Just Raina

[6 minute read]

I am not an activist.

Over the last 8 months or so I’ve been caught up in my feelings. Tending to my immediate needs, responding to my trauma(s), and figuring out who I am as I emerge into next-level adulthood (*le sigh*). It is an enlightening obstacle to pull myself away from what I think I *should* be doing and focus on what I need to be whole and authentic. Graduate school – which I finished in December, praise – poured salt into the open wound that is my evolving practice of letting go of my “shoulds” and allowing the deepest, most authentic parts of me breathe deeply.

When I stopped teaching “my own” weekly classes at the Phoenix Center in early 2016 the decision was the culmination of many conversations spread over multiple therapy sessions, discussions with friends and family, as well as emotional breakdowns (and breakthroughs!). I wanted so badly to fulfill an image of myself that others had come to see me as – strong, wise, capable of doing it all, capable of holding everyone else’s pain in addition to my own, making a huge dent in the yoga industrial complex. In retrospect, by holding on to the class I was searching really hard to figure out exactly what it was and mold myself into it, instead of simply being me, instead of fully practicing what I preached at the beginning of our group practices and even in this very blog.

The exploration of what it meant to let go continued throughout the year, at times deepening, but often only as shallow as a few inches of water. I was in the practice of healing but I was also sabotaging myself; my implementation manifested more as a trial and error, with mostly errors that turned into difficult moments of reflection and learning. I observed myself holding on tightly to idealized versions of myself as I collaborated with peers to plan programs that actually just drove my anxiety up the wall, as I put in hours I didn’t have outside of school and my field placement driving back and forth to Detroit to network for the sake of my job search, as I dated men who only spoke of feminism, love, and vulnerability, and as I consumed way too much fried food and alcohol in order to tolerate being with friends and classmates who projected their own anxieties into me. I gained weight. I spent money I didn’t have. I held in emotions for fear of burdening others. I ironically pushed away opportunities to reveal my own vulnerability and connect with community members over the relentless violence spiraling out of our social and political circumstances. I was knee-deep in a romanticized, overly-indulgent form of “self-care” in order to overcompensate for the over-exertion I expected of myself to look a certain way on the outside.

I think the vacation I blogged about just under a year ago symbolized a tipping point, that I had to give myself time and space to sit with my discomfort and piece together what it meant for my healing. After that, my final semester of school I withdrew for the most part, only selectively spending time with others, for better or for worse. I’d always assumed I was an introvert, the artistic kind, on an ‘Eat (and eat and eat), Pray, Love’ adventure. My therapist challenged me to consider that when I want to withdraw, I’m actually quite anxious. I pushed back even though I knew she was right. Even though I knew my Myers-Briggs personality type (LOL) rendered me an extrovert, desiring to be around people, energized by the healthy relationships in my life. Even though I knew community is crucial to personal healing and radical social change. It was almost like I went to the opposite side of the spectrum of where I’d been before. If collaborating with others, drinking with others, or networking my ass off wasn’t me, then I guessed I needed to chill alllllllll the way out.

I don’t want to be too hard on myself here: so many of the qualities I long to embody are truly a part of me, but the expression of them – how I wanted others to see them – has sometimes been misguided to my own detriment. Instead of letting my highest self ebb and flow as is natural to life, I squeezed it all out of myself until I was empty and exhausted.

Graduating, moving out of the small, dirty ass apartment I called home for a year and a half, getting a J-O-B, and instituting a new rhythm to my life laid the groundwork for a more honest and holistic way of taking care of myself. I’m frustrated that this is what it took, but I’m humbled to finally be here. I’m learning more about what balance looks like. I’m learning more about how the ways in which I honor myself translate into my work as a Health Coach, a Therapist, a Yoga Teacher, and a friend. Before, I intellectually grasped the concepts I find critical to these professions and I did practice some of them, but I spoke about them way more often. A year and a half after I really pulled back my teaching practice and I’ve just now began to give myself time to reconnect with my body, which I’ve unfortunately hated for the last year and a half, which I was angry at for being heavier, for being injured, for not doing what I wanted it to do when I wanted to do it.

I’ve never really identified with the word ‘activist’ but I do think it’s an identity I aspired to for a long time. I’ve been really fortunate throughout my whole adult life, but especially in the last 6-12 months to call real-life organizers friends. I’ve witnessed their genuine dedication to radical movements because it is right and this rightness breathes life into their being. On the other hand, I’ve also been fortunate to have friends and mentors, especially boss women of color, who have shown me how to preserve myself whether I am or am not deeply intertwined with equity and reparative efforts. They have shown me how to own, and not be defined by, my own mental and physical health positionalities. Who have reminded me that I don’t “owe” anyone anything but that by locking arms with others I might find that sense of fulfillment my therapist also challenged me to seek.

