Marshawn Feltus—a man sentenced to 38 years in state prison who now teaches yoga in jails, schools, and community centers in the roughest neighborhoods of Chicago—answers this question. Watch to hear his answer.
Marshawn Feltus was just 17 years old when he got into a street altercation in one of Chicago’s most violent neighborhoods and shot—and killed—another young man.
He was sentenced to 38 years in state prison and while incarcerated, he was talked into trying yoga. He reluctantly rolled out a bath towel (they didn’t have yoga mats) in an old chapel space, and within five minutes of that first practice, he was hooked.
Over time, he began teaching in prison. And after serving 18 years of his sentence, Feltus was released. He returned to Chicago with a new purpose: to bring the healing power of yoga to his community. He completed a local entrepreneurship program and a 200-hour yoga teacher training at Chicago Yoga Center. Then, he founded ACT Yoga—which stands for Awareness, Change, Triumph (an acronym he used in prison to encourage other inmates to enroll in the GED, college, and self-help programs).
Here’s what teaching yoga means to him. After you watch, tell us: Why do you teach yoga? Join the conversation by posting a picture or video to your Instagram and use #yjconversations.
See also Good Karma Awards: Top 10 yoga service organizations of 2018
11 Essential Rules Every Empath Needs to Know
Whether you’re a yoga teacher who easily picks up on energy in the room, or an empathetic person whose friends come to you with their troubles, follow this advice to stay grounded, feel happier, and protect yourself from the emotional swirl happening around you.
When you walk into a room, can you feel what the energy is like? Have you ever left a meeting feeling extremely tired—or energized? Do you ever feel like you just know how another person is feeling without exchanging any words? If you answered yes to any of these questions, chances are you are an empath.
Empaths are highly sensitive, intuitive people. We can read people and situations clearly and easily, and have fine-tuned senses. Due to this sensitivity, we have huge hearts—but can tend to give too much until we run dry. We can, in some ways, also absorb other people’s emotional energy when we’re not aware of it at all.
What I’ve come to learn is that being an empath is like having a super power: the ability to see the truth in situations and read feelings and energy. It’s a beautiful gift that should be cherished and practiced with compassion. In fact, being an empath can feel like a gift and a curse all at once, depending on how aware you are of your abilities. It can feel like your nervous system and emotional perception is dialed up to 100% at all times, which can give you an amazing read of your environment—but also becomes burdensome if there are no boundaries in place.
See also Lighten Up! How to Cultivate Joy, Fearlessness, and Compassion in Your Life
If you’re a yoga teacher, like I am, your job can be particularly draining. (Think about how many yogis, and all of the “stuff” they bring with them into the yoga studio in an effort to work through, you come in contact with on a daily basis!) Even if you’re not a teacher but you are an empath, there are likely countless ways in which your interactions with others impact you deeply on a daily basis.
Here’s the good news: You do have control over how you receive and respond to outside influences. Here are the 11 rules I believe every empath needs to follow in order to stay centered and in charge of their own personal energy:
Empath Rule No. 1: Set Clear Boundaries
This is simultaneously the most important and hardest rule for all empaths. It is crucial that you set boundaries when and where they are needed. Boundaries can be in regard to your physical space, your body, your possessions, or your time. Be firm with these limits and don’t let your caring nature leave you with your guard down. Boundaries are there to protect your energy, your health, and your emotional safety, not to punish other people. It is not selfish to have boundaries, it’s a matter of letting others know who you are and where you stand. You’re more honest with people when you tell them your preferences and give a clear ‘yes’ or ‘no’ when it comes to what you want.
See also The Ultimate Guide to Energy Healing
Empath Rule No. 2: Meditate, Meditate, Meditate!
Daily meditation (even just for 5 minutes!) is the best way to reset and steady your mind, which is so important when it comes to getting a clear read on your own personal mood and energy that day. Whether you set an alarm for a few minutes of silently observing your breath or follow a guided meditation on an app, taking any time at all to sit, pause, and bring mindfulness to your day will have a seriously strengthening effect on your energy. After all, if you have a steady, clear mind that’s grounded in the present you’re less likely to be effected by the energy around you.
