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 Changing Tide

“I’m sorry I haven’t written,” seems to be a theme of my posts lately. So, as often as I think of writing, I don’t want you to think that you’ve been forgotten. I wish I could even give a reason, but other than fairly consistent writer’s block and a fleeting awareness of some sort of tension, of being in the eye of the storm in the midst of change, I got nothing.

While it has been over a year of mental, mindful, psychological, and spiritual metamorphosis, in a constant awareness of change, the year ahead promises to be one of materialization; but not without hard labor. I feel like I’m shifting – into adulthood, into independence, into my relationship, and all the wonderfully complicated things that go along with all those rites of passage. And, at the same time, I’m actually shifting. I am noticing the way I once behaved or phrasing I once used, no longer seems to fit me right in the moment. The style of my clothes over the past year has evolved, and become cubbies full of mediocre thrift store finds, yoga apparel, authentic India kirtas and remnant college t-shirts. But what will I be when I finally surpass my self-instated, grad school budget thrift store mandate? Will I still shop at Ann Taylor Loft, Express and American Eagle? (I think AE is taboo after 20, but their jeggings are genius.) But, who is this person I’m growing into? Who will that be? Will I like her? What can I do to help shape her, the future me?

All we can do is surround ourselves with the best of what we find in the world, and hope that a little bit rubs off on us.

A bout of high anxiety lately has reared its ugly head, just in time to disturb my peace of mind on a regular basis. There are so many things to keep track of these days; so many things to do and loved ones to tend to. When it all starts to spin, as minds sometimes do, I recently find myself gently putting my hand on my heart, and just feeling my heart beat. It’s a simple practice that brings me back to the moment. To where I’m situated in the room, wherever I am. And it reminds me, of my aliveness. As individuals, we’re prone to errors, complex, fragile, and very much alive. After this practice, you might find as I often do, that you move forward with a different perspective. A lighter, more grounded perspective. (This is a practice of mindfulness).

As my perspective evolves, I’m finding the content I’d like to post is as well. This means the possibility of guest posts, more creative prose, and the potential of more well-intentioned, but real discourse. My hope at this moment, as it always has been, is to share what “yoga” (broadly, or “yoga studies”) has taught me as a variety of tools to help make daily life easier, happier, and lighter. It doesn’t mean subscribing to a religion, political party, or an activist group. Yoga is free and you can call it whatever you want: hatha, vinyasa, bikram, kripalu, hot yoga, meditation, mantra, free movement/dancing, prayer, asana/yoga classes, kirtan, moving, walking, or eating meditation, for instance. Or, just placing your hand on your chest and practicing mindfulness by observing your heartbeat, and listening to your breath. Or, just closing your eyes and listening to the ocean, hearing the birds over head, and allowing yourself to feel a part of Nature for that single moment. Or, just catching a wave, going for a run, hiking through a national park or going through an asana class – any of these can be your yoga; when you practice mindfulness and your awareness turns inward (i.e. you become aware of your thoughts) as a result.

For all the definitions of yoga I have given over the past year, I also want to clarify that I have likely too casually adopted the Indian popular norm of: “Yes! But, also no.” Yoga, for me, and as it’s represented through yoga studies, includes and encompasses many, many things in the realm of psychology, experiential physics philosophy, language, physicality, subtle anatomy and beyond. Yoga is very much still a mystery. It’s large, it’s all encompassing, and yet it’s very specific, carefully articulated, and traditionally austere. In a modern Western context, yoga means “asana” or the physical practice of yoga. Yoga has been so widely popularized, that it has essentially claimed itself the name with it’s own meaning of “yoga” as asana (& of course, Lulu Lemon). Yoga in India, yoga in Tibet, yoga in Thailand, Sri Lanka, and Russia may be very different depending on religion, sect or lineage (i.e. Buddhism, Jainism, Hinduism, Islam, Muslim, natural healers and indigenous populations, to name a few). Yet, they all share an experiential or internal component that we, in the West, entirely lack. Possibly the first self-proclaimed American yogis were Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, as the Transcendental movement closely parallels and directly incorporates key Hindu yogic literature (i.e. Bhagavad Gita, Upanisads, Samkhya Karmika). Yet, Transcendentalists have little mention in society today in connection to yoga. Not to say this is wrong or inappropriate; cultural appropriations occur organically and are a reflection of contemporary societal norms. And, we’re ever evolving.

