A Yogic Invitation to Do Better: Transphobia + J Brown’s Yoga Talks Podcast

A Yogic Invitation to Do Better: Transphobia + J Brown’s Yoga Talks Podcast

A Yogic Invitation to Do Better: Transphobia + J Brown’s Yoga Talks Podcast

 

“What I know is not important. It is what I don’t know that is important.”

-Yogacharya B.K.S. Iyengar

I’ve been involved in a recent call-in campaign that is requesting accountability from J. Brown and his podcast guest, Katchie Ananda, for a deeply harmful, transphobic interview titled “Gender Spectrum and Biological Sex.” This podcast uses false science and toxic, obsolete cultural narratives that simultaneously position trans and nonbinary people as a dangerous threat, and as victims who need saving.

This article is a supplement to this and other open letters with calls to action. Let’s unpack this harm from a yogic perspective. Divesting and deplatforming are important tools, especially in cases like this where previous asks for accountability have been ignored and resisted over and over. I am also committed to the inquiry: what does accountability look like beyond cancelling someone’s platform, in service to reducing future harm, fostering humility and a potential commitment to do better by those who have caused harm?

I stand firm in the truth that there is abundant room for all of us in the struggle for gender justice and collective liberation, that our struggles are connected. Uplifting trans rights and divesting from binary gender doesn’t harm cis people, in fact it frees us all. I have to believe that people can change, that healing is possible.

What are the obstacles (kleshas) at play, such as fear, attachment, and self-righteousness, and what work may be necessary to help these yoga teachers and others who share this thinking become able to shift? How can yoga practice actually help? Katchie positions herself as a dharma teacher, but there is nothing dharmic about public statements that are cruel.

How dare you publicly say that people’s gender transition ruins them? 

That people’s transitions deny them the ability to experience sexual pleasure? How could you ever begin to understand the exquisite perfection, sacredness, and profound beauty of trans love?

This podcast and the article Katchie wrote on this topic stir up nausea, sadness, anger, and exhaustion. Pointing out and countering each of the many harmful aspects of this interview would require far too much emotional labor than would be healthy for me. Rather, I want to back up and look at why someone would choose to become so entrenched in violent rhetoric, and how a change of perspective may be possible. 

I write this from the perspective of a white, queer, nonbinary person who is a long-time yoga practitioner and teacher. I was AFAB (assigned female at birth) and I am a sexual assault survivor. My identity falls under the trans umbrella, but nonbinary better describes my fraught, nonlinear relationship to gender. I come to this conversation with sensitivity around how liberatory frameworks evolve along with society, and that different generations have different understandings of struggle. I had the blessing of being raised by a feminist mother. I have the good fortune of trans lovers, friends, family, and community that has helped me learn and grow in infinite ways; it’s no exaggeration that trans women have helped me truly understand what feminism, misogyny, and patriarchy are. 

I’m sharing this to locate myself with honesty and humility in this conversation. While white supremacy culture upholds objectivity and ‘one right way,’ yogic traditions highlight the value of owning our subjectivity, pluralism, and more nuanced ways of understanding what is real. Yoga also upholds non-harming before all else, as a universal principle (see sutras 2.30-2.35).

Yoga scholar Dr. Shyam Ranganathan shared an illuminating lecture in a recent Yoga Alliance training titled Yoga Philosophy and the West: Yoga in an Age of Confronting Systemic Discrimination. I don’t seek to conflate colonialism and transphobia, though they are connected; this framing is very helpful regarding this inquiry.

He shared:

“Either we relate to our mind as though it is something that influences us, or we control mental influence so that we can be autonomous (abide in our essence as knowers). (Sutras 1.1-1.4)

Interpretation is imperialistic as it imposes the explainer’s beliefs on the explained. Interpretation is colonialism, as it treats the explained as a prop for the explainer. 

He further shared, “With respect to any belief you have, turn it into a conclusion and ask what reasons you have to support this … If there are no good reasons, it’s a samskara.”

Much of this podcast is rooted in negative samskaras – hidden imprints in consciousness from the past, that keep us individually and collectively entrenched in harmful norms. Over and over again, this podcast interview centered these two cis people’s assumptions, which are largely based not on logic but on false ideas that have been perpetuated for generations to ostracize, dehumanize, and criminalize trans people.

For instance, the recent documentary Disclosure brilliantly documents how we (anyone raised in popular culture) have been brainwashed to see trans women as dangerous perpetrators, when in fact it is well documented that trans women, especially Black Inidigenous trans women of color, are overwhelmingly and disproportionately on the receiving end of sexual violence. 

Gender is mutable, and part of prakriti, nature. So long as we are approaching something in the realm of prakriti – the ever changing – we will have different versions of the truth. Just like the Jain story of the many blind men touching a different body part of an elephant and describing their idea of what the elephant (truth, or God) is, people will have different and evolving reference points for truth, an idea that may be threatening even as it is liberating. This is why ahimsa, nonviolence, is a foundational teaching in Patanjali’s system.

As yoga practitioners we need to interrogate our versions of truth that are directly causing harm to others. The arrogance of claiming objectivity (and trying to prove it with false science) perpetuates violent, transphobic beliefs, which are the very framework propping up dozens of heatbreaking anti trans laws being voted on right now across the country. They also act as a barrier to growth, connection, and evolution. 

Conflating gender and sex is widely disproven, and much has been written and talked about to frame that – yes, trans people are real, and whole, and deserve to exist. We do not pose a risk to the movement for women’s empowerment and do not need to be rescued by cis people. So, my focus is not on arguing this debate, but rather: why are J Brown and Katchie so attached to it?  

They speak as if trans-ness is a problem to be solved (by cis people, no doubt) rather than people who need support and basic human rights. Within the first few minutes of the show, J Brown makes it obvious he has not educated himself on this context or history. Katchie begins the discussion defensively, positioning herself as a progressive ‘good’ person, proven by mentioning relationships she has with people of color and lesbians. Right away this poses a problem by tokenizing people with underestimated identities. 

Additionally, to engage in discussions involving marginalized people and their realities without including them in the discussion is to run the risk of amplifying perspectives based on one’s own social conditioning. We all have been soaked in social conditioning, and it is our responsibility as yoga practitioners to awaken to and divest from structures that maintain violent imbalances. Such conditioning is rooted in systems of oppression and designed to fracture and exploit while maintaining hierarchical power for the few.

Certainly, no one should be pressured into transition, which is discussed at length in this podcast. However, the dangerous misconception that the medical industry has people on some sort of ‘transition conveyor belt’ is problematic because it obscures the truth: for the vast majority of people who transition medically, these procedures provide life-saving and very real relief, which is often not at all easy to access. Transition more accurately often requires years of work – community fundraising, jumping through hoops, navigating transphobic medical and insurance systems, out of state travel… and this is the problem we should be addressing if we care about trans lives.

Most importantly however, is the deeply problematic cis obsession with fixed, “biological” sex and with trans peoples bodies and parts, which serves invalidate and dehumanize people. And to what end. What do cis people really have to loose if trans people are allowed to thrive?

Which, by the way, we are.

I want to name a false scarcity, that positions rights and protections for cis women and girls in competition with rights for trans people and kids, especially trans femmes and nonbinary people who were AFAB (assigned female at birth). Trans people are not the enemy.

Trans people are precious, wise, and sacred – and have been respected and included in pre-colonial societies on every continent on earth. Our modern culture, built on imperialism, genocide, and racial capitalism is the problem, not trans poeple. Trans femmes, nonbinary people, and neurodivergant poeple were also burned at the stake alongside cis women during Europe’s legacy of witch hunts. Our stories are interwoven. White supremecist cis-het patrirachy thrives off fracturing us, and undermines our resistance by keeping people scraping, hustling, and competing for power that comes from proximity to to wealth, whiteness, and cis hetereo mormativity.

There’s abundant room for all of us in the struggle for gender justice and liberation. If trans people are respected and included and get to live and thrive on their own terms, it doesn’t mean there’s not room for empowerment about vaginas or cis women spaces to process patriarchy. Trans people having access to healthcare and youth sports and housing and work etc does not mean we can’t have a wide-open affirming gender culture that celebrates masculine women, feminine men, gender nonconforming people of all genders, non binary folks, and trans people who decide not to medically transition. We can have a critical analysis of hypersexualized femininity without scapegoating transmasculine youth. To everyone who holds any sort of privilege, especially cis privilege – can we please ditch this scarcity and be open to learn and heal together?

