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Is this for you? Yoga As A Living Practice

People have asked me about the "juxtaposition" of social justice with yoga. And I've had to pause at this framing of yoga and social justice as separate notions.

Perhaps you are comfortable. The physical, mental, and emotional stresses of daily life are eased on the mat in a familiar space; the benefits of yoga in your personal life have been abundantly clear.

I'm with you on this. Chronic eczema and anxiety quelled and even healed when I began a daily practice of yoga, pranayama, meditation, chanting, and was given bitter herbs at the Sivananda Yoga Dhanwantari Ashram in Kerela, India in 2005. I found a peace that came from practicing in faith for the first time in decades. My feet were on the ground and nervous system restored.

I came back to the United States (also known by some indigenous peoples as Turtle Island) and was thrust back into the stresses of modern living. Driving a car, the angry and erratic communication styles, chaos in the media, needing to make the bills again and survive in an urban environment sometimes made a moment of rest on the mat a seeming necessity.

And yet it was difficult to find community that understood anything aside from modern postural practices. There is nothing wrong with robust asana practice. AND what has stayed with me from time in South Asia, in a lineage based training, was that yoga is so much more than stress relief from postures. Yoga is more than a passive state of bliss that one tastes through the momentary flood of endorphins on the mat

In theory, yoga is holistic and entirely inclusive of every layer of ourselves, every human being, and all living beings. It is by nature "therapeutic" when practiced with masterful practitioners and with the context of its sister science, Ayurveda. Yoga, by nature, (rather than any external re-invention), is already trauma informed practice, when it is not overcomplicated by the pre-occupation with the body and when teachers value human beings to their core.

But more often that does not happen in our yoga space(s). Yes, so often a space that is supposed to be unifying is divisive. What is supposed to be innately healing and healthy - triggering of trauma. So often, many of us leave layers of ourselves at the door because it seems our whole experience may not be welcomed. So often, those marginalized in society do not even make it in the door. So often, the ways we are practicing is far from unifying. Have you looked around and wondered "Who is missing?"

Students are usually shocked when I say that as a teacher and yoga center founder that I do not feel comfortable or willing to attend most studio classes and have never found a teacher to study with consistently in a studio context. Yes, even Baltimore Yoga Village, which I founded with all best of intentions and nurtured to be different than the commercialized yoga spaces I saw (and ran from), struggled to disrupt some structural inequities of the place in which it was located. And I'm about to admit something I rarely admit because it sounds to me absurd even as I write it: In the fourteen years of running the spaces, I hardly ever attended public classes. Coming to public yoga felt risky. Too often, in modern American yoga, I witnessed people practicing postural yoga like taking a relaxing happy drug to disconnect with the realities of this world; and I found that disconcerting. Almost always, in order to practice in yoga communities, I felt severed from the some of the reasons I came to yoga in the first place. Sometimes, I felt that part of my identity and reality as a biracial Desi woman was being unintentionally, at times, intentionally, mocked.

But wait why mention identity?! Isn't it healing for at least some of us to leave our troubles and our socially constructed identities at the door, and just be together for practice? You might ask: Why are you separating yourself and creating division? Aren't we all one?

For some, yoga serves a purpose to focus inward in a space that claims we are all welcome; for some, claiming that "we are one" is enough to enjoy silence and a moment of escape from the world. But for others the silence of ignoring societal inequities and cultural differences of the world is deafening, resonant of colonial means of oppression experienced in institutions like educational and health institutions, where our histories and agencies have been omitted. The lack of acknowledgment is a barrier to entering the space, and can be harming if perpetuating the traumatic experiences of being rendered invisible in mainstream society. Every person who walks through the door of any space, takes up that space and, consciously or subconsciously, carries biases, history, and blindspots. It is impossible to pray or cliche that away. It is palpable to people who crave connection with their ancestral roots through yoga when people are adopting yoga as fitness exercise or a momentary escape. It is palpable to those who are not centered in society when we are a minority in the room. It is palpable when we are seen as exotic or as a threat for our authenticity or just plain different enough that we are not on equal playing ground with the teachers and students.

When we live in a world that values human beings hierarchically based upon class, race, age, sexual orientation, gender, and ability, and more specifically devalues human beings based upon these classifications, it becomes an easy enough escape for the dominant demographic in yoga spaces (middle to upper class, white, heterosexual, able bodied individuals) to center themselves and ignore their privileges. They say ignorance is bliss. But this is not the kind of bliss that yoga philosophy purports.

Yoga is supposed to bring us to wholeness and non-separation. And yet if marginalized folx have to employ the same survival mechanisms that we do to "fit in", "assimilate", "not stand out", or be treated fairly in all commercial or capitalist structures, when practicing yoga in a booming yoga industry, we are forced to engage in ways that are multiply fragmenting and alienating. If yoga is practiced without knowledge or acknowledgment of its original cultural contexts and history, it can feel disconnecting to South Asians, BIPOC, and those in diaspora. In short, while some may want to believe that the statements "we are one", "we are whole", is enough for us to counter the experiences of living in an inequitable society - it is not enough.

Conversation about the elephants in the room are necessary.

Centering marginalized folx is necessary.

Learning history is necessary.

Acknowledging context is necessary.

Yoga is unity. We must, in order to live in the present moment, confront our past and our current context, that is, if we hope to come close to embodying yoga's core principles of non-harming, compassionate action, truth telling, non-stealing, management of vital energy, and surrender to something greater than ourselves (to name a few).

Today, yoga and social justice and impact are inseparable.

In this course, Yoga As A Living Practice, we will redefine our space, albeit virtually. We will address and define many meanings of the word Yoga and be able to reflect upon which meaning our modern practices really support. We will learn nourishing subtle practices often left out of mainstream yoga studios. We will integrate the principles of yoga into daily life. We will focus on the seven limbs of Patanjali's Yoga Sutras often ignored, all but asana. And we will consider how to use our practices toward creating an internal and external reality that is more peaceful, not only for the individual, but for the collective.

It may not be comfortable at all moments, but it will be nourishing, supportive, and I hope at times, revelatory. Love and community is at the center of this course. If you are ready to be invigorated by community conversation, in a group of people who view the term 'yoga' as a verb, an action word, meaning "to yoke", than this is for you.

It is a time and space to wonder, to listen, and to learn from each other, from history, and from a few experienced practitioners who will guide aspects of our learning together and open new doors.

This is a call to a practice rooted in timeless philosophies, which can be applied to the realities of this very time and place.

(Paying folks - you are engaging in an act of equity to support those who need scholarship. Partial and full scholarships are available on a needs basis for BIPOC).

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