You know your yoga practice is working when your life gets better, not when your yoga gets better.
“Once we can tap into the inherent wisdom of our own truth and give it voice, we often have an experience of liberation and joy.” - Suzanne Sterling
These challenging times have been the catalyst for many of us start taking responsibility for our actions, educating ourselves, healing our wounds and more boldly awakening our courage, fierce resistance to destructive practices, and our willingness to put ourselves on the line for ALL beings and the earth.
But we need tools; we need practices to help us know when to go within for self regulation and when to step out into action. We need practices that we can utilize when we feel overwhelmed, scared, unable to focus and short of breath.
While the practice of yoga can help us tremendously, many of us often forget to use one of the greatest tools for self regulation that is available to us —our own voice.
I was raised in environments that were chaotic and unsafe for a number of reasons including numerous moves, divorces, alcoholism and abuse. I did what I could to find safety and soothing including running away and disassociating when running wasn’t available. I still have moments when these ways of coping seem to be very strong in me and I am grateful that I can now recognize them and either act on them or choose a different response to my experiences. I also remember some powerful moments when I would find a place to be alone and make loud sounds to release the feelings that were so strong inside of me. I would then make soothing sounds that could bring me to calmness immediately. It turns out that I was onto something!
Humans are very sensitive, much more than we think, and we are constantly receiving vibrational information through the instrument of our bodies.
We are like walking antennas picking up signals and responding in each moment, and our bodies hold all of our experience as an energetic signature.
In the modern world, many of us are energetically (and certainly informationally) overwhelmed and this is causing much of the anxiety patterns that we see around us.
Humans are made to express what impacts us. If we do not express what impacts us, then we hold onto negative experiences as stress or unexpressed emotions which over time can become tension, injury and disease. Many of the most common coping mechanisms such as addiction, depression, anxiety, disconnection and isolation are due to long term buildup of stressful impacts and little or no way to respond or process.
The practice of Somatic Experiencing demonstrates that discharging (or rinsing) these stuck energies from the body can be extremely effective modalities for recovery. This discharge can be physical (shaking, stomping, etc.) but it can be even more effective when sound is included because sound vibrates us from the inside out, moves stuck energy patterns and strengthens vital life force.
On a purely physical level, when we move energy through the body and the voice through practices like yoga, movement and singing, we help to remove blocks to the natural life force (prana) and increase our ability to heal and respond creatively to life. In nature and in human bodies, a healthy system is one in which the energy is moving. When we remove stuck energy or habitual and calcified energy signatures, the body naturally responds by bringing itself into a state of resonance and healing. Just as sounds are vibrations that can deeply affect matter, self-expression is one of the keys to healing. We can use our own voices to remove blocks, awaken the body as instrument and respond to our lives with the full range of our emotions, life force and creativity intact.
Humans are uniquely hard-wired for expression. Throughout history cultures have created specific times, places and rituals that allowed for the primal human impulses and emotions to have conduits for expression. We had times for grieving, for expressing terror and anger, times for celebrating and coming together in community.
We had rites of passage marking the ages of our lives, rituals that gave us ways to understand the human experience in the broader context of the mytho-poetic and universal truths of being alive. But through religious and cultural oppression and colonization, perhaps driven by our need to control the wildness of nature both within us and around us, the natural forms of human expression have come to been seen as dangerous at worst and silly at best. Mechanistic thinking and controlled behavior has taken precedence over the intrinsic wisdom of the body and has served to suppress the very thing that has the power to help us be whole and to feel connected to each other and the world. We have come to overvalue that which can be "proven" and measured over the forces of mystery, magic and imagination. As a result, our expression and creativity are suppressed, devalued and seen as accessible only to professional artists, rather than the birthright of all humans.
I meet so many people who do not feel that they have the right to express themselves.
A large majority of people that I meet have been told at some point that they should not sing or even speak their truth. Many of us were raised in environments of violence, fear and excessive criticism and some of us would even now be unsafe if we spoke and lived the full truth of who we are. When we are unsafe, or when we internalize external judgment, we can shut down completely, we can become afraid to be seen and heard in any way and we are forced as self protection to silence the very creativity of our soul. If we live within this self protective silence we may be safe, but we may also be unable to feel the full range of our experience and the inherent creativity that is central to all humans. With no expression allowed to move from inside us to the outside and loss of a way to connect to others, we may even lose our ability to experience true intimacy.
Part of the healing available to us in finding our voice lies in understanding the idea that living truth is a creative act. In order to truly find our authentic truth we must go beneath the conditioned thinking of our particular upbringing, and take on the challenging work of healing the wounds and cycles of violence that we inherited or were forced upon us.