I’m making time to be more intentional in my action in the spirit of Humanism, Black Feminism, and critical, radical Public Health Social Work. I feel strongly that while there may be moments when I embody a sentiment of “activism” the expression most authentically manifests within me as a verb, not a noun, not an identity, and that is ok. I realize that in a year, or even a few months, I will have similar feelings about where I am now. There are aspects of my past I think fondly of even though there are also aspects that caused pain and humiliation. I am more comfortable with the fact that I am constantly evolving, that I am at once perfect and imperfect, but that in order to move forward I must nurture myself, be honest about when I desire support, and only then work outwards in support of other beings. I understand I will always be figuring it out, but I hope the trial and error will feel less destructive. I do not have to fulfill a false ideal of activism to be of value to my communities. It is indeed my responsibility as a human to do my best to make an impact in collaboration with others, but I simply cannot do so if I am not grounded in my own self.

I am reconnected to my asana and meditation practices. I am energized by my work with my clients. I am beyond grateful for all my truly amazing friends and my family. I am ready to begin teaching yoga again. But not as an activist. Not as a sage. Just as a person who is learning a whole lot and is in a more stable place to join with others as they do the same. Just as Raina.

Special thanks to Verónica Caridad Rabelo for editing this piece.

[I am easing back into teaching. Stay up to date by checking my teaching calendar, requesting a workshop for your organization or community, and/or inquiring about private sessions.]

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Three reasons why self-care is important and a bunch of things you can do to practice self-care for yourself: Reflections on the critical self-care syllabus

[10 min read] [Or you can skip to the bottom for the self-care syllabus link 😉 ]

Last week, I went on vacation. Aside from a mid-week layover in my apartment I was, as we say in Michigan, “up north.” It was absolutely gorgeous.

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Miners Castle, along Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore

Lately, I have this heightened yearning to be deep in nature, and it’s nature exactly that the UP offers. Specifically, I prefer the Great Lakes, even more specifically Lake Michigan and (now I can add to my list) Lake Superior. Looking out over these unending, crystal blue entities is my happiest place. I love the clean, silky sand and the grassy dunes. It’s picturesque.

It’s magical that these bodies of water exist inland and that I am so privileged to have grown up near them. It makes me feel like I am part of a special club consisting of anyone else who has frequented these lakes and felt similarly. It also reminds me that in so many ways I am connected to and mutually dependent of nature, and that I 100% require regular exposure to thrive.

To be perfectly honest, while everything above is absolutely true, it’s also accurate to say that being in nature makes me quite anxious. The person who has grown up with technology and relies on it around the clock also understands nature time to mean that I am more far than usual from any mall, trendy cafe, craft cocktail, and gluten free restaurant. It’s a different part of my millennial “comfort zone,” to say the least.

What made my recent vacation especially simultaneously luxurious and anxiety-provoking was that I chose to delete most of my social media apps from my phone. It’s true, I used Instagram for photos and texted a few people, but I was proud of myself for ignoring email, facebook, snapchat, and honestly not really checking Instagram other than to post myself.

It took me at least 3 days to settle in to this.

I realized on day one how anxious I was. I was listening to a podcast where a Buddhist monk and meditation expert described the process of being confronted with his thoughts, after what he called the “honeymoon” period of his studies.

Listen to that podcast HERE.

Hearing him put words to my loosely acknowledged thoughts forced me to realize what was coming, and it was physically unbearable. Nervous energy bounced around in my chest, up through my shoulders, and wrapped itself around my jaw, sending my upper and lower jaw into a soft collision.

Lion-YawnAs is not always the case, I was in safe company to let out as many lion’s breaths as I needed to.

The first few days, my hand reached for my iPhone out of habit, my thumb searching for that spot sort of on the middle-right part of the screen where I normally found a “social media” folder. I felt unstimulated, bored, unsettled, and discontent.

But, after day three, it started to feel really, really good. My mind stopped searching for the right response to this one email that was tripping me up, and I didn’t feel the need to constantly be thinking, creating, doing. With much beautiful sight-seeing interspersed, I looked forward to the moments when I could simply sit outside, reach, stare into nowhere with insane purpose.

Since I’ve been home, I’ve continued to muddle over some reflections about why self-care is important. Despite that upon my return I gleefully checked every notification I could, I have returned with an amplified sense of my self-care strategies, from the drastic social media fast to lower-hanging fruit.

Returning readers know I often contemplate the role of health and wellness in activist communities. This post is no different, but I also want to take a moment to explore my definition of activism, which is quite broadly defined. Activists are present across many realms of our life, and our expression of activism similarly shows up in multitudinous ways.

I consider my work as a public health professional and social worker activism. I consider my yoga teaching practice activism. I consider my personal yoga practice activism. I consider the way I interact with wage workers activism. I consider seeing a therapist activism.

