Vetting Teachers • 1 July 2016

Sleeping Bear Islands

“The main obstacle for most westerners is not access to a teacher, it’s lack of understanding on how to evaluate a teacher. There are traditional ways of doing that…” -Yar Pal

I. How do you spot a false teacher? False prophet? False leader?

This month I crossed two oceans and three seas, and the same question is churning them all. The churn brings old garbage to the surface. It’s how consciousness evolves.

Behind the question is curiosity or grief, about how hard it is to find authentic guides. I dunno: it seems real ones… are really human. They’re people who can still go toe-to-toe with you after the pedestal you created in spiritual adolescence crumbles. They are people whose students generate actual growth. It feels like good teachers are all over the place, in different shapes and intensity levels. It is as easy, or hard, to find them as it is draw the best out of this world.

Predatory teachers are rare but they are real, and they can hurt you, and it is not all good. As this becomes obvious, what I see are a lot of people longing for a sense of safety, and for experiences of meaningful trust.

Mystics don’t just transmit ecstasy; their veins course in nature-made moral intelligence. Some have left us scriptures on discerning the motivations and abilities of so-called teachers. It helps me to go to the trouble to search the wisdom writings, and to tap the sheer goodness of higher minds. I can’t possibly add to that, so have no moral argument here. But… could you use a pair of heat-sensing goggles to filter through the mess on the ground?

That’s what this is. One fine filter in the form of a question.

Which direction does the energy flow?

This question can cut through the persona, the beauty, the charisma, the resume’, the associations, and even though that amazing thing your energy may do when you are with them. You can use it instead of relying on celebrity, emotion, “brilliance,” coincidence, or “the universe” to connect with teachers. This question is a tool for setting and sticking to clear intentions, and not being carried away into feelings of specialness or cultures of conformity.

Does the teacher give their energy away? Or, do they rely on students to meet their own base or pathological needs? There are levels of give and take among teachers and students – and hopefully some balance of energy exchange is possible. But almost always the downstream or upstream momentum is stronger: either a teacher is carried by currents of generosity and service, or their primary impulse is the cyclical harvesting of energy (most often in the lower forms of money, sex, power and validation) from their students.

It helps to see the difference between scarcity needs and abundance needs. Humans have scarcity needs – a basic level of shelter, food, sexual connection, personal power, and recognition that the primal brain needs in order not to freak out. In short: lizard brains need money, sex, power, attention. (Most would not include attention at the base of our needs hierarchy, but I submit that a need for social recognition has become primal for humans. While social media is using this fact to make people into internet addicts, the same circuitry could be redirected to turn us into primally interconnected yet autonomous small groups – hive minds of a healthy kind. Two centuries ago, lone rangers and cave yogis were fine alone… now even the most independent humans actually do need to be part of something. On a primal level. More on this idea later.)

The thing about money/sex/power/attention is that they’re addictive. Sometimes, the “special” people who get huge amounts of them stop understanding that they have had enough. They lose the plug on the bath tub. No amount of money can ever be enough. No amount of being wanted, or being gratified. Often, people in positions of power are MSPA addicts, but as students we don’t understand enough about the addictive nature of these substances (and are not sufficiently critical) to see it. So, we feed them. We let our energy be sucked upstream. This is why the phenomenon of celebrity exists.

Sane people experience satisfaction. They keep the well of primal needs full, and from there move on to connection needs. Intimacy and efficacy. This is where many of us live, and in this space there’s an increasing thrill in being useful to other beings of various sorts. Beyond this are full-blown abundance needs, whereby the boundaries of the self become so diffuse that the dominant need is to give without receiving in return. Because return would be redundant to a self that identifies with all beings. Most of us have glimpsed abundance needs. Operating from that place feels better than anything else… but then we forget when we stop for lunch. Abundance needs are predominant in a few people, and I think this is where true service comes from – the kind of care for others that prefers no recognition in return. It seems that “abundance onset” can arise from both knowledge that this motivation structure is real, and from direct contact with people whose energy runs this way. In any case, the point here is that when connection and abundance needs edge out scarcity needs even a little, then the energy is flowing downstream. If you are concerned about placing your trust in the right place, filter out the users and learn to identify people who are really able to give their energy away.

Meantime, the really vexing scenario is not just a predominance of scarcity needs in a teacher, but any pattern of using students to get the primal needs met. So my suggestion to people who are asking how to spot a false teacher is this: develop a special radar for teachers who tend to harvest MSPA from their students. Get a feel for that primal heat in them. Remember everybody has primal needs and that, in and of itself, this is good. Yet… do not look to these people for help in healing. Their energy just isn’t clean.

If you take this framework seriously, over time it’s possible to learn to sense anyone’s energy loops without analysis. You feel this energy like you feel the tingle of a battery on the tongue. But Until your radar is perfect, there are clues to be found everywhere. Here are the first 15, off the top of my head. I bet anyone reading can add more to this list…

(1) Learn about a person’s long term relationships: what are the patterns? Is there a trail of tears of broken teacher relationships behind them? (2) Watch how they establish trust: do they meet people on the level, or do they invoke external qualifications/ authority? (3) Screen for fragility or reactivity around criticism from students – openly question teachers you suspect of power hoarding and see if they freak out or get defensive. (4) Notice how they respond to adoration, and whether they subtly teach students to put them on a pedestal. (5) Listen to see if they listen to students – if they can give their attention fully. (6) Notice any seeking for validation, including a need to feel attractive or always right in students’ eyes. Ask them about things they can’t know and see if they are willing to admit ignorance. (7) Don’t trust charisma – anyone with a decade of daily practice is coursing in it and can use it to get what they want. Charisma is a cheap trick.

(8) Learn about “referent power” – the invocation of special relationships with authority figures you don’t even know to assert hierarchy and demand obedience. (9) Notice any drive to build a following: this is how cult leaders get started. (10) Scan for the behavior of isolating students and flooding them with special attention – this is the crusty power hoarder’s version of foreplay. (11) Be extra skeptical of teachers in workshop situations, where we are on our best behavior and covered in the special aura of the visiting expert. Toy with any pedestals teachers attempt to stand on in workshop settings, and see if they can stay present for that. (12) If someone pretends to be so saintly as to have no material, sexual or attentional needs, don’t buy it. Smells like spiritual bypassing.

(13) Run, don’t walk, in the opposite direction of any westerner who affects a guru persona or expects absolute obedience without any expression of your personality. Demanding obedience shows misunderstanding of the guru model, which – even properly understood – is a cultural phenomenon that does not export beyond traditional eastern cultures with strong family ties. The only reason for a westerner to affect a guru persona is to set up a game in which you give them your power and you pretend not to notice their humanness. (14) Is there anything more sketchy than a teacher without a great sense of humor, or one who tries to keep their everyday flaws hidden from view? (15) Look for a true understanding of love that has nothing to do with compliments, obligations or flattery. Love from a teacher is expressed (among other ways) through pure, quiet, non-sticky attention in the present moment. This is the vibe that moves energy away from the teacher and fuels students’ growth.

II. Light on Personality Disorders

Forgive me, but if you really want to be able to vet teachers, there must be savvy around the issue of personality disorder. If you regard the matter with open curiosity rather than disgust, it becomes inherently interesting and won’t leave such an aftertaste. There are many ways to be human, and who is to say that the person who lacks a stable ego (in narcissism) or an ability to empathize (in psychopathy) doesn’t have something to teach us? (Ironically, my experience with psychopaths makes me think empathy is overrated in the healing arts, and that those of us who have it in excess need to stop patting ourselves on the backs and instead clarify our emotional boundaries.)

When it comes to vetting teachers, especially learn the energy signatures of psychopathy and narcissism. Teaching is extremely gratifying to these mindsets, and attracts them. We are talking about extreme black holes of energy-hunger. Yet the fact that the energy is running massively in the wrong direction can be hard for a new student to spot because of the intense, superficial feel-good component of learning from someone who is expressing a disordered personality.

Psychopathy and narcissism aren’t people: they are energetic patterns that show up in many places. Most of us don’t express these patterns, or we begin to experience them and our systems promptly discover the antidotes. But in a few cases, due to some mixup in nature or nurture, these patterns come to predominate or even take over a whole personality.

The reason to understand these patterns from an intellectual standpoint is that psychopaths and narcissists tend to be more intelligent and manipulative than everyone else. They see through people with everyday emotions, and know how to exploit these human weaknesses to fulfill their bottomless needs for power (psychopaths) or attention (narcissists).

This is a matter for individual study, but briefly:

A narcissist is someone with a hole in their heart. They can never feel valid in their personhood, and because of this they experience pretty constant pain. Because their need is just for attention, they can be harmless. The danger is that the mutual appreciation societies narcissists erect around healing practices will prevent you from actually growing – because the point is to harvest your attention for the teacher. There is a lot of self-pity, and strong reactivity to criticism. Narcissists tend to get resentful and vengeful when someone withdraws their supply of attention. This is where one might take the initiative to hurt a student. As long as you don’t let a narcissistic teacher latch on to you with their vampire teeth, you’ll be fine.

Psychopaths are the smartest among us, and can be extremely tough to spot. According to the great book Saints and Psychopaths, they especially cluster in the clergy. Psychopaths don’t experience emotion outside of the thrill of power (and terror of losing it), so through study of others learn to simulate everyday emotions as a way to try to get the one gratification that really moves them: domination. It’s actually sad that meaning isn’t available to the psychopath by more modest means. Because they know human frailty better than anyone, they can generate the best energy you’ve ever experienced. Their charisma is phenomenal, and they can coddle an individual ego more effectively than anyone else. In theory, a psychopath would apologize to advance any agenda, but in real life one way I spot a psychopath is by a compulsive refusal to apologize because in so doing the psychopath would momentarily cede a bit of dominance. In any case, a psychopath knows exactly what your emotional needs are and how to meet them, but the payoff for them is the power they experience when they destroy you. So in addition to great energy, the patterns around them involve subjecting you to bouts of emotional chaos that bring you to your knees, a drive to win whatever game they are in at all costs, and a love of power hierarchies where they can experience some of the dynamics of being human despite the fact that they have no capacity for love.

Maybe you have never been in relationship with someone who was expressing the pattern of a disordered personality. If so, bless you. But if a light bulb just went on, please, study this matter for the sake of discernment and grounded self-care.

III. The Good

Again, the mystics and the scriptures can help a person learn what to look for in a teacher. The best I can do is gesture toward the wisdom traditions. And I can let my own students know that while there are many hundreds of good teachers in my field, there is an extremely short no-fly list of genuine predators. My job is to steer students away from danger just long enough for those students to develop their own heat-sensing system so they can make wise choices on their own. My job is to teach yoga as not only a expansion of the boundaries of the self, but as the long range cultivation of clear, spacious, strong mind.

Resonating with colleagues whose energy runs in the correct direction strengthens my ability to move from abundance needs. When it comes to finding colleagues who move me, there are some tells. Here’s what I’d share with my self of 15 years back who didn’t have a teacher.

I love it when a teacher knows the jungle medicine, and has their Ayurveda trip together. Folk healing and nature worship look primitive on the surface – I ridiculed castor oil bath and dosha theory for years before they actually became necessary to me. There is not a deeper well of vital energy available. People don’t go to the hassle of an Ayurvedic life style because it’s cool; they do it because they feel it to be the esoteric mainspring of the yoga practice itself.

I love it when a teacher keeps their energy to themselves to a large degree, really cultivating a deep well of vitality. They don’t wear themselves out or spread themselves thin. There is a level of self-possession that enables them to fulfill the needs that they have when they have them, with no apologies, on a primal level.

I love it – and respect it -when a teacher is so secure (and has her need for validation so settled down) that she doesn’t base major decisions on a need to be liked.

I love it when a teacher recognizes that teaching is suffering. Yes, teaching is fulfilling and meaningful. But it’s also very hard if you’re real about it, and there is no good reason to chase after this work, or to get overly identified with the teacher role. This makes for a kind of availability that is not eager, that really enables a student feel relaxed and grounded in the learning process.

I love it when a teacher encourages students to develop clear minds, and to find out who they are as individuals.

I love it when a teacher does not want to have a million students or a following. They don’t seek economies of scale. They want to express their transmission, their duties. That is sufficient.

I really, really love it when a teacher understands the passive nature of teaching. There is no syllabus for yoga. There is just life, and whatever teachable moments it brings up. Meaningful knowledge is active and practical, and all the teacher does is bank information so that he can show up with radiant attention at the right moment… and then be gone.

I love it when a teacher has a uncanny sense of timing. Cosmic time. Psychic time. Symbolic time. When a teacher can trust in the radiant transmission-moments to arrive when and however the student’s process summons them, and can have the grace to let practice happen without force.

I love it when a teacher puts their own growth above everything else—even above giving their energy away to their students at times, because it’s their personal growth that’s going to make them increasingly useful tomorrow. Because one person who suffers greatly in in student-teacher dynamics is the teacher who has too much power and attention. That teacher can’t get true feedback on themselves, can’t see from outside the perspective of being the one at the top, can’t really get to the place of not knowing who they are or what it’s all about. The teacher locked in to an energy cycle that flows the wrong direction – that takes more student energy than it gives – is stuck in teacher mode and has little incentive to walk away, drop what they think they know, and understand again what it is to be a student. They aren’t going to grow – not like students grow when strongly challenged – and in an overly empowered position, they may be the ones most likely of all to lose their way.

