One of my former yoga students, Jeanine Canty, is a faculty member at Naropa University, specializing in transformational leadership, social change and the intersection of gender, culture, history and ecology. Last year she shared some of her thoughts about yoga in modern times with me in an email exchange:
“I get angry at the way yoga seems synonymous with whiteness, spiritual bypassing, and cultural appropriation. Today’s yoga culture feels less like a union with and more like an advertisement for an elite, privileged community. There seems less reflection on being a yogi that serves the greater whole and too much emphasis on self-care and ego gratification.
It is rare to hear a teacher acknowledge what is going on in the world and how this relates to our practice. When the shootings of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and other black men and women occurred along with the Black Lives Matter Movement, I noticed how angry I felt in a yoga class of predominately privileged white people. When we did poses that had us raise our hands in the air, I often felt like shouting “Don’t Shoot.”
This anger also comes up for me when I witness white yoga teachers bringing in Native American traditions with no acknowledgement of the historic and current struggles of indigenous peoples as well as the issues of cultural appropriation. The apathy in the yoga community breaks my heart. How can we be yogis who are at union with ourselves when we ignore what is going on in the world?”
I am sure I am one of the many people in our country who, caught between outrage and heart-break, are struggling to find the best way to contribute positively in the wake of recent events.
Personally, I always feel torn about the use of social media in times when the monster of racism and bigotry rears its ugly head in ways too hard for even the privileged to ignore. I want to declare my position but I am not fooled that a passionate status update is devoid of real, substantive action. And, while for some of my friends who are in marginalized populations, Facebook and Twitter updates are valid means of expressing solidarity, there are just as many who tell me they find it distasteful and and a bit suspect when white folks like myself think “showing up” can actually be done in the low-risk atmosphere of a Facebook newsfeed.
I fall off both sides of the the razor’s edge of social media these days. Sometimes I comment and get dragged down a thread that exhausts me and seems to come to no good end for most of the people involved. Sometimes I stay silent and hurt my friend’s and student’s feelings, failing to be the ally I told them I aim to be. And so on.
I don’t yet have a clear understanding of what is best for me and my community along these lines. So I fumble along— fucking it up some days and probably helping at other times. Win some, lose some, I suppose. I am not complaining, mind you. I think right relationship to anything usually involves repeatedly falling off each side before finding my way to what is both authentic to me and helpful to others.
Don’t get me wrong— I do things. I call my senator and congressman. I talk to my loved ones. I talk to my students. I talk to my colleagues. I donate money. I read across a broad spectrum of subjects, opinions and perspectives and try to pull from a variety of sources.
There are lots of resources out there right now from activists more skilled and more experienced in such matters than I am about how to take action to fight hate. I have found a lot of helpful suggestions from The Southern Poverty Law Center.
There are also a lot of resources for ways to stay educated, informed and active in the resistance. I personally tune into Elizabeth Cronise McLaughlin's broadcasts as much as I can as I find her an inspired, passionate and grounded voice in the wilderness of politics these days.
I also write.
I suppose that I write as much to make sense of things for myself as well as in the off chance that my musings and insights may be useful to others. And, anyone who knows me well knows that I find it virtually impossible to give short, pithy answers to questions, making me more suited to writing books and blog entries than I am to writing good twitter posts.
At any rate, as a trained and experienced yoga teacher, as opposed to a trained and experienced race educator, activist, lawyer, or politician, I keep coming back to my own sphere of influence and how to best serve from where I am.
My student’s words have stayed with me, helping me realize that while many folks may want to come to yoga for a “time-out” from life and to have a reprieve from the stresses of our modern political, cultural, environmental climates, that time-out is actually impossible for people who are in any way marginalized unless the struggles of their lives are acknowledged. It seems that those of us who have unexamined privilege tend to feel most “comfortable” when things are left unspoken, whereas people who live outside the bounds of normative culture feel most “comfortable” when disparities, injustices and difficulties are named and acknowledged directly.
I could be wrong about that last generalization, but it’s a working theory of mine. And, at some point, it seems, that as the yoga takes hold of us at deeper levels, we start to realize that any person’s oppression is ours also; that no one is free unless everyone is free. And at some point, hopefully, we also realize that the vision of freedom is worth some discomfort.
Look, I am not saying that every Wednesday night class needs to be a lecture about systemic racism and institutionalized oppression, unless, of course, you advertise it that way, in which case, have at it. I am simply saying that “comfort” from a modern-day yoga perspective might be worth re-considering. Sure, it might be a bit “uncomfortable” to acknowledge the stark realities of our cultural baggage of hate, oppression and injustice, but not nearly as uncomfortable as it is going to be to live with inevitable increase in violence we can expect when those realities continue unchallenged.
In fact, I think we yogi’s are perfectly poised for discomfort, if we can look at it the right way. Sure, it may be “uncomfortable” to look at the ways our culture conditions otherwise good, caring people to feel different, separate and threatened by differences in race, religion, ethnicity and so on. And yet, isn’t the fundamental premise of our practice that we have thoughts, feelings, behaviors and perceptions from which we operate from and yet, and yet, we are also more than the lens of our conditioned identity?
For me, the glimpses of this “more than my conditioning” are what gives me strength. Every time I roll to my right side after savasana and I feel that deep sense of okay-ness so unique to post-asana-practice, I am grounding my self-knowledge in something deeper than my poses, my preferences, my biases, my wounds, my fragilities, and my fears. And you better believe that visiting that place repeatedly— day after day, year after year— has made me stronger. And I want that strength for myself and for my students. Shit, I want that strength for the world.
Come to think of it, the word comfort, shares the same root as fort, fortitude, and fortress, meaning “strength.” What if, from a modern day yoga perspective, we stopped equating comfortable with “not rocking the boat” and started realizing that true comfort comes from those things that give us strength?
I don’t think that yoga is activism. But I think yoga can be training in discomfort and more importantly, I believe yoga can be training in the direct experience of our something more. And I think that the something more is our strength, our hope and dare I say, our salvation.
