Go with the Flow: Finding Empowerment, Strength, and Healing Through Yoga
Photo Credit: Madison Hernandez
In a world where there’s a yoga studio on almost every street corner it seems strange to imagine that, just over one hundred years ago, the practice was still almost entirely contained to the Eastern world. The first yoga masters began to travel to the West in the late 1800s and early 1900s, but it wasn’t until the mid-70s that the craze for Ashtanga and vinyasa yoga really took off in the United States.
In the decades that followed, yoga’s popularity ebbed and flowed, but never really died out. Now, even the most inexperienced yogi can sit on the floor and chant “om,” or make their way into downward dog; the fad has taken over the fitness world, and social media is full of devoted practitioners of all shapes, sizes, and colors.
Photo Credit: Maria Borghoff by Madison Hernandez
But the reason why yoga has such a long history — and such a devout following over two thousand years later — is a question that few people outside of the practice can answer. The physical results are obvious: with its focus on core strength, toned arms, and powerful legs, the asanas (or postures) offer a “one-stop shop” for those looking to get into the best shape of their lives. Yet if you ask any yogi (even those who initially came to yoga looking for six-pack abs!), it goes far beyond the physical. There’s something far deeper and richer in the practice, the kind of intangible “something” with the power to heal and strengthen. And for the countless women who have come to find this power, within themselves and through their practice, it’s much more than a workout on a rubber mat while wearing matching workout gear. It’s life-changing, soul-healing empowerment.
“One of my teachers says that if your life doesn't look the way you want, you need to change your practice,” said Maria Borghoff, founder of Atlanta’s Groove Forward Yoga, as we sat down together at a local coffee shop. “I’ve had personal experiences of the physical and energetic benefits of the practice that are beyond just mindfulness. We don’t really have a word in the English language to describe bodily energy; in yoga, we call it prana. In Chinese medicine, we call it chi. All these different, ancient forms of medicine have a way of describing it, but we don’t.”
For modern Westerners practicing yoga, this energy — the connection and deeper understanding of oneself, one’s mind, and one’s body — can be felt from the first time we ever step on a mat. “When you sit down on a rubber mat and you feel like shit, and then you do a couple simple things, you have a new idea or a new insight, even if it’s not something you can articulate,” Maria went on to say. “You get off the mat feeling different, or feeling better, or feeling more integrated than you did before. There’s a lot of power in that. We’re seeing our ability to use these tools of yoga to move energy. We’re seeing our power to shapeshift our own experience.”
What that power does to the mind, body, and soul is unprecedented, and even harder to verbalize. We live in a world where we, as women, measure our worth based on our success, our accomplishments, our appearances. We judge ourselves based on how “good” we are at our work or our school, or how we feel we measure up as wives, mothers, sisters, and daughters, or even by the trauma we have experienced, whether on a daily basis or in our past. We allow outward circumstances to determine how we feel about ourselves, but when we come to yoga — or when yoga comes to us — the practice meets us where we are, allowing us to dive beneath the walls of insecurity, doubt, and “good-enough-ness” that we’ve built up, and to sit down and get acquainted with ourselves. “I think the nature of the practice allows us to see how we’re creating our own existence,” Maria explained. “It then gives us the power to continue creating our existence outside of that confined space or practice.”
Photo Credit: Tiffany Andras-Meyers by Rebekah Andras-Meyers
Tiffany Andras-Meyers of A Mindful Heart Yoga was so overwhelmed by this empowerment that she knew immediately she was being called to share it with others. “I felt like I had found the one thing that was missing,” she explained enthusiastically, leaning across the table over a cup of coffee. “My whole life, I’d been trying to do or achieve in order to be okay. It was through yoga, meditation, and mindfulness that I realized “okayness” is always here. Meditation and yoga were the first time I ever felt safe taking off the mask. For a long time, it was the only safe space to take the mask off, and maybe the first time in my life that I’d ever really done it.”
Yet for those who have never experienced the empowerment that comes from yoga — or for someone who has experienced suffering and trauma in their lives — the healing effects of yoga can seem like nothing more than a pleasant, if relatively useless, motivational idea handed down righteously from a place of privilege and ease. Rachelle Knowles of Atlanta’s Cultivate Union, a nonprofit offering financial assistance to yoga instructors while providing a safe, healing community for women who have experienced deep trauma in their lives, is passionate about changing that mindset and bringing yoga where it’s needed most, and often found least. “I started to have a lot of thoughts around [yoga] teachers, thinking that if the only people who can afford to teach yoga are people who have the economic privilege — and then we look historically at our country, at economic privilege — and I thought, ‘Wow, there’s gonna be a whole category of people who won’t be able to teach yoga, and what is the future of yoga if all voices are not represented?’ You know, who doesn't come into the room because they don't feel seen in the community? Does that impact who they believe can even participate in the practice?” she questioned. “What I’m fighting for is for everyone to feel like they belong in this space, and to feel like they have practices that make them feel safe in their bodies. It’s making yoga acceptable; yoga doesn’t have to be Warrior 2 with your thigh parallel to the floor, and whatever kind of special clothes. We can do yoga when you’re wearing a dress, in a chair; we can do yoga if you identify as a fat woman, we can do yoga in a gym at a shelter. It’s not about what you’re doing, it’s who you’re being, and how you choose to be together in community, in this shared space.
