Hala & Tessa talk Ojai Leadership Training!

Our final training in 2015 is right around the corner! We're coming to Ojai, CA, Dec 3-6 for our Leadership Training Intensive on Social Justice & Community-Building. We revamped this 4-day retreat-style intensive, making it more of an introductory training on social justice issues & effective activism. Read on to learn why Hala and Tessa (who will again be joining us this year) are jazzed about this training, what you can expect, and who we've designed it for...

OTM: Tessa, as both a co-designer and co-leader of this training, who do you think this training is geared towards? Who would benefit most?

Tessa: This training is for all those who wish to make a difference in the world and who are seeking tools, knowledge, community, and personal growth that can aid in doing so effectively. Raising consciousness about social justice is crucial in order to understand where/how we each might play into the injustices that exist in the world and where/how we each can intervene, prevent, and transform these injustices. This training is especially for those interested in taking their personal practice of yoga or community service to another level in order to enact social change and critical community engagement. 

OTM: So, does someone need to be a seasoned activist or social change leader to attend this training? Or could this training be an introduction for someone who is maybe just starting off in social justice and is interested in expanding his or her knowledge and understanding? - a way to gain tools and greater confidence in the concept and practice of social justice. 

Hala: Yes! I think that often people shy away from talking about issues of inequality, racism, sexism, etc. because it can be scary.  We worry that we’re going to offend someone or say the wrong thing.  Some people have the privilege to stay away from this conversation because they don’t feel that their lives are directly impacted by inequality.  Others don’t have that same opportunity.  And it’s true: conversations about social justice can get very heated, and even ugly.  But what's so exciting about a training like this one, that brings yoga and mindfulness into the experience, is that we are cultivating embodied tools to be able to have the difficult conversation in a grounded and non-reactive way.

OTM: So how does this relate to yoga? Are social justice and yoga mutually-beneficial? Why does OTM offer a training that includes both at the same time?

Tessa:  Both social justice and yoga operate on the premise that we are caught in a false perception of duality when in fact we are all interconnected. Yet, while we are spiritually one, we are not all the same. The ideal of "oneness" can sometimes obscure the reality that real inequality and oppression occur at the intersections of race, class, gender, sexual orientation, ability, and religion that implicate each of us in the perpetuation of dualities that exist in our world today. Learning how to reflect candidly about ourselves and the world, transform personally amidst discomfort, push ourselves to our edge and find our breath there, negotiate not-knowing and difference with compassion, patience and grace-- these are the lessons we must confront both in our yoga practice and social justice education. 

When we confront our lessons with humility, mindfulness and honesty, we learn to see duality of self and other as something we must dissolve while recognizing the realities of pain and injustice that have resulted from the divisions imposed in society. We can take personal responsibility for dissolving these tensions in our own mind-bodies-spirits as well as the communities we are a part of. We can recognize our social responsibility to Martin Luther King's charge that "injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere" and use the tools of mindfulness and yoga to making tangible and lasting peace within and with community.

OTM: Love that quote! That illustrates a fantastic reason for someone who is interested in community engagement to attend this training, right?

Tessa: Definitely. Anyone interested in advocating for or directly making small or big changes in the world around them must think through the critical approaches to community engagement that ensure that individual participation is carried out ethically, respectfully, with integrity and with purpose. Understanding the structural, political, economic, environmental, social, cultural and personal causes that have led to the inequity and injustice that exist in our world today will not only broaden our scope of knowledge and personal awareness but will allow us to more effectively tackle big issues through tangible strategies in the communities near and far from us.

OTM: Beautifully put. We feel so fortunate to have you, Jacoby Ballard, and Leslie Booker as co-facilitators again at this year's training along with Hala, Seane, and Suzanne. Now that's one powerful collective of leaders!    

Hala: One of the things that all of our co-facilitators bring to this training is beautiful role-modeling in being authentic and real with what they feel, while being both compassionate and curious about others’ experiences.  Last year’s training was so powerful, in a huge part due to our amazing faculty, which included Tessa, Jacoby, and Leslie. Each of them modeled such wisdom and grace in their own way. 

I’m excited to have our students spend time with them and see how it’s possible to engage in these touchy dialogues in a grounded, honest, and self-responsible way. 


Interested in attending this Leadership Training in Ojai?
Get more info and register HERE!

SEVA SPOTLIGHT! Interview with SEVA: Kenya participant Bryonie Wise

Today we're interviewing Bryonie Wise of Toronto, Canada. Bryonie is a participant in our 2015 SEVA Challenge: Kenya

OTM: Hi Bryonie! We are so happy and grateful that you are a part of our SEVA Challenge this year. What is your fundraising goal and how much have you raised so far?

Bryonie: I set my goal at $7,500 - $10,000. To-date I've raised $7,259.

OTM: That's fantastic! What does "seva" mean to you and why do you think it's important?

Bryonie:  'Seva' speaks to my own belief (culled & refined through the practice of yoga, creativity, and shamanism) that there is no separation between us; that although we roll around in our various corners of the Universe, when it comes down to it, we are connected if only by the thread of our beating hearts.

We all suffer, we all celebrate, we all grieve, we all love — we all need help at one time or another and are often too fearful to ask. Sometimes (most often) it's because we can't ask - where we live or how we fit into the hierarchy of the society that surrounds us often determines how loud we can speak & how far our voices are allowed to go. We are held down instead of encouraged to rise up. 

