Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Yoga Practice Meets Environmental Ethics: Field Notes

Photo by Louis Maniquet on Unsplash

by Diana Margarita Hulet



“To love a place is not enough. We must find ways to heal it.”
        ― Robin Wall Kimmerer

In 1968, astronauts boarded Apollo 8 with the mission of leaving the atmosphere and reaching the Moon. At departure, their focus was on outer space, yet once they had the chance to look back and see the Earth, our home planet, hanging in just the right balance in order to sustain life, the astronauts were awestruck, overwhelmed, and deeply moved. One astronomer communicated his cosmic encounter to religious scholars with the hopes of learning more about why he felt so much when gazing at the Earth. They suggested that he had experienced savikalpa samadhi, a profound shift beyond the thinking mind into a state of ecstasy where the consciousness is fully perceptive of its blissful experience within. Astronomers describe it as the “Overview Effect” and those who have traveled beyond the Earth’s stratosphere and witnessed dancing auroras, as well as clear cut forests, have a message for us: We are all interconnected.

In 1989, the year I took my first yoga class, the Golden Toad of Costa Rica, Incilius periglenes, became extinct and also known as the first species succumbing to the effects of human-induced climate change. Imagine, while I felt the subtle pulse of prana through my fingertips in savasana, this tiny colorful amphibian was losing their life force in a warming rainforest. How many species have gone extinct since I first stepped on the mat? I know that in my lifetime, we have lost over 50% of our planet’s biodiversity. I know that when I get on my mat, I feel these losses. I think of deforestation in Tree pose or factory farming in Cow-faced pose and while I know I shouldn’t be thinking so much while practicing, this is where I stand, and from where I write to you, fellow practitioner. I also think of humanity in Hero’s pose.

I want to make clear that this is not a “doom and gloom” piece of writing. Through my activism work, I have realized that mind-boggling statistics and shocking images trigger our amygdala and move us further away from the compassionate and courageous parts of our brain. In order to meet the challenges brought on by zoonotic diseases and climate change, we will have to repattern how we see the world, and what better tools do we have than those put forward by our wisdom traditions? I recently listened to a conversation between His Holiness the Dalai Lama and climate activist Greta Thunberg. Their discussion made it even more evident that our actions will change if our hearts and minds do.

For nearly fifteen years, I have taught philosophy and ethics modules for yoga teacher trainings. On one such occasion, due to a scheduling hurdle, I had to teach Patanjali’s Eight Limbs in under 20 minutes –– a tragedy in itself. What came to me during that brief session was an understanding that the teachings begin with our relationship to the world, then they walk us inward, becoming more subtle as we navigate the human landscape. We traverse the body (asana), the breath (pranayama), the senses (pratyahara), the mind (dharana and dhyana), and over lifetimes arrive at enlightenment (samadhi). Yet, what if liberation radiated back outward, and our individual enlightenment was but one luminous fragment within Indra’s Net, the web of connection illustrated in a closely related wisdom tradition, Mahayana Buddhism? I remember hearing one time that the next incarnation of Vishnu, the sustainer god, would come in the form of community, rather than an individual such as Krishna or Buddha. The new dharmic guide would emerge as a collective. Is that us?

Yogic teachings are overflowing with inspiration on how to be in a proper relationship with our planet. Ahimsa teaches us to stop harming other sentient beings, satya suggests honesty and transparency, asteya reminds us that what we consume is often stolen from other, more invisible, people and places. Through it all, the internal challenges of individual experience remain consistent: How to purify the body, clarify the mind, and connect with God/Source/Absolute Reality. However, in the age of Patanjali, we did not yet know that human activity, especially since the Industrial Revolution, would wreak such havoc on the Earth’s ecosystems. The texts did highlight the importance of simple living, right effort, and nonattachment to outcomes, and we can recruit such guidance in order to protect each other and the planet in the face of our uncertain future.

Social activism is environmental activism. I have heard these words most recently from political activist Angela Davis and wildlife ecologist Drew Lanham. In a time when systemic change seems insurmountable, action inspires hope, which in turn, inspires more action. If we don't change our habits soon, millions of people in India, where the practice of yoga originated, will become climate refugees due to sea-level rise, meanwhile, in the West, we long to jump on fossil fuel intensive jets once again and visit the Motherland. This is not about climate shaming. I only want to make the associations, because after all, yoga is a practice of connection. Yoga also grounds us in real time so we may not only live by example but also become clear and vital vehicles for change.

