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A long history of sexual misconduct haunts this popular practice. Here’s how some Ashtangi yogis are moving forward.
Learn about how sexual misconduct is affecting the Ashtanga yoga community.
For most dedicated Ashtanga yoga practitioners, 2018 has been a painful year of reckoning. We’ve had to excavate the past and face uncomfortable truths about Pattabhi Jois, the now-deceased founder of this much-loved practice and the subject of accusations of historic sexual assault.
I’m ashamed to admit that I knew about the sexual assault soon after I first started a daily Ashtanga practice 17 years ago. While I practiced with Jois several times before his death, I was not a close student of his and never saw the abuse first hand. But I did see videos on the Internet; I did laugh off and dismiss the furtive, dark gossip in Mysore, India, cafes and in practice rooms everywhere from New York to Singapore to London; and I did turn a blind eye.
This is a long overdue mea culpa, and perhaps one shared by others like me—average, everyday Ashtanga practitioners who chose to brush off the assault accusations either because we didn’t believe it, or because the practice felt (and still feels) deeply transformative. Ashtanga yoga has served as a bedrock for my life, and for many years that was more important than the abuse itself, which, well, felt very distant. After all, it happened so many years ago, and to women I didn’t know.
(Sharath Jois, the director of KPJAYI and grandson of Pattabhi Jois, has not publicly acknowledged or spoken about the abuse, and did not return requests for an interview for this story.)
A few teachers, though arguably not enough, have come forward to apologize to Jois’ victims, acknowledging their culpability in the abuse, whether that was because they ignored it like I did, or sent their students to practice with Jois knowing full well the risks.
“As a student who knew of these inappropriate adjustments, I should have behaved differently, and I apologize (that I didn’t),” said Paul Gold, an Ashtanga teacher in Toronto. “I rationalized [Jois’] behavior. I downplayed students’ negative reactions and chose to focus on the reactions of women and men for who these adjustments weren’t offensive or weren’t given. I wanted to study with Jois and chose to focus on the good rather than let the bad create a situation where I would have to make hard choices or take a stand.”
Karen Rain, who studied with Jois for a total of 24 months from 1994 to 1998 in Mysore, has become the most prominent and vocal victim of what she said was repeated sexual assault at the hands of Jois.
“I considered the way he handled women unethical,” Rain says, adding that back then, students would discuss the way Jois touched his female students but only behind closed doors and never to Jois himself. “At the time I was only able to be consciously aware of and discuss the sexual abuse of other women. I was not fully accepting of having been personally sexually abused by him. I had disassociated during the sexual assaults. When there is disassociation there is also dis-integration of memory and cohesive understanding.”
As for myself—a long-time Ashtanga student, KPJAYI authorized teacher, and the yoga manager at a collection of London yoga studios—I’m ashamed to admit I turned a blind eye for so long, and wish to apologize to the victims that it took me years to come forward, to stand up and rail against their abuse, and to stop ritualizing Jois. There is much to make up for.
In order to do that, we must examine the very root of the problem: the dynamic of the student-teacher relationship itself. The hierarchical nature of this relationship creates a clear power imbalance where, in this case, Jois’ students did not feel in a position to question his decisions and actions no matter how unethical his behavior. His victims returned year after year because they dismissed and rationalized the abuse as something else; their capacity to understand what was happening to them was impaired by their disassociation. Jois was able to abuse his students because the guru-sisya model, which lacks checks or balances, allowed it.
“As long as the guru dynamic remains, it is an opportunity for future abusers to build upon and take advantage of the same dynamic,” says Greg Nardi, an Ashtanga teacher in Miami, Fla.. “Systems that consolidate power and remove accountability structures for harmful actions only encourage the darker sides of human behavior, and they do not empower anyone. It has taken me some time to recognize that by participating in the guru system, I have been both accountable for supporting and oppressed by this dynamic that has caused harm to Pattabhi Jois’ victims.”
Last month, Nardi turned in his Level 2 authorization to KPJAYI, a courageous move given that he was one of Pattabhi and Sharath Jois’ most influential teachers. Nardi has joined London-based teacher Scott Johnson and Cornwall studio owner Emma Rowse to form Amayu, an educational organization where authority is completely decentralized in an attempt to create a very different power dynamic that is a marked departure from the traditional model, where one person (the teacher or guru) is in control of what is taught and how it is taught.
Every teacher who becomes part of the Amayu cooperative must take trauma sensitivity training, and anyone who practices in an Amayu-registered studio must agree to a code of ethics where the rights and dignity of all students are respected and backed by a transparent grievance procedure.
“In order to ensure that Ashtanga yoga fulfills its potential as a healing system it must be stripped of harmful power dynamics,” says Johnson. “We actively promote a culture that fosters equality, empowerment, mindful living, compassion, and speaking up for those who are disadvantaged, disenfranchised and disempowered.”
Some yoga classes have introduced consent cards for students to use during class to indicate whether or not a student would like to receive hands-on adjustments.Charting a New, More Ethical Path Forward
We can and in some cases already do interpret this system of yoga differently across the world; for too long we’ve been held hostage to the notion that it can only be taught and practiced one way. Five Surya Namaskars A’s, three B’s, standing postures, seated postures, backbends, closing sequence. No props. No new postures before you can bind, catch or balance. Hands-on assists is a given—not an option.
I still practice this way, and it works well for me. But now, I recognize that it doesn’t work as well for others.
At triyoga, where I work in London, we recently introduced the use of consent cards that students can use in any one of our 750 classes a week, which includes five robust Mysore programs.
These cards are placed in prime positions as students enter the studio and can be placed on their mat in silent communication to their teacher that they do not wish to be touched that day. Of course, it is our preference that students speak to their teacher; but if they don’t feel they can do that, these cards offer another option.
