It’s a question that I get often. Accessibility, I usually reply. It’s my attempt to make yoga accessible for women regardless of cultural or religious backgrounds, to accommodate a diversity of levels in modesty and comfort in exploring a physical asana practice.
Yoga Just for the Ladies began as response to a need first identified within the Muslim community. When I first began teaching yoga about 5 years ago, a lot of women from my community, especially those who are veiled or muhajjiba, were reluctant to attend my regular yoga studio offerings. Those classes, they explained, were not a guaranteed safe space for them to explore a physical asana practice if men were potentially in the room.
And so it began; I offered my students a space that was held just for them, where they could enjoy the benefits of this ancient healing system to increase strength and flexibility, reduce stress, and relieve pain.
Dalia Mogahed began practicing yoga five years ago. The practice, however, became particularly important for her a year ago when she made the leap: moving back from overseas to the DC area and launched her own consulting firm specializing in Muslim societies and the Middle East. The transitional stress took a toll on her body. By the time she came to the ladies-only class, she had developed back pain that made it hard for her to walk, work or sleep. Our yoga practice together provided her relief during that time in her life.
Students cultivated personal yoga practices that informed not only their physical bodies and consciousness, but even their devotional practices.
Nada Zohdy, a student at the Harvard Kennedy School has been practicing for almost 7 years and was one of my very first regulars in the class. Yoga offered her tools create deeper spiritual awareness and connection. She writes:
“As a person of faith who prays on a regular basis, I really find that practicing yoga actually can help me be more conscious and present in my prayers by training me to detach myself from distracting thoughts that always arise and work toward being fully present in what I am reciting during my prayers. Yoga also helps make me attuned to my breathing, which for me is a beautiful, constant reminder of the physical miracles that happen with us all the time.”
It’s purpose and the communities it serves continues to evolve. It’s not just a class for Muslim women. It’s a space for women — all women — to truly explore their breath and their bodies without worrying about who’s watching.
We often see a very sexualized image of yoga in popular culture, in part because the consumer audience is traditionally male. For many women who already struggle with self and body image, what’s projected and perceived, this is a space to not play into that imaging.
“Some women,” Nada explains, “might find themselves becoming more self-conscious at a co-ed gym. I enjoy being able to practice yoga in a women-only, judgement-free space.”
The ladies-only environment provides a venue for all women to tune out those nagging image issues and be fully present in their yoga practice, fully present in their breath and its innate reserves for healing.
“It’s wonderful,” Dalia says, “to have a ‘room of one’s own’ to practice.”
By Dahlia Shaaban, Yoga Instructor at Yoga District and founder of Dahlia Nutrition & Wellness.
Never been to Yoga District’s DuPont Studio? This video should answer some questions and give you everything you need to know about visiting.
This is the first video in a series that will highlight all six of our studios. This is also my acting debut with Yoga District, so, my apologies. Enjoy!
Filmed and edited by Barrett Jones, recent teacher training graduate.
By Arielle Weaver, Public Relations Manager for Yoga District.
Self-led practice is very important when practicing Ashtanga, but it can also be extremely intimidating. With Marie Belle’s warmth, kindness, and one-on-one guidance, she makes her students feel comfortable, while challenged to reach their full potential. Students rave that Marie Belle’s easy-going and encouraging attitude inspires them to try new poses they had not tried before, giving them confidence and an easy-going attitude towards their practice.
“I practice so that I reside in a calm, awake, and balanced state of being,” Marie Belle explains, “The self-led aspect of Ashtanga encourages me to manually put myself in meditation. Although yoga practice does not influence what happens to me, I am aware that when I do practice, I am in a harmonic and poised state which influences how consciously I respond to what life offers me.”
This healing element of yoga was particularly important for Marie Belle after she experienced the emotional toll of the Virginia Tech shootings. “When my practice stabilized, the emotional ups and downs that followed the shootings at Virginia Tech became gentler,” she explains, “I have realized that a heavy practice brings about a light spirit and our ability to heal is greater than anyone has permitted us to believe.” Through her practice and teaching, Marie Belle found healing peace.
The way Marie Belle teaches and practices Ashtanga is empowering. “This practice is ultimately about the sincere and committed maximization of our potential and self-actualization,” she says. Ashtanga is taught in a sequenced form, through the art of awareness, focused strength, acceptance and of being aware of the breath and body. The format of Marie Belle’s self-guided Ashtanga practice always remains the same; one always begins with sun salutations, concludes with lotus and rest, and various postures and movements gradually fill the space between these two ends. For each movement, there is a breath. Students learn the sequence by heart and eventually learn how to breathe into meditative movement. The purpose of connecting the breath with movement is to purify and internally cleanse the system, as Marie Belle explains. Students learn to place their attention on posture, breath, and gaze. These three dimensions of the practice, referred to as Tristhana, cover the three levels of purification: the body, nervous system, and mind. They are always practiced in conjunction with the other.