Though there is breadth in my definition, however, I absolutely believe what constitutes activism and makes an activist is depth. Broadly defined does not mean that I take this definition or identity lightly. Simply signing petitions is not activism, in my point of view. Patting yourself on the back for going against the grain and doing one thing “right” is not activism. True activism requires an enormous amount of commitment and intention mentally, emotionally, and sometimes physically.

I’ll also reiterate (from previous posts and public discourse) that this is especially true for marginalized folx, who have been, are, and will always be less able to unplug their awareness of discrimination and social inequity.

One thing social media has been super awesome for is facilitating informal and authentic conversations about self-care. While many of us may already be on board and recruiting our loved ones to join us I think that self-care’s popularity, as is true with many trends, causes us to participate without critical analysis of what it is and why we should do it. So, after much thinking over my vacation, I categorized a few of my own perspectives on it.

1: In case of emergency, please put on your own mask before assisting others.

Ok so I know this one is over-used, but it’s a good one, so I’m gonna talk about it anyway. Because much of our culture is detrimentally individualistic, activists often feel that they must be unwaveringly self-less. Sacrifice, we say, is necessary for the movement. This is true to an extent, yet, to me, it’s also about balance. From my perspective, the concept of sacrifice has more to do with giving up your individual sense of control and considering the needs of others in addition to yourself, rather than in spite of yourself.

If you are truly invaluable to the movement – and each one of us unequivocally is – you need to make sure you’ve got the energy to stay the course. Everyone’s energy is different, and that’s fine. It’s easy to fall into the trap of comparing ourselves to others. Our beautiful friends who organize protests every other week and are always the first to risk arrest are key, but so are those of us who facilitate dialogues on diversity, or who work for food banks, or may have more introverted activist tendencies. We have to infiltrate every single level, people!

Finally, when you take time to put on your own mask and breathe some much needed O2, it sets an example for others. What if we all were able to talk more openly about our needs and our limits? I think we’d be better equipped to maintain momentum by knowing when to pick up the slack of others and trust that they’ll do the same for you in the future.

2: I can see clearly now the rain is gone.

The last few times I’ve stepped away from my own expressions of activism, as well as other projects, I’ve been pleasantly surprised that the ways I have felt stuck open up and the answers I couldn’t seem to find come to me with much greater ease. Letting go – not just a little bit, but a lot – helps me see with greater clarity. I can think more critically about the issues, see them from multiple sides, and think about long-term and indirect consequences.

And, to keep it 100, sometimes I find that the letting go simply helps me accept ambiguity a bit easier. Social change work is full of that stuff, that’s why we’ve been struggling with it since the beginning of society as we know it. Yeah, I know some answers are crystal clear and we’re just waiting for the stubborn straight wealthy white guys to get it, but the majority of our work is layered, complex, and answers found often reveal more questions.

3: Comfort in discomfort.

The biggest misconception about self-care, yoga and mindfulness is that it will always feel good. In fact, grappling with how to confront this both myself and in helping others has kept me up many-a-night; my blog posts, for example, are an attempt to communicate to others that the goal is not pure comfort, happiness, and fun.

Tolerating anxiety is a crucial life skill in general, and especially relevant in activism, as the very things we’re dealing with are painful, uncomfortable, unpredictable, and frightening. My first few days of vacation and the social media fast I was so anxious I could barely stand it.

Where’s the nearest bottle of wine? Maybe if I eat this I’ll feel better. I need to be alone – NO! I need to be with others. Shit, I hope I can sleep tonight. Did I answer that email? Ugh, I hope I didn’t sound too rude. What will I do over this break?

Not all of our self-care practices will test us in this way, some of it will be incredibly pleasurable; but the kind we need to truly evolve will very likely challenge us.

It’s easy, and perhaps common, to assume it’s better to ignore your own shit and just keep moving forward. But if we can’t handle our deepest anxieties, our darkest thoughts, our longest-lasting fears, how the hell are we supposed to solve centuries of sexism, racism, classism, and other injustices? These things are not outside of ourselves – they are our day-to-day experiences, from microaggressions to overt discrimination, no one is really immune.

Thus, we are called to action. Not only for the benefit of our communities or other communities, but for ourselves, as well. Self care looks different for everyone. Though my story illustrates how breaks from social media are one (yes, more is better, right?!) of my self-care practices, I realize for others that may be too much, or simply not enough. Thanks to many friends, and some strangers, I’ve put together this critical self-care syllabus. Take a peek and explore what self-care looks like for you! Hold onto your hat – it’s going to be a bumpy, terrifying, but also rejuvenating and inspiring ride!

 

The politics of underpaying yoga teachers, Part II

[6-8 minute read]

My last piece received a lot of feedback – all of it welcome and valuable. What strikes me is the correlation between who responded, what their positionality to this work is, and what they therefore made of my commentary.

I’ll over generalize just for context sake:

The general public & yoga students: “Wow, I had no idea!” and questions ensue. 