How will yoga look in the West in twenty years? Fifty years? Will I still be practicing? Teaching? Studying? I look forward to finding out (not too soon!), but hope I might help promote a “middle road” concept of yoga that is all encompassing, personal and creative, that can serve as a moment of optimistic rejuvenation in your day and mine, every day. For thousands of years, these practices have been used for centering, for finding peace and balance (among other things). Why not now, during such a troubling time in our world, wouldn’t we want to find a more peaceful way of being personally, for ourselves and others.

I hope you’ll stay on as my creative reinforcement and encouragement through this crazy journey – and my hope is that I might say something that you find helpful in your own evolution. As Jack Johnson once said, “We’re Better Together.”

Spread the love!

TGIF (Almost), xx
Amy

Photo: Taken at sunset on September 12, 2015 – San Onofre Bluffs, CA

New Years Revelation

It’s New Years resolution time. A time I remember greeting with promise, hope and great expectations, this year, seems a bit more daunting. It might be that I’m growing older – which was no more apparent than while suffering the day-long consequences of enjoying one drink too many at a holiday party last week (my 21-year-old liver is no more…) Or, it might be circumstantial – following my first semester in grad school, I already find myself searching for the light at the end of the tunnel. (While I won’t say it’s all darkness ahead, I will say I can’t yet see the light…)

Of course, it could also be that my year as a yogi has changed my perspective.

In the midst of the holiday season and a particularly stressful time in my life, I’ve been seriously craving some clarity and some reprieve, which has led me to consider how my mindset is impacted by dwelling on the choices I’ve made in the past and on my anxiety for the future. As you’ve likely heard before, the practice of yoga is about bringing your awareness into the present. I recently read in James Fowler’s “The Present Moment” that the practice of meditation can even be simply defined as an act of “love for the present moment,” (as well as for the love of Truth, of Beauty and of Goodness – such a beautiful sentiment, I’ve recently incorporated into my practice/daily intention setting). And Yoga Journal recently shared that the key to happiness is to stop planning for our ideal future, and to shift our focus on living today, in this moment.

As these seeds were planted in the back of my mind, the time was right – and ripe – for a revelation. And sure enough, as often happens during my daily practice [of asana and meditation], a single thought swept through me and helped assuage my fears and anxieties for the coming year. Just like that…Not a resolution, but a New Years Revelation:

You have everything you need.

Soaking in the peace of mind that comes along with this resonance, I realized I need a re-prioritization this coming year – Not a ‘quick fix’ solution, or yet another brilliant addition to my busy schedule, as I often associate with a resolution. I already have it all, but my current mindset consumed by back-peddling and negativity isn’t serving me, or allowing for all the Truth, Beauty and Goodness of the present moment to shine through, to really enjoy it. Although I usually avoid getting too personal (because after-all, A Year in Yoga is all about you!), I hope that sharing more of my revelation with all of you might help plant the seed to inspire your own, for a happier, brighter, more content and gratitude-filled year ahead…So here it goes ❤

 My Priority List for 2015:

