The injunction to heal ourselves - especially amongst us white folks - is a slip of the tongue and the attention span. It conveniently positions us as victims, powerless, and dealing with our own wounds while deflecting our attention away from very real and institutionalized privileges. It’s past time that we within the yoga community stop this myopic quest to live authentically. It’s not important that we speak our truth. It’s time we start to listen.
The challenge of course is balance - to somehow let our dark emerge to be transformed in the fire of wisdom but not lose ourselves in the process. Suppression won’t help. But letting our inner bile contaminate everything around us doesn’t help either. Silence, carved out space for retreat and healing, finding some ways to really just be with yourself will all help. Of course they are all hard things to do this time of year.
All the more reason to be conscientious about them.
If we don’t point to where our practices come from - or think we have any responsibility to the community - we’re negligent. Tias used to say if a teacher can’t talk about his lineage, the teaching is suspect. Which is not to say authority or credibility comes from a lineage or a guru, per se.
But our credibility and our authority don’t come independently, either.
at this point I recognize that everything can fall apart and I will still be okay. There is an underlying sense that I can handle the hard things in life. I trust that I can both take on and survive adversity. I have access to a deep pulse that drums steady even as everything around me- or inside me - feels unstable, unsafe, or just flat out wrong. I have this sense precisely because I have gone through transformation over and over again in these practices. Having gone through it, I trust it.
Fatigue is cumulative. Weariness grows. Think of the way a steady, slow drip of water will erode a mountain or a wall over time. Or the way you can handle one bad day, one set back, but after a series of setbacks your response is going to change. Eventually, you yourself change. There will be a proverbial straw that breaks the camel's back. One thing more and you might just crack down the middle.
We are, for all our modern gadgetry, primitive beings. We have bodies that are prehistoric and digestive tracts that precede the agricultural revolution. We have minds that are older than the industrial revolution, and we're simply not intended to be able to process a constant barrage of information, stimulation, environmental strain.
Ama is the sludge, the build up, the slowly or not so slowly developing layer of grime that weakens our immunity, dulls our enthusiasm, and clouds our vitality. It's a toxic wet blanket thrown over our cell's ability to communicate, and without clear communication between our 70 odd trillion cells, things go a little haywire. We'll get sick more often and sickness will linger, longer. We'll be prone to allergies, including food sensitivities. Our hormones will back fire and our inflammatory response will alternately spit and roar, roar and spittle.
- the consequence of inadequately digested food or experience
- toxins which build up in the body and prevent our connecting with or ability to discern the body's underlying intelligence
- blockages - weather in our arteries, our joints, our our ability to experience love and happiness
- improperly digested food - any substance not utilizable by the body as food
- excess of the bi-products of metabolism (uric acid, components of bile, free radicals)
- the physical substance of maldigestion which blocks the body's subtle and not-subtle channels
As spring comes in, we're aware of changes in the environment around us. The skies get lighter, and higher. The earth thaws. Something deep in plants begins to move like a white milky pap toward the surface and then breaks through. Animals are born, the rains come, the heaviness of winter becomes the green wild pulse of spring.
These are profound shifts. They are a regeneration process. And the thing is, something similar is going on in your own physiology at this time. But we tend to be so disconnected from seasons and nature that we don't recognize the signs, wouldn't know what to do with them if we did, we live more by our newsfeed and our work demands than our body's inner wisdom.
The ancient vaidyas encouraged people to go through seasonal shifts with a purification process known as panchakarma. Every April, I go through this process myself and guide others through it online. It starts April 1 and is four weeks of ritually cleaning out your gunk. I mean the emotional, and the physical, and the old, and the relatively new. For $100, you'll get
- a PDF guidebook with a week by week plan to prepare your body to deeply release, to go through the release, and then to rejuvenate.
- daily reflections as a part of that guide
- a weekly 'how to' video, as well as supplementary videos that are all optional (how to make ghee and kitchari, a few asana videos, etc)
- this year I'm including a series of how-to-meditate videos that will give you a technique for effortless meditation, different than watching the breath or mindfulness. Meditation is purification.
Stress and strain and less than optimal digestion are part of the world we live in. But there are things we can do to recover, rejuvenate, regenerate. You can feel spring, as a thing that is happening inside of you.
Last night I got a text from a friend. The Yoga Center of Minneapolis closed it's doors last night. No one knew it was going to happen except the few key players involved. I know how bad this can hurt. I know how many people are affected. This morning the word has spread and more and more people are expressing sadness, hurt, and confusion.
There is grief there. Grief is a complicated thing, both a process and not a process at all. It lasts. And it changes.
From a humble place, I want to make myself available to anyone who needs to talk. From a more humble place still, I will open my intensives/teacher training this summer to anyone who can no longer complete their work with The Yoga Center.
It doesn't fix everything, but it is something. It may not be the right fit for you. But we can have a conversation and figure it out. "Training" and "yoga teacher" and "Yoga Alliance" are all confusing topics right now. We'll address every one of them.
It’s mid January. The dawns are so deep they break to ink blue. Stars are sharp. To say nothing whatsoever of the cold.
Only that it’s a hard kind of season. It’s a difficult time of year.
Now that 97% of the human population has trashed, dismissed, or diminished their New Year’s Resolutions, I want to talk about them.
To be fair, I’m not a person who makes resolutions. I never have been. In the first 29 years of my life, before-the-yoga, I fully identified as a fuck up. I wouldn’t to commit to a damned thing. I wouldn’t commit because I knew I’d fail.
I no longer think of myself as such a damaged piece of work. But I still don’t make resolutions. My reasoning is different, though; I don’t make resolutions now because I know that changes happen – beautiful, devastating changes – in spite of me. Change is an experience of grace.
Sankalpa – the Sanskrit word for intention – means the law that arises from the heart. It means the rule you follow above all other rules. And here’s where I think we misunderstand: intention doesn’t come from the goal setting and thinking part of us; it rises up out of the flesh like a baby. Or a disease. To try to think or plan or strategize our way into the new year is to misunderstand both human beings and change. The heart is going to do what the heart needs to do.
Being human is what traditional yoga studied. In depth. From multiple angles. Down through the layers and into the shadows. Movement studies. Mind studies. One of the key things the sages came to understand is the inborn capacity for human beings to overcome, to heal, and to grow. Lay the ground, plant the seeds, cultivate the space, and the human spirit soars. Change is what human beings, do.
But laying the ground is decidedly different than a bucket list. It’s related to healing, not goal setting.
There is a tremendous cultural pull, born in the holidays and proved in the longest nights of the year, that resurrects and reflects who we’ve been in our lives. The pull underscores aging. It’s laced with familial roles – how sweet and sustaining they are, as well as how fraught with contradiction. It’s sourced in finances, commercialism, and gender roles while being boxed by cultural traditions. It trades in shame, hits our weak spots, and plays on self-esteem. To top it all off, end of the year rituals are reminiscent of religious rites; even if we’re not religious, we want to be spiritual. We’re drawn to things that smell like candles in the dark, salvation, and promises. The resurrecting and reflecting pull is so strong we start vowing. We want a clean break. Never again, we say. Or this year I promise. From this point forth and so on. Sometimes it appears more mild: it’s true I’d be happier if I finally lost this weight, maybe. Or, now that I’m middle aged, I really should start exercising. I don’t know that these are actually mild. They’re rather passive aggressive.
Resolution and change are not the same thing. They aren’t even related to each other.
The one is sourced by ego, master of phrasing self-hate as self-improvement and avoidance as self care. Resolution implies a problem needing to be fixed. But the problem here is the self. We so often make problems of ourselves. We try to change ourselves to fit in or get enough likes, without realizing that’s an endless hunger. We may stoke our ego enough for today, but tomorrow we’ll have to do the same thing. And the next day. And the next. The needing will never end. There is no ‘goal’; there’s only a hamster wheel. Or one of the minor circles of hell. Resolutions feed either our ego or our insecurities.
