I’m not dead. Or, how the yoga rubber meets the road.

me in India, only half dead

only half dead in India, 2008

Miss me?

I used to be a prolific yoga blogger.  I used to be a well-known yoga blogger, once called a fierce voice in the yoga blogosphere, and was even quoted in the New York Times during the Tara Stiles controversy.  But everything has its expiration date.

I got tired.  I got tired of writing about Yoga in OMerika because I thought, “what else can I write about?”  I read this excellent piece today and it addresses issues that I wrote about years ago.  Bottom line, same shit, different day.  Not much has changed since I started writing this blog in 2005, almost 10 years ago.  The funny thing is, you know how each generation thinks they’re original, like they’re the first ones to come up with an idea?  Kinda sorta how I feel when I read a yoga blog nowadays, like, been there, done that, you young whipper-snapper, ’cause back in my day….

It has also appeared for quite some time that the yoga blogosphere has become a tad cliquey, all rah rah, kiss kiss, pat each other on the back.  OK, a lot cliquey.  When I first started this blog the yoga blogosphere was a bit more outlaw-ish, the voices were of different tones, not so scholarly.  Not that there is anything wrong with scholarly (hey, I went to grad school), but I remember being called “anti-intellectual” by a well-known yoga blogger because I dared to question the overanalysis and didacticism.  I knew I was no longer in the top echelon of yoga bloggers (my tongue is firmly in cheek) when this post only received 5 comments where in the past I know it would have generated many more.  One has to be one of the Kool Kids now, someone who is Someone to continue to get your blog posts Facebooked, tweeted, or interviewed or asked to review books. You know what Groucho Marx said about being a member of a club.   Another photo of the latest celeb du jour walking into a yoga studio?  Really?

Over the past year I have had some major epiphanies that rocked my energy body.  Last March I dealt with two very problematic people on my yoga retreat in India who I realized later were my teachers.  Of course I did not realize it at the time because then I only wanted to kick their ungrateful asses into the Arabian Sea, but they taught me much about how to deal with people of their types so I thank them.  They were a lesson in how everyone can be your teacher and the more difficult ones more so.

I dealt with betrayal.  Lots and lots of meditation helped me with that one.  I am here to tell you that if someone fucks with you, just sit and meditate daily on their sorry ass until the vision of them no longer brings up feelings of attachment or aversion, until you can see them and feel neutrality.  It works and it’s wonderful.  Very freeing.  I learned to finally love myself completely.  Not a bad lesson to learn as I enter my 6th decade of this incarnation.

I dealt with trust issues I have with women and also (again) in my local yoga world.  The resolution to that is that I am damn fine with being alone and a loner.  Well, I was already, but I truly came into my own in 2013.  Probably because I finally owned what I do.  I’ve been teaching since 2002 and it took me all this time to realize that yes, I AM a damn good teacher, I am unique in what I do and fuck outside validation, I don’t need it.  My yoga is outside the box and I own the fact that what I offer is not found elsewhere.  I have studied with direct students of Krishnamacharya both here and in India and am damn proud of that.  Never mistake my confidence for arrogance.  Yes I do say I teach Real Yoga and don’t care if someone takes offense.  Mine is a bold statement and people like J.Brown who puts it out there when he says that he “seeks to change the dialog and direction of yoga practice in the west” inspire me.  You bet your asana I do the same in my little corner of the yoga world, one body at a time (“…you taught me more about Yoga in five minutes than anyone I’ve ever met in a yoga class, teacher or otherwise,” said a satisfied Yoga customer.)

I also finally came into my own as an energy worker.  That was a huge energetic shift for me in 2013, so much so the shift was also physical.  It is no coincidence that I learned I am part Native American (more on that below) in the same year I decided to make known the energy healing work I have practiced for over 10 years — because my work is akin to that of a Medicine Woman.  Energy healing is a deep, spiritual practice for me.  It feels natural.  I finally own that I am a facilitator of profound change.

I am happy to reside in my little yoga cave of my home studio with only two or three students in class.  If all my students suddenly disappeared, I am fine with that.  Bottom line, if I never taught another class in my life, I’m good.  The thought of never teaching again for whatever reason used to freak me out.  “Yoga teacher” used to be my identity but no longer.  I have peeled my onion layers down to the core.  Yoga is life, but Life is more than Yoga.  DING DING DING!  EPIPHANY TIME.  I am not This or That because I am so much more.

The biggest revelation of 2013 came to me in the form of genetic testing and discovering my true ancestry.  I grew up believing I was 50/50 German-Polish, but I also always intuited that I wasn’t.  I am part Native American, enough that I can self-identify as a Native American; unfortunately, a genetic test can not determine tribe.  Either I was the product of an affair or my sister was really my mother.  My nephew who is only 7 years younger is probably my half-brother.  How would you handle that if you found out in your late 50s that you were lied to about your heritage and parentage?

As for handling things, after planning my 8th trip to India (departure in 9 days) for yoga study, my yoga therapy course was cancelled just last week.  This affected my entire trip because my trips are a tax write-off — no yoga study, no tax write-off.  Plans I had made almost a year ago and reservations on planes and trains all had to be changed when I got the news.  I cancelled the last 7 weeks of my trip and I would have cancelled the entire trip but I would have lost too much money in airfare and other fees so my trip changed in one day from almost 3 months to one month.  Dharma 101: How Life Changes in a Second.

The day I received the news of the course cancellation I was more than a little freaked but by evening I was at peace.  A deep peace and I was surprised at how deep that peace was — because YOGA ISN’T REAL YOGA UNLESS IT HELPS YOU DEAL WITH HOW LIFE CAN CHANGE IN A SECOND.  

Knowing how I love India (in reality it’s a love-hate relationship), my friends thought I’d be more upset than I was about cutting my trip by more than half.  Nope, not really.  Because that’s where the yoga rubber hits the road.  What good is your yoga if you can’t deal effectively with life’s major and minor ups and downs?

As for Ma India Herself, if this upcoming trip is my last I am good with that.  Finally.  Because in the past the thought of never returning to India created such angst I would shake.  Even cry.  India is in my bones and always will be and each time I am there I know I am Home.  I know I will die there but just like Yoga Teacher became a piece of my identity, so did India.     DING DING DING!  EPIPHANY TIME.  I am not This or That because I am so much more.

Real Yoga sure as hell ain’t about the asana but I already knew that.  108 Sun Salutations or a sick arm balance would not have helped me when I learned that the woman I thought was my mother was probably really my grandmother.  Or maybe my sister is really my mother.  I will never know.  Made up yoga, as A. G. Mohan calls what passes for yoga nowadays, could never help me with that.

Real Yoga is so much more.  It’s Freedom.

Sex, Lies, and Yoga

survivor This is perhaps the most important and powerful post I have ever published in this blog.

And I didn’t write it.

I asked a friend and fellow yoga teacher to write not only about the topic of sex abuse in the modern yoga world, but also comment on how he feels the subject has been treated in the yoga blogosphere over the last year.   My friend requested anonymity and also being a trauma survivor, I honored his request.

His post may upset some and with good reason because this is a charged topic.  But the writer believes he has relayed it in a way that will not  cause more hurt to people who have already been hurt by these issues even if they don’t agree with him.

This is a long post so grab some coffee and a comfy chair, read and digest these words.  Then read it again.  And again.

Talk amongst yourselves.

