Community Based Yoga …Or.. What yoga can learn from Community Acupuncture

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Community Yoga Vancouver

Right now Community Yoga Vancouver is fundraising for our our very own by-donation studio. You can contribute to our campaign and help make our dream a reality here.

Many of us exit space and time entirely during that first savasana. These experiences uniquely prepare us for empathy. Somewhere we realize: everyone has access to this spaciousness, this relaxation, this non-reactivity. But it is an empathy we haven’t the means to share if we’re not behaving like a culture. Ten minutes of camaraderie in the changeroom after a sweaty class will not organize a soup kitchen.

- Matthew Remski in 21st Century Yoga

When I was at my yoga teacher training two summers ago I over heard a conversation between two people in my training. They were discussing acupuncture and how helpful they had found it. I have had chronic muscle tension in my neck and shoulders for most of my adult life, so over hearing this made me wonder if acupuncture might help me. Thing is, acupuncture is expensive, usually running around $80 for a treatment – not something I could ever afford, especially not for more than one treatment.

When I came home from my training I passed by an acupuncture clinic near my house. There was a sign out front that read “Poke Community Acupuncture” and “sliding scale $20 to $40”.  I thought to myself, “I can afford to at least try this”. So, I did. Poke is set up with about 8 chairs in the back room and the acupuncturist treats patients one after the other, leaving them to sleep together in the treatment room. Because they treat a patient every 10 minutes Poke can charge much less for each treatment. With a communal treatment room everyone shares in the healing energy of the space, rather than being isolated in separate treatment rooms.

Sitting in the chair, watching the needles poke my skin one by one in a circle across my limbs, I instantly felt relaxed and sleepy. It was similar to how I feel in savasana at the end of my asana practice. I was told I could sleep for my first treatment, but I stayed awake just noticing how it made me feel. About half way through the treatment it felt like a marble rolled out of my shoulder, down my arm and out my middle finger. This was the first time I ever felt that kind of release in my shoulder. I was hooked.

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Poke Community Acupuncture in Vancouver

I started volunteering at Poke at the front desk and got free treatments in exchange. I love volunteering at Poke. The space is quiet, calm and beautiful – even while being next to a busy street corner. Poke was my first exposure to a healing space that was truly grounded in a sense of community.  We receive our treatments together. We can see each other sleeping. We pool our money and we hold space for ourselves AND the community to rest, relax and heal. When I couldn’t afford $20 for a treatment I was told to keep coming and pay what I could afford. I wasn’t turned away from Poke when I most needed it. I felt like I truly belonged and was valued. There was something brilliant and radical about this.

At some point in my time at Poke I wondered to myself – why had I never felt this way in a yoga studio?

As I started to teach I realized that the model I was seeing in yoga studios really wasn’t serving as many people as it could – especially when I compared it to Poke, where the patients range so drastically in age, race, mobility, sexuality and social status. This diversity is something I have often felt is missing in yoga studios and as a teacher I wondered – how can we make yoga studios more like community acupuncture? What would a yoga studio look like if its goal was to build community, rather than profit?

The more I thought about and researched this idea the more I started to see, there already is a movement to build community in yoga studios – and it’s growing across North America. I wanted a phrase to refer to this movement and lovingly started to call it “community-based yoga”.

From what I can see, community based yoga projects have a few things in common:

By-donation classes
At Community Yoga Vancouver, where I teach, our classes are all by donation. Right now we’re fundraising to open a completely by-donation studio. Bryan Kest, who founded one of the first donation-based yoga studios in North America, wrote a great piece to get teachers thinking about how to offer by-donation classes. Many studios that I would consider to be community oriented offer less than market rate classes.

Safer Space Classes
Studios like Kula Annex in Toronto are introducing classes like queer yoga and brown girls yoga to create safer spaces for people who might not normally feel welcome in regular studios.  Similar classes are available at Community Yoga in Vancouver and at Ambaa yoga through Queer Yoga Montreal.

Combining yoga with other sliding scale healing modalities
Hemma in Victoria is a combination community acupuncture clinic and yoga studio. They operate on a sliding scale. Same with the Healing Roots center in Kitchener. Sacred Body Community and Healing Arts Center in Ann Arbor combines yoga with all kinds of sliding scale healing modalities.  Same thing with Third Root in Brooklyn.

Crowd funded
If you search “community yoga” on indiegogo lots of campaigns come up. Grow yoga project fundraised to send Angélica De Jesús to a teacher training, with the expressed goal that they would give back to community with more accessible classes when they graduated. Community Yoga Vancouver’s new studio will be crowd funded. Same with The People’s yoga in Oregon and Tri-yoga in Pensylvania.

Consent Cards
Queen St Yoga in Kitchener, Kula Annex in Toronto and Community Yoga Vancouver all use consent cards to allow students to indicate whether they would like to recieve physical assists. This keeps the students safe and opens up communication between the teachers and students that prevent teachers from making assumptions about people’s needs or their bodies.

