Choosing wholeness over goodness*: a love letter to the yoga dissidents

Continue reading “Choosing wholeness over goodness*: a love letter to the yoga dissidents”

Advertisements

A Prayer to Future Feminists

As a follow up to our recent co-authored blog, Amara Miller has put together a list of resources for anyone interested in feminism. It’s epic – but not exhaustive!

To download:

FEMINIST RESOURCE LIST

•••

Why a Feminist Resource List?

Today I’m sharing a project I’ve been working on for a few weeks: a feminist resource list. I had originally planned to release this list with my latest blog entry, coauthored with Joanna Johnson of Red Moon Yoga: “The Misogynist On The Mat: Patriarchy, Yoga, & You.” That blog post was a response to a recent incident in the yoga world, where well-known yoga teacher and teacher trainer Eric Shaw published a misogynist, sexist, and disgusting anti-feminist rant.

Shaw’s rant was so disconnected from the truth of what is and what has been, it was frankly impossible to dissect all the things that were wrong in it. Had Shaw actually wanted to understand reality or feminism rather than cater to his emotionally hurt ego, he over the years he could have found a myriad of feminist work that would have refuted his flawed viewpoints. I doubt he will seek out such resources (though here’s hoping he will).

The incident made me angry. And when I get angry, I make stuff (like this list).

Screen Shot 2017-03-06 at 17.07.31

Frankly, Shaw is not someone I would ever waste my time trying to educate. It’s clear he’s not interested in moving beyond his own turmoil.

But there are other people out there who are interested in learning more about feminism, about themselves, and about our world. There are people out there hoping to become better people. There are people out there hoping to uncover and practice satya (truthfulness), and who are willing to engage in some profound Self-Realization.

I have compiled this list for you.

The fact is, even though feminism is gaining prominence in today’s world most people don’t actually know much about feminism, engage with feminists in their everyday lives, or know how to find out more information if they wanted to. It’s not always easy to track down sources, to know what is foundational work in both academia and activist circles, and to learn more about the history of women’s rights, women’s liberation, and intersectional feminism.

Even though it’s likely most people have feminists in their social networks, they might not be consciously aware of this since not everyone who is a feminist openly, consistently identifies as one. Sadly, feminism today is often still stigmatized, and many people (especially white people) selectively disclose their feminist identity only when it is relatively safe to do so. Feminism has in many ways become cool only in-so-far as one’s practice of feminism is surface level and non-confrontational,  while deep discussions or political action in the name of feminism are still highly conflict-ridden and controversial. The sad truth is that identifying openly as a feminist can sometimes damage one’s relationships or careers.

a5832f2e6c67915385304218f4abfaee

b40

Given the wide breadth of feminist work out there today and the many decades (centuries, really) of activism and research feminists have been engaged in, it can sometimes be difficult to know where to start. Even those who are feminists may only be familiar with specialized areas within the movement, because thanks to the sea of information we can sometimes end up isolated from broader dialogue (and heated debates within the movement don’t always help either).

The reality is that unless someone is lucky enough to know a self-identified feminist or has been able to study gender, sexuality, and women’s studies at the university level, many people simply don’t know how to begin learning more about feminism or about the wide variety of feminist work being done. In some ways, there is simply too much information out there. We have google at the tips of our fingers, but unless we know what to search for, the quality of the information we have access to can be skewed, buried in the sea that is the internet today. And of course, let’s acknowledge there is a clear class divide in who has access to university spaces or the internet. It’s vital that feminism become rooted in class solidarity and efforts to overcome the digital divide and the often-times inaccessibility of academic feminism.

Even today, much of our popular culture perpetuates inaccurate and problematic stereotypes of feminism and feminists (or straight up lies). When something is discredited, it’s harder for people to take it seriously. Especially in our current political climate, it’s important for feminists to help combat this by helping to direct and build our own communities of knowledge and of feminist educators. In other words, it is vital for feminists to openly and consistently identify as feminists, to work toward documenting the work movement members are engaged in, to build networks of solidarity and knowledge production, and to participate in codifying such knowledge as explicitly part of the feminist movement.

Screen Shot 2017-03-06 at 17.08.04

I made this list to help work toward these goals, and to also make the process of sifting through a sea of information easier for all those interested in learning more about feminism, regardless of whether you are completely new to the movement or a long-time feminist hoping to deepen one’s knowledge. Given my own positionality, this list does lean more heavily toward academic feminist work, but I have made an effort to include a wide variety of sources and more accessible resources throughout. My hope is people who are interested in learning about feminism or deepening their understanding can do so more readily with this resource. I hope it also serves as a resource for fellow educators.

This is the list I wish I had years ago, when I was just beginning to learn what feminism actually meant, the history of the movement, and why it is so vital to continue feminist work today. It is a list I am offering you today, with a prayer to all future feminists.

•••

Screen Shot 2017-03-06 at 17.08.27

A Prayer to Future Feminists

I am my ancestors’ wildest dreams, the granddaughter of the witches that did not burn.

I speak as those seeds, who from darkness became the weeds that tear out concrete, that break down walls, the retake public spaces.

I speak as those silenced generations, lost to time, lost to power:

You are not lost to the deepest part of ourselves, that longs for connection, that longs for the wisdom of the one who survives against all odds, the one who (nevertheless) persists.

I speak as those embattled, enraged beings who are sick of the (illusion of the) cage, who are fighting to be free:

Your struggle is not in vain.

For all those who have been disappeared, who have been targeted, who have been harassed, and who have been abused;

For those who have yet to find themselves in the historical oppression patriarchy teaches us to inscribe in all our bodies, in all our minds, in all our hearts:

We will seek you out.

We will be the mirror that allows you to see and free yourself.

For those who would undermine the colonization of their self, for those who would deconstruct the map of power we are subject to;

For those who seek to be better, to leave a legacy of equity for our future selves, for our future planet:

You do not do so alone.

We will be the waves at your back, crying for justice, crashing at the bars set to contain us.

I speak as those who fear for themselves, who fear for each other;

as those who are angry, fed-up, and frustrated;

I speak as those who fear the future coming for us like the whisper of death and the haunting of subjugation, seemingly inescapable:

Do not lose hope.

Remember, the chains that bind us also bind us together.

The chains that bind us give us the very weapon we need to break the cycle.

May we find each other in our resilience, in our strength, in our resistance.

May we recognize that “unity” does not mean sameness, and that “to unify” does not mean to lose what makes us uniquely powerful.

May we recognize imperialist, white supremacist, settler-colonial patriarchy is the enemy of all of us, but also the unifying thread that makes this fight our fight, our struggle.

May we support each other, honor each other, and challenge each other to admit to our failures, flaws, and complicity.

May we support each other, honor each other, and challenge each other to seek out the path with heart even though it may be the tangled labyrinth of our darkest dreams.

Go forth, future feminists, and together let us uncover the bones of justice, the archaeology of equity.

Go forth, future feminists, and be your ancestors’ wildest dreams.

•••

6359638087851574931439926138_tumblr_nigop713tb1qkfpu0o1_500

To download:

FEMINIST RESOURCE LIST

Don’t see something you feel should be on the feminist resource list? Post the reference below in the comments, and in the near future I’ll update the list and post a revised version. 


Amara Miller is a PhD candidate and Associate Instructor in sociology, as well as a yogi, feminist, artist, teacher, and perpetual student. She seeks to utilize a feminist and sociological understanding of the world to inform her yogic practice/teaching to better combat systems of oppression, including inequality and inaccessibility within yoga. Her dissertation looks at the impact globalization, commodification, and appropriation have had on the transformation of yoga in the last fifty years and the way marginalized teachers and activists involved in the body positivity movement resist these changes. You can find her on Facebook at her page Amara Miller, on Twitter @AmaraMiller27, or through her blog https://amaramillerblog.wordpress.com/.

The Misogynist on the Mat: Patriarchy, Yoga, & You

Coauthored by: Amara Miller and Joanna Johnson

The latest scandal in the US yoga world: it turns out well-known yoga teacher and teacher trainer, Eric Shaw, is actually a deep-seated, unapologetic misogynist and sexist. This revelation is turning heads amongst practitioners and teachers, especially in the post-Trump moment where we have a growing culture of cruelty, a slew of domestic abusers in our highest offices, a crack-down on women’s rights, and rising right-wing nationalism and white supremacy not just in the USA but globally. Although Shaw is US-based, the escalation of neo-fascism is worldwide; the issues raised here will therefore have their own particular country-specific manifestations, relevant to the worldwide yoga community.

Today we will be writing about misogyny, sexism, and patriarchy in yoga, and the ways we are all complicit in these systems.

The Hateful Rant (aka Misogynist Tears!)

On Thursday, February 16th, Eric Shaw posted a note to facebook titled “Masculinism 101: A Response to the Feminist Recoding of History” (to read his original post, go here, but be aware: trigger warning). Yoga Dork has already covered the incident, noting they “believe that you should know if your yoga teacher is a raving misogynist.” We completely and wholeheartedly agree.

We’re not going to rehash all the hateful, spiteful, and untrue things he has to say about women, women’s history and accomplishments, and women’s oppression. This blog is not about a point by point rebuttal, because all his points have been well-researched and debunked by feminist scholars over the decades. With that said, we do think it’s helpful to get the gist of his rhetoric.

Shaw begins his epic rant with the words “How about this vision? Women have been cowards.” He goes on to claim they “sucked the wealth and life-blood out of men to enjoy their baby-making efforts while men went out and did the real work in the world.” He asks: “We’re to trust that the gender that has been passive, supplicant—arguably ‘parasitical,’ to quote Simone de Beauvoir—is overnight competent, self-possessed and unyielding enough in composure to handle the pressures of public responsibilities?” (Feel like projectile vomiting yet? And also, way to adhere to a gender essentialist argument and a lack of recognition of gender fluidity, Shaw.) Apparently, Shaw contends, “we could just as easily demonize women for being a kind of succubus. For dodging their social responsibility and hiding behind a veil of too-moral dignity to dirty their hands with the affairs of the world. We could say women were cowards for hiding in the home and not successfully challenging men to take up their fair share of public responsibilities.” (Whoa there. Way to victim blame those oppressed for the acts of oppressors subjugating them?)

Shaw’s post oversimplifies and completely misinterprets history in pretty much every way possible, focusing on the vantage point of those who have historically (at least!) been oppressors and abusers with absolutely no nuance (which is super ironic considering his one and only academic working paper on abuse during BKS Iyengar’s childhood). His post makes it clear that he doesn’t know a thing about women’s historical accomplishments or the way patriarchal systems often erase such feats, symbolically annihilating her story and taking sole credit for accomplishments only made possible because of the work of women. Eric is clearly another brick in the wall of our education system, who ate up patriarchy in our schools and now regurgitates it at will.

According to Eric’s position, there are no people of color anywhere in (cue dramatic music:) all of time. This means every time he says “women” or “men”, he is only referring to white folks and their experiences. So to be clear, not only is this rant an epic, extreme example of misogyny, patriarchy, and sexism at work but it is also deeply embedded in white supremacist culture and educational experiences that whitewash and enforce a Eurocentric focus in historical retellings. We can add to the list of Eric’s flawed thinking: it is racist, because this type of language and hate speech is also directly supporting racism, “a system of advantage based on race” (Wellman 1977).

