At Upswell this November, you’ll learn how to stretch – a skill that’s maybe not occurred to you as critical to changework before. You may correctly suspect that some yoga-based practices are at the foundation of the activities designed to help you do this, but here’s an important disclaimer: this is not about stretching bodies.
Instead, these activities are about stretching your mind and finding an “equanimity within yourself” that can be then used to influence society. Getting to that place of equanimity is not just a matter of physical poses and breathing exercises. Getting to that place is also not going to be the same for every individual. What is the same is the end goal of all inner work, and the aim of the Upswell reflection activities – namely, helping you drink as you pour, so you don’t burn out or run dry.
Many of us are not great at this. Swami Jaya Devi Bhagavati, executive director of the urban yoga ashram Kashi Atlanta, is quick to note that there are many cultural pressures and obstacles that make it challenging to head off burnout. The activities that staff from Kashi Atlanta will be leading at Upswell this November will walk changemakers through ways to find a place of balance necessary for effective and fulfilling changework. We caught up with Swami Jaya Devi Bhagavati to learn more about her, Kashi Altanta, and the thinking behind the reflection activities happening at Upswell this November.
Q: What can changemakers expect from the reflection activities?
SJDB: The idea is to create an experience of mindfulness in leadership – where we can start to talk about and practice an intentional and purposeful presence in our work. One of my passions is about infusing the outer work that you do in the world with the inner work that you do through meditation, or connection with your own inner spirit, so there’s less burnout and more fulfilment in your work.
Q: Upswell is a pretty diverse crowd, likely with varying levels of comfort and exposure to types of inner work. How would you encourage everyone there to have an open mind and make the most out of the reflection activities?
SJDB: The diversity is one of the things I’m really excited about! I come from a yoga tradition, and yoga is inherently interfaith and interspiritual. It’s non-denominational and accepts everybody’s tradition and even no tradition at all. It’s really a practice that’s designed to connect you deeper into yourself. It’s not about connecting to anything else.
In the West, we tend to think about yoga as the physical poses, and that’s one part of yoga. That’s one part of an eight-limbed path, and the other seven limbs get largely ignored and not taught very often. They’re very much about standing in the truth of who you are and being able to bring that in your work. So for Upswell, the only flexibility that’s required is flexibility of your mind – you have to be open-minded that there are these kinds of long-standing traditional practices that have been around for thousands of years that have a modern application to the times that we’re living in.
Yoga is about transforming your own suffering so you can kind of turn it around and help transform the world. That’s what all the limbs of yoga are designed to teach you – to be able to find equanimity within yourself and then live from that place of equanimity and then influence society.
Q: What kind of inner work can changemakers do in their daily lives wherever they are, right now?
SJDB: The simplest mindfulness practice is to first, stop and exhale. Then just take a deeper breath and see if you soften or open or let go of any stress that you are experiencing right now. Just come more fully into the moment and do that with a deeper breath. Breathe in more deeply. And breathe out more deeply. And even if, just while you’re reading this blog, you take three deeper breaths and soften and open to what you’re experiencing right now while you’re doing it, it can change how you experience this moment. You can go, “I don’t have to be so stressed out. I’m okay.” You want to breathe your way back into that feeling of “I’m okay. I got this.” That feeling, that centeredness is always there in you. We just start swirling around and we get separated from that.
Q: What in our culture do you think are some of the broad obstacles to getting to a place of equanimity, inner wellbeing, balance, etc.?
SJDB: The biggest obstacle is busy-ness of our minds and the times we live in. We’re just bombarded with imagery and messages and media and conversation and controversy. Our minds are so chockful that it’s very difficult to find some calm and open space there. And I think you have to do an intentional contemplative practice to create and maintain that. Otherwise, your mind is just never going to shut off.
Q: What brought you to the work you do?
SJDB: I started yoga practice as a teenager. I learned it from a book that I bought in probably nineteen-seventy-something – largely because I had a pretty challenging upbringing and was looking for ways to figure out how to be okay, how to survive it and thrive in it.
So, I bought the book and that really started to do something for me and within me – and way more than the poses of yoga, the deeper dimensions, the deeper practices, like the breath work and meditation work. And I found that these were actual tools that I could use to tap into who I am, not into what I was living through, and know that I’ve got this place within myself where I am myself, and that nobody could take that away.
And so, I just fell in love with yoga and have practiced and deepened my experience of – you know I do the physical practice of yoga, but I think the contemplative practices have been overlooked, and that we as a society can really benefit from them. That’s what they’re there for. They’re not just there for bending people. We all need this. It doesn’t matter what your body looks like. It matters that your heart is awake and being filled every day.
Q: Along the lines of “it doesn’t matter what your body looks like,” Kashi Atlanta seems especially committed to walking the talk. Talk a little about what makes that community unique.
SJDB: At Kashi Atlanta, our little urban yoga ashram, we have an incredibly diverse population. And we’re in a lot of ways, we’re atypical for a yoga studio, or a yoga center because it’s not just about the thin and bendy, wealthy, white, any of those things. It’s very much cross-cultural. We have a woman in a wheelchair who teaches. We have a transgender and queer yoga class. We have racially diverse staff, and student populations. We have yoga for curvy bodies, and we have a lot of the other limbs, the breath and the mediation and the other practices.
I think that embracing of everyone is part of the original yoga culture. It’s about personal fulfillment and upliftment. It’s about how to be more and more you in the world. The word yoga means union. It means wholeness of being. So that sense of union – of being connected and held, that sense of a deepening experience of community – we wanted to infuse the Upswell experience with that ever-deepening sense of community and ability to feel like your cup is full. We say all the time that you have to drink as you pour, so that you don’t burn out or run dry.
Q: Community service and activism are also really important to Kashi Atlanta, yes?
SJDB: Karma yoga is about community service. It’s something that we have practiced since we started, but it has grown exponentially. We started out with our Street Meals program and our Kashi care team. I started teaching contemplative practices in yoga for people with AIDS and HIV in kind of the heyday of the AIDS epidemic. There were a lot of people who were both living and dying with AIDS and HIV that had been abandoned by their families, and their church, and the community at-large. We do less work with the AIDS community now and more with people in our community who might be addressing cancer or terminal illness of some kind.
We just signed a contract with the City of Atlanta about eight months ago where we go in and teach contemplative practices and yoga to Atlanta police officers and firefighters and our sanitation workers – all kinds of people. It’s really pretty cool! Part of my passion is working with marginalized communities – communities that might not have access to this kind of work in the West, just because the way that yoga has evolved in the West has not really supported that. I don’t think we really figure out how to be a fully functioning and successful society until we embrace all of us.
Kashi Atlanta at Upswell
Karma Yoga: How Deep Inner Work Creates Meaningful Outer Work
Breathe a Deeper Breath, Live a Deeper Life
Drink as You Pour: Anti Burnout Practices for Warriors of Change
Be the Eye of the Storm: The Unshakeable Depth of Being
Art of Non-Reaction: Choosing a Conscious Response
The Stance of Power and Grace: Using the Arrow of Discernment