The Persian poet Hafiz described the feeling of waking up in his line, “First, the fish needs to say, ‘Something ain’t right about this Camel ride, And I’m Feeling so damn Thirsty.’” The inequities illuminated by a global health crisis confirmed that we tread on fractured and parched ground and just like Hafiz’s fish, we realized that our mode of traveling has been socially and ecologically unsustainable. It is time to work towards a more balanced, equitable, and harmonious way of living, both in our yoga communities and our world. We can begin at home, where we spend most of our time these days, by reflecting inward and observing how our personal choices relate to each other and our environment. Additionally, systemic changes will have to operate on a larger scale, therefore it is up to us to hold our leaders and decision-makers accountable for the safety and vitality of all life on Earth, our only home. I’ve composed a short list of ideas so that perhaps we can set our drishti (focused gaze) on the Earth and feel the Overview Effect without traveling to the Moon.

Practices:

Asana practice allows us to embody the natural world by moving into shapes such as variations of Surya Namaskar (Sun Salutations) or Tadasana (Mountain Pose) while pranayama practice invites us to witness the inward and outward flow of the breath, the sustainer of all life.

Lovingkindness meditations extend the scope of compassion beyond our individual lives and out towards all beings in all places across the planet. Keep in mind those who are affected most directly by global warming, such as migrating animals and climate refugees.

Mantra practice stills the mind and elevates our voices. Cultivating the energy of sound and communication can help us connect to what needs to be vocalized and heard. This can come in the form of Vedic chants for peace and healing, devotional songs to one’s chosen deity, or the profound simplicity when chanting Om.

Actions:

Calculate your personal ecological footprint to see how you consume resources. Be mindful and nonjudgmental about your particular circumstances, as we are all presented with unique challenges that may not allow us to be as resourceful as we’d like to be. Consider small changes for a long time.

Find your local representatives and learn about their stance on social and environmental issues in your community and beyond. They are public servants and want to hear what you care about. Feel free to reach out to them and ask questions.

Dedicate time to be in the world and observe the relationships between people and their surroundings. Listen to the voices of those who have been silenced for too long including the Indigenous wisdom which has much to teach us about being in balance with plants, animals, and each other. A better world is possible if we meet Reality together.



Diana Hulet
has been steeped in the practices of yoga for over three decades and has taught yoga and yoga philosophy since 2004. Her teaching style is an ongoing synthesis of hatha and vinyasa yoga, pranayama, and meditation. Diana’s instruction will often include teachings from yoga philosophy and other contemplative traditions. While she has been influenced by many luminaries across the tradition of yoga, Diana has always seen the unpredictable and beautiful circumstances of life as her greatest teacher. Whether through the doorways of loss or illness, joy or celebration, her teaching and writing invite us into the conversation between our interior and exterior experiences. Most recently, Diana returned to college and completed her B.S. in Liberal Studies, with a focus on environmental ethics, religion, and philosophy. Her next chapter of teaching will further explore the connections between spiritual practice and our relationship with nature. For her full bio and information on upcoming classes, please visit www.dianahulet.com.


This post was edited by Patrice Priya Wagner, Managing Editor of Accessible Yoga blog and member of the Board of Directors.

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Wednesday, February 17, 2021

To Prop or Not to Prop, That is the Question

Natalie Dunbar in Janusirsasana, photo by Sarit Z Rogers
by Jivana Heyman


I hope you’re sitting down for this (although if you’re sitting in a chair instead of on the floor, you’re already using a prop). Most yoga teachers and practitioners believe that using yoga props makes yoga easier, and some consider using props to be a kind of cop out. I even saw a recent post on Facebook asking if using yoga mats is "cheating." Exactly what we’re cheating at I’m not sure, but that question gave me pause.

So many of us are obsessed with practicing physically complicated poses in a rather egotistical and competitive way (which doesn’t sound much like yoga to me). Sure I love to challenge myself, but is that what yoga is about? Interestingly, against all logic, a well-respected survey of yoga research recently showed that the use of yoga props actually increased the risk of injury. You read that right, props increased injury –– isn’t that a surprise?

According to Ann Swanson, MS, C-IAYT, LMT, author of Science of Yoga, "Contrary to what you may think, research suggests that using props in yoga (like a block or strap) doesn't necessarily decrease your risk of injuries. To prevent injury, avoid using props to push yourself further than your body allows. Instead, props can be used to make poses more accessible and easeful."