According to his Facebook info, as an undergraduate Shaw attended Willamette University from 1979-1981 where he studied Art, Biology, and “Intellectual History” (note: this isn’t actually a major?). Later on, he studied yet more Art in Santa Cruz (art has historically been an incredibly white, patriarchal, and misogynistic system, so no surprises there). He then got an MA in Religious Studies from the United Theological Seminary in 1995 (including studies in “Church History”), an MA in Special Education in 2000 (ye gods, really? with those misogynist views?), and finally an MA in Yoga History and Philosophy at the CA Institute of Integral Studies in 2011. His bio shows he began teaching yoga in 2006 at UCSF Medical Center (we can assume to patients), and has taught at several renowned studios including YogaWorks from 2009-2010, Yoga Tree from 2011-2015, and most recently at the Dallas Yoga Center (although apparently he was fired after his diatribe–good on them!).

In other words, Eric Shaw has never actually studied history in an academic setting outside religious or spiritual contexts. More telling, as far as his biographical information out there indicates he has also never taken a single course in feminist theory, women’s studies, or gender studies (and from his tirade, it’s clear he hasn’t read such scholars/activists on his own either, or if he has he clearly hasn’t understood them). Despite his lack of study in these areas, in typical entitled, white, male fashion Eric Shaw believes that he should be able to mansplain women’s history and feminism to women and long-time, actual feminists who have been studying, researching, and living this work for decades. Because: patriarchy. And white supremacy.

picture0

The irony is that his whole argument is pretty much “patriarchy sucks for men, too,” which is an argument that has already been made by feminists for literally decades, and what’s even more ironic is that feminist work on this very topic is much more nuanced, accurate, and articulate (aka, way better than Shaw is capable of, despite his claims of male superiority). He incorrectly puts the blame for men’s pain on those victimized by patriarchy (women and feminists) rather than understanding that it is patriarchy that ultimately causes the suffering of the men he is so concerned about, not feminism. Frankly, Shaw’s entire take on feminism, gender relations, and history is so completely off track that, as Yoga Dork notes, it “reads very Onion-y” and at first seemed satirical to commenters, many of who “couldn’t believe” a yogi and well-known teacher could harbor such hateful, spiteful, and dangerous views.

And, let’s be real here, these types of views are dangerous. This isn’t some “opinion” to be debated. As long-time activist Teo Drake said in one of his comments, “What Eric Shaw put out into the world wasn’t an opinion to be disagreed with. It was violent rhetoric. There’s a big difference between being imperfect (as each of us is) and crossing over into abuse.” So we need to understand Shaw’s post is an example of violent rhetoric designed to dehumanize, demean, and target an entire class of people with violence, harassment, and assault, and which then attempts to legitimize such harm by claiming victims “deserved” to be abused (completely creepy, and complete BS).

Misogyny is a undeniable motivator for men committing violent crime (fact: men are the perpetrators of most violent crime). For example, according to research on intimate partner violence in the USA, men “with a history of committing domestic violence are five times more likely to subsequently murder an intimate partner” (Aalai 2016). Research also reveals “nearly 60% of all mass shootings (defined by the killing of four or more victims) have roots in domestic violence” (Fairweather 2017). And it doesn’t stop there. “‘When you are trying to predict violent recidivism, you tend to find that domestic violence is one of the strongest predictors,’ said Zachary Hamilton, who studies risk assessment as director of the Washington State Institute for Criminal Justice. He cited an analysis of criminal offenders in Washington State, which found that a felony domestic violence conviction was the single greatest predictor of future violent crime” (Jeltsen 2016). In other words, misogyny is often the canary in the coalmine for other forms of violence, and one of the root ideologies violent offenders adhere to.

This type of misogynist rhetoric is also one of the ways online communities of Neo-Nazis and the “alt-right” prey on and recruit men to their cause. In the article “How the alt-right’s sexism lures men into white supremacy” Romano notes that “the gateway drug that led [members] to join the alt-right in the first place wasn’t racist rhetoric but rather sexism: extreme misogyny evolving from male bonding gone haywire.” All of this is why white nationalist organizations, which are predicated not just on an adherence to white supremacy but also deeply held misogyny, queerphobia/transphobia, anti-Semitism, anti-immigrant sentiment, and Islamophobia, are growing much faster than other terrorist organizations and are considered more dangerous than other terrorist groups in the USA today.

There is a reason the most recent rise of “alt-right” white supremacist groups has been linked, not to racial politics, but to Gamergate, the misogynist attack on feminists critiquing the video gaming industry that occurred in 2014. As Lees notes, “The similarities between Gamergate and the far-right online movement, the ‘alt-right’, are huge, startling and in no way a coincidence… Its most notable achievement was harassing a large number of progressive figures–mostly women–to the point where they felt unsafe or considered leaving the industry… this hate was powerfully amplified… leading to death threats, rape threats, and the public leaking of personal information.” This article fails to mention misogynists also engaged in bomb threats as well as rape threats against these women’s children, leading some to develop PTSD symptoms or to retire for their and their family’s safety and well-being. (So, if people would like to ignore the realities of violent misogyny and continue to bury their heads in the sand, go ahead and continue practicing avidya, ignorance, and keep up with the arguments that Shaw’s views are somehow “a valid opinion.”)

Misogyny kills. Misogyny maims. Misogyny traumatizes, harrasses, and assaults. And Eric Shaw, raging and unapologetic misogynist that he is, is deeply complicit in this system of oppression and violence.

But it must be a mental breakdown–not so fast!

Those appalled by the hate apparent in Eric Shaw’s post, the blatant misogyny, sexism, and lack of respect for women generally, have been quick to claim that he must be having some sort of mental breakdown–that he must be mentally ill, or that he must be going through some deep inner turmoil. That he is really a “good person” who is just not well. Take, for example, comments like these: “what he has written sounds like a mental health crisis,” “Eric, are you ok?”, “this must be a sick joke, or he has had some psychotic break.” In the days following the initial post, every Facebook thread that we read included some well-meaning, but sadly politically ignorant yoga practitioner exhorting us to “have compassion” for Shaw (never mind that the assumption a practice of yoga equates to compassion, that “yoga = compassion,” is a recent and perhaps even false conflation of what yoga is, rooted in capitalist and new age appropriations of the practice).

The claim that those who engage in hateful speech and violent behavior toward others only do so because they are unwell is based on a Christian understanding of a good-evil dichotomy, where people are considered either “good people” or “bad people”. This type of thinking has infiltrated yoga as the practice moved to the West, so it’s no surprise that many people reading Eric’s post are struck by the paradox and dichotomy–is he a “good person,” as some people have personally known him to be, or is he “bad?” And if he is “good,” then it is assumed he must be mentally ill, have had a psychotic breakdown, or be otherwise “out of his mind” to also, simultaneously, be a raging, dangerous misogynist. But real life just doesn’t work this way.

Sociologists and psychologists have long researched the way seemingly ordinary, “good people” can engage in horrific acts of violence and oppression. The term “banality of evil” is not referring just to the way evil is part of our everyday lives (in other words, that evil is banal). It also refers to the fact that most people who engage in evil acts are in fact ordinary, boring, “good people.” (See, for example, Milgram’s shock experiments or Zimbardo’s The Lucifer Effect.) So we need to be clear that someone can be a “good person” in certain areas of their life and still do atrocious acts (and can do so even with the best of intentions). Eric Shaw could indeed be a “good man and a good friend” to some people as some did claim in their comments and still who hold dangerous and harmful views about women that manifest in harmful ways towards others. One does not preclude the other, and ultimately, Shaw needs to be accountable for all his actions, especially those that are damaging, and perhaps most particularly when bigotry is conflated with yoga.

The problem with the argument that misogynists are just mentally ill is that it serves to medicalize abusive behavior, rather than recognizing that perpetrators are often perfectly “sane” by any psychological measure and yet still hold abhorrent views. As Baxter (2017) notes, “Every time we willingly blur the line between raging arsehole and mentally ill person, we do two very dangerous things: we increase stigma surrounding real psychiatric conditions, and we excuse people for their terrible behaviour on the basis that they had to have been ‘out of their minds’ to think or act that way… It’s also easy to see how we then stop holding people account for abuse, for cruelty, for prejudice and xenophobia.”

Rather than further stigmatizing mental illness, we need to recognize that seemingly “good people” can in other areas of their lives do great evil. We need to be able to call this type of behavior what it is, without medicalizing it: systematic oppression, abuse, and a profound disrespect. Sure, Eric Shaw could probably use some serious psycho-analysis and therapy from a licensed professional, although he’s not likely to seek that out given he seems to believe he is completely in the right. But as of right now, all comments, conversations, and posts indicate that he is indeed perfectly sane, if completely despicable.

picture1picture2

In other words, let’s call a spade a spade. Eric Shaw is not mentally ill. He has repeatedly claimed he “is okay,” despite the completely ridiculous concerns of commenters. He doesn’t want help and he doesn’t believe he needs it. He has openly admitted to being sexist, and has essentially said he’s cool with that. He is utterly unapologetic about his diatribe of disgusting hate, claiming in typical entitled white male fashion that he feels “disrespected” by the justifiably angry responses he has received. He has repeatedly, again, and again claimed he stands by everything he said, no matter how incorrect, no matter how damaging/harmful, and no matter how simplistic. This is not someone open to dialogue. This is not someone open to learning. This is not someone willing to engage in healing or willing to admit they were wrong.

His hateful, misogynist views do not make him mentally ill, they make him dangerous. These views make him complicit in the continued oppression of women everywhere. These views make him potentially abusive to his own clients, friends, and family. And these views make him disrespectful, completely uncaring, and disturbingly unconcerned about the harm his words have and do cause others.

It’s also disturbing that there seems to be a great deal of commenters focused on emotional concern for Eric Shaw, his feelings, and his health, rather than concern for those traumatized and targeted by his hate and spite. Many commenters have sent “love and healing” toward him. Others have reached out to make sure he “is okay.” The incessant worrying from commenters about his well-being refocuses attention and care back on someone who is propagating, supporting, and spreading abuse and oppression. In other words, it serves to refocus attention and emotional care work back on the abuser, rather than focusing on supporting those victimized and harmed by this type of abusive language. In this way, despite undoubted good intentions, everyone whose main concern is for Eric is actually upholding the systems of oppression that obscure the lives of victims and reward the deeds of abusers.

Attempting to tone police those most affected and harmed by this type of violent rhetoric while also refocusing attention back toward our abusers does nothing to combat hate, and inevitably actually supports, condones, and excuses the abusive behavior. Tone policing is a silencing tactic, and is one of the ways systems of oppression are reproduced and protected. It’s also a classic symptom of victim blaming, which argues that the justified anger victims feel toward those who abuse them is in fact the reason why they are being abused. In reality, abuse is a conscious choice made by the abuser. Resistance to oppression is not the same as oppression, and one never has to be kind to their abuser. We should never ask people to express love for their abuser in order to have their concerns heard. Ultimately, by engaging in tone policing and victim-blaming, society allows abusers to perpetrate violence while avoiding accountability for their actions. People have a right to be angry about this type of dangerous, hateful speech. This type of misogyny is what leads to policies that target women’s rights. It is what leads to violence against women that is a deep and powerful part of patriarchal systems of oppression designed to keep women “in their place.”

picture3picture4picture5picture6

The way to stop abuse is not to say “stop” more nicely. It’s to say “no more!” as fiercely as necessary. The way we stop oppression is by supporting those who are victims of abuse (rather than supporting the abuser as if they are the one being harmed and the one we should be immediately concerned about). It’s ensuring those engaging in abuse will be held accountable for their actions and choices. And yes, this might include informing their employers so they can take appropriate action to reprimand or distance themselves from a dangerous person. It might include boycotting any of the products, services, or trainings a dangerous person sells. Hell, sometimes, it might even entail protesting against an organization that is colluding in covering up inappropriate behavior.

