Today we’d like to introduce you to Melissa Shah.
Hi Melissa, so excited to have you with us today. What can you tell us about your story?
I grew up practicing yoga since childhood, thanks to my mother who knew that yogic practices would support my physical health more than any medications I was taking. Being a first-generation Indian-American had its share of challenges and beauty – practicing yoga was a pathway to connecting to my culture. I started studying yoga more deeply at the age of 18, under the guidance of my teachers Sudhir and Niru Parikh. I firmly believe in continuously adapting the practice to the individual as we move through human experiences – your practice has to evolve with you! Having had asthma since I was two years old, I’ve seen firsthand the positive effects that yoga and pranayama, when adapted to the individual, can have not only on chronic illnesses but how we perceive the world!
I grew up on unceded Munsee Lenape land (Queens, NY), and I currently live on unceded Tongva, Chumash and Kizh land (Los Angeles) where I work to make yoga education accessible through yoga therapy, mentoring yoga teachers, mantra, and Ayurvedic practices.
As a yoga therapist, I deeply believe in applying the culture and teachings of yoga to bring to light the long-standing disparities in wellness spaces. Cultivating my own practice and learning in underrepresented yogic tools like mantra and pranayama is important to me, as well as carving out space to offer these practices to others. For too long, wellness spaces have homogenized yoga into a choreographed dance tailored for wealthy, white, and thin people. My work is rooted in collective liberation — and therefore, we must continue to decolonize our minds and the way we practice.
Over the last 16 years, I’ve studied yoga and yoga therapy for over 2000hrs and have been teaching adults and children for over eight years. Currently, I’m more focused on working individually with clients offering yoga therapy in the Viniyoga tradition, as well as mentorships for yoga teachers. My group classes consist of weekly community chanting and BIPOC centered pranayama classes, as well as workshop offerings decolonizing Ayurveda, asana, and other yogic tools. I try to focus my offerings on the intersection between yoga and social justice — to me, this means to learn how to tune into our inner knowing and dharma (calling, purpose) when it comes to taking action toward what we believe in.
Can you talk to us a bit about the challenges and lessons you’ve learned along the way. Looking back would you say it’s been easy or smooth in retrospect?
Two of main obstacles have been comparison and lack of self-confidence. I took several yoga trainings because I thought that I had to mold myself into those teaching styles in order for people to want to come to my classes. This thinking is rooted in white supremacy – that I need to erase my identity and what my culture has infused in me all these years in order to be a palatable yoga teacher. Another struggle I faced was
Another struggle I have faced is getting opportunities to increase visibility for South Asian teachers like myself. So much depends on # of followers you have, your “brand” and if it is palatable to dominant culture. I’m thrilled to see this changing, especially in the last few years thanks to so many incredible teachers and activists I get to work with to turn the tide.
As you know, we’re big fans of you and your work. For our readers who might not be as familiar what can you tell them about what you do?
As a yoga therapist, I love creating intentional yoga practices for individuals and groups who are seeking ways to connect to their body and inner knowing. Offering a truly adapted yoga practice for each person and watching their process unfold is one of my most favorite things. I’m most proud of staying true to yoga and maintaining integrity with the teachings I was blessed to have grown up with.
I channel my inspiration into creating workshops, immersions and retreats that encourage participants to reflect on their relationship to their yoga practices and how to develop clarity and discernment. This kind of self-inquiry takes time and consistency, and I enjoy designing experiences and spaces for participants to be in their process.
I try my best to not get swept up in fleeting trends when it comes to teaching yoga and supporting others in their own self-development. My goal is to always come back to why I’m doing what I’m doing. I’m doing this work because it is my dharma. Grounding myself in this knowing helps me to really hold intentional space for each person and group I have the privilege of working with, especially with folks who are underrepresented in wellness spaces.
We’re always looking for the lessons that can be learned in any situation, including tragic ones like the Covid-19 crisis. Are there any lessons you’ve learned that you can share?
COVID19, in many ways, helped me clear my perception in regards to my work. The pandemic guided me to develop more creativity and innovation on how I can offer my services in an accessible way, and as a result, I get to work with individuals and communities all around the world. It’s painfully magical when you think about it how something that has affected every single person in this world has also brought so many together and helped people realize their dreams. In some ways, the pandemic helped me declutter beliefs and practices I was holding onto that were really preventing me from creating a yoga therapy business I was meant to do. In some ways,
I’m also very much in the process of creating a better work-life balance for myself. Working remotely most of the time means having to create some strict rules on when to be “offline.” You can confuse yourself into thinking that doing work virtually requires less time and effort and end up pushing yourself beyond your capacity. This is a frequent pattern of mine, and sometimes I justify as being “committed,” but what’s really happening is that I’m not respecting my own boundaries.
Lastly, the strength and importance in valuing our interdependence. Our collective breath, our collective earth, and collective liberation. As we stay connected to our own liberation practices, the effects of that reach others, and their practices reach others, etc. COVID19 really exposed something that many of us from other cultures already knew – that having a supportive community is invaluable.
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Samantha Brunner (photo 1) Wilde Company (photo 2)