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Where do we go from here?

You know, I feel I’ve been writing an awful lot but it hasn’t be here. And it’s time to connect what I’m exploring with who I am, which is what I believe this blog to be. Me, in words.

Whenever I travel, I meet people who are above me and below me on the social totem pole. I meet people who have more and less than me, who understand more or less than me, who feel more or less the same way that I do. It’s a new experience on this trip to San Antonio that I look forward to the responses of others, the interactions of others, to shed light on and make sense of the life I live. For a long time I lived ignorantly in the reality that I already knew all that I needed to know. That I was always right. That I could trust myself, and perhaps no one else. While the latter statement may still be true, the others have met their demise. I have risen out of my graduate program (as I hope many others do) realizing that I know nothing. That I am rarely “right.” That I have so much more to learn that I cannot possibly learn in one lifetime. In fact, I have come to believe that the most dangerous people on Earth are those who believe they have nothing left to learn. Those who believe that they have all the answers.

Particularly in light of the past week and “he who shall not be named” (a fond title I borrow from a past lecturer), we confront a reality that I have not yet know within my lifetime. One of explicit racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, ageism, and simple injustice. And yet, I feel surrounded by hundreds, thousands, even millions of Americans who are likeminded in their beliefs, values and compassion for all others. This weekend, at a Global Religions conference in San Antonio, TX, I leave not necessarily optimistic, but hopeful. And I understand that although the state of our world is in peril, that we are in good company. I was reminded by fellow yogis that relying solely on our intellect will surely kill us (from the inside, out). Living in a linear world of “this, then this, then this,” shows us the way to self-destruction and climate debacle. While living in a world of intuition, of feeling, of compassion, even of fantasy – of heart and consciousness – allows us to live happily (not ignorantly) but positively contributing to a society we can never save, but still save ourselves. This way isn’t isolationist, in fact it’s quite the opposite; it’s all embracing.

I gladly take on those who tell me I live in a fantasy world, that “when I grow up” and shake off my rose tainted glasses, I will see how foolish I was all these years. To them, I can only say that I hope to God (whomever she may be) that this is never the case. That I believe the only contribution I can give to the world is my ability to see beyond the struggle. To offer hope, and love and compassion, even in our darkest days. And if the horrors are all true, if we are facing a decline in civility of humanity, bring it on. Because I know that, until the day I die, I will stand in my truth – which only means that I am full of love. And I will love everyone I can wrap my arms around as long as I am able. Why? Because what service is there in doing anything else? Hate, violence, skepticism, doubt, and fear are only signs there is more work to be done inside. And once we figure out our own selves, work our own shit out, through yoga – learn to love the face, the body, the being we see in our reflection in the mirror – then and only then can we move forth and see the beauty in the outside world, in Nature (most fully) and see all others as this same absence or fulfillment of love.

Start by confronting those feelings and thoughts inside that you don’t want to deal with. This is our work. Our “dharma” in Eastern tradition, our purpose. This is our work. And, it is work. It takes months, even years to face. But know that when we raise out of this hell (which may in fact be the “hell” referenced in Christian Scripture) there is only joy, praise, love and heaven on earth. Seek community in yoga, in Buddhism, in Christianity, in business partners, or whatever your community might be. Seek community and know you are not alone.

If you ask me: Are you religious? I am not. If you ask me: Are you spiritual? I am. If you ask me (as many have) under what lineage? I say: many. I see the truth in every system of beliefs. And to those I may not yet fully understand, I embrace with welcome inquiry. I want to understand. There is not a single person on Earth who does not live and die with the same aspirations for love, prosperity, family, and kinship as his/her neighbor. Only cultural ideals and misinformation divide us. Don’t confront your enemy with hate but kill them with kindness. I have no regrets living this way. And intend to continue living the same. Because, I can’t see any other way.

Love, love, love.

A

The Ungrateful Prom Queen

I’ve spent a lot of my life trying to be someone I wasn’t. And, what’s worse, I didn’t even know I could be anything other than what I thought I was. I didn’t know I could be happier, but I felt like I could – and I should. My stress level was out of control, trying to be someone that not only met, but consistently exceeded others’ expectations. At first it felt like I was doing well accidentally (winning awards, getting straight A’s, and surrounded by friends) but eventually it became harder to maintain a record of excellence. But, this was my identity. I pushed through. Vulnerability isn’t “cool” in any setting and I didn’t want to appear weak or incapable. No one wants to hear, “I can’t handle/don’t want to take this on.” There is a reputation to uphold, grades to get, positions to win.

I was Prom Queen. Did you know that? However, I was also Class President the same year, which made me also” Chief Prom Planner.” Unlike most girls my age, I dreamed of watching the moment I was creating for the King and Queen play out; from their crowns, to their walkway, slow dance and even the variety of roses for the Queen’s bouquet. I never dreamed of being the one on the dance floor, the one receiving the crown and bouquet. The moment was beyond surreal. And, in the end, I felt somehow disappointed. I never had my moment of pride for creating the perfect moment for others. My own strange dream, or vision of what “would” happen never happened. And, somehow, I haven’t been able to feel good about that title ever since.

