Thursday, December 31, 2015

Peace Studies Interview

A few months ago a friend of mine who teaches at the University (UM-Duluth) asked if I would agree to be interviewed by a couple of her students from her Peace Studies class, as they were really curious about yoga. I agreed, and here is what came out of the interview.

In honor of the new year and to compliment this post, I drew this peace zentangle.

Peace studies interview questions:

1. How did you initially get involved in peacework?
I have no formal training in peacework. However, I believe there are many similar beliefs in yoga as in peacework.

2. Who/what influenced you to start teaching yoga?
I started to practice yoga in the late 1990's to see if I could get out of pain. I had had many car accidents as a teenager and had chronic neck and back pain. I found a yoga program on TV and did the lessons every day for about 3 years before I finally worked up the courage to take a real-live class here in Duluth.

I loved the meditative aspect of yoga, the way my mind was becoming calmer and more peaceful. I took more and more classes, signing up for in-depth studies and philosophy classes. Finally, there were no more in-depth studies offered except for teacher training. I decided to take the leap and apply for the training even though it seemed terrifying. I think it was so scary because it was something that I really wanted to learn and do. But I was afraid that I would change so much as a person that perhaps the rest of my life would be left behind.

Thankfully, that is not what happened. What happened is that I found a greater acceptance of myself. I found peace in my mind and in my body. I found a practice that supported me where I was at. And a topic that I was passionate about sharing and good at teaching.

3. What styles of yoga do you teach? Explain what each of them entails.
I teach mostly relaxation and guided meditation. I can teach Hatha and flowing yoga (Vinyasa style) but what calls to me and what I teach best is Therapeutic yoga in these styles: Restorative Yoga, Yin Yoga, and iRest Yoga Nidra.

Restorative Yoga:
Restorative Yoga is a therapeutic style of yoga which utilizes multiple props to make it easier for the body to get into certain poses, and thus, surrender to the pose. Practicing poses using props provides a completely supportive environment for total relaxation. The more your body is supported in the poses the deeper the sense of relaxation. Relaxation is a state in which there is no movement, no effort, and the brain is quiet. Typically, Restorative poses are sustained for ten minutes or for as long as you are comfortable.

Yin Yoga
Yin Yoga uses traditional Hatha posesmostly seated or reclining postureswhich allow a deep stretch, combined with Restorative style poses, which use multiple props to support the body. Together, these allow a deep opening in the body. All poses are held longer than in a regular Hatha class: around 5 minutes per pose. Yin yoga poses apply moderate stress to the connective tissues of the body—the tendons, fascia, and ligaments—with the aim of increasing circulation in the joints and improving flexibility. The dynamic of the class is meditative, focusing on the breath and using the breath to find opening and ease in the body.

iRest Yoga Nidra
Yoga Nidra means “yogic sleep” and is one of the deepest states of awareness and relaxation we can experience while being awake. Class consists of a variety of relaxation techniques including guided meditation & imagery, breathwork, and sense withdrawal (bringing awareness deeper and deeper until only the sense of hearing is outwardly focused). In the state of deep relaxation, tension is released from the body on a physical level, and the mind completely switches off, allowing us to settle into pure awareness. The relaxation response brings your system into balance. When practiced regularly, you will reduce your everyday stress levels and boost your feelings of wellbeing. You will also build deeper awareness and bolster your health with deep relaxation.

4. What benefits do you think yoga has on the body and mind/ benefits in general?
Yoga benefits include maintaining or increasing range of motion, flexibility, and strength, building stronger inner core muscles, finding more peace of mind, finding your calm center, building awareness of self, increasing self-acceptance and self-love, letting go of negative thought patterns, recognizing your mistakes as “human” instead of “stupid,” recognizing your own “faults” and liking yourself anyway, letting go of trying to change people, decrease in stress and the “stress hormone” cortisol, increase in “bonding and love” hormones oxytocin and serotonin, better sleeping, heart health, and in general, regular yoga practice produces an overall feeling of better health and more contentment.

