Gentle Yoga for Releasing Burdens

I’ve recently noticed how much tension I’m holding in my neck and shoulders. It feels as though I’ve been burdening myself with the weight of the world and carrying this extra weight in/on my body. The burden shows up in rounded shoulders—the physical manifestation of shrinking—rather than standing TALL with upright posture so that I can courageously be seen and take up space.

To change this pattern, I’ve been using this simple and slow yoga video:

I appreciate this simple practice because it somehow magically releases the tension and reminds me of the value of releasing, not carrying, burdens. Of allowing instead of trying to control. Of flowing with the rhythms of life. Of remaining open, aware, and still flexible.

I feel grateful that my body speaks my mind and that I can learn from my body’s intuitive cues (in this case, stiff neck and tight shoulders). It’s not by chance that hunching over gadgets (phones and computers) causes neck and shoulder tension, yet it’s not just the hunching that my body is asking me to address.

Rather, my body is signaling the need to address my intake of news, my response to emails, my emotional engagement in communication, and my response-abilities to myself and others. The more I can let go of false ideas that I can control or correct situations, the more I can release this tension. And the more I release this tension, the more I am poised to truly respond, as I can flexibly turn from side-to-side, from issue-to-issue.

So, I’ll keep playing this gentle yoga video with appreciation for my body directing me to s-l-o-w self-care yet again. And I’ll work on releasing what’s not mine so that I’m flexibly attending to what is.


This post is written by Beth Godbee for Heart-Head-Hands.com. For more posts like this one, you might try “Attending to Anger” or “Gentle Yoga Practice for Healing.” Please also consider following the blog via email. Thanks!

Mantras to Stand TALL for Justice

This week I returned to teaching First-Year English (FYE), a course focused on information literacy, academic writing, undergraduate research, and the first-year college experience. This course helps students in making the transition to college, asking research questions, and navigating academic disciplines and the larger university system. The goal is for students to see themselves as critical readers, writers, and researchers—agents with response-abilities to make change.

With the start of this new school year, I’ve been thinking about who I was as a college student and who the students I teach might be. I’ve been considering what hopes I hold for the students and myself and what I might say to encourage students to conduct inquiries that really matter in the world. Teaching at this time feels especially important and even urgent. How might I spark students to social action? How might I play a role in helping others identify and act on their purposes? How might I teach in a way to inspire speaking and writing UP?

And wouldn’t you know that in the midst of such reflection, I come across a poster that speaks to me (and in a gas station bathroom, of all places):

2017-09-01 14.19.25

I can’t count the number of times I’ve repeated mantas about grounding and growing tall:

“I am grounded. I am safe and protected. I am securely rooted.”
“It is safe for me to be seen. It is safe to speak my truth. It is safe to be me.”
“Even when scared, I show up. I stand TALL.”

Stumbling upon this poster felt like confirmation that there’s value in sharing these mantras as wishes, hopes, and goals for students. There is real power in standing TALL—steady and true, like trees—in our commitments … in acting as our best selves, witnessing injustice, speaking truth, countering dehumanization, honoring ourselves and others, asking for more, and demanding justice.

Standing TALL, as I understand it, includes more than physically standing as part of a protest or demonstration. Yes, that physical presence is important, and it helps us see how presence—where and when to put one’s body, words, and actions—is always already political action.

Two examples:

For a student of color, attending the predominantly white university already makes a claim of one’s right to belong within that space. Attending classes already involves standing TALL. It already involves resilience and courage in the face of everyday microaggressions.

For a white student, choices to speak against microaggressions, to study white supremacy, to build cross-racial relations, to embrace marginalized stories, and to rethink one’s worldview similarly involve standing TALL. To shake up/off what’s been inherited and normalized involves the groundedness to be true to one’s self, while striving for change.

In other words (words I’ve encountered through yoga asana practice):

To stand TALL, we must “root to rise.”

This wisdom is more than metaphor. The deeper the trees’ roots, the taller, wider, and more expansive trees grow. Similarly, the stronger the feet and the firmer their planting, the higher humans can stretch—literally, becoming taller.

Growing roots can be hard because it requires stability and resolve—and at a time when students are uprooted. Transitions can feel especially unsettling, as though the ground is constantly shifting and the horizon always unknown. The transition to college, whether from high school or work or parenting or another place in life, can take us to new ground, too, literally and figuratively.

When so much is shifting, it can help to come back to grounding, again and again. And it can help to remember why we’re needed in the world, standing tall among others, a voice against racism and tyranny and violence and what’s wrong.

To the students in my FYE courses and, truly, to all of us as writers, speakers, and actors in the world, I share some mantras for finding the courage to speak, write, and act:

May we get rooted in what’s true, what’s peaceful, what’s equitable, and what’s humane. May we be grounded and courageous in our commitments. May we write-speak-act for justice. May we stand TALL. May we root to rise. May we rise to what is asked of us at this time and in the times to come.


This post is written by Beth Godbee for Heart-Head-Hands.com. For more posts like this one, you might try “Answering the Call for Artistic Activism: Yes, I’m an Artist!” or “Disrupting the Mind-Body Split.” Please also consider following the blog via email. Thanks!