Yoga/fitness teachers: “Thank you so much for writing this piece,” with an occasional added, “I’ve been wanting to talk to someone/my supervisor/you about this.” In one case, I’ve (with much help from other powerful female friends) even inspired a friend to ask for the raise she deserves. 

Small business/studio owners: “But wait – that’s not me! I do this, this, and this!” or, “You’re missing the bigger picture,” generally with much appreciated additional perspective.

And, from larger business owners there’s been a bit of plain old, “Well, that’s just the way it is.”

I’ve been thinking about some of the gaps in my previous piece, either due to my own lack of knowledge, my decision to omit nuanced facets, or my inability to think through what I have to say. My perspective on this will always be evolving, but in conversation I consistently notice a theme of begging the question:

Who, exactly, is to blame for this situation?

The answer is both simple and complex.

I’ll start by laying out my opinion, which is deeply grounded in personal experience, organizational understanding, and philosophical study (of both logic and academic nature)

So, does the fact that many business owners, particularly those of small local businesses, hustle hard to keep their doors open make it right to underpay?

No.

But, ugh. I empathize with this. How are we all ever going to be able to successfully own and operate any business without following some sort of model? Whether we know it or not, as small business owners or even as sub-contracting yoga teachers, we buy into business models that have been used for years. They are [relatively] simple, straightforward, and we know how to set them up, who to ask for support, and what to do if x, y, or z happens.

So what’s the problem?

They perpetuate the best and worst parts of capitalism because they are – no doubt about it – part of our capitalist society, which we all live and participate in no matter how hard we try.

Everything we do, use, buy, and sell is a commodity.

In this commodification of fitness and the ancient practice of yoga (which does not have purely, if any, fitness roots, to be clear), we (in)advertently determine who is and is not able to teach – whether full or part time – and therefore, who is and is not able to access those services (in all the ways accessibility plays out).

When I embarked on my teacher training, I hoped to share the practice primarily with folks in my ethnic community. I hoped that the presence of a familiar face would encourage participation and fully disband the myriad reasons yoga is a largely hegemonic space.

Therein lied the problem: the myriad reasons could not be confronted by simply one face. The wellness community has a diversity problem, but it’s so deep rooted that it will take multi-level and likely multi-generational efforts to change the culture and its participants.

This brings me to my interrogation of a second question: Does the complexity of all this mess make these studio owners wrong?

Eh, yes and no. Equally simple and complex.

No in the sense that everyone has to make money to live and we live in a capitalist system, blah blah blah, and most of the studio owners I know are great people (mostly women!) who are providing something lots of worthy people have benefited from.

On the other hand, complacency in the system is incredibly problematic.

“Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral.”

-Paulo Freire

We all play into capitalism and other forms of oppression on a daily basis – I repeat – none of us are 100% angels.

I recently read an article for class that I appreciate so much and want to share with others. It’s dense, but it’s a must read if you consider yourself an agent of social change in any way. Andrea Smith argues that slavery/capitalism, genocide/colonialism, and orientalism/war are three pillars of white supremacy that uphold our current heteropatriarchal society. 

(I’ll add a caveat that there is contentious discussion around this individual that I cannot unpack in this piece, but I do think what she offers in her article about heteropatriarchy adds value to what I’m arguing. If you’re curious, you can read more here and here.)

As you might have gleaned from her piece (if you read it… 😉 ) nearly none of us are immune from oppression – both in perpetrating and being victimized by it. We’ve spent a long time – the whole of modern humanity, at least – creating structures that privilege some and destroy others.

“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”

-Desmond Tutu

As humans – and especially as American humans – we long to categorize, we need to be able to identify something as right or wrong, point our finger at someone to blame, and believe there is a clear and simple solution to any problem that comes our way.

The fact is that social ills are so incredibly complex that this just isn’t possible.

In reality, often times, one solution causes another problem.

We can all benefit from intensive therapy (if you know me personally you know I think everyone on planet earth should be assigned a therapist at birth) and acknowledging that complex problems require multifaceted solutions, with lots of trouble shooting, over a long period of time.

In this way, we’d all do good to become more comfortable with uncertainty, ambiguity, and not having all the answers, all the while remaining committed to social change. 

In my opinion, radical thinking – that allows us to think outside of the box of what is “possible” – offers more benefit and less detriment generally. Though it might seem too difficult or too out of reach for some, maybe there are pieces that feel more realistic, at least for right now. Take, for example, this piece about rethinking the yoga studio paradigm (I know I included it in Part 1 of this saga, but wadownloadnted to share again!).

I do my best on this blog and with friends and colleagues to process my own thoughts aloud, share resources when I find them, and, as always, encourage dialogue around these topics no matter how uncomfortable, or even unprofessional they feel. 