Then it’s an isolated incident–not so fast!

While it’s tempting to argue that Eric Shaw is just a “bad apple” in a sea of otherwise wonderful yoga people, the reality is much more complex. Commenters on his post have actually indicated Eric Shaw’s rant was not some isolated, out-of-the-blue incident.

Two yogis recounted how: “I was treated to a live version in my kitchen one time, much to my great discomfort. I remember us having to agree to disagree. It was a charged discussion and I felt little leeway in the ferocity of your opinions. The tone of your original post is so hateful toward women and being a woman I am, frankly, revolted [by] the perspective you claim to be ‘investigating,’ but which actually seems pretty entrenched.” Many indicated they had misgivings about him, feeling strongly that something was “off” or that he “gave [them] the creeps.” One commenter noted how “He did one workshop at my studio on ‘women in yoga.’ The students afterwards told me it was the worst workshop they have ever attended and that he wasn’t very bright and the content was low level… I’ve always felt he was a creep but like all of us, we want to give people the benefit of the doubt.” Another individual recalled how “[Eric] taught yoga philosophy in my yoga teacher training five years ago. You shared your misogynist opinions with a group of mostly women and we were quick to speak out against you. I’ve seen a young woman walk out on your class because you wouldn’t allow her to move freely.” Yet another recounted Shaw’s comments on the size of a student’s breasts (too small for him to consider dating her, apparently).

One individual reported how they “sat through several of [Eric’s] workshops over the years trying to honor your scholarship while simultaneously recognizing microagressions against me personally and all other strong woman in the audience who dared question you.” Still others noted, “He taught at my yoga teacher training and was late both days… I also got a weird vibe from him and I’m pretty sure he was kicked out of Yoga Tree Berkeley (rumors).” Another commenter recalls how, “I met Eric Shaw at the Anusara grand gathering years ago. He seemed like he idolized John Friend. In hindsight, this seems all very telling. Something didn’t feel right then either.” Another indicated that “Eric Shaw, who advertises himself as a yoga teacher, has made racist comments on Facebook before.” One yoga instructor, who once had Shaw as their student, recounted: “Frankly you were one of the most self absorbed yoga students I ever had (I’ve known Eric for well over a decade)… Reports I have had from people I trust also peg you as quite the misogynist, and womanizer (yes I know you’ve been pretty fucking slimy with people I know).”

Eric Shaw’s disturbing and dangerous views went relatively unnoticed in the yoga world for a long time, even though he was teaching primarily women. This is despite the fact others had raised concerns about him in the past, and that he publically wrote a very similar hateful rant in 2013 that was published by Elephant Journal titled “Feminism Sucks.” In other words, his most recent invective was a long-time coming, a long-time felt, and frankly, a long-time known. But, his career wasn’t ruined in 2013 when this type of violent rhetoric was first published. Concerns simply didn’t gain traction and visibility in yoga, where it was all pretty much tolerated and buried–until now, in the broader context of the post-Trump, post-Brexit moment when this type of hate makes women, whose rights are already under unprecedented attacks, that much more fed up (and that much more capable of sharing their anger and disgust through social media).

Because Eric seemed like such a “good person” in other areas of his life, people found it profoundly hard to believe that he was also very much a hateful misogynist. It is also likely that the brushing off of any concerns was in part because those who were concerned were primarily women, and as we know in patriarchal systems the concerns of women are often downplayed, ignored, or excused as “overreactions” or “hysteria”. (Which, by the way, feminists have studied the deeply disturbing history of as a catch-all psychological diagnosis called “female hysteria”, often used to target and punish women acting “out of line” in the 19th and 20th centuries.)

Eric Shaw’s post is an obvious and blatant example of misogyny at work, making it easy to recognize and almost comical in its hate, disconnection, and ignorance. But the reality is that misogyny is often far more subtle, harder to recognize, harder to combat, and harder to uproot. The impacts of patriarchy live and breathe in our culture, in our yoga communities, and in ourselves in ways that are often extremely difficult to recognize, let alone resist. In other words, Eric Shaw is not just a “bad apple” in an otherwise pristine, perfect, and “conscious” or “woke” yoga community. The type of misogyny that Eric Shaw spouts is the extreme manifestation of underlying, persistent issues with patriarchy and sexism in the world at large – and within yoga. “The truth is that there is no such thing as a lone misogynist – they are created by our culture, and by communities that tell them their hatred is both commonplace and justified” (Valenti 2014). Eric Shaw’s post is, in this sense, the canary in the coal mine.

Misogyny–especially the more common subtle forms of misogyny, patriarchy, and sexism–functions in part through our own complicity in tolerating, excusing, and condoning such attitudes and behavior. We must not excuse Eric Shaw as one bad apple in a world of seemingly good ones. Misogyny affects and infects all of us and the spaces we move and act within, and it takes active, deliberate, and continual work to uproot. It takes a profoundly deep and committed practice of yoga to engage in the type of uncovering and Truth-seeking required of us to uproot these biases, to recognize the subtle ways our practice is infected with oppression as well as the way we ourselves are complicit in such systems (especially those of us who are privileged enough to actively benefit from such systems). This is work it seems Shaw is unwilling or unable to do.

The easier, more comfortable, and more common thing to do in response to Eric Shaw’s post is to claim that it is simply an isolated incident, that it “doesn’t happen in my circles,” or that it’s not something prominent in the yoga world at large. But doing so would be a mistake. We want to believe that yogis and yoga communities are better than this type of hateful and violent rhetoric, that yoga somehow magically roots out this ignorance and hate, that if we just practice “all is coming.” But this is a romantic expectation that denies the realities of the way deeper practices of yoga have been compromised by settler-colonial appropriation of the practice and have always been deeply rooted in patriarchal systems. This type of approach only serves to trivialize misogyny as the isolated purview of seemingly disturbed individuals, rather than allowing us to understand this type of incident as a symptom of a larger issue in the practice of yoga and in our culture at large. It fails to place this incident in the context of patriarchy, “a system of social structures in which men dominate, oppress, and exploit women” and LGBTQ+ individuals, in ways that harm all sexes and genders (Walby 1990). Misogyny and patriarchy are deeply embedded in most social settings, and to deny the possibility it is part of all our yoga communities, and even a part of ourselves, is ignorant and naive. The question is not “what if?”, it is “in what form?”

Take, for example, this story from one commenter on Eric Shaw’s post:

“Through my close involvement with a spiritually based supportive group some years back, I came to see that misogyny was alive, well, and kicking, albeit in an underground, deeply unconscious way. A known predator (male) was preying on vulnerable young women as they joined the group; countless women had complained about this, but the men banded together, denied any wrongdoing, trivialised the women’s concerns, accused them/us of hysteria. I was baffled, many of these kind, intelligent men were friends of mine [for] several years; I couldn’t understand what was happening. Anyway, long story short, I gradually realised that these ‘new men’ were still carrying the wounds and warped messages from their forefathers, their families of origin, and from society, but that intellectually, they’d seen and accepted that sexism existed and that women suffered greatly–but their deeply felt anger, rage, etc. had just gone underground, only to emerge by leaking out into everyday interactions as described above.”

Although it didn’t get the audience it warranted when published, we can look more closely at Eric Shaw’s 2013 piece titled “Feminism Sucks” to investigate the way institutions often excuse and enable misogyny. This was work that was given a platform by Elephant Journal, known for publishing other controversial clickbait like the recent article by a so-called “yogi” titled “Why I Voted for Trump.” With the increased traffic to Shaw’s 2013 article in the last few days, Elephant Journal has since deleted the offensive piece (which, thanks to internet archives will never be completely gone).

While at a basic level we commend EJ for removing the piece, let’s delve deeper into how and why they did so. Was it because they finally realized this is a really hateful and violent thing to provide a platform for, and we don’t want to support that so let’s delete it?” Unfortunately, this is not the case. It was because they were likely getting so many complaints from women triggered by and concerned about them providing a platform for this type of hate and the inappropriateness of the article. They were forced to take it down before they were dragged into the scandal surrounding Eric Shaw (four years too late, EJ!). In other words, it was a business decision, not a moral decision. The moral decision would have been to never publish such a piece in the first place. They also haven’t openly admitted why the article was problematic, or why they deleted it, or even taken an explicit stance against the views Shaw expressed in that article which was available on their site for four years (nor did they do so originally in an editor’s note at the beginning of the article, as they did for the Trump piece linked to above).

So even EJ removing the post was a decision that is flawed–{*poof*} it’s just gone! (Get back to the “edgy” articles about neo-tantra, readers!) But Shaw’s other writings? They are all still supported on EJ’s site along with an author page touting Shaw’s credentials (but lacking any disclosure informing primarily female students and readers to the fact that Shaw is also a raging misogynist). So now when people look Shaw up online at EJ they will not actually be able to see what his detestable and dangerous views are. In essence, EJ has completely erased any evidence of Shaw’s hate while continuing to support him as a contributing author, serving to further enable him. Oh, the subtle and insidious ways misogyny works!

Or take the American wing of the Yoga Alliance, for instance, who had this post brought to their attention and were asked to forward their formal statement to Shaw so that it could be more widely shared amongst the worldwide yoga community (note: this is not the same as actively unearthing ethical infraction; because of their lack of regulatory ability the onus is on YA members to inform upon each other). Their response:

All grievances are private to Yoga Alliance. We do not share that information. Yoga Alliance supports having the public make informed choices when selecting a yoga instructor or a yoga teacher training program, including based on whether a teacher’s or school’s philosophy is aligned with the that of the student. Yoga Alliance Registry’s social credentialing system is designed to allow the public to see feedback from past trainees before enrolling in a training program. Yoga Alliance also encourages prospective yoga students to review other available information when selecting a yoga teacher.

In other words, despite their belief that they are supporting “having the public make informed choices,” Yoga Alliance is doing nothing to actually inform the public and potential students (most of whom will likely be female) about Shaw’s potentially dangerous views, serving to further enable him and condone his behavior. Does your brain hurt yet?

We can see more subtle forms of misogyny and systems of patriarchy at work in the way people have tried to excuse Shaw’s behavior as some sort of mental breakdown or illness. We can see it in the way yogis, including women, empathized more with the perpetrator of hateful discourse than with those affected by it (even if it was harming themselves; but then again, that’s not such a surprise since patriarchy teaches women to put others and especially men first, to love thy oppressor, and to forgive instead of oppose). We can see misogyny and systems of patriarchy at work when we look at the way yogis, after confirming that “yes he was perfectly fine yet also totally cool with being a sexist pig,” still refused to cut ties with him and decided to remain his friend despite his hateful views, in essence tolerating his actions. These people likely have the privilege to ignore any potential harm done because it doesn’t/won’t affect them directly.

picture7

See the full public post from Ekabhumi Charles Ellik here.

Let’s also not forget that while the majority of people on Shaw’s post were rightfully, justifiably disgusted with the drivel he wrote, there were also others who agreed with him and who were amenable to his ideas. In other words, Eric Shaw is not alone. This was not just other men (though it largely was). It was also (white) women, which isn’t really a surprise when we consider that feminist theory has long indicated women internalize and often participate in their own oppression, especially if they themselves may benefit from white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. Shaw might be an extreme version, but there are many others out there who support his view, who are part of yoga communities, and who also perpetuate systems of oppression.

picture8picture9picture10picture11picture12picture13picture14

But, surely Shaw’s yoga career is over–not so fast!