We’ve introduced these cards in an effort to bring more trauma-informed instruction in our studios. To be transparent, I knew very little about trauma when senior Ashtanga teacher Mary Taylor wrote a #metoo-inspired blog one year ago, essentially breaking open the abuse conversation amongst the global Ashtanga community. I’ve had to educate myself about how traumatic experiences from the past can play out in the present moment and sometimes in a yoga class, especially when touched without explicit permission.
My journey from total ignorance to something that has a bit more light is one I’m grateful for, and which I deeply hope will help future students. Many of us in the Ashtanga community have been fiercely criticized for getting it wrong when responding to Jois’ assault of women. And we did get it wrong. We were wholly unprepared for how to speak about it, and we used language that minimized what Jois did. (For example, we called it “inappropriate adjustments” rather than “sexual assault.”)
Unfortunately, this backlash has resulted in a paralysis to say anything at all, especially for those who found themselves struggling to hold both the abuse Jois committed with the transformative experiences they experienced when studying with their former teacher.
I don’t think that’s helpful for anyone. We have to be able to talk about this openly and without fear of retribution, indignation or humiliation. And I believe we can do that while still holding space for the victims.
“By and large we have processed this badly in the Ashtanga community,” says Ty Landrum, an Ashtanga teacher in Boulder, Colo., who runs The Yoga Workshop. “By not talking about [the sexual misconduct] we are repressing it and pushing it below the surface. Our yogic process has to be about our willingness to confront our shadows, and in some sense, make peace with them.”
For me, the shadow of Pattabhji Jois looms large. I’m still trying to figure out what role he plays in my practice and my love for it. As the creator of one of the world’s most practiced systems of yoga, he’s an undeniably important figure. We can’t whitewash him out of the picture, and I don’t think we should. Because to remove Jois from history would mean we deny the existence of his victims.
Where, then, does he belong? Surely not in a place of reverence as was the custom in many shalas around the world. At triyoga earlier this year, we pulled copies of Jois’ “Yoga Mala” and “Guruji: A Portrait of Sri K. Pattabhi Jois Through the Eyes of his Students” from our shops’ bookshelves. It felt wrong to reap economic benefits from books that glorifed a perpetrator of sexual assault.
Out of respect for anyone who has suffered sexual assault, many teachers have also taken down Jois’ images that hung on walls in practice rooms or sat on altars alongside statues of deities like Ganesha or Saraswati. “Pattabhi Jois’ photos came down from our walls immediately,” says Jean Byrne, the co-owner of The Yoga Space in Perth, Australia. For her, the abuse represented the very opposite of ahimsa, the very first yama that teaches the avoidance of violence toward others. “The photos were getting in the way of my practice and were triggering for many of our students.”
The fissures will no doubt continue to widen for as long as it takes the Ashtanga community to work through our conflicted feelings toward Jois—and, even more importantly, for as long as it takes for all of us in the Ashtanga community to apologize to his victims.
About the Author
Genny Willkinson Priest is a yoga teacher and yoga manager at triyoga, Europe’s biggest group of yoga studios. She has donated the income paid for this article to The Havens, a London organization aimed at helping those who have been raped or sexually assaulted. Learn more at gennyyoga.com.
Asana and meditation teacher and popular podcast personality Rosie Acosta says yoga and a sunny outlook saved her life. Here’s how.
Here’s how our December cover model, Rosie Acosta of the Radically Loved podcast, went from troubled teen to enlightened yogapreneur.
On a sunny afternoon in the Hollywood Hills, Rosie Acosta sits on the sofa in her bright living room, knees to her chest, facing best-selling author and Ayurveda practitioner Sahara Rose Ketabi. The two women are friends, and they’ve greeted each other warmly with hugs and excited chatter. They dish for a few minutes about Acosta’s herbal tea obsession and Ketabi’s recent engagement, but the pair have come together on official business—Ketabi is making a guest appearance on Acosta’s wellness podcast, Radically Loved, to discuss her new cookbook, Eat Feel Fresh, which features modern spins on traditional Ayurvedic recipes.
Both Ayurveda enthusiasts, Acosta and Ketabi have recently returned from a six-day panchakarma, the most intense detoxification ritual in Ayurvedic medicine. The process consists of five aggressive therapies said to eliminate doshic imbalances in the body. (In Ayurveda, doshas are the three energies believed to govern physiological and mental activity.) To hear them describe it, it’s purging, pooping, and bathing in oil until you come out anew on the other side. Oh, and there’s a ton of ghee: “They put ghee in your eyes to clarify eyesight. They clean your ears with it,” Ketabi marvels. “I mean, there’s ghee in every crevice.”
Of course there’s also meditation and self-reflection and carefully prepared Ayurvedic meals of kitchari (and more ghee), and it was during a panchakarma lunch that Ketabi discovered something rather radical about Acosta: “She’s literally a psychic guru,” she tells me.
Acosta and Ketabi swear it happened like this: They were at the panchakarma retreat with two other friends. It was a virechana day—designed to clear toxins from the GI tract. They all took laxatives and were confined to their individual rooms. Around three o’clock in the afternoon, Acosta took a nap. When she woke up at 4:30, she decided to meditate “for like, two hours straight,” she says, adding that it was the longest she’s ever sat for a meditation at one time. “I started to feel this weird thing happening—like an out-of-body experience,” she says. “All of a sudden, I wanted to go visit the girls and see what they were doing.”
Without leaving her room, still deep in meditation, Acosta checked in on her friends. She saw one of them curled up on her bed, naked, and lying on her left side. Another was propped up on her stomach, journaling. Acosta didn’t see Ketabi in her room at all. Instead, she envisioned the petite brunette at the gym, running on an elliptical, talking on her cell phone in Spanish (she’s fluent) to what sounded like a wedding planner. “At the end of the conversation she goes, ‘OK. ¡Hasta luego!’ And then hangs up,” Acosta recalls.
