A few weeks ago one of my friends posted this clip on Facebook. My friend is a black woman. I watched the clip and remembered watching videos ofJane Elliot's experiments when I was growing up in some class on the Civil Rights Movement.
A couple of people commented on the thread saying "What a racist woman" and "I simply don't buy that all white people are racist... for instance, in my situation..."
I felt tired.
I didn't engage publicly.
Kelly came into my office while I was watching the video and asked me about it. I told him about Jane Elliot's experiments. I dug a little deeper into the video archives and showed Kelly this video of Jane's work with Oprah. We both agreed that the first video made more sense in a larger context of who Jane Elliot is and the history of her work.
A week or so ago, I ran into my friend at a party and brought the topic up. I told her I was disappointed in the way the thread went. We talked a while about the thread, the video, racism, and the difficulties of social media as a platform for dialogue. She thanked me for saying something to her directly.
We kept talking. (I am the kind of person who goes to a party and either stays in the kitchen and makes food or talks to one person for a long time. But that is another story.)
As our conversation unfolded over the next hour, she shared some of her story and her personal challenges and triumphs. Toward the end of our talk, I asked her, "So, as a black woman in Texas, who is in community with so many white folks here in Austin, what is actually helpful to you personally? For instance, I didn't comment on that thread because I felt too exhausted by the topic to engage it that day. But, as a black woman, not engaging because you are tired of people's ignorance isn't a choice that you have, right? Like, that would have helped. Had I chimed in and supported you directly, that would have helped, right?"
She looked me in the eyes, and with no malice whatsoever, said clearly, "Yes. That would have helped."
Our conversation-- and my own discomfort-- has stayed with me for a few weeks now. I spoke about my experience and my feelings last night at our local Social Justice reading group, which opened up a conversation about the difference between education and conversion or condemnation, about how staying awake to injustice can take practice and requires support, and how, while not every fight is ours and we all hit our limits along the way, the discomfort of inaction may simply become more painful than the fear of criticism, rocking the boat or ostracizing ourselves or others.
And since we are all yoga teachers in the reading group, we latched on to the analogy of how many times we tell students to "take your thighs back" or to "straighten your arms" even though it seems futile at times. Why, when we are willing to repeat those same instructions in every class are we unwilling to speak up repeatedly regarding our culturally-conditioned blindspots? (Anne wrote a blog entry about her impressions from last night.)
Anyway, I am sure this post reads a little bit like "blinding flashes of the obvious" to people in the trenches of social justice work or like "confessions of a spoiled white girl" to people who do not have the luxury of choice in such matters, both of which are probably true. Be that as it may be, if my own fumbling attempts to stay awake and bring my insights into action can be of use to you in your world, I offer them today in this entry.
If you are interested in hearing more on the topic, this is an excellent clip--
"In the Work, we look at our negative states with noncritical, nonjudgmental observation. But it is very difficult to objectively observe a negative state in ourselves without any criticism or guilt or emotional reaction going along with our observation. The Work likens it to turning on the light in a messy room. The light doesn't make any comment about the room, it just sheds light on the situation. We may see by means of the light that the room needs to be cleaned. But if we turn the light off because seeing the messy room makes us feel terrible, we aren't going to get a whole lot of effective cleaning done in the dark…
How can you expect to have any degree of inner freedom if you are at the mercy of every change, every event, every little incident in your external life? If everything upsets you so easily, how can you have inner freedom?” -Peter Rhodes, Aim: The Workbook
I recently told my class that, in almost twenty-five years of asana practice, I can think of only two or three times I have gotten up from savasana when I didn’t feel better. That does not mean that I have enjoyed every class, workshop or training that I have gone to. I haven’t. In fact, quite the opposite— I have attended many classes, workshops and trainings that I did not enjoy much at all. Nor do I mean to imply that my time in my personal practice is joyful or even enjoyable a lot of the time. It isn’t. Many times, I feel stiff, sore, tired, cranky and distracted.
Of course, I do enjoy my time on my mat some of the time. And I enjoy classes, workshops and trainings some of the time. However, while the number of practices where my mind was critical, complaining or judgmental and where I didn’t like what the teacher said or taught are too numerous to count, I can count only a few times when I didn’t feel better when I was finished.
