“Consciousness, which tends to contract,
expands when a group of people come together with a common aim.”
— Paul Muller Ortega *
I spent last weekend teaching a 3-day intensive with my long-time friend and colleague, Darren Rhodes, at his yoga studio, Yoga Oasis. We have taught over 1000 hours of teacher trainings together and countless intensives and workshops. In many ways, Darren and I grew up together in yoga, first meeting almost twenty years ago in Anusara yoga workshops with John Friend. As I have written before, Darren and the Yoga Oasis community are a vital part of who I am as a practitioner and teacher. I always learn a lot about myself, about the larger implications of my practice, and about the shared journey of yoga when I visit Yoga Oasis.
After Darren and I resigned our licenses to teach Anusara yoga, we explored the possibilities of continuing to teach collaboratively. As it became clear we were taking different directions in our teaching work, we stopped teaching together. A few years ago, I pitched the idea of a yearly team teaching weekend to Darren. He agreed. This year was the second annual weekend called “The Work.”
I first heard the term, ‘The Work” from Lee Lozowick, my spiritual teacher, in reference to The Fourth Way teachings by G.I. Gurdjieff. I am not a formal student of the Fourth Way, but I have been around its principles and practices for many years. Same with Darren. More could certainly be said about that another time.
As is usually the case at Yoga Oasis, the room was full of seasoned, sincere, passionate practitioners and teachers willing to dive deeply into self-observation, self-reflection, and self-awareness. Last year, our workshop ended with a strong discussion about how work on, and with, one’s self relates to privilege— racial, economic, gender-normative, etc. This year, the topic of privilege surfaced on the morning of the second day, as though, as a group, we had simply pressed “pause” for a year.
Of course, not everyone who was in the room this year was in the room last year. And not everyone who was in the room last year returned this year. And, truth be told, because time does not actually have a pause button, the conversation that began in the room continued personally for participants when they returned home and collectively within the unfolding of larger cultural streams. For me, due to a confluence of many factors, discussing the high ideals of yoga without acknowledging the gross inequities of our cultural paradigm, is to be tone deaf at best and, at worst, to be a willing participant in a sick, societal norm.
Don’t get me wrong. I do not think every Wednesday night asana class should begin with a diatribe about systemic oppression, the evils of misogyny, and the tragedy of how those forces are often internalized and operative in our personal biases and behaviors. I mean, Wednesday night class might be a great place for those kinds of considerations if a group was ready for the message. However, in the same way that preparation is important for advanced asana, a certain measure of preparedness can be helpful when considering the nuances of how personal work both is, and is not, political.
Personally, I think yogis are perfectly poised to unravel the knots of culturally-conditioned belief systems, because I believe unraveling conditioning is what yoga is actually about. The number of people who have unravelled the knots of their personal anxiety, depression, addictions, eating disorders, self-hatred, etc. through yoga indicates that re-wiring toxic patterns is possible through yoga. Of course, yoga practice works best on the knots to which we are applying the technology and not so great on the stuff we don’t, can’t, or won’t look at. And, keep in mind, I make plenty of distinctions between what it means to practice yoga and simply practicing asana or going to public classes. When I say “practice” I am referencing a larger endeavor that sometimes involves, but is never limited to, postural practice.
As I am writing, I am feeling that there is an impersonal nature to transformational group work. As personal as our yoga practice is, as deeply meaningful as our experiences can be, and as unique as each student’s perspective is, the conversation that began in the room last year, continued with different people in the room this year. Not to sound too far-out, but on one level,it is almost as if there is a conversation wanting to be had looking for a place to come into being, a place to land.
One key piece of clarity I offered the group this year was that I believe it is important to look squarely at certain problems and investigate our inner life in relationship to those issues before jumping to a solution. For instance, before figuring out how to make our studios and classes more inclusive, which is a wonderful aim, it is important to unravel the many ways our own biases and blind spots operate. Any good workshop facilitator can give a script for inclusive language and teach us how to say the right things and avoid saying the wrong things, but if those scripts are funneled through our own unexamined perspectives, there will be unconscious toxic energy behind our well-intentioned words. Additionally, we run the risk of trying to help as a way to avoid the pain of our complicity rather than doing the work to face what lives in the shadows of our culturally-conditioned psyches.
Of course, exploring problems without immediate solutions takes fortitude and stamina, which is where yoga practice comes in. In the same way, a yoga practice is built slowly over time, our capacity to grapple with the challenging issues of our times, for all its urgent necessity, is also going to built slowly over time. As we see the structures of our culture continually exposed as unjust and/or incapable of managing the moment in which inhabit as a human race, I believe we are also seeing— at least in many communities— yoga students and teachers grappling with how to cope, contribute, and evolve. We are not necessarily good at the work yet, and I expect to make plenty of mistakes along the way, and yet, the same dedication we bring to practice can be brought to bear on the messy business of standing together to insist upon “a more perfect Union… and to secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”
As is often the case, I left Tucson feeling inspired by the everyone who was part of the weekend and heartened by the experience we shared.
And for those of you white men reading, or folks who know white men who are reading, I have a friend, Chris Crass, who is offering an online seminar focusing on Anti racism and feminism for white, male faith leaders. If you practice and teach yoga, please consider yourself a faith leader and avail yourself of an opportunity to dive deep into your personal work and to learn practical tools for bringing love, faith and justice into your practice and teaching. Please help get the word out about this seminar. https://www.facebook.com/events/518295371989664/
I head to New Orleans for a weekend workshop today. I am looking forward to my last teaching weekend of 2018 and then some time home to snowboard, read, practice and prepare the course materials for my upcoming Asana Junkies webinar. More on that soon.
*I have this quote written in my personal notes from when Paul spoke at an Anusara yoga Certified Teacher’s Gathering in Denver. I think it was around 2006, but I do not have the date in my notes.
I met Stacey Millner-Collins almost ten years ago when I had the opportunity to assess her Anusara yoga certification video. I remember how dynamic and strong she was as a teacher, how skillful her students were, and how powerful her message beyond the asana was. When we were discussing her video, (She passed on the first try, by the way.) she told me about how great her community was. I first taught at City Yoga in 2011 and made several visits over the years. This weekend was the first time I have been back to teach in over five years. I believe this visit was better than ever, due largely in part to the ways that Stacy has been a trustworthy steward of the teachings and her students and teachers.
