfortable lifestyle few could afford. Little did I know that a few short months later I would be going on my own version of the “Eat, Pray, Love” journey. At that moment, I was content.

So what do we see? A curvaceous brunette in a backbend pose in a subtropical environment appearing blissful. On the surface that is an accurate statement, but some may not get how this is my epitome of demonstrating my white privilege in a yoga context.

1) I’m white. Lily white. Not too many people know I actually have both Native American Iroquois blood, and Hindu blood from Old Delhi, India. That doesn’t factor into anyone’s assessment, but I will come back to my heritage later. I know that being White has provided me with access and opportunity that others – who aren’t – don’t get. And if they do get access and opportunity it generally comes with a journey that I can’t even begin to comprehend how hard it can be. What I can share is an understanding based on witnessing firsthand what friends and colleagues have experienced. Growing up in Toronto, (in a predominantly Black, Asian and Indian-Caribbean neighborhood), I began to see the anger at how certain things I said or did carried with it a presupposition that this was something accessible for anyone to say or do. As I got older, I began to know that despite our unique multicultural environment, there were still invisible barriers that separated my life from that of my friends.A s this photo began to be published in bios or other social media to represent me as a teacher, I began to notice there was a disproportionate amount of White women in yoga postures. Doing a quick Google search on the keyword “yoga” produces a majority of White women on the image search option. My photo is one of literally thousands of a disproportionate visual representation of yoga.

2) I’m in this subtropical environment because at the time I was an English teacher in Asia. As a Torontonian coming from a lower middle income, single mother-turned-blended family, working was how I got to travel. I’m not wealthy enough to jaunt around the globe footloose and fancy free with trust fund yuppies or on someone else’s dime. So from my perspective I felt I struggled and scraped my way to a certain level of success at that point, rewarded through hard work and a good dose of moral fibre. Which isn’t untrue- it is just not the whole truth. The reality is my job was obtained based on my race and geographical birth location. My educational background was inconsequential (I knew some White men who didn’t even have high school diplomas who were able to teach there). I spoke Canadian English, I had a White face, so I instantly had a job and a paycheck that afforded quick repayment of student loan debt, travel to exotic locales, and a sense of entitlement I didn’t know I had until I began to befriend Taiwanese and other ex-pats of visible minorities. One of my friends, also a Canadian born ex-pat, is visibly Black. Not too many White or Asians knew she had a White mother and a Black father. And to them, it didn’t matter- she looked Black, so that’s all she was to them – Black.

Some of the racial stereotypes that exist in Asia around Black people can be shocking. For example, one day we were standing together, side by side watching our students play. A boy came up to us asked if we were American or Canadian. We replied we were both Canadian. He asked us why we were both “so tall and so fat” and if all Canadians were tall and fat. We were very accustomed at this point to this blunt exchange. It was a typical question asked by nearly every Taiwanese we encountered. Then the boy said, “But you are Black, and you are White. Why?” I was rendered speechless, for this was a question I had never been asked before in Taiwan. I simply was too stunned and incredulous at that moment to articulate a response. My friend, who later explained that she frequently received this inquiry, calmly responded that that’s how we were “made” in Canada. This is probably the most innocent and least shocking example I can share, but it sticks in my mind because that exchange came with an explanation from my friend. That many prospective employers required extensive proof of her educational background, that she started at a lower rate of pay (as did I compared to my White male colleagues), and that she was constantly explaining why her hair and skin color looked the way it did.

For anyone to pretend that those barriers don’t exist in North America is either lying or fooling themselves. To maintain that ignorant assumption in in a yoga context, is equally ridiculous. A lot of controversy has erupted over People of Color Yoga classes last year. An excellent blog written by Krista Lee Hanson offered a refreshing perspective on the debate (and since then, I have a feeling her blog post calmed the waters. I simply haven’t seen the level of vitriol aimed against it since). Two of my favorite quotations in that article was by Lauren Ash, “We live in this world where unfortunately some of us don’t feel like we can be our authentic selves. To really be able to go to a space that you know is for you and you can just show up and be yourself is really powerful and important.” and by Jacoby Ballard, “Ultimately, I hope that we can practice in the same room. But for now, we need spaces to heal, to gather the strength to have relationships and practice with folks outside of our own experience.” These statements discuss the powerful discrepancies between a White person’s experience practicing yoga in North America today, and a non-White person’s experience. A good friend of mine wrote me once: “When I enter a studio, I see a lot of White people. I’m not uncomfortable or anything like that, I’m just aware. I feel I have to act a certain way. I can’t explain it but I don’t feel comfortable like I do when I’m practicing alone at home or with my other [non-White] friends. And in some studios I just do not feel it’s a place I can feel included. It’s a place for young beautiful white people to hang out.”

