All posts by Chelsea Roff

About Chelsea Roff

Chelsea Roff is Managing Editor for Intent Blog. She is an author, speaker, and researcher writing about science, spirituality, women's health, and humanitarian issues. Visit her website to read past writings, watch video interviews, and see her teaching schedule. You can also follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

Catholic Leader Says Homosexuality is Unnatural: 5 Pictures of Gay Animals That Prove Him Wrong

Last year when Illinois legislators approved civil unions for same sex couples, the Catholic church launched a fierce opposition. Now, with state lawmakers considering a state-wide approval of same-sex marriage, Roman Catholic bishops are speaking out, saying that such legislation would violate natural law.

One of Chicago’s most well-known Catholic leaders, Cardinal Francis George, became infamous last year when he compared the city’s gay pride organizations to the KKK. Most recently he told the Chicago Tribune that “There’s no such thing as a gay marriage because it cannot be consummated.”

Here’s an excerpt of his comments:

“Marriage comes to us from nature. That’s based on the complementarity of the two sexes in such a way that the love of a man and a woman joined in a marital union is open to life, and that’s how families are created and society goes along. It’s not in our doctrine. It’s not a matter of faith. It’s a matter of reason and understanding the way nature operates. You want to be sure that everybody has a chance at happiness. That’s a very persuasive argument. But we all want that, and nobody should be disdained or persecuted because of their sexual orientation. But when we get behind the church and behind the state, you’ve got a natural reality that two men or two women cannot consummate a marriage. It’s a physical impossibility.”

Basically, George’s argument is that same sex marriage is immoral because it’s “unnatural,” because it goes against “the way nature operates.” Except that it doesn’t. Maybe it’s time the leaders of the Catholic church take a refresher course in Biology, because homosexual behavior is a nearly universal phenomenon in the animal kingdom.

In case you had any doubt, here are 5 pictures to prove it:

1. Bonobos

Some studies suggest that up to 75 percent of bonobo sex is nonreproductive and that nearly all bonobos are bisexual.

2. Big horn sheep

Male bighorn sheep are known to engage in oral and anal intercourse to the point of ejaculation. 

2. Penguins


Roy and Silo, two male penguins at New York’s Central Park Zoo, have been attached at the hip for over six years. They display “classic pair-bonding behaviorentwining of necks, mutual preening, flipper flapping,” and also have sex, (ignoring potential female mates).

4. Lions


Male lions pair-bond and initiate homosexual activity, including nuzzling and caressing and leading to mounting and thrusting. Pairings between females are less common in the wild, but have been observed in captivity.

5. Elephants


Male elephants will engage in same-sex bonding and mounting, as well as other affectionate behaviors like kissing, trunk intertwining, and placing trunks in each other’s mouths.

See more “gay animals” at BuzzFeed

FullBeauty Project Captures Morbidly Obese Women In The Nude (NSWF images)


Beauty is in the eye of beholder. At least that’s the message these portraits were created to demonstrate.

The controversial set of images, captured by Italian photographer Yossi Loloi, make up an ongoing art project called FullBeauty. FullBeauty is part of a growing movement to promote acceptance of people of all shapes and sizes and and challenge traditional notions of beauty.

“What larger women embody to me,” Loloi says, “is simply a different form of beauty. I believe we own ‘freedom of taste’ and one shouldn’t be reluctant of expressing his inclination towards it. Limiting this freedom is living in a dictatorship of aesthetics.”

Loloi only uses models that weigh at least 30 stone (420 pounds), with the heaviest weighing in at 43 stones (just over 600 pounds). He asks that they wear no clothing so as to portray them in their complete “fullness and femininity.”


When asked about the overall intention of the project, Loloi said:

“I believe there are several ways to what is perceived as beauty, it is not measurable and has not got a standard size.”

When asked whether his project promotes ill health (according to the WHO, obesity kills over 2.8 million people each year), Loloi responded:

“It saddens me sometimes when people stop at the gates of the ‘health issue’ rather than stepping inside the image and trying to understand it.

It shows how we are spoiled culturally, and so it is my job as an artist to ‘awaken’ feelings in others, be it outrage or marvel.

With FullBeauty I am trying to underline that we all have the right to be appreciated the way we are and that there should be no dictatorship on taste.”

But setting aside notions of beauty, many argue that “fat acceptance” campaigns like Loloi’s are missing the point. Dissenters say organizations like the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance, which fights size discrimination, are propagating the notion that being overweight or obese has no personal or societal consequences. They cite research that suggests being significantly overweight leads to heart disease and diabetes.

Stephen Nicholls, M.D., clinical director of the Cleveland Clinic Center for Cardiovascular Diagnostics and Prevention, is concerned that fat acceptance campaigns like Loloi’s might send the message that being overweight isn’t a health issue.

“As a population, we consume processed, high-fat, easily available food and reduce the amount of exercise and activity we perform on a daily basis. There is complacency about developing obesity, and it could suggest that we underestimate what its implications might be.”

While most people would agree that the modeling industry’s focus on anorexic-looking models isn’t healthy, promoting the opposite extreme might be just as harmful. But if the mission of this project is to provoke questions in the minds of viewers, Loloi has certainly achieved his goal in that respect:

What is the connection between beauty and health? Is beauty something to strive for? Who decides what is beautiful?

Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.


You can view all the images in the FullBeauty project (warning: NSFW) here.

via HuffPost UK

Chelsea Roff: CNN: How Yoga Can Helped An Anorexic Recover

Two weeks before my fifteenth birthday, I knocked on death’s front door and begged him to let me in. I’ve written about it here at Intent before — but in short, I was 58 pounds, had just suffered a stroke, and anorexia had siphoned away any desire I had left to live. Fortunately, death did not oblige. He cracked open the door, took one look at me, and slammed it back shut in my face.

