Category Archives: Reporting

Attacking The Devil: Harold Evans and the Last Nazi War Crime Review for AFI Docs

Attacking The Devil: Harold Evans and the Last Nazi War Crime review for the Washington City Paper

Attacking The Devil tells the story of London’s Sunday Times Editor Harold Evans and his fight against the makers of the “morning sickness” drug thalidomide, which left 100,000 babies born in the ’50s and ’60s with severe deformities and caused nerve damage to nearly 500,000 adults. The film is a powerful testament to the importance of good investigative journalism: Sir Evans launched numerous such campaigns to effect changes that would have been unlikely or impossible without his journalistic intervention. His work was epic, both in scope and in the momentous ways in which it changed the status quo. The Distillers Company, the maker of thalidomide, refused to admit malfeasance or compensate the victims for the irreparable damage its drug had caused. Evans devoted space in the paper every day to reveal the company’s wrongdoing, fighting a legal injunction that prevented the discussion of any case under court consideration. Evans’ passion is palpable in this documentary, and it serves as a reminder that speaking truth to power is not an overnight process.

Of Men And War AFI Documentary Review

My review of Of Men And War for the Washington City Paper

The second feature film by French director Laurent Bécue-Renard (War-Wearied) offers an unprecedented and intimate look at PTSD and some of the war-ravaged men and women suffering from it. Set in the Pathway Home, a treatment facility in California for veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the film benefits from its fly-on-the-wall approach, squarely turning its lens on the group therapy sessions and residents’ interactions with their families, which allows the soldiers to tell their own stories. They seem unable to extricate themselves from the war zone, forever held hostage and unable to unsee the horrors they’ve witnessed. They describe feeling “embarrassed, small, defective… crazy.” The degree of access granted the filmmaker is truly amazing, and it’s even more impressive considering the degree of trauma with which each of these soldiers is wrestling and the Herculean effort required of them to share something so antithetical to the “be stoic about it” military ethos. An unflinching exploration of the “collateral damage” of war trauma, the film poignantly illustrates that there is nothing collateral about it. Of Men And War is one of today’s most engrossing and gut-wrenching commentaries on the high cost of our recent military conflicts.

The Humble-Bumble Beginnings of a Bee-Loved Brand

My latest blog post for Ministers of Design

A little more than a week ago, the bearded beekeeper and co-founder of Burt’s Bees, Burt Shavitz, passed away. “Burt Shavitz, our co-founder and namesake, has left for greener fields and wilder woods,” the company wrote.

It all started with candles. Shavitz had a honey-making business in Maine when he teamed up with Roxanne Quimby in 1984, who used his leftover beeswax to make candles that she sold at a craft fair.

The candles were a hit — they made $200 at their first fair and $20,000 after a year, according to the company. The pair launched a business together, soon expanding to personal care products like lip balms and soaps.

The brand’s signature and best-selling product, its beeswax balm, was introduced in 1991.

Hold on…how did a bee-loving, business-hating Maine hippie start one of the most beloved cosmetics brands?  Burt Shavitz was not interested in lip balm or moisturizer and definitely not big business. His passions were bees, his golden retrievers, nature…

In the documentary Burt’s Buzz, Shavitz says, “There was no company. My bees were the company. My truck was the company. My chainsaw was the company.”

Then in the summer of 1984, he gave a hitchhiker named Roxanne Quimby a ride. What followed…well, a history of thumbs up and thumbs down. Quimby essentially created the business.

Shavitz and Quimby eventually parted ways and not happily, after the business moved from Maine to North Carolina and grew exponentially. In 1999, she bought him out for $130,000, according to The New Yorker. She later sold most of her share to a private equity firm for more than $140 million. She reportedly gave Shavitz $4 million. “If Mr. Shavitz had held onto the stake he traded to Quimby for $130,000, it would have been worth about $59 million,” the New York Times wrote in 2008.