_____________________________________________________________________

“SEX, LIES, AND YOGA”

It isn’t easy to write about the sex scandals that have plagued the yoga community in the last three years.  At least it isn’t if you or your friends have been involved in them.  But in recent discussions with a good friend on these matters, it struck me that much of the online and media discourse on the scandals serves more to create anger than to provide insight into the specific incidents and into the process and repercussions of abuse.  The language we use, the way we discuss these events is important because it is the only means to communicate what took place and how.  If done thoughtfully (and you don’t necessarily have to read this as “delicately”) then it can lead to (more) accurate accounts and meaningful discussion.  If done without regard for the power of language and an assessment of our emotional state, then discussion won’t likely be fruitful and may ultimately do more harm than good.

And so the idea of this piece was born.  Even though I have been a victim of abuse I don’t speak from a point of authority on abuse in general.  And despite being friends with some of the people involved in three of the scandals of the last three years, I can’t speak with authority on these scandals in particular.  Mine remains one point of view based on my experience and my interactions with the victims, perpetrators, and their friends and family.  But I offer a point of view that, at least as far as I’ve seen, has not been shared and is not typically shared when these things occur… a different way of seeing these problems, their players and the role of the community, whether or not it is involved in the discourse.

There is an element of vulnerability in these events that can be so overwhelming so as to make it feel deeply inappropriate to publicize the feelings, let alone the details.  You see, for most of those involved, these atrocities are not primarily about yoga, nor about the community, but rather about personal loss, failure, shame, and/or the betrayal of a friend, teacher, spouse or lover.  Their primary concern is not how to keep these things from happening again but dealing with the repercussions of the abuse and of its publicity.

They are facing spouses, families, children, friends and coworkers with details and implications of events that are tough to understand even as you are in the middle of them, perhaps especially if you are in the middle of them.  They face anxiety attacks, sleepless nights, constant tension in their relationships, stress from daily or weekly reminders of the events via online message boards, the hard work of admitting what went wrong and the even harder work of healing from it, facing consequences or making amends.

The yoga is incidental in most cases, a vehicle of opportunity rather than the cause (at least most of the time).  There are definitely elements within the context of the teacher/student relationship which create opportunities for impropriety… and things occur when opportunity meets tendency.  But this is no different than any other opportunistic vehicle.

Statistics are easier to find for some professions than others but somewhere between 2-10% of sexual misconduct rates seem to be the agreed upon statistic for primary and secondary education teachers, college professors and teaching assistants, clergy, physicians, psychiatrists, massage and physical therapists.  If these low percentages don’t really hit an emotional chord, consider that in the last 10 years, more than a quarter of U.S. school districts have reported cases of sexual abuse by teachers and coaches1.  Let me stress that this is for reported cases and, by most accounts, the majority of incidences of rape and abuse are believed to go unreported.2

No one is immune from abuse, not men, not the elderly, not the rich or the powerful.  But certain populations bear the brunt of the statistics with women in their teens, 20s and 30s showing the highest incidence of rape.  Sexual abuse and misconduct is a trickier realm than rape both in terms of definition and, as a result, legal repercussions; and for both these reasons, as well as the desire by most professions to maintain a good image, statistics on sexual abuse by profession are tough to find.  We expect that no job is safe, though certain professions seem to offer more opportunities for abuse than others.  The general trend seems clear: the likelihood of sexual abuse/misconduct increases proportionally with:

  • the level of intimacy of the relationship,
  • the duration of the sessions,
  • the length of time the relationship is sustained,
  • the amplitude of the power differential,
  • the amount of unsupervised interaction,
  • the emphasis of physical contact, and
  • the level of ease with which a victim can be effectively manipulated.

Psychiatrists and psychologists who maintain longer term, more frequent, more emotionally intimate doctor/patient relationships, and who enjoy longer sessions with their patients, see a much higher rate of sexual misconduct suits than non-psychiatric physicians, who typically see patients less frequently and who rarely devote more than a few minutes per session.  The opportunities to confuse the relationship, to act on sexual impulse, and to manipulate are much higher with psychiatrists/psychologists.  That isn’t to say that they will occur: the inclination has to be there.  But without the opportunity, the inclination will likely not be realized.

Within the yoga community we have a range of interactions and a number of elements that make us a vulnerable:

  • Power differential between teacher and student
  • A context of physical contact
  • Emotionally intimate interactions
  • Frequent (often weekly) sessions
  • Long (hour+) sessions
  • Unsupervised private sessions
  • An emphasis on the body’s ability or potential

Add to this that many classes are sexually charged either via flirtatious banter, skimpy attire, or through what is generally considered healthy discussion on the effects of practice on sex and sexuality, and the boundaries can be blurred easily and the context of the relationship shifted.

But as with other professions, the tendency has to be there.  Opportunity alone is not causal.  Left-handed Tantric practices aside (these are not standard in most yoga classes, though they have played a role in some of the high profile abuse cases of the past 20 years and seemed to feature prominently in at least two of the cases of the last two years), we do not have much that is inherent or unique in modern Westernized yoga that makes us more vulnerable to abuse than any of the professions I listed above.

We also have nothing that makes us immune to it.  Much of the West (and the U.S. in particular) entertains a culture whose values and norms make it difficult to discuss sex dysfunction and sexual abuse openly.  The deep sense of shame associated with both the perpetrator and victim mean that the latter are not likely to come forward and the former finds himself surrounded by an enabling community that is either insensitive to, under-educated about, or willing to second-guess their perception of suspicious behavior.

This culture despises complexity in ethical matters.  It’s much easier when lines drawn crisply between what is right and what is wrong, between who is innocent and who is guilty.  Blur these lines and the sense of discomfort is palpable, the discussion becomes confused and the ability to come to agreement on the motivations, on a resolution, or even on the sequence of events, more difficult.  Oftentimes, when an abuser is accused, there is a camp that comes quickly to his defense, using examples of his good public and private work as proof that he is in fact a good man as if good works and sex abuse were mutually exclusive.  Sex abuse is not something that only bad people do.

Lastly this culture still maintains high levels of inequality especially when it comes to gender, gender roles and sex.  Misogyny is standard in corporations and households.  Gender roles are frequently laid out in advertising and all manner of public media.  Market research and advertising offer some insight into our culture’s high regard youth, vitality and beauty and tends to ignore the experience of those who don’t fall into those two categories.

It is within the context of these values that sex abuse is framed and with it perceptions about who is likely to be a perpetrator (an inclination that often goes against the collected data), who is likely to be a victim, where and when the offenses are likely to occur, and the mechanics of the process.  It is also within this context that we frame the emotional implications and what we decide is the appropriate response to it.  This is not insignificant.  It plays a major role in how we discuss the problem, its players and in how effectively we can come to identify solutions.3

Hindsight on the myriad of sex abuse scandals of the last few years (including the Catholic Church, college sports, and high schools) betrays a Victorian intolerance for discussion of these matters.  More often than not anecdotes reveal how so many bystanders were willing to look the other way either out of shame, fear, confusion or self-interest, and it’s only after the offenses became especially repugnant, numerous, or public that they responded.  Once details become public, the response is generally emotional, and the call for retribution louder than that for understanding.

Problems in the yoga community have been no different.  Each time a yoga sex scandal erupts, it is typically only after the offenses have been going on for months, in most cases years.  There are multiple victims, there were others who knew or suspected what was going on, perhaps some even helped or took part in the offenses.

The community fractures into two or three major camps: those incensed by the wrongdoing and who want some kind of rectification or compensation for the victims, those who question the reliability of the accusations, and those who withdraw.  The latter is the group most often populated with victims, perpetrators and the close friends of each.  This isn’t because of cowardice but because it is to this specific group that the events are most personal and it can be devastating to see personal details of your life, especially of moments that you are ashamed of, deeply affected by, or which you consider especially personal, play out in the public sphere amidst typically scornful, often inaccurate commentary from what feels like anyone who can muster an opinion.  So the high profile rhetoric rarely comes from the people most involved in the issue.  The typical script vilifies the accused perpetrator, victimizes the abused and simplifies the situation down to a structure that makes sense to the average person, that fits into preconceived notions of these incidents and which allows even people with few facts to have an opinion and even a plan of action.