This is where yoga practice comes in. Cis fragility and hyper defensiveness needs to be processed and healed, if ahimsa (nonviolence) is a shared value amongst yoga community members. If people are entrenched in fear (abhinivesha) and ego (asmita) and their nervous systems stuck in transphobic samskaras, then the self-replicating waves of intergenerational trauma response will self replicate without interruption. The limbic system will override the possibility of thinking and relating in a new way.

They will see trans people a threat to who they know themselves to be. When faced with challenging change, such as unpacking unexamined cis privilege held up by deeply engrained binary gender essentialism, embodied practices can be extremely helpful. Practice for this purpose not only is key to harm reduction, but it will free the practitioner as well.

Asana practice can be used to build capacity for the unknown. BKS Iyengar famously said, “You know the known, so go a little into the unknown. The mind that is caught up in the known – extended a little beyond reason. …Releasing the bondage of your mind to extend further, reach the unknown a little more. The further you go, you realize that the known is limited and the unknown is vast.”

Asana is an effective tool for nervous system regulation, so we are less reactive and more grounded, which increases our capacity for compassion for self and others. Importantly, it helps us divest from false identification with harmful norms that exist in the mind. Yogah citta vrrti nirodhah. Patanjali was clear, and laid it out in the first few sutras. As Dr. Shyam discussed (and I paraphrase), when we stop identifying with the fluctuations of the mind, then self-governance becomes possible. He also shared a definition of truth I appreciate – that truth is what we can agree on when we are in conflict about something. We can agree that patriarchy and misogyny need to be torn down, healed from. What if that remained the focus, rather than playing the role of police, judge, and savior towards trans people who at the end of the day are really just trying to live their lives? 

But it’s hard to discern if we are rooted in self-governance or caught up in self-righteous harm. That’s why a commitment to yoga’s ethics based in nonviolence – and regular consumption of –  listening to people from the margins is so key. Listen to trans people, to nonbinary people. Listen to trans Immigrants. Listen to Black trans women. Listen to trans youth and trans elders. Be open to receive. And compensate them for their wisdom and time! This will allow you to change – and being open to change is crucial. It is immensely important for us to be able to say, ‘whew I fucked up,’ to feel that, apologize, and keep learning and advocating. 

A decade ago, I closely followed heated debates that had a similar flavor. The Michigan Women’s Music Festival was an empowering women’s gathering that for decades attracted thousands of queer and feminist community members from all over the country, including many who made the pilgrimage annually who would look to this week in the woods together as a time to celebrate, recharge, and recoup from surviving hetero-patriarchy. Ultimately the conflict over whether or not to openly include trans women in that space led to its demise. The fixed belief that trans women should not be allowed, held by a minority of cis women in powerful positions, meant that after years of activism on both sides, the space disappeared for everyone. This was a huge and unnecessary loss. Much of the same transphobic ideology and falsehoods used to argue that only ‘women born women’ belonged at Michfest surface here, a decade later in this “yoga” interview. 

We need to do better. Yoga practitioners are well equipped with tools to do this work. May we consistently recommit to shedding avidya (ignorance). I’m rooting for you to have the courage to look deeper, J Brown and Katchie. This harmful rhetoric needs to stop. And needs to stop now.

Thanks for reading this article. If you learned something consider making a donation. I appreciate your support for this work! Big appreciation to those friends who helped with the editing process.

About the author: Avery Kalapa is a community weaver, wellness advocate, and yoga teacher (CIYT, eRYT500, YACEP) with 20 years of experience, who is passionate about deep, affirming, embodied healing spaces that don’t require assimilation. They teach joyful Iyengar Yoga rooted in collective liberation. 

Uplifting Queer and Trans Folks in our Yoga Spaces

Uplifting Queer and Trans Folks in our Yoga Spaces

Uplifting Queer and Trans Folks in our Yoga Spaces

 

NOVEMBER 16, 2020

I recently was asked to write a short piece for Yoga Samachar, the US Iyengar Yoga Magazine published by IYNAUS, which recently moved from print to be an online publication. The original piece was more rambling, so this reflects a lot of editing… but here it is: the final article. In the tender glow of Transgender Awareness Week, I thought I’d share it here. May it be of benefit. May our yoga practice spaces and community be truly inclusive spaces the uplift healing and liberation in the deepest broadest sense.

As a nonbinary queer, when I see another LGBTQIA person in a yoga space, a quiet recognition often takes place. This camaraderie recognizes the violence, erasure, disapproval and shame of a homophobic, transphobic society and  provides a sweet connection and bit more space for us to fully arrive. 

What most straight, cis people don’t realize is that queer and trans people bring brilliant, insightful magic to a space. Many precolonial cultures celebrated  queer, trans, and nonbinary people as healers, leaders, and visionaries.  Colonized society, with norms rooted in white supremacy, misogyny, and  heteronormativity, has exploited, demonized, and tried to eradicate LGBTQIA people.  

It’s important we do not replicate these harmful norms in our yoga spaces. Here are some things we can DO to be welcoming to our LGBTQIA Community Members: 

• CREATE non gendered bathrooms and changing areas. Learn to recognize and confront any homo/transphobic behavior you observe, like staring at or avoiding LGBTQIA students.  

• NORMALIZE asking for and sharing your pronouns. Ex: “Hi, Im Suzi. My pronouns are she, her. What are your  pronouns?” Ask, don’t assume. Binary gender is exclusionary, harmful, and counter to our non-dualistic practice of yoga. By offering your pronouns, you affirm trans and nonbinary people. If you misgender someone, don’t make it all about you. Apologize and move  on.

• BE AWARE how your discomfort effects the space. What arises in your  body and thoughts when in the presence of someone who challenges  your comfort zone about gender identity or sexual orientation? Notice the  discomfort, get grounded, and then reconnect with the human being in front of you. 

• STOP gendering bodies, body parts, and emotions. Anatomy does not determine gender. Embrace the opportunity to unpack bias about gender norms; after all this oppression harms us all. Ex: Instead of “ladies with periods” and “pregnant moms” try “people with periods” and “birth parents.” Women’s classes can be designed to include trans women;  menstrual classes can include anyone with a uterus. 

• UNDERSTAND intersectionality and privilege. Oppressions overlap and  compound. For instance, the average life expectancy for a Black trans  woman in the US is 35. Unpacking both where we have privilege and  where we’re marginalized helps us orient, and find more satvic, balanced  relationships with others. Embrace challenging your assumptions,  language, and philosophies that uphold problematic norms as a healing practice.  

 •ALIGN intention and impact. “What’s cis mean?” If you don’t understand any of these terms google them. Read up. Marginalized people are often expected to bear the burden of educated others. Seek out, study with, and pay queer, trans and other underrepresented educators.  

• CELEBRATE anti-assimilation. The movement for gay liberation, led by trans women of color, sought widespread change to uphold rights and  protections for LGBTQIA people, especially the most marginalized. This  movement was co-opted by affluent cisgender white gays pushing for  respect through assimilation. Pressure to assimilate is strong in society and the yoga industry, including Iyengar Yoga. The cost of assimilation is high. Assimilation contradicts the vision for a more just, vibrant, expansive yoga community that is truly welcoming and affirming for all. 

• UPLIFT LGBTQIA teachers. Include their unique wisdom and vital, much needed perspectives. Appreciate those who don’t fit your expectation of  what a yoga practitioner or CIYT looks like. Be open to how they share in the common commitment to the method, transformation, and practice of  yoga.

 

Thanks for reading. One more thing…!

I’m delighted about this exciting 6 month series I’ve been working on, which starts this month. Check it out:

Content and Connected, Even Amidst Change

Content and Connected, Even Amidst Change

Content and Connected, Even Amidst Change

 

MAY 14, 2020

Sometimes amidst big changes, do you ever feel like you don’t belong, even in your own life?

What IS it that helps us feel actually…. connected? Content amidst the waning and waxing of all that is unfolding? 

In yoga, there’s a concept called santosha

Like all of the niyamas, santosha is an inner practice. Sometimes described as contentment, santosha is a state of deep acceptance, appreciation even, for what is. It’s not reliant on things going our way in the external. Like happiness, it’s an inside job. 

Santosha doesn’t imply we don’t stay tuned in to what’s going on around us. The tragedy of capitalism and related deep structures of injustice have been laid bare by this virus. Our work to bring balance to the external is ever more important now. Contentment is not complacency.

