Many yoga teachers around the country have found themselves suddenly politicized and engaging in conversations that, for some, have not entered the yoga space before.
Today we're highlighting another awesome participant of our 2015 Global SEVA Challenge: Kenya...
... meet Donny Starkins of Scottsdale, Arizona! Having raised over $8,500 for this year's Challenge (which included proceeds from his popular Sunday Yoga Service Project), we caught up with Donny to ask about his inspiration:
"After attending OTM’s 5-day leadership training last summer in Minneapolis, the vision for Sunday Yoga Service was born. Those 5 days with Seane, Hala and Suzanne were life-changing for me. Seane’s words “How dare we not?” was a question that went straight to my heart. For me, it was “how dare I not share my story.” Those closest to me knew my story of addiction and that I live a sober life. But, many of my students and this large yoga platform we have here in Arizona did not. Therefore, that question lit a fire inside of me to share my story and connect it with OTM’s Seva Project. This has turned into a monthly community event we have at a beautiful resort in Scottsdale. In addition, I’ve been given the opportunity to travel and bring Sunday Yoga Service into other communities in California and Dallas. The opportunity to share my story, carry the message of OTM and the woman of Kenya has been one of the biggest gifts of my life. What used to bury me in guilt and shame (my past addiction) has become my biggest asset. This awakening was only possible because of the deep inner work we did at the leadership training. In order to be of service and transform the world, the process had to start within. This is what I learned. And, this is the message I now choose to carry. Thank you OTM for giving me a clear path!"
Thank YOU, Donny, for stepping into your truth and your voice. We couldn't be prouder!
Posted by Hala Khouri
Is voting an important part of being a yogi? It depends on how you define yoga, and why you practice yoga.
If you do yoga to try to get away from your problems, the daily grind and the world’s suffering, then you might argue against politics intruding in on your spiritual sanctuary. For many, the yoga mat offers solace from a world filled with chaos. It is a safe space away from the unpredictability and complexities of life.
I think that everyone who practices yoga gains from this aspect- the part of the practice that gives us pause and perspective; that teaches us to be still and quiet the stirrings of the mind. In fact, it is because yoga allows us to separate from our daily life so that we are able to heal and rejuvenate ourselves.
This, however, is only the first stage of the evolutionary journey of growth that yoga can provide. The second is the use of the resource of the breath and the body for introspection, self-observation and working through our tension and pain both emotionally and psychologically. As we move through our traumas and neurosis, we come out with better tools for navigating life. This includes our relationships and how we show up in them. These relationships include our family and friends, and extends out into our community, country, and world.
To only get away from the things that confront us, without actually processing those emotions and moving through them, is dissociation. To enjoy the sanctuary of the yoga practice without acknowledging the world around us, is denial.
If you do yoga, I ask you this question: why do you want to have a healthy body? Why do you want to calm your mind and be able to be more in touch with yourself? So you can sit on a mountaintop on your hemp meditation cushion holding mala beads? No, silly! So you can participate in your life more fully, right? So you can be present in your relationships, creative in your work, expressive with your words.
If your yoga practice is working, then you are getting more in touch with yourself, and are able to be present more of the time rather than obsessing about the future or the past. When we get more present, we cannot help but notice the web of life that we are a part of. We cannot help but become aware of the fact that we live in a society that is shaped and influenced by many things, one of them being political forces. If our yoga practice is helping us be more present and authentically engaged, then a natural extension of that is political awareness and participation.
If yogis aren’t supposed to be engaged politically, then who is? Who better to be involved with politics than people who have a personal practice that holds them accountable for themselves? Who better to engage in shaping policy than people cultivating a sense of connection and unity with everything. Who better, than you?
Posted by Hala Khouri
“There is no coming into consciousness without pain. People will do anything, no matter how absurd, in order to avoid facing their own soul. One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.” ~ CG Jung
I’ve always been a happy person. People always commented on how optimistic and bright I was. All that was true, well, mostly. Iwas happy, I was optimistic; yet my positivity was slightly manufactured. I was positive because I refused to feel the negative stuff. You see, I believed that “everything happens for a reason”, there is nothing “bad” because those things help us grow, and that I can create my own reality. I was positive because I had learned to bypass the negative, and that comes with at a price.