Our ego and our insecurities turn out to be inseparable.
The other, change, is sourced elsewhere. By god, maybe. The really real. By the ordinariness of biological, historical, genetic and teeming life. And let’s face it: ordinary life, in the power of the galaxy, the wonder of a seed, the outright miracle of human birth and the delicacy of minerals in the soil, is wonderous. I could go on and on. The ordinary life of snowflakes and sixty five million refugees, salt in the blood, the wild bones of children and the fact of guns in America; I mean racial wounds, feminine persistence, immigrant dreams and native wisdom. I mean hope and sadness, hope and guts, hope and the medicinal poetry of ancestors.
There is so much more to life than our ideas about ourselves.
We need rituals, after so much talk of resolutions. Rituals dabble in the taboo and make it sacred. Ritual approaches the ordinary with a sense of humility and revelation.
Ritual leans in; change and healing follow. Then, and only then, do items on lists start to check themselves off. They fall off surprisingly and without effort, a kind of domino effect. What was vague becomes clear. What was ignorance becomes wisdom. Like photography, resolution has to do with clarity. Resolution is a side effect of healing, not the means.
As I write this I’m watching the sun rise, flamingo pink and throat red. Everything but the light is freeze blue, hard white. The juxtaposition is sharp. By the time the light reaches a diagonal, it will be molten gold, a lava on window panes, hot honey on houses. A siren wails and an ambulance rushes to the hospital. I’m working on my own love, my own marriage. One of Martin Luther King’s books lays spread-eagled next to the coffee cup.
I can’t ignore reality. Nor can I deny beauty. Nor can I handle even one of the greater questions of our time. In the face of all that, I need something to hold me.
I need something to hold me because I am not strong.
Ritual makes an offering of the self rather than an imposition of the will. Rituals invoke our heart with all its vulnerabilities. Vulnerability has power. Ritual notices the beauty of deep winter even as it shivers in the face of it. Rites acknowledge need, accept uncertainty, appreciate human effort and sing earthy wisdom. Ritual sacralizes the taboo, the profane, the frustrating, the quotidian; and what else could we do with such things?
What else could we possibly do?
Ritual is the mysterious work of hope and healing. Their mutuality. Their human and ordinary realness.
But healing looks so very different than a yearly pep talk or ultimatum. Change often takes years to unfold. Decades. Generations. Sometimes this is so hard. It is so tiring. How can we take on such tremendous problems without losing hope?
Like many of the deeper questions, this one has two apparently contradictory answers. It’s paradox.
On the one hand, we only have the courage and capacity to do such things when we remember that they are bigger than us. They are generational, historical, and communal. We have to do our part. It’s important that we realize we are part of a movement. It’s possible to see with the eyes of the not yet born. Our work has been handed down directly from the ancestors. Then the difficulty of the present doesn’t matter. Our frustration isn’t the whole of the story. When we do this, we are uniquely able to notice the beauty of things without their beauty being tarnished by the shitty context in which they happen.
And on the other hand, we have to take care of ourselves. We have to learn the lessons implicit in our own lives. When we do this, when we explore personal healing, we find a beauty and a grace quality to life that we’d never suspected before. We find parts of ourselves we never knew existed. Parts of our self we couldn’t get rid of become our standing ground. If we don’t leverage our own life lessons, we re-iterate them.
If we don’t have both levels of healing we suffer. If we only think about ourselves, we eventually become self destructive. We’ll roil in diet mentality. We’ll self-improve ourselves to death. We’ll never have enough qualifications, or degrees, or respect.
But if we only ever look at the big issues, we lose ourselves. We’ll get depressed. We’ll burn out. Everything will be heavy. No one will want to be around us because we’re self righteous and annoying. And we’ll develop conflict and resentment because we can’t claim the problems of the world as our own personal destiny. They don’t belong to us. They aren’t ours.
Ritual is the only thing I know that draws these polarities together. A yogic truth, if it is one, suffuses through all the layers of reality. It has to be true at the subtle level, as well as the most scientific. It has to be both a universal truth, which can anchor us; and it has to be an intimate - almost embarrassing- personal experience, which floats us.
Ritual lays the spirit on the altar, using whatever altar it can find. Dust motes in a column of sunlight, say. Or clumps of black grasses, shrouded in snow. Ritual is seeing breath crystallized in bluey light and ego decrystallized into something not yet finished, nowhere near done. To watch the ego decrystallize is hard, and such a relief.
Ritual redeems us like a coupon.
Love, it says, is possible. Even though we doubt. Doubt, it says, is workable, because we still love.
Ritual heals us. Which is what we’ve needed year after year. It’s what we all, need. It’s time for us as a society to focus on healing. There’s no task of greater importance and no undertaking that could be more profound.
Now is the time for us to finally heal the painful legacy of racism, the lineage of patriarchy, the division between the wealthy and the poor. Now is the time to seriously take on the task of healing the environment. It’s time for us to heal a broken educational system. It’s time to heal an antiquated disease care model that poses as a health care system. We have to address the ill health and depression that affects fifty percent of the world’s population. We have to address the cost and the suffering laid on families and see the stress that comes of not getting essential things right.
I suppose what I’m suggesting amounts to a revolution. I mean social justice. I mean public wealth. I mean human rights and acknowledging the staggering beauty and urgent role of science before our policies do irreparable harm.
The gyst of such a revolution would be individuals healing themselves and the people they come in contact with. It will spread until our halls of power are brown and feminine. Our governors won’t descend from fraternities but rise from immigrant families and we’ll support them. This revolution will enrich our economy and restore wounded dignity and we’ll celebrate it. We can promote a revolution based on healing instead of the band-aid of suppressing. We can call shame culture and bullying culture out as being the same culture. This healing will look for wholeness in our fragmented society and this shift will benefit everyone, every last one, in society.
Like any revolution this won’t come from government. It will come from individuals. It will come from us.
The need is clear. The way is clear. Your soul longs for it and the world is so ready for it.
I’m not asking for utopia. I’m speaking directly to the way things are. Things don’t have to be this way.
There is an emptiness to mid January. It stands in all the doorways. It’s rubbed people’s cheeks to raw. We’re depleted but expected to go on. Lean in to ritual as both balm and sugar. It’s a fire and it’s a song. It’s important, and it’s something we already know how to do. Sankalpa is like that. It’s proof that we already and always have cared. We fill emptiness with love.
The news is relentless. There is a sick taste in my mouth. I oscillate between avoiding news and bingeing on it. I oscillate between desperate, trembling activity and absolute apathy. I forget myself: I teach I protest I aunt I wive I write. And the self interrupts, selfish: I whine I dither I am needy lonely ugly and afraid. I want comfort. I want answers. I want change. And I want it all to just fucking calm down. I want some sweetness in my life, the celebrations, time with the folk I love, time to do something other than crisis management and grief. I dearly want to sit and watch as the sugar maple changes her clothes, gussies up, stuns, and lets go.
It doesn't stop. The news is relentless. Now this. Now that. Heartbreak. Anger. Fear.
There are days I desperately need my practice, and it feels desperate; starving, needy, heady, grabby, longing. Then there are days practice seems utterly irrelevant, selfish, not good enough, unimportant, a waste of time. On those days, everything in my body recoils from sitting. Nothing in me wants to move. Awareness is just too goddamned uncomfortable. Nothing can tear me away from the twitter feed, the images, the debate, the body counts. Or: nothing seems so urgent as uninterrupted time with my niece, far from news, away from danger.
In recent days I've wanted the solace of my teacher. But he died a few months ago. I could go back to his published words or his voice in a podcast. But I haven't been able to bring myself to listen to his voice yet. It doesn't feel good. I can't. So there is silence.
I wanted the release of a practice and a community so I went to a class. But I kid you not the teacher said 'feel the burn, it's goooood' and 'yoga bliss' and I wanted, a little bit, to sit bolt upright and stare at her in outrage. I quietly left. I wept in the bathroom. It was an ugly, heaving, snotty cry. Etheric music and wispy incense drifted around my head but I cried and I cried.