The City Yoga community is a shining example of what long-standing, Spirit-led leadership can look like when such leadership is met with sincere and dedicated students and sustained for more than a decade. For all the problems in the world of modern yoga, I visit many studios that exist as places of sanctuary, hope, and healing. Don’t get me wrong— every studio has issues, conflicts, and problems they face. My point is that for all the places where yoga seems to be broken, there are many places where yoga is working. City Yoga is one of those places.
Last weekend, I was teaching in Tucson when the news of the Philadelphia synagogue shooting was announced. This weekend, while I was teaching, we heard the news of a yoga studio shooting in Tallahassee. My Facebook feed was flooded with outrage, upset, and prayers of concern, none of which was surprising, and all of which I understand. I am fortunate to know many politically-engaged yoga teachers and practitioners in my immediate circles of association, which I am told is unusual. I suppose I keep good company.
And, of course, there was more than one person in my feed who posted about the yoga studio shooting who have remained silent on every other national calamity. That is a post for another day.
That being said, I also spend a lot of time in conversation with teachers and students about what is our responsibility as teachers in the classroom during this unique time in history. Do we stay silent about current events and let the yoga do what it does? Do we use our platform as teachers to speak out against injustice, oppression, and systemic issues that manifest in the almost-daily atrocities that show up in our news feeds? I have no practical advice for what anyone else should do.
For me, the teachings and practices of yoga have the capacity to help me only to the degree that I admit what I need help with.
Will yoga help with addiction? Sure, but yoga going to be of greater help to me once I admit I have a problem.
Will yoga help with the ways that I have been indoctrinated into unconscious bias due to living in a culture founded on systemic, institutionalized racism? Yes, but only to the degree that I acknowledge I need help with unraveling the knots of those conditioned patterns.
Will yoga help me feel more peaceful? Sure, but yoga is going to provide only a cosmetic, surface-level solution until I recognize the pockets of anger, violence, and vindictiveness that live inside me.
And so on.
From the personal to the cultural, from the psychological to the political, yoga’s utility in my life exists in direct relationship to my willingness to see, and give voice to, what is actually going on, not what I wish was happening.
To be clear, I do not advocate standing in front of a room a bashing all things Republican. Nor, do I think anything of value will be accomplished with a F*ck Trump tirade from the front of the room. I do not think we need to proclaim that, “chances-are-as-a-white-women-in-a-pair-of-expensive-yoga-tights-you-might-just-be-unconsciously-invested-in-toxic-patriarchy-and-so-before-your-first-down-dog-today-you-need-to-check-your-privilege.” And while that essential idea may be true, it’s not going to create a teachable moment or a change from within for anyone in the class.
(To be clear, I am grateful for the disturbing voices in the world of activism who have said just that so that I could examine myself in relationship to my upset, defensiveness, and recoil when my “I do good things in the world” identity meets up with the impact of how marginalized groups often feel in the face of me personally, or me as part of a larger demographic— a.k.a. white women. Again, commentary on this aspect of my post is part of a future post where I will write about my own white woman fragility in the first person. My point is that I have been upset and I have felt uncomfortable in ways that have helped me grow and know myself more fully. As a yoga practitioner, I am grateful for these learning opportunities. Truth be told, I rarely like being called out, I hate not getting it “right” and, more importantly, I have come to know there is more to me than the drive of perfectionism, more to my role than keeping people comfortable, and more to my life than maintaining and contributing to a sick, societal norm.)
When it comes down to to brass tacks, I am interested in yoga only so much as it is practical, accessible, and applicable to my life. While I am truly inspired by Possibility, I am anchored in reality. And so I speak to that in my classroom.
I closed our weekend with a story. Anusara yoga got its name from a passage in the Kularnava Tantra. The text opens with Shiva seated on the mountain top in deep meditation. Parvati has climbed the mountain to see her Beloved and she begins by extolling his virtues: “Oh great guru, You who are omniscient, ever-present, and steeped in the deepest Reality… and so on. (I am paraphrasing here as I am on a plane and do not have the actual text AND more than a few years have passed since I read the actual verse to which I am referring.) She goes on saying, “You who are the Highest of the High, the Deepest of the Deep, tell me…. I have been in the world and I have seen suffering and people are hurting. Please, oh great Lord, tell me what I can do to help….”
And Shiva answers her, outlining a path of the Heart, a path of the family of the Heart, that makes human life an opportunity to bring the Highest into form. In one passage, Shiva says that on the path of the Kula “one's enjoyment becomes yoga, one’s sin is made into art, and all life is liberation.” He basically says, “You— IN THE WORLD— strengthened by ME ON THE MOUNTAIN TOP— are the answer to the suffering you are hoping to heal.”
So, go to the mountain top, dive to the depths of the oceans within you, and find whatever access point you can to what is Highest and Deepest within you and then, because it is your duty, because to stay silent would betray the majesty of what you know to be true, because you want to Help, speak to the beauty of Spirit, testify to its power to strengthen you in the face of suffering, and unapologetically invite people into that same place inside themselves.
Each one of us is the answer. More importantly, each one of us together we can be the meeting point of Heaven and Earth that the text points to as the Possibility of the Path and the end to unnecessary suffering.
I taught my first workshop at Yoga Oasis in 2003. As I was collecting my belongings and preparing to drive to Tucson, the phone rang. Bronwin Rhodes was on the line. She said, “I just wanted you to know that we have had a tragedy here. One of our beloved Yoga Oasis teachers was found murdered in his home.”
I asked Bronwin if they still wanted me to come, given the circumstances.
She stated unequivocally, “We need you to come.”
I had been teaching yoga about five years. This workshop was my first experience as a guest instructor. I was a bit freaked out, to say the least. As I made my way to Tucson, I prayed that I could be of service to the community. I called my father for advice and he reminded me of Paul’s letter to Romans in Chapter 8:38-39 which reads:
“For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (New International Version)
I remember contemplating how closely that scripture aligned with the chant we sang in the beginning of yoga class which affirms the nature of Ultimate Consciousness as “ever-present, full of peace… shining independently, as it is, as the essence of Spirit.”
