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We’re Good Enough

A 60-min yoga video accompanies this post. Prefer to jump right to the yoga? Just scroll to the video below. New to yoga? Please take 2 minutes to read this first. If you’re new to my site, please take a moment to get to know me.

I’d love to see a world in which a livable income is a basic human right.

Too many of us are begging for bread at the castle doors. The difference in quality of life for the upper crust (some of who consolidate their wealth and widen inequalities through tax havens) and the rest of us, most especially the poorest among us, can’t be ignored—it’s not right.

Meanwhile, the images we see all over social media and in advertising sell us phony ideas of who we are—and can be. What does striving for the “perfect” bikini body or a 6-figure income do to address the real anxieties and pains we’re grappling with in the world as it is right now? Absolutely zilch. Plus, these images come with an awful side effect: they can erode our sense of self-worth—if we get stuck comparing ourselves to images, we get stuck on the feeling (not a fact, a feeling) that we’re worthless failures.

I’ve been battling feelings of being less-than, and they arise from stressful circumstances: my housing situation is unstable, and I lack financial security. It can be a slippery slope to doubting my skills and contributions. I’ve caught myself thinking, What do I have to offer when my life is such a mess? Gratefully, the reasonable voice chimes in with a winning rebuttal: I have plenty to offer because my life is such a “mess.” Whose life isn’t in some kind of mess, anyway?

This economy is making us myopic. It individualizes us into corners of loneliness, shame, and exhaustion. Perhaps that’s because our social interactions revolve so much around market-based transactions (why are there so few commerce-free places to mingle in? Why must we desperately compete for [low-paid] work when there’s so much wealth in the world?). Then there’s the unspoken message that if you’re struggling financially and/or burned out, there’s something wrong with you. Forget about intensifying social and economic inequities—pull your chin up, get yourself on social media, spruce up your LinkedIn profile, maybe take some online courses in personal branding and money-management, and Ta-da!

Uh-huh, right.

Here’s a message for us to speak, loud and clear: We are worthy—and all of us deserve much better than a divisive, tiring system.

Trying to get by in isolation, by shouldering all the personal “failures” and worldly troubles on our own, doesn’t work—and we know it. So let’s fill our hearts with fierce tenderness and speak up about realities. There’s no shame in mindfully using our voices—the anxiety and frustration are perfectly normal responses to the madness (I don’t need to specify madness, right? I mean, just skim the headlines on any given day…). The more we speak truth from a loving place = the more we can move ourselves and society toward healing and fairness.

Consider pairing the following yoga video with:

How to Mind the “I’m Not Enough” Trap: Davida Ginter is a social strategist who provides leadership workshops. I’ve recently had the pleasure of speaking with her about overworking and identifying too much with work. Her post offers helpful insights about burnout—and preventing it.

How to Move Forward Once You’ve Hit Bottom: Pema Chödrön, a Buddhist writer and teacher, encourages healthy relationships with failure.

And now for the video:

Relaxation

How are you? I’m recovering from illness. So rather than create a yoga video this week, I’m doing what we should all do in our yoga practices: I’m listening to my body. And my body is telling me: “Girl, you need to relax some more.” Perhaps your body is sending a similar message (it’s the end of the workweek and the start of the cold/flu season, after all).

Here’s a 20-min audio practice (access below) you can do from your yoga mat or even your bed. If you’re feeling run down, this brief session can help you feel more rejuvenated—there’s practically no movement involved, so there’s nothing to zap your physical energy.

In case you prefer to read instead of listening, I’m including a transcript of the practice beneath the audio player. Enjoy! xo

P.S. If you missed last week’s video and are looking for a movement-based practice, you might want to check that out.

Slightly edited transcript:

From wherever you are right now: Observe your state at this moment. How does your body feel? What is your mood like, and what thoughts might be accompanying it? Where do you most notice your breath—in/at the nostrils, on the upper lip, with the rise and fall of your belly?

Once you’re ready to begin the practice, move with as much awareness as possible to your yoga mat. Feel the motions in your legs, sense how your feet press into the floor.

At your mat, slowly make your way down to your back (alternatively, if your batteries are low today, you can lie in bed for this practice). Walk your legs out wide, beyond the edges of the mat. Likewise with your arms—move them away from your body; keep your palms turned up, so the backs of your hands rest on the floor. Close your eyes.