By the time Acosta met Ketabi for lunch the next day, she’d already confirmed with the other two women that her visions of them had, in fact, been accurate. But when she started telling Ketabi what had happened, things got even weirder. Ketabi had indeed been Skyping with her wedding photographer on an elliptical the day before, ending her conversation with the Spanish farewell hasta luego. “And I remember thinking after I hung up, That so did not sound like me. Why did I say that?” Ketabi says. “I sounded like an American trying to learn Spanish.” As they hashed out the events of the day before, they discovered that Acosta’s vision had actually occurred hours before Ketabi’s conversation with her photographer took place. “It’s like she put the words in my mouth,” Ketabi concludes.
We spent a week in Los Angeles with December cover model, Rosie Acosta of the Radically Loved Podcast. Here’s how yoga helped her transform a troubled adolescence into an abundant adulthood.From rags to richness
At 35, Acosta has come to terms with supernatural phenomena such as clairvoyance and manifesting her deepest desires—in fact, she’s built her career in the yoga space by leaning into them. She believes that practicing gratitude and intense optimism (and living a life guided by the Yoga Sutra) can lead to dramatic transformation, because she’s experienced this herself. Today Acosta lives comfortably in a two-bedroom Craftsman overlooking Laurel Canyon with her fiancé, upscale-accessories designer Torry Pendergrass; her teenage sister, who was born when she was 15; and her two dogs. Acosta admits feeling extraordinarily lucky to be making a living teaching yoga and meditation in Los Angeles. Hosting self-discovery retreats and teacher trainings, plus inspirational speaking, keeps her constantly jet-setting—and her self-help-heavy podcast, in which she’s waxed poetic on topics ranging from the importance of forgiveness to the power of intention, has recently reached 120,000 followers. But things weren’t always coming up roses for Acosta, and there was a time not too long ago when she likened yoga to a cult.
After a tumultuous childhood growing up in South San Gabriel in East Los Angeles, Acosta suffered from depression, anxiety, and a binge-eating disorder throughout her late teens. With two immigrant parents (her mother from Spain and her father from Mexico) trying to make ends meet amid gang violence and the racist drug war that defined Los Angeles in the late ’80s and early ’90s, Acosta learned early on that there was a price to pay for being Latin American in her part of the world. “There was never any, ‘Oh, you have to grow up and go to school and have aspirations to be successful,” she recalls. “No. It was, ‘Your job is to stay alive.’”
Often referred to as the decade of death, 1988–1998 in Los Angeles County was marked by record homicide rates and violence. Gangs terrorized the neighborhoods surrounding Acosta’s home, where she lived with her parents, her older sister, and a revolving cast of extended relatives. One evening in March of ’88, Acosta’s 16-year-old uncle, charged with babysitting her and her cousin for the night, promised to take the pair of five-year-old girls to the arcade. Instead, he parked his black Camaro outside of Skateland U.S.A., a roller rink by day, music venue by night, that’s notable for launching hip-hop supergroup N.W.A. The concrete depot on Central Avenue in Compton was situated deep in Bloods territory, and although a sign reading NO CAPS — NO COLORS adorned the entry door, the crowd was frequently a stormy sea of red. Peering out from the back seat of the Camaro, Acosta could see a gaggle of high schoolers and gangbangers drinking and shouting in the noisy lot. “Wait in the car,” her uncle told her. “I’m just gonna go watch this show, and then I’ll be right back.” An early N.W.A. fan, her uncle had brought her to the controversial rap group’s now-legendary first performance, immortalized in the 2015 biopic Straight Outta Compton.
“He left, and we just looked at each other, so freaked out,” Acosta recalls. The girls hid under a Saltillo blanket as violence erupted outside—until their uncle emerged, hours later, with a bloody face and a busted left eye. “I still have no idea how that happened, but then nobody asked him,” Acosta recalls. “He was like, ‘We were at the arcade,’ and my parents were like, ‘OK.’ It was literally like Lord of the Flies, you know?”
Exactly 10 years later, in the spring of 1998, Acosta sat in the driver’s seat of a running cop car, surrounded by six or seven officers with their guns drawn, all screaming for her to get out of the car. She was a sophomore at Mark Keppel High School, and she and some friends had decided to ditch sixth period to hang out at Sierra Vista Park in northeast LA. The small grassy park is home to a basketball court and a primary-colored playground, and while the teens were en route, a car chase was going down nearby. A police car had been in pursuit of a red Honda Prelude when both cars screeched to a halt at the edge of the park. The chase continued on foot—the abandoned vehicles left running on the pavement. “I was like Dora the Explorer, looking in both cars, trying to be a badass because all these people were watching,” says Acosta. “And someone was like, ‘Oh, you should get into the cop car.’” Clad in fingerless panda-print gloves and a chunky black sweater, Acosta hopped into the front seat, unaware that the place was crawling with undercover cops. The incident resulted in her arrest for attempted grand theft auto.
After several traumatic events growing up, Rosie realized she needed to change the direction her life was headed. Rosie from the block
Ventura Boulevard is humming with hipsters as Acosta and I sit beneath a bright-blue umbrella, amid teal bistro tables, outside Australian-inspired coffee shop Bluestone Lane. The chain is new to LA, and Acosta is hoping this outpost will be as good as the one she frequents in New York City. We both order avocado toast, and over coffee and matcha discuss her forthcoming memoir and how she came to find yoga. She’s animated and easy to talk to, with an attitude and mannerisms that are a little bit JLo. (Case in point, as Ketabi walked out the door at the end of her podcast recording session with Acosta, she turned to me and said, “The way I’m envisioning the [YJ] cover is, she’s wearing little pigtails on her head, like buns. And she’s doing a handstand on one hand. And wearing those pants that have the straps, but instead of ‘Calvin Klein’ it says, ‘Rosie from the Block’”—a direct reference to the 2002 Jennifer Lopez chart topper “Jenny from the Block.”) In short, Acosta is the real deal, and she practices what she preaches because she believes it saved her life.