In fact, when we’re grounded in acceptance within, it gives a certain sense of clarity. We get quiet, observe, feel, understand, and then act.

BKS Iyengar wrote, “Action is movement with intelligence. The world is filled with movement. What the world needs is more conscious movement, more action.” Direct action in the world around us becomes possible, when we are rooted in santosha. And right now, with so much movement halted, we have a real opportunity to develop the consciousness that makes action possible.

However, our reality has been so altered because of Covid19. Our sense of planning, security, place, and the future so uncertain. How can we even begin to feel connected, to experience santosha?

In Pune, India there was a beautiful speech give at BKS Iyengar’s Centenary Celebration, where an Indian professor described a recent study looking at what happens in the brain when people experience a deep state of connection and peace. The study followed people of many different faiths and spiritual practices who regularly experienced some sort of deep blissful state. They found that when these practitioners where just about to experience a profound shift into peace, santosha, the part of the brain that perceives the external – the “other”- went dormant. 

This speaker (one of so many that day, I can’t track him down!) explained that the more we are entangled with the external world, the less connected we feel, and that the more connected we are within, the more we feel connected to others. Wow. I wish I could link to some cool published work on this, but instead let’s just go into this idea.

Perhaps we feel most connected and content when we are deeply awake inside, attuned to the silence within us beyond the noise of our hungry, clinging mind. Maybe this is one reason asana practice has been so nourishing for me during quarantine. It’s a chance to disentangle my awareness from the external, so that I can honestly be with what is. It lets me connect deeply inside, so that I can begin to process what happening in the external from a place of clarity. Even if the glimpses of this inner silence are fleeting, brief, they are incredibly nourishing.

Abhijata (BKS Iyengar’s granddaughter) said in her recent teachings:

“Take a dip in that silence. Sometimes the silence can be overwhelming. Let it permeate, let it just engulf you. Take a dip into that…”

So lovely. It’s been useful for me to remind myself santosha – like yoga – isn’t an end goal, but a practice. Something I can explore, cultivate. Experiment with. It’s been amazing to stumble upon moments of contentment, often just after practice, where some new space opens up and suddenly everything feels different. Spacious and full of possibility. Full of connectedness.

What a miracle to have yoga practice in our lives. It’s so cool that something that takes up so little external space has such massive internal richness. We can practice yoga where ever we are. We can explore asana, breath, and awareness whenever we decide to show up for it. We can practice in our body just as it is…. in our pajamas, using whatever we have around the house. And so long as we have the teachings and a willingness to explore we can experience profound shifts inside.

These glimpses give us faith, that shift is possible. So then we practice a bit more. And inner connection awakens. We glimpse belonging. We glimpse contentment.

Even amidst a pandemic.

And in those moments, it’s all we need.

When Familiar Self Care Stuff Isn’t Working, and What To Do About It.

When Familiar Self Care Stuff Isn’t Working, and What To Do About It.

When Familiar Self Care Stuff Isn’t Working, and What To Do About It.

 

“Trust the wait.

Embrace the uncertainty.

Enjoy the beauty of becoming.

When nothing is certain, anything is possible.”

– Mandy Hale

In case you need a reminder, this is aaaall new. This, ya know, global pandemic, social distancing, unknown futures, unprecedented changes to some foundational aspects of our life…that new stuff. We haven’t experienced this before. And your intelligent, sensitive nervous system alerts to anything new. So beyond all the aspects your logical mind can spin on about this, there’s a LOT you’re reacting to. Integrating. Processing. And there’s no one right way – no wrong way – to get through.

This newness means our old ways of coping, feeling like ourselves, and experiencing wellness, health, and pleasure have shifted. We no longer have the same access points to the things we relied on to feel good about life. It’s likely some of the things that used to help you feel good, no longer are. Or, simply aren’t accessible to you any more, in the old familiar forms.

If you’re like me (and likely, most folks) you probably haven’t chosen how to react the last few weeks, you’ve just been swimming through it. Maybe you’ve been hyper busy to distract yourself from all the feelings, maybe you’ve been dull, heavy, numb, maybe scattered, anxious, exhausted, overwhelmed. Maybe familiar difficult emotions, thought patterns, or habits feel amplified, erupting with surprising intensity.

This is completely normal.

I’ve been exploring this because not only am I trying to cope, I’m super curious – like a scientist in a laboratory exploring my own mind body connections. I’m also here to serve others in their own explorations. And how do I serve – when everything is stirred up and …so “new?”

Well, just exploring the body-mind–breath relationship helps send a message to our brain that we are safe enough to remain present, adaptive, autonomous. I deeply trust the wisdom and efficacy of the ancient Indian teachings of yoga and I know science backs it up. And yet – the practice feels, looks, functions differently now. Have you noticed that too? Asana feels different. Embodiment feels different. So how to we practice now? How do we find our ground?

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Turning to the Yoga Sutras has once again shed some light. After all, the first word in the whole book is now. Maybe a clue for us.

Our sense of self is usually ensnared, entangled with the outer world. Now, this familiar relationship – and our sense of self -has been disrupted. On the surface, naturally there’s a lot we are processing: we may be afraid for ourselves and our loved ones. We may be grieving he loss of a sense of economic security, social gatherings that have been canceled, loved ones now distanced. We might feel outraged at the disfunction of capitalism, at the heartbreaking effects of injustice being amplified by coronavirus.

However, in the bedrock of all we are working to intellectually understand, there is a deeper loss that’s more elusive: the loss of our old sense of self. This is one reason such widespread change is so unnerving, deeply uncomfortable: the ways we move through the world, define ourselves, and the very ways we know ourselves, have been disrupted.

The massive changes we’re experiencing reveal the very nature of prakrti – of the world, the body, the mind – all part of what is ever changing. Patanjali, who thousands of years ago codified the Yoga Sutras, urges us to detach from identifying with the external, from the hamster wheel of cause and effect. *Sutra 11.17 says “The cause of pain is the association or identification of the seer (atma) with the seen (prakrti) and the remedy lies in their dissociation.” And BKS Iyengar’s commentary further explains:

“The intelligence is the vehicle closest to the soul, which must be wary of its influence if the seer is to remain free. Otherwise intelligence enmeshes the seer in a painful relationship with external objects. ….The seat of the ego or small self is the seat of the brain, and the seat of the great Self is in the spiritual heart. Though intelligence connects the head and the heart, it oscillates between the two. This oscillation ceases through right knowledge and understanding. Intelligence is then transformed: free from polarity, pure and unbiased. This is true meditation, in which ego dissolves, allowing the great Self (purusha) to shine in its own glory.”

Right now the very idea of my self, your self, as being separate from, independent, has been shaken. This virus is showing just how interconnected, interdependent, and vulnerable we truly are. It has cleared away so much illusion.

So long as we were caught up, attached, identified with external sources of happiness, we were distracted from the true source of freedom from suffering, which is within, which is the soul. Now, the terrain has shifted.

‘Happiness is an inside job’ is a cute hashtag/ pop saying, but experiencing that spacious clarifying shift is very different from intellectually “understanding.” Even a glimpse of that innermost essence is deeply transformative, and healing.

We now have a fresh reset, a new door opening to discover what brings us inside, to the experiential peace, clarity, resilience that is rooted within our own being.

Perhaps corona virus is giving us the opportunity (gift? if you really want to embrace this idea) of dissociation, stripping away old paradigms, familiar comforts, old definitions of individual self… of ego. What a discovery! We are in a new terrain in our nervous system, mind, heart. We have the opportunity to be attentive, creative, to listen deeply to what is nourishing us and bringing us deeper into a sense of resilience – a sense of now. We haven’t experienced this before so it will be different from anything in the past.

My teachers often urge me to get out the mechanical, into feeling what is right NOW. This is a precious opportunity to become present, and to recognize the source within as the true sanctuary we are seeking. 

So, I’m inviting you to wipe the slate clean on what you think you should be doing these days. Let your practice become inquisitive, intuitive, spacious. Let your days become explorative. You have permission to experiment.

Listen deeply to the effects of your decisions. The feedback loop is clear right now.

I wrote a post about a month ago along the lines of “5 Things You Can Do To Calm Vata This Spring” but… it evolved into this. The fact is, I don’t know what’s going to help you. I don’t even fully know, for me! But I’m exploring it, and wow is it interesting.

