Santosha: A Shared Search for Contentment

I thought, as I had always been told, that success would bring happiness. I thought money and power were the benchmarks of success. Of course, I thought wrong…

Contentment doesn’t come easy. Or, at least not without practice.

As we collectively process the loss of Kate Spade, Anthony Bourdain and countless others who threw it all away while seemingly having it all, I’m grateful for honest conversation with friends and clients around what it means to be happy. What is it we’re all aiming for if traveling the world, having more money then we can spend, and living a glamorous lifestyle is not enough?

In yoga, the word “santosha” is one of the Niyamas, the second of eight limbs of Yoga. Santosha means contentment. To me, contentment represents the ultimate end goal: Happiness.

My journey toward contentment

I’ve always known exactly what I wanted. The perfect internship, university, boyfriend and new city served as guideposts on my journey through life. My direction was solidified by my pursuit of the American Dream: success, money, power. And, I almost always got what I wanted. 

That is, until I didn’t. Until I finally “had it all” and realized I had nothing. In fact, I was far from it.

In Yoga, this is the moment of “removing the veil [of ignorance].” Like Pandora’s box, once you peak inside, there’s no going back. In this way, you may have heard people say – myself among them – that yoga “changed my life forever.” But how? And in what way?

When I moved from Boston to Los Angeles in 2013, I was an idealist 23-year-old, newly appointed as Chief of Staff to a Senior Vice President of a major insurance company. I was sure I could handle it. I was smart and confident with a New England work ethic. I settled into my Santa Monica apartment and made friends with ease. I was set. I was on my way.

I thought, as I had always been told, that success would bring happiness. I thought money and power were the benchmarks of success. Of course, I thought wrong.

When I found my dream job to be less-than-fulfilling, the same idealism that led me to leave a great job and friends in Boston once again took over. Gratefully, my parents were in full support. My Mom and I nodded in emotional and spiritual agreement: I had to follow my intuition. Where would I land if I let my heart lead the way? I wasn’t sure. But, feeling let down by my former pursuit for success, I knew this is where I was headed.

I thought, as I had always been told, that success would bring happiness. I thought money and power were the benchmarks of success. Of course, I thought wrong.

After six years of daily yoga practice, I was passionately attuned to the mental and physical benefits of yoga study and practice. I wanted to learn and embody more. This was my heart’s true desire. Peace. Self-love. Contentment.

Yoga changed my life by allowing me to be in control of the trajectory and well-being of my body and mind: mitigating anxiety, managing depression, eliminating food and diet obsession, ultimately caring for myself in body, mind and spirit.

Today, I spend my time creating, managing and instructing teacher trainings, yoga classes and community events to spread the word about yoga as a valuable practice both on and off the mat. This includes working with private clients to develop a daily practice to suit their individual needs, as well as working with Veterans, recovering addicts, social workers, nurses, and others.

At times I still struggle to stay above the current. Sometimes, life seems to win as I flounder with chronic fatigue, chronic pain, restlessness, anxiety, depression and stress. The difference now, is I have tools to re-engage and reset. Through Yoga, I’ve unlocked the code of how to stay above water.

Here’s what I learned:

Contentment is more complex than sitting on the couch on a Sunday, grateful for no place to be. (Although these moments are precious too!) Contentment means seeing the good in the bad. Seeing the truth in the chaos, and the light in the dark. Contentment is knowing impermanence as the only consistent theme of life and embracing each moment as if it were the only one. This is a practice. We are lucky in life if we experience moments of Santosha.

Nothing outside ourselves can give us contentment; not money, power or fame. Only we can find contentment through a commitment to being open, to seeing opportunity and to Loving ourselves and others unconditionally.

As we collectively process unfathomable loss and confusion, I feel inclined to share the wisdom I’ve gleaned from five years of yoga study. Here it is:

1) Go easy on yourself and on others. Rather than getting frustrated, take a breath and have a conversation. 90% of the time you’ll be surprised with the outcome, if you can keep your cool. Difference disappears when one person has the courage to find commonality. The rest of the time, you’ll rest easy knowing you tried your best by keeping an open mind and heart. This is truly peace of mind.

