As part of the Practice of Leadership conversation presented by Yoga Journal and lululemon athletica on Friday, September 19th at Yoga Journal LIVE! in Estes Park, CO, we’re profiling trailblazing yogis, teachers, and social justice activists. Follow along on Facebook for more thoughtful and inspiring interviews.
For social justice activist Yashna Maya Padamsee, yoga is one of life’s constants—and, in her hands, it has proved to be consistently transformative. She has been teaching for over 12 years across the U.S., weaving her professional work with nonprofits such as the National Domestic Workers Alliance with yoga-centered activism through Third Root Community Health Center and Organizing Upgrade’s Community Care Platform. Connect with her at yashnamaya.com.
YogaJournal.com: You’ve been practicing yoga since childhood. How has the practice influenced your path in life?
Yashna Maya Padamsee: Yoga practice has saved my life over and over again. Not only has it influenced my path in life, I strive for yoga to be the path in life. The 8 Limbs of Yoga act as a map and a flashlight on this path. The practice has helped me access joy, presence, and freedom. It has helped me move through trauma and pain and it has helped me in my relationship with myself as well as others. Yoga reminds me of who I am, why I am here, and brings me back to the present moment of now.
The practice also deepens my commitment to social justice work. If Samadhi in its simplest form is living in a state of interconnectedness with all things, then to me this means that my path to Samadhi (liberation) is linked to the liberation of all people. As Fannie Lou Hammer, a civil rights leader, said, “Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.” Yoga has helped me stay committed to the work of that vision for myself and others.
YJ.com: As you’ve immersed yourself in social justice work—from education to farmworkers rights to women’s issues to immigration—what essential elements of your yoga training do you find yourself drawing upon time and time again?
Y.M.P.: Doing social justice work is a lot like doing yoga for me in that it is about living the values of each. I am drawn to karuna and karma, the practice of compassion in action. I myself am not a farmworker, day laborer, or a domestic worker, but I have and can cultivate compassion for worker struggles and a fight for basic labor and human rights. Compassion brings me to the center of connection between myself and someone else and it doesn’t end there. Karuna has to be applied beyond the feeling of connection to karma, or honorable action. Both of these practices have kept me on a path towards building a more just and equitable world.
YJ.com: You teach yoga classes for domestic workers, women aged 20-80 who spend their days caring for others. What kind of toll does constant caregiving take on the mind and body?
Y.M.P.: Domestic workers care for our most precious things—our families and our homes—which can be demanding on both mind and body. The work is very physical: caring for children and elders, working with people with disabilities, and cleaning homes. Caregivers often choose to do this work out of a natural ability to love and nurture and care for someone else’s well being. This work can be emotionally taxing by having to be present with someone else’s needs sometimes over your own needs.
YJ.com: And how do you tailor a class to meet their specific needs?
Y.M.P.: I think about their physical and emotional health needs as well as the social context. The domestic worker members of NDWA are working women who do physical and emotional labor, speak Spanish, Nepali, Portuguese, or Tagalog as their primary language and are a spectrum of ages and have varying physical abilities. So ask myself questions such as, What asanas will bring the most relief and freedom to their minds and bodies–and bring some love and care back to their hearts and bodies that matches the love and care they give out? This isn’t about challenging the body; it’s about comforting and healing it.
YJ.com: You also lead classes for your colleagues at nonprofits, who are performing another form of caregiving. How do these classes differ?
Y.M.P.: The basic question is the same: What do they need out of this? Rather than, What do I want to teach? Many of my colleagues already have yoga practices so I try to build on that. The asanas I use for sequences for my colleagues may be more physically challenging but the emotional work is the same. I ask myself, How can our yoga practice together be a time for restoring ourselves and our connection with each other as a team moving towards a common cause? Also, How can our yoga practice refuel and re-center us so that we are able to reenter the work with our full selves?
YJ.com: You’ve thought a lot about diversity in yoga. What’s one thing you’d urge every yoga teacher to do, say, or think about?
Y.M.P.: Yoga is so vast and it keeps expanding! It has made it through 5000 years and it will survive after us. Yoga is bigger than us. It is not something we can control or mold. It molds us.
As yoga teachers we hold a power and responsibility that goes beyond us. We have a responsibility to the wisdom of the ancient teachings and the lands and people it comes from, we have a responsibility to each and every one of our students, and we have a responsibility to our own integrity as teachers. How do we hold and use that power generously given to us? As teachers how do we use the power we have in the classroom to serve the students not our egos?
I would urge yoga teachers to see teaching as a practice and develop a humility for the wisdom of yoga and a deep listening to the needs of students in the room. From that humble place diversity and accessibility in your own yoga classroom becomes much more tangible. Attending a diversity training as an extension of that practice is also recommended; the Third Root Education Exchange is now offering diversity trainings specifically for yoga teachers (of which I am a facilitator) nation-wide, at 200-hour trainings and yoga studios. These trainings are like doing a handstand—they give you a new perspective on the world!