And! Even though I don’t have the answers, I think you do. I think you have what you need within yourself, to find out. What helps you recenter is up for you to experiment with, and see what actually brings harmony, acceptance, being-ness. Self care gives stability for the inward journey.

Here are a few ideas (see, I’ll still share the 5 things with you! Plus a few more) but keep in mind, what you’re needing in this moment isn’t a prescription. It’s an experiment. An uncharted journey, towards the soul. You’re allowed to play around and see what works!

Let the old definitions of self fall away. Let the old false comforts fall away.

Can you stay curious about what wakes you up, brings you home, now?

  • Regulate sleep and get lots of it. (Back body breath and long exhalations help with insomnia…!) Wake up and bedtime: keep it consistent. Bonus: Avoid any screens for the first and last hour of the day.
  • Practice savasana. Ideally, 10-20 minutes a day, even if it’s not part of an active asana practice. Make sure you’re warm; supported; use a timer. Bonus: Lay in a hammock. Rest. Daydream. Allow for shameless laying around to rest. When we rest, we integrate.
  • Take hot baths, or sun baths. Water and warmth help us feel grounded. Compliment this with fresh air.
  • Go for extra fluids; herbal teas with ginger, turmeric, lemon balm, saint johns wort, passionflower, chamomile, etc will help stregthen you immune system and calm your emotions.
  • Eat lots of ghee! Scoop into tea, soups, cook with ample amounts. Coconut oil, butter, yum. Good fats. Grounding nourishing internal lubrication!
  • Doodle. Paint. Arrange rocks, draw patterns in the dirt or mud. Go for the process, not the product. See what the medium is telling you.
  • Create an imaginary compost and whenever you have a thought like “I should be … (more productive, more calm, exercise more, etc) just put that shame and disapproval in that compost pile. Lavish in ample self compassion. You’re going through A LOT. I am too. Stop shoulding yourself.
  • Asana is always a win, in my book. But do you need to slow down? Move more? Be in a zoom class? Do you own quiet thing? Practice difficult poses to wake you up and get you out of your head? Chill out in restorative poses and let yourself finally wind down? Both?? Explore and be open. Get on your mat, guidance will come.
  • Pranayama. Pranayama. Pranayama.
  • By now I know you’re making your own list.
  • Cook amazing food.
  • Garden.
  • Call politicians.
  • Meditate.
  • Give.
  • Study spiritual texts.
  • Listen to revolutionary analysis.
  • Chant.
  • Pray.
  • ..
  • .
  • You have so many cool things you love… and theres no rush to do them all right now. Maybe just a take it a day at a time. A breath at the time. We may not have asked for a deep dose of spiritual practice, but hey. Here it is!

“Resilience does not mean we never experience difficulty or distress. Emotional pain and sadness are common in people who have suffered major adversity in their lives. The purpose of practicing a resilience skill is to increase emotional well-being in the face of events that can lead to physical and emotional upset.”

.-Randy Ernst, Scott Reed, Virginia Welle

*Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali by BKS Iyengar

IYNAUS Student Spotlight Interview

IYNAUS Student Spotlight Interview

IYNAUS Student Spotlight Interview

 

OCTOBER 2, 2019

Dear friends, I recently had the honor and privilege of being interviewed by Anne Marie Schultz for the IYNAUS (Iyengar Yoga National Association of the US) Newsletter ‘Student Spotlight’ section. I enjoyed working on these questions during my annual week of study with Patricia Walden this summer. The interview eventually went through an editing process, so I thought I’d share the unedited and unabridged version here, rambling metaphors and all! We explored a lot… yoga and social justice, some personal stories… Thanks and hope you enjoy…

Demoing using the column for Urdhva Mukha Paschimottanasana I (Upward Facing Intense West Stretch Pose) with Patricia Walden’s guidance – and help from her feet! -At her 2019 Colorado Retreat.

  1. Tell us a little bit about yourself.    

I have a major crush on life! I am a white, queer, non binary feminist, full time Iyengar Yoga teacher, a healing justice advocate, a devotional artist and rad mom. I’m pretty magical, a bit chaotic, full of heart. I live in Albuquerque, NM, in the beautiful high desert with big big sky, on the unceeded territory of the Tewa people, and Sandia and Isleta Pueblos. 

2. What do you do when you aren’t doing yoga? 

I have two kids, a 2 year old daughter and a 13 year old son. This tender teenager + tenacious toddler combination keeps me pretty busy and at my edge of growing and learning. Coordinating, finding balance, and sharing support amongst a large but close knit local non-nuclear family that involves coparents, grandparents, little kids, and my precious partner is a dynamic deeply woven with how I move through life. 

I’m also involved with various forms of local community organizing: queer antiracism study groups and activism, supporting immigrant justice, co-producing a monthly queer trans yoga group are a few examples. 

My life blooms at a vivacious rate, and brings opportunities for forays into occasional performance art/ dance, illustration projects, camping, organic gardening…I love to feed healthy delicious things to the folks I love and my kitchen is well used and often full of delicious aromas. The days are usually packed, which makes the quiet deep dive of daily asana and pranayama especially crucial. I’m grateful my life is so rich, embodied, connected, meaningful. 

3. What lead you to start Iyengar Yoga?   How long have you been practicing? 

My entrance into Iyengar Yoga was gradual; peripheral to the core. I studied deeply for 15 years with Kim Schwartz, a wonderful teacher and student of Ramanand Patel and Francois Raoult; I’ve taken many workshops with them as well. I’ve been practicing yoga for 20 years, working with ‘Iyengar inspired’ and Iyengar teachers who left the system, since 2003, and about 10 years ago became a bit obsessed with what is the actual Iyengar method, something I’m of course continuing to discover, excavate, expand into, and explore. 

4.  Describe your path toward establishing a home practice.

As a teenager, I was very interested in the terrain of consciousness, and though the philosophy books my mom had brought back from travels to India were a bit too obtuse for me to get into, I developed a sort of made-up meditation practice. I didn’t know about asana. I attended my first yoga class in my freshman year of art school (my best friend took me, both of us balanced on my bike, which had pegs on the back wheels, all the way through downtown Baltimore to get there) and I fell in love with it right away. I noticed a palpable difference in how I felt, and was intrigued by this thing that was so challenging, yet felt like home. That summer I visited my cousin Melina for a month in big bad NYC. I met a friend of hers named Sigaleet – a magnetic, gleeful very energetic Isreli woman, who practiced 108 sun salutations every day (!). Needless to say I was inspired! My cousin and I would start each day on the roof with 10 surya namaskar, and from then I just kept with it, adding in things as a learned. 

5. Has there been a particular moment or memory when you realized the personal significance of practice?

There have been many. One memorable moment was half way though my second retreat with Patricia Walden. I was driving away from the day of practice, and in a stormy New Mexican twilight became overwhelmed with a sense of joy that burst to the surface in powerful tears, so strong I had to pull off the road and just cry, messy loud, sobbing tears, like that of a newborn who has found their lungs. 

In those years I had some repressed trauma and emotions, so crying was very rare for me. These were euphoric, happy tears though and I had a clear sense that finally, I had found the work, for me – this path of Iyengar yoga – that had such scope, meaning, depth, potential, that it was worth committing my life to. 

I grew up with homesteader hippie parents, in rural WV: lots of art, nature, leftist politics, and modern dance instead of TV and mainstream culture so I had a lot of creative talents and will to serve, but had struggled to pin down what to really do with my life, what is MY work, my way to serve. This was a poignant moment that seemed to clear the way. Interestingly committing to this Iyengar yoga path has opened doors for much of the these “divergent” interests such as art and healing justice work to blossom.

5. How does your yoga practice relate to your family (furry and otherwise) life?

Yoga sadhana is essential for me to show up fully for my family. My motherhood makes much of what yoga philosophy teaches, real. 

But practice it often feels at odds with my responsibilities; both pull at me and time with one means less with the other. Family time and time inside my practice create a tension that is somewhat positive; each one makes me hungry for and very appreciative of the other. 

I am inspired by Abhijata, how she is being both, mother, practitioner-teacher. In her own way, finding an ever changing balance. I’m very glad to have a supportive partner who also loves yoga, in their own way, and understands it is a big and worthwhile part of my life.

6.  If you are a teacher, what brought you to teach in this lineage?

I felt pulled towards teaching yoga from a young age, and always took it as a serious endeavor. The more experiences I had in both practice and teaching, the Iyengar system consistently emerged as the most relevant, direct, clear, bright way forward into yoga. Once I found access to the Iyengar system, other possible trajectories faded away pretty quickly. I had to work through many barriers (mostly of my own creation) to feel deserving, that I too could be part of all this. 

