What Brings Me to Yoga

I teach and practice yoga because it works out physical kinks, freeing up channels of communication between the body and mind.

Once upon a time, I found myself mentally paralyzed by severe panic attacks. Caged by nonstop fears, I felt like a bird lacking trust in the power of her own wings. Rather than pop anti-anxiety pills—what therapists and doctors said to do—I took a friend’s advice and tried breath awareness. I’d slowly pace my living room, breathing as mindfully as I could while working to regain feeling in my feet (I literally couldn’t feel them touching the ground—scary!). Within a year, I freed myself from the cage of numbing fear. I began to trust those wings again.

Experiencing the healing power of the breath, combined with movement, was a real eye-opener. I wanted to explore it more, and that’s what brought me to yoga. Eventually I folded in a Vipassana meditation practice too, because I found that the physical practice of yoga wasn’t enough to loosen certain mental knots.

A truly healing practice, whether it’s yoga or something else, helps us nourish our vitality while increasing our ability to create harmony in the world around us.

I used to scoff at statements like “change begins within.” I’d think: Get real. The world is going bonkers—and we need to do something about it! It’s true that we must create more peace in the world. Still: It’s nonsensical to expect collective cooperation if we as individuals lack peace in our own lives. We can’t successfully collaborate with others if we’re caught up in discord. Recognizing and unpacking our baggage is vital. Inner peace is the most effective place from which to serve humanity.

By “inner peace” I don’t mean that we no longer experience difficulties—life is really hard at times, and we never escape the ups and downs. We’re not running away in yoga; we’re learning how to rest inside challenges without pouring fuel on the flames. We’re also celebrating our wonderful moments, as temporary as they can be. We’re embracing who we fully are, in all our stink and glory :).

That’s what a healing practice is all about: growing our capacity for compassion.

We need strong compassion for ourselves to stay grounded, and that takes ongoing self-work. But if we’re simply out to gain peace and happiness for ourselves, then we’re not really practicing deep healing. We’re just indulging ourselves in self-love. When we’re practicing healing, we offer compassion in whatever ways we can, when we can—in our homes, local communities, workplaces, and beyond.

Wellbeing is a basic human necessity, not a luxury.

While I’m glad that yoga is so popular, I’m also disheartened that it’s frequently marketed as an aspirational product, mostly through sterile and cliché imagery (ie young, attractive white women doing acrobatic poses in stylish workout gear). Perhaps this imagery helps explain why the demographics at most yoga studios don’t reflect much racial, gender, and/or financial diversity.

The purpose of yoga isn’t to sell us empty images of ourselves, but to keep us going strong—by softening our rigidity and attending to our tensions so we don’t perpetuate hurt in the world (if we can’t gently address the tensions in our own bodies, how are we supposed to do it out there?). Yoga is about engaging whatever needs transforming, from our own thoughts and wellbeing to our interpersonal relationships and societal wellbeing.

There have been many times in my life when I really needed yoga but couldn’t afford classes. And even when I could afford them, I often felt like an outsider—I didn’t have the “right” yoga clothes or yoga mat; most of the time I was the only person with brown skin in the room. One of my key aims with practicing and teaching yoga is to make it relevant to everyday concerns, from our sense of self-worth to the troubles caused by a rapidly changing consumer-based economy.

The other key aim is to make yoga as accessible as possible to as many people as possible: Since I’ve benefited from the practice, others surely can. I offer free yoga videos for anyone who wishes to enjoy yoga in their own time and space. Like most everyone else, I must earn money—I’ve got bills to pay and mouths to feed. So I of course charge fees for my in-person yoga retreats and classes.

Small movements can lead to big changes.

I respect the history of yoga—thanks to Patañjali’s Yoga Sutras (I favor Chip Hartranft’s translation for its warm tone), we can understand yoga as a means to work with our minds skillfully, for the sake of living gracefully. Yet I don’t adhere to orthodoxy—yoga provides us tools for evolving, so naturally yoga can’t be static either. To be effective, it must speak to the culture of the times. And these times are asking us to achieve human equality and to cherish all of life around us.

The way I practice and teach yoga now brings me back to some early roots. As a 30-something grad student, I had wanted to analyze correlations between the vitality of physical movements and the vitality of social movements. I ended up going with a less rigorous research focus out of (guess what?) fear. Major burnout left me drained (I worked 50+ hours per week while attending university full-time), and I didn’t know how I’d drum up the energy to achieve the best results. I also believed, silly enough, that since I knew nothing about being a professional dancer, that I had no right learning anything about movement theory. Through yoga, I get to explore this interest.

What I’m discovering so far is that small movements can lead to great outcomes. With our physical bodies, gentle yoga practices matter for inner healing—pushing ourselves to perform poses only leads to strain, mentally as well as physically. Throughout human history, the smallest social movements have given us the biggest social freedoms—abolitionists were not in the majority, but their courageous voices and actions proved crucial in delegitimizing slavery. The dynamic between physical movement and social movements isn’t a small one: When we’re connected to our own sanctity, we value—and are willing to protect—the sanctity of all life.

May we all be free, happy, and peaceful.

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