See also Find Your Meditation Style With These 7 Practices
Empath Rule No. 3: Ground Your Energy
Just like a tree with deep roots, when we ground our energy we become solidly connected to our own frequency and less influenced by others around us. An easy way to ground your energy is to simply stand in Tadasana (Mountain Pose) or sit in a chair and bring your awareness into your body, specifically on the points of contact with the floor. Then, create the intention of sending energy down into your feet, and growing energetic “roots” into the earth every time you exhale deeply.
See also 16 Yoga Poses to Keep You Grounded & Present
Empath Rule No. 4: Create a Protective Shield
As an empath, we become susceptible to energies around us, so it’s important to build an energetic shield around yourself so you don’t take on others’ pain or negativity. To do this, simply close your eyes and envision a protective cloak or shield around your body. Ask your guides (or angels, or the universe, whatever you believe) to assist you with reflecting any negativity that may have come your way back to its original source, with love. Another way to create an energetic shield around your body is through wearing or holding protective crystals. Most black crystals or darker stones tend to have a highly protective energy.
See also 5 Practices Energy Healers Use to Clear Themselves
Empath Rule No. 5: I.D. What Fuels You—and What Drains You
Start to notice the way you feel—energetically and emotionally—after your interactions with people. Did you feel uplifted and positive after getting coffee with that friend, or drained and depleted? This is a good test for the company you keep. As an energetically-sensitive person, it is so important to be extremely selective with your time and your company. Outside of relationships, notice the situations or places that leave you feeling uplifted or drained, and set your schedule accordingly.
See also 5 Ways You’re Draining Your Energy Level (Plus, Quick Fixes)
Empath Rule No. 6: Watch Your Consumption
Along with noticing how you feel after leaving a person, event, or place, notice what you are consciously choosing to consume—and I don’t just mean food. In the same way that our diet and nutrition effects our physiology, the things we bring into our minds and spaces have the same effect. As an empath, this is twofold: Do you feel better or worse after watching that genre of movie, listening to that artist, reading that blog, or browsing that Instagram account? I always ask the question, “Do I feel better or worse?” as my litmus test for what I’ll be consuming in the future. In the beginning of this process, it’s a learning experience. As you refine your palate, you become very clear on your preferences, which in turn helps truly fortify your boundaries (see Rule No. 1).
See also Eat Like a Yogi: A Yoga Diet Based in Ayurvedic Principles
Empath Rule No. 7: Ask Yourself, Is This Mine?
As an empath, we have the ability to absorb the energy of others. A great way to start sorting out and identifying which are your emotions and which are not is to get very familiar with what your typical daily energy signature is (a.k.a., your baseline). You will have fluctuations from this baseline throughout each day, of course, which is why it’s a good idea to meditate in the morning, using that as a time to become very aware of how you’re feeling that day. Then, when you’re out in a social situation or at an event and out of nowhere start feeling a very different emotion, you’ll know that it is most likely not your own. This takes practice, because we are reflexive beings, constantly interfacing with an ever-changing reality. But through steady meditation and an inquisitive and aware mind, you’ll be able to start discerning what emotions are yours and which ones are not.
See also Yoga for Energy
Empath Rule No. 8: Know When to Take Responsibility
As empaths, we have very big hearts and tend to naturally take on or share the suffering or pain of others, which doesn’t actually help anyone. It is important to take responsibility for the emotions and energy that you are emitting, but know that you are not responsible for emotions that are not yours. Even if we can feel the negative emotions of others, it doesn’t mean we have to try to mend or heal them. There is a lesson in each person’s personal pain or journey. If we jump in and intervene just because we can sense it, we could be depriving someone else of valuable learning.