My guess is that most spiritual traditions some means of reminding folks that something essential and whole lives beneath and beyond the surface of life and it’s often-times painful circumstances.
At any rate, I managed to overcome my self-doubt enough to teach asana, speak to the tragedy, and in some imperfect way, minister to a community who was grieving, angry, and hurting. And, the Yoga Oasis community gave me the gift of allowing me to help them. Deep in the bones of the Yoga Oasis organization is a rare kind of vulnerability and strength that runs in two directions simultaneously. As a community they offer a place of support to others while providing people with the opportunity to discover the gift of Spirit that only comes when one is in service to something larger than themselves. Not that Yoga Oasis is a perfect place or that they always get it “right” the first time, but, as the name implies, Yoga Oasis is a place of healing and nourishment in a culture that can feel as dry as a desert when it comes to hope and inspiration.
Fifteen years later, I am reflecting on my first visit to Yoga Oasis, after another strong teaching experience there this weekend. I headed into the visit— like everyone else in this country— on the heels of the Kavanaugh hearings, a violent shooting of two black men in Kroger, a plan to erase transgendered people, a fear-mongering commentary on an immigrant caravan, and pipe bombs being mailed to outspoken Democratic leaders. And, as you know, the news of hatred and intolerance continued into the weekend with a mass shooting in a synagogue.
There is no easy answer for modern day yoga teachers about how much one should acknowledge current events in the classroom. Personally, I do not know what other teachers should or could do. I do know for me that teachings like “The Light of God is ever present and full of peace” or “Nothing can separate us from the Love of God” can seem a bit tone death in our current cultural landscape. And yet, interestingly enough, those are the very teachings I lean on heavily in times where darkness rises up in the cracks and crevices of unexamined, conditioned biases and fears, both personally and collectively.
Far from a reassuring or trite sound bite, I hear these teachings as a call to radical faith and enlightened action. It seems to me that if my operating assumption as a person of faith is that the Light of God shines brightly no matter what happening, that Love endures in the face of all tragedy, and that Spirit is indivisible and untouched by circumstances, then the only logical pathway forward in the current times is to allow my heart to break over and again as I feel the disparity between what I believe to be true at the deepest levels of reality and what is actually happening in the midst of my waking life.
For me, any wholeness I experience from practice, any sense of relief that I find, and any expansion I encounter is not a “time out” from the horrific news cycle but is a touchstone of courage to do the work necessary to face hatred and deceit directly. Sometimes the work happens in psychotherapy as I examine the darker pockets of my own psyche. Sometimes the work happens in difficult conversations with loved ones. Sometimes the work is in writing articles like this one which I write a) for my own clarity and understanding, b) with the hope someone else might find them useful, and c) so there is no doubt in anyone's mind about which side of this fight I am on and where I stand. The lines between personal and political seem to be coming closer together.
At any rate, I am not interested in abstract theories, dogmatic rules, or prescribed protocols for what it means to be a good Christian, a good yogi, a good teacher, or even a good person. I am interested in the direct experience of my own wholeness and its source, which to me is the indivisible, inseparable, and abiding force of Love. I am comfortable calling that force God although I know it by many names. More importantly than what I call it, however, is that I find refuge and strength in its remembrance. And as I see it today, high teachings of Love are only as good as they are brought into being through practice. And, once integrated, these teachings no longer belong to a tradition or a religion, but exist as my own knowledge and wisdom.
In some ways, it seems to me that the message I have been exploring for fifteen years worth of visits to Yoga Oasis is the same as it ever was and the support of that community is, to me, an example of the abiding power of Love of which I am speaking.
So, we did lots of asana. I preached a bit. I made a new friend. I connected with amazing students I have known for years and met new ones. I saw A Star is Born in a fancy movie theater with reclining seats and beer.
All in all, a good day at the office.
Oh, and VOTE. Please.
I spent a few days last week filming some online content for Yoga International. On the final day, we were shooting B-roll for promotions and marketing— photos in my yard, me playing with my dog, stirring a pot of soup in my kitchen, and answering questions about my relationship to yoga. One of the questions I get asked the most in interviews such as these is how I stay inspired to practice.
My answer to the question of inspiration has a few different layers.
The first layer is that I do not stay inspired all the time. Like anyone else, I fall in and out of love with my practice. I do not always appreciate what is required to sustain my sadhana. I go through periods of inspiration and periods of boredom and disinterest. Asana practice, meditation, mantra, writing, etc. are like any other relationship in my life. Some days I devote great attention to them and other days my relationship might best be described as avoidant.
That being said, the next layer is that inspiration is not required for sustaining a practice over the course of one’s life, participation is. I brush my teeth twice every day and I am rarely inspired to do it. I just do it. I even brush my teeth on days I feel so tired all I want to do is get in bed as soon as possible. So, another layer to my answer is that inspiration, when it comes to a lifelong practice, may be overrated.
I think it is unrealistic to expect to feel constantly inspired. Take marriage, for instance. I am not inspired every day to be married. And during the tough periods, I am not always inspired for the work it takes for me and Kelly to find the common ground required to go forward together. But more days than not, my marriage is simply part of the warp and weft of my life and I participate in it without thinking too much about it. In a lot of ways, asana, meditation and teaching are like that— part of the loom upon which the rest of life is woven.
The next layer to my answer regarding inspiration is that I am a student of myself. I don’t have to study myself long to observe the knots of psychological contraction that take the forms of defensiveness, fragility, insecurity, anger, fear, jealousy and suspicion to find some inspiration to stay the course on the path of practice. Honestly recognizing how much work I have to do usually provides a useful dose of inspiration to keep me going.
Lest the news seem bleak, the flip side to how much work I have to do is that I can also see how far I have come over the years. I am not the same person who set foot on the journey thirty years ago. For all the contraction that still requires my attention, I have changed and expanded in surprising and beautiful ways. I know what self-compassion is and how to offer it to myself, I have discovered softness, kindness, forbearance, patience, and I have the capacity to experience my life more fully and directly than I ever dreamed was possible. The perspectives, practices and protocols I have used over the years have worked and I find inspiration in the many ways I have grown, overcome, and moved through my various challenges.