I spent the weekend in Atlanta, Georgia at The Yoga Collective with Gina Minyard and her awesome community there. I have known Gina for many years now and as always, being with her is both inspiring and thought-provoking. Gina, having recently completed a three-week meditation intensive and training with her teacher, Paul Meuller-Ortega, was full of potent clarity and passion for practice and the process of awakening. Once again, I was reminded— as I so often am in both my life and my teaching work— of the potency of practice and the value of being established in the tools and techniques of the inner life.
Somewhere over the last few years, I have become less interested in whether what I am up to is actually yoga or not. In fact, the less I call it yoga, the more relaxed about my journey I am, the happier I feel, and the more expanded my sense of who I am becomes. Of course, along with this expansion lives a narrowing of my interest and a sense of honest recognition about what is for me and what is not for me. One thing that is not for me is defending whether or not what I am up to is yoga. I am more interested in whether or not my efforts are bearing fruit.
For years I thought the fruit my efforts would bear would be described in glowing terms like “transformation” and “evolution” and I would have a testimony of radical life changes and triumphs over my limitations.
Some of that happened. Plenty, in fact, truth be told.
And, of course, since I said I was telling the truth, some things haven’t changed.
And. while I I am being honest here, it’s beginning to look like some things about me are here to stay.
In a recent conversation with a friend of mine on the path, I was listening to her testimony of her radical change and growth. I noticed I felt a bit tired. Don’t get me wrong— I was happy for her that she felt the freedoms that she was describing and attributing to her practice. I mean, really, I am into it. For me. For her. For the world.
But somewhere along the way, (in the midst of my mid-life crisis/passage, I suppose), I got interested in another facet of my experience: How was I living alongside those things within me that —like it or not— have not changed?
I am not talking here about life-threatening addictions and abusive patterns of behavior and so forth that, well, we do need to go to work on for the safety of ourselves and others. I am talking here about the ten-thousand neurotic tendencies that annoy, distract and rob joy in ways too numerous to name. I am talking here about the things that I hold against myself and use to keep self-love continually out of reach, turning my own regard into something I have to earn with the unrealistic price tag of perfectionist standards I will never meet.
This growing interest in living with what has not changed does not make a very enticing workshop description on a brochure, nor would it have been of any interest to me when I got started working on myself all those years ago. I wanted change.
Well, truth be told, I needed change, if I was going to live. That sounds dramatic, but I am quite serious. I had some life-threatening behaviors that needed to stop. Believe me, I know how important shifting some patterns can be. But I have stopped thinking that there is some kind of salvation on the other side of all the things wrong with me, be those things perceived or actual, judged by me or by others.
Instead, I think there is a salvation to be found within those things I hold against myself. The salvation of which I am speaking is compassion. I am not talking about the surface-level compassion I grant myself that has within it the subtle, and often unconscious, promise that “one day I will change.” I am talking about the compassion that is only possible when I can be with my own suffering— even if that suffering is my impatience, jealousy, frustration, anxiety, anger, shame and sadness— with no promise or reassurance that “one day I will overcome.”
And, of course, the ironic thing is that the salvation of my own regard and tenderness, of my own self-compassion, often creates a shift. This shift is not always the shift of my outer behavior, but is most certainly a re-direction of my attention toward Love. That re-direction of attention toward Love is the fruit of practice to which I was referring earlier. Call it what you will, this re-direction toward Love is where my primary interest lies.
Postural practice helps redirect me, although its not as though every time I roll out my mat I am subsumed in self-love. Usually, asana practice is an achey, awkward foray into the stiff nooks and crannies of my body, mind, and emotions that somehow seems to yield an overall movement toward something quite sweet within me.
Meditation practice helps me, but let’s not be confused— sitting with oneself, regardless of method, is not always relaxing, blissful or easy. The direct encounter with the machinations of one’s mind is often uncomfortable and difficult, and while the overall effect may be a re-direction toward Love, the process isn’t always smooth or enjoyable.
I could go and on and on about the tools and techniques of the inner life that I find useful and many of them probably qualify, at least loosely, as yoga. But really, if I called these tools something else, they would still work. And the fact that they work gives me tremendous strength and faith in the face of the rest of it these days. The rest of it— from politics to family life to industry issues and everything that lives in the unique circumstances of our lives— create plenty of things for us to deal with and to practice in the face of.
And while everywhere I go yoga teachers report that they are working harder than ever for less money, and while students everywhere report that the costs of participating in classes and trainings are more prohibitive than ever, and the while blogs and forums abound with both valid critiques as well as with what I see as incomplete understandings made into problems, I feel fortunate to have found my way to teachers, teachings and practices that continue to help me deepen my understanding of who I am and re-direct my attention toward Love.
My wish for all of us is that we find that re-direction toward Love in and through whatever movement practice we do, whatever meditation style we engage, in the quiet moments of tending to our breath, in the active moments of our day, in solitude, as well as in our families, friendships, and communities. And, I hope that for those folks whose practice feels stuck, stalled, wrong or incomplete, who feel hurt, betrayed, and/or are suffering in their relationship to the teachings and to their teachers, that compassion can rise in the midst of their difficulty and bear the fruit of the movement toward Love.
"Attention matters deeply. Turn your attention to the highest, to what is best, most important, most crucial. What is fundamentally powerful for the growth of your life in a positive way? Turn your attention to your own intelligence, toward your own compassion, love and creativity."
- Paul Muller-Ortega
In preparation to write a blog entry today, I closed out several screens of commentary about Russia, health-care, Sean Spicer, Robert Mueller and so on. As I opened up a new document on my computer, I felt a bit at odds with myself and the world, trying to drum up something useful to write about yoga practice, teaching and spiritual growth. Truth be told, writing blog entries has been difficult for me since the presidential election, since watching our country careen toward the end of democracy makes the debate about “music or not in class” or “groupons vs. class pass” or “should the hips be square in Vira 1” and “do my next webinar” seem somewhat shallow and self-serving.