That was six years ago. If you’d have told me then that today I would be speaking to Sanjay Gupta, the chief medical correspondant on CNN, about how yoga can help people who struggle with eating disorders, I never would have believed you. But here I am… alive, healthy, and dare I say it, happy! I feel incredibly grateful to my friends, doctors, teachers and community for helping me get to the place I am today.

I want those who struggle with this illness to know that recovery is possible. I hope that sharing this story publicly will remind people grappling with hardship in silence and isolation that they are not alone. Finally, I hope we can begin abolishing some of the stigma associated with eating disorders and show how many of the misconceptions often taken to be the disease are merely symptoms.

Below is the video interview from CNN. If you have or know someone who has struggled with an eating disorder, I would love to hear about your experiences in the comments.

Chelsea Roff: 72-Year-Old Grandpa Becomes China’s Next Top Model

While most of America’s top models are tall, slender, perfectly-proportioned young women, China’s most popular fashionista may be one very brave elderly gentleman, Liu Xianping, who has been posing for his granddaughter’s female fashion store on Tmall. In just a few weeks, Mr. XIanping has become an Internet sensation (and when you see the pictures below, you’ll understand why!).

Though most of the clothes Liu has been modeling were designed for slender, sexy young women, the 72-year-old grandfather presents the clothing in a whole new light. According to one blog, “Liu’s confidence in front of the camera are the envy of many girls… And he has such a good figure, especially those legs!”

Xianping’s granddaughter’s store is called Yuekou, and caters mainly to teen girls in China. According to a recent interview with her, Mr. Xinaping’s first foray into modeling was quite spontaneous. He was helping her unpack clothes, when suddenly, “he picked up one piece and tried to give some advice on how to mix and match. We thought it was fun so we started shooting.” According to the granddaughter, most of the clothing combinations featured in the pictures were her grandpa’s ideas. Apparently he has a great sense of style.

When asked about why he’s modeling women’s clothes, this is what Mr. Xianping had to say:

“Why unacceptable (for someone like me) to wear women’s clothes? Modeling for the store is helping my granddaughter and I have nothing to lose. We were very happy on the day of the shooting. I’m very old and all that I care about is to be happy.

A-friggin-men, Mr. Xianping.

And now Mr. Xianping and his granddaughter have another reason to be happy. The store’s sales have increased 5-fold since the pictures went viral, and reactions from Chinese netizens have been overwhelmingly positive. Commenters call him “cool, open-minded, fun, and extremely stylish.”

No kidding. I wish this was my grandpa.





What do you think the chances are that America’s Next Top Model could look something like this guy?

via Off Beat China

Chelsea Roff: Life Without Health Insurance

On the afternoon of the election, I sat counting ceiling tiles at my local Planned Parenthood clinic.

“Have you ever been to a Planned Parenthood clinic before?” the receptionist asked me when I approached the front desk.

“No ma’am.”

“Please fill out these forms. All your information will be kept confidential.”

“Okay, thanks.”

I found a seat in the back corner of the waiting area and slowly raised my eyes to look around the crowded room. To my right, there was a young girl — maybe 15 or 16 years old — with her arms crossed rigidly over her chest. She was wearing fishnet stockings, a transparent black tank top, and dark eyeliner painted thickly along the lids under her eyes. I wondered why she was here. She looked too young for an annual pap smear.

I looked back down at the forms on my clipboard:

Name: Chelsea Roff

Birthdate: 7/30/1989

Insurance? No

To my right, I heard the door open again and in walked another woman — probably 35 — wearing lululemon pants and a long, flowy shirt that easily could have served as a dress. Her hair was dark and curly, her skin a sun-kissed bronze. She approached the reception desk timidly, her eyes darting rapidly around the room.

“I’m not an American citizen,” she said to the receptionist. Her accent sounded British… maybe South African. “Will they still see me?”

“Yes, of course, honey. Do you have an appointment?


“Fill out these forms. We’ll get you in.”

I  looked back down at the clipboard in my lap, subconsciously breathing a sigh of relief for the woman at the desk. What was she here for? Emergency contraception? Abortion? STD test? Was she pregnant? I wondered if she had a national health care system in her country of origin, and thought about how frightening it would be to have a medical emergency happen and be so far from home.

Finishing my paperwork, I re-approached the reception desk, getting in line behind a mother-daughter couple and a  young man. To my left I saw a small framed sign on the wall adjacent to me:


We encourage teens to discuss their health care concerns with their parents or other adults, but you can give us your own permission for the following:

  • Birth Control
  • Pregnancy test
  • Abortion services
  • Sexually transmitted infection testing and treatment

You can also talk to us about the following and be sure they will remain private:

  • Alcohol, cigarettes, tobacco, or drugs
  • Personal, school, or family issues
  • Sex and sexuality issues

I thought about my younger sister, about the handful of times I’d walked her into a clinic like this. I’d forgotten what that was like… being underage and in the foster care system, Planned Parenthood the only place you knew to go.

Just then, my phone buzzed in my purse. I pulled it out, seeing a new text message from an unknown number:

“Get out + vote! Make sure your voice is heard + vote counted. Follow YogaVotes on Facebook +Twitter for election day updates.”

I smiled at the irony. Somehow I managed to schedule my first appointment at a Planned Parenthood clinic on the day of our national election — a day that, without doubt, would decide the fate of whether these clinics would continue to exist at all. I thought about what was at stake… access to basic STD testing, women’s health services for those without health insurance, a safe place for teens to receive medical care and advice without the risk of getting kicked out by their parents. I  wondered where I would go if this clinic wasn’t here. I wondered how many women I knew would say that Planned Parenthood had saved their lives.

