Our current political climate may feel as polarizing and un-yogic than ever, but there is a way to hold love in your heart for those you disagree with the most. Here’s how.
Here’s something you might not know about me: before I was passionate about yoga, I was passionate about politics. I used to get into heated arguments with people about government policy. I was on the high school debate team (and even won awards for public speaking), and after high school, my plan was to major in political science and go to law school. I wanted to fight what I thought was the good fight in politics.
Yet the summer between high school and college, I woke up one morning and realized I was so much happier than I had been in a long time. After a few moments of introspective probing, I realized it was because I was not debating people all the time. It suddenly hit me that scheduling a debate is like scheduling time to argue, and it quickly became evident that I wouldn’t be happy if I devoted my life to arguing with people as my profession.
For years after my choice to turn away from the pre-law path, I was lost and searching for meaning and purpose. I turned away from politics and news in general and went on a media fast. It was in this period that I discovered yoga.
Recently, I’ve been reflecting on the yogi’s role in civic discourse and public service. Now, don’t stop reading: I’m not here to endorse a particular agenda. I do, of course, have my opinions on what I believe good government is, but I’m not writing this to try and convince you of my beliefs. Instead, I’m writing this to help you, as a fellow yogi, navigate the often-murky territory of post-election polarization. Two sides engage in rounds of debates, run onslaughts of advertisements, amplify their positions in echo chambers, and charge forward. One side emerges as the winner, the other side as the loser. Meanwhile, our shared sense of community fractures and we grow further apart. Or, at least, that is how the last few election cycles seemed to play out to me.
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Walking the Yogic Path, Post-Election
So, what does the yogic path have to offer civic discourse in our current state of affairs? As it turns out, a lot.
Let’s start off with the foundational yogic principle of ahimsa. Often translated as non-violence, I’ve always liked a positive definition of this principle. To me, ahimsa is more than just the absence of violence; it is the active state of love, forgiveness, and acceptance. There is nothing like a polarizing election cycle to bring out the hatred, judgement, and vitriol. This is the state of himsa—hatred, violence, or negativity—and goes against yogic values. In order to balance your mind, I recommend practicing ahimsa in this very real and challenging way: learn to love your enemies. This isn’t a new concept, yet in our present-day quagmire of political voices, we need this high teaching more than ever.
Think about how many times you have “unfollowed” someone on social media whom you once found inspiring, or stopped talking to someone because he or she proclaims different political beliefs than you do. I recently shared some of my personal opinions about the governor race in my home state of Florida on my Instagram stories and got both positive and negative response. There were people who called on me to “stick to yoga” and announced that they would now be forced to “unfollow” me. To others I was a hero. It’s almost like we categories people who don’t share our political beliefs as our “enemies” and those who do as “heroes.” In doing so, we also normalize harsh and sometimes cruel words and actions towards those people whom we deem as enemies.
I’ll be honest: I’ve had those same type of judgmental thoughts about others. We all have friends or family members whose political beliefs are different from our own. I’ve been shocked to see what someone I know on a personal level thinks about government policies or leaders; I’ve even been tempted to leave a comment when they share their thoughts on Facebook and Instagram. But as long as this person’s beliefs and actions are not causing me personal and direct harm, I believe it is my work as a yogi to learn to stay present with them and learn to love them anyway.
This is ahimsa in action.
See also Path to Happiness: 9 Interpretations of the Yamas + Niyamas
Why Ahimsa in Action Is Such Important Work
I’m here to tell you that ahimsa in action is so freeing. Hate and judgement can be heavy; love and forgiveness often feel light. I’m not saying that hate is bad or wrong or that you shouldn’t feel hate. In fact, if you feel hopeless, sometimes being angry is a positive step. What I am suggesting, however, is that you do your work to process your emotions about the election cycle until you find a place of love and positive action before you take action.
While it can be useful and necessary to bring issues that are problematic to the surface, it can also be easy to get swept away in the passion of hate. I know because I’ve done it myself. While protesting actions that I deemed unjust, I let hate get the better of me. Before I knew it, I was no longer standing for something I believed in and instead, I was fighting against something I did not believe in. And truly, what you resist persists. What you hate grows stronger. On the flip side, every action rooted in love has the potential to heal.