In the early stages of my practice, the first few years, it was all about that burning. It felt, good. I practiced, obsessively. Every single day there was some new thing learned. Every time I practiced was a revelation. It was like learning a new language, an immersion. I immersed. The words of this language were freedom, liberation, an end to suffering. It rang bells inside me. It lit fires. It seemed true.
It isn't like that these days. The world has shifted. Those very words - freedom, liberation, an end to suffering - ring discordant.
There are times this feels like the yoga isn't working any longer, or maybe it was always a hoax. The very definition of spiritual by-pass and self-indulgence, delusion, empty promises. I've heard a lot of people say very similar things: It spoke to me, but then in the light of things, what it said wasn't true.
Another teacher of mine says: these practices have never been more important. People need a yoga practice now, more than ever.
As a teacher, I've been banging drums for years. Look at the world. Look at the world. Look. But recently I've been torn. Part of me needs to emphasize yoga as social justice. Another realizes my teaching needs to sooth. It is my job to provide the necessary intervention of care. This latter feels more urgent: come here, rest. Pause. Re-source. We need to take care of ourselves, each other, our loved ones and our students.
And, we need to change the the world. Children are watching. People are dying. The maple tree rattles in the early morning dark.
Yoga isn't enough. It isn't an answer to atrocity any more than prayer is. Neither are an appropriate response. Prayer is not an answer to a broken democracy cracking in racial violence and underlying fear. Prayer is not an appropriate response to flood, storm, thousands of displaced and hungry and needing help lives. Prayer is not an appropriate response to domestic terrorism. And releasing our own tension, feeling our feelings, gleaning insight is not enough. Children are watching. People are dying. Do I repeat myself? Or am I making my point?
This isn't anywhere near, over. More people are going to die. Because hospitals don't have power and there isn't food or clean water. Because police brutality and gun violence. Because we haven't really answered the questions of race and sex and gender or democracy, of civil rights, of justice.
Which is not the same as saying either yoga or prayer - or whatever mental health and spiritual tools you've got - is irrelevant. They are, relevant. They are relevant as tools. They are tools for our own sanity. They help us quell anxiety, reactivity, splitting away from our body and our feelings. They resource our autonomy, our responsibility, our inborn capacity to choose and a renewed determination to choose well. These practices light fire, tend fire, inspire hope. These practices empower the self, little as she is in the great scheme of things.
Little as she is in the great scheme of things, her empowerment is vital.
I swear, the maple this time of year seems less a tree and more a poem. I can feel the red drawing up, in my arms.
This is where paradox, the nature of two things being true at one and the same time, comes to a head: I know of nothing, other than my prayerful practice of yoga, that both empowers the pray-er and acknowledges the reality of suffering.
I call this, hope. It isn't what we'd expected and it is not, most definitely not, the way we want it to be. Hope is surrender, and commitment. Not one or the other: both.
In the beginning, yoga was all about me. It had to be.
It isn't about me anymore. It can't be.
My students have asked, in the last year, over and over and over again: what, now? How do we not burn out? How can we possibly keep feeling into pain, and suffering, and injustice, when it just keeps coming? The question is on point. How do we find the energy to take up a problem that is bigger than us? How do we not lose heart in the face of such toxic realities, the unanswered questions, the big things like racism and immigration and climate change?
I've said: I have to remember these things are bigger than I am. If I can believe that history will judge these moments, then it doesn't matter so much that I am tired. If I realize that future generations might take up these very issues with more grace and possibility than we do, that my frailty is irrelevant. That these questions are old, they are ancient, they are chronic like pain, simply doesn't matter if I realize there is some small thing I can do. It doesn't solve the world's pain. But I sleep better. I recover, sanity. If I believe in beauty, and justice, and the preciousness of children, than my fear isn't terribly important.
Sometimes, I have to step back and let others bang the drums. Sometimes, I listen for my teacher's voice, even when it isn't there. Sometimes, I speak and realize I sound like him; this gives me goosebumps. Sometimes you are crabby tired and overwrought but then a child asks for a snack; of course you make it. Sometimes, you'll hate yoga but then some one asks for help; you'll say yes. No one of these things is the answer, and no one of these things is not part of the answer.
It's okay to be angry, to grieve, to burn out if you realize it isn't about you and you're not alone. The relative smallness of actions becomes tolerable.
Pray as hard as you can, as often as you need, with whatever tools you've got.
Pray, so that you can get back to work. The news is relentless, and that's okay; that means it isn't over. Yoga is social justice. Come, and rest. It does something like red does to maple trees. But it happens inside your own chest.
Driving home yesterday, I was passed on the highway by an enormous white pickup truck. It was raining. The sky was mottled: now fuzzy, now slick. Hitched to the truck's tail were both an American and a Confederate flag. The truck was covered in Trump propaganda: 'the silent majority has spoken', 'God Bless Trump', and 'Trump 2020'. He splattered my small car in a wash of kicked up rain. I felt my whole body recoil. This was Sunday morning. On Friday night, a Neo-Nazi rally had gathered in Charlottesville Virginia. With three dead and torches burning around a black church, it spilled over into Saturday. By Sunday, the president of the United States had finally been pressed for a statement. He prevaricated. Far from Charlottesville and alone in the rain, I wondered when this guy had gotten his truck done up. Was it post election? Was it more recent than that? Was he out joyriding and fear mongering precisely because of the events in Virginia? Where was he going?
And where had he come from?
This is part of the fear, isn't it? The knowing there is danger in our midst? We've known racism is endemic and systemic (different things, synergistic to each other); but for it to be so bold as to gather in public and shout Nazi slogans, for it to be endorsed by the silence of the White House, is terrible. It's terrifying. As in: terrorism. And yet, the seconds keep ticking by, unaffected and unnoticed as drops of rain. Days, pass.
As soon as the protest or rally or whatever the hell it was was deemed illegal in Charlottesville, it was effectively shut down. This took less than 20 minutes. However, I don't know that it was effectively 'shut down' so much as the Nazis disappeared. No one knows where they went. Through the veins of undercurrent, fringe internet chat rooms, and outlier fraternal gatherings, these people are organized.
Meanwhile they are neither so fringe nor outier as our sense of decency wants to believe. They are not quiet about their intentions. And however and whoever they are as 'organized' is perhaps less concerning - since they are really ego maniacal idiots who could be identified and held accountable - than are their counterparts outside and inside.
Outside: individuals who are alone are emboldened to act; the erroneous rhetoric of white supremacy and 'reverse racism' start to bleed all over the media, family gatherings, school playgrounds; events in Charlottesville are both horrifying as an incident and indicative of a swelling, global, atmospheric shift. The environment has changed. It tilted. Distortion seems to warp pubic spaces. It is toxic. It only takes one person, in a split second, to cause enormous and irreparable harm. We live in an environment in which guns, slurs, and violence are everyday threats. We are waiting for the unspeakable to happen. As has been pointed out elsewhere, the people at the rally are supported by the 52% of white women who voted for Trump seven months ago, anyone who is swayed by the rhetoric of 'shaking things up', everyone who is willing to tolerate sexual assault, bullyism, and vitrolic rascism in exchange for a mythic 'great America'.
And above: the people who act on these dangerous premises are backed by the executive branch of government. Yes, by Donald Trump. He's the front man. He's provocative. But the ideology and power for this state of affairs lies in the hands, the heads and the history of the people behind him. To say that white supremacy and violence are not endorsed by the president of the United States is to deny that office's entire platform. This is exactly what Trump asked for - and promised - throughout his campaign. This is explicitly the polemics espoused by Steve Bannon before, during, and after the election. Social recusal of the White House comes both from the blurring of reality that is the linchpin of totalitaritanism and abusive relating - we're dealing with the absurd here- and an earnesty of heart that does not want to believe racism could exist in such a sacred space, in the heart of government, where it matters most. Not at this point in history.