The older I get, the clearer this becomes: we are here to love, unequivocally -  and it is my responsibility as a human being with relative freedom of word & action to use my superpowers (my heart & privilege) for the safety of all beings. 

The more we begin to think of ourselves as connected, from one side of the world to the other, the stronger we become.

OTM: Yes! Superpowers! Your heart & privilege. We love that.  What inspired you to sign-up for the Challenge this year? What do you hope to gain or achieve by participating?

Bryonie: 1. The opportunity to support & learn from (and learn how I can further support) young girls & women who have experienced FGM or who are currently working to create alternate rites of passage & fighting for the right to choose how they step over into womanhood. 2. The opportunity to travel to a part of the world that has long tugged at my heart. And 3. The opportunity to study & work with Suzanne & Seane and to expand my capacity & ability to love as a human & as a teacher.

OTM: All beautiful reasons. You mention that the opportunities to support, to expand, and to learn were motivating factors for you.  What is the biggest lesson or skill you've learned so far by participating?

Bryonie:  I have learned how to soften my words & shape them differently in order to make FGM an accessible topic.

When we come from a place of love, anything is possible— and sometimes, in transmuting (not bypassing) our fear or rage into love or curiosity or surrender (or whatever is most authentic to our own personal experience), we spark someone else into a different kind of thought or action. 

We change the world, slowly, but surely. 

OTM: And that is a powerful lesson to learn. Thank you, Bryonie, for sharing your words and experiences about SEVA: Kenya! If you're inspired  by Bryonie and would like to take part in the Challenge, visit our SEVA: Kenya page HERE. We're finishing up Phase 2 (taking $75 pledges which provide a young girl at the new rescue center with a bed, mattress, and dresser). Pledge today and make a difference! The Challenge ends Sept 30.

Trading Girls for Cows: FGM, Human Rights, and Cultural Tradition

Female Genital Mutilation (and its brother issue of nonconsensual male circumcision) is an incredibly divisive issue that is taking a larger place in the global conversations of our time.

Since Off The Mat, Into the World launched our international service project called the Seva Challenge and Bare Witness Humanitarian Tours eight years ago, we have consistently chosen to tackle issues that are complex and multi-layered.

This year we are diving into the FGM discussion in a big way.

This is an issue steeped in cultural traditions, has been normative in many parts of the world for centuries and is just now being unpacked in its complexity.

The web of reasons for the continuance of a tradition that has such obvious physical and psychologically damaging, and often fatal consequences is complex. Such reasons are relational, generational, economic, often cloaked in communally complicit silence and in some places considered crucial to the fabric of communities seeking to ensure the survival of their values.

FGM is also at the heart of a long-standing controversy between the concepts of the universality of human rights and cultural relativism.

In other words, are human rights universal or simply another form of cultural imperialism?

As we focus more and more on a social justice framework for our activism, we at OTM have been grappling with these questions over the years and in taking on the complexity of FGM, the inquiry is even more important and timely: how do we justify “serving” others in a way that does not simply impose our own cultural values upon those that we serve?

It is a question that we consider deeply and we have diligently worked with organizations that are locally-led. This question has led us to examine the underlying issues of power and privilege as well as the consequences and motivations for our work in social justice that are at play anytime we step out in our activism.

As a long-time ritual leader myself, I respect rituals, traditions and the honoring of culture in general as well as an understanding of the kind of reciprocity needed to work in a multicultural setting (especially in the area of rituals and rites of passage). I have seen first hand the terrible effects of a world that is increasingly homogenized by the trance of Western culture and hold a deep grief for what has been and is being lost in the avalanche of globalization.

However, I also believe that culture is not always unpolluted or beyond the need for examination.

Often, dominant culture is an expression of the worldview of the most powerful in society and is complicit in the disenfranchisement of the less powerful in a society. Cultural norms of patriarchal, caste-based or racist societies normalize and justify discrimination in many forms. It is good to remember that the human rights standards that came into existence as a response to the atrocities of World War 2 were drafted by representatives from diverse nations who agreed that state sovereignty could never justify certain practices such as genocide or torture.

A big part of what we have learned from Seva Challenge is that we must not only look at what is obvious in terms of the suffering we encounter, but we must also look underneath to find root causes and in most cases, the factor of our own contribution to the very issue we are seeking to change. This goes for both the internal inquiry about our own suffering and how it affects our motivation for service but also expands out into the wider global sphere.

For instance, it was important to note, when faced with the brutal realities of addiction and domestic violence that we encountered on our first trip to Cambodia, that there had been a genocide of 7 million people 30 years earlier. That massive collective trauma was no doubt a contributing factor to the huge amounts of post traumatic stress and its natural outcome of widespread addiction and domestic violence that we encountered first hand.

But we are also choosing to look even deeper. For instance, when researching sex trafficking in India we discovered that sex trafficking is the third biggest criminal industry (after drugs and arms trafficking) in the world and that often times the motivation for families to send their daughters away with strangers is a crippled economy and the promise of jobs, money and a better life. On our trip to Ecuador we witnessed the effects of globalization (and the resulting global debt that is incurred by many developing nations) on a country striving for economic independence.

The result being the decision to auction off the most diverse parcel of rainforest on the planet (one host to numerous species of plants that could contain cures for many of the worst modern diseases) in order to pay off its enormous global debt.