2) Love unconditionally. Not just your family and friends, but also yourself. Don’t only give love to those who are like minded but also to those who you struggle to understand. Imagine you met someone at your favorite store or place of work, your instinct might be to connect. That’s the basis of humanity, to save ourselves but also to keep one another alive. The world and all that’s difficult depends on our individual ability to be the bigger person. This means to Love freely. If that feels uncomfortable, sit with why that might be. We’ll all be better off if we can learn to Love indiscriminately. And yes, that means even yourself on your roughest day. Let that shit go.

Nothing outside ourselves can give us contentment; not money, power or fame. Only we can find contentment through a commitment to being open, to seeing opportunity and to Loving ourselves and others unconditionally.

Santosha may be closer than we think. A professor in Yoga once described the practice of Santosha as simply making the time to “sit outside and watch the wind blow through the trees.” Dismiss it as fluff and nonsense if you like, but when was the last time you did this? If you can’t remember, humor me and try. Then notice afterwards, how do you feel? (Curious about the physiological response of this practice and why it works? Message me or check out my short book on the Science and Practice of Mindfulness.)

The answers to life’s biggest problems are simple, if we take the time to listen. We are all connected. Solace comes from one another, from Nature, and from ourselves. If only we are quiet enough to hear. And, if we allow Love to win.

No matter your path, happiness is possible. Rich or poor. Homeless or privileged. Be with it. This moment is beautiful. Don’t miss it.

Seeing the opportunity in challenge, the light in the dark…This is the practice of contentment.

xx

In Yoga,

Amy

The Still Life.

After my second “vacation” home (to Los Angeles in April, and Connecticut last weekend), I’m surprised to find a palpable landing back home in Florida. My travels around the country to see loved ones, friends and family, and to frequent my old stomping grounds, came with all the usual emotional turbulence one would expect. Happy and those less-than-happy memories surfaced, and the intangibility of home (“Stop this Train!”) reminded me of the inevitably of aging, impermanence and my own growth.

I found myself in an odd predicament, as I prepared for my high school reunion. (Yes, I planned it. Yes, I was class president. But no, I am not any longer! I’ve retired.) The familiar stress of event planning and on-site logistics, paired with a few unfortunate hiccups in the long days that preceded the event reminded me of my high school self: Eager to please, relentlessly offering my energy to others yet so drained as a result that I miss much of the experience myself. This is my pattern. I miss quality conversations with old friends and I might be seen (I’ve been told) as self-centered for my “lack of caring about others” when the time for chatting came. Instead, I hover close to the bar overwhelmed, jittery and foggy-feeling. The show must go on.

We like to paint pictures of what something “should” or “would” be like. I had one for this milestone event and I know others did too. But ultimately, my proudest memory was right before I left the house. I had answered all the questions, called all the vendors, secured the decorations, arranged the guest list, collected, deposited, and disbursed funds, and on. The only thing left to do before I left the house was be still. I looked in the mirror, one last make-up check, and was surprised by a tsunami-like welling up of pride.

Though I might still fall into old patterns from time to time, I am aware of them. And awareness gives me choice. I found myself proud, not of who I am on paper – business owner, Masters degree holder, international traveler, author – in fact, speaking to these “titles” like accusations actually triggers some nerves. These are roles that I play, that I am honored to hold. They do not define me. I am not that.

As I looked in the mirror, I felt a startling ease and affection for the person staring back. I trust her. I’m inspired by her strength. Her ruthlessness. Her endurance. I admire that in the hardest, darkest times she continued to extend her arms, heart and mind to others. (Even though she should have been home prioritizing self-care.) When there was nothing left to give, she gave whatever she had left. She knows who she is unapologetically. And in recognizing there are many things she doesn’t know, she moves through life differently than before. Her ego, and eyes have softened.

I went forward to the reunion and enjoyed the following day with extended family, feeling immersed in a sense of (relative) calm and all-encompassing love.

Of all the changes I’ve made in the past ten years – the cross-country moves, the ass kicking’s and getting my ass kicked – there are a few lessons I feel have changed me the most:

I now know that the purpose of life is to love. That being still is not a sin. That finding stillness is not shameful. That being “productive” is not required to “succeed.” I’ve softened.