I haven’t had medical insurance since I was seventeen. In fact, the last time I had coverage, I was on Medicaid — a federally-funded program that provides free or low-cost health coverage to more than 50 million children and families. Because of a “pre-existing condition” I experienced in my teens, I’ve been rejected by insurance companies each and every time I’ve applied for coverage as an adult. Now, I’m in the long, arduous process of trying to attain coverage under California’s Pre-Existing Condition Insurance Plan (PCIP), a program which — thanks to Obamacare — will offer health coverage to medically-uninsurable individuals until the legislation goes into full effect in January 2014 (I’ll be writing more about PCIP in a forthcoming article).

My experience at Planned Parenthood that day prompted to think more deeply about healthcare in the United States — and more specifically, about how the other 50+ million Americans who are uninsured in the United States fare when health issues arise.

Who are these 50 million Americans — are they young, old, rich, poor, educated, too stupid or lazy (as many conservatives often imply) to purchase health insurance?

Where does an uninsured woman go when her Planned Parenthood doctor finds a lump in her breast? What about uninsured children — how many are there, and what do parents do when their gets a 106 degree fever in the middle of the night and they can’t afford an ER visit? Is healthcare a basic human right, or a privilege reserved for the wealthy?

While I have many friends and colleagues who shun politics; for me, the issues at stake in the 2012 election were far too personally impactful to turn away. From the moment I heard Mitt Romney unequivocally declare that, “on my first day if elected President of the United States, I will act to repeal Obamacare,” I knew just how high the stakes were. Had Obama not been re-elected, my hope for finally having health insurance would have been squashed. The one clinic that I — and so many women I know — depend on would likely have lost federal funding. Voting was not merely a symbolic act of civic engagement… it was a public statement of what I want and need from my government: the institutional support necessary to preserve life.

On Friday, I put out a call to my Facebook friends:

“If you are uninsured, have been for at least 6 mos, and would be willing to participate in a brief (anonymous) interview, please email me.”  

I was absolutely astounded at the volume (and diversity) of responses I received. In just 24 hours, I had over 50 messages in my inbox — emails that contained heartbreaking, thought-provoking, and eye-opening stories about how people across America are living without health insurance. Some had boycotted insurance industry and firmly believed that they were better off for it — others had been trying to attain affordable care for over a decade. I realized that I would never be able to unpack all the issues contained in those emails in a single article — and so began the series I’m starting today, Life Without Health Insurance.

The Life Without Health Insurance Series will examine the questions listed above, as well as a host of other issues related to healthcare around the world. Here is a tentative, non-ordered list of the articles I envision for this series:

1. Is Access to Affordable Healthcare a Human Right?
2. Taking Care of Your Vagina without Health Insurance
3. Raising a Sick Child without Health Insurance
4. So You Have a Pre-Existing Condition…
5. When Emergencies Happen: Where to Go When You’re Uninsured
6. Do Healthy People Really Need Insurance?
7. Preventative Care in the Health Insurance Industry
8. Obamacare: What the Mandate Means for You
9. How the Affordable Care Act Will Impact the Economy
10. Beyond America: Models of Healthcare Around the World

I look forward to beginning this discussion with you, and I hope it can be a catalyst for all of us — both those with and without insurance — to have a more meaningful dialogue about what we want from our government when it comes to healthcare. If there are any issues related to healthcare you’re particularly interested in learning (or talking) about, please share them in the comments section below.

I am still accepting stories of people living without health insurance in the United States, so if you would like to participate in a brief email interview please send me a message at chelsea [at] I will send you back a list of questions, and any answers you give will remain anonymous should I choose to use them in the series.

Photo Credit: Strangely, B

photo by: Alex E. Proimos

Chelsea Roff: The Science of Female Orgasms — Do Relationships Matter?

There are few questions about human sexuality that puzzle scientists more than those about the female orgasm. For years, the the study of women’s sexual pleasure got much less attention in science than that of men’s — largely because participants in most major studies were predominantly young, well-off, white blokes attending major research universities. Even today, when a man complains to his doctor about sexual dysfunction, he’s most often handed a prescription for Viagra. A woman, on the other hand, either gets a shrug of the shoulders or a referral to a psychologist. The how and why of the female orgasm still largely eludes us.

But change is in the air. The female orgasm is getting much more attention — from researchers, from sex therapists, from doctors, and of course from the media. The working group for the DSM-V, the major diagnostic manual of psychological disorders, is hard at work revising the criteria for Female Sexual Arousal Disorder (FSAD), which up until now has been defined as ‘‘an inability to attain, or to maintain… an adequate lubrication-swelling response of sexual excitement.” Notice the failure to mention anything related to pleasure or orgasm. The most commonly-used definition of sexual dysfunction for women doesn’t even acknowledge that orgasm might be an important component in healthy sexuality.

But as greater numbers of women take leading roles in scientific laboratories, we’re seeing a new class of research on the factors that influence women’s ability to orgasm (a lady’s version of Viagra, we’re told, is just around the corner).  Even more influential, perhaps, is the influence of major pharmaceutical companies and businesses with vested interests in capitalizing on such research to develop new products and drugs. Whatever the reason, scientific research is now providing a window into the factors that lead to sexual satisfaction for women.

In a recent study reported on by The Science of Relationships (a fantastic, evidence-based blog run by a group of PhDs), researchers asked nearly 14,000 women to answer some very pointed questions about their sex lives. Specifically, the researchers were curious about whether women in long-term relationships were more likely to have orgasms than those simply “hooking-up” (objectively defined as having sex with a partner for the first time).