As conscious activists we strive to understand that we are all interconnected and interdependent…that our thoughts, actions and decisions have a profound effect and that there is really no way for any of us to exist without effecting the whole. So how are we in any way part of creating the problems we have chosen to try to solve?

In so many ways. When we choose to do nothing about the suffering around us we are part of the silence that kills. When we act without awareness of the underlying causes, we can do more harm than good. When we do not understand that our choices about our food, clothing, and the products that we consume are effecting people and cultures around the world, we are actually contributing to the atrocities. That is not to say that each of us is entirely responsible…but understanding that our choices do matter is crucial and our individual choices can effect the collective profoundly.

Today, we can see that the rising tide of free trade and globalization which was suppose to “end poverty” has, in the half century since this big push began, created more poverty than ever before and the situation is getting worse. In other words, my choices as a consuming American have an effect on the global economic culture. My choices in a very real way contribute to the need for an Indian family to send it’s daughter off with strangers in hopes of a better life or money making opportunities. My choices are part of the reason that a family in Kenya will send a child to be married (and necessarily to go through the FGM process in order to become a wife) if doing so will ensure a dowry of money or cows that will keep the rest of the family alive.

So could this perspective of examining the many aspects of this issue prevent me from taking action at all for fear of making mistakes? Quite possibly….but it could also spur me to extend an ever deepening commitment to being conscious with not only my own choices and their consequences, but an understanding of my place in the evolution of a sensitive and creative global vision.

Yes, culture is disappearing at alarming rates and yet culture is not static. We can evolve toward the elimination of torturous and dangerous practices such as FGM with a deep sensitivity to the cultural and social background of the communities that practice it. New rites of passage can and will be implemented, thus replacing the dangerous practices without giving up meaningful rituals.

Ending FGM will require a comprehensive and multilayered approach—a sustained creative collaboration, and discerning advocacy from families, communities, the media, governments and the international community.

Global Seva Kenya, jointly hosted by Off The Mat, Into the World and The Village Experience, will be supporting the work of The Tasaru Ntomonok Initiative and Samburu Girls Foundation - both of whose primary objectives are to rescue girls from FGM, child marriage, domestic violence and physical/sexual abuse as well as offering and educating groups on alternative rites of passage ceremonies.  Funds will support the construction of a rescue center or "safe house" in each location that will provide health care, education, and protection from abuse and exploitation.  We have raised 40K so far and hope to reach our goal of 100K by October 2015.  Please donate now at www.offthematintotheworld.org/seva-challenge !

The incredible women leading these organizations are supreme examples of bravery, speaking truth and creative activism…each with a strong story of stepping out of the oppressive silence to challenge cultural practices, engage with communities and create alternative rites of passage for young girls to enter into womanhood.  They have rescued, kept safe and educated hundreds of girls and with the funds from Global Seva Challenge Kenya, will be able to create safety, and nurture leadership for many more.  Please join us in support of these women and girls and break the silence!

With love and a strong voice…
Suzanne Sterling
Global Seva Challenge

“When women stand up and defend themselves, it works. Remember—in 1975, 98% of women were mutilated just like I was. Today, it is 27%. That’s 27% too many, but it’s also the sign of a revolution. It wasn’t handed down on high. It was fought for by me and my sisters. I believe that no woman should call herself free until all women are free.”
~ Agnes Pareiyo, Founder and Director of the Tasaru Ntomonok Rescue Center

“We are lucky to come from a country where laws and policies are against harmful cultural practices and are very clear both in the Children Act 2001 and the constitution of this country. However, it is not enough to pass these laws, they need to be implemented”
~ Josephine Kulea, Founder and Director of Samburu Girls Foundation and winner of the 2013 UN Person of the Year award.

“It will be important for Kenya to recognise that no country can achieve its full potential unless it draws on the talents of all its people and that must include the half of Kenyans, maybe a little more than half, who are women and girls. Every country in every culture has traditions that are unique and help make that country what it is. But just because something is a part of your past doesn’t make it right. It doesn’t mean that it defines your future … there’s no excuse for sexual assault, or domestic violence, there’s no reason that young girls should suffer genital mutilation, there’s no place in civilised society for the early or forced marriage of children.”
~ President Barack Obama on his historic trip to Kenya, July 2015

Off the Mat on Instagram

Help us re-ignite our Instagram page by following us @offthemat !

In honor of our upcoming Game Changers: Yoga in Action conference Sept 28-30 at Yoga Journal LIVE! Colorado, we are asking our family, followers, and supporters to submit photos of how they take their yoga off the mat and into the world by uploading it to Instagram with the hashtag #OfftheMatGameChanger. We will review every submission, and the most impactful photos will have a chance to be featured on yogajournal.com and also on the OTM Insta account. 

So get to snapping and show us how you create change in the world through your yoga practice or by using the tools of yoga. We can't wait to see your beautiful work! 

Don't forget the hashtag: #OfftheMatGameChanger

The Silent War on Women (Seva Challenge 2015)

How often do we talk about our vaginas?  How freely do we discuss our sexuality in this culture where many women's rights are fairly secure (albeit still surprisingly not entirely equal to men's rights)? Sexuality is often a very private matter and when it gets down to sexual anatomy, many of us choose to remain very coy. 

