Humanity

October 3, 2018 § 1 Comment

An email discussion with some friends yesterday proved unexpectedly triggering. I put the brakes on and withdrew from the discussion before articulating the how, what and why of my response. I realized that the intensity of the exchanges left me feeling overwhelmed and therefore unable to fully express the depths of what I felt. It’s times like these that I’m glad I haven’t shut down this blog. Yet.

At the heart of the email thread was Guy Donahaye’s latest post, in particular this paragraph where he succinctly sums up Sharath’s conundrum.

“He is thus in an impossible position: if he acknowledges abuse then he admits to dishonesty and manipulation of the ashtanga narrative for the purpose of consolidating power. If he says nothing or denies it he is equally seen as dishonest and responsible for causing more harm. He is damned either way. The first way will undermine his authority and power but save his humanity, the second way is to lose his soul and perpetuate a cult of deceit.”

I find it noteworthy that (a) a teacher with the depth of relationship to Pattabhi Jois that he has would step up and speak up about the sexual allegations against his teacher. As he notes in this latest post, very few have done so to date. And, (b) his recognition of the position that Sharath is in and the choices he is faced with. Indeed, there is no doubt that Sharath, as the lineage holder and boss of the institute named after his grandfather needs to make a statement about these allegations and acknowledge the pain that was caused. Acknowledgement of trauma is the first step towards real healing.

And yet. AND YET. There has been nothing but silence from Mysore on this. How can this be? Speaking up about the abuse is Patanjali’s way – there’s no doubt about it! What’s taking him so long? He needs to speak up already! Yesterday!

And this is what I’m triggered by: passing judgements about what someone should be doing without any regard for the humanity of the situation. The humanity in this case, is the recognition of the massive karmic lesson that he and the institute faces right now, upon which his current authority rests, and from which he (and all the teachers on the list) draws power. To step up and acknowledge that the forces that have shaped one’s life has a harmful shadow that is now being reckoned with and has the potential to threaten the very paradigm of your life as you know it, well, that is one helluva life lesson to work through. Difficult but necessary. Recognizing the scope of that difficulty is recognizing the humanity of the person who has to face it. That this person, beyond titles and power and wealth, is first and foremost, another human like the rest of us.

The inability to recognize the humanity in others – and therefore, to have empathy – runs the risk of turning the individual into a commodity, an object devoid of history. It turns relationships into transactions. Commodifying others breeds the “taker” mentality (on our part) and enables judgement-laden expectations of others’ behavior based on how “I” would do it if I were you.

Relevant example: the commodified teacher-student relationship, where teachers are there to ‘give’ you things like asanas. Attention. Certificates. Hugs. Advice. Platitudes. And where teachers serve as a canvas (object) on which we project our fantasies and expectations of behavior. Or, conversely, where students exist as a means of satisfying teachers’ egoic needs and power trips.

Once recognized, this pattern shows up everywhere. (Exacerbated, of course, by the good folks at Fakebook who are also laughing all the way to the bank. At our expense.)

I volunteer that this attitude is a capitalist hangover and it’s time to sober up. Isn’t that why we practice? To see more clearly how we are more similar than different. To learn how to relate more authentically, deeply and radically. To effect change by relating from a place of compassion instead of the transactional (harmful) paradigms that the world currently operates on.

A humanistic approach to relationship requires the ability to hold points of view that are, on the surface, contradictory. Yes, Sharath needs to make a statement supporting victims, but also yes, this is a really difficult thing for him to do. Because history. Because culture. Because shame. Because of a whole host of reasons that we will never know about, nor do we need to in order to recognize the humanity of the situation. Any one of us could be in the same situation, facing the same sort of impossible conundrum that threatens to dismantle our life as we know it. I’m not saying the silence is justified. I’m saying, the silence needs to end but how or when it does is not within our control and it’s none of our business to be demanding that it does.