Turn your attention to the back side of your body. Which parts can you feel being supported by the floor beneath you? Perhaps you’re extra aware of the shoulder blades and the back of your head meeting the cushion of your mat. Take a moment or so to note each physical feeling you notice, whatever it is.

Now for the front side. Which parts do you feel moving with the rise and fall of your breath? Since there’s nothing restricting your top side, explore the space above and around you. You might notice, for example, an indescribable feeling of expanding into this space on your inhales and a retraction from this space on your exhales.

Take both sides of your body into account simultaneously. As you breathe in, consider how the restricting element of the floor beneath your back provides the supporting structure for you to experience the spaciousness above and around you. As you breathe out, let go of that consideration and focus on the exhale.

Enjoy 3 intentionally long breaths, with your inhales originating from the belly. Feel your abdomen balloon outward, slowly, as you breathe in. And feel it softly deflate as you exhale. Complete the 3 rounds of breath like this. After your third exhale, return to your natural breathing rhythm, whatever that may be right now.

Again observe where your breath is most noticeable for you, at the nostrils or the belly or somewhere else.

Now that you’ve been tuning into the body and the breath for some time, take stock: What has shifted—or not—in your state of being? Has anything in the body changed? Is your mood different? What are your thoughts like at this point in your practice?

It’s not unusual for the mind to wander, so the breath is an ally in relaxation—it’s a reliable focal point. By tuning into the breath, we train the mind to come back to the present, where our bodies and our breathing are. Continue to observe your in and out breaths, from wherever they show up most dominantly. Make a mental note of any physical experiences that might pop up.

Transition the breath with 3 intentionally deep inhales and equally deep exhales, with your belly leading the way. After these 3 rounds, breathe normally.

Transition the body: wiggle your toes, clench your hands into fists for a moment, then release them.

Open your eyes, but don’t move yet. What is your state of being like now?

Slide your legs together, stretch your arms above your head. Elongate by pointing your toes and reaching through your arms and fingers. Then relax everything.

Roll onto one side. Pause there for a breath or 2 before sitting up. Then pause again before you stand.

I hope this relaxation practice has served you well today. I wish you a great week.

Change Takes Time

Butterfly metamorphosis

Prefer to see the video before you read? Scroll to the video box below. New to yoga? Please take a couple of minutes to read this first.

Change happens, but it comes gradually.

It took human culture 400 years to transition from feudalism to capitalism. People can fear a tyrant for decades until one day they don’t, jubilantly toppling the dictatorship that reigned over them for so long. Lynching was outlawed in the US only in 1952, nearly a century after slavery ended in that country (at least on paper; slavery is unfortunately alive and well in all corners of the globe). I live in the Netherlands, where it’s taboo to address the nation’s brutal history with colonialism and the slave trade. Yet the Rijksmuseum, home to works by Rembrandt and Vermeer, will crash through some of that silence when it launches an exhibition on slavery in 2020. Most government leaders are no longer in denial about the need to protect our precious climate, and science is catching up with ancient wisdom where the interconnectedness of life is concerned. This year’s Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to an org that works to ban nuclear weapons, recognizing that it’s time for humanity to stop its wars of mass destruction. Our patriarchal society is finally, in 2017, listening to and hearing women’s voices on sexism and sexual assault (#MeToo).

Change has happened, and it continues to happen.

As a brown-skinned woman, I can speak my mind about injustices without the fear of losing life and limb (though I still might have to worry about losing a job). Being a heterosexual westerner, I can choose whom I love and whether marriage suits me. I can vote, I can run businesses. I could, if I wanted to, run for political office. These freedoms didn’t sprout up with the grass; they’re the results of courageous efforts taken by countless people before us. The change work we do now is probably not for ourselves—it might not take hold for another generation (or longer). But we hold the baton of progress now, and how we run with it matters.

The purpose of yoga, as I see it, is to keep us going strong—by slowing down to undo the violence of rapidity, softening our rigidity towards difference, attending to our layers of pain so we don’t perpetuate hurt in the world (if we can’t gently address the stresses and tensions in our own bodies, how are we supposed to do it out there?).