And, of course, one look beyond my immediate life and I am confronted with reminders of how many ways power is abused and how much we all suffer due to avidya, or ignorance. From the political arena to the corporate world, from universities to churches and ashrams, oppressive structures of power permeate even the most seemingly-benign and well-intentioned institutions. I personally feel a bit weary from trying to keep up with the latest examples of oppression, coercion, and manipulative tactics used to maintain a status quo that is inherently unjust and yet, I find the situation in which we find ourselves as a culture a source of inspiration for practice.
At the heart of yoga practice for me, is not a better body, a more rewarding career, a head full of esoteric explanations or anything else that typically shows up on the brochures and web pages we use to peddle our craft as yoga teachers. At the heart of the yoga experiment to me is wholeness and the tools and techniques to dig beneath and beyond the many fractured aspects of my psychology, perceptions, and conditioned perspectives to more fully know where wholeness is sourced. Sometimes the work feels graceful and at other times, gritty. That’s the way of it. But, I do think that, as yoga practitioners, we are equipped to look beneath the surface of life and find inroads that are real, viable, sustaining and sustainable.
On the surface of life, I urge you to vote. If I had my preference, I would have you vote Blue, but I am not so simple as to think that everyone who shares a practice of yogic inquiry comes to the same political conclusions. So, please vote, donate money to good causes, protest, write letters, make phone calls, and participate in the political process in any way you can.
And while I do not think that a well-aligned trikonasana or a handstand in the middle of the room stands a chance against the forces of misogyny, racism, climate change, and corrupt politics, I do think yogic practice can work to dismantle the ways those forces have taken root inside of us individually. And, call me idealistic, I also believe that our individual work can ripple into our yoga communities and provide us with a conscious microcosm in which to practice ideals of justice, unity, diversity, and harmony. Of course, we can bring our fragility, fear, suspicion and defensiveness into those same spaces and create further damage to ourselves, to one another, and particularly to people in marginalized groups. There are no guarantees and yet, I find the possibility of who we can become through conscious community infinitely inspiring.
And, we can move and breathe, which will not change who is in the White House, but will most certainly change the way we inhabit the house we call our own body and the “small nation that is our own being.” (BKS Iyengar)
Keep the faith.
"Never ever give up."
Trigger Alert— This post mentions of systemic sexual and religious abuse. Proceed accordingly.
I am upset about the the President, the Supreme Court and the too-numerous-to-name- shenanigans on Capitol Hill. I am upset about systemic oppression, institutionalized racism, and the personal and cultural fragility that keeps un-recognized prejudice and bias operative in the overt and covert ways. I worry about the environment, medical care, the cost of education, affordable housing, and the capitalist takeover of common sense and decency. However, of all the news in the media these days, the continued reports of sexual abuse within the Catholic church hit closest to home.
I am a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. My husband is a survivor of childhood sexual abuse from priests in the Catholic church. While the details of his story are not mine to tell, suffice it to say that the news reports about what can only be described as “epidemic levels of abuse” land in a very personal way in our home. I have nothing polite, inspiring, or nice to say about generations of clergy abusing children, while community elders hid the abuse in an effort to preserve a dangerous and damaging status quo.
I am a person of faith and I am not anti-church. While a lot of my religious upbringing wasn’t particularly helpful to me, I consider very little of my religious education harmful, unlike my husband’s experience. And, having found authentic avenues of spiritual expression as an adult, my participation in church now is enriching and nourishing. Mr. Iyengar once said that yoga is not a religion but is the “science of religion.” I relate to his assertion because my yoga studies and practices have helped me make use of many structures of religion without being bogged down by dogma or doctrine.
I was in a Bible Study recently when, in an effort to include me, the leader brought up the topic of yoga. A big discussion followed about whether or not someone can be a Christian and a yogi. As I listened patiently, one woman who is a student at the local yoga studio, said, “Well, for me, when they say OM, I just go to a Christian place.”
I thought to myself, “How interesting… I don’t have a “yoga place” and a “Christian place.” I simply have The Place that opens in prayer, worship, service, communion, and leads through the many expressions of devotion where I have come to live. The Place is expansive, loving, hopeful, deep, and strengthening.
Distinctions such as “Christian” or “yogic” are not meaningful to me. I know that such distinctions are very meaningful to many people and I respect the importance of said distinctions for people who feel these differences matter. For me, modes of worship vary and moods of practice differ, but where I am delivered into through worship and practice is decidedly non-denominational. I used to say that I was a great Christian except for the tenet that Christianity is the only way, which unfortunately, always seemed such a primary principle that belonging felt difficult, even though I have always loved Jesus’ teachings. At any rate, somewhere along the way, I stopped worrying about being a good or bad Christian, a good or bad devotee of my guru, a good or bad yogi, or even a good or bad person. I started focusing on those activities, people, teachings, and environments that are Real to me and that promote my growth in wholeness and Love.
My husband and I have a lot of discussions about the church, religion, and faith because when spiritual authority figures perpetrate abuse, the result not only a loss of innocence, agency, and trust, but oftentimes a loss of the very thing that could be an avenue to heal the wounds of such primal betrayals— faith. Walking the path of recovery looks different for each person. Full of hills and valleys, stormy seasons and sunny days, recovery is a process that takes its own bittersweet time to unfold. And, time takes time.
At any rate, I am encouraged that generations of darkness are coming to light, even as I am heart-broken by the magnitude of suffering. I predict that state after state, diocese after diocese, will be faced with the revelations of the abused, all urging recognition and reconciliation. I know my husband lives into the task of healing with sincerity, tenacity, and commitment, as do the many survivors living in the wake of abuse, injustice, and deception. My deepest hope and prayer is that the leaders of the Catholic church can summon the necessary courage for their own healing and recovery. (Read More)
In the meantime, if you are a woman in the Catholic church, I urge you to sign this petition and to copy it far and wide to your circles of influence. One of the authors told me that the writers do no not expect an answer from the Pope, but they do hope the media will notice the petition and the media attention will exert some pressure on the power structure of the church. If you are not a Catholic woman, but would like to support the process of recovery already underway, please share the petition widely since you may know some people who are eligible to sign.