Reading or contributing to commentaries about the problems with modern yoga has also felt strange to me since November. Something woke up inside me the morning after the election that made me feel that squabbling about yoga in any way was a luxury I no longer have. I am not saying that there is no place for good, honest critique. In fact, I think we need critical thinking, discernment and clarity more than ever right now. But, if I am to have any hope that our political leaders might journey across the political aisle for the betterment of our society, I might as well start working toward peace within the yoga communities and let a lot of shit go.
Personally, I know I need the sanity and sanctuary that my practice provides me without the distraction of doubt, fault-finding and petty jealousies. I am talking here about the level of intrigue, shit-talking and suspicion that exists within yoga communities, not the valid concern about the exploitation of power dynamics, social inequities and traumatization that happens in yoga communities claiming to help people heal.
So, while there are problems galore to be explored, none of them exist between me, my mat and my practice. Give me a few minutes and few downward dogs, and I feel better. And I need and want that “better.”
And even without the dramatic political landscape of which we are all now a part, and even if the world of yoga was a utopia— which it isn’t and never will be, in my opinion— my personal life now involves living with my parents in a new place and adapting to a big shift of priorities on a daily basis, which has altered my perspectives considerably.
At any rate, so we are clear, I am not ignorant of what is going on in the political arena, I am simply choosing not to write much about it here. And certainly, I am not blind to the many problems that seem to plague the industry in which I work, but I am not so interested in writing about them here. And, much of my life with my parents is not my story to tell, but involves personal details that belong to other people, which feel important to safeguard.
I suppose that is what is on my mind a lot these days—what it means to safeguard one another’s personhood in some way.
When my mom had a stroke four years ago, Kelly and I were with Mom and Dad in the Galapagos Islands. We had to evacuate Mom from our small cruise ship in the middle of the ocean to a mainland hospital in Ecuador. So, instead of a 10-day, vacation tour of the islands, we spent six days in a hospital in Quito.
During that time in Ecuador, I reached out to a mentor of mine who had taken care of her mother at the end of her mother’s life. I made an offhand comment that what I was going through with Mom and Dad felt like a bit of a role reversal. She said, “It would probably be best for you and them not think of it that way. What you have is an opportunity to return the care that was given to you.”
I took this perspective to heart during that trip and have leaned on her advice during this current transition into a new iteration of family life. I do not want to parent my parents and I am pretty sure they do not want that from me either. I do want to care for them and help them care for themselves and to invest some of my time and energy in helping make their golden years a bit more golden. It is my honor and privilege to return the care that they gave me.
Of course, it is not sexy work. Caring for human beings is often messy and many times, mundane. Cooking, cleaning, bathing, talking, planning, driving, and so on define the structures of the day and become the way one spends a somewhat inordinate amount of time and energy. I am not complaining, mind you. And, all of you who have mothered and fathered children know the reality I am describing better than me. The amount of time required to simply create the structures in which a dignified life can occur is somewhat awe-inspiring.
I thought I knew.
I did my best to support those doing this work.
I didn’t know.
At any rate, a dignified life is what I want for my parents. And what I want for myself with them. And, a sense of dignity is what I have always wanted from my life of practice.
Not to be confused with some kind of false sense of imported formality, the dignity of which I speak is sourced— not in social niceties or through conforming to the outer expectations of others — but in a connection with something more intrinsic and essential. I call this connection Love and I feel it in my heart as a sense of “rightness” that has a quality of inspired groundedness. And when I am referenced in this Love, my own personhood is safeguarded from the many demons and entities wanting to feed on it and I am more able to stand guard at the gate for the people I love so that they can remain as whole as possible amidst the ravages of life's inevitable challenges.
I am interested in those things that help me access this state of embodied mind and heart that I call Love. I am interested in those teaching and practices that create strength and confidence in this connection.
Many of us glimpse this Love in asana, I think. And many of us who teach— for all our fantasies and flaws, which seem to be considerable— want very deeply to serve the recognition of this Love in others. And while the pressure to pay the bills-- to keep up with the trends and the demands of the marketplace-- turn the best of us into crazy people at times, still, we stay in the game because we have tasted something Real in and through the practice and through our somewhat haphazard attempts to lead others along the path.
So, while the world is lurching along toward its own ends and while our industry has its very real problems, you will find me making breakfast (and lunch and dinner), growing a garden, practicing asana, helping mom with her bath and going to the doctor with my dad. You will find me practicing asana, hiking mountains, playing with my dog and making time for date night with my husband.
And, when the planets align and Luck smiles, I will sit down and write a bit about my process in case— just in case— some part of my journey helps you along yours.
I spent the weekend teaching at BIG Power Yoga in Houston, TX. BIG is a Baptiste affiliated studio, full of hard-working, sincere, and fun yoga practitioners and teachers. I always feel a fondness for Baptiste yoga practitioners, having worked with them back in my Anusara yoga days at Breath and Body in Austin, TX, when Desirae Pierce invited me to lead a few immersions and teacher trainings there.
So, while I am not trained in that particular approach to yoga practice, I have been a friend of their community for many years and have found that the Baptiste folks who make it into my workshops and trainings to be very high caliber students who know how to work hard and how to make use of challenge.
I often introduce a different kind of hard work than the work of power vinyasa. For instance, I don’t teach a lot of the postures in flow, I generally don’t heat the room, I explain a lot, I demonstrate a lot, I rant a lot, and I give a lot of details to work with in terms of alignment. So while the content of the work may look different, these students understand challenge and how to work with it.
Years ago, I was in line at a conference with Baron Baptiste and he shared a few thoughts on his trainings with me. It went something like this: “Well, most of us don’t really know who we are until we get squeezed. Our trainings squeeze people so they can see what kind of juice come out. Generally, it is not so sweet at first. But under the sadness, anger, and fear, the sweetness is always there. That is what it is about for me— helping people get to that.”
(Something like that. Maybe not exactly.)