What I know for sure is that underneath all the heated political arguments coming from “strangers on the internet” are real people whose pain and suffering is present. Regardless of which side of the political spectrum you identify with, try to remember there is a real, live human being on the other end of every word written on the internet (just like I am really here, behind this blog post). The challenge of ahimsa in a bitter atmosphere is not just to do no harm. Ahimsa is bigger than that. Ahimsa means to make every act an act of love. Ahimsa in action makes the case for a broad notion of love as social justice, mutual respect, and positive action.
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4 Ways to Put Ahimsa Into Action This Week
1. Love your enemies.
Called Tonglen in Buddhism, the practice of sending love to your enemies can truly set you free. Start off by sending loving thoughts to yourself. See yourself happy and filled with love. Let the feeling of love wash over you. Next, send love to someone you truly admire. Simmer in the love. Finally, send love to your enemies. I recommend doing this practice before you go to a protest post-election. Be sure to send love to the other side—the ones you consider your enemies. It will be hard, but remember love is your greatest weapon. Notice any resistance and see if you can freely give love. Then, sit back and tune into your heart as all the love you send out returns to you tenfold.
2. Listen without judgement.
This is what I call “ahimsa listening,” and it’s all about learning to listen with love. The next time you find yourself about to judge someone or respond to something they say with harsh words, try this: Pause, breathe, and take a step back; do your own work to return to a center of calm within yourself by meditating for at least 5 minutes; then, return and ask a genuine question in an effort to listen without making any conclusions about the character of the person. This type of innocent perception can help release your judgements and humanize the opposing side. Plus, understanding where your adversary is coming from will better equip you for the path ahead.
3. Acknowledge your judgement and hate.
There is no sense in pretending that you are beyond judgement and hate just because you are a yogi. So, give yourself permission to allow your judgments to float up to the surface where you can see them. Then, instead of pushing them away or feeling shame about them, just observe them. When you notice yourself thinking judgmental, hateful thoughts, pause and just feel them in your body. Let them run their course—and in the meantime, don’t take any action. Usually, I find that sitting with a thought or feeling in the free space of mindfulness allows you the time to process your feelings without action. There have been times that I thought I wasn’t passing judgement—yet the only thing that happened is that my judgements came out as passive aggression. Be brutally honest with yourself, and see if you can turn judgmental thoughts around. Ask yourself if there is an opposite thought that is equally true. For example, if your judgement was, “My friend is so close-minded and hard to speak to,” see if it might be equally true to say, “I am so close-minded and hard to speak to.”
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4. Stand for a positive future.
Unless your action is rooted in love and you have a positive vision for the world you want to create, simply refrain from acting. If you feel compelled to share something political—whether on social media, or with colleagues, friends, or loved ones—check yourself regarding love and hate. If you notice that you want to share because you hate the candidate who won, consider not sharing. If you notice that you want to share something because you truly come from love for all beings, then share.
Centering your action around love for all beings does not need to be placid and calm. In fact, it could be fierce and powerful. You may find that you call a friend or family member out on a racist point of view because you love them and want to educate them. The key is what’s in your heart. If you share from a place of hate, there’s a good chance it will drag you down. If you are rooted in love, you will be more successful at maintaining your own peaceful heart.
About the Author
Kino MacGregor is a Miami native and the founder of Omstars, the world’s first yoga TV network. (For a free month, click here. With over 1 million followers on Instagram and over 500,000 subscribers on YouTube and Facebook, Kino’s message of spiritual strength reaches people all over the world. Sought after as an expert in yoga worldwide, Kino is an international yoga teacher, inspirational speaker, author of four books, producer of six Ashtanga Yoga DVDs, writer, vlogger, world traveler, and co-founder of Miami Life Center. Learn more at www.kinoyoga.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).
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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.
Rosie Acosta on Her Troubled Past and Finding Yoga
Asana and meditation teacher and popular podcast personality Rosie Acosta says yoga and a sunny outlook saved her life. Here’s how.
On a sunny afternoon in the Hollywood Hills, Rosie Acosta sits on the sofa in her bright living room, knees to her chest, facing best-selling author and Ayurveda practitioner Sahara Rose Ketabi. The two women are friends, and they’ve greeted each other warmly with hugs and excited chatter. They dish for a few minutes about Acosta’s herbal tea obsession and Ketabi’s recent engagement, but the pair have come together on official business—Ketabi is making a guest appearance on Acosta’s wellness podcast, Radically Loved, to discuss her new cookbook, Eat Feel Fresh, which features modern spins on traditional Ayurvedic recipes.