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Values

January 31, 2018 § Leave a comment

Care. Humility. Integrity. Justice.

The secondary school I went to between the ages of 13 and 16 (a combination of Middle and Junior High here in the US) employed the school’s acronyms in a lesson on values and qualities that they wanted their students to embody. I thought it was a neat way to encapsulate ‘moral lessons’ for teenage girls though I did wonder for many years what “Integrity” meant. Life eventually showed me those lessons and now there’s no shortage of illustrations.

These words came up again this week as I’ve been watching and reflecting on the developments in our Ashtanga world over the past two months. How would these words apply to the current context? An attempt:

  • To Care for oneself, for others and for one’s environment, rooted in empathy and compassion. Mindfulness in one’s way of being. Taking care of things. Taking care not to act (or speak or write) in a way that causes unnecessary harm.
  • Humility in thoughts and actions, not only in the field of accomplishments but in relationships. Having humility above all in recognizing that you’re never going to know the full picture. You’ll never know what goes on in others’ minds, their intentions, their baggage and motivations. To have the humility to know that you don’t know and from there cultivate a receptivity that breeds compassion. Being able to see both (or many) sides.
  • Integrity of being. A sense of responsibility and moral courage. Of being able to do what is right in situations where it is tempting to kick the can of accountability down the road. Aligning actions with intentions, so that your words have weight and your actions have power.
  • Justice. Working for fairness, always, even within systems that are inherently unjust and exploitative and benefit off of it. To ensure that people are adequately rewarded for the effort expended in their work, their livelihoods.

In my immediate environment we’ve also had a major disruption in the form of a teacher leaving the Mysore program she built from the ground up. Her departure, for me, illuminates again two salient lessons: (1) how bloody hard it is to be a Mysore teacher of integrity, humility and dedication for your students and (2) how exploitative the studio business model is of yoga teachers and their labor.

What does it take to run a Mysore program? Sacrifice, a strong love for the practice and the method, stability of mind and heart to nurture students as you nurture and raise your own children. It is a vocation. It’s unglamorous work filled with the messiness of human relationships – projections, illusions, hopes and disappointment – and showing up daily despite all that. And imagine doing all of that while not being able to earn a living wage living in one of the most expensive regions on earth. A system predicated on grossly underpaid labor is bound to fail and this is one failure I am rejoicing in. Hopefully this is the start of something new, a new paradigm where students recognize their responsibility towards ensuring that the teachers who serve us need to be served and protected as well.

 

 

Truth

January 8, 2018 § Leave a comment

Whatever your opinions about Oprah and her work, you’ve got to admit that her speech at the 75th Golden Globes was a welcome balm for these times. Especially after reading about the impending displacement of 200,000 Salvadorans who’ve built their lives in this country for the past 17 years after escaping natural disasters back home. Heartfelt and heartlessness co-existing on a news feed. These are the times we live in.

It’s almost two months since I deactivated my Facebook account. Apart from enjoying a renewed mental spaciousness (and an increase in self-esteem), I’ve also been blissfully spared the firehose of umbrage and righteousness around Ashtanga’s MeToo moment. It is a collective purging and my heart is heavy with the weight of these stories. I stand with the women who’ve had to endure the indignity of inappropriate adjustments compounded by the disrespect of not being believed or heard. The silencing is how women internalize their powerlessness. This is also how we’re conditioned to gaslight ourselves and other women in the face of sexual assault. To preserve the status quo. The patriarchy. The guru’s impeccable legacy. The ultimate goal is to disconnect women from the truth of their experiences, and thereby disconnect them from the source of their own power, their agency. Well, I for one believe that this game’s over and that the unravelling has begun through the collective acknowledgement and healing of those among us who’ve been indelibly hurt. It’s time to speak our truth – find your voice and step up.

“What I do know for sure, is that speaking your truth is the most powerful gift we all have” ~ Oprah Winfrey.