Sometimes the squeeze is a different class format, sometimes it is a pose we can’t do, a longer hold than we are used to, a fellow classmate breathing too loud, a substitute teacher, a song we hate on a playlist, the heat, the not-heat, the teacher’s personality and opinions, our self-criticism, the classroom culture, a disappointing role model, a fall from grace, a destruction of some illusion we are holding onto interiorly or exteriorly, and so on. Different things squeeze different people at different times along the way. The key is not trying to not get squeezed, but to learn how we can work with the squeeze when it happens, Because the squeeze will happen.
(Keep in mind, I do not believe this applies with abuse, manipulation, coercion, etc. and so sometimes how we work with certain squeezes from certain people and situations is to get out as quickly as possible.)
The point is, the challenge is not challenge for challenge sake alone. We do not need to make practice hard just for hard’s sake. The idea is to make use of the inevitable challenges of sustained practice— which are often multiplied in group and community settings— in ways that helps us move through the bitterness of the first squeeze so we can taste—even for a moment— the nectar of what lives beneath.
Lee used to say that as a guru he had no need to test anybody. “Time,” he always said, “will test everybody.”
You know that adage from Pattabhi Jois about “Practice and all is coming”? Not one bone in my body thinks he is actually talking about poses. Of course, how do I know? I wasn’t there when he said it. I am not a member of that community of practitioners. But, nonetheless, every time I see someone repeat that quote with a picture of some newly attained posture— as though practice and time will bring all poses to every body— I cringe a bit.
First of all, that time and practice will result in an ever-increasing list of postures we can do is a myth.
I mean, it might. But, it might not.
For me, that adage speaks to the fact that life is always rolling along and all is coming with it. Sure, if we are established in practice and carving out time to be on our mats more days than not, then maybe— hopefully— we are developing awareness, strength, mobility and clarity in that domain. Maybe we will actually be able to feel that we are making progress. That is the idea, I suppose.
Or one of the ideas.
But even with a well-established and progressing practice, outside the practice space, there will be births, deaths, illnesses, new love blossoming, divorces, break-ups, partings-of-ways, new jobs, lost opportunities, misunderstandings, racial tensions, social injustice, political WTF’s and fallout galore. If we are lucky, our practice life will help us reduce our need for drama and self-destruction and perhaps we learn some better coping skills along the way. All that is great. But no matter how well we manage ourselves and our issues, still—- life will roll through and with it, the inevitable squeeze, will come.
Truly, ALL is coming.
At some point, I gave up the childish fantasy that yoga would make everything in my life better. Of course, I actually do think my life is better with yoga in it. And I enjoy being me more when I have a regular relationship with practice. However, sustained practice is no guarantee that there will be no calamity or hardship. And while it may not be a stunning conclusion to this particular blog entry to say it, the only thing practice actually seems to guarantee is practice itself. What we get from practice might just be the thing itself.
Anyway, the weekend was great. I got home Monday and then Tuesday started my series at The Yoga Tonic in Salida. Wednesday, I had my Finding Depth in the Basics webinar and today, Kelly and I had enough time to get to the high country for some hiking with Locket, who is now resting quietly in my office while I write.
Time seems to be flying by, filled with the details of living. For the most part, I feel settled in to our new circumstance here in Colorado and the process of adjusting to a more involved family life is well underway.
On the practical side of my life, the Texas property is under contract, we have unpacked most of the boxes, we have planted a vegetable garden as well as some flowers, I confirmed a venue for my 2017/2018 trainings, I taught two great workshops in June— one here in Buena Vista, CO and another in Santa Fe, NM, I updated my website, and, in addition to my current webinar on Finding Depth in the Basics, I have been back in my filming studio working on new classes for my online channel. (think lots of new flow practices to enjoy!)
Added into the mix of all that activity have been bike rides, hikes, doctor visits, cooking, cleaning and so on.
(Oh, and my napping practice is going well.Maybe not #nappingeverydamnday but #nappingmanytimesaweek.)
Like I said, the activities of daily living.
And on the inner life front, I am thinking a lot about how all my time with formal practices of asana, meditation, mantra, puja and the like, have brought me to place where I feel I am living my life rather than practicing for it.
Years ago, on a pilgrimage trip to India, my spiritual teacher, Lee, gave a talk about how eventually we would stop seeing our work as practitioners as something different or apart from our lives. He said, “What you want is to find yourself living your life and simply folding these perspectives and vantage points into your day-to-day activities with a kind of relaxed discipline.”
Seems to me that some of us in his company were better at the relaxed part while others were better at the discipline part. I tend to be a bit of a “clamp down and try to control it” sort of person and, while that temperament had some positive outcomes for me in terms of time on my mat, on my cushion, writing consistently, etc,, clamping down and always trying to do everything “better” also had some downsides that surfaced after about fifteen years. (Nothing like a good mid-life passage to help clarify patterns.)
So, here I am in my late forties glimpsing what it might mean to be a tad bit more relaxed in my approach to my life and growth. Relaxation, in this case, has less to do with outer activities and more to do with relaxing an internal grip that is held in place by “not good enough” and “I am different and misunderstood” and “It’s all my fault” and so on. (You know, the Big Ones.)
And, as the process is unfolding, it seems to me that the more I stop the incessant self-improvement strategies—even when said strategies are dressed up in yoga clothes and called practice or sadhana— the more I can allow myself to be who I am the more I can allow my students to be who they are, the happier I am, and the more effective my teaching becomes. Imagine that.
Somewhere along the way, I stopped worrying about whether I was a “good yogi” or a a “bad yogi” or if what I was teaching was “real yoga” or “athleticisized new-age hooey.” Somewhere over the last few years, I stopped worrying about why someone walked into my classroom and why they didn’t. I stopped paying so much attention to what other people where teaching and doing and stopped giving quite so much attention to what I thought about it all. After almost 20 years of teaching, I have finally realized I rarely know anyone’s motives for practice, how the seeds of the teachings are being planted within them or exactly how they are living them once they leave my class.
I even began to realize that what my teachers think of me and my studentship is really none of my business. I mean, it is nice when my teachers seems to like me, but, in a way, their approval—or lack thereof— is just another distraction away from the task at hand.