What this insight tells me is that yoga’s power to shift my state of consciousness to a new reference point does not live in yoga always giving me an enjoyable experience, but lives instead, in my ability to engage my practice as a process that takes me through difficulty, not around it. If I come to my practice or class looking for enjoyment only, I am going to view everything I do not like from a vantage point of comfort and preference and whether or not I got what I wanted. If I like the sequence, the room temperature, the music or the lack of music, the instructor’s cues, etc., then my practice will have been “good.” If things do not go according to my expectations and preferences, I will probably label my experience as “bad.” In these simple examples, I have externalized the responsibility for the efficacy of my practice.
However, if I come to my various practices with transformation in mind, the inevitable upsets and difficulties become possibilities for my growth and work on myself. Yoga, as a transformational path, uses the tensions and frustrations of the practice itself as a means to experience greater love, compassion and acceptance by both meeting the difficult moment as it is and by inviting (and sometimes demanding through extreme discomfort) that we develop a skill set that allows for choice beyond the obsessive, self-critical, perfectionistic stream of conditioned thoughts and feelings. (And for the record, because it is a hot topic, I want to be very clear that I am NOT suggesting that we tolerate abuse, degradation or subjugation of ANY kind from ourselves, our teachers, or our communities.)
And unfortunately, as sincere as we may be about wanting to transform and shift our reference points through asana practice, the negative self-talk of shame-based criticism commonly comes to the forefront of our experience, drowning out any attempt we might make to be breath-focused, attentive to alignment or aware of ourselves energetically. And, perhaps even more unfortunately, these negative thoughts do not come in, waving a flag of objective warning, and tell us, “For the next sixty minutes, I am going to give you a run for your money to see if you really can break free of your patterns and conditioning like you say you want to. Get ready-it is going to be rough, but you can do it.”
Instead, self-hatred and self-criticism—be they internalized messages of childhood, culture or both— come in riding our emotions, so that we feel ashamed, ugly, unloveable, different and bad. Like a toxic miasma of self-loathing, these messages come to us from inside our own emotional body, making it very difficult to gain clarity and perspective about what is happening, why we feel so bad and what to do about the situation in which we unfortunately find ourselves. While the yoga class or practice may have outside triggers— such as an instructor who uses body-shaming language, an overwhelming culture of body-centered narcissism and even a room full of people who appear un-phased by the issues with which we are grappling, the fact that the negative feelings and thoughts are arising within us gives us a clue as to where the solution for moving beyond them lies—inside our own hearts and minds.
I know how upsetting it can be to come to class or to personal practice looking for a break from these demons, only to find that the “enemy” has rolled out its own mat inside your emotional body and inside your head. The experience is awful and upsetting. When consumed by negative self-talk and the shame-based feelings I am describing, it is common to feel like yoga, the class and/or our teacher has somehow betrayed us.
And while I think it is important for our yoga teachers to learn to use inclusive, non-shaming language and for our yoga studios to be sanctuaries that are oriented beyond image and cultural notions of beauty, I believe we, as students and practitioners, must see healing as our personal responsibility in yoga. We must identify and dis-arm the patterns by which shame grabs hold of us and convinces us that we are bad, wrong and unworthy of love and belonging. We need to redirect our attention in order for our prana to enliven a life of love and resiliency, rather than producing shame and fear.
Furthermore, while supportive teachers and friends can help be very helpful, they cannot do the work for us. I have watched my own efforts to help students work through the issues of shame-based comparison fail miserably— no matter how I tried to establish an inclusive, uplifting and competition-free zone in my classes, workshops and trainings. Even the best of teachers’ best efforts cannot stand up to these deeply entrenched patterns, nor should we expect them to.
No one can do the work for us.
And if we we have not uprooted the sources of shame within us, it is impossible for any situation to conform perfectly to our needs in such a way that our shame will not be triggered. Yoga is not responsible for never triggering us. Yoga's value, in my opinion, is that it gives us tools through which we can respond more optimally to our triggers.