Burt’s Bees was sold again to the Clorox Company for nearly a billion dollars in 2007. Today, the products are sold in over 50 countries. Shavitz was compensated for the use of his image on the label, and he was paid to make special appearances to promote the brand.

“In the long run, I got the land, and land is everything.  Money is nothing really worth squabbling about. This is what puts people six feet under. You know, I don’t need it.”

In his typically wry way, he commented on the company takeover, “Except for the fact that they’re from Clorox, they’re nice people.”

The reluctant face of Burt’s Bees was an intensely private man: “A good day is when no one shows up and you don’t have to go anywhere.”

And this is the story of Burt, who made sharing the hard work of his bee friends some of his beeswax.

Chobani’s “Love This Life” Campaign Courts Controversy

My latest blog post for Ministers of Design

Chobani’s latest ad, part of their “Love This Life” campaign, is certainly high on the cheesy content (apropos for a dairy brand, no?). When I first started watching it, the message I got was “this poor soccer Mom has such few sensory enjoyments in life that she is supposed to be thrown into near-orgasmic paroxysms of delight upon the consumption of yogurt…in some exotic locale straight out of Eat, Pray, Love.” No, seriously–see for yourself. Yet, the “stunning reveal” at the end of the ad–that the ever-ubiquitous snoozing husband is, in fact, a wife is meant to somehow make this edgy!? Confusing, yes; controversial, hardly. It’s yogurt, for Pete’s sakes. Hardly transformative.

Yet, of all of the other “Love This Life” ads, I would say this one is probably the least confusing. Take a look at the 90-second anthem spot, created by Oppermann Weiss. “This is a modern American story,” Chobani CMO Peter McGuinness told Adweek. “It’s a family, and we don’t know what happened with them. Something happened that involved the kids. And then they work through it as a family. And they come out of it stronger and better and closer.” Ummm, OK…I would probably describe this more like a riff on Blue Valentine–a tinge Southern gothic and not even a smidgeon…yogurty. So, how is it that this ad is supposed to convince me to buy Chobani!?

“The point is, Chobani doesn’t see a pretend world—the world of most yogurt commercials. It sees the real world. And when viewers see the authentic, real-life moments in the ads, they may be more inclined to believe the realness of the brand.

It’s an approach that almost turns Chobani into a lifestyle brand—if you buy the lifestyle here, you well may buy the products, too.” Eureka! The so-called lifestyle brand–if I am able to relate to the “realness” and “authenticity” of the lifestyle portrayed in the ads, I am to immediately assume that also translates to Chobani’s “real” and “natural” products. Interesting.

What is a lifestyle brand, you might ask. Lifestyle Brands, associate themselves firmly with a particular way of life. They deliver strong social benefits through which a consumer will be able to subconsciously answer the question, “when I buy this brand, the type of people I relate to are…” They create a sense of belonging or disrupt the status quo. So, Nike aligns people who want to push their limits. Club Med connects those who wish to communicate; The Body Shop, those who value nature.

A lifestyle brand will almost always originally connect with young consumers and represent change. Brands such as Apple, Virgin, and Nike initially grew from a youthful community before convincing more people that adopting them would amplify their personal ethos or identity.

So, to get back to the same-sex couple in the ad. They are a part of “modern American stories.”

“For us, it’s why not [feature a same-sex couple]—not why,” said Chobani CMO Peter McGuinness. “There’s nothing new here, per se. Inclusion and equality has been and is foundational and fundamental to the company.”

Fair enough. In conclusion, gay couples are just as vulnerable to cheeziness and schmaltz, apparently. Sorry to be such a cynic, but see the ad and tell me that it is not cringe-inducingly saccharine (despite the seemingly low sugar content of that particular yogurt). I would dair-ily appreciate your thoughts.