Both Ayurveda enthusiasts, Acosta and Ketabi have recently returned from a six-day panchakarma, the most intense detoxification ritual in Ayurvedic medicine. The process consists of five aggressive therapies said to eliminate doshic imbalances in the body. (In Ayurveda, doshas are the three energies believed to govern physiological and mental activity.) To hear them describe it, it’s purging, pooping, and bathing in oil until you come out anew on the other side. Oh, and there’s a ton of ghee: “They put ghee in your eyes to clarify eyesight. They clean your ears with it,” Ketabi marvels. “I mean, there’s ghee in every crevice.”
Of course there’s also meditation and self-reflection and carefully prepared Ayurvedic meals of kitchari (and more ghee), and it was during a panchakarma lunch that Ketabi discovered something rather radical about Acosta: “She’s literally a psychic guru,” she tells me.
See also How to Use Ayurveda to Get Healthier Every Time You Eat
Acosta and Ketabi swear it happened like this: They were at the panchakarma retreat with two other friends. It was a virechana day—designed to clear toxins from the GI tract. They all took laxatives and were confined to their individual rooms. Around three o’clock in the afternoon, Acosta took a nap. When she woke up at 4:30, she decided to meditate “for like, two hours straight,” she says, adding that it was the longest she’s ever sat for a meditation at one time. “I started to feel this weird thing happening—like an out-of-body experience,” she says. “All of a sudden, I wanted to go visit the girls and see what they were doing.”
Without leaving her room, still deep in meditation, Acosta checked in on her friends. She saw one of them curled up on her bed, naked, and lying on her left side. Another was propped up on her stomach, journaling. Acosta didn’t see Ketabi in her room at all. Instead, she envisioned the petite brunette at the gym, running on an elliptical, talking on her cell phone in Spanish (she’s fluent) to what sounded like a wedding planner. “At the end of the conversation she goes, ‘OK. ¡Hasta luego!’ And then hangs up,” Acosta recalls.
By the time Acosta met Ketabi for lunch the next day, she’d already confirmed with the other two women that her visions of them had, in fact, been accurate. But when she started telling Ketabi what had happened, things got even weirder. Ketabi had indeed been Skyping with her wedding photographer on an elliptical the day before, ending her conversation with the Spanish farewell hasta luego. “And I remember thinking after I hung up, That so did not sound like me. Why did I say that?” Ketabi says. “I sounded like an American trying to learn Spanish.” As they hashed out the events of the day before, they discovered that Acosta’s vision had actually occurred hours before Ketabi’s conversation with her photographer took place. “It’s like she put the words in my mouth,” Ketabi concludes.
From rags to richness
At 35, Acosta has come to terms with supernatural phenomena such as clairvoyance and manifesting her deepest desires—in fact, she’s built her career in the yoga space by leaning into them. She believes that practicing gratitude and intense optimism (and living a life guided by the Yoga Sutra) can lead to dramatic transformation, because she’s experienced this herself. Today Acosta lives comfortably in a two-bedroom Craftsman overlooking Laurel Canyon with her fiancé, upscale-accessories designer Torry Pendergrass; her teenage sister, who was born when she was 15; and her two dogs. Acosta admits feeling extraordinarily lucky to be making a living teaching yoga and meditation in Los Angeles. Hosting self-discovery retreats and teacher trainings, plus inspirational speaking, keeps her constantly jet-setting—and her self-help-heavy podcast, in which she’s waxed poetic on topics ranging from the importance of forgiveness to the power of intention, has recently reached 120,000 followers. But things weren’t always coming up roses for Acosta, and there was a time not too long ago when she likened yoga to a cult.
See also Rosie Acosta on How to Take Down Your Inner Critic
After a tumultuous childhood growing up in South San Gabriel in East Los Angeles, Acosta suffered from depression, anxiety, and a binge-eating disorder throughout her late teens. With two immigrant parents (her mother from Spain and her father from Mexico) trying to make ends meet amid gang violence and the racist drug war that defined Los Angeles in the late ’80s and early ’90s, Acosta learned early on that there was a price to pay for being Latin American in her part of the world. “There was never any, ‘Oh, you have to grow up and go to school and have aspirations to be successful,” she recalls. “No. It was, ‘Your job is to stay alive.’”