Despite optimistic statements arguing Shaw’s post was “career suicide”,  it’s best we be realistic about the ways patriarchy works to hide, bury, erase, condone, and tolerate those perpetrating misogynist hate and violence. Even in the yoga community–indeed, especially in the yoga community–we can see this type of process at work over and over again, where scandals involving teachers engaging in abuse often do not result in their expulsion from yoga spaces or teaching roles. Is this completely messed up? Totally. But does it happen anyway? Yes, all the time.

Historically, there have been numerous “gurus” who have abused students, taken advantage of students, or been otherwise engaged in scandalous activities who have continued to have careers in the yoga world.

Take, for example, Pierre Bernard (originally Perry Arnold Baker) in the early 1900s, who was involved in numerous sex scandals after he created a group called the Tantrik Order. It was alleged that Bernard required participants to engage in “sacramental sexual intercourse” in order to join. In 1909, two teenage girls alleged he had sexually taken advantage of them and charged him with kidnapping, which led to his serving time in jail. But was this the end of his career? No. “Bernard eventually regrouped and founded successful yoga schools in New York City and Nyack, N.Y., where he entertained lavishly, raised a herd of elephants, and taught yoga to the cream of high society” (Love 2012). Not only that, but ““at the time of his death in 1955 Pierre Bernard was a bank president, an officer in Nyack on the local Chamber of Commerce, the head of a large real estate holding company and a member of more than twenty societies, including the British and American Philological Societies, the Royal Society of Arts and the Royal Asiatic Society” (Yoga Dork 2010).

Other prominent “gurus” who have been embroiled in scandals and yet still have gone on to have successful careers include Bhagwan Shree Rajnees, more commonly known as Osho. Rajnees was implicated in a number of serious crimes in addition to sex scandals, including a bioterror attack, an assassination plot to murder a US Attorney, tax evasion, immigration fraud, prostitution, drug-running, drug use, and exploitation of workers. When he was deported, twenty-one countries denied him entry. He ultimately returned to India and his Pune ashram (now one of India’s main tourist attractions) and is still a celebrated figure in many New Age circles today. In fact, his prestige only grew after his death in 1990.

Or take Swami Satchidananda, who rose to prominence after opening the Woodstock Music Festival in the 1960s and was the founder of Integral Yoga institutes across the country. Over the years at least nine women have accused him of sexual abuse, although this didn’t halt “invitations for over fifty years from around the world to speak about the way to peace.” Oh the irony! (You can see his organization’s glowing biography which includes absolutely no record of any charges against him here.)

John Friend, the founder of Anusara yoga, went through what has since been dubbed “Anusaragate” in 2012 when he faced claims of financial mismanagement and a prominent sex scandal, explicit photos and all. Although he reportedly was “left estranged from much of the yoga world, banished from the empire he’d created,” was his career over? No. After a mere year off, he began teaching at a studio in Denver (where “he was welcomed”) and ended up creating/appropriating/adding the Friend branding “magic” to a new style of yoga with (female) teacher Desi Springer, called Sridaiva or Global Bowstring. A mere five years ago, yoga practitioners were optimistically calling Friend out on his numerous ethical infractions and announcing his career was in tatters. Apparently we have short memories, as “his” new style is enthusiastically investigated by both new and long-term yoga practitioners, and the intricacies of the style’s biomechanics dissected in online forums.

Or take the recent Jivamukti scandal, which entailed “allegations of sexual assault and battery against yoga teacher ‘Lady’ Ruth Lauer-Manenti, brought by Holly Faurot, her student at Jivamukti Yoga School in New York City. The suit names Jivamukti founders Sharon Gannon and David Life, as well as studio director Carlos Menjivar, as co-defendants for covering up and condoning Lauer-Manenti’s alleged actions.” (Remski 2016a). Was that the end of any of these people’s careers? No. “Ruth Lauer-Manenti has exited stage right for teaching gigs in Berlin and Switzerland. Sharon Gannon and David Life have exited stage left for retreats in Costa Rica, upstate New York, and then Moscow in the fall” (Remski 2016b). Others commenting on the Jivamukti scandal, such as prominent teacher Leslie Kaminoff (who is well-known for his conservative outlook) “instantly contributed to victim-blaming culture, which enables abuse, and silences those who would speak up.” Despite this, Kaminoff continues to attract large (predominantly female) audiences. The entire incident clearly indicates the ways the yoga world and patriarchal systems in general often work to bury, silence, or excuse harmful actions or violent rhetoric, a process explored by Remski in his last post on the Jivamukti scandal, titled “Silence and Silencing at Jivamukti Yoga and Beyond.”

Look, we believe in second chances. In some of these cases, like Friend’s, there was consent in illicit affairs (if not honesty or truthfulness), so it’s important to note that not all of these scandals involved cases of abuse, harassment, or assault. But the fact is these individuals (mostly men), who made conscious choices embroiling them in disturbing and at times abusive scandals, did not experience “career suicide.” This is a sign that those engaging in abusive and harmful behavior are quite often propped up by patriarchal systems, even, or perhaps especially, in yoga, as their discretions and abuse are consistently downplayed, buried, tolerated, and excused by those surrounding them. Indeed, if we want further evidence of this trend in our broader world we need look no further than the White House, which is now host to a man who was elected President of the USA despite being caught on tape bragging about sexually assaulting women, or his close ties with child sex trafficking networks, or being accused of sexual harassment and assault by over twenty women (including charges that he raped a 13-year old, which were dropped after the victim received a slew of death threats from Trump supporters).

So we need to stop saying Eric Shaw will somehow face “career suicide” after revealing his long-time, deeply-held beliefs of sexism and misogyny, gender essentialism, and indications of racism to boot. Though we wish it were the case, unfortunately, it’s simply not a given. Do we hope Shaw will get the help he needs to overcome his clear biases and to change? Of course. But given the many years Shaw has been engaged in this type of rhetoric, that is not likely to happen, and all the coddling, excusing, and “dialogue” in the world likely won’t do anything to change his mind, no matter how “nicely” we reach out to him. This is a person who has been eating up men’s rights dogma for decades, even while he has never actually reached out to study feminism itself (and that’s one severely lopsided “dialogue” if ever we saw one).

picture15

Be Scofield, who is ironically the founder of Decolonizing Yoga, would “love to stay in dialogue” with Eric Shaw regarding men’s rights dogma? The comment does reveal the long time Shaw has held such views, and how lopsided his study has been.

Ultimately, to ensure that his career in yoga is actually ended those of us (who are justifiably disturbed by the potential for Shaw to continue teaching predominantly female audiences) will need to stand against him, repeatedly, often, and loudly. It will take denouncing him in our communities and informing others who are considering hiring him in the future about his hateful views. It will take all of us continuing to educate ourselves and our communities on the dangers of such violent rhetoric, the realities of women’s history, and on what feminism actually means and entails.

Where do we go from here?

Happily, most of the comments on Shaw’s post were from people, especially women, who found this type of violent rhetoric unacceptable and disturbing. Here’s a shout-out to all you empowered, amazing people who stood up to combat and denounce hate–you are inspiring. But we would like to encourage all of us to think critically about how we may be condoning, protecting, and potentially even encouraging this type of misogyny in our communities, and how this links to how we teach the practice of yoga.

picture16

Thaumatrope: the bird in the cage

How do we break out of the cage of patriarchy, so people of all sexes and genders are able to fully heal? What are we really teaching when we teach yoga, and is there a way to teach yoga as a radical act of social justice? Can we teach yoga in ways that is informed by and rooted in intersectional feminism? What would that look like? How can we promote a spiritually engaged activism in our yoga communities to better combat this type of hate and violence?

Many people are deeply resistant to notions that yoga might be a force for social change or that yoga is political. Even in these Trump/Brexit times, we are often still enmeshed in ideals of yoga that posit the practices as timeless, transcendent, pristine objects rather than the cultural artefacts and tools that they are. This is not to deny the potential power of yoga to support, empower and perhaps even transform a life. But how it transforms us, what it transforms us into and what kind of communities we create as part of that process is up for debate.

We all have an abiding need for be seen and held; to feel part of something greater than ourselves. Perhaps more than ever before, we might have a need for a de-politicised, neutral space, where we can go to forget our worries and concerns in these troubled times. And it might therefore suit us to view our yoga classes and communities as politically neutral and existing as an alternative to politics. But we also need to recognize that our innate need for community and for simple companionship means that we might also be willing to overlook red flags and subtle signs that could in fact allow us to recognize that the implicit (and almost always unspoken) biases of our particular chosen group do not actually align with values that we personally hold dear. It might mean we are willing to overlook behavior that prevents us from accessing the deeper, ethical practices of yoga to overcome samskara, imprints or impressions left in the deep recesses of the mind by experience (which for all of us is experience rooted in systems of white supremacy, settler-colonialism, and capitalist patriarchy). It might mean we compromise our ethics in ways that make us complicit and which enable abuse and violence to continue.

This overlooking becomes particularly problematic when aligned with the rhetoric of self-care that much of modern yoga culture espouses. (Not to mention that this focus on self-care might not be in line with traditional teachings, but rather an example of yoga culture taking on the dominant values of the society it is embedded within). What do we as practitioners do when something a teacher or prominent member of a community says feels “off” to us? How do we make sense of the dissonance? Most of us, particularly women, are very well-schooled to prioritise social harmony and cohesion over our own internal wellness and wholeness. If we are yoga teachers ourselves, can we say that what we transmit from this space of internalised violence is truly yoga?

As teachers, our careers can be dependent on our reputation, networks and connections, and perhaps we sometimes feel we simply cannot afford to turn down the patronage of a powerful teacher (even if they are known to be abusive, hateful, or someone who engages in victim blaming; or if we suspect that is the case). In such circumstances, we may very well collude with power structures we consider ourselves morally opposed to. In fact, female practitioners might do this most of all. This becomes even more complicated when we consider the material conditions of women working within the yoga industry. Let’s be clear here that this is a world in which employment is increasingly scarce, underpaid, and rarely sustainable past the glory days of Instagram-friendly “health” and desirable bendiness. Rampant self-promotion is necessary and resources (for example students or studio space) are competed for fiercely. In this uncertain industry, it is the working lives of women that bear the brunt. Maternity leave is as likely to be the end of your teaching slot at a studio as it is the beginning of a new chapter of a woman’s relationship with her body. So can we blame female teachers for looking anywhere we can for security?

Misogyny does not always manifest as brutally or obviously as we might think. In our experiences as yoga practitioners, we have seen many apparently innocent incidents which are in fact examples of deeply buried sexism. A great many of the things we take for granted or that are normalised within a yoga class are symptoms of this and other forms of bigotry.

Consider, for instance, how acceptable it is for female practitioners to let their teacher know that they are menstruating, which for all women who do menstruate (whether they know it or not) has an effect on energy levels, joint lability, and emotional states. If this aspect of female embodiment is accepted, how is it made space for within the class? Is an alternative to, say, inversions actually offered? Is that done with a sense that this is not somehow lesser than the “real” work of the class, which is going on somewhere else in some non-bleeding body? What does this do to us as female practitioners? What does it say to us about what it is to have a female body, about yoga? Who loses here, and who gains? How does this play into pre-existing hierarchies of power and of who is given voice?

Let’s take some other common examples of female experiences in yoga. How is pregnancy accommodated? There are many good reasons to attend pregnancy-specific yoga classes–but isn’t there something ironic in the rhetoric of “start where you are” and “yoga is for everybody” that peppers every class if this entirely normal facet of human experience is not accepted by the usual structure of what we are practicing together? What about miscarriage, an experience that one in five to six of known pregnancies ends in, which causes an estimated one in five women who go through it anxiety levels on a par with people who attend psychiatric outpatient services? What about menopause, which every woman who menstruates goes through? These are largely hidden areas of female experience, and perhaps we obscure them further and even complicate our ability to go through them without medicalising or pathologizing them if they cannot be accommodated within yoga.