My gaze is no longer dominated by a sense of fear, confusion or disillusion, but is held with compassion, understanding, and tenderness. My heart affirms my own personal mantra and place in the world (which coincidentally, is likely yours too):

I will accept you no matter what. I will love you no matter what. I will be the best I can be, and accept my imperfections. I will set boundaries to protect myself from those who might misuse or abuse my energy. I will be present when and as often as I can, and permit myself to retreat into solitude as needed to recharge and re-energize. I will surround myself with people who support me and my goals without judgment, and allow for them to change and evolve with time.

I will love as often and as much as I can bear. I will understand when love cannot be returned and hold space for forgiveness, healing and growth. Even after being hurt, I will continue to love. Fulfillment is love. Look no further than those closest to you. They and you are all you need.

I’ve come to see that finding stillness is both the means and the end. A still life in the present moment is a happy life. I intend to spend the rest of mine pursuing exactly that.

Stop looking, you’ve already found it. The still life.

My heart whispers: Rest easy, you are perfect. And I think that one’s for you.
All bound up in love, devotedly yours,

Amy

 

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

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.

A Foreshadowing…..

It is my pleasure to precede the release of a work by my dear friend and fellow grad, Vivi Vallin, which will grace this page in three parts – the first of which will be released on Wednesday.

The whole point of A Year in Yoga is to challenge contemporary thinking and explore alternative traditions, to ideally arrive at a new way of being – that we each choose for ourselves – that is whole, fulfilling and brings us joy. In this endeavor, we MUST confront discomfort, recognize our vices and create different channels through which we can navigate the world.

One of the most important “vices” is one’s relationship with and identity of oneself and others, (encompassing body image and personal bias). Recognizing difference, not as “diversity” but as different shades of a flower bloom; each color and shade equally beautiful and equally cherished. This is how we can all jointly see the world with joy.
In an effort to support and draw attention to the emergence of the Black Yoga Teachers Alliance, I defer to a scholar with much more insight to share than I on an important evolution in what contemporary “yoga” is and can be. I hope you’ll tune in on Wednesday to read part I of III of her inspiring work….

Stay tuned! In the meantime, here’s more about Vivi…

 


Viviana Vallin is a yoga teacher, naturalist and LPCC trainee in the field of mental health.  She is passionate about finding the intersections of traditional therapy, yoga therapy and nature therapy to provide wellness support to individuals and communities in need, especially those who are marginalized and under-served by our nation.

Viviana worked as a Teacher Naturalist with the Audubon Center at Debs Park for 2 years, and was then promoted to Education & Outreach Manager. In this role, she created and led programming for K-8 students, teens, adults and families in the community to connect to the nature that was in their own neighborhoods, and learn about how to become stewards of these special pockets of green in Los Angeles. Viviana was selected as a Toyota Together Green fellow while at Audubon to lead her project entitled Empowering Communities: Building Capacity Through Youth Leadership Programs. The emphasis of the project was giving teenagers from communities of color the tools and knowledge to lead their own initiatives of change by engaging their communities in a place-based conservation project. Viviana strongly believes that individuals have to care about the nature in their own backyards first, in order to build a relationship with nature which will lead to changing behaviors for the betterment of the planet.

Viviana left Audubon to complete her education at Loyola Marymount University, and in May 2016, she graduated from the Masters in Yoga Studies program at LMU. She was simultaneously enrolled in the Masters in Counseling program at LMU and plans to complete her second graduate degree over the summer months. Viviana is currently completing an internship at Open Paths Counseling Center in Culver City as one of their bilingual therapists; a community mental health organization which provides accessible services to diverse clientele. Viviana works with a client load of 8-10 Spanish-speaking individuals per week and has co-led the Spanish parenting class as well. Viviana will complete her internship at Open Paths in December and plans to register for her intern number with the BBS at this time.  Her focus in mental health has been working with clients who suffer from addictions, eating disorders, and trauma.

