Love, Death, and Glitter

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.