Often referred to as the decade of death, 1988–1998 in Los Angeles County was marked by record homicide rates and violence. Gangs terrorized the neighborhoods surrounding Acosta’s home, where she lived with her parents, her older sister, and a revolving cast of extended relatives. One evening in March of ’88, Acosta’s 16-year-old uncle, charged with babysitting her and her cousin for the night, promised to take the pair of five-year-old girls to the arcade. Instead, he parked his black Camaro outside of Skateland U.S.A., a roller rink by day, music venue by night, that’s notable for launching hip-hop supergroup N.W.A. The concrete depot on Central Avenue in Compton was situated deep in Bloods territory, and although a sign reading NO CAPS — NO COLORS adorned the entry door, the crowd was frequently a stormy sea of red. Peering out from the back seat of the Camaro, Acosta could see a gaggle of high schoolers and gangbangers drinking and shouting in the noisy lot. “Wait in the car,” her uncle told her. “I’m just gonna go watch this show, and then I’ll be right back.” An early N.W.A. fan, her uncle had brought her to the controversial rap group’s now-legendary first performance, immortalized in the 2015 biopic Straight Outta Compton.
“He left, and we just looked at each other, so freaked out,” Acosta recalls. The girls hid under a Saltillo blanket as violence erupted outside—until their uncle emerged, hours later, with a bloody face and a busted left eye. “I still have no idea how that happened, but then nobody asked him,” Acosta recalls. “He was like, ‘We were at the arcade,’ and my parents were like, ‘OK.’ It was literally like Lord of the Flies, you know?”
Exactly 10 years later, in the spring of 1998, Acosta sat in the driver’s seat of a running cop car, surrounded by six or seven officers with their guns drawn, all screaming for her to get out of the car. She was a sophomore at Mark Keppel High School, and she and some friends had decided to ditch sixth period to hang out at Sierra Vista Park in northeast LA. The small grassy park is home to a basketball court and a primary-colored playground, and while the teens were en route, a car chase was going down nearby. A police car had been in pursuit of a red Honda Prelude when both cars screeched to a halt at the edge of the park. The chase continued on foot—the abandoned vehicles left running on the pavement. “I was like Dora the Explorer, looking in both cars, trying to be a badass because all these people were watching,” says Acosta. “And someone was like, ‘Oh, you should get into the cop car.’” Clad in fingerless panda-print gloves and a chunky black sweater, Acosta hopped into the front seat, unaware that the place was crawling with undercover cops. The incident resulted in her arrest for attempted grand theft auto.
Rosie from the block
Ventura Boulevard is humming with hipsters as Acosta and I sit beneath a bright-blue umbrella, amid teal bistro tables, outside Australian-inspired coffee shop Bluestone Lane. The chain is new to LA, and Acosta is hoping this outpost will be as good as the one she frequents in New York City. We both order avocado toast, and over coffee and matcha discuss her forthcoming memoir and how she came to find yoga. She’s animated and easy to talk to, with an attitude and mannerisms that are a little bit JLo. (Case in point, as Ketabi walked out the door at the end of her podcast recording session with Acosta, she turned to me and said, “The way I’m envisioning the [YJ] cover is, she’s wearing little pigtails on her head, like buns. And she’s doing a handstand on one hand. And wearing those pants that have the straps, but instead of ‘Calvin Klein’ it says, ‘Rosie from the Block’”—a direct reference to the 2002 Jennifer Lopez chart topper “Jenny from the Block.”) In short, Acosta is the real deal, and she practices what she preaches because she believes it saved her life.
Acosta tells me that if she hadn’t been booked that day in 1998, things may not have turned around quite like they have. Traumatic episodes such as the one that unfolded at the N.W.A. concert colored her childhood, and it was only after her arrest that she was truly able to reflect on how her upbringing was wreaking havoc on her adolescence. Living through a never-ending reel of teen deaths, hold-ups at grocery stores, and other violent scenarios eventually led to debilitating panic attacks, depression, and other symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. And after her arrest, court-ordered probation meant she could no longer cut school to blow off steam with her friends, most of whom were on a similar path of self-destruction. Discovering meditation and self-inquiry, plus a dramatic shift in attitude, is what revealed to her that she didn’t have to buy into what other people expected of her, which by her account, wasn’t much. “Nobody around us was trying to cultivate growth of any kind,” she says. “For me, the unpopular decision was to succeed. It’s fucked up, but the unpopular vote was to move out of my environment and become something else.”
