Saying “Yes” to Life: Yoga, Love, & Light

Posted by on Dec 22, 2017 in Blog | 0 comments

“By a Candle’s Light” – by akikorye on DeviantArt

What was really needed was a fundamental change in our attitude toward life. We had to learn ourselves and, furthermore, we had to teach the despairing men, that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life – daily and hourly . . .. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answers to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual. – Viktor Frankl, “Man’s Search for Meaning” (1946)

2017 has been a brutal year for many of us. Recently, I’ve found myself drawn to the work of those who have reflected deeply on human suffering, and found ways to navigate a course through it to love and light, to a renewed faith in their deepest knowing and a rekindled commitment to the goodness of their world.

I just recently finished reading Viktor Frankl’s classic Man’s Search for Meaning, from which the above quote is drawn. Its original German title was Trotzdem Ja Zum Leben Sagen: Ein Psychologe erlebt das Konzentrationslager, which translates as: Say “Yes” to Life: A Psychologist Experiences the Concentration Camp.

Frankl was an accomplished Austrian doctor, psychologist, and scholar who worked with suicidal women and impoverished youth. He was writing a book on the centrality of meaning in human life when the Nazis seized him, his pregnant wife, and his aging parents. They were first sent to a Jewish ghetto north of Prague, where his father died of exhaustion. Then they were sent to Auschwitz. After being liberated by U.S. troops in 1945, Frankl learned that his mother, brother, wife, and unborn child had not survived.

In 1946, Frankl published Say “Yes” to Life, which recounted his experience in the concentration camps and explained how his commitment to finding meaning in life had deepened during that unimaginably horrific time. He wrote the entire book in nine days.

Frankl passed away in 1997. By that time, Man’s Search for Meaning had sold over 10 million copies and had been translated into 24 languages.


Say “Yes” to Life

Way back when I was a teenager, I read and re-read Lennon Remembers, a book of interviews with John Lennon conducted by Rolling Stone editor Jann Wenner. Although I was too young to have experienced Beatlemania first hand, I was fascinated by John Lennon. In only 10 years (1960-70), he had evolved from being a punk kid playing seedy clubs in Cold War Berlin, to a world famous “mop top” Fab Four-ster, to a psychedelic leader of “Sargent Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” to a solo artist who wrote powerfully raw songs like “Working Class Hero” and “God.”

I’ve remembered the following anecdote from Lennon Remembers ever since I first read it at 15. Here, Lennon recounts how he first met and fell in love with Yoko Ono while he was in London, checking out the then-burgeoning underground art scene:

I got the word that this amazing woman was putting on a show the next week, something about people in bags, in black bags, and it was going to be a bit of a happening and all that. So I went to a preview the night before it opened. I went in – she didn’t know who I was or anything – and I was wandering around . . . There was an apple on sale there for two hundred quid; I thought it was fantastic – I got the humor in her work immediately.

. . . But there was another piece that really decided me for-or-against the artist: a ladder which led to a painting which was hung on the ceiling. It looked like a black canvas with a chain with a spyglass hanging on the end of it. This was near the door when you went in. I climbed the ladder, you look through the spyglass and in tiny little letters it says ‘yes.’ So it was positive. I felt relieved. It’s a great relief when you get up the ladder and you look through the spyglass and it doesn’t say ‘no’ or ‘fuck you’ or something, it said ‘yes.’

I didn’t know it at the time, but I was deeply unhappy as a teenager. Back then, I didn’t have a clue why this story felt so important to me. I just knew that it did.

This image of climbing up on a ladder and expecting something edgy and most likely disturbing, but really not knowing at all what you might see, and then looking through a telescope on a chain and seeing only the word “yes” . . . it moved me. It was some sort of touchstone; a pop culture incarnation of the sort of mythology that used to guide people towards finding meaning in life.


Yoga as Connection

 Yoga has been central both to my everyday life and deeper processes of spiritual exploration for many years now. So, when I read something like Frankl’s insight that “it is impossible to define the meaning of life in a general way . . . No situation repeats itself, and each situation calls for a different response,” I immediately connect it with what I’ve learned through practicing yoga.

I think of “burning off Karma” and developing the capacity to act in the world in what the Yoga Sutra calls a “colorless” way. Or of Karma Yoga more generally: Practicing right action in response to whatever the world presents and your Dharma asks of you, and letting go of ego-driven expectations and demands.

A Buddhist teacher who’s not engaged in today’s yoga world but is curious about it recently asked me how I personally understand yoga. Often, this is the sort of question that launches me into a long explanation of how I’ve come to think of yoga in ways that are different from what we normally do today . . . that it’s really much more than stretching, and so on and so forth.

But perhaps because I knew that was someone who didn’t need all the preliminaries, and was ready for a deeper answer, I surprised myself by spontaneously answering: “To me, yoga is about connection: Connecting to my deeper self, to others, to the world, and to that which is greater than all that in ways that feel deeply meaningful to me.”

She said, “hmmmm,” and seemed satisfied. I thought, “wow, that really is how I think about it, and it’s so simple . . . yet, I was never able to state it so clearly before.” That seemed sort of strange. But it felt right, nonetheless.


Yoga Culture in Crisis

Meanwhile, North American yoga culture is in the midst of what I could call a full-blown Kuhnian “paradigm crisis.” What were only recently widely taken-for-granted ways of understanding the practice have broken down. Among more serious students and experienced teachers, this process has sparked a lot of serious, and often painful and contentious questioning.

It’s not news to anyone who’s followed these developments for the past few years that the most challenging issues center around the fact that so many prominent teachers abused their power and hurt students who had placed their faith and trust in them. The list of notorious cases has grown long. Some are horrific.

Even for those of us who never came anywhere near the worst cases, learning about them can be deeply disturbing. More than once, after reading about some terrible events that I’d previously been happily unaware of, I’ve felt so repulsed that I started questioning whether I should continue to have anything to do with yoga at all. The whole scene can feel so embarrassingly, even shamefully polluted and wrong.

For me, such moments have passed relatively quickly and easily. That’s no particular credit to me, as I haven’t had any yoga-related traumas to process. I’ve been through some disillusioning experiences with a few of my former yoga teachers, to be sure. But nothing ever rose anywhere near the level of headline-worthy abuse.

Plus, I’ve reminded myself that most human organizations and cultures generate similar problems. The dynamics are particularly parallel in politics and religion, which often involve similarly volatile mixes of idealism and aspiration, on the one hand, and power and empire-building, on the other.

But that’s me. What about the countless others who’ve been directly involved with some of the worst aspects of yoga culture? How can they heal? What is the best way forward?

I don’t know. I don’t have any answers. But I do believe that the question of how best to respond to the inevitable suffering that life brings us is a timeless and universal one.


Love and Light

A lot of people in the yoga world and beyond have more than had it with sunny affirmations of “love and light.” This is totally understandable. Such stock phrases easily become empty platitudes. Even worse, they are often used to shut down needed critiques, and silence and shame those who want and need to voice them.

Yet at the end of the day, what better words are there to point toward the lived experience of connecting with a sense of deep inner peace and profound goodness, of a meaningful knowing that goes beyond words and concepts? Carl Jung called it “the numinous,” but that seems too fancy for everyday use.

Why not keep it simple? Say “yes” to life. Affirm love and light. What this means concretely varies from person to person, moment to moment.

What’s important to know is that healing is possible. Renewal is possible. People like Viktor Frankl show us that the human spirit can be infinitely resilient.

Like the mythological Phoenix, we can burn down to ashes and still tap a mysterious force that eventually enables us to regenerate, and fly again.

The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.  Elisabeth Kübler-Ross

Bluejay, Cyanocitta cristata, flying through the trees by Mother-Daughter Press

Happy Holidays

Merry Christmas

Happy New Year


Yoga: Beyond the BS

Posted by on Jul 18, 2017 in Blog | 0 comments

Yoga: Beyond the BS

Back cover image, “21st Century Yoga.” Photo credit: Sarit Z. Rogers, Sarit Photography

Back when there wasn’t much critical writing about yoga available, I tried to read as many blogs and articles that addressed some problematic aspect of yoga culture as I could. But that was then. In years, it wasn’t such a long time ago. In felt time, though, it feels like a distant memory.

Today, I expect my Facebook feed (which, much as I hate to admit it, is one of my primary yoga-related news sources) to be dominated by a non-stop stream of negative reports. To be sure, much of it is valuable, and most is interesting in one way or another. But the volume and intensity of this barrage of negative yoga news has mushroomed to the point where it’s beyond wearisome. I no longer want to read much of it. On a visceral, gut level, I’m sick of it.


Energy Suck

The endless barrage of yoga-focused negativity feels overwhelming, dismaying, draining. Sure, there are exceptions. After all, there are real problems out there. Periodically, someone addresses them in a way that feels uplifting, rather than discouraging. But most of the time, it feels like an energy suck.

Intellectually, I know that the topics I see people on social media going around and around on (and this is very much a social media phenomenon) are important: power abuses, cult dynamics, cultural appropriation, commercialization, commodification, yoga injuries, YTT mills, YA’s failings, unqualified teachers, fetishized hypermobility, and so on (and on) . . .

All are vitally important topics. I’ve written about many of them myself, and still care about them. I believe that people should talk about them. It’s good that the fake, fluffy, feel-good silence that used to surround such problems in the yoga world has been broken.

But. The negative, repetitive vortex that’s developed around yoga-centered critique feels toxic. After building momentum for years, it’s developed a self-perpetuating dynamic of its own. It’s become a churning tidal wave of negative energy. Often, I feel the underlying dynamic is driven by attachment to negative emotions and/or manipulative power plays.

Again, there are exceptions. But overall, what’s happening in the online yogasphere today doesn’t feel like constructive critique. And all too often, it seems to be overshadowing, rather than supporting whatever new waves of energy, inspiration, purpose, and passion are emerging.

This makes it a destructive, rather than constructive force. I fear that it’s eclipsing too much of the healing, pro-social, and transformative work that has been and continues to be done with yoga. As such, it poses a threat to the collective future of the practice.


Should I Stay or Should I Go?

I’ve become so turned off by the dynamics of yoga culture today that I’ve seriously considered walking away from it many times. I know that I’m not alone in this.

Given the staggering amount of shallow commercialism, narcissistic self-absorption, teacher betrayals, self-righteous crusading, and online policing and bullying that courses through so much of contemporary yoga culture, what’s left to like? Continuing to engage with a supposedly enlightening practice that’s perversely breeding such nastiness can seem pointless, if not idiotic.

But here’s the thing: Yoga works for me. I feel shitty if I don’t practice regularly. Physically, I get stiff and achy. Emotionally, I become more blocked, weighted down, and reactive. Mentally, I feel claustrophobic – increasingly trapped in the narrowing confines of my own thoughts.

I’m not as in touch with my intuition. I don’t appreciate the sunlight and shadows as much. In a holistic, rather than simply visual sense, I can’t see as clearly.

Over time, I’ve incorporated a variety of practices into what I consider to be my own personal practice. Some are what you’d expect of any reasonably serious practitioner: mindfulness, meditation, reading classic yogic texts. Others are more prosaic: e.g., regular bouts with the foam roller and other fascia-friendly tools.