Beginning in September 2015, Viviana began working as a yoga therapist at Reasons Eating Disorder Center located in Alhambra, CA. As a yoga therapist, she leads restorative yoga sessions at both their hospital intensive program and the residential house located in Pasadena, CA. Viviana creates a class which aims to help clients reveal a new relationship with their body, focused on the meditative aspects of yoga and learning to listen to one’s own body. This approach aims to redefine what a client might typically think about yoga (as exercise) and instead creates a practice of self-inquiry and supports processing emotions and thoughts which arise in their treatment process. Viviana has also led yoga for a girls residential program for Optimist Youth Homes & Family Services in Highland Park. This population of girls included at-risk youth who had been mandated by the court to be placed at Optimist Youth to support their academic learning and emotional/social needs, after challenging circumstances early in their life.

Viviana has trained to support individuals experiencing trauma through their yoga practice including attending the Yoga for Trauma: Mind/Body Resources for Working with Marginalized Communities Conference in Seattle, WA (2015) and the Recovery 2.0 Move Beyond Addiction Conference (2015). Specific counseling courses in trauma, crisis, multicultural, and addiction have also provided rich knowledge for working with clients with these specific needs.

Viviana is incredibly excited to continue to find ways to connect yoga, mental health and nature. Each practice on their own has been shown to provide healing and health benefits to the practitioner, but the combination of the three practices allows for a deeper engagement with the individual and the potential to shift the way in which they interact with the world.

 

 

Midnight Glory

This week, I am preparing to graduate. That means it has been not only one, but two years in yoga since I started this venture in writing…

I have no words, and I have so many. But, the greatest piece of knowledge I’ve likely received is a broadened awareness of myself, and of the world. I no longer feel that I need to fit into a box. In fact, I am even more intent on creating my own – but, now with a sense of foundation and roots, from and through which I can really flourish (instead of flounder…)

I have learned that there are no ‘rules and norms’ that guide our lives and our rituals. Only the things we allow to affect us, do. Knowing this – and really, truly believing it – we can experience freedom from everything, and everyone. Freedom in decision-making, in self-validation, and even in self-nurturing (through practices like yoga, that teach us to care for ourselves).

There is no normal. Our world is made of so much difference, and yet we’re all so interconnected, and interdependent. A teacher once told me, “At the root of every issue is a lack of love.” By believing this, and bringing a willingness to openly share love, there can be a solution, to anything. It’s so silly, and extremely idealistic; and yet, in my experience, it is absolutely true. Love changes everything. If you bring sincere friendship, empathy and compassion into any type of environment, it will flourish. From hospitals to prisons, universities and rehab centers – love, it seems, cures all.

There are no norms, there are no rules. There is only you, and this; and ideally, love.

But, that part’s up to you. First to find in yourself, and then to unabashedly share.

You can.

 

In love,

Amy

You Belong Here

“There is nothing to fix. Each one of us is made to fit our lives. Precisely. The measurements are exact. The tailoring is to a tee. The height. The width. The depth. It’s perfect. We need not ever struggle to fit into the fabric of ourselves…”

My favorite astrologist, Chani Nicholas, beautifully integrates her advanced wisdom of constellations and universal constructs to bring a meaningful voice to the motion of the cosmos. Another Full Moon. What can it really mean? Regardless of the literal efficacy of horoscopes, there is meaning, inspiration, motivation and strength to be derived from knowing that we are but one small piece of this world, and we are not alone.

This week, Chani divulges on the Full Moon in Virgo, as each full and new moon presents an important variable for the most subtle aspects of our world – including and especially our moods, our thought fluctuations, our consciousness. She brings simple awareness to the fact that we are all connected, and important. I find myself taking her words to heart each week, and hope you might find they fill your heart during this Full Moon as well…

You Belong Here

There is nothing to fix. Each one of us is made to fit our lives. Precisely. The measurements are exact. The tailoring is to a tee. The height. The width. The depth. It’s perfect. We need not ever struggle to fit into the fabric of ourselves.

We are all complex, paradoxical, flawed. As we fumble, topple and blunder our way out of the messy cocoon of unconsciousness (an ever-evolving, never-ceasing emergence), we do so perfectly also.

But we worry that we are wrong.