My senior year of collage I went through a difficult breakup. He had been my high school sweetheart. We broke up sitting in a park in downtown Manhattan. As I boarded the subway back uptown, I was in tears. Heartbroken. By the time I got to my stop at 116th street the tears were gone, and I had decided this happened for a reason and it was for the best. When my roommate asked me what happened, I told her that Al and I had broken up, but that I was fine because it was I had learned so much from the relationship and had grown from it. I didn’t shed one tear nor feel any sadness.
I did this with most difficult thins in my life- I like to call it “over-understanding.” I would try to figure out the lesson in something so that I wouldn’t have to feel the pain.
Five years later, I found myself sitting in a doctor’s office being told that I had cancer cells on my cervix. My mother burst into tears. Me, I looked at her and told her that this happened to teach me a lesson about my second chakra, and I was going to embrace it. Again, not one tear or acknowledgment of fear. I knew there was a lesson and I was going to be a good student and learn it so that I wouldn’t have to face this again. Yeah, right.
The price we pay
So what’s the price we pay for manufactured positivity? Well, if we refuse to feel the pain, fear, grief, heartbreak, anger or rage, those emotions are held hostage in the body and make our mind and emotions unstable. The shadow, as Jung called it, gets gagged and tied and put into a closet somewhere. And the less we acknowledge the scary stuff, the louder it bangs on the door of our psyche. If we don’t express ourselves and feel the feelings we can end up sick, disconnected, unable to have true intimacy, etc.
For me, yoga is a practice of sitting with discomfort and breathing through it. On the other side of sitting with this, is more freedom. Don’t get me wrong, I spent years doing yoga without sitting with my discomfort- I was simply focused on getting the poses exactly right. One day a teacher was inviting us to try to lift our supporting hand off the floor in half moon pose. He walked over to me and said, “try it, you won’t hurt yourself if you fall.” I realized that I wasn’t afraid to fall, I wasn’t trying it because I was afraid of doing it imperfectly. My perfectionism was keeping me from taking risks; it was also keeping me from having to be present because all I focused on was how I could make the pose better. My habits on my mat revealed to me my habits off my mat.
As my practice matured, it got simpler, and I got more present in my body and in the moment. As I learned to tolerate discomfort (and imperfection), I got present to the ways in which I’m limiting myself by needing to always seem so happy, perky and put together. I began to feel my anger, rage, sadness, sensuality and fabulousness. (The shadow is not all bad stuff by the way- it’s anything we’re afraid to acknowledge).
I’ve gotten way better at sitting with discomfort. As a therapist, it’s one of the most important things I can do for my clients- bear witness to their pain without rushing to take it away. As a parent, I’ve found that if I can sit with my kids’ discomfort for a moment or two they will more quickly pass through tantrums and upsets because I’m not rushing them out of their experience or trying to tell them that they shouldn’t have it.
During the birth of my second son, I watched my old habits come back at the point where things got very intense. Here’s a somewhat graphic synopsis:
I’m squatting in my living room starting to push. Since I had done this before, I was overconfident. My first birth was “easy” as far as births go, so I assumed that number two would be even easier. I wasn’t anticipating that he would be a pound-and-a-half bigger- that makes a difference, let me assure you. As I’m doing the final pushes and feeling like I’m going to be ripped in half, I start to get scared. Maybe I can’t do this, I think to myself. To cope with the pain, I start to imagine the tranquil women giving birth in a water birth video, and I imagine holding my baby in my arms, I start to breath deeply…. But each time I do that, I feel the baby slip back up the birth canal.
My midwife catches it, “No more deep breathing Hala,“ she says, “ you have to bear down and push as hard as you can, and I need you to go here, “ she points to the part of me that feels like it’s literally on fire. This was the part I was trying to avoid with my daydreams.
Shit, I think to myself. I know that if I don’t go there, to the most painful place in my body, I will not be able to get my baby out. I remember all that I’ve learned in my life about bypass, and knew I was at a crossroads. If I didn’t go directly to the place that scared me the most, I would have complications and have to go to the hospital. I knew that going right into the fear would be the quickest way to get my baby. So I shut down the old survival mechanism, bore down, and in three pushes had my precious baby.
Whenever we are birthing anything, we face death: death of who we were, death of old belief systems, death of old habits. It’s never easy, but when we avoid the pain, we avoid the joy and bliss as well. Embracing our shadow is about embracing life, vitality, joy and happiness.