It is uncomfortable in the face of such atrocities to do nothing in these circumstances.  It feels not simply inappropriate but unjust to do nothing.  But most of us who practice Yoga can appreciate that nothing is the space that we aim to linger in during our practice.  And this is with good reason: it is a space created precisely so that whatever intuition, ideas or emotions come, they are not an immediate, habitual response.  Clarity is not achieved by jumping to conclusions and it rarely comes from preconceived notions.  This space can become a double-edged sword for those who have suffered abuse or experienced sexual impropriety in the context of a yoga teacher/student relationship, since practice itself may be directly associated with the perpetrator and the actions.  But this association is specific to the victims and it isn’t out of place to suggest that practice and the thoughtfulness we try to achieve during it is precisely what is necessary when dealing with these kinds of difficult, sometimes ambiguous, often complex situations.

While working at a GLBT Community Center I was faced with this complexity when a very sexually aggressive 13 year old began to frequent the center propositioning our male volunteers for sex.  The level of aggression was flabbergasting.  He would find his opportunity by waiting for the volunteer to be alone and then use sexually charged conversation, emotional connection, seductive physicality and even threats to manipulate the volunteer.

We were faced with an uncomfortable situation.  Clearly this was a child.  Had he succeeded in seducing any of these men and the two been discovered, it would have been clear to everyone that the adult had committed the wrong-doing.  And yet the adult was not the aggressor.  The adult was not following the typical script we expect: finding opportunities to be alone with the child, offering them something desirable, hooking them with charged conversation or the use of threats.  The scripts were reversed.

We learned in discussions with authorities who were familiar with this kid that he’d been found coercing other boys his age to perform sexual acts in school, behind library stacks, and in fairgrounds.  He was clearly a danger to our male volunteers and visitors… and they to him.

Eventually he moved on from our center.4  But the relief of his absence left us with difficult questions: Was this child a victim, a perpetrator, or both?  Most of us assumed he had to have been abused at some time in his youth; but was that our expectations playing out or reasonable deduction?  Was he playing out a script that had been used on him or was it coming from another source inside him?  In a practical manner, did it make a difference on how we should respond?

Victims tend to be painted as afflicted if they acquiesce, overpowered if they fight and fail, brave if they fight and overwhelm their attacker, and impressionable if they never seem to question the wrong-doing is wrong at all.  There is rarely discussion around what actually makes abuse what it is, its characteristics and requirements.  It’s unnerving to ponder the question of whether or not it is abuse if a victim enjoys the act (you can read here that their bodies respond to the physical stimulus or that their minds respond to the situation with arousal), even part of it… especially so if they partially instigated it or maintained the relationship willingly.

In the same way the typical script around perpetrators paints them as either innately perverse if they have no history of abuse or mental illness, or affected by their own abuse or mental illness and driven by an unseen and uncontrollable urge established there and left untreated for years.  It’s rarely considered that their actions may be increasingly frequent missteps in judgment that create a habit, that they may be people fighting an inclination that they know to be wrong but which brings them immense satisfaction even as it creates increased guilt, or that they are people with genuine feelings for what we come to know as their victims and who let these feelings and their own issues of self-worth guide their actions at the expense of others.  Perpetrators are not always calculated and sometimes don’t realize the morality of what they are doing.  Often they may not perceive a power differential at all.  Sometimes the feelings that fuel these ethically and morally suspect actions are genuine.

The familiar script ignores all this and tries to make the victims pure and the perpetrators either evil or victims in their own right, depending on whether or not there’s an explanation for their actions that arouses pity.  It does this to make it easier to understand, to limit the problem, the people, the repercussions and the solution.  And because it’s easier than the reality, the tendency is for anyone with little information to prefer to listen to this script than to the people involved.  The script is so familiar that when it is used in public media it rings immediately and unquestionably true to the audience, which fuels it further until it’s the only story being told.  This happens in the absence of reliable sources and objective reasoning.

A few months back a popular yoga blogger posted a detailed analysis of an accused abuser, a well known and long respected yoga teacher.  It was detailed to the point of describing the abuser’s inclinations and needs and his relationships to others, including his victims and his family.  It aimed to paint a picture of pervasive dysfunction.  The blogger based his assessment on some available accounts of the events (namely clips from old and new letters of complaint about related wrong-doing by this teacher, articles stating the reported charges, and press releases from the two organizations this teacher belonged to).  I posted a comment to his blog entry asking him if he had met or spoken with either the perpetrator or any of his victims.  The next day he replied “no.”

I knew the people he was talking about and I knew that the blogger’s assessment said more about the blogger than about the incident, the perpetrator or the victims.  I still remember my friend crying on the phone, telling me that something was terribly wrong.  “I’m in such a dark place,” he said, without going into details.  I later learned of his offenses.  They were numerous.  They were heinous.  And they had reportedly been going on for many years.  I could hardly understand how these actions fit in the same physical space as this person I respected and loved.  Moreover my friend had been involved with women I knew, with women he’d met at the same events I’d attended, and that much of this had been going on at those same events, right under my nose, and I’d never seen the clues in anyone’s behavior: not his, not his victims’.  I soon learned that others I knew and respected in the community had suspected or known of this behavior for years and had either ignored it or attempted to intervene in ways that optimized privacy (and minimized publicity).  The latter is not meant to suggest nefarious intent as I can’t say exactly why they made those choices at the time.

For weeks I couldn’t go a day without a phone call or email from someone asking what was going on, if the rumors were true, or to relay their own involvement in the matter.  It was painful and confusing and the time between interactions was filled only with dread about what details the next message might bring.  But I forced myself to listen and to continue as awful as it felt, because I refused to continue to be in a space that allowed me to be oblivious to these incidents.  A space that, I felt, I had revisited too many times.

It is never easy or simple to discuss abuse, especially with an abuser or a victim.  It was still awkward to talk about this but given the circumstances, given how obviously critical it was to have these discussions, I finally was bold enough to ask questions that were uncomfortable, personal and which, under any other scenario, would have been deemed inappropriate or not my place to ask.

I learned that some of my female friends had been propositioned for sex and they’d turned him down and, at least according to their accounts, the discussion had ended there and their friendship continued as if nothing had ever been mentioned.  Some had been coerced into a relationship.  And some remembered the details differently with each conversation, the earliest of which portrayed more guilt and less anger.  The later conversations were harder.  It was not lost on me that there were at least two potential processes at work here: (1) the revelation of memory that comes only after analyzing events again and again and (2) the creation of a story that makes sense of how things could have happened.  It was not clear which was dominant at any given point.  And so listening became an exercise in sitting with ambiguity.

So if I, who had been a bystander watching these events and talking to the perpetrator and his victims, still hadn’t come to a conclusion of how things had occurred or what had motivated them, how could this blogger who had never met either, let alone spoken to them?

The entry added absolutely nothing enlightened, gave no insight into how these things can occur let alone how they did occur, and offered no value in how to prevent them in the future.  All it did was create a script that was convenient, which aimed to look analytical, but which was ultimately inaccurate to the situation and to the topic of abuse in general.  What was most interesting and disturbing to me was that someone with no direct resources would think that the story they can create in their mind is worth publishing as authoritative.

The blogger and the majority of comments mostly offered speculation on how these issues could have gone on for so long, who must have known, who was ultimately responsible, and inherent issues with yoga today that lead to these problems.  For the latter, the discourse was mostly limited to three culprits:

  1. The guru-disciple relationship or guru culture,
  2. The lack of accountability within our community, and
  3. The lack of legal follow-through.