Here’s what they found:

Only 11% of women had orgasms with a first-time hook-up partner. If they had previously hooked-up with that partner 1-2 other times, 16% of women had orgasms, and 34% of women had orgasms with a partner they had hooked-up with three or more times. Enjoyment increases with repeated hookups, supporting the idea that sexual satisfaction is partly a function of partners learning how to navigate each others’ bodies and understanding each others’ turn-ons (even without a romantic commitment).

When it comes to female orgasms, long-term relationships seem to be the place to find them: 67% of women in relationships reported they had an orgasm with their partners the last time they had sex… Similarly, rates of enjoyment of sexual activity (e.g., “enjoyed it very much”) were higher in relationships (81%) compared to hookups (50%).

The takeaway? Women are nearly twice as likely to have orgasms if they’re having sex with a long-term partner.

This finding could be due to a variety of factors — women may feel more at ease and less self-conscious when they’re with a long-term partner, their partner may be more attentive to their sexual needs, or it may simply take time and practice for both partners to get on the same “sexual wavelength.” Unfortunately, a single study (and especially one that relies on self-report measures) can only reveal so much… female orgasms are correlated with long term relationships, but we don’t yet know what about long-term relationships is actually causing more women to have orgasms.

I think the findings of studies like this are important to disseminate — both through the mainstream media and sex education programs —  especially when most of the information we receive about sexuality comes from advertising or sex-phobic education programs. Wouldn’t it be great if instead of telling kids that it’s sinful or dangerous to have sex before marriage, we told them that they may derive more pleasure from sex in a long-term and committed relationship? The difference, as I see it, is that one approach empowers people to make decisions based on evidence, while the other attempts to change their behavior with fear.

If this is a topic that interests you, I highly recommend Dr. Justin Lehmiller’s article Everything You Should Know About Female Orgasms.

Photo via Luxurious Extravagance (source unknown)

Infographic via Science of Relationships

Chelsea Roff: How I Went From 58 Pounds & Nearly Dead to Healthy, Happy, & Loving Life

“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside of you.” — Maya Angelou 

Fifteen-year-olds aren’t supposed to have strokes. At least that’s what I thought. I try not to think about it too much. Even now, I only have bits and pieces; shards of memories that somehow remained intact even through the trauma my brain endured that day…


When I arrived at Children’s Medical Center, I weighed just 58 pounds. After a five-year battle with Anorexia Nervosa, my body had reached its breaking point. Nearly every system in my body was shutting down. All four valves in my heart were leaking. My skin was yellow from liver failure. I hadn’t taken a shit in over a month. I was dying.

The first emotion I remember is rage. It was a violent, fire-in-your-veins, so angry-you-could-kill-someone kind of rage. I wanted out. I wanted the pain to be over. I wanted to die. I was mad at myself for not having the courage to just do it quickly, angry at the hospital staff for thwarting my masked attempt. I was convinced that I was “meant to” endure this, that my long drawn-out starving to death would prove my willpower to God. In the days prior to my stroke, I’d had vivid hallucinations – of Jesus on a wooden cross outside my bedroom window and a satanic figure sneaking up under my bedroom covers to suffocate me at night. I thought I was meant to be a martyr.

I thought God wanted me to die.

As the fury subsided, delirium set in. I became confused, defiant, and completely irrational. I told the other patients that my Mom would be there to pick me up and take me home any day now. I argued with the doctors that they couldn’t possibly keep me overnight, because we didn’t have insurance or money to pay. When a cardiologist told me she wasn’t sure if I’d live another week, I told her she was full of shit. I hid the food they were trying to make me eat in my underwear, in flowerpots, even in my cheeks like a chipmunk – convinced no one would notice. I didn’t want to get better. I was convinced nothing was wrong.

I remember having nurses turn me over in the middle of the night to tend to the bed sores on my behind, places where the skin was so thin that my tail bone was starting to protrude through the flesh. I remember waking up to discover I’d wet the bed nearly every morning for the first three months I was there. I was ashamed, disgusted. I’d lost control of the muscles in my bladder; I was like an infant all over again. I remember shooting a nurse the bird when she told me I couldn’t walk, only to fall to pieces on the floor when I angrily pushed the wheelchair away to give it a try.

Unbeknownst to me at the time, my arrival at the hospital had launched an investigation by Child Protective Services back at my home in Austin. The caseworkers deemed my mother an “unfit parent,” and my sister and I were placed under custodianship of the State. My care was left to the doctors and nurses at Children’s, while my sister was officially placed in foster care and sent to live with our godparents. My mother, herself an alcoholic and anorexic, had literally drank herself into oblivion.

I spent the next sixteen months of my life in that hospital. I completed my junior and senior years of high school through a distance education program, talked my way through hundreds of hours of individual and group therapy, and slowly, painfully worked to bring my body and mind back to life.

Over the next few months, as my body grew accustomed to having nourishment again, my temperament and personality began to change. I became quieter, more submissive, more trusting of the staff in charge of my care. One night, one of my nurses, Miss Connie, pulled me gingerly from my wheelchair and into her lap in a chair next to the window. Her curly blonde locks brushed my sunken cheekbones as we gazed out at the distant sunset together. “Just keep your eyes on that horizon, honey.” she said.

“You’re going to survive this.”

When Medicaid finally pulled the plug on funding for my treatment almost a year and a half later, I was unrecognizable from the day I’d walked in. I’d gained nearly forty pounds, and the feisty, fiercely independent spirit I’d been known for as a child was on her way back in (close to) full force. Although I was still significantly underweight and terrified to leave the security of the hospital, my medical team still managed to convince the caseworkers to grant me emancipation. At seventeen, I re-entered the “real world” as a legally recognized adult.