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Deep Local • 1 June 2016

The woods tonight

The rhythm of 2016: study for two months, teach for four, study for two months, teach for four. Mysore, Michigan, Mysore, Michigan. Wax On, Wax Off, and so on. (If this sounds insane, there’s an * in the comments.)

The social science experiment I’ve been running here since 2009 – cross breeding Mysore and Michigan – is starting to kick up some findings. In Mysore, I study the Ashtanga mothership. On the surface this organization appears to be an irrational family business. This false impression is part of genius. Really, it is an entity with a profound consciousness and beautiful heart. Its skills, values and organizational ethos can be translated to other places, if only in limited ways.

In Michigan, I foment a yoga school based on the above but also on what I see right here. This is the land of “deep local” (microeconomies of care and trade actually function here), of dramatic seasons and the cyclical depression/brilliance that haunts intellectuals, of America’s first dead metropolis and the Flint water crisis, of people who walk to work and spend weekends tending their farm shares, of mental clarity and hyper-sincerity, of respect for expertise and willful self-reliance.

For what it’s worth, the mind that perceives these two poles is that of a long term daily practitioner and economic sociologist; who reads Alfred North Whitehead and Niklas Luhmann at bedtime; and who sympathizes with punks, artists, ecological activists and (despite being a logic monger) anyone with a psychedelic, cosmic or Gaian world view.

The first couple years here, nothing happened on the surface. One practitioner is a starter (like sourdough, like kombucha); four are a culture. Day in day out the foundation built itself in the form of a core group of people who showed up every day and slowly cultivated the breath-mind of the practice. The practice doesn’t emerge from things (a lease and a website and a new student special). Not at all. It takes a starter, and a tiny culture, and years of undisturbed fomentation. Soak the first seeds.

During this time, the strength to teach came from three sources: practice, devoted teacher support, and (this is actually weird) a relationship with Mysore the place. Every morning at Patanjali o’clock I’d see not only a hydra-headed shaman in the stars but also roots running through my body through the Earth to south India. This spring, I’ve felt the emergence of a fourth source. I sense it through the Huron River groundwater in the hill I live on, and in the woods above the house. Being alone in the forest on teaching days is intensely nourishing; the next morning I feel it even on a physical level. There is also a semisecret lake in driving distance, a deep spring bubbling up out in the middle of corn country. The people who know it are few enough; they say it’s the best swimming they’ve found in the world. All I know is the spring water has the same effect as the woods and it’s a little freaky. Understanding what connects me with the life force—and what depletes it, oh electronic devices—is becoming central to this work.

So, it feels like the teaching work is turning in to play at the same rate that it is becoming harder. It also feels like my deep mind wants to make a leap into experiencing this life as pure play; but that’s still half a paradigm shift away. For now, there is still some scientific method working its way through my system.

Non-teaching days, I’ve been walking in the 142 square mile memory that is Detroit. Midday freeways move fast, putting me on the edge of the city in 35 minutes. Listening to Motown on the way in, Mendelssohn on the way home. No surprise the stories white visitors tell about Detroit are all ruin-porn – here like in India, this is what the middle class mind aestheticizes. Great gothic churches with cardboard homes on their front steps, the giant fluffy white dogs of the gentrifiers, Mies Van der Rohe’s minimalist micro-utopia casting shadows over Greektown’s half-built jail. I try to experience this less with my spectacle-mind, and more with intuition, because the reason to walk this place is to feel the context and limits of my organizational experiments.

My statistics teacher taught us to relate to data like we were steeping in it. Eat sleep and breathe it. Don’t just muck around looking for a good story, enter the grid. So, what is the scope of this shala science experiment? What is the reality of our world? I don’t know, but it is happening in conjunction with the decay of western democracy, capitalism caving to kleptocracy, climate chaos, and the death of half what lives on this planet. Aspects of our world are ending. Financially and ecologically, we are toast. This is not a time to be comfortable.

That’s why I articulate a third paradigm below. It’s not fully practical, but in the future some may be able to nurture organizations closer to that model without compromising on technique. There is nothing revolutionary about yoga if it is not healing in the world.

Ideology Typology

Institutions are entities. Every one has a specific personality and world view, conscious or not. Clear paradigms, held consciously, are nothing more than tools. You can sharpen them, switch them, grow out of one and into another.

Every organization has a logic. It may be received without question, may be unconsciously copied from others, may be diffuse or unstable or full of contradictions. It doesn’t matter. A paradigm is what makes an organization hang together. If you’re running an organization, you are propagating an ethos. If you’re supporting an organization, you are giving your energy to its agenda.

Here are three models. They’re just thought forms and inherently fuzzy. But I’ll sharpen them up so it’s easier to see the deathly nature of the resource extraction world view, and a natural pathway beyond it.

RESOURCE EXTRATION is the default paradigm for entities propagating yoga in the west. In this paradigm, the “free market” is really free. Anyone can do well in life if they are smart about identifying and exploiting possibilities. The rich deserve what they have because they are smarter, and are to be compensated for taking bigger “risks” than the rest.

The most important thing here is the raw material: it is consumers. Consumers’ energy/money provides the raw material of resource extractors. For the yoga organization in this paradigm, accumulating consumers (“students”) is the goal. This will be euphemized as “education” and “service” (the true goals of the next two paradigms) because Resource Extraction is a world view that plans ahead and deftly pre-empts competition. Resource Extraction mavens are really good at public relations. They have to be.

Celebrity, popularity and luxury are the means of establishing consumer loyalty. Resources are extracted from “students” in the form of energy, money, and media reputation building. To maintain and enlarge this extraction program (capitalism requires constantly increasing financial returns), the organization offers an increasing variety of things and experiences to hype, to buy, and to identify with.

The reason to work within this paradigm is to secure a decent future and material things. The payback for working lies in a different place and a different time than the work itself. Yoga teachers who work for resource extractive entities are ALIENATED.

This paradigm begins to break down any time the soul-sucking side of capitalism shines through. As a student, you take a teacher training and the 200 hours you paid for education includes “seva” where you work the studio’s front desk (a true story of capitalism’s PR brilliance in action). Or you interact with a self-made celebrity teacher and, instead of a moment of deep human recognition, you realize that what you represent in her eyes is social media capital.

Or, as a teacher, you realize you’re disconnected from your work – daily what you’re working for is “to get away from it all.” Or you recognize that while you profess to “love your job,” your students’ money is going to shareholders, passively milking you and your students for energy because you are trapped in the game.

Or, as a manager, you realize your students aren’t benefitting all that much from all the extra consuming. As you get serious about what’s truly best for them, the distractions begin to fall away.

Or, wherever you sit, the paradigm cracks when the senses and the soul surge forth to show it up. You have a mystical experience. (Which should be happening – unity consciousness is real and you don’t have eat mushrooms for it to find you.) Or you say the mangala mantra and accidentally feel the meaning of it in your cells and suddenly the whole world saturates in serotonin/DMT and it’s like you’re living in the best possible movie of your life. Or, best yet, you get serious about the practice of contentment and gradually it stops feeling so good to consume things.

The energetic loop for Resource Extraction is wide open. Students feed the organization, drawing deep from other sources to be able to do so. Think of an oil pump plunged into the Earth that can never, ever get enough.

STUDENT DEVELOPMENT both precedes and follows resource extraction. In the beginning, were a teacher and a student in a cave. After capitalism, are a teacher and a student (and a few more students) in a room.

This worldview benefits from the long-run failure of Resource Extraction, because the pain and alienation it creates inspire bold changes. Resource Extraction leaves wounds, and yoga has tools to heal them.

Relationship heals, and it is central here. Despite the sales pitch of the Resource Extraction era, direct transmission does not scale, and it cannot be commodified. On the teacher level, you cannot use the internet or teacher trainings to reproduce the level of present moment witnessing or expertise that the student requires for optimal development.

On the group level, you cannot use the internet for the embodied transmission of breath, bandha and energy through a vibratory field of intelligence. And this – direct transmission – is the central potent activity of an organization born to give instead of to take.

The agenda: if a student is ready and seeks it out, she gets infused with as much support and knowledge as she can integrate. The point is to support her to develop to her highest potential, if that’s what she wants. This paradigm works on the level of the individual, and measures its success by the understanding of its students.

Naturally, the way that trust is established here is relational. Face to face, present moment. Students are encouraged to develop their own assessment of the organization, NOT relying on consumer cues but rather on what their bodies tell them. Do not follow the crowd. Do not reproduce the values of the resource extractors. Think for yourself.

For teachers, the nature of developmental work is that you always do it. It is just a life path. You don’t do it for ever-increasing notoriety or money: you do it because that is it wonderful to have some purpose in life! It’s your expression of self and means of adding value to others. There is no “getting away from it all,” no retirement plan, and no special present at the end. The present moment is the reward. A teacher who can’t wait for class to end is not inhabiting this paradigm.

The healing here has a lot to do with cleansing of the emotional body (which happens to be a third of the Ashtanga method, together with tristhana and vinyasa). The fears and triggers left over from growing up inside the mind of resource extraction are gradually called forth and de-fused in an environment of trust and respect. Fearlessness, confidence and grounding results. The many twisted roots of scarcity mentality are dis-covered and composted, leaving people with everything to give.

Our shala mostly propagates the Student Development paradigm, as do the few punk rock yoga teachers and true yoga schools that excite me. I don’t WANT our organization to move out of this world view. I feel comfortable stewarding an organization that looks inward. Student and student-body development is our shala’s one-track mind. That’s good organizational-level yoga.

But I also sense that my world-view will not last forever, because the world on view is changing. Fast, and badly.

Anyway, the energy loop for Student Development organizations is closed and clean. These entities are tight ships. Students are given a priceless gift in the form of knowledge and energy. To the degree they understand this, they return energy. To the degree they don’t understand, they support the organization in material ways.

DEEP LOCAL is something different. It’s a regenerative ethos that is already a little bit alive in the world. It is Liberation Theology meets Big Data. I’m not yet comfortable articulating this, but it is too late. Deep Local is a thing.

There IS no view from nowhere. Each world-view emerges from something before it. And each world-view ends. The empathetic/transcendent states of consciousness that trigger the move out of Resource Extraction aren’t just passing experiences here. They are mundane. Mystical experience isn’t para-normal; it is normal. What the previous paradigm deems “extra-sensory” isn’t beyond the senses, because the nervous system extends beyond the individual body. This isn’t some narcissistic festival mindset though; it is grounded in the broken world because economic and ecological crisis forced it out of hiding.

Healing happens on the spot and it’s done with whatever is at hand. Love. Will. Plants. There is an awareness of what is harmful (i.e. the leftovers of Resource Extraction) and it is not propagated. Work is not work – it is Marx’s “sensuous human activity.” Not just “service,” but something more erotic. Stewardship and fomenting abundance are the agenda. There is an investment in future time, but that’s not far away… things in this world happen fast.

Here’s where things get freaky, though I want to absorb what’s new in the literatures on Complex Systems, Big Data, and Regenerative Culture before saying much. Briefly: what happens is that individuals who learn to see the harm in Resource Extraction agendas come together. They learn and get smart and strong. Their activity creates a field of awareness, and within such fields super-conscious small groups gel. Abundance mentality becomes a thing. Local digestive systems convert trash and collective memories into fuel. Local nervous systems turn to clean, intuitive light circuits.

I suspect we are made for this. That it’s what we ache for – to be a part of a freakishly intuitive little pod that learns new skills lightning fast and makes shit happen. It’s a little mortifying, but our nervous systems want to extend beyond our bodies. Our minds want to meld. I’m only fully comfortable as a recluse, but still… in the most silent isolation I detect this deeper drive.

Deep Local’s energy loops are open. Work doesn’t just revel in the present moment and express a balanced give and take: it extends care forward in time and outward in space. May all beings in all worlds be blessed.

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Retrograde & Armageddon • 4 May 2016

Full moon morning, woke up and drew this

Apocalypse does not point to a fiery Armageddon but to the fact that our ignorance and our complacency are coming to an end. Our divided [worldview, inadequate] to coordinate conscious and unconscious — that is what is coming to an end. –J.C., Thou Art That

Lucidity is a choice. Learning to see through dreams in sleep primes you to see through this dream. THIS ONE. Through whatever beliefs, scipts and stories get you in a bind.

Saturdays I wake and then stay sleeping. To move backwards into the darkest corners of the dreamscape, I have to roll my sleeping body in the reverse order of my sleep positions through the night. And I have to hold the mind strong. It’s the weirdest state of consciousness ever. And it’s the one time all week when I work hardest, because otherwise it feels so good to just let the dream take over.