It’s funny and eerie, the amount of control the brain has in navigating our lives. Connotations, or neuro-pathways, reinforce our initial impression which is based on the “story” we ourselves have created. Soon enough, we create a narrative around our increasing sense of reality or opinion on a certain issue. (Political parties, for example, representing our personal narrative of what is “right” and “true”.) The stronger the neuro-pathway, the easier this idea or thought comes to the front of our minds, automatically assimilated into our personal narrative and view of reality. We can give conscious awareness to break a certain thought pattern, or perhaps a new stronger neuro-pathway of opposing view emerges from self-study, or education. Our emotional reality and even material reality (where/when/why we take action) is dictated by our inherently formed thought patterns.

Prom Queen = shame, embarrassment, undeserving. This is one of many possible realities.

This moment has passed along with many others like it. I could have been more malleable, more open, more willing to participate with, rather than against, the unfolding events before me. I could have enjoyed, thrived, allowed myself to fill with joy, awe and gratitude; but I didn’t.

So next time, I decided, I’m going to be ready.

Well, next time is now.

In an incredibly serendipitous series of events and countless misfortunes along the way, I have found myself with an amazingly compassionate and lovable pitbull – and a yoga studio…In Florida. That’s: I have a yoga studio in Florida.

After ten years in Boston and LA combined, I am back at “home” with my parents living in North Port, FL where the air is clean, the water is warm and the yoga is damn good. I’m bringing LA love and Northeast academia to SW Florida to bring traditional yoga to the people. It’s such a gift, despite any sacrifices along the way. My journey is just beginning. And, it’s my job (in yoga) to recognize that.

There is an opportunity to be grateful in every moment, not just the momentous ones. Regardless of how much you have or how much you’ve received in life, our mental wellness or self-regulation dictates our attainment of happiness. The oh-so-elusive purpose, light and self-compassion that drives every person forward can be found and maintained through practiced awareness cultivated through yoga practice.

Perhaps my “Ah-ha” moment was the idea that I could ever be unhappy in the face of magnificence. I needed to find out why and how I could find more value in every experience in my life. A journey in yoga ensued and I haven’t looked back.

Happiness isn’t in the yoga. It’s in the ability for a person to forgive themselves. To love, challenge and care for themselves. And, to learn to love all others.

I’m proud and privileged to commit to working toward this sense of discovery full-time. It’s a dream. I hear my heart say: Be present. Rejoice. The universe hears all that sh*t you’re throwing out there. Just be. Be happy.

Go easy on yourself. And know that others – even the seemingly “perfect” out there – are going through a similar process. We all just want to be in community, accepted just the way we are. Start with yourself (= meditation, yoga, self-care) and the rest will come.

Woo! Exhausted and exhilarated. So grateful for all those who have supported and stood by me along the way. The journey continues at North Port Yoga

 

xo Love,

Amy

Recovery through Ritual

This past Monday, I finished a cross-country adventure with my dog, Shakti, in a very solid 6 days, 5 nights.

The decision was only slightly less of a shock to me than it was to close friends and family. I needed a change. I saw myself slipping into unhealthy patterns. Following the nurturing replenishment of family and friends in my hometown, I allowed myself to consider and prioritize my own needs. To do this, my ego needs to step aside. Sadly, this has meant leaving behind relationships that I had come to cherish, that nourished me. Sacrifices are made when we endure change. And, I’ve learned, we can’t always know that the outcome is worth the struggle. But when we make a decision with our own best interests at heart, I believe you can’t go wrong. With this blind trust, with myself and Shakti in mind, we have arrived in Florida. We are home.

Packing up my apartment in Los Angeles and venturing across the country has reminded me of an important and enduring aspect of yoga tradition that I have found useful in my own life. When everything is turbulent and it’s impossible to see to the other side, or during a period of calm, in the eye of the storm, consistency of practice – or rituals – endure and cultivate grounding. Despite the whirling winds and monsoon rains that welcomed us on the final stint of our journey, breath stilled my mind and subtle reminders kept me present and grounded.

I mean this literally, that deep breaths seemed to arise from my chest and mouth even before I consciously recognized a potential threat. Breathing through it in this way, occasionally glancing down at the mala wrapped around my wrist, or switching over to mantra music when I felt my nerves were creeping too high, I strived to maintain balance and equilibrium (mentally and physiologically) with effortless intention.

I think of these as “passive rituals,” material items or bodily techniques (i.e. asana, pranayama) that are consistent and instigate a particular notion of familiarity, grounding, contentment, or peace. Like psychological triggers using symbolism, mundane objects or physical techniques can have a positive affect on our mental and physiological being regardless of personal perceived connotation. Assimilating traditional Eastern symbolism into my daily life – or whenever I choose to refer to the item or repeat the task – has proven to maintain contentment, calm and determined vigor whenever needed, even and especially in moments of crisis. As I told my parents while gripping my mala in post-hurricane storms in Florida, “I’ll be there soon, come hell or high water!”

As I settle in to my new temporary home at my parent’s house, I am also reminded of deliberate or “active rituals.” The day following my arrival, a process of settling in began. Unpacking the first items from my car, I hung Tibetan prayer flags reading “Om mani padme om,” a traditional mantra honoring and emphasizing the importance of devotional practice, along the top of a hutch in the kitchen. A subtle but poignant reminder of my intention to cultivate peace and tranquility any place I reside.