During her senior year of high school, her mom, who supervised the cleaning staff at a local hospital, returned one night from work with some literature for the Self-Realization Fellowship temple in Hollywood—a white-stucco sanctuary with gold architectural embellishments and arched stained-glass windows—founded by Paramahansa Yogananda, an Indian yogi often credited with helping bring meditation and Kriya Yoga to the West.
“My mom said, ‘Hey, one of the ladies at work says she was stressed out and meditation worked for her—you should try it,’” recalls Acosta. “I took the little pamphlets, and I started to read about affirmations, and meditation, and manifestation, and the Law of Attraction, and all these things, and I really liked it. I was like, Oh, it’s like magic.”
But when she showed up at the temple a few weeks later, it wasn’t exactly love at first sight: “I was like, ‘This is a fucking cult. Get me out of here,’” she says. Even so, something about the lecture she heard that day resonated with her deep down, and she decided to stick with it. “The sermon was about how we were responsible for our own happiness,” Acosta says. “That really caught my attention, because I was like, Whoa, whoa, what does that mean? I was having this spiritual awakening of sorts, and it really spoke to me—this idea that I needed to be responsible for creating the life I wanted. I needed to be the person who rectified my bad behavior,” she says. “Somebody else couldn’t do that for me.”
Gradually, the path toward yoga revealed itself. When Acosta was 22, she grew interested in the physical aspects of the yogic lifestyle she was beginning to adopt, and she decided to attend a teacher training that, she would later come to realize, was unconventional, to say the least. “I found this little Kundalini Yoga studio in Pasadena that offered a weekend-long immersive training led by this sweet couple,” she says. As it turned out, they were followers of Osho, the controversial leader of the Rajneesh movement, recently popularized by the Netflix documentary series Wild Wild Country. “They had Osho posters everywhere,” Acosta recalls. “I took away a ton of information, but I remember thinking, There’s no way I can teach yoga. But after that, yoga started becoming more of a daily practice.”
She began regularly frequenting the Center for Yoga (now YogaWorks) and attending workshops and 200-hour teacher trainings with the intention of both deepening her practice and eventually becoming a yoga teacher. Yoga was where everything made sense, she says.
Rod Stryker, the founder of ParaYoga who became Acosta’s teacher in 2011, was surprised to learn of the adversity Acosta overcame to become the warm and wise yogi she is today. He says of their early days together: “I didn’t hear anything about hardship. I experienced this amazingly present, vibrant, mature, full soul.” But Acosta says that when she started studying with Stryker (her favorite teacher was a student of his, and encouraged Acosta to try his class), she had really only just begun her journey into yoga. “Things were resonating, but I couldn’t put the pieces together. It was like having a compass, and seeing signs—just trying to figure out how to bring all the clues together,” she says.
Reflections from the other side
Today, after seven years of Stryker’s tutelage, Acosta certainly appears to have found her way. She teaches her own students at Wanderlust Hollywood and the newly opened Den Meditation studio, and recently, she and Pendergrass have been talking about starting a family of their own. The lessons she imparts on her students she’s learned from Stryker and from her own transformation. First and foremost, “practice for a long period of time without interruption and with an attitude of service”—wisdom from Patanjali (author of the Yoga Sutra) that’s so important today, she says, when most of us can’t even read an email on the computer without reaching for our phone. “I always say, this is a marathon, not a sprint. There are no freeways to enlightenment,” she says. The other mainstay of her teaching is something she’s gleaned from her own life: Commit to your own ability and your own potential, and quit comparing yourself to others. “Devote yourself to your own gifts and you’ll achieve success,” she says. “And remember that it’s going to look different from everyone else’s, because it’s supposed to.”
From the Mulholland Drive Scenic Overlook, where Acosta takes me one blistering-hot LA afternoon, we can see the entire metropolis sprawled out in front of us. She points out where she grew up, all the way on the right, the East side of the horizon. She recalls how she used to skip school and take the bus to downtown, then hike all the way up here and imagine what life would look like on the other side of the city—the life she’s living today, as if deep down, she knew what it would be like all along. “One of my girlfriends, she wanted to be an actress,” she recalls. “So she’d say things like, ‘I’m going to buy that house over there and be famous.’ But for me, any time I had to think of what my life might look like if it were something else, I would stay quiet. I didn’t have a vision of a career, per se, but I had a vision of what I wanted to see. And it was this.”
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