Power

January 24, 2017 § 1 Comment

Gosh, it’s been a while since I last wrote here. There’s been a lot going on in my world and many things have unfolded, changed, erupted, vanished, shifted at such a fast pace that my writing has not kept up with the reflexivity in my head.

The trip to Mysore offered a lesson in many things, but the one I want to talk about is the lesson of empowerment. Given the current socio-political climate, notions of power, empowerment and disempowerment in all its varied forms have been on my mind recently, from the personal to the social.

Let’s start with the personal. I went to Mysore with a practice routine that was a twice-a-week occurrence on account of a cyst-laden wrist and the advice of a PT who believed that it’s better to do the full expression of the pain-causing activity less frequently than to do a modified version more frequently. Shaped by current perspectives about the body, physical fitness, injuries and how to recover from them, this point of view is very much grounded in the physical, and thus, also views yoga as an inadequate fitness routine. I agree with him on that count. If you’re looking for ‘fitness’, there are far better programs out there to help you achieve your goals (calorie burn, weight loss, etc etc etc). This advice however, effectively distilled the role of the practice in my life and my relationship to it. It is, in Andrew Sullivan’s words, “a ritual that let’s the rest of my life breathe“.

In the weeks leading up to my departure for Mysore I sought to balance PT logic with the inner, embodied, as yet unarticulated knowing about the practice’s importance. (I think there is a part of my relationship with Ashtanga yoga that will never be able to be fully articulated, because the resonance goes so deep.)

Preparing for this trip meant giving myself permission to cut it short if things were not ‘working out’ in Mysore. There was also a fair amount of anxiety about what I had to do to mitigate cyst-related pain in a daily practice situation, how to avoid aggravating it, how should I modify my practice and should I modify at all? These questions eventually clarified an intention to preserve and protect my body going into Mysore. I resolved to put self-care and compassion above conforming to an external representation of what the practice was supposed to look like. I would show up each day and modify accordingly, tuning into the sensations around the left wrist and shoulders and letting those nerve messages guide the shape of my practice. This meant stepping, not jumping, even in led classes. Skipping Bhujapidasana, a 1-breath Kukkutasana, a clumsy-looking Supta Kurmasana exit and no or very short Utpluthis for pretty much the first month. What I discovered quickly, was that my fears of being called out for modifying the practice were completely unfounded. It’s not that Sharath didn’t see the changes I made – he really does know everything that goes on in that room – it’s that he saw me and my practice and he let me do it. By not calling me out (as some teachers would do), he was telling me that I know what’s best for my body and how to manage whatever pain or injury I’m experiencing. And in doing so, he empowered me. For someone whose personal narrative has mostly been about disempowerment, especially in relationships with authority figures, this is a massive shift in how I see myself, my ability to trust my body and my intuition about what actions are best suited for me at any particular time. A big deal. And this is why I have come to accept him as my teacher after years of skepticism and doubt.

The notion that we have the power to shape our lives is a tired New Age cliche and yet that doesn’t make it any less true. It is a lesson that keeps showing up in practice, because the the practice and experience of yoga is about challenging the limited mental projections we have about ourselves and the world around us: how we choose to see ourselves, who we are, what we are capable of accomplishing, our capacity for discomfort, etc. The ripples that come from stepping into and owning the power that each of us has is infinite, and also, potentially subversive. We have the power to choose to see the good, the kind, the fear in others, to empathize instead of projecting and blaming our insecurities. We have the power to behave in ways that draw healthy boundaries for ourselves, for standing up to narratives and behaviors that gaslight and disempower our faculties for critical thinking.

(It’s important here to highlight that I’m not denying the structural forces behind the social issues of our time, because this is the sort of argument that a good conservative would use to justify cutting programs for the most vulnerable in our society. No, I’m writing this specifically for the other affluent and privileged individuals who live in my world, who don’t have to worry about the color of their skin, where their next meal is coming from, or where they’re going to sleep tonight. These are the people who have the means to effect real change.)