We fear we are ill-shaped. We fret that we were a mistake. We wake in night sweats, covered in panic’s perspiration. We question the meaning that makes us. We second guess our nature. We refuse our resplendency. We want to be another. We are taught to be other. We want to be in accordance with life, but we tend to attack our own.

Not fitting is excruciating. It’s excruciating as long as we try to fit. Or fix. Or make different our distinct markings. If we added up the hours spent counting the things”wrong” with us, we would be buried under a heap of lost time. What could we do with the energy otherwise? What life can we steal back from what the internal naysayers took? What will we do when we discover that we are as we were meant to be.

Have you ever felt this way? Lost, lonely, lacking. I know I have, more than once…and regardless of the “truth” it’s safe to say that believing that you already fit, and that you’re already perfect will bring much more happiness and bliss than you could hope to find any other way. When I practice believing in my own perfection, I find that I am perfect – there is no more pressure to change. But, when I do get lost in what others say or think about what I should be, should say, or should look like, I find I drop deeper and deeper into my own confusion and withdrawal. I get tired, quiet, and frustrated. I feel sorry for myself.

What I’ve found is that being yourself is liberating. Believing in your own innate goodness, believing that you don’t have to change for anyone, is a gift that no one can take away from you. And it’s a gift that only you can give yourself. Try it. Live yourself, love yourself and be free from outside perception. When you forget or begin to waver – as is human nature – come back to your own perfection. I hope you might find that loving your own unaltered integrity is the satisfaction and belonging that we’re all really searching for. Inner peace. Liberation. Acceptance.

Time and time again, I forget I have nothing to prove. But thanks to Chani’s words this week, I remember, and can strive to come back to this place time and time again.

It’s already in you.

Happy Full Moon! May you find peace and blessings in every corner you explore in the coming month and always.

// Find more and/or sign up for weekly (free!) horoscopes from Chani at her website: http://chaninicholas.com/

Living your Truth (the true grassroots movement)

Every conversation, and every challenge brings us clarity. In our individual process, our unique life, we’re all creating our own story. And at times, I know I get all too anxious to know how the story ends…

But, of course, this is just wishing time away. Valuable, irretrievable time, which in culmination builds our lives. And I imagine one day, not too far away, I’ll be wishing for more.

This insight drives me to incorporate, but not always rely on my heart, as well as my head in decision-making. Because, if we’re only here a short time, it’s reasonable to hope that we make the most of it. So we can look back at our lives lived, our own story, with a full heart – and no regrets.

There are many ways to go about this, and no wrong way. But, there is your way. A concept I’m particularly interested in – which is a theme of the ancient texts and textbooks we’ve been reading in school – is that of individual “duty,” or as I’ve come to understand it as, one’s unique “purpose.”

In Chapter 2 of the Bhagavad Gita (written in approximately 300 C.E), Krishna (the eighth worldly incarnation of the god, Vishnu) imparts to the great warrior Arjuna before he enters into battle: “Now, if you will not undertake/ This righteous war,/ Thereupon, having avoided your own duty and glory,/ You shall incur evil…Your right is to action [duty] alone.”

Many centuries later, in the 19th century C.E. Ralph Waldo Emerson (a Harvard graduate) founded the Transcendentalist movement here In the United States. In his ground breaking essay, Self Reliance, he belabors the significance of individual authenticity for the benefit of society, to evoke and unleash one’s own genius (more here); ultimately, in my favorite line he states simply: “But do your work and I shall know you.”

In the 20th century, Mahatma Ghandi (or the “great soul” in Sanskrit) had the courage to voice his beliefs and to publicly advocate for the liberation of India from British rule. He is credited with the nation’s success, and yet the U.S. – not India – was the first to recognize his honor and integrity as an individual force for empowerment. Ghandi credits his courage to God (or his higher power), and simply shared with all who inquired that it was his duty, his purpose on this Earth to serve out this work. (Bob Dylan used the same allusion to “duty” to describe his experience as a musician and songwriter, as that of a conduit; receiving messages to share with the world from and as part of something bigger.) Ghandi read the 2nd chapter of the Bhagavad Gita every morning, and cited it for motivating his voice and leading his service for the sake of humanity throughout his life.