One Cookie (Campaign) That Didn’t Crumble

My latest blog post for Ministers of Design

In last month’s issue of Real Simple magazine (my go-to source for D.I.Ying by household cleaners…kidding not kidding), I chanced upon an ad that grabbed my attention for a lot longer than a second–a true marketer’s dream, indeed. “First the cookie. Then taking on new adventures.” The picture underneath was of a blissfully in love African-American couple, who appeared to be riding a bicycle with a wicker basket in front. Idyllic; check. Perhaps the French country-side…or Portlandia would have been apropos settings.

Innocuous enough, yet I was thoroughly perplexed by this ad. What do cookies have to do with new adventures!? A confusion-causing conflation!

On a practical level, yes, one probably needs to fuel one’s body for new adventures. I, for one, however, would not plan my vacation adventures around the presence or lack thereof of cookies. Clearly, I am in the “I Threw It On The Ground” minority!

The cookie ad was for DoubleTree by Hilton hotels and it has yielded some pretty sweet results for the chain. DoubleTree has been giving a warm chocolate chip cookie to every guest upon check-in since 1986. “At DoubleTree by Hilton, we believe that no matter where you are or what you are doing, cookies have the power to make you smile. It’s the reason we’ve welcomed guests with a warm chocolate chip cookie for more than 25 years,” said John Greenleaf, global head, DoubleTree by Hilton.

The cookies are so popular that one can even order them online. For May 15, the National Chocolate Chip Cookie Day (yes, there is such a holiday!), DoubleTree gave a cookie to anyone who visited a hotel, with or without a reservation.

Ketchum has been the PR brains behind this sweet reward-reaping program, generating an ever-evolving campaign that included things like a Cookie Careavan, which traveled country-wide and various impression-yielding hashtags like #cookiecare and “Where in The World is the DoubleTree Cookie?” Facebook campaign. In 2012, there was the “tell-me tree,” where people could tweet the things they most want to get when traveling using the #littlethings hashtag.

What is the confection connection? Why is this campaign so successful?Are cookies really that important to people when traveling!?

“It’s something that seems to transcend all cultures — a chocolate chip cookie,” according to John Greenleaf, the global head of DoubleTree. Consumers look at DoubleTree’s signature cookies as a symbol of the brand’s “care” culture.

No matter how poor or how superb a guest felt about a particular DoubleTree Hotel, s/he often talked about the cookies.

Apparently, this is one small touch that yielded no small crumbs for DoubleTree by Hilton.

Post on Veganism for Yoga District’s Blog

My post on veganism

“Eat socially. And I don’t mean eat with other people necessarily, but rather eat with other people in mind. When we make decision as to what to eat, it impacts a lot of people. And of course the environment, which impacts us all. If we choose to eat food that has taken less land, water, and fossil fuel to create, and produces less C02e, it will be better for us all. So plants. Eat plants.”–Brendan Brazier

If every American dropped one serving of chicken per week from their diet, it would save the same amount of CO2 emissions as taking 500,000 cars off the road.

Chickens, turkeys, pigs and cows are collectively the largest producer of methane in the U.S.

It takes more than 2,400 gallons of water to produce one pound of meat.

1 pound of wheat takes 25 gallons.

Raising animals for food uses 30 per cent of the Earth’s land mass… that’s about the same size as Asia!

Source: Infographics by The Mindful Word

The statistics go on and on, but really…let’s talk about being a vegan. Let’s *really* talk about it! The prevailing view people have of vegans is that we are are proselytizing lot, perching on some sort of a moral high ground of sanctimoniousness and telling everyone who will listen of our impossible-to-please palates. Or that we are sitting there constantly wondering what we *can* eat…because there is nothing for us to eat.

They might even call us vegangelicals! (ha, here I go with the puns again). The truth is that’s one really broken stereotype. So is that the one that you can’t take us out to dinner anywhere. Don’t worry–we play surprisingly well with others (although, don’t show up at said dinner in a fur coat. We will have problems!)