Which brings me to the social: Coming out of the Women’s March last weekend I found another kind of power – the power to speak up and be heard and be counted for values that I believe are important. It was my political awakening, in an active, visible sense. As a Sociology major in college I’ve always been aware of power dynamics in society. This, along with years working as a paper-pusher in an autocratic government and then in PR, built and refined my personal bullshit detector, particularly as it relates to authority.  Being born and raised in an autocracy that basically runs on an apathetic, disempowered electorate in exchange for the creature comforts of modern living, I’ve long had a malaise around activism and skepticism of the real value of doing things like voting, marching, protesting…..all activities that represent a healthy, engaged citizenry in the democratic process. Last Saturday showed me how it has been in the State’s interest to keep me (and the other people of my home country) disempowered about our ability to effect real change. Because when people get together in civic spaces to speak up about the values that are important to them, it is a powerful experience. It is an embodied encounter, one increasingly rare in this Internet Age, and that experience empowers you even more because you see for yourself that you’re not alone in this cause that you’re championing. That together, we can make a difference, and this realization stays with you, energizes you and inspires you to keep the momentum going. This is real power and it’s up to us not to squander it.

Mysore, Round 2

July 26, 2016 § 4 Comments

I got the email a few weeks ago informing me of my spot at KPJAYI this October and, for me, it is bittersweet. The prospect of this trip is occupying my heart and headspace in a different, deeper way, coming as it does at a point in time when my ruminations have more of a soul-searching/meaning-making flavor about them.

Following my first trip in 2012, I returned with a strong sense of purpose about building my life here. The trip extinguished a chronic discontent with “my present life”, wherever I found myself, that plagued most of my adult life until that point.

What was less clear to me was the prospect of returning to the Shala. I knew that I wasn’t going to be on the annual pilgrimage circuit, and I did not appreciate the palpable atmosphere of Sharath-worship while I was there. I respected (and still respect) the institution, the lineage and what he and his mother are doing as asana teachers, but I wasn’t sure about calling him my ‘teacher’ or ‘guru’ as so many people seem to do once they get to Mysore. Not enough time had passed for me to make a claim like that, which I don’t do lightly. Maybe I’m taking things too seriously. In any case, I wasn’t “feelin’ it” and I certainly wasn’t going to let the groundswell of adulation sweep me up without my consent. This ambiguity towards Sharath continued for a while as I continued to practice back home. Beyond being the head of a lineage, I didn’t know where to put him on my spectrum of ‘teachers’ as it applied to my practice.

After a few years, I went on the Yatra last fall that included a week in Uttarkashi. It was my way of dipping my toes back in to the Mysore vibe, to the Sharath-as-teacher proposition while also spending some time exploring the northern cities of India. It was a clarifying experience on many levels. That week in Uttarkashi cleared up any ambiguity I had about his place in my now-smaller-and-precious list of teachers. Thanks to a conversation I had with a non-Ashtangi but very devout Ramana Maharishi follower on the trip, I realized that Sharath and his mother (and like his grandfather) are, simply yoga asana teachers. They are not enlightened beings. They are human, fulfilling their dharma. Everything else is a product of student projections, which are illusory. I came to terms with navigating the projections that sometimes reeked of kool-aid and found some clarity around what Sharath and Saraswati mean to me, in my asana practice. They may not see me everyday, but they are yoga asana teachers at the top of their game and that is enough for me to want to make the trip to study with them. At the end of the week Sharath caught me by surprise by asking when I was coming back to Mysore. I replied, “Maybe next year”. And so it is.

I’m really looking forward to practicing in that room again. I am not interested in: getting poses, becoming BFFs with yoga-lebrities, perfecting asanas, shopping, accumulating FB friends, sightseeing, doing photoshoots, dissecting Sharath’s every word, hustling to get into led classes, coconut stand gossip, filling up my days with classes, tours, chai chit-chat…

All I want to do is to practice in that room. To tap into that energetic stream and let it course through my nervous system, healing, cleansing, shaping, changing me as it goes. Removing what does not serve and creating spaciousness for what needs to take root and grow.