Acosta tells me that if she hadn’t been booked that day in 1998, things may not have turned around quite like they have. Traumatic episodes such as the one that unfolded at the N.W.A. concert colored her childhood, and it was only after her arrest that she was truly able to reflect on how her upbringing was wreaking havoc on her adolescence. Living through a never-ending reel of teen deaths, hold-ups at grocery stores, and other violent scenarios eventually led to debilitating panic attacks, depression, and other symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. And after her arrest, court-ordered probation meant she could no longer cut school to blow off steam with her friends, most of whom were on a similar path of self-destruction. Discovering meditation and self-inquiry, plus a dramatic shift in attitude, is what revealed to her that she didn’t have to buy into what other people expected of her, which by her account, wasn’t much. “Nobody around us was trying to cultivate growth of any kind,” she says. “For me, the unpopular decision was to succeed. It’s fucked up, but the unpopular vote was to move out of my environment and become something else.”
During her senior year of high school, her mom, who supervised the cleaning staff at a local hospital, returned one night from work with some literature for the Self-Realization Fellowship temple in Hollywood—a white-stucco sanctuary with gold architectural embellishments and arched stained-glass windows—founded by Paramahansa Yogananda, an Indian yogi often credited with helping bring meditation and Kriya Yoga to the West.
“My mom said, ‘Hey, one of the ladies at work says she was stressed out and meditation worked for her—you should try it,’” recalls Acosta. “I took the little pamphlets, and I started to read about affirmations, and meditation, and manifestation, and the Law of Attraction, and all these things, and I really liked it. I was like, Oh, it’s like magic.”
But when she showed up at the temple a few weeks later, it wasn’t exactly love at first sight: “I was like, ‘This is a fucking cult. Get me out of here,’” she says. Even so, something about the lecture she heard that day resonated with her deep down, and she decided to stick with it. “The sermon was about how we were responsible for our own happiness,” Acosta says. “That really caught my attention, because I was like, Whoa, whoa, what does that mean? I was having this spiritual awakening of sorts, and it really spoke to me—this idea that I needed to be responsible for creating the life I wanted. I needed to be the person who rectified my bad behavior,” she says. “Somebody else couldn’t do that for me.”
Gradually, the path toward yoga revealed itself. When Acosta was 22, she grew interested in the physical aspects of the yogic lifestyle she was beginning to adopt, and she decided to attend a teacher training that, she would later come to realize, was unconventional, to say the least. “I found this little Kundalini Yoga studio in Pasadena that offered a weekend-long immersive training led by this sweet couple,” she says. As it turned out, they were followers of Osho, the controversial leader of the Rajneesh movement, recently popularized by the Netflix documentary series Wild Wild Country. “They had Osho posters everywhere,” Acosta recalls. “I took away a ton of information, but I remember thinking, There’s no way I can teach yoga. But after that, yoga started becoming more of a daily practice.”
She began regularly frequenting the Center for Yoga (now YogaWorks) and attending workshops and 200-hour teacher trainings with the intention of both deepening her practice and eventually becoming a yoga teacher. Yoga was where everything made sense, she says.
Rod Stryker, the founder of ParaYoga who became Acosta’s teacher in 2011, was surprised to learn of the adversity Acosta overcame to become the warm and wise yogi she is today. He says of their early days together: “I didn’t hear anything about hardship. I experienced this amazingly present, vibrant, mature, full soul.” But Acosta says that when she started studying with Stryker (her favorite teacher was a student of his, and encouraged Acosta to try his class), she had really only just begun her journey into yoga. “Things were resonating, but I couldn’t put the pieces together. It was like having a compass, and seeing signs—just trying to figure out how to bring all the clues together,” she says.
Rosie encourages students to commit to their own ability and potential while not comparing themselves to others.Reflections from the other side
Today, after seven years of Stryker’s tutelage, Acosta certainly appears to have found her way. She teaches her own students at Wanderlust Hollywood and the newly opened Den Meditation studio, and recently, she and Pendergrass have been talking about starting a family of their own. The lessons she imparts on her students she’s learned from Stryker and from her own transformation. First and foremost, “practice for a long period of time without interruption and with an attitude of service”—wisdom from Patanjali (author of the Yoga Sutra) that’s so important today, she says, when most of us can’t even read an email on the computer without reaching for our phone. “I always say, this is a marathon, not a sprint. There are no freeways to enlightenment,” she says. The other mainstay of her teaching is something she’s gleaned from her own life: Commit to your own ability and your own potential, and quit comparing yourself to others. “Devote yourself to your own gifts and you’ll achieve success,” she says. “And remember that it’s going to look different from everyone else’s, because it’s supposed to.”
From the Mulholland Drive Scenic Overlook, where Acosta takes me one blistering-hot LA afternoon, we can see the entire metropolis sprawled out in front of us. She points out where she grew up, all the way on the right, the East side of the horizon. She recalls how she used to skip school and take the bus to downtown, then hike all the way up here and imagine what life would look like on the other side of the city—the life she’s living today, as if deep down, she knew what it would be like all along. “One of my girlfriends, she wanted to be an actress,” she recalls. “So she’d say things like, ‘I’m going to buy that house over there and be famous.’ But for me, any time I had to think of what my life might look like if it were something else, I would stay quiet. I didn’t have a vision of a career, per se, but I had a vision of what I wanted to see. And it was this.”
These five yoga tools and tips will help you retain a balanced mind and process your emotions after a traumatic event.
I travel nearly every weekend and I’m often staying in new places. Sometimes I stay in hotels, but sometimes I stay in private apartments and airbnbs. Last weekend I was staying in an airbnb and, when I was just finishing my evening meditation, I heard a rattling at the door. Whereas normally I would have screamed, my mind was tuned into the meditative state.
