social justice

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!

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 !

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

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.

Are We Ready to Really Live by Our Deepest Values?

 Posted by Hala Khouri

A week ago I moderated a panel discussion on corporate responsibility and yogic values at Yoga Journal LIVE! NYC. The panel included leadership from Lululemon Athletica (including the new CEO Laurent Potdevin) as well as bloggers and yoga teachers who have been critical of the company. This has begun a conversationamong yoga practitioners that I think is very important.

Panelists and audience members at The Practice of Leadership shared their concern that Lululemon does not operate according to yogic values, and thus is not a true reflection of the yoga community. Many expressed their opinion that Lululemon should change its marketing and production practices to be more inclusive and have more integrity.

I want to break down these arguments.

I’ll start by sharing who I am, which inevitably informs my perspective. I am a mother of multi-cultural children, a trauma therapist, co-founder of Off the Mat Into the World, a yoga teacher, a Lebanese immigrant, straight, able-bodied, educated and white (white is an ambiguous term that typically refers to people of European descent, so some would argue that I’m not white, but I pass as white and thus receive benefits from my skin color).

Who are we referring to when we say “yoga community”?

The way I see it,  Lululemon,  Yoga Journal, and most mainstream yoga studios, operate from the belief that the “yoga community” is mostly made up of upper/middle class, white, heterosexual, able-bodied, slim women. This is the audience they appear to cater to.Yet there are lots of other people doing yoga out there who may never walk into a mainstream studio, Lululemon store, or purchase a copy of Yoga Journal. I’m talking about people of color, poor people, people who are incarcerated, veterans, fat people, disabled people, queer and transgender people, old people, etc.  And this is one of the problems with talking about a “yoga community”: There is not just one community of people all connected through their love of yoga.  In fact, I believe that this lack of cohesion is, sadly, a reflection of the larger divide that exists in our society—there is the community of privilege, and then there is everyone else.

If yoga means union, then we should not allow ourselves to be a reflection of the divide that exists in world at large. If we strive for greater consciousness, we should think critically about whom we see as included in our community—and whom we don’t. I know that some yogis are now thinking to themselves, “But everyone is welcome at our studio, no one is turned away!” And I’d say: This is a sweet, yet naive sentiment. Not rejecting people is not the same as actively creating spaces that invite everyone, and where everyone feels included.

This is where corporate responsibility and marketing comes in.

Do companies such as Lululemon and Yoga Journal have a responsibility to market yoga differently?

Lululemon is a multi-million-dollar company, with incredible visibility (254 stores worldwide and growing). Yoga Journal sells more than 300,000 magazines a year and is seen by millions.  Because these companies are so visible, they play a significant role in shaping the cultural image of what yoga is. So when these companies portray yogis as white, able bodied, and slim, they definitely send a message about who yoga is for. This message is so strong that Leslie Booker, and African American yoga and mindfulness teacher, says that in every class she teaches to youth of color, she has to convince them that yoga is not just for white people. I’m always surprised when someone tells me that they couldn’t ever do yoga because they’re not flexible enough, as if that were a prerequisite. We’re scaring away people who could use yoga the most!

What is the consumer’s responsibility here?

Corporations are fed by consumer dollars. We can’t complain about their marketing practices without acknowledging that we’ve been feeding the mouth of the beast that we are now fighting. Profit-driven companies will inevitably respond to consumer demand, so as we ask them to change their ways, we must also change ours. There is a segment of the yoga community (and now I am using the phrase to include the community of everyone who does yoga) that lives by yogic values, and put their dollars where their values are. But there are a large number of people who do yoga who have not yet connected their practice on their mat to the rest of their lives.

This is the challenge we’re tasked with.

If we are to transform the yoga community to a yoga movement, which is what I believe is called for, we have to find a way to engage in a conversation about what yogis value and how we can live those values in all aspects of our life. It’s easy to have this conversation with others with the same values, but how do we engage with those who don’t feel the calling to be part of this movement? How do we engage everyone who loves yoga, our true yoga community, in a way that is respectful to all points of view?

Privilege is real, and must be checked; but the truth is, the average mainstream yogi is swimming in an ocean of unacknowledged privilege. I know because that has been my process. I fit the mainstream yoga ideals in many ways (slim, white skinned, educated, and flexible). I’ve spent the last 15 years of my life unpacking my privilege (as well as the ways in which I don’t have it). Each time I think I’m aware, I find a new blind spot, it can be as small as little as realizing that band aids match my skin but not dark skin, or as big as taking for granted that I’m never going to be judged by my skin color or gender identity.

How it can be different.

My vision is that the face of yoga includes everyone; that yoga does not appear—in advertising, in magazines, in the branding and marketing to a target audience, even in our own assumptions about it—to be an elite practice for a select few. Instead I want to see yoga portrayed and celebrated as something that everyone can benefit from.  In order for this to happen people who do yoga need to actively stand together. We need to use our voices, our purchasing power, our patience, our ability to stay grounded and have difficult conversations, our passion, and our dedication to strive toward letting all aspects of our life reflect our practice.

Carol Horton, who was on the panel, wrote a great piece about the possibility of creating a new paradigm around corporate practices. She offers some compelling solutions having to do with marketing, production, community building, and staff training.

What does this mean for you?

If you do yoga, and want your practice, and all aspects of your life, to reflect your deeper values, consider these questions:

Where in your life are you not making choices that are in alignment with what you value?

What would you need to give up or change in order change this?

Are you willing to sacrifice some of your privileges in order to live with more integrity?

What is one thing you can do right now to move toward this?