The 3 Pillars of Life: Brahmacharya

The 3 Pillars of Life: Brahmacharya

Over the last few months I have been exploring the theme of the 3 Pillars—right diet, sleep, and brahmacharya—in my classes and personal practice to help ease into this new fall season with a stronger commitment to my self-care and Ayurveda. My first article in this trilogy emphasized diet and introduced you to the Ayurvedic term agni, which describes your digestive fire; it included a few recipes to enhance your digestion if it is weak or irregular. The second article highlighted sleep and offered some practical tips on how to improve your sleep with self-care practices and diet.

This month, I will shed some light on brahmacharya as well as creativity and their role in upholding the three pillars. Brahmacharya is traditionally a practice that emphasizes management of one’s sexual energy. From the yogic perspective, excessive sexual activity will weaken or exhaust your vital energy. Now just to be clear, the idea of brahmacharya is not to make us all monks or withdraw completely from all sexual activity—it’s actually to raise your awareness that engaging in too much sexual activity will reduce your shukra (sexual energy, reproductive fluids), which is necessary to build ojas. Ojas is the word Ayurvedic practitioners use to describe the most refined by-product that is created by the food we consume after it is digested to build up our tissues (dhatus: fluids, blood, muscle, fat, bone, nervous system, reproductive fluids). Excessive sex and stress will deplete ojas in the sperm and ovum as well as curtail ojas from entering the heart. Ojas is technically not considered a tissue of the body; it’s more like the strength or quality intrinsic to a tissue that gives you vigor, strengthens your immune system, provides stability to the body and mind, and keeps you juicy and plump like a newborn baby.

The Ayurvedic yogis believe that reproductive fluids are the final step in a 30-day process that creates the dhatus; as noted above, these fluids are one of the dhatus and are the ones that are produced last. Unfortunately, during the thirty days, many factors can compromise the production of the dhatus; if this occurs then it will lead to a depletion of ojas, contributing to the reduction of vigor, immunity, radiant glow, and longevity we naturally desire. Yet, if all goes well through the stages of food to dhatus transformation, our tissues will be strong and we will feel a surplus of energy that moves us to create or be creative on a regular basis.

What creative outlets do you have in your daily life? What do you love to do in your free time? In my opinion, responding to the urge to create when it arises is one of the most loving things you can do for soul. If brahmacharya is part of your regular practice, there will be a surplus of energy to explore in life, perhaps to ignite your next poem, photograph, or song. With too much sexual activity or stress it’s not uncommon to lose your libido or urge to be creative. As daunting as it might sound to add one more practice to your already busy life, I find that the rhythm of daily creative practice becomes its own habit and therefore grows easier over time.

As we head into the cooler, darker fall and winter seasons that invite us into the warmth of our homes, we’re provided with a great opportunity to evaluate our relationship to brahmacharya and creativity. Trust that whatever amount of creative time arises each day is the right amount. It’s the intention that counts. Trust that there is room in your day to practice and that you deserve this creative time. Antoine de Saint-Exupery has said, “A single new habit can awaken within us a stranger totally unknown to us.” This was my personal experience as I discovered and danced with this beautiful new stranger, who was truly none other than creative facets of the unexplored me. If you are ready to meet and embrace the creative divine in you, I invite you to undertake a daily creative ritual. Just as much as we need good food and sleep to be healthy and productive, I believe we also need to have space to do what we love in order to feel our best.



The Glass Ceiling of Yoga: Body Positivity

The Glass Ceiling of Yoga: Body Positivity

The picture of a serene and beautiful yoga community that is celebrated by the media actually disguises a disturbing layer of normalized and ubiquitous body type discrimination. However, by unveiling a previously “invisible” glass ceiling over the Western yoga community, students, teachers, and administrators can find ways to effortlessly mold body-positive practice spaces for current, new, and future yoga practitioners.

Gender vs Body Type

I’ve encountered a lot of glass ceilings in my life. Honestly, when you’re black, queer, and born with female genitalia, you encounter them constantly and I’ve grown to expect situations wherein boundaries and limitations are the norm. However, there’s a glass ceiling that limits our Western yoga community to a troubling degree and it’s something I never expected to encounter. I mean, when “glass ceilings” are typically identified in Western society, they are almost invariably related to gender.