See also Reduce Suffering: How Yoga Heals
Empath Rule No. 9: Cleanse Yourself of Others’ Energy
So, what do you do after you’ve realized that you’ve taken on emotional energy that isn’t yours? Cleanse! There are many ways to cleanse your energy, but smudging with sage or burning incense is a great place to start. Water also has a powerful healing energy, which means drinking lots of water and taking salt baths are also personal favorites. For yoga teachers specifically, after teaching and adjusting other students, wash your hands after each class with the intention of letting any excess energy you’ve picked up from others wash down the drain. Finally, a good night’s sleep can do more for cleansing your energy than all of the above!
See also Cleanse from the Inside Out
Empath Rule No. 10: Spend Time Alone to Recharge
Regardless if you identify as an introvert or extrovert, it is imperative to take some time alone to rest, recharge, and restore if you’re an empath. This can mean spending an evening alone at home just relaxing, taking a walk in nature, or heading out for a weekend trip on your own. Whatever it is, the whole point is to do it on your own, with as little social interaction as possible. This can be vital after big events or long work weeks where you don’t get much downtime. Whatever length of time it takes you to recharge, trust that it’s exactly what your energy needs at the moment. Think of this rule as a form of radical self-care.
See also A Guide to Navigating True Transformation
Empath Rule No. 11: Heal Yourself First
The best healers are those who have gone into the fire, done the hard work, and come out the other side even stronger. It’s through this process that you become a vessel to help heal others; you become a clear channel for their healing, because you have removed your own pain and trauma. It can be tempting to get involved with “helping” others, but most of the time, we do this subconsciously to avoid looking at our own inner pain and to vicariously heal through their healing. The most important thing an empath can do is to work with and heal themselves first. It can be a long, messy process, so have patience with yourself and gratitude for the bravery it takes to start and continue on your healing journey.
See also 3 Extraordinary Stories of Healing Through Yoga
About the Author
Kat Fowler is a leading international teacher, speaker and writer based in New York City. Kat specializes in yoga, meditation, spirituality, and holistic healing. She has been featured on the cover of Yoga Journal, Om Yoga magazine, Natural Awakenings Magazine and featured in interviews on ABC News and the New York Times. For more information, visit: katfowler.com
7 Things I Learned About Women from Doing Yoga
One male yogi shares the insights he’s gleaned after 15 years practicing next to mostly women.
I remember the first time I did yoga. I went to a class because a girl invited me, but didn’t bother to notice it was an intermediate vinyasa flow. Within minutes, I was ready to collapse. I was awkward, rigid, and embarrassed as the experienced female practitioners around me moved gracefully through poses.
Fifteen years later, I am still awkward, and in most classes, still find myself surrounded by women. As highlighted in a 2016 Yoga Journal/Yoga Alliance study, the majority of American yoga practitioners are women (72%), even though the number of men practicing yoga has jumped from 4 million in 2012 to 10 million in 2016.
The gender imbalance in yoga was not something I thought about until recently. And when I did ponder it, I recognized how yoga provides a distinct opportunity for a guy to peer inside the world of women. Here are some of the insights my yoga practice has enabled me to see.
Lesson No. 1: Women are stronger than men in their will and determination.
I don’t want to speak for all guys, but it seems to me that when things get difficult, we men often try to muscle our way through. During most classes, I find myself clenching my jaw at some point and trying to use physical strength to escape discomfort. Women, on the other hand, seem to intuitively understand that moving through struggle requires both physical and mental attributes—power, balance, alignment, breathing, and concentration. Even when there is chaos around them (read: me falling out of eagle pose onto the yogini’s mat beside me), women seem to be better able to recognize that there are many ways to cultivate strength—and use it.
Lesson No. 2: Women are more conscious of the space around them and how their bodies move through it.
Yoga perfectly demonstrates how women possess a heightened sense of awareness about themselves and those around them. I’ve watched countless yoginis stretch their limbs (without relying on sight) and come within inches of those next to them in a controlled, thoughtful manner. It’s a skill many men lack (case in point: the all-too-prevalent man-spreading). Not only are women more attuned to their bodies, but they also seem to have an unspoken coordination with others near them, whether it’s moving in sync through a sun salutation or hitting the same tone while chanting a simple Om.