Much to my shock, I calmly got up, put on some clothes and walked to the door. Standing in the doorway was a large man who had let himself in with a key to the apartment. Confused to see me there, he informed me that he had booked a stay in the apartment and was given a key. I actually didn’t have any answers since my host booked the accommodation for me. We decided to call the airbnb host. As they engaged in conversation, possible scenarios of searching for a hotel room or calling for help in case anything fishy went on flashed through my mind.
Luckily, the airbnb host confirmed my reservation and expressed deep concern that this man had a key and was standing in the doorway asking to come in. The host asked him to give the key to me and leave, and luckily, he did without too much protesting.
Here are mindful ways to work through a traumatic event.Working Through a Traumatic Event
I stood there alone, in an apartment that wasn’t my own, in a city that I didn’t know. I didn’t realize it at the time, but the incident delivered a shock to my nervous system. After he left I drank some water, read a few lines in a book, sent a few emails, and scrolled through Instagram on my phone.
As I closed my eyes to sleep that night, I was rattled awake by the sound of doors or each time the air-conditioning kicked in. I woke up the next morning without the feeling of restfulness that sleep usually delivers for me.
I went through my morning sadhana of meditation and yoga but I still arrived at the venue to teach my class feeling a bit disturbed. I decided to meditate again during the break between my events. It was only then, close to 24 hours after the event, that I registered the trauma response. My body was shaking and my breathing was short and shallow. I felt like I could hardly breathe. Even when I tried to still my body, my hands would shake. I decided to sit in meditation again for another twenty minutes. I finally tuned into the reality of my nervous system: My body shook, my breath accelerated, and then I cried.
I observed the experience in my body without reacting to it. My body stopped shaking and my breath deepened after the last tears flowed down my cheeks. I felt lighter and more free, like the experience has lifted. That night I slept soundly and deeply. In hindsight, the first thing I should have done after the incident was to meditate. But in the midst of trauma, the most common responses are fight, flight, or freeze.
There are so many layers to this experience that I want to unpack for you as a lesson for your yoga practice.
I credit the meditative mind for giving me the poise not to react immediately when the stranger walked into my airbnb. Without a cultivated attitude of observation and equanimity, I would have operated entirely from a fear response.
I startle easily and I always have. I’m a childhood trauma survivor, so that might have something to do with it. I surprised myself with how calm I was in the moment. But, that doesn’t mean that I wasn’t deeply impacted by the experience. The whole experience reminded me of the deer-in-head-lights response to danger. I initially froze my own emotional response. But then, having survived, I started to shake in the aftermath until I finally released everything in tears.
It took a good deal of time for me to register that my body and mind was impacted by the experience of a stranger walking in on me. It wasn’t until I sat with all the arising sensations that I was able to be free of it. In the space between the incident and the meditation where I cried and released whatever pent up energy was in my body, I had a host of interactions that were less than ideal. I sent emails with unskillful communication and I taught a less-than-ideal class. In other words, I wasn’t myself.
It makes reasonable sense that my feeling of safety was challenged after a stranger walked in uninvited. The process of healing and returning the mind to a state of love and trust is a more meandering and personal journey. I am so grateful that I had the tools of yoga and meditation to help me move through my triggers around this experience.
But, it got me thinking: How many of us take the time to process large and small traumatic incidents? It seems more likely that we put up a facade of strength and pretend to be OK when we are not. Or, worse yet, we begin to take action from a place of trauma—before the trauma has been processed within ourselves.
On an average day, there are so many things that could illicit a trauma response. Micro-aggressions expressed in casual racist or sexist comments, mean-spirited sarcasm from friends or family, or the negative self-talk that perpetuates cycles of abuse are some that come to mind.
I now have tools to guide me through the inner work of my own process as a yogi. But I didn’t always have those tools. When I was a little girl and I experienced sexual assault, I didn’t have the tools to process what happened. It look me years to realize the extent of the damage done, and the violations that were perpetrated against me.
It’s more often the case that we are ill-equipped to handle and process the hurt that we experience. It’s less the case that we find the support needed to heal. That is, unless we engage in a devoted spiritual practice and have access to therapists and other healers that can help lead the way.
If you’re sensitive like I am, you will probably register varying degrees of trauma every single day of your life. There are tools that will help you retain a balanced mind and process your emotions. Whether it’s a cruel word spoken by an anonymous stranger on the internet or a careless comment by your partner, the tools outlined below will give you relief from what can sometimes be a stressful, traumatizing world.
Try these 5 practices to help you calmly respond to trauma.5 Yogic Ways to Respond to Trauma 1. Breathe
Keep the root of your attention grounded on your breath throughout the day. Notice when your breathing accelerates, tightens, or drastically changes. As soon as you notice a shift has happened, pause whatever you’re doing and focus on your breath. If possible, come to a comfortable seated position and close your eyes. Count to 10 as you breathe in through your nose and count to ten as you breathe out through your nose. Repeat 10 times.
2. Feel all the Feels
The trauma response of fight, flight, or freeze is a response of disembodiment. There is an uncomfortable feeling in the body and instead of sitting with it, the habituated response is to either fight the world, run from the source of pain, or freeze and numb out. Choosing to feel everything is a courageous and brave choice.
So, get quiet and inquisitive. Turn on your creative mind and be receptive to the sensations of your body. Do not judge what you feel. If possible, come to a comfortable seated position and close your eyes. If you can't do that, do a body scan. Start at the top of your head, sweep down towards your toes, and then come back up again. Register all the sensations but refrain from assigning value or judgements to them.
For example, if you notice that your hand is shaking, simply observe that your hand is shaking. If you notice there is a pressure around your shoulders, simply observe that. Do not try and figure out why the sensation is there or make it go away. Just observe. Keep your mind engaged with scanning your body for at least 5 minutes, going up to 20 minutes if you can.