Ironically, the yoga community doesn’t really suffer from a gender glass ceiling, at least not one that negatively effects women.

Even though women weren’t taught asana until the 20th century, the vast majority of Western yoga teachers and students are female. And while discrimination against male yoga students and teachers is probably more common than any of us could imagine, it’s still not the most expansive and divisive glass ceiling in the yoga community.

No, the real ceiling within our community is based entirely upon physical presentation and, specifically, body type.

This ceiling is clear as day to those of us who have atypical yoga practitioner bodies. Instead of being slender, white and heaped with physical ability, there’s a growing wave of yoga teachers and students who are plump, multiethnic and powering through life with a wide range of disabilities. However, those of us who challenge the white washed yoga teacher stereotype face a very different practice landscape than our colleagues. For example, it’s inappropriately common to hear a story about a yoga student being shamed out of a yoga studio, based upon comments made by discriminatory yoga teachers and students.

In some communities, it’s nearly impossible for atypical yoga teachers to find teaching opportunities. And even when teaching opportunities are available, they are not on par with options for more traditionally bodied teachers. This problem is well documented within small communities of “different” yoga teachers, but it’s essentially invisible to those who don’t see themselves as “different”. And, what’s worse, there are way too many practitioners and teachers who don’t see this kind of discrimination as a problem. Thus, an “invisible” glass ceiling has domed over our community, and only those who have been discriminated and oppressed are fully aware of its existence.

What Does This “Glass Ceiling” Actually Look Like?

Here’s the thing, no one in the yoga community is ever going to openly bad mouth someone who looks different from the traditional idea of a practitioner. Ok, let me back up. I’m sure it happens. But being openly mean to people is not condoned in our yoga community. It’s a pretty big no-no, actually. Therefore, I wouldn’t be surprised if someone reading this article right now is truly shocked by the idea that discrimination exists in a community which oozes the kind of saccharine sweetness that can only be honed by decades of marketing and product advertising. Unfortunately, the prettiest bandages can hide the ugliest wounds.

And beneath the surface of our saccharine sweet, mass media approved industry is a festering wound characterized by offensive language, discriminatory hiring practices and a bunch of other negativity that gets swept under the rug.

Admittedly, it’s not fun to acknowledge discrimination. In most cases, it feels very embarrassing, and many people would prefer to pretend as though they are not part of the problem. But anyone who turns a blind eye to this problem is also a key contributor to its existence. But how does this problem actually manifest and what does it look like? Let me paint a clearer picture for you.

Imagine you’re a curvy person who has finally decided to face your fear of practicing yoga in a group setting. Perhaps you’ve practiced yoga online with free videos, and you’re finally feeling confident enough in your understanding of asana to venture out of your living room and into a communally supportive environment under the watchful gaze of a knowledgeable instructor.

With a yoga mat under your arm and an emotionally swollen heart on your sleeve, you proudly stride into your local yoga studio.

When you approach the reception desk to check-in for class, the teacher (who looks, as expected, like a human Barbie doll) gives you a curt visual once-over. “Is this your first class?” Yoga Teacher Barbie chirps nonchalantly. While your knee jerk reaction may be defensive, you calm yourself down mentally. You remind yourself that she’s not trying to be offensive, and that she’s merely trying to take the proverbial temperature of a student she’s never met before. You smile and shake your head. “Nope, but I’m excited to take your class!” you say. Barbie smirks. “Well, this class is pretty intense,” she says.

You stare at her blankly. You’re wondering why she’s decided to tell you that the class is intense. Is it because she thinks you can’t handle the class? All of a sudden, you’re second guessing yourself and hiding sweaty palms. Why did you think you were strong enough to attend live classes? By the time you’ve rolled out your mat and gotten settled with props, the tissue thin confidence you brought into the studio has been shredded beyond repair by the self-doubt you’d managed to keep at bay prior to arrival.

During the class, you notice for the first time that your expressions of various yoga poses look a little different than other people in the class. Maybe your balance is a little less sharp, or you use props and modifications at times when other students seem to be able to go without. While that acknowledgement makes you a little self-conscious, it pales in comparison to the shame you feel at having your movements constantly corrected by Yoga Teacher Barbie.

