Connecting Yoga and Social Justice: How I Found My Voice

June 2, 2017    BY Phiroozeh Petigara

The Yoga + Social Justice Collaborative is an organization dedicated to exploring the relationship between spiritual practice and social justice through collaborative gatherings, education, and service. The blog series shares the thoughts and practices of our members and supporters. We invite you to join the conversation!

When I signed up for the Spiritual Justice Immersion with Piedmont Yoga, I felt like a giant fraud. I didn’t feel spiritual enough or social justice-y enough to be there. I hadn’t been marching and organizing and occupying since my teens. I wasn’t an activist or a particularly active feminist. Who was I to take part in such a training? I spent my first few sessions worrying about getting caught—caught for not being enraged enough, not fighting enough, not taking action enough. But as I delved into the readings, discussions, and practices of the program, I had a stark realization: I have been an activist my whole life. I have been fighting for equality my whole life. Only my journey has taken place not in public settings, but in the most private realm: my nuclear family.

I was around 11 when I got my first taste of patriarchy. Of course, I didn’t know that word then. We had recently immigrated to Canada from Pakistan and the sight of my mother stopping her dinner, fork halfway to her mouth, to jump up and put my father’s plate in the microwave drove me crazy. Why can’t he press a few buttons himself, I seethed as I watched this ritual unfold every single night. And who is going to reheat my mother’s food by the time she gets done serving my father?

I was around 11 when I got my first taste of patriarchy. Of course, I didn’t know that word then.

The following decade brought endless bouts between my father and I, with my mother standing silently by. We fought (i.e., he yelled, I endured) about clothes, boys, money, friends, pastimes, all the essentials of adolescence which were absolutely off limits in my father’s Pakistani eyes. My attempts at reasoning, at striking a compromise, at discussing things rationally and with compassion, were silenced. I learned, in this period, that as a man, my father could win any argument simply because he said so. I learned that as a woman, my mother had no say in the parent partnership. This dynamic—father vs. daughter with mother as silent observer—tore apart my relationship with my father and, eventually, my relationship with my mother. It tore its way into my being, cutting a trail of trauma through my skin and veins, burrowing its way deep inside, muting any sense of self I might have developed in this time.

As my studies in the Spiritual Justice Immersion continued, I also realized this: Not only was I an activist, but I had been on a spiritual path for quite a while already. This is the beauty of the program, at least in my experience: The intersection of yoga and social justice and spirituality means I slow down and pay attention to things; I pull them out of the clutter of everything else that is going on so I can continue the work I am already doing and do it more mindfully.

I had been born into the Zoroastrian faith with no idea what that meant. I spent my teens asking the adults around me to explain the faith beyond the rituals, but no one could give me any answer beyond the basics: “Zoroastrians believe in good thoughts, good words, and good deeds!” I gave up the religious practice somewhere in my teens. In my 20s, I started to hear the phrase, “Oh, I’m not religious, I’m...spiritual,” always said with a certain feigned reverence which was somehow off-putting to me. Back then, I had no connection with the word spiritual, and again, when I asked people what they meant by that, I did not get answers that satisfied me.

In the Immersion program, another strong realization hit me: Though I had actively rejected religion throughout my 20s, what had always been present for me was a sense of deep connection (to what I did not quite know) whenever I was in nature. To be more specific, I realized that each time I was by the ocean, I had a deep desire to sing—sing right into the roar of the waves. I realized that this strong pull to use my voice when surrounded by the elements is the true essence of my spirit, the truest form of my spiritual practice. Not dictated by anyone, not ritualized with how many times a day to do it and in what direction to face my body or turn some object, no material objects required at all. It is unadulterated and pure. It comes from within. It was not until the Immersion program that I connected the dots—to me, spiritual practice is nature. To sing in nature is to connect to spirit. To be my uninhibited self, true and real.

While this spirit-nature connection had always been there, my true (or, perhaps, a more conscious) spiritual awakening began on a smelly gym floor in California, where I now live. Having visited five doctors in four weeks for a raging case of plantar fasciitis (all white men who’d dismissed me before I’d even walked through the door, leaving me emotionally and financially drained), I turned to my personal trainer for help. I was amazed that after months of foot pain, after years of living with remnants of Polio, it was this woman, Shelly, who brought so much relief so quickly. I shared this with her one day and she sat down beside me, right there on the smelly gym floor, and said matter-of-factly, “Oh, I just prayed on it. God told me what to do.”

Part of me immediately cringed—was I losing this extremely effective bodyworker to Jesus talk? But at the same time, I found myself in tears right there on the floor of the gym. It wasn't that she was trying to convert me to Christianity, as so many before her had tried. It was more that this person was working with me from a place of genuine care and love. This was something I had not experienced before.