Even if you aren’t immediately aware of a trauma response to a difficult situation, give yourself at least a few hours to decompress before you take any action or make any big decisions. It’s very common to displace anger or fear onto the people closest to you, or to make a bad decision in the period of time after a traumatic event. Pressing pause and practicing patience can be an extremely useful tool in maintaining balance through difficult times.
Sometimes in the midst of traumatic experiences it can be tempting to stay away from your yoga mat. This is exactly the time when you need practice the most. The yoga poses encourage a sense of embodied presence and help you reconnect to all the feelings and sensations in your body. This is exactly what is needed to heal and process trauma. Remember that just 5 minutes of yoga each day counts as consistent practice.
After the incident has passed, you will probably need to work through your grievances and judgements about it. In order to be really honest with yourself, try journaling and allowing yourself to rant uncensored about the experience. You may find that you judge yourself for not responding in the way that you would have liked. You may find that you hold a grudge against the perpetrator and have a hard time letting it go.
Once you get honest about your judgements and grievances, you can forgive yourself, everyone, and everything else, too. Even if you find it hard to say, try writing out this sentence: “Even though I didn’t respond as I would have liked and I caused pain, I forgive myself. Even though I feel violated by this person, I chose to forgive them. They are also wounded, imperfect beings, and I forgive them.”
About the Author
Kino MacGregor is a Miami native and the founder of Omstars, the world’s first yoga TV network. (For a free month, click here. With over 1 million followers on Instagram and over 500,000 subscribers on YouTube and Facebook, Kino’s message of spiritual strength reaches people all over the world. Sought after as an expert in yoga worldwide, Kino is an international yoga teacher, inspirational speaker, author of four books, producer of six Ashtanga Yoga DVDs, writer, vlogger, world traveler, and co-founder of Miami Life Center. Learn more at www.kinoyoga.com.
As a girl, Mallika Chopra—daughter of the legendary teacher, Deepak—learned the transformative power of meditation. Here, she shares a one-minute breath practice for kids that can help ease anxiety immediately.
Mallika Chopra, daughter of legendary meditation teacher Deepak Chopra, shares calming breathwork for kids in an excerpt from her book, Just Breathe: Meditation, Mindfulness, Movement, and More.
I was 9 years old when my parents, Rita and Deepak Chopra, learned how to meditate. Even though they were from India, they discovered meditation as young immigrants in Boston, where my father was a stressed-out, unhappy doctor. Meditation transformed their lives by giving them a tool to manage stress and to be more in control of bad habits, but more importantly, to connect with their souls through experiencing silence.
For my brother and me, meditation was appealing because our parents’ practice improved our family life: We became a happier, more connected family. I feel meditation was the most precious gift my parents ever gave me, because it provided an anchor to slow down, breathe, and have inner confidence as I went through phases of discovery and uncertainty. When I became a mother, I shared the lessons I learned from my parents with my daughters, their friends, and our community.
Meditation, mindfulness techniques, and yoga are age-old practices that have survived generations. For kids today, these techniques are as relevant as ever, particularly in a time when hyperstimulation from social media, overscheduling, and a general loss of silence is the norm. Just breathing itself may be simple, but it is also incredibly powerful.
Here's a simple technique to help the children in your life manage stress—the first step to a lifelong journey of self-discovery.
Step No. 1: Talk to Kids About What Their Breathing Is Trying to Tell Them
Breathing is nourishing to your body. When you breathe in, oxygen gives your cells the energy they need to keep you healthy. Breath stimulates movement and circulation.
As you breathe out, you release carbon dioxide and toxins (bad chemicals) from your body. Think about it: breathing is what tells you that you are actually alive!
Your thoughts are linked to your breath. When your mind is racing with thoughts, particularly when you get excited (happy or not so happy), your breathing usually gets faster. Think about when you are about to get on a roller coaster or enter a haunted house: Do you feel like your breathing gets faster?
What about when you are really upset because your parents got mad at you or you had a fight with your best friend? In between cries, your breathing is usually faster, as well. Maybe you get so upset that it feels like your breath is too fast and you just can’t slow down. And then, suddenly, you have to take a deep breath to calm down.
Or do you find your breathing growing faster when you feel you have too much homework or too many extracurricular things to do?
When you are overwhelmed, you start to experience that stressed, anxious feeling—almost like butterflies fluttering in your stomach. Breathing on purpose can be one of the most helpful ways to get you back in control of any situation. It can also help get you ready to face challenges, to take a pause and think before you act so that you make smart decisions that feel right to you. Your breath is always with you—a good friend indeed!
Teaching kids how to breathe will help calm racing thoughts.Step No. 2: Help Kids Learn How to Simply Breathe
Right now, take a deep breath. Breathe in. And out. Again. Breathe in and out.
Do you notice that when you are breathing your mind stops racing? Try thinking a thought and breathing at the same time. For example, say your name in your mind and then breathe. You will notice that your mind jumps from thinking your name to noticing your breath. It is hard to do both at the same time!
In this way, breathing helps you control your racing thoughts. You can control what’s going on in your head by changing how you breathe. When you are in control of your thoughts, you will act more calmly, will be more relaxed, and will generally find you are happier.
Breathe. In. Out. Breathe again.
Think of your breath as an anchor. No matter what is happening around you, no matter how busy you are, no matter who surrounds you, you can always find your breath. It is a stable and secure part of you.
You breathe when you sleep and when you dream. You also breathe when you meditate. Breath is the life force that keeps your body and mind aware and healthy.
Find a comfortable, quiet place. You can do this meditation anywhere and at any time. Turn off all devices and the television so that you are not distracted. This will last only one minute—you can do it!
Sit comfortably. If you feel OK doing so, close your eyes. If you prefer to keep your eyes open, that is okay, too. Take a deep breath in through your nose. Breathe in deeply so that your lungs fill up.