Once we start looking at these questions, it is difficult to see a yoga class as quite as female-friendly as we might want to think. Is this evidence of deeply-ingrained sexism? Not necessarily–though we, the authors of this article, would argue that it is. At the very least, we might want to re-think our cherished notion of yoga as a non-political space.  And we might also want to investigate, at the level of our own practice, how we make sense of the messages we receive from our teachers about what a female body is (and is not), and the way these messages often support essentialist, hetero-patriarchal understandings of a gender binary.

Perhaps we could focus on how it actually feels, somatically, to receive messages both coded and/or explicit, that our body is “less” or “different” than a seemingly “neutral” male one, and how we then pass these messages on to others. As people who are schooled in the rhetoric of “listening to the body”, can we pay subtle attention to what happens to us when we receive disturbing messages from our teachers? What do we do with that dissonance? Do we project it outward onto others, or do we turn it inward? We need to work at this micro-level, as well as at the macro-level, in order to begin to root out this and other forms of bigotry.

Other practical efforts we can make to combat sexism, misogyny, and patriarchy in yoga:

  • At the micro-level, how can we better recognize the way misogyny has become rooted in our preconceptions and understandings of the world? One way to do this is by paying careful attention to our language, with an aim to create more equitable and inclusive social spaces in our everyday lives through a conscious effort to use gender-neutral language. For example, it’s easy to lose count of the times people will use the gendered phrase “you guys” when referring to a group of people, even if every single one of the people in the group is female (or take the use of “man,” “he” as all people, or out in California the use of “dude”). This type of language is what feminist author Kate Swift discusses in her book Words and Women, where “so-called ‘generic’ senses of the word [man] were subconsciously contaminated by the male sense of the word. The result: women were getting lost in our language” (Bodine 1996). Of course this also means those who identify as gender-queer are lost in our language, too.
  • When you see a problem, speak up. (And alas, be prepared for push back.) Can’t speak up because it could put you or your job at risk? Perhaps drop an anonymous note to staff with some articles helping educate the studio/teacher on the topic at hand. Seek out other allies who can engage in that conversation with you, or have a friend speak for you anonymously if they are comfortable doing so. Also, consider keeping a written record of incidents and dialogues you have had about such incidents to document any concerns.
  • Do your homework on the teachers you are taking classes from. Let’s avoid supporting those who don’t actually walk the walk with any of our money, time, or energy. Find out something disturbing? Let the organization hosting the event know, and consider informing people who might otherwise attend (note: informing others can take many forms from private conversations to public demonstrations).
  • Are you a studio owner?
    • Consider having a process for anonymous feedback so those who may not feel comfortable disclosing their experiences can do so safely.
    • Ensure teachers are properly trained on appropriate conduct, including maintaining professional boundaries with their students–especially when these relationships may be charged with gender, race/ethnicity, and other power dynamics. Have clear policies on how to deal with difficult or disturbing situations that hopefully never come up, but realistically might (like this incident with Eric Shaw demonstrates). This includes having policies and training for all staff (including teachers) on reporting, filing, and addressing disturbing incidents, including those involving hate speech, sexual harassment, or discrimination.
    • Have a list of emergency contacts somewhere handy in case emergency situations arise, including mental health services and numbers for local emergency centers. (Sometimes it may also be useful to have this information in a format that can be passed out to others.) Here’s hoping it’s never needed.
    • Consider offering classes that can serve as safe spaces of healing for all people, especially marginalized groups. This might entail offering classes or spaces that serve marginalized communities or which can address specific needs for certain groups (things like curvy yoga, classes for people of color, and yes, this might also entail yoga classes for men). Recognize this work is not a marketing gimmick (looking at you Broga!), but rather about building inclusive, empowered, and supported community spaces. The way you teach might need to change to truly serve the community you create (for example, Brandon Copeland’s studio in Washington D.C.).
    • Considering offering classes that help fundraise for important causes. These type of events can help build community, establishing connections with local organizations and networks. They can also support those in need, or help raise awareness on important issues. (For example, yoga classes to benefit Planned Parenthood or something like Yoga Refuge’s fundraiser supporting survivors of the Bay Area Ghost Ship Fire.)
    • Consider hosting workshops and trainings for staff (and maybe even students) on important topics, including: combatting sexual assault and harassment, trauma informed yoga, anti-racist education, creating spaces that are queer and trans friendly, the impacts of gentrification (which yoga studios are often deeply embroiled in), the nature of privilege, and other forms of anti-oppression education, including feminist education. There are often many local activists and community groups that do these types of trainings you can reach out to.
  • Do you run a teacher training?
    • Revisit the point above about doing your homework on the teacher trainers you are hiring. Also revisit the point directly above this about types of workshops or trainings that might be important to discuss during a TT.
    • Consider the way your curriculum, including book choices, also monetarily supports and legitimates certain instructors. Is it possible to represent a more diverse range of authors in your curriculum (are all the authors of curriculum students read from just one group, such as white people or men)? Can you work in training on trauma sensitivity?
  • Have other practical suggestions for us all? Add them in the comments below.

Let’s all work together to create spaces where we can heal in safety and work towards a more socially just and equitable world. Onward and forward!


Amara Miller is a PhD candidate and Associate Instructor in sociology, as well as a yogi, feminist, artist, teacher, and perpetual student. She seeks to utilize a feminist and sociological understanding of the world to inform her yogic practice/teaching to better combat systems of oppression, including inequality and inaccessibility within yoga. Her dissertation looks at the impact globalization, commodification, and appropriation have had on the transformation of yoga in the last fifty years and the way marginalized teachers and activists involved in the body positivity movement resist these changes. You can find her on Facebook at her page Amara Miller, on Twitter @AmaraMiller27, or through her blog https://amaramillerblog.wordpress.com/.

Joanna Johnson has been a yoga practitioner since the 90s, has had a daily practice for fifteen years, and has been teaching for seventeen. She is particularly interested in the myriad experiences of female embodiment. She teaches women’s yoga in a beautiful barn in the English woodland, where her teaching is increasingly inflected with the felt realities of being a householder in intimate contact with the Earth. Her Facebook page is Red Moon Yoga, and she blogs at www.whisperingbodies.wordpress.com.

Towards an indigenous yoga practice – co-option and delusion, or innovation and integration?

img_7169
Artwork by Kate MacDowell

 

Earth my body

Water my blood

Air my breath

And fire my spirit

(traditional chant)

The bodymind work I explore and share is a yoga of contact, and of the connections and conversations that this puts in motion. Almost two decades now of increasingly quiet, careful, delicate attendance to my feeling-sense, to the inner chasms of my physical body as it cycles through the ebbs and flows of female embodiment, as well as to the edges of my body – the tender, ever-shifting meeting places between myself and the world as I stand, sit, or lie – all of these thousands of hours of tracking, listening, paying respectful attention, courting relationship, have taught me much that is of use in terms of how to live healthily. They have also gifted me a conviction that although the word “yoga” has come to mean many things (and that this is problematic in itself), I can best explain the yoga I practice as an opening of the channels of communication between the different parts of me, and between me and not-me. It foregrounds communication and the spontaneous arising of community – between my breath and my spine, between my feet and the grass, between my skin and the winged creatures that zip past on these warm, wet summer days, with the clay that lies under the lawn in this part of the country; as much as the community that is my family, my neighbours, my group of friends, my students and my colleagues.

My formal practice takes place in a wild and overgrown corner of English countryside. These days, I am, I notice, twitchy and irritated by the straight lines, perfect cleanliness and shiny pseudo-zen vibes of studios and purpose-built centres. They served me once … But mine is a yoga of hedgerows and woodlands; meadows, lakes, and rivers; puddles, brief, dazzling heat and light, interminable rain and infinitely nuanced shades of grey-brown. The land that I live on, the country of my birth and the customs and habits of its denizens (both human and more-than-human) have nurtured and expanded, pruned and refined my experience and understanding of embodiment, as they have for us all, anywhere else you can think of. Though yoga may be claimed a technology of transcendence, an individual’s practice will always reflect the physical, social, cultural and religious environment in which it takes place. Accordingly, our practice also impacts upon these systems – in our tiny way, we contribute to the cultures of which we are part.

My connection with myself is rooted in the land that I blessed to have as a support in this challenging work, and in local and specific ways of knowing. I am a householder who is required to chop wood on a daily basis to ensure warmth and comfort for my family for more than half of the year; I walk many miles through the countryside each week to facilitate my children’s busy lives. I am unromantic about nature, being at its mercy in my old, tumbledown house, but I am nonetheless grateful that my body has direct experience of its wildness, fierceness, and harshness, as well as its bounties and beauties and blessings, and that I am in deep relationship with the land here. I know it to be a rare privilege to be as intimate with areas of woodland and fields as with a lover’s body.

My formal practice takes place outdoors if at all possible. In this secluded, tangled garden, leading to a gnarled apple orchard, I can stretch and rest, extend and contract my body and breath, delighting in syncing my internal human rhythms with the unfolding and the retraction of the seasons. I can lie with the wind caressing my skin, breathe the rich soil, reach sunwards, fall and nestle into the roots of the trees. I wrap in many jumpers, and have been known to take hot water bottles in order to savour the coming spring in the sharp, still-winter-really air, or to eke the last of the precious golden light of autumn before the long darkness of winter. I practice in gentle summer rain, brief thunderstorms, unpredictable gusts of wind, and fierce heat. Nature is not a place to visit on a sunny Sunday afternoon, or a concept I read about. It is not a pretty backdrop to photos of me in advanced asana, or a convenient symbol upon which to explain yogic concepts to students. it is part and parcel of my embodiment, my understanding of that, and even my ability to articulate that. It is literally the ground from which it all springs – and, in a surprising and graceful turn of events, the ground to which it returns, now that I teach in a little wooden barn a minute’s walk from my house.

Although I have had skilled and experienced teachers in relatively traditional (if highly Westernised) yoga, applied yoga and yoga therapeutics, I take more inspiration from North European wisdom traditions than from Indian philosophy. These traditions are my heritage, and they are rooted in people’s connection with this land. They speak of and to my lived experience. My formal teaching has been in “yoga”, but this found fertile ground in time I had previously spent at festivals, raves and outdoor parties, and in my private forays into sacred sexuality, paganism and goddess worship. My apprenticeship has been in balancing committed practice with the informal but highly challenging discipline of being a wife and parent, at least as much as a “yoga teacher”. So while I am no fan of the yoga mashups mushrooming in the “anything goes” culture of the free market (rage yoga? snoga? hip hop yoga? yes, they’re all things, apparently), I must own that I respond more readily and wholeheartedly to what I know of native shamanism, paganism, and modern-day revivals such as wicca and the Goddess movement, than I am by what I know of yoga philosophy.

I understand that for many scholars and practitioners, this might be highly problematic. For one thing, my knowledge of the philosophies and worldview that shape yoga philosophy is minimal, and whether this qualifies me as a “yoga teacher” can certainly be called into question. I practice asanaspranayamapratyahara, the yamas and niyamas, and make forays into dharana and dhyana, in a country far removed geographically and culturally from the land that these practices are rooted in, and I splice them with nuggets of wisdom, and occasionally other practices, that I have received (and tested) from very different cultures. The practices intersect with my uniquely-conditioned bodymind, and produce a unique expression. It is undeniably a removal – even a severing – of yoga from its roots.