I think that many of us suffer because of the habits we have that keep us from feeling our deepest discomforts. Habits like drinking, drugs, over-eating, numbing out with TV, co-dependent relationships, etc. Trying to avoid pain is at the root of all addiction. Yet the addiction has all these terrible side effects. Even the side effects seem to be more tolerable that the thing we’re avoiding; yet the more we avoid that monster all bound up in our closet, the bigger it becomes. Or so we think.
What I’ve learned through decades of personal work and years of being a counselor is that the thing that we’re avoiding is usually not going to destroy us. But our addictions might. Allowing ourselves to feel our sadness, grief, anger or rage can liberate us from the prison of avoidance. When we’re no longer trying to avoid ourselves, then we are truly free!
*If you or someone you care about is pregnant, check out my new pre natal yoga DVD- Radiant Pregnancy. Purchase here
*if you want some tools for working with unexpressed feelings please check out my Yoga for Stress Reduction DVD. Purchase here
Posted by Hala Khouri
My name is Hala. I am a yoga teacher. I am co-dependent and needy.
I had to admit this to myself in order to grow as a teacher and step into an authentic leadership role.
If you are a teacher of any kind, you have to do this too.
You see, I wasn’t a cool kid. I had frizzy hair, a strange name (no “Hala” is not a spiritual name I picked up in my 20’s—it’s a Lebanese name that I dreamed of changing, to Julianna or Irene, for most of my adolescence) and I never fit in.
When I started teaching, it was the first time I felt really accepted by a large group of people. For a long time, I unconsciously got my need to feel accepted and liked met by my students. When I realized that my inner 12 year old was (partially) motivating me to teach, I had to examine it, unpack it and tend to the part of me that was in a lot of pain.
It is a particular type of person who wants to become a yoga teacher; not everyone is interested in standing up in front of a group of strangers and telling them what to do with their bodies and their breath. Not everyone is interested in being a teacher or a healer.
Yet, for many of us who teach, we can’t imagine anything more fulfilling.
I’ve been training yoga teachers for over a decade now and I have seen that many of us have similar life experiences and issues that motivate us to teach.
Here are some of the common themes I have noticed in people interested in being yoga teachers—see if any of them relate to you (or your yoga teacher):
1. We had a parent that suffered from depression or mental illness; as a result we can be extremely empathetic and attuned to others, sometimes to a fault.
A child with an unavailable or unpredictable parent had to learn to tune into their parent in order to assess if their environment was safe or if their needs were going to be met.
As a result of that, we develop a keen sense of tuning into the mood and state of others, often at the expense of being tuned into ourselves. As teachers, our students often feel that we are speaking directly to them in a group class, or that we are intuitive about what others are going through.
It comes naturally to us to empathize and want to meet the needs of others. It does not, however, come naturally for us to ask for what we need.
2. Felt like they didn’t belong as children or adolescents and have a need to feel seen by others in a positive light.
Yoga teachers get to be the popular kid. Our students listen to us, like us, and often idealize us. This feeds the part of us that didn’t get that type of mirroring in our youth.
We are good at getting others to like us, but if our teaching is motivated by our need to be liked, we might limit some important lessons that our students need which may make them uncomfortable.
3. We can have a hard time setting boundaries and get overly invested in wanting to help others.
This is probably due to #1.
You see, if my inner child didn’t have her needs met by mommy or daddy, I’m going to seek out people who have similar limitations/dysfunctions and try to fix them so that I can feel in control. Since I’m so good at tuning into someone’s pain, those people feel comfortable opening up to me because they feel seen by me.
I feel good because I’m they respond to me and listen to me (unlike my parent).
4. We need validation from others and will go to great lengths to ensure that others like us and even idealize us.
For those of us who really didn’t get much positive regard from our parents, we might become they type of teacher that thrives on the attention and adoration of our students.
We will also do whatever we can to make sure that no one questions us or sees our shadow side. We’ve all seen these folks—they’re charismatic, charming and often totally narcissistic.
They may claim to be above everyone, and somehow have transcended normal human challenges, they may subtly shame students in order to maintain a sense of power over them, some even claim to possess secret powers and abilities.
You may have other issues other than the one’s above, but in my decades of doing therapy, yoga trainings and transformational work, I have learned one important thing: our wounds are often the source of our gifts, and if we don’t investigate our wounds, they will get in the way.