Although there are understandable reasons for the conversation focusing on these elements (namely distrust of authority and frustration at the injustice), I believe that it betrayed a lack of knowledge of the incidents in particular and of abuse in general.

1.   The guru-disciple relationship has been a target for many years now and both recent and distant accounts of abuses in this relationship have rightfully contributed to skepticism of its value by those who have never been a part of it and by those who have been directly and indirectly involved in instances of abuse.  Its self-imposed and pronounced power differential sets off alarms for many, especially those who have grown up with an independently-minded spirituality.  The associated cult mentality has also added to suspicions.  The dominant attitude among detractors is that gurus are nothing more than men with inflated egos looking to take advantage of others sexually and financially, that they always do more harm than good, or that the level of good they can do is never worth the risk of harm.  However, there were two major problems with attaching this discussion to this incident:

a.   Few in this conversation seemed to grasp that the teacher they were discussing was not a guru of any sort, that he in fact refused to use that term, and that his students would never call themselves disciples.  None of the victims’ accounts suggested they enjoyed a traditional guru-disciple relationship in character, let alone name.  There were some accounts of a cult-like atmosphere within the closest circle of students/teachers, which some have confused with guru-disciple relationship or guru worship.  Some of the women who had brought forth charges were not students at all, though, but therapy patients.  Others were fellow teachers.  If anything, based on the published accounts, the culture of this teacher’s organization could be accused of having an established hierarchy and intolerance for dissenting opinions or the questioning of authority.  From a Western point of view, it could be called a cult of personality.  The conversation, however, mixed this instance (and by default its cause and cure) with that of the high-profile abusive gurus of the last 30 years but ignored instances of abuse by doctors and therapists, which would have been equally if not more relevant to the situation.

b.   By virtue of the latter, there were explicit and implicit assumptions that eliminating this guru-disciple relationship would eliminate or greatly reduce the incidence of abuse.  It would not.  Abuse permeates professions, religions, and households where there are no gurus and no disciples.  The power differential (and some of the other vehicles I mentioned earlier) creates the opportunity, not what we call it.5  If the goal is to genuinely address the power differential, then discussion would include the culture of celebrity within yoga, the status of “senior teacher,” and  common practice of teachers hiring their own students to work at studios or assist them.  Each of these establishes the teacher as someone to be admired, respected, and obeyed.  Whereas with gurus, the draw for the student would be spiritual development, in the previously listed cases, the draw may be popularity, attention or financial gain, each of which can be (actually has been) exploited by a teacher.  But conversation never ventured to these topics, suggesting (to me) that blaming the guru-disciple relationship may have more to do with distrust of authority (especially in this very foreign form) and less to do with a real understanding of its contribution to opportunities for abuse.

2.   From the discussion on the lack of accountability within the community it was clear that what people were incensed about was the fact that more people weren’t talking about this, that it was either so typical or unimportant to others that it didn’t warrant discussion.  But this is response is not rare.  For those who are friends or family, even coworkers of perpetrators, the response is not simple or immediate, nor is it predictable.  It depends on the personality, on their own history of abuse, of their own involvement in this particular instance of abuse, and most important, on the strength of the bond they shared with the perpetrator.  For many people, when a friend commits a crime or injustice, it isn’t immediately justified to end the friendship.  This has nothing to do with supporting the crime or in believing that it did not occur.  You can love someone who does bad things.  And that love can be stronger than the angry calls from the crowd.

Friendship and love are often talked about as if they are unconditional.  Indeed they are deemed less than perfect, less than true, if they come with conditions attached.  What if the conditions look like this?  It is unrealistic, I think, to expect total and perfect decency in all aspects of life from someone.  But different people have different tolerance levels for the indecency of others and the disappointment it brings.  Where some consider it a failure of character if you let disappointment taint that love, others consider it a failure of character if you hold onto a relationship with someone who is responsible for so much harm.  How do you offer true friendship and still have compassion for those your friend affected?  How do you simultaneously have compassion for perpetrator and victim when you have strong family or friendship bonds with both?  This isn’t an easy conflict to resolve, and people resolve it in different ways and on their own time.

For those who didn’t share that bond with the yoga teacher, it’s also not clear that the immediate response would be outrage.  People go through stages of denial, indifference and numbness, none of which have any expression of anger.  It is precisely how most Western societies respond to rape and sex abuse.  We live in a country where one in every four college age women is a survivor of rape.7  Statistics for women in general vary but they typically suggest 17-25% of women are rape (and attempted rape) survivors.  This is an astounding number.  And yet there is no general outrage and the statistics remain unreasonably high.8  How is it that most people aren’t outraged?  Statistics suggest it’s out of habit.

3.   Lastly, and most telling of our culture, is the anger at the lack of legal follow-through.  The most uncomfortable and problematic part of this is the difficulty in differentiating illegal behavior from immoral behavior.9  The sexual abuse that has taken place over the last few years in the yoga community is not easy to wrap your head around.  The group of people that we have come to see as victims did not all experience the same things to the same degree, and the level of intimate involvement prior to the abuse varied.  Some women were sexually involved with their abuser for months or years and enjoyed attention and gifts.  Some of these women were married.  Many continued their relationship with the abuser even after the first incident they considered objectionable.  Some of the victims were therapy patients who were manipulated into believing that the treatments, which came in the form of sexual practices, would cure them of serious ailments.  Some women were seduced with money, gifts, or power within the community.  Of these, some were threatened with being cut off from their spiritual community when they tried to leave the relationship.  Some women were taught powerful, esoteric practices, which enjoy little expertise in the U.S. but lots of notoriety; they feared losing their access to these if they left.  Some enjoyed what it felt like to do something taboo.  Some felt guilt long before the scandal broke.  Some felt guilt only after.  Some women were propositioned for sex and turned the perpetrator down in what was described as an uncomfortable but amicable scene; and their friendship continued unaffected.  But some women were raped forcibly.  Some seduced.  Some deceived.  Some women escaped the abuse at great cost, including the loss of their jobs and their social circle.  Of these, most tried to forget the situation and never attempted to publicize their experience until the scandal broke.  For many of those, it was the only way to protect themselves emotionally.  Still some attempted to address the problem head on and found little or no support from their employer and colleagues.  Some considered going to the press.  Some did.  Most did not because to publicize the incident would bring to light details that would destroy their families.  Others managed to establish boundaries with the abuser and maintained their job and friends.  Of these some continued to introduce their young, unknowing female friends and students to the abuser despite their own experience; they never offered them advice or warning.  Some were in love with the abuser and felt used after learning his relationship to them was not unique.

There is no protocol in our legal system to deal with these complexities.  The tendency is to take some of the situations above and relegate them to “true victim” and others to “regretful accomplices.”  Some of this comes from misogyny.  Some of it comes from its uncomfortable complexity.  Some comes from simple ignorance.  We are not all the same.  Our samskaras affect us in different ways according to our qualities.  And so the manifestation of these situations will naturally look different.  It is not inappropriate to call each of these women victims, I think, but it is inappropriate to assume that the term “victim” always means the same thing.

I have chosen not to use names in this entry.  Not the victims, not the perpetrators, and not my own.  I put a lot of thought to this and realized that what I needed to say has to do with a process that has been going on for so many years it is beyond names.  Parts of it should be public and parts of it, I think, we would do well to keep private or at least leave in the hands of victims to address and reveal in their own time.  Moreover, some of the people I have referred to in this piece are good friends, people I love and respect and I am certain that those that I do not know directly, whose stories have come to me via friends and fellow teachers, are loved and respected by someone.  This does not mean that I support what has happened. It also does not mean that I hope this goes away.   Having been a victim of abuse before and having my own friends victimized in these events, this is a topic that is more personal than I can put into words.