And although I wish I were about to initiate a deep discussion about liberating women's sexuality from centuries of oppression (that will come later), I am writing today about a cultural "secret", a taboo so insidious that many people either don't know that it exists at all or are fuzzy on the details. I am talking about Female Genital Mutilation or FGM.

And it is this very secrecy that is keeping the practice alive… in countries like Kenya, Egypt, Mali, Sierra Leone… but also in the UK and the US -- 29 countries total. (Recently, 500 cases of FGM were diagnosed in one month in British hospitals.) 

Here is the "procedure" more than 130 million girls and women alive in the world today have undergone (from BBC News):

--Female genital mutilation (FGM) includes any procedure that alters or injures the female genital organs for non-medical reasons

--In its most severe form, after removing the sensitive clitoris, the genitals are cut and stitched closed so that the woman cannot have or enjoy sex

--A tiny piece of wood or reed is inserted to leave a small opening for the necessary flow of urine and monthly blood when she comes of age (most FGM is carried out on infants or young girls before they reach puberty)

--When she is ready to have sex and a baby, she is "unstitched" - and then sewn back up again after to keep her what is described by proponents as "hygienic, chaste and faithful"

--In societies where FGM is commonplace, a woman can bring shame on herself and her family if she does not comply. Some see it as a religious necessity, though no scriptures explicitly prescribes it

--Most often, the procedure is carried out by traditional circumcisers or preachers, using crude, accessible tools, such as thorns and thread, broken glass or razor blades, and without anaesthetic

In many countires, FGM has been outlawed, but prosecution rates remain very low. In Kenya, for instance, FGM was outlawed in 2001 and a conviction for FGM related-offenses carries a penalty of 12 months imprisonment or a fine of $50,000 or both. The tradition, however, persists and there are relatively few prosecutions.

This is due to the silence surrounding the issue and also because in so many communities where FGM/C is prevalent, it is part of a ceremony, a celebration of a girl’s transition to womanhood.  Cutters -- midwives, traditional healers, aunts, and grandmothers -- perform the act out of love, as a way to prepare a girl for potential marriage or to protect her from becoming a social outcast.

So it becomes clear that FGM won’t end until individuals and communities collectively and publicly declare an end to the practice and are given viable alternative rites of passage for girls to become women.

One Kenyan woman said, "FGM and anything related to it is never discussed at home or anywhere else; it is regarded as a taboo subject. And this is one of the reasons that FGM continues; no one knows the details."

And another woman, an outspoken anti-FGM activist said, "It's only in the last year that I have stopped being threatened by men and people who expect me to stay silent."

As an outspoken advocate for women's rights and most especially for breaking the silences that keep humans (and many women) silent and sick, I am strongly urging you to add your voice to the collective rising voice against FGM.  

Join us for this years Global Seva Challenge trip to Kenya and use your own voice to spread awareness and shed light where there has been only silence, suffering, and darkness.  

The Seva Challenge is an incredibly inspiring and empowering journey that takes participants from fundraising and awareness-building through to life-changing experiences in the field, and, in many cases, a life-long commitment to conscious activism and service.

We have had 7 years of successful Challenges bringing us to Cambodia, Africa, India, Ecuador, and Haiti, and raising over 3 million dollars for organizations doing long-term, on-the-ground work that matters. We have built schools, birthing centers, gardens, safe houses, micro loan programs, libraries, health care centers, and more. Perhaps even more importantly, we have become a voice of awareness for global issues such as social, economic, and environmental justice, extreme poverty, access to education, human trafficking, global health care, deforestation, and more.

Global Seva Kenya, jointly hosted by Off The Mat, Into the World and The Village Experience, will be working with The Tasaru Ntomonok Initiative and Samburu Girls Foundation - both of whose primary objectives are to rescue girls from FGM, child marriage, domestic violence, and physical/sexual abuse, as well as offering and educating groups on alternative rites of passage ceremonies.  Funds will support the construction of a rescue center, or "safe house," in each location that will provide health care, education, and protection from abuse and exploitation.

The incredible women leading these organizations are supreme examples of bravery, speaking truth and creative activism… each with a strong story of stepping out of the oppressive silence to challenge cultural practices, engage with communities, and create alternative rites of passage for young girls to enter into womanhood. They have rescued, kept safe, and educated  hundreds of girls, and, with the funds from Global Seva Challenge Kenya, will be able to create safety, and nurture leadership for many more. 

Please join us in support of these women and girls and break the silence!

With love and a strong voice…                                                                                             Suzanne Sterling                                                                                                                  Director, Global Seva Challenge

"My silence only serves to add to the shame around this harmful ritual & one of the most beautiful parts  our bodies hold, so I dedicate myself to excavating my own discomfort as I continue to understand how much we are connected, no matter how far apart."                                                                                                         - Seva Challenge participant Bryonie Wise 

'Tis the Season for Giving... Give the Gift of Leadership!

Dear Off the Mat Family and Friends,

This holiday season, we invite you to support the work we are doing at Off the Mat, Into the World.  We are so proud of the leaders that have come through our trainings, and our renewed mission is to make all of our trainings more accessible.  At OTM, we recognize that having leaders in all kinds of communities is a vital part of creating a movement for positive social and environmental change.  We are committed to offering relevant trainings and mentoring opportunities to as many people as we can.