Not long after, Martin Luther King Jr. led the Civil Rights movement in the U.S. Today, we celebrate his work annually, and recognize his name as synonymous with efforts for justice and peace. MLK too read Chapter 2 of the Bhagavad Gita regularly, and specifically revered it as his source of inspiration, in conjunction with the Bible, in motivating his work.

Nelson Mandela served as South Africa’s first black chief executive (President) and first democratically elected individual in the early 1990’s. Prior, he served 27 years in prison for standing up for his beliefs to end the apartheid and embrace racial equality, justice and peace. Mandela also credited the Bhagavad Gita for inspiring and motivating his service throughout his life, and up until his recent passing in 2013.

Well, maybe it’s our turn…to believe in something bigger.

I have a dream that yoga as a philosophy and a worldview is a source for empowerment. That it is undeniably and inextricably connected to individual, societal and global politics as a vested belief system and lifestyle (with a physical practice to aid in this process), representative at its core of truth, justice and peace; that it has the power to inspire people to their fullest potential by motivating them to speak and live by their own Truth (and thereby, also enjoy life more fully). Inspired by a higher purpose, if not a higher power, yoga is nondenominational and nontheistic. It doesn’t require prescribing to Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, or any religion at all. For instance, my higher power is the Universe: a force I believe to be greater than myself, which – as the sun and the moon guide our existence – provides comfort, predictability, and an opportunity for fulfillment of purpose for each and every creature that lives within it.

Purpose, truth, duty. It’s heavy, for sure. But yet, we see the Earth degrading beneath and around us, and the large majority of the world’s population suffering in ways we in the U.S. could never imagine, if only in our worst nightmares. This is life. This is it. And, we create it – past and future. We are responsible for it, and for how our individual behaviors impact the greater whole, the entirety of the human race, and the world around us.

This realization is scary, and perhaps the most daunting task that can and will ever be set before us. (And so, we see many of today’s politicians turning a blind eye.) But again, what’s most important to recognize is: we create it. We control it; what will remain for future generations and the course of our own lives. All we need to do, as individuals (perhaps the best and greatest grassroots movement) is to live truthfully and cultivate a real personal sense of compassion and peace; and others (even the most unlikely among us) will follow. According to a December 2012 study, over 20 million Americans practice yoga regularly – and the number continues to grow. What if all of these people united their practice* as a way to explore and ultimately live out their Truth, their “duty” – while losing weight and reducing stress at the same time. [Rupert Murdoch and Oprah Winfrey reportedly meditate every day…anything is possible.] * (yoga = “yoke” or “union”)

I still strive for clarity of my own purpose, my own duty. And I understand this is a life long journey, and that we may never fully realize the fruits of our labor during our time on Earth (but we can plant the seeds…) The biggest, and most challenging part of this process is trust. To trust that if you are a good person and you are open to new possibilities, that the right one’s will find you, and soon you will see clearly your purpose, and your duty – for your own happiness, for the prosperity of those you love, and thereby for the betterment of the greater whole, the human race, and Mother Earth.

I believe it, because great men (and unspoken women) before me believed it. And through this belief, they accomplished what no one else before them was able to do. By simply changing their own lives, they changed their nation and the world.

Trust. For the betterment of our nation, for the safety and prosperity of future generations, for the love of life and in gratitude for all we’ve been given, I urge you to listen and trust in your own authenticity. (That voice inside you that tells you what’s right and what’s wrong – even if it goes against what other people are doing, or thinking, or even saying…) We all innately want to be great: Mahatma, “great souls.” All we need to do is stay open and trust (according to the great’s before us, practicing yoga regularly makes this much easier, even effortless and blissful); because the world is broken, and every voice can and should be a voice of reason, a role model to bring about hope in our own small way. By always learning, growing, and living our own Truth –  we can all be that voice.

With love and in honor of those who paved the path before us, to venture into our own authenticity and our own genius. There is always a light.

I hope you might join me (in your own way) in committing to using your lifetime to explore and relinquish your own: Let your light shine!

Namaste,
Amy

Photo Credit: Alex’s Photo Blog from Jama Masjid, Old Delhi, India (2011)