  1. Self-care. Much of my work in Yoga Studies thus far has centered around healing and trauma, and what I’ve come to learn is that everyone is healing from some sort of trauma (big or small) – and it’s not our job or our right to evaluate how deep, how harsh, or how justified someone else’s trauma, or journey is. I can’t be any good at my job, in my relationships, or even in my yoga practice, without taking care of myself first. (A lesson I can attest, I’ve learned the hard way.) For me, this means allowing myself time and space. Time to breath in between an all too hectic schedule, even if this means telling someone else you’re unavailable. (Sorry, I’ve got a date with myself tonight!) And space: a few moments of solitude, a clean environment, and at least an hour a day when I’m totally unplugged. Create your own rules, or don’t. Whatever it takes to give yourself the attention you need to heal from whatever hurt you’re holding onto; to rejuvenate, to flourish. You’re no good to anybody, until you’re good to yourself; and life is, along with many other [beautiful, wonderous] things, a process of healing.
  1. Love. I have to admit, this is a new list-topper for me. I’ve always loved the idea of love, but I’ve never wanted to make it a priority. It’s simply too scary. The moment you open yourself up to love, you create space for rejection and loneliness. It’s much easier to be alone. Much easier, but empty. And certainly no less lonely. This kind of love doesn’t have to be with a significant other, it can be for a family member, a best friend, even a furry companion – but it is that pitfall, head over heels, unconditional, crazy-expressive-passionate kind of love; that fills your heart until tears well up in joy, and makes you equally as vulnerable to hurt and despair at its loss. If you’re lucky enough to have experienced this kind of love, you’ll likely also agree that it’s simply this feeling that makes life worth living. It gets you out of bed in the morning, keeps you going when you’re running on fumes, and picks you up when you (inevitably) trip over your own feet and fall on your face. While yogis aim to embody detachment, this kind of love is the only exception. To love whole-heartedly and steadfastly, to love all living things this way is a yogi’s primary goal. Because only by loving this way can we achieve happiness, and can we find peace, in our lives and for others. I am so very blessed to have an abundance of love in my life. Really, what else is there to want? But putting our own ambition, or other priorities ahead of love means abusing it. It’s a two-way street. Let the love in your life come first and guide you, and you will have a life full of love – and therefore, at its very core, of happiness and peace.
  1. Stability. Of course, even with love and self-care, we all need stability in our lives to do anything more to function in society. (Consider: Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs) Having grown up blessed with a strong foundation of stability, I ventured out over the past several years for a taste of challenge, of hardship (though not explicitly so at the time). I had something to prove, to myself. If I wanted to serve populations who had less than me, then I felt I needed to know what that really meant – and even what that felt like. Studying abroad in a third world country, working full-time for minimum wage, and immersing myself in homeless, low-income and prison populations; these choices have undoubtedly shaped my life. I say so with full recognition of how privileged I am to have made these choices – sprinkled after and in between my private college education, graduate coursework, well-paid jobs and refused opportunities. But what I’ve learned, however difficult at times, has been invaluable. Stability to me, represents a strong support system and enough financial resources to provide a home, pay the bills, and put food on the table (which varies in feasibility based on location and skill-set). When one of these areas is lacking, our whole being is at risk. The love and self-care we’ve worked so hard to cultivate is threatened, and we’re unable to do much more than run in place, and just “get by.” Evaluate what makes you feel stable; what’s your springboard for growth? And be so grateful for it. Nurture it. Cultivate it. Cherish it. This is also living with present awareness for all that we already have, and a goal of mine for the coming year.
  1. Be. And the rest will come. I can spend today, tomorrow and next year conjuring up my next project, worrying about my final exam, mulling over my past mistakes, and yearning for the light at the end of the tunnel. But at what cost? Too often stress and anxiety overshadows our ability to experience, enjoy and live in the present. By living this way, we risk losing a sense of ourselves and of those we love. When we finally achieve whatever it is we’re after, or perhaps just get tired of the chase, who will be there with us? What kind of shape will we be in – our physical bodies and our mental well-being – when we get there? Will we really be able to enjoy it, or will we already have our eye on the next prize ahead – an even bigger house, a more expensive car, a promotion, another degree? What about right now? Wasn’t there a moment when we dreamed of being right here? Relish it. We’ve all worked hard and learned tough lessons, jumped over hurdles and slayed dragons to be here – and here we are. We’ve worked so hard to be right here. So, we better enjoy it – You never know what tomorrow will bring.

Instead of thinking about what you should add to your life in 2015, I encourage you to consider all you already have. And challenge yourself to have your own New Years Revelation. To re-prioritize what really matters to you, at this point in your life, and allow that to be your mantra and your intention for the coming year. And strive to just be with it.

Sending boundless love and well wishes for a safe and very merry new year to you and yours. Cheers to all that 2015 will bring!

The light in me honors the light in you.

Namaste,

Amy

Photo: Throwback to New Years 2012 with my BFF Ashley at Lansdowne Pub Fenway Park in Boston. Thank you, Ashley for being there through it ALL and for always letting your light shine – & for always encouraging and inspiring me to do the same ❤

Discovering Your Genius(!)

“To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men – that is genius. Speak your latent [inner] conviction, and it shall be the universal sense [agreed upon by all].” 

I have the pleasure – and honor – of crafting a comparison for my Foundations of Yoga Studies midterm essay, between Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay Self Reliance (introduction referenced above) and the Katha Upanishad,* one of the “principal thirteen” Upanishads which include many essays and poems written by ancient Vedic priests, and is one of the initial documented forms of yoga dating back to ~ 1st century B.C.E. I chose this topic because, remembering an experience in middle school when I was first exposed to Emerson’s Self Reliance (or more accurately, an “Ah-ha” moment), I recall telling people afterwards that it was my “favorite book” (embarrassing) – But, to tell the truth, I don’t remember a thing about it. I’ve heard of comparisons between Vedic [ancient yogic] philosophy and Transcendentalism – i.e. 19th century C.E. Thoreau (Walden) and Emerson (Nature, Self-Reliance) – so why not take the opportunity to revisit an old favorite?