See also 10 Best Women-Only Yoga Retreats Around the World
Lesson No. 3: Women have complex systems of organization.
When I arrive for yoga class, I simply choose a spot that seems good. Women, I’ve noticed, appear to scan the room and use a complicated algorithm to determine their ideal location. I throw my mat down and drop my things next to it. Women, however, seem to consciously “place” their mats and arrange their props and water for well-thought-out accessibility. Off the mat, this concept holds true as well. For example, I always put the garlic press in the wrong drawer or screw up the dry goods categorization in the kitchen organization that my girlfriend created. The lesson I’ve learned is that these systems are not designed for men, so they will never make sense to men.
Lesson No. 4: Women appreciate men who are vulnerable—and don’t see vulnerability as a sign of weakness.
Yoga encourages openness, which encourages self-reflection. This is scary territory for guys to explore—and women know this. That’s why, as movies like Say Anything have shown us, women appreciate it when men try to push their ego aside and explore what it means to be vulnerable.
Lesson No. 5: Women have the added stress of dealing with long hair.
The other day in class, I counted a dozen different ways that women had their hair tied up. It’s something that most men don’t realize (excluding those sporting man buns, of course). Why am I mentioning this? Well, I think it illustrates the admirable female trait of coming up with creative solutions to annoying problems.
Lesson No. 6: When women listen, they hear more than men.
I love the ah-ha moment in yoga when a cue you’ve heard a thousand times finally makes sense. However, I have noticed—and am jealous of the fact—that women seem to get to this point faster. My yogini counterparts have a remarkable ability to zoom in on what someone is saying, dissect it, look at the parts, and understand what it means (or ask a lot of questions until they do).
See also 6 Tricks to Make Your Supplements Work Better for Your Body
Lesson No. 7: Yoga helps us all move beyond generalizations and see everyone as a unique beings.
Some women may get annoyed when a guy is more flexible than them, whereas others applaud this. Some women want their partners beside them in class, while others want class to be a sanctuary away from their partners. Some women want to be invisible, while others want to be seen. I could go on, but you’re likely getting the drift: Yoga instills awareness—awareness of what we share and of what makes us different, and it allows these things to exist beside one another. If we embrace this, we can enrich how we connect. Because after all, trying to understand others helps us better understand ourselves.
About the Author
Ryan Peacock is a yogi and writer in Denver, Colorado.
Sexual Assault in the Ashtanga Yoga Community: A Mea Culpa
A long history of sexual misconduct haunts this popular practice. Here’s how some Ashtangi yogis are moving forward.
For most dedicated Ashtanga yoga practitioners, 2018 has been a painful year of reckoning. We’ve had to excavate the past and face uncomfortable truths about Pattabhi Jois, the now-deceased founder of this much-loved practice and the subject of accusations of historic sexual assault.
I’m ashamed to admit that I knew about the sexual assault soon after I first started a daily Ashtanga practice 17 years ago. While I practiced with Jois several times before his death, I was not a close student of his and never saw the abuse first hand. But I did see videos on the Internet; I did laugh off and dismiss the furtive, dark gossip in Mysore, India, cafes and in practice rooms everywhere from New York to Singapore to London; and I did turn a blind eye.
See also I Took My Baby to Mysore, India, for a Month: Here’s What It Was Really Like
“This is a Long Overdue Mea Culpa”
This is a long overdue mea culpa, and perhaps one shared by others like me—average, everyday Ashtanga practitioners who chose to brush off the assault accusations either because we didn’t believe it, or because the practice felt (and still feels) deeply transformative. Ashtanga yoga has served as a bedrock for my life, and for many years that was more important than the abuse itself, which, well, felt very distant. After all, it happened so many years ago, and to women I didn’t know.
Those women, such as Karen Rain and Anneke Lukas, deserve an apology. First and foremost, that apology should come from the K Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute (KPJAYI).