Perhaps no practice is ever “pure” or transcendent in the sense that it exists outside of the human experience, which is by its nature conditioned, and therefore both variable and limited. Certainly, I contend that a yoga pose – let’s say trikonasana – does not exist as such by itself. It needs a human bodymind to enact it. Despite the flattening effect of social media, in which a seemingly endless parade of “perfect” poses are displayed in desirable locations (each replete with their comment streams proclaiming “inspirational” and “beautiful” and the breathless “wow!”), yoga is participatory, and therefore unique to each practitioner. Thousands of books, websites, and blogs exist which describe in minute detail the external rotation of the front leg in trikonasana, the alignment and the feeling tone and the breathwave in the chest, but trikonasana does not exist for you until there you are, stretching your limbs and your lungs, easing and opening into the unfolding of the moment.

I freely own that the dilution of yoga that I enact and disseminate through my teaching might allow for all kinds of misunderstandings, and resultant misrepresentations of this thing called yoga. This dismemberment plays a large part in the undeniable watering-down of the teachings that is recognised and railed against by so many now (even if it’s to contrast their own “deeper” understandings and teachings). Perhaps it becomes part of another narrative – that of the uneasy coexistence, a subtler, modern form of the dominator/dominated paradigm, that has existed between Britain and India since Britain consolidated its trading presence there, and used that as leverage to control the whole country by the end of the 18th century. (This article says that 29 million Indian people lost their lives under the Raj; this may be a conservative estimate according to others.)

Recent scholarship is showing that yoga has always been syncretic, and that although some key features tend to remain wherever and whenever it flourishes, it is infinitely adaptable. The techniques and practices of yoga are rooted in the specific culture of its birth, where it flourished, and for the inheritors of whom many wise and thoughtful people (and some zealots) are working to reclaim and reframe it within the wisdom traditions of that part of the world. But “my” yoga is an indigenous practice, and in truth it cannot ever be otherwise. To pretend so would be a dishonesty, an overreach, an arrogance; and a continuation of the colonising mindset. I have read and studied Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, but I cannot teach “Patanjali yoga” with the kind of teachings I have myself received, from the teachers with whom I have studied, and with the kind of life that I live. I have read some tantras, but I cannot truthfully teach tantrik yoga, never having had a tantra teacher.

From my personal vantage point, I observe that this is a chronically unlooked-at facet of many Western yoga teachers’ practice and teaching. I suppose that if a spiritual technology is alleged to be transcendent in that it speaks to and of all human experience, this could lead to a conviction that one’s practice (from which so many teachers’ actual teachings spring) – such an intensely personal experience – is done some kind of disservice through looking at it through lenses of history and politics. I think I can understand this mindset. However, it can intersect with an unacknowledged sense of entitlement in a very uncomfortable way. For instance, what are we to make of teachers who, never having studied with an Indian teacher themselves, travel with their own privileged and wealthy students to Indian retreat centres owned by Westerners, proclaiming that “we’re all one” while Indian people, the rightful inheritors of yoga, clean their toilets for a few rupees a day?

The demands and delights of a householder’s life mean that I am unlikely to personally run an exotic retreat any time soon, but this issue is a huge dissonance for me. Yet, it is not one that I want to comfortably and conveniently resolve. I consider that I have a responsibility to hold the following questions in mind:

Is my practice yoga? Can I claim it as such?

Can I call what I teach yoga? Who gains from this, and at what cost; and who loses? Is my personal gain inseparable from these losses?

I have been to India precisely once. I lay on a beach, visited waterfalls, felt that peculiar combination of being both an alien and at home (like a good festival, it is leaving India, as my husband pointed out, that causes the culture shock, not the country itself). And I did a shitload of yoga practice. Yes, it was beautiful, deep and profound. But the country of my birth is also a land of great beauty – a land of wild roses and green hills; mists and bubbling rivers; kingfishers and dragonflies and buzzards. Britain is, of course, a ravaged land, a raped land, a terrain with too few guardians. Our ancient woodland cover has declined greatly. Only 3,090 square kilometres of ancient woodland survive – less than 20% of the total wooded area. More than eight out of ten ancient woodland sites in England and Wales are less than 200,000 square metres in area, only 501 exceed 1 square kilometre, and a mere fourteen are larger than 3 square kilometres. So many of our indigenous birds, plants, fish and insects are under constant threat, and their populations in severe and steep descent, that it is hard to even get up to-date-figures, but a recent report concludes that 10% of the UK’s species are currently threatened with extinction. Ash dieback is the latest disease to rip though what is left of our woods. Large-scale fracking continues to be an ever-present menace.

Britain is ancient. In May 2013, footprints that are at least 840 000, and possibly as old as 950 000 years, were discovered on a beach in the village of Happisburgh in Norfolk, on the east coast. (They were found in a newly-uncovered layer of sediment, and were destroyed by the tide within two weeks of exposure.) Three years earlier, archaeologists had discovered flint tools near the site, which were dated to 800 000 years old at the youngest, and are possibly as old as 970 000 years. The Happisburgh prints are the oldest ever uncovered apart from those found in eastern Africa, which are estimated at around 4 000 000 years old. Archaeology has also shown that Britain has been continuously inhabited for at least 13 000 years. If we can set aside our conditioning and narrow education about civilisation and the march of progress, this agedness, and continuity of life, surely suggests that the indigenous population of this land would have had their own wisdom traditions. Perhaps they rivalled technologies such as yoga in their sophistication. We may continue to be fascinated by the combination of antiquity and exoticism of the highly-developed cultures of the Indus Valley (perhaps 8 000 years old), by cities such as Catal Huyuk in modern-day Turkey (9 000 years old), but it is troubling to me that we know so little of our own history and heritage, and that our education does not generally permit us to join the dots between the history of this land and our current lived experience. And perhaps our fascination with the exotic, and our wholesale buying-into systems of knowledge such as yoga, serves to further obscure our own cultural and spiritual birthright.

It is imperative that we do not use our privileged positions as the inheritors (and therefore wielders) of enormous relative cultural power and wealth to minimise the very real loss that people suffer when their traditions are stolen – and then sold back to them at a price. Debates rage on the interwebs about cultural appropriation (see herehere and here for an introduction to this complex topic). Too often in this disembodied form of communication, participants lose sight of the real opportunity for mutual understanding; some retreat in angry indignation that that their personal losses, their personal feelings of deep powerlessness within the larger systems that govern our lives, are unacknowledged. Those who fall into or who take on the role of agitators or educators can seem to lose sight of our common humanity, and forget that the teasing out of our shadowy heritage is painful work which is accompanied by strong emotional reactions. But in considering issues of cultural appropriation, it feels relevant to me to acknowledge the spiritual losses of the appropriators as a driver of their behaviour.

Questions of appropriation are currently being discussed with fervour in America, where citizens are still conditioned to some extent by narratives of the American Dream. The Declaration of Independence proclaims that all are equal, with the right to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”. Founded on a set of ideals around freedom (democracy, rights, liberty, opportunity, and equality), the American Dream takes the form of opportunity for prosperity, wealth and material accumulation, equally and always available to all citizens. An upward curve of success, achieved through hard work in a society with few barriers, is part of the prevailing mythos. Writer and historian James Truslow Adams opined in 1931 that ”life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement” regardless of social class or circumstances of birth.

These high ideals, however, are undercut by the bare facts of the genocide, land theft and spiritual warfare that the founders of the States visited upon the indigenous peoples of the land itself. Migration of Europeans began in the 15th century, and political tensions, ethnic violence and social disruption were the predictable results of the yawning chasm between the world views of the invaders and the native peoples. Smallpox alone, brought by settlers and to which native dwellers had no immunity, is thought to have accounted for the loss of some eighteen million lives. (There are verified stories of deliberate infection.) Mass starvation resulting from land theft and calculated disruption of traditional ways of life killed countless others. As I write, construction crews are destroying sacred sites and poisoning drinking water in North Dakota, the home of the Sioux tribe, in order to build the $3.7bn pipeline that is required to transport fracked oil. (Protestors representing many, several traditionally mutually hostile tribes, say that the pipeline is the fulfillment of an ancient prophecy in which a zuzeca – black snake – threatens the world.)

England has a similar history of bloody warfare against its ancient inhabitants. The Roman invasion that began in 43CE decimated the population of Britain, sublimated its survivors, and systematically destroyed the cultural and spiritual heritage of the survivors. Historians also surmise that something dramatic happened in England just as the Roman empire was collapsing. A second wave of obliteration in the 4th century CE, by the Anglo-Saxons, reduced the Romano-Celtic population (estimated at between 2 million and 3.7 million people) by about a million.

The study of religious and spiritual practice in the early Anglo-Saxon period is difficult, because most of the texts that may contain relevant information are not contemporary, but written later by Christian writers who tended to have a hostile attitude to pre-Christian beliefs, and who are likely to have distorted their portrayal of them. And so of course, these brief histories of England and the USA are fragmented and decontextualised. They are also regularly subject to hijacking by political agendas, either to ally indigenous peoples with troubling notions of primitivism (which the western world views as “backward” and from which people need emancipation via Western aid or ideologies), or to claim intellectual territory (the charming Nick Griffin of the far-right BNP refers to British “aborigines” in order to draw attention to those who live in Britain but are immigrants or refugees). I tell them here to illustrate that citizens of the two countries – and we could include many others here, too – have had significant parts of their histories effectively erased. I have only become aware of them recently, although I remember having inklings of erased stories, of counter-narratives, and of how stories and histories are owned, when at school.

These histories are highly relevant to modern-day practitioners of yoga, because opening ourselves to them forces us to confront questions of whether we practice in a vacuum, or within the context of social responsibility and care (that oft-used yoga term, “community”). It also requires that we face the loss of our spiritual heritage and what that might mean.

I have been wondering how British and North American yoga practitioners make sense of the complex and difficult emotions these histories might give rise to. Researchers in the complementary fields of neuroscience, psychiatry, and interpersonal biology know that unresolved trauma impacts upon a person’s sense of self at every level, including the physical. Further, work with surviving members of oppressed and or marginalised communities, such as Australian Aborigines, Canadian First Nations peoples and holocaust survivors, is showing that trauma (particularly if deliberately inflicted) has a measurable trickle-down affect upon subsequent generations.

What might this mean for those of us drawn towards a contemplative life, in which a practice such as yoga might play a pivotal part? What memories of violence, hatred, terror might be inadvertently woken from the depths of a psyche by a practice? How far back in our personal family histories do we need to travel in order to directly encounter events that give rise to fear, loss, grief? On a community level, how do we make sense of the guilt and shame, and the tendency to blame and shift responsibility for events that caused immeasurable loss to others? How do we experience these ghosts of emotion in our own bodies? What pit of psychological horror might we unwittingly fall into in following the most innocuous of instructions in a yoga class, such as “stand with your feet on the ground”? What if that ground ran with blood, and our direct ancestors were implicated?

It seems to me that indigenous spirituality and religion; ways of knowing, of understanding ourselves and of the world, have been lost or almost completely obscured. Certainly, lineages do exist, but they tend to stretch back no further than a couple of hundred years, to be a hodgepodge mix of occultism and the alluringly exotic, or to be so hidden to even a determined seeker that they are, to all intents and purposes, invisible. As with yoga, this is not to claim that wisdom traditions can ever be pure or unadulterated, or that their value lies mainly in their age or alleged untaintedness; but it is to recognise that for most people here in the UK, authentic spiritual heritage is absent.

But: is there not a strange and circular irony in utilising psycho-spiritual tools from a different culture, country and historical period, in order to integrate and make peace with the uncomfortable emotions we experience as the inheritors of ruthless, deliberate violence against people from that very timespace?