Once we can tap into the inherent wisdom of our own truth and give it voice, we often have an experience of liberation and joy.
When we express and create, and especially when we do so in community, a level of healing and connection becomes available that can assist us in becoming powerful voices for change in the world.
By Laura Sharkey
When I started my yoga practice about nine years ago, I had the very common experience of feeling for the first time ever that I was at home in my body. I reveled in that, and began to befriend my physicality – an endeavor that would have never occurred to me as a possibility before. The sturdy and highly effective triad of asana, meditation and somatic therapy (which I became aware of through my favorite yoga teacher) provided me with a life-changing opportunity to integrate my mind, body and soul, and to develop tools that helped me become grounded and resilient to a degree that was simply not accessible to me through traditional talk therapy, or any other practice I knew about at the time.
I had the good fortune of being in the honeymoon phase with yoga when I became chronically ill.
My fledgling practice was a comfort and a resource that helped me immensely, and I relied on it to create this new version of myself, after every able-bodied attribute that I relied on to define my place in the world had fallen away from me. I was ecstatically grateful for my yoga community at that time, and couldn’t (and still can’t) imagine trying to navigate that time in my life without it.
But the honeymoon ended, as they all do. Several years into my practice, when I began to venture outside of the sanctuary of classes led by the first few teachers I knew, I was exposed to a much broader swath of Western yoga culture/community (WYC).
I had no idea that the inclusive, grounded practice I had learned was not representative of how yoga is taught in the larger “community.”
For the first time, I was exposed to many ways in which WYC not only sustains, but often amplifies, patterns of marginalization that are embedded in mainstream Eurocentric/western culture.
As I ventured out into the larger WYC, I first became painfully aware of the body size bias that led many teachers and other students I hadn’t met before to assume that I was not a “real yogi.”
Teachers and other students assumed that I wasn’t a “real yogi.”
I became familiar with the routine of explaining, virtually every time I went to a new studio, that no, I am not new to yoga; yes, I have practiced before; yes, I am sure I have practiced before and no, I don’t want to go to the intro to yoga workshop you are hosting next week.
I suppose I should be happy with the small amount of progress we’ve made since that time; in increasing numbers, fat students have taken the risk of taking classes at studios, and I am no longer always the fattest student in the entire studio. But I am still quite often the only obviously disabled one, and I still often get the same round of questions when I walk with my cane into a new yoga space.
But the (slight) lessening of body size bias has introduced a new complication for people like me, who are not only fat, but also disabled. The still rampant fatphobia – as oppressive as it is – is no longer my primary obstacle. In fact, many of those advocating for fat acceptance have unwittingly joined ranks with the thin and inherently ableist majority of WYC. In spite of the protests of disabled practitioners, the “Just because I’m fat doesn’t mean I’m not healthy” sound bite has become a common mantra of yoga-centered fat activism, in response to tediously predictable and often fatphobic concerns about fat practitioners’ health. Technically, the “just because...” statement is true. It speaks to a common (and erroneous) assumption that all fat people are unhealthy. But here’s the thing: while it’s true that fat doesn’t necessarily mean “unhealthy,” it also doesn’t automatically mean “healthy.” So when I hear the “just because...” defense, I hear my fat and able-bodied cohorts distancing themselves from the disabled – and especially from those of us with chronic illnesses/conditions. While I’m sure that the distancing isn’t deliberate, it seems to be unconsciously intentional. If creating that distance weren’t important, the common response would be akin to “You cannot accurately assess my state of health based on my body size.” In contrast, the “just because...” statement implicitly asserts the healthiness of the speaker. So instead of including the disabled in the scope of “body image” politics, able-bodied fat activists are casting us aside in favor of identification with the “healthy” ideal. And so the campaign against fatphobia is now solidly ensconced on a platform of ignoring the existence of “unhealthy” yoga practitioners, just as much as is the dominant, thin-bodied WYC.
Much more daunting for me than fatphobia is the ableism that encourages teachers and practitioners alike to assume they know better than I do what is important and necessary for my disabled body, as well as my Autistic and clinically depressed neurology.
The belief that yoga can deliver us (from the unsettling, earthly reality that our state of health is impermanent and unpredictable) is relentlessly and ferociously guarded.