It’s worth the work, to map the dream all the way back in time, and sideways in space. I’m not looking for stories and archetypes, I’m looking beyond that at the architecture of the dream world. Not the content, but the form. Two reasons this is fascinating:

1. I suspect dream awareness is Mother Nature’s short cut for teaching us to see through reality. With exactitude. (Because it’s so easy to think that the world constructed by our five senses is real, is out there. But it’s not. It’s personal. Same as a dream is personal.) Mysteriously, most of us feel subtle resistance to close study of the dream. I did. Once I pushed through that, it got fun. Fun like mushrooms, fun like LSD, fun like DMT. (Or so I hear. I don’t know.) The clearer I get at reverse-mapping the dreamscape, the more lucid I am throughout the day and the night. The mind is being trained. I’m wasting less time, and the inner growth is more steady.

Experience is becoming more intense and more gentle all of the time.

2. I suspect that those who can see through dream of daily life get a fighting chance for seeing through the dream called death. I want to keep my honor when the time comes, to experience it. Maybe all the secret dream yogas are training for a good death, though it’s hard to say because these strongest practices are closely guarded. I could join some sect (surely the tantrics are great at this conscious ecstasy stuff?), but instead I have found fellow travelers: the genius Jennifer Dumpert and her friends, and the 10% of meditators (Jeff Warren’s estimate) who trip into the psychedelic realms just by sitting on a cushion.

And on Saturday, I practice. Lying semi-lucid for hours, turning to face my mind alone. I started trying to lucid dream around 2005. Failed for years. Then one night, sleeping on the floor of an Ashtanga teacher’s home shala, it happened. The first real lucid dream became a forgiveness ritual, destroying a heartbreak loop running in my deep mind for years. It’s nice to experience that kind of control sometimes, but dream MAPPING is different, and harder, and I think sweeter, than dream MAKING. It’s just reconnaissance. No agenda. Like this…

1. Stand at the gate of your waking mind and wait. Don’t open your eyes. Keep the breath shallow, keep the body asleep. Now. Swivel the eyes backwards in the head and see the tiger tail (or whatever it is) disappearing back down the tube into the sleep world. Catch it! Let your feet leave the ground. When gravity stops working, and the psychedelic starscapes and unknown faces surge forth from the shadows, REMEMBER, you are conscious! Don’t let the pleasure, or the fear, snuff that out. Re-experience the places you have just been during sleep. If you commit, they will offer themselves back to you in great detail.

2. Or here is an easier starting point, from the other end of the dream. Lie down for sleep and review the day in revese. Rewind in 10 minute segments and watch the clips all the way back to the first ten minutes of the day. This is a serious mind training: it’s not supposed to be easy at first. After 30 nights, something vague will have shifted. What? It’s your view, your strength in non-physical realms. IT’s your commitment to self-awareness, and confidence that you CAN go into the unknown alone. After a year of this, it’s easy to dive backwards from the other side – not just rewinding the day, but spelunking the sleep.

The more spelunking I do, the less I buy any theory about what it all means. Dream interpretation feels like just another way to get lost in the siddhis and psychic material. But now and then amid the space trash there’s something that I can use as a personal teaching.

Because we have particular bodies. We have particular minds. We have particular selves. May as well feel them, taste them, express them, enjoy them.

In the teaching practice, there is so much time in inscrutable silence. This is useful and respectful. It is getting out of the student’s way. But when it’s time to manifest a personality, I’ve made a decision to wear my self sheer. To be unapologetically in process as a student, and as dynamic as that rapid growth makes me, and exactly as unfinished as I’ll always be. The transparency thing is an effort at generosity, for someone who prefers to hoard experience in private. Much more important: it is a way of refusing to accept other people’s power. No other human self can rightly take your power, because every small self is just a process, a vehicle for relationship. A self is a nice way to get around reality for the short term. That’s it.

In that spirit, here is more of what things look like from the perspective of the dream-watcher. Stories from the small self, dreamed on the last three moons…

MARCH 23 FULL MOON

The first full moon back from Mysore, the last image on the astral plane as I wake is a geometric rose. It burns in from deep space, through the half-awake space, and then just sits there behind my not-yet-open eyes. Lucid, I catch it and follow it back down the wormhole we’ve just exited, to Gurdjieff next to a fireplace at Talesin on Christmas, with patterned circles spinning in the air like blown bubbles. I lay motionless in bed for another hour, combing my psyche’s garbage like a good detective. Then, careful not to get too much in my body, I glide next door to the yoga room and etch the rose on the back of a notecard. It’s still branded on the back of my eyes even now in the afternoon – not “real,” but not just imagined either. It’s superimposed on the visual world, filtering over it like a mantra filters over auditory space.

I text the sketch to five friends, unaware of what I’m setting in motion. Because you know what? Texting a line drawing to five ashtangis on a full moon morning is a straight up call-and-response move. Line drawings are not innocent in this tribe: they are on a bee line for the BODY.

The idea arcs back to me over the compass rose from east to west as they wake: Tattoo? Mysore, London, New York, Phoenix, San Francisco: Tattoo?

Meantime, an image search. Turns out my subconscious has copped a midcentury Mackintosh Rose. A Christ symbol. Given my story – a belief at age 3 that Jesus lived in my heart, and a long adolescence spent pissed off at him – the dream feels like some part of me forcing the issue. God, who is less cool than Jesus?

My dad chose the middle name Sharon, for the rose of Sharon, which grows on the fertile crescent plane where they prophecy the battle of Armageddon. Who names their firstborn after a war zone? Fundamentalists, I thought, and changed the name at age 20. I was studying Hebrew, planning a foreign correspondent’s career in the middle east, and sickened by the genocidal moves of president long-O Sharon. So I switched Sharon for Zang, my grandmother’s surname, and a tribe of Bavarian brewers who moved to Colorado 5 generations back. (Later the Coors family competed with them, obliterating Zang Brewry during prohibition, when Zang spirits went underground but Coors sold gov’t-approved soda.) At age 20, moonlight bartender me already had an Irish whiskey surname, and thought that should be the chaser for a stout middle name. Christ consciousness out, beer consciousness in.

The undermining started right away. At 21, I apprentice to the chief of PR for Amnesty International. They pay my transportation to DC but nothing else, so all summer I sleep on a high school friend’s floor and drink coffee for lunch. One noon hour I’m opening a crisp imprint of Foucault’s Pendulum at the front desk and my secret crush Carlos Salinas, the human right’s movement’s messianic attack dog contra the devil Jesse Helms, hurricaines in the front door and widens his eyes at me sitting there at the desk with that book. Then he loses his mind. The steam of profanity is unbroken, Spanish-accented, passionate as hell, and actually transcendent. I don’t care about being in trouble, and it turns out I’m not. He’s just jealous it’s not him “losing his virginity” to his favorite book… the esoteric sequel to the Name of the Rose.

Now the rose line resurfaces over my life. That is what the Rose of Sharon does. She goes underground, through centuries of grassroots conspiracy, passed along the esoteric way. The rose carries the inside jokes that drive grail lore: We are one, and ecstatically so where two or more are gathered in the name. Also, when the bud that pulses in the middle of your brain takes bloom, then you snuff out the small self and light a fire in your heart. Furthermore, apocalypse is when something comes from nothing, and again when it returns.

And ALL of that remains sub-rosa only for us drunks until we hold still enough to see through the dream. Rebirth is annihilation, and it is a joke. So here I am, re-changing my name and wondering who is the right artist to put this body under the rose.

APRIL 7, NEW MOON

Great Lakes land is full of hermits and contemplative communities. I spent the first five years here searching for the ideal solo retreat, striking out with the hippies, the Hindus, and the Buddhists. Last year I finally went to the mystic Christians in a place called Three Rivers. It’s easy to think Christians aren’t cool. But these ones have their own vortex, plus great taste landscape architecture. They also like the dark side and use dreams to get there.

The one hard thing about taking annual retreat with Shinzen is the short nights – monastics know how to use sleep deprivation to quicken classical awakening. But a Mysore teacher on break from work should be banking sleep. On group retreat, I’ll shave off a few sits in order to log 7 hours horizontal, but when I go alone to Three Rivers the retreat schedule is up to me. That means at least 8 hours for sleep and 4 for reconnaissance and play in the psychedelic midstream between waking and REM. But experience shows that it’s possible to sleep up to 14 hours a night there – double what my organism can usually achieve. Something strange is happening in Three Rivers and it’s not on the physical plane.

Fifty years back, in the ashes of an archdiocese that pulled up its own roots, Helen Luke and Else Hope (their real names) came here from LA to build a contemplative community based on Jungian analysis of dreams. The local church embraced them, then later rejected them when the dark side of dreamwork became clear. The women kept dreaming, and farming, and writing (Luke’s books are beautiful), and mystics from all over the world started coming for support in spiritual crisis. Many stayed. Now Luke’s Apple Farm is one of MANY post-Christian communes here, where the residents oscillate between caring for the land and sleeping their way through the heart of darkness. Time there changes everything about how I feel in Michigan.

I use the new moon in April to get four days alone. The first evening ends with a burnt brown sun going down in a hailstorm, me lighting a fire and staring into it for hours like the ancients. (Was it fire that first taught humans to meditate?)

I sleep 13 hours while nature turns crazy. In the morning: new snow, with the tracks of a big cat – and a mouse! –outside my cabin. My mindbody falls still between walks in the forest, logs on the fire, hours on the cushion, and the three-hour asana practices I’d take every day if having a teacher and students didn’t rein that in.

Transcendent asana practices are kids’ stuff and caring about that is a trap, but still, retreat practice is never not ecstatic. Setting up for ustrasana the second day, my gaze wanders out to the field, to a tiny stone chapel set into a hill in a snowstorm. Smoke rising from the chimney. This landscape is an image stockpile for dreams. As the retreat-world takes over my consciousness and home life drops away, awareness oscillates between the land itself and the images the land throws into my dreams. The waking/dreaming boundary recedes – sleep being long and lucid, days being epic sensory displays for my animal mind. This is my mind nourishing and cleansing itself – it knows what it needs on retreat.

The morning I depart, a most beloved mentor floats through a dream, doing his usual move of stepping down off the pedestal. Showing me how that vinyasa is done. Because he’s a silverback with a good side-eye who doesn’t care if or what you think of him, cooler than anyone else in the field.

We’re all wounded healers, the whole lot of us, he says. There’s just a question of which shadows you choose to dance with.

April 9th sunrise, my tracks to the right

April 22, FULL MOON

Being cool, Prince dies in epic time. I sleep late for the full moon, ignore the inevitable Internet Death Event, and stay in spacey-ecstatic dream-mind for a long morning drive. There’s two days of uninterrupted Prince music on the rental car’s satellite radio, enough to hold me in that liminal state across Ohio and back.

I don’t know Prince’s star chart, but in addition to his left-handed obsession with hidden truth, that man’s moon shadows are all sex, death, apocalypse, and ecstasy.

Archetypically, that’s straight Scorpio (says someone with five planets under that sign), befitting this spring Scorpio moon that lit his exit. Nice touch.

For years, it’s felt like Prince was over himself. His rival, Michael Jackson, died seven years back, on the first day of my first meditation retreat with Shinzen. Though a scholar of Buddhism and yoga, Shinzen always takes us to Christian retreat centers – for some reason, he finds them most hospitable to his students’ awakening. (And to my discomfort he has a thing for crucifixes – he’d rather surround us with thorny imagery of death-to-the-self than with statues of the Buddha in repose.) The weekend MJ died, we were at the Mary and Joseph Retreat Center of Encino, immediately next door to the Jackson family estate. For two days, TV helicopters hovered over the zendo while we meditated. MJ’s vibe on the way out was narcissistic and terrified and image crazed. Not a good death. Nobody partied.

Prince’s death weekend: not a drag. If drinking has become boring, DRIVING remains as a guilty pleasure. For historical reasons I like big engines, and speed, and a good car stereo. Actions leave traces.

The Dodge Charger is a good machine that happens to be evil – it’s a tank made for all-American men. It’s a desperate move by Ford, and (I hope) the last stand of the kind of ego that identifies with a car. At the gas station, a guy in a suit reverently whispers: “Miss, your Charger, that’s a WHOLE LOTTA CAR.” In silver, it not only drives like the smoothest most caffeinated ultra responsive led intermediate you could ever lucid-dream, but it looks like a loaded gun. I ride a slow 79 from Ann Arbor, across Ohio cop country, down to the Kentucky border. With the moon full and Prince singing like a bat out of hell, it’s as ecstatic as 110.

On the way home, I hang a right through Detroit just to thread the needle through the rusting Escorts on the post-apocalyptic freeways of the motor city. I take it fast, in time to get home for a long sleep before Sunday (led primary) service. Not just the Fords but most everything here is crumbling. It’s extremely unpopular to say, but there is a lot to understand here about social death: disappearance of leaders with stewardship consciousness or an ethics of care; post-industrial waste; rape of the planet every which way; segregation; and now the first of many water crises to come. Southwest Michigan is my utopia, but it also has a bad case of Armageddon. I see it in myself as much as in the surround.

Prince was good at being bad because of his purity of spirit. His dark sides amused him. May as well sing like a demon, drive like a demon, inhabit your bodymind to the hilt, because for now you’re human. You actually love, and you actually become one by gathering with the many. There is actually a rosebud in your brain and a fire in your heart, and your everyday reality is actually a something that comes from nothing and returns to nothing when it’s done. We only dream that we have something to prove, and something to hide, and a way of getting through all of this alive.