It’s of course impossible to cover the vastness of our humanity in a 60-min yoga session, but in this video we’ll at least poke that surface. As the weeks go on, we’ll touch upon our everyday realities—because if we don’t do that, the physical practice of yoga won’t be relevant: yoga is about engaging whatever needs transforming, from our own thought processes and physical wellbeing to our interpersonal relationships and societal wellbeing.

I see yoga as a conversation, so I found it a bit awkward to guide a session without other people being in the same room. What I offer here is not a polished performance but a slice of my imperfect and camera-shy self.

I’d very much appreciate hearing from you and learning what brings you to yoga. If after your practice you feel moved to share an experience or ask a question, leave a note in the comments area below or email me.

Consider bookending this week’s video with:

What Brings Me to Yoga: the story behind my yoga teaching and practice

Your Three Feet of Influence: Sharon Salzberg’s wise thoughts on creating harmony around us

And now for the video:

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.

Leadership: Why We Need It

I’m finding myself obsessed with learning about leadership. Leadership isn’t reserved for government offices and board rooms. In one way or another, we’re all leaders. We’re parents and partners, activists and volunteers, business owners and officials, peers and collaborators. Above all, we are leaders of our own lives.

I want to play my part in bringing more harmony into the world, and leadership feels like a missing piece in the transformation puzzle. The wars, the racism, the destruction of our climate, the interpersonal discord… These crises mirror who we all are—and aren’t—as leaders. I’ve therefore embarked on a path to learn about transformational forms of leadership, so that I can see my own strengths and faults more clearly.

Earlier this month, I attended an intimate forum at a leadership org in Amsterdam. About 30 of us cozied into the warmly lit room, perched on stools or nestled into couches and chairs. It was, as the Dutch say, gezellig. We were eager to hear what the prominent South African activist before us would say about resilience and creating change. I was invited there by a marketing/recruitment employee of said org. The others in the room had paid €15,000 to €35,000 for a 6-month leadership training (gasp, I know. I’ll come back to the cost), and this conversation was one of the program’s closing activities. What I learned by joining the talk:

1. It’s exhilarating to sit among people determined to be their best selves and to do their best work in the world.

The upbeat energy was palpable and contagious. If there’s anything we could use more of these days, it’s the pragmatic hope that filled that room—it’s the antithesis of apathy. It’s inspiring to be around people who are hungry for personal and social transformation.

I also appreciated the atmosphere of respect. People listened to others with curiosity and fascination. Some sat poised with pens and notebooks, engrossed by ideas. Change doesn’t occur in silos; the best ideas often rise up by cross-pollinating perspectives and disciplines (the program comprised participants from all over the world, with equal representation from the corporate, nonprofit, and academic sectors).

Apple is a great example of how cross-pollination succeeds on a commercial level. By making minimalist design its core business/marketing strategy, the corp changed our values around technology aesthetics (resulting in consequences that often work against the changes we need, but I’ll skip that discussion for now to stay focused on the topic at hand).

At the grassroots level, Edwin Rutch aims to bring dignity to politically divisive situations with his Empathy Tents project. Through this initiative, he organized a discussion between a rally organizer and a counter protester ahead of a Patriot Prayer rally in the US. The point with such dialogues isn’t to create equal moral footing but to change conflict dynamics: violence (including white supremacy and neo-Nazism) can arise when people feel unheard and socially disconnected. Fights broke out at the rally, but that doesn’t diminish the potential effectiveness of dialogue: there will always be conflict among humans, yet engaging conflict constructively is possible with the right will. Daryl Davis’s brave experiments in befriending white supremacists for the sake of undoing their racism exemplifies the power of proactive conflict engagement.

2. Resilience is not an individual endeavor.

My ears perked up when the activist shared his experiences with burnout, as I’ve journeyed through several bouts of it myself. Challenging the religiosity of overwork rings my bell: there’s nothing heroic about working ourselves to the bone, til debilitating panic attacks (in my case) and extreme fatigue (also in my case) finally slow us down. What good are we doing by ignoring the weight of exhaustion?