Community Yoga's consent cards

Community Yoga’s consent cards

Many of the studios listed above embody several or all of these characteristics. What is most noticeable though, is that the goal behind these studios is not to make excessive amounts of profits – but rather to offer yoga to as many people as possible.  Accessibility is the bottom line. In these spaces, it seems money is exchanged to keep the spaces open and the teachers paid. We pool our funds collectively to allow community to grow. My feeling is that we do this because we’re stronger supporting each other to heal, rather than doing it all on our own. Community acupuncture recognizes this and slowly yoga is starting to catch on too.

There is a big difference here, I think, between charity and community building. We’re not asking teachers to work for free – which is challenging for anyone struggling to pay rent, as most yoga teachers do. We’re working together to support each other to heal and grow. In the same way an acupuncturist sits in the chair at the end of their shift at a community acupuncture clinic, with community based yoga teachers can take classes in studios that reflect their values and their community connections. We’re creating horizontal networks of community ties and we’re changing what it means to practice yoga in North America.

In my daydreams I wonder if one day all these community based yoga studios will eventually join together to create an organization similar to the People’s Organization of Community Acupuncture. What if we joined all these community-oriented studios together to support each other? What if we shared funds through crowd funding when one of us was threatened with closure? What if we could move from one city to another and know there’s a studio we can land in for instant community? What if we built a movement with yoga and we dared to boldly dream that healing, peace of mind and spiritual growth could be available to anyone who wants it – no matter who they are.

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My hope is that you’ll treat this as an introduction to some of the other people and places across North America who feel the same passion you do. An introduction to spaces working tirelessly to keep their doors and hearts open.

Whether we realize it or not – what we’re doing here is building a movement.

One breath at a time.

I want to thank Matthew Remski whose brilliant piece in 21st Century Yoga has been an inspiration to me as I’ve organized with Community Yoga Vancouver. I also want to thank Carol Horton and Roseanne Harvey for putting this brilliant book together.

 

Community-based yoga studios:

Canada
De La Sol Yoga – Hamilton, On
Healing Roots center
 – Kitchener, On
Queen St yoga – Kitchener, On
Kula Annex – Toronto, On
Community Yoga – Vancouver, BC
Hemma – Victoria, BC

Europe
Edinburgh Community Yoga – Edinburgh, Scotland

USA
Just B Yoga – Lansing, Mi
Yoga to the People – Berkley, Ca
Third Root – Brooklyn, NY
Yoga to the People – New York, NY
Lotus Seed – Portland, Or
The People’s yoga – Portland, Or
Yoga to the People – San Francisco
Power Yoga – Santa Monica, Ca
Yoga to the People – Seattle, Wa
Tri-yoga – State College and Spring Mills, Pennsylvania
Yoga to the People – Tempe, Az

Feel free to introduce me to your studio by emailing andrea.grace.macdonald@gmail.com and I will add you to this list.

WIth Your Permission: Yoga, Consent and Authentic Embodiment

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Community Yoga Vancouver’s consent cards. They have “yes” on one side and “no” on the other, to let the teacher’s know whether you’d like physical assists.

Yoga is my refuge. For most of my adult life I have turned to my mat, to my breath, when I needed solace, when I needed space. This has not always been an easy pursuit for me. To put it simply: it’s a balancing act. I have a busy mind and a constantly churning conscience. I am a yoga teacher sure, but I’m also a feminist and I care deeply about fighting injustice and untangling webs of oppression. Seeking stillness and peace isn’t always easy when you’re deeply immersed in resistance or facing a police barricade. As much as it can feel like my worlds are separate sometimes, yoga has taught me the value of being able to see the connection – the union – between my passions.

Over the past year I’ve learned a lot about trauma sensitive yoga. This approach is most commonly used when teachers offer classes in places like prisons or rehab facilities. TSY seeks to reacquaint students with their bodies in a safe and (as much as possible) non-triggering way. It acknowledges that people hold trauma in their bodies and offers yoga as a tool to address these deeply held experiences (or samskaras). Whenever I teach I try to offer trauma conscience classes and a concept I’ve found very useful to incorporate is consent.

Consent can be a surprisingly tricky concept, especially when put into practice, but understood simply it means to freely and willingly engage in something, without coercion or force. When you consent to something you have the autonomy to choose what you do with your body, or what someone else does to you. You also have the right to say no, or revoke consent, whenever you wish, even if you gave consent previously. Meaningful consent is about respect and active, honest communication. Rachel Kramer Bussel explains this well in her piece “Beyond Yes or No, Consent as Sexual Process”:

“The issue of “consent” encompasses the way we ask for sex, and the ways we don’t. It’s about more than the letter of the law, and, like all sexual issues, at its heart is communication. Without our speaking up and demanding that our lovers do, too, we don’t ever truly know what they are thinking, which impedes us from having the sex we could be having.”

As this quote illustrates, consent is most popularly discussed in reference to sex. Seeking consent when engaging each other’s bodies is meant to encourage conversation between partners, keep people safe and allow people to feel empowered, rather than fearful, guilty or lacking control (though it’s also possible to consent to situations that make you feel that way, if that’s what you’re into). When people seek consent from their partners they demonstrate respect for their boundaries and strive to share in a mutually pleasurable and healing connection.