As you breathe in, feel how your stomach goes out. Pause for just one second. And now breathe out, blowing out slowly from your mouth.
On your next breath in, try to breathe in for three seconds. One. Two. Three. Now, pause for two seconds. One. Two. And breathe out for four seconds. One. Two. Three. Four. Find the rhythm that works best for you. Breathe in. Pause. Breathe out.
After one minute, or once you feel you are done, open your eyes (if they were closed) and say thank you to yourself for giving your brain and body this experience.
If you do this meditation regularly, it will become a habit and it will become a safe, happy time for you. You can always find your breath no matter where you are.
Grab a resistance band and challenge your strength—rather than exploit your flexibility.
Yoga often attracts hypermobile students, but practicing without awareness of hypermobility could lead to injury and pain. This sequence uses resistance bands to help you build awareness and avoid injury.
Ask anyone who doesn’t practice yoga why they don’t give it a try and odds are you’ll hear some version of this: “I can’t do yoga because I can’t even touch my toes.” While yogis and yoga teachers can offer a host of reasons why a lack of flexibility actually puts someone at an advantage in yoga, it’s easy to see how the perception that yogis have to be bendy is so prevalent: Yoga often attracts hypermobile students. After all, hypermobile bodies naturally move into and out of the large ranges of motion many yoga postures demand.
However, most yoga teachers agree that hypermobile yogis actually have it way worse than those who have a hard time touching their toes, because all that flexibility tends to inspire hypermobile yogis to exploit their joints’ natural looseness, which almost always leads to injury and pain.
Extending knees and elbows past straight, effortlessly sliding into splits, pancaking the torso on the floor in Upavistha Konasana (Wide-Angle Seated Forward Bend)—these all can be signs of hypermobility in a yoga practice. Yet instead of thinking hypermobility is “bad” for a yoga practice—or that yoga is bad for hypermobile practitioners—consider these strategies to add strength and stability to an asana practice if you deal with hypermobility:
Pull back from end range: Muscles have better leverage and can exert more tension to stabilize joints when joints are positioned at mid-range.
Slow down: Moving more slowly gives the brain time to recruit more muscle fibers for increased muscle tension. This maximizes stability.
Look for external feedback: Because hypermobility can impair a student’s sense of their body in space, props and equipment can provide information about the real position and range of their joints (compared to what they may feel).
Resistance bands can effectively facilitate all of these strategies. Practitioners can actively work with and against external tension from the bands, and can even enjoy a feeling of “being held together better.” Perhaps most usefully, resistance bands act as brakes to slow down movement and limit range of motion in a way that hypermobile soft tissue sometimes can’t. Hypermobile students then learn to challenge their strength rather than exploit their flexibility.
Home Practice: Yoga with Resistance Bands for Hypermobility
Here is a Yoga with Resistance Bands sequence that builds toward Tree Pose. The resistance bands used in the sequence include two 5-foot long moderate-level resistance bands with small loops tied into each end, and one small, looped band of moderate resistance.
About the Author Laurel Beversdorf, B.F.A, E-RYT 500, is the creator of Yoga with Resistance Bands Classes and Body of Knowledge™ Anatomy and Biomechanics workshops. A Yoga Tune Up® trainer and senior teacher and teacher trainer for YogaWorks, Laurel regularly presents trainings and workshops at locations like Kripalu, YogaWorks, and studios across the world. Learn more at laurelbeversdorf.com
Get some distance from the emotional landmines in your life while deepening your practice and feeding your soul on these magical post-breakup adventures.
Learn about these 6 yoga retreats for post-breakup healing.
Heartbreak is brutal. It doesn’t matter who did the breaking up, the end of a big relationship is devastating. Your body feels like it’s going through withdrawal (there is a reason it’s called heartbreak, after all), motivation hits rock-bottom, and though your friends and family are sympathetic, no one really seems to get it. Add a family and divorce and you might also be looking at big financial and legal messes, all while trying to keep it together in front of the kids.
But, there is an upside: All those raw feelings and jarring shifts can provide a solid starting point for some serious growth. That’s why the weeks and months after a breakup is a prime time to embark on that yoga retreat you’ve been meaning to take.
Yoga is a secret weapon for the heartbroken. Not only does your practice give you a happy-boosting workout, but it also emphasizes patience, flexibility, and mindfulness—all traits that come in handy when charting a new path forward. These six retreats combine those ideas with gorgeous locations and groups of soul sisters (plus pro counseling sessions, adventure, cleansing ceremonies, massages, and spiritual healers) to turn your breakup into a breakthrough.
6 Yoga Retreats Perfect for Heartbreak
About the Author Stephanie Granada is a freelance writer and editor, who splits her time between Colorado, Miami, and NYC.
In order to keeping the conversation going, we asked yogis via our Instagram and Facebook pages on their thoughts and feelings about the situation. Here’s what they had to say:
Yogis Respond to the Florida Yoga Shooting
“In my daily prayers there seems to be so many needs that I sort of divide them up by category. Since this has happened, I have made all yogis one of my Sunday prayer focuses. We must all do what we can, where we can to promote peace and love and combat violence. Love to all of you,” —Sunny Sutphin, Facebook
“Feeling devastated and incredibly saddened. Where is the love? Where is the peace?” —@patriciayogi
Marshawn Feltus—a man sentenced to 38 years in state prison who now teaches yoga in jails, schools, and community centers in the roughest neighborhoods of Chicago—this answers this question.
Marshawn Feltus was just 17 years old when he got into a street altercation in one of Chicago’s most violent neighborhoods and shot—and killed—another young man.
He was sentenced to 38 years in state prison and while incarcerated, he was talked into trying yoga. He reluctantly rolled out a bath towel (they didn’t have yoga mats) in an old chapel space, and within five minutes of that first practice, he was hooked.