It was important to me to bring two very powerful thinkers into our training, Dianne Bondy and Carol Horton. You can learn a little bit more about them in our interviews here. These two women recently posted comments on Facebook that is incredibly powerful, and worthy of attention, and offer a profound contribution to the White Privilege and Yoga discussion.

Dianne Bondy has been posting videos entitled “Mindful Mondays”. For those who haven’t seen it, she explores some great concepts around Mindfulness practices. To take a specific time, and set aside a practice dedicated to exploring thought and attitude IS YOGA. She recently posted a thought around bias here, and this Mindful Monday explores limitations on cultural perceptions. In it, one of my favorite lines is: “If your interactions or your examples of different cultures comes from television shows; like, you don’t know anybody who is different from you, and any peek into a different culture comes from what you see on tv – then you can’t help but be biased.” Indeed, I currently live in a community that for the first time in my entire life, is predominantly White. I hear a lot of ignorant views being expressed – not out of malice or true hatred- but out of a sheer lack of exposure. Recently I’ve seen an increase of diversity in our community, and it thrills me – because when we expand our community, and invite different points of view into the conversation/relationship of community living, we can grow. I also know that this sense of Privilege is not exclusively a White issue, but rather indicative of societies that have a majority population with a lack of respect or systematic marginalization of minorities. I think this is why Dianne’s comment is so relevant- because for those who believe White Privilege doesn’t exist, it tends to be expressed in the population that is White, and fails to have any empathy for how minorities may be impacted by issues of representation and accessibility. The people I know who dismiss the concept of White Privilege tend to point to media examples (that are glaringly proof of the very point they’re denying). In this one example, I wish everyone had a chance to live in a culture where they are the minority. As a minority, we learn really quickly how we’re viewed by the majority. A lot of it is based on stereotype and ignorance.

For many of my friends who discuss their thoughts, sorrows and frustrations around White Privilege, I’m glad none of us are concerned about “hurting feelings”. We can get together and really hash out issues, without being worried anyone is easily bruised by conscious debate, and we welcome diverse ranges of opinion. I hold these friends dear, regardless of age, race, creed, class, gender, or what-have-you, because we all conduct ourselves with maturity and refrain from hyperbole or aggressive antagonism. I find a lot of these specific friends have practiced yoga and meditation. This is why I believe yoga has the power to break down barriers. The deeper we explore yoga, the more we begin to understand our relationships. It is the power of understanding our relationships with both ourselves and others, that I believe we can start examining how yoga can be an agent of social change. It doesn’t have to be represented as an exclusive and White-only practice. For those of us who expand our interpretation of yoga, we see practitioners everywhere and anywhere. For those of us who explore, live in and interact with other cultural ideas and communities, we can explore our biases, our limitations, and hopefully expand our worldview.

Carol Horton recently posted a Facebook comment in reply to a thread discussing #BlackLivesMatter. Her words get to the heart of those who are White who want to debate the merits of the movement in a context of creating dissent, division and disassociation. One large complaint observed by those who are White who wish to deny White privilege, manifests in the complaint that the Black community fails to address Black-on-Black violence. She argues: “First: people who say that black people are not working hard to address black-on-black violence are either sadly misinformed, or simply don’t want to know the truth. There are countless community leaders, nonprofit groups, teachers, ministers, and many more who have been working every day for years and years with no public recognition or support to try to address these issues. There are countless families and individuals who are struggling to help others and improve their communities without burning out from exhaustion and despair. Everyone who is making claims and accusations about what others in communities that I’m quite sure you have never spent time in: what do you know, honestly? You know what you see in the news media, which is sensationalist and distorting. You know whatever prejudices you have been exposed to as part of being white in America. But you don’t know what’s happening, really. Until you live in the community or truly make an effort to educate yourself and perhaps even become actively involved – reading in-depth studies, connecting with people and organizations, working together – you have no idea what’s really happening in the black community if you are white.”