I think they way we imagine consent, as something that exists only in reference to sex, means we are missing opportunities to meaningfully apply it to the rest of our lives. Yoga is a practice that relies on, often-unacknowledged, physical intimacy. I love getting a welcomed physical assist as much as the next yoga teacher, but I have often felt, scared or triggered when someone I don’t know has come up behind me and pressed my hips closer to the floor. Same thing goes for a teacher suggesting I take a pose that just doesn’t feel right for my body. When we practice yoga together we are delving into an intentionally corporeal experience; we are showing up together to hang out in our bodies. As such I think an effort should be made to articulate and respect our boundaries on the mat, just like we do with consensual sex in our beds (or wherever else we end up getting off). Learning more about consent and committing to obtaining it in bed, helped me see how useful it can be anytime I have access to another person’s body – including the bodies of my students. It’s from this place that I decided to start incorporating consent into my yoga classes.

Here’s what consent based yoga looks like for me:

Consent is explained at the beginning of the class
When I start my classes I sit in a circle with my students and tell them that my classes are based on consent.  I tell them that everything I’m teaching is an offering that they can accept or refuse as they deem appropriate and I put emphasis on their discernment, rather than my expertise. I offer them an intention like “I will listen to myself” or “I will hold space for everyone’s authentic movement”. I want them to know that I literally seek their consent for every pose I guide them into.

Invitational language is used
Incorporating invitational language reminds students that every pose is an opportunity, rather than a demand. Invitational language reduces pressure and encourages an inquisitive rather than striving attitude. Here are some examples:

“If you like …”

“When you’re ready…”

“If it feels right…”

Students are encouraged to ask questions and suggest poses
I encourage my students to ask questions when they’re confused. I also tell them they can ask for poses they like or shout out modifications for poses I’ve already offered. At the beginning of class I tell the students that I’m not the only person here who knows something about yoga and that I value their experience just as much as my own. I want people to feel comfortable and confident in sharing. For me, that’s part of building community in my classes.  I have never had a student call out something that I felt was inappropriate or put the other students at risk. If that ever came up I’d simply explain my concerns – it’s a conversation, not a monologue. So far their suggestions have only enhanced my teaching.

The teacher avoids touching students and only does so with non-coerced permission
I love physical assists. They have helped me get deeper into a pose and explore my body in a way I couldn’t on my own. That being said I have definitely felt uncomfortable when a teacher I just met has come up from behind me and touched me without asking for permission first. Like many of us, I store anger and anxiety in my hips and sadness in my back. When someone touches me without permission they could easily hurt me, trigger me or push me past a boundary I’m not ready to cross. Touch is a deeply personal energetic exchange and it’s important to recognize that when we offer assists.

As a teacher, consent based yoga has offered me lessons in humility and letting go of control. Sometimes my students barely move through the entire class. Sometimes they leave early or show up late. Sometimes they lay down on the grass and stare at the stars and it can seem like they aren’t listening or don’t care about what I’m offering – but that’s where the lesson is. I want my students to make use of our sacred space in whatever way they see fit. Sure I have something to offer, but maybe that’s not what they need right now. It’s an exercise in faith and demonstration of confidence in my students, to trust that when they aren’t following me they are listening to and prioritizing their body’s unique needs. I’d rather teach my students to listen to themselves and honestly evaluate their needs than teach them the “perfect” downward dog.

Teaching is a vulnerable act. You’re standing up in front of people and offering yourself up as an example. You’re trying to share something you care deeply about, sometimes with people you’ve never met before. When all the students do exactly what you do it can offer a sense of validation – a sense of control and respect that many of us long for. Sometimes though, our desire to be validated and listened to can lead to a sense of hierarchy in our classes. When the teacher is seen as the only expert our students can feel compelled to listen to us before their own bodies or compete with the people on the mats next to them. I feel that consent based yoga works to undermine this hierarchy because everyone in the room is listening to themselves, rather than the expert at the front of the room. I’ve noticed too, that when my students are encouraged to consent to all their movements – when one person is meditating and another is offering up instructions for their favourite pose – they are less likely to compete with each other. They are closing their eyes or looking at whoever is giving instruction, rather than sizing each other up, pushing themselves past safe or comfortable limits.

Most importantly to me though, consent based yoga offers my students (and me) a path toward empowered, authentic embodiment. So much of our lives are shaped by influences over which we have little control. We are constantly subject to forces of power that shape our sense of self worth and our ability to act in the world. These forces keep us apart – apart from each other, apart from our selves and apart from our spirits. When we come together to hold sacred space for healing movement, free from coercion and pressure, we learn to embody our truth and acknowledge and meet our needs. In this way we learn to liberate ourselves and help each other to do the same.

When we practice yoga based on consent we shape our safe space with solidarity and our movement is revolutionary. One breath and one pose at a time.

Here are some resources for Trauma Sensitive Yoga and consent:

Over Coming Trauma Through Yoga – Book
Learning Good Consent – Zine
Yes Means Yes – Anthology/Blog