History is suddenly so present.
The white pickup was not the only one I saw in my forty five minute drive down the interstate. There were three others. None so provocative as the first, but all of them disturbing. When the first passed me, I felt rage. I wanted to scream. I wanted to deface that truck. I wanted a baseball bat and a can of spray paint. I visualized getting close enough to spit, or at least flip the guy my middle finger. But I realized: I could, maybe, possibly, get away with that ( being a middle aged white woman. And the fair enough assumption that the driver is more swagger than action), but I might be hurt if I tried. It is my privilege - and a personal dose of fuck you bawdiness - that would allow me to even dare.
After the fourth truck I pulled off the freeway. The rain alternately stopped and began again. It began so subtly you wouldn't notice. It was not raining and then you'd realize it was, and had been. The long low sloping hills and fields and lakes were heavy with a green spiderweb of mist. I was lulled by the somnulant metronome of windsheild wipers.
But it kept going, this confusing ride home. All over the place, out in the countryside, people had decided to put out American flags. I would just start to daydream and think of other things when I'd come around a bend and there would be another flag, rising up out a barrel of geraniums or lilting over a mailbox.
I realized I had no idea what the flags meant.
The symbol has been used and misused and bandied about so egregiously that you can't know what people mean by them. Were these flags a stand in for a swastika? Or were they an image of resistance? It's terrifying to realize they mean both. The Johnson's are proclaiming one thing while their neighbors the Swanson's are endorsing the other. The empty mailboxes and soggy fields in between become just as mysterious.
Symbols are important. They are the definition of human meaning. By symbolism, fabric and metal and geometric shapes become more than they are in themselves. They are dense and alive, laden, portent with history. Symbols evoke god, justice, and identity. They refer to blood. Both the most senseless of pastimes - like sports or commercial branding - and the most bitter aspects of history can be tripped by a symbol, instantaneously. The response is visceral, organic. It's stronger than words and faster than logic. Start fucking around with symbolism and you're messing with the sacred and the profane. Use an image, and you touch people's hearts. I mean people's souls. This is precisely why oppression works: burn an effigy and you threaten millions of lives. You can make a joke or excuse a thing as colloquialism, but you directly invoke slavery, condone rape, whisper that you and a whole culture behind you would be okay with your death, deportation, or lynching.
Language is nothing but symbolism.
So long as a certain language is established, the vast majority of the population doesn't even have to participate: their silence is enough.
So long as we have a president who deals in silence and false equivalencies, using language intelligently is a profoundly political act.
Like so: Neo-Nazis are responsible for events in Charlottesville, including both terrorism and murder. The president of the United States is on their side. See? This is both true, and it is treason.
I stopped to visit my mother and father. I told them about the flags. My father shook his head. He said he wished there could be a reclamation of the flag. A movement to take up the ideals it once stood for. A strong and colorful affirmation of it's meaning for the future.
Reclamation and revision are part of symbology. There is a long, long history of reclaiming the curves of the body, and hair, and sex, The righteousness of anger and the food on our tables has had to be recovered. The voice has to be reclaimed. Social justice, by definition, reclaims space. Reclamation is a vital thread to feminism, black pride, and indigenous rights. Interestingly, revision often cuts past the objective to the vulnerable underside of the symbol: justice goes under the abstraction of geometry or slur directly to the flesh, to buried bones and politicized wombs. This is why it matters, why it hurts: symbols mark identity. This, again, is exactly why oppression is possible - by a magical process of abstraction, bodies are made invisible, history and civil liberties are denied, threats to children and communities are made clear. To un-abstract them is revolutionary. Social justice movements reclaim symbols precisely because symbols reveal the body's primacy. I mean the desperate urgency of one's right to exist.
I burned a flag at the tender age of thirteen or fourteen. I don't remember exactly when, other than junior high. I do recall that we had to first buy a flag, my buddy and I, at the local hardware store. Made of synthetics, it burned poorly. It melted and dripped, burning my hand. We did the thing covertly, with hot whispers and a sense of adolescent blasphemous thrill.
You might ask what the hell I was doing. I don't, and didn't, know. I am not, in telling the story, saying I did right or saying it was okay. I was hitting puberty. When I say that I mean more than hormonal fury and testing of boundaries; I was coming to realize that my body was female, and by it's female nature it was as much an object and a target as it ever was subjective. This wasn't hypothetical. Even if it were, it would have been harmful. I was also reading Howard Zinn for the first time. I was in love with both Walt Whitman and J.D. Salinger. I read something called American Holocaust, the cover of which I remember vividly though I couldn't tell you today who the author was. In that book, I learned the forests and lakes I loved were haunted and stolen. And I was hanging out with a kid named Matthew Brown, who was Indian, and this somehow made me realize that history wasn't ghosted so much as it was denied. Indians didn't disappear any more than I did.
The original act of resistance is knowing: reality is not the same as the dominant narrative; the dominant narrative itself is woven of lies.
I never burned another flag, but my resistance was early born and for decades turned in on itself. It was much later that I crawled out of the ugly roiling mess of self-hatred, self-effacement, complacency and alcoholism. It took me a very long time to say things like 'my body' without simpering. My body. Mine.
A few weeks ago I saw an Audre Lorde quote pop up on my social media feed. It's a popular one; a recurring meme in a world endlessly trying to find authenticity (sic). The quote reads: "Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare." As I say, the quote is popular; but the final phrase is usually hacked off. It's rote to speak of self care only as self preservation. This is comforting, enough. And it's benal. That is, we bandy about this idea of self-care or equally ubiquitous ideals of love trumping hate, all being one, yadda yadda. But we are rarely brave enough to follow these things to their logical end. We so often espouse ideals without being able to embody them. Ultimate, absolute truths displace relative truth, current truth, this moment in time truth. It's one thing to say all are created equal; but walking down a street as a black person is not the same as walking the same street as a white male. Even if people do know who Audre Lorde is, they couldn't recite her. They couldn't say for sure whether she is alive or dead. I'm not suggesting we all need to bulk up on our poetry; I'm suggesting our understanding of ideals and philosophies and history, the greatest and most beautiful things, is too often superficial. I don't think we're doing it on purpose. After all, understanding takes work. As I say: honesty is threatening.
But what of this: "caring for myself is an act of political warfare"?
Being objectified is painful. I do mean physically, but I really mean psychologically. Being made into an object is a violation of one's innermost reality and the superficial and forceful imposition of some other 'reality'. Healing from such a deep psychological wound has to involve a realization, somewhere along the line, that the 'ism' and the pain were not personal, even though they took place on your body. You realize your problems are not yours - in cause or in consequence. They are a part and function of a social wrong. Therefore: to affirm yourself is political. To speak the truth is political.
In the wide narrative of racism in America and the narrower one of events in Charlottesville, this shows up: white people believe that calling things by their name is somehow a personal threat. Trump pretty much said so in his first- belated and reluctant- public statement: by blaming 'all sides' he simultaneously portrayed the resistance as threatening, and dismissed the legitimacy of resistance. To say nothing of excusing the racism. You hear the undercurrent, the shadow, in the wider dialogue of white supremacy: renouncing privilege feels like losing something. The removal of confederate memorials is 'erasing history'. Any conversation about race or gender is harking on old resentments. The left and the media are lying. Success is getting what you want, generally out of somebody else's pocket. This is the natural order of things. Strength is force. The mythos of white supremacy depends on a false narrative in which 'white male' is or at some time was a majority, and greatness is an outcome of dominance.
But America is and has always been indigenous, black, female. Brute strength has never been our greatness, but our shame.
Calls for letting symbols stand and moving on, or that we 'remember, never forget', are distortions of history rather than commemoration of it: 'moving on' suggests that white supremacy is a thing of the past; 'remembrance' is a distortion of when and why Confederate memorials were erected in the first place. Confederate memorials are the works of Jim Crow America, not honor of the dead. This is not 'like' historic preservation of Auschwitz. The intent of maintaining Auschwitz is to honor and revisit tremendous grief; to keep woke to the danger of acquiescence and silence; to elicit not pride but mourning. The intent of confederate memorials is not mourning, but pride. Threatening, inciting, pride.