That evening, I burned sage stored inside my brass singing bowl from India, atop the nightstand in my new room. I stored my mala, recently bought from a holistic yoga studio in Berkeley, where a great friend from school now works, in a dish by the door along with several gems and other jewelry to remind me of the beauty in stillness and the strength of my roots. I keep an affirmation card from my dear cousin reading, “I am wise. I seek answers within myself,” in a visible place in the corner of the room. Running out in the rain to steal back my bolster (large pillow) from the car, I look forward to re-kindling a daily mediation practice with the help and encouragement of these symbolic reminders. I sit atop my bolster during my morning coffee and bring it into a quiet space to sit comfortably in meditation, allowing my knees to fall below my hips supporting my lower back. All of these are either active or passive rituals representing my intentions and motivating my endurance in an effort of blind trust that everything will be okay.

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While “passive rituals” include objects we might see or activate with subtle or sub-conscious awareness, “active rituals” encompass any process during which we set a conscious intention. This may be as simple as lighting a candle, burning incense, lighting sage, sitting in silence, listening to mantra music, or even writing thank you note’s or calling a dear friend who may benefit from your active attention. There are no limits to what can be conceived in these moments, cultivating creativity, focus, compassion and peace.

For the first time in my life, I’m not sure where I’m headed. But I whole-heartedly know (despite my nagging ego) that the journey is worth enduring, that it is worth the sacrifice, and that all I have to gain is more than I can presently imagine.

I’ve learned in truth that if you can imagine it, you can have it. Doors open when we set genuine intentions for ourselves. I never bought into this psychological logic more than now. Anyone can have anything they can put their mind to, because anything we can dream has the power to be gradually cultivated through conscious awareness, endurance and self-compassion. With the creation and proliferation of new thought patterns, it becomes easy to see how the object(s) of our desires are attainable through opportunities and options we may not have considered before.

I know there are many I cherish in my life right now who are enduring a process of healing from loss, betrayal, deception, or hurt. I besiege us all to remember that everything is impermanent. Nothing is forever. Periods of pain will subside, and ultimately the only guarantee is that our lives are what we make them.

So much love to those enduring loss. I send daily love your way. Slowly, slowly I too am recovering through ritual.

In the future, I plan to share a post on “yoga for healing” encompassing the physiological significance of specific asana and pranayama practices that provide a tangible method for processing and relinquishing grief, loss, and other forms of residual trauma.

Enduring love. Namaste,

Amy

 


 

Mantra Music to inspire:

 

On being REAL

This week, my work is in the height of its expansion – breaking through a concrete wall on the South side of the building to create new work stations for employees working on a highly confidential project. As a result, there is no parking, no air conditioning, increased noise level, and low morale.

Is there ever a better time to practice yoga?

Yet, a lot of people seem surprised when I share that my own practice nowdays doesn’t always contain asana postures. In fact, finding myself in an unfortunate conglomerate of transitional life circumstances, asana is the last thing my body or mind feels fit to undertake. And that’s okay. Here lies my yoga: non-judgement during my own process of flux, transition, and hardship, and instead a self-awareness of what I do need. Be it rest, time with friends, or a glass of wine – it is all okay. Part of yoga, as we know, is being compassionate and empathetic toward your neighbor, particularly during times of hardship. This same rule applies to yourself. Forgiveness and understanding can reduce and virtually eradicate stress.

Today I was three hours late to work. I overslept my alarm, tried to anticipate but miscalculated my boss’ needs, and had to bring my pup to doggy care to allow myself the time to make up the additional hours at the end of the day. At one time in my life (not too long ago), I would have experienced physical pain in my chest, a headache, nausea, and perhaps even hyperventilated over my inability to meet my employers’ expectations. My identity was absorbed in others’ view of me, particularly that of my employer. But not anymore.

For better or worse, I’ve undergone a transformative process through yoga by erasing and re-scripting my personal narrative to one of understanding, of self-care, and of compassion. There’s still work to be done to adopt unconditional self-love (I too have my days…), and carry this understanding into all aspects of my life. But I will say, I no longer have anxiety attacks and it’s not the meds (because I’ve tried those too). Rather, it was my willingness time and time again to stop and say: What will really happen if I do this? What is the worst case scenario? And I was surprised to see time and time again, that the thing I feared the most was others’ opinions of me. Yet, they had no idea who I really was or where this decision was coming from. Trusting myself to make the best decisions for me and remaining open-minded to criticism, communicative with all parties, and transparent about my intent – I’ve found that the worst case scenario rarely comes true. And, if it does, I know in my heart that I did the best I could, and we can’t please everyone in this life.

Nina Simone  (featured above) says in a song, something like, “If we spend our lives trying to please everyone, we’ll die still trying.” Putting ourselves first in daily decision making is something I feel strongly about. Because only you know where you’re at, and only you have to live with the consequences. Go easy, be compassionate with yourself, and you’ll find the same compassion and caring – with practice – translates into everything you do.

I also feel the need to say: Please feel for your friends and for yourself when you confront one of those rare, but severely disruptive challenges in your/their life. “Coming out of numbness,” as I’ve previously referred to it, is a slow process of untangling the psyche from self-absorption. During trauma our psychology is innately bound by the need to survive the casualty at hand (at least this is how our body and nervous system registers drastic change); and thereby we are likely to find ourselves at a loss for the usual social aptitude or casual lightness that she/he may have previously enjoyed.

