From Violence to Vision: The Radical Potential of Ashtanga Yoga to Combat Systemic Oppresion

I had the most wonderful trip to Birmingham, Alabama this past week. I got to stay with my friend and colleague, Heather Sullivan. She owns Birmingham Yoga, and we really get on. My dear friend Cory Bryant introduced us– you can tell how much we like working together because of how frequently we’ve been doing it. Thats new for me, as I had lost a good deal of faith in my greater Ashtanga Yoga community. I had good reasons– of which I’ll spare you the gory details. Mostly, I felt that senior leadership’s actions and pedagogical choices did not align with my core values in ways that felt familiar to a boy from Washington, DC who is accustomed to watching politics.

As a yoga professional with nearly 15 years of vocational experience as of this writing, I take this stuff pretty seriously– and so when I see elements such as unequal power dynamics and weird cult stuff showing up, I want out. Because Ashtanga Yoga has the power to transform lives for the better, really offering all of the advertised benefits of yoga– and boy, it requires none of the malarkey.

Well, thank goodness for good friends. I’m reminded over and over again that in fact, yoga has the power to to affect unimaginable change. I’m so grateful for Cory and Heather– and also, and especially, my home community, for allowing me the opportunity to work on delivering this material (and having to hear me when I do so poorly).

Having an opportunity to share my lens of Ashtanga Yoga in places like Tennessee and Alabama feel radical, agenda’d, and as though I’m helping to ensure that Ashtanga Yoga is presented in the manner it deserves. And that I can use this faggot voice like the conch’s call, inviting all to come to a practice that invites each of us to wrestle with identity and the infinite– in a place that works to dismantle oppressive systems.

Some Background

Late one summer evening in 2012, as I navigated the streets of a neighborhood that had become my refuge after my house burned down, I was assaulted. This wasn’t a case of random violence; rather, it was the natural outcome of systemic injustices that have perpetuated a long history of violence. I was with my same-sex romantic partner at the time. As a white, openly gay man in a predominantly black, Christian neighborhood, the layers of hate and prejudice embedded in this attack were immediately seized upon by the media. They spun conflicting narratives: one painted me as a target because of my sexual orientation, another because of my race, each narrative serving to fuel the fires of sensationalism. When you can’t disprove either, the media knows how to serve up the one that sells.

This experience thrust me into a harsh spotlight and underscored a painful truth: the personal is inseparably linked to the systemic. The media’s sensational and varied reporting was not merely about selling stories—it was a reflection of the larger systemic biases that shape our interactions and perceptions. It was here, amidst this convergence of personal tragedy and public spectacle, that I recognized the imperative for systems thinking—an approach to dissect and understand the complex interplay of factors that sustain our social structures.

Systems thinking is an analytical approach that views problems as parts of an overall system, rather than reacting to specific parts, outcomes, or events. It emphasizes the interconnections between system elements and how processes work over time and within the context of larger layers. This, it seemed to me, would be the only way to wrap my head around what happened to me. Luckily, it also helped expand my understanding of Ashtanga.

Adopting Systems Thinking in Ashtanga Yoga

As an Ashtanga Yoga teacher, my practice extends beyond the personal to the communal. Ashtanga Yoga, known for its structured series of postures and synchronized breathing, is inherently systematic. Each session unfolds in a precise sequence, promoting not only physical strength and flexibility but also mental clarity and discipline. This structured approach offers a clear framework within which to explore and challenge existing norms.

In my teachings, I use the rigor and discipline of Ashtanga Yoga as a foundation for exploring more fluid and adaptable applications of these practices. This flexibility is crucial in making Ashtanga accessible and relevant to diverse groups, particularly those who may feel marginalized by traditional approaches. By integrating systems thinking into my teaching, I aim to create a practice that not only nurtures individual growth but also fosters a more inclusive and empathetic community.

It’s pretty simple– the science of sports conditioning and Ashtanga Yoga’s physical practice work great together. Learn how to identify over-training, prioritizing rest, and implementing improved nutrition are all great ways to help the body improve. Removing a sense of moral failing during the calibration process helps develop a growth midget. These are all different systems that are involved in how ashtanga yoga improves people well being. This helps seasoned practitioners and teachers decide what interventions to implement for best results.

My approach to teaching Ashtanga Yoga through the lens of systems thinking involves a critical examination of each element of the practice—from the individual postures to the flow of the entire series. I consider how these elements interact with various aspects of a student’s identity, including their physical capabilities, cultural background, and personal experiences. This comprehensive view allows me to tailor the practice in ways that respect and celebrate diversity, thereby dismantling barriers that might otherwise lead to exclusion or discomfort.