So what is next for this teacher, yogi, and Doctor in Psychology? Marie Belle will be travelling to Mysore, India (the source of Ashtanga) in December to delve more deeply into the roots of Ashtanga yoga for a month of intensive training with Sharath Jois, a worldwide-recognized expert on Ashtanga Yoga. If you are interested in joining Marie Belle’s open practice, join her on H street every Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday mornings.
Fifteen days ago at the close of business for fiscal year 2013, my small team of federal co-workers gathered around a conference table to receive our instructions for an “orderly shutdown” should there be a lapse in funding starting the next day. Always an optimist, I believed we would be back in the conference room the following morning to mark our accomplishments in 2013 and to establish goals and a shared vision for fiscal year 2014, a sort of New Year’s celebration. My more seasoned co-worker had already booked his tee-time for the next morning. Again, an optimist and an early-riser, I crawled into bed around 9:30 that night and set my alarm as usual for the morning walk to Kelly’s 6:15 yoga class at the H Street Studio. Around 2:30, my eyes popped open and I checked OPM’s website. “Due to a lapse in appropriations . . . .” Until the alarm went off a couple of hours later, I stared at the ceiling in disbelief, my heart racing a bit. When time came, I made my way to yoga class, certain this nonsense would only last a day or two.
I was introduced to yoga by a mentor while in law school, and found myself choosing the practice more often when I moved to DC to begin my legal career with the government. For some years now, the practice teaches me anew about foundations, dedication, exploration, and trust. The practice also teaches me about kindness, attention, patience, and joy. Indeed, there is a joy that is pigeon pose! And so, during this truly strange time of the government shutdown, I have continued my practice of early morning class. As I reflect in these moments awaiting the final votes in Congress to reopen our federal government, I understand a bit more why I continue to come to my early morning practice and simply notice how the practice has benefitted me these last fifteen days. My furlough has been the process of noticing, accepting, and being more mindful of the present moment.
On that first day of the government shutdown, I met other furloughed friends for breakfast after my morning practice. After we shared our meal, we stared at each other in a sort of disbelief and lingered a little too long at our table. What were we supposed to do? How long would this go on? Should we start making lists of tasks in case we would be furloughed tomorrow or the rest of the week? Or, would it be better to let go of the list and see the shutdown as an unexpected gift to just enjoy time without schedules and deadlines? Honestly, we just wanted to go back to work. As we left the café, I listened to a quiet calling within and started to walk. I had nowhere to be, just the present moment. Before I made it home that day, I walked almost ten miles, through DC neighborhoods I hadn’t seen in months, through Rock Creek Park, along the National Mall, around the U.S. Capitol. The best part of my walk was that I had no idea what time I started out or what time I returned home.
I noticed that without my usual fury, I slowly cleaned out most of the closets, drawers, and boxes in my house. Then, I happily peaked out the window to see passers-by pick up bundles of fabric, lamps, various trinkets, and a bookcase I sat on the sidewalk. There was joy and discovery in the process, not the stress of finishing by the end of the day because there is another list of things to accomplish tomorrow. Not to mention the freedom from clutter. When I noted the time in the day, there always seemed to be a bit more than I expected.
In these fifteen days, I noted the change from summer to autumn in a way that would not be possible from my office window. The furlough began on a hot summer-like day when I walked in shorts and a tee shirt. I spent time in my backyard repotting plants, planting new ones, and brushing up bags of leaves. One morning, honeybees joined me for breakfast and I watched them slurp honey off of my spoon. During the four or five days of rain, I took long walks in my silly green rain boots and talked with my elderly neighbors in the backyard about their upcoming fish fry. The other day, I spread another blanket across my bed because the weather is changing again in a day or so. I may have noticed all of these things, but my practice and unexpected time taught me how to slow down and notice more fully what each of these little gifts can offer.
My yoga practice enabled me to “just be” during the government shutdown. I could reflect and try to draft a list of all the things I did, the projects I completed, new ones I noted in the process. But the more lasting blessing is that I have noted the benefits of my practice. Noticed ways to let go and the abundance of benefits and ease that come with being present, attentive, and accepting of what the day holds. Noticed ways that I could experience my frustrations with the government shut down and be reflective about my own relationships with others. My furlough helped me notice and give words to why I love my morning practice. Each morning begins with new ways to observe and be. My morning practice marks shifts and experiences that I might not notice, but for the time to practice on my mat.