My doctor at Children’s helped me make arrangements to move into a garage apartment with a close family friend who lived close to the hospital. I also managed to get a job at a local Starbucks earning just above minimum wage. By the grace of who-knows-what, the psychologist who had been the one to squeeze my hand that first day at Children’s offered me nearly-free weekly therapy. I was lucky. I was blessed. I had enough resources to begin to put the fragments of my broken life back together.


Several months after my discharge, I took my first yoga class. Looking back on it now, I still find it hard to believe that I managed to find my way into that studio, with that teacher, at that moment in my life.  I mean, really, what was I thinking – a recovering anorexic, barely able to feed herself – trying out a yoga class marketed to women wanting to lose weight?

I wish I could say I went to yoga because I had some inkling that it would offer me something deeper, because there was an inexplicable spiritual tug, because I was looking to reconnect with my body and begin the real process of healing. Quite the contrary. My motivations for trying yoga were almost entirely pathological. I was looking for a quick fix, a sneaky way to burn calories without arousing the suspicions of my treatment team. So it should be no surprise that I went straight to a “power yoga” class.

It seems almost laughable now, but my first teacher was this big, voluptuous black woman . . .  one fucking powerhouse of a human being. She emanated strength, beauty, and grace like no one I’d ever met before. On the evening of my first class, I timidly walked into the studio and heard this loud and bellowing voice sing out “Well, hello there!” from inside the practice room. Her feet thumped with confidence as she trotted toward me on the hardwood floor. I was completely mesmerized by the way she carried herself, how she softly but powerfully filled the space.

For years, I’d been starving myself in order to take up LESS space in the world. I’d been taught by my own mother that strength came from mastering the wild whims of the body, controlling your instinctual urges, from proving you were stronger than others through stubborn will. And here was Diana . . .  a woman who could hold all two-hundred pounds of her sweet self up in handstand with ease. A woman who inhabited her life-given figure with confidence, compassion, and fierce femininity.

Diana not only stood counter to the traditional image of yoga I’d seen plastered on fitness magazines, but looking back I realize that she was hilariously non-traditional in the way she led class…


 To read the rest of this essay, purchase the book HERE.

This article is an excerpt of my chapter in the newly published anthology, 21st Century Yoga: Culture, Politics, and Practice, edited by Carol Horton and Roseanne Harvey. In the remainder of the essay, I chronicle my personal journey, focusing on yoga’s central and at times challenging role in healing from an eating disorder. I invite you to read the rest my chapter, as well as the eleven other phenomenal essays in this book, which discuss contemporary North American yoga and its relationship to issues including recovery, body image, and spirituality. You can learn more about 21st Century Yoga by visiting the website, and purchase a copy either in print or Kindle edition.

Photo Credit: WebMD

Chelsea Roff: Building the Dialogue — Seane Corn and Kerri Kelly Respond to YogaVotes Criticism

Some weeks ago, the yoga service organization Off the Mat into the World stirred up a flurry of controversy for showing up at the Democratic and Republican National Conventions with a team of eager volunteers to host The Huffington Oasis.

Their intention? To provide politicians and media delegates with “a refuge where they could come to reconnect with their bodies, minds and intentions,” and perhaps approach the “supercharged environment” of a political convention with more mindfulness and compassion. Sounds innocent enough, right? But the response they received from the yoga community was largely one of criticism and anger, as well-known bloggers and media organizations (including It’s All Yoga Baby, The Babarazzi, and even voiced disappointment and concern that Off the Mat’s campaign was at best ignorant and naive, and at worst a veiled scheme to rub shoulders with political big-wigs.

As someone who has long had an interest in both yoga and politics, I watched the YogaVotes campaign unfold from the voyeuristic lens of my Facebook feed with great interest, some skepticism, and a good bit of horror at the animosity and hostility coming from those who found the campaign distasteful. I tried to write an article about it several times, but found myself sitting with many more questions than I had answers. So, I decided, might as well put the questions right to the leaders of the campaign themselves.

Here is my interview with Off the Mat’s co-founder Seane Corn and executive director, Kerri Kelly:

Chelsea Roff: Hi Seane and Kerri. Thanks so much for taking the time to speak with me.

I wanted to begin by asking you about the mission of YogaVotes, which I read on your website is “to get more yogis out to vote in the 2012 election.” I think one question that has been on a lot of people’s minds is, how did hosting The Oasis at the DNC and RNC support that goal? Why did YogaVotes focus efforts on offering wellness practices to political/media delegates if your mission is to engage yoga practitioners in the coming election?

Seane Corn: The mission of YogaVotes is twofold: (1) to increase voter participation in this year’s election and (2) to bring yoga/mindfulness into politics.

YogaVotes is non-partisan effort meant to stimulate a conversation about the intersection between yoga and politics. The Oasis was an opportunity to offer yoga and other healing modalities to people who may or may not be familiar with these practices so that they could experience firsthand how self-care could impact their ability to be more effective and be more in tune with the communities they represent. It was our hope that having access to these practices could make a difference in an environment that is hyper-charged, separatist and often fiercely motivated by rhetoric that is divisive.

Being at the Oasis was an exploration on many levels. It was never meant to push a political agenda. It was to offer tools for healing and to watch, listen and learn.

CR: Many people have been critical of YogaVotes being a non-partisan initiative, and more specifically for “failing to address political structures that enable economic inequality, environmental devastation, racial and gender inequality” by serving delegates at the Republican National Convention.

Obviously, this hasn’t been the case with Off the Mat programs historically (I know programs like Global Seva and EYI were specifically created to address such issues), but how do you respond to those who essentially think it’s impossible to represent the values of yoga in the political sphere without being partisan? Why was it important to make YogaVotes a non-partisan initiative?