I want to dissolve into the singular vibration of that room’s chants. To disappear into the sea of breaths and learn how to ride my own.

In 2012 I went for 6 weeks. Now I’m going for 8. It won’t be easy.

The countdown begins.

Perfection

July 21, 2016 § Leave a comment

Some thoughts from last month’s full moon + solstice buzz that I thought would be worth sharing here.

***

I live on an incessant internal tension between striving, constantly, for perfection in my endeavors and also shying away from making it a reality. This is my center of gravity. The endless contradictions of wanting/notwanting as it relates to the social/professional self. I am trying to figure out where this comes from, what feeds it and nurtures it.

The big questions I am currently wrestling with relate to “doing things” in a way that can be easily measured by conventional metrics such as: “fame”, “Social media engagement” (collectively rounded up in numbers), money/profits, prestige and length of one’s client roster, number of “friends”, offspring. I feel constantly inadequate because the quantifiable answers that I can give to this big question (“What do I do”) do not measure up to the standards that are used to evaluate one’s standing in this conventional world. How do I compare with my peers with their careers, degrees, titles, children? By all measures I am unremarkable. In this paradigm I am practically unmeasurable and invisible. I am a problem for the paradigm because I don’t fit neatly into its limited checkboxes.I never wanted to fit and have sought to break out of it. And in many ways, I have now successfully rendered this paradigm a useless tool for evaluating my life, and yet I am mourning my failure to measure up to it and clinging to something that I never really cared for in the first place. Instead, I’m using this ‘failure’ to explain my low self-esteem, fuel my efforts for affirmation (in a perverse, roundabout way), and shield myself from trying new things and putting myself out there.

Wow. I sure enjoy making things difficult for myself! There are all sorts of fear tied up with letting go of this shield-crutch, which is built out of fear.

What will it take for me to let go of this crutch? Is this the only thing holding me back from my full potential?

Wobble Wobble

May 9, 2016 § 3 Comments

Hello Internet. A lot has happened between the last post and this one. I think of this space fondly, in those slivers of wonder where I’m awed by the grace and beauty of this practice and think “Oh I should write about that!”, but upon further reflection, realize that what the depths of what I would like to convey is immediately rendered banal by the use of words. And so I don’t.

One of the biggest changes in the past few months is that I have found my Teacher. The Guru. The person who will hold me accountable, not just to an asana practice, but to everything else that requires showing up in life. This person is an expert on holding up a mirror to my blind spots and requiring me to be present with sensations/emotions/behaviors that I would prefer to avoid. To constantly push me to keep my legs straight/sternum lifted/chin up without compromising the integrity of the breath, and in so doing, taking me past my physical edge and showing me that I can do it. This teacher’s gift of connecting the dots between on-mat behavior and off-mat personality quirks with sharp, incisive wit is unparalleled. At least compared with all the other teachers I’ve practiced with up till now. Case in point: making the observation that I’m trying to do the perfect Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana, by not allowing myself to wobble in the pose.

“I’ve done this pose for so many years and I still wobble in it. You need to get comfortable with the wobbling and calibrate your balance internally.”

Not allowing for any wobbling is an accurate summation of my personal tendency towards meticulous planning and strict adherence to the best laid plans. I’ve gotten better with age at dealing with changes to plans and itineraries, but you could say that I still have some way to go with allowing for more wobbling in my life. It’s a mental practice I’m still playing around with in the weeks since that class and I have to say that a touch of wobbling does wonders for the anxiety. It frees up the rib cage to breathe more fully, triggers the vagus nerve and generates a sense of calm – very useful especially when travelling, driving in peak hour traffic, <insert other anxiety-inducing situations here>.

Here’s to the Wobble!