We have to realize that explicitly, openly, and vulnerably confronting the ways we play into the commodification of fitness and yoga is the only way we can reconstruct our models for these services – students, teachers, and owners alike. The only way we will ever reach a society that feels socially just – or hell, even a damn yoga studio – we’ve got to open ourselves up to all the discomfort surrounding it.

 

 

Oh, the irony! The politics of underpaying fitness instructors

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[6-8 min read]

“That’ll be $20.”

This is what the front desk lady says to me when I drop into the 3:30 yoga class. I no longer teach at studios, for philosophical differences as much as grad school scheduling challenges. I still crave a shared practice space, though, and will occasionally surrender my Visa and my political morals in order to have one.

For me, the splurge is worth it now and then. My health and wellness reached a new level of priority after I lived and worked almost exclusively as a yogi/yoga teacher for over a year. Even though I do hold some level of expertise in the area, there’s nothing like letting someone else guide you, nothing like breathing in sync with the other practitioners in the room.

I wish this opportunity was feasible on a more regular basis. I envy the sea of blonde girls, decked out in new brand name sports bras, who have unlimited class passes and can practice with others multiple times a week. Unfortunately, I’m faced with a mountain of student debt and the predicament that the nature of my graduate program/field leaves me with little time to make a sufficient income that would help me feel financially secure.

I recognize my inability to access health and fitness is in many ways smaller in severity than others. I am privileged enough that I can make the occasional choice to spend this money and also decide that I feel safe enough and entitled to walk into the normally white washed room. Yet, I still find it highly ironic that I am a yoga teacher who can barely afford yoga, at least consistently.

My predicament is unfortunately less a consequence of my own poor budgeting skills (which are too real) and more so a microcosm of the world of trendy fitness today.

I have too many teacher friends (yoga, spinning, personal training, or otherwise) who also struggle financially. Even when they are paid enough, they aren’t offered the additional employment benefits necessary for a high quality life. Most work sporadic hours and many push their bodies to the edge. The teachers I know who are financially successful also work full-time jobs, teaching early mornings, evenings, or weekends as a side gig. Or, like me, they consider their training a stepping stone to return to school or seek another job.

I’m grateful that the discourse around yoga and fitness accessibility has increased. But the focus primarily on health seekers who are not teachers misses an important component of the equation: I don’t think that we can truly change the experiences of the consumers or increase accessibility without also addressing the exhausting landscape for those who work directly with them.

I’ll be frank: for an average class in Ann Arbor, Michigan, I was paid about $20-25 (yes, the same price I paid to attend a class the other day). Even when I was teaching 17 classes a week, I made less than $2000 a month, just enough to pay rent and buy groceries. (Shoutout to the businesses and organizations who have compensated me adequately – you know who you are).

When I embarked on my training, I was sure that the certification would be an excellent and convenient means for work during graduate school. The typical pay rate, however, is offensively ignorant of the additional preparatory work, or emotional presence, needed to be a fitness or yoga teacher. We all have our own lives to grapple with (can I live?). Though I chose to step away from this socially unjust trend, so many people I know and care about are still stuck in it – many for the pure love of teaching.

The fitness instructor life appears glamourous – I was definitely in the best shape of my life when I was teaching around the clock. However, I felt like a chicken with my head cut off running from studio to studio; I was consumed with teaching as much as I could because that was the only way I would make enough money to live.

Though free class passes and club memberships are admirable attempts to compensate instructors, they rarely make up for the option to live holistically healthy lives (and simply feel appreciated). And, like myself, this isn’t even an option if you choose to teach outside of studio or gym spaces.

We’re likely all in agreement that our society is in dire need of a culture change that prioritizes and promotes health as a human right. However I also think that, in their feeble attempts to promote health, most existing yoga and fitness businesses conveniently blame the looming presence of capitalism and the need for financial stability for their inability to provide accessible options.

I empathize with small businesses like yoga studios who teeter between making enough money to keep the lights on, but not charging so much that people won’t come. Yet, probably every two seconds (don’t cite me on that), someone makes a resolution to improve their health through fitness. In the past few years, yoga in particular has proven a trendy and powerful way to do so.

I’ve been at gyms and studios through membership surges and price increases. Regardless, I’ve never personally experienced a pay increase or heard of them happening for those I work with. Where does this money go?

I believe that if compensation and quality of life, rather than profit and socially constructed ideals of success, were truly priorities, businesses could more effectively assert the organizational change needed to compensate teachers. Not to mention that it’s simply good for business (read: profits).

Good teachers take time to think about their classes ahead of time, use their own practice to learn and grow as a teacher, and take workshops to advance their expertise. Really good teachers recognize that their role is beyond simply providing a good class and that many students will bring additional layers of their lives with them; it is not unusual to stay after class to chat with students.

Adequate compensation is incentive to excel at any profession.

This also goes for entities interested in one-time or short-term relationships as well. I can’t tell you how often I’m asked to teach a free class and feel the pressure from those asking to do so for the benefit of their employees or clients.

