Call out for submisions: Zine on yoga, healing trauma and emotional justice.

ImageCommunity Yoga Vancouver is searching for submissions for our 2nd zine. This zine will focus on the path to teaching; healing trauma through yoga. We are looking for writing, poetry, blog pieces, stories, drawings, collages or whatever you can think of that fits in a zine!

We are looking to teachers and students for submissions that discuss:

– yoga as a path to healing trauma
– yoga as a tool for personal growth
– your path to teaching
– trauma as related to experiences of oppression (racism, sexism, ableism, heterosexism and cissexism etc.)
– yoga as a tool for resistance, liberation and emotional justice

These can be personal experiences or experiences you have played a role in.

*We are using the term yoga in the broad sense. Meaning, not just asana but all facets of this practice.

All submissions will be read and considered by CYV teachers and several other people.

The final product will be licensed under creative commons and copies of the zine will be made available to all contributors for personal publishing and/or sale (preferably by-donation).

Feel free to write us with questions, comments or suggestions.

Due date: April 15, 2013

Submit to: communityyogavancouver@gmail.com with subject line “zine”

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Yoga Studios: Open to everyone?

The first time I walked into a yoga studio I was terrified. I had just had three panic attacks in 2 days and spent my lunch break at work that day crying in the bathroom. My anxiety had become so bad I confessed to my mom what was going on and she suggested I go to a yoga class. I can honestly say (like many people who practice yoga) that that class changed my life. That night, for the first time in months, I fell asleep within minutes and slept through the whole night. When I woke up I felt like more of my body was sunk into the mattress than usual. I was letting go and relaxing in a way I wasn’t at all used to but I desperately needed.

Since then I’ve practiced yoga fairly regularly for almost 6 years. I’m now a yoga teacher and my friends make fun of me for wearing tights and yoga pants all the time, but I honestly just don’t feel comfortable in anything else. I need to be able to move in my clothes and jeans just don’t do it for me. But here’s the thing, even though I’m a yoga teacher I can see how the western yoga world is an un-safe and un-welcoming place for many people.

In many ways, I am the target demographic for yoga studios. I’m white, from a middle class back ground, thin, able-bodied and cis-gendered (that means I identify and am perceived as the gender I was assigned at birth). When you speak to people who work at yoga studios you will commonly hear them say things like “everyone is welcome here”. Many studios hold the intention to be welcoming, healing places for everyone, the reality is that yoga studios set some exclusive and damaging standards for who belongs and who doesn’t.

For example check out the websites from Semperviva and YYoga in Vancouver. Take a look at the people on their sites. They are all thin. Pretty much all of them are white or fair skinned. Based on their clothing and the prices they pay at these studios, you could guess most of them are financially comfortable. None of them appear to be trans* and many of the photographs show people who are unusually flexible. What do you think these photos teach people about who belongs in the yoga world? Can you see why many people would feel unwelcome? When you fit this mold it’s easy to feel like our spaces are welcoming: because they are welcoming, to you.

These photos are just the tip of the iceberg to this problem, but instead of listing more examples here are some steps yoga studios could take to move closer to truly “opening their doors to everyone”:

Offer by-donation classes
Lots of people can’t afford a $20 drop in or a $100 ten class pass (I know I can’t). If you want people to practice, give them opportunities to do so that they can afford. Consider asking new teachers to offer the classes. They’d probably love a chance to practice their new skills.

Make your studio an LGBTQ safe space
It’s one thing to say your studio is safe for queer, trans* or just generally non-gendernormative or non-heternormative people. You can easily do this with a sticker or a tag line on your pamphlets. But like I said before, what you say is not as important as what you do. For example do you assume your students’ genders or do you ask for and respect their preferred pronouns? Does your studio have gender-segregated bathrooms? Some people would feel safer and more welcome if they didn’t have to choose.

Multi-language posters/teachers
This one is pretty straight-forward. If all your marketing and classes are in English then only people who speak English will come. Non-english speaking teachers and classes allow immigrants (legal or otherwise), ESL students and people who speak other languages to practice yoga and build a community that they might not otherwise be able to do in English.

Celebrate fat bodies and body diversity
There are lots of healthy, happy fat people who kick butt at yoga and many fat people who are terrified of studios because they think they don’t belong. Make sure your teachers know how to offer adjustments and alternatives for fat bodies. Consider offering fat classes and avoid making judgmental comments about people’s weight or eating habits. You have no idea about the quality of someone’s health based on their weight and you’re not going to make them more physically active or healthy by shaming them.

Offer meditation classes
In the west, asana (all the poses you do in a yoga class) have been transformed into an en-vogue fitness trend, rather than a stepping stone towards meditation. Not only does this shift contribute to the consumer-capitalist cultural appropriation of yoga, it also demands that yoga practitioners be able to do physical asanas. Think about how many more people would come to yoga studios if they offered affordable meditation classes that could literally be useful to everyone.

Make your studio accessible to people with non-normative physical abilities
Can people in wheel chairs or who use walking aids make it into your studio? If not, could you do a simple renovation to fix this? More importantly, do you offer classes that can be taken by people who don’t have a “normal” range of movement. Think about offering classes in meditation or chair yoga and make sure to include accessibility info in your advertising (eg: do students need to go up stairs to enter your space? What are the size of your doorways?). It’s important though, not to assume that because someone has a non-normative body they can’t do asana. Talk to them before or after class and listen to what they know about their bodies. Try to make them feel comfortable asking questions and offer creative, non-patronizing adjustments if needed.

Offer trauma sensistive classes
If you practice yoga you know that your body holds stress, tension, bad memories, samskaras, you name it. Lots of people don’t want to do yoga because being in their body simply doesn’t feel safe. On top of that yoga studios can feel unsafe for people because they are filled with potential triggers (eg: aggressive teaching instructions, vulnerable poses, teachers touching them without asking, ropes hanging from the wall.. trust me, the list goes on). Do your best to learn about trauma sensitive yoga and offer classes that respect your student’s boundaries. You can help them feel safe, rather than scared and re-traumatized.

Don’t set up in a gentrified neighbourhood
I live in Vancouver so I understand that finding a space to teach can be expensive and that this can translate into high prices for students, but please don’t set up in a neighbourhood filled with people you don’t intend to teach to simply because the rent is low. We may feel that we are working to ”revitalize” a neighbourhood, but often our presence works in tandem with opportunistic and vicious property development companies to displace low-income people and racialized communities from the places they call home. I understand that many studios do intend to teach to the people whose communities they intruded on, but I’ve rarely seen this succeed when classes are filled with people wearing lululemon and class prices are unaffordable to residents.

Offer YTT scholarships
If your studio gives teacher trainings find ways to offer scholarships to people who otherwise could not afford to attend. Prioritize people who have greater barriers to overcome than others. Teacher trainings are expensive. By offering scholarships you will encourage a more diverse group of teachers and their future student bodies to blossom and feel welcome.

This is a long list. Many of the things I wrote about here are vastly more complicated than a couple of sentences could explain. I plan to write about many of these issues in more detail in the coming weeks, so check back if you’re interested or want more info. If you have any other ideas about increasing accessibility feel free to send them my way, or better yet, take steps to implement them in your studios. The only way we can make more people feel welcome is if we think critically about our behaviour, our privlege and the kind of spaces we want to create.

Actions speak louder than words people, so please, open your doors, your hearts and your studios. Everyone is welcome, right?

 

Kula Yoga in Toronto is an example of a studio taking concrete steps towards increasing accessibility.

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