7. What do you love most about  Iyengar yoga?

“Most” is tricky! A Gemini answer: Top 5!

I love that it is lineage based: that there is accountability, mentorship, responsibility, practical ways to progress into an embodied, somatic experience of spiritual evolution that affects all aspects of life and self, here and now, in such exquisite ways. 

That in teaching I can serve directly at a root level. Students can come out of pain, or change their relationship to pain, that healing is possible and accessible, and that this opens the gateway to the deeper potentials of practice: a miracle every time.

I love that it is a vast endeavor, humbling, that the subject will only ever be barely touched, even after a lifetime of practice. 

I love that to practice Iyengar Yoga is to step into a river of Devotion, that it brings me to total trust and terrifying levels of surrender, that it requests all I can give and more, so I know my capacity for focus, for strength, for patience, for love, is much greater than my mind tells me.

I love that what I’m exploring in asana practice are the exact skills I need to navigate work in the external world: to awaken to and challenge my own internalized oppressions, to disrupt the harm I inevitably create, to stay present during the discomfort of working towards change, of directing attention to what I’ve been socialized to ignore, of compassion and clarity amidst fracture and conflict. I love that there is space within Iyengar Yoga community for culture shift to grow and that conversations around inequity, privilege, race, class, gender, etc are becoming more and more a part of the space. 

I love that Iyengar yoga brings me in, to really experience what is beyond, what is  God, what is real. To sense the hum of the earth’s living soul, the awake vital pulse of the universe. 

8. Any particular asanas you are currently focusing on?

Mostly: Actions WITHIN asanas! How do the combined actions of socketizing the femur and work in the buttocks elongate the lumbar and pacify my adrenal glands, especially in back extensions? How do I verticalize, centralize, and sense the relationship of my joints in inversions? How does the space behind my sternum directly relate to states of mind, emotions? How to feel many areas in my body at once, in such a way that they harmonize, rather than compete? How do I work with my discouragement? 

Currently excited about a lot: Adho mukha vrksasana, pincha mayurasana, sirsasana 2, vipariti dandasana, working patiently towards kapotasana. Also seated twists in general. And supported versions of Halasana. Viloma 3. Also having a recent love affair with parivrrta trikonasana, WHO KNEW?!

9. What are your thoughts about the relation of yoga philosophy to questions of inclusivity and/or or questions of social justice?  

I love this question! 

In an asana, if there is an intense injury or imbalance in the body, we must first address that, triage what puts someone in danger. Similarly, addressing and disrupting the harm of injustice and inequity is very important, foundational, if we value compassion and healing.

I see Iyengar yoga as an invaluable practice to help humanity evolve and survive, and the necessity of centering a justice framework key the survival of Iyengar yoga for future generations. 

 

Society in the US has been constructed on a foundation of imbalance, and these systemic oppressions permeate our world, and live inside us, too. They spoil it for everyone. Although our culture is obsessed with individualism, what happens in the collective, social, political affects our connection to our hearts, our embodied aliveness, each other  – and vis versa. I see yoga and social justice to be deeply intwined, inseparable, even. 

Although yoga in the US has been deliberately whitewashed, divorced from it’s source, and rebranded as a “feel good” luxury lifestyle for the privileged few (I blame consumer capitalism, white supremacy, patriarchy, to name a few) we know that it was never meant for escapism or erasure, or to sell fancy yoga clothes. Yoga is about awakening, liberation, healing – and the ways oppression and imbalance in our outer world live inside us ARE the very things that yoga seeks to address: the kleshas, the illusion of isolation, the unchecked repetition of the ways we perpetuate harm without realizing. Arjuna was called to action, after all, to fight injustice.

It’s very important we address these uncomfortable realities, squarely and honestly. For instance, in the US the attempted genocide and colonization of Indigenous people and forced importation of African people for slavery laid the foundation for our country and its cultural values. In far reaching ways white supremacy has been baked in to our culture at a systemic, institutional level, and it affects all aspects of our life, including our yoga classes. 

As a white person, I benefit from these systems which privilege my life and liberty over black and brown folks. White people have been socialized not to see these dynamics, even as we contribute to them. We’ve been socialized to believe all sorts of dangerous beliefs around who deserves power, protection, respect, and who doesn’t, based on gender, class, body size, ability, citizenship status, and how well others perform rules around gender expression and heteronormativity. This is avidya. This conditioning keeps us blindfolded, and entrenched in suffering. 

From a place of privilege, how do we lift these veils of ignorance, face our fragility, overcome our defensiveness, our wanting to skip to good “spiritual” feelings? From the places where we are marginalized, how do we reclaim our dignity, ease, authenticity, shed the internalized bondage of society’s sickness? How do we truly anchor ourselves in bhavana, in tender humanity? How do we support each other in this work? Even now, how are you feeling as you read this: are you shutting down, intellectualizing, assuming it’s not about you? While you and I did not choose these systems of oppression, I do feel a responsibility to understand and dismantle them, especially in my beloved yoga communities, and I hope we can keep exploring together what this means. 

Where are the transgender, black, brown, queer, fat, poor, undocumented folks in our classes, workshops, trainings? In what ways do marginalized students and teachers of Iyengar yoga have to code switch, shut down, hide, or armor themselves in order to show up? In what ways do our actions, assumptions, etc perpetuate this imbalance? 

“Inclusivity and diversity” is a hot topic in yoga in the west but we need to use both paksa and pratipaksa to address the harm in our yoga spaces. Yes, being welcoming and kind is great but we need to seek out the root cause, understand these systemic problems and how they affect us, so that we can create something different. In his commentary on sutra II.33 Guruji writes, “Instead of trying to cultivate the opposite condition, he should go deep into the cause of the anger or violence. This is paksabhava. One should also study the opposite forces with calmness and patience. Then one develops equipoise.” 

This inner work and outer action is a powerful combination. It is not enough to be kind. It’s not OK expect diverse folks to assimilate into our yoga culture, so that we don’t have to change, or tokenize, or expect people from marginalized groups to be a representative or spokesperson. What needs to transform within our selves, our studios? As Sonali Fiske says “You cannot be inclusive without examining your exclusivity.” Healing justice opens doors to deep svadhyaya, deep ahimsa. And deep liberation, not only for others, but for us, too. These systems of inequity hurt everyone. We are all in this together. 

I trust that as we explore this aspect of practice, our ‘on the mat’ work can become even more rich. I envision an Iyengar community strengthened, uplifted and beautifully expanded by the vulnerability, courage, and growth that healing justice work involves. Positive change takes many forms, and we each hold a piece of the equation. 

10.  How might we as a community come together to uphold each other in practice? 

I really appreciate space for vulnerability, for real listening, curiosity, unpacking conditioning, opening to new possibilities, with others. It’s wonderful to practice with Iyengar friends, to study together, have group projects that keep me accountable. I’m excited about an NEW collaborative blog exploring Iyengar Yoga and Social Justice: Ahimsa in Action which will be a hub for local and national organizing and inspiration. The more we have the courage to bring our whole selves to the yoga space, the more integration is possible.

11. How have you worked to build up community in your area? How it might be a model for other communities?

Community constantly reminds me how interdependent we all are, how nourished and upheld by others I am. It is a source of true wealth and resilience. Showing up for other people’s causes, bringing my full attention to interactions, having clear boundaries around what I can really offer, reorienting to what is true vs convenient, working to diminish ego in interactions, and staying heart centered in conflict rather than running away, having a birds eye view, long term vision  – these are ways I’m striving to show up for community now. 

I’ve learned a lot by bringing yoga classes out of the studio, into trans, queer, and community spaces, to local Native reservations, to women transiting out of incarceration, etc. I think we need to be willing to make mistakes, and learn from them, and not give up because it’s not “perfect.” There are things I can offer, and things I can’t. It’s an ongoing process to explore how to be a conduit, how Iyengar yoga practice can meet people where they are at, how to work with others in collaboration, how to step back, listen, share power and build trust. 

At my studio I’ve helped start a teacher meet up group to explore the inner work around critical whiteness, privilege of all sorts, we have readings, help from a local trainer who specializes in this work, it’s been incredibly beautiful to see how this has fostered more connection amongst the group, shifts in the space. 