Other practices I now consider part of “yoga” are less predictable, but at least as important. One that I learned in my teacher training is practicing looking closely at – and seeking to truly see – some of the grand old trees I walk by regularly. (There’s many in the park where I walk with my dog.) My root teacher, Ana Forrest, leads her students through many exercises in what she calls seeing and empathing. The deep purpose of this practice is to learn to apprehend and absorb some of the profound beauty that surrounds us every day – but that we normally fail to notice.

Typically, we walk through the deep green of the summer grass in the sunlight without really seeing it. We’re oblivious to that fleeting, mystical moment when twilight comes and suffuses city buildings in an otherworldly, magical glow. But we can practice being more awake to the wonder that surrounds us. And when we become more conscious, we’re more attuned to our life force and what nourishes our soul.


Asana Matters

This is yoga. It doesn’t require a mat, or even an asana practice. Yet anyone who says that asana isn’t important definitely isn’t living in a body like mine. Asana is very important to me. Often, I wish it wasn’t. But like it or not, I’m reminded of its value every time I slack off and go for more two days without it.

Ironically, I suspect that that the primary reason asana works so well for me is that by conventional standards, I’m naturally “bad at yoga.” I’m not one of those hypermobile teachers or former dancers or gymnasts who easily sails into fantastic poses. I’ve never been very flexible. And it’s only getting worse as I grow older.

I like to live in my head. I’m drawn towards disconnecting from my emotions and inhabiting a much less messy world of logic and rationality. It’s much easier for me to work adeptly with my mind than my body.

I also know from painful experience that I need to counter this constitutional imbalance in order to be healthy – not only physically, but psychologically, emotionally, and spiritually.

We are multidimensional beings. We need head and heart, body and spirit. Yoga asana has been the one practice I’ve found that’s given me the tools I need to knit my fragmented self back together in ways that support healing and holistic growth. So, at least for the time being, I’m sticking with it.


Stay Focused

Part of me would love to dump contemporary yoga culture (its yoga service and socially engaged subcultures excepted) and move on to something less aggravating. But that feeling is counterbalanced by reconnecting to my sense of gratitude for what yoga has given me. And when I’m in touch with that gratitude, I want others to have access to the same resource that has helped and continues to help me so much.

That means that part of my practice now needs to be keeping my eyes on the prize, and letting the bullshit fly by without becoming too agitated and distracted.


Modern Yoga and the Yoga Tradition

Posted by on Jan 19, 2017 in Blog | 6 comments

“Our yoga is not a retreading of old walks, but a spiritual adventure.”

– Sri Aurobindo (1872-1950), extract from letter to disciple (date unknown)

As an American who’s profoundly opposed to the about-to-be installed Trump Administration (Inauguration Day is tomorrow), I’ve been finding it difficult to sleep soundly since late October, when I felt the political winds shift sharply in his direction.

I’ve always been a light sleeper. But now, if something wakes me up at night, I often have a really hard time getting back to sleep. I’m flooded with deep feelings of unease. My mind flits from one anxiety to the next.

To get back to sleep, I often have to turn the light on and read something to help shift my psyche into a new gear. Lately, that’s been Peter Heehs’ Indian Religions: A Sourcebook of Spiritual Expression and Experience. That’s where I found the above quote from Aurobindo, reading his philosophy of Integral Yoga in the middle of the night.

Meanwhile, during the daytime hours, amongst my obsessive following of the political news I’ve noticed a small but steady stream of social media posts from some of my favorite yoga colleagues discussing just how deeply they’re questioning their relationship to the yoga tradition.

While coming to different conclusions, the common thread is that the terms “yoga” and “yoga tradition” have come to carry so much unwanted cultural baggage that they need to reflect seriously on whether they want to continue to use them or not.


Should I Stay or Should I Go?

Diane Bruni confesses that “in my heart, it’s all yoga.” Nonetheless, the “narrow meaning” of the “mainstream definition of yoga” has caused her to redefine herself as a “movement educator,” rather than a “yoga teacher.” Meanwhile, Matthew Remski suggests “that Yogaland stops using the word “tradition” altogether, or at least qualifies it by an order of separation”:

Have people been practicing the techniques of Iyengar, Jois, Desai, Krishnamacharya/Desikachar-in-Chennai for long enough to merit the status of “tradition”? Is forty years enough? I doubt it . . . So how do we get more accurate in our language? How do we make sure that the word “tradition” is not merely a way of bolstering a fragile sense of internal authority, or a marketplace validation device? Maybe use the word “version”? Iyengar’s version of yoga, Jois’ version of yoga, Desai’s version of yoga. Each with their antecedents that may or may not pass whatever test of “tradition” demands more than 40 years and a couple of photographs on the wall.

J. Brown reports that he knows a number of long-term yoga teachers who decided “to stop referring to what they teach as yoga,” and that he understands why (the commercialism, mass market demand for a stretchy workout, etc.). Nonetheless, that’s not where he himself lands:

I know what yoga means to me, based on my personal practice, study, and the discernment of my experience . . . I consider yoga to be a multigenerational and multicultural thread that reaches back into the dim mystical past and runs through humanity, from the earliest of ancient wisdom cultures to the civilizations of today. There is power and magic in this and I will continue to call it by the name imparted to me, yoga.

I don’t think that there’s a “right” or “wrong” side in this discussion. And, I suspect that all involved would agree. Each of these perspectives (and others besides) make sense to me. What’s important about them is that they challenge me to reflect on my own understandings, and sharpen them.


Reason vs. Experience

Upon reflection, I feel that my deeper psyche draws me towards the same place as J: that is, to the feeling that I practice yoga, and that in so doing, I’m part of the yoga tradition.

This feeling isn’t derived from weighing the evidence of what yoga today is or is not. Rather, it’s based on such basic facts of my life as being drawn to read Aurobindo in the middle of the night when I’m too anxious to get back to sleep.

It’s based on my felt necessity to return to my mat day after day in order to remain more or less OK and at ease in my body, mind, and spirit. It’s based on the pull of recognition I’ve felt when connecting with various aspects of the historic yoga tradition – reading the Gita, practicing Pranayama, reflecting on the profound import of “stilling the fluctuations of the mind.”

For me, the best way to answer the question of how I personally connect to yoga and the yoga tradition is to be honest about my own experience. And that means saying that yes, despite the many quite reasonable issues that could and in fact should be raised around the use of the term “yoga tradition,” I do feel connected to it. 


A “Yoga Traditionalist”?

Given this realization, I found myself wondering whether I could possibly describe myself as a “yoga traditionalist.” Given that this is a term that I’ve never identified with at all (quite the contrary) this has felt like an odd, even absurd question to consider.

Still, at a time when some exceptionally thoughtful yoga teachers are choosing to distance themselves from yoga and the yoga tradition, and I find myself drawn in the other direction, it’s a question that I needed to ask.

With some reflection, I found that it wasn’t hard for me to answer. Given the valence of the term “yoga traditionalist,” I’m no more of one now than I ever was – which is to say, not at all.

One might ask: Isn’t this contradictory? How can I feel connected to the yoga tradition, yet not identify as a yoga traditionalist? Isn’t that illogical, even nonsensical?

I think not. This is because in my experience, the status of “yoga traditionalist” has been reserved for those who believe that they’re participating in a practice that hasn’t been significantly impacted (if not corrupted) by modernity. Although not always explicitly stated, I’ve only seen that term being used by those who convey a sense of being heir to a singular, unchanging essence of yoga that has clear, unambiguous boundaries.

This vision of a neatly bounded yoga tradition doesn’t resonate with me at all. Nor does it make any sense based on what I know about yoga history – or, for that matter, human history in general.


Yoga & Modernity

Personally, I believe that the practice that I’ve become so cathected to is profoundly modern. In fact, its essential modernity is key to why I feel so positive about it.

I believe that modern yoga developed as a tool to help us live better and more meaningful lives in the context of the modern world. To me, this is a positive and valuable thing. I don’t feel that I need to do the same yoga that select groups of men in medieval India did in order for it to be legitimate or worthwhile.

In my view, different sets of beliefs and practices inevitably emerge in different cultural and historical contexts. That’s not to say that certain enduring questions don’t speak to the human condition across time and space; I believe that they do.

I also believe that certain loosely defined sets of answers to those profound questions (e.g., why am I here? what happens when we die?) share a common valence. For example, different religious and spiritual traditions point to the power of divine love in different ways. They’re not the same. But they seem to have a shared impetus. And perhaps those vague similarities are more important than their many differences.


A “Modern Tradition”?

Still, I recognize that there’s something inchoate about my sense of being part of a “modern yoga tradition.” It seems incoherent to say that something can be experienced as both “modern” and “traditional” at the same time.

Can I really believe that modern yoga is a distinct set of ideas and practices that emerged during the past hundred years – and that it’s part of a historic yoga tradition that’s thousands of years old?

Any logical answer to this question must define the terms “yoga” and “tradition” carefully. Then, it must marshall evidence that demonstrates either the continuities between modern and pre-modern yoga, or the lack thereof.

But as noted earlier, how we answer such questions often doesn’t depend solely, or even primarily on logic.

The word “tradition” carries a special weight. However we might technically define it, emotionally it conveys a sense of deep meaning and import. It envisions a great river of time. It invokes our ancestors and forebearers. It says that while this legacy may be only human, it’s withstood the tests of time in ways that make it more than that. It’s a link to something enduring and important.

To feel part of the yoga tradition is to feel connected to something profoundly valuable that’s much bigger than myself. Such feelings aren’t based on rational analysis; they’re rooted in deeply felt personal experience.


The Razor’s Edge

We human beings are a complex and troubled lot. We need to feel connected to something much larger than ourselves in order to be the best people we can be, and live truly happy lives. Feeling part of “the yoga tradition” is one way in which this can happen. There are, of course, many others.

That’s the sunny side. But there are also endless examples to prove that this vital human feeling of being part of something bigger than ourselves has a deep shadow.

Rather than fostering expansive enlightenment, it can propel one-dimensional fanaticism. This, in turn, can encourage and justify the sort of blind submission to authority that invites abuses of power. Conversely, it can fuel the desire to wield such power oneself.

Early in the course of my yoga studies, a man told me that to be on the spiritual path is to walk the razor’s edge. At the time, I had little context to put this in, and wasn’t sure what he meant. But his words stuck with me. Now, many years later, I think I get it.

If you feel that yoga connects you to something larger, and that you’re part of an historic tradition, you may be lucky. You may have discovered something in this life that works to put you in touch with a sense of bigger meaning, and an experience of grace.

Conversely, you may be in trouble. You may have become swept up in something that could cause harm. You may have lost your bearings. You may need to reground yourself in order to find them. This may be very hard.

And the really tricky part is that this balance may shift at any time. As the by-now extensive history of good yoga teachers gone bad amply demonstrates, even the most adept masters aren’t immune to the seductive pull of the shadow.


Same as it Ever Was

“Our yoga is not a retreading of old walks, but a spiritual adventure.”

Sri Aurobindo was a revolutionary and a mystic. Writing in the early 20th century, he was unapologetic about developing a new form of yoga. He was also adamant about its essential connection to the past.

Reading his words in the middle of the night, anxious about what’s been unleashed in my country and our world, I feel connected to something bigger. I feel more grounded, calmer.

I tell myself that what happens politically, spiritual adventure exists nonetheless. Soon, I manage to get back to sleep.