It’s crucial that anyone hiring fitness teachers and students themselves are aware of how we are treated and paid.

I’m not asking that you necessarily walk away from your chosen fitness home – it’s difficult to exist as anti-capitalist in a hyper-capitalist society as a teacher, and it’s perhaps unrealistic to expect your students to do the same thing. But, I do think our awareness of this and willingness to discuss this issue needs to increase. No one has the perfect answer yet, but the journey to the answer, just like that of the path to enlightenment, requires intentional and curiosity-driven persistence.

If there is a studio or an individual teacher in town who seems more equitable and more joyful, support them. When there is an opportunity, bring up the conversation, ask the questions, thank your instructor, and, when appropriate (i.e. private lessons or personal training), tip them. You never know when those few bucks might help them pay their electricity bill on time, afford a more comforting insurance plan, or even just attend someone else’s class.

For more reading on this topic, check out these articles and websites (though there are many more you can Google!):

Yoga teachers: Overstretched and underpaid

How I Went Broke Trying to Teach Yoga

Get a Life, Yoga: Kill the Studio Paradigm

Stretched thin

Decolonizing Yoga

Activism Itis

[5-7 min read]

My second semester in graduate school I met with an administrator. Frustrated, but determined, I had set up this meeting to voice my concerns about the school’s consideration of diversity and inclusion. On a cold winter day I walked up to his office. He warmly invited me in, smiled, and asked, “So, what brings you in today?”

He was of color and often touted his advocacy for diversity issues, so I naively assumed this assured I was in safe company. Unfortunately, I was only able to insert snippets of my perspective during quick pauses when he wasn’t talking over me. He told me he cared about students, but he could not believe the high expectations they have of the administration. He listed the few victories he’d had. Though mildly admirable, they unremarkable changes that one would assume just naturally happen in a place like a world-renowned and “diverse” University, or any institution with a mission that mentions social equity. Moreover, they were nowhere near anything that would truly shift the dynamics in the school.

Then he said that students should just get used to these challenges because that’s the real world. No, he corrected himself, the real world is actually worse and therefore, the school deserves the benefit of the doubt. It sounded more like he wanted a full-out award ceremony. I left the meeting feeling infantilized and powerless.

I get it, institutional change takes time. And, to Mr. He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named’s point, there are some transformations that have occurred. Don’t worry – I’m not going to front with an accusatory “but things are so much better than they used to be” perspective. But to some extent circumstances are improved, and because of that we can pay homage to the movements and individuals who have made contributions to those changes.

There’s an endearing and sacred tradition of passing the torch. However, I’ve noticed that sometimes we drop the torch instead of strategically handing it off, or being mindful that what we we really need is just a water break. We lose sight of the fact that because social justice is a multi-level effort, it requires the presence of all people in all stages of life and on all levels of society. Simultaneously, we forget that because social justice is a long-term effort, we have to support ourselves and others throughout the process.

What I presume happened with Mr. He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named is that by working for a world-renowned public university that operates more like a large business, he began to collude with the system, instead of confronting it. Perhaps a more kind explanation is that he burned out.

Burnout happens to all of us at some point in our lives, and in each individual scenario it’s equally unfortunate, usually soul-crushing, and sometimes identity-crisis inducing. I’ve been reflecting on the fluctuations of burnout I’ve experienced since first becoming tangibly aware of and irate about oppression. Many of us, especially those who hold generally oppression-inducing identities, may remember an initial enlightening phase of our lives. I remember choosing not to wear a bra, pulling a shirt that read “Vagina Warrior” over my torso, and getting into an argument with some random white guy at a baseball game who said something homophobic.

I have realized that over time I mellowed out. There was certainly a need for maturity in how I talked about these issues, but there was also an assimilation to respectability politics taking place. The delivery of my perspectives became more palatable to my white friends, more tolerable to my male friends, more easily ignored by the few un-woke friends I’d forgotten to delete from Facebook. Over time, my college education also molded me to fit into socially acceptable roles that reflected my “leadership” and gave others permission to comment on how “articulate” I was. Additionally, there was a genuine sense of exhaustion from always being on, and that made the assimilation process more appealing. It warrants less effort to be complacent with existing structures. It requires less vulnerability to avoid identification with terms “radical” and “activist.”

As both my own experience and the above interaction illustrate, there’s a counterintuitive epidemic of burnout in social change fields. I know others can relate when I say that despite my commitment to staying engaged, outside forces and perpetual subjugation sometimes suffocate my vision for justice. Sometimes the manner and the level to which we participate in social justice efforts is to the point of our own detriment.

As a practitioner of yoga and meditation, and as a professional in the fields of public health and social work, I constantly grapple with how we can balance the needs of the social world with our needs as individuals. Too often, I feel and I notice in others, the incredibly heavy weight of burnout. I find myself contemplating why this happens and how we can break the cycle.