Later that evening, my husband and I went to a candlelight vigil at Bde Maka Ska lake. Most people around here call it Lake Calhoun. The place was purposely chosen as a local example of placemaking, unmasking the inherent racism of our landmarks and civic structures. Before it was Lake Calhoun, it was Bde Maka Ska. Bde Maka Ska is Dakota for White Earth Lake. In 1817, the United States Secretary of War John C. Calhoun sent the army to survey the area. He'd previously authorized the construction of Fort Snelling. The lake has gone by the name of Calhoun ever since. Reactions to calling the lake by it's name, per the local paper: this is pointless; it will always be Calhoun to me; so tired of this PC bullshit, where does it end; Minnesota is the land of common sense, if Lake Calhoun offends you, leave. No one will miss you; so very, very tired of the PC police and endless looking for things that might offend them or melt their snowflake; everyone will still call it Calhoun so cute but no cigar.
See: every single one of the comments feels burdened or imposed upon, threatened. Change is dismissed as nonsense, childishness. The problem with these reactions is not their ignorance of history, but their denial of the present. The White Earth Tribe still exists. The Dakota still exist. We are not talking about relics and archaeology; we are talking about children. The great failure of the American Dream is believing that history is over. The civil rights era ended.
It was still raining. People gathered under a mass of umbrellas. One woman carried an American flag. I was touched. It took a long time, and much work, but I have come to be deeply proud of being an American. I love the magnanimity and the hope of it's oldest ideals. I love the noisy, dynamic, vibrant reality of who and what the United States of America actually is. The flag hung limp in the rain. Two women next to us whispered the same questions I'd had earlier; why is it the sight of the flag is riddled with complicated emotional and physical reactions? What does the American flag, mean?
It seems to me this confusion is related to another: how do we engage with a problem that seems so intractable? How do we make sense in a world that seems so depressing?
There was a moment when sudden noise - loud noise, sudden - caused the speaker on the podium to stop and the whole of the crowd to turn. It was a moment of fear. There had been talk; white pickup trucks might show up. In that moment I thought: the violence isn't done, yet. I thought: this isn't over. But the noise was only a party bus, circling the lake. The speaker on the podium half grinned, and then he continued.
This isn't, over.
It may be- and this might be treason again, but I'm over that - that we need a new flag. Something that references not only colonies and states, but the Mexican and the Indigenous. We need something that acknowledges both slavery and Jim Crow. Something that celebrates immigrants. This rag would have traces of blood in it and threads of deep song. I think it would be woven of hair. This flag would ripple like a dancing body and it would sing in the wind. It would sing. It would sing not because the race issue went away but because the race issue endured. It will dance not because the civil rights era failed, or reconstruction did, or the ideals of America are and have always been hypocritical; this flag will fly because the ideals of America still have a chance of coming to life.
If the America of the future is not black, not native, not hijab wearing and spanish speaking, not female, than there is no hope. America will kill itself. We are lost. Humanity is lost.
At the vigil, we sang. People lit candles in the rain. Others carried LED lanterns. A tall, white man standing in front of me wept. I wept. The woman with the flag switched her grip. The flag leaned left, then right. I kept looking at her out of the corner of my eye. Lots of people talked to her. I took comfort in this. I thought of that stance, holding something aloft in the rain. I though of beacons, and beckoning. I thought of the Statue of Liberty and her relationship to abolition; she wears broken shackles. It seems that the great, the terrible sadness of this moment is not just sadness, it's also the only hope we've got. It's an indication that we care. Care, as Audre Lorde taught me, is not merely preservation.
We can only make sense of this sad and ugly world by understanding and believing that the race issue endures, and that is it's greatest and only hope. It is black communities that will bring us out of moral turpitude; it is Somali women and indigenous women who will ignite our government; it is children who will judge what we do as history.
Michael Stone died yesterday. He was one of my most important teachers. He was my friend. Death is so incomprehensible. It's unfathomable, and at the same time everything goes on like before. When someone we care for dies, our lives are broken and will never quite be the same. And, people are dying all the time.
I don't know anyone other than Michael who could make these things feel true and beautiful at one and the same time. He himself was so beautiful. As I numbed myself with internet feel-goods in the last few days I came across a documentary of a Syrian ballet dancer. When the war came, he said, we all lost someone. The terror went into our hearts. I thought of Michael. He talked of our crooked world as important, and as personal. He never lost the deep suffering of the world to the merely political, economic, or historical. They remained - or became - human. And we were rendered more humane. Michael insisted we believe in ourselves.
A friend sent me condolences on social media: "I'm sorry you lost a believed teacher", she said. Auto-correct is so Fruedian. I knew she meant beloved, but I liked the mistake. I believed Michael. I suppose that's what makes a teacher great. They don't trade in bullshit. They speak to those parts of ourselves that need to believe, that ache for it.
This morning's class was lovely, heartful. My voice cracked at the ending chant; others took up the chant for me. I thought: well, isn't that just the point. But it wasn't thought, it was felt, it was grateful and besmitten and so tired. I came home, slept, woke and couldn't do anything but steady, constant, pointless things. It was like cleaning but wasn't. It was like unearthing closets but was more a dishevelment of them. It was sort of like gardening, for a few hours, except I'm not a gardener and it was just an attack on weeds and vines and creeping into the yard trees. I stood up with dirt up to my elbows and sweat down my spine. It was baking, sweeping, dog bathing frenzy. It was in and out of the writing. It was like reading twelve books at once, a sentence from this, a phrase from that. I dug out old journals from retreats and trainings with Michael. I read through my own years. I dug though the texts he's guided me through, others he pointed me toward, the mass of sutra and Sanskrit that became my own work, largely because he encouraged it. I reframed, tore out, rephrased. I scattered them, threw them away, brushed off a few scant pieces that roughly hold together. I put them on the wall. Just now, I cried for the first time. It was short. It was rubbed away quick. And then I came back up here to this pacing. As my teacher leaves the world, I am mad with a need to write. Poems, psalms, explanations, apologies. Questions. Emotions. Salt and adrenaline. There is urgency.
A post shared by Karin L Carlson (@coalfury) on Jul 16, 2017 at 7:03pm PDT
I call him 'my teacher', but he wasn't mine. His family has a wholly different claim to his last hours and his body than I do. That privacy is sacred. I cannot imagine the pain and tenderness they feel. I can't do anything but offer them my love. Thousands of people across the world are gathering this evening. I am awed: one life can do so much. And I am sad: now that he is gone, there is so much that won't be done. So much needs to be done.
I haven't seen Michael in over a year. There were times he was teaching nearby but I always had other commitments. He does an annual retreat to France: I'd always wanted to go. But I put it off. I assumed I'd go some other time.
Last week in the techniques session I mentioned time as one of the four parts of learning. We're quite neurotic about it. We don't take time to say I love you. Or, we say it but don't feel what it is we're saying. We act as though there will be a better time to meet our neighbors or try in some way to make a difference in our community. We put off the important and beautiful things while our lives are mostly routine and spent in the earning of a living. We're busy. We're so tired. We whine about not having time but we don't take the time we have. People often ask me, as a teacher, how to find the courage and the energy to take on the really big problems. Why is it we know what it is we need, but can't do it? How do we possibly take on the problems of race, violence, and fanaticism without losing heart? How do we finally find the courage to do the great and beautiful things we really want to do?
I think we need to do more great and beautiful things. Life is so hard. It needs great beauty.