Yoga, Post-Election: Making Space for Life

Posted by on Dec 14, 2016 in Blog | 2 comments


For some weeks now, I’ve wanted to write something about yoga in our new post-election, Trump-dominated world. But that’s been hard to do because I’ve also wanted to share something that feels positive in a meaningful, rather than fakey cotton candy-like way. And guiding inspiration has not been shining through.

Most of the time, I feel weighted down by the constant barrage of what I experience as horrifying news. I feel tired, heavy, inundated, drained, dispirited, anxious, apprehensive. In a word: I feel bad.

In that state, yoga seems rather beside the point.

I’m obsessively following the news. New alarm bells keep ringing. It’s a cacophony. It makes it hard to hear myself think about anything else. It makes it hard to feel that I should be doing anything other than searching for a way – some way, any way, there must be a way – to stop what’s happening politically in the U.S. right now from happening.

But of course, that’s not possible.

Yes, it’s good to take whatever action we can, and I’m trying to do that (calling Congress, writing letters, posting articles, finding meet-ups, searching for the best way to leverage my available time and energies). At some fundamental level, though, the shift has happened. We are where we are.


Protective Mechanisms

I feel my own internal resistance to processing that simple fact. This isn’t intentional: Consciously, I’m reading the news, thinking, worrying . . . But there’s some sort of internal stoppage. That’s OK, I think. I feel it’s a protective mechanism. Because it’s hard to be in this political moment fully, and not feel psychically flattened.

Such psychic blockage isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s a way of titrating the shock that’s hit me, that’s collectively hit a lot of us. (Not everyone, of course. Some are reveling, celebratory, triumphant; others are not paying much attention, for a whole slew of reasons.) But if the process of working through the shock of the election and all the negative emotions that’s generated gets stuck, I know it’s going to be bad.

That sort of stuckness isn’t a protective blockage; it’s a standing psychic cesspool, a negative energy suck. And living with that inside me is going to cause sickness – if not physically, then certainly emotionally and spiritually.

Fear and hatred can be infectious. They can make us sick on a deep level. They can be easily transmitted to others. They can metastasize and grow into ravaging cancerous whirlwinds. They can cause us to feel attracted to pain and death.

Up to a point, experiencing pain and hate is OK. We all get sick sometimes. It can strengthen our immune systems. But to let such energies fester is dangerous. They can start to rot. This can cause you to lose touch with your own internal goodness. It can lead you to lose touch with life.



I’m still getting to my mat. I’m still taking time to simply sit and let my thoughts and energies settle. Often, what arises then is grief.

But it’s a relief to let some of that out in a safe, titrated way. It’s just a bit at a time. I can’t process the whole wave all at once. But I can tune in and find some deeper feeling than the numb spin-cycle of upset and anxiety. And that deeper emotion feels meaningful. It connects me to a sense of love for a world that feels lost. And in that connection is a sense of some seed of a new world to be born.

A lot has been lost. The world where I took it for granted that proudly racist white supremacist ideology was in the rear-view mirror of American history: Gone. The world where I assumed that our center of political gravity was an aspirational vision of democracy that embraced multiculturalism, gender equity, racial justice, environmental protection and reducing the gap between the 1% and the rest of us: Gone. The world where I was hopeful that when push came to shove, liberal democrats, democratic socialists, progressives, and Leftists would cooperate to defeat Trump: Gone. The world where I thought that a winning electoral coalition would not rally around a shameless demagogue who traffics in bullying, threats, insults, intimidation, and lies: Gone.

I could go on, but what’s the point? You get the idea.

This election was historic. There’s no going back. We’re not going to return to the pre-Trump normal. It’s over. His supporters, of course, celebrate that. But unless they’re one percenters who’ll benefit from the coming kleptocracy or radical right-wingers itching for even more of a fight, I don’t think there’s going to be much to celebrate – at least not for long.


Creating Space for Possibility

So . . . what about yoga?

Yoga is a practice that enables you to open up more space in your body and mind on a daily basis. For that opening to occur, there has to be some sort of holistic shift – some combination of physical, emotional, psychological and what could be called psychic (ineffable, spiritual) movement.

Stuff moves. If we learn to pay attention, we feel it. Sense it. Then, harnessing breath and intention, it’s possible to work with that movement to let some of the energies that keep us constricted, tense, bunkered down, shut in, isolated, and disconnected to process, and release.

Often, after a good practice I look at my mat and visualize a pile of dirty broken glass: Glittering shards, muddy rubble. A heap of stuff that’s broken free and been let go of. It’s not a pretty metaphor. But getting rid of shit that’s constricting and clogging your psyche doesn’t lend itself to beautiful imagery.

Yet it does feel so damn good. And the beauty does come. It comes in being able to connect with a sense of self that’s clearer, brighter, more peaceful and more knowing. Once the space has been cleared, it’s possible. It happens naturally. There’s more lightness. There’s more light.

There’s more room for possibility. There’s a new chance to see the world with fresh eyes. To see wonder and beauty again.


A Brighter Connection

President-Elect Trump created a powerful energetic matrix with those rallies, those chants, those hypnotic speeches. He has powerful charisma – it’s undeniable. He created a vortex. Shared meanings that many of us cherished were gleefully sucked in, and slated for total destruction.

It’s powerful. And more and more powerful men are coming on board. Who knows where we’re heading with them taking control of most of the machinery of political power in the U.S. – for now, the most powerful country in the world.

Those of us who are repelled by the vortex and want to resist it must work with ourselves on the inside. It’s crucial. Yoga is just one method. There are certainly other ways to engage the same process. But it does need to be done. Otherwise, our connection with ourselves and what we love gets sucked dry. And then, we have nothing positive to offer.

It’s equally critical to connect with others who share our desire to co-create an alternative politics and culture. If we clear space internally, and then connect with others, we bring a brighter self to a catalytic gathering. The more brigher selves that come together, the more the sparks fly. Fires get lit. And something new and beautiful will emerge.

We can’t predict what it will be. Like a good yoga practice, we must commit to engaging with the process. To breathe, ground, and center. To work hard and let go. To fall down and get up, again and again.

To balance long enough to ride the wave through. To fall into the water and trust that we know how to swim up to the surface. That we can hold our breath, and that we will breathe again. And that we can then reach out to others who could use a hand, and help them do the same.


Reimagining Yoga: Holistic Wellness, Social Connection, Spiritual Revitalization (Part 1)

Posted by on Aug 23, 2016 in Blog | 3 comments

broken-windowBoth yoga culture and the world at large have been changing at a dizzyingly rapid rate recently. More often than not, this has been generating an exhausting, demoralizing stream of bad news. I’ve often felt anxious, disillusioned, and/or overwhelmed by the incessant barrage of negative headlines. I know that I’m not alone in this.

Sometimes, I just want to disengage completely. On the political front: Forget the election, the shootings, the terrorism, the hate. On the yoga front: Forget the scandals, commercialism, controversies, and crusades. Sometimes I just feel so sick of it all. To rephrase the famous ‘60s tagline, I just want to tune out, turn inwards, and drop out of everything that feels difficult (at least as much as I reasonably can).

Despite such feelings, I don’t actually believe that sticking my head in the sand is the best way to deal with what’s happening, either in yoga culture or more generally. That’s not to say that I don’t believe that periods of retreat and renewal aren’t necessary – most definitely, I do. Staying engaged with a world that all-too-often feels endlessly frustrating, if not crazy and frightening, requires taking time out self-care and spiritual renewal – at least if you want to avoid cratering into damaging reactivity or burnout.

Which is where – for me, and I know for many others – yoga comes in. My practice is invaluable in that it helps me stay healthy, move tension out of my body, release negative emotions, quiet my mind, and connect to something bigger, deeper, and more meaningful than today’s headlines, anxieties, and stress. Rather ironically, however, I often need my practice to regenerate the energy necessary to stay positively engaged not only with this insane season of American politics, but the yoga world itself.


Toward a New Paradigm

It’s true: Between the shallow commercialism on the one hand, and the mean-spirited “yoga policing” on the other, sometimes the yoga world just doesn’t seem worth bothering with. While my own personal, at-home practice never disappoints, I find many aspects of the larger culture that’s grown up around yoga to be a huge turn-off.

And it doesn’t necessarily help that I’m far from the only person who feels this way. On the contrary, as the volume cynical negativity surrounding yoga has turned up (and up and up – particularly on social media), my desire to tune the whole thing out has only intensified.

Happily, however, I know that this negativity isn’t the whole story. Quietly, under the radar, there are countless yoga teachers, sudents, and studio owners working with the practice in ways that have enormous integrity, intelligence, and heart. But that doesn’t make headlines. And they aren’t crusaders. And their small-scale businesses don’t have a big marketing budget – if any. This has long been true, and hasn’t changed.

There are also a lot of promising new developments in yoga culture. Within the North American orbit I’m most familiar with, these include the:

Some of these developments have attracted more attention than others. All, however, have definitely gained a lot of traction in recent years.

When I look at this list of yoga-related work as an ensemble, I can imagine a new paradigm emerging. To be sure, this isn’t something that I foresee subsuming the popular forms of “workout yoga” that have also exploded recently. But I’m not concerned with that.

What interests me is the development of a small, yet powerful movement within yoga culture that will harness the power of the practice in ways that not only help us live better in the world as individuals (insane, scary politics and all) – but also support collective work dedicated to improving the quality of life on this planet as a whole.


Grassroots Change

I believe such a movement is beginning to take shape on a grassroots level, both in North America (the arena I’m most familiar with) and internationally. This isn’t something you’ll see in glitzy, high-powered advertising campaigns, or splashed across your social media feeds. That doesn’t mean, however, that it’s not there. It just means that it’s harder to identify – and, perhaps, to believe in.

But that can – and should – change.

Thanks to my work with the Yoga Service Council in particular, I’ve had the opportunity to connect with people all over the U.S. (and to a lesser but still significant extent, the world) who are doing incredible work to make the everyday teaching and practice of yoga more healing, therapeutic, effective, accessible, inclusive, trauma-informed, culturally sensitive, and socially just.

When I see where this part of the yoga world is and imagine where it might go, I feel hopeful and excited about the possibilities of yoga as a popular mind-body integration practice in the world today. And the more I focus on the positive things that are happening, and do what I can to help develop them further, the less I feel overwhelmed by all of the negativity, both in the yoga world and beyond.


Reimagining Yoga

That said, it’s not always easy to maintain a broadly positive vision. Nor should it be: To hold unwaveringly to an easy, sunny optimism in light of what’s happening in the U.S. and the world today requires either extreme naivety, or intense denial. Neither is healthy. Again, though – that’s where having a strong, committed personal yoga practice comes in. (At least, for those of us who are drawn to that. There are certainly other tools that can and do help people stay positive and live meaningful lives in a difficult world.)

I believe, however, that more and more people within the broadly defined “yoga community” (which is really too fragmented to be referred to as such) are deeply interested in exploring how the practice might support synergistic processes of positive individual and social change. Although still a nascent movement that has generated some new problems of its own, it’s not only in the process of growing quickly, but has tremendous, if still largely unimagined potential.