This is where you come in.  Affordability is an important part of accessibility.  A 5-day Leadership Intensive, facilitated by our founders Seane Corn, Hala Khouri and Suzanne Sterling, costs an average of $650. This is incredibly low, given that it's led by 3 world class facilitators. The actual cost of this training should be $2000.  It is through the support of our community that we are able to keep our costs down and offer 10 scholarships per training.  Currently, all of our online trainings are offered on a sliding scale.

Keeping trainings affordable is only possible with the help of our community!

If you have been touched by one of our trainings, please pay it forward by making a generous donation that will help spread this work to others.  If you know of our work and are sparked by it, share your spark by contributing.

We appreciate you!

Anyone who donates during the month of December will be entered into a raffle to win a spot in Off The Mat's life-changing Yoga, Purpose & Action Leadership Intensive*


$10 - $149
1 raffle ticket

$150 - $249
2 raffle tickets

$250 - $499
3 raffle tickets

$500 - $999
4 raffle tickets + $50 off any intensive or online training

$1,000 - $1,499
4 raffle tickets + $100 off any intensive or online training + OTM gift basket**

$5,000 - $9,999
              4 raffle tickets + one spot at an intensive for you or a person of your choice                   + OTM gift basket**

$10,000 - $19,999
bring a team of up to 4 people to an intensive + OTM gift basket**
(great leadership training for non-profit staff or project collaborators)

$20,000 - $34,999
bring a team of up to 8 people to an intensive + OTM gift basket**
(great leadership training for non-profit staff or project collaborators)

$35,000 - $49,999
            have Seane, Hala and Suzanne teach a 3-day training for you and your group                  + OTM gift basket**

             have Seane, Hala and Suzanne teach a 5-day training for you and your group                 + OTM gift basket**


*$650 value - see website for schedule & locations; transportation and lodging not included

**OTM gift baskets include a YogiToes eco-conscious yoga mat towel from Manduka, an assortment of superfood supplements and snacks from Essential Living Foods, yoga and music DVDs by OTM founders Seane, Hala and Suzanne, a t-shirt and other goodies from OTM affiliated organizations including The LoveMore Movement and Embody Love Movement.
Gift baskets will be sent out to all donors by January 15

Our 2015 Commitments:


Our 5-day Leadership Intensive has changed many lives and inspired hundreds of people to go back to their communities and engage in a conscious, effective and powerful way.  In 2015, you will see a series of online trainings on Social Justice, Cultural Competency, Trauma and Facilitation.  We have a faculty of trainers offering specialized workshops on addiction & recovery, body image, social justice, youth, trauma and activating your purpose.



We are actively working towards training, engaging and learning from yogis from a wide variety of communities. We have leaders of color, leaders who are part of the LGBTQ community, leaders with disabilities and leaders from the corporate world who inform our vision. On our scholarship applications, we actively recruit people who are not usually considered part of the mainstream yoga community. We want to see everyone in the room during our trainings. 


The Next Chapter of Off The Mat...

Hello OFF THE MAT Family!!

Exciting things are happening at OTM!  After seven years of bridging yoga and activism, we are taking it to the next level by  elevating our commitment to our mission of training the people that make change possible. At OTM, we believe that vital to the practice of service and social change is mind-body connection, inside out transformation and sustainable action.  To reflect our next phase of development we are  launching a brand NEW WEBSITE!!

Also this year we evolved our trainings to be more potent, more accessible and more diverse. Our new training institute is addressing issues of social justice, sustainability, personal transformation and accountability. We are privileged to expand our faculty to include change-makers like Nikki MyersDr. Melody MooreMarianne ElliottTerri Cooper and Teo Drake. By investing in our leadership training offerings in this way we are increasing accessibility, affordably, diversity, and increased skill building.

We believe that transformed leaders are the key to transforming the world. Therefore, we're focusing our efforts on leadership development and designing a next-generation institute of body, mind and soul.

We are reinvigorated in our purpose and excited to share these new offerings and website with you!

Internalized Oppression's Long Shadow


My wife, Robin, and I have lived together for over 21 years and have adopted the typically similar mannerisms peculiar to long-term couples. These days, it seems obvious to most strangers who see us together that we are a couple; only occasionally does someone assume we are sisters or “best friends.” The frequency of situations where I must decide whether to intentionally “out” myself or let the erroneous assumption slide has diminished considerably over the years, but once in a while I am still confronted with the choice. I am comfortable outing myself when I have the luxury of doing so indirectly, waiting for an opportune time to refer to “my wife” naturally, in the context of conversation. That works well; it is a low-key, organic conveyance of by-the-way information. But it’s a whole different ball game when “the question” is asked of me and I must decide how to answer. I’m not comfortable with that. I still get nervous. I still feel challenged and trapped, doomed to disdain, judgement, ridicule or the cast stones (both figurative and literal) that I often weathered in the past. It takes a concerted effort to answer confidently and truthfully, and I don’t always succeed. The times have changed much more than I have, since I first came out over 30 years ago. It’s about time I caught up, so I am thankful for a recent opportunity to confront my archaic and habitual fears around self-disclosure.

In the past few months, Robin and I have become increasingly friendly with a woman (I will call her “Mary”) who works at a coffee shop we sometimes visit. We have reached the point where we share bits of personal information: Mary has mentioned her husband, and I know how old she is and what kind of music she likes. One day when I was at the coffee shop alone, Mary commented that Robin and I seemed to be good friends and she asked how long we had known each other. My defensiveness kicked in; I defaulted to my “safe” response. I told her that Robin and I are very good friends and we’ve known each other for over 20 years. As the words were leaving my mouth, I already regretted them. While true in fact, my response was, in spirit, a lie. I vowed to correct it the next time I had a chance.