Let me share a little bit about my gastronomical journey. I grew up eating meat–I am Bulgarian, what did you think!? But I also grew up on a farm, where I saw what it takes to put that meat on a plate and where the animals were always treated with thoughtfulness and care. I never had any illusions about exactly what happens to an animal before he/she provides sustenance to you. One day when I was in my 20s, I decided to go vegetarian just on a whim, wanting to “minimize, downsize, and simplify.” The month I had given myself as a trial period quickly passed and eating meat was no longer something I had any desire to do. Transitioning was easy–I had always done a lot of cooking and I simply cooked all of my meals, not being concerned at all about what I could and could not find in the store. Fast forward several years–now let me preface this by saying that no, I am not so naive that I make lifestyle choices based upon the viewing of a documentary, I assure you. But watchingEarthlings, easily the most violent and grotesque movie I have ever seen (yes, it trumps Requiem For Dream in that department), made me so violently ill that I stopped eating dairy. Now, do I have an issue with this documentary? Oh, most definitely! It is exploitative, biased, and…runs like a snuff film. Yet, did it turn me away from eating dairy? Was it my Requiem For An Animal Product Diet, if you will? Sure.

There are so many reasons to transition to a vegan diet–ethical, animal right-based, environmental, health, cost-saving and you will find the people who are vegans espouse the very spectrum of these reasons. There is no “vegan” type. If there is anything that is most definitely true about it, it is that it certainly is a *mindful* way of eating, even on the most literal, basic level. But moving beyond that, I feel that rather than getting bogged down on whether your bread contains honey, veganism is about switching off your auto pilot when it comes to what you put inside your body. It’s about considering how you *can* make a difference on a global scale with your very “small” personal choices.

Veganism is not about a Draconian, impossible-to-follow lifestyle of privilege and entitlement. PETA will not come knocking on your door if you ate an egg and fell off the vegan wagon once (although, I sure hope it was a cage-free happy chicken, for your sake!)

To me, it’s a true return to our roots. Literally. For eons, our ancestors have been eating plants, nuts, and berries (Paleo diet converts, if you want to argue this, come to my workshop! I will do my best to disabuse you of our ancestors as meat eaters myth :). Finding those plants made us grow socially–it taught us to cooperate, to spend more time together, to watch out for each other. This is why veganism is often called the “kind diet.” It’s about being kind to your tummy, being kind to all of kind, not just our fellow Sapiens.

Food for thought, no?

vegan 1011 Veganism for Beveganers: Why a Plant Based Diet IS For You

If you’re interested in adopting a plant-based diet, join Toni on Saturday, April 25 at Yoga District 14th Street for our two hour Vegan for Beveganers workshop (in honor of Earth Day!).

Professor Akbar Ahmed Presents Findings from “Journey into Europe” Project

My article
Also published in Stoner’s Journal

Ambassador Akbar Ahmed, the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University’s School of International Service, recently reported on findings from his fieldwork in Europe over the past two years and gave a preview of his upcoming book and documentary.

Journey into Europe is Ahmed’s fourth project in a series of award-winning books published with Brookings Press. The series explores relations between the West and the Islamic world after 9/11. Ahmed is one of the world’s leading authorities on contemporary Islam.

His first book in the series, Journey into Islam: The Crisis of Globalization, examined what Muslims thought of the United States and the West through fieldwork across the Muslim world. The second book, Journey into America: The Challenge of Islam, showed how Americans perceived Islam and Muslims. The third book, The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam, explored the tribal societies on the periphery of nations.

The next volume, Journey into Europe: Islam, Immigration, and Empire, will examine the historical relationship between Europe and the Muslim world, the contemporary challenges posed by increased immigration from the Muslim world, and the new pressures of security, globalization, and multiculturalism.

Dean James Goldgeier moderated a panel on February 11 that included Associate Professor Randolph Persaud, director of the Comparative and Regional Studies program, Distinguished Historian in Residence Michael Brenner, director of the Center for Israel Studies at AU, and Professor Tamara Sonn, the Hamad Bin Khalifa Al-Thani Professor in the History of Islam at Georgetown University.