I find myself drawn to imagining what this potential might be and how best to realize it. At least for the moment, my conclusion is that it might be most helpful to focus on yoga’s capacity to support integrative process of: 1) building holistic wellness, 2) supporting positive social engagement, and 3) sparking a sense of spiritual revitalization that crosses culturally divisive lines of race, class, gender, politics, and religion.


Holistic Wellness I: Broken Promises

The claim that yoga is a “mind-body-spirit practice” that unfailingly makes you totally healthy has long since become a tired marketing cliché. As such, it’s not necessarily given much serious thought, most of the time. Instead, it’s often a taken-for-granted, but essentially meaningless catch-phrase that’s slapped onto anything capable of being construed as “yoga” – provided, of course, doing so might help sell yoga-related offerings to their targeted market niche. Such strategic over-promising naturally engenders cynicism or disregard.

This tarnish on yoga’s reputation as a genuinely healing practice has been corroded further by the steady stream of reports on yoga-induced injuries that’s come out in the past few years. Kicked off by William Broad’s infamous “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body” article in 2012, this once-taboo subject has grown into an in-depth – and much-needed – examination of the injurious effects of many common yoga practices. The wisdom of teaching, or even practicing classically revered poses such as headstand, as well as long-established alignment instructions (e.g., tuck your tailbone), for example, has been challenged forcefully and discussed widely.

The most devastating reports of yoga-related injuries, however, aren’t physical. Rather, they’re emotional and psychological – even, in a loosely defined sense, spiritual. I’m not going to recount the long list of yoga abuses, scandals, and even actionable crimes here . . . they’re now part of the public record, and easily researched by anyone with Internet access. I will, however, provide just one example of this tragic and sordid history by sharing the most recent comment posted on a blog that I wrote 4 ½ years ago – simply because it’s something that happened to cross my own personal radar screen, while being an obvious indicator of events much bigger than me.

This post was written way back in 2012 as a reflection on the parallels between the then red-hot Anusana scandal, and the much older one at what was then the Kripalu ashram, but since reorganized itself into the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health. Much to my surprise, the comments on that post turned into an ongoing message forum for former disciples of the founding Kripalu guru, yoga teacher Amrit Desai. This last one was posted just three months ago.

Thanks for this post. Helped me get some clarity. I was a resident and disciple and am still trying to figure out what happened to me. We treated Amrit like a God. How could we have been so foolish? I dropped out of graduate school to live in the ashram and have been poor ever since. If I had never heard of Kripalu I wonder if I would be in a better place now. No answer to that question. I learned a lot from this experience, but often wish I had never drunk the Kool-Aid. I’m still trying to get down from the illusion that someone from a different culture could give me something I didn’t already have.

Given that the scandal at issue occurred way back in 1994, I found this comment to be a poignant reminder of just how deep and long-lasting such yoga-related wounds can be.




Holistic Wellness II: Creative Ferment

Precisely because there has been so much injury, however, a small but growing cadre of yoga teachers and serious practitioners has emerged that’s fiercely dedicated to exploring yoga’s capacities as a holistic wellness practice in new ways. In many cases, their yoga-based work is cross-fertilized with work in other disciplines: e.g., psychology, somatic therapy, neuroscience, integrative medicine, social work, education, writing. The resulting process of creative fermentation is starting to change not only how yoga is understood and practiced, but also the willingness of other fields and social institutions to engage with it, as well.

To offer another personal example: I had the honor of being part of a yoga-driven, but also highly interdisciplinary collaborative process during the past year, when I served as editor of the Yoga Service Council’s forthcoming Best Practices for Yoga with Veterans book. Like the rest of the works in the YSC’s annual “Yoga Service Best Practices” series, this book grew out of a facilitated collaborative process that involved over 30 people. In this case, the collective expertise of the book’s contributors, contributing editors, and peer reviewers spanned the fields of not only of yoga, mindfulness, and meditation, but also veterans’ affairs, integrative medicine, clinical psychology, trauma therapy, social work, academic research, journalism, nonprofit management, and more.

As we worked together to winnow out a set of commonly agreed-upon “Best Practices for Yoga with Veterans,” it was evident to me how a shared commitment to yoga can enable many diverse fields to align. For example: The trauma experts suport the development of the new field of trauma-informed yoga. Yoga teachers develop trainings, more teachers learn about it. Some are civilians concerned with veterans, or veterans themselves, and seek to offer classes in the VA – a diverse network of hospitals, community health clinics, and other facilities that comprises by far the largest public health system in the U.S.

Supportive administrators in VAs across the country find ways to hire yoga teachers and launch classes, despite the fact that the federal government has no official job category of “yoga teacher,” which makes the logistics rather difficult. Doctors, nurses, and therapists who interface with that system see the potential of yoga to support a wide variety of public health specialties. Working with dedicated yoga teachers, new expertise develops for teaching yoga to veterans with traumatic brain injuries, amputated limbs, and other health issues. Some veterans whose lives have been positively transformed by yoga go on to become social workers, college professors, and nonprofit leaders. They incorporate yoga into their work, and new resources, protocols, and organizational initiatives are born.


Social Connection I: Synergizing Individual & Social Change

Parallel developments are happening in the fields of elementary and secondary education, higher education, criminal justice, addiction and recovery, disordered eating and body image, and more. In each case, the basic dynamics are the same: People involved in those fields find their lives improved by yoga, and want to integrate yoga into their field so that others within it can hopefully benefit as well. Integrating yoga into new social locations brings new issues, challenges, and opportunities, both to the organizations involved and the practice itself. This creates new incentives to adapt yoga practices to fit the environment, and to adapt the environment to accommodate the yoga itself.




To be continued . . .  because there’s so much to say on each of my three core topics – holistic wellness, social engagement, and spiritual revitalization – I’m breaking up what would otherwise be an excessively long post into two parts. So, stay tuned if you want to hear more. Meanwhile, I’m interested in learning what others see as the most positive developments, as well as promising potential in yoga culture today. The intention here isn’t to negate critique, but rather to uplift work that deserves to be more widely visible, valued, and shared.


Yoga Trash Talk and Self-Righteous Crusading: Wasting Time While the World Burns

Posted by on Nov 24, 2015 in Blog | 13 comments

Copyleft Nina Paley

Copyleft Nina Paley


Several weeks ago, I found myself hanging out late one night after a meeting of Chicago’s Socially Engaged Yoga Network, sharing thoughts about yoga and life with a diverse group of people. Some were friends, some were strangers. They were Black, White, and Asian; 20-somethings to 50-somethings; gay and straight; married, divorced, single; high school dropouts and Ph.D.s; raised in setting ranging from upper-middle class suburbia to low-income inner city Chicago. But we all shared the same passion for yoga, and for working with the practice in ways that uplift our selves, our communities, and the city we call home.

Talk turned toward how we apprehend the heart of our practice. Someone spoke reverentially of the Yoga Sutras. Another talked about how yoga made the Christianity he’d been raised with meaningful in ways it had never been before. One woman shared how her practice enabled her to connect to an independent sense of self beyond the socially prescribed roles of daughter, wife, and mother. Another shared her passion for helping people unplug from the incessant busy-ness of their everyday lives, and tap into their innate resources for insight, connection, and healing.

To me, this was the essence of yoga. There was no conflict or tension between the teacher who’d found meaning in the Yoga Sutras, and the one who’d rediscovered it in the Bible. We felt, we knew, that we were all on the same page.

This wasn’t something that had to be analyzed or proven. There was a sense of heart-felt, soul-felt connection. In my old church, we would have said that when the Spirit moves, it moves. And it was moving, and that was beautiful.


Meanwhile, in Social Media Land . . .

Meanwhile, on the Internet, I’ve been tracking a seemingly endless stream of ever-escalating vitriol about how horrible yoga in the West truly is. I wonder why people who dislike it so much stick with it nonetheless. I also wonder why it seems to be so impossible for them to find the positive experiences that I find so easy to access.

Of course, I understand the problems with shallow commercialization, commodification of the body, and thoughtless disregard for the depth of the yoga tradition that plagues yoga in America. I’ve written extensively about such issues myself. But in so doing, I’ve never sought to simply trash the practice. The reason for the critique was to uplift the deeper dimensions of yoga, not to denounce it. And by this, I mean that deeper dimensions that I’ve seen manifest in the unglamorous world of everyday life — not some imagined realm of yogic purity that only the select few can enter.

Online, however, I see a lot of full-throttle negativity about yoga. A dismaying amount of it seems to be driven by the zealous, perverse joy that can be found from feeling oh-so-superior to those being denounced. And there are so many juicy targets! All those pretty, bendy white women: obviously, shallow airheads. All those yoga teachers who market themselves and their classes: clearly, neo-liberal automatons and soulless sellouts. All those apostates who don’t hew to the proper line of “yogic” spirituality: certainly, colonialist exploiters and cultural appropriators. So many enemies; such a select club of those with real virtue!

In many cases, I suspect there’s some heavy psychological dynamics going on behind the bombastic posturing. My guess is that many of the passionate denunciations of yoga I’ve read have been fueled by some deep hope that was dashed. And, then, an even greater fear of setting one’s heart on something similar again. In other cases, resentment seems to play a central role.

Whatever may be driving it in individual cases, however, it seems that bashing yoga online has become quite a popular trend.

Yet on the ground, in the world of old-fashioned interpersonal interaction, I find very different dynamics playing out. Here in Chicago, I don’t run across the self-righteous yoga crusaders that I see so frequently online. On the contrary, I can easily think of many, many people in my local yoga community who I like and respect very much. I don’t see them wasting their time and energy denouncing each other, or the practice. I see them working hard and doing their best, often in pretty challenging circumstances.


Everyday Life

There are the owners of small studios who work endless hours for a pittance, striving with such heart to uplift their clients and support their communities. There are teachers who are pushing themselves to share the best of their practice with others, running themselves ragged going from gig to gig. There are volunteers who teach yoga in schools, jails, juvenile detention centers,  community centers, and other non-standard spaces all over the city.

Yoga is Chicago is also pretty diverse. I definitely see it taking off in the African American community on the South Side, where I live. I also know native-born Americans who have lived for years in India, and Indian-Americans who are passionately committed to improving our city. One Indian-American yoga teacher I know organized International Yoga Day here, featuring the two African American teachers who I  know are Christians, and one White woman who teaches Sanskrit and traditional Indian texts such as the Gita – often to Indian Americans who want learn more about their cultural heritage.

No one is calling each other out about how inappropriate it is for us to cross lines of race, religion, class, and education, and come together around our shared passion for yoga. The idea is absurd. We’ve got work to do. We believe that yoga and mindfulness can make an important contribution to our city. We know how high our murder rate is. We see yoga as our way to make a difference.

Not the only way; not the silver bullet. But valuable, nonetheless.

I’ve taught classes in Cook County Jail and offered trainings in upscale studios. Regardless of the setting, the quality and depth of human connection facilitated through a shared yoga practice has remained pretty much the same. True, I prefer the non-glitzy locations. In the fancier ones, I see more people whose interest in yoga seems to be driven more by their obsession with maintaining an illusion of control and pseudo-perfection than anything else. I find that dismaying. But I also see the desperation under the facade. And I certainly don’t condemn them.

Still, anyone who thinks that there aren’t people who have connected to something profoundly meaningful through yoga even in the most commercial of locations hasn’t been asking others about their experiences, and hasn’t been open to listening. I’ve asked. And listened, and learned from what I’ve heard.