At this point in time, many people may still say: “Thinking about White Privilege isn’t yoga”. I have heard and read by (unfortunately) predominantly White people who practice and teach yoga say this. For me, I actually see the debate and lack of positive action as the bigger problem. To put my own personal take on what may drive those who seek to deny how privilege operates, I suspect it has more to do with their frustration that not enough emphasis is placed on the universality of the human condition, and that struggle exists for many people. This is true, and it can sound lovely and inclusive and expansive…. but here’s why it’s actually not: When you fail to acknowledge the existence of an obstacle, you cannot remove it. The consequence of ignoring a barrier means to diminish the experience of another human being, and that denial inhibits opportunity for growth for all.

 

How does one examine this in a yoga context? I posit that it is through the practice of Karuna that makes this examination of White Privilege inherently yogic.

Many people are unaware that there are actually Ten, and not Five Yamas, the first path of Yoga. Daya (Compassion) is one of these ten yamas.. If you know of the great animated site for kids, The Hindu Kids Universe, a really simplistic definition exists:

Daya

“Practice compassion.  Be kind to people, animals, plants and the Earth itself.  Practice forgiveness.  Foster sympathy for those who are suffering and in need.  Honor and assist those who are weak, impoverished, aged or in pain.   Oppose family abuse and other cruelties.”

Karuna is one of the forms of Daya..  which best reflects the yogic view on how to begin to dissect White Privilege and formulate opportunities for change in my mind:

Karuna

“Karuna is another word for compassion in Hindu philosophy, means placing one’s mind in other’s favor, thereby seeking to understand the other from their perspective.”

 

This ends Part 2 of the discussion. More to follow.

How Yoga Can Be An Agent for Social Change

#BlackLivesMatter. White Privilege. Anti-Muslim sentiment. Socioeconomic disparity. Obesity. SexEd. Transgender Rights. Homelessness. Transportation Barriers. Wage disparity and parental leave. Prison. Student Debt. PTSD. Child Hunger.

Some of you read that and said “those things have nothing to do with yoga. They hold no place in MY yoga.”

Ok. I get that it might be uncomfortable for you to see how these issues are a part of yoga. As householders, we operate in the fabric of human society, and if you can accept that yoga teaches us about the interconnectedness of all living things, then you can understand why social issues experienced by one can impact us all.

Recently I was asked “How can yoga address social problems?” Well, that’s a big question, and not one I feel I can adequately address on my own. I think it’s something that can be discussed and worked on collectively. That said, I don’t want to slough off the query either. Here is the beginning of my attempt to examine this. I welcome and encourage anyone to contribute to the discussion, and my intent is that we work on seeking positive solutions together.

-Part One-

In yoga community slang we delineate the concept of what can constitute a yoga practice: “on the mat” would typically adhere to the classic perception of people contorting into various poses, cultivating meditation practices, and other tools cemented in the popular consciousness. There is another way to practice yoga, one that is more difficult for initiates to understand. Certain yoga communities are very supportive of these practices, and if you’ve attended a yoga center, you may have learned about some of the ways they support “off the mat” yoga. I do think that for many people, it takes a yoga teacher training to garner interest and understanding of “off the mat” yoga. It is this type of practice, where social issues can benefit from the practice of yoga.