Journey into Europe explores the intersecting issues of the increased immigration of Muslims to Europe and the growing number of right-wing parties in Europe. The study also clarifies common misconceptions about European Muslims, for instance, the idea that they subscribe to one cultural community.

Ahmed described an “ominous, threatening landscape in Europe.” His perception of Europe’s role as the “mother continent,” its large Muslim population, and continued tensions between Islam and the West make this project timely and important in contributing to “healing a fractured world,” he explained. As an anthropologist, he noted that his project is both practically-grounded and academically-minded.

Ahmed noted that the Muslim community in Europe is not united. “It is divided along ethnic, sectarian, political, and national lines,” he said. “The monolith of ‘Muslim communities’ does not exist as such as there is far too much diversity.” He noted that there are indigenous Muslims who are native to Europe and non-indigenous Muslims, including immigrants in France, the United Kingdom, and Germany.

Persaud noted that European Muslims are increasingly living in a “third space” that neither fits the traditional notion of the Middle Eastern Muslim or the notion of “Orientalism” seen in colonial times. Thus, many Muslim immigrants find themselves in a state of limbo, said Ahmed, even those who have lived in Europe for a long time, such as the Pakistanis in the United Kingdom.

The project’s scope–and engagement with a wide spectrum of Muslim experiences in Europe–makes it a very timely and cogent endeavor.

Merchants of Doubt

My review of Merchants of Doubt

“Fake it, till you make it so,” might be one of the many truisms apropos for Merchants of Doubt, the new documentary by Food, Inc. director Robert Kenner, based on Naomi Oreskes’ and Erik M. Conway’s book of the same title. The film examines a group of spin doctors who make a living convincing the public to doubt science in favor of corporate-backed fiction. These silver-tongued faux-pundits introduce (unreasonable) doubt on topics as diverse as acid rain, cigarettes, toxic chemicals, the ozone layer, and climate change, obfuscating the real issues and influencing public opinion. Their modus operandi: “Discredit the science, disseminate false information, spread confusion, promote doubt.”

Your first question might be, “So? Industries hire PR people to promulgate their point of view. That’s how PR works.” Yes, well, Merchants of Doubt shines a light on much murkier and shadier territory you might not have considered before—this is an incestuous cadre of “experts” who are bedfellows with just about every industry in need of white-washing of nefarious activities. In addition, plainly put, these spin doctors are NOT doctors: none of them have Ph.D.s or any sort of scientific qualifications making them worthy of opining on the topics. As Marc Morano, one of the most ubiquitous of the lot, states, “I am not a scientist, but I play one on TV.” Funny, if it were not hair-raisingly scary.

Merchants of Doubt begins by examining the tobacco industry. Knowing all along about the dangers of their product, the industry at first focused on convincing the public that cigarettes are perfectly safe and non-addictive. Once that jig was up, they framed the issue as “don’t take away our freedom.” As tobacco’s lead spin doctor Peter Sparber (who posed as a fire marshal, no less, while on big tobacco’s payroll) put it “If you can sell tobacco, you can sell anything.” And indeed, he did, moving on to other industries in need of his special brand of hucksterism. Big tobacco was also responsible for the decades-long egregious use of flame-retardants on furniture: this furniture sprayed with a toxic chemical that imperiled thousands of firefighters, because making a self-extinguishing cigarette would be “much more difficult.”

Turning its lens on climate change next, the film demonstrates the deleterious effect that presenting the issue as a scientific debate had both on public opinion and political outcomes. In the book, science historian Naomi Oreskes conducted an analysis of all the scientific papers published between 1992 and 2002 on global warming and found zero papers disagreeing with the fact that global warming is anthropogenic and due to increased greenhouse gases. In other words, there was a resounding and prevailing scientific consensus. Yet, scientists like Fred Seitz and Fred Singer founded front organizations and think tanks like Science and Environmental Policy Project (SEPP), with nebulous enough names to grant an air of legitimacy, to further global warming skepticism and a conservative viewpoint.