It requires those that hold fast to it to perceive yoga as an all-purpose antidote to not only their own, but also my health-related challenges. The stereotypical assumptions and judgments required to support that belief are so ubiquitous and overwhelming that picking an example to share is like trying to decide which drop of water to point to in the ocean. Suffice it to say that it is not at all surprising to me anymore when someone I barely know foists upon me unsolicited advice about how I should ditch my mainstream medical treatments and pharmaceutical meds, and let yoga heal me instead (every chakra I have is, apparently, in need of some sort of balancing, which, once done, will cure me forever).
It is not at all surprising to me anymore when someone I barely know foists upon me unsolicited advice about how I should ditch my mainstream medical treatments and pharmaceutical meds, and let yoga heal me instead.
In retrospect, it became painfully obvious to me how naive I had been to trust in the Utopian “we’re all one” rhetoric; I really should have known better, but I, like so many other practitioners, wanted to believe that a dedicated practice would make me impervious to the hardships of day-to-day life in the real world. But in spite of my wish to hang on to this faith in eventual deliverance, I was exposed to so many instances of people like me being routinely judged, silenced, ignored and exiled for the sake of allowing others to maintain the belief, that I had to let it go. In effect, we – the disabled, the “unhealthy,” – are deemed unworthy of inclusion because our very existence calls the dogma of yoga as the provider of perfect and perpetual health into question.
There is no way anyone can look at me and believe in the value of my practice without discarding the oh-so-comforting belief that yoga is a panacea for the hardships of life. Even if I keep my mouth shut, cultural assumptions about physical ideals will suggest to anyone looking at me that I have not (and probably can not) transcended to a self-made reality where everything is as I would have it be. But transcendence is not my goal. I practice because yoga helps me ground and self-regulate in the world I live in. I have no wish to transcend the world or my body.
I want to live in this world and learn to be at home in this body – in whatever form it takes in each moment of my life. That is, to me, the only viable path to being as present, connected and part of the world, as I can possibly be.
Many practitioners have the option of holding fast to the belief that an “authentic” and dedicated practice will someday soon bring them to a state of constant equanimity, free of suffering, where they will no longer be affected by the hardships and drudgery of day-to-day life.
I don’t have that option, because the belief’s bedrock is a fanciful and unrealistic faith in an escape hatch that is accessible only to the most finely tuned and perfected physical form. And how that perfection is defined supports and amplifies the biases against the conditions it is designed to escape.
So, here we are, full-circle, back again at the discomfort able-bodied people tend to feel when confronted by the possibility that they will someday end up like me. As much as that is true in mainstream culture, it is raised to a pitch that, while mostly subliminal, is frantic and ubiquitous in WYC. It makes sense, really. Because of its uniquely blended focus on both physical fitness and spiritual transcendence, WYC is a magnet for exactly those people who have a strong aversion to the reality that life is impermanent, and physical impairment is inevitable for anyone who doesn’t die suddenly at a relatively young age. While I in no way mean to imply that all western yoga practitioners are intent on denying the reality of aging and eventual death, the saturation of people who are is much higher than in mainstream culture. And so the biases and marginalization that support that denial are amplified. I, as a disabled person, am covertly discarded or censured because I am an unavoidable reminder that none of us are invincible and that we never have complete control over our destinies. Yoga cannot protect us from age and death, nor can it make us invulnerable to life’s precariousness. It cannot grant any one of us immunity from the ever-present possibility of pain, injury or illness.
And so I will seldom be believed, or trusted as the authority on my own practice. Because one of the most insidious aspects of marginalization is that those who are marginalized are not to be believed; if you believe us, you have to acknowledge that the culture that supports you does so at our expense. In WYC, that means that we – the disabled – are collateral damage in the war on acceptance of life as fraught with uncertainty and some amount of danger. There is only one way out. For me to be included, accommodated, and respected, you, my able-bodied friends, must be willing to confront the fear and anxiety – in short, the suffering so aptly identified by the Buddha – of knowing your eventual death is unavoidable. If you confront that fear, we will both be better off for it.
I know it sounds overwhelming. Yeah, it’s scary, but it’s really not as hard as it sounds. It’s a practice.
here are 10-WAYS to embody that practice:
(Hint – they all require some amount of rigorous self-inquiry and critical observation of WYC)
Examine your beliefs and assumptions about the role traditional physical alignment plays in asana practice. Do you believe that there is an external ideal alignment or that alignment should be adapted to the needs and attributes of the person in the pose?
Examine assumptions you make about other yoga practitioners based on their physical grace or stability. Include tics, “fidgeting”, gait and posture in your consideration.
If you are a teacher, don’t assume that all students want or can tolerate physical contact/adjustments. Ask permission. Every time.