And, regardless of your personal faith and the varied avenues that take you to a place of wholeness and Love within you, I wish courage, strength, and healing for all of us.. We live in difficult times, when forces seem to be stacked in favor of despair, cynicism, and nihilism. In the face of such odds, it is easy to overlook small acts of courage and affirmation and to discount our individual contributions. Whatever positive action you can take, I urge you to stay in the game and to invest in whatever expression of Love, hope, and faith that you can muster today.
And, if you are fortunate enough to wake up tomorrow, do it again.
And never ever give up.
As the end of August approaches, I can feel a small hint of autumn in our mountain air, reminding me that soon the aspen leaves will be turning, the days and nights will be cold and the summer’s end will give rise to fall’s beginning. Like so many things in nature, there are no clear lines of demarcation, no obvious point where one thing becomes another, but instead there are small harnbingers of change, small hints of inevitable shifts to come and the endless, ongoing continuity of life itself is woven into a tapestry that is more cyclical than linear.
I think yoga practice is a lot like that as well. So many people tell me that “yoga changed their life” and I know exactly what they mean. I enjoy hearing these stories of transformation and change that get people onto the path of yoga and become a reference point for a new direction of growth and deeper self- understanding. Participating in a life of practice creates new possibilities and expanded perspectives that can be profoundly life-changing and “How yoga changed my life” stories are often filled with hope and inspiration.
And, it seems to me that slowly, over time, in the same way that summer’s heat and expansion yields to the coming of autumn and to the eventual contraction of winter, so too, do the seasons of yoga shift and change in their own ways within us. At some point, yoga becomes less of a stake-in-the-sand-moment-of-change and more of a thread of support and sanity that is woven into the fabric of our being. And like the cycles of nature, the cycles of practice have seasons of heat and passion, seasons of nourishing spring rains, and seasons where the ground of enthusiasm may feel as frozen and hard as the earth after a long winter.
No one ever told me these things. I think I expected to be able to maintain some kind of consistent zeal throughout the life of my practice and yet, the truth is that my journey has not been a straight line or a steady experience of “getting better and better every day.” And the longer I stay the course, the more my interests expand beyond the boundaries of my mat, beyond the dramas and concerns of our industry and well beyond a lot of commentary on the ever-changing landscape of modern yoga.
I have a lot less interest in all the wrongs with yoga and all the ways its running amuck and lot more appreciation for the power of my personal practice and the sanity it provides me in the midst of the seasons of change within me. I like my students more than ever and enjoy the ways that teaching yoga affords me an opportunity to bear witness to the seasons of change in their lives. I feel fortunate that teaching yoga gives me a way to stay in relationship to the power and the strength that a sustained relationship to yoga principles and practice provides.
At some point along the way I realized that I am never going to be the strongest, bendiest, smartest or most enlightened yoga practitioner or teacher out there. Other people are better at anatomy, therapeutics, philosophy distinctions, meditation, mantra and so on. Plenty of people have a more disciplined lifestyle and more easily digestible personalities than I do. (And based on my Facebook feed, a lot of people care MUCH MORE about all that stuff than I do these days. But I digress.) In same way that fall’s cool breeze blows through the sunny days of summer, I got a sense that the best offering I could make as a teacher would come from charting my inner landscape with compassion and love. Almost imperceptibly, and yet definitely, I began to know that I was never going to know everything about the subject of yoga, but I could know a lot about who I am and that knowledge, if integrated with patience, and tenderness, could be a foundation of sanity from which to teach and contribute to my student’s lives.
On the surface, it all looks the same, I suppose— I maintain my practice, I write good sequences, I teach solid classes, I do my best to answer my student’s questions thoughtfully, I apologize when my pitta flares, I study, I write, I meditate, and so on. But the best part is that some kind of tension lessened when the season changed from thinking that I was going to “get somewhere” with all of this to recognizing that so much was already present in the mix as it was. Somewhere along the way I started to realize that I have a thing I do as a teacher— and it is not as smart or as specific or as creative or as sexy or as fill-in-the-blank as other people’s offerings, and yet, it is mine. That thing I do comes the time spent inside the poses, the practices, the teachings. My offering comes as much from the ways I feel I do well as it does from my struggles, my mistakes, and my shortcomings. At the heart of it all, there is me and my repeated return to myself through the seasons of practice— hot, cold, sunny, cloudy, stormy or mild. Today, for me, there is no life-changing yoga but there is simply yoga in the midst of life changing.
On a personal note, I had a good summer— We planted a garden, I hiked in the mountains, I took a class with Locket, I got new glasses, and I spent time with my friends and family. My intensives at Mt. Princeton were deep and rich, reminding me of the power of community and how far sincerity can take people in yoga. I co-led a hiking and yoga retreat in the Dolomite mountains of Italy which was spectacular. I visited some of my favorite studios to teach and I got a chance to go to a workshop with one of my long-time Iyengar yoga teachers, Manouso Manos.
I have also been working on the edits for my new book, which is scheduled for publication in June, 2019. This book has taken me a long time to write and to revise and I am fairly pleased with how it has evolved. More on that soon.
And, if you are still reading, I am starting a new session of my online teacher development course in October. Space is limited to 25, because I want to get to know you so, sign up or find out more here!
Until next time, then.
Q:What is the definition of an expert?
A: Someone who lives out of town.
Given that the majority of the teaching work I do these days involves me getting on a plane to go teach, I enjoy the “expert” status that comes along with being a teacher from “out-of-town.” I figure that means that the students are typically a little more patient with my long-winded explanations, detailed demonstrations, and slow-paced teaching style than they might be if it was Wednesday night class and we shared the same zip code.
Be that as it may be, I am continually inspired by the sincerity of students in the workshops I teach.
I think learning yoga is difficult. Each one of us steps into the classroom— be it a public class, an online offering, a workshop, or a training-- with a unique set of circumstances including, but not limited to, our personal history, our current lifestyle, our hopes and dreams, our strengths and weaknesses, our unchecked biases, our privileges and disadvantages. For all of our similarities, we are also different, with variables are too numerous to name.