What I do believe is that before adding to the chatter and the vitriol, it is well worth it to delve deeper into these situations both via the body of knowledge that has been collected over the years of victim testimonials and well-researched documentaries on the topic, and through discussions with people who are involved.  It isn’t wrong that the mind’s response at these events is often to well up with rage at the unfairness and the suffering of others.  But it is critical that these feelings be contained if they are mostly based on a story those same minds have created to deal with the information, rather than on knowledge and analysis of the actual events.  If we don’t, whatever our actions, whatever our words, the response is ultimately more about how we feel than about the well-being of others.  Rage is never advocacy; and ignorance, however understandable, never leads to a solution.

Footnotes

1  According to the American Association of University Women.

2 These statistics would be suspect if they weren’t so consistent.  They tend to be largely based on surveys conducted in representative local populations and the numbers are assumed to be adequate estimates for national populations (which may not be the case).  Based on these surveys, the minimum rates for unreported cases of rape and abuse tend to be around 52% with estimates increasing to 75% in some populations.

3Pedophilia offers us a good analogy.  The majority of pedophiles are men.  This likely comes as little surprise to most.  It is generally understood that pedophiles who molest little girls are straight and pedophiles who molest little boys are gay.  It was this faulty reasoning that led to the Roman Catholic Church equating their pedophile priest issue with a gay priest issue.  The problem is that pedophilia doesn’t function within the same parameters by which we understand sexual orientation.  Pedophiles who are straight identified (meaning they have no expressed or repressed attraction to men) may still prey on young boys.  As a result of this misperception, it’s likely that the Catholic Church’s attempted purge of gay priests won’t affect the existing rates of abuse since there is no higher predisposition there.  They enacted a solution that does not fit the problem but rather their idea of the problem.

4 We changed our volunteer hours twice, swapping male and female volunteers to throw him off and it was clear from the terribly disappointed look on his face as relayed by our lesbian volunteers that he was not happy with this.

5 The extreme case of guru worship can be likened to military culture, where the strict hierarchy forbids subordinates from questioning superiors and where there is a unique and fully segregated culture from the mainstream that makes communication to an external population (and the latter’s subsequent understanding) difficult, if not impossible.  The military, of course, has what we now understand to be a long history of abuse and cover-up of abuse.  The latter is, in my opinion, the piece that makes guru cults susceptible to long term abuse.  It isn’t that the abuse is more likely to happen (read here in terms of number of likely perpetrators) but rather that there is a vehicle for the abuse to be covered up and to continue to occur by the same perpetrator.

6 In my teens, a close friend of my family’s was discovered to be a serial killer who had been murdering prostitutes for the better part of a year.  In that year he’d visited our home and offered the same warmth and humor he had always offered.  When he learned that I had gone to art school he gave my father an expensive drafting table so that I could use it.  He was kind, concerned, and his kindness and concern as it related to us never came with conditions.  My mother was asked once if she was regretful about having had him as a guest in the house, especially near her kids.  Her response relayed perfectly the point of view that people are complex and multi-dimensional, and that relationships, in turn, must be as well.  She said “Not at all.  He was our friend.”

7 From “Assessing Sexual Aggression: Addressing the Gap Between Rape Victimization and Perpetration Prevalance Rates” by Elizabeth Kolivas and Alan Gross

8 Most surveys show a drop in the incidence of rape in the last 10 years within the U.S.  Statistics on the magnitude of this drop vary.

9 I specifically avoid the use of the term “unethical” here because it can suggest different things depending on the profession.  I use “immoral” to try to relay the idea that the infraction would be considered by most people, regardless of profession, to be irresponsible, inconsiderate, or generally lacking in morality.

tit for tat

scale

“tit for tat” — an equivalent given in return….

Yeah, some spam emails just cry out for an answer.

In the 8 years I’ve been writing this blog I’ve had numerous requests to shill spread the word for yoga books, yoga clothes, yoga retreats, yoga workshops, yoga teacher trainings, ad infinitum. People get my email address and have no hesitation whatsoever about asking me to advertise — for free — their yoga product or yoga whatever.  Or, they sign me up for their E newsletter, unbeknownst to me, of course, until I get one.

The thing is, I would never think to ask anyone I did not know to publicize my retreats or workshops.  Ever.   But that’s me.  Apparently the new way of doing your yoga business is by saying “HEY, I LOVE YOUR  BLOG, SO CAN YOU…..”

The dead giveaway that I knew the email was bullshit was that the spammer said that they “know” I dig Iyengar yoga from my blog.  I have never written about Iyengar or  his yoga.  Disingenuous.  Gotcha.

I have no problem helping someone out.   Buddhist yoga teacher, Michael Stone, sent me his books (or at least his people did) when they asked me to publicize blurbs from his books in this blog.  A few other yoga authors also sent books when I reviewed them here.

So after all these years of being asked to shill spread the word about someone else’s stuff (a book about yoga retreats in India), I blew.  But when I answered one spammer like this:

 “I would be happy to write about and promote your book after receiving payment for my writing.  I suggest a minimum payment of $2,500.00 to promote your book.  Since I have been writing my blog since 2005 and have a strong and loyal following of hundreds of global yoga practitioners, I think $2,500.00 is a small price to pay for my being your “agent”, so to speak, to publicize your new book.  Should you wish to discuss payment, please feel free to contact me at this email address.”

Apparently the snark was too much for some sensitive types because someone wrote on this blog’s Facebook page, “Unfolding you.  Want to hear about yoga, not profits…that particular line of sarcasm just isn’t part of my journey right now.  Namaste.”

Oh, well.  Ya can’t please everyone.  As a former boss (attorney) used to tell me, “fuck ‘em if they can’t take a joke.”

Namaste.

So for those who want me to write about your yoga product — PAY ME.   I won’t write for free, in fact, from what I hear, free-lance writers are very pissed off about the lack of or extremely low pay for writing.

Even though on paper this year it looks like I broke even (finally) on my business after 10 years, I actually have LESS money in my bank account because my tax refund was less because I made more money last year.  A Catch-22. 

So I need the rupees, the dough, the moolah, the dinero.

Or send me the cool clothes that you ask me to write about because the other day I pulled on some yoga pants that I bought in 2002.

A few years ago one yoga product company contacted me about shilling spreading the word about their product.  I said I would if they would send their products for the women I taught at the domestic violence shelter.  Never heard from them.  And never received any yoga products.

And those workshops and retreats and trainings you want me to advertise for you?  Only if you advertise my yoga retreat for next year.  In fact, my retreat from this year is how I made money to break even, NOT from teaching.

As the New Age Yoga Hipsters like to say, it’s all just an exchange of energy, keeping things balanced in the Universe, ya know what I mean?

Divine Tit for Divine Tat.

C’mon.  Movie stars at the awards shows get swag bags just for showing up.

finding my tribe

godsNgoddesses

Recently my Kali Sister, Svasti, wrote about finding her tribe.  I can certainly relate to that.  That has pretty much been the story of my life. usually an outsider, always the loner.  I’m that person whom when you first meet me you think I’m a bitch or creepy because I don’t do small talk, never have.  I’m a hard nut to crack.  A former boss told me a very long time ago that those who give up or who don’t want to make the effort aren’t worthy to be in my life anyway.  My nickname used to be Loba (Spanish feminine for wolf) because as I was told, wolves and wild women are always misunderstood.

This relates to the tarot card reading I had last week.   Besides what I wrote about the reader was emphatic when she told me that I should “be ready” when I get back from India because I will “need” to find a bigger space for teaching, she was certain of it.   Whether it is enlarging my home shala, renting space, collaborating with someone,  whatever it is, she said it will happen.  And yesterday it fell into my lap.