The task at hand remains the same as it always has been for me— Love. For me, practice as an expression of Love will have at its heart, the mood of relaxed discipline. For me, practice as a means to earn Love will always carry the tension of fear and inadequacy. Everything may appear the same on the surface, but the interior experience is radically different. And truth be told, when I am in fear-based inadequacy, there are always tells. But at any rate, I think the older I get, the more the truth of the interior becomes my priority over the perceptions of the surface, tells or not.
I told Kelly that I couldn’t face writing a blog on “freedom” today, but it seems that I did just that after all. For me, freedom from the tyranny of that internal grip of fear has come— not all-at-once-and-forever— but in glimpses and glances, in sips and swallows, in both fleeting insights and sustained perspectives that allow me to Love a bit more fully.
Enjoy your holiday.
Years ago, my teacher at the time, was facing criticism from the community as his work grew beyond a small group of students into a global network. One of the criticisms—of which there were many— was that his long-term students felt lost in the crowd and were missing the close, personal connection they had shared with him in the early days and upon which his growing empire was founded. Additionally, new students felt disconnected, unseen, and invalidated because, in any given workshop, they were one in a sea of people. They didn’t feel what their teachers described feeling from their early days with him, which also created an emperor’s-new-clothes kind of situation.
More could be (and has been said) about that time, but it seemed to me that as the project grew in scale from a close-knit, bonded group into a world-wide movement, the mechanisms of leadership had failed to adapt effectively, leaving both old and new students hurt and frustrated.
At one conference, attempting to quell this rising tide of discontent, my teacher told the group how he was “there for everybody.”
I remember thinking to myself, “Oh, boy, we are in for it now. There is NO WAY he can be there for everybody. The only way this can end is badly.” Later that week, I begged him to changed his narrative so that he stopped promising something he could not deliver.
I think he wanted to be there for everybody. And I think the scale of his experiment was no longer as satisfying for him without the deeper connections that marked the early days of his teaching work. And while the desire to be there for everybody may have features of a narcissism, I do not think that is the whole story or the singular explanation of what was going on. Not everyone agrees with me on this, obviously.
Instead of making bigger, more impossible promises, I wanted him to start to talk honestly about his limitations and how a larger community can not provide the same things as a smaller community. As a community, I wanted us to understand that, even with such limits, it was possible to have many of our needs met, but probably not all of them. I wanted a discussion that acknowledged a solid yogic education— one complete with spiritual inspiration and community connection— does not require perfection of the teacher, ourselves, or one another.
Of course, that shift in narrative is not what happened.
And I should pause the story to say that my perspectives may be what they are because I personally did not feel abused or traumatized by my involvement with my teacher. He hurt my feelings. I hurt his feelings. We had fights. We had misunderstanding and differing views. I made choices that he probably still sees as a betrayal. And there was a lot of good that passed between us. All those experiences are there in all of their messy glory. And yet I did not feel abused. And I feel like my yoga education was good. Not perfect. But good enough.
Not everyone feels the way I feel and I am sympathetic to the difference in perspective. I am aware that each person involved with this teacher walked away with differing views on the time they spent with him. I want to be clear that in some cases, many people feel that the ethics violations were significant and therefore some of my perspectives are not going to be useful to others because a different set of boundaries— internal and external— may be needed for healing in cases of abuse.
Recently, our minister was preaching about how to bring Love and Oneness to life in our lives by staying in relationship. She described how her family of origin would discuss hot topics, disagree, and fight and yet still were able remain in relationship around a dinner table, as a family. She clarified that Oneness of Heart did not mean not to disagree, but lived in the unity of being a family in the midst of disagreement. Then she said, “I must make a caveat here— In cases of abuse, I do not advocate staying in relationship.”
So like that. In cases of abuse, ethics violations and the like, many of my — or anyone’s— philosophical musings must be applied relative to one’s specific situation. None of this work is easy, simple or one-size-fits-all and it often goes more wrong than right.
However, I am still interested in a vision of yoga that is not anchored in some kind of utopian yoga dream but is, instead, anchored in a paradigm of “good enough.” Of course, depending on who we are, “good enough” can vary significantly, making the whole topic even more daunting to actualize reliably. For instance, for folks with a history of physical abuse who come to yoga, a class “good enough” not to re-injure, and perhaps even provide a healing opportunity, is likely very different than for someone who is not coping with those wounds. Same with race, size, gender, socio-economics, education, physical abilities and limitations, illness, health, addictions, etc. And yet, part of the utopian yoga dream (as I see it) is the expectation — conscious or unconscious— that one approach, one class, one set of cues to give or to avoid giving, can somehow address the myriad of needs that exist in any given community of practitioners.
I recently had a discussion with a colleague who outlined a vision for a yoga that was inclusive, politically-active, trauma-sensitive, egalitarian, and more. I nearly had a panic attack hearing the description because I knew there was no way my public classes and workshops could or would meet such a standard. Even if I was doing my best to meet the high standard outline-- and to be clear, I try to do a good job-- there would be people walking into my classroom who, despite my best efforts, would eventually feel hurt, ignored, unseen, unable, and left out— some of which would be my fault due to my unconscious patterns and biases and some of which would be due to theirs.
I think we probably need to do better as teachers and as an industry and there is certainly room for improvement and clarity. I am not discounting that reality. Issues abound. And I think naming problems for what they are is important so we know where to apply our efforts toward improvement.
And, as time goes by, the less I have come to expect yoga will provide. The asana practice has been great form of awareness, physical expression and discipline for me. I also love to hike, bike, and paddle a kayak. As much as I love asana, it does not satisfy me completely as my sole physical activity. And while I have had very few chronic injuries from asana, I also go to bodyworkers of all kinds to help with my aches, pains, unique tweaks and peculiarities. For instance, when my hip hurt, I had an MRI and the thing that helped the most was a shot of anti-inflammatories, not yoga therapy. I have found immense psychological resources in the teachings and practices of yoga. I also have a great psychotherapist. I find some of the yoga philosophy enriching and inspiring. I also go to church, read across disciplines and truth be told, at the end of the day, right now I find more solace in contemplative prayer, time in nature, being with my dog, and writing in my journal than I do in the average dharma talk, church service or yoga class. Some of my favorite people are my yoga friends, students and colleagues and I have found that having friends who don’t care about anything yoga to be immensely valuable, oftentimes possessing a practical, unencumbered wisdom that can be hard to find in spiritual communities so often bogged down in right’s and wrong’s. I have profound gratitude for my teachers and yet, I have found that they are all human, they do not always see me in my best light, and they have each, at some point along the way, hurt my feelings.