5. How do you think yoga helps with peace in the community?
I used to wonder how yoga helped promote peace or women's rights or issues around poverty, education, discrimination, and so on. I wondered if practicing yoga was selfish because I was focusing my attention on myself and looking inward instead of being out there on the streets with a protest sign. But now I see a place for both of these things. And what I have really come to see is that through my yoga practice I have trained my mind to be less angry, less judgmental, less reactive. I still have compassion and strong beliefs, but I do not have the same amount of emotional attachment to an outcome. This gives me peace of mind and lessens the overall amount of anger and violence in the world. There is an idea in yoga that the more peace we have in ourselves, the more the ripples of peace will extend outward to our community.

6. What do you think it is about yoga that draws in and interests others?
I think people are attracted to yoga first for the idea that they could get in shape or start a healthy habit such as meditation. As people continue with yoga I think it is the richness of the history, the philosophical knowledge, the ethical guidelines, the community, and learning and accepting of the self that keeps them interested.

7. How has yoga changed your life since you first started?
On a physical level, I am stronger and more flexible. On an emotional level, I am much steadier – not nearly so many ups and downs. And on a life level, I am now a yoga teacher, involved in a yoga community, teaching students, and teaching others to be teachers too.

8. Other than yoga, what things can people do to create peace within the mind and body?
The most important thing to remember is to breathe. If we can breathe calm and steady we will be calm and steady. If we can train our minds to be kind and engaged in the present moment, we will find contentment. People find this kind of training through mindfulness based practices such as meditation, yoga, and prayer. We can also join peace communities such as Peace Choir or Peace Church.

9. What recommendations do you have, such as books, articles, film, or website, that would enhance our understanding of yoga?
To enhance understanding you must immerse yourself. Take classes in yoga postures, meditation, philosophy and ethics. Sign up for yoga newsletters such as the free mailing lists that Yoga Journal has: I recommend the “Wisdom” newsletter.

10. Would we benefit from attending a group, participating in an activity, taking a tour, or observing any particular setting (experiential learning).
1) There is a Meditation 101 class starting at Yoga North on Wednesday Nov 18. It's a 5 week series.
2) There is a book of yoga ethics I strongly recommend. And it's best if you have a book group to discuss it with. I would read and discuss one chapter a month: The Yamas & Niyamas by Deborah Adele.

11. List your favorite quote:
"Go so deep into yourself you speak for everyone."
~ quote is from Ed Ochester who is quoting Galway Kinnell

This came up for me when my yoga teacher training (YTT) group was assigned to do an individual art project for our final project. I had lots of fear surrounding this assignment because I do not consider myself artistic/creative. I know I am good with words so I decided to write a spoken word poem for my art project. As I was writing I recognized that the rant running in my head about how awful it was to be assigned to create an art project was all about my own fears, feeling inadequate, and imagining that I was no good. I know that these feelings are universal. Then I came across this poem with the final line "go so deep into yourself you speak for everyone" and I knew I was on the right path.

I was able to present my art project and I could see that my poem did mean something to my fellow YTT's, that they understood my fears, that my pain and uncertainty was also their pain and uncertainty. These feelings of recognition made me realize that yes, I was able to go so deep into myself that what came out was universal. And perhaps this is what art is about. It is rendering something that speaks to people on a deeper level. In that sense, I was able to let go of my preconceived notion that I cannot "do" art and I was able to come to peace with my own fears.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Book Review: Dancing in the Bamboo Forest

Dancing in the Bamboo Forest ~ a travel memoir by Djahariah Mitra

Dancing in the Bamboo Forest cover pic
I was excited to receive this book with a request to review it. I seek out memoirs and especially memoirs written by women about their travels and personal journeys. And certainly this book falls into exactly these categories, with the added bonus that the travel and journey are yoga specific.