When trauma or crisis occurs, we go into survival mode. Parts of our brain that are unnecessary for our survival shut down and those that are most pertinent go into hyper-productivity mode. Meeting my own needs and those of others I directly care for (children, pets, elders) is my top priority. Recognizing social signals and norms to protect the feelings of others, emotional intelligence in an external sense, aside from recognizing signs of danger through hyper-vigilance are not necessary for survival. This is when you might notice a friend has “changed” or gone off their rocker. Nurturing, love, patience and forgiveness heals all. Judgement, condemnation, or agitation causes separation and hurt. There is a method to the madness, and time does heal all. But it’s not always so clear when you’re the one stuck in a fog.

Forgive, forgive, forgive and your life will be so much richer. Forgive yourself, forgive others, and strive to understand your enemy. Then, and only then, are you on a path of yoga.

Easier said than done, but it starts with your relationship with you. I’m still working on mine. Knowing my boundaries and recognizing my flaws without internalizing them to a point of pain or self-destruction. Acknowledgement without internalization. Awareness without judgement. We’re here to learn and grow. Don’t stand in the way of your own process.

This is a valid reflection of my own process over the past several months and as I continue to re-find myself as an individual, a woman, a professional, a yogi, a friend, a sister, a daughter. There is room for growth in every role we play, but ultimately we should strive to be the same throughout. To have the same light shine and to let our flaws show true so we may learn from them, grow from them, and leave them behind – as a snake sheds its skin. I look forward to the day when I can finally show my true colors again. Until then, I am an eager slave to my own process, to an understanding of my and others evolution as painful and unpredictable; however, impermanent.

This too shall pass. Stay with it, stay with yourself, stay with me.

So much love,

Amy

 

Coming out of numbness

Coming out of numbness. What the fuck does that even mean? When we go through a period of intense emotional exertion and purging, our bodies and minds need time to recover. I won’t cite a text in support, but can tell you from a series of traumatic life-altering impulsive decisions passed, and from my current emerging circumstance, that loss and grief are real. It’s numbing. And surprisingly it’s noticeable; but only to those closest to you (and even this might surprise you).

Just because you’re a yogi doesn’t mean you don’t have hiccups (figuratively or literally). I make a lot of mistakes. I look back on my day and wonder if I came off differently than I intended. I’m insecure and cautious. But, being a yogi means that I walk through my day knowing that at the bottom of it all, there is a net to catch me. That I am someone who is just as important (and equally insignificant) as every other human being. I am valuable, I have a contribution to make. It’s a foundation in my heart that goes beyond friends and families, and formalities. In darkness, it’s easy to get lost; but the Self is a cheerleader, teacher, wise man and friend. The voice inside that says, “This will get better.” “Hang on a little longer.” The change in my life has been incessant for over three years now. From job to job to grad school to job, the only consistencies in my life – friends and relationships – have also largely dissipated. So there comes a time when we question ourselves; did I make the right decisions? To trust, to go forth, to give our energy in this particular direction?

I don’t regret a single decision I’ve made, because at that moment I thought it was the right one.

So, either I live with the consequences or I stay true to my impulses, perhaps revealing another side of myself. Life is about this journey, of mistakes and folly. Our only job in life is to follow it.

That’s where I’m devoting my attention now, to my present ever-evolving circumstance. With an awareness that a flow to life exists which I have no power over. Like a current, it sweeps us through life at its leisure, pulling against our selfish attempts to disembark, to choose our own direction driven by mind and matter rather than by heart (intuition). Taping into that foundation – the one I cultivate and continually find through the repetition of daily meditation – gives me a place to go, to remove myself from outside pressures to reside in nothing. It’s also in their songs, have you heard? Listen. The Beatles, John Lennon, Paul Simon, Bob Dylan to name a few. When we give up ourselves to creativity in any form, we give our minds over to the current trajectory of our lives. In Buddhism, this is called “right knowledge.”

Sometimes I find it difficult to reign it in, as they say, when my mind expands to a point of all-encompassing awareness. I can feel the cries abroad and here at home in my heart. And I know many others share this gift and torture. What can we do? Love our neighbor despite themselves. Be true to your values, and if you need inspiration google the Yamas and Niyamas; every religion hits upon these tenants in some form. No matter what you call them, they’re useful and important.

So that’s the take away. And in the meantime we will continue to explore what it is to emerge from numbness and isolation; regardless of your outward persona. Whenever you doubt, question or fear, know it is not you. We all suffer from the same vices, and the only way to emerge gracefully is to move harmoniously.

x Amy

Challenging Concepts of the "Western Yogi" Part III: Safe Spaces in Yoga

Part III: Safe Spaces in Yoga
By: Vivi Vallin, M.A.

I am currently in a yoga teacher training at a studio in East Los Angeles called People’s Yoga. They are the first yoga studio in this particular area of Los Angeles and are going to be celebrating their two-year anniversary in the coming weeks. People’s Yoga prides itself in making yoga accessible to the community of East Los Angeles. Classes are affordable, some are bilingual or in Spanish, there are classes for families to practice together, many of the instructors are people of color and the studio is accessible via public transportation. This year they offered their first 200-hour yoga teacher training. The others in my cohort are also people of color. All different backgrounds and ages but sharing the experience of what it is like to be a person of color who has been drawn to yoga on their own healing journey. As we learn about yoga together, we also share our experiences of feeling excluded, navigating being undocumented, being a queer person of color, how yoga is viewed by our families, and how we view injustices every day. We have a space in yoga to integrate our cultural and ethnic identities and experiences from that identity. This process is powerful.

On a personal level, I believe practicing yoga brings you closer and closer to your authentic self. Although yoga did not originate in Mexico, practicing yoga as a Mexican-American has brought me closer to my own culture’s healing practices, my roots, my history, and my family. I think this is because of yoga’s ability to cultivate self-awareness and self-love. In yoga, we embrace all parts of ourselves. From this space, I can see that a yoga practice brings individuals closer to who they really are. Each of us is unique. Our stories and experiences are unique. If we allow space to share and unite these stories, the experience of each of us will be richer and more full.

Black, white or brown (or however you identify) – we can all be united in our experiences of trauma, pain, sadness, joy, happiness, and gratitude. These are universal human emotions that link us together. We can heal together.  As we move toward this ideal, we still need to acknowledge that there is a need for safe spaces to heal for marginalized groups. It may look like a yoga studio that opens in East Los Angeles. It may look like a workshop about traditional Mexican healing practices. Each community should have the right to access safe spaces to provide wellness and healing, individually and together. Each community should have the right to choose the practices that will help them heal. Healing movements and leaders historically emerge from within their own community. In this case, as fellow brothers and sisters in color and among all throughout Los Angeles, our shared role is to respect and support this work for authentic and accurate cultural representation in any way we can.

BLACK YOGA TEACHERES ALLIANCE

When I heard about the Black Yoga Teachers Alliance (BYTA) I was excited and wanted to learn more about their work. The group was founded in 2008 and first began as a social media group. The goal was to create a safe space for teachers, students, practitioners, healers and enthusiasts to discuss yoga, share resources and create community. They wanted to create a place to explore the many paths and types of yoga, while also incorporating the authentic spirituality that black yoga teachers bring to the practice of yoga.

The BYTA provides their collective community with resources about teacher trainings, educational programs about yoga, scholarship opportunities and yoga publications. It also launched its first national initiative named Yoga as a Peace Practice: Redefining black lives and restoring peace and pride in our homes and communities. The initiative includes offering curriculum to yoga teachers so that they can take action by offering yoga, meditation practices and yoga based on lifestyle philosophies among those who are victims of violence (BYTA.com).

Since 2008, the group expanded and will be holding its first major retreat and conference in August 2016. The speakers being highlighted are black yoga instructors who have been leaders in this movement for a long time. The BYTA wants to celebrate and highlight these leaders that do not often get the recognition and space to share their wisdom and experience. The conference information describes that there will be an emphasis on the experience of being black in yoga and in this nation, as well as spaces to share and heal in community.

The Black Yoga Teacher Alliance currently has a Kickstarter Fundraiser organized by Jacoby Ballard of Third Root Community Center. The fundraiser aims to raise enough money to support 10 scholarships to black yogis who otherwise would not be able to attend the conference. A second goal of the campaign is to have 1000 white yogis donate to support the campaign. This would be a sign of support and send a powerful message that these types of safe spaces and events are important.

I donated to the BYTA scholarship fund because I support their efforts to create safe space for and to celebrate black yogis. They are not only sharing yoga but also leading the way with national initiatives that use the practice of yoga to engage with major issues such as violence and victims of violence, especially in black communities. I encourage those of you who are part of a yoga community to also support by donating to the scholarship fund, finding out more about the BYTA and/or attending the conference to learn more about their work first hand. Their efforts and contributions to the broader yoga community are valuable and are contributing to breaking stereotypes of exclusivity in mainstream yoga.

 

BYA logo

 

See what the Black Yoga Teachers Alliance is up to, get involved or donate here.
Photo Cred: BYTA.com

Challenging Concepts of the “Western Yogi” Part III: Safe Spaces in Yoga

Part III: Safe Spaces in Yoga
By: Vivi Vallin, M.A.

I am currently in a yoga teacher training at a studio in East Los Angeles called People’s Yoga. They are the first yoga studio in this particular area of Los Angeles and are going to be celebrating their two-year anniversary in the coming weeks. People’s Yoga prides itself in making yoga accessible to the community of East Los Angeles. Classes are affordable, some are bilingual or in Spanish, there are classes for families to practice together, many of the instructors are people of color and the studio is accessible via public transportation. This year they offered their first 200-hour yoga teacher training. The others in my cohort are also people of color. All different backgrounds and ages but sharing the experience of what it is like to be a person of color who has been drawn to yoga on their own healing journey. As we learn about yoga together, we also share our experiences of feeling excluded, navigating being undocumented, being a queer person of color, how yoga is viewed by our families, and how we view injustices every day. We have a space in yoga to integrate our cultural and ethnic identities and experiences from that identity. This process is powerful.

On a personal level, I believe practicing yoga brings you closer and closer to your authentic self. Although yoga did not originate in Mexico, practicing yoga as a Mexican-American has brought me closer to my own culture’s healing practices, my roots, my history, and my family. I think this is because of yoga’s ability to cultivate self-awareness and self-love. In yoga, we embrace all parts of ourselves. From this space, I can see that a yoga practice brings individuals closer to who they really are. Each of us is unique. Our stories and experiences are unique. If we allow space to share and unite these stories, the experience of each of us will be richer and more full.

Black, white or brown (or however you identify) – we can all be united in our experiences of trauma, pain, sadness, joy, happiness, and gratitude. These are universal human emotions that link us together. We can heal together.  As we move toward this ideal, we still need to acknowledge that there is a need for safe spaces to heal for marginalized groups. It may look like a yoga studio that opens in East Los Angeles. It may look like a workshop about traditional Mexican healing practices. Each community should have the right to access safe spaces to provide wellness and healing, individually and together. Each community should have the right to choose the practices that will help them heal. Healing movements and leaders historically emerge from within their own community. In this case, as fellow brothers and sisters in color and among all throughout Los Angeles, our shared role is to respect and support this work for authentic and accurate cultural representation in any way we can.

