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?”
“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).
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.
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.
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
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!