We start out with the author in an emotionally dark place in her life. She decides to go to India to study, travel and find herself. I think many of us who study yoga have that same urge; the urge to go to the birthplace of yoga, to immerse ourselves in the culture and philosophy. Mitra does this with a teacher training followed by travel, yoga teaching, dance training, and building relationships with fellow travelers and native Indians alike.

She shares her inner thoughts, her attempts to find happiness, her everyday ups and downs with living in uncertainty. She doesn't know how long she will stay in India, she doesn't know if she will be able to get a job that will support her to stay in India, she doesn't know if her health will hold out.

She struggles with finding contentment in the uncertainty. This is what I recognized the most in my own life journey: the practice of finding contentment in my discontentment. Quite the kōan. I learned more about this in my teacher training too. There it was defined as “limbic space” by one of my professors. It's the idea that we need to become comfortable in our discomfort, comfortable with not knowing, comfortable in the waiting. In the book, Mitra has a very hard time with this and I think, so do we all. It was hard for me to read, hard to stick with her discomfort, but I thank her for being so candid and for sharing her struggle.

Interspersed with her personal journey, she shared some of her yoga understanding. I enjoyed her discussion of yoga philosophy, especially the part about being called to a spiritual life while still being a “regular” person, or as I've sometimes heard it called, a householder. Again, this is a struggle I understand. The essential question is, how do we give up everything and remain in this life? There's no right answer but I wonder if part of the struggle is in the phrasing “give up everything”? Perhaps if we thought we were gaining, not giving up, there wouldn't be a question.

And finally, as in other books I've read where an American woman goes to India, there is the culture shock to contend with. Women are 2nd class citizens, do not have rights the way men do, are not allowed to go out by themselves, travel by themselves, or wear less than 3 layers of clothing on all parts of their body. The author did find places where India is more modern, places where she could go out to coffee and even meet with male friends but it was not encouraged by society. She got questioned and shamed by her landlords for doing things like having male guests for dinner. It just seems so archaic and unfair to me. It's so hard to reconcile this part of Indian culture with the mindful practices of yoga that also came out of this culture.

The dichotomy of Indian culture, the blow-by-blow account of daily ups and downs, and the topic driven writing style (vs. linear) sometimes made this book difficult for me to read. When I could let go of my desire to know exactly where and when the author was, and when I could let go of wanting India to be as holy as I imagine it, the book was much more enjoyable to me. This book is worth reading if you want to know more about yoga, Indian culture, and if you want your own beliefs challenged as you read about someone else's personal growth.

Monday, February 2, 2015

The Remarkable Role of Fascia

The more I learn about fascia, the more complex and interesting it becomes. I have heard that the nadis are on the fascial plane as well as many acupuncture points. The point of Yin Yoga is to work with the connective tissue: tendons, ligaments, and fascia. Recently I have been studying, practicing, and teaching Somatics (brain-body re-education / neural re-education). So the second paragraph of the Yoga International quote below, stressing that the better we are with our proprioception the less pain we will have, makes perfect sense to me:

A Dynamic Organ of Communication

In addition to creating our literal interconnectedness, fascia also plays the remarkable role of helping the body to sense itself without using the eyes to see itself from the outside. Fascia is full of innumerable sensory nerve endings that are in constant communication with the brain about the body’s position in space. This ability for the body to use “inner vision” to sense itself is called proprioception, which is sometimes referred to as our "true sixth sense." In fact, you are actually using proprioception right now as you read this article. That's because if we didn’t have the ability to sense the body with our “inner vision," we wouldn’t be able to move through life in a controlled way. Without our proprioception we would all probably be lying in helpless, uncoordinated heaps on the floor—it’s really that important of a sense!

Because our fascial system is a major organ of proprioception, the health of our fascia is directly connected to how developed our “inner vision” is.