What does an Iyengar yoga environment look like, feel like, where many different types of people can bring their whole selves into the practice, where no particular way of being is dominant? What needs to change, evolve, open, so that the purity and spirit of Iyengar yoga can continue to grow? When we define Iyengar yoga in the US, what are the essential roots of the practice, and what are dry husks ready to fall away? I don’t have answers, but I’m grateful we will all keep learning, together.

“Yoga has a beginning but no end…” -Geetaji. 

Riding the Wave: Adidas, Assessment, Mexico, the Iyengar Centenary Intensive, and Geetaji.

Riding the Wave: Adidas, Assessment, Mexico, the Iyengar Centenary Intensive, and Geetaji.

Riding the Wave: Adidas, Assessment, Mexico, the Iyengar Centenary Intensive, and Geetaji.

 

NOVEMBER 12, 2018

“Yoga should not be taken lightly, as if it were a hobby. It should be approached with faith, enthusiasm, determination, keenness, courage, will, and dedication.” -Geeta S. Iyengar

Nothing but Divine hands could have sculpted the incredible unfolding of my life the last few months. Leaps of faith, clarity, fear and the going beyond fear has led me to experience four big life events in such a short period of time, and way they relate feels so meaningful and in retrospect, perfect.

As I wrote much of this on the airplane flying towards home last December, a 40 hour haul, I could feel my heart drawing closer to my sweet kids, and iven who I missed intensely. It felt so good to be homeward bound, and now, home at last! But this journey was essential for me, as Geeta would say, ‘and that is a fact.’ It’s as though a candle I’ve been building inside my heart, preparing for years through practice, discovery and study, was lit by Geetaji’s presence and teachings. The wick caught right away. I burns clear and bright inside me. This one chance, an ignition, and an unexpected farewell as well. In her presence my world shifted, and as she flew free from her body, my world shifted again. What a thing, to travel so far, to receive so much, and then say goodbye forever, in one massive celestial feel swoop.

From the surprise and cosmic encouragement of an Adidas yoga modeling gig in LA, to the initiation of my first Iyengar Assessment a few weeks later, to the magical week teaching, playing, and returning to wholeness in Mexico with Zoreh at our Troncones Yoga Retreat, to this irreversibly profound trip to Pune, India for the Iyengar Centenary Intensive, these events all opened my mind and heart in deep ways. To have them all strung together, pearls on a relatively short linear time string, feels meaningful too. Guruji said, ‘God is like the back, you cannot see God, but you can feel God.’ I’m definitely feeling divine forces, at work, and whatever the purpose is at play, I have total trust in it.