What I’ve learned is that some people who can spout off the most arcane details about the Vedas or the Gita or the Tantras can be the most ego-driven and mean-spirited around. Conversely, there are some who can get more depth and meaning out of five minutes in Savasana in a run-of-the-mill class than others seem to acquire in years of ostentatious study and practice. Grace moves in mysterious ways.


No Time to Waste

The Internet can be a fantastic means of connecting with like-minded people, sharing valuable information, and encountering new ideas and perspectives. But, it can also suck us into an ersatz world that disconnects us from life on the ground. Anyone who learns about yoga exclusively from reading about it online could only conclude that it’s a pathetic business at best. If you want something better, however, it shouldn’t be all that hard to find — or, if necessary, create.

Of course, different places are different. I’m fortunate to live in a diverse and dynamic (if deeply troubled) city. Regardless, the fact is that I’m super-sick of all the negativity about yoga on the Web.

Five years ago, I remember feeling disgruntled that public discussion of yoga seemed locked into a gauzy pink bubble filled with hearts and rainbows and fake positivity. Well, that bubble has sure burst. And the proverbial pendulum has swung so far to the other side that it’s replicating the same imbalanced, ungrounded, inauthentic and unhelpful state, only this tine in determinedly negative, rather than stubbornly pseudo-positive, form.

That’s why I wasn’t all that surprised to read that the University of Ottowa had cancelled their free yoga class that served 60 students, including many with disabilities, due to a complaint that yoga in the West is a form of “cultural appropriation” that carries forward historic harms of “oppression, cultural genocide and diasporas due to colonialism and western supremacy” (except, of course, when properly vetted and controlled by the self-appointed guardians of “authentic” yoga). Such a move is the logical extension of the sorts of blanket denunciations of yoga (and self-righteous assertions of purity and ownership) that I’ve seen online in recent years.

This entire phenomena strikes me as yet another example of how we human beings are horribly good at trashing the many gifts that we’ve been given. And yoga – and by that I mean the much-vilified “modern yoga,” yoga as we know it today in all of its multifaceted, confusing dimensions – is one such gift.

Consider T.K.V. Desikachar’s words on how his father, Sri T. Krishnamacharya, taught:

The purpose of my father’s erudition was not to preserve the past, but to serve the present and the future. The astonishing range and variety of his studies all combined toward a single end. This was to place the promise of Yoga at the service of humanity, without regard to age, sex, race, nationality, culture, station in life, belief, or nonbelief . . . My father was a celebrated healer in his own lifetime. This ability, too, owed much to his willingness to adapt past practices to present needs . . . He further proved the value of Yoga in sustaining a lucid, balanced mind in our distracting, stressful, and difficult societies. Toward these ends, he experimented and explored ways to refine Yogic techniques to fit the busy routines of modern life. Even the healing and sustaining powers of Yoga, however, were only a part of his mission. The true purpose of Krishnamacharya’s teaching was to bring Man into contact with something beyond himself, and far greater.

The words and concepts that we use to frame that experience of connecting with something greater than ourselves don’t matter. What matters is the connection, the experience, the learning, the healing, the evolution and the growth.

The world is in crisis. This isn’t the time to be endlessly bashing pretty yoga babes for being too commercial, or policing the Internet to bully those who aren’t hewing to your “right view” of the-one-and-only “authentic yoga.” This is a time to work with the resources we’ve been gifted to foster connection, healing, and growth. This is a time to fiercely assert a commitment to meaningful democratic values. This is a time to drop the petty squabbling and ego-tripping, and get down to the meaningful work of regenerating our selves and uplifting our communities. This is a time to stop the bullshit drama and get down to something real again.


Quote from K.V. Desikachar with R. H. Cravens, Health, Healing, and Beyond: Yoga and the Living Tradition of Krishnamacharya (New York: Aperture, 1998).


Pain and Yoga: A Personal Perspective

Posted by on Jul 18, 2015 in Blog | 3 comments

Credit: Mandala Healing Project, Folsom Prison

Credit: Mandala Healing Project, Folsom Prison

Lately my social media feeds have been buzzing with controversy over issues of pain, and its real and proper relationship to yoga. Many types of pain have been brought up: physical pain caused by injury, physical pain caused by non-injurious but intense asana practice, emotional pain caused by hearing the careless words of others, the ambient cultural pain experienced by being a member of an oppressed group, the spiritual pain of recognizing the necessity of relaxing the grip of the egoic self in order to grow. The list goes on – and on, and on.

Some confess their hurts with equanimity; others with anger, or sadness, or both. Some accuse others of causing injury. This may be met with silence, or guilt, or derision, or sometimes even empathy. Some lash out emotionally; others spin off into a dense cloud of words, full of righteousness and devoid of feeling.

It can be hard to sort out one’s own personal reactions and projections from the bigger emotional waves washing through cyberspace. There’s no doubt, however, that there’s a lot of feeling out there to surf if you care to take the time and put in the energy.

All this has caused me to reflect on my own experience of pain in yoga. I don’t offer this short reflection as representative of anyone else’s experience, or evidence of a bigger trend. I’ve found, however that my experiences are never as wholly unique as I may imagine – or fear. Some of us share resonant experiences. Others do not, and that’s OK, too. Sharing personal stories can be interesting, and potentially valuable, either way.


Psychic Pain

Without question, I feel that the ability to better recognize, confront, and move toward psychic pain has been one of the greatest gifts of my yoga practice.

What do I mean by psychic pain? It’s not easy to describe. It’s not simple physical pain, obviously. Yet it can often be located in the field of the body/mind. It may feel like it’s emanating from a particular place – under a shoulder blade, buried deep in a hip. Or, it may feel like it’s rolling in from beyond my physical boundaries, a disembodied storm roiling through.

Sometimes this invisible force field feels engulfing. Other times, it’s more like moving through a partially cloudy, partially stormy, and all-too-rarely sunny day.

Psychic pain is not simply emotion. Anthropologists have mapped the range of human emotions that seem to manifest across cultures: happiness, sadness, grief, anger, shame, etc. Such emotions are similar in some ways to psychic pain, but also fundamentally different. Most likely, there are elements of many negative emotions mixed into an experience of psychic pain. But what I’m trying to describe is harder to pin down and neatly identify than that.

There’s no question, however, that it’s pain. And that for me, at least, it’s something that I’ve been better able to identify, confront, and move through because of the much greater sense of interiority and embodiment I’ve developed through years of practicing yoga. I understand and experience this as an invaluable gift of the practice.


Not Depression

Prior to have a well-developed yoga practice, I experienced these waves of psychic pain more like an inundating depression. Overwhelming. A sense of being swallowed up in darkness. With no center that felt stable, and light. Lost.



The yoga and holistic health worlds talk a lot about healing. Generally, the focus is on physical healing. This is hugely important. To know how to work with your body in ways that reduce pain and build strength is profoundly empowering. The current concern over the incidence of physical injury in yoga is a good thing. Without doubt, there’s a ton of sloppy instruction out there, and far too many unnecessary injuries. Shining a spotlight on this problem and working to address is critical.

But the pendulum swings too far in the other direction if we seek to have everyone stay super-safe by backing away from physically challenging practices, no matter what. Of course, for some people, this is the right thing to do. But for others – including myself – physical challenge, combined with mental focus and regulated breathing, can do much more than build strength and flexibility. It can be a way of opening up the field of the body/mind, while simultaneously developing a strong physic center of gravity. This process – repeated over and over and over again through countless sessions on the mat – is transformative.

It’s transformative because it leverages shifts throughout the body/mind that continue through our off-the-mat time – which is, of course, the vast majority of our lives. So, when I wake up in the middle of the night and feel a tidal wave of fear coming in through the wall of my home to engulf me, I’m much better able to simply feel still, and quiet; watching, waiting. Witnessing without panicking.

I can let it wash over and through me without drowning. I can connect to that sense of what it feels like to breathe, to hold steady, to remain calm through incredible intensity.

Some may think it wrong-headed to say that this capacity can be developed in part by practicing physically challenging asana. But in my case, I absolutely believe that it was.

Does this mean that everyone should have a physically intense asana practice? Absolutely not. It doesn’t even mean that this is what always works best for me – I’ve had to learn, over time, that sometimes going very easy, or simply laying still and letting go is much more challenging that holding a pose until my body shakes.

It does mean, however, that avoiding physical intensity in the name of safety may cheat some of us who are well suited for that form of practice of something that can be vital to our inner growth and development as human beings.



The ever-difficult trick is knowing what brings our ever-shifting body/mind complex into greater synergy, and balance. What works for me may be harmful for you. What worked for me yesterday may be the wrong thing for me today.

This isn’t to suggest that it’s all relative; that we can’t make useful and important generalizations. We can, and should. Yoga teachers need to learn how to sequence poses safely, offer modifications, be sensitive with languaging, understand the physiology of trauma. The list goes on and on. Teaching yoga is not an easy job to do well, at all.

One generalization that I believe we can and should make is that there is, in fact, a place for certain kinds of pain in yoga. Because pain is a part of life. In fact, it is a huge part of life.

The fear of encountering yet more pain has most of us running scared, even if we don’t know it, or won’t admit it. We may be aggressive, or defensive, or passive-aggressive; we may inflict pain on others to try and keep from feeling it ourselves. But we can’t escape it fully. Nor should we want to. Because pain is build into some of the most precious experiences in life.

Sooner or later, every deep experience is bittersweet. We experience joy through love. But everyone and everything we love will eventually die, or change, or disappear. Including, of course, our selves. This is why Savasana is ultimately the most important pose in asana practice – and not just for us as individuals, but for our relationship with others and contribution to our society, and the world.

Erik Erikson wrote that “healthy children will not fear life if their elders have integrity enough not to fear death.” To mature into the state of being he points toward in this passage is not easy. For most of us, it’s at best a continual work in progress. And in my view, it’s one that requires learning to encounter and process physic pain.

For many of us, yoga offers a road map for navigating these very tricky processes of experimentation, learning, and growth. There are many other guides out there as well, of course. And even more false prophets and endlessly hyped dead ends. If you can find something that works for us, you’re blessed. If it’s yoga, let’s keep working to keep it real.


“Mindful Work”: Drowning social ethics in a sea of neoliberal niceness (book review)

Posted by on Jun 25, 2015 in Blog | 5 comments

Mindful WorkIn the closing pages of Mindful Work: How Meditation is Changing Business From the Inside Out, author David Gelles shares a final vignette that (like the rest of the book) is more revealing for what it omits than what it describes. Interviewing Chade-Meng Tan, founder of Google’s wildly successful “Search Inside Yourself” mindful business training program, Gelles asks him why mindfulness is so popular in Silicon Valley today. Meng replies, “The corporate spirit here is to radically change things for the better, to take radical steps for improving the world . . . It’s a very altruistic and idealistic culture.”

Gelles shares Meng’s self-congratulatory explanation without additional context or commentary. Yet it’s well known that the Silicon Valley tech boom has created unprecedented socio-economic inequality in the Bay area, with record numbers of homeless and a hemorrhaging middle and working class. Such facts, however, which raise important questions about Meng’s vision of “radical altruism,” are invisible to the world of Mindful Work. The larger social context in which Silicon Valley’s “radical steps for improving the world” are supposedly occurring is never mentioned, let alone analyzed and discussed.