This research seems to show that the use of yoga straps and blocks tends to push practitioners to go beyond their usual physical limitations in poses. It’s an interesting shift in the debate about props as a cop out, and seems to conflict with common conceptions about using props to make yoga more accessible. In a twisted way, our contemporary obsession with physically challenging asanas have made accessibility less accessible. We’ve taken tools that can make us safer and we’ve used them to put ourselves in danger.

As far as I’m concerned, props are an essential part of our practice. But, as with any other tool, the real issue is the way we use it. Props are neutral, but we can use them to make our practice more gentle, or we can use them to reach some kind of “advanced” variation of a pose.

The potential accessibility that props offer is what makes me love them so much. In my experience, chairs in particular, can make yoga accessible to so many people who either can’t or don’t want to get on the floor to practice. Chair yoga is a revolutionary approach to the practice that removes so much of the competitive and more dangerous aspects of asana practice.

Props, when used safely, offer tremendous benefit. Props can be an extension of our body, like a strap lengthening our arms or legs, or connecting one part of the body to another. Props can also lift the Earth to us as we ground down, like blocks that help us to reach the floor or support us when we want to release the tension of holding a pose. Props, like blankets and bolsters, can add pressure and weight to allow us to rest, giving our nervous system the extra signal it needs to down-regulate.

In the end, can you practice yoga without props? A yoga mat is a prop –– probably created by the brilliant Angela Farmer because her palms didn’t sweat enough for her to have enough traction to stop slipping in Downward Dog when she was studying with BKS Iyengar. So she used a rug pad she got from her father’s rug factory. I hope she’s getting royalties!

Have we agreed that some props –– like this strip of plastic we now call a yoga mat –– can literally define yoga practice, while some others seem to detract from it in some way? What about the solid wood floor of most studios? Isn’t that a prop? If you have ever practiced on the beach, or in grass, you know how different the hard floor is in offering resistance.

One of my favorite props is the wall. You’ll find one in almost every room! Usually they’re free –– you don’t have to order them from the yoga prop company. They offer so much support, not just for your ceiling, but for your body in asana. Have you tried balancing poses against a wall? One of my favorites is a Tree pose with my back to the wall, and instead of raising my arms overhead, I keep my arms down and press my palms into the wall for support. It’s a very grounded Tree.

I would also suggest that the body itself is a prop. One part of the body can be a prop for another part of the body, like the way I reach back and hold my ankle in King Dancer, or the way my arm becomes a fulcrum in a spinal twist. So many poses rely upon the body’s connection with itself. Mudras are another great example of this subtle connection of one part of the body with another.

You could even make the case that the body is the ultimate prop for your spirit. In fact, yoga philosophy basically describes the body as a temporary vehicle for the soul, a prop to support us through this lifetime. According to The Bhagavad Gita, “Just like casting off worn-out clothing and putting on new ones, that which is embodied casts off worn-out bodies and enters others that are new.” (Satchidananda 2.22)

Yoga is ultimately about our relationship with ourselves, it’s not about the approval of other people or our own competitive ego nature. To me, the most advanced yoga practitioner is the one who knows how to practice without injuring themselves –– the one who can find a safe and effective practice. It seems like using props isn’t necessarily going to keep us safe, but then again, using a prop is, at times, exactly what some people need to stay safe in a pose.

The question is: How do you feel when you reach for a block in a public yoga class? If there is any stigma around prop usage, then we still have work to do. Just as we need to stop investing in the idea that more asana is better, we can also release the misunderstanding that using props is a sign of weakness.




Jivana Heyman
, C-IAYT, E-RYT500, is the founder and director of Accessible Yoga, an international non-profit organization dedicated to increasing access to the yoga teachings. Accessible Yoga offers Conferences, Community Conversations, a Blog, and an Ambassador program. He’s the creator of the Accessible Yoga Training, and the author of the book, Accessible Yoga: Poses and Practices for Every Body (Shambhala Publications, 2019). Jivana has specialized in teaching yoga to people with disabilities and out of this work, the Accessible Yoga organization was created to support education, training, and advocacy with the mission of shifting the public perception of yoga. More info at jivanaheyman.com


This post was edited by Patrice Priya Wagner, Managing Editor of Accessible Yoga blog and member of the Board of Directors.

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Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Yoga Report from Berlin, Part 1: Covid Deniers, QAnon, and Shantifa

Reichstag (Parliament) in Berlin, Germany

by Katharina Pewny


The term yogi:ni that appears in this article is used in the German language to refer to women, men, and others in between genders. The colon (:) indicates that it includes people between genders –– similar to yogi*ni.



Simultaneous with the ongoing pandemic in Germany, I am witnessing a rise of voices from the yoga scene, as well as from esoteric and other spiritual circles, that deny the pandemic as a fact. Some people, yoga teachers among them, claim that accompanying measures such as contact tracing and vaccinations result from a worldwide conspiracy aiming at total surveillance of citizens. In public demonstrations, QAnon signs appear in front of Berlin's parliament building, the Reichstag, and some yoga teachers appear to be more in tune with these voices than with what I and others understand as yogic ethics.

In Germany, the denial of Covid-19 sometimes goes hand in hand with the claim that people who refuse to get vaccinated will soon be oppressed just as Jewish people were oppressed by the National Socialist terror regime in the 1930's. Simultaneously, some claim that people who accept the pandemic as fact are as misled as the German “masses” who believed in the Nazi politics of Adolf Hitler.

I recently saw an online post with claims like that on the page of someone who represents a Berlin based yoga studio that offers both yoga teacher training and yoga therapy trainings. Since we have evidence, written, verbal, and photographic, that the Nazis killed six million Jewish people and members of other vulnerable groups during the Holocaust, these other claims are blatant historical falsifications and dangerous twisting of historic facts.

Consequently, many yoga teachers speak out against such falsifications and in favor of democracy. I am especially glad to be part of the network Shantifa and the connected Facebook group Yogi:nis gegen rechts. Shantifa is a hybrid word, created from the Sanskrit word for peace, shanti, and antifa, meaning antifascist.

An older antifa movement here consisted of people who have dismantled hidden Nazi-heritages since the 1970's in governmental institutions, in the broader society, and in our own families. In these forums we discuss yoga as empathy for, and therefore equity for, all beings. We passionately debate the thin line between being against something (fascism) and for something (love, equity, and social justice).

The female goddess Green Tara is both centered within herself and ready to act up for those in need of support, sothe Green Tara symbolizes for me the simultaneousness of loving kindness and the urge to stand up for this ethical value. As I practice and teach more and more, my somatic perception deepens. I perceive differing energies, emotions, and all kinds of dynamics more and more precisely. I understand the teachings of AY as a political practice of equity because we intend to create yoga spaces for all formerly excluded practitioners. The concepts of ahimsa, nonviolence, and satya, speaking the truth, often serve as a common point of reference for the Shantifa yogi:nis.

What else should we do? Some people collect links of organisations that develop discussion strategies against Covid-denial, others write open letters to yoga studios that appear in the zone between Covid-denial and rightwing ideologies, and others offer Shantifa solidarity yoga classes. The profit from these solidarity classes goes directly to support organisations for refugees such as Seawatch, a nonprofit organization that rescues ship-wrecked refugees in the Mediterranean Sea, or non-governmental organizations (NGO's) that work against antisemitism. Personally, I am grateful for both the AY and the Shantifa-community, as both together nourish what, for me, is yoga: a holistic practice far beyond the mat or chair.

How could it end there? Mutual interconnectedness is both the source and the goal of many yoga practices and philosophies. We share this conviction with other spiritual beliefs, because spirituality is, according to Philip Sheldrake, and I paraphrase here, ...the relation to the self (or non-self, in Buddhist philosophies), and to all surroundings, including sentient beings and non-sentient materials. How we organize yogic practices and teachings is therefore, for me, inherently political.



Katharina Pewny
I did my teacher training in Zen Yoga at Dynamic Mindfulness in Berlin, and in 2019 I did both a Senior Yoga and an Accessible Yoga training. As I have recurrent health issues and my mission is to offer practices for a range of movement abilities. You can find me here: birdyoga-berlin.de and katharina@birdyoga-berlin.de.


This post was edited by Patrice Priya Wagner, Managing Editor of Accessible Yoga blog and member of the Board of Directors.

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Wednesday, February 3, 2021

(Re)commit to Your Role


by Nicole Cardoza (she/her)

Each new calendar year, many feel inspired to recommit to solving the causes and challenges we face. And for many, this year is no exception. 2021 may feel like a fresh start after a devastating year, and it’s important to channel those intentions into action. But I propose using the beginning of this year to gain awareness on how your investment can be most sustainable, because New Year resolutions are more likely to be broken than executed. And movement work is no exception. My recommendation is to spend some time this week reflecting on your role in the work ahead.

A role, to me, isn’t a job title. It’s a way of being that you choose to hold yourself accountable to, regardless of the challenges you face. This isn’t always easy, and it may mean facing and addressing discomfort along the way. But necessary work is rarely easeful.

And if we expect accountability from our community, we have to stay accountable to ourself, and the space we take up in the work. If we’re not willing to be in relationship with our role, how can we hold ourselves accountable in our communities? Understanding our individual contributions only strengthens the whole, and resources everyone collectively.

“Each person has a unique role to play to shift any situation –– some might be in a good position to support the person harmed, whereas others might be in a better position to cultivate accountability with the person causing the harm. Some might have material resources to offer, others might organize community support, and still others might offer perspectives on the underlying roots of the violence. With more people, any situation can shift toward healing, accountability, and transformation." Ann Russo in Guest Post: Strategies for Cultivating Community Accountability by Ann Russo via Prison Culture

There are many ways to define your role, and I encourage you to look closely at the language used by local organizers and community leaders to guide you. But I appreciate this framework created by Deepa Iyer from Building Movement Project. Learn more about the map and definitions for each role (both PDFs linked are via the website).

Of course, you don’t have to follow a framework to identify your space. In fact, you may already have a definition, perhaps based on your occupation or volunteer efforts. Or maybe it’s not explicit, but a role you’ve already assumed in how you show up for your community. Either way, start by analyzing what you’re already doing. How have you contributed to this work? Where have you contributed: Politically? Socially? Economically? What has felt most generative to you? What has caused the most burnout?

Also, analyze your privilege. And think beyond racial privilege (although that may offer significant leverage in anti-racism work). Do you have the privilege of having a wide audience on social media? Seniority at your job? Are you the friend and family member people go to when they have questions? How does your social location influence your capacity to make an impact in each of these roles? How may it detract?

In addition to selecting a space to lead from, consider how you can “grow into” some of the other spaces that feel less familiar. The goal isn’t to become an expert in all things; that’s more likely to lead to fatigue and burnout than making an impact. But identifying micro ways to lean into these spaces may help you resource yourself as the work continues. It will also help you connect more deeply with others leading from that space and perhaps even add context when you’re looking to bring more people in with those skills.

For example, you might not be a healer, but you can identify ways to ensure you’re still healing as the work progresses. You might not consider yourself a visionary, but perhaps vision mapping is a powerful way to stay connected to your dreams.

Remember, you may find that your role evolves. You might find yourself with access to new power or privilege, or in a different community that calls for different skills. You might also evolve into another as your journey progresses. Welcome these shifts if they help you stay accountable to the work.

As you define your role, consider who else you can recruit to be a part of your efforts. Who are the storytellers around you, and what resources do they need to advocate for equity and solidarity? What experimenters do you know that apply their skills to the tasks at hand? And how can you lead from your strength to help activate them? If you’re struggling to identify where to start, consult your physical or virtual pod. Don’t have one, or unfamiliar with the term? Here’s a helpful overview – we’ll dive deeper in an article next week. Otherwise, you can start a dialogue with your coworkers, family members, or classmates!

We’ve got a whole new year ahead of us and much to be dismantled and reimagined. Although we can’t possibly prepare for the unexpected, we can certainly start with what we know – and who we know – and strive to make an impact, one day at a time.

KEY TAKEAWAYS
  • Identifying your role in social justice work is critical to individual and collective accountability
  • Your role may already be defined for you, and you should analyze what feels generative and what is available to you based on your privilege and power
  • Use this commitment as an opportunity to invite others to join the work with you

This article was originally posted by Nicole Cardoza in the Anti-Racism Daily on 1/5/21.


Nicole Cardoza is passionate about the reclamation of wellness. She’s the founder and Executive Director of Yoga Foster, a national nonprofit that empowers educators with yoga and mindfulness resources for the classroom. She’s also the founder of Reclamation Ventures, a venture fund investing in underestimated entrepreneurs making wellness more accessible. Nicole’s work has been featured in Forbes, Yoga Journal, Wanderlust, Family Circle Magazine, SELF Magazine, Paper Magazine, Mind Body Green, and Well + Good. She’s a seasoned speaker, consultant, teacher and coach.


This post was edited by Patrice Priya Wagner, Managing Editor of Accessible Yoga blog and member of the Board of Directors.

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