During the Q&A, I asked about the activist’s personal resilience strategies. His simple response: “There are no personal strategies, because resilience isn’t something we can do alone.” That was a lightbulb moment for me. Of course we can’t establish resilience on our own. Social support is nourishing; isolation is draining. His response sounded so obvious when I heard it—in hindsight, it was feelings of isolation that prompted me to ask the question to begin with. It was, I’m sure, feelings of isolation that motivated me to enquire about this org’s leadership trainings.

That leadership trainings like this bring together diverse people to share and grow is what makes these programs remarkable. But:

3. Democracy calls for new models of leadership training.

Leadership trainings tend to require huge sums of money and/or existing bodies of work. So they tend to be out of reach for people who could make huge strides with training but who lack the funds and projects. The Amsterdam org I visited doesn’t list program pricing on its website, but you can tell from the supremely good branding and impressive roster of people that it ain’t cheap. When I was told the pricing in person (only after asking for it), I fought to keep a straight face—I couldn’t have guessed that it’d be that expensive. That’s, like, my annual pay at the org I work for (where there’s no personal development budget).

After the Amsterdam talk, one of the program participants chatted me up. She’s working on her PhD and this leadership training, she told me, has been the best investment in herself. She explained that synchronous run-ins with influencers at institutions like the World Health Organization have been invaluable. I was truly happy that she met mentors who can further her work. I couldn’t help thinking, though, that expensive leadership programs seem like exclusive clubs: you buy a seat at the table. Hmm. Doesn’t this sound a lot like our existing politics, where the monied people drive the decisions?

What might new models of leadership training look like, then? Suggestions:

A. Financial Diversity: the Obama Foundation offers a bright spot here. For its 2-year fellowship starting in April 2018, the org will cover the selected participants’ travel expenses. That undoubtedly eliminated monetary hesitations for the “talented, but not connected” people who applied for consideration. Still, the fellowship supports those who are “at a tipping point in their work.” Yes by all means: give “civic innovators” the tools to be more effective. But there’s a dearth of leadership programs for people who are struggling to get anywhere at all. That’s where there’s some serious potential for innovation. This thought flows into the next point:

B. Expertise Diversity: During the talk at the Amsterdam org, I wasn’t lost to the irony that a room full of financially privileged people were discussing bottom-up change in a top-down fashion: they had the ideas and the resources, and therefore they would be the changemakers. No one said this outright, and no one put on airs—in fact, the activist called out issues of privilege. Yet high-cost leadership trainings reflect a top-down approach. Those with financial resources are regarded as the leaders and experts.

Programs like the one I sat in on could be even more diverse if people without financial means were invited into the mix, on a full scholarship basis. These programs could be much more useful to society if people who actually live some of the issues that need changing were a part of the program, as co-participants—the people who live the issues should be seen as experts.

C. Participatory Frameworks: We don’t need more top-down leadership models; we need participatory leadership models, because creating any system that functions as a genuine democracy calls for it. People everywhere are creative and intelligent, regardless of income, education, and work histories. This case study from Alabama illustrates how effective participatory models can be for community development.

What’s also needed along this vein: leadership programs that recognize the potential of people who want to transform themselves and their communities but don’t have a leg-up. People dealing with disempowering circumstances need support too! The Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign provides trainings on matters like community organizing, accessing and using technology, taking over housing and land, growing food.

D. Contemplative Frameworks: I’d love to see leadership programs include mind-body practices. So much of what we do (or don’t do) in the world is governed by our sense of possibility and our commitments (or lack thereof) to compassion. Yoga and meditation have helped me transform some personal traumas, freeing up a whole lot of energy and understanding about my place in the world. That’s important to note, since it’s energy and clarity that fuel action. These practices have also helped me trust my own voice—and to use it as boldly and compassionately as possible when necessary (like when I must educate white family members about my personal experiences with racism—they just don’t get protests against racism, and that saddens me immensely). Skillfully voicing ourselves is paramount to making meaningful changes.

Perhaps most importantly, contemplative practices invite us to slow down. The world would be a much saner place if we simply stopped doing so much. If we worked less, for example, we could simultaneously: reduce our carbon footprint (cutting down traffic, diminishing power usage in office buildings, etc), explore our individual humanness (more free time = more time to freely think), and enjoy being fully present with our loved ones (tiredness gets in the way of that, doesn’t it?).

Do you work in a leadership and/or leadership training role? If so, I’d love to hear your thoughts.