I also think teaching yoga is difficult. Teachers vary in education, expertise, charisma, compassion, dedication, maturity, depth, and skill. Learning environments range from private sessions to gym classes to public parks to eclectic studios to studios dedicated to a singular approach of study and practice. Some teachers are articulate in their own bodies, but give confusing cues. Some teachers give great cues, but don’t know why what they say seems to work. Some teachers are kind, but inexperienced. Some are seasoned, but impatient. Some are poetic. Some are concrete. Some are practical. Some are mystical. And so on.
And, if you set aside learning styles, teaching styles, personality preferences, and limitations galore, still the subject matter of yoga is as vast as the ocean. Each one of us comes to the shores of the subject, dressed for gym class, holding a tiny little cup called “our current capacity” and engage a sophisticated, physically and psychologically complex endeavor that is often set to music, crammed in between appointments and family obligations, and do our best to learn.
And, to my continued amazement, for all of the mis-information, confusion, and problems that seem to exist, the process also works for many people. I do not mean to say that it works perfectly or that there are not times where it fails. Certainly, there is enough evidence out here in the Yoga Blogosphere about the abysmal failures of teachers, systems, communities, and practitioners that it would be ludicrous to suggest that nothing is broken or that nothing needs to be improved upon. I know I am doing my best to make changes to my teaching that best reflect my current understanding of my past mistakes.
And yet, I see people find each other. Friendships form in these rooms that endure. I see people find themselves and begin the process of making peace with long-forgotten places of pain and previously unknown sources of beauty. I see bodies get stronger and more mobile. I see discernment dawn in simple acts such as modified postures and intelligent questions. I see people choose to spend time, money,and attention to explore who they are through the practices of yoga. I see these same people stay with that process through every great joy and tragedy that life can dish out. My friends, students, colleagues and teachers on path have practiced through births and deaths, marriages and divorces, abortions, miscarriages, murders, abuse, manipulation, disappointments, and anything else you can name. And for every trauma that gets triggered, we also have reparative, corrective experiences that heal.
I have seen the practice rise up inside each of us when we least expect it. We remember to breathe, we know how to respond to someone we love, we shut up, we speak out, we expand beyond our body of habits in some mall way that creates just enough room for a new possibility to emerge. Of course, we fall short also. Obviously, despite our best intentions, we make mistakes. We miss the mark. But, there are moments. There are moments when we can glimpse that all that yoga was not a “time out” from a busy or stressful life, but was, instead, a training in warriorship, a preparation for service, and an exercise in compassion.
My spiritual teacher used to say that there were three times in life when we are most available to Divine Influence: 1. When we are praying; 2. When we are laughing; and 3. When we think nothing is going on. I am pretty big into prayer and I am a pretty funny yoga teacher, but I have to say that I think most of my life of practice and teaching falls into the third domain he mentioned. I rarely think that anything very meaningful is happening in my effort to do trikonasana or to push up to urdhva dhanurasana. I do not roll out my mat most days with lofty aims or high intentions. I mostly practice with an “another day, another down dog” kind-of-mentality, much in the same way I brush my teeth.
And yet, it seems that something has been built. And I see it in my students also. I have the good fortune to have been teaching long enough for my students to have been practicing with me for over 20 years. What I have come to see is that learning, practicing, teaching and living are a long-term relationship and not a one-night stand. And like any long-term relationship, there are good times and bad, tough moments as well as tender times.
Yes, I think learning yoga is difficult. And, so too, is teaching. And yet, I believe the process works.
More soon. Keep the faith.
Tuesday, February 6, 2018
My mother says, “Christina come down here. I have a secret to tell you.” I think it is odd my mother would tell me a secret, but I follow her down three steps into a private area. She looks at me, holds my hands and says, “I need to tell you that I will be passing soon.”
Surprised by her proclamation, I ask, “How do you know?”
She replies, “I have lights passing in front of my eyes and across my forehead. They mean I will be going soon. But do not tell your father— he will just worry.”
I try to reassure her, telling her she will be with Jesus in heaven.
She interupts me, saying, “I am okay with this. You do not need to reassure me.”
We hug for a while. Crying, I tell her, “You know, Mom, you have had to work very hard in your life these last few years since your stroke. That work will finally be over and you can rest.”
“Yes,” she says, putting her her head on my shoulder and adds,, “You are right. I am a tired.”
Wednesday, February 7, 2018
Buena Vista, CO
Kelly and I have a dinner party at our house with Mom and Dad and our friends Janet, Bob, Russ, and Syd. Amidst the laughter and general merriment, Syd told us about how her parents died. Her Dad contracted an infection in the hosprital and eventually passed wtih the help of Hospice. Her mom, however, went to sleep one night and didn’t wake up, which was a surprise for everyone.
Interestingly enough, Syd and Russ have a niece who has psychic capacities that allow her to contact people who have died. At Syd’s request, her niece spoke with Syd’s mother about her death. Syd’s mother said, “Tell Syd not to worry. It was just fine. It was a breath in and breath out.”
Thursday, February 8, 2018
Buena Vista, CO
Mom and I are in the kitchen together at breakfast. She had on the fluffly pink robe she got this year for Christmas. Her hair was messed up from sleep. She was happy and relaxed.
I say, “Mom, Dad said we kept you up too late last night.”
“Yes, I was so tired when everyone left that I just wanted to go straight to bed. Dad made me brush my teeth, though.”
“Sorry about that, Mom.”
“Oh, it was worth it. I had such a good time.”
I hug my mother good-bye, kiss her on the forehead, and tell her I love her. Kelly and I get in the van to drive to Flagstaff, Arizona for a weekend workshop. We stop in Durango and spend the night. Dad texts me around 6pm and says that everything is fine.
Thursday, February 8, 2018
En route to Flagstaff
Dad calls to tell me that Mom was sick in the night. The nurse practitioner from our doctor’s office has examined her and thinks she has the flu. Mom takes an ambulance to the ER. Dad tells me not to come home, as she is being cared for in the hospital and her conditions doesn’t seem serious.
Mom has been admitted to the hospital and reports are that she seems okay.