Case in point— One time I was in a class with some yoga friends who were all preparing for a yoga competition. As we were talking casually before the practice began, I noticed a feeling of “fat” and shame had washed over me. I looked in the mirror and could see objectively that I looked exactly how I did the previous day and that nothing had actually changed in reality. Then I looked at my friends, all of whom had been on a strict juice-based diet, in preparation for their competition. I realized they were all thinner than usual. Even though the atmosphere was friendly and I knew these people loved me, my own mental comparisons had taken over my mind and I felt unworthy and unlovable. As soon as I realized what was happening, my perspective shifted and the feeling of shame dissipated. Almost instantly, I no longer felt like I did not belong. The shame I felt was not because my friends were thinner than usual. Their thinness was a trigger for me, activating my own dormant patterns of conditioned thoughts that linked being thin with feeling loved and with belonging.
I tell this story to illustrate the futility of expecting outer environments to be 100% validating. My friends said not one word about body weight and size, nor did they make any ostracizing gestures whatsoever and still, after over 30 years of investigating body image, my shame was triggered. Because I have worked through my shame-based feelings so many times over so many years, I could recognize shame, name it clearly, expose it for what it was, and return to a more clear relationship with myself in the present moment. I didn’t have to follow my shame-based feelings as though they were true indicators of reality.
I used to think that that yoga would “fix me” so that I never felt insecure, unsure of myself or plagued by my patterns of self-hatred. Instead, yoga has helped me learn new reference points for who I am beyond those messages and has given me a way to see those messages as false. Yoga hasn’t kept me from getting upset but it has helped me learn the skills to chose how to respond to those things I find upsetting.
Twenty-five years ago, I would not have signed up for this outcome. I really hoped something much more magical would have happened by now. I imagined myself much more “together” than I am now. And yet, truth be told, here I am at 47 years old, pretty happy with where the path has taken me so far. Instead of fixing me, it helped me love my brokenness. Instead of self-improvement, I have some measure self-acceptance. The path didn’t make me fearless but somewhere along the way, I found my courage. I didn’t get perfect, but I am becoming whole.
All in all, not a bad deal.
In 1999, I was a new yoga teacher. I lived in Prescott, Arizona at the time, where my husband and I also owned and operated a small coffee shop/cafe in town. I taught a 9:30-11:00 Level 1 class every Tuesday and Thursday. My class was composed of several retired school teachers and principals, a handful of practicing psychotherapists, several bodyworkers, teachers from the local liberal arts college who were specialists in experiential education and a few college students. Well over half of the students who came to my class had children my age. As time went by, it was clear to me that the students came to class to see each other, as much as they did to learn yoga or to learn yoga from me, specifically. And, in retrospect, I can say in all honesty, that those students gave me the best teacher training I have received.
At that time, I had bitten the bait of Anusara yoga and was swept up into the vision of both the Anusara philosophy and asana methodology. I was experiencing huge shifts in my own practice and was so excited to share what I was learning with my students. I would come home from a weekend or weeklong training full of “heart-opening” tips and tricks and sell them to my students.
“Guess what?” I would ask. “If you get your arm bones back and really work shoulder loop, one day you will be able to drop back into urdhva dhanurasana! How cool would that be?!!”
And I would look expectantly out into the classroom and see blank looks. And even eye rolling.
Crickets, perhaps, but no certainly no enthusiasm for “advanced postures” and no recognizable “zeal for improvement” and no interest whatsoever in my pep talk of “continual expansive growth.”
Occasionally— well, regularly, might be a more accurate word, truth be told— I would get a hand-written card from one of my students. Keep in mind that many of these women were career educators from a day and age when penmanship was a priority, so these cards came written in perfect cursive with specific tips for how I could improve my teaching. After a while, the cards also contained feedback about how well I was—or was not— improving based on the previous suggestions.
For instance, they told me that they had a difficult time getting up and down off the floor and if I was going to do floor postures, I should keep the students on the floor until we were ready to stand for a while. They told me they did not enjoy the room too cold, but they did not like it too hot either. They told me I needed to talk slower, louder and not trail off at the end of my sentences. They did not like my use of passive voice in instructions and thought active voice would be better. They told me they needed to work into poses gradually. They told me that they were not interested in big poses, that they wanted me to understand that they had been injured before and they were cautious for a reason. They told me they didn’t expect to do back bends, they mostly wanted to improve balance and to stay strong enough to get up and down out their chair as they aged. One woman was an avid birdwatcher and wanted to maintain her hiking prowess as she aged.
