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.
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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."