Might there be some relationship between the “it’s all good”, “follow your bliss” model of yoga that currently holds sway, and our blindness to the histories of the peoples of these lands? Could this paradigm (/parody) of yoga be part of a process of continuing our ignorance; even, our determined unconsciousness?

What are the mechanisms by which we personally escape discomfort? Is yoga one of them? Is this elision of parts of our humanity – our vulnerability, our sensitivity, our tendernesses and capacity for empathy with others – a violence against ourselves? Is this intrusion into our private emotional landscape by notions of what we think we should and should not feel a kind of colonisation of our psychological space? Does this become part of the larger ongoing process of colonisation of land, property and cultural artefact?

I have no wish to minimise or belittle the sophistication and depth of the yoga tradition. But I feel strongly that whilst an experienced teacher to whom I was able to commit as a student would be able to teach me much that I cannot even conceive of, I am qualified to speak from the vantage point of my experience. And from here I want to assert two things. Firstly, that it’s my observation that while the yoga tradition has codified, refined and developed techniques of knowledge, the arising of the desire for this in the first place is a spontaneous phenomenon that occurs in all cultures and societies, from antiquity to the present day. The form will and indeed should vary according to the environment, or it risks essentialism and ossification. My responsibility is therefore to be as clear and honest about my positionality as regards what I do in relation to what I know of yoga’s heritage, and to remain committed to dialogue. Within this, however, I want to be able to walk the tightrope that is strung between adherence to traditional yoga, and creating an individual, freeform mashup that might represent my own interests but bears little relationship to the traditions it references. I’m pondering whether this approach might in itself be an act of yoga.

Secondly, we are in the midst of an ecological crisis, the like of which the world has never known, and the true horrors of which we are largely unaware. The world in which yoga is now practiced and taught is very different to ancient India, and yoga has to be responsive to the demands of both its students and of the world that they inhabit. I see no use any longer in insisting on the sameness and the unchangeability of the human psyche if that does not allow me to engage with this inescapable fact: that ancient Indian yoga masters can have had no comprehension of our chronic stress, deadened and hyperstimulated senses, almost total lack of attunement to the natural world including our own bodily wisdom that is now so common as to be “normal”, and the ecological precipice on which we tip. So as Toby Hindson says, “the Earth speaks and we have to act”. Can a yoga practice be earth-centric? If we utilise practical, tried-and-tested techniques of self-knowledge in the service of garnering knowledge of our embodied connection to the land we practice on (and with), might that not now be a more noble aim than Patanjali’s yogas-citta-vrtti-nirodhah – ‘Yoga is the restriction of the fluctuations of consciousness’? (translation by Georg Feuerstein)

And so … I have to come back to my own body, this life, living on this piece of land. I have spent so many frustrated years as a practitioner and teacher, waiting for my children to get older and more independent, my financial situation to improve, my practice to somehow mature, so that I can search out a true teacher, spend an extended period of time focused on formal practice, travel to India to look for yoga’s authentic roots. I realise now that not only is the drive to do these things unlikely to be resolved by chasing after them, but that I am perpetuating both an idea of yoga that does not serve me, it, or this precious planet.

So. This land. I want to trust that those who share it with me – the basket-makers, gardeners, doulas, herbalists, walkers; the poets and musicians and storytellers – those rooted in pragmatic, embodied traditions and lineages, might be the heirs to our wisdom traditions. This body. This breath. These feet, contacting these blades of grass, part of a patch that, along with elder and nettle and herb robert, grows up the trunk of this tree. The physicality of this land; standing and lying and sitting upon it not as an abstract concept of body and gravity, but as a felt relationship. This wood. This life. I have to trust that it is enough.

Outdoor practice, August 2016

buzzard-and-dragonfly

Lifting my arms in warrior I, I tilt my head back and catch sight of a pair of buzzards wheeling high above me. For a brief moment a dragonfly hangs motionless in the air between the buzzards and I, so that the air that meets my nostrils for this one precious inbreath is filtered through buzzard feather, dragonfly wing.

The wind picks up, and the sound of its movement through the silvery leaves of the huge poplar in the field merges with its passage through the willow close to me, and the ash trees that border the garden. The cresting noise and sudden silence as the gust dies away bring my awareness to the delicate shells of my outer ears, so that I travel on the moment deep into their intricate spirals.

And then, turning my head in warrior II, I am whooshed back out of the secret chasms of my inner ear chambers as the scent of rose and honeysuckle float towards me on the warm evening air. The perfume directs my awareness to my nostrils, and I feel the air swirl slightly in a figure of 8 loop around them, and the tip of my nose, as the contours of my facial bones guide the moist, life-laden air first towards my left nostril, then my right. Damp warmth is tangible as the air streams into my nasal passages, down the back of my throat, and deep into my body, a river in spate rushing through and over and past and under everything it encounters. My breastbone lifts and broadens, my collarbones and shoulder blades wing out towards my arms and nudge my upper arm bones outwards also, so that the soft skin of my inner arms moves to meet the air. My belly swells up, out and back towards my spine as the breathwave continues on its way, undulating my my lower spine forwards, lifting my bottom, swinging the front of my pelvis down. The swell, gentle now and less perceptible, continues on its way down, pushing the tops of my thigh bones outwards, pressing insistently on the soft, fleshy areas at the base of my pelvis so that they balloon outwards.

A pause, in which gravity calls powerfully, as though the core of my body and the Earth’s speak. A fundamental re-organisation of the bones of my feet floods upwards through my legs and pelvis, spine and neck around this immense intelligence, this most elementary and trustworthy of relationships. And then the tide turns, and as breath finds its way back out of my body, nudging and jostling organs as it goes, my body mirrors the internal retraction and condensing that must follow the inbreath’s expansion, and I curl and swivel and loop and twist out of the formal pose in something like dance, something like lovemaking with the ground on which I stand, the air I breathe, the taste and texture and fragrance of the moment.

I’m lying down now, washed clean, my awareness zooming in and out as I choose from the creaking eucalyptus branches high overhead to the embrace of the ground. The crows caw harshly as they settle down to roost in the oaks. In an informal brahmari, I let each exhale escape my throat in a soft hum, so that the simple act of breathing becomes an opportunity to play a part in the symphony of evening sound.

In moments such as these, I am filled with a conviction that if my decades of yoga practice is for anything, it has to be this – the deep and abiding embodied love for this beautiful Earth.

In the early years of my practice, I was utterly seduced by promises of enlightenment, of learning to still my mind and emotions and gain control over my wayward body and nature. As I have become “better” at yoga – more able to balance in crooked shapes, to extend my limbs and to regulate my breathing in complex asana and pranayama – I have become less and less interested in these fireworks. Yoga for me now is about cultivating an exquisite sensitivity to sensory input, and a careful and faithful tracking of the habits, tendencies and patterns that are revealed through my ingrained reactions and cultivated responses to this data. The humble bramble, scourge of gardeners everywhere, is an ally in this work. After a rainstorm as I walk down the track next to my house, the scent of wet bramble branches and leaves rises up from the hedge, rainforest-fecund and exotic. Everyday acts of watching clouds morph overhead, of tracking the green woodpecker’s looping flight with my eyes as though unwinding a thread from my eyes to the bird: all these teach me so much about how to be with myself; with the ebbs and flows of sensation and bare-bones experience. I have learnt that the simple pleasure of draping my eyes across the horizon of tree branches lifting in the wind, of waiting for and savouring the burst of wild sweetness of a sun-warmed strawberry, of inhaling meadowsweet as though into my heart, of walking through dew-soaked grass and of sifting the elements of birdsong at dawn – blackbird the topnote, full-throated warblers the bass, a perfume or a wine of sound – is not escapism or fancy, a holiday from reality. It is a necessary stage in re-inhabiting our maligned bodies. It is a falling in love with and a re-enchantment of the jaded, hyper-stimulated but chronically numbed and deadened gateways that exist as our birthright, portals into the world and into our secret selves.

Oh, but pratyahara, you say, yogis? (Pratyahara is the fifth limb of classical ashtanga yoga, and is variously translated as “withdrawal of the senses”, “withdrawal of the mimd from sense-objects”, “gaining mastery over external influences”.) Perhaps, one day, this will be seem relevant. In an age of climate chaos and mounting crisis, a time when the rights of indigenous peoples – those who know in their boneseed how to live lightly on the Earth – are under attack; an epoch when children’s lack of contact with the natural world has given rise to “nature deficit disorder” and our species is increasingly, subtly re-wired for urban life … I wonder, moving through the warrior poses, just what kind of warrior I might be if my yoga practice does not demand of me that I re-enchant myself with, and speak and fight for, this beautiful, troubled planet.

Embodiment 1

vision-protection-hedge-landscapes-nature-hedge-pr-8128

I fell in love with yoga in the second class I went to. (The first had been at university, when my body still carried a distinct memory of the highs of competitive swimming, and consequently I found it incredibly boring.) It spoke directly to my body: not negating my over-exercised, recently-departed from academia brain, but emphatically not allowing it to run the show, either. I remember that sunny late-summer evening as an oasis in which thoughts, memories, desires, emotions, so insistent and exhausting at that point in my life, thrummed pleasantly in the background, nothing more than a comforting buzz like the distant traffic.

As the teacher led us through the poses, my body, in all its idiosyncrasies, strange callings and needs, irrational fears and closings, rejoiced, seemed to take flight in the way it did with my new lover (now husband of fifteen years); the way it did dancing in a field as the sun came up with thousands of other blissed-out party-goers, the bass as much a part of me as my own heartbeat; with the simple, elegant ease I that recalled from lying in a cornfield at the back of a friend’s house as a teenager. My body drank in the opportunity to be itself as a parched land drinks in rain. I saw clearly that although much of what I was being guided through was hard, my body simply didn’t (yet) understand what was being asked of it. There was no sense of lack or inadequacy; rather, an almost psychedelic sense of holiness intermixed with the mundane – the simple relief of homecoming.

Nineteen years and countless hours of yoga later, I still have a love relationship with asana, as well as a growing delight in exploratory breathwork, and subtle practices such as antar mouna and yoga nidra. My practice has moved from the dusty church halls, centres loosely affiliated with the yoga path, and purpose-built studios that once nurtured it, and is tended at home (outside in nature if the English weather feels at all friendly). I don’t attend classes, and the only teaching I do takes place in a barn a minute’s walk from my house, grassroots-style. Perhaps that’s one reason why I am no longer sure that what I do on the mat is yoga.

Certainly, many of the shapes, positions, movements and sounds I move through (or which flow through me) would be familiar to practitioners around the world today. But while I continue to fall deeply, passionately in love with what I do on the mat, I am out of love, and patience, with much of what I see around me of yoga. I am not a fan of studio culture, of the power plays and subtle jostlings of group dynamics, of adjustments and assists and how-can-we-deepen-that-pose? Still less do I enjoy the mixed messages of teachers and schools and brands and communities to “be where we are” while marketing themselves in showy poses. I distrust the overreach and arrogance that is almost demanded of new teachers as we try to make our way in a highly competitive market. I am profoundly disturbed by the stark non-action of British yogis in the face of the humanitarian tragedies of our times: the lack of coherence or urgency from this community when presented with the reality of the flood tide of refugees on the move; the apparent apathy or political motivation even while spouting rhetoric about oneness and universal consciousness sickens me. Then, there’s also the nagging, growing sense that because I have little to no understanding of what yoga in India is, representing what I do as yoga might be a continuation of Western imperialism … oh, I could go on, and probably will in another blog. Suffice to say, I have a complex relationship with yoga – whatever that is.