This isn’t to suggest that the tech industry hasn’t, in fact, made positive contributions to the world in many ways. But Mindful Work provides no criteria by which to measure either the positive or negative social impacts of the business world’s “mindful revolution.” Instead, it zig-zags between presenting bombastic claims without critical commentary (Meng, for example, claims that SIY training “leads to Level 5 leadership. And happiness. And world peace”) and assuring readers that if mindfulness might make bosses just a little bit nicer, and workers just a little bit more able to manage their stress, then it’s all good.

I believe that we can and should set the bar higher, both analytically and pragmatically. The value of mindfulness in the workplace needs to be evaluated in concrete terms that include both individual, interpersonal, organizational, and social dimensions. Personally, I found it to be a poignant, if not depressing sign of the times that Gelles, a New York Times journalist, evidences significantly less social and political awareness than the progressive-minded CEOs of luxury clothing brands Patagonia, PrAna, and Eileen Fisher, who he interviewed for the book. Whatever happened to the Fourth Estate?


Troubling Silences

Bill Moyers on journalism and democracyNot all that long ago, elite journalists were expected to cultivate a broad social vision, and analyze current events through a lens informed by a commitment to (small-“d”) democratic values. Gelles’ authorial voice is certainly likeable: he comes across as a genuinely nice person who’s enthused about mindfulness because it enables him to be more present with his family at mealtimes despite the relentless demands of his job. His writing, however, evidences not the slightest hint of old-school journalistic, let alone politically progressive values.

Instead, Mindful Work conveys the taken-for-granted neoliberalism of someone who’s been thoroughly socialized into the politics of the post-Reagan and Thatcher eras, in which “there is no such thing as society.” Everything of consequence is assumed to happen at the individual level; consequently, there’s no need to think into the social and organizational contexts in which businesses operate and work actually takes place. “But for all this talk of stress, we rarely examine its root causes,” Gelles writes. “Stress isn’t something imposed on us. It’s something we impose on ourselves.”

Given this framework, the claim that mindfulness is important because it gives us the tools to manage our stress makes perfect sense. As does the silence surrounding the work context in which said mindfulness is being employed. This mindset implicitly endorses the view that the way to reduce stress in any work situation is simply to add mindfulness, rather than assess whether it’s possible to improve working conditions in more concrete and systemic ways.

For example, Gelles happily reports how “at Green Mountain Coffee, based in Waterbury, Vermont, mindfulness has become part of the fabric of the company”:

At Green Mountain, mindfulness training started with the top executives and soon spread to midlevel employees. But Fried and her colleagues realized that much of the workforce was still not being served. The frontline workers who put in 12-hour shifts roasting coffee beans, packing boxes, and shipping them off . . . also need a bit of on-the-job stress relief . . . in a bid to reduce injuries, and perhaps increase mental well-being as well, she made it mandatory that all frontline workers do a series of mindful stretching exercises before beginning their shifts.

While Gelllabor movement 1927es quotes two workers saying they came to like the “Mindful Stretching” program because they found themselves in less pain at the end of the work day, one has to wonder how they’d feel about being offered 8-hour shifts at a higher wage rate instead. Mindful Work, however, doesn’t bother with questions such as what their pay scale might be, and why they are working 12-hour shifts.

Gelles does, however, report that “while it may be hard to draw a direct line form the mindfulness program to the bottom line, Green Mountain is thriving”:

Though meditation is no guarantee of a rising stock price, Green Mountain’s market capitalization increased fifteen-fold in the five years after it introduced mindfulness . . . And managers like Laura Fried view the company in a new light. ‘Look at this as a whole spectrum of offerings,’ she said. ‘Basic services that we provide to people who are dealing with their morning commute, and people like me who are facing existential issues . . . We are providing them with opportunities to enhance their own experiences at work and at home.’


Dismissing Critics

Two hundred pages later, Gelles reports that Green Mountain’s founder and former CEO, Bob Stiller, who “was once featured on the cover of Forbes as he meditated,” squandered his fortune on “trophy real estate,” such as a $17.5 million apartment in Manhattan, after retiring in 2007 as a billionaire who’d reached “the highest realms of American capitalism.” While Gelles uses Stiller’s story to illustrate the fact that “practicing mindfulness is no antidote to materialism,” he (rather oddly) presents this seemingly frank admission of the limitations of the corporate mindfulness movement as a means of rebutting David Loy and Ron Purser’s widely read “Beyond McMindfulness” article.

Gelles quotes Loy and Purser’s critique that “corporations have jumped on the mindfulness bandwagon because it conveniently shifts the burden onto the individual employees: stress is framed as a personal problem, and mindfulness is offered as just the right medicine to help employees work more efficiently and calmly within toxic environments” verbatim. Yet, rather than seeing the parallels with some of the stories he’s presenting and claims he’s making, Gelles scoffs at this “seductively nefarious vision” of “corporations brainwashing their minions with meditation, turning them into more efficient, profitable drones.”

Rather than acknowledging that he already endorsed the view that stress is a personal problem and trying to defend it as correct, Gelles simply sidesteps the heart of the McMindfulness critique by assuring readers that “rarely, if ever, does exposure to meditation make someone a worse person.”

mindful cog in wheelMindful Work is so deeply immersed in the neoliberal mindset that despite devoting an entire chapter to rebutting “McMindfulness” as Lefty claptrap, Gelles appears oblivious to the ways in which his book exemplifies many of the issues that Loy and Purser identified. Gelles, for example, approvingly cites research stating that “mindfulness can be a source of employer value proposition and may in the long run provide organizations with a valuable tool to manage high burnout levels of employees within the workplace.” He doesn’t, however, ask why employee burnout levels are so high – let alone investigate what, if anything, might be done to address this other than offering mindfulness programs based on the premise that it’s up to each individual to cope with the stress that they presumably manufacture of their own accord.


Unacknowledged Alternatives

Happily, Mindful Work also reports on several companies in which mindfulness is integrated into a broader commitment to developing and implementing socially responsible business practices. The founder and Board chair of Patagonia, Yvon Chouinard, has struggled “to bring his personal mindfulness into the operations of his business,” which, he recognizes, only goes so far given that the company’s bottom line is selling high-end outdoor clothing. Still, the company has worked hard within the parameters they have to lighten their environmental impact, pioneering the technique of using recycled bottles to make fleece jackets, and facilitating “a robust aftermarket for used Patagonia products.” The company is also fiercely committed to its employees: Patagonia hasn’t fired anyone since 1991, and bucked powerful business trends by refusing to lay anyone off during the Great Recession.

Similarly, PrAna, another high-end active wear company, does more than simply take a company-wide “meditation break” at 3 pm daily. It also works to realize its commitment to socially responsible business practices by taking concrete steps such as increasing its use of organic cotton and other environmentally sound fabrics, and having senior managers openly discuss how best to handle any necessary trade-offs between the company’s financial goals and ethical commitments.

Similarly, Eileen Fisher, a high-end women’s clothing company, combines mindful work breaks and inclusive “Circle Way” company discussions with concrete policies such as distributing at least 10% of annual after-tax profits to staff, sourcing environmentally sustainable fabrics, and increasing salaries and reducing hours for the Chinese workers who produce their fabrics.

Mindful Work apparently went to press before Aetna CEO Mark Bertolini made headlines by raising the wages of the company’s lowest-paid workers to $16 an hour. Gelles does, however, recount the story of how a near-fatal skiing accident eventually caused Bertolini to explore yoga and meditation as a way of getting off pain killers and rebuilding his health. After returning to work and being promoted to CEO, Bertolini instituted yoga and mindfulness programs in the workplace.

Unsurprisingly, Mindful Work highlights the fact that an evaluation of these programs showed participating employees lowering their stress levels in ways that positively impacted the bottom line, dropping their “overall health care costs to the tune of $2,000 per employee per year.” Happily, however, Bertolini — unlike Gelles — was also interested in thinking into the company’s working conditions more broadly.

As NPR reported in April, Bertolini and his team took the time to investigate the “challenges their low-wage workers face”:

(T)hey discovered that to make ends meet many were on public assistance, such as food stamps, or Medicaid for their children. Bertolini says he was taken aback, shocked “that we as a thriving organization, as a successful company, a Fortune 100 company, should have people that were living like that among the ranks of our employees.”

Bertolini was committed to changing that, but he discovered the cost of boosting compensation for his low-paid workers would be significant — about $27 million a year. But he also found that research shows there are costs associated with paying low wages. Low-paid workers quit more often, and the turnover is expensive. There’s also evidence higher-paid employees provide better customer service. Bertolini thought the potential benefits could offset the $27 million cost and improve his company’s profits in the long run.

Skeptics contested this sunny view that it’s possible to raise wages and improve profits at the same time. Bertolini, however, was undeterred, contending that “even if it doesn’t boost profits — and maybe even if it costs the company something — raising wages is still the right thing to do”:

“There definitely is a moral component and, you know, I had plenty of arguments that the spreadsheet wouldn’t pencil out,” he says. “And my view was, in the end analysis, this is just not fair . . . We need to invest in our employees. We need to help restore the middle class, and that should be good for the economy as a whole. And so for us it is as much — probably, for me personally, more — a moral argument than it is a financial one.”

According to NPR, “Bertolini has become an evangelist on this subject, handing out a how-to packet to other CEOs to encourage them to look closely at boosting their low-income workers’ compensation. He says he’s getting positive feedback from many.”


Living Wage Canada


The Real Bottom Line

These are strange days, indeed. When it comes to wages and working conditions, the CEO of Aetna is many times more radical than a New York Times journalist writing a book about mindfulness. Similarly, the top execs of high-end clothing manufacturers Patagonia, PrAna, and Eileen Fisher link their mindfulness programs to ethical commitments and company policies far more demanding than America’s leading mindfulness teachers generally advocate.

If Mark Bertolini can become “an evangelist” on the subject of how to increase wages for low-income workers, then why can’t the “conscious communities” that practice yoga, meditation, and mindfulness do the same? And why can’t elite journalists advocate for more than a little more niceness and tools for individual stress-reduction in today’s radically unequal labor market?

Today’s mindfulness movement has much to offer. Gelles is right to champion the virtues of learning to manage one’s own stress more effectively, as well as fostering a kinder and more considerate workplace. The problem, of course, is that in a time of relentless work speed-ups, ever-increasing inequality, unprecedented environmental devastation, and unraveling democratic values, this simply isn’t enough.

Gelles dismisses such concerns as beside the point, concluding Mindful Work with the hand-waving truism that mindfulness “won’t transform out entire economic system on its own . . . Perfection is more than should be expected from a simple meditative technique.” Of course, that’s true. What’s also true, however, is that over-hyping the “quiet revolution” of corporate mindfulness may end up doing do more harm than good. This is particularly true when it’s praised both for its potential to “reduce stress, making drab days in cubicles more bearable” for office workers, while serving as “a source of employer value proposition” by providing “valuable tools to manage high burnout levels of employees.”

triple bottom line

Critics of the contemporary mindfulness movement rightfully contend that teaching tools for quieting the mind and focusing non-judgmentally on the present moment without any accompanying ethical framework is problematic. Even with an ethical framework, however, it’s impossible to harness the power of mindfulness to promote positive changes in business without considering the organizational and social context in which it’s operating. While Mindful Work presents some important examples of how mindfulness, social ethics, and business practices can be combined, it does so in a way that obscures, rather than highlights the essential point that this combination is, in fact, the real bottom line.