We became very close as we worked together to heal my body. During our sessions, she would say to me, “Call it God, call that the Universe, call it whatever you want but there is a power outside of you that has plans for you.” At first there was a deep resistance in me to take in her words, her message. What was this force that she was talking about? Since my early 20s, I had been surrounded by people who looked down upon those who believed in something; I had been deeply conditioned not to believe in anything that you don't have proof of.

Around this time, my marriage began to unravel. Because my own sense of agency had been so crippled while growing up in my extremely patriarchal family, it took me three years to extricate myself from a relationship that was not right for me. Almost instantly, the Universe began to shower me with gifts, or at least I began to notice its gifts. I was offered a room in a cozy home in the hills, shared with dear friends, and a view of untouched forest from my bedroom window. My ex had supported me while I’d been writing my novel, and upon the separation, when I told Shelly I needed to get a job, she suggested I teach yoga. “Your personality, your gentle manner is perfect for this work.” She went further. “I see you using all the healing you’ve experienced in our work and sharing it with others.” I didn't believe her at first. Who was I to help others heal? What did I have I say? Who had given me the authority to heal anyone?

“Dear Someone?” I’d say tentatively, or sometimes, “Dear Universe?” From there I would just talk. I would say out loud the things that I was grateful for. The things that I was struggling with.

In the time of great transition that followed, the Universe showed up for me over and over again. I enrolled in a yoga teacher training with Zubin Shroff at Piedmont Yoga, discovering a healing and empowering mentor and yoga community, another gift. I found a beautiful home of my own, a 1930s apartment with a picturesque fire escape and bay windows and sunlight throughout the day. It was in this home, the first that I had ever chosen completely by myself and for myself, that a deeper healing began. It was also in this home that I first began to talk to the Universe. Early in the morning or late at night, looking out at the sunlit trees or the starlit night, I whispered at first, feeling weird about the whole thing. “Dear Someone?” I’d say tentatively, or sometimes, “Dear Universe?” From there I would just talk. I would say out loud the things that I was grateful for. The things that I was struggling with.

I began to get a sense of my own agency. My own intuition, my gut, my instinct. I began to meet beautiful souls who fed my own starved soul and it was with these people I began to cultivate my own family by design. I continued my yoga studies with Zubin, my ever-present mentor and guide (in yoga and in life, because yoga is life). I created a business—Bharosa, meaning “faith”—teaching yoga, Bollywood dance, and writing to older adults, and one by one, the Universe gave me classes in each of these fields.

As I think about my journey of spirituality and of justice, begun with deep silencing and now getting louder every day, I realize that whether I’m teaching yoga or Bollywood dance or writing, I teach from the same lens: the lens of Spiritual Justice. This means, first and foremost, staying on top of my self-care so I can show up for my students from a place of grounding and intention. Self-care, for me, means sage baths and regular smudging, yoga and meditation, self-Reiki and restorative yoga. It means plenty of conversations with the Universe, in a voice loud and clear. This means self-study (my personal essential texts: Radical Dharma, Loving Kindness, All about Love). This means doing my own work in therapy so my shit doesn’t come out in my classes. This means making my classes accessible in multiple ways, regardless of students’ age, financial positioning, social positioning, mobility, race, or sexual orientation. Whether teaching in a queer space, a senior center, or a low income housing unit, I teach with love, compassion, and equanimity. This means seeing the people in front of me. Teaching to wherever they are in this moment. This means I don’t align myself with spaces whose values don’t match mine. I don’t align myself with spaces where my energy is not used skillfully. This means I remove myself from these spaces even if it is painful. I directly attribute all this to my experience with the Spiritual Justice Immersion program. This program has given me clarity, competence, and confidence to do things in a way that feels right to my system, to my values.

I began the Spiritual Justice Immersion feeling like I was not qualified to be there. The program has ended up being an integral part of my healing and my growth. The conversations, the community, and the practices have brought to the surface the work I’ve always done, and they have amplified my voice as I continue to do it. This program is yet another gift from the Universe, a tool to help me stand more deeply in my power, to claim more deeply my agency in everything I choose to believe in, every action I choose to take, in my work, in my life.

Phiroozeh Petigara
Phiroozeh teaches yoga, Bollywood dance and writing across the Bay Area, with a focus on beginners and older adults. Across these disciplines, Phi believes, above all, in accessibility. Her yoga students include older adults, underserved populations, hospital patients and newcomers to yoga. Phi thrives on creating and holding space for a multitude of physical, mental and emotional needs and desires, strongly encouraging people to do the yoga that serves them best in the present moment. Blessed... Read more>>

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