We all possess an acceptable level of proprioception that allows the body to move through life, but we’re now learning that high-quality proprioception can be an extremely important key to healthy aging. Researchers have recently uncovered a link between increased levels of proprioception and decreased levels of pain in the body. In other words, the more that your brain can sense your body accurately, the less pain you tend to experience. In addition, the more developed your proprioception is, the more skillful your daily movements will naturally become, reducing your chances of injury in the first place (and this becomes increasingly important as we grow older).

~ from Yoga Anatomy: What Every Teacher (and Practitioner) Should Know About Fascia by Jenni Rawlings, posted on Yoga International on February 2, 2015.

ps - if you do a Google search on fascia and look at the images you will get an idea of just how much fascia we have in our bodies. And thank goodness - it's what holds us together!

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Final Video from my Teacher Training 500

I wrote about weekends 1-5 in a previous post so here's a follow up for the rest of my training.

Weekend 6 was heavy on philosophy and history of yoga. It's so hard for me to keep that knowledge in my brain. Postures are no problem. I can learn them in my body. But so many historical belief systems (including some of Yoga's) just don't resonate with me and it's tough to remember if I can't feel it.

 I missed our 7th weekend and will have to make it up later but I was in France leading Canal boat cruises. Here's the link to pictures from the trip. Great times but I am very sad to have missed the cadaver lab on shoulders.

Weekend 8 was all about the shoulders / shoulder girdle. We did lots of shoulder practices from Somatics to inversions. Also, had a super evening of Ayurveda lecture.

Our final weekend, our 9th time meeting, was a four day retreat in Ely, MN at Yoga North, way up north. Over the last few months we created an art project to represent our change and learning both as a person and as a teacher while learning the therapeutic practice of SomaYoga. We all presented these projects this weekend. We also did 36 hours of silence and it was not what I expected. It was filled with connection. We have been together for 9 months now. We are not afraid to make eye contact, smile, or even laugh into the silence. We shared meals, hikes, yoga practice and a campfire by the lake, listening to the sound of ice forming. We broke silence intentionally on Sunday morning after our yoga practice, each of us sharing our feelings of being in silence. Although our group will probably not be together again in this configuration, I know we will hold each other in our hearts.

I highly recommend the teacher training program at Yoga North if you want to learn how to help people get out of pain, if you want to dive deep into yourself, and if you want to be part of a community of healing. Namaste.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

France, here I come!

Getting ready to head to France for a month of Yoga + Wine Country + Canal boating on the Canal du Midi. If you are interested in following our progress via pictures, you can like our travel site: Savvy Nomad on Facebook.

Look at the cutest travel itinerary envelopes ever!

Yay! France, here I come!

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

What my desk looks like while I am in TT500

I know I'm not posting much but it's been a hectic time for me. I am in the Advanced Teacher Training Program (TT500) with Yoga North through November 2014. Plus, before I ever signed up for that, I signed up for Relax & Renew training with Judith Hanson Lasater because last year I enjoyed my iRest Yoga Nidra training with Richard Miller so much that I thought, "Why not do some more training?" Anyway, I am over-run with studying yoga but enjoying it thoroughly. This is what my desk looks like most of the time now:

Mostly, I'm sharing pictures on Facebook here: TT500 on FB. (I think this is a public album so even if you are not on FB you can have a look-see.)
And here is a brief write up of the past 5 months of training:

Our first weekend was in March - a whole weekend of Somatics and Therapeutic Yoga which was lovely! I felt soooo spacious after this training.

Our 2nd long weekend of this nine month training included Kirtan, postural analysis, history of yoga, the mind study, and a deeper look into forward bends and twists.

Our 3rd weekend included anatomy lab, back bends, studying the mind, the Yoga Sutra, ayurveda, prepping for spinal clinic and more. This is good stuff.

Between months 3 and 4, I went to the Minneapolis Yoga Center for my week of Relax & Renew Restorative yoga training.