(Sharath Jois, the director of KPJAYI and grandson of Pattabhi Jois, has not publicly acknowledged or spoken about the abuse, and did not return requests for an interview for this story.)
A few teachers, though arguably not enough, have come forward to apologize to Jois’ victims, acknowledging their culpability in the abuse, whether that was because they ignored it like I did, or sent their students to practice with Jois knowing full well the risks.
“As a student who knew of these inappropriate adjustments, I should have behaved differently, and I apologize (that I didn’t),” said Paul Gold, an Ashtanga teacher in Toronto. “I rationalized [Jois’] behavior. I downplayed students’ negative reactions and chose to focus on the reactions of women and men for who these adjustments weren’t offensive or weren’t given. I wanted to study with Jois and chose to focus on the good rather than let the bad create a situation where I would have to make hard choices or take a stand.”
See also The 10 Rules of Hands-On Adjustments for Yoga Teachers
Karen Rain, who studied with Jois for a total of 24 months from 1994 to 1998 in Mysore, has become the most prominent and vocal victim of what she said was repeated sexual assault at the hands of Jois.
“I considered the way he handled women unethical,” Rain says, adding that back then, students would discuss the way Jois touched his female students but only behind closed doors and never to Jois himself. “At the time I was only able to be consciously aware of and discuss the sexual abuse of other women. I was not fully accepting of having been personally sexually abused by him. I had disassociated during the sexual assaults. When there is disassociation there is also dis-integration of memory and cohesive understanding.”
As for myself—a long-time Ashtanga student, KPJAYI authorized teacher, and the yoga manager at a collection of London yoga studios—I’m ashamed to admit I turned a blind eye for so long, and wish to apologize to the victims that it took me years to come forward, to stand up and rail against their abuse, and to stop ritualizing Jois. There is much to make up for.
In order to do that, we must examine the very root of the problem: the dynamic of the student-teacher relationship itself. The hierarchical nature of this relationship creates a clear power imbalance where, in this case, Jois’ students did not feel in a position to question his decisions and actions no matter how unethical his behavior. His victims returned year after year because they dismissed and rationalized the abuse as something else; their capacity to understand what was happening to them was impaired by their disassociation. Jois was able to abuse his students because the guru-sisya model, which lacks checks or balances, allowed it.
“As long as the guru dynamic remains, it is an opportunity for future abusers to build upon and take advantage of the same dynamic,” says Greg Nardi, an Ashtanga teacher in Miami, Fla.. “Systems that consolidate power and remove accountability structures for harmful actions only encourage the darker sides of human behavior, and they do not empower anyone. It has taken me some time to recognize that by participating in the guru system, I have been both accountable for supporting and oppressed by this dynamic that has caused harm to Pattabhi Jois’ victims.”
See also Let It All Go: 7 Poses to Release Trauma in the Body
Last month, Nardi turned in his Level 2 authorization to KPJAYI, a courageous move given that he was one of Pattabhi and Sharath Jois’ most influential teachers. Nardi has joined London-based teacher Scott Johnson and Cornwall studio owner Emma Rowse to form Amayu, an educational organization where authority is completely decentralized in an attempt to create a very different power dynamic that is a marked departure from the traditional model, where one person (the teacher or guru) is in control of what is taught and how it is taught.
Every teacher who becomes part of the Amayu cooperative must take trauma sensitivity training, and anyone who practices in an Amayu-registered studio must agree to a code of ethics where the rights and dignity of all students are respected and backed by a transparent grievance procedure.
“In order to ensure that Ashtanga yoga fulfills its potential as a healing system it must be stripped of harmful power dynamics,” says Johnson. “We actively promote a culture that fosters equality, empowerment, mindful living, compassion, and speaking up for those who are disadvantaged, disenfranchised and disempowered.”
Charting a New, More Ethical Path Forward
We can and in some cases already do interpret this system of yoga differently across the world; for too long we’ve been held hostage to the notion that it can only be taught and practiced one way. Five Surya Namaskars A’s, three B’s, standing postures, seated postures, backbends, closing sequence. No props. No new postures before you can bind, catch or balance. Hands-on assists is a given—not an option.