I don’t teach asana because I think it is everything anyone needs for a happy, healthy, meaningful life wrapped up in one package. Perhaps, because so much of my public life revolves around my work as a teacher, asana may appear elevated beyond what it is for me— an important facet of the diamond of my full life expression. I think that, as important as it is, as much as I invested in asana and yoga philosophy over the years, the value of these pursuits in my life today exist more in relationship to the other facets of my life than in the totality or singularity of their expression. But let's face it, most of you know me because of yoga, not because I love my dog, I am a good cook, I help my parents, I have a wicked sense of humor, I like alpine lakes, I have a great art collection, and so on. The parts of my life that fill in the fullness of who I am are not as publicized as the backbends, arm balances and teacher trainings. And the fuller the other areas become for me, the more a yoga that is good enough is well, good enough.
All right, more could be said, but I have been wanting to keep these blog entries shorter, not longer and this is now right at 1500 words so I will sign off for now.
“The cure for pain is in the pain.
Good and bad are mixed. If you don't have both,
you don't belong with us.”
I am making my way home from fantastic weekend teaching in Portland, Maine. This was my third visit to Lila East End Yoga, which is run by the lovely, dynamic Genell Huston. Genell has had the studio for seven years and grown it into a vital community of practitioners and teachers and it was a pleasure to step into the room to teach.
Genell and I know each other through our shared background in Anusara yoga. We developed a closer relationship through my Asana Junkies webinars. Talking about Anusara yoga can be a bit like that story of a bunch of people gathering around an elephant, each touching a different part and describing something different. These days, I do my best to see what each person’s perspective is/was rather than argue for the tail, the trunk or flank as being the total reality of the beast.
In fact, come to think of it, talking about yoga— particularly with a large audience online— is also a bit like that story. Depending on style, geographic region, primary teachers, body-type, gender, race, religious background, psychological disposition, socioeconomic situation, and so on— as this list is not intended as an exhaustive enumeration of all the variables at play— one’s direct experience with the practice, as well as the industry, varies considerably.
I am happy about the education I got in Anusara yoga and I lean fairly heavily on what I learned there in my teaching work. And I have grown a lot over the years, which has changed my perspectives in both subtle and not-so-subtle ways. One freedom I now enjoy in teaching is a sense that the alignment I am suggesting through my cues, sequencing and explanations is a starting point, not an ending point. Rather than needing any one cue to be “right” or “wrong,” I am much more interested in said cues being a doorway into awareness and personal exploration. I now see the alignment as something there to serve me when I practice and my students when I am teaching, not something I am supposed to fit myself or others into. Generally, most cues have some value for some people some of the time. And by the same token, many cues have problems for many people much of the time. Like the razor’s edge, one can fall off either side.
Increasing the difficulty further, is that some cues work well for a period of time and lose their utility and even cause injury when we continue to implement them past the point when what they were intended to do has been accomplished. One of the best ways to create injury in our bodies is to work like a beginner— big actions, big movements— once we are intermediate or more advanced students. Many a stiff-hamstringed person has benefitted in uttanasana by bending their knees and working to increase the forward tilt of the pelvis. Many a loose-hamstringed person has weakened their muscles that way.
Another difficulty is that we do not always get the feedback from our actions immediately in yoga. Sometimes the way that we are working, or the poses we are doing, or even the perspectives we are cultivating, take years to register as problematic. Where I used to see so many of the principles of alignment—physical and attitudinal— as guarantees for safety, I now see them as our current best, well-informed guess to go with. My new perspective requires me to be willing to shift my way of thinking and working in poses when feedback comes in that my best guess had some flaws or opportunities for refinement. You know, to be, uh...flexible.
Seems like its taken almost 20 years in the seat of the teacher to feel comfortable with a yoga with fewer mandates and directives. And I have made every mistake in the book along the way from power struggles about alignment with my students, to unnecessary, unproductive criticism of myself and others, to passing along rigid dogma and beliefs to trainees who I am sure have passed it along to others. I could go on as the process has not been smooth or easy.
I have also helped people along the way, which I am also clear on. While the process hasn’t been smooth or easy, I have been in good company, blessed with great students, colleagues and opportunities. And yet, there is something sobering about teaching and knowing I can only teach from where I am. And sometimes, even when doing my very best, my best is not very much and my limitations have less-than-desirable consequences. And the only way to overcome these limitations is to walk through them step-by-step, day-in-day-out, year-by-year and summon the courage to keep learning, growing, offering, and owning up to it all— the ways it goes well on my mat and in the classroom, as well as the ways what I do misses the mark.
Today I see the value in my own journey of passing through the stage of do’s and don’t, right’s and wrong’s. Those structures gave me a scaffolding for a lot of years that helped me engage my practice with boundaries and parameters that helped me focus and channel my energy and attention. I know in my heart-of-hearts that I could not have started where I am now and so I don’t feel ashamed or angry about the way I have traveled the path. And I hope that 20 years from now, this current juncture which feels healthy and integrated to me, will be a place upon which I look back and go, “Wow, I have grown so much since then.”
I suppose these musings are on my mind because the room this weekend was filled with folks with whom I grew up in Anusara yoga. Perhaps these ongoing, remaining connections are the best blessing that came from my formal affiliation with Anusara yoga for all those years. It certainly seems that way to me now.
At any rate, like I said in class over the weekend— Yoga is an both/and proposition, not an either/or endeavor. Of course, both/and may not always be at the same time. Much life like, the good comes with the bad, the difficulty with the ease, and occasionally, often in retrospect, I can feel the Grace in all of it.
May passed in a whirlwind of activity and changes. Locket and I drove to Texas for my final final intensive at The San Marcos School of Yoga. I turned forty-eight years old. I packed up the house and studio and met the moving truck. Locket and I drove back to Colorado. Kelly and I celebrated our 20-year wedding anniversary. The moving truck unloaded our things and I have been unpacking and reorganizing my belongings. In the midst of that, I said many good-byes, taught a lot of yoga, gave several interviews, spent more time socializing than I have in ages, and managed to paddle my kayak a few times, plant a garden, ride my bike, and take a few hikes with my dog.
And, as I result of this last month, I am five days into my new practice--The After-lunch Lie-Down. This is a simple practice, really. The protocol goes as follows: Eat lunch, clean up and then lie down. That is pretty much it. No phone, no book, no TV, just lie down. Sleep or not. Enjoy it or not. No matter. Just lie-the-eff-down.
I recommend a bed or a reclining chair, where you are unlikely to be disturbed, but any horizontal surface will do. In fact, you could do this practice on a yoga mat and it would fulfill the #yogaeverydamnday requirement, to which so many people feel beholden. I set a timer for thirty minutes and stay horizontal the whole time. So far, I have had no trouble completing the entire period. Once, I even stayed for a full hour. Another day, I did ninety minutes. Locket often joins me, making the time even more enjoyable.
I used to think that with all the therapy, spiritual practice and inner work, my Type-A, slightly-compulsive, competency-driven personality would somehow fall to the wayside, revealing a laid-back, go-with-the-flow kind of person who could relax into the rythms of life with equanimity and equipoise. Well, anyone who knows me knows that outcome has yet to manifest. Now, I mostly endeavor to stop fighting my tendencies and put them to use in my own favor.
See, as a fiery-pitta type, I don’t just rest. I kick rest’s ass. I make a plan. I set a timer. I put it on a list. I make it a thing. I get my dog involved. I write a blog entry about it.
So, there you go.
This is what it has come to, friends. I turned 48-years old and adopted a napping practice.
Maybe I could start an instagram challenge. #naptime #napeverydamnday
Maybe Sleep Number beds would sponsor it or those groovy mats with crystals in them. I suppose we would also need some kind of special pillow to optimize results. Maybe an eye-wrap of some kind and certainly, the essential oils folks could get in on this game. We could have a Spotify playlist for the #bestmusicfornapping. We could have a festival, or at least an online summit of some kind to share how awesome it is to actually stop and lie down.
So many possibilities.
But all that planning makes me tired.
I need a nap.
For those of you still reading and interested in my next online program, check out the details on Finding Depth in the Basics: Techniques for Napping Well. Oh, no. that is not it— we are going to focus on forward bends and hip work this summer. Our first meeting is June 14th and registration is open.
Working on the basic poses is not “easy” or even “beginner-oriented” in this course. We are exploring the depth of attention, focus and precision that can come in and through building block poses and principles. If you like Asana Junkies you will like the strong asana-oriented focus of this course. If you stayed away from Asana junkies because you hated the name or it was too advanced or intimidating, this course is a great one to join. Nothing showy or big, just good old-fashioned work on the basics in good company.
Oh-- and for those of you who asked me about my November Asana Intensive at Mt Princeton Hot Springs, the housing information is now posted online.
More soon. (Once I wake up.)
I am in Colorado, sitting in my car talking to my sister, Anne, in Texas. She has spent the last week helping my parents in the hospital while my mom, Andrea, had a kidney infection. Anne tells me that, when it was time to leave the hospital, she said, "Mom, it's time to go home."
Mom said, "Anne, I don't have a home."
Dad said, "You know, Andrea, I just can't call that place home either."
Mom and Dad had been living in an assisted living community in Austin, Tx for about nine months, and while it was not horrible, the situation was a bit depressing. And while the facility provided a more-than-basic level of care, clearly the place had not become "home" for either of them.
I told Anne, "Well, you know, things in life can change on a dime. We never actually know what is right around the corner."
Kelly and I put an offer down on a house in Buena Vista, Colorado.
We invited Mom and Dad to move to Colorado with us.
Locket, Kelly and I loaded up in the Sprinter van and took a cross-country camping, hiking and teaching trip that included visits to some of my favorite yoga communities and gave me the distinct honor of getting to marry two of my yoga students, which was a highlight.
October 18, we took possession of our new house.
I spent a lovely week in San Marcos, Texas hosting Manorama for her intensive and co-teaching with Gioconda Parker.
Mom and Dad moved in.
Anne and Jeff came for Thanksgiving.
December I returned to San Marcos for the Winter Asana Intensive. We had our first Christmas here. Anne and Jeff came for the holidays again.
The new year began and continued with teaching trips, snow blowers, learning to snowboard, going to church again, cooking, cleaning, laundry and the like. Intermingled with all the details of living and teaching, I have been adjusting to living in a new place as well as living in a more extended family situation for the first time since I left home when I was eighteen.
And so on.
Tuesday, April 18, 2017
Kelly, Locket, Mom, Dad and I are driving from Leadville, Colorado to Buena Vista, after getting our driver's licenses changed. As we passed the sign for Buena Vista city limits, Mom said, "We're home!"
I don't think she meant a lot by her comment in any conscious way. However, her joyful exclamation registered in my consciousness as a meaningful moment of which to take note.
Mom had a home again.
We are part of that home.
I texted Anne: Mission Accomplished.
Three and half years ago, my mom had her second stroke. This one came 13 years after her first stroke and her recovery has been difficult for her, for dad and for our family. As her needs increased, we made the choice for Mom and Dad to go to the Assisted Living Community, where this little blog entry began. Mom didn't talk much over the last few years and had slipped into her inner world to a degree that we, as a family, were unsure if she was experiencing signs of dementia or if she had a more significant level of damage from the stroke than we had previously thought.
In the time she has been with us, her strength has steadily increased, her interest in life has returned and she is talking again-- telling stories, making jokes and laughing at herself and all of us. In more ways than I can list, she has come back to life.