I think the only answer is the jnana or wisdom of time. When we really feel the passing nature of things and the uniqueness of people, we're moved. I don't mean intellectually; it isn't an idea. And I don't mean mere sentimentality, either. I mean we're rocked to our soul. An urgency is born. Clarity and courage come that we didn't know and couldn't have known otherwise. We don't have to be good enough or ready enough or prepared. We don't need answers. We realize there are many answers, and no one answer is perfect. We don't have to be anything at all because the urgency itself carries us and we are left changed. I think we misunderstand the nature of change. We spend so much time thinking we have to orchestrate it or fearing the pain of it, disbelieving it's actually possible. But it isn't something we do. Change is something we allow to happen to us, something we finally allow in. This isn't easy.
When I heard Michael was dying, I understood something for the first time. I've known dozens of very good teachers. Some opened doors for me along the way. Others helped me understand an aspect of teaching or the dynamics of backbends. But none became so intimately woven into my way of thinking and feeling that my life itself was changed. Michael had, and hearing that he was gone I knew my life would never be the same. I understood: some teachers speak to your heart. No other teachings last.
I met Dharma Mittra once. When I asked him about teaching, he said teach spirit. If you teach spirituality, people will come back. Even if you never see them again, they will come back.
But the holiest things are unspeakable. Michael taught me that.
I had a whole plan for this week's session, a meditation involving birds. But I think it's more important to be with this.
I haven't written here for months. I have an excuse: I didn't write because I didn't know what to say. The studio closed. I moved to Minneapolis. I got married. The world, the social and political world in which we move, has taken quite a few upending turns. I haven't had words to address any of this. People ask questions: where can I practice without the studio? What will Return Yoga look like, now? Where will you teach? Will you teach? These are all reasonable questions. But I've deflected them, or answered with dumb silence. I haven't had an answer. I simply didn't know.
I still don't. I was married and am calling myself Mrs. Carlson these days, but I'm carrying a driver's license that says otherwise. My signature has become an exercise in attention and confusion, an ostensible proof of the whole neural-patterning thing. You wouldn't believe how many times a day one has to sign a thing, or introduce oneself, or log into a bank account.
I spoke to one studio about teaching. I was interviewed (interviewed? Is that the word?) by a woman who had her two hundred hour certificate from Core Power and no idea what I was talking about with all my anatomy is psychology, movement is a question, talk. She didn't recognize my teacher's names, though they are big names in yoga studies. She didn't know my name, or Return Yoga, though I'd like to believe these things carry some weight. So I stopped talking. I just shut up. Though I'd brought them with me, I put aside all of the curricula I've written and courses I've taught, the interviews I've done and the publications of my work. I pushed them under my chair with my foot.
What this woman wanted was a group exercise instructor, someone to guide a work out two or three times a week. I can do that. I can push vinyasa flow til you tremble just like hundreds of other yoga teachers in the metropolitan region. Maybe (probably, one would hope after all this time) I can do it better than the most of those teachers.
But I don't know that I want to.
I came home and told my husband - who wasn't my husband yet - that it feels a tremendous step backward. I don't know how to make the transition from running a community studio (let alone the teacher training, the outreach, the sum cumulative body of work that is what I've learned), to being just one amidst hundreds of 'yoga teachers'. Not to cast aspersion on any one of their individual skills, but they are a dime-a-dozen.
Meanwhile I was asked, now that I'm not running a studio seven days a week, to work with the recovery community. Strictly therapeutic work.
One of these gigs is an addictions treatment center specifically for the queer community. There is always glitter on my mat. This pleases me. There's something redemptive in being fabulous at the darkest moments of your life. The last time I was there, the glitter moved from my palm to the air, and then to a woman's cheekbone. I noticed it like a drift of thought as I spoke and bodies breathed. After class, we had the most profound conversation about savasana I've ever had: there was a genuine inquiry, a pale open honesty, to the conversation; a straight look into how we're living and how we'll die. Because these folks don't have any preconceptions or ego investment in things like headstand, it's all inquiry. The questions, the fear, the novelty and exploration of experience is front and center. I can have them wiggle toes and roll around on the floor the entire time and call it 'yoga'. No one would challenge me. This is a blessed relief after trying to teach drop in classes seven days a week for years on end.
Yoga therapy is a contested topic: Do we mean physical therapy or is this some kind of mental health practice? Do we teach a different 'style' of yoga if trauma is involved? To apply clinical language to the thing raises questions of validity and measurable outcomes; it leads directly to insurance and all the other problematic issues of the medical industry. Furthermore and in the first place, is any of this provable? As much as I balk at group exercise, I'm also uncomfortable with the concept of yoga therapy. It has a weird, greasy smell to it. It has a vaguely fraudulent texture. Alternative is not a good word, when it comes to health. Just as alternative facts are lousy politics.
I tend to think 'yoga therapy' is a redundant phrase. More: the word 'yoga' and the word 'therapy' cancel each other out, making it a downright illogical phrase. It's a phrase hinting at cognitive misfire. To call anything yoga therapy is like saying 'medicine-pills', 'apple-fruit', or 'car-automobile'. It's not that these phrases are false; it's the troubling way they belie any context. Given context, reasonable people don't speak this way.
All this begs questions rather than answers them. So I contest and subvert and am never teaching what people expect. Teacher training isn't what people thought, but a startling exploration of one's place in the world and relationships. Inversion workshops end up being a lot of laying on the floor. Emotional health classes spend the whole time exploring the hip socket or the way the knee glides. It isn't that I object to yoga therapy so much as I am trying to do it: we all have physical issues and a broadband of mental health. You can't have sensation without emotion. Mental health, belief, and experience are physiological realities. Go ahead and try to parse the body from the mind. Mostly, I'm trying to discern and help us get a greater feeling for the context in which we're living and the choices we have.
But here I am teaching yoga -therapeutically- in clinical scenarios. Most of these folks have never done yoga before; they are not good at self care; their lives are troubled.
I'm loving it.
I love it except for the fact that it is a closed opportunity. It's an inherently limited experience: sooner or later it will end and it doesn't lead to anything. People can't just walk in to these classes, though I know a lot of people in the world who crave this kind of intimate practice. I came home and told my husband - who again wasn't yet my actual husband - that I love the work, the people, the feel; but I can't imagine staying in such a small space. I said this while studying a fleck of glitter on my forearm. Rubbing didn't dislodge it. I blew on it like dandelion fluff. It lifted and disappeared into the air.
What I'm personally trying to suss out as a yoga teacher is only a small - albeit privately urgent - version of what is happening on a broader scale. Small independent studios are closing. Seasoned teachers tend to start to teach things that don't 'look' like yoga. They weary of the workout and the stretching. Difficult questions inevitably come up, often in the form of their own bodies or the bodies they work with. I've watched a handful of teachers in the last year quit teaching because their own chronic health issues don't allow them to teach 'yoga' any more. Others simply can't stand the one-size-fits all, get-as-many-bodies- in- the- room- as- you- can approach. The festival and advertised aspects of yoga aren't as appealing as they looked from the outside. The Yoga Journal conference is cancelled until they decide what 'direction' they are taking. Online subscriptions are selling more than in-studio classes, although to look at Meghan Currie and Dylan Werner I'm not sure what it is we're practicing. The Observer notes that for every yoga teacher there are two in training. But a rumor reached me that Core Power - whose whole model is teacher training programs made to the order of puppy mills - is verging on bankruptcy.
This mass identity crisis isn't all bad. At some point we have to let go of childish illusions. Yoga is no different. Some yoga teachers become psychiatrists and social workers, others take up other systems of body work or cross disciplinary lines. I know one former yoga teacher who is calling herself a death duala these days. I know someone who dropped teaching to go into seminary. Others leave teaching in order to reclaim their own 'practice' and go on with their lives. There is so much more than yoga practice and teaching. There are relationships. Study. Work. Far from being a failure, I see this as proof: unless yoga resolves to a changed life, somehow informs our most intimate choices and important questions, it doesn't mean anything at all. It's just a hobby.