“That’s yoga,” Rachelle finished firmly. “That’s what I’m fighting for. It’s shifting this image of yoga that is very static and letting it be more dynamic. Letting it be more about the people and not the thing.”
“I think when you contact someone who is hurting or suffering or living through anxiety or depression, in some sense, maybe they don’t trust their own innate goodness. I find that, more often than not, if I want somebody to practice, I have to be an example of the practice, and not be an earful of the practice,” Tiffany added thoughtfully. “I have to be willing to be with them in their hard moments and not make them feel like something’s wrong with them. I have to show them that they have innate goodness and give them the space to trust that that’s there before they’re willing to really look at themselves.”
It’s this innate goodness — this strength and energy from within — that fuels the practice, and is, in turn, fueled by the practice. “People who struggle with self-love — struggle with anxiety and depression — to ask that person to spend more quiet time with themselves is insanely frightening, you know? I think in some way there has to be some trust that there’s not just some benefit on the outside, but that what they’re looking for is already there,” Tiffany continued. “I always say that you’re the only person who’s going to be with you for your entire life, and your mind determines how you feel about every moment, every breath, every experience that you’re ever going to have. I want to teach people that they can be a safe place for themselves.”
Photo Credit: Rachelle Knowles by Jessica Murphy
“The thing is,” Rachelle said, “some people might not experience [serenity and strength]. That is a very important aspect of the trauma-informed practice, that someone might not come and experience serenity. Someone might come and experience terror because they’re being asked to pay attention to things that they haven’t normally, or things that have felt scary. But in terms of strength and serenity, I think what it can be is that it shows us there’s another way. When we experience something in a pose we’ve never felt before, and we practice steadily enough, even something that felt unachievable is somehow achievable. That’s a metaphor for life, right? That’s a metaphor for possibility. That’s a metaphor for optimism. It’s a metaphor for hope. The thing about trauma is that it keeps us stuck — one thought pattern or one feeling can keep us stuck in that fight or flight or freeze. Trauma can keep us stuck there, so we’re acting out of the thing we’re trying to avoid. But our body is our self. Our body changes, transforms, is always evolving. We change, transform, and always evolve, right? The practice is just a metaphor, and it’s a beautiful thing, showing us what’s possible for ourselves, and remind ourselves that nothing is ever static; it’s deeply dynamic.”
Even in the very beginning of a practice, when the focus may be more centered on the physical results, Tiffany says that women find themselves practicing mindfulness and, in turn — and often unintentionally — growing more and more acquainted with themselves, their bodies, and their souls. The intersection of mind, body, and spirit is where this safe place begins to blossom and grow. “When we do our practice of yoga and we’re here and present in our bodies, and then all of the sudden we’re in our ToDo list and we stumble in our pose, you come back to your body. You reintegrate into your practice, you hone the pathway of attention, and the more you practice, the more that becomes natural. Dropping into your body becomes natural, and staying present becomes natural,” she explained before going on to say, “You’re literally moving your body, but you’re also finding strength where you don’t know you had it.
The unbelievable, and often life-altering, a side effect of forming this connection with ourselves is that we empower ourselves — as individuals, as wives, mothers, sisters, and daughters — to empower others. It goes far beyond our mats and matching workout clothes (and don’t get me wrong, they’re wonderful!). It even goes beyond the yoga pose; in reality, the pose becomes secondary to the inner transformation.
“I think that yoga builds self-compassion,” Tiffany finished with a smile. “This space where you automatically believe you deserve compassion and love and are, in a sense, good enough. When you can be self-compassionate, you can be a little riskier, because if you fail at something, it doesn't mean that you’re a failure; it just means that endeavor didn't work, and you still have the energy and the resilience to try again.”
Photo Credit: Madison Hernandez
For more information on A Mindful Heart Yoga, Cultivate Union, and Groove Forward Yoga and what these organizations are doing in the community in Atlanta, click here. Also, a huge hug and so much gratitude to Tiffany Andras-Meyers, Maria Borghoff, and Rachelle Knowles for sitting down with Dream Warriors Mag and sharing their infinite wisdom and love! Be sure to catch one of Tiffany’s classes at Evolation Yoga, Rachelle’s Beginner Yoga at Tough Love Yoga in Candler Park, or, if you’re looking to deepen or share your practice, join Maria at her upcoming 200-hour Yoga Teacher Training, beginning in January 2019.