Update: Since I finished these reflections yesterday, our federal government reopened and my team greeted each other with smiles and an embrace. As we shared our furlough experiences, I smiled and swiveled joyfully in my office chair. This morning’s yoga practice reminded me about gratitude. Especially today, I am grateful to be a public servant and to be back at work with my co-workers.
Angie C., a yogi and (now formerly) furloughed federal employee
I came to yoga because I wanted a hot body. I signed up for my first class for the same reason that I occasionally did laps at the pool or a half-hearted twenty minutes on the elliptical: “Maybe this will give me hard thighs.”
I don’t know about hard thighs, but I do remember the yoga was hard. I remember the teacher trying unsuccessfully to lengthen my spine in down dog before giving me a reassuring pat and saying in her charming Wisconsin accent, “We’ll getcha there with time.” I remember I thought crow pose was the most ridiculous thing I could imagine a human body doing—and “imagine” is the key word here, because there was no way my feet were leaving the floor. And I remember, too, that the first time I did matsyendrasana, a simple seated twist, I felt like I was arriving home.
I write this without hyperbole: it was my first yoga class; most of the experience was painful and awkward and confusing; and somehow around or beneath all of that, some part of me recognized the practice and said, “You’ll do this for the rest of your life.”
Of course, change doesn’t happen in a single flash as we twist sublimely into matsyendrasana. I did continue to do yoga consistently, but I was broke and busy, and so for many years, my only teacher was Rodney Yee on DVD. And my primary motivation continued to be having a hot body, so here and there I cheated on yoga with Pilates, spinning, and even a regrettable tryst with P90X. I didn’t think much about that first matsyendrasana; mostly I thought about what I looked like, and what I could do to look better. But here’s the thing: studies of human motivation tell us that future gains like improved health and fitness have a very tenuous influence on what we do here and now, particularly if what we have to do here and now to get those future gains is something we perceive as unpleasant, like exercise. So, pretty quickly, the other forms of exercise I was doing would fall by the wayside, traded in for the next fad.
But yoga didn’t. If you had asked me why I was able to stay consistent with yoga and not anything else, I would have said, “I dunno, I like how it feels.” I might have heard of the Bhagavad Gita, but I didn’t think it had much to do with sweating through a vinyasa. I might have felt a little less harried and a little more centered, but I’m not sure that I consciously went to the mat to achieve peace. It wasn’t until I came to Yoga District five years after that first yoga class that it first hit me: there’s something more to this.
I took Jasmine’s midnight New Year’s Eve class, a sweaty ninety-minute flow followed by a long yoga nidra, a deep relaxation process that I had never done—or even heard of—before. At that time, I’d never met Jasmine; I happened into the class because it was across the street from the New Year’s Eve party I planned to go to. I didn’t know that Yoga District was collectively run or that it had a non-profit outreach arm, Yoga Activist, or even that yoga outreach is profoundly beneficial for communities that experience chronic stress or hardship. But by the end of that class, that same matsyendrasana feeling had returned: “This is home.” I asked Jasmine as we rolled up our mats and put on our shoes if teaching yoga was her career; she said yes. And I said, “I want your life.”
That was three years ago. A year after I met Jasmine, I did Yoga District’s 200-hour teacher training, where I finally gained an intellectual understanding of what my body had known for years. Yoga is more than exercise. Yes, it strengthens our muscles, including our heart muscles; yes, it burns calories and fat; yes, it gives us a boost of endorphins. But mindfully coupling breath and movement works on the whole human organism—body, mind, and spirit—in much more subtle ways. The simplest explanation I’ve found for how yoga works is that human brains are complex enough that it is possible for different systems and processes in a single body to work against one another. We have enough going on in our multi-layered brains that, unlike any other animals, we are capable of feeling at odds with ourselves. Yoga works to realign all the systems of the brain and body. It puts us back in sync with ourselves and with the world.
If that’s what’s happening inside my being when I do yoga, Yoga District has become the outward expression of that realignment. I teach almost every day, in a community where I know my students’ names and practices. Yoga District is a place where people share more than a workout; we pick up our weekly Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) goodies at 14th Street; we drink a kombucha together at District Tea Lodge on I St; and we share group meditation and discussion at Bloomingdale. Continually, we realign ourselves with each other so that we can all grow further and more profoundly as a community. More than once, a student has told me that he or she came to Yoga District just to work out and unexpectedly, found new friends, self-acceptance, a sense of home. Sometimes they’re surprised when I tell them, “Yeah, it happened the same way for me, too.” It’s true: yoga teachers aren’t immune to wanting hot bodies. But the practice is cleverer than we are; it shows us the path we’re ready for, and then it carries us further than we could ever have dreamed up on our own.