Yoga & Social Awareness: the YSC & YBIC coming together to create change

Posted by on May 26, 2015 in Blog | 2 comments


What, if anything, do the “yoga and body image” and “yoga service” movements have in common? If you believe that the former is simply about upping the number of yoga cover models who aren’t skinny, white, and conventionally pretty, and the latter exclusively dedicated to things like teaching yoga in prisons, then you’d probably assume they have nothing in common at all.

If, however, you’d had the opportunity to attend the Yoga Service Council conference earlier this month, you’d have been able to experience these movements in ways that highlight their connections, and demonstrate the powerful synergies between them. Since I was fortunate enough to have been able do so, I’m writing to share my reflections with those who are interested in the work of the Yoga Service Council (YSC) and Yoga and Body Image Coalition (YBIC), but weren’t able to make it to the conference.

Supported by the deep green spaciousness of the Omega Institute campus, those of us at the conference devoted a lot of time, thought, and feeling to the nested practices of deepening relationships: with ourselves, each other, different communities, and our larger environment. In my view, it’s ultimately this work, which YSC founding members Traci Childress and Jennifer Cohen Harper memorably characterized as “conscious relationship,” that powers both movements. More broadly, it’s also what enables us to experience yoga in ways that break free of the hyper-individualistic, commodified, and/or fundamentalist boxes that otherwise keep us unhealthily confined within psychically narrow, claustrophobic spaces.


Garden at the Omega Institute

Garden at the Omega Institute


Social Awareness in Yoga Service

During the past several years, the YSC has become committed to incorporating a strong a social justice framework into our work. While there’re many reasons for this, perhaps the biggest is the realization that without sufficient social awareness, our core commitment to making yoga truly accessible to all can play out in problematic, and even harmful ways.

This is particularly true given that the work we’re supporting commonly involves negotiating some of our society’s most entrenched social divisions. For example, having relatively affluent, white yoga teachers offer classes in places like prisons, which are disproportionately full of low-income Blacks and Latinos, raises important issues of race, class, power, privilege, and identity.

In such settings, yoga teachers who sail in full of good intentions but without social awareness can all-too-easily wind up replicating harmful interpersonal dynamics. For example, we may unintentionally re-inscribe hierarchical “us-versus-them” divisions in which “we,” the love- and light-bestowing yoga teachers, are oh-so-generously helping “them,” the unfortunate, and presumably unenlightened masses.

Despite positive intent, such actions can cause harm by perpetuating a sense of separation and hierarchy. This process can fuel a misguided sense of self-aggrandizement on the part of teachers, and alienation and/or disempowerment among students.


Sign on path at YSC conference, May 2015

Sign on path at YSC conference, May 2015


Social Awareness in Yoga Culture

When we shift such social awareness to the “mainstream” yoga studio setting, we may see parallel dynamics in play. As Jacoby Ballard and Lisa Garrett discussed in their “Teaching for Diversity” session, it’s quite common for yoga teachers to give cues that unintentionally alienate, and perhaps even harm their students. For example, gendered blanket statements such as “men usually have tight hips, so may want to use blocks in this pose” may sound belittling, or be taken as an insulting erasure of an alternative gender identity.

Even when social categories such as race or gender aren’t involved, yoga teachers can still unknowingly perpetuate a harmful sense of hierarchy between them and their students. Many, if not most sincere students tend to place their teachers up on pedestals, particularly when they’re first starting to discover just how powerful the practice can be. Teachers who aren’t sufficiently grounded and aware of such social/psychological dynamics are often swept into their own problems of narcissistic ego-inflation as a result.

Similar problems of unintentional harm being generated by a lack of social awareness surround today’s popular “yoga body” imagery, which inundates us through advertising, magazines, and social media. As Yoga and Body Image Coalition co-founder Melanie Klein explains in very personal terms in her 21st Century Yoga and Yoga and Body Image essays, many women in particular have been conditioned since birth to believe that if we could just manage to grab that elusive gold ring of thinness and prettiness, then our inherent worth as human beings would be affirmed – and we’d finally feel happy and fulfilled, forever.

Commercialized “yoga body” imagery plays on this false promise, cruelly. Rather than affirming our authentic aspirations and experiences as multi-dimensional human beings, it channels them back into the pernicious fantasy that our physical appearance dictates our inner experience and inherent worth. As Teo Drake and I discussed with Chelsea Roff and about seven others in a small group roundtable at the YSC conference, the fact that yoga today is simultaneously being sold as means of honing the “yoga body” that supposedly achieves happiness, and experienced as a practice that deepens our awareness holistically is creating a lot of confusion, and sometimes causing harm.



“This Is What a Yogi Looks Like”: YBIC 2015


Cultural Deconditioning

As Mircea Eliade explains in his classic, Yoga: Immortality and Freedom, practices of cultural “deconditioning” were traditionally understood to be an intrinsic part of yoga. This experience of deconditioning is way of reverse-engineering the intrinsic nature we have as human beings to be profoundly conditioned by our culture. It’s natural for us to believe certain things so deeply that we taken them for granted as indisputable facts, rather than recognizing them as provisional human beliefs. Yogic practices enable us to progressively unwind these layers of cultural conditioning. This process, in turn, strengthens our connection to that deeper source of awareness that undergirds all beliefs, whether we hold them consciously, as ideational commitments, or unconsciously, as reflexive taken-for-granteds.

While it may seem presumptuous to see the unraveling of cultural biases regarding body image in light of this traditional idea of cultural deconditioning, I believe there’s an important connection here. For example, as I’ve engaged with the “yoga and body image” movement more deeply, I’ve found that I’ve had to work through resistances to it that I hadn’t previously realized I’d had. Because there’s definitely a reactive part of me that feels bored, impatient, and dismissive when I see yet another round of impassioned discussion over the pros and cons of this or that yoga cover girl. From an emotional distance, it seems so dismayingly trivial. I feel sick and tired of the whole thing.

Yet when I connect with people enough to feel the deeply personal issues that fuel such debates, everything shifts. Rather than belittling their concerns as shallow, I’m able to connect them to parallels in my own experience. And this process doesn’t really feel that different from what I’ve experience in yoga service. Teaching yoga in a jail and homeless shelter, for example, has similarly caused me to confront biases and assumptions that I wouldn’t necessarily have encountered in the same way otherwise. At the same time, the practice of yoga has given me the personal resources needed to confront, process, and transform them in ways that feel educational, empowering, and good.


Screen Shot 2015-05-25 at 18.05.16 PM



Unexpected Connection

One of the many memorable encounters I had at the YSC conference came when I was representing the “Yoga and Body Image Coalition” with Teo Drake, selling t-shirts off a folding table and chatting up anyone interested about our work. (I serve on the YBIC Advisory Board; Teo was a contributor to the book.)

As we were talking to interested conference goers, a pretty young woman with strikingly light blue eyes came up to our table. She simply stood there, quietly listening. But, she was doing so with such complete presence and undivided attention that my focus was soon drawn toward her. Quickly, we became absorbed into talking with each other in that way where it feels like the rest of the world has just temporarily dropped away.

She told me that she was a fashion model, in on a visit from Japan. She had never heard of the Yoga Service Council or the Yoga and Body Image Coalition. She was simply at the Omega Institute for the weekend, and had happened to wander into our exhibit. But she did practice yoga. And, she made it clear that she did suffer from body image issues, as well.

This revelation caused me to do a quick double-take. I looked at her and thought: She’s so perfectly pretty – blonde hair, blue eyes, flawless skin, beautiful face. But the feeling I’m getting from her is one of quiet distress and confusion. “I want to do work that helps other people,” she told me. “But I’m not together enough yet. I need to work on myself first.”

Confessing this, she looked entirely sincere, very young, and a little ashamed. I had a momentary flash of imagining what it might feel like to be a beautiful 20-year old model, inexperienced, uncertain, and, perhaps, surrounded by vultures who treat you as a thing to enjoy and exploit, not a person. I don’t know if this picture I intuited was true to life, or not. But it came to me very strongly.

I assured her that simply being aware of the fact that she needed to take care of herself on a deeper level was fantastic, and important. That to see that clearly was to be way ahead of the game. She looked at me like I’d said something that mattered. I felt something shift.

As has happened many times in parallel instances in the past, I suddenly realized how deeply I’ve been conditioned to assume that someone who looks like her could not possibly suffer from body image issues. And that talking to her in a way that felt truly connected, rather than looking at her and making unconscious assumptions, had broken through my formerly taken-for-granted paradigm, and revealed it as a false lens that had initially given me a distorted picture of the person standing right in front of me. And that having this shift happened enlarged my world in ways that were liberating, and good.

The moment passed. We both moved on to the next thing. But that brief exchange was one of the most memorable of a day that was full of beautiful encounters, and yoga-sparked magic. Self-study. Conscious relationship. Social awareness. This, for me, is yoga in practice – taken off the mat, and into everyday life. This is how we connect more deeply with our selves and each other to uplift and transform our world.


Sign on path at YSC conference, May 2015

Sign on path at YSC conference, May 2015

You can learn more about the Yoga Service Council, and join as an individual or organizational member, here. If you’re interested, please also mark your calendar for next year’s conference now: May 13-15, 2016, at the Omega Institute, NY.

You can learn more about the Yoga and Body Image Coalition and sign up for our free email newsletter, purchase “Yoga and Body Image,” and download a free book discussion guide here. If you’d like to support the work of the YBIC by purchasing a “This is What a Yogi Looks Like” t-shirt, tank, or hoodie, you can do so here.



Yoga Selfies on Instagram: Reflections of a Curious Onlooker

Posted by on Apr 8, 2015 in Blog | 4 comments

yoga selfies 2

Some of the many interesting yoga selfies available on Instagram today. Photo credits (clockwise from top left): @bchanwarrior @1ofakindyogis @daveeatsfruit @yogibonzai @supportiveyoga @yesbabyilikeitraw.


As anyone who pays any attention to yoga on social media well knows, yoga selfies on Instagram have been dominating the cyberspace scene for some time now. As someone with less than zero interest in photographing myself doing a backbend (or whatever) and posting it online, I can’t speak to what it’s like to participate in this incredibly popular phenomenon. (True, I made a lame stab at establishing an Instagram account, but it didn’t get very far. My photos were boring and didn’t even sustain my interest, let alone attract legions of followers.)

I have been watching the whole thing unfold from the sidelines, however. I read the relevant blogs and articles that pop up in my newsfeed, and occasionally check out popular and/or interesting hashtags like #yogaeverydamnday and #curvyyoga. In the process, I find myself wondering: Why is this so popular? What does it mean for yoga? And what, if anything, does it mean to me?

As a writer with Lefty leanings, I’ve always had some vague sense that I should be constitutionally opposed to yoga selfies. But that’s really not my reaction. Instead, I find myself zigzagging between sociological curiosity (like any popular trend, it’s interesting for me to think into what it’s all about and why); personal disinterest (sure, it’s kind of intriguing, but I’d really rather just practice yoga and read about it, not look at photos); and – surprisingly – mixed, but largely positive feelings about it.