Examine your beliefs about the relationship between health, disability and physical appearance. Make sure to include any judgments you have about people based on their physical appearance or your perception of their state of health.
Examine your assumptions and feelings about the relationship between culturally prescribed definitions of physical attractiveness and a person’s perceived state of health, including emotional/mental well-being and stability.
Examine your assumptions about the relevance, strength or purity of another’s yoga or meditation practice that you make based on their physical appearance.
Observe, in a mindful way, all the yoga-related imagery you see in one day, and think about who is missing, based on race, gender-appearance, body size, age, clothing cost/style, presumed affluence based on background setting/location. It’s just as important to notice your assumptions and inferences as it is to notice objective attributes (e.g., do you assume they are neurotypical? if the person is not obviously physically disabled, do you assume that they are able-bodied?).
Get introspective, and practice sitting with the discomfort of contemplating how your life would change if you were to become disabled. Notice, also, the type of disabilities that come to mind when you do this.
Practice respecting the choices of yoga practitioners who say they take psychotropic medications, struggle with a mental illness/condition, or are neurodivergent. Notice if you see a correlation between their condition and your perception regarding the quality or authenticity of their practice.
If someone tells you about a condition, illness, disorder, injury or disability that they have, do not offer unsolicited advice unless you have experienced the same thing. Do not assume that they are looking for a cure or a fix, and do not presume to think that you have a solution to offer them that they just haven’t thought of yet. Err on the side of assuming they don’t need or want you to fix them, unless they ask you for ideas or advice. Above all, do not suggest that yoga can cure them. Just don’t. Ever.
In June, you can take a 3-session, online course offered by Off the Mat titled "Practical Tools for Talking with Other Whites about Racism" with Beth Berila. It will be a powerful and important class for those of us learning to be effective white allies in the work of dismantling racism. Beth has done incredible work in the field of social justice and we'd love for you to get to know more about her and what she's coming with in June!
OTM: How did you become a part of the Off the Mat community?
BB: I’ve known about OTM for quite some time—seeing advertisements of its trainings and hearing the “buzz” about their valuable work. I have taken a couple OTM online trainings with Hala Khouri, specifically around the trauma of injustice (which I will probably be referencing in my own course). I also have several colleagues in the world of yoga and social justice who are connected with OTM in a variety of ways, including being some of their faculty.
What I admire most about OTM is that it offers the tools for people to create positive change. Many of us want to make the world a better place, but may not know how. We may inadvertently reproduce common missteps if we do so without support. OTM trainings help provide participants with a social justice analysis and tried-and-true practices for creating change that are informed by that analysis. I am so thrilled to be a part of the team!
OTM: We often ask in our leadership trainings: what is something that breaks your heart? And, what unique gifts are you bringing into the world (& this course)?
BB: What breaks my heart? So many things. But one that keeps happening is when vibrant, strong, hopeful people have internalized or experienced injustices for so long that the wounds undermine their empowerment. This happens both individually and collectively. I see this happen in my Women’s Studies college courses. Strong, vibrant, talented feminists will be finding their voices and creating AMAZING community change, and still undermine themselves with toxic messages or become immobilized by the wounds of oppression. It is pervasive and heartbreaking. I, too, have suffered from that in some ways.
That observation is what initially motivated me to delve deeper into yoga and meditation. Those practices are what allowed me to hold my empowerment and my struggles in a more authentic, embodied, and compassionate way. They are also what sparked an exploration into how we can create more socially just ways of being with one another—how we can unlearn deeply oppressive beliefs and practices in order to create more honouring ones.
Doing so, particularly in the context of dismantling the aspects of whiteness that are so deeply harmful, requires sitting with discomfort. There are very common responses people have when white privilege or white supremacy are pointed out. These reactions are defense mechanisms designed to shore up racial injustice. So helping people learn to recognize them as such and sit with the discomfort instead of avoiding it is a critical step. In my online OTM course, we will learn some techniques for doing so. Because only then can we create alternatives that truly honor everyone’s humanity.
What unique gifts am I bringing? My insight into this work is grounded at the intersection of feminism, yoga, and embodied social change. It is informed by social justice activists and theorists. And it is tested in numerous classrooms and community sites.
OTM: What brought this course, Practical Tools for Talking with Other Whites about Racism, into being?
BB: I have been doing social justice and anti-racism work for over twenty years. Mostly, I do it in the Women’s Studies college classroom with students entering into the conversation with various degrees of interest/awareness and from various identities. That experience has honed my ability to meet people where they are in order to transform ways of thinking and being (in this case) about racial identity, whiteness, racism, and white supremacy. I have also worked closely with colleagues, both inside and outside academia, to do antiracist work.
