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How to Host International Yoga Retreats Consciously and Ethically

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Yoga and Buddhism teacher Jacoby Ballard shares thoughts on travel and how the compassion and generosity that a yoga practice fosters can help create peace, regardless of where you roll out your mat. You don’t have to go far to feel connected to the world.

My yoga and meditation practice helped me grapple with the disappointing truth that I didn’t have the training, support, context, or time to act skillfully in Guatemala

When I was 24, I traveled to volunteer in Guatemala, arriving with many good intentions, and radical anti-globalization politics. But I soon found that, due to the economic, race, and gender dynamics that preceded me, I was often viewed as wealthy and expected to either tell locals what to do (about challenges and difficulties that I had no context or skills for) or to dole out gifts (whether to individuals or a community). Over the course of hundreds of interactions, I learned that I would have to remain in one community for decades to become a true partner in change and not be seen as just another imperialist gringo. At the time, my yoga and meditation practice helped me grapple with the disappointing truth that I didn’t have the training, support, context, or time to act skillfully in Guatemala.

See also Leadership Lab: Jacoby Ballard on Power, Privilege and Practice

Shortly after my return to the U.S., I began working for CISPES, the Committee In Solidarity with the People of El Salvador—a grassroots organization that has been supporting the Salvadoran people’s struggle for social and economic justice since 1980. At CISPES I received a history lesson on El Salvador and the training and support to do the work that initially brought me to Guatemala. I benefitted from generations of CISPES activists before me and a legacy of trust and profound dialog with our Salvadoran compas about social change strategies and practices.

While working at CISPES, I began teaching a weekly yoga class to our staff and that of a few other nearby organizations. Through that offering, I found my work, or my dharma: to support social change workers through embodiment and reflection, to give them designated time to slow down and turn inward, thereby preventing burnout and strengthening their social movements—it is when we are in a state of individual and collective balance that we can be the most tactful, innovative, wise, and ambitious.

See also How to Become a Group Exercise Instructor

Can Yoga Teachers Lead International Retreats Ethically?

Five years later, in 2012, I led my first international yoga retreat in Tulum, Mexico, after hearing how lucrative it could be, and given the difficulty of making a living as a yoga teacher in New York City. Initially, I felt I had enough reasons to try to lead international retreats ethically, but after five such retreats, it still didn’t feel aligned with my values and politics. Unlike with my work at CISPES, I certainly wasn’t in dialog with local people and movements, and I wasn’t using my privilege in solidarity with the needs of the most vulnerable and targeted people of Mexico. I had no way to evaluate whether my week-long presence on retreats was of actual benefit to the working class and indigenous Mexicans working at the retreat center or those walking the beaches selling coconut water or necklaces. And with more and more American and European presence in Tulum, it felt like I was part of displacement and imposition rather than an equitable relationship.

Such experiences sit in stark contrast to an annual Queer and Trans Yoga Retreat I started leading at the Watershed Center in Millerton, New York, in 2013. This retreat center is devoted to the wellbeing of social justice workers, the health of the land, and it cultivates relationships with the original inhabitants, the Schaghticoke people. Retreaters’ food is grown on the queer farm across the dirt road. Retreat center beds were constructed as part of a youth leadership program upstate. And, the Watershed Center posts photos on its dining room wall of a diverse array of retreatants answering the question, “what is liberation?” All of these practices build a sense of continuity, community, and participation beyond just who attends the retreat.

See also Jacoby Ballard Creates Safe Spaces for Trans Community

Some people travel or retreat to have a new, fun experience, to fulfill curiosity about the world, to gain perspective on life, or for respite. I want this too, but I also want to participate in the equitable redistribution of resources, authentic and humble relationships with local people, a priority on connection over profit, and a sense that I am there to do both individual work and participate in collective liberation. If you are like me, when you engage in yoga travel, you want to take the opportunity to cultivate intimacy with yourself on the mat, but also with the uneven dynamics of race and religion that shape our experience and help us understand the world.