I watch this happening, over and over again: generally yoga is a phase and is dropped the moment shit gets real or a new shiny object comes into view; but occasionally, yoga seems to be the common but largely silent thread behind beautiful expressions of the human heart. Often this is exactly what happens when people stop coming to yoga after a year or three: they've changed, for the good, and the yoga served it's purpose. You see a glint of it, behind the story. But the story isn't yoga: it's about cancer or dancing or school children or oceans. It involves justice, and the meaning of a human life, singly and by the millions. It's the detritus of history, really, and the vague outlines of hope. The best stories are about death, or love. They are prayer songs or glittering star poems in the hot night, plain speak about the terrible difficulty of the beautiful world.
None of this answers the question of what do I, do. Not directly.
Someone said, a few months ago, that this is a transition and she's okay waiting until I get new gigs set up. No matter what, I'll be teaching yoga, she said. She said this with her face cast down but her eyes looking up at me from under her hair. I didn't answer as quickly as she might have wanted. I spent months not writing precisely because I didn't know, I wasn't sure: will I be teaching? I didn't even know that I wanted to, let alone 'should'.
Of course my students have a hard time parsing 'yoga' from my identity - they've only ever seen me in the context of teaching. Occasionally they run into me in grocery stores and don't recognize me in my street clothes. But I wasn't born to be a yoga teacher. This is is not the fulfillment of a life long dream. I've spent the last decade of my life objecting to the yoga industry, not aspiring to it. When people come to me for yoga therapy I send them forthwith and with alacrity to a mental health professional or medical intervention. This isn't a personal dream job.
It does happen to be the best thing I've ever done.
That isn't saying much: my life prior to yoga was a long eulogy, a kind of fantastic record of causing harm. My teaching career is proof that I can do better: I can be responsible, authentic, make a difference. Behind that, prior to that: I can be healthy and happy, I can be intimate and embody my own days, all the things necessary to entering a more meaningful life. But my identity is no more tied to teaching than it is to the surname I've just dropped.
I admit this is confusing. Reference the above difficulty in going through the day.
Everything happened so fast and simultaneously. It all happened at once: My high school sweetheart asked me to marry him and I closed the studio. These were different and independent things - correlation is not causation and all of that - but they happened at the same time. So I celebrated and I grieved, the one within moments of the other and often with snotty, blind and inchoate crying jags. Trump was elected. I bought a gown and began to think in terms of flowers. The government splintered between yes-men and rogue dissenters. The country splintered between swaggering bullies and the offended, the outraged, the in the end overwhelmed. The fourth estate came under fire. The judiciary came under fire. Old fires we thought dead roared into open spaces, licked into private ones. Civic and humane gains that took generations to make law have been attacked, undermined, and retracted. Formerly taboo racism came into the streets. Schools were plastered with racist epithets. Dreamers were deported and doctors, scientists, teachers were detained. Queer folk were targeted. Black people expressed mortal fear. White liberals were devastated with the revelation of their privilege. The Klan gathered in public spaces. My heart broke. Women marched, radiant with love and dissent. Scientists marched. Social workers, poets, and nurses marched. My heart swelled.
I stepped away from teaching just as people most needed community and a modicum of stress management. I hit the end of my own endurance just as the shit hit the fan. While things fell apart, my not-yet-husband and I adopted a puppy, bought a house, got a license to wed. My heart sang, and it busted.
A week before the wedding, I was at the florist. Surrounded by the dank breath of flowers, carrying an assortment of nominally crucial but mysterious to me wedding things, my cellphone rang and I learned someone had died. I was talking of bridal bouquets, but noticed the funeral arrangements. This was poignant enough to make me snort. The man was family, if we can call the divorced years of our lives still meaningful; he was my first husband's father. He was a man I used to dance with at Christmastime, drink coffee with on ordinary mornings. I remembered, in particular, a long drive in an old pickup truck across Wisconsin, toward Chicago. He smoked perpetual cigarettes. At that point, so did I. I imagined trails of tobacco breath and wisps of folk music, drifting across the long green hills and miles deep distance all these years later. I could smell his kitchen and taste Irish whiskey in my dry mouth.
More importantly - since death as far as the dead are concerned never worries me too much - I loved his son. I love him still, if love is a thing you can do years after parting. I wanted suddenly to catch him, my ex husband. I wanted to wrap my arms around him and lay my chin on his head. I could suddenly, presently, stronger than musk of roses, smell his hair. I know his skin. I didn't want him to hurt and knew he did hurt. Something private and tender in me burned. I thought: We walk around empty handed. Or with nominally crucial but mysterious things. Death shouldn't be a surprise, yet is always is. I don't have words, he was saying, for how bad this hurts. Standing like a bird bath in the flowers, I flushed with the phone to my ear, my knees wavered. I didn't want to hold him, I didn't want to protect him; I wanted to shelter his grief. It's so wild, grief is. And it is so vulnerable. Grief can be dangerous.
I was thick with an urgent love and a need to promise, something, to the man who was not yet my husband; and frail with sympathy for the one who used to be. Here are roses for the hot blood of vowing; lilies pale like the innocence returned by death. All of this was green. It's all fleshy. I found myself touching every nearby bloom, covertly tracing stem and fingering soil. I wanted to stick my face in flowers, ear deep, to weep and breathe green gratitude, white happiness, plain sympathy.
I came home and told the man I was about to marry that my ex-father-in-law had died, my ex-husband was grieving, and that I'd offered to bring food or comfort or just take him for a drive, help with the idiotic normalcy of funeral arrangements if he needed me to. I watched Gunnar's face as I said this, trying to decide if this was wrong, how to be delicate, if this was okay. I know the timing is ridiculous. Gunnar nodded, and I spent the evening with my ex. He collapsed, drunk into my arms, in the middle of the afternoon sidewalk.
Then I got married. My gown was encrusted with iridescent beads and structured like an architectural wonder. I called it my Empire State dress. It sang of monumental things and poured over me like throaty jazz. It glinted so that I myself shimmered: I bent and scattered the light of diamonds, walked and rivaled moon light on water. Glittering became a subjective experience, rather than an objective one. One piece of stray glitter is a surprise, out of context. To be glitter, glittering, itself, changes everything. I don't know when it was, exactly, if it was the signing of the paper or the kiss or the I do, but at some point that evening the man I love became my actual husband, and I became a wife.
But why, asked someone close to me, was I taking his name? Aren't I a feminist?
Yes. But my maiden name carries just as much patriarchy in it as a husband's name does. And then my husband is a feminist; in the months leading up to our marriage he repeatedly said he was willing to take my name. He further pointed out that his name isn't even his father's name, but his younger sister's father's name. Further still, as a rule, a black American surname goes back to a slave owner, at least the time of slavery, not familial identity.
These weren't my reasons, though. I took his name because I am willing to be changed by this relationship. And I am uninterested in going backward. Context - all of it - matters.
It means so much that I was nineteen years old. And, it means so much that I am not nineteen anymore. It's so important that I got sober, that Eddy didn't, that time has moved on, that Trump was elected, that people die, that we go on, that there is such suffering happening all the time, that the very planet is hurting and the ocean moans, the ice melts, the sky breaks. I have to believe these things mean something. And - more important - I have to believe that from all of this we can be deepened in our sympathy, have insights, become better lovers, discern the tools necessary to affect our own lives, touch gently the lives of others, change ourselves and our society in ways that, as of here and now, we can only imagine. I'm not talking about politics, or grief, or relationships and personal life. I'm talking about yoga. I'm insisting that contextually, they are exactly the same thing. You can't parse them. If you do, than yoga is nothing more than a hobby. If it's ever going to be anything other than a passing fad, it has to speak the language of our actual lives. When it does, lives change.
I still haven't answered the questions of what do I do, now.
I have to change my driver's licence, my bank account, my website. I had to order new business cards. I have to, in some way, decide and announce what it is I do.