BLACK YOGA TEACHERES ALLIANCE

When I heard about the Black Yoga Teachers Alliance (BYTA) I was excited and wanted to learn more about their work. The group was founded in 2008 and first began as a social media group. The goal was to create a safe space for teachers, students, practitioners, healers and enthusiasts to discuss yoga, share resources and create community. They wanted to create a place to explore the many paths and types of yoga, while also incorporating the authentic spirituality that black yoga teachers bring to the practice of yoga.

The BYTA provides their collective community with resources about teacher trainings, educational programs about yoga, scholarship opportunities and yoga publications. It also launched its first national initiative named Yoga as a Peace Practice: Redefining black lives and restoring peace and pride in our homes and communities. The initiative includes offering curriculum to yoga teachers so that they can take action by offering yoga, meditation practices and yoga based on lifestyle philosophies among those who are victims of violence (BYTA.com).

Since 2008, the group expanded and will be holding its first major retreat and conference in August 2016. The speakers being highlighted are black yoga instructors who have been leaders in this movement for a long time. The BYTA wants to celebrate and highlight these leaders that do not often get the recognition and space to share their wisdom and experience. The conference information describes that there will be an emphasis on the experience of being black in yoga and in this nation, as well as spaces to share and heal in community.

The Black Yoga Teacher Alliance currently has a Kickstarter Fundraiser organized by Jacoby Ballard of Third Root Community Center. The fundraiser aims to raise enough money to support 10 scholarships to black yogis who otherwise would not be able to attend the conference. A second goal of the campaign is to have 1000 white yogis donate to support the campaign. This would be a sign of support and send a powerful message that these types of safe spaces and events are important.

I donated to the BYTA scholarship fund because I support their efforts to create safe space for and to celebrate black yogis. They are not only sharing yoga but also leading the way with national initiatives that use the practice of yoga to engage with major issues such as violence and victims of violence, especially in black communities. I encourage those of you who are part of a yoga community to also support by donating to the scholarship fund, finding out more about the BYTA and/or attending the conference to learn more about their work first hand. Their efforts and contributions to the broader yoga community are valuable and are contributing to breaking stereotypes of exclusivity in mainstream yoga.

 

BYA logo

 

See what the Black Yoga Teachers Alliance is up to, get involved or donate here.
Photo Cred: BYTA.com

Challenging Concepts of the "Western Yogi": Part II

By: Viviana Vallin, M.A

The story about how yoga came to be this way is both simple and complex. In a way, it feels like our nation has corrupted traditional yoga. Yoga in itself is a practice of self-awareness, self-inquiry, and self-liberation. It is not inherently exclusive or discriminatory. But, one might say that yoga in the U.S. is just highlighting what is already present in America in terms of a superior body image and commodification.

I recently attended a workshop about cultural appropriation led by Roopa Singh. If you have not read some of her work yet, start here. She is a leader and scholar in exploring these types of questions about yoga in the west and how to honor the history and foundation of traditional yoga. She founded the South Asian American Perspective on Yoga in America (SAAPYA).

During her talk and the conversations that occurred afterward I started to see how we are talking about something much bigger than yoga. America was founded on a white supremacist and capitalism system. In this system, Roopa explains that wellness has also become a commodity. It has become something that is purchased, and therefore is not available to everyone equally. This system makes us believe that there is not enough wellness for everyone. It is a commodity that has been absorbed in inequity, and is disproportionately representing Whiteness.

Yoga has become a wellness commodity that is expensive financially and hard to access for those who are marginalized by society. As an example of this, in my thesis survey many of the people who practice yoga first learned about it through a college course. There is a common tie between access to higher education and access to yoga. The people of color who have been able to find yoga this way are also those who have been able to navigate themselves in spaces where they are commonly the minority. It does not mean, however, that they do not experience the same internalized doubt and fears about not feeling welcomed as their excluded counterparts.

I myself found yoga when I was in college. In some of the studios I have practiced in Los Angeles, I have often looked around and thought about all of the people that never get the opportunity to have this luxury. Even if they would not choose yoga, I found myself mostly concerned with a lack of awareness and opportunity amog many to dedicate time and money in one’s own health and well-being.

In this larger system that benefits only a small portion of our nation, we not only exclude  many from accessing wellness practices, but also increase their toxic burden. In many communities of color you will find higher levels of environmental pollution, limited green spaces, lack of access to fresh food products, increased presence of toxic factories, etc. (Don’t believe me? Google: I heart Wilmington campaign, and see what one community did to fight again exactly that.) I would argue that these communities are then the ones that should receive the most wellness support. Not less. Yet there are very few yoga classes available in communities of color in Los Angeles (i.e. South LA, West Adams, Inglewood), while cities like Silverlake and Santa Monica have an abundance of classes to choose from concentrated within blocks of each other.

You do not have to focus on the yoga studio to see examples of how our society (perhaps unintentionally, but quite actively) works to exclude and marginalize some, and protect and benefit others. I have seen this in higher education, in graduate school, in environmental and conservation groups, in coffee shops that move in to neighborhoods with prices that blatantly exclude those who have lived there their entire lives; and even in trendy restaurants where the majority of the staff are undocumented workers.