My hope for any immersion into a yoga practice—whether at your local studio or on retreat in Tulum—is for you to cultivate awareness and visionary strategy to tend to problems like the gender wage gap, the targeting of black folks by police departments, the separation of immigrant families, or the generations of assault on Turtle Island’s indigenous peoples. By creating intimacy where there has been separation, we can humanize those who have been disregarded, displaced, or excluded. We can investigate what is deliberately hidden. Traveling ethically can be an opportunity to put our spirituality into practice in daily life. 

See also YJ Asked: How Can Teachers Make All Students Feel Included?

Questions to Ask Yourself Before You Host an International Yoga Retreat

These inquiries are not easy! But they can help you travel responsibly
:

  • What are my intentions in travel to this place, at this moment in my life, and at this moment in our political landscape? 
  • What can I learn about the local history, politics, spiritual and religious practices, and culture from the perspective of local communities? (If you don’t have time to study this, perhaps it’s not the right time to travel.) 
  • What does humility and integrity look like in the space I take up, or with the jewelry I wear, gifts I present, and products and experiences I consume? 
  • Who owns the retreat center? What is their position in the local culture, economy, and political landscape? What kind of income does the staff earn? 
  • What organizations in my travel destination can I donate to that serve local people at the margins? 
  • Can I offset the environmental impact of my flight through donating to an organization blocking an oil pipeline or supporting a reforestation project? 

See also What’s the Difference Between Cultural Appropriation and Cultural Appreciation?

About our author

Jacoby Ballard has taught yoga for 19 years. Now based in Salt Lake City, Utah, he is the co-founder of Third Root Community Health Center, a worker-owned cooperative and holistic health center in Brooklyn, New York. He has worked with the Yoga Service Council; Insight Meditation Society; Off the Mat, Into the World; Yoga Alliance; and Lululemon on issues of social justice. Learn more about Jacoby’s work at jacobyballard.com. 



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Take a Look Inside The Rady Children's Hospital Yoga Program

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A volunteer yoga program at Rady Children’s Hospital in San Diego is bettering the lives of its oncology kids.

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How to Avoid Social Media Blues

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Yacht parties and bikini bodies got you down? Here’s how to get out of the funk.

I photoshopped a picture of myself once. Okay, maybe more than once.

I’m not talking about adding filters or erasing stains from my shirt. I’m talking vacuuming away parts of my stomach, arms, and even a little thigh. When I gave my husband a virtual tummy tuck, he finally forced me to check myself.

“You can’t talk about self-love and authenticity and then use photoshop!” He was horrified. And then I was, too.

I whole-heartedly believe we’re each put on this earth in our own unique bodies to express our true Selves. And through platforms such as teaching yoga, writing, and using social media, part of my job is to help people realize this. I teach the self-acceptance and body positivity—but I wasn’t always practicing it.

What the bleep was I doing erasing a few pounds with the swipe of my finger?

For the honest answer, we must take a little trip back in time.

I have been dieting since I was 9 years old. Even now, while I may no longer count calories or weigh my broccoli, I still watch every morsel I put in my mouth. I was a child of the early nineties—the era of the supermodel. Pictures of Claudia Schiffer and Cindy Crawford lined the walls of my room. My mum modeled, too (along with her many other careers), and I coveted her air-brushed headshots, just as I did every single page of Vogue.

I wish I looked like that.

Wow, she’s so beautiful.

Why am I so ugly?

These were the lyrics that played on repeat in my head. Not exactly the anthems we want for our children.

The pressure of perfection is a force so strong it can flatten us, if we let it. Literally. It will drain out our color, wash away our texture, and suck us down to some sort of washed-out, skeletal, carbon copy of a Barbie doll.

Under ever photoshopped picture is a human being. A real person, who’s every pore, every wrinkle, every scar, every pound, tells a unique story.