Practicing Yoga Through Writing

This fall I returned to Milwaukee after a year in Washington, D.C. The move back home allowed me to re-see familiar spaces, including where I practice yoga-asana and where I write. Though seemingly unrelated, yoga and writing have blended for me, as I’ve constructed a single contemplative-working space. In this week’s post, I ask about the spaces that energetically nourish, revitalize, and activate work for justice.

My return to Milwaukee allowed me to feel/sense more clearly the need to change my home space. A lot still feels off about my home, and I’m still thinking about how to downsize—a choice rooted in privilege and mobility that calls for greater responsibility. I’m thinking, for example, about how to take up and heat less space in a household of only two people.

Within this context of re-seeing space and re-thinking hOMe, my desire for a blended yoga-asana and writing-work space became and remains absolutely clear. That is, I want to have my writing desk physically positioned within dedicated yoga space.

It doesn’t follow any logic (and certainly not any design advice!) to fit yoga mats between a bookshelf and writing desk. I’ve considered other layouts, other spatial arrangements. Yet, the only thing that feels right—the only strong YES in my body—is the close proximity of yoga to writing props. In this way, close proximity represents a close relationship.

In the fall, as I was arranging this space (and buying a large new rug to tie it together), I had a vivid dream. I saw myself moving with strength and grace on the yoga mat—practically gliding from a standing half-moon pose into the chair before me. I visualized an easeful movement from the mat to the desk, from my fingers gripping yoga blocks to pressing laptop keys, from eyes softly glancing downward to facing forward toward the screen.

In the few months since returning home, visualizing this movement, and following my strong YES to create shared yoga-work space, I’m beginning to see my dream materialize. I’m noticing more and more that I’m practicing yoga through writing.

So, why am I sharing this post about my yoga-writing space?

Because it’s reminding me to listen to inner guidance, to the strong YES. Even when (especially when) intuitive messages counter all-best-advice, I need to honor the wisdom within. For too long, I’ve prioritized external measures or guidance over my own knowing. I want to re-prioritize, which means getting better at listening to myself. Currently, the yoga mat and the keyboard (two seemingly unrelated, but for me deeply connected objects) invite deeper listening.

Because the more that I align my everyday work (writing and activism, especially) with my spiritual life, the more I am able to flow freely. This yoga-writing space represents, for me, a tangible reminder to align all aspects of life with my deepest commitment to justice. To find alignment, I need to feel within my body, yet also abandon the “shoulds” defining how my yoga, writing, or other practices take shape.

Because this week has been so intense that I’m still writing, writing, writing about all that’s occurred—and not in a way that I’m ready to share yet. Again, listening to the strong YES, I know that I need to write, but be willing to let the writing sit and simmer and take its time before emerging into the world. Again, I can see connections with and lessons from my yoga practice, including the reminder to write daily—and without expectations, including the expectation that I’m ready to share.

Certainly, there are days when I feel guilty about writing instead of spending time on the yoga mat. There are also days when I feel guilty about prioritizing asana over what’s due next. And then there are days when I let go of guilt and see a more holistic version of yoga—one that includes and is practiced through writing. This more holistic version is represented byand nourished within physical space.

Whether on the mat, in the chair, or curled around the laptop (as I am now), may I learn to stand TALL and TRUE through daily practice. I send love for the work, the resistance ahead.

I’d also love to hear about your practices and your spaces. What fires you up, ignites action, or allows you to emerge more fully into the world?

Gentle Yoga Practice for Healing

In the past week, I’ve experienced some new/renewed lower back pain. And the pain has brought me back to my yoga mat and specifically to this gentle yoga practice:

I appreciate this video for the s-l-o-w movement, the focus on breath, and the ways my body responds. With each day’s practice, I’m feeling a little less pain, a little more openness, and a little more myself. This practice also invites a quietness for me, allowing me to listen—and not only to my body and myself, but also to the messages I’m receiving (and not really recognizing or processing) throughout the day.

Such a process helps enormously with healing—and not just with physical pain, but also with legacies of personal and collective trauma and injustice.

Healing the Mind-Body Split and Valuing Yoga as Spiritual Practice

I found yoga (or it found me?) in 2008. Both friends and physical therapists advised me to “try a class” and recommended Main Street Yoga, where I luckily connected with a few instructors and found some relief for back pain (when coupled with acupuncture and a range of other healing methods, which I’m sure to write about in future posts :-)).

At first, I understood yoga as asana practice—the movement, breathing, and meditation I did in classes. This focus on the body was empowering to me, as I had become so cut off from my embodied being that I remember asking questions like:

  • “You mean that I can actively change my breathing? … How?”
  • “What’s the pelvic floor? How do I feel it? How do I engage it?”
  • “How do I rotate some muscles in and others out—and at the same time?”
  • “Why do my wrists hurt so much?”
  • “My body—as in MY BODY—can go upside down? … No, really?”

