oppression

Woke Yoga

Because sometimes I need my calming, nature images to have a little more backbone.    Because I am out of time. I can no longer afford for yoga to only be the feel-good, self-aggrandizing love fest anymore. I need yoga to wake the fuck up. And you may not know it, but you need it too. 

Because sometimes I need my calming, nature images to have a little more backbone.  

Because I am out of time. I can no longer afford for yoga to only be the feel-good, self-aggrandizing love fest anymore. I need yoga to wake the fuck up. And you may not know it, but you need it too. 

On November 8, I went to work, I provided care, I taught a class, and I voted.

I spent that evening and most of November 9 weeping in rage and terror.

I am not gonna talk about why I feel traumatized and betrayed but not surprised. I am not gonna talk about what a painful reminder the 2016 election has been of what our country is, what fear, what hatred, what racism, lives vibrant and healthy in our nation. (because this is current and not just history, fuck history, time moves in a spiral, and history is repeating itself.) 

I can’t believe what you say, because I see what you do.
— James Baldwin

Instead, I wanna talk about how we as yogis respond.

Part of my training as a yoga teacher was more or less this: leave your politics at the door. Your work as a teacher is not about what you think or what you want. It begins and ends with your ability to facilitate safety, growth and healing for every student who walks into your shared learning space. 

It seems pretty sound advice. But I'm not sure it's possible.

My politics can't stay at the door. My politics come with me, in my skin, my eyes, my lips, my hair, my voice. I'd argue the same is true of every teacher in this country, whether we acknowledge it or not, whether we even know it or not. The fact of my body in the room, especially at the "front of the room" has political weight. This is a reality I have no control over. Being a black woman in the seat of the teacher has meaning. That meaning might change depending on who else is in the room with me, but it's not gonna go away, no matter what I wear, what voice I affect, what practice I teach. I'm not afraid of it, and I'm not going to pretend it isn't there. And now, if it's possible, being a black woman in the seat of the teacher has even more meaning, than it did last week. To leave politics at the door is an act of privilege, it's a privilege I don't share, and frankly, I don't think any of us can afford it.

Like many of us, I was all up in my screens during the aftermath of the election--what a strange phrase, "aftermath" like a natural disaster--and in my FB and Instagram feeds were posts from teachers I respect, some I know closely, some I've never met: photos of sunrises and fields of flowers and abstract watercolors: posts about how we're all gonna be okay, how the sun keeps coming up every day and there's a lesson in that for all of us, how the practice is about cultivating equanimity, work without detachment, even when times are tough.

All I could think was, don't fucking tell me it's gonna be okay, don't fucking talk to me about equanimity, don't fucking talk to me about detachment. I don't want to hear about peace and self-care. I fear for my life. I fear for the lives of my clients, and some of my students. Less Shiva on the mountain top, more Kali liberating motherfuckers by chopping off heads.

(I know, scholars, I know. I get that Kali liberates us from our ego, and her destructive force is what helps us not to identify with our bodies. I live in America, where to disengage from my body is to put it at risk of annihilation by a force that doesn't seek my liberation, that only seeks the annihilation of black bodies in America. So just, work with the metaphor.)

It's true, I'm in my feelings in a big way. No, that's not the right language: I feel terrorized by the nation I call home. This feeling is not new. It might lessen in the passing of time, but it will never leave: I'm a black woman in America. If you can't understand why the undercurrent of terror in my existence is real, you have more reading to do. 

I struggle with posts like these, wherein yoga/pranayama/samyama are identified as the tools of healing-as-detachment, because they feel somehow rooted in abandonment. They seem to say, yes, shit is bad, but don't feel that bad here, in the yoga space. Here, you should return to your practice of detachment and ignore all other input. That will be a healing practice for you. I do not believe denial is healing. It's dangerous.

Yoga is not a vacation. It can be restful, but it is not rest. Whatever your effort level, yoga is a constant practice of attention, reflection, and interrogation, and that takes effort. To sell yoga as a place where suddenly politics don't matter, where suddenly part of what you feel and struggle with isn't real anymore, is just dishonest.

If the manifestation of equanimity in your practice means you distance rather than engage with the world around you--if you don't look for ways to actively support the people of color in your life, the Trans* folk, the immigrants, the Muslims, the workers, the women--if it means, white yogis and yoginis, that you are not having difficult conversations with other white yogis and white friends and family about how you reach for those of us on the margins, how you show up for we who are even less safe now, then regardless of what you can do with your breath or your body, your practice is failing you. 

Let me say that again, simpler:

if your practice and its fruits do not motivate you to seek the rights of others in our world to be free, to breathe, to live and work with as much access, freedom, and safety as you have, then your practice is failing you. It is failing you, and failing your community. 

Fuck yes, it is a bold statement.

There's a beckoning tangent here about the history of the yogini as a person on the margin and how we gotta put ourselves where our yoga ancestors began, but instead of following it, I ask, why do we try to soothe so quickly and so certainly after collective trauma? Why do we need to keep telling ourselves and others to calm down, to take care, to take the good and the bad with equal detachment?  Why are we in such a hurry to move people out of their feelings?

I think some of us are afraid of the conflict inherent in politics. Conflict is not serene, it's not equanimous; it's unpredictable, dangerous, potentially damaging, like a power tool in the hands of a toddler. How do we achieve oneness with the Absolute if we've got our knickers in a twist and our blood pressure all hiked up about something? How can I listen for the whisper of the Divine if I'm shouting all the time? Knowing that I'm in conflict with a member of my community makes it harder for me to practice beside them, right? 

I understand. Most of us don't do conflict well enough not to be scared of it. But conflict can be real, powerful, AND deeply compassionate. We can fight for what is right, what is just and even merciful, without hardening our hearts to do so, and without hating or harming our neighbors. We have so many examples of how to do this. Jesus got mad. Jesus flipped tables and marched in streets. He also sat quietly, and he knew how to sacrifice for others. I learned recently that when Martin Luther King was here in Chicago marching with others for fair housing rights, a young white man on the street was spitting and cursing and throwing bottles at him and others. He walked up to this young man and said, "You are too smart and too good looking to be so full of hate." We hold them up as saints now, but they were just humans, like us. It's possible.

I also think it has to be said in our capitalist yoga society, that to publicly acknowledge, avow and affirm opinions that aren't popular with all people can cost you clients. Because politics breed conflict, and because people don't like conflict, if you bring to them rhetoric that challenges them, they won't stay. Or they won't come back. While we as yoga teachers say we want to help others manifest growth, healing and connection, we also want to feed our families and keep our kids in shoes. Right now we are stuck in (complicit in?) a system that grinds us into yoga-sparkle dust trying to do both of these things. And so we have to try not to sacrifice our morals and values in pursuit of earning a living and hope that throwing conscious crumbs before our students is enough, or we choose to sacrifice our values and live with the consequences of that dissonance. (Hint: chronic illness, consistent conflict in relationship, scorn, resentment, contempt and self-hatred are all symptoms of life with that dissonance.) Angela Jamison has written about this brilliantly, beautifully, here, and Mathew Remski's essay in this book makes me want to snatch up a few of my like-minded teachers and do some real radical shit. I can only say that for all the deep, deep, lifelong-lasting love I have for this work, it is unsustainable in its current economic model.

Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.
— Audre Lorde

Some of you are out there asking, "But how? What do I do?"

Sigh. Better writers than me have answered this question for you, and the answers are out there, but you have to find them. Stop posting selfies in your newest pose like it's a pair of shoes, quit scrolling for the next yoga challenge, and go to the library.  

1. Read like a yogini. That is to say, read with skillful attention, and read the stuff you've never read but need to read. Don't ask your friends of color or your LGBTQ friends to build you a reading list, hoping you can use it as a bonding opportunity, and thinking that they'll love to teach you. We/They won't. We love you, but we're all too busy trying not to get harassed or beaten or killed. Need a place to start? HuffPo put this list together, and Bustle put this one together. There's some overlap, but not a ton, so look at both, and there is both fiction and nonfiction, so no excuses. Include this list also, because revolution must be intersectional. Add The Color Purple, and everything written by Audre Lorde. Here's a digital thread of essays via Twitter that can whet your attention. These are not exhaustive lists: there is no paramount list for what to read that makes you an ally. Take control of your education like your very life depends on it. Because it does; millions of lives depend on it. (Also, podcasts: CodeSwitch, Another Round, On Being, Black Girl in Om, these are just a few of my favorites).

2. Listen like a yogini. Just as you would in a challenging posture, breathe and listen to what arises. Find an environment where you're in the minority, white yogini. Start the difficult conversation with someone, with many someones, who are on the margins. Don't burden your friends of color or LGBTQ friends or Muslim friends with your anguish and white liberal guilt; ask them questions that make you uncomfortable, and listen closely to the answers. Don't react or get defensive: this is the equivalent of gripping or forcing in asana. Work compassionately with your boundaries and be courageous. 

3. Own your shit like a yogini. Yoginis see things as they are, and are honest about the reality, whatever it is. When a yogini finally nails that arm balance, she doesn't stand up and crow. She might feel a brief flutter of joy, an instant kiss of samadhi on the forehead, but as soon as she feels it, it's gone, and eventually that arm balance becomes just another pose. When a yogini falls out of a posture, she doesn't curse herself and whine about it to her friends. She shrugs, and blesses her body.  This is charged work, and your injury, defensiveness, resistance will come up. Know what is yours, own what is yours, and don't spill it onto someone else.

4. Stretch like a yogini. As a student of yoga, and especially a teacher of yoga, your job is to raise the vibration of our collective consciousness, and that doesn't, can't and won't happen just in the yoga space. Your work in the studio is beautiful, powerful, but it's also not enough. I promise you those of you who believe your dharma is to teach yoga, it does not begin and end at the doors of the studio; the whole world is your classroom, and you must find ways to embody and to teach skillful action, compassion, and reflection to all the people, in all the places you go, even the ones that scare you. Yoginis regularly put themselves in postures that are  uncomfortable; at some point, you will have to roll up your mat, leave the conversations of oil-pulling and basti and Patanjali behind, and step into the dirty, strange world and act. (And dear God, I am not talking about that "let's take yoga to Africa" weirdness. I believe it comes from good intentions, but so did missionaries and crusaders. It is colonialism and misappropriation, and I can hardly look at it.) I am not saying there is only one way to act consciously. Acts of protest are not homogeneous.  But if your growth and aid is going to do anything more than stroke your own ego, it's gonna have to move into capital-C Community. 

One final word of what you can expect from me, as a growing teacher: I am not gonna tell you not to be angry, or sad, or terrified. These are difficult, unpleasant feelings, for us when we experience them, and for our community when others experience them with us. But feeling them is important. You'll move through things at their own pace, but moving through it is also important. Don't try to process faster for anyone else's benefit, and ignore anyone who tells you to "get over it"; they're projecting their discomfort onto you. Give yourself the time, the permission, and the space you need. I am gonna keep you and others safe while you're feeling these feelings. I'm also gonna do the work and champion the rights of people at the margins with all I have, with all I am. I am gonna call out white supremacy, hatred, violence and injustice on the street and in the studio with equal compassion and clarity. I'm gonna feel what I feel without being ruled by it, and I'm gonna create a safe space for you to be with your feelings so you don't even think about mine. I'm probably gonna offer you some woo-woo as well, because I believe in it. But my woo-woo is gonna be firm on our earth, because that's where we are. 

And because I love you, I'm gonna keep poking you with a stick. I Need You to Do The Work.

History Repeating Itself

My Ayurveda teachers have taught me that the body struggles with change, even positive change, and that even bodies that tend toward change have a hard time with it. One way to pursue peace in the body and peace of mind, one way to achieve ease  and grounding, is to pursue repetition. The body craves pattern and repetition.

Let me tell you about a pattern of repetition I see around me: Black people are murdered by law enforcement, often, but not always, white. 

Who is craving this repetition? Who is made more peaceful, easier, healthier, by this pattern?

Did you know another black person was shot and killed by the police yesterday? His name was #AltonSterling. He was someone's father; he was trying to make a living; and I haven't watched the video (yes, there's video, and if you watch it, I hope it never leaves you), but I read this account from the Washington Post--which contains the video--and it sounds like he was not trying to resist. 

According to this project, Alton Sterling is one of 505 people who have died at the hands of police brutality in 2016, and in some other sources that number is closer to 558. It has happened in all 50 states. There are 25 more fatal shootings this year than there were last year, so our numbers are up. 

And if you didn't go looking for what's trending in your Twitter feed, or if some woke soul in your FB echo chamber didn't share any info about it, you probably have no idea.

Now, what we’ve been doing is looking at the data and we know that police are able to de-escalate, disarm and not kill white people every day. So what’s going to happen is we will have equal rights and justice in our own country or we will restructure their function in ours.
— Jesse Williams

Yoga texts and yoga teachers often talk to me about transcending the body, about the edges of the body falling away, so that the divine spark within me can be still and grow and connect with the Divine Spark around us all. 

I have yet to hear anyone tell me how to practice if my body isn't safe on the surface of the planet. How do I deepen my breath if I can't breathe? How do I unroll my mat if I'm not sure I can step foot out my door? How am I to transcend my body if existing in my body is a criminal offense, punishable by execution without trial?

Get the fuck out of my face with that rhetoric, yoga. If you can tell me that life is an illusion, then you probably have the privilege of seldom living in fear of losing yours. I will transcend my body when we live in a world where I am safe enough to exist without being threatened by soldiers who move through my community with impunity and weapons. Until then, I will take my black female body into every space I move through, demanding my right to exist, to speak, to breathe, to reproduce if I choose, and to live as free as the rest of y'all. I will demand that my physical body is not to be transcended, but instead is to be celebrated and engaged with, is as powerful and important a tool in my spiritual journey as any mantra, any mudra, any spontaneous descent of samadhi. I don't care what day in July it is, I don't care how many fireworks go off, and I don't care what songs are sung about our history. We are not a nation of free people. And if you think that you are free, yoga, if you think your freedom is not bound up in mine, then you have profoundly misunderstood the very rhetoric you posit.

If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. If you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.
— Lilla Watson

Square Footage

A close-up of a playground study by writer, artist, yogi and dear friend Adam Grossi. For more, visit www.adamgrossi.com.  

A close-up of a playground study by writer, artist, yogi and dear friend Adam Grossi. For more, visit www.adamgrossi.com.  

I have this memory of being in a yoga class with a teacher I wish I remembered more clearly. I can't see her face, but I remember her energy and passion in class. She would put us in these deep, powerful hip opening postures and say, "As you breathe in, create space in your hip; as you breathe out, take up that space, rest in that space." 

It's taken me a long time to understand what she was saying. At the time, all I could think about was the sensation in my butt: it was loud and bright, and softening into it, resting in it, seemed impossible only because it felt so big I wasn't sure there was room for both of us.  

This idea--that there isn't enough room--comes up in my life a lot.  I'm big, there is nothing small about me: I have a big body, big feet, a big mouth, and a big voice; I have a big personality, big feelings, a big heart, big anger, big generosity: it's all BIG. My whole life, since I was about 12, people have been telling me to be less, be smaller, to tone it down, quiet down. I'd never attract a man with an attitude so big. I intimidate people with a personality so big. I'm too much, there's too much, there's just not enough room for all of me. 

I believed it for a while, and I tried really hard to shrink. I softened my voice, slapped a plastic smile on my face, sublimated the fringes of my bigger, less desirable feelings into more accommodating, agreeable ones, and tried to deny the reality that I wasn't living as my true self. It took a lot of effort, and it cost me a lot.  

I don't try so hard to shrink anymore. I'm as big as I need to be, and I'm much more comfortable apologizing for it than trying to be small. The trade off, though, is I'm often concerned that there isn't enough room for me.  On the el, at the lunch table, even in the studio, I'm afraid of being squeezed out. 

I feel a lot of pressure in my world to accommodate, to create space for others. I identify as a woman, I like (most) people, I'm conciliatory and affectionate, and so I'll make room for you. On top of which, I've been socialized to be a "good girl", to accommodate, to acquiesce; even when it's not easy, my programming encourages me to sacrifice for others.  But it bugs me when people assume that. When they're out of room, and so I have to move me and mine, or get squeezed out, in order to accommodate them. I am particularly not a fan of the manspreading. As someone who's on public transit at least once a week, I have dealt with my fair share of dudes and their giant balls taking up space on the train. It bugs me, and I'm not above sitting down beside someone and spreading right back. Once, I moved someone to another seat--he was manspreading into my seat, on his left, and had his gym bag in the seat to his right--with the power of my inhale. I squared my shoulders up to his, and expanded my ribcage with every breath in, and after about five breaths, he got up and moved! Now, it isn't that I wanted the space all to myself, because I didn't. I'm okay to share: but share is important there. He wasn't sharing, and so I felt I had to take what I was owed. 