More could certainly be said, but much of that is hers--and Dad's-- story to tell, not mine.
The story that I can tell is that life can, and often does, change on a dime. The day I sat in my car talking to my sister I had been planning on returning to Texas in the fall and getting back to business as usual after a summer season in the Colorado mountains. I had no plans for a big life change. I had not been planning on re-orienting my life and becoming an active participant in caring for my aging parents.
And yet, here I am.
And I am happier than I thought I would be in the change.
A few weeks ago, a visiting Episcopalian bishop came to our church and preached about Lazarus. He suggested that each one of is Lazarus in some way. Each one of us is breathing but not necessarily living, walking but not in freedom of choice--bound and blinded by habits of thought word and deed that keep us locked in a tomb of limitation--perceived or actual and making us ripe for transformation.
He also suggested that each one of us are the disciples saying that the journey is too dangerous. Each one of us is Mary, blaming God. And each one of us Martha, wanting to avoid what is smelly, unsightly and distasteful that must be faced in order to grow. And he also said, that in some way, each one of us can also connect to the power of Love that is Jesus in the story. Each one of us can be renewed, revived and (dare I say it?) resurrected in Love.
The story I can tell is that caring for my parents in this way has clearly been a good thing for them, for which I am super grateful. And our new arrangement has been a good thing for me also. In countless small and often seemingly insignificant ways, the change has breathed new life into my perspectives, has unbound areas of my own self-centeredness and has opened my eyes to a wider world of Loving. Love has called me out of a cave of comfort in to an arena of risk that holds its own reward in the process of living into it.
The thing about Love seems to be that it has the power to transform, not only those who receive it, but those who offer it. Being a part of someone's depression lifting, witnessing someone's sense of humor return, and providing a place that someone can call "home" is deep, meaningful and extraordinary territory to inhabit. Tender, precious, tough and worthwhile.
And don't even get me started on Easter.
And since many folks want to know a lot of specific things about the move so here goes--
All right, if you made it this far, I applaud you.
I have had difficulty writing blog entries lately as evidenced by the fact I have not written since last year. Between the election, the move, the adjustments to a new circumstance, I haven't had a clear notion of what to put down on paper.
I don’t feel like debating politics at all. I think we have a dangerous situation there— not just #45 but the entire regime he ushered in with him. And I am not that open-minded about it and I have yet to see anything in his actions that have convinced me to change my opinion. I do listen and read— as best as I can, which admittedly is better some days than others— to people who support #45, but I have yet to see the situation differently. I do not think that “giving him a chance” makes any sense. (In fact, he has his chance regardless of how I feel about it, so I don’t understand that line of advice anyway. And, larger forces than my opinion need to work through legal channels for his chance to be over and that will take some time. But I digress.)
I do stay tuned to the ongoing developments in the political arena and I see what could be signs of hope in terms of some dynamic leadership rising up in resistance. And I phone my senators and congress people. I also think Elizabeth Cronise McLaughlin is a voice, not only of resistance, but of something that might come close to reconciliation. Her smart, generous, passionate and clear-minded perspectives are good for those interested in educating themselves about how to be an intelligent part of progressive politics right now.
When our current president was elected, we were in the middle of an intensive at The San Marcos School of Yoga. I didn’t know what to say to my students but I did know what we needed to do. Walking into the tearful, scared and angry group of people who were in attendance that week, I offered a short ritual that involved movement, expression, visualization and mantra. Oh, and some fire. And then we did our asana practice—a strong, heart-opening practice to work squarely in the face of apathy and fear.
I am not of the mind that yoga actually makes the world a better place. Nor do I think that just because we practice asana we become better people. I do not think yoga— in and of itself— solves many problems. I think yoga may even make some problems worse. For instance, any of us with OCD tendencies might notice that regular counting-based practices leave us counting more than our breath off the mat. Those of us with eating issues may find ourselves in the grips of yoga-inspired food restrictions ranging from vegetarianism to cleansing protocols to well, you name it. Anyone suffering from body image issues may feel worse at times, not better. More than one narcissist practicing yoga has done more than a little harm to the people in their communities. It can be all too easy for any of us to fall prey to the multi-faceted traps of delusion, illusion, and confusion no matter how sincere our intentions are.
So there is that.
And yet, for me doing my various practices bear fruit. I am not talking about practice as simply going to class where we get caught in the nitty-gritty, in’s and out’s of what is happening in any public studio anywhere— some of which is really great, some of which is not my thing, and some of which is downright troubling. I am talking about studying scripture and grappling with the Teachings. I am talking about praying— out loud, in silence, in groups or alone, in faith or in desperation. I am talking about singing and chanting the Names of God. I am talking about moving with my breath. I am talking about exploring the shapes— again— to see, in some way, what the state of my own union is— again. And again. I am talking about charting the territory from my big toe mounds to my sternum and watching the chains of reactions inside of myself that occur as I invite myself again— and again— to be present to my embodied experience. I am talking about writing in my journal, talking to my therapist, going to church, reading inspirational literature and staying close to those things that nourish and nurture my faith, strengthen my ability to live in accordance with my inner compass, to fight the good fight against despair, cynicism and nihilism and to believe in Love.
Practice is not world peace. Practice will not save the environment or pay for health care. This work may not always pay the bills. And yet, I think that there is no time like the present to dive deep into the life of spiritually-oriented practice because we are living in a time where the very structures of our society are eroding— like free press, public education, environmental regulations, health care, arts and so on— and if we do not have an inner connection and are not practiced in taking that inner journey to the source of our innate wisdom, discernment and vision, we will be at the mercy of the outside forces of destruction. We will be that much more manipulatable, that much more able to turn a blind eye to injustice and that much less willing to rise up, resist and persevere.
There is no magical solution, as I see it. There is simply the next pose.
Again and again.
In other news, I learned to snowboard this year.
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"There is a light that shines beyond all things on Earth, beyond us all, beyond the heaven, beyond the highest, the very highest heavens. This is the light that shines in our heart."