philosophy

Do you feel me?

A few of my favorite images of the moon, according to the Tarot.  

A few of my favorite images of the moon, according to the Tarot.  

After taking a few of my favorite Restorative Yoga classes with a truly gifted and sensitive teacher a some time ago, I picked up a book he'd read from, and also borrowed his deeply moving habit of reading to students occasionally in the Restorative class that I teach. I was reading recently from Fire of Love, by Aadil Palkhivala, and shared this from his chapter on Feeling:

Feeling is the essence of life. Without feeling, we are not quite human. The real value of our asana practice is that, as we do pose after pose with awareness, we are inviting more sensitivity into our bodies and our lives. We are learning to tune in and feel. So we not only feel better, but we feel better. 

It makes a lot of sense to me, but I'd be lying if I said that there aren't times when I wish I didn't feel quite so much. Truth is, I'm a big, ol' feeler: whether it's joy, terror, anger, confusion sadness, or anything else or in between, when I feel a feeling it's almost always an 11 on a scale of one to ten. Anyone who knows me will tell you that I'm more than a little expressive about my feelings, too. I sometimes wish that I moved through the world with more equanimity: I think it would spare me a lot of lost energy and heartache; but I just don't. What I feel, I feel deeply.

For better or for worse, yoga--and by this, I mean not just asana, but the eight-limbed practice of yoga, the gritty, tearful moments of svadhyaya, the struggle to soften into ahimsa when I'm frightened and irritable, the fleeting moments of pratyahara that I pursue even as my monkey mind is crying out for more Netflix--this practice has taught me to feel more. Practicing yoga is what clued me into the fact that I feel lousy when I eat meat; it's what has given me the bravery to end toxic relationships; it's what has shown me how much it matters to me to offer what I study, what I practice, to others. 

But sometimes I really hate The Feels.

You can never un-know a thing, can you? Even if you choose to feign ignorance about how that chicken thigh made its way under the mushroom sauce on your plate, or what your uncle did to your little sister, or that you just aren't in love with them anymore, that feeling will find a way out. It'll manifest as a nagging pain in your neck, or as acid stomach, or nightmares. The truth will out. The truth doesn't really have a feeling. If your hamstrings are too short and your hips too tight today for you to put your feet behind your head, well, that isn't great and it isn't terrible; it just is. Likewise, if that person doesn't love you the way you want them to, that isn't inherently bad or good; it's just a fact of the nature of your relationship with them. If you try to do dwi pada sirsasana in light of the truth about your hips and hamstrings, I promise you, you will have a feeling. If you try to make someone love you when you know they can't, oh Honey, take it from me, you'll get a boatload of feelings as a result of that ill-advised action.

The feeling comes in our reactivity. This retrograde/eclipse season is really revealing to me some things that were hidden. The waxing and waning light of the moon has a way of doing that: at night, the shadows are long and exaggerated, and we're not sure what it is we see. Things can look scarier than they are; sometimes people we thought were there, aren't there at all (which could be good for us, or bad, depending on how we feel about who we thought was there in the first place). Sometimes relationships we counted on are revealed to be shallow, and we're faced with the choice of investing or cutting our losses. 

Feelings seldom feel like a choice, though. I don't know about you, but I often give my feelings such privilege that it's tough to remember that they're fleeting, that--like the shadows of the moonlight--they may not be an accurate reflection of the truth. I don't believe feelings are a choice. I've heard that before, I just don't buy it. But I am learning (often quite painfully, as the princess of The Feels) that feelings don't have to be in charge. My anger, my pain, my disappointment, my loneliness, my lust, my resentment, my yearning: none of these need to be in charge of the decisions I make. They have useful information to offer, but they may not be there when the sun comes up. So even though my feelings aren't a choice, how I hold my feelings, and how I act in dialogue with them is a choice.

Damn, it's beginning to sound a little Multiple Personality up in here. 

Feelings come up a lot in my physical practice. I've never been the yogini who laughed, or cried, in ekapadarajakapotasana, but I have been the yogi furious with the teacher for asking us to do another balancing pose, or furious with her flat feet for not supporting her in said balancing pose; I am currently the yogini walking a tightrope of encouraging myself to be brave in dialogue with postures where I've hurt myself before (bravery, excitement), and not being so caught up in my ego and in grasping for postures that I hurt myself. Again. (fear, discouragement, laziness?)

The practice never lies. Never. How we react to it, our ego, (source of The Feels) lies all the time. What I discover about yoga, in the subtle practices of pranayama, pratyahara and dharana, is that these practices lift up The Feels. There's no vinyasa to rinse them away like sorbet between sequences, there's no second side to try it again and see what happens this time; there's only me and my breath and the feeling, and the floor beneath me, and sometimes I forget that last part. And so I sit with the feeling, I hold it and interrogate it, and I don't try to make it go away. On a good day, this is a wordless experience, and then maybe some clarity lifts up within me, and usually that is language-based. On most days, my cognitive mind takes the reins and acts like some kind of ethnographer, and I have to keep telling myself to shut up. On a bad day, the feeling wins and there is no clarity, there is only the glaring feeling itself, and I have to work not to step off the mat in a totally triggered state, I have to remember to leave my practice behind.