A favorite verse from Self-Reliance, and one that I think aptly captures the key similarities between Transcendental and Yogic philosophy, is:

“To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men – that is genius. Speak your latent conviction, and it shall be the universal sense.”

Although I have an obvious bias – really, more of a crush on – well-crafted rhetorical persuasion as a student of politics, something about these words resonates with me on a deep and profound level. And, as Emerson states above, he would bet that this resonance has the potential to strike everyone the same way, as “is true for all men,” we’re innately and equally capable of harnessing our inner “genius” (or in yoga philosophy: your personal truth or [big-S] Self). “Speak your latent conviction, and it shall be the universal sense.” I read this as a command – and think it should end with the proper exclamation(!). With Emerson toting a blue-ribboned ponytail and GW-type swag, balking back on his horse, I imagine him saying, perhaps with a megaphone: “Go forth! And be, unapologetically, you!” Trust your gut! He says. It sounds so simple, but its difficulty is revealed when we take a moment to sincerely consider how we are (what we think, do, say) on a daily basis. Going through the motions of work, school, homework, meetings and travel – it’s easy to get swept away with the current and fall into a routine. But, when you pay closer attention to your interactions and thoughts throughout the day, how many times do you say something or agree with something simply out of habit or ease? (When in truth, it may have been in opposition with your true “gut.” That’s alright, we all do it!) It’s easier, even habitual at times, to “just get through” the day. But if nothing else, it’s interesting to consider how we might be inadvertently stifling our own voice, and succumbing to negativity in this process. Emerson’s advice: Trust Thyself.  Find your genius in the genuine. Or the modern adapted version: Go forth and be fabulous!

Our thoughts are powerful. Last week, I provided some insights into the “Yoga & Neuroscience” and want to share another related concept. For every negative thought we hear or think, it takes five positive thoughts to get back to normal/neutral from the resulting mood imbalance – just like momentary depression. This is scientifically proven as an evolutionary survival reflex, and is referred to as our innate “negativity bias.” (More on negativity bias here.) I mentioned last week, that thoughts – according to neuroscientists – are actually a group of connected neurons in the brain, that together form a single thought or idea. Repetition of the same idea or thought over-and-over strengthens this connection, so the more often we think (or say) something, the more likely we are to think it again. Considering this, and considering how much – scientifically speaking – a single negative thought brings us down, it’s apparent that its advantageous for our well-being to pay attention to what’s going on in our noggin. When we start to recognize our own internal “negativity bias,” we can begin to change our thoughts from a predominantly negative to a positive spin, or worldview. And, the good news is, just as negative thoughts strengthen and recur with repetition, so do positive thoughts. (All thoughts follow this rule – What have you been thinking about a lot lately?)

“To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men – that is genius. Speak your latent conviction, and it shall be the universal sense.” 

Trust yourself (and treat yourself)! Be open to hearing yourself out and making yourself heard. Stay positive, especially when it’s difficult, because you’re creating a path to follow in the future. And seeking what’s easy is understandable, but living your truth is genius! (Just sayin’…) This is also, living in yoga.

Emerson has inspired my week, having set the intention to live by his motto: “Trust thyself.” In recalling the negative thoughts which have occupied my mind lately, it’s clear that my own doubt and fear (the antithesis of trust) are most at fault. Once we get passed this depressing duo, or overcome our negativity bias, how many more positive thoughts will we think? How happy can we be? I intend to find out. What’s your intention this week?

With love,
Amy

———–

*Katha Upanishad (pronounced in Sanskrit: “Kat-a,” like Immanuel Kant without the “n”)

In case you want more on negativity bias:

– Dr. Rick Hanson discusses the neuropsychological basis for “Confronting the Negativity Bias” as an evolutionary survival tactic, and how to overcome it.

– Check out this NY Times article which discusses the importance and benefits of overcoming your “negativity bias,” and its impact at work and in your everyday life.

^ Excerpt: “The more you’re able to move your attention to what makes you feel good, the more capacity you’ll have to manage whatever was making you feel bad in the first place. Emotions are contagious, for better or worse. It’s your choice.”

Photo Credit: Personal photo of a surf(bill)board outside a cafe in the Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica.