Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Yoga for Multiple Sclerosis: Breath Awareness and Multiple Options

Students with MS in yoga class, Oakland, California
Four women doing Warrior 2 pose, two seated in foreground,
two standing by wall in background, facing away, mats, props, and a cane
on floor near students

by Patrice Priya Wagner

When I teach yoga to people with multiple sclerosis (MS), I bring a first-hand knowledge of the disease because I was diagnosed with it in 1988. My illness has progressed slowly over the years with some invisible symptoms like fatigue and heat intolerance worsening much more than any visible manifestation like difficulty walking. The way MS presents in each individual can be so different that I often call it a "designer disease;" it's hard to find two people with the exact same set of symptoms showing up to the same degree.

In my teaching, the breath leads each part of our practice because it's the main connection between body and mind for all of us. At the start of a session, we pay attention to our natural breathing pattern and scan through our body to get a baseline reading on how we feel at that moment in time. After observing the breath, we'll gently begin to take deeper and slower inhalations and exhalations perhaps using the ujjayi breathing practice. Slowing and deepening our breath before starting warm-up stretches is never wasted time since it can show us the way to a steady mind and can set the mood for our entire practice and, perhaps, for the rest of our day.

Observing the breath continues into the asana practice---as we feel how our body moves into, holds, and comes out of poses. I encourage staying aware of the breath while doing poses for two main reasons. Not only does a slow, steady breath keep us comfortable as we move from pose to pose but, in addition, if we notice that our breath has become shallow or labored it serves as a warning that we've gone too far in a pose or stretch and need to ease up.

When I cue stretches and poses, I always offer more than one variation so students can choose what works best for them. Not only does this let everyone feel included in the class regardless of their physical ability but it also encourages self-agency to individuals who may have lost touch with their bodies or stopped trusting themselves to choose what's best for themselves.

As the end of class nears, teaching the subtle practices of pranayama and meditation doesn't involve a one-size-fits-all mentality either but, rather, requires suggesting different approaches for students to find their way to an internal space of quiet, calm, and safety regardless of what they may be going through in their life.

Just as the breath helps keep us comfortable and safe while doing asana, it can offer deeper states of relaxation during the concluding parts of class: pranayama, yoga nidra/guided relaxation, and meditation. My experience living with MS since 1988 and teaching yoga to people with MS since 2008 has been that using the breath to steady the mind may be the most helpful and direct way to find comfort for those of us living with this disease.

Resources for teaching variations on poses:
  • Accessible Yoga: Poses and Practices for Every Body by Jivana Heyman
  • Adaptive Yoga Moves Any Body by Mindy Eisenberg

Patrice Priya Wagner will be presenting at the Accessible Yoga's Conference Online October 14-17, 2021.

Patrice Priya Wagner
RYT 500, C-IAYT, has taught yoga to people with disabilities in Oakland, California since 2008. She trained with Integral Yoga in the San Francisco Bay Area, Accessible Yoga with Jivana Heyman, and Restorative Yoga with Judith Lasater. Priya has been published in New Mobility Magazine, Works and Conversations, Artweek, and Accessible Yoga's Blog. She's on Accessible Yoga's Board of Directors and currently serves as Managing Editor of the Accessible Yoga Blog.

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Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Culture, Power, and Modern Yoga: Insights from the East and West (Part 1)

Photo by Jay Castor (lotus flower floating in pond)

by Anjali Rao and Lorien Neargarder

Yoga is a practice that liberates, transforms, is a path toward unity, and is inclusive of all humanity. As practitioners of yoga, we have all heard variations of this statement, but this is not accurate for many Americans, a reality we need to change. We are two yoga teachers from different backgrounds––Anjali Rao, an Indian American immigrant, and Lorien Neargarder, a natural-born American citizen––and we are united in our passion for sharing the practice that moves us and has transformed our own lives so deeply. 

This article is the result of us asking, "Can we talk honestly, without fear, shame, or guilt, about the challenging problems with American yoga? And what if we tell the culture and community that we love that it can do better... and then it rejects us?" We trust that our yoga community’s acceptance is unconditional and hope this article will inspire you to speak up and help us shape a better, more inclusive yoga culture.

American yoga has two major problems: it has become transactional and it is available only to those who qualify. This is at odds with yogic teachings, which describe the complex and rich practice of yoga as one that is rooted in deep spiritual meaning, the ultimate union of the human with the Divine. Interpreted without bias, this means that the ticket you need to practice yoga is to be human. But here in America you need more than your humanity to practice yoga; when you enter the yoga space with a class pass and a contractual mindset, you have already accepted a harmful concept of who should have access to yoga, set not by the yogic teaching but by the dominant culture (White, middle-class, Protestant people of northern European descent, heterosexual, and cisgender). 

The dominant culture imposes its value system and is the gatekeeper of what gets accepted as “normal” or “valuable” or “successful” and therefore is the power wielder. The term counterculture refers to a group of society who oppose the values and lifestyles of the dominant culture and can provide positive growth for a stagnant or concretized culture.

Power Culture

If you are unclear what the dominant American culture is, try the following exercise. Imagine you are in a yoga class, the one that you go to every time you practice or teach. (Well, now it's online because of the pandemic; nevertheless, it's your go-to class.) Take a look around at those rectangular mats. Who is showing up in your class? What is the age group? What is the gender and sexual orientation? What is the race that shows up? What is the range of physical and cognitive ability? Most likely it is someone who looks like you, if you are a teacher. If you are White, most likely the people who show up in your class are White. If you are White, chances are you are a teacher, or a faculty member, or a writer, or an “expert” in your chosen niche in yoga studies.

Yoga originated in India, a country colonized by many European empires and where British colonists actually banned the practice during their rule in order to prevent the many anti-oppression movements of radical Yogis. And yet we don’t see many yoga teachers from India/Pakistan/Sri Lanka/Bangladesh in mainstream classes and teacher trainings. There has been a modern neo-colonization of this practice and re-erasure of practitioners/teachers by the West. For someone whose ancestors were dehumanized for centuries, murdered, and impoverished by colonizers, to witness this ancient spiritual practice appropriated, commodified, and reduced to a solely physical practice for economic gain is re-traumatizing on many levels: psychological, physical, social, and financial.

Cultural Appropriation

Cultural appropriation happens when a dominant group in a position of privilege and power (political, economic, or social) adopts, benefits from, shares, and even exploits the customs, practices, ideas, or social and spiritual knowledge of another, usually target or subordinate, society of people (Barkataki, 2019). Think about all the ways that strands of the yoga teachings have been pulled out of their context and culture in order to elevate someone in the American dominant culture, disregarding the roots of the practice.

The Bhagavad Gita (composed around 400 BCE–200 CE) is one of the most sacred Indian texts; it uses the word "Yoga" 78 times in 15 of its 18 chapters, and is revered in India as the Yoga Shastra (Shastra means book/treatise). In the Gita, yoga is referred to in many different contexts, from the way we move and act in the world to our relationship with the Divine. In the West, yoga is White-washed and made “secular” by reducing the breadth and the depth of the practice to suit the commercial Western palate. 

When we taught yoga in corporate settings, we were told to refrain from using Sanskrit, the language of yoga, lest it scare away the student, or “consumer.” The feelings of the White student/consumer are valued more than the Brown culture that it came from. Thus, the racial dynamic of White social-economic-cultural power that is outside of a yoga class translates completely into the yoga class at all levels: from expert to teacher to student.

Yoga has a power culture problem. We need more diversity.

We disrupt the power culture when we de-colonize yoga and understand cultural appropriation by learning more about all cultures (including “White"), the context and the history of the yoga teachings, and diversify who we view as experts. We also disrupt the power culture by collaborating with diverse people, listening and trusting each other. Building trust takes time and consistent effort; it takes open and active listening and asking challenging questions of the other, especially when we come from diverse backgrounds. What has worked for us is an honest acknowledgement of our differences; we understand that our positions in this American culture, defined by the power and privilege accorded to us as White-bodied and BIPOC, are different, and hence our responsibilities and roles are different. Once these differences were named, we were able to find commonality in the way we view the world, through either Anjali's lens of subculture or Lorien's lens of counterculture.

Reflection Point.

Look around your yoga class, and make a note of the group that shows up:
  • How diverse is the make-up of your class? 
  • If the group is rather homogenous, how can you change this to build connections across different groups to invite more inclusion? 
  • White folks, what do you need to be able to really hear the voice of someone who is BIPOC, or is different from you in other ways, without the hum of guilt? 
  • BIPOC folks, what do you need to be able to share how you feel without fear of backlash?

Anjali Rao
came to the Yoga mat at nearly 40 recovering from surgery from Breast Cancer. She studies, teaches, and writes about Yoga philosophy/ history from a socio-political perspective and is deeply interested in the intersectionality of race, culture, gender and accessibility of Yoga practices. She aims to make the practice Yoga on and off the mat accessible, helpful and joyful to people across ages, genders and abilities. She is a part of the teacher training faculty in 200 and 300 hour programs in the Bay Area and teaches Yoga for Cancer Survivorship for the Stanford Cancer Program. She serves on the Board for HERS Breast Cancer Foundation, a non-profit that helps survivors and those going through treatment regardless of financial status. She is a lifelong student of Indian Classical Dance, a sucker for puppies, loves dark chocolate, the ocean and old trees.

Lorien Neargarder
(E-RYT500, C-IAYT) has been offering yoga practices in a variety of spaces since 2004 and has learned from the diverse spectrum of students who show up to these spaces: adult education program, elementary / middle / high school, businesses, family psychology center, psychiatric ward, pain rehabilitation clinic, oncology ward, library and yoga studios. She specializes in working with people diagnosed with cancer and started her own nonprofit in 2018 in order to offer yoga (and other support care) to them free of charge.

This article was originally posted in the Accessible Yoga Blog on March 24, 2021.

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, September 8, 2021

When Poverty, Yoga, and Kids Intersect

Colin Lieu stands with arms spread to either side at shoulder height,
In red sleeveless shirt and black slacks

by Colin Lieu

It’s 3:00 pm on a Wednesday afternoon and Elijah has students blowing into bubble solution in a lesson about elongated exhales, as part of his job interview and demo. Our students are loving it, Lionel even counts how many seconds Taraji is blowing out as others gaze in awe at how big the bubble is becoming.

The way education circles talk about schools (and by extension, communities) in the Bronx, it doesn’t exactly paint an Amy Sherald picture of kids completely captivated in a class on breathing techniques.

The median household income of a family in the Upper East Side of Manhattan’s District 2 is $108,725. Their English Language Arts (ELA) proficiency rate amongst 6th graders is 74%. The median household income of a family in the Bronx’s District 7 is $66,89. ELA proficiency is 27%.

“This is stupid,” says Benny. “I’m bored.” Looks like not everyone is sold.

Lebron James now appears on the board. It’s a gif of him seated and meditating on the sidelines. Benny grips the front edge of his desk and leans in.

Great move, Mr. Elijah. We’ve got to meet our kids where they are and work to uncover the points of entry available to us to get kids hooked into the content.

Teaching yoga and mindfulness to kids, especially in underserved communities, ain’t easy. You can’t Michelle Pfeiffer (in Dangerous Minds) your way through it---with white savior tropes that center the teacher, not the student. It left a bad taste in 1995, and it’s not going to work in 2021.

On these streets out here in the south Bronx, we don’t have what Manhattan offers: the 18 yoga studios in Chelsea, the weekly outdoor yoga classes in Union Square, or the flagship Lululemon store in SoHo.

Teaching yoga in public schools can mean different things: teaching in hallways; teaching without yoga mats; teaching through nursery rhymes; teaching school administrators to actually believe the work and not just the jargon; and teaching kids to retie shoelaces.

But none of the above are Taraji, Lionel, or Benny’s fault. Teaching yoga to poor kids demands an unwavering commitment to deliver Peleton-Standard lessons inspite of their circumstances. Kids who grow up in resource-poor communities should not be subjected to poor teaching quality, poor learning materials, or a poor teacher mindset.

Our kids, a 10-minute subway ride north of the Upper East Side of Manhattan, deserve everything---and the kitchen sink.

If you took on the task to educate kids in under-served communities, you better do the work---and self-work! Finding time and space to self-regulate is a privilege. Some of us carry the trauma of constantly being in “fight or flight” that it takes extra patience and consistency to create a brave enough space to let the walls come down and activate the vagus nerve’s calming response.

At Creo College Prep, our students take Health & Wellness class every day. We are committed to supporting our students to build self-care habits all while understanding we have to exercise non-attachment because how they use these tools after their time with us, is out of our hands.

We are devoted to our higher purpose and trust things will fall into place. While the Upper East Side’s District 2 ELA proficiency is 41% for 6th grade students who have additional needs and Individual Education Plans (IEPs), Creo’s is 45%. We are in our third year and just getting started.

Taraji claps to a steady four-beat as the class breaths in and out at the same pace---just as they did with Elijah 15 minutes ago. She sits back down and we listen to a guided meditation by Lebron James on the Calm app.

This is how it’s done. See the best in your students. Tailor content and teaching style to be student-centered. Give students opportunities to lead.

Elijah got the job.

Colin Lieu
is a nurturer who works with young people to block out the noise and stay connected to their best selves. Colin is the Founding Dean of Wellness at Creo College Pre. He founded Multitasking Yogi in 2017 as a platform to bring the tools of mindfulness and self-care to vastly diverse spaces and populations: teaching in public schools; leading educator professional development workshops; and servicing community events. Multitasking Yogi teacher training offers an innovative way to nurture the next generation of wellness leaders. High school juniors and seniors already taking Multitasking Yogi classes have the opportunity to be placed on a specialized track to complete a Yoga Alliance 95-hr Registered Children's Yoga Teacher certification and become their community's next generation yoga teacher. He serves on the Board of Directors of Accessible Yoga Association.

Colin Lieu will be presenting at the Accessible Yoga's Conference Online October 14-17, 2021.

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

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Wednesday, September 1, 2021

Making Our Marketing Accessible and Aligned

Tristan Katz seen from waist up in black long-sleeve shirt
seated at a desk working on a laptop
by Tristan Katz

Many yoga teachers feel a thing when they hear the word ‘marketing’—it might be dread, it might be a sense of being overwhelmed, or perhaps it’s just simply… ick. Yoga teacher trainings hardly cover the basics of marketing, and so we go out into the world with our 200-hour certification knowing we have to do it, but often feeling unsure about where to begin. Enter Accessible Marketing.

Accessible Marketing is an invitation to bring your yoga into your business---if you're someone who chooses to create a business bringing your teaching into the world. Accessible Marketing is an acknowledgement that only you know how to speak about your work in a way that aligns with who you are and why you do what you do; it’s an acknowledgment that each of us has different capacities, lived experiences, perspectives, and growth edges.

Systems such as capitalism, colonialism, and white supremacy can lead us to feel disconnected from ourselves and others; yoga invites us back into connection. And marketing can be explored from this place—from a place of connection both with ourselves, and with others. Because ultimately, marketing relies on something we’re already doing, which is teaching. We can and must explore ways to bring what we’re already sharing in our classes and offerings into our marketing. When we embrace this exploration, we are more likely to truly reach people with our unique voices and gifts, and we’re more likely to cultivate relationships. This is the core essence of marketing. It doesn’t have to be transactional. It doesn’t have to feel forced. And it doesn’t have to make you want to pull your hair out.

Accessible Marketing is an exploration of strategies and best practices so that you can find your way through this practice, and so that you can integrate what you’re already doing in your own work as a teacher and student of yoga into your marketing.

Accessible Marketing centers on the nuanced discussion of how each of us have different roles to play based on our identities and the realities of systemic oppression. In order to grow our work and stay aligned with yoga and social justice—which is really an extension of the yogic teachings (think ahimsa or non-harming, for example), we must engage in a conversation about how we show up and take up space, and how we might be contributing to social change, equity, and genuine belonging, or potentially perpetuating harm.

It can be hard to share about our offerings beyond sharing our weekly class schedule. In order to truly connect with our audience, and with new students, we must learn how to create content that actually serves our community—content that makes an impact. Though many of us might not see a connection between yoga, social justice, and marketing, the truth is—especially at this moment in our culture and world, yoga, social justice, and marketing go hand in hand.

Tristan Katz
(they/them) is a writer, educator, and digital strategist specializing in business and marketing coaching-consulting, web and graphic design. Based on the ancestral land of the Cowlitz and Clackamas peoples, now known as Portland, OR, Tristan teaches workshops and trainings centered around queer identity and trans* awareness with an intersectional lens, along with justice-focused digital marketing strategies for yoga and wellness professionals. Through their podcast, articles, digital resources, and workshops, Tristan supports those who seek to grow their work while staying aligned with the practices of yoga, equity, diversity, and inclusivity.

Tristan Katz is a member of Accessible Yoga's Board of Directors and will be presenting at the Accessible Yoga's Conference Online October 14-17, 2021.

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

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