Yesterday I met a former student now yoga teacher for coffee.  We had a lovely discussion and she said she had a theory about me (I love hearing people’s theories about me), that I am not a “pushing” teacher but a “pulling” teacher.  By “pushing” she meant the type of teacher who is always telling you to take their classes, filling your in box with emails about workshops, etc.

In her opinion a “pulling” teacher draws you in by virtue of, well, by not doing the things a pushing teacher does.  Students find a pulling teacher on their own, kind of like a resonance, radar, synchronicity, whatever you want to call it.  I thought about what she said and realized that my home shala students are just like that because they’ve been with me almost since Day One of my teaching over 10 years ago.

This woman only took 16 weeks of yoga with me more than a few years ago at a place where I no longer teach but she said she never lost sight of me, she always followed my doings.  We reconnected because she invited me to take her class, a class specifically for belly dancers as she is one herself.  Her teaching was lovely, the real deal, it wasn’t scripted, it was honest and smart.  She is a new teacher but not a “new” teacher if you know what I mean.  She is already seasoned and has marinated for a while and long time readers of this blog know what I mean by how yoga marinates us.

The space where she teaches is inside a belly dance studio that is inside a holistic center in an old, rehabbed building (read: “with character and good energy”) in an area where I used to teach.  The holistic center offers energy work, acupuncture, holistic chiropractic care, among other things.  When I walked in I was greeted immediately by the person at the door with warmth and laughter and the building had nice, uplifting energy.  The yoga teacher who had the space for a number of years left (from what I hear she couldn’t make a go of it for whatever reason) and my friend suggested me to the belly dance studio operator.  She then connected us on Facebook and before I had a chance to respond, the proprietress contacted me.  We will start discussions and if it’s meant to be when I return in April, it’s meant to be, I’m open.

What does this have to do with finding my tribe?  That I should find my own tribe is something my astrologer first told me years ago, even before I went to India the first time.  It’s in my natal chart plain as day.  The longer I teach, the more I realize the so-called yoga community is not my tribe, but there is nothing negative in that idea.  It just is.  Unfortunately some in my local yoga scene think that if you’re not with us, you’re against us.   No, not so because I’ve never been part of mainstream anything.  I’ve always walked to a different drummer, you say go right and I go left.  It’s probably why I’ve never had any desire to attend any type of yoga fest.

Without getting into any specifics I’ve heard a plethora of stories lately about people in my local yoga scene, stories about teachers and owners, the usual yoga studio drama yama, all of which makes me uber-glad once again that I teach out of my house.  It also makes me glad that I am leaving for India a week from this Sunday.  As a friend told me, “I bet you can’t wait to leave.”

So given the stories I’ve heard lately and one thing that happened to me just this week (again, no specifics), Kali Ma gave me a slap upside the head as She is prone to do.  Boom Shiva!  I thought, it ain’t the yoga peeps, baby, it never was, my tribe is other energy workers (why the serious call last year to learn more energy healing?) and dancers (since I connect with dance as much as I do with yoga.)

Coincidence about the possible space?  I think not.

Boom laka laka laka, I’m gonna take it higher.

yoga for the revolution

“Why this cult of speed?

Because we don’t know how to deal with our mortality.”

This quote from The Slow Revolution video is one of the main reasons why I believe people find it so hard to sit for meditation, for any amount of time.  Even three minutes of stillness is interminable  to many, including yoga teachers.

But they don’t know that’s the reason.  Peel those onion layers away.

The Slow Revolution

The realization that I am a freak — I like to think iconoclast — in the yoga scene in my area of far west suburban Chicago hit me on the head like a shovel last week.   If you can’t label it and package it, then you can’t sell it.   Simple.  That’s Marketing 101.

Happy to  be on the cutting edge of the slow yoga movement.  My students and I are revolutionaries and have been for a long time now.

But the revolution will not be televised because it happens within.

de-culturing Yoga: Or, “You say asana, I say assana”

sadhus (yogis) at the Kumbh Mela, Haridwar, 2010

I’m a fan of The Babarazzi and of this post in particular:  Is De-Culturing Yoga an Act of Good Faith or a Promotion of Xenophobic Ideology? /// A Light and Easy Subject

There is a great discussion going on in the comments and I liked this one in particular.  A commenter said:

“There is a similar “secularizing” trend in Buddhism these days and some thought provoking articles in the Fall issue of Tricycle.  A quote from one:

“We reassure ourselves that the changes we’ve made in Buddhism are all for the best — that Buddhism has always adapted itself to every culture it enters, and we can trust it to adapt wisely to the West. But this treats Buddhism as if it were a conscious agent — a wise amoebic force that knows how to adapt to its environment in order to survive. Actually, Buddhism isn’t an agent and it doesn’t adapt. It gets adapted — sometimes by people who know what they’re doing, sometimes by people who don’t. Just because a particular adaptation survives and prevails doesn’t mean that it’s genuine dharma. It may simply appeal to the desires and fears of its target audience… Is a designer dharma what we really want?… People sometimes argue that in our diverse, postmodern world we need a postmodern Buddhism in which no one’s interpretation can be criticized as wrong.  But that’s trading the possibility of total freedom from suffering for something much less: the freedom from criticism…” -Thanissaro Bhikkhu

Replace the word “Buddhism” with “yoga” and tell me how it reads then.  As Thanissaro Bhikku asks, is a designer dharma Yoga what we really want?

More than a few yoga bloggers have written about the commodification or the cultural appropriation of yoga in the West.  Another commenter to the above Babarazzi post said, “In tonight’s class the teacher invited us to pantomime Hindu deities (i.e. “Kali” = squat and bring arms up and growl like lil’ grizzly bears; “Ganesh” = make an elephant’s trunk with our arms ; “Shiva” = stand on one leg and pretend to play the flute).”  Actually, the last one would be Krishna not Shiva.  Wonder if the teacher actually said Shiva.  Yikes.

I stopped saying namaste at the end of my classes when I came back from India the first time because I learned it does not mean “I bow to the light within you” or “the Divine in me honors the Divine in you” or “I honor the [fill in the blank] in you” or whatever the latest interpretation is.  After my first trip, saying it at the end of my class did not feel true to me anymore, it felt false, but that’s me.  Hey, you say po-TA-toe, I say po-TAY-toe.  As my friend Caroline says, “Don’t fold your hands and say ‘Namaste.’  Nobody does that, and if someone does, it means they have earmarked you as a naïve foreigner.”   Caroline lives in India.   People do not say it where I go because Tamil is spoken, not Hindi.

There was a short discussion on the use of namaste in my last training with Ganesh Mohan.  Every morning he led a practice and at the end said a simple “thank you” — as the teachers at the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram say at the end of class; they never say namaste, the Westerners do.  The teacher I certified with also does not say namaste at the end of class; again, he simply thanks us.  I’ve wondered how namaste-ing at the end of a Western yoga class started.

When Ganesh said “thank you”, some of the students responded with namaste.  Ganesh smiled and said, “about that namaste….” and began to explain that at its most basic it means “hello.”   So why would I say hello at the END of my class?  I open my workshops with a big NAMASTE and I bow.

He said nama means “to bow” and te is the familiar form of “you”, just like there is the familiar and formal uses of “you” in Spanish, tu and usted.   However, he explained, in India one would not say namaste to an elder or to someone who is, shall we say, higher on the economic scale, that in fact, they would be insulted and might even get angry.  Better to say namaskar, Ganesh said.

After the explanation the students were silent for a few moments.  Then someone said, “well, another thing we’ve appropriated.”

Yeah, kinda.

I recite the four Brahma Viharas at the end of my classes:

May all beings have happiness and the causes of happiness.
May all beings be free from suffering and the cases of suffering.
May all beings never be parted from freedom’s true joy.
May all beings be free from attachment and aversion.

and then…

OM MANI PADME HUM
SHANTI, SHANTI, SHANTIH

And I bow and thank them.

Peace and gratitude….good things to leave class with.

just yoga

Conversation with two 20-something women at the Bernalillo New Mexico Wine Fest, Labor Day, 2012…as I sit on the ground in Cowface Pose (bottom half only.)

20s:  “Do you do yoga?”

Me:  “Yes, I’m a teacher.”

20s:  “Cool!  We thought you did yoga because of the way you’re sitting.”

Me:  <smile>

20s:  “What type of yoga so you teach?  Hot yoga or vinyasa?”

Me:  “Just yoga.  Hatha.”

20s:  <confused looks>

Me:  “I’m old school.  I study in India.”

20s:  “Cool!  So do you study hot yoga or vinyasa?”

Me:  “Just yoga.  Hatha.”

20s:  “So what do you think of hot yoga?”

Me:  <smile>  “I’m old school.”

20s:  “Respect….we give you respect…”

…as they both give me knowing nods and light their cigarettes.

“Working Out My Karma: Struggling to Find My Dharma On and Off the Yoga Mat”

Here is another guest post by writer, friend, and yoga student Sarah Militz-Frielink.  You can read the first post she wrote for LYJ entitled The Illusion of When.

Sarah was inspired to write this post after becoming disillusioned with the corporatized yoga that is currently playing in the modern American yoga scene.

If you like Sarah’s style, contact her at sarah (at) leavingdark (dot) com if you need a writer.  Sarah said that she is finally getting back into spiritual writing and is thinking of starting her own online non-profit magazine.

Enjoy, and comments welcome!

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It seems like just yesterday, I signed up for my first yoga class at the local park district down the street from my house.  That was eight years ago, and I have been practicing pretty much regularly to this day.  At the time, I had no idea what I signed up for or what a genuine yoga practice should look like.  I never anticipated all the challenges I would encounter along the way.  Probably motivated by the wrong reasons to try yoga, my underlying goal was to shed 30 pounds of baby weight that still clung to my body.  I had just given birth to my third child.  I was definitely lacking the spiritual discipline a true practice actually involved.  I just wanted results.  I did not know that a beautiful path lie before me where I would have to confront my own karma and struggle to find my dharma.

I guess I bought into the corporatized version of yoga: hot, sweaty, skinny, bodies on a mat glowing with a renewed sense of beauty, a calmer demeanor, and a compulsion to eat vegan.  When I use the term “corporatized yoga”, I am referencing the images that dominate all things yoga in magazines, commercials, DVDs, props, mats, and books.  Media and pop culture bombards us with a plethora of images—pictures of hot, upper-middle class blond females, doing handstands with ease.  And then there are the magazine photos boasting post-practice smiles plastered on flawless porcelain faces as the “model” promotes a new sport drink or yoga pants line. These images do not reflect a genuine yoga practice, one that seeks to unite the “human with the divine—all within the self” as the ancient yogis instruct us to do.

During my journey, I realized that these images conveyed a false sense of hope, one based in consumerism, vanity, and prejudice.  As if all bodies on yoga mats should look the same, as if all people who do yoga are skinny, blond, vegan, and Zen-like.  What’s worse is that these images brainwash Americans into thinking what yogis should look like or act like. If someone does not fit the norm, they are questioned along the way.  This is what I call a “yogaism” a belief that those who practice yoga should conform to the norms of the corporatized yogi image and a discrimination against those who do not.

For example, I was once asked why I didn’t act enlightened all the time.  My coworker thought people who do yoga and meditate were like Buddha every second of the day.  “How come you aren’t calm all the time? I don’t get why you do yoga and are not in a continuous state of serenity.”

“That’s one of the reasons why I do yoga now,” I told him. “Because I have recognized over the years how much anxiety I had that I wasn’t even aware of; I know I’m not calm all the time.  Enlightenment is a process; it ebbs and flows.”

My coworker then responded that he disagreed with my statement about enlightenment. The people he knew who had a true yoga practice were always that way.  They were never anxious and always enlightened.  My practice then must be a sham.

I laugh now looking back on this. Who were these yogis he knew who were in a constant state of enlightenment?  Maybe he confused the ones in yoga magazine for real people in the flesh.  Maybe he knew yoga masters who practice in a monastery on a mountaintop because last time I checked we were all human and subject to moments of fallibility.

Yet on and off the mat, I am still working out my karma, struggling to find my dharma as I continue to question what a genuine practice should look like.  I now know a bit about what a genuine practice does not look like.   A genuine practice is not limited to hot, skinny, blond females, who are in a semi-drugged state of yoga bliss.   A genuine practice does not come easily.  It isn’t about increased flexibility or weight-loss.  There are times when you confront your own demons on the mat.  You realize that you have unforgiveness stored in your heart chakra.  You learn to love yourself and in the process love others as you slowly release pain from this life and (at times) the pain from previous lives.

A genuine practice does not boost your self-esteem.  You are humbled at the limitations of the human condition as you practice your poses.  You become aware of how you sell yourself out every day as a consumer in cultural capitalism.  How small acts of kindness (i.e. donating a pair of shoes to an impoverished child in Guatemala) do not change the system (i.e. the child still lives in hideous poverty).

You develop an increased sense of social responsibility as you come to grips with the excesses of the American lifestyle. The eco-friendly mat and water bottle no longer seems to compensate for the size your carbon footprint.

This is what I have learned about a genuine yoga practice.  It should not be based in a “yogaism”—one that excludes overweight individuals, persons of color, or working class individuals. Yoga should embrace all kinds of people who are different shapes, sizes, and colors.  Yoga is about making peace with self and others and embracing who we are—both on and off the mat.

my vinyasa root guru

In Mahayana Buddhism there is the tradition of the “root guru”, someone from whom we receive the teachings directly.  My root guru in Mahayana Buddhism is Gelek Rimpoche.  I will always consider Srivatsa Ramaswami my root guru in vinyasa krama yoga.

I first met Ramaswamiji in 2003 or 2004 at the Chicago studio where I certified as a teacher.  I was a very newbie teacher and he was teaching a weekend workshop, his first time in Chicago.  The Friday night was the “Yoga of Sound” and it was advertised that over the weekend he would teach special vinyasa sequences that had not been taught in America.  I was intrigued because even that early in my teaching I had started to research places to study yoga in India.

Ramaswamiji is considered a chant master in India and the Friday night Yoga of Sound was all about chanting.  It was the first time I heard vedic chants sung in the traditional way and it cracked open my heart in a way that Krishna Das or Jai Uttal could never do, and still don’t.  I drove home weeping all the way.  I knew I had found my teacher and Ramaswamiji put me on the path to study at the Krishnamacharya Yoga Madiram.   When I saw my name in the Acknowledgement of his book The Complete Book of Vinyasa Yoga  I cried again because I did not even think he knew my name,

For me, Ramaswamiji is a true yogi, nothing more needs to be said.  In 2011 he is much more well known than he was when I first met him when barely anyone knew the name of the student who studied the longest with Krishnamacharya.  He now teaches a 200 hour teacher training at Loyola Marymount in Los Angeles and the video below is about the training.  In the beginning you will hear his wonderful chanting and there is a short interview with him.  The rest of the video consists of students giving their impressions of Ramaswami and the training.