The difference is that if we follow the yoga philosophy, yoga can become a tool to help us become aware of ourselves and our role within this larger. Using greater self-awareness, we can move through our lives making choices that align with yogic values and our own values. Roopa posed a powerful question during her talk, asking us, “Who are You Within Yoga?” I would also add: “Who are You Within this System?” How will you use your yoga practice to think and act in the face of injustice, inequality, and violence?

Changing the larger system that has been in place since the birth of the nation is a large task to take on. I think there are a few places to start which are available now. First, let people of color share their experience and tell their stories. (Like I’m doing here…) Often when I share my thoughts about mainstream yoga being exclusive, I have been met with resistance about whether that is a true experience. After my thesis presentation at LMU, I was approached by two white men who had further questions for me. The first asked about whether yoga was in fact becoming more accessible through home videos and the Internet. The second asked about taking yoga outdoors, and whether it was gaining more popularity in parks. Both of these ideas have some truth and significance in recognizing the forward evolution of yoga in the West. Yet, I felt both of these men ultimately missed the point of my presentation.

People of color should not have to use the Internet or find a class in a park in order to have access to yoga and the health benefits they can experience from a regular practice. It also does not change the fact that they are being excluded from the studio experience. Everyone deserves the opportunity to practice in a place where they have an instructor to guide them safely and to build community. If you hear someone telling you that they feel excluded, listen and believe them. Their story does not threaten yours.

Second, we can all support organizations within yoga that are prioritizing people of color and other marginalized groups. This work is important because it allows people of color to share spaces where they feel safe to talk about this experience and to celebrate themselves. It is not about exclusion of others. It is about the support to break through the doubts, fears, and traumas of living within a system that is working against you.


 

Photo Cred: Venice Family Clinic Irma Colen Yoga Class (2014), Culver City, CA

Part III to be released June 22nd…
By: Vivi Vallin, M.A.

On a personal level, I believe practicing yoga brings you closer and closer to your authentic self. Although yoga did not originate in Mexico, practicing yoga as a Mexican-American has brought me closer to my own culture’s healing practices, my roots, my history, and my family.

 

 

 

Challenging Concepts of the “Western Yogi”: Part II

By: Viviana Vallin, M.A

The story about how yoga came to be this way is both simple and complex. In a way, it feels like our nation has corrupted traditional yoga. Yoga in itself is a practice of self-awareness, self-inquiry, and self-liberation. It is not inherently exclusive or discriminatory. But, one might say that yoga in the U.S. is just highlighting what is already present in America in terms of a superior body image and commodification.

I recently attended a workshop about cultural appropriation led by Roopa Singh. If you have not read some of her work yet, start here. She is a leader and scholar in exploring these types of questions about yoga in the west and how to honor the history and foundation of traditional yoga. She founded the South Asian American Perspective on Yoga in America (SAAPYA).

During her talk and the conversations that occurred afterward I started to see how we are talking about something much bigger than yoga. America was founded on a white supremacist and capitalism system. In this system, Roopa explains that wellness has also become a commodity. It has become something that is purchased, and therefore is not available to everyone equally. This system makes us believe that there is not enough wellness for everyone. It is a commodity that has been absorbed in inequity, and is disproportionately representing Whiteness.

Yoga has become a wellness commodity that is expensive financially and hard to access for those who are marginalized by society. As an example of this, in my thesis survey many of the people who practice yoga first learned about it through a college course. There is a common tie between access to higher education and access to yoga. The people of color who have been able to find yoga this way are also those who have been able to navigate themselves in spaces where they are commonly the minority. It does not mean, however, that they do not experience the same internalized doubt and fears about not feeling welcomed as their excluded counterparts.

I myself found yoga when I was in college. In some of the studios I have practiced in Los Angeles, I have often looked around and thought about all of the people that never get the opportunity to have this luxury. Even if they would not choose yoga, I found myself mostly concerned with a lack of awareness and opportunity amog many to dedicate time and money in one’s own health and well-being.

In this larger system that benefits only a small portion of our nation, we not only exclude  many from accessing wellness practices, but also increase their toxic burden. In many communities of color you will find higher levels of environmental pollution, limited green spaces, lack of access to fresh food products, increased presence of toxic factories, etc. (Don’t believe me? Google: I heart Wilmington campaign, and see what one community did to fight again exactly that.) I would argue that these communities are then the ones that should receive the most wellness support. Not less. Yet there are very few yoga classes available in communities of color in Los Angeles (i.e. South LA, West Adams, Inglewood), while cities like Silverlake and Santa Monica have an abundance of classes to choose from concentrated within blocks of each other.

You do not have to focus on the yoga studio to see examples of how our society (perhaps unintentionally, but quite actively) works to exclude and marginalize some, and protect and benefit others. I have seen this in higher education, in graduate school, in environmental and conservation groups, in coffee shops that move in to neighborhoods with prices that blatantly exclude those who have lived there their entire lives; and even in trendy restaurants where the majority of the staff are undocumented workers.

The difference is that if we follow the yoga philosophy, yoga can become a tool to help us become aware of ourselves and our role within this larger. Using greater self-awareness, we can move through our lives making choices that align with yogic values and our own values. Roopa posed a powerful question during her talk, asking us, “Who are You Within Yoga?” I would also add: “Who are You Within this System?” How will you use your yoga practice to think and act in the face of injustice, inequality, and violence?