I still practice this way, and it works well for me. But now, I recognize that it doesn’t work as well for others.
At triyoga, where I work in London, we recently introduced the use of consent cards that students can use in any one of our 750 classes a week, which includes five robust Mysore programs.
These cards are placed in prime positions as students enter the studio and can be placed on their mat in silent communication to their teacher that they do not wish to be touched that day. Of course, it is our preference that students speak to their teacher; but if they don’t feel they can do that, these cards offer another option.
We’ve introduced these cards in an effort to bring more trauma-informed instruction in our studios. To be transparent, I knew very little about trauma when senior Ashtanga teacher Mary Taylor wrote a #metoo-inspired blog one year ago, essentially breaking open the abuse conversation amongst the global Ashtanga community. I’ve had to educate myself about how traumatic experiences from the past can play out in the present moment and sometimes in a yoga class, especially when touched without explicit permission.
See also 10 Prominent Yoga Teachers Share Their #MeToo Stories
My journey from total ignorance to something that has a bit more light is one I’m grateful for, and which I deeply hope will help future students. Many of us in the Ashtanga community have been fiercely criticized for getting it wrong when responding to Jois’ assault of women. And we did get it wrong. We were wholly unprepared for how to speak about it, and we used language that minimized what Jois did. (For example, we called it “inappropriate adjustments” rather than “sexual assault.”)
Unfortunately, this backlash has resulted in a paralysis to say anything at all, especially for those who found themselves struggling to hold both the abuse Jois committed with the transformative experiences they experienced when studying with their former teacher.
I don’t think that’s helpful for anyone. We have to be able to talk about this openly and without fear of retribution, indignation or humiliation. And I believe we can do that while still holding space for the victims.
“By and large we have processed this badly in the Ashtanga community,” says Ty Landrum, an Ashtanga teacher in Boulder, Colo., who runs The Yoga Workshop. “By not talking about [the sexual misconduct] we are repressing it and pushing it below the surface. Our yogic process has to be about our willingness to confront our shadows, and in some sense, make peace with them.”
For me, the shadow of Pattabhji Jois looms large. I’m still trying to figure out what role he plays in my practice and my love for it. As the creator of one of the world’s most practiced systems of yoga, he’s an undeniably important figure. We can’t whitewash him out of the picture, and I don’t think we should. Because to remove Jois from history would mean we deny the existence of his victims.
See also #TimesUp: Ending Sexual Abuse in the Yoga Community
Where, then, does he belong? Surely not in a place of reverence as was the custom in many shalas around the world. At triyoga earlier this year, we pulled copies of Jois’ “Yoga Mala” and “Guruji: A Portrait of Sri K. Pattabhi Jois Through the Eyes of his Students” from our shops’ bookshelves. It felt wrong to reap economic benefits from books that glorifed a perpetrator of sexual assault.
Out of respect for anyone who has suffered sexual assault, many teachers have also taken down Jois’ images that hung on walls in practice rooms or sat on altars alongside statues of deities like Ganesha or Saraswati. “Pattabhi Jois’ photos came down from our walls immediately,” says Jean Byrne, the co-owner of The Yoga Space in Perth, Australia. For her, the abuse represented the very opposite of ahimsa, the very first yama that teaches the avoidance of violence toward others. “The photos were getting in the way of my practice and were triggering for many of our students.”
The fissures will no doubt continue to widen for as long as it takes the Ashtanga community to work through our conflicted feelings toward Jois—and, even more importantly, for as long as it takes for all of us in the Ashtanga community to apologize to his victims.
About the Author
Genny Willkinson Priest is a yoga teacher and yoga manager at triyoga, Europe’s biggest group of yoga studios. She has donated the income paid for this article to The Havens, a London organization aimed at helping those who have been raped or sexually assaulted. Learn more at gennyyoga.com.
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