On our 4th weekend we studied Adaptive Yoga, Ayurveda (even got to eat lunch), the Bhagavad Gita, the Upanishads, Agni Sara, Business of Yoga & Code of Ethics, plus we offered a public clinic on SomaYoga for the spine.

During our 5th weekend we headed back to UMD, this time to both study the mind with Bud McClure, and to study the body in the anatomy lab with Terri Ach. We also focused on the hips & pelvis as a big part of our weekend. We developed a Yoga Nidra class and then broke up into dyads to give and received it. For our final bit of Mind Study, we rated our "Confusion Strategies" as most to least like us and then got the news that whatever we picked last is actually where our work is - apparently we are blind to it if we think it is not a problem. Ha ha - so true.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Examining Power, Privilege and Oppression in Yoga Service

My sister recently shared the below article with me. I enjoyed it so much I decided to re-post it here.

Examining Power, Privilege and Oppression in Yoga Service 
~ by Jacoby Ballard

Yoga and service is a big topic in the western yoga world right now. It comes out of a lineage of karma yoga, of seva, that has roots in India. What is implied but less explored within this is that ‘service’ within yoga almost always involves a teacher offering yoga to a group of people that they are not a part of, and that the yoga teacher is in a privileged position in society. Usually these service projects are designed to be taught by a volunteer teacher; the teacher does not receive monetary payment. What the teacher does receive is the profound cultural exchange and awareness of what a community of people very unlike them (in socio-economic factors) goes through in the world, and how that shows up in their mental, emotional, and physical health. Now, just sharing these profound teachings is a gift, and we exist in a capitalist world where yoga teachers need to be paid; thus service projects are largely available to people who rely on other sources of income.

I have attended trainings by some of the leading organizations in yoga service in the US-Off the Mat Into the World, Street Yoga, and the Lineage Project. In these trainings, the participants and facilitators have been overwhelmingly white, able-bodied, middle-class, and straight, and we are talking about teaching yoga to low-income or homeless people of color in prisons, domestic violence shelters, veteran hospitals, queer youth projects, schools, etc. I personally come from a working-class background, and am white, able-bodied, queer, and transgendered. However, there is not a thorough discussion within any of these models about privilege and oppression, which inevitably is part of our experience in teaching yoga to ‘underserved’ populations. Within social justice and healing justice organizations that I am part of, members, staff, and others are regularly given anti-oppression trainings, as a ‘practice’. These trainings are an opportunity to reflect and digest the ways in which oppression and privilege affect all of our communities, and to hear and hold each others’ pain, and also to understand it in a systemic, institutional sense.

For me, as a working class, white, queer, transgendered person, I want to bring yoga back to my own community. I think this is the case for many people of color, queer, and low-income people that attend these service yoga trainings. For us, we are looking to return to our community with the skills of yoga and service, which is very different than offering it up to communities that we are not a part of. So then, the cultural exchange that is expected to be part of the compensation for teaching yoga, is not present. Of course we always have more to learn within our own communities, but the familiarity and the acceptance mean that the dynamic and exchange is different. In most models of service yoga we are expected to do this work for free, yet don’t upper class white women get paid well for teaching to their own communities?

Part of my interest in attending these trainings is that they are among the only organizations within the yoga world that begin to talk about dynamics of power and social justice, both in the world and in the yoga classroom. Given who I am in the world, the concerns within my community, and what yoga has meant to me (as a method of individual and collective liberation), I find conversations about privilege and oppression sorely lacking within yoga. Thus, without our awareness, the social realities of racism, homophobia, sexism, and classism that we are all steeped in roar their heads in the yoga classroom, teacher trainings, yoga ‘community’, and workshops. Because of who is largely in the room, who can afford access, and who feels welcome, these dynamics of power go largely unnoticed.