YOGA + ALIENATION • 6 April 2016

Anti-Capitalist Love Note #4

There’s an old word for the experience of disconnect between your life force and your daily work. The disconnect can be big for yoga teachers, but we don’t look at it directly, don’t bond together over it like we could. So we may not see that (1) people share the same troubles and (2) there’s another way.

The name of the disconnect is alienation. I’m going to sharpen this tool for five minutes right now. After that, I talk liberation tactics.

Marx said alienation denatures the “sensuous human activity” of your bodily work: the immediacy, the creative power, the art. Your action – your work – fully experienced is your life force. Your daily work should express and add to who you are, not exploit you and suck you dry.

But in the yoga industry/star system, the energetic loops of exchange are hardwired against all but the large owners, experts, and token celebrities. So after a few years of the daily grind in this context, the pulse of right action does not limn your circuits. There’s not much juice. Instead there are good days and bad days, and behind them something sinister.

Yoga is skillful action – highly conscious, vibrantly alive, and confidently in relationship. If there is alienation – if life force and daily work are disjointed- the yoga’s on the line.

Alienation has two sides: subjective and structural. Inside/outside. (*If that bothers you, see the cryptohegelian footnote below.)

FIRST, on the inside, it’s a gut event. It’s the bile in your belly when you hate the job you want to love. It’s disappointing your better self when you make compromises because “that’s what it takes in this business.” It a mind full of craving (for popularity, headcounts, workshop invites, or for whatever other empty “rewards” are on offer), instead of a mind nourished by timeless ideals. It’s the “I am not what I do” reflex. It is pervasive anxiety and concern for the future, and it is fantasies about the perfect teacher or employer who will fix everything. It is a loneliness for someone who shares the values of your heart.

Behavioral symptoms: creative malaise, inability to make decisions that stick, splitting into multiple personalities (only expressing that which is marketable), simulating productivity by feeding the feeds, escapes to a “happy place,” substituting spiritual practices for productive work. And, on the best days, thoughts of revolution.

Proximate Causes: feeling pressure to objectify yourself against your wishes; non- clarity about your sources/inspiration/path; seeing how your work is more about staying ahead than about serving others; any day when the work you did was “for the money” and did not add to your personal skill and insight; feeling you must entertain rather than educate (because the commodity your boss is selling is a time-block, not knowledge); making a passive income from yoga (once-exploited teachers who start studios and thence exploit new teachers are alienated if and only if they retain a conscience). Above all, alienation’s cause is having others accumulate passive income/power/status/energy off your labor.

I personally taste alienation: when I forget WHY I teach (to do service that subverts my ego, to express creative energy and play, to end suffering, and because this is what my teachers told me to do); when I feel entitled to something I’m not getting (a comfortable physical practice, students who value the practice, respect); when I feel my work is misunderstood in the world; when I fail to connect with colleagues and students and teachers on a human level; when my response to the normally satisfying experience of working really hard is to get overwhelmed and stop expressing myself. These are the times the life force drains straight out of my work, not because I’m being exploited (and as I once was), but because at times it bums me out to work at the edges of this troubled profession.

People do not have to experience alienation if: they buy in. Buying in = trusting that the current set-up truly rewards a deserving minority, and that the commodities/experiences for sale are of good value. Buying in is seeing yoga as a thing, and rating its teachers according to beauty, entertainment value, athletic performance, or capacity to create spa-like experiences or temporary relief from low self-esteem, because these are the most shiny things at the market. Buying in is consent to a consumption-centered definition of yoga that doesn’t put ethical action, relationships, spirituality and the environment front and center. Nobody reading this buys in, but still we practice in a context in which these ideas line the path of least resistance.

—————>The hopeful thing here is that after decades of yoga teachers’ public service drawing attention to the perineum, the yoga proletariat (sorry: yoletariat) is getting rather good at knowing when the gut ain’t right. Such discomfort can inspire change. Thanks to you who have done years of god’s special work: teaching anus awareness to the unsuspecting.

SECOND: alienation is not just a personal but a collective arrangement. We inherited this. It is the extraction of life force from the working majority, to the benefit of a privileged few. Is someone making a passive income off your efforts? Originally, this was called being an appendage of the machine. Think The Matrix.

Sound cartoonish? Yes, the industry hopes so. The Yoga Alliance, the Yoga Journal, YogaWorks, and every studio’s workshop program, and every teacher training by whatever name, and every advertiser on every website, are feeding us content that pushes us in the opposite direction of this exact awareness. Yoga commodification is an extremely forceful line of energy, largely built by a workforce of part-time teacher/ consumers shopping at the company stores.

Rather than take 20 pages to lay out the relations of production and the varied strategies for energy extraction from the most vulnerable, here’s a vignette that captures the industry in action. This is one of those key relational moments when young yoga teachers learn to conceptualize the work of teaching yoga. This scene is embarrassing to write because the first time I got this call, at 29, I didn’t hang up. Actually, for a minute I was flattered. But behind this script shows a clear agenda for using youthful energy and disposable space that the industry already “owns.” This generates new profit for a studio while isolating and inculcating young workers. So… the call comes in one day in your late 20s. It’s the machine, sidling up with a hypodermic, but because it’s your first bid, maybe it feels like an opportunity. The manager of the local/corporate yoga studio can’t fill classes between 6-9am on week days, so he wants to put in a Mysore program. He has heard you identify as an Ashtanga person and are a devoted practitioner of internet handstands (yes, that was me), so your (unpaid) social media skills and enthusiasm for big postures (key commodities) could generate enthusiasm for the time slot. So much the better if this draws the people with the awesome practices to the studio, because this adds to the community for the ongoing workshop schedule and the teacher training. For you, we can give you a special key and teach you to take the money (office seva), and will even give you $60 per class rather than the usual $40. It’s true the class is a 3 hour teaching shift, but you don’t really have to work as hard as a regular class and you can use your devices any time. Acually, please do take pictures of your students; it would be fun to share those on social media to create community. We’d like to get to a headcount of 30 within the first 2 months. Also, to support your personal practice, you can stay after teaching and take our vinyasa classes for free. (Key ideological words: free, give, community, awesome, devoted, special.) Sorry for that scene, everyone. I know looking directly at this stuff can be excruciating.

In this industrial setting, Yogalebrities play a key role, giving consumers things to aspire to and reasons to believe this is an arrangement in which (as Yogaworks’ TT has claimed explicitly) “the cream rises to the top.” The Babarazzi has covered this.

Moreover, pundits/experts in every field work hard to legitimate exploitative social arrangements, drawing us off the scent of inequality, while they ease through workshop circuits and write guest columns. Western yoga experts do not want us to develop tools/language to rebalance the energy exchange. They want us to spend down our awareness on matters like cultural appropriation and proper alignment for a headstand, and by the way sign up for their next internet workshop… while the physical, emotional labor of the daily yoga grind is carried out by alienated teachers whose employment situation is precarious.

… alienated teachers who, knowing their jobs are precarious, are not fully confident in their role.

…alienated teachers who will continue to shop at the company store as long as nobody raises the specter of a grassroots yoga culture.

—————>The hopeful thing here is that “structural inequality” just stopped being a fringe idea. The sociologists tell me it happened 5 years ago with some combination of Occupy + Gen Y, but at this point even if you’re (somehow) not moved by the tide of racial, sexual, citizenship and economic justice movements in the west, you do know they exist… and that the sharp tool they share is consciousness of inherited inequality. Consciousness that we are all in this together; consciousness with voices; consciousness willing to bleed.

So here is the thing. If we can see clearly the conditions of our alienation, then we can see THROUGH it. Then we can take creative control, and with it we can take care of each other.

We can teach to serve, in a way that doesn’t undermine our self-respect or the ground under our feet. We can teach in our own voices in a way that continues the deep line of yoga – which has ALWAYS had a gritty, inter-personal grassroots element. We can serve practitioners, and the practice, without giving any energy at all to the matrix.

How? Opt out. JUMP out.

I can see two ways to take back your life force immediately. First, opt out of a professional culture based on imitation. See where you can work however you choose, and make your own way. Second, take this same originality to a new definition of the market. Your practice has packed you with life force, now go out and generate an organic energy economy at the gritty grass roots. Perhaps even an energy economy free of the racial, sexual, economic, citizenship-based, ageist, ableist, sizeist, looksist hierarchies that organize inequality in capitalist culture. There are twenty more strategies beyond that, but for once I am not trying to lose you here, so I’ll keep this short.

These strategies work if: you’re an expert practitioner, yoga is your day job, you have deep lifetime backup from your mentors, and you’ve already been living out a commitment to service for years. By contrast, if your practice is an eclectic mix of studio classes; if your route to teaching was a TT for with no barriers to entry (except cash), which nobody could fail (because of said cash), it is precisely your adorable enthusiasm to do any work you can get (while your bosses take yet more cash, this time from your students) that allows the industry to exploit teachers. There are more workers than there is work. If this is you, your first yoga class was sometime in the last 5 years, and the yoga machine already has a needle in your vein. The gradual, not-so-harmless suck of your life force has already begun. But you can change course. Find a grassroots community where people own their practices. Find a teacher who isn’t looking for students (because he is not an energy-harvester), but will go to the trouble to share his priceless knowledge with you if you prove persistent. Stop shopping at the yoga store and gradually grow your own. But experienced teachers? You’re your own center of gravity and as long as you keep your energy strong, you can work however you want. The industry wants you, but you don’t need it. So it may be more a source of limitations than of good ideas.

1. Ways for experienced teachers to stop imitating the industry.

Have a MISSION. Could be anything.With the yoga teaching, mine is (1) supporting a sincere community of practice at home, and (2) supporting a tiny number of Ashtanga teachers around the world who I ask to bring the best out of me and become better teachers than me in the long run. Anything the industry throws out that is not on mission – the answer is no. This keeps the life force of my work consolidated in two interwoven loops, and short-circuits my massive Shiny Objects Problem. The thing about dharma is: it doesn’t “find you.” You don’t even “find it.” You create it. SO GIVE YOURSELF TO IT. Otherwise a mission is not a container, but just a to-do list.

SET SOME TERMS for teaching relationships. For example, under what conditions will you work with a new student? (I require students to be invested in their own practice, so that I feel that they are a good investment of my energy. Their attention is the currency.) Under what conditions will you do an outside event? (My conditions are that outside events can’t impinge on my mission, and can’t set up a situation in which I see myself exploiting the hosts in any way. And, due to my own random personality limitations, I don’t want to be bored. If an event feels scripted or doesn’t force me to really engage with people, I’ll feel bad about it later.)

DON’T WORK FOR MONEY. Exploited people work for money. What if you work for yoga; you work for your own education; you work for the sake of taking skillful action? What if you never consent to do work that fails to increase your skill and insight? In this case, you probably still work a lot, but you interpret every experience as learning opportunity, and as a result your chops are always getting sharper. Money is an occasional (not necessary) by-product of action the same way postures are a by-product of practice. Your desperation melts away.

Here’s the thing: if your work is embedded in sadhana – if teaching is understood as teaching practice – then it is very difficult for anything to disconnect you from your life force.

Caveat: taking this orientation too far has led me to condone parasitic dynamics at times. Because I saw every challenge as grist for the practice mill, I failed to share my awareness of industry dynamics with the people who were unconsciously exploiting me. They were just doing their thing; I was being unskillful. I got what I wanted – experience doing good work and maintaining self-respect in twisted conditions –but two times out of three my employer ended up embarrassed. Because if your heart is true it actually feels awful when you realize you’re short-circuiting someone whose work you respect. As my clarity on this matter increased, so did my courage, and so did my ability to build a better business model.

INTEND that anyone who works for you will experience abundance. Hire only the absolute best, and pay them what they are worth. Compensate them more than they expect. Not because you’re generous – because you’re clear about their value. See what happens to the relationship of life force to creative work for everyone this abundant collaboration touches.

Don’t give it up for EXPOSURE. As an expert teacher, you have the precious ability to generate original content. This is something you only have because for years you dug a very deep well, looking for nothing but yourself. But industry platforms (blogs, podcasts, events) are empty shelves. They need YOUR content to make the magic happen. Yet they tend ask you for your precious labor as if they are doing you a favor. In return, you are offered “exposure.” Maker culture already has a strong critique of exposure as compensation – check it out if you are tempted to say yes to a lot of interview requests. Personally, my idea is to keep the content in house and keep the well fresh, unless once a year or so there is a VERY GOOD PROJECT it feels great to support.

REVOLUTIONIZE relationships with SPACE: Biggest way the superrich make a passive income off the majority: RENT. There are so many other ways to build a yoga school. Let’s invent them. Here is where I started. (P.S. Millenials: you will teach the world to make sacred space in a flash and on a dime. Either that, or we all die. We are waiting for you to move out of your parents’ place and get to work on this. Letting your elders work harder than you do is not cool. Now is the time to invent crazy new things. Be brave.)

Get crystal clear on WHAT IT IS YOU OFFER. Is your expertise Bakasana B, or is it working with individual bodies and nervous systems over time? Is it conscious relationship? Is it engaging directly with, and helping train, a student’s awareness? Is it transmitting a rarified-radiant energy or state of consciousness within which students become more of who they are? These skills can’t be learned from amateurs or books or videos. It takes an artisan.

The clearer you get about what your art is, and the better you get at giving it away (because you are always practicing teaching), and thus the more you do to further the evolution of consciousness. And, accidentally, the more this goes on, the more work comes your way. Because you are very, freaking conscious. And very, freaking, good. Yeah, friends who I love, you know that I am talking to you. A subtle, graceful self-respect makes you useful in the world.

2. Understanding (deciding) how markets work.

The economists had to take one from the sociologists when they started being able to model the social relations that really give rise to energy exchanges. A healthy student market isn’t the one you take from your so-called “competitors.” It’s not even the “niche” between two other segments of some population. Rather, your market is your network, and it is your narrative.

Forget, forget, forget about teaching someone else’s yoga students. You don’t want them. Their foundations are elsewhere. You are an expert, and do best to forge your own foundations. It’s just not useful to the world for experts to try to serve where they aren’t entirely needed. Go to a new end of the Earth instead.

What picture comes to mind when you think of a yoga practitioner? See the ways our shared unconscious notion of “yoga practitioner” derives from the industry’s definition of the perfect consumer? Do you actually want to teach consumers? People you can teach easy backbends, whose eyes glaze over with crazy projection when they speak of you, or who will subserviently follow everything you do without finding their own way? How boring.

Let’s take the Yoga Journal cover model, bless her (that’s what I look like if I’m not careful) and change their gender expression, age, body size, their race, their economic status, their hair, their education, their personality type and talents, their sexual status, their work, their politics, their citizenship, their interest, their heart, their faith, their health, their breath, their energy. Everything. So now, maybe it’s the person picking out apples at the farmers market, or the receptionist at the dentist’s office, or the paint guy at Home Depot (all true stories here). Whatever. For me, I intend to connect with those who do what they say they will do. Those who want to practice – who want to organize their energy in this way, who don’t need a cheerleader but do need (for a while) a wellspring of good information. Those who will support and not harm my other students. Those I trust, and who have the weird ability to draw the best out of me – even if the way they sometimes do that is by being honest about who they are at their worst.

Marketing something this golden isn’t even a matter of strategy. The spark of the energy you’re carrying because of your practice is going to be visible to certain random humans. You just figure out where to go, and how to resonate, when to be invisible, and how to look at the world in a way that lets your work find you. Denying the industry the energy it gets when we believe in it frees up almost too much possibility. So then the work is to navigate that freedom. Then the work is whatever yoga you’re making happen right now.

SUBSCRIBE.

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Other posts in this series:

1. The Yoga Bio.

2. Safe Space.

3. Notes to a Young Teacher.

*Nerdy footnote. Marx would disagree that subjective alienation is a thing. He thought your life situation determined your consciousness. He also was a dialectical materialist, and invented the hopeless labor theory of value; I’m not going to spend our time treading this metaphysical bathwater. Meantime, much of yoga says the opposite: consciousness determines life situation! I dunno: from here, life-situation/ consciousness looks suspiciously like a two-way street. Pretty sure the owl of Minerva agrees.

Gut Reckoning • 4 March 2016

Bicycle

The last day in Mysore starts with morning practice, and ends 40 or 50 hours later on some other continent. I’m 22 hours into this vata-deranged trade between time and space, on a flight from Bangalore to Paris. No complaints.

But, burn this much of Earth’s resources in one go, and the human body will index that environmental cost one way or another. For me, even with a three-day intermission on the ground between the long-hauls, this trip will scramble my subtle body a bit. May as well embrace it. After led this morning I took a triple-chai, double-dosa breakfast with Mysore fictive kin. Then used it to fuel a morning of shala business as the arrows of my attention reorient to middle America. Edited the contents of the trunk, then had the local salon cut off the hyper hair growth brought on by so many hours of castor oil on the crown.

In the late afternoon I just drove around town, dropping what was left of my coins at temples and coconut stands, saying goodbye to the city. Last stop was Saint Philomena’s cathedral, to tremble before a cardboard diorama of Jesus lit by corroded circus lights. The set recalls early commercials for the Microsoft operating system – cartoon blue skies and green hills on paper glued to cardboard. Except there is a crusty muffin or something floating in the sky above Christ’s head, and plastic minigolf grass in the floor.

I’ll be at Notre Dame tonight in Paris but it won’t move me like Philomena’s, where I see all the frailty of religion on the surface – the artifice, the tackiness and decay. Nevermind whatever accidents of history landed a full-on cathedral on the boulevard out of Hindu Mysore into Muslim town. This place makes me sweat and shudder with recognitions, acceptance, and a feeling of emptiness. But in Europe, my defenses will rise like the buttresses and I’ll go into cool architectural appreciation mode. It is so funny what shakes free the remaining defenses around my spiritual heart… and what does not.

I had to gut-reckon the Muslim sector to get to Philomena’s today, because the usual road is closed. It feels amazing, to be a little bit integrated into the organism of a city. I watch quicker studies intuit this stuff on contact, but I had to WORK on tapping the order in the chaos. There have been trips here when I went out every evening on two wheels or feet just to push the envelope of familiarity.

Today I remembered again how Managua taught me that. In 1999 it was a city without street names or maps whose version of cardinal directions was arriba, abajo, al sur, al lago. My address was: from the rotunda santo domingo, 5 blocks south, 2.5 blocks down. That narrowed it down to a choice of 4 front doors, so to find me you still had to traipse around. With decreasingly bad Spanish, I wandered in expanding circles for months. I remember risking a new bus route, landing in graffiti-covered revolutionary fortress of Leon. Forgotten Sandinista solidarity came alive through those who helped me navigate that day, and I was high on that history for a week. Months later I got as far as San Salvador, and again lost my mind in joy as hair-trigger street-smarts arose in me to cover for a ballooning of the boundaries of the self.

This month, the cranial-sacral work has expanded in a similar shape, but along an internal dimension. Using as much of the body’s mind as possible to feel out unknown worlds. Every evening I returned to the instruction I’ve been given: forget what you know. Go and listen to as many cerebro-spinal rhythms as you can.

Meditate on the tides of the central channel until something meditates you back.

I see now that, every year in Mysore, I have put awe on the schedule in the evenings. Subconsciously I have been nourishing myself with regular rapture, entraining certain rhythms of hormone secretion and nervous system activity. I may claim that the cranial work is a practical retirement plan for the decades after drop-backs, but what actually draws me in is its portal to the deep unknown. For better or worse, I’m in it for the awe.

As I become less clumsy (Thank you, so much, those of you who put up with me the first weeks), increasingly people say the work makes them feel ALIVE. But you’re doing nothing. Intending nothing. Just putting your head in somebody’s hands. How is this a thing? I thought it took more hassle and equipment to get ALIVE.

Do you know the dreams where you have no body? In REM, the self that yoga calls your dream body runs and flies and interacts with some sort of a world. But in states of consciousness between waking and dreaming and dreamless sleep I suspect we drop, bodiless, into primordial space. Just a churning of color and light and feeling and sound, with maybe an archetype or an insight floating by. The cranial work drifts into these selfless spaces that change you, maybe a little bit like psychotropics change you but without drugs’ load on the system. It is a straight-laced shamanism.

I can’t believe the west has been able to produce such a method. Western mind drives us to reduce experience to material – and mind to brain, and path to goals, and friendship to association, and Ashtanga to posture-acquisition. But the cranial paradigm calls itself “a teaching in liquid light.” God that sounds ridiculous, but it’s true.

Map-mind is about materialism, and it’s about control. I love maps – google for geography, Vishuddhimaga and such for Gautama-style enlightenment, the eight-limbed path for yoga. Logic is my comfort food.

But what if too much instruction gets in the way? Every AYI conference this month, we got this hot tip: do not read the asana books, do not watch the videos, do not do extra homework. Just bring fine tuned awareness to your daily practice.

I take this as instruction to get more interested in my own experience. Quit trying to master the system; then quit believing there is a system to master. If you want to go deep with a practice, or a place, or a person, don’t try to figure them out. Get a little lost in it, in them. Be moved.

Not because analysis is bad. Because our drive to control, and to know, and to pursue goals, can take us out of the body that is consciousness itself.

***

Late February I took some mental health days at the Hotel Formerly Known As Southern Star. The Regaalis, with its saturated colors and even more saturated finger chips, oasis border of coconut palms, and photogenic blue striped towels. Welcome to 1965. Those afternoons I read Joan Didion against Allan Silver – two midcentury minds who always meant to speak to the future.

Didion is known for starchy double-breasted sentences that are always in fashion, but what holds me to the woman is her clean cold read on The Dream. In her case, it’s usually the Dream of the American west, or political liberation – any invisible, driving myth that people lean on to order their actions and feel less alone in the world. She writes of “…the revelation that the dream was teaching the dreamers how to live.” Mysore Magic is not so different, especially seen from the pool.

Silver takes apart reality from another angle. He’s an unknown sociologist who died in the fall fall at age 85, after a trip to the Opera. One big thing he did was advise my husband the Editor’s adviser (who is, in turn, an intellectual hero to me and many others). Silver was memorialized as a generous and life-changing teacher; his ability to live out these values despite working in the Ivy League forged a lineage the Editor now inherits. So when he died I wanted to know: this man quietly shaped my life for the good, but why didn’t his research leave a mark?

Reading it now, I see why. Turns out he worked on something that’s not supposed to exist – the sociology of friendship. Seen from above (where sociologists sit when they survey society), friendship is just association. It is transactional. Friendship is a means of accumulating status and opportunities, and for ratcheting position through the exchange of favors. “I scratch your back, you scratch mine.” But a half-century before social media took fake friendship to a whole new level, Silver identified a different, subversive type of friendship that was becoming more radical as capitalist competition pushed its way more deeply into social life.

He said this other form of friendship wasn’t about getting anything. Such “non-instrumental” relationship emerged, he claimed, through expression of feeling, intimacy, and personal disclosure. So, it is being real with people who have nothing to offer you in terms of social or economic opportunities. It is a deliberate disregard for social positioning, because the relationships of substance are just those in which mutual listening can happen. And those can happen anywhere. It is seeing everyone as having equal worth, while also developing the skill to discern when someone is approaching you for instrumental reasons. It’s an immunity to users.

Silver’s teaching is that intimate friendship is subversive because it pushes back hard against humans’ tendency to use each other. Capitalism taken to extremes can dehumanize us by training us to see each other as objects, or as means to get what we want: if we can’t see through capitalism, it breeds habits and values that eat our souls. But when relationship is an end in itself, and pursuit of personal gain drops away, we claim a kind of dignity through being real to each other. How badass.

And how true to my experience of fictive kin in Mysore. We teachers are off duty here. The boundaries we must maintain for our students back home can soften. We do self-disclosure; we express emotions; we experience intimacy to the degree that roles and personae drop away.

***

For those who run a Mysore program, retreat practice may be intensive, but the real discipline ramps up when we leave. The self that engages in many friendships will drop away, and we will fuel our teaching from a quiet, hard-working place.

Teaching yoga may be good and true and beautiful, but the real shit is not glamorous. Nope. You don’t get to decorate your ego with it. It is about discipline, renunciation, intensity, and clarity of action. Often students say to me that they want my lifestyle. I doubt it. You want to have a social life, to eat what you like, to sleep at normal times, to take personal days.

Teaching is awesome, if and when you turn into a person who can enjoy long periods of austerity without being a hero or a masochist about it (these are second-order strategies for decorating the ego). If you turn into a person who can really get your kicks off the wellbeing of others, without much expressing that excitement or taking it personally. If by accident that transformation happens, ok. Then the teaching life doesn’t feel like one of deprivation, but of just another expansion of your street smarts, and the outer edges of the self.

Predator & Play • 31 January 2016

Moment, Moment.

“First month paining; second moth crying; third month flying.” The first time-map for Mysore; Guruji’s schedule for your soul.

Now it’s first month healing; second month flying; third month get back to teaching already. Mysore warps time eight ways from Sunday. January was uneventful and life changing, and it is and was like this…

Settle in. Create space around and inside the body. Create sanctuary. Then go far inside yourself for half a month: take pancha karma, sit on a cushion all afternoon, sleep 10 hours at night. Wash the doors of perception in tears, coconut water and on a good day a little sweat. Mysore is for healing.

My discursive mind would shut down for days, so I’d bring it back by writing emotions and body sensations in a notebook. Emptying, then excavating further down. I’m usually not this good at spacing out, but that’s where the big steel cups of ghee come in. After practice I’d sit in a puja room with a doctor, taking sacrament. They supervise because you’re expected to recoil from the medicine – one doc actually gagged, watching me quaff it like chai and savor the rich film it left on my teeth.

In the shala, a week of primary and one of intermediate. My teacher noting the effects of the last 10 months’ teaching in my body. I’m learning to rebalance more quickly, learning to work efficiently without getting hurt.

There are big changes this year in the room at the center of my universe. One: a cheap microphone for led class that shorts out when he’s at the edge of the room. His voice becomes a bioelectric, alien chitter, and I think of the movie Predator. Good sound effects to get me into primal primary series as if I’m a big cat. Two: forgiving fake wood floors, porous and bright. They sharpen the light, so I’ve been training my lower eyelid to narrow my driste back into soft filter. Three: More stillness in the room. Everyone mentions it. The students are younger and far more diverse, but the collective is more prepared. Gokulam is still the most vata-crazed place, but the room, no. I never imagined we could feel so stable while floating in the vortex.

Pancha karma zeroed in on my emotional body, and with that catharsis as backdrop I remembered the Ashtanga practice is so unapologetically physical. For now it is hot-blodded unstoppable stalking of the mind, down to the level of the cells. No, acutally into the DNA, making conscious the habitus I have inherited. The physicality of Primary here makes me feel a sort of silent growl in my belly, and my nose scrunches up like something on the prowl. Sometimes at home, moving for work much of the day, I forget that practice with a body, in three dimensions, can be so heavily satisfying. (There is such clarity that comes from anchoring so-called spirituality in space and time.)

Conference was the same every week, the same as every year. But not. Every week there was a sidebar on “don’t collect followers.” True teachers do not want followers. The theme got coded into the back of my mind in notions and images. Collecting followers is what creepy cults do. Collecting followers is a fulltime job and not the one you want. Collecting followers is The Love Guru with a foomanchu. The message is that the empty pot makes the most noise. What a badass, confidence-building challenge to issue to few hundred devoted yoga teachers.

January evenings, I learned to do puja for Ganesh, the same way a kid might learn. It’s not so fearsome in the tantric register: the entities do not curse any missteps. To finish you say: I do not know what errors there may be in my devotion or my ritual, but if errors there be, please forgive me.

After ten hour sleeps, I’d get up in the morning and pray. As of this sentence, this is no longer something I’m embarrassed to admit. Prayer is directionless, objectless.

It is peaceful protest in a culture that is spiritually repressed. It’s just a sort of dropping of the sense of self, and then listening out as far as I can in every direction. No questions, and no requests. I do it because it makes me more tolerable in the world, and makes the world friendly. In recent years, doing this in the morning has reformatted my consciousness in one clear way: it causes me to perceive experience with wonderment and respect. Wonderment for even the terrible parts of reality. Respect for anything, everything, that has the audacity to exist.

I suspect the wonderment is just my emotional body’s trick for opening the inside of my head. It’s like there’s a pathway along the top end of the spine before it knobs on to the skull, and the attic doors are getting blown off the way they do when you lift your gaze to the sky (or just to some cathedral ceiling). The soft palate domes up like a hidden room, and when I remember that the empty space is awesome, I stop needing anything. When there is a lot of work to do in the world, then I don’t hang out as much in this head-space. But for now, I feel it’s important to spend as much time there as possible and let it have its way with me.

Three new thoughts tonight, as January ends. On my relationships with identity, mind, and time.

First, it feels healthy to drop out of the teaching role. To bracket as many identities as possible, and give the inner machinery of selfing a rest. I may teach for decades ahead, and retreat time sustains that on every level. Having a self can drain a lot of energy if I’m too serious about it. This down time will show me things, and replenish my creativity.

Second, more than ever I see the arbitrary nature of my mind. I came in with particular habits of mind the same way I got a particular size of shoe. And personalities are all so different – the hidden programming, the dream lives, the random things we THINK we must do to be okay. A long time ago I got the tools to investigate the mind, but there is also just a need to nourish it. Meet its needs for silence and a little structure, for relationship and creation. Care for it like one cares for the body. Clear the doors of perception at times, and learn that the majority of thinking and dreaming is epiphenomenal of eating and sleeping. Train the mind to a very high level… and know that one day it will also decay.

Last, a new question has come to the fore and I don’t think it’s going away. Because it points to our zeitgeist, and a set of invisible obstacles between modern life and yoga. The question is how do we as a species experience the relationship of time and technology? Specifically: how are we as a species trying to become immortal through the internet, and how might our compulsions in this space limit our ability to train the mind? My brother has been asking about the internet, time, and primal energy for ten years, but it’s taken me until now to get clear on it. What is our relationship of time and technology, and how can we make this ultra conscious in the service of sincere practice? Maybe it is coming time for me to dish about falling victim to a brief and dehumanizing internet addiction ten years ago, before social media was even a thing.

……………………….

So in Ashtanga for now I am stalking the mind. Mapping the hold-outs of self in the body. What they call strong determination is involved. There is a time for these things.

Asanas just shed light within the system. That’s why it doesn’t matter what practice looks like, how flexible it is, or if I fall down. No extremes of strength or flexibility will zero the ego. Just the opposite, if we are not careful. It’s just research, conditioning, and insight into what the mind does under pressure.

But then… for the last two weeks and the next four, the evenings are something else. I’m beginning to practice cranial-sacral therapy on my own. Making space for consciousness to play inside and around the body. After two years of training I have no idea how this brilliant method even begins to work. It is too vast. Which is fine, because the central tenant of the therapeutic technique is Don’t DO Anything. My cranial teacher says “come into relationship with the system,” and then back up. Let the recipient’s system decide where to go in the field of consciousness, and what tensions, or force vectors, or old ideas it may want to release. The ground of the cranial-sacral method is mystic osteopathy. It is an entry point in the mysteries of the cerebro-spinal fluid, the empty space within the body, and the evolution of consciousness. The effectiveness of it got me interested, but the intrigue draws me in.

At 4:30 each night there is a knock on my door, and it’s always someone sensitive and funny and good – one of the hundred people here I can connect with in a moment. Mysore is brilliant for this: for long time friends who help me make sense of my life. Our nervous systems have been conditioned in the same energy for so long, and we’ve faced ourselves over years in ways it wouldn’t make sense to explain in words. We are loaners, but when we are here we get to remember there are others just the same. There is such recognition and enjoyment in these relationships.

So every night at golden hour, I come into relationship with one of these nervous systems. We take an hour of silent practice, me just sitting there sensing the cerebrospinal rhythm in my hands while they tour any number of rarified states of consciousness. The neighborhood kids play soccer in the street, and the light in the room goes from deep yellow to dark as we move into kapha time. Later I light a candle and bring water, and maybe my friend feels like telling me where they have been.

Each one of these encounters educates my own nervous system like nothing else. These people have incredibly refined and integrated mindbodies. It is joy to go along with them when it is time to play.

The Female Body • 26 November 2015

Tara Hands Feet

November’s liminal.This is when it feels ok to tell stories that say too much or make too little sense. So I’ll set aside any lingering manifestoes – on alienated labor, vetting teachers, and so on.

Thursday nights I sit in infrared light for an hour and stare at my hands. It’s the only time I really sweat, alone there in the sauna. This ritual is locked in to my schedule, to process the teaching week psycho-emotionally; to clear it out; and to notice the effects the teaching is having on my heart-mind. This habit, noticing the effects week by week, makes me idiotically grateful for the work itself. Which, in turn, takes the edge off the physical effort.

The whole thing is a long slow education in cause and effect.

What’s worth mentioning is that my hands are different every week. The big lines – the ones said to telegraph your future – move slightly every time I check in. They cut deeper into the palms, but also shift laterally, like a river changing course over centuries. On a physical level, the samskaras are not set. And on a metaphorical level, it’s like future and past are being rewritten as the hands get used. Each drop-back, each marichyasana, each mangala mantra, each embrace. Who was I and who will I be?

Palms up in the infrared light, a recurring dream superimposes on my imagination: it’s the feeling that there are eyes in the palms of the hands. At first this dream-image showed up randomly, but now I choose it, deliberately, day by day. Upon waking, I open the palm-eyes open first, rising out of REM sleep 10 minutes before the early-early-early alarm (the Sleep Cycle data confirm this timing). As the hand eyes open, they reel in my consciousness, converting the image-based awareness of dreams into feelings in the physical body. When I can move, I press the palms on my physical eyes and use the squishy blue-white light this creates as a gentle precursor for the brutal bathroom domelight that will drive awareness fully in to three dimensions the second I flip the switch.

This is how consciousness somatizes. Stuff starts at the subtle level and moves into the physical. Form begins as possibility and pattern. But maybe that’s just me. Watch closely. I submit that something (everything) starts from nothing, and returns to nothing. And that the yoga is only here to make these gestures lucid.

The feeling of having eyes in the palms of my hands… it started in Bylakuppe in February 2012. But really it started the November before, when my cranial therapist said: “The men in orange are watching you all the time you are in India.” Cranial-sacral people do extremely technical work with surgeon-like awareness, but awareness this subtle slides all too easily into mystic territory. It’s mystical-technical. Based on experience, I’m not sure brain surgery is much different.

Back to the men in orange. My therapist, she receives mail from a very specific zipcode on the astral plane. That’s emphatically not what brings me to her. I visit for a technical reason: she’s the only one who knows the combination to the lock at my third cervical vertebra. That joint has not been the same since a car threw me onto a Los Angeles street in 2002 and I woke up from a concussion with my chin embedded in pavement and jawbone shoved into my ears. But, when my therapist lines up the tumblers, the tension accumulated there goes pssssshhhhhhhh….. My head empties out. We decompress it twice a year, usually the same week I remember to have the snow tires switched on or off our Civic. Maintenance.

The messages from my cranial therapist’s guides are personal, extremely detailed, and describe my past-future. I’m not interested. If there are astral beings trying to get traction in the earthly world, that’s pretty pathetic of them. If you were a disembodied consciousness obsessed with the human realm, wouldn’t you just wish you had a life? (Or a death, perhaps.) Insight paths from Patanjali to mystic Christianity are coded with the warning to avoid the Scylla of special powers and the Charybdis of secret information. My cranial teacher – a different and senior therapist, who is actually training me in that art over the course of four years – insinuates the same thing about the cranial work. The therapeutic practice is to go beyond the chaos of the thinking realms, into a kind of creative stillness. You just cradle the head of another as your nervous systems naturally combine, into an organic self-healing intelligence. For the therapist, it’s surgical meditation practice….

How to approach

Healing isn’t hocus-pocus, and it isn’t the gift of anOther. It’s a creative event that comes out of nowhere. The cranial therapy subculture speaks of a literal “stillpoint” in the spine. It’s the same as the yoga. The practice is extremely potent, insofar as you don’t make a thing of it in words.

But. Sometimes my twice-yearly therapist is not just a spinal code-hacker; she’s oracular. The astral mail is not always junk. Three Novembers back, her messages were from “the men in orange.” They said they were old friends, and they requested a visit at home.

I asked her for more information and she said Tibet. This is about Tibet. I said that didn’t make sense. Maybe the orange men were in India? YES. They are watching? YES. Then I remembered Vajrayana monks in crimson and ochre robes at the coconut stand, smiling as they watched the scene. I asked my therapist if she knew about the Tibetan settlement in South India – Bylakuppe. NO. I explained there are always monks who visit Mysore. They come from their settlement and walk around just watching. After some more Magic 8 Ball type queries, we decide this is an awkward, astral RSVP for Bylakuppe.

I forget the men in orange and go to Mysore within a month. The flight leaves Detroit on Christmas night. A few weeks later on Sankranti, the harvest festival, my dear friend T puts me on the back of her motorbike and we go to Laksmipuram to see the chalk rangoli painted in the streets. It’s her 11th winter in India and she knows the alleys around the old shala… like the palm of her hand. Cows painted beet purple and turmeric orange, their horns dribbled in liquid gold. We slow to put-put speed down an alley full of children. For balance I touch my right sandal on the front stoop of a home, and as we pass and a young woman crosses over the threshold into the sun. The flash of light in her green sari sparks a body- memory of a quetzal swooping down from a Guatemalan forest canopy in 1996. Boom – I’m on the back of the bike again, free-associating on the woman’s sari and some mythic bird, and then we lock eyes, and then she says my name. He eyes are warm brown and I’ve never seen her face anywhere. The moment is so saturated in chaotic sensory fantasies that I assume her speech to be an auditory hallucination – it is my own mind saying my name to wake me up to perfection of that one exact moment.

Then T turns her head over her right shoulder and informs me that the woman in the street has just called my name. “How does she know you???”

“She doesn’t. We’ve never met.”

The following days we rationalize the ways the iridescent woman could know my name. Occam’s razor does not provide. The season goes on; I’m sitting in meditation for hours every afternoon. The next full moon I think of the men in orange and invite a Buddhist friend to go see visit the settlement.

He oversleeps, so I go alone. The car stops in front of the giant gate. I look waaaay up at it, don’t like it, and walk away toward the smell of steamed dumplings and the neighborhoods surrounding the temple complex. I wander until I find the wall that divides the temple land from the rest. The top half of the wall is all prayer wheels: silver cylinders spooled upright on a thousand axles around the edge of the land. You can walk the outer perimeter past wheel after wheel, setting each one to spin until the whole settlement has been nudged into the vortex of their updraft. Each cylinder is stamped in Tibetan script, and I have no idea what words I’m sending up to the sky as I run my right palm across each one and start up the cyclones.

Prayer wheels

I circumnavigate the temple complex and see only cats. Curiosity builds. Then the surrounding neighborhoods drop away and it’s just an open field of scrub trees and prayer flags, and the line of silver prayer wheels laid out before me like a super shiny version of the brushes in a car wash. There’s a boy in an ochre robe up in a sycamore tree. Prayer flags connect the tree to the back wall of the settlement. The kid is the first monk (mini-monk?) I’ve seen this trip. He’s maybe eight and seems content to hang in the branches.

Then I’ve passed the boy, rounding the back edge of the settlement and preparing emotionally to step in through the back gate. That’s when he calls my name. I freeze, then turn back to him cautiously. His face is open, looking at mine from a distance. We can’t see each other’s eyes. Everything has stopped, then my spine shudders and I jump across the threshold into the complex. Off to the right about 1000 yards distant, a dozen more kids in robes are playing cricket.

I’m right at the entrance to the main temple with its three giant gold Buddhas. The complex is set up so this is the climax of your journey. I sit on the floor for a long time, stoned on the vibrations in the space. It’s not subtle; every tourist who comes through gets their pupils dilated and their speech slowed as the energy in their lower body is pulled to the crown of the head. It feels nice, but I’m not reverential. A functioning religion should know how to work this stuff. Before I go spiral-eyed, I slip back through the complex towards the entrance. There are many lesser temples along the way, the last and smallest of which is in a corner by the entrance with one of its doors chained shut. Tara’s temple.

That’s where I get smacked between the eyes. And it’s not some sort of Ouija board woo-woo thing, no head spinning or eye rolling, but rather an experience of overwhelming worldly beauty. I’m hyper-auditory and rarely moved by the sort of beauty that can be visually BEHELD. But Tara’s sanctum does it. First, the ceilings are my favorite Lisa Frank teal, the fixtures a heavy black metal that would make Rudolf Schindler proud. Then there’s a Japanese family of four laughing in delight as they regard the figure they already know as Kanon, goddess of compassion (a student back home has educated me about the cross-cultural Buddhist goddess, giving his own daughter her name). The parents invite me make funny faces with the little girl. And then I just stand there and stare at the hands of the goddess on the side wall. That’s my destination, the central experience I’ve been spiraling in to for months. Just this painting of a face from another culture, a body whose spine is pure movement, a woman who has eyes in her feet and her hands.

I leave with new eyes. Something about this experience makes me more interested in the cranial work. Not the psychic aspect of it, but the physically perceptive part – the fact that therapists do have eyes in the palms of their hands. Who else can actually feel the circulation of fluid in the spine, and the rare moments when that process stops?

In my teaching practice I value clarity. Nix the mysticism. Communicate with students in the language of their own experience. Remove my own obstactles to clear perception. But sometimes I feel the clarification process depends on the slow opening of the eyes in the hands. Three years later, the hands understand that they do not always DO things. Their primary function is to perceive with as much clarity as possible. I like to imagine the lines in my palms, and in my self-concept, are shifting because they are getting out of the way.

……………………………..

Moon day alone in a boat house on Lake Washington. I sleep until 9 Michigan time, and still catch sunrise over the water. Meditate on the dock until ducks come to investigate; open my eyes again to Mount Rainier shining. For now a little writing, and then an afternoon of walking many familiar miles on Capitol Hill. My body remembers when this place was home.

My brother lives here a little bit. (Two nights a week, nine months a year. We’ve had the talk about too much travel.) He is our father’s son: we grew up scrappy, eating from the garden and wearing garage sale clothes, unaware of the ways middle class people are supposed to spend and accumulate. So here he is, an artist not really starving, crashing in a plywood tinyhouse built for summer dock parties. This place is pure luxury; OR it a super-rich food desert where you pack your gear in miles from the bus stop and down 10 flights of stairs in the dark. Depends. I fantasize a retreat here for not just a day but a month: doors with no locks but impossible to find, out of wifi range, forest-quiet except for the sea planes….

Ginko

The Editor and I moved to Seattle in 2000. We had a year before grad school, and picked a place we could love easy and fast, that wasn’t too close to home in Montana. We’d lived in Managua the previous year; that’s a sadder story. Here, I fell in love with the city in the rain while the dot com economy collapsed. Seattle University hired me to assist their non-profit leadership program, but really I was here for Indymedia, the guerrilla journalism cabal that had shut down the WTO conference the year before.

The internet was young. Amazon occupied what used to be an art deco mental hospital on the hill below SU campus. First item on my internet wish list: Myth in the Making of U.S. Policy Toward Latin America, by Eldon Kenworthy. Fifteen years later it’s buried under titles on probability, Advaita and cranial-sacral therapy. In 2000 the list had some story tellers – Lydia Davis and Jorge Luis Borges -though when grad school began the next year I ceremoniously stopped reading fiction. One of the last stories I read was the public library’s first copy Don DeLillo’s The Body Artist – I spent a summer Saturday alone at Alki beach in West Seattle and finished it there.

The book bothered me a lot. NOTHING HAPPENS. A woman hides away in a wooden house on a cold Pacific Northwest beach. Her art is opening her body, alone in the house. She eats cereal for about ten pages, in excruciating detail – this before “mindfulness” was a thing. A small boy manifests, some sort of projection coming out of her bodymind through the process of self-spelunking. Alone without input, her consciousness still generates content: she bends her body in the back room and re-captures her projections. Less and less happens. The book calls this woman “the body artist,” but at the time I thought: this lady is not an artist at all. She exists only for herself.

I hated the book, resenting it would be my last story before going under the analytical knife of UCLA. I told my book friends that a great writer had forgotten how to create. He’d gone from the psyodrama of JFK’s paranoiac assassin (brilliant Libra, where “there is a world inside the world”), to the heaving epic that opened the century (Underworld, which people may now call literature)… to this non-narrative dream of a woman alone in a room.

At 23, I didn’t get it. I didn’t see the birth of the body artist, the hyperconscious mature female body, as the successor to lesser, louder dramas.

P.S. Insideout.

Notes to a young teacher • 27 October 2015

High Tide

There’s this big idea now about how being a yoga teacher is brutal. How the only way to make it is to play the game the way you find it. Let your labor be exploited. Read the feeds and feed the feeds. Even though they don’t feed you back. Create constant content. Market aggressively and build a fandom. Do not challenge the status quo or address the more serious forms of human suffering. Focus on the asana and forget the outright revolutionary nature of this practice.

Does anyone feel like this story of the yoga profession steals your strength?

People ask how our shala got rooted, from nothing to something in five years, playing by different rules. It’s hard to know where to start. The story inside me doesn’t translate well into the yoga marketing language of love, light and likes. It’s a story about trust.

To open up the headspace I was in when we started, I went back to my journals from 2010-11. That person was at the beginning of her yoga teaching life. She had a lot of creative energy and a need to honor what she had been given. But she had never built anything. So she had a lot to learn.

I’m offering this out in case my past thought process might give strength in a time when there is some feeling of entrapment by the market. This is not advice. It’s just an effort to open up to friends and strangers who love the practice and who truly are ready to teach.

Now before printing the old fire-breathing journals I’m going to say a lot of words, to wear down those who will get bored and go watch Periscope instead.

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About the 2010-self who is addressed and expressed below.

I made first contact with this practice in Seattle in 2000. Made a decision to practice in a devotional manner after a near-fatal car accident in Los Angeles in 2002. Noticed in early 2003 that it had become a pretty much daily practice, and was fortunate to practice with senior teachers daily without a break for the next 7 years.

In 2006 or 7, I began learning to assist in Mysore rooms; this was the beginning of a devoted yet informal teaching mentorship that continues today with annual visits my teaching mentor makes to our shala in Michigan. On the winter solstice of 2009 I arrived here from LA, terrified that I would not be able to sustain the practice alone. How odd. With all that teacher support behind me, the reality of self-practice was no problem. Still I was heart-broken for Los Angeles; I have experienced some actually hard things in life, but for some reason nothing has hit me harder than merely leaving LA. I really chose to suffer over it.

The year 2010 was confusing. I spent its first three months in Mysore yet told myself, and told Sharath, that I was on track to be a professor. I would not be a yoga teacher. “I’m not ready for this.” Too much. Stay away. (I held a belief that helping professions were for suckers, forged through watching my parents work in mental health counseling and pastoral care.)

Yet that spring back in Michigan I started teaching free private lessons and some group classes, while also keeping a foot in academia. Money was both scarce and not a source of concern, as it always has been for me – I’ve been working since age 15 and financially independent since age 18. I taught yoga for free (1) because I was lonely for RL community, (2) because I wanted to feel useful, and (3) out of an unconscious wish that my town would become a place full of people who thought serious practice was normal. A crucial opening that spring was that I stopped believing my mom and dad were suckers for doing service work. This freed me to go to a new depth in my emotional body, through both contemplative practice and family therapy. I don’t know how else to say this: I came to a place of surrender into a psychic support structure of family, friends, and mentors. A lot of inner tension was released, clarifying my mind in some ways and enabling me to trust my guides.

Back in Mysore the next year on Valentine’s Day, Sharath blessed me to teach, this time leaving no chance to back out. Authorization felt like getting drafted into service. Somehow within two months, I had walked away from academia – away from the only adult identity and social safety net I’d ever known. In April, I turned in my office keys to the U of M Sociology Department, lost my library privs and journal access, and migrated from the world of .edu to the world of gmail. Ironically, by Summer I’d been invited back to the other side of campus, as adjunct faculty of Dance, a discipline I knew nothing about. (Turns out, from University of Chicago to Loyola Marymount, it is Dance departments that have the best places for traditional, embodied-yet-academic yoga studies to enter the University. And now, somewhere in Michigan, there is an adjunct professor who’s not afraid to give a D+ in yoga.)

In 2011, our Mysore program here was tiny, while I had crazy amounts of creative energy that had been freed up by (1) letting go of the academic role and (2) letting go of the commitment NOT to teach yoga. The first portion of that energy went to holding space for 4-8 people in the mornings – at first I didn’t even chant the vande gurunam until 7:00 because the students considered that early! (Four years later, these same people are now on their mats well before 6.) It was much more difficult for me to transmit the energetic feeling of this practice to a small number of very new practitioners than it is now, holding space for a bunch of people who understand vinyasa and tristhana. Now tristhana reproduces itself like a good culture.

But at first, teaching was mentally exhausting. Even so my days were free and I wrote reams of reflections that year on community, on organization building, and on the teaching practice. There’s a lot of random, random stuff in those journals.

What’s below is edited down from that period. I disagree with some of this stuff now – forgive me if you feel the same – but I want to preserve that perspective as it was. Because it was enough for the foundation we needed to begin in a natural and healthy way. And because it’s a document of happy, healthy disregard for the so-called yoga market.

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Build trust person-to-person. Do not expect anyone to care about the words before your name, or the letters after it. Be transparent. Good students care about evaluating your ability to support them, not your social capital. Show them who you are: a product of long term practice and of unbroken teacher relationships. Someone who is not needy – for students, for money, for attention, for flattery. Someone who gets what you need from the practice, and from a lively human support system. Someone whose well is full.

Connect to students who have strong minds. People who will help you grow, and who will have the integrity to hold you accountable in all things. People who know the still, small, usually pain-in-the-ass voice of the true inner teacher. If those people are rare, fine. Building this house may take a while. You don’t want fans or a culty vibe around here; you want spiritual warriors.

What a baby shala needs: two people who practice every day. Maybe three. Not a lot of fair weather practitioners. Not an internet presence. If you see devotion, feed it. Make this place invisible to distracted people. The foundation isn’t really strong enough yet to withstand their vrittis. Someone with three years of daily practice is able to contribute to the foundation, so settle in and hold space until the devotional energy matures.

Value what you have. Sharath says be careful who you teach. You need determine who is teachable. Set up filters so people have to do a little work to find this hidden jewel: give them the resources of a few obstacles with which to construct their journey. Again, do not be needy. If you have one student, you’ve already got your hands full anyway. If that one student in the room gets the feeling you would rather be anywhere else, or senses you watching the door hoping for more bodies, you are not worthy to teach that one student.

– Distracted people are extremely easy to separate from their money, and extremely resistant to deep connection (with themselves, with community, with practice, with a teacher, with the present moment). Do NOT TEACH DISTRACTED PEOPLE.

– Know that privilege and power are major threats to your spiritual growth. The more power you have, the less empathy. The person at the top of an organization is one with the least feedback and the greatest ease in gaslighting others. So burn the damn pedestal. Be silly; highlight your flaws; and never miss a chance to turn that halo into a boomerang. Saints are saints because they’re dead; what’s more interesting is being good while also being human. If you insist on acting from goodness, make it a gritty sweaty human goodness. It is a disservice to wholeness to repress your personality into a test-marketed stereotype of love and light. Real people don’t speak in yoga voice.

Show your mistakes. Speak your mind plainly. Hide your charity. Clean the bathroom. Because if your spiritual growth slows, at all, you are failing on your first obligation in this life, which is to help consciousness evolve within yourself. You’re not here in this shala to be comfortable, saintly or iconic; you are here to serve and get out of the way.

Don’t make it about you – your practice, your skills, your charisma. It’s about the students. Get your asana chops off the table. If they want to verify the bonafides, they can get to the shala two hours early any day. Your practice is theirs now; you have to do it to keep the instrument sharp and you have to share it with them if they ask. But that’s it. Don’t be needy for attention. Performance adrenaline is low quality fuel.

– Motivation check: use your asanas to attract students, and what you will get is people who are motivated by asanas. Why not let them be drawn to how you treat your neighbors, the crazy items in your grocery cart, or the conversation you have with them while they’re ringing you up at the hardware store? Grow organically, from your grass roots.

– Does this place need your name on it? Would that limit its potential?

– If you are frustrated, the cause is probably entitlement. Do you think you deserve respect? Deserve to feel good? Deserve to have a shala that breaks even the first year? Deserve for people to see your work as sacred? Deserve recognition for your expertise in backflips? Deserve students who love yoga? Ha! This is incorrect. You are entitled to nothing. The belief that teachers deserve nice things causes misery because no matter how much you love him, your perfect teacher will never have the worldly enjoyment you imagine he deserves… and you won’t have that either. This is not a luxury path. If you do happen on a lot of worldly perks, the very having may become an obstacle anyway. The way to move through entitlement to actual happiness and actual service is thought by thought, grain by grain, pain by pain. Grist for the mill. Until all you have left is love, awe and gratitude.

Trust first, and you will be trusted.

– For example: don’t doubt students if they try out other teachers. If what you have to offer is not sufficient – if they don’t feel that this environment is abundant with all the learning resources they need – maybe you can do better. Or maybe it’s just some vritti they have. You work for the students; you don’t control them. Trust them to find their paths in their own personal ways. On the other hand, you can act out your own devotion by not playing the field. Be present at home, so students know that they are your priority. You don’t need to chase around teaching workshops every month. Stepping in to the teacher role makes you transparent, so if there’s somewhere else you’d rather be, everyone will know.

It’s simple. All you have to do is know who are your students, and support those people to the degree they show up for support. Don’t try to teach someone else’s students. Trying to support someone whose commitments are scattered dissipates your energy and worsens their confusion. The student with multiple teachers will not become grounded just by getting your take on things. (But you may be compromised as a result of trying to help where you should not.). Honor the student-teacher relationship by encouraging students to stay clear with their own teachers. Never insult a person’s teacher to her, unless there is an extreme circumstance of ethical violation.

– Live like a grad student. Because that is what you are. The investment you are making is in your endless learning, and in the expression of your life force. That makes teaching a kind of art.

– A mantra: you don’t know. You think you know exactly what is going on with some student on a particular day? Or that you know the causes of some situation in their body? No. No you do not know. You cannot know exactly what they are going through in their life, what is at the back of their mind, what is waiting for them at home. Yes, you see them every day and you share this tender space. And yes, you get intuitive hits from beyond your mind. But never forget that their experience is their own and only a part of it is available to you in this moment. Arrogance is thinking you know. Train humility by checking every intuitive hit against the empty space of the unknown. All you have to do here transmit what you can, and let each student work out how they will use it according to their own karma. You don’t need to know.

– Want to at least pay the rent? Do the work that cannot be commodified, that cannot be digitized. Bodies, presence, relationship, awareness, neutrality, integrity. Be too present for social media. Foster an evanescent experience that can’t be outsourced or uploaded. Give everything you’ve got to the fullness of this direct experience, along with everyone who enters here. Internet asana teachers pose a real threat to this profession because they have the following advantages: they can be paused, and muted, and edited, and they’re cheap. Everything you really have to offer over a yoga robot is in your radical, receptive, full-bodied presence.

– Also, you have the slapstick humor that comes with having a body. Real-time asana awkwardness is an added value no camera can capture. Because of the energy of this practice, your students will accidentally become the coolest and most magnetic people in town. It’s a danger, and is only amplified by meta-messaging that this practice is hyper-athletic and gives you a beautiful body. Stop showing off your barely shredded vegetarian serratus (guilty). Hold a space where they can become vulnerable, feel like a nobody, and not need to perform. Otherwise with a practice this powerful we’ll all just be jacking up our egoes.

– Capitalism says “if you build it they will come.” This connotes a line of credit, a lease, lots of spiritual materials, retail, a front desk. Don’t think like that. The way of service is this: if they come, you build it. Create only as much institutional structure as is absolutely necessary to support daily practice. Does this operation really need much more than a sage stogie and a sign-in sheet?

– Leaning on referent power is a road to cult mentality. Honor the teachers and the tradition, and cultivate your own trust-worthiness above all else. Again, trust first and you will be trusted. If you have accepted someone as a student, believe that she has integrity. See the truthfulness in her. Know that she has the ability to do what she says she will do. Confirm she accepts the rules, then leave the cash bag on the counter and walk away.

– Respect everyone. People might be cheezed out by the language of love, so you can show love in the form of respect. If you get the pointed learning opportunity of a disrespectful person, see behind her attitude to the wiley street smarts, or intelligent fear, or disappointment that you actually can respect in her.

– Never fake emotions to influence others, and never say anything you don’t believe. Inauthenticity breeds more of the same. Over the long term, you can earn students’ trust as they come to understand that you recognize your own inner states as quiet passing experiences, and that you are not afraid of them.

– Students who love you will want to police for you, and to argue that you’re right about stuff. Just like you want to do for your teacher. Don’t let them waste energy on you; they have better things to do.

– No drop ins. No yoga tourism. Feed the focus.

Give your energy to those who give energy to their practice. Attendance is required, just as it is in Mysore. Dismissing a student who does not do what he says he’s going to do shows him respect, and builds the trust-foundation of the shala. Be good on your word even when it pains you. Your students love it when you have the courage to hold the boundaries you have set. Correct dismissals build esprit de corps.

– Economics taught you to think like an alpha male: spread your seed widely and see where it takes. Now balance this with feminine logic of healthy boundaries and a good filter. Once you decide to invest in someone, stay neutral when shit gets real. If their stuff comes up, it means they’re doing it right.

– When you value the transmission you have, others will value it also. It insults this priceless practice to be needy. If you teach for money/sex/power/attention, students will sense your grasping. They will know that your practice and your teacher are not enough for you. Let the practice and its truth and beauty be sufficient.

– “The empty pot makes the most noise.” Guruji said that.

You are not responsible for keeping up with social media. On the contrary. You’re responsible for cultivating stability of mind. Let the people in your life understand you rarely see the feeds, so you won’t feel obligated to “keep up on the news.”

– Ignore internet asana teaching for the same reason the most original writers don’t read contemporary books. Other teachers are probably saying good things. But consuming a bunch of random instruction will inhibit the development of your own voice. You have practiced a long time to understand the technique. To contribute to growth of this method, draw from that experience instead of mimicking others. Teach from what you have been taught directly, and from your direct experience.

– Love and respect your colleagues. Cultivate love of your peers so you can savor it like you do your love for teachers and family and friends. If you disagree with the way they are teaching, why were you even paying attention to that? Pay attention to what you have in common with brothers and sisters in the practice. There are not many people out there who understand what it is to do this practice daily, alone, at 4am before a few hours of teaching and touching others. Anyone who shares that intensity of dedication, and that rarity of experience, is a comrade as long as they aren’t massively unethical. Thank god for them and for the field of expertise and devotion they are creating around the world. We are in this together.

Study your teacher. Construct a living thought form out of what you see, and place it on your shoulder. Let that avatar whisper in your ear. Now that you’re a mature practitioner, don’t expect to be hand-fed as a student. Be glad if you are not treated as special.

Filter out immature and misinformed interpretations of practice. It’ll all be fine. If there is some nonsense your students should ignore, the way to facilitate that is to have the sort of consciousness that ignores the nonsense. More important is to filter in good examples. Empathetic senior teachers with strong transmission and flexibility of mind for many decades. I’m thinking Dominic Corigliano, Peter Sanson, Joanne Darby, Hamish Hendry, Nancy Gilgoff. Because look at that. Great people precede us. When I think of these people, my mind comes to attention and wants to contribute to our generation of this practice as well as I am able.

The energetics of a space matter in a way aesthetics do not. Invest your time in clearing and cultivating the shala’s energy, not so much in buying statues.

You have so much freedom to offer this practice with reverence, integrity and actual joy. If you are really ready for this role, you don’t have to buy in to any of the social structures or beliefs-about-teaching that others find limiting. Just do the work that’s useful to the students, and that you truly are called to do.

– Read from the wisdom traditions every night before you sleep. Let it filter into your consciousness on all levels. Daily spiritual nourishment is required to do this work.

Place your attention correctly. Watch your thoughts closely. Be truthful. Cultivate a sattvic inner atmosphere. See yourself in everyone, and everyone in yourself.

SAFE SPACE • 24 August 2015

Safe space is not really a place. Getting the right pictures and statues in the room won’t help. It’s more like space happens in time, as a result of conscious action. In yoga, safe space arises as a meeting of the consciousness of a teacher, the consciousness of a student, and the consciousness of an organization. Three supports.

It’s rare. And it is needed for a subversive reason – not to ensure we never feel uncomfortable, but to empower us to go to places of intense internal discomfort without external distraction. This post focuses just on the consciousness of organizations, the third support, because it’s part of a series on the business of yoga. And because this is the foundational safe space that organizations, even cultures, can generate.

The other two sources are individual. The student aspect – the ways we contact safety within ourselves – is primary. Wherever you go, there’s usually a loner with sick technique who shows up first to practice and is out like a ghost, who loves everyone and has no taste for drama. This is the lucky Jedi, who knows nothing but safe space. The only reason she bothers to leave the house is to contribute her energy and goodwill to whatever community she can find, and to use the environment’s challenges to hone her own mastery.

As for the teacher aspect, so far I’m learning two skills: (1) being a trustworthy source/storehouse of information and (2) holding space. Put those together, and teaching is not helping people do backbends or drill into their one-pointed awareness: teaching is generating safe space. Lesson number one upon starting apprenticeship 8 years ago was waking up to the relationship of trauma and privilege: it is the the charmed who have not been somehow harmed. I expect lifetimes more learning in trustworthiness and holding space.

Back to organizations. First, here is a disposable spectrum to organize ideas (disposable because only true for a moment). There are yoga schools; and there are yoga stores. I’ll come back to this at the end.

In safe space, nobody makes your experience an object of conversation, speculation, or promotion. Photos of your practice don’t show up online, and you aren’t asked to buy things/experiences tangential to your learning. If you’re going through something, the organism can hold that – because it understands your process is your own. It doesn’t even make sense to discuss/analyze the intimate hivemind time outside of that context.

In this setting, the feeling of mutual respect predominates, and the practice is treated as sacred. The fact that you habitually check your ego and go there – to the vulnerable nonperformative delicate interior – earns you respect. You are one of the humans who is going to take self-understanding and healing to a high level in this life, and the space comes alive to support this. Evolution is thrilling. The crumbs of commercialism are no temptation when evolution is humming.

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In safe space, you will not be attacked with unsolicited advice. Trust is mutual; and it’s built over time. New information, or postures, or feedback, is given as an expression of this mutual trust. Teachers are responsible for the long-term effects of what they offer. They get that teaching creates karma, and that is best avoided unless they HAVE to play the teaching role because the student has asked. So, there is a culture of consent.

Lesson number two in my apprenticeship training: only the amateur covers a drop-in student in touch and instruction. (In Mysore, RSJ is so clear about this: he does not “try to impress” people he’s just met with adjustments or new instructions.) If you drop in to a safe space, your nervous system doesn’t have to stand vigil. Rather, your organism decides how and when to wire up with the larger group. Meantime the teacher does not dilute her instructions by giving them out at random.

The old tenet here is that “two teachers will kill one student.” So you have an established practice, and a teacher you have chosen. Nobody tries to “kill” you with new instruction or (worse) changes to your practice.

Different teachers (especially the very developed teachers) have VASTLY different interpretations of practice. Trying to integrate conflicting instructions within one’s own body leads to confusion and injury. This confusion is a major source of harm in our time. Not so much because the individual sources, whatever they may be, are wrong. Because mindbodies need clarity, and consistency, and trust in order to self-organize. We grow according to predictable rhythms.

Interpretations of practice are grounded in distinct states of consciousness, and stages of consciousness. It’s good that this diversity exists. For example, one interpretation will begin with physical alignment, teaching the mind to see the body as if from the outside, cycling through checklists of what muscular actions to perform. By contrast, other approaches prioritize breath awareness on the level of the emotional body, or closing loops within the nervous system, or the development of extremely clear interior perception, or high precision linking of breath and movement. Practitioners trying to do a bunch of practices at once will not rest in any of the mental states being trained, and may show the same tendency to shuttle between teachers as between thoughts. Lots of noise, little signal. The practitioner is starving on tons of food he can’t digest.

“Two teachers will kill one student” isn’t a comment on pair-bonding (at least not anymore). It’s about focus. Safe space holds together because of a continuity of transmission, no matter who is in the teacher role. The organization does not give random teachers access to the group. What I’ve seen is that the proprietor holds space; or he entrusts the teaching to someone in his line of study who has a blessing to continue the work; or the group practices without a teacher. Maybe that’s all parampara is: continuing the work.

The people who end up in the teacher role can hold up the work because they’re accountable to others. They fully disclose their training and the limits of their knowledge. They don’t think they know your future path; they are learning with you. They do not use charisma to control, and they do not allow people to treat them as the only one who knows things. Safe space is empowering like that.

I really like global community, so have a hobby of dropping in to studios everywhere. My practice is that if I’m choosing