Over time, he began teaching in prison. And after serving 18 years of his sentence, Feltus was released. He returned to Chicago with a new purpose: to bring the healing power of yoga to his community. He completed a local entrepreneurship program and a 200-hour yoga teacher training at Chicago Yoga Center. Then, he founded ACT Yoga—which stands for Awareness, Change, Triumph (an acronym he used in prison to encourage other inmates to enroll in the GED, college, and self-help programs).
Here's why yoga is needed in all communities. After you watch, tell us your own story. Join the conversation by posting a picture or video to your Instagram and use #yjconversations.
It's called Bringing Down the Flame, and it's not your ordinary Salutation.
In YJ’s new online course, Energy Medicine Yoga: Transformation Through the Subtle Body, renowned energy healer and Eden Energy Medicine pioneer Donna Eden and Energy Medicine Yoga creator Lauren Walker lead an eight-week training that will shift longstanding patterns in your underlying energy, which affects your mind, body, and spirit. Through simple tools and practices, you will learn how to activate your innate healing for greater balance, vitality, and well-being. Find out more and sign up today!
Lauren Walker is the author of The Energy Medicine Yoga Prescription. She’s been teaching yoga and meditation since 1997 and created Energy Medicine Yoga while teaching at Norwich University. She teaches EMYoga across the US and internationally and has been featured in Yoga Journal, Mantra Yoga + Healing, Yoga Digest, and The New York Times. She was recently named one of the top 100 most influential yoga teachers in America by Sonima. For more information, visit EMYoga.net.
The best part? Nobody even needs to know you’re doing them.
Try these practices to help with stress at work.
When we’re feeling stressed, many of us turn to yoga. Yet we often forget that yoga doesn’t necessarily require a sticky mat or a softly-lit studio. Yoga, and its infinite practices, are available to us anywhere, anytime. Even at work.
Years ago, I had a boss who was a worrywart. She micromanaged, fretted, and hovered. Her nervous energy wove its tentacles into me, gripping my neck and shoulders, imprisoning my breath in my upper chest, and taking up residence in my low back.
Those days, I lived for my lunchtime yoga class—one hour when I could leave distractions at the door and slip into the still, clear lake of my inner sanctuary. I’d glide out of that class every day relaxed and restored, until my boss would unleash her panic and I was back to square one. That is, until one day when I realized that inner sanctuary my yoga class inspired was actually with me. Always. Instead of counting on yoga classes to sustain me, I began to subtly weave yoga into my workday. When I noticed my stress levels rising, I’d take a moment to simply breathe—and found I was able to feel instantly centered and calm, often without even leaving my desk.
We all face work-related stress. And, we all have an inner sanctuary. You may not be able to close a door, roll out a mat, and curl up in Balasana (Child’s Pose), but there are ways to experience yoga—discreetly—at your workplace.
Here are five practices to cultivate calm when you’re feeling overwhelmed on the job:
When we’re stressed, we hold it in our bodies. Gentle movement unwinds this physical discomfort, encouraging relaxation. A modified version of Cat-Cow can be done right at your desk to dissolve tension.
How-to: Shift to the front edge of your chair, feeling your body weight on your sit bones. Slip off your shoes if possible, to feel the soles of your feet on the ground, and rest your palms on your thighs. On an inhalation, reach your tailbone toward the back of your chair, lengthen your spine into a backbend, and lift your gaze upward. On an exhalation, round your tailbone toward the front of your chair, curve your spine forward, and lower your gaze. Let the rocking motion soothe you for several rounds.
You can stretch your body at your desk to dissolve tension.Subtle Pranayama
It’s easy to underestimate the power of a slow, deep, conscious breath. Dirga Pranayama (Three-Part Breath) is a simple yet potent practice to shift yourself out of a state of stress. This breathing technique can be used as needed—at your desk or in a meeting—to call in tranquility.
How-to: Feel your breath softly move in through your nose, filling your belly, ribcage, and chest. Exhale slowly through your nose, feeling your breath leave your belly, ribcage, and chest. Imagine emptying your breath completely. At the end of your exhale, pause and sink into the stillness of that moment. Feel the natural initiation of your next inhalation into your belly, ribcage, and chest. Repeat several times.
Repeating a mantra—a sound, word, or phrase—can regulate breathing patterns and quiet an overactive mind. Perhaps your office isn’t the best environment to chant Om out loud, but you can still experience the benefits of a silent mantra.
How-to: Practice a few rounds of Three-Part Breath, letting your breath move in and out of your belly, ribcage, and chest. Then, invite the following mantra to join your breath. On an inhalation, think “breath in,” and on an exhalation, think “let go.” Silently repeat “breath in” on your inhalations and “let go” on your exhalations, allowing the words to ride the length of your inhale and exhale. Practice for several rounds.
Mudras are hand gestures used to guide energy in the body. Dhyana Mudra (Meditation Seal) supports a calming energy. When you’re under pressure, lay your awareness on your hands. Softly bring them into this mudra to feel inner peace.
How-to: Sitting in a comfortable position, shape your hands to form a bowl in your lap with your palms facing upward. Rest your right hand on top of your left and allow the tips of your thumbs to touch. Notice how your body, mind, and energy feel, and enjoy this experience for any length of time.
Meditation is a practice of paying attention. Walking meditation involves paying attention to actions that you normally do automatically. When you consciously turn and return your attention to walking, you cultivate presence and drop into your calm center.
How-to: While you’re walking down the hall in your office building, notice one foot lifting, moving forward, and meeting the ground, heel first. Notice your body’s weight shifting onto your forward leg as your back heel lifts and your toes remain touching the ground. You might notice a coworker saying hello; perhaps make eye contact and smile. Then, return your attention to your feet moving, your weight shifting. Practice while walking to the bathroom or your favorite lunch spot.