I get a phone call from the doctor at the hospital. Mom’s symptoms have worsened. She has been admitted to the ICU. The doctor is asking me about DNR’s. Mom is non-responsive.
Our minister is with her and tells me to come back. Our CNA/helper tells me to come home.
Kelly and I get in the car and drive to Durango, with the plan to spend the night and be at the hospital in the morning.
Friday, February 9, 2018
Heart of the Rockies Hospital
I come into mom’s room and rush to her bed. I grab her hand. She looks at me and says, “I’m sick.”
I reply, “I know, Mom.”
She whispers, “They told me you were coming.”
There are many more details to tell about the trajectory of her last 5 days and her battle with an infection that eventually settled into her lungs and caused the pneumonia that would bring the end of her life, but the final moments we shared as a family seem the most important to share now.
Febrruary 14, 2018
Heart of the Rockies Hospital
As it became obvious that too many things were stacking up against Mom, we made the decision for the doctors to remove the supplemental oxygen she was receiving. She wasn’t intubated, but she was dependent on supplemental oxygen. We agreed the doctors would wean her off the oxygen, allow the carbon dioxide to build in her system, and assist the process of death with morphine. (side note— Even in my grief and tears, I made them promise LOTS of morphine.)
Her case manager had told us that hearing is the last of the senses to go as the body dies and that we should keep talking to her so she would know we were there with her. Even with a lot of morphine, her last minutes of breathing seemed labored and stressful, as she was in an oxygen deficit. Watching her struggle to breathe, while attempting to reasuure her, was heart-breaking.
I remembered Syd’s story about her mother. “It was a breath in and a breath out.”
I put my hand on Mom’s heart. Under my hand was the raspy texture of her breath as her infected lungs struggled for air. I looked at my mother and said, “Mom, it’s going to be a breath in and a breath out. Here is what you are going to do… You are going to make your exhales longer. And as you exhale, God’s going to breathe you back in. We will do it together. A breath in, a breath out. We are with you.”
And so on.
Her eyes found mine. My mom followed my breathing instructions, allowing me to coach her as she did just what I suggested and made her exhales increasingly longer. Her sharp, labored inhales changed. She seemed less afraid. She kept looking at me.
And after a few more minutes of breathing together, she died.
One of my teachers told me that being with someone as they die can be like going into the parlor that sits outside the room of Death and Beyond. You can gain entry into the parlor—if you are lucky— but you can not go through the door with the person who is dying.
No matter how much you love them.
And, of course, once they go through the door, you must leave the parlor and return to the land of the living. Of course, the entirety of that landscape is forever changed.
And, it seems, to me, time in the parlor alters the one who went there.
Given that Mom died less than six weeks ago, I am a newcomer to the landscape of this particular grief. Slowly, little-by-little, I am getting my bearings.
In my current landscape, the sun rises every day— full of its reliable and bright glory— but without the reliable, bright laughter that accompanied my mother every day. And yet, like the light of the sun, there is no place where she is not. She taught me to cook eggs, how to get dressed, how to bathe myself, and how to clean a toilet. She taught me how to do my hair, make a shopping list, and how to water my plants. Every daily activity is a living connection to her and a living legacy of her care.
In my curent landscape, the Grace of my friends has become the very ground beneath my feet, reminding me that no matter where I step, I need not walk the pathways of this new land alone. Shared meals, long hikes, phone calls, letters, plants, flowers, cards, and heart-felt sharing surround me at every turn, showing me that love is real, people are precious, and God does not live in the sky, but lives instead t in the easy-to-miss moments of life where we minister to each other.
In my current landscape, a heavy weight settles daily in my chest, like low clouds that settle in a mountain valley, and make my normal routines more tiring than usual. This weight, impossible to think my way out of, reminds me that tears will soften what is sharp and jagged within me, just as rain will eventually wear down the craggiest of peaks, and spring showers will nourish the driest soil so that seeds of renewal can sprout. And I do my best to let the healing waters of my tears keep me tender inside.
In this landscape, dogs run in the yard, the neighbors have a new baby, and the bulbs I planted for her in the fall have begun to peak out of the earth. Here, in this landscape, life continues with its indomitable spirit and power. Majestic and ordinary, tedious and inspiring, frustrating and exhilarating , life is here to be lived.
My mom did that well. She fell. She got up. She was no perfect person and certainly, she did not give birth to a perfect daughter. She was, however, who she was. And her authenticity will always inspire my own.
There is nowhere I can go where she is not.
That is my mother’s grace.
A breath in. A breath out.
Life is to be lived.
Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
from Rumi: The Book of Love: Poems of Ecstasy and Longing
translated by Coleman Barks
I spent the weekend in Aptos, CA at Yoga Within. I always love teaching at Yoga Within because the students there have so much depth and experience. This trip was my first teaching gig since my mother passed away on Valentine’s Day. The experience of her passing was very fresh and tender in my heart throughout the weekend and the kind, generosity of the students in attendance bolstered me considerably.
In fact, the title of the workshop was Bolstered From Within: Asana for Inner and Outer Strength. For all the problems that have been identified in our industry, in our ever-changing understanding of anatomy and physiology, and in our expanding dialogue about teaching methods, psychology, and unchecked biases, I still find refuge in the practice.
Asana has provided me a structure through which to find discipline, self-understanding, and awareness. Asana gave me a means through which I discovered both humility and empowerment. I have learned ways that effort and surrender inform one another. And the postural practice has taught me that transformation and change must be tempered with compassion and acceptance. In a somewhat imprecise and non-linear way, practicing the poses has taught me more about what lives beneath and beyond the shapes than seems logical or rational.
Of course, sometimes I look at the asana practice and how much energy so many of us give to the pursuit of postures and the whole endeavor seems odd. Take a scroll through my social media feed— where yoga selfies coupled with inspirational quotes abound-- and the whole thing gets even weirder. Pairing an acrobatic feat with a claim of inner peace often lands somewhere between the bizarre and the delusional for me.
And, just to be clear, I am not saying anyone should stop making yoga memes or cease promoting their prowess and insight. I have played the game myself and found great pleasure in the many facets of creative expression inherent in the types of posts I am describing. I am simply saying, that for me, some days, the whole thing makes my hackles go up a bit.