Furthermore, the classroom itself becomes a microcosm for societal change. Here, systems thinking enables us to identify and modify the subtle dynamics that often go unnoticed but can significantly influence feelings of belonging and acceptance. By consciously creating an environment that values each individual’s contribution and fosters mutual respect, we not only enhance the practice of Ashtanga Yoga but also model the kind of inclusive behavior that can counteract oppressive systems in the broader society.

As I returned to the mat after my attack, I saw an opportunity to use Ashtanga Yoga not just as a tool for personal recovery but as a platform for broader societal change. This imperative to dissect and understand the complexities of our social systems not only fueled my recovery but also reshaped my practice and teaching of Ashtanga Yoga. This transition into a deeper, more structured inquiry mirrors the disciplined progression of Ashtanga Yoga itself

Experiences in Birmingham, Alabama

I suppose I entered into my first trip to Birmingham, Alabama a bit naively. I wasn’t sure that my message would be received warmly. Sometimes I’m just not the right (read: straight, masc, square) person to communicate a message. I didn’t have anything to worry about. Teaching Ashtanga Yoga in Birmingham, Alabama, offered laid bare how the ethos of a yoga community can reflect the values and expertise of its leadership. My workshop, graciously hosted by Heather Sullivan, provided a perfect example of this dynamic. Heather, a seasoned Mysore teacher and the driving force behind Birmingham Yoga, has a notable background in teaching yoga within recovery communities for sober living and eating disorders. Her dedication to continuing education in diversity and inclusion has deeply informed her teaching style, creating a space that embodies these principles.

During the workshop, which I led, we delved into the physical and philosophical layers of Ashtanga Yoga, with a particular focus on pratyahara, or sensory withdrawal. This practice, pivotal for personal transformation, was explored through the lens of overcoming personal and societal challenges—themes very much aligned with the issues faced by those in recovery. Heather’s ongoing work in these communities enriched our discussions, adding a layer of authenticity and practical application to the yogic teachings.

The sessions revealed a community eager to embrace diversity and challenge the status quo, reflecting Heather’s influence. Her leadership has fostered an environment where honest conversations about identity, privilege, and systemic inequality are not only welcomed but encouraged. These discussions helped participants connect the dots between their yoga practice and broader societal issues, facilitating a deeper understanding and commitment to inclusivity.

The impact of this workshop was profound. Participants were not only taught Ashtanga Yoga but were also shown how such practices could extend beyond the mat to influence their lives and communities positively. This approach demonstrated the transformative potential of yoga when combined with a conscious effort to address and dismantle oppressive systems.

This experience underscored the belief that the nature of an organization truly mirrors its leadership. Heather’s commitment to diversity and inclusion has created a fertile ground for these ideas to flourish, proving that even in areas where such approaches might seem unconventional, impactful change is possible through thoughtful leadership.

The Importance of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in Ashtanga Yoga

The success of our Birmingham workshop underscored a broader truth: the principles of accessibility, diversity, equity, and inclusion are crucial, not just in isolated workshops but as integral aspects of Ashtanga Yoga worldwide. My experiences as a queer yoga teacher who has faced violence and exclusion equip me uniquely to connect with those who feel marginalized by conventional narratives.

Most of us, at some point, have experienced what it’s like to be ‘othered,’ as the systems in place rarely prioritize communal or individualistic well-being outside of those holding power at a level that is often difficult to comprehend. Recognizing this reality informs my approach to teaching, focusing on crafting messages and creating spaces that resonate with those sidelined by mainstream yoga practices.

This deliberate effort to incorporate DEI principles does more than expand the inclusivity of the yoga community; it challenges and transforms the very frameworks that define it. By acknowledging and addressing the historical and cultural layers that have shaped yoga, my teaching strives to prevent the perpetuation of oppressive elements.

Integrating DEI into yoga aligns with the yogic principle of ahimsa, or non-harm, compelling us to consider how our actions and teachings can alleviate rather than perpetuate suffering. Yoga, fundamentally about union and connection—connecting with oneself, with others, and with the broader world—is contradicted by practices of exclusion and marginalization.

In places like Birmingham, my dedication to these principles has sparked significant discussions about identity, privilege, and systemic inequality. These dialogues don’t just enhance the practice of Ashtanga Yoga; they empower participants to extend these insights beyond the yoga studio, fostering broader societal change.