This particular course builds on all that rich experience. I began thinking about it after the election of Donald Trump to the US Presidency in November, because I saw (and felt) heightened despair, along with urgent calls to “do something.” Actually, two days after the election I flew to a large mindfulness conference and was struck by 1) people who were desperately hungry to talk about the current state of affairs, and 2) people who avoided the conversation, and 3) people who had no idea where to begin (this third category pervaded both of the previous groups).
Let’s be clear: nothing in “Trump’s America” is new—the oppression that some people are just becoming aware of has existed for centuries. Many people have been around doing the work of trying to survive and dismantle them for years. But there did seem to be a heightened urgency. I also sensed a strong undercurrent of not knowing where to start. Many well-intentioned people wanted to make the world a better place, but did not know where to begin.
I figured one way I could begin was to “gather my people,” so to speak, and help cultivate the tools for whites to talk with other whites about racism. I know many people who want to do so but get stymied when the conversations (inevitably) get hard. My years of teaching students in a variety of places around the conversation, combined with my own (fraught) path (filled with missteps and learning), will provide the foundation for this course.
I am on this path too—I am not the “expert;” I have experiences and knowledge to draw on that I hope will prove useful, but this work is collective work. I envision the course as a collective learning process.
. . .
Beth Berila, Ph.D., 500-hr RYT is the Director of the Women's Studies Program and Professor in the Ethnic and Women's Studies Department at St. Cloud State University in St. Cloud, Minnesota. She is also a 500-hr registered yoga teacher and an Ayurvedic Yoga Specialist who completed her 500-hour Yoga Teacher Training program at Devanadi School of Yoga and Wellness. She is the author of the book Integrating Mindfulness into Anti-Oppression Pedagogy: Social Justice in Higher Education (Routledge). She served on the leadership team of the Yoga and Body Image Coalition for two years and is now a community partner. She works to make yoga accessible to every body by challenging the lack of diversity in the mainstream Western yoga culture. Her current projects merge yoga and meditation practices with feminism and mindful education to create a form of socially engaged embodied learning. www.bethberila.com
In 2016, Celestine Muhammad (A Peace of Yoga KC) along with her daughter Amanda Muhammad (A Peace of Yoga Dallas) hosted Kansas City's first-ever OTM Yoga in Action/YIA circle! Since Celestine's Leadership in Action with OTM in Minnesota, she had been intent on sharing the experience with her diverse community. She also thanks Kelli Austin and Nancy Bounds of Sunshine Yoga KC for having such confidence in her and for trusting in the YIA process.
Although the circle did not go as initially planned, once Amanda stepped up to the plate and the force of loving and curious community support could be felt, there was no turning back! What blossomed was a powerful and intense weekend with no time to spare.
For a community which is often marginalized, Stine and Amanda know first-hand the depths of keeping it together when everything else is falling apart. With on-going follow-up meetings, their YIA group unanimously voted to serve "Mothers In Charge," a group of moms who lost their children to violence in the streets of Kansas City. To help give back with love and support, the YIA circle decided to host an official Moms Day Off! The moms were brought 50 miles outside of the city to Paola, Kansas for a special retreat at The Motherland. After turning-off their cell phones and electronics, the day was spent in nature with guided walks to the pond, then it was back to the house for pampering with the ritual of foot-washing and facials. Lunch and candlelight dinner were served and pajamas were on before the sun even went down! The day was filled with love and soul.
Going forward, many in this YIA circle have committed to continue supporting Mothers in Charge and are now part of the newly formed "Volunteers in Charge." They offer support in monthly healing and support groups by simply holding space and showing up where needed during on-going street canvassing.
Check out this inspiring interview between OTM co-founder Seane Corn and OTM board & faculty member Teo Drake about compassion, mindfulness, social justice, and how these concepts will be explored and embraced during our upcoming Leadership Training Intensive Retreat in Santa Barbara, CA this Dec 8-11 at beautiful Pacifica Graduate Institute.
"My highest hope for this training is that it can be for folks who are seeing the world as it is right now during this painful time and don't know what to do and want some help to figure out what their piece is and how to do it in collaboration with others and how to do it in a way that doesn't feel paralyzing and soul-crushing. This training is also for folks who have been doing this work for a longtime but need to be in community with others to remember that they're not alone and particularly for folks who are experiencing crushing oppression themselves ." -Teo Drake