You may actively participate, or at least have heard, of various “off the mat” practices. A good source of information is to attend a yoga event, like Anandafest, or the Toronto Yoga Conference are local to our Amara Vidya Yoga School. One very popular organization is Off the Mat, Into the World, with a directive to create leadership using yoga tools for activism. Various groups such as The Yoga Service Council, Yoga and Body Image Coalition, New Leaf Yoga Foundation, and Yoga Warriors exist as a means for direct involvement in social issues. There are also activists, researchers and thinkers who participate through writing and discussion to help elevate the discussion. Some great examples of current thinkers in the community are: Dianne Bondy, Be Scofield, Theodora Wildcroft, J. Brown, Carol Horton, and Matthew Remski. There are some really amazing resources being shared within the North American community that come out of collective movements in India, Navdanya and the Gulabi Gang are some examples.

Now you may think: “Ok, but you highlighted specific issues. How would one directly apply those in an ‘off the mat’ practice?” We address how to work with these issues in our training at the Amara Vidya Yoga School. If yoga teacher training is something you’re contemplating? Great- come aboard! Some of you may instead simply want to learn and research how yoga can be a force for social change and a force for community betterment.

The first issue that may seem the most difficult to address where yoga can be of benefit is in of the most pressing social issues that has accelerated in light of three tragic events in the past week:

#BlackLivesMatter

At the time of this writing, no one could argue the relevance of this issue in the daily lives of people, especially right now in North America. We learned of two terrible instances of Police shootings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling. Immediately following these events, a shooting in Dallas took the lives of 5 law enforcement officers and 12 victims injured by what is now unfolding as the act of a lone gunman. On Friday, Dallas Police Chief David Brown summarized it best when he made a plea for mutual respect:

“All I know is that this: This must stop, this divisiveness between our police and our citizens.”

A tool we can offer to practice is Ahimsa, non-violence. We can instead ask our brothers and sisters in our communities who are Police officers or protesters to instead work together to pressure the government for meaningful change. Transparency and open investigations into police shootings is a good start. Petitioning Governors to implement President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing recommendations.We can offer support for the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Educate ourselves, discuss what actions can be implemented in all communities. Yoga classes are held in community centers and studios- there are great opportunities for community to come together and openly discuss how to end systemic racism. A recent article on Finnish education recently emerged discussing how they handled bullying in schools. One big lesson they concluded was to cultivate action in bystanders.

We are all bystanders to this issue. There are a lot of ways we can participate in this. We can meet, discuss, formulate action plans. No matter where you may decide to stand on this issue, I think John Stewart’s quotation on the division is quite possibly the best yogic viewpoint:

“You can truly grieve for every officer who’s been lost in the line of duty in this country, and still be troubled by cases of police overreach, those two ideas are not mutually exclusive. You can have great regard for law enforcement and still want them to be held to high standards.” – John Stewart.

 

This ends Part One of the discussion. More to follow.

 

Assists vs. Adjustments

I recently read Matthew Remski’s article on a current scandal in the yoga world (click HERE to read the article). In this article, Matthew references a video of the late Pattabhi Jois that was anonymously posted. In it, there are some very personal looking hands-on assists. For me, this brings up some uncomfortable memories watching this video. I was once in a workshop in Asia, where a male teacher approached me and leaned in such a way as our clothed genitals connected. I felt the heat from his body part and I recall a jolt of shock as a deep purple-red flush of embarrassment spread over my whole body. He saw my blush and his passive face flickered into a wry smile (or, at least, that’s how it registered with me). He was gone as quickly as he approached me and I am not entirely certain to this day exactly what he was attempting to “correct” in my body when he came over to adjust. All I can say is, while the pose and the day has faded a little and the names of the friends I attended the workshop with are long forgotten, I can remember that moment like it just happened an hour ago.

I recall as well, in a class at a local studio I taught at, a fellow colleague approached me and attempted to adjust my leg in a pose. I know my body and knew that I was as deep into the pose as my body could go and I indicated to her silently that I was not in need of an adjustment. Instead of honouring my request to be left as I was, she gripped my thigh and proceeded to do a deep downward thrust and pain shot up through my body. It was near the end of class, so I ignored the pain and laid into Savasana. After class, I waited for everyone else to leave before I let myself cry. I hobbled up to the door and realized that another class would be entering the space soon, so I gathered my courage and attempted to make my quick exit from the studio look like a swagger. The next time I saw this colleague, I told her the adjustment was too deep and briefly mentioned the after affects of her force. She responded defensively, “Well that’s what happens when you don’t practice enough” and she turned away. That was the last time we spoke as colleagues.