At every turn, they shared with me their interest in the practice and without saying so directly, helped me see that what inspired me at my stage of life and practice, was not particularly compelling for them. In fact, often when I was in the middle of pitching a theme with a philosophical premise, one of the psychotherapists would interrupt me and tell me how unhealthy such a perspective was or share the many ways they saw it differently from their own vantage point. I had never seen anything like it before or since, truth be told.
They also wrote me about how much they liked to learn. They explained how the details of alignment engaged their minds and how much they liked learning the how and the why of the poses as much as they enjoyed actually doing the postures. They told me that the community of the yoga class had become a source of camaraderie, connection and joy for them.
These students of mine were hard-working. They were also really hard on themselves. Highly competent people, they were coping with a change in their physical capacity and life circumstances and the yoga was as confrontational as it was nurturing. They wanted a challenge and yet, without warning, any challenge could become fuel for self-criticism and self-condemnation. Like with so many things in yoga, we walked a fine line together. And we walked together for many years. In fact, many years after I left, that class stayed together, practicing with Rachel Peters when she took over Prescott Yoga, and then Cheryl Walters, when she founded Lotus Bloom.
I could go on about the many ways this group of people taught me as my students, and truth be told, not a day goes by when I do not rely on the training I got in my initial days as a yoga teacher. My Iyengar yoga teachers definitely modeled the inventive use of props and progressive teaching strategies but those skills were an absolute necessity in a class that never strayed far from the Level One syllabus. I came to see that advanced work in poses happens, not in fancier shapes or crazy contortions, but in the interior aspects of the postures— in the intelligent application of action within form that can only happen when awareness, heart and effort come together over a long period of time. And when that work happens in the context of a supportive community, the synthesis is greater than the sum of its parts and is nothing short of transformative to everyone involved.
This was, of course, before the days of Yelp or Twitter or Facebook. Certainly, this was before the time when there were yoga studios and classes on every street corner. Clearly, not everything about my classes worked for my students and yet they invested in the class, in my growth and in one another by communicating honestly and directly with me about what they wanted, needed and hoped for. And while I look back appreciatively, to be sure, I was not always psyched when those little cards came my way. As much as I know that feedback is essential for growth, I do not always find feedback easy to handle. In fact, I was often prickly, defensive and angry when my offering wasn’t positively perceived and/or received.
So we grew together. I like to think we have all kept growing, although I haven’t seen some of these people in many years. Be that as it may be, over 17 years later, what remains the same is that community requires investment, and growth— both as a student and as a teacher— does not happen in isolation, without difficulty, and without a few prickly moments. And, unfortunately, we can’t always know in said prickly moment, how the lesson is going to turn out. At any rate, the beauty of sustained efforts is that, through them, we get to glimpse the bigger picture as time goes by. Time can yield an expanded perspective.
When I was a new teacher, I never heard any stories of the struggles my teachers experienced when they were getting started teaching. And I can’t tell you the number of times new teachers look at my career now and make comments that reveal they do not believe I was ever new, inexperienced, poorly received and/or struggling in any way. And it can be easy to lose sight of the fact that the work I do now stands on the long-developed foundation of fifteen public classes a week for over a decade. At any rate, as I make my way home from a lovely weekend in Kansas at Yoga Gallery, I am reflecting on the many ways through which we grow and “advance” as both teachers and students.
In the same way that advanced work in asana does not depend on fancier poses, improving as a teacher is not always evidenced by bigger classes, fancier venues and more compensation. It may be. And that is great. Of course, improving as a teacher may also take the shape of greater sensitivity to the needs of our students, of increased confidence to set limits with what and how we offer our expertise, with less defensiveness regarding our shortcomings and by owning up to our prickly sides and sharp edges.
And one thing I know for certain is that whatever current challenge you may have in your teaching, in your community or in your personal practice, that challenge is likely to be the very circumstance you look back on 15 years from now as some of the best training you ever received. Of course, that doesn't mean you have to like the lesson, but it is a reminder to keep in mind that the work of teaching is a long-term investment and the pay-off is not not always what you expect.
Keep the faith.
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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."