Being aware of these dynamics of power and actively working on them in my own life (though I am far from finished!), I notice that something ableist, homophobic, sexist, transphobic, or racist is said by the teacher or by other students responding to the teacher in nearly every yoga class I attend. I have seen a male teacher say something sexually inappropriate to a woman he is adjusting in a heart opener; teachers repeatedly talk about ten fingers and toes or having a straight spine (which not all yogis do, or can!); to describe a pose, a teacher has talked about holding your foot behind your hip so you ‘look like a peg leg’ (referring to a dis/abled person); teachers talk about Indian gods and goddesses but yet know nothing about British colonization and the effect that that had on Ayurveda and Yoga; and many teachers like to make jokes, while we are in poses that are useful in pregnancy, about how men don’t know what it’s like to be pregnant (when men around me in my community are indeed becoming pregnant and have even been on Oprah), and the whole classroom laughs at them (and, at me).

I see this as a lack of awareness by the teacher of their own prejudices and ignorance (which are, indeed, samskaras, the imprint of past experiences and behavior on who you are now, and what you have to work on; perhaps this prejudice and ignorance is a cultural samskara) and hindrances to their loving everyone, which is ultimately a goal of yoga, to see no separation. We cannot bypass the important work of decolonizing our minds from systems of power, privilege, and oppression on the way to loving everyone. The fact that we are racist, sexist, homophobic, ableist is not our fault, and shame and guilt are not helpful paths to tread. But we must take responsibility for the world that our ancestors have created, and continue to transform it into one that celebrates all people, all bodies, all experiences in the world. In order to really love, we need to know how to be an ally to people in oppressed positions, how to work through internalized oppression, and how to ask for allies for ourselves when people have privilege over us. This includes our practice of yoga. As teachers, there are always people in the room, visible or not, who have struggled against oppression their entire lives, and this is a trauma that lives in the body, and so we must know how to hold space for them, and hold them well when we are asking them to open their hearts.

Photo from
I have been teaching Queer and Trans Yoga and Yoga for All Genders for the past 6 years-the first class at my cooperative health center, Third Root Community Health Center, and the second at the NYC LGBT Center. I have also taught Queer and Trans Yoga in Atlanta, Detroit, Denver, Vermont, Oakland, and Philadelphia, and last year taught at a queer youth foster home in my neighborhood. I treasure these classes, and the community built within them, through embodiment, through heart-opening, through holding space for all that we are as individuals and as a community. Part of how I want to see these classes for specific communities is to have a teacher from within their community teach, because the trust and empowerment is incredible. I have seen for myself the ways in which my community brings all of their joy and excitement into the room: through the chatter before class begins or the dates made after class, through the amazing colorful spandex, the queer political t-shirts, and as they bring more friends into the classroom. I also have the honor of holding space for an assault on the train based on someone’s gender presentation, the fear and sadness around holidays as we approach blood family and chosen family, the breakups within a small queer community, and the trauma of homophobia, racism, and transphobia that we sweat, stretch, and exhale out.

Service yoga has a lot of potential to develop this conversation from an embodied and heart-felt space, which is much different than most of the social justice work done around privilege and oppression that tends to be mostly in the mind (though some innovative work is being done around embodiment, somatics, and healing). Feeling the trauma of privilege and oppression in our bodies as well as talking about it is difficult and necessary. It demands our attention if we truly want to love everyone through each word we speak, each time we lay down our mats, blocks, and blankets, each class we teach, each adjustment we give.

Jacoby Ballard has practiced yoga for 14 years and has taught for 12 years. He has been involved in social justice work for 15 years, and is the founder of Third Root Community Health Center in Brooklyn. He received his 200-hour certification from Kashi Ashram in Atlanta, his 500-hour Advanced Yoga Teacher Training at Kripalu in Massachussetts. He has received additional training from Street Yoga, the Lineage Project, Off the Mat Into the World, the Interdependence Project, Dinacharya Institute for Ayurveda, and Insight Meditation. Jacoby loves working with students of all bodies, genders, and experiences, and offers his students precise alignment, the lessons of yogic scriptures suited to daily life in the West, and physical challenge with playfulness and compassion. - See more at: