Is your personal political? Yoga in the Age of Trump

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In 2010 I wrote a post entitled “in review, the personal is still political.”

My piece — STILL one of my most read posts thank you very much — was about the then and still hot topic of nudity in Yoga when Judith Lasater wrote to Yoga Journal about nakedness in Toesox ads.  Yawn if you must but it’s still a hot topic if you follow the YWS (young-white-skinny) Instagram yogalebrities.

Now America has President Trump, the most uniquely unqualified president this country has ever had.

I was in India last year when he was elected and after the results I was physically ill for three days.  I knew it wasn’t Delhi Belly.  But I had to suck it up because I had a yoga retreat to teach and we were going through the rupee crisis (PM Modi declared 500 and 1000 rupee notes worthless) at the same time so I had to keep my shit together for my students.  At least there was an American couple at the resort who were also as depressed and disgusted as I was and we commiserated and drank a lot together, wishing we didn’t have to go back to a Trumpian America.

There hasn’t been one day since 45 was elected that hasn’t been a nightmare.  He can’t go one day without tweeting or saying something incredibly nonsensical, racist, or war mongering.  NOT.  ONE.  DAY.

Travel bans.
Transgender ban in the military.
Muslims.
Building the Wall.
Mexicans who are bad hombres and rapists.
Destroying Affordable Care Act.
Women’s reproductive rights.
Charlottesville’s “fine people” neo-Nazis.
Colin Kaepernick and taking a knee.
Right to free speech.
Misogyny.
Racism.
Collusion with Russia.
Threatening North Korea with fire and fury.

MUELLER, CAN YOU JUST HURRY THE FUCK UP?!

But I digress.

What got me thinking more about all of this was the brouhaha white tears over the “take a knee” politics over the weekend and my watching the Ken Burns’ PBS special on the Vietnam War on TV right now.  Especially since I haven’t been told “America, love it or leave it” since I demonstrated against the Vietnam War.  Told on Facebook.  By white people.  Only back in the day I was told, “America, love it or leave it, hippie slut bitch.”

I grew up during the 1960s.  I was in high school from 1968-1972, when the war was at its worst and the US was also bombing Cambodia and Laos (unbeknownst to Americans at that time.)  Watching the show I remembered how I became so politicized in 1968 at such a young age, only 14.

OK, I wasn’t a typical 14 year old, whatever “typical” means to you.  I always felt different.  In 6th grade I read on a college level.  I read the Encyclopedia Britannica (yes, really) by the time I was 10.  I wanted to be a paleontologist when I grew up.  On my last day in the 8th grade the teacher asked us what we were going to do during our summer before going to high school.  I told her I was running away to live in Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco.  I ran away, but it wasn’t at 14.

I wanted to know about everything like yesterday.  I was aware that there was something out there bigger than my little spot in the all white southwest side piece of Chicago where I grew up.  For one thing, there were race issues in Chicago.

News did not come from Facebook or from 140 character tweets.  There were no accusations about fake news.  You believed the newscasters because they were middle of the road.  Hearing the American troop and enemy death counts and watching the war’s gore daily on the news (which would never happen now) affected me.  In 1968 both Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated.  After Dr. King was assassinated Chicago had its riots just like other cities did — “they burned down the west side!”  Then there was the Democratic Convention in Chicago in 1968 that was termed a police riot.   I was too young to hit the streets but I watched the Chicago police bust open hippie heads and drag limp bodies down the street to throw into paddy wagons.  I thought, those hippies look like me, that could be me if I was out there.

Then there was Kent State in 1970.  I was a sophomore in high school.  Still a hippie, still hanging with older students and listening to their perspectives, aware of what was going on in the world.  How could one not be?  Or not care?  Those dead college students, if I was old enough, it could have been me.

Those were the two political turning points in my young life that politicized, indeed, radicalized, me.  Then I moved out when I was 18 and never looked back.  Demonstrated and protested as much as I could.

The Chicago 7 trial,  the Vietnam war, the first Earth Day, women’s liberation marches, the failed Equal Rights Amendment, reproductive rights in the 1970s pre-Roe v. Wade, marching for farm workers, I was in the thick of it.

Because of all that I lived through I believe America in the Age of Trump is as divided now as it was back then.  I see many who are culturally clueless (i.e., living in a bubble and living in fear) despite how vastly different information is spread compared to 50 years ago.  I still believe in the hippie idea that if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.  But that’s me.

Is your personal political?  I ask because a Facebook friend, a yoga teacher in Belgium, posed this question yesterday:

“This is a simple inquiry, based on what I have seen over the last few days coming from the US.

A lot of yoga teachers have reacted in their own ways about taking a knee, being supportive of the athletes and sharing pictures and articles, or in their own look-at-me ways, but ok.

And I am wondering, sincerely: where is Yoga Alliance? I mean, this is an organization that has been so vocal and present, with such good marketing that they have managed to have people believe that Yoga Alliance is the end-all-be-all of yoga organizations. … Should they say something?

I know I know, yoga is not a sport, and Yoga Alliance is currently “celebrating diversity in yoga”, soooo… should they stick to it and “stay on their lane” or rise to the occasion?”

Is being a Yogi and being political mutually exclusive?  Is Yoga political?

In India right now it is and I believe not in a good way.  It’s the reason I never got behind the hoopla of International Yoga Day.  I don’t believe that it’s all good when something like this can happen.

I suggest that western yoga peeps read up on Prime Minister Modi and Hindutva right wing politics.   Or spend more time in India than at a foo-foo two week yoga retreat or month long teacher training protected from reality before jumping on the It’s All Good Namaste bandwagon.  Salman Rushdie has said that Modi makes Trump look like an amateur.  Modi is a devoted yogi.  In India now one is forced to stand for the Indian national anthem when played before movies start in theaters.  If you don’t stand you can be arrested.

India is a democracy as America claims to be (actually founded as a Republic but I won’t split hairs.)   I guess people don’t understand that if you’re forced to stand to show “patriotism,” that’s a dictatorship.  Like North Korea.

In this old protester’s opinion, Yoga Alliance can stay out of it.  I don’t give a rat’s ass what YA has to say about anything other than yoga.  YA is a registry for yoga teachers, nothing more, nothing less.  They don’t need to get political.  They do nothing for me.

Because WE need to get political, individually, now.  Well, if you give a shit.  If you’re exhausted by what’s going on, I don’t blame you.  I am some days.  But being colorblind is not a virtue.  

I believe that the one good thing that has happened since the election is that the closet racists have come out of the rotten woodwork.  Trump made them find their cojones.  Of course Obama was hung in effigy for 8 years but now it’s Trump’s America where he tweets more about his disgust for African-American football players exercising their First Amendment rights than his outrage over neo-Nazis in Charlottesville.

Mind blown by the racism and ignorance I’ve read in comments made by the friends of a FB friend and not getting shut down by him.  One (self-proclaimed proud white) man said that white privilege is a false narrative and that the US is the most non-discriminatory country in the world.  Let that sink in and then multiply that opinion by millions.  MILLIONS.

FUCK.  THAT.  SHIT.

Maybe on the individual level not every Trump voter is an overt racist.  But they were more than fine with voting for one.  That’s like going to a Klan rally and not burning the cross but they sure as hell brought the matches and stood by and watched it burn.

So….

Fuck Right Speech.

Fuck the “Female Lifestyle Empowerment Brand” (sounds like a good thing but it’s not) that is a “marketing strategy that leverages social status and white privilege to create authority over other women.”

And fuck spiritual white women who don’t take a stand on white supremacy.

Layla Saad:  “Many so-called leaders in the online business world tell us that their work is about changing the world, leading revolutions and transforming people’s lives. And yet… in the face of racism and injustice they say next to nothing or simply re-share someone else’s inspirational meme.”

Preach, woman.

Because this time, the revolution WILL be televised.

It has to be.

“Being “nice” is not a Buddhist practice.  Being kind is.  It doesn’t always mean telling people what they are comfortable hearing.  For example, acknowledging the structural depth of white privilege and supremacy in America and elsewhere is not comfortable.  But if our society has a future, overcoming white supremacy is a practice we need to lean into immediately.” – Ethan Nichtern

 

life in these Yoga States (apologies to the Reader’s Digest)

WARNING: GUARANTEED TO PISS OFF SOMEBODY SOMEWHERE

yoga studio owner

There are many things in this world that make me go hmmm……and one of them is the way yoga teachers are treated.

My long-time readers know why I no longer teach weekly classes in studios and you can read my sorry stories here.    But over the years of writing this blog I’ve received emails from both teachers and students venting about things in their own little corners of the yoga world.   I’m a bit overwhelmed that people trust me enough to share their feelings so openly with me, someone they only know via this blog.

Of course there are good, thoughtful, and compassionate studio owners, the majority I’m sure.   Of course I have been treated well and fairly and I respect many studio owners and count them as friends.  It’s tough to be self-employed and run any business and I am sure owners have many complaints about teachers — I’ve heard owners’ stories about teachers not showing up to teach.  After more than a few years I have ventured into teaching a public class again not at a yoga studio but at a belly-dance studio and I love it because it’s a very different vibe.

But unfortunately in my experience and in the experience of those who write or tell me things, the ill treatment of teachers by owners is, let’s just say, something special.  Weird.  Puzzling.  Passive-aggressive.  Even diabolical sometimes.  Should the yoga biz be any different from the real world?  I’ll get to that.

I know a teacher who went to the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram for private classes.  She shared what she learned in the asana classes with her students.  She told her students “this is what I learned in India” and she said her students loved the practices.  Well, all except for one student.   In the teacher’s words:

“Students were eager to learn and experience for themselves the KYM style of yoga.

They embraced it even though it had a different rhythm. Many said that it was simpler and they felt more responsible for their practice and found that they were able focus on their breath and breath as they repeated poses on their own.  A student from another teacher dropped into my class one day and didn’t like this different style and thus reported back to other students in her regular classes and ultimately the studio owner that they did not like the way I was teaching my class.  Don’t get me wrong, everyone is entitled to their opinion and free to go to the class of their choosing with a teacher that they resonate with.  However, when this unconstructive, third hand feedback was shared with me by the studio owner there was an implication that what I was doing was wrong or bad or strange or something – just not preferred by her students.  OK, whatever.” **

From a Canadian yoga teacher:

“The studio owners came to me and asked me to change the style of yoga I was teaching as they were moving towards a branded style of yoga.  As a yoga teacher with 10 years experience and a specific training that involves pranayama and therapy in asana, I said I could probably change some things about my class (i.e., create a similar class that was a more challenging level of practice and make the class more of a flow class), but not change the focus on meditation in my class, the seated and focused pranayama at beginning and end, and the attention paid to mantra. 

This conversation was conducted over email and the owner’s  response was that my classes were not at threat, but that she would like me to attend her training sessions in order to teach her new style of yoga.  I told her I could not attend as they were half day workshops on Saturdays, I already taught two back-to-back classes on Saturdays, and that would mean I would be away from my family for 6-8 hours on Saturdays.

After this discussion my pay checks stop coming.  I did not get paid for 2.5 months by this studio.  I vocalized my disapproval in a series of professional emails.  On the cusp of the third month of not being paid for my three classes a week, I was finally paid and with this pay told I was no longer needed to teach at the studio.  They gave me two days notice.  They told me not to come back to the studio.  They told my students I left for personal reasons.  I later found out I was not the only teacher treated so poorly. 

The studio is a hot yoga studio with three locations.   I was told I was being let go because I had created a feeling of resistance in their peaceful studio space.  In fact, I had tried to comply to the studio owner’s wishes without compromising my own unique qualities as a teacher.   In the end, it was for the best that my relationship with this studio ended as my service was not best suited for the space.” **

Yes, we’re all human, we each have our foibles and shadow selves and crazy ass shit we deal with, but somehow, at least in my opinion, the yoga studio should be a little bit different from the usual shit in the corporate world or wherever a yoga teacher comes from.  Dare I say it, a “sacred” space?  A little kinder?  A calming respite from the usual shit we deal with on a daily basis?   Yamas, anyone?  If I wanted to be screamed at and treated like a peon, I’d still work for lawyers.  OK, my 20 years in the legal biz wasn’t THAT bad, but you get the idea.  Probably one of the reasons why the sadhus go live in caves in India.

In the first example, on another occasion the owner told the teacher that some people in her class did not like the 20 minutes of yin yoga she tried in her class.   What is the purpose of telling a teacher that students don’t like what you’re teaching?  Because the owner thinks the teacher should change her teaching style?  Or shouldn’t be teaching what she teaches at the studio?  Or maybe because the owner is fearful that students would like the teacher’s class more than hers so it’s a little passive-aggressive put down?  Is it a control thing?  I mean, unless the teacher is incompetent or injures people, but….seems just damn hurtful (spiteful?) to me and isn’t yoga supposed to be empowering for both students and teachers?  But, hell…what do I know?

As the teacher said, the comment was not constructive criticism, only that “someone doesn’t like what you teach.”  OK, fine, so those that don’t like won’t go to the teacher’s class.  But whatever happened to accepting what is offered to you and being grateful?  I have been in many classes and workshops over 15+ years of yoga-ing that I did not particularly care for but always took away a little something.  Teachings are like a bowl of rice — pick out the dirt and eat the rest.

In the second example, if the studio is switching their focus, that’s fine, a business owner is entitled to run their business as they see fit, but why the drama, the non-payment?  Too much drama is one of the reasons I no longer teach public group classes, too much Dramasana in the studios where I’ve taught.  It’s too exhausting and too much of an energy drain.   Soul sucking, in fact.

“The case of acro yoga: is it yoga or not?  What say you?”

The above question was asked by a Facebook friend (yoga teacher) on her Facebook page.

I asked the same question here and was blacklisted from teaching workshops at the brand new yoga studio in my town.

I know.  Hard to believe in this land of First Amendment rights.  I felt a little McCarthyized.   I’m waiting for the House Committee on Un-Yogic Activities to investigate me.

The thing was, I was scheduled to teach two weekend workshops last December about two weeks after the studio opened.  The owner never advertised my workshops and they were never listed on her website, which was new and which she said she had no control over.   So without adequate advertising, no one signed up (I had students who wanted to attend but the dates did not work for them and they kept asking me when it would be rescheduled.)  I was fine with no one signing up, we had talked about a new date, but I was a bit irked about the lack of advertising (I advertised on my own via my website, Facebook, word of mouth, and emails.)

The owner said she was going to reschedule me but I waited….and waited….and waited…and waited.  Sent her an email asking to set a new date.  No response and then I left for India.  When I was in India in February I emailed the owner once again about rescheduling.

Here’s what she said:  that “the day we had our phone discussion [about canceling my workshops] you took to your blog attacking studios offering acro yoga.”  That’s why she has not asked me back to the studio.

Uh, what?

I re-read the post (where I write about acro yoga in ONE paragraph) and nowhere do I “attack” any studio so much as question acro yoga in general — as any other yoga blogger commenting on the modern yoga scene might do.  I even asked friends to read it and asked for their opinions.  I received comments such as “beautifully stated”, “thought provoking”, and “grounding.”  As someone said, perception is everything in life.  Deepak Chopra says:  “There is no fixed physical reality, no single perception of the world, just numerous ways of interpreting world views as dictated by one’s nervous system and the specific environment of our planetary existence.”  I get it.  Yeah, me too.

I emailed her back and told her that I have been writing about yoga since 2005 and I don’t “attack” anyone (OK, maybe the Tara Stiles thing three years ago got heated.)  I said I was sorry if she felt attacked but it was her perception.  I said there are other yoga bloggers out there who are much more scathing about the modern yoga scene than I am.  I told her that I comment on the modern yoga scene as I see fit and have been doing so for a long time, much longer than she has been teaching.  I said I am infamous known for having a fierce voice in the yoga blogosphere and for “keeping it real.”  I said that if my blog is not everyone’s cup of chai, so be it, but if someone puts something out there about yoga and I have an opinion about it, I will write about it.

But apparently questioning something means that I “don’t think very highly of practices that aren’t in sync” with mine (her words.)  Today I read the excellent article “The Seduction of Spiritual Celebrity” where Derek Beres writes: that “the dismissal of critique in American spiritual communities is reminiscent of the anti-intellectual crusade that Richard Hofstadter warned about a half-century ago.”  It’s not so much anti-intellectualism, but certainly there is a political correctness in the modern American yoga scene that any criticism is seen as bad, negative, hateful, or that ubiquitous word, “un-yogic.”

C’mon now!  I have a friend who does Bikram yoga and I make fun of her all the time!  And I hate Iyengar yogis!  Those crazy astangis?  Fuhgeddaboudem!

Snark alert!  I’m kidding!

Oh well.  I’d rather take the chance on pissing somebody off than not questioning the status quo.  A good friend told me I was put on this Earth to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.  😉

Ouch.

A wise writer wrote, “I have lost my polestar if I only spout platitudes.”

You can be the juiciest, ripest apple in the world and there’s gonna be someone who just doesn’t dig apples.

[**the teachers gave their permission to write about their stories here.]