Merchants of Doubt asks the very germane question of what these doubt-peddlers gain from their activities. Sure, the remuneration is nice. But Seitz and Singer were scientists during the Cold War – the film suggests there is an ideological component, too – and they frame these debates being about government interference, an attack on a way of life. This could also explain why libertarians, as a group, are such intense climate change deniers, or so Merchants of Doubt posits.

But back to the faux “I play a scientist on TV,” pundits. The film seems to exonerate the media from blame in this whole quagmire, but aren’t 24-hour news channels, reliant on “debates” for 90% of their programming front and center in this mix? Why are scientists pitted against people like Morano in a “debate?” What kind of a debate could possibly take place between a scientist and a talking head?  Merchants of Doubt points to the increased personalization of something that should really stay in the professional: for example, Morano routinely releases the email addresses of climate scientists so they may receive death threats and ad hominem attacks totally unrelated to their actual work. The Cato Institute publishes climate change-denying reports that are literally identical copies, stylistically, of the report released by NOAA. All of the above point to the kind of desperate and base tactics that far eclipse mere PR.

Merchants of Doubt certainly offers a probing look into something that isn’t “business as usual,” or at least shouldn’t be. The cadre of fake scientists/spin doctors, thanks to 24 hour conservative channels like Fox News, has been frighteningly successful in steering public sentiment toward a corporate-backed political outcome. The implications of this are much further reaching than just exposing the public to biased-by-their-very-nature public relations yarns. While the film could have used a much tighter editing hand to keep it on track (not to mention that the gimmick of having a magician explain how magic works to draw an analogy is heavy-handed, at best), it does expose something we might not have thought much about, which is why is it that climate change deniers continue to have a political floor for their opinions to be listened to at all.

Childhood Deployed: Remaking Child Soldiers in Sierra Leone

My article on Susan Shepler’s book Childhood Deployed:

Shepler’s recent book, Childhood Deployed: Remaking Child Soldiers in Sierra Leone, examines the difficult reintegration of former child soldiers in Sierra Leone. Sierra Leone’s devastating civil war lasted from 1991-2002, leavingmore than 50,000 dead and over two million displaced as refugees. UNICEF estimates 10,000 children were involved in the hostilities.

Shepler was a Peace Corps volunteer in Sierra Leone in the 1980s, where she worked as a teacher. She returned ten years later, while the war was ongoing and again after the war was over, to study the process of former child soldiers’ reintegration into their communities. She conducted ethnographic research in Interim Care Centres for demobilized child soldiers. She followed the children in their everyday lives, in the centres, in school, in the community, and at play. Shepler jokingly referred to participant observation as “deep hanging out” and this description seemed especially apropos in her interaction with the children, which allowed her to gain a view accessible to her as a member of their community rather than an outsider.

The Paris Principles define a child soldier as any child associated with an armed force or group, regardless of whether she/he was involved in actual combat. All the factions in Sierra Leone’s war recruited children (boys and girls) from all parts of the country. The children carried guns, commanded battle, and worked as porters, spies, cooks, or “wives.” Some of the children were abducted and some joined willingly. Shepler’s book brings up the fact that the Western view of a child is actually quite different from the Sierra Leonean—this is relevant in the sense that child labor and child agency are much more heavily emphasized there than they would be in the West.

Shepler’s work examines how the “standard narrative” of the child soldier: “I was abducted; it was not my wish, and now all I want is to continue my education,” is something that was not universally told by the children. Children had different ways of talking about the experience, depending on who they talked to. In other words, it is not as though that narrative was not authentic, but rather that “child soldier” as an identity is created in social practice across a range of settings. In a sense, the process of using that term and applying that term is intensely political and we must examine what is lost and gained by deploying ideas of modern childhood.