Really each of these could have been it’s own post, but the pace of life is a fast current these days. So here it is, all together. It’s a lot… but in case you’re curious, here it is.

~~~

The morning of December 16th, while I was sleeping, just a few blocks away, beloved Geeta S. Iyengar peacefully passed out of this life. I heard she was in a yoga pose to help her breathing, surrounded by family, and like that, the last breath left. (I admit, I can’t help but wonder, what was the pose? Which props supported her…) The previous two weeks, I had been in that massive group of 1,300 students from all over the world -56 countries- gathered for the Centenary Intensive in Pune, India to celebrate and honor the life and legacy of Geetaji’s father, Yogacharya BKS Iyengar, AKA Guruji. He would have turned 100 on Dec.14th. (More on that below!)

It’s as though all these years I was building a candle inside my heart, and brought it unknowing, and through Geetaji’s teachings, it’s been lit. The wick caught right away. It burns clear and bright. My world shifted. Then Geetaji died, her work here done, no abhinivesha – and my world shifted again.

Who am I, to have placed a final kiss at her feet, wrapped in pure white? To travel so far, to receive so much and then say goodbye forever, all in one massive celestial fell swoop?

Last summer, I was kiiiiind of contemplating going to this Centenary Intensive in Pune but it felt like a fantastical dream, totally beyond my grasp financially and logistically. Still, I couldn’t let it go. At Patricia Walden’s retreat in CO, Brian said, ‘It might be your last chance to study with Geeta…’
I’ve admittedly struggled with regret about not making it happen to study directly with Guruji while he was alive. Little kids, little money, so much has played out. I know my life has unfolded perfectly, though, and in fact over time my regret has been replaced by a deep gratitude and different connection, that is both intimate and real. There’s so, so much to work with. But I knew I didn’t want to miss being in Geeta’s presence. I knew she wasn’t teaching much, and that I wanted to receive that teaching.

Months passed. I pretended to let go the idea to go to India, so many practical reasons. I began to plan a local 100 days of yoga and Centenary event. But then an incredible opportunity came my way. I had been doing some prosperity work, prayers, tithes. Adidas contacted me with an out of the blue gig. They flew me out to LA in early October for a week and I was caught up in a glamorous swirl of modeling yoga clothes, bringing queer yoga essence, and connecting with some other amazing women who are doing yoga projects in their communities: bringing yoga to black, brown, poor, queer, HIV+ folx, you know, the people not represented in glossy yoga magazines and who often are missing from the average yoga class. It was an affirming and eye opening trip. Not only was it meaningful and fun, but it paid a nice little chunk of cash that I realized I could use for India. OMG.

Adidas

A bit on that week in LA, which left me spinning, glowing, exhausted but awake to new potentials: The Adidas Wanderlust photo shoot. I’m going to be one of the featured models for their 2019 spring yoga clothing line ads. They invited 5 women; I absolutely loved getting to connect with the wise, witty, inspiring Ali, Abby, Sinikiwe, and Tie. We get to be featured on The Stance podcast, an award-winning arts, culture and current affairs podcast exploring diverse global perspectives. Stance creators Chrystal Genesis and Heta Fell, and Jackson are amazing and I loved getting to connect.

I’ve never been part of such a big production, a mass of directors, crew, glam team, stylists, lighting etc swirling around… abundant project budget and resources. Top secret outfits! (The actual shoot photos will be released this spring.) Gorgeous catering but no time to sit and eat. I was centered in the reality that in moments when the external whirlwind is strong, it demands and requires me to go inward, so that I can bring clarity of purpose out to the world. To serve in ways I’m still learning to see. I want to be a conduit for resources to flow into my community, for the teachings of Iyengar Yoga to flow out into the world to those who need it most. It did feel good to be a ‘real’ queer yoga body in a picture. Everyone worked so hard. The whole team was amazing. It left me excited about funding, expanding networks of support, and a broader vision of what it means to serve the struggle for healing and transformative justice, equity, activism through yoga. That there are initiatives out there to help make “yoga for everyone.” 

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Naturally even in a project that seeks to uplift queer // women of color, the residues of imbalance and privilege still wove their way through…I was left mulling over, what does sponsorship do to struggle, and who bears the cost, and how…? I’m very curious (um, anxious!) what will be sliced diced and used out of all the content collected. How does commercial work like this fit into the bigger picture of real healing and change? There’s so many people, black brown indigenous poor queer trans disabled and otherwise invisible-ized marginalized people at a grassroots level making something potent and important out of nothing or very little. I think about how a little money can go such a long way in grassroots organizing… how to be a bridge for support to flow in. 

Assessment 

A couple weeks later I flew out to CA again for Intro 1+2 Iyengar Assessment. After several years of wanting and preparing to go up, finally the weekend arrived. After many steps, much study, I made my imperfect offering, and to be honest, all though it was freaky to observe my nervous system on its wild trajectory throughout the process, my heart delighted in rising to the occasion. It felt like I was there to show I deeply I care about this subject/ practice and that I’m a worthy student. A worthy teacher, well that is another matter!

It’s good for humans, I think, to have something terrifying and deeply meaningful that requires perseverance, faith, and that we bring our very truest essence and heart to it. Something worthy of pouring everything into it. That requires it. To overcome fear and doubt, to walk through fire and emerge welcomed and victorious. This process could look many ways, and I’m so glad I’ve found it on this path of yoga sadhana (spiritual practice) in the brilliant, resplendent and arduous lineage of Iyengar Yoga. I’m really grateful for the structure of assessment, and the support it provides in helping students/teachers of Iyengar yoga grow within a system of progression, accountability, and depth. The intense process of preparation and the high standard of the Iyengar method is brilliant, I’m so grateful it’s here for me, for us, to help us grow, awaken!

I had a dream in the fall of 2017 that I was in an assessment teaching utthita trikonasana, and Guruji was my assessor! I was teaching a point Abhijata taught at the 2016 convention, and I glanced over to see what he thought and he looked at me and said ‘don’t think about yourself, put your attention on the students!’ I woke up with a clarity, like, 2018 I’m going up, I’m going to make it happen. I signed up for Craig and Leslie’s teacher training in Denver that day.

I came to this path circuitously over many years of practice, periphery to the core. Wonderful teachers gradually brought me to know what is yoga, and clues revealing the Iyengar legacy. Initially I studied with teachers that had left the system, they eluded to certified Iyengar teachers and I thought of CIYTs as some faraway superstars; the process remained shrouded in mystery, elusive, seemed not meant for me, especially since there was no one local to ask or work with. There has been so much taking a step into the unknown without knowing where my foot would land. It was 2014 that I decided I wanted to become a CIYT but there were many stages within to go through, journeys inside and out in the world to take. Many times I needed to get out of my own way.

Needless to say, it all went well. I’m so glad to have Leslie, Craig, Patricia, Bobbie – teachers who can clearly show the ways to understand, refine and go beyond what’s familiar. I yearn to serve more effectively.

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Through the discussion sessions at the Centenary Intensive it sounds like how teacher trainings and assessments are run differs greatly in different countries, and finding a way forward that develops depth of practice, maturity and sensitivity rather than mechanical rigidity, that is workable and fair, is a large discussion. Even though the system is imperfect, I think that teacher trainings and having diverse forms of mentorship are extremely valuable, and I hope they can continue to meet the wide variety of candidates. Needless to say, though the immense nervousness and stress involved was a lot to experience, it was an incredibly meaningful and affirming initiation. A bit like a wedding — in a good way! Like, after years of commitment, a ceremony that makes it official. Except, instead of a party, a giant weekend of intense testing. Ha. And now, here I am at the beginning, again.

Mexico

As soon as I landed home, the pull of life’s river swept me into her rapids; parents in town, remodeling, teaching too much and generally I didn’t have time to catch my breath. In anticipation of being gone, I savored with a palpable bittersweetness the precious time with my kids, Io (13) and Kota (22 months). I’ve never been away from them so long. Before I knew it my partner iven and I were up at 4, driving through the cold dark night to the airport to board flights to Mexico. Landing into the gorgeous natural abundance of the land and ocean in Troncones was like a healing balm to my frazzled spirit. Much needed spacious connection with iven and days that unfolded in a slow, vibrant perfection washed away months of stressful hustle. (Well, despite as Zoreh later called it, the ‘blood sacrifice of 3 kisses from God,’ three stitches for iven’s sweet head from a beach mishap on day 1 that meant an adventure into a Zihuatanejo hospital…!)

If you’ve never been to Troncones, it’s an incredibly magical place. Really – you should come with us next next year! Zoreh had the vision 20 years ago to build a Yoga Retreat center near this vibrant and off-the-beaten-path fishing village, and by now she has the rhythm of retreating down to a smooth, graceful glide. We had a blast. I kept finding myself amazed at the sweet moments that unfolded: the surrender of the ocean with it’s perfect clear blue green waters, iguanas and birds, kayaking, releasing (warm!) newborn baby turtles into the twilit waves, ecstatic snorkeling with a myriad of prismatic new tiny fish friends, exploring the mountains, such cool people, the freshest food, cruiser bikes and balmy warmth, stars and rest, uninterrupted time for shared pleasures and presence with my partner, and of course lots of yoga practice.

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Early dawn lit walks on the beach to the yoga hall for practice were followed by spacious wonderful sessions of teaching. Then, play time then more yoga. And more play. The group was dynamic, and truly everyone who came bloomed in various forms of transformation. Although nearly all of our wonderful students had challenges they were working with, Zoreh and I were able to work proactively through asana, pranayama, and philosophy to bring therapeutic benefit and accessibility in ways that inspired me. Zoreh brings devotional joy in such a special ways. I love her, loved co-teaching and adventuring with such a cool group of students, what a miracle to witness and hold space for.

I’m grateful for the community of Troncones as well. We met so many incredibly lovely local folks. When I visit Mexico my heart opens to her people, and thus it feels even more heartbreaking and infuriating that asylum seeking immigrants from across Central America are being faced with such unjust cruelty at the US boarder, especially when destructive, greedy neoliberal US policies over the last few decades has directly created the problems these people are trying to survive. Not to mention to ridiculous business of a physical or technological border wall. If you feel moved to check out a local grassroots organization doing wonderful work for immigration justice, please check out the NM Faith Coalition for Immigrant Justice (and send money! Money is useful). 

Looking back, this retreat was such a needed pause before heading to India. It’s unspeakably nourishing to reset in such a deep way, so I was more fully able to show up for all that transpired in India.

With sand between in our toes after one more jump in the ocean, iven and I flew to Mexico city, had an unexpected overnight layover and in the darkness before dawn a final kiss goodbye. It feels so very long ago. It took long days to get to India. Mexico City, Houston, Amsterdam, Mumbai, Pune. Each layover I’d roll out my little yoga mat. Asana can be such crucial medicine. Thank goodness for that.

India

Flying is so interesting. It’s heartbreaking to see how much of the world is covered in a thick layer of smog. (Not that me flying in airplanes is helping:(. Over Mexico City, and my god, India. When I landed in Paris, I realized hadn’t seen the sun in weeks, as it rose bright and clear. It hasn’t been rainy at all in Pune, but the sun is distant, diffused in the thick grey-brown. Some people live their whole life never ever seeing a clear sunny day, since everyday the sun is buried under a dense blanket of smog, stinky and toxic. Especially in places where people of color live. So much pollutive industry driven by Western capitalism is kept away from the US, where consumption is king but the fall out well hidden. Clean air is a luxury lifestyle we so take for granted in the US. (That said, the first clear crisp breaths of New Mexico air were incredible. I think I’ve become a breath connoisseur.)

