Jennifer Winther Is #WhatAYogiLooksLike

December 2, 2016    BY Jennifer Winther

This is the third individual spotlight in series 3 of the “This Is What a Yogi Looks Like” (#whatayogilookslike) media series, a collaboration between the Yoga and Body Image Coalition and Yoga International based on the YBIC campaign that launched in 2014 and their continued work in challenging stereotypes, growing community, working collaboratively, and highlighting the diversity of yoga practitioners and yoga practices, as well as their staunch commitment to diversifying yoga media.

“Because in the end, you won’t remember the time you spent working in the office or mowing your lawn. Climb that goddamn mountain.” ― Jack Kerouac

Although I’d read this quote many times before, when I saw it recently on a friend’s Facebook post, it stopped me dead in my tracks. I know it must seem silly to some, as these inspirational quotes aren’t for everyone (just as social media in general has its fans and haters). But this time, this one really stopped me.

I responded to my friend’s post that “I need a goddamn mountain to climb,” to which she lovingly responded that I had already climbed so many mountains. True, that.

Mountain climbing, and mountain conquering, takes perseverance, strength, and more than a bit of luck. But unlike what many might imagine, mountain climbing is not an individual sport. One doesn’t conquer the mountains of life without the support, love, and encouragement of others. While we may feel alone at times, we never are. There is always someone there to help us, even if that someone is only a memory. We are human, and humans connect. We are meant to be part of each other’s lives.

One doesn’t conquer the mountains of life without the support, love, and encouragement of others.

I’m biracial, and my life has been full of mountain climbing. When I was growing up, no one really looked like me or my sisters, and I struggled to fit in with the blonde and blue-eyed girls around me. Once, when a boy showed interest in me, our mutual friend said “Her? Why?” right in front of me, and then proceeded to offer him a list of potential blonde girlfriends. Economic class and personality may have been factors as well, but the fact is that I was always viewed and talked about by my peers as different from them, and by the adults in our Midwestern community as strangely exotic.

My (Asian) mother died of cancer just as I was starting middle school. So when I was out in public with my father, stepmother, and new brothers, I appeared to others as if I’d been adopted. I was a mess of a teenager, doing all the wrong things to get noticed by all the wrong people. And over and over again, I was publicly humiliated. Drugs, smoking, shame, and abortion marked my teenage years.

Then at 21 I landed at the university, where I began standing out for much more positive reasons (I was really brainy before all that other shit got in the way). The first years were good, and the university provided a productive outlet for my ambition and sense of adventure. But the rejections and humiliations embedded in academics at the doctoral and postdoctoral level are something I would not wish on anyone. I also married during graduate school, naively believing that the man’s mother was not part of the equation—and then suffered years of unpleasant treatment and even public humiliation at her hands.

At 41, the age that my mother died—and the age that was etched in my body and soul as “41=cancer=death”—I was diagnosed with Hashimoto’s disease and told that my body was knocking out my thyroid gland. But it was not cancer—so safe, right? Not quite. At 43, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. And there it was. Climb that goddamn mountain, or this time I would die, with the cancer cells in my body splitting at a madly fast pace.    

If, like me, you were born into a community where you didn’t belong because of your family’s culture or the color of your skin, the absence of community support and a sense of belonging surely made for mountains that were challenging. Or your own mountains may be yet more challenging than these.

Climbing and conquering the mountains in my life has left scars. Losing a mother when you’re young means that rather than the “normal” process of growing up, you cycle through phases of grief your entire life, and most of the people around you have no clue what’s happening. Losing a mother when you’re young leaves scars. Drugs and abortion leave scars, as does public, professional, and personal humiliation. Disease leaves scars. Fighting cancer definitely leaves scars.

Racial and cultural differences, humiliation, and disease can be terribly isolating. It’s so easy for us to put up defenses, to feel defeated, incapable, or just too small to face life’s mountains. All too often, emotional wounds manifest in behavior that triggers judgment in others, rather than compassion. No matter what scars you carry, however, hear this: You are a mountain conqueror. Life is not too much for any one of us to face—so long as we have roots in a supportive community.

For the past couple of decades, being part of yoga and karate communities has been the most incredible source of strength, love, and practical support for me (and now for my family). From packing and moving, to birthing babies and enduring chemotherapy treatment, the yogis and karateka in my life have been there at every turn.

But finding and creating communities where I feel at home didn’t happen without effort on my part. Many places where I’ve practiced did not feel right to me—as can be expected in any social group, yoga studios have their own unique vibe. As a yoga teacher now, I do my best to create a space for others that allows anyone brave enough to step into my class to feel that they belong. And while they are very welcome to stay if they feel it is right, I don’t expect every studio or yoga class to be right for every individual. How could it be? We all have different histories, different bodies, different triggers. And if yoga is a healing practice, well, that may look very different for me than it does for you.

As a yoga teacher, I do my best to create a space that allows anyone brave enough to step into my class to feel that they belong.

What I do know is that yoga is for EVERYone. No matter what our lives have been up to this point, each and every one of us can find a path of deep healing through the amazing practice of yoga—if we just make the commitment to find the yoga and yoga community that is right for us.

So, here I am—scarred but very much alive, and looking for mountains of my own choosing to climb. I know that I can face any mountain, chosen or otherwise, because I have my yoga and meditation practice, rooted in a community where I belong. It took effort to find that community, along with many missteps.

Whatever you’ve been through, be assured that there are more mountains ahead. So get to your mat now, and begin to heal yourself. The transformation will happen if you continue to show up. It will be even more powerful when you tap into the healing power of community.

Jennifer Winther
Jennifer Winther, PhD, RYT, is a recovered academic sociologist now gratefully teaching yoga and meditation in Los Angeles. A biracial, bilingual, bicultural warrior, smart girl, Libra, democrat, yogini, teacher, karateka, wife, sister, motherless mother, and breast cancer survivor, Jennifer believes fiercely in yoga and meditation’s power to heal. She aims to inspire by being open and vulnerable, and by creating community spaces for others to do the same.

Yoga Anywhere, Anytime. JOIN FREE FOR A MONTH