Clearly, asana’s pathway is not a straight line. Like any relationship, there are twists and turns, surprises and stretches of boredom. There are times when I give my relationship with asana a lot of my attention and there are times where my relationship might best be described as avoidant or neglectful. I have expected too much from my relationship with asana as often as I have taken our relationship for granted. At some point, however, I stopped trying to do it all so right and began to trust that these ebbs and flows were simply the way I was doing it— for better or worse, rich or poor, sick or well. Somewhere along the line, my relationship with asana became my own, not anyone else’s.
My therapist once cautioned me about making life too much about competence and doing things right. Life, with its many complexities, is full of paradox, mistake-making, triumphant achievement, and abysmal failure. We love, hate, betray, forgive, and continue on. I was reminded of my therapist's caution in the hours after my mother passed when the issue of a “good death” came up.
My mom spent the last six days of her life in the hospital before dying from complications with pneumonia. I had my hand on her heart as she exhaled for the final time. How ludicrous to assign a good or bad label to something so mysteriously natural as death. And, by the same token, how unfair to judge our living, breathing moments by the limiting narrative of competence and skill or good and bad.
More could be said, but it seems to me that the strength that asana yields and the ways the practice bolsters me, is not so easy to define. Furthermore, what makes life worth living is even harder to pin down.
Oh-- and many thanks for the sincere, heartfelt support you all gave me throughout the process of my mom's passing. You made Grace real to me in and I have been truly bolstered by my family, friends, student's, colleagues, and teachers.
Most of my time and energy for writing has been applied toward finishing a manuscript for a new book on Yoga and Body Image. I am happy to say that I submitted it to my publisher, signed a contract, and have a release date for Spring 2019. I wrote Yoga from the Inside Out in 2001 and it was published in 2003. Before Facebook, before Twitter, before Instagram and before the proliferation of online media, I wrote about the subtle and not-so-subtle ways that the yoga industry was infiltrated by modern culture's narrow standards of beauty. I suggested that yoga practice could either heal, or reinforce, those norms, depending on where we placed our attention, both individually and as a larger community.
Since that time, the yoga and body image conversation has grown and expanded to encompass diverse viewpoints and to explore greater places of intersectionality with race, gender, age, and economic privilege. This book is an updated set of musings aimed primarily at experienced practitioners who, after an initial period of healing in yoga, may be experiencing disillusionment, disappointment, and who, in the midst of the current milieu feel a lack of connection to the spiritual essence of yoga, Beyond Body Image: Yoga as a Pathway to Peace is about moving beyond outer images of beauty toward a loving, compassionate connection to one's spiritual essence.
So, that has been one project. Not an exhaustive treatise, by any means, but an updated set of musings 15 years after my initial book on the subject.
The other project I worked on this fall was my Shelter From the Storm and Teaching in Troubled Times courses. (the courses are still available and posted online, even though they are technically over so it is not too late to take the course now. ) After crafting daily emails full of teachings and practices for 45 days, I realized, I had an outline for a book. I have been expanding and re-working some of that material for a second manuscript called Shelter From the Storm: Yoga for Troubled Times. I was really pleased with the course and am excited how this offering is shaping up as well. I hope to have the manuscript to my editor by the end of the month.
Between writing projects, teaching work, the holidays and the flu (which has kicked my ass for almost two weeks), I haven't written a blog entry in a while. In a way, this statement sums up much of how I am feeling these days-- keenly aware that it is impossible to do everything and that life involves choices about how to spend my energy. Of course, that idea is nothing new, but the truth of it is finding a new fullness within me.
One of my students recently asked me if I was going to do another Asana Junkies course soon. I said, "Well, I don't really practice like that right now, so it's not like I have tons of new things to say about back bends and arm balances that I haven't already said."
She asked me, "Why aren't you practicing like that?"
I went on to say that for me to keep a lot of advanced poses in my repertoire involves a lot of time. It also involves not doing a lot of things I enjoy. And over the last few years, not hiking, not biking, not boating, or not snowboarding so that my back bends got deeper just didn't feel like a good trade-off. I have nothing against pose lust, big poses, or the pursuit of all of that and have no axe to grind about advanced poses. And, I have plenty of help I can offer people who want to do those things in the right setting. However, for me, big poses just don't seem as interesting to me these days as meditation, mantra, a great hike, writing books, gardening, and some good, basic asana to keep things working well.
Like I said, choices.
Maybe you can have it all, but it never seems to me you can have it all at the same time. (And truth be told, I doubt most of us can really have it all, but that is another post for another day. Of course, on a spiritual level, we already have it all, but again, a different post for a different day.)
I have always considered asana a life-long relationship. And like any relationship that endures the test of time, there are bound to be changes over the long haul. Years ago, I wanted to be like some of my yoga teachers who were doing advanced poses at 70. Now, I mostly want to be out in nature, connected to my inner life, and able to walk when I am 70! Seeing my mother deal with the loss of mobility from her stroke made me aware of the precious gift it is to walk independently and how vital the strength and stability of both body and mind are.
And, my favorite thing about asana practice, is not the poses, weirdly enough. My favorite thing about the asana practice is how, little-by-little, slowly-but-surely, over the last twenty-something years while I was studying, practicing, and teaching, I charted a pathway inside myself where awareness can rise and I discovered a relationship with my own awareness. It would never have sounded exciting to me all those years ago, as I was pretty darn focused on those back bends, but I love feeling the connection between my big toe and my chest, between my chest and my back, between my breath and my mood, and so on and so on. As it turns out, all those hours on that rectangular piece of rubber were in service to something so much more than the poses themselves.
In a sense, that "something so much more" is the essence of what I have been writing about over the last few months. . Whether it is body image and the destructive forces of cultural conditioning or it is the troubling political landscape, the gift of yoga is not in the shapes themselves, but in what the shapes lay the groundwork for. The shapes and their depths will come and go, and perhaps, our interest in them will come and go. However, the steady, uninterrupted practice of said shapes, regardless of how fancy they are, lays the groundwork for awareness to rise, for us to know ourselves as that awareness itself, and to live our lives from a reference point that is deep, interior, and Real.
And that is a relationship that can stand the test of time.
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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."