Over time, I could actively feel in my body that tension in my shoulders was connected down my back, through my legs, and into my feet. I could tell that when my calf muscles were tight, my neck would also hurt. I could feel my breath and began to see how it was shrinking (becoming only a gasp) when I was nervous. I could recognize the link between pulling at my toenail cuticles (so that I’d soak my feet in Espom salt) and doing so at times when I needed grounding or courage. I could see that my body was desperately trying to communicate with me, if only I would pay attention.

In this way, yoga practice was helping me value my body and embodied knowledge, which I’d become cut off from. In the United States—and western, individualistic contexts, more generally—we tend to de-value the body, intuition, and feelings, while over-valuing the mind, logic, and rationale thinking. This is especially true in higher education, where I spend much of my life.

My introduction to yoga countered this problem of disembodiment. Still, I faced another problem, which I’m coming to understand as the flip side of the same coin: by focusing on asana/movement, yoga practice became entirely about the body. Again, in the United States—and western/individualistic contexts—yoga is associated with exercise rather than spiritual practice. Rather than seeing the body as connected with one’s mental, emotional, relational, and spiritual lives (as giving insights into and helping us experience our spiritual selves), popular notions of yoga treat the body as the end goal. In this way, yoga = exercise; yoga = muscle strengthening and toning; yoga = de-stressing the body; yoga = physical healing …

Over time (and I’m still very much learning today), I’ve come to understand yoga as a larger spiritually-focused and culturally-grounded practice, a practice that aligns with ecofeminism, veganism, and decoloniality. Through studying the Yoga Sūtras (alongside other spiritual teachings and Reiki practice), I now come to embodied-movement-based asana as a spiritual practice, as prayer.

Even when returning to my yoga mat because of back pain, I ask throughout asana practice: What is this pain trying to tell me? What does my body have to teach me about myself and what I’m not consciously acknowledging? How is my body expressing my emotions, and why am I feeling those emotions? I listen closely, planning to take action as guided.

Healing from Whiteness and Practicing Yoga for Justice

The post can’t end here—with my valuing of yoga as spiritual practice—because I can’t write about yoga without thinking about whiteness. Deeply troubling, in the United States, yoga is raced, classed, and gendered so that it’s associated with middle-/upper-class white women. Yoga magazines, websites, and advertisements feature not only white women, but images of whiteness (the social construct). Similarly, yoga studios manifest whiteness through spa-like environments, unspoken codes related to respectability politics, and other features of this social construct.

I’m a middle-/upper-class white woman. This means that when I look for yoga instructors or videos online (like the one I share above), I typically find people who not only look like me, but who also share much of my background and beliefs. Such common ground goes deeper—and is more insidious, still—as numerous privileges associated with my identity allowed me to stumble my way into my first yoga class and, from there, into a meaningful yoga practice. Even the ability (time-space-mobility-access) to practice yoga asana represents layers of privilege.

Such privileges call on me to consider cultural appropriation and the problematics of yoga in the U.S. (western/individualistic) context. There’s much work to be done toward changing the ways we [read: “we” in the United States, particularly white people, people in the yoga community, and people with privilege/power] understand, construct space around, talk about, and otherwise “do” yoga.

I think that yoga—particularly the 8 limbs of yoga (with asana being just 1 of 8)—has much to offer on the long haul toward justice. Concentration (dharana), contemplation (dhyana), and careful study (svadhyaya) are all absolutely necessary for self-work. Similarly, nonviolence (ahimsa) motivates anti-racism and other movements for social justice, including current work to decolonize yoga. Here I think especially about the resources Decolonizing Yoga and Sistah Vegan Project (both of which offer extensive content—and blogs I follow). Following the spiritual practice of yoga should help us uncover systems of inequity and injustice and to develop the resilience and insights needed for intervention.

For me, such work—striving toward the “ought to be”—brings me back to my yoga mat and includes asana practice. With the larger spiritual and justice-oriented practice in mind/heart, I need the time-space for quiet, slow movement. Currently, it matters to me that the practice is gentle, as the gentleness toward myself (non-judging lovingkindness) allows for gentleness more broadly (non-judging toward uncovering internalized prejudice, developing bias literacy, and kindly correcting myself for the harm/wrongs I do).

Too often, I realize after-the-fact that I’m back in a spiral of beating myself up for the crap I inevitably do as a white person (as whiteness itself is a pathology that means always messing up and living in mess). To choose differently—to humbly acknowledge the mess and to step out of pathological hurt—I need gentle practice. This gentleness is not to excuse, explain away, or allow for white supremacy. Instead, it is to work on healing the wounds and white fragility that manifest as back pain.

With hands (and feet!), I’m working to ground myself and to heal not only my recent flare-up of back pain but also the pain underlying this physical pain. I’m also “taking it easy”—practicing slowly, mindfully, even cautiously—and using my favorite gentle yoga video to do so.

Going forward, I’d like to think more about yoga during illness, as too often it’s illness (or physical pain) that brings me back to asana practice. I’d like to honor my body’s wisdom when it speaks to me in whispers (and to hear the quiet whispers and not just the screams of pain). I’d also like to explore the links between spiritual practice and resiliency. I’d like to commit now—today and every day—to embodied self-care for justice.