At the airports, it’s always the airplanes from these countries of brown people that get parked out at the periphery of the airports, shuttle bussed in. Advertisements in India and Mexico, always feature light skinned people, and all the soaps and face creams in India are “lightening.” The fancy ads in Paris and Amsterdam seem to sell the idea of whiteness more than any particular product. All these subtle racisms weave into our reality often unchecked, and perhaps somehow make the larger more striking and systemic injustices possible by permeating our minds with a pervasive subconscious message: devaluing, dehumanizing. As uncomfortable and disorienting as it is, the incredible privilege of international travel can sure shake loose the grip of dullness and complacency.

As soon as I arrived in Pune I jumped in and felt an immediate connection amongst the 1300 students gathered from 56 countries who had come to connect and learn, and celebrate Guruji’s life. The event was so impressive, the stadium adorned with massive glowing pictures and quotes of BKS Iyengar, his presence palpable. Abhijata, Prashantji, and Geetaji along with an incredible crew of volunteers and special guests pulled of something massive and wonderful. I can’t even begin to convey the powerful teachings and connections that unfolded. Although the group was so huge – so many different languages flowing all around – there was a true sense of intimacy, camaraderie, and connection amongst everyone there, from legendary senior teachers to newbies to the Iyengar family who were held in sacred reverence and at the same time, were just right there, playing with the kids, part of it all.

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(Nearly all the beautiful photos of the Centenary Intensive were taken by Shael Sharma, thank you Shael!! See more on the Iyengar Yoga FB page.)

There was a tribute show for Guruji being organized, and I knew I wanted to be part of that, so despite intense jetleg, the first full day I was there I journeyed down into town to get art supplies. The tiny art shop I found was so jam packed and small I couldn’t even stand up in the upper story where the paints were, but there were sweet helpers who new just where everything was tucked away amidst the intricate stacks and shelves that filled every nook and cranny (who were much shorter than me) and I got the art supplies! India… There’s just no words for the intensity, density of sensation, and within it, something that wins me over again and again. A spirit of vital essence, endurance. Something indescribable. I loaded my backpack full of paints and brushes, ordered a large board to paint on for delivery the following morning, and felt ready for the show the next day. The board was several hours late being delivered, however, and when the show was about to start (classical Indian and Chinese dancers in sparkling costumed finery, bustling around nervously) I still didn’t have anything to paint on. I was at a loss. I gave it over to God to decide if it was meant to be, it was out of my hands, I’d done all I could. I let it go.

And THEN this young sweet new yoga friend named Prashant who was helping with the event and also an artist learned about the fix I was in. He had saved some salvaged materials from a previous event (perfect, I was wishing I could re-purpose something laying around!) and brought out a huge stretched “canvas,” just in time for the show to begin! We later joked Saraswati was at work.

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I painted furiously, busting through a block I’ve had for the last few years around painting. With 1000 folks witnessing, I painted Guruji in Natarajasna at the base of the stage while the other performers danced, puppeteered, read poetry, and busted out capoeira. I had no time for thought, for self consciousness. It was all bhakti. All love. It was a treat to make such an offering. The painting became a conduit for many simple moments of friendship with many folks from many countries. Towards the end of the Intensive, a special surprise – I was brought back to a small room with Abhi and Zubin, and we held it up; Geeta was pleased with the painting and signed it, ‘All the the best wishes, Geeta S. Iyengar.’ I thought for a moment of keeping it but it felt right to let it live on as a gift to the Iyengars. So, it will have it’s own continued adventure at a new Iyengar center in Mumbai.

The teachings were of course, profound.

Prashant taught the first 5 days, Geetaji the second. Asana and Pranayama lessons, rich with mind inverting philosophy, filled the mornings. After lunch (fresh coconuts, anyone?) afternoons of moving talks by Abhi, Geetaji (on her birthday!) or Prashantji or lively interactive sessions exploring the future of mentorship, assessment, and how global Iyengar Yoga culture. These afternoon sessions stirred my heart. I am not a person who cries often, but tears were often close to the surface, I was so moved. Over and over. Layers and layers of tender meaning emerged over these full, rich days.

One morning, they brought in a mass of children, (here is one instance where the floodgates opened; missing my own kids, I had tears rolling down my cheeks for most of this class) and we all practiced children’s yoga: wild jumpings, up, down! We learned the proper way to bow in prostration. Another day, after a long sirsasana (headstand) one of Guruji’s dear friends from Mumbai, a student of many decades who is now 101 years old, came and with assistance whipped up into his own long held supported headstand, and then came down after a time to share a beautiful message. The feeling of family was woven in so many ways throughout the event.

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The Iyengar family on Guruji’s birthday

Geetaji said of the buttocks in virabhadrasana 2 to pull it in close, like it’s your baby. Even if you are tired you must still tend to that baby, ‘don’t leave it out of the family photo!’ Prashantji taught how we are a child of the breath, and yet the breath is our child, too… and like a child who needs not only food, water, but love and delight, to be played with, our breath too needs to be delighted in, played with. He shared how when they were young children they would jump on and climb around on their father, as children do, and Guruji would do his poses (setu bandhasana, urdhva dhanurasana!!) with the kids balancing on top. He didn’t send hem away, he would incorporate them and explore, play.

Geetaji spoke of her mother Ramamani, who was also one of her Gurus and taught her so much about the path of yoga, and how to practice as a woman. Guruji would be busy with his students and so didn’t give special attention or teachings to his children, but her mother would advocate for Geeta as she learned asana.

Just as people often have a very different relationship with their kids than they do with their grandchildren, it’s moving how Guruji took Abhijata under his wing, so lovingly, sharing so much. Abhi is so smart, hard working, devoted, humble, and — has such a good sense of humor! She can see reality clearly. Can’t WAIT to study with her at the 2019 USA Iyengar Convention in Dallas!) I loved hearing stories of how Abhi’s dad would bring in her baby to the practice hall while she was practicing, and Guruji would take the baby and absolutely delight in putting the little one into various yoga shapes. The ways the Iyengar family expresses their very human, very real devotion and love of Guruji is so inspiring. I shared a small speech at one of the afternoon sessions, how Guruji’s light is so bright like the sun, and that like New Mexican moonlight on a clear night, that light continues to shine, spread all over, through his direct disciples and the myriad of practitioners. Afterwards, one of his daughters greeted me, happy with the metaphor. This element of family was moving to me, and made the part of me that is a mother feel included and valued. Sometimes parenting and serious yoga practice feel in conflict with eachother. Moving beyond that duality is a continual part of my journey.

The asana and pranayama classes were a vibrational transmission of tremendous resonance.

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As much as Prashantji drove us to dive into what Iyengar did within himself, beyond what he did out in the world – Iyengar’s yoga, rather than Iyengar Yoga – there was a strong emphasis on inclusion. Just as different people digest food differently, or have a different experience based on their longitude/latitude, there are many different takes on Guruji’s teachings and they’re all valid, if truly ‘Iyengar yoga is for everyone.’ His journeys into the subtle opened up vast inner terrain. When we look at the stars, we look with awe. Nothing to fix, to own. Can we look inside like that, in awe? Practice with an explorers mind, not a conqueror’s mind?

Then Geetaji, a force of nature, vibrant and fierce. Going beyond where I’ve ever gone before in asana practice, I was one tiny person in the crowd, but like so many, I felt she was teaching exactly for me. She was brilliant: intense generosity and generous intensity! She required us to repeatedly go beyond the limitations of our dullness, fear complex, mind, ego. To understand, ‘where have I been conditioned?’

In a 20 minute sirsasana she drove us not to come down, to persevere, ‘you think you will die?! It’s not so easy to die!’ Every instruction penetrated through multiple layers: were the physical actions a metaphor for breaking down klehsas, or was purifying accumulated klesha layers a metaphor for physically going deeper? Lift, lift, LIIIIFT! All metaphor disappeared; all was live, real, electric, awake. I was in total reverence, love. (Even though she said to put our love into the sutras, not her)… Surrender. A deep dose. A profound awakening. A devotion in motion. 

There’s SO much more I could write, but then this already too long poast will never be shared, and already the river of time has pulled us around the bend of these events.

The night before Geeta passed away I attended an incredibly lavish birthday dinner for Garth, a magical senior teacher. There were such inspiring legendary teachers from many countries in attendance, I felt alive in every cell. Willamarie, your are an angel! So many amazing, honest, beautiful connections. I stayed near the Institute that night, and when I heard the news the next morning was shocked, my heart stilled. The small balcony at Hotel Chatuk was just big enough for a yoga mat, I practiced, and ah it felt so crisp, clear, different. I packed up my things with a chocked, silent mind. Went to buy a flower, and walked to RIMYI where seemingly a thousand shoes were left at the gate.

Who am I to have been swept in, to this beloved circle? To be gently ushered in, hands on my back, sweet sad faces that have become familiar and so dear. Stepping into receive the prasad, the presence, my kiss to her feet wrapped in pure white, hot tears rolling, heart wings beating inside my ribcage. Profound gratitude. Timeless time. Flowing out of the house, carried by an unseen river. Deposited into the gathered crowd, beautiful and with wet eyes, tender presence, all grateful for the tremendous life and rich teachings of this noble, fierce, devoted and brilliant woman. All of us carefully squeezed into that small patio outside the Iyengar family’s house. Prayers and incense, chanting and tears, flower petals, rice. I moved further and further back, absorbing it all in. After the men of the family carried her out, I walked back, and went to the airport to fly home. How could have known I would travel around the world to receive Geetaji’s teachings, and be there somehow to attend her passing?

Practice since feels different. A much greater responsibility, ripe potential, and joy – all simultaneously pressing.

My heart feels the pulse of a deeper rhythm, a deeper meaning. The finality of death. In Mexico, Zoreh taught one day, how in Iranian culture they say always keep the bird of death sitting on your shoulder, a reminder we don’t have unlimited time here; how cultures that avoid reckoning with death that keep it tucked away, become shallow. I feel the urgency that death brings, to live fully. The preciousness of life and the drive to practice. To make best use of the time here, embodied. To take the steps the earth needs from me, the work of justice and accessibility within my yoga world. My children, growing so fast, demanding so much. My unspeakably wonderful partner…so much to balance in life – So fleeting. And Yoga, so magnificent an opportunity. Geetaji was clear that her path was for yoga. How can I practice in a way that is worthy of her teachings? What an incredible honor to have been here. To have made this precious contact.

Writing this out is settling, helps me realize it’s really happening. A life I dreamt of, and have worked for, for so long. It’s amazing thing to have my heart dreams materialize, manifest. To be a certified Iyengar teacher, teaching in diverse settings and communities, traveling to India to study, with a beautiful partner, and wonderful children. Still, there’s so much barely straggling along in my life, the press of my many failures and the mundane, and I wonder in a world so full of sorrow, injustice, tragic changes, unprecedented destruction, is there space for celebrating my small experiences of real magic? We are here to live, to love and serve. I’m beyond grateful for how it’s all unfolding, and that you are part of it with me.