I see this aversion, and anxiety, about space all around me. At the yoga studio, on social media, in line at the ATM or coffee shop:  we're, none of us, sure that there are enough resources, that we can get what what we need (more often just want) and so we squeeze into each other's space, we take up too much space, we steal space. At one end of the spectrum is the person who takes up an extra seat for her purse and her fried chicken on the red line during rush hour, or the lurker peering over your shoulder as you get cash at the ATM. At the other end is the person who violates another's autonomy and personhood by using power and force to assault* others. 

Right now I feel mired in this anxiety of there not being enough for me. My partner and I are trying to move.  This move has been especially difficult: demoralizing, dehumanizing, and incredibly stressful. All of us in the process have been reduced to our roles--the "buyers", the "seller", "listing agent", "buyers' attorney"--and we aren't dealing with each other as people. Each of us is trying to get as much as we can, at the expense of others. 

We talk a lot about giving, about taking, but seldom do we talk about sharing. When someone asks me to share space, I am often happy to, and here's the difference: there's a kind of mutual witnessing and acknowledgement of one another in that process. Each of us knows that since we're sharing a resource--money, space, food, education, safety, the surface of the earth--that to be good to someone else is to be good to ourselves. What's yours is mine; mi casa es su casa.  

What if, rather than pushing and shoving, rather than feeling threatened by everyone all the time, we were able to view others as a part of us. Even those who seem anathema to all you are, care about and work toward? What if the mere existence of others wasn't quite such a threat to you, to me, to us? What if we didn't have to antagonize, to provoke, to annihilate one another? What if we could all share?

Naive? Maybe. But this is my work, and I think it makes the world an easier place to live. So next time you see me in the studio, don't ask me to move over; ask to share practice space with me. It'll be better for both of us.  

 

 

 

 

*It's easy for us to intellectualize about why people do violent, terrifying, deplorable things. It's just as easy to dismiss them as batshit mad.  I don't pretend to understand or explain. But I think it's better for all of us if we do the work to try to see a glimmer of humanity, of something we can relate to, even in those who feel the furthest from who we are. When we rob others of their humanity, we become a little less human. 

Yogi-as-Saboteur

Under the Green Line, 11th St., Chicago circa 2014.  

Under the Green Line, 11th St., Chicago circa 2014.  

I recently read an article about yoga and appropriation that left me troubled. On paper, it sounded right up my street. Written by a yoga teacher in Florida, it offered suggestions on how to make sure that in your practice of yoga (not just asana), that you're honoring "the roots" of the practice. It was a great effort, but I felt the advice on avoiding cultural appropriation was a little too light for my taste. "A little humility, a little reverence, goes a long way", she writes. Yes, absolutely true. But what the hell does that mean? The further I read into the post, the more I realized  I was frustrated because I felt the advice was vague, and I wasn't sure about the context from where it was coming. 

It took me a lot of digging in corners corners of the internet to discover that the writer identifies--at least in one particular post--as an Indian woman. But the writer didn't mention their identity in the context of the advice.  I wondered, why--on a blog on their own website (and also in the Huffington Post), in a discussion about the appropriation of a practice deeply connected to identity and nationality, that has been colonized and arguably appropriated by the majority culture-- why did the writer not identify as a person of color, and as an Indian woman specifically?

I mean, if I give this even a minute of thought, I can throw up guesses at why. Sometimes wearing a specific label in the public discourse of a specific context can get you questions you don't want to answer, get you ignorance you don't want to tolerate. Coming out as an Indian woman in a conversation about how not to culturally appropriate yoga might mean getting comments like, "Does tantric yoga really give you multiple orgasms?" or "What's up with that red dot on the forehead?" Right? and that's just the low-hanging fruit: I have no idea the ignorant shite that actually gets said to Desi folk who move in the context of yoga in the West. But I bet it would make me angry. 

As someone whose identity sometimes puts me on the margins in certain communities, I hate it when I'm asked to speak for the sub-culture I'm part of (depending on the conversation it changes), and it happens so easily. In my new favorite podcast, the two hosts were fielding questions from white listeners addressing the idea, "How can I, as a white person, be an ally to people of color?" Their answers were so thoughtful, and not a little impatient at having to answer the question AGAIN, and you should definitely listen to the podcast, but it boiled down to: Don't be ally, do ally. Read a book. Then read all the books.*** Talk to your people who aren't doing this right, or who aren't doing it at all. Keep your mouth shut and listen as often as possible.  People of color are tired of talking the talk to folk who don't and won't listen; white person, you wanna be an ally, stop worrying about the label, pick up your knapsack of privilege and use it to create some justice in our world. 

So maybe the writer didn't self-identify in her space as Indian because she doesn't want that part of her identity to encompass how she's working in that context. Or maybe they thought it wasn't relevant to do so. Or maybe there's some element of what's happening in cultural appropriation that this conversation is missing sight of.  

I don't have the luxury of choosing whether or not to identify. There are definitely times when I feel I can manipulate my racial identity--code switching, anyone?--but I don't forget about it, and in the world I travel from day to day, it's always there: an indivisible part of me from which I'd never want to separate. I feel a responsibility to bear witness to my experience, and out of it, to work for a world I actually want to be around for. My experience is complicated, hard to quantify, and it's also black, it's woman, it's cis: I cannot do otherwise. In spaces that are working to raise consciousness (and sometimes in spaces that aren't), I feel an expectation that marginalized folk who step to those spaces are at most eager, but at least willing, to identify. I need us to be seen, to take up space and not to shrink from what we need to say or do. 

So I read this post I mentioned earlier, a kind of "How Not to Culturally Appropriate", and then I read this piece, positing cultural appropriation as a symptom of our world's systems of privilege and oppression. It was fresh and insightful and smart and so powerful. It hit the notes that I think I was seeking in the other piece: a clear, penetrating look at the real damage appropriation does, and a challenge to tear down our own moments and actions of appropriation by seeking to destroy the systems of oppression that exist in our world.

Like so many other systemic problems—police brutality, say, or a lack of diversity in film and television—cultural appropriation is a symptom, not the cause, of an oppressive and exploitative world order. And yes, these symptoms do reinforce the systems that created it (police brutality will reinforce the supremacy of Whiteness through fear and violence, therefore helping to enable more police brutality), but ridding society of any of these individual factors does not touch the systems of oppression that created it.
— "When We Talk About Cultural Appropriation, We're Missing the Point"--Ijeoma Oluo

So what are the systems of oppression in the yoga community? Drop-in and package prices that are prohibitively high? Studios that are inaccessible to the differently-abled? An absence of gender-neutral restrooms or changing rooms? Adjustment without consent? Using tools of worship as adornments of fashion? These are just the ones that I can see with my teeny vantage point; some of them, that I sometimes feel, are harder to articulate, and harder to wrestle with and uproot. How do I talk about the oppression that creates a space where I as a person of color feel both indelible and invisible at the same time, while I also feel at home in my asana practice? How do I talk about it so others will hear me? How do I reckon with the idea that teaching--an act which, at least in our society, inherently creates a kind of top-down, expert-novice, student-teacher dichotomy--requires me to share experience and information in a way that is grounded in a spiritual practice (yeah, I said it), that is not a part of my national or cultural heritage? How do I dismantle and transgress the classroom context so that I am not the expert in the room, but instead a servant to the students, and a compassionate, guiding witness in their individual and collective work?

This conversation about appropriation in the culture of how I do my life's work, how I earn my rent, how I serve--and initiate change in--my community by using a practice that feels at once mine and not-mine, well, it's a conversation I have with myself over and over. If I'm lucky, I occasionally have it with other yogis and teachers who are down for the cause as well, and if I'm doing my job, I have the conversation worth yogis and teachers who aren't down--this is harder but it matters. I get so excited about using yoga as a tool to dismantle the patriarchy, as an agent of subversion for the good of humanity. I don't think yoga is a rising tide that lifts all boats; I don't think that every class we go to is going to raise consciousness and  pursue/manifest justice and healing for all. But I think when we decide that our practice as teachers and students is also to subvert, to dismantle, and not to just open hamstrings and calm breath, we can begin to practice and to teach without appropriation. When we engage yoga as a tool of crumbling systems of oppression and equalizing systems of privilege, we can heal institutions and not just bodies. 

P.S. In the midst of drafting this, I watched Beyonce's "Formation" video and read a little bit about it, and I also watched that Coldplay video, "Hymn for the Weekend." Quite the spectacle in both, and talk about exploitative world order:  It gave me a  cultural appropriation headache. The best thing I read about it is here.

 

 

***Also, ohmygourd, in NO WAY, is this list exhaustive. There are so many I would add, not singularly in terms of black feminist education, but in consciousness raising. Maybe I'll put together a list in another post...

Paris, Consciousness, and What We Talk About When We Talk About Dharma

My Mister took this pic. We were on our way back from a market called Bio c Bon, and he told me to look Parisian. I'm going for fashionably bored.  

My Mister took this pic. We were on our way back from a market called Bio c Bon, and he told me to look Parisian. I'm going for fashionably bored.  

I try to be quiet in digital spaces when bad stuff goes down in our world. I don't always hold a popular opinion, and it's tough to volunteer my voice when the odds are good I might be shouted down. Plus, I often find there are folks out there saying what I'm thinking who said it better than I might have. I'm grateful for them. 

So I'm not sure what's motivating me to speak up now. Maybe it's that I just got back from Paris six months ago, and my memories are still fresh. Maybe I take it really hard that the consequences of Western imperialism are playing out in such a destructive way. Maybe I'm afraid that I, or people I know and love, will have to bear the brunt of others' fear and intolerance. Or maybe I have something unusual to say: you decide.  

The day after news broke about this round of terrorism in Paris, I spent the day in a yoga studio studying with Brenna Geehan. She said a lot, and I wrote some of it down, but one thing I've continued to consider was this:

"As yogis and teachers, it'd be nice if it was part of our duty to change the course that society is on." 

I don't hear a lot of teachers talk like this.  

When we talk about duty, often known as dharma, we talk about something often work- or career- driven, sometimes relationship-driven, and that often seems appealing: my dharma is to manifest love or joy, beauty, peace in my own life, or maybe the lives of others. We don't talk about dharma as a calling to change the direction society is hurtling in presently: my dharma is to dismantle the system of oppression that condones sexual assault on college campuses, or my dharma is to manifest safety for women of color to raise their kids without fearing they'll be annihilated by the police. Brenna's words landed on me in a meaningful way. I wonder, what would it look like for yoga teachers to change the course of families being displaced due to gentrification; to change the course of young people experiencing touch without consent; to change the course of institutionalized racism, or the school-to-prison pipeline, or reproductive justice. 

I believe yoga has a place in politics, and vice versa. We come from a legacy of people on the fringes of society. In the West, yoga doesn't look marginalized anymore; yoga does the marginalizing, or is content to sit quietly and continue nadi shodana, ignoring the suffering around us, and its role in our suffering. If we pretend joy and freedom don't come about by hard work, by spiritual boots on the literal ground, we're missing something.  

I was in Paris recently, and for all of the beauty and romance of the city, I was really put off by the tone of white European xenophobia that was palpable. I had conversation with a friend whose views on Europe and the "refugee crisis" were unsettling at best and racist at worst, and that were rooted in her fear. (I put that phrase in quotes not to belittle it, but because when I hear it, it strikes me the same way the historical phrase "The Question of the Negro" does: a phrase used by the majority culture do describe a minority or marginalized group that they, the majority, can objectify, either conceptually or politically or both. It's a sound byte or a social ill, rather than a swath of humanity that is suffering. I don't like it much.)

Also, in Paris, there were soldiers everywhere. In the tube, at intersections, in the park, square-jawed white men in fatigues carrying AK-47s. I'm not being poetic, I'm being literal.  I watched several of them chase a group of brown-skinned young men out of a park and into a roundabout teeming with oncoming traffic. I was sure someone was going to be hit, but the young men were fast. 

My city hasn't reached the point yet where armed military in the streets is something to take for granted. I hope it never happens. New Yorkers are rolling their eyes at my naïveté maybe; but it didn't make me feel any safer. I felt that all of us were a little less free. 

So what do I do? What's my job as a yogi, as an art maker and a space-holder and a citizen of the world?

Well, I think I stick to my practice: of unpeeling layers and softening my heart, of asking difficult questions and staying present with the answers that lift up. I think I expand my practice, so that I take a chance at being a voice of radical compassion in spaces that don't want it; I practice compassion for people who can't hold what I have to say, and I move deeper toward the reality that the light in my heart is the same light in the shooter's heart is the same light in the victim's heart, and no amount of lead or copper or shrapnel can put it out. 

I make noise. I march. I practice, and create space for others to practice. And I love, fiercely, fully and entirely.