Changing the larger system that has been in place since the birth of the nation is a large task to take on. I think there are a few places to start which are available now. First, let people of color share their experience and tell their stories. (Like I’m doing here…) Often when I share my thoughts about mainstream yoga being exclusive, I have been met with resistance about whether that is a true experience. After my thesis presentation at LMU, I was approached by two white men who had further questions for me. The first asked about whether yoga was in fact becoming more accessible through home videos and the Internet. The second asked about taking yoga outdoors, and whether it was gaining more popularity in parks. Both of these ideas have some truth and significance in recognizing the forward evolution of yoga in the West. Yet, I felt both of these men ultimately missed the point of my presentation.

People of color should not have to use the Internet or find a class in a park in order to have access to yoga and the health benefits they can experience from a regular practice. It also does not change the fact that they are being excluded from the studio experience. Everyone deserves the opportunity to practice in a place where they have an instructor to guide them safely and to build community. If you hear someone telling you that they feel excluded, listen and believe them. Their story does not threaten yours.

Second, we can all support organizations within yoga that are prioritizing people of color and other marginalized groups. This work is important because it allows people of color to share spaces where they feel safe to talk about this experience and to celebrate themselves. It is not about exclusion of others. It is about the support to break through the doubts, fears, and traumas of living within a system that is working against you.


 

Photo Cred: Venice Family Clinic Irma Colen Yoga Class (2014), Culver City, CA

Part III to be released June 22nd…
By: Vivi Vallin, M.A.

On a personal level, I believe practicing yoga brings you closer and closer to your authentic self. Although yoga did not originate in Mexico, practicing yoga as a Mexican-American has brought me closer to my own culture’s healing practices, my roots, my history, and my family.

 

 

 

Challenging Concepts of the “Western Yogi”: Part I

Challenging the “Western Yogi”: Part I
By: Viviana Vallin, M.A.

Imagine walking into a magazine shop and all of the covers concerning yoga have a woman who is of brown skin, has a full curvy body type and thick dark hair. All of the covers had this image. Imagine walking into a yoga class and all of the yoga instructors also fit this image. This image is all around you, and yet this is not you; this is not what you look like. The majority in the class also fit this image. Perhaps, you consider whether you should stay or go.

What thoughts or feelings arise in your body?

It probably depends on how closely you resemble that woman. If you are also a woman of color, a woman with a fuller body, a woman with thick curly hair maybe you would breathe a sigh of relief or maybe you would also feel incredibly uneasy, like what is going on here? Is this a trick?

If you are a woman who is Caucasian, slimmer body type and have blonde straight hair you may also be feeling uneasy. How comfortable and easy would it then be for you to walk into a yoga studio space and be able to jump right into focusing on your practice when you are a blatant minority in that space?

This example is simplified, but I want to highlight the discomfort and not-so-subtle message of what is and is not the “normal” yoga practitioner. This is what people of color experience not only in the yoga studio but in other spaces where Whiteness is the standard. It is not only people of color, but really anyone who does not fit that image or standard who may be more aware and made to feel uncomfortable by pronounced difference.

Since I started practicing yoga eight years ago, I have been on a journey to deepen my understanding of yoga and to explore the ways in which, within the U.S., it has become a mainstream physical practice for a select group of wealthy, white and educated individuals. This past year, I undertook a thesis project for my final year in the Yoga Studies Masters program at Loyola Marymount University. I was the only Latina student in my cohort and one of only a few students of color in the cohort overall. Here and elsewhere, I felt the very subtle but also very real messages that yoga is not for me, or for people that look like my family members in most yoga studio spaces. Most of the women in my family for example, are closer in image to the women I described in the opening imagery.

I never experienced direct discrimination from anyone when taking a yoga class. This is because, in most cases, these impacts are happening outside of the studio space. Media images, commercials, clothes, high costs, and the mainstream profile of the typical yoga teacher, as well as an overall lacking of yoga studios in most communities of color, are all messages that people internalize. They [the media] tell you that yoga is not meant for you; so you naturally might wonder: Why would I even go try a class?

For my thesis, I conducted a survey of people of color who practice yoga in Los Angeles. I was able to collect over 40 surveys within just a few weeks. Although this is a small sample size, it is not meant to be representative of all people of color; however, there are some very strong common responses. The majority of the respondents did not report experiencing discrimination in yoga spaces. They did however share a similar feeling of unease, discomfort and anxiety over not “fitting in” or looking like the “typical yogi.”

These doubts tend to increase self-criticism and so, feelings about not fitting in are powerful barriers that often prevent individuals from exploring yoga or attending a class in a studio. We cannot see this type of exclusion and discrimination, but the results are evident when you look around most yoga classes in Los Angeles. Here and most everywhere, yoga is equated with Whiteness.


So, what can we do? To reclaim yoga as something that is representative of its natural integrity, history and essence; by encompassing and including all persons regardless of race, sexuality, disability or any other ‘difference.’ This is our shared goal and the ultimate goal of yoga, to achieve a real understanding of Oneness.

Photo Cred: People’s Yoga, “Yoga Seeds Family Class” held each Sunday

In Part II…
By Vivi Vallin

The story about how yoga came to be this way is both simple and complex. In a way, it feels like our nation has corrupted yoga. Yoga in itself is a practice of self-awareness, self-inquiry, self-liberation. It is not inherently exclusive or discriminatory. Yoga is just highlighting what is already present in America.