Another time, I was in class where I had informed the studio of my severe chronic neck pain. It was recorded on my file in their records. I explicitly told the teacher to not touch my neck. Fast forward to Savasana after a blissful class: I really enjoy the moment of stillness in Savasana. I drift into the bliss of feeling meditative and completely isolated, but vaguely aware of the connection felt from the shared group experience. In this class, suddenly, my eyes shot open, as I felt two small and strong hands grab my neck and pull into an aggressive traction. Still frozen in shock, I felt the teacher’s hands start to roughly work my neck muscles. I reacted with a defensive “No!” as my hands flew up to protect my neck. The teacher froze, apologized profusely, and left. Intense pain was circulating all though my body and I was overcome with a sense of deep shame: shame that I spoke out loudly in class and possibly disturbed others; shame at the betrayal of my body and how kinked up it was that a teacher could not provide what she perceived as a loving adjustment; and shame that I wasn’t following the class norm. I felt humiliated as I gathered my things after class. I pretended nothing was wrong, but I went home and spent the next several days suffering intense migraines.

These are only a few of my own personal stories, but here is a secret: as an RMT and therapeutic yoga teacher, most of my clients have come to me after experiencing an injury in yoga class, often at the hands of a teacher or when invited by a teacher to “go deeper”. The reality is that people who are in a class room setting, even as adults, are in a power differential relationship with the teacher. What is tricky to recognize is that this power differential works both ways and sometimes intentions and actions are completely misconstrued, with unforeseen consequences. Take my personal anecdotes for example: Why did I feel ashamed and embarrassed? Why did I chose to forgive and forget when I felt my personal space and my words ignored and infringed upon?

Though these are my personal experience, it is not just a problem that women experience. In my experience as a teacher, I have seen men and women equally disrespected, equally ignored. I have had many conversations with male colleagues who have had experienced inappropriate advances at the hands of their female teachers or adjustments that made them feel uncomfortable and embarrassed. They have also been injured with aggressive adjustments from both male and female teachers. We truly are at a point in society where there is a lot of victim shaming, as referenced in Matthew’s article. I feel strongly that the work Matthew Remski is doing is helping to create a much needed change to how we work as teachers.

teacher trainingHere at the Amara Vidya Yoga School, we examine these boundaries and explore how to touch a student appropriately and ethically. The biggest key: CONSENT. We also emphasize the important distinction between what constitutes and ASSIST versus what constitutes and ADJUST. We define an assist as anything that offers a student a way to modify, progress, or simply explore an aspect of yoga. We also do not believe an assist is limited to direct contact with the student’s body. A teacher can assist with words, visual cues, and demonstrations. We also do not limit this instruction to a strictly asana-based yoga practice. Our methodological applications can be applied to any style of yoga. How to assist is a huge aspect of our program and we work thoroughly with teachers to support them as they offer assists to their students. We define an adjustment as “direct, hands on application to direct a joint in a specific range of motion”. We do not shy away from adjustments. People who learn kinesthetically require a hands-on approach. Adjustments can be incredible tools to help your students advance, but we ground our teachers in appropriate methods of assists, which quite often shows them how an assist is more powerful and more effective than an adjustment.

This is also a big reason why we are excited to offer Dianne Bondy’s “Yoga for All” certification as a part of our training program right at the beginning of the course. It is important for our to teachers learn that modifications play a huge role in adjusting and Diane will help our teachers learn to respect the diversity of clients and make their yoga classes as accessible as possible. Immediately after that incredible training, Carol Horton will instruct our teachers about the intersects of yoga and social justice, which includes trauma informed approaches, so they are more aware of how to empathize where their students are coming from and how yoga can serve the world.

I feel very fortunate that Matthew Remski will be joining us as at this training as a presenter. I urge everyone to become familiar with his writing because a lot of what he is discussing is addressing a very important shift in the yoga world, something all teachers and prospective teachers need to examine.

Want to learn more about our 500hr Yoga Teacher Training? Click here.