The first reason I think burnout happens is that many of us misalign our intentions and our actions; we give too much of ourselves to the wrong people, or to the wrong causes, or at the wrong times. We decide that if we are to participate in the fight for social justice, we must engage with every fight for justice, and do so 24/7 with 100% effort. Sometimes, we fight for justice on auto-pilot. In doing so, we become consumed with the problems as abstract forces to fight against, instead of the causes as people to fight for.

Second, I think that in some cases people burnout because they are constantly concerned with being visible activists, instead of just walking the talk. Certain roles and responsibilities are more attractive to us because we know we will be acknowledged or rewarded. We forget that activism is an everyday thing but that it looks a little different for everyone.

The third thing is that we matriculate into the fatigue of the prior generation. We start thinking more about what is impossible instead of what is possible. We learn a certain history that tells us the way things have been done is the way things will always be done. We might not only burnout, but sellout. We risk becoming complacent with outdated values, perhaps in the promise of a well-paying job.

Sometimes we settle for survival. Sometimes we rely on hating the enemy as our primary strategy of resistance, and minimize the role of love for the self and the community. Instead, we should reflect on our perspectives of self and inquire within often: What do I need to do this long and arduous work? How can I bring love and joy into this deep suffering? The answers will look different depending on our identities and experience of the oppressive structure in question.

Activism is a marathon and we have to view life as constant training. You do not always need to be the voice, the expert, or the educator of your (or especially someone else’s) plight. Give yourself permission to utilize your strengths and protect your needs. Sometimes, it is the invisible, subtle, or passive contributions that are most useful. In the same vein, we have to honor when people need space or choose paths different than our own as long as they are not harming anyone. Guilt and blame are simply not useful.

Love-based activism requires that we are brave enough to dream beyond what seems possible and start asking for what we truly need. Contrary to popular belief, it is not ridiculous to desire a society where everyone doesn’t just survive, they thrive. We need to create systems and institutions that acknowledge personal well being, and that encourage people to authentically blend their political and professional interests. We should consider the ways we perpetuate oppression in social justice movements, and insist with that all the spaces we work and live in intentionally incorporate more liberating strategies.

Our energy rubs off on one another. After my meeting with the school administrator I felt disempowered and gave up on social justice, at least in the context of my school. I am grateful that something or someone pulled me back in. But now, I am more thoughtful about how, when, and why I participate in various efforts. These days, whenever I make a choice to engage in something, I carry an intention to bring humanity back into our activism. This is for everyone’s benefit, including my own. I strongly believe that self compassion and self-care should not be confused with apathy. I hope that, moving forward, we can remember that to work endlessly to the point of self-sacrifice is simply to support the very same structures we are fighting against.

[Edited by my most wonderful friend Frania Mendoza Lua]

“Teaching is about love.”

When I started this blog I had a desire to (lovingly) challenge modern yoga and the many realms that intersect with it. In doing so I have also activated this self-exploration about the practice of teaching yoga. I’ve been reading and writing and talking with folks all summer and have found inspiration in both obvious and obscure ways.

Of the many books I’ve read, one that I’ve really appreciated is Brene Brown’s Daring Greatly. Brene Brown is a social worker who researches shame and vulnerability and I’m obsessed with her. In this book, she shares many quotes from people she has interviewed over years of her work. I wanted to share one quote from a school teacher as an introduction for my thought process and the evolution I’m in the midst of with regards to how I perceive teaching.

“Teaching is about love. It is not about transferring information, but rather creating an atmosphere of mystery and imagination and discovery. When I begin to lose myself because of some unresolved pain or fear or the overpowering feelings of shame, then I no longer teach…I deliver information and I think I become irrelevant then.”

I was captured by the comment on “creating an atmosphere of mystery and imagination and discovery” and how that is love. These words were welcomed as a new articulation of my intended teaching approach and a reminder of how inspired I feel in my own teacher’s classes. What I mean is that I find alignment crucial, but I don’t believe it is incompatible with free movement, exploration, or curiosity. When my students walk into my class (or when I practice) my intention is for them to safely explore physical boundaries, or lack thereof, while acquiring knowledge about individual poses. This, like everything in life, requires balance.

I’m careful not to get stuck in dogma, yet I also find immense value in historical yogic philosophy and traditional yoga instruction. I’ve been in many gym-based yoga classes where the instructed movement lacks alignment or constructive safety cues. And I’ve been in many studio-based classes where I felt limited to a specific movement or pose and sometimes judged if I strayed. First of all, I know that just because I “felt” a certain way does not mean this was the instructor’s intention. Secondly, I strongly believe students and teachers find each other at the right time, in the right place, with the right practice and that this is beautiful despite what it all looks like. I preemptively regret the day I question what brings someone to yoga or teaching yoga.