“Reintegration works best when it works with local culture,” she said. Child fosterage, for example, would have been a preferable alternative to institutionalization in interim care centres. Apprenticeship, which is an integral part of the child-rearing experience in Sierra Leone, would have been better than the “skills training” provided in the centres.

Shepler advocated for the need to develop better models that capture the complexity behind the term “youth.” She also suggested that policy makers be cognizant of the political consequences of their distinction making. She advocated for the design of programs for benefit all war-affected youth and not just those children who were deemed to fall under the “child soldier” category.

Associate Professor Susan Shepler’s research is a powerful testament to why ethnography matters and why anthropologists have a lot to share with international development organizations.

 

 

Yoga District Blog Post: Building Skills and Community

My post for the Yoga District Blog: Building Skills and Community, the For the Teachers, By the Teachers Series

Do you know the origin of the expression “ships that pass in the night?” Neither did I, but it is apparently from a Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poem entitled Tales of a Wayside Inn:

Ships that pass in the night, and speak each other in passing,
Only a signal shown and a distant voice in the darkness;
So on the ocean of life we pass and speak one another,
Only a look and a voice, then darkness again and a silence.

Teaching yoga can be a lot like that. Teacher training is a communal experience — you bond with your cohort in lasting ways. But once you are a newly-hatched yoga teacher, still finding your wings and feet, you sort of have to look around to find the protective canopy of a momma bird’s wings. Sure, all of your teachers have their own practice and, in turn, their own teachers, but teaching can be an incredibly (and oddly so) solitary endeavor. Sometimes all you hear is your own voice . . . and that can be disorienting. Building community becomes something that requires its own investment of time — reaching out to your fellow teachers, seeking out further education.

Yoga District is the only studio I practice at that not only understands that but does something about it. No other studio where I have been is so committed to the growth of its members, student and teacher alike. And no other place understands that the teachers are still students themselves.

The “For Teachers, By Teachers” series of workshops allows us to not only meet fellow teachers, laugh and share in our general foibles, but most importantly, learn. If you are wondering how that is different from going to a traditional workshop or attending continuing education classes, my response to you would be that the teachers teaching these workshops are selflessly offering their time and knowledge just so our community can stay vibrant and tight-knit — a tough thing to find in the increasingly transaction-oriented and transitory city of Washington, DC.

These workshops are but an example of Yoga District’s general ethos of community and “yoga for the people, by the people”-ness (yes, I realize this is not a word). They are not lectures where we are being talked at — we do, we share, we discuss, we bring up questions from our experiences. That is what makes them fundamentally different from going on a retreat with a stranger/superstar yoga teacher. To me, they are like a Sunday hangout with family.

I have now had the pleasure of attending two of these workshops: the first on hands-on assisting with Ros and the second one on prenatal yoga with Brittany. Both were incredibly, incredibly helpful.

In the hands-on assisting and adjusting workshop, we learned not only the specific adjusts for each pose but also more subtle information such as how to respond to students’ responses to these adjusts and assists. How is that for meta! The laying of the hands, so to speak, is an incredibly fraught process. Understanding cues and proper way to implement hands-on work is critical to making the process beneficial and comfortable for our students.

The second workshop on prenatal yoga was equally illuminating. Brittany even brought along a little fabric pelvis and a fabric baby doll to illustrate all the changes that take place in a woman’s body and make us understand why certain poses are not optimal for pregnant ladies. For example, did you know that the hormone relaxin, which allows the uterus to expand, also softens connective tissue, putting women are risk for hyperextending through joints and causing other joint injuries (so being newly able to get into splits is not always a good thing!). From the second trimester on — when the center of gravity really starts to shift — most of the balancing poses are best done next to a wall for support so as to eliminate the risk of injury to the baby as well as the Mom. Steering clear of asanas that work on the central abdominals is also recommended.

These are just snippets of everything that was shared in these workshops. It truly is a blessing to be a part of a community that works for the betterment of both its teachers and students — and does so without much fanfare and horn-tooting.

This is also another one of my posts.