Because, yes – Barbie has also noticed that your movements look a little different. And she’s decided to make your differences an opportunity for a teaching exercise by constantly correcting your alignment and offering more physical adjustments than you could have ever wanted. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if she’s offering more or less advice to anyone else in the room – in fact, it’s entirely possible that she offers this level of adjustment to every student. But your confidence has been shattered.

The emotionally swollen heart you proudly wore on your sleeve is now openly bleeding.

In the best case scenario, you somehow find the strength to believe in yourself again. In the worst case, you vow to never darken the doorstep of another yoga class for fear of ever feeling this way again.

The thing is, if you’re reading this right now, you’ve probably worn the moccasins of either Yoga Teacher Barbie or our Curvy Protagonist. Maybe both. And the weird thing is, I’ve heard this exact same story told by people who are not necessarily “curvy” or “different” in some other way.

In fact, it’s startlingly common for people who look just like Yoga Teacher Barbie to still feel discrimination at the hands of their instructors.

I could be wrong, but I think this is all the result of the fact that we live in a staunchly body negative society.

Body negativity is endorsed by the mass media – let’s face it, that’s how they get us to buy things. We make purchases because we find ourselves wanting or lacking in one way or another. Unfortunately, in addition to the mass media, body negativity has also fully permeated the yoga community. In fact, many teachers believe their discrimination isn’t discrimination at all – they see it as a kind dose of realism to students who don’t meet their personal standards of yoga perfection. Because that’s really all discrimination is – it’s the state of our judgment when we encounter people, places, and things which jibe with our personal definitions of perfection.

It’s sad to see this happen in a community which has the potential to include every single human being on the planet. Frankly, it’s not absurd to imagine a world where everyone practices a style or hybrid blend of yoga. However, that reality will never come to fruition if we don’t resolve the body negativity and discrimination problem. How do we do that? Well, fight fire with fire.

If body negativity is the disease, then body positivity must be the antidote.

The Antidote: Body Positivity

Body positivity is frequently confused concept. It’s pretty confused even within the body positivity community. You could get a different definition depending on the person you ask, the day of the week, etc. Some people think body positivity is solely tied up in body size acceptance, and others might even go so far as to equate it with fat acceptance and fat positivity. While fat positive movements have their rightful place of importance in the evolution of our society, I don’t believe they are synonymous with body positivity. Another popular way of describing body positivity is by equating it with constant self-pep talks. You know, a pattern of methods to remind yourself that “I’m Great! I’m Beautiful! I’m worthy of breathing oxygen in front of other humans without feeling suicidal!” While pep talks are rad and I fully endorse them, I don’t think they speak to the core of body positivity.

You see, body positivity assumes your constant perfection. It assumes that you’re always beautiful. That you’re always worthwhile. That you’re always capable. That you’re always strong.

In a truly body positive world, these statements are not up for debate – instead, they are seen as impenetrable fact. The only perspective up for debate is that of each individual – are you willing to accept your own perfection? Especially when the mass media tells you that those statements are definitely not true. Body positivity is the confidence to accept your constant perfection and beauty, no matter the proverbial weather. And, most importantly, to accept the constant perfection and beauty of those around you, even if they look and act different from yourself.

When we implement body positivity in our yoga studios and spaces, we create environments where students across an infinite spectrum of differences all feel as though they are equal to one another. This type of attitude is absolutely critical in order to see the yoga community grow beyond the one dimensional image offered by the media. Body positivity doesn’t mean teachers aren’t free to offer alignment tips and adjustments to their students without fear of offending someone. But it does mean that every word, every gesture, and every moment is an opportunity to be encouraging. To make someone feel welcome. To actively avoid discouragement.

Eventually, this kind of environment will lead to the end of classes where certain students are viewed as superior to their fellow students. Good riddance, as far as I’m concerned. This is a glass ceiling that desperately needs to be shattered.

We must all take responsibility for the role we play in a yoga culture which is thoroughly embedded in discrimination and negativity.

We need more than a few people who are proud of their bodies. We need a legion of yoga teachers, administrators and advanced practitioners who truly walk the walk of the eight-limbed path, and who will stop at nothing to spread the practice to every soul across the planet.

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