A few days later, Mary asked if Robin and I were roommates. I said “Yup,” not looking at her, instead staring down at my computer, typing frantically on my keyboard. I could see her peripherally; she was looking at me, apparently waiting for elaboration. I felt my face getting hot, my stomach knotting up, my whole being immersed in fear. I wished like nothing else that Robin were there, because she is so much braver than I am. She would have simply said “We’re married,” with no drama, no fear, no shame, and only minimal concern for how the information was received. I hated myself in that moment, and wished I’d never invited any familiar conversation with Mary; I hated lying and I hated betraying both myself and my beloved wife. I had committed to the truth but I disappointed myself. Mary broke the uncomfortable silence. She changed the subject and we chatted for a few more minutes, but I felt disconnected and dishonest. My only solace was weak and questionable: I knew that sooner or later, Robin would clean up my mess by sharing the truth with Mary.

Several days later, Robin came home, having gone to coffee with a friend. She told me she had seen Mary, and said, teasing me, “So. I hear we’re roommates?” Again, I felt ashamed. I told her that yes, I had let Mary believe that, and I felt bad about it. I launched into a string of justifications, all centered around my assumptions as to why Mary would not respond favorably to the truth. I felt a need to explain, to defend my response, to make it reasonable and logical. I was angry enough at myself for both of us, but Robin wasn’t upset. She was focused instead on what she had to tell me. She ignored my barrage of excuses and, in her typically understated manner, said, “Mary is transgender. Oh, and she asked me to ask you to ‘friend’ her on Facebook.”

I did not see that coming. It would not have been possible to be much further off in my assumptions about Mary. I saw her as a traditional, slightly trapped-in-the-past, straight-and-narrow kind of woman, but that description was much more appropriate for me than for her. Feeling like a spineless jerk, I was relieved by Mary’s request that I connect with her on Facebook; I saw that as an indication that she was not angry at me for lying to her. Even so, Mary and Robin had been truthful and trusting with each other, courageous in a way that I always intend to be, but achieve only slightly more often than not. I felt left out, morally inferior, desperate to redeem myself, wishing I could somehow rewind and fix the mistake I’d made – or at least find a less assumptive justification for it.

My first attempt at a new rationalization for my lies was to recall how long ago it was that I first came out, where I lived at the time (Arizona), and how hostile the environment was. There was a very real danger of physical violence, denial of adequate medical care, expulsion from school, loss of home, employment or membership in all variety of organizations, ostracization by family and friends, and on and on the list goes.... I comforted myself with the defense that the horrible past made it reasonable that I would still be overly cautious in a way that many younger people wouldn’t understand. But I had to stop myself when I acknowledged how that justification was inherently transphobic. It ignored the fact that gender-variant people currently endure oppression that is at least as bad, if not worse than, anything I ever faced in the past. By coming out as transgender to cisgender Robin – especially in the middle of her workplace – Mary was probably more courageous than Robin or I have ever had to be.# She came out to Robin as soon as Robin came out to her; that suggested to me that she was looking for connection with others who would welcome her as her true self. She was testing the waters, and I, in my old-school assessment, misread both her perspective and her intention. I unintentionally sent Mary the message that I was either unwilling to, or incapable of, establishing a safe and open connection where the sharing of our truths would be welcome. I could have broadened, however incrementally, the sphere of relative safety available to both myself and this young person just beginning to make her way in the world, saddled with arguably the most virulent and hateful brand of oppression that exists in this country today. Instead, out of cowardly habit, I frayed that new and tenuous connection. I was inclusive of neither myself nor Mary. I was not open or honest, and consequently deprived Mary of the invitation to safely be open and honest in my presence.

The tired-but-true cliché about the necessity of loving oneself before loving others could appropriately be adapted to this topic: if I do not – from a place of openness and authenticity – engage in chaotic, messy, unpredictable, sometimes painful, sometimes joyful sphere of human interdependence, I can’t possibly contribute to making that sphere safe and inclusive for anyone else. In the complicated LGBTQIA alphabet-soup community (a melting-pot of non-normative combinations of physical birth gender, gender identity and sexual orientation) there is a hierarchy of privilege and power that is a fractal-esque version of the broader, heteronormitave dominant cultural structure. As a white, cis, gay± woman, I am very close to the top of this sub-hierarchy, which affords me the privilege of being truthful about who I am at a lesser risk than for those lower down the ladder. It is my responsibility, then, to leverage that privilege. I can use it to help dismantle not just our shared oppression, but also the more toxic and complex oppression that Mary knows intimately, but which I have the privilege of knowing only from a safe distance. As a self-described compassionate and (relatively) aware human, passionate about promoting social justice, I owe it to those at greater risk than me to speak out for all of us whenever possible, if only to announce unapologetically that we are here, rightfully so, and deserving of the same dignity and respect as everyone else. I failed Mary in that respect. By avoiding a small risk, I passed the buck to her. She then had to choose to take a much greater risk than I would have had to, in order to transform our casual connection to one based on trust and acceptance. I failed myself, because I hid in fear instead of speaking my truth. I failed Robin because I evaded speaking the truth of our relationship and her significance to me.