Unfortunately, these are the stories the media does not want us to hear. If we did, we might never buy another beauty product again. Instead, corporate interest spins a golden yarn of the unattainable: the “perfect” woman, the “perfect” man. And the messaging is so loud and pervasive that we absorb it without even trying. Like a top 20 hit you’ve somehow memorized without ever intentionally listening to the song.

See also 5 Poses to Inspire More Self-Love, Less Self Smack-Talk

One day, you find yourself looking at a picture you just took, and instead of seeing the glory in your unique story, you see all your perceived flaws. So, you download an app on your phone that allows you to become a sliver of that “perfect” ideal with the click of your thumb. And like magic, all of the insecurities, the negativity, erase from the screen. That was easy!

But to truly love ourselves in a world that tells us we are not enough is not easy. It takes great courage. It is a rebellious act. It means ignoring the toxic messages and beauty ideals and accept ourselves as we are in this moment. It means looking yourself in the eye in the mirror saying—and really believing—“You are beautiful.” Not because we are thin or tan or have poreless skin. You are beautiful because there is no one in the entire universe that is like you! And nor will there ever be again.

So, the next time you take a picture that you are going to share to the world, I dare you to not add a filter. I dare you to not adjust or alter the image in any way. To share your story in all of its glorious detail. You do not have to be afraid, for I will stand with you. Or hands held, our faces clear, and our soul’s bright.

See also  5 Ways to Radically Love Yourself Today

Here are some tools to help you avoid the perfection trap:

1. When you take a picture, look at the whole picture. 

How often do we take a picture and immediately zoom in to inspect ourselves? Think about group pictures: What is the first thing people do when they look at one? They focus on themselves and their flaws. But it is our imperfections that make us beautifully who we are. I’m a sucker for a big nose and a crooked smile. As Leonard Cohen says in his song “Anthem,” There is a crack in everything/ That’s how the light gets in. When you take a photo, try to see the entire image—the complete scene. Remember where you were, who you were with, and how you felt. Pictures should capture memories not project fantasies.

2. Delete image-editing apps from of your phone. Remove the temptation! 

When I am not being mindful, my desire for perfection can border on obsession. Couple that with social media addiction and it’s a recipe for disaster. At one point, I had 10 different apps on my phone for altering images. 10 different apps! In the same way it is helpful to not have alcohol in the house when you are on a cleanse, removing the apps relieves the temptation. Instead, fill your phone with apps that help you grow creatively. Try learning a new language, playing brain games, and listening to interesting podcasts. Take more pictures of your dog.

3. Unfollow people who trigger you. 

I stopped buying fashion magazines a long time ago because of how bad they made me feel. Even though I knew the images were altered, I could not help comparing myself to supermodels’ stick figures. Nowadays, these types of images pervade social media, and because they appear in someone’s personal feed rather than a magazine, we think they’re real. It’s much harder to deciphering what is fake. If you find yourself constantly feeling bad from looking at someone’s posts, it might be time to stop following them. Instead, find people to follow who leave you feeling empowered and inspired.

4. Get off social media and into the real world. 

One of my favorite things about teaching yoga is looking around the room and seeing all of the different body types. If we all looked or practiced the same, life would be so boring! When I look up from my phone and back out into the world, I find myself in awe of how beautiful everything is, from an 85-year-old walking with their 10-year-old grandchild, to a couple smooching on a park bench. Look around to see just how varied and unique and interesting we all are. Life is beautiful!

5. The next time you take a picture, look for one thing you love. 

As mentioned above, we have a tendency to home in on what we think are flaws. We zoom in, looking for something wrong. The next time you take a picture, instead of looking for what to fix, look for what you love. If you cannot find anything at first, look at the bigger picture. What did you love about that outfit? That location? Who you were with? Start to train your brain to see the beauty. This can (and should) start in the mirror. One of my favorite self-love practices is to say one thing I love about myself every day. It doesn’t have to be physical, either! The more we learn to love ourselves, the more love we have to give others. 



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