By focusing on reaching those who feel ‘othered’ and ensuring our practice is a safe, affirming space for them, we not only enrich their yoga experience but also contribute to a more just and compassionate community. This approach underscores the expansive potential of Ashtanga Yoga when taught with an awareness of and resistance to oppressive systems, ultimately broadening our reach and impact.

Challenges and Rewards of Promoting a Radically Queer Agenda in Ashtanga Yoga

While the integration of DEI principles is essential, it does not come without its challenges. However, the difficulties encountered along the way are met with equally profound rewards, but you’ve got to want to help foster a more inclusive practice to over come the hurdles. At the heart of these challenges is the tension between preserving the integrity of a centuries-old practice and adapting it to embrace contemporary values of inclusivity and equity.

Challenges:

One of the primary challenges is resistance from traditionalists within the yoga community who may view these adaptations as dilutions or misinterpretations of the original teachings. There is also the broader societal challenge of confronting entrenched prejudices and systemic inequalities that manifest both within and outside the yoga community.

Additionally, some colleagues within the yoga community advocate practices or hold attitudes that can feel gatekeeping or inaccessible, effectively maintaining an exclusivity that alienates those not fitting a certain mold. This internal resistance can be particularly disheartening as it comes from within the very spaces that should promote healing and unity.

Moreover, the effort to make Ashtanga Yoga accessible and relevant to marginalized communities requires continuous education, self-reflection, and the willingness to engage in difficult conversations about race, sexuality, and identity. These discussions can be emotionally taxing but are essential for progress.

Rewards:

Despite these challenges, the rewards of this work are deeply gratifying. One of the most significant rewards is seeing individuals who previously felt excluded from yoga spaces begin to find comfort and belonging within them. There is immense satisfaction in witnessing the transformative impact of inclusive teaching on students’ lives—how it fosters not only a deeper personal practice but also a greater sense of community solidarity.

Additionally, challenging the status quo contributes to the evolution of Ashtanga Yoga as a practice that is not static but dynamic and responsive to the needs of contemporary practitioners. This makes the practice more vibrant and meaningful for everyone involved.

Through this work, I also experience personal growth as both a teacher and an individual. Each challenge faced and overcome offers a chance to learn and strengthen my commitment to my values. The journey through these challenges and the celebration of these rewards bring us to a critical understanding of Ashtanga Yoga’s role not just in personal transformation but in societal change

Conclusion

The integration of systems thinking into Ashtanga Yoga transcends traditional teaching methods, offering a transformative perspective that aligns the practice with broader societal healing and change. This approach is not merely about modifying yoga to be more inclusive; it is about using yoga as a proactive tool to understand and dismantle systemic inequalities that pervade our society.

Through the lens of systems thinking, Ashtanga Yoga becomes a powerful medium for social justice, providing practitioners with the insights and tools to recognize and challenge oppressive structures within and beyond the yoga mat. This perspective enriches the practice by deepening our understanding of how interconnected we are and how our actions can either perpetuate or alleviate suffering.

By teaching Ashtanga Yoga with an awareness of systems, I aim to cultivate a community of practitioners who are not only physically and mentally disciplined but are also socially and ethically engaged. This commitment to systems thinking encourages a yoga practice that is reflective, inclusive, and dynamically aligned with the principles of equity and justice.

As we continue to evolve and adapt Ashtanga Yoga through this systemic lens, we uphold the true essence of yoga as a practice of unity and compassion. This approach does not dilute the traditional aspects of yoga but rather amplifies its potential to be a beacon of change, promoting not only personal enlightenment but also societal well-being.

In conclusion, integrating systems thinking into Ashtanga Yoga teaching and practice is crucial for addressing the challenges of our times. It empowers us to move beyond individual transformation to effect meaningful, systemic change, embodying the profound potential of yoga to heal and unite across the divides of human experience.

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Josh
Josh
13 days ago

Thank you for sharing your experience and for your willingness to be vulnerable. I have recently returned to my boyhood home in Arkansas after spending 9 years in D.C. and I have to admit that I feel terrified going into new yoga spaces here. I arrive minutes before class and leave immediately after. I feel othered most of the time since I’m usually the only man in a room full of wealthy white women with their Jesus necklaces and diamond rings on full display. I keep my faggot mouth closed because, well, I suppose I don’t want to draw attention to myself. Then I think I have no right to feel this way as a white cisgender man. Your experience in Birmingham and your commitment to continue making the practice more inclusive is heartening. Thanks again for sharing it.