This is true for any profession, but particularly important for those who hold space for others to be vulnerable. It is our responsibility to do our personal work, otherwise, we can cause harm to those who are trusting us with their bodies, minds and hearts.
We all have a shadow side; no one is exempt from pain or trauma.
I love teaching yoga, and I have spent a lot of time tending to my own wounds so that they don’t get in the way of my teaching. This work is never ending and I’m constantly having to see my own blind spots, biases, limitations and fears.
Each time I courageously face these parts of myself that I’d rather stuff into a closet, I find that my ability to hold space for others gets stronger, and I’m able to see others for who they are without judgment.
If you teach yoga or hold space for others in any way, it is vital that you have a space that someone else is holding for you—a space where you get vulnerable and are seen; a space where you are held accountable and get nurtured in a compassionate way; a space where you can shed the teacher role and receive.
This way you can be empathetic not enmeshed, supportive not diminishing, empowered rather than oppressive and compassionate rather than needy.
Posted by Hala Khouri
You know your yoga practice is working when your life gets better, not when your yoga gets better.
You know who I’m talking about.
Maybe this was you; maybe this is you. The mala bead wearing, namaste talkin’, slightly arrogant, super neurotic, I-never-eat-meat-refined-flour-or-non-organic-food, type.
The person who looks down on anyone who doesn’t do yoga, isn’t vegan, has “negative energy” or has a corporate job.
I know this person because this person was me.
When I lived in New York City, I would pause when I walked by a McDonald’s and pray for the people inside. I prayed that they would find enlightenment and stop eating such low quality food made with tortured animals and additives.
Then I would walk off, feeling better than everyone and very satisfied with myself.
You see, yogis don’t overtly judge—we cover it up in spiritual guise.
I practiced yoga religiously, I was a vegetarian, I had mantras memorized, I’d been to India and could get both feet behind my head. Meanwhile, I was stuck in a codependent relationship, addicted to sugar and in a constant battle with a core belief that I wasn’t enough.
For me, yoga is a tool for self-awareness. When we are self-aware, we can cultivate compassion.
Compassion for ourselves is where it starts; if we don’t have that, we’re destined to idealize or demonize others. Yoga teaches me to remain grounded in the moments when I want to be reactive.
My yoga practice has forced me to face my inner critic and start to let go of my perfectionist (who believes that I only deserve love if I’m perfect). If I think that I need to be perfect to be worthy of happiness, then I will subconsciously be thrilled when I see others being imperfect (like the folks eating Mc-y- D’s, or someone doing an improper chatturanga), for this gives my flailing self-esteem a fleeting boost.
Back when I used yoga as a whip with which to beat myself, I was drawn to more punitive teachers who made me feel worthless and want to strive for their approval. I wanted to master the inner spiral, and the rooting of the big toe while doing perfect Ujayi breathing and staring at a drishti.
As I started to get wiser and see that perfectionism is a dead end road, I started making different choices. My practice turned into an opportunity to love and accept myself exactly as I was in that moment (that concept would have made me throw up in my mouth previously).
Today I know this: the purpose of discipline is to create more freedom. If your discipline just leads to more discipline, it ain’t workin’ baby! I knew my sugar addiction was cured, not when I stopped eating sugar, but when I could have one or two pieces of chocolate without inhaling the entire bar and then going for another one while drowning in my own shame.
If you are like I was, and you’re imprisoned by a quest to be the perfect yogi, ask yourself this question,”What am I afraid would happen if I let go a little? What am I trying so hard to control?”
I am not suggesting that discipline is bad; in fact, it’s necessary.
As a step towards freedom.
I don’t look back on my years of discipline and think I did the wrong thing; I just see now that I was mistaking the boat for the shore. I know my yoga is working because I’m happier. My relationships are healthy, I don’t have a voice in my head all the time telling me that I’m worthless.
I can’t get my feet behind my head anymore, I don’t do full splits or balance in handstand, and I have a slightly pudgy belly. And I’m happy! Not perfect—I have a lot more to learn and I’m okay with that.
Next time you’re on your mat, ask yourself this question, “Who am I being right now?”
Many years ago I was in a very packed, sweaty, vinyasa flow class filled with overachievers. At one point the teacher said to us, “So you can do all this fancy yoga, but does anyone want to hang out with you?”