Recognizing how my lack of honest self-disclosure affected others, I knew it was time to honestly confront my tendency to sacrifice the truth for the sake of (perceived) safety. I had to be brutally honest with myself; I have a reactive habit of abdicating my responsibility for taking every possible opportunity to snip another thread in the culturally-sanctioned shroud of silence around LGBTQIA identification and experience. But after I gained some perspective on my intentions, the motivation for my dishonesty and my resulting disconnection, something unexpected happened: the shame subsided. My disappointment with myself, my assumptive ruminations about Mary’s thoughts and attitudes about our exchange, and my frustration and powerlessness dissipated. Despite her young age, despite her lesser privilege, Mary was stronger, braver and ultimately, more empathic than I had been. It was obvious that my work in this situation was to be humble and learn by her example. So by taking responsibility for the ripple effect of my decisions on the world outside myself, and using Mary’s and Robin’s interaction as an example, I was able to extract myself from the quagmire of my own tired patterns, step back and objectively observe my habitual process. The broader view of my influence in the communal environment provided me with the motivation to own my mistake and seek growth that would make me less likely to repeat it.

I realized that I am not doomed to failure; I don’t have to continue reacting to my fear – it is a habit that I can unlearn, and there is a clear path towards reparation, towards how I want to be in the world and what I want to do. I want to be of service, and to shift my focus away from my own isolating fears (without denying or evading them). I want to contribute, in a real-world, practical way, to morphing this oppressive and dysfunctional society into one where nobody need feel afraid to be open and truthful about who they are. That vision feels so much more hopeful, constructive, strong and friendly than does self-absorbed fear. There is empowerment and possibility in the commitment to growth; I can fix my mistakes and re-forge broken connections, making them – and myself – more resilient and honest in the process.

But intention is not enough; true change requires action. So I apologized to Mary. She seemed perplexed at the beginning of our chat, saying that she understood my need to protect myself, and told me that she sometimes does that too. In spite of her gracious response – or maybe because of it – the conversation was uncomfortably scary for me; it required that I explain why I felt an apology was necessary by fully disclosing my process. I took a risk and moved into territory that was unfamiliar to me, accepting that I might dig myself in even deeper. I thought very deliberately about how to frame my words, hoping to convey that I wanted to pay a debt (to myself, to Mary, to the world at large) by directing my focus to the task of chipping away at the self-protective patterns and replacing them – as slowly and deliberately as necessary – with the willingness to be vulnerable, open and empathically present for communal life. I believe I made the right choice in apologizing; Mary subsequently shared with me more personal experience around the hostility she deals with on a frequent basis. I felt humbled and honored that she trusted me with this information, and happy that I could be a supportive witness to her constant struggle to be treated with dignity and respect.

This experience exposed some of my darker corners to the light. Throughout my life, I have sporadically worked on a variety of social justice causes, motivated mostly by anger at my own victimization. I desperately clung to unrealistic expectations of immediate societal change, but with no awareness that change might be required on my part. I would not have believed it to be true at the time, but most of the effort I put forth to “change the world for the better,” was primarily a self-serving struggle to bend the world to my will. My “empathy” for others ended at the same point as my ability to project my own feelings of victimization onto them. I invested heavily in the misguided perspective that a fair and just world would be one where everyone believed and valued the same things I did, I would never feel judged or shamed or be treated unfairly, and I would never be afraid to be myself. This unrealistic and resentment-fueled approach burned me out and left me disillusioned and cynical. I gave up, deciding change was hopeless, believing that the “bad guys” would always win and the rest of us would always be victims.

Over the years, therapy, yoga and Buddhist Vipassana practice have helped me change many of the habitual patterns and limiting beliefs that have insulated me from fear and vulnerability. These beliefs and patterns had a purpose long ago, but in my adult life have served only to cut me off from most of humanity, while simultaneously prompting me to feel abandoned, resentful and perplexed by my isolation. Buoyed up by my shifting awareness, I have begun to cautiously reconsider my cynically defeated attitude towards progressive efforts, and thought about re-committing myself to a variety of causes. I have painstakingly labored to bolster my confidence and sense of purpose so that I can re-enter the world of social justice work without feeling overwhelmed into silence and paralysis. I have newly dedicated myself to living my life from a perspective that honors empathic compassion, interdependent connections, a willingness to learn from others and change, and the courage to be vulnerable, own my mistakes and offer reparation when appropriate. I am just beginning to translate this new perspective into real-life responsiveness.

The process I went through in my interactions with Mary distressed me at first, but ultimately showed me that my work is paying off. I made mistakes; I reacted out of old patterns, closed myself off, and felt ashamed. But I eventually found my way. I finally got that it is neither necessary nor realistic to wait until I think I can do it all perfectly; that day will never come. I can step out into the world – not feeling ready, but at least willing – and accept that it will be messy sometimes. In spite of the risk, engagement is preferable to isolation and the ubiquitous shame and hopelessness that come from trying to protect myself from the inevitable challenges of life.
What I learned from this experience is nothing I didn’t know before. Rather, I became acutely aware of one of the critically important places where my emotional vulnerabilities and defenses still rule, and my instinct has not caught up with my practical knowledge. Mary and Robin gave me this gift, showing me where I still have considerable work to do. I am profoundly thankful for that.