By Teresa Spencer, teacher at Yoga District.
When I registered for Yoga District’s 200-hour teacher training program, I knew that three things would happen: I would learn to teach yoga, deepen my own practice, and meet some great people. And I was right on all three counts. Now, I can cue students into headstand like nobody’s business, and I can even move through a full chaturanga, which was never in my practice before. I also couldn’t be more grateful for the six strong, funny, and supportive women I trained with, and our incredibly knowledgeable teachers.
But I was not all prepared for the big ol’ mirror that our discussions and readings would hold up to all of my BS – the perfectionism, the people-pleasing, the fear of uncovering and honoring who I really am. I’m still grappling with all of these issues, of course, but teacher training gave me the tools I so badly needed to wade through the tough stuff, especially during some pretty major personal shifts over the past few months (ending a relationship, mourning the loss of my grandmother, leaving a respectable but not-quite-right job on Capitol Hill, and deciding to move home to Indiana).
In hopes that you might find these as helpful as I did, here are four unexpected life lessons that I took away from yoga teacher training:
1. We are already enough.
I understood this concept intellectually when the training began, but actually living it as a woman in our having/doing/being-it-all culture today? Not so simple. After spending so many years hustling for others’ approval, I became incapable of distinguishing my own desires from outside expectations. The truth is, we are enough – just as we are – to be worthy and capable of living a joyful life. I’ve had many yoga teachers remind me of this on the mat, too: whatever your body can do today, that is enough. Honor where you are right now.
2. We can only show up for others as much as we show up for ourselves.
You might think of this as the “secure your own mask first” philosophy (you know, that thing they tell you on airplanes about the emergency oxygen masks?) Whether as a friend, partner, or caregiver, we must respect and take care of our own needs before we can we truly be there for anyone else. As a yoga teacher, this means maintaining my own yoga and self-care practices in order to create a space for students free of my own hang-ups and mental chatter.
3. Life happens on its terms, not ours.
This is probably the scariest thing that a person with control issues (read: yours truly) can hear. In an effort to shield myself from suffering – shame, sadness, embarrassment, you name it – I tried (and still try) to perfect every area of my life. We cannot, however, outsmart all painful experiences. Moving beyond the ego to accept life as it is, on its terms, can be outright terrifying at times, but I’m learning that letting go is so much easier than fighting it. For instance, perhaps you can ordinarily take full pigeon pose, but your knee is aching today. Wouldn’t it be better to move into a more comfortable posture, rather than resisting your body’s signals and possibly doing even more harm to such a sensitive joint?
4. Compassion and fear are two sides of the same coin.
One of my dear friends from teacher training articulated this point so perfectly: our capacity for fear is exactly the same as our capacity for compassion, and it’s up to us to choose which one we allow to rule our thoughts, words, and actions. Approaching compassion as a constant practice helped me realize how harshly critical I can be of others and especially myself. Really, we’re all the same, we’re all connected, and we’re all just doing our best. Give it a try next time someone cuts you off in traffic, embarrasses you in front of your boss, or places her mat just a little too close to yours.
Thank you for this opportunity to share some of what I learned this summer. Om shanti.
Lauren Roberts is in the final stage of Yoga District’s 200-Hour Yoga Teacher Training Program. Now living in the Midwest once again, she is honored to share this practice as part of the Indianapolis-area yoga community.
The diverse family of DC yoga teachers at Yoga District are dedicated to making yoga accessible to everyone through a huge variety of yoga class types, from vinyasa flow to restorative and beyond. Most Yoga District teachers are graduates of Yoga District’s nationally-attended 200 hour teacher training program. All Yoga District classes focus on coordinating breath with body movement to promote flexibility, strength, and peace of mind. We strongly believe in yoga as therapy, so catch one of our classes whenever you need a healthy dose of self-care.
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The Yoga District 200 and 500 hour teacher training certification programs, registered by the Yoga Alliance are unique in their emphasis on diversity of teaching styles studied, personal attention, and trauma sensitive yoga. It's no coincidence that Yoga District is regularly voted the leading studio in the nation's capital, and that most of its classes are taught by graduates of its training program. As a full time yoga school, small group trainings are led up to eight times a year by a dedicated faculty including Jasmine Chehrazi, contributor to the Harvard Karma Yoga Project teacher training, teacher training faculty at George Washington University, Yoga Alliance Standards Committee Advisory Board Member, Yoga Activist Founder, and Yoga Service Council Advisory Board Member. So take your practice and community involvement to the next level by joining a training. There's a reason why our graduates call the training "transformative."
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