I thought it interesting towards the end of the video when a student said that she had been doing yoga for a few years but had never done yoga that had such a complete emphasis on the breath.  When a new student comes to me that is also usually the first thing they say to me after the first class, how emphasis on the breath totally changed their practice.  I have studied in this lineage for a long time so comments like that always make me go hmmmmmmm…….because what exactly is being taught in teacher trainings nowadays?  Is emphasis on the breath considered an “advanced” practice to be taught in a 300 hour training because if that is the case I have to wonder about that.  Breathing is basic, from Class #1, as soon as you step on the mat.  Every movement is initiated with an inhale or an exhale, mindfully, I don’t know any other way to teach.  Conscious breathing IS pranayama.  When I hear comments like that student’s it confirms my belief that yoga in American IS different compared to where I study in India.

Maybe I should try teaching my “Yoga of Krishnamacharya” workshop again.  Years ago when I taught at a studio I offered it for yoga teachers and well-seasoned practitioners only.  I was going to talk about the vinyasa krama method and offer a practice for shoulderstand.  I thought at least teachers would be interested in learning about the Source Scholar of Yoga, the teacher of Iyengar, Jois, and Desikachar.  No one signed up.

Just call me old-school.

“Asanas are yogic postures – stable and comfortable. Vinyasas are aesthetic breath oriented movements within those exquisite yoga poses.” — Srivatsa Ramaswami

“Asana will make the body light.
Pranayama strengthens prana.
Dharana purifies the intellect.
Meditation purifies the mind.” — Sri T. Krishnamacharya

“Nowadays, the practice of yoga stops with just asanas.  Very few even attempt dharana and dhyana [deeper meditation] with seriousness.  There is a need to search once more and reestablish the practice and value of yoga in modern times.” — Sri T. Krishnamacharya (excerpt from “Krishnamacharya: His Life and Teachings” by A. G. Mohan)

karma yoga and yoga community

October is Domestic Violence Awareness month and before it ends I want to make you aware of statistics on domestic violence.  This is a post I wrote last year with things that may shock you.  Or not.

The yoga fundraiser on Saturday was a success in that a dozen people attended (mostly my students and others who know me) and once the cash is doubled by a private charitable trust, the shelter will receive a little over $1,000.  Included in that amount is a check for $300 sent by a woman who took a few classes with me a long time ago because she could not attend the fundraiser but she would “be there in spirit.”  Nice!

I met with the shelter director during the summer and we talked about starting a weekly yoga program, but at this point in time there is no money for it (I only teach one night a month.)  People always ask me, “why don’t they just apply for a grant so they can pay you?”  The shelter recently received a $20,000 grant from the Mary Kay Foundation and this is what the director told me about that:

“The $20,000 is general operating money that is really just filling a hole we had where we had lost funding over the last couple of years.  We are still running with a skeleton crew that are stretched way too thin.  On top of that, they have not gotten even a cost of living increase in over 3 years.  So that is my first priority as far as funding goes…then I can start thinking about new projects and expanding different projects.  The grant writer is still looking for money specific to a new and innovative way to help victims.”

“A new and innovative way to help victims” means my yoga program.  And so it goes.  And that’s why I do a fundraiser for the shelter.

For about a month before the fundraiser I busted my asana trying to get the word out — emails to local papers, emails to local yoga peeps, tweeting, Facebook, posting flyers in health food stores and coffeehouses, etc.  I understand now how people working for non-profits get burned out.  The owner of the dance studio where the fundraiser was held did a great job getting the word out, she put a flyer into everyone’s hand who came into the studio.  The Nia and dance community also helped spread the the word.  But one group was conspicuous by their absence, in fact, their silence was  deafening.  Need I say it?  The local community of yoga teachers.

I’m beginning to think that use of the phrase “yoga community” should be banned because it’s basically meaningless — at least where I live, but your mileage may vary.  The phrase is used (overused?) in the yoga blogosphere when people write about a group of teachers and/or students getting together for a cause.  My own “yoga community” (which will forever be placed in quotes) is relatively small and most teachers know of or personally know each other.  Hell, me and 7 other yoga teachers use the same massage therapist so every month I get the local yoga 411.

But it never fails to amaze me when a group of people that speaks so much about seva and karma yoga, and who think Seane Corn and Russell Simmons are so cool to occupy Wall Street, can be silent about something going on in their own locale, for a local cause.  To quote two yoga teacher friends (one who attended and one who helped spread the word every week, both who also consider themselves yoga outsiders), they were “amazed” and “horrified” that despite knowing about a yoga fundraiser for a local women’s issue, there was little interest shown by local teachers.  I did hear from two (out of the 20+ teachers who got my email blast) who told me they were sorry they could not attend.

Why is this so-called “yoga community” that is coveted so much so elusive?

Believe me, I get the fact that everyone has their own favorite cause that they donate to, my cause isn’t your cause, but that’s not the point at all.  I don’t care if someone donates $1.00 or $100, support is given in ways other than money.  Sometimes time and interest are more precious than dollar bills.  Don’t support someone expecting to get something in return.  I mean, really?  Read the Gita.  That does not even karmically compute.  Sometimes you do things to help, unasked.  Just ’cause it’s the right thing to do.

The kicker was when a local teacher who was a Facebook “friend” deleted my comment about the fundraiser and defriended me.  Wow.  Didn’t know promoting seva is such an evil thing to do.  She had posted on her FB page about an event at the local studio that was in the evening on the same day as the fundraiser.  I commented something to the effect, “don’t forget about the yoga fundraiser: karma yoga, go out to dinner, then go to the event.”  That was it.  Innocuous.  The thing is, I’ve known this teacher for about 7 years, I’ve been in her class, she’s been in mine, not friends (as I don’t use that term loosely), but acquaintances, knowing the same local yoga peeps.  Delete.  Defriend.  Uh, what?!?  The irony was that she had sent me a message a few weeks earlier about how important domestic violence issues are to her and she wanted to donate money.  Guess I’m not getting that dough now.

With one of the themes being superficiality, I always loved the way Burl Ives’ character in the movie Cat on a Hot Tin Roof spit out the word mendacity as something unacceptable.

When another blog reader posted this on my FB wall, I had to chuckle.  Good in theory, in practice, maybe not so much:  “hold a fundraising event for a local charity…the success of working and coming together to do something good close to home creates a perfect opportunity for students to connect with one another.”

Over the the past month I’ve had a good think about this whole “yoga community” idea/ideal that is perpetrated in the we’re-all-one-big-happy-kula, kumbaya.  It is something that some yoga person somewhere is always telling us to strive for, i.e., the collective yoga thang.  Buddhists refer to it as sangha.  The Universe must be sending me messages because just when I needed to hear it, I received another email from a relatively new reader in Canada.  The writer told me that while her yoga journey is not as seasoned as my own, she does know that “the ‘yoga community’ is the one you create, in your heart and in your space.  I only allow those that resonate my values into my space.”  Very wise.  And true.

I will also take the words of my Sister Kali Grrl, Svasti, to heart:  “work at defusing your road rage, and/or all those little things that niggle you in life. The stuff that makes you snarky, snippy or snappy at yourself/others on your bad days. Because my lovelies, THAT is all inflammation. And too much inflammation will make you sick.”   Because Svasti and others who resonate my values ARE my yoga community, my sangha, and it’s not necessarily where I live.  It was serendipitous to also read that “real communities live because of a passion that is shared by those who belong to it. And when it’s strong enough, that community can exist anywhere.”

I’m universal, and I forgot, for a short time, when I was at my lowest yet again, my passion all wrung out, that I am indeed swimming in grace.

In the end, does any of it really matter, that is, is it really important to me who gives a damn?  Maybe, maybe not, but a wise friend told me a long time ago, “stay passionate and keep holding that mirror up because somebody’s got to do it.”

But if you see Seane Corn, tell her to put her money where her mouth is and send a yoga sister some healthy bucks from her organization to start a weekly yoga program at the shelter.

Kumbaya, y’all.