Kerri Kelly: YogaVotes is a voter service campaign. It is about creating an inclusive container for all yogis to make a conscious decision based on what they stand for, what’s at stake and who best represents their values and issues. If we are to be effective in empowering voters, we cannot tell them what to do or who to vote for. Instead, YogaVotes is seeking to understand why and how people vote so that we can support and ensure their participation.

This isn’t about influencing the direction of the campaign, but rather how we vote. 

This does not mean the entire yoga community should be non-partisan. In fact, we want yogis get clear, informed and passionate about what they stand for.

CR: So it sounds like you all felt it was important to engage both with the yoga community AND the political world, as a way to perhaps create a foundation for dialogue between the two later on… Speaking of the future, do you think being non-partisan will prevent YogaVotes from taking a stand on major issues like gender inequality and environmental devastation in the future? 

KK: How YogaVotes will evolve beyond this will depend on how the community shows up. If it becomes clear that this community wants to do advocacy work, then that might be how we evolve, if a constituency of voters based on yogic values emerges, so be it. But our move right now is to plant a seed, participate and learn…that will inform where we go in the future.

CR: That makes a lot of sense, Kerri. In many ways, I think YogaVotes has the potential to be for the yoga community what The League of Women Voters is for women – an organization that works to increase voter engagement, expand understanding of major public policy issues, facilitate dialogue between parties, and influence policy through education and advocacy.

KK: I would love for that to be the case. The League of Women Voters is an amazing organization and has been advising us on this campaign since it’s inception. So much of our strategy and approach stems directly from their experience.

CR: But it seems like there were a lot of people online voicing concern and disappointment that they weren’t seeing more meaningful engagement with the ongoing political process at the conventions. Why did you choose to focus efforts on offering wellness practices at the Oasis, rather than engaging with delegates about the values of yoga on the convention floor?

KK: I think what is unique about our work in this community, is that we are not just talking about yoga values – we are actively living them. That is what we wanted to demonstrate with The Oasis – so that delegates could experience the values and benefits of yoga first hand (this “train the trainer” approach has been a best practice for OTM for some time).  Talk-based engagement is not our style. This is about action, not words. We want to engage with politics in a very different way. From our perspective, that IS meaningful engagement.

It’s also important to note that The Oasis was just one component of this campaign, but clearly one that got a ton of attention.  Voter education and dialogue is a big part of YogaVotes, and yet our community is not engaging as much in that discussion. I hope that the strong feelings about what we did and did not do at the Oasis will encourage people to get more engaged and to look at how they would get involved in their own way.  That is the conversation we want to be having…how can each and every one of us get involved in a way that is authentic and meaningful?

Kerri Kelly registering voters on the streets of San Francisco

CR: Will voter education, advocacy, and dialogue around policy issues be a priority for YogaVotes in coming months?

KK: Yes. Already, hundreds of leaders have stepped up and are helping to shape the conversation around issues. This is a campaign of the community, so it is up to each and everyone to get clear about what’s at stake for them. YogaVotes is the container for this exploration. That is why we chose to begin with voter service, so that we could make space for everyone to get involved and informed in an authentic way. Being authentically informed means that we are grounded in our stance, contemplating issues based on unbiased information and making embodied choices from that place.

YogaVotes is both about taking action (through dialogue, advocacy and voting) AND and “how” we take action, applying the process of yoga to how we engage. It is an invitation to be aligned in body, mind and heart when we make decisions on election day.

CR: Seane, you said in one of your updates at the RNC that your intention was to “to confront separation with connection, fear with love.”

One of the criticisms that circulated in the media during the conventions was that “OTM naively walked into [the conventions] with fluffy, new-agey ideas about unity” that glossed over the very real (and important) differences between political parties. How do ideas about unity apply when we’re talking about politicians’ who hold fundamentally different perspectives on issues like climate change or abortion – perspectives, that of course, influence policy?

SC: To clarify, we chose to engage at the conventions in order to plant a seed. We did not come into this experience with the intention of immediately uniting politicians or establishing unity across issues. We had a very real expectation of simply providing a space for convention attendees to unplug and recharge so that they might engage at the conventions from a more connected and conscious place. We did what we do at OTM, we go into difficult, confronting places (i.e. our Global Seva Challenge work in Haiti and Uganda or our Empowered Youth Initiative in Los Angeles) and we listen, learn, breath and engage. The expectation was not that this would solve all of the very big problems that exist in politics today.  Only that by inviting in the space, practices and values of yoga, delegates might show up and engage differently.

Personally, it was a very hard practice for me. I have deep issues around injustice and can be reactive at times.

Yoga teaches me that we are all connected and that issues like war, poverty, illiteracy, and violence exist because we act as if there is an “other;” an “us” and “them.” This is the opposite of yoga and is a collective misperception. If I want to be a change agent and participate in creating real healing and peace in the world, then I have to recognize the places in myself that perpetuate this limited belief of separation as well. I have to recognize (and heal) that the very thing I judge in others is something I too embody.

It is really hard to stay mindful, especially when I’m around people whose points of view are oppressive and harmful to other people.  The practice of yoga helps me to be with my breath and stay present in conflict because I know how confrontational and intense I can be, which only creates more division (the very thing I’m trying to heal!).

CR: How do you practically confront separation with connection in the political arena?

SC: We are in the process of learning “how to confront separation with connection” and what the practical application of yoga looks like in the political arena. What we do know is that in this moment we have to engage, we have to embody what it is we are standing for and we have to go forward from a place of listening and love. Then we will know our next move.

CR: So it sounds like one of the major intentions at the Oasis was to offer politicians and members of the media practices to help them approach their work more mindfully.

But in many ways, the yoga community itself has become a microcosm of undesirable dynamics in the political world – as we’ve seen this year, there is no shortage power abuse, sex scandals, and financial corruption among people who do their sun salutations everyday. Given this, do you think that infusing the political world with yoga is likely to make politics more conscious and compassionate? 