So, while my intention is never to judge one’s journey and motivation to start a yoga practice, I do question what inspires teachers to alter a yoga style without critical reflective thought. While I don’t judge an instructor’s competence, I do question what motivates them to instruct either without some level of anatomical knowledge or without acknowledging that most students don’t hold the same structural knowledge that we do about bones, muscles, injury, and healing. I don’t judge yoga and it’s many evolved forms and the plethora of wonderful people who have identified themselves as it’s disciples, but I do question the world this web of yoga is tangled up in today. I question how much teaching yoga is authentically about love.

I also know that I presently exist as a teacher in this tangled web of modern yoga and the ignorance and unconsciousness that sometimes comes along with it. I have never felt that my own proficiency in anatomy and physiology is exhaustive or that my self-study of yogic philosophy is superior. I do my best to acknowledge that I simply do not – and probably never will – have all the answers. In fact, as I learn more, I realize how much more I don’t know.

An excellent article was written about this recently. It was called “The Case for Teaching Ignorance.” The article details an analogy in which as the “island of knowledge” grows, so does the shoreline to the sea of ignorance. The more we know, the more we don’t know, the more questions we can ask. The author of the article explains that as we confront our ignorance, we must become comfortable with ambiguity. I believe that finding comfort in ambiguity necessitates being open and honest with others about our ignorance.

Yet, to be open and honest about one’s ignorance does not mean that we cannot also celebrate our knowledge. My goal as a teacher is always to inspire freedom and instill confidence by passing on what I was fortunate enough to participate in as a larger certification program. My goal is never to generate dependence on or allegiance to me and only me as a teacher. If someone continues to practice with me, than I have received a great gift to continue to learn and to continue to share my learning. And I appreciate and find joy in this process.

“Teaching is about love. It is not about transferring information, but rather creating an atmosphere of mystery and imagination and discovery. When I begin to lose myself because of some unresolved pain or fear or the overpowering feelings of shame, then I no longer teach…I deliver information and I think I become irrelevant then.”

The “unresolved pain or fear or the overpowering feelings of shame” – is this not suppressed ignorance? I think this ignorance has the potential to be an opportunity if embraced. I find myself, through my constantly evolving consciousness, standing on the shore of ignorance, eager to get wet. I am grateful for this opportunity to step back, reflect, reconsider what I am teaching, how I am teaching it, why I am teaching it, where and to whom I am teaching it. I also anticipate that along the way I will find more sand, shrubs, trees, and maybe even people to join me on my island of knowledge.

All summer I’ve reconsidered many of the places I teach and at times questioned if I should even be teaching. There are a number of circumstances that have contributed to my feeling this way, and I’ve learned through conversations with other yoga and fitness instructors that these issues are not unique to myself. It sometimes feels like a purgatory of really wanting to teach, but feeling that the places to do so do not fully respect us as workers and/or as part of their community.

Despite the many times I have resolved to take a long break from teaching, my classes at the Phoenix Center continue to energize me. I’ve realized this is somewhere I can create the atmosphere this teacher speaks of and that I crave – one of love, discovery, exploration, and non-judgement. The circumstances feel right for me to think critically about where and what I will teach. I expect many announcements to come over the next year about new classes or gatherings, and many more once I graduate and can more fully incorporate my academic knowledge into my teaching practice. For now some impacts of where I’m at personally, professionally, mentally, emotionally, physically, spiritually include:

  • Stepping away from mainstream studios and gyms to work more intimately with my Phoenix Center students, including the addition of a new Wednesday evening Hatha class come October
  • Developing stronger relationships with private clients and ongoing contractual events (i.e. at the library, with some organizations and businesses)
  • Continuing to brainstorm and reduce the ways I appropriate yoga without a genuine knowledge of it, including the elimination of “namaste” at the end of my classes (I know this one will be weird for some folks)
  • Incorporating “assist” or “no assist” tokens into classes so students can express desire to be touched or not on a class-to-class basis
  • Planning a really exciting collaborative “Brown Bodies Yoga” workshop (inspired by an existing class in Toronto)
  • Continuing to interview people and include as many voices as possible in my internal and more so external and sometimes somewhat loud dialogue. Also adding smaller interviews in a sort of ode to “Humans of New York.” I’ve been inspired by the Corner Health Center and Detroit Yoga Lab’s spin-off of this concept.
  • Journaling, reading, meditating on how I can express love through my teaching

I know for some, this is insignificant. Coming to class, moving around a bit, and seeing me next time you come in is sufficient, and I respect that. Others may be inspired by where I’m at and want to participate; some may want to ask questions or even challenge me. As a teacher and as a student I welcome all engagement. It’s important to me that my island of knowledge not be inhabited by me solely, so I know I must continually check myself and recommit myself to love. My hope is that students, teachers, and myself can form a sort of Pangea, a mosaic of knowledge and understanding, in order to more fully support each other as yogis in the modern world. Is that not love?