I see myself cultivating a sense of safety by establishing the breath as the single-point focus so I can meet everyone exactly where they are at. As Michelle Cassandra Johnson mentioned, “one must be connected with their breath to feel their body” (xiii). That way, students are in the position to listen to their bodies in the midst of my invitations to modify movements.
Enhancing equity is equipping people with a tool to modify under the consideration that all physical bodies are not the same. A strategy to communicate that choosing to modify is not a reflection of skill level is to leave out the words: beginning, intermediate, or advanced. Johnson specified, “if I do offer a variation of a pose, I say, ‘notice the breath in your body, let it be your guide and if you want to add to this posture here are your options’” (62). She then added, “when people choose to modify or adjust I reinforce that what they are doing is tuning into their needs and then responding by honoring what they hear as they tune in” (62). The breath then becomes a foundation for stabilizing the nervous system, creating a sense of safety and establishing presence in the experience.
It is so healing because it is in direct contrast to the course of traumatic experience. Michelle Cassandra Johnson so accurately articulated trauma as “being forced to disconnect from my body to survive” (xiii). She went on to explain that the element of choice in terms of modifications is crucial because it “makes a person feel like they have complete agency over their bodies” and, since it is being guided by the sacred breath, they are able to cultivate confidence in their ability to know what is best for them (60). It is also a way to explicitly show respect for multiple truths in the room.
Equity requires compassion in seeing other points of view. A method to cultivate compassion is meditating before teaching a class. As Johnson conveyed, “moving through my own centering practice prepares me to be fully present with others” (59). She also emphasized the need to establish “space for the students to truly arrive and ground given that people come from very different spaces to land on their mat. The way that one is experiencing something is defined by their identities and lens or framework” (71 and 81). My classes are going to gradually ease people into practice with a lengthy centering session.
During this initial grounding phase, subtly communicating my awareness of us all not coming from the same level of privilege is a crucial initial step to leading a class from a place of equity rather than equality. For instance, Johnson conveyed the challenges she felt as a mixed race child being “from loneliness, not fitting in, confusion of what it meant to live in the middle of black and white, seeing the ways of the world that made no sense to me but that let me know suffering is real” (x). She explained, “building a space that allows us to be our full selves requires that the space be committed to allowing people to enter into the space with all of their identities affirmed, seen and supported” (54). Throughout the class,“people are having disparate reactions to the cultural conditions” (81). So, it is important to constantly circle back to the understanding that it is a safe, supportive place to feel the sensations as they arise.
It is from a sense of safety that people can see the root of the way society impacted their identity formation and see it from the perspective of witness consciousness. That way, as Donna Farhi conveyed, we “dismantle the layering of false identities to reveal our true Self” (33). To hold space for the realization of true Self, I put my focus into guiding students to see their internal reference point. A way I see myself cultivating the focus is by holding consistent curiosity in regard to how I know that I am showing up as my authentic self. As Farhi articulated, “ultimately the mentor is the embodiment and mirror of the student’s own wisdom nature, pointing the student toward his inner teacher, known in the Yoga tradition as atman. The atman is a latent and effulgent source of wisdom that is only fully liberated when we begin to trust in our own direct insight” (16). From there, I do not want to be the sole leader to the student as I would rather join their inner witnesses in noticing their beauty in true Self. Farhi explained the benefit of doing so is that “learning to access this interior priest or priestess helps the student to find her own power to invoice sacred space and draw upon resources of higher wisdom in times of need” (26). As a result, “a mentor moves the student from disbelief to belief and in the process continually affirms the student’s self-worth” (16). In the social justice context, a sense of self- worth does wonders for people who live in a society where others hold more privilege to exist. A sense of self-worth is a reminder that the value they hold within is unconditional to the injustice that they experience everyday and their liberation is not segregated from the rest of humanity.
The relevance of social justice in yoga resonated on a whole new level with me after reading about the concept of collective liberation. Michelle Cassandra Johnson reminded me that our deviation from collective liberation started long ago when the Americans who were born native to this land were “seen as savage, inferior to white people and needing to be saved” (76). Johnson went on to explain, “we operate in a culture that assumes social justice, race equity and civil rights are for the benefit of the people being most oppressed in our culture. It is important to understand that injustice, racism, and a lack of civil rights affects us all” (7). Essentially, she conveyed that a safe space, “invites people into understanding how their suffering and liberation is bound to the suffering and liberation of all beings” (56). She referenced Ubuntu, a South African saying signified as “I am because you are” (83). Since our souls are all droplets derived from a single source, confusion interferes with seeing true Self if we are not focused on collective liberation. The pursuit of individual liberation is off track because of our foundational link to each other. Lila Watson drove the point home as she said, “if you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mind, then let us work together” as there is lots to be done.
I am going to incorporate guided meditation into my practice and the classes I teach as a reminder to create space between stimulus and response. It is supportive to students seeing their power to change conditions, as Michelle Cassandra Johnson communicated, “there are many times when you want to jump off the wave of experience. If we are able to breathe into our experience acknowledging the injustice in the world, relax where we can and begin to notice our feelings as well as allowing the sensations to be so and then watching so that we can adjust, we have a shot at making lasting change” (69). The conversation then moves into discernment between the impermanent aspects of our experience versus the aspects that hold lasting value such as social justice. Fahri specified as “we learn to recognize what is really important and to let go of impermanent objects and transient thoughts and emotions. Through this recognition of what really matters, we learn to concentrate our mind and life on those things that are of lasting value” (9). From there, she illustrated the consistent, true Self is in accordance with the laws of liberation. Fahri said, “with practice we learn to maintain our equanimity in the most difficult of circumstances and thereby liberate ourselves. The practice of yoga is the commitment to become established in the state of freedom” (9). Clearly, all of us seeing true Self is liberation. Equity in social justice is about being present so we can gently see where ourselves and others are at, have self-love, support each other in seeing true Self and all be liberated.
Farhi, Donna. Teaching Yoga: Exploring the Teacher-Student Relationship. Rodmell Press, 2006.
Johnson, Michelle C. Skill in Action: Radicalizing Your Yoga Practice to Create a Just World. Shambhala, 2020.