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
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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."