I can’t promote change without being willing to be changed. To “be the change I want to see in the world,” I must constantly confront my own demons as they make themselves known. I can’t afford to cower in the hovels of ancient self-protective strategies that I built to hide from the very injustices I want to end. Internalized oppression thrives in the heart of my shadow and causes me to unintentionally oppress others. I have done a considerable amount of shadow work already, but it is never done. There will always be challenges accompanied by fear, frustration, discomfort and sometimes even pain or loss. But the payoff for accepting the challenge is liberation, and the ability to engage in what is, for me, a labor of love: a commitment to the practices of reaching out and engaging in partnership, and participating to the best of my ability in the collaborative endeavors that will make this world more equitable, safe, healthy and inclusive for everyone.

#  For those unfamiliar with the LGBTQIA+ community, it is important to know that gender-variant members of the community face considerable discrimination from gender-normative members. I am not aware of any supporting statistics, but it is my perception that, as a group, cisgender members of the LGBTQIA+ community are no less transphobic than cisgender heterosexuals.

±  My personal labeling preference is not the common one. For my self-identification, I prefer the term “gay” to “lesbian” for two reasons: 1) “Lesbian” is conspicuously Eurocentric, and therefore inclusive only of women of European descent. 2) “Lesbian” is most often used as a noun, whereas “gay” is most often used     as an adjective. Nouns define, adjectives describe. My sexual orientation is an attribute of my identity, not a definition of it.


Laura Sharkey began practicing yoga and Vipassana meditation about five years ago. Shortly after beginning her practice she was diagnosed with a debilitating chronic illness and has relied on her practice to help her manage the pain, fatigue and other challenges associated with her illness.

She recently completed a 200-hr yoga teacher training and plans to teach meditation and gentle movement to physically challenged students interested in the physical, emotional and cultural healing potential of dedicated asana and meditation practices. In addition to her standard yoga teacher training, she has attended classes focusing on yoga and social justice, and yoga from a trauma-informed perspective.

Much of Laura’s new awareness and motivation – reflected in “Internalized Oppression's Long Shadow“ – was gained through her participation in Off the Mat’s recent “Beyond Duality: Yoga and Social Justice” tele-course; she found the training to be transformational. Laura is passionate about serving the community by participating in social justice work and offering an opportunity to learn healing practices to students in underserved communities; she is committed to making contemplative practices accessible and welcoming to all, regardless of body size, physical ability, mental/emotional health, age, gender identity, sexual orientation, ethnicity and socioeconomic status.

She currently teaches a weekly meditation class at Heal One World, a non-profit dedicated to providing free/low-cost alternative treatment modalities and training in preventative self-care practices.

Five Not-so-easy Steps Toward Transformation from the Inside Out

Posted by Hala Khouri

I’ve wanted to change the world since I was ten years old.

It’s Christmas Eve, 1983, I have convinced my younger sister and two cousins that we must go on a hunger strike to protest the fact that we were discriminated against by the adults by having to sit at a kid’s table. We are all hiding in the downstairs playroom while three-year-old Nicole is instructed to sneak into the kitchen to bring us some cookies because we might just starve to death making a stand for equality and justice.

The story above is an illustration of my drive to make a stand against what I perceived to be wrong, unjust or unfair. That drive continued through my high school and college years and beyond. I loved a good fight. My causes ranged from women’s rights, animal cruelty, and racism, to education, sweatshops, and food production. My passion for my cause du jour was unparalleled. I fought a hard fight, and preached mercilessly at anyone who didn’t hold my same worldview. I was determined to make a difference; but often my fire burned me and those around me.

Although I did manage to do some good in those years, looking back I see that I probably repelled more people than I inspired; I probably burned more bridges than I built. The arrogant idea that I knew what was best for the world, was actually a defense against my own feelings of helpessness and anger. Of course I wanted to protect the voiceless and the powerless, because that was how I felt inside. Instead of confronting my own anger, I projected my anger onto the injustices of the world. My desire to “save the world” was really a cry to save myself.

Inequality, racism, environmental destruction, and corporate greed are very real. But if I am blinded by how those issues mirror my own issues, I will be ineffective at inspiring positive change.  Until we confront, deeply, our own wounds that are mirrored in the suffering around us, we will be immobilized or overreactive in our efforts to make a difference. Sometimes we will even do harm.

I am still committed to making the world a better place. I know my personal issues and I try to let them inspire and inform me rather than limit me. I am understanding more and more that there is no “us” and “them.” That divisiveness simply perpetuates pain and suffering. As I get more integrated within myself, as I accept my own shadow and my light, I am more able to see the world for what it is and show up with more compassion and humility. This is an ongoing process that will never end. We look inward, we look outward, then we look inward again…

Here’s what the process might look like

  1. Identify something about the state of the world that really bothers you.
  2. Notice how it feels in your body. Where is there tension, lack of feeling, emotions or images? Track the sensations and emotions for a few minutes. Stay with this, even if it’s uncomfortable.
  3. Do any memories arise as you stay with the sensations or emotions? How old do you feel? Allow the answers to come from your body. Write down whatever comes to you.
  4. Notice if the situation “out there” is a mirror for something going on inside of you—a past trauma or hurt.
  5. Here’s the not-so-easy step—deal with your stuff! Get some therapy, join the Program, start to journal and meditate. Do what it takes to tend to your wounds so that your work in the world is not an unconscious defense against acknowledging your own pain.

Now go back and do Step 1 again. This is a lifelong process, enjoy!