I ended up with the words 'yoga therapy', in red text, across the bottom and under my name. I wondered at this, why I should choose something so provocative, what it means and if I'm not begging questions rather than answering them. But in the end I just went with it: I prefer to take up the questions and insist on context. This seems to be the best part of the process.
This morning I swept the floor. In the dusty browns and flecky dirt there was a rogue bit of glitter. I knelt and cocked my head at it, lifted it on my forefinger towards my face. I don't know if it came from teaching or from my wedding gown, or how it ended up in my dustpan. I realized, or was able to finally verbalize, a thing I've been trying to articulate for weeks: context is what makes yoga therapeutic. I can't teach pop culture yoga anymore; I think there's more to it than that. I think it's the glitter in the dust.
If there was ever a time when the deeper practices of the yoga tradition should be taught, it is now. I'm actually teaching more than I was in the studio, but quite differently. I'm working with people in a more intimate, on going way online; I go on mentoring other teachers, and can be found Thursdays at noon teaching at Tula Yoga in St. Paul.
There are moments when it all seems so easy. Things fall into place without effort. You seem to float. Only later, when it's not like that at all, do you start to wonder what it is you did to make it so easy. Where it is you lost track.
The answer is usually, nothing. You did nothing. It just happened.
The middle of winter, the turning of the year, the newness of the moon, social upheaval and exhaustion around us do not make for smooth sailing. I've always wondered at how - at why - the new year should be such a collective time of goal setting. Of longing to start over. Why we should collectively ask for resolve, just at this juncture.
I think it comes from being uncomfortable with where we are.
It's an uncanny transition. It's clearly time to let go and move on. But we don't know where we're headed. It's chaotically uncertain. When the festivities of the year past have ended, going back to work is unsavory. When New Year's is finally run in, there's a kind of discontent in having months of winter left to go. We're stretched thin between the physical and emotional strain of the past and scattering our selves all over the place moving forward.
We're flailing. Flailing - this determination to list things, change things, rearrange and grab or finally and emphatically renounce them - is a symptom of feeling lost and drowning. Flail is opposite of float.
This year suffered enormous losses and deep social strain. We're going through a collective grief. We're trying to say goodbye to the Obamas. We're trying to wrap our minds around a United States operating in ways the United States have never, ever behaved before. It's hard to wrap our minds around this.
After a moment - the ringing in of the new year, the flipping of a calendar, or the inauguration of a new president - we tend to lose the poignancy of reflection and slide into the mundane. I think it's important to realize that the clarity itself came from a deep dark place, rather than a fresh springtime one. We work with intention exactly when times are hardest. Intention only means anything if it works with our barriers. It's culling patience and skill in working with obstacles. It is a level, honest way to address things as they are. We have to direct ourselves exactly when we feel most lost, ground when we feel most vulnerable, and move when we most feel lethargic, uncomfortable, and unable.
Over and over again I'm hearing how deeply lost people feel. We have lost hope, lost direction, lost connection with where we were going or why. Relentless work or moving on or dealing with the next crisis and week are fair enough coping techniques. But they aren't effective healing.
In previous weeks I've been leading deeper practice through some work with intention. The tradition calls this Sankalpa, or intention that arises from the depths. Sankalpa is direction that arises from the unconscious, from the body itself, from experience and stillness. It is not about goal setting or ultimatums. This isn't productivity boost so much as it is a discernment process. With that discretion, force and impetus arises. An energy sourced from a deeper well. Sankalpa is direction that arises naturally from the heart of awareness.
The thing about resolutions - New Year's or any other kind - is that we tend to set the same ones year after year. We have the same problem areas, sticking points and bad habits circulating through our lives like an undertow. Over and over again we approach the same problems, have the same experiences, feel the same feelings. Cue cycles of shame and resentment.
What if we were to inquire into the deeper urge and get to know it, rather than endlessly - and meaninglessly - work for superficial change? When we do, we gain bright honest knowledge of the obstacles and ever greater skill in working with them.
I'm bringing us back to our intentions for the new year in this week's practice. To be effective we need to work with them consistently, more thoroughly, with a resolve. To re-ask a question from a different light illuminates the structures below. Clarifies the obstacles. Shows, with a steady and sane mind, that the obstacles are riddled with our own dysfunction. The obstacles resolve themselves to the underlying clarity, like a camera lens coming into focus.
Physically, many of our dysfunctions tend to be in the upper trunk. We experience chronic tension in shoulders, upper back, and neck and have a great deal of difficulty balancing strength with range of motion. From a subtle body perspective, intention and personal obstacles are also upper torso phenomena, a kind of miscommunication between our pumping vital capable body and our feeble flimsy neurotic mind. We end up trying to power our way through things or overthinking them, never able to smoothly sail betwixt the two in symphony.
People who have practiced with some consistency for a while tend to have more of a problem with this than neophytes. That is, while the neophyte tends to be completely disconnected and unaware of upper body, a yogi tends to have driven dysfunction deeper with the way he or she practices. As we start bearing weight on our shoulders, elbows, and wrists we develop tension areas we never had before while feeding a craving for more movement, more strength, more postures, and more sensational feats. We're feeding our craving/disgust cycles rather than quieting them. We get addicted to arm balances or have a very complicated and intervention-worthy relationship, with them. (Read, we might summarily dismiss them as ever being possible).
I've been working with upper body strength with some consistency for weeks: this time of year means compromised immunity, gunked lymph, hunched shoulders, raspy breath, and layers and layers of clothing against the elements. Upper body strength asks for a unique cardio-vascular and respiratory charge - a boon to midwinter - and is a reclamation of more natural and expansive ways of moving in our bodies. Psychologically, this tends to be more of a slap to awake than a stiff espresso.
Upper body strength is a kind of spooky, complex initiation. For many, it's simply not a thing we've ever felt. Strong. For those of us who have leaned on our strength our whole lives, it demands a subtlety and mastery, a kind of flexibility and refinement, more challenging than brute strength. And behind all this is a question: can we and should we be able to go upside down? I'm flirting with 'inversions' in these recent sequences: if you are a headstander or handstander feel free to take the whole of the pose. I'm cautious about teaching 'inversions' in an online format. You should learn to headstand with a teacher nearby. But the skill sets I'm teaching are the groundwork for the postures - they are the grammar out of which inversion language can sing and write poems. And they are the skill sets - the basic grammar - that most yogis brag with and bitch about without being able to really command.
This wheels back to a concept of float - of being able to suspend judgement, worry, obsession. To linger in potency, tap the root of deep urges and pulse. To feel for a moment that we aren't, actually, lost. We can let this weird space be transitory, rather than forcing a change.
A number of people have asked in the last few months about what the studio closing means. What it means for me, personally, and what it means for their own practice. One of the answers is the work online. This happened fairly organically. Providing asana teaching online has been something requested for years and years and I just never got around to it with the running of the studio. And I began to have more and more students, at a distance. Working with them became a question. I also began to have more and more questions, even in the studio, about how to learn chant, how to really begin a meditation practice rather than just intend to do it, how all these various concepts and experiences are supposed to tie together.
I'm trying to tie them together in the deeper practice subscription. I'm having so much fun with it. It feels progressive and organic, where drop in classes tended to feel very haphazard, something used for sporadic workouts or stress relief. When students want to start going deep, drop in classes aren't necessarily the best way to do that.
Anyway. I upload to the subscription site every Friday. Both a 90 minute sequence and a 30 minute guided sound/breath/somatic movement thing. I recorded them already for the week and have uploaded them - but won't move them to the subscription till Friday. So you can check them out for free until then.
Check them out.
I wasn't kidding when I said we should fully use our practice these days. Let it sooth you. Let it support you. Let it help. If you can get to a class, great.
But your practice doesn't depend on that. Your practice is a few minutes of shifted breath and attention, so that you can feel what it is like to be alive. In this moment, and the next.
This felt like an important point to make, so this morning I recorded a jeans on, no mat, no sitting down, no weight bearing on the arms thing. To get into breath. To move for ten minutes. So that you can sit, for ten minutes.