This is curious because again, I have this sense that someone like me should be denouncing the selfie craze as shallow, ego-driven, overly obsessed with the body, reinforcing thin/white/pretty/bendy stereotypes of yoga, etc. But, based on the limited knowledge I have about the whole “Instayoga” (to coin a term) scene, that’s not how I feel. Instead, I see some interesting and positive possibilities in it, some of which have already materialized, others which I can only imagine.

Without doubt, there are aspects of the yoga selfie that I find horribly depressing and alienating, as well. The problems I see, such as objectifying the body and promoting overly narrow ideas of beauty, however, already exist in spades elsewhere. Selfies didn’t create them; they’re simply manifesting them in a new form.

And, on balance, my best guess is that they’re probably doing more to counter those issues than reinforce them. Of course, it’s impossible to say. But there’s good reason, I think, not to simply dismiss the whole yoga selfie craze as shallow, retrograde, egotistical, and so on. To some readers, this may seem obvious. To others, it may sound Pollyanna-ish and shallow. Either way, I hope the following thoughts on why the yoga selfie fad may amount to more than simply showing off sleek bodies in gymnastic-like poses prove interesting, and even useful.


Democratizing yoga imagery

Extremely few yoga practitioners are ever going to have their photos featured in Yoga Journal or anything remotely equivalent. To score such publicity, you’d have to have not only a marketable body (thin, pretty, bendy, etc.), but some level of fame to boot. That leaves the vast majority of us out. On Instagram, in contrast, we’re pretty much all in, if we want to be. True, there are some economic barriers: you need access to the internet, and it certainly helps to have a smart phone. But, at least in North America, these block relatively few people in comparison.

Why does this matter? The seemingly high-minded response might be that it doesn’t, that true yogis could care less about public photos of themselves doing asana – or images of anyone else, for that matter. But such a perspective is, I think, unrealistic.

The fact is that most people do care about whose images are represented publicly – a lot. By and large, we can’t help it. As humans who have not yet attained enlightenment and are highly unlikely to do so in this lifetime, we are necessarily social beings. And, we happen to live in a very image conscious, visually driven society. So, as yoga practitioners, we are naturally highly attuned to the symbolic messages that yoga photos transmit. If we see nothing but air-brushed pictures of young, thin, pretty white women doing hyper-athletic poses, it has an impact on most of us, like it or not.

And at this point in the evolution of modern yoga – now that it’s a widely popular and culturally mainstream practice – the impact of these stock images is largely negative. Men, people of color, big bodied women, and many others often feel unrecognized, excluded, and implicitly devalued by them. At the same time, women who can imagine fitting themselves into this “yoga body” imaginary frequently suffer in other ways. Rather than being a tool for authenticity and empowerment, yoga becomes all-too-easily harnessed to the dead end project of seeking to create a false self that conforms to this unrealistic, mass market standard of commercially fantasized femininity.

The yoga selfie craze, however, has radically diversified the amount and type of “yoga body” images available. With the hashtag system, it’s super-easy to connect to others who identify with alternatives such as #BlackYogis, #YogaDudes, #fatyoga, etc. I believe that this is an important, and empowering development – not only for countless individuals, but for yoga and the culture at large.

Personally, I’ve noticed this increased diversity of images having a positive impact on me. Even though I’m a white, cisgendered woman who has always been the thin side, I’ve always experienced the standard “yoga body” model as alienating and undermining. For me, it serves as a powerful reminder of the fact that no matter how much yoga has been as a source of empowerment for me, yoga culture as a whole values the same standards of mass market femininity that have always made me feel alienated, and alternately resentful and inadequate.

Of course, the most popular yoga people on Instagram fit neatly into the thin, white, young, pretty, bendy mold themselves. But, rather than being utilized by a corporation as a means to sell product, they’re independent operators. As such, they have more leeway in their self-presentation, and often utilize it to make themselves more easily seen as the multi-dimensional human beings they truly are.

Even when this isn’t the case, it’s still true that zillions of alternative images are only a click away. And while they many not be as wildly popular, there are nonetheless many well-established, powerful alternatives, both in terms of individual yogis and hashtag-based communities of identity and interest.


Forming online communities

To be sure, the word “community” is highly over-used today. Unfortunately, however, it frequently seems impossible to find a better replacement. So, on the one hand, a grouping of photos under a hashtag isn’t really a “community.” On the other hand, social media can and does facilitate meaningful connections among like-minded people.

Personally, I’ve experienced this through yoga blogging, which used to be almost as popular as yoga selfies are now. (Back in the day . . . although it’s only five years ago. The peak of yoga blogging hit around 2010, but feels very long ago and far away.) And while I’m not involved enough in the Instagam world to know if similar relationships are being formed, based on my blogging experience, I’m assuming it’s possible, and even likely.

Presumably, the more that selfies share ideas or information beyond simply posting a picture of a yoga pose, the more such interpersonal connections and communities of interest will grow. Perhaps this is happening to a large extent already; I don’t know. When I see such newly minted Instagram stars as Jessamyn Stanley combining selfies with personal statements such as the one below, however, it makes me hopeful that this sort of quick but powerful means of communication will catch on, and have a positive impact both on countless individuals and yoga culture as a whole.


Jessamyn Stanley on Instagram

Full text of the photo tag seen in image above, top right: “Day 2 of #JoinTheFractal9Team Challenge is #camatkarasana (#wildthingpose) & the question: What’s A Goal You’re Currently Working Towards? I have a lot of goals, but my most fervent quests are usually non-physical achievements. Right now, I’m working on compassion. I constantly encounter people and businesses who give zero fucks about diversity and inclusion, especially within the #yoga community. I have pondered the reasons for this widespread discrimination and I think pondering is futile. I think it’s more important to focus on being compassionate towards those who fear and dislike what they don’t understand. Also, it’s a better use of energy to support people and companies who DO give a fuck about diversity and inclusion. Finding the real definition of compassion when dealing with those whose opinions differ from my own is a daily battle, and it’s a goal I intend to keep at the forefront of my priorities. If you want to join in, snap a picture of yourself in today’s pose and caption with your answer to this question.”


Encouraging exercise

This may seem overly mundane. But in our unhealthy, sedentary society, simply encouraging more people to practice yoga – even if only as exercise – deserves to be recognized as a good thing. The wildfire-like spread of yoga selfies since Instagram became available a few years ago makes it evident that lots of people find this form of self-expression enjoyable and engaging. And to participate, they’ve got to exercise. We know that exercise is important for physical and mental health, and that most people today don’t get enough of it. So, if yoga selfies can get more people to experience exercise as fun, that’s of benefit to them and society at large.

For sure, there are lots of legitimate concerns that can be raised regarding how the selfie craze can feed into problems of injuries, narcissism, shallowness, and so on. And I think that those criticisms should be voiced, and repeatedly. But again, I don’t feel that those issues were created by yoga selfies – they are evident throughout yoga culture at large. So, I don’t feel that this particular medium should be singled out for condemnation. The problems cross-cut the entire “industry.” Yet, yoga on Instragram offers some positive benefits, such as the diversification of yoga imagery, that I don’t see elsewhere.


Supporting home practice

This is potentially a big one. I don’t know to what extent it’s true that yoga selfies and the new “challenges” that have grown up around them are giving people more motivation to practice yoga at home. But when I scroll through my Instagram feed and see photos of people striking poses in their kitchens, living rooms, gardens, hallways, etc., I conclude that it probably does.

This, I think, is super-important. In the many years that I’ve been practicing yoga, I’ve been repeatedly struck by how hard most people find it to establish a home practice. Based on my experience, this is a huge problem for those who want to experience yoga on a deeper and more multidimensional level. While I feel that going to class with a good teacher will always be important, I don’t believe that even the best classes are sufficient on their own (once, of course, you’ve learned the basics).

Without home practice, you are always dependent on being guided by someone else’s experience of yoga. You don’t come up against your own internal resistances, barriers, and fears in the same way that you do on your own at home. And without this, I personally feel that practice is limited in how far it can progress.

Of course, I recognize that fiddling with the timer on your phone so that you can take a good selfie is hardly a scenario conducive to deep internal exploration. So perhaps I’m being wildly over-optimistic on this one. But, my hope is that if yoga selfies help a lot of people set up a home practice, some not insignificant number will eventually move beyond needing to manufacture images to feel motivated to do so – and that their practice will naturally take root, deepen, and grow into something richer and more meaningful over time.


Occasionally creating art

Many of the images I see on Instagam are interesting, and some are really striking. (I, like literally a million others, am a sucker for @laurasykora’s crazy cute photos of herself and her young daughter doing yoga together in matching outfits. While I know that it strikes the wrong chord in some people and can see why, I can’t help it. It’s just so. Damn. Cute!) Once in awhile, though, I stumble across something that really knocks my socks off. And I think that these exceptions are notable because again, they would never get the same level of airplay were it not for the popularity of yoga on Instagram.

While not a selfie per se, the photo that really hit me hard this week was the one of Richard Widmark, which went viral both in the blogosphere (thanks to YogaDork) and on Instagram this past week. I’m calling it art not because it was beautifully shot or staged – in fact, the fact that it wasn’t is part of what makes it so raw and forceful. I think of it as art because for me, at least, it’s a viscerally powerful, paradigm shifting, and thought-provoking image. And for me, that is what art does.


Some self-disclosure: my father passed away in 1989 of a heart attack, which was likely caused by fact that he had been severely overweight for many years – really, as long as I could remember. The excess weight he carried caused many other health problems, which had a very negative effect on me and my family, including adult onset diabetes, intensified arthritic pain, and highly limited mobility. It also tied into a lot of unaddressed issues that manifested in chronic stress, and unpredictably explosive irritability. So when I see a photo like this one, it brings up a lot of negative personal feelings of fear, sadness, grief, etc.

Yet I feel such a strong sense of buoyancy and spark in this photo that it flips those feelings into something poignantly bittersweet and inspiring. To me, it’s very moving. I find myself wondering what could have been different if my father had been able to engage with something like yoga. In this photo, I sense a spirit opening to new life possibilities. It’s a powerful way of depicting yoga – one that I can’t help but find discomforting, as well as inspiring.

I feel this photo working a change in me, the viewer. While I know that it will evoke very different responses in different people, I believe that as human beings, we have the innate ability to resonate with and be changed by such images. They’re important. For this reason, I hope that the positive possibilities that are inherent in this new photo-sharing culture continue to be explored, and grow. As someone who prefers to work with words, I won’t be one of those trying to do this work. But I’m hopeful that others will.

While I don’t plan to check #yogaeverydamnday, I will stay tuned and am curious to see what happens. I’m also interested to hear your views on the yoga selfie/Instagram phenom. In particular, I’m interested to hear from people who feel they’ve been positively or negatively impacted by it. So, please share your thoughts in the comments below if you’re so moved. And thanks for reading such a long post in the age of Instagram! 🙂


Note: I pulled the photos used in this post more or less randomly off of Instagram and didn’t bother to contact each person depicted individually as I figure that the photos were intended to be in the public domain. If, however, your photo was used and you’d prefer that it be taken down, I’m happy to do so. Just message me using the “Contact” page on this blog. Thanks in advance for your understanding.