My actual removal from classes as both a student and teacher occurred as both a shocking rupture and a stealthy meander. Any new mother knows how hard it often is to find time to even brush her teeth: for me, finding yoga clothes, travelling to the nearest town for an hour and a half and then back home again seemed a ludicrous indulgence, as likely to cause heightened stress for everyone in my house in my absence as to grant me access to the mind and body experiences I thought I wanted. (Though to be clear, I am not dissing indulgence for new mums – give a new mum in your life a present, just because.) I began to wonder – is yoga an escape from my life? Is it an end in itself, or can it be a technology for a kinder, happier life – for actually living my life? If it’s the latter, then do I really need to carve time out of my life – as full of love, discovery, wonder and beauty as it most certainly then was – in order to do it?

So I began to practice at home with more regularity, interest and trust than I had ever been able to muster when I had classes and workshops to fall back on. As the years passed (with intermittent input from teachers to whom I am grateful), I began to think of this thing that I do as embodiment. This felt like a more accurate and honest description of the practice that was unfolding, and perhaps a more realistic goal than “yoga”, given that I’m not sure how to reconcile its wildly different manifestations, let alone where I might fit into that world.

The phenomenon of embodiment has been explored in many philosophical, social and political disciplines. Within these areas, embodiment generally refers to, and is explored through, emphasis on the role that the body plays in shaping the mind. Within yoga, I consider embodiment as a method of coming to know ourselves, and the world around us, through the relationship between the two. So embodiment is not a practice that is likely to lead to the oft-quoted goal of yoga, that of “transcending the body”. It is a route of enquiry, not denial and it requires open-hearted engagement with moment-to-moment sensation.

My own (working) definition of embodiment implies:

  • Working with the wisdom of the body, and not treating my animal nature as something separate, outside of me, or in any way “lower” or less valid than any other part of me. This means that on the mat, I work diligently and creatively to encourage my mammalian self to drop anchor, in order to shift the locus of selfhood from both the thinking, conceptual mind and the call and response game between my thoughts and my emotions. In turn, this might then mean:
  • Locating the body as precisely as I am able in this particular, unique timespace moment: snuggling up to it, welcoming it, offering it the kind of tenderness I knew my babies were owed as their birthright.
  • Prioritising the feeling sense(s) over all other ways of experiencing, knowing, and understanding, while welcoming the stimulation of all sensory input as awakenings of the relevant sense-organs, as a map to follow to guide me into myself. Recognising that there are ways of knowing that are entirely non-verbal.
  • Living as, through, and with the body, as opposed to living inthe body, or attempting to silence or displace the thinking, critical mind. (These conceptions of embodiment seem halfway stations, and to me to perpetuate the mind/body split that I consider damaging to a human, particularly at this historical juncture.)
  • Making an effort to learn the body’s language: its silences as well as its utterances. Allowing for the arising of questions such as, perhaps embodiment is establishing dialogue between these seemingly distinct parts of me? – without needing a definitive answer.

I believe that yoga would be a far more democratic practice if embodiment was the goal of asana practice. Because embodiment is so highly personal, it is necessarily anarchic. If teachers were interested primarily in allowing and championing the quiet inner voice of the body, this would necessarily foreground the Other, and therefore diversity, plurality and multiplicity – therefore relationship; and that lovely and rare thing, companionship; the knowledge that others walk beside us.

For a while, teaching yoga became highly problematic for me, as I tried to devise ways of simultaneously honouring each individual’s bodymind while communicating to (and from, and with) our common humanity. Although in my personal practice I have some standard vinyasa (commonly translated as “flow sequences”), I know that just as often as wanting to do this, my body strikes out in completely unexpected directions. I might start practice with an idea about what I need to do, based on what I’m feeling, but as often as not I find I am led by my body’s own mysterious workings into poses, and other forms of practice entirely, that I did not, could not have known were needed. From this perspective, attempting to keep cohesion in a class while allowing all members to dive into the mysterious depths of their own embodiment felt very difficult. Happily, I am currently at a place where I find identikit poses somewhat creepy. I love it when every single person in my classes is doing something different – everyone there has a different body, a different relationship to her body, and a different history, and it makes no logical or ethical sense whatsoever that my job as teacher should be to erase those differences in the name of some kind of “spiritual practice”.

As it is, yoga, having been pretty thoroughly and effectively co-opted by the juggernaut of capitalism, largely reflects all the cultural biases of our time, so that young, white, able bodies, clad in the symbols of affluence, hold sway, in the media at least. Even collectives such as the Yoga and Body Image Coalition, formed with the specific intention of reflecting and promoting diversity within yoga, are under attack from the bland- and blondification process that is endemic to the culture.

Asana-as-embodiment, however, invites in a specific way of knowing, a particular approach to relating to truth. It stealthily undercuts the stories we are told about what a body is (and what it needs to consume or display so as to be deemed worthy), because a human being who is in direct communication with that personal, never-ending wellspring of personal wisdom cannot be dictated to. Embodiment reasserts the primacy of our animal natures, not as denial of our highly developed cognitive, human, “civillised” selves, but as necessary balance to this. And, I contend that however it may be that we go about discovering and exploring our embodiment, this may prove to be a more practicable, accessible, adaptable and kindly practice than this thing we call “yoga” – and that it may, nowadays, even be the more radical practice, too.

The Body Is A Vibrating Field

2488887052_906fc50f2f

“The roar of joy that set the worlds in motion

Is reverberating in your body

And the space between all bodies.

Beloved, listen”.

From The Radiance Sutras by Lorin Roche

2 stories:

I am midway through my yoga teacher training when my first child is born. When he is a few weeks old, I attend the weekly training session with him, at the behest of my teacher and fellow trainees.

As usual, we sit in meditation to begin. My son sleeps peacefully next to me on the mat, swathed in the blankets I have used countless times to pleat in complicated pranayama lifts, allow slippage and therefore safety of my neck in sarvangāsana, lie under to stimulate my surrender to savāsana.

I follow the map I have used before to settle my body, breath and mind, drawing in my antennae and opening up to my inner world. I dilligently follow my teacher’s instructions to return to my breath with gentleness towards myself. And yet – my child. Is he part of me? Should I include him in my awareness, or do I accept his proximity, his shiftings in body and breath, as some kind of benign distraction, the way I do with my fellow trainees? Should I withdraw from him, or is he part of what I am supposed to open up to? Where do I end and where does he begin? What and where is the “me”  and “mine” I am meant to be concentrating on?

The space between us hums, filled with he-and-i-ness, as obvious as my sitting bones pressing towards the ground, the sound of my teacher’s voice, the bright winter light filtering through my closed eyelids. I feel I am standing on the edge of something. I have no map for this territory.

*******

Several months later. I am strung out with exhaustion from night feedings and the intensity, demands and overwhelming emotion of new parenthood. I cry if I drop a teaspoon, get on buses going the wrong direction. I do not sleep in the day, when my son does, as I am constantly exhorted to do. I am a yogi, I plan to return to teaching soon, and I need to keep my thoracic spine from closing, to soothe my squashed hips, to massage my shoulders and arms, aching from constant carrying and feeding, with yoga. I haven’t been to class since before I became a mother, and my practice is a strange, shifting mix of quiet, still and restorative, and extremely physically demanding. I don’t know in advance of actually being there on the mat which extreme will predominate; like the rest of my life, yoga seems driven by something that, if not exactly external to me, is not in my direct control, either. I don’t know if my poses are the best they’ve ever been, because the effort required is so much more than muscular, or the worst – my body feels so strange and is often beset by aches, weaknesses, misalignments. I don’t know if I am freer than I have ever been, or if I am actually now enslaved by the constant feeding, changing, carrying; the soothing, caring, and loving that pours out of me like an un-dammed river.

It’s the hottest summer for a decade. Naked for much of the day and all of the airless, too-short night, I melt and dissolve in the brutal heat and the call of my child’s flesh for mine, mine for his. The shimmering space between he and I expands, condenses; stretches, retracts as we come together for feeds, leave each other as he drops into the arms of sleep while I practice, he lying on cool sheets next to limp curtains; me sweating in the stillest of sitting poses. I am at once grateful for this embodied experience of oneness, amused by its mundanity – nappy changing can be a self/other meditation! – confused by its proximity (do people engage in lengthy retreats to understand this spiritual fundamental? Am I kidding myself that this is even what is going on here?), and, somewhere, enraged that what I know of spiritual practice has never, ever led me to believe that it’s right here, in the muck and the mire and the mess of my utterly normal life. I am buoyed by this voyage of discovery, while deeply, unendingly alone as I undertake it.

Sleep train him“, friends, family and colleagues advise, when they see how ragged I am. “Then you’ll have time and energy for your yoga”. One sultry evening my husband and I droop with exhaustion and, after the extended feed that usually presages a few hours of deep sleep, we put the baby in his moses basket in the spare room, rather than next to our bed. He awakens almost immediately. Never having been left to feel the truth of his isolation in the world, his body as separation and loneliness – always having known his flesh as treasured, precious beyond measure, the co-generator of the mysterious connection between he and I, his snuffles quickly become gasps, then sobs, then screams, then high, bubbling wails. My husband and I sit in increasingly panicked silence on the other side of the wall. Is this normal? How does this lead to “self soothing”? How do other parents steel themselves against the agony playing out in the other room – and our own bodies?

The only way I can make sense of it is to commit what feels like a grievous violence – to ignore, even deliberately rupture, the thrumming space between my child and I. The space that comprises the physical relationship between my son and I has been filled, mainly, with coos, whispers, and giggles, soft sighs, intermittant exclamations, very occasional cries. A lovemaking of sorts. Now it vibrates with pain and need.

I am in tears within minutes. The act of going to him and bringing him back to us, and to himself, has set the tone for my parenting and my yoga practice ever since. I am following a meandering, deeply personal path to find the most precise tools that will allow me to hear and see the resonances between myself and my not-self: to investigate the communications and connections that flow, ceaselessly as the seasons and frequently as unheeded, between me and my immediate world – children, partner, the patch of wild Sussex countryside that seems to have claimed me as its own. Some days, I call the deliberate, patient tending to these relationships yoga. Some days it is parenting; others, partnering. Rarely at the moment, it is “teaching yoga”.  Increasingly, my practice both on and off the mat feels like ecology.

Vulnerability_Management_22_feeds_iStock_000072291261_0

In a fragile, uncertain and rapidly changing world, I want to have trust and faith in the invisible threads that connect us all. I view my parenting and my yoga as ways of exploring, honouring and nurturing those contact points, communications and connections. Along the way I have learnt that for me, my immediate world contains and generates all the fuel, practice opportunities, challenges and rewards that the most luxurious yoga retreat might promise. My horizons have narrowed, certainly: which means I can attend to the tiniest nuance of relationship.

I use the wonder of the relatively untraumatised flesh of my children, born at home, breastfed for years, snuggled in our bed for longer, as a kind of lodestar to draw out my disembodied, lost selves. What does untraumatised flesh, bodymind that knows itself as the centre of a spreading web of interdependence, look and behave like? How might it call to mine, and how might mine respond? If the gap between my flesh and others is as obvious as these two tales illustrate, mundane as they are, might the spaces between me and everyone else be more permeable, fluid, than I (maybe you?) previously thought? Might the call and response of flesh to flesh, both me and others, and me to myself, be trustworthy? Might this relational field in fact be the most trustworthy thing in my life? How might it deepen my understanding of myself? What memories, and new possibilities, of wholeness within myself might be called forth?