Being a grown-up is not easy. When you're six months old and you have a feeling you don't know what to do with, you wail about it until someone puts something in your mouth, or cleans you off, or puts you to bed, and you feel better. Something similar happens when you're three or six. But when you're fourteen, twenty-two, thirty-six, fifty-seven, it isn't as simple anymore. The feeling itself may be as "uncomplicated" as fear, fatigue, hunger, loneliness, but man, how it manifests in our world of relentless cell phones and mortgages and climate change and Black Lives Matter and guarding borders is a giant snare, and how adults deal with their feelings has huge consequence on one another's lives. 

And so I unroll my mat and I practice. I move my body through space, and I try to examine my feelings without attaching too much to them, even when I'd rather just put something in my mouth and clean myself off and go to bed. I sit beside myself. I imagine myself sitting beside me, laying my head on my own shoulder in a gesture of compassion and generosity that I want to show someone else, that I want to receive from someone else. I say to myself, it's okay, Jess. You're here, you're safe, and I love you. Sometimes that makes it better, sometimes it feels like it will be hard forever. But I'm in it. I don't run away from the feeling because I know it won't last, and I know that beneath it there's a truth I need to know.

Surrendering to Road Blocking

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I like to go fast.  The one time in my life I was on a motorcycle, I instantly fell in love with it.

I was young, it was my birthday, and a friend, a master carpenter, took me for a ride around the block because I'd never been on a motorbike before. We probably didn't go faster than 30 miles an hour; I wasn't wearing a helmet; the ride had all the things I love: power, rhythm, freedom and speed. It was amazing. It was a good thing I only had one ride, because if I had the chance to ride a motorcycle, I'd want to do it all the time, in deeply reckless ways, and I'd wind up smearing insides all over the pavement.

I like to go fast. 

Sometimes when I'm driving, I wonder if my car is glowing, or if it has some kind of giant arrow pointing to it that says, Cut me off! I'm not in any hurry, and I don't care at all if you treat me like shit! Because I always get stuck behind people who are driving slowly. They rush past me, seeming to have all kinds of speed, and then get in front of me and suddenly get distracted by a bird flying by or something and they slow down, and I'm stuck moving slowly behind them.

I hate it. It sends my blood pressure up. It is as if the universe has picked up a giant boulder and dropped it right in my path.

I think my car does have that cut-me-off glowing arrow pointing at it. I think the universe knows I like to go fast, and so it puts obstacles in my path.

Obstacles make me nuts. And that's precisely why I need them.

Every time I get cut off by a BMW (because, let's be honest, it's always a BMW), I get the chance to take a deep breath and make a choice about how much this matters to me, and how much energy I'm going to let this take from me. I get to decide to let it go. It's not always an easy choice for me, but it's a choice I always get to make

I've learned from Elesa Commerce that the practice of meditation is not the moment of sitting and chanting or visualizing or whatever; instead, every time you pluck our awareness off the monkey-mind road it ran down (what am I having for lunch... I can't believe she said that to me... don't forget to deposit that check, you're going to need the money to--OMGJessshut theFup--Ooommmmm...) that quiet space in between the thoughts, however brief, that returning of your attention: THAT is the practice of meditation. 

And so an obstacle is an opportunity to cultivate that space, to practice snatching my attention away from grumpy and uptight, to practice stepping away from the distraction, and to come back to myself.

Obstacles allow us to practice patience and slowness. These are important qualities to practice. They make us safer and smarter. They give us the chance for a better idea to occur to us. They allow reflection, consideration. Hopefully, we mellow as we wait, we don't stew. We can consider our own mistakes, and attempt to make right what we can, what we need to.

Obstacles allow us to cultivate creativity. If we want to take a direction or solve a problem, and suddenly we can't because there's a giant fire truck blocking the road, or because we're injured, or because there's an uncooperative person in our way, well, we gotta suss out how to get unstuck and find another way where we're going. So we get creative: we carefully reverse down half a city block; we take the sequence lying down instead of on our feet (and realize we're still working just as hard); we learn to work with others, or to let go of baggage that doesn't belong to us. 

What I find most compelling is that when I encounter obstacles in my path, I first feel fear. But if I'm lucky, and if I try really, really hard, it doesn't stay fear. It becomes bravery. An obstacle offers me the opportunity to cultivate bravery. It says, Are you going to let this beat you, Jess? Are you going to give up on this obstacle because you can't get over it or around it? Are you going to quit because it didn't go your way today? (It doesn't so much sound like a gruff gym teacher/sports coach; it's softer, more encouraging.) I decide: I'm not scared of this obstacle. I'm going to pursue it, wisely, compassionate with myself, and as egoless as possible. If I don't blast through the rock today, well, there's always tomorrow.

So this is where my man Ganesha comes into play. Ganesha is one of my favorite deities to work with: I love his devotion to his family, his sense of humor, his big belly and his swinging trunk. As a person who is always seeking more grounding, I appreciate the solid, earthy energy I cultivate when I chant the Ganesha mantra. For a time, I would cling to it, feeling that my day-to-day was so obstacle-ridden I could hardly move. I felt really graspy in my practice, cold with fear and desperate for something or someone to take all these obstacles out of my way. 

A teacher recently said to me that Ganesha is the remover of obstacles, but that sometimes in order to grow, there are obstacles that need to go up in your path. Sometimes you need an obstacle to get stronger, to improve. I've said before that musles don't get stronger if you don't add resistance.

Sure there's a difference between having an obstacle or two that makes you stronger, and having a life so replete with difficulty that you feel you can't get out of bed. I'm definitely not suggesting that we seek out struggle for the sake of struggle. I think what I'm saying is that surrenduring to the occasional struggle might benefit us now and again. Getting angry about struggle just makes for exhaustion and frustration; but when we can give in to struggle, and use it as a means to cultivate bravery, or compassion, patience and creativity, we're better for it.

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

Rooting Down: A 40 Days of Devotion Update

Thanks, Mister, for taking this picture.  

Thanks, Mister, for taking this picture.  

I can hardly believe that I've been at this 40 Days of Devotion practice for halfway.  There's all kinds of writing out there about change management and cultivating hew habits, but to look back over the last two and a half weeks and know I've been holding steady at this practice is really encouraging. Doing anything quietly isn't really in my nature, and as much as I love cultivating stillness, it's been really difficult for me to do.

Theatre geek that I am, I keep thinking of that line from Macbeth, right after he's been scared to death by the ghost of Banquo, when he's thinking about all the ugly, deplorable stuff he's done to become king, and says, I am so far into this river of bloody deeds that to wade out were as difficult as to continue forward. (Yeah, it's totally morbid to compare my fledgling meditation practice to an overambitious soldier's murdering ways, and My Mister would say it's also mad pretentious to paraphrase Shakespeare in a blog post, but hey, I did 'em both!)  I look back and think I can't believe I came this far; and every time I'm tempted to let the day, the hour, the moment when I'd sit just slide by me, I think, how hard it would be to start from scratch and build up all this momentum, all this positive energy propelling me forward.

Lots of people make promises of what a mantra practice will DO for YOU! As if the Hindu pantheon were a cohort of cosmic gift givers, you pick your problem, pick your deity and pick your blessing. On further reflection, reminds me some of the contemporary prosperity doctrine that's taken hold of the Christian church, but that's a thought for another day. Anyway, I remember when I started, wanting very much not to approach my chanting practice with that in mind: this is not about chanting loudly or softly or sweetly or earnestly enough that I will earn favor demonstrated to me in the form of more money or travel, a new home, a thinner body, stronger arms, more flexible hammies, or any of the other objects or experiences I covet from day to day. This doesn't mean there wasn't anything I hoped to get: I definitely had my hand out. But I was seeking different qualities, as opposed to stuff.

I hoped to become less angry. I've been a person who is easily angered my whole life, and by so many things: I curse at drivers in traffic, I get belligerent when store clerks ignore me when I approach them for help, and I shoulder-check perfect strangers on the street who assume I will move out of their way. Usually these are white people, but not always, and I don't discriminate; I take up space, I demand that space, and I seldom apologize for it. There's plenty true about doing life as a woman of color that makes it reasonable to be angry. But often, I can see life around or above or apart from our fucked-up social constructs. At my best, I can see more humanity, and I sometimes I wish I weren't this way. I wish I were more accommodating of people for whom I am an obstacle and not a human, people who are consumed by their own lives and who have no problem expecting that I'll accommodate them. More than anything, I have trouble letting go of anger, of the pain I feel as a response to the behavior of loved ones, past and present, who either don't know or don't care that they've hurt me, and can't or won't make amends.

There's so much more to say about that. Blog post on taking or sharing space forthcoming. 

Suffice to say, I'm angry a lot, and I hoped that this process would drain the anger out of me, pulling the plug on a cold, stinky dirty tub full of my anger.

Well, not yet. A few days ago, I flipped some guy off who cut me off in traffic, and last night I definitely bumped into a Northwestern student who was kicking it with his bros, for whom I was invisible. ( I should say, I wasn't actively seeking to run into him, I just didn't move out of his way.) So, my dirty tub of anger: still full.

BUT--

I have noticed that there is some part of me that feels more real, and more concrete, that isn't angry. When I spit language or side-eye at someone, deep deep deep, there is some voice in me that says, "Huh. Okay, Jess. You're angry. Like, 99.99% of you is angry. But I'm that .01% of you that's not angry, that's just watching you fume. When you're ready, how about we turn the dial down on that anger?" And the rest of me listens. I become less angry, and a little faster than I used to. I'm also a little more compassionate with the person who made me angry, and a little more compassionate with myself for getting angry. 

A friend of mine described the mala of mantra every day as a kind of anchor, that drops down down down, into the center of us, a kind of touchstone that is present in the midst of all the junk roiling about in the surface of our lives, that maintains equilibrium. Even though we might feel tossed about, there's this practice that holds us firmly, safely, certainly, and can witness all of that movement without being ruled by it. 

Now that, I did not expect, but it's not bad, as consequences of meditation go. Let's see what the next 20 days hold.

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...