KK: Sure, the practice of yoga is missing or lacking in some places within our own community. And it is important for us to be in a practice of integrity before taking yoga out to the rest of the world.  Advocating for yoga must be an authentic and honest reflection of our own practice and commitment to really make a difference.

Do I think it is possible for yoga/mindfulness to influence the political environment? Absolutely.

Will it be challenging and time consuming? Absolutely.

SC : Sadly I know many people who have a strong asana practices, and their behavior in the world is anything but mindful. I also know people who have never set foot on a yoga mat and live quiet lives filled with compassion, sensitivity and service. I do know that these practices can change lives. I’ve experienced it myself and have witnessed countless people become transformed as a result of a committed practice. Yoga can be a tool (amongst many) we use to develop understanding, connection and compassion.

I don’t know what will happen if consciousness and mindful practices are brought into an area where there is so much corruption, but I do know what happens if we don’t engage. It’s already happening. We’ll experience more division, more lies, more apathy, more poverty, more illiteracy, more stealing, and even more death. I want to take the chance, bring these practices in, and wait and see. That is why we developed YogaVotes. That is why this is just the beginning. That is why I am committed to this particular effort. Apathy is not an option for me; neither is the fear of failure or judgment. I will hold myself accountable for the mistakes I make, but I’m experienced enough to know that many of the “mistakes” I make often will lead me into a greater understanding and awareness and inform the quality and direction of this vision.

CR: I feel like I would be remiss not to address one of the biggest questions out there right now… Seane, do you have any aspirations to run for political office someday? Did your experience at the RNC and DNC sway you that direction?  😉

SC: People have been asking me this a lot and the truth is that I don’t have much interest in running for office, nor do I believe I would be a particularly good candidate. I believe my path looks a little different and that I can serve better in other ways. I enjoy working in the field, especially with youth, and also creating the opportunities for service and leadership in my community for other people. I enjoy using the platform that I’ve been given to raise awareness and resources that can make a life-changing difference. OTM has many different projects that people can plug into and we’ve managed to raise over 3 million dollars to support grass root efforts worldwide.  My service is driven by something very deep and personal, and I like the freedom that comes from the work I already do.  I’m not certain I would enjoy the compromises that need to be made once in the role of public servant, but you never know…I do know my campaign slogan would be “Pick  Corn!”

CR: Thank you both very much for taking the time to speak with me. Is there anything you’d like to add about the long term vision for YogaVotes?

SC: There is a lot we don’t know since this is the first time we are approaching this conversation. In our service work, we’ve consistently witnessed what happens to people and communities when there is a systemic breakdown.  Issues like poverty, illiteracy, lack of opportunity, racism, classism, violence, etc. are symptomatic of a larger systemic problem.  Engaging politically seems like a necessary and inevitable next step.  I don’t know what will come from this engagement or conversation, but I am willing to initiate the opportunities for dialogue.

We were surprised that the dialogue that this inspired was more about us than about the election or issues or the state of politics. It feels limiting and more like the behavior that we’re seeing in politics right now: divisive, separate, personal.  YogaVotes is simply asking how can we do this differently? How can we engage with one another and with politics in a way that is in alignment with our practice?

 Photo 1, 2, 3, 5 Credit: THE HUFFINGTON POST/AOL 2012

Photo 3 Credit: YogaVotes

Chelsea Roff: Is France Really Imposing a National Ban on the Words ‘Mother’ and ‘Father’?

In a controversial move to legalize gay marriage, Fox News and the Telegraph UK are reporting that France is set to “ban the words ‘mother’ and ‘father’ from all official documents.”

In reality, the French government is seeking to pass a law that would open marriage to “a union of two people, of different or the same gender” and replace references to  the words ‘mother’ and ‘father’ in the French civil code with more gender-neutral language, like ‘parent.’ But way the story is being reported, you would think the French government is enacting an all-out war on sex-specific language.

In the very first paragraph of both articles (which for some reason are the same on both websites), the reporter makes a point to emphasize the fact that the new law is outraging Catholics (because, that’s the real news, people), and goes on to quote several government and religious officials who claim gay marriage will do everything from “herald a complete breakdown in society”  to “create couples with three or four members.” One clergyman quoted in the piece even suggested that the new law will encourage incest and polyamory.

Not a single pro- same sex marriage source is quoted in the article. If you ask me, this is an example of shabby and biased news reporting. Stories like this skew public understanding of what’s going on in the world. And now, the Huffington Post and several other American news websites have gone on to re-report the same sensationalist headline.

So, in case you were wondering, here’s the real news: Government officials in France have proposed a law that would nationally legalize same sex marriage, as well as grant equal adoption rights to same-sex couples and remove sex-specific language from the country’s legal documents. The law will not effect anyone’s ability to say “mother” and “father” in the country or encourage incestuous relationships, as some news sources might have you believe.

Image Lisa F. Young/

Chelsea Roff: Evolution, Creation, and the Faux Middle Path

Earlier this week, my friend and fellow YogaBrains contributor Derek Beres shared a shocking statistic on my Facebook wall: Over half of Americans do not believe in evolution. According to a recent Gallup Poll, approximately 46% of Americans believe in creationism, 32% in “theistic evolution” and only 15% acknowledge the reality of evolutionary processes as described by Charles Darwin. As the infographic below shows, Americans are definitely on the fringes with these beliefs:

Usually, the wealthier a country is (as measured by GDP), the more likely it is that their citizens will have integrated modern scientific findings into their belief systems — and that is likely a result of greater availability and accessibility to high quality education.  But in the United States, despite the fact that we invest billions of dollars in our education system and claim to maintain separation between church and state, hundreds of thousands of people still believe that the universe is only about 10,000 years old (in fact, our cosmic age is closer to 13.7 billion).

Now that may not seem like a problem — after all, everyone is entitled to their own beliefs, right? Who are these arrogant scientists to be claiming that their theory is more true than someone else’s? I mean, it is just a theory, after all. There were no human beings there to witness the earth’s magnificent beginning. So it’s all speculation anyway… it’s all just mysteryRight?


The espousal of this pseduo-middle-path-mentality — this idea that all views are equal, and that creationist and evolutionary perspectives should be taught side by side — is one factor contributing to the epidemic of anti-intellectualism and anti-scientific backlash that Americans are now known for. Susan Jacoby, in an op-ed for the Washington Post, described this trend as “the dumbing of America,” and warned that the increasing influence of the religious right on public policy makes for a “toxic brew of anti-rationalism and ignorance [that] hurts U.S. public policy on topics from health care to taxation.”

While yogis and quantum-physics-distorting new agers may believe they are immune to this trend of anti-intellectualism, in this article I would like to flesh out one particular instance of how irrationality shows up under the radar — often hidden behind of veil of open-mindedness, tolerance, and the notion that all beliefs about the nature of reality are equally valid. I describe this as “the faux middle path.” In the Facebook comment thread that sparked this article, the faux middle path was expressed as “Evolution and creationism are both correct, because we are both evolving and creating. The truth is, we are all one.”

I was raised in the bible belt — where public schools required a moment for prayer every morning and teachers taught about Adam and Eve in science class — so I immediately saw the dangerous implications of suggesting evolution and creation are the same. When evolution and intelligent design are presented as equally viable ways of understanding reality, children learn to conflate faith-based beliefs with evidence-based theory. Creationism implicitly teaches students that it’s okay to disregard hundreds of years of scientific investigation. Why? Because spiritual authorities, institutions, and anything someone calls “their faith” cannot be questioned. It is a hierarchical, dogmatic, and implicitly oppressive philosophy that keeps “God” on a pedestal and evidence squandered beneath the boot of spiritual leaders — whether they be priest, rabbi, or guru.

Creationism also propagates a cartoonish version of reality that places human beings and their creator at the center of everything — and usually it’s impossible for people to see this implicit narcissism, because it’s hidden under the guise of faith. The belief that humans were placed on earth by a transcendent and supernatural intelligence is not so unlike a belief that the sun and all its planets revolve around the earth. Creationism presupposes that the earth, the universe, and even life itself was created with the sole purpose of serving the human species. It is no surprise, then, that humans breed, mutilate, and murder millions of animals in factory farms each year; wreck and ravage entire ecosystems in the rampant hunt for oil; dump millions of plastic containers into the ocean each year — because after all, the earth was made for us. The planet and all its species is our’s to vanquish, because after all… it was created for us.

Learning and understanding evolutionary theory is not just about scientific literacy — it is a theory that requires we acknowledge our own vulnerability to the natural forces of the universe, recognize our relationship to the other species on this planet, and approach life from a place of honest inquiry rather than blind faith.

I often hear people dismiss evolutionary theory as mere speculation, oblivious to the multitude of evidence that supports it and the decades of research that has been made possible as a result of Darwin’s contributions. Without a comprehensive understanding of how natural selection works, some of the most significant advances in medicine — from vaccines to antibiotics to treatments for immune diseases like AIDS — would have been impossible. And Darwin’s theories are constantly tested and even revised by new research in the biological, geological and astronomical sciences… because unlike matters of faith, scientific theories must hold up under the lens of scientific scrutiny.

It’s tempting for people who cherish values like unity and equality to suggest that evolution and creationism are not at odds — that from a macroscopic perspective, as that Facebook commenter put it, “evolution and creation are the same thing… because everything is one.” But that’s an irrational and untenable argument. Intelligent design and evolution are contradictory belief systems. And espousing one view over the other has a major impact on how we interface with the world around us.

Creationism holds that there is an intelligent, supernatural force (sometimes called God, the Universe, the Great Mother, or Universal Consciousness) guides the development of life on earth. Darwin, on the other hand, showed that the evolution of species on earth is shaped by natural (meaning measurable) forces like genetic mutations, changes in the environment, and even natural catastrophes. One could make the argument that evolutionary theory does encompass a creator of sorts, but that creator is not supernatural — it is nature itself. Traits are “selected” (without any premeditated intentionality) and passed to future generations based on the fact that the most well-adapted individuals will live long enough to reproduce and pass on their genes. That “theory” does not require faith, it’s supported by ark-loads of evidence. To claim that these two contradictory perspectives are the same is ludicrous.

My sense is that the 60%+ of Americans who doubt evolution do so because they don’t understand and/or trust the scientific process as one that is capable of discerning truth about the nature of our world. Instead, we’ve been taught to trust the “wisdom” upheld by spiritual traditions and authorities, rather than critically assess information based on the evidence before us. If America is to be a player in world politics and academic research in coming decades, there are going to have to be major changes in our education system… not so much teaching children what to think, but HOW to think. Metacognition. Critical thinking skills. The scientific process. Encouraging curiosity and inquiry, rather than faith and belief.

I have always been a passionate advocate of science, which is not often a popular stance to take when your writing to an audience that mostly identifies as spiritual, if not out-right religious. But in my view, science — by disrupting the hegemonic power structures of corrupt religious authorities and requiring that all claims be subjected to the test of real-world, replicable observation — does in fact hold the key to a “real” middle path. Any worldview that requires belief in an unseeable supernatural power to explain the presence of everything from Life to Love is, in my view, radical departure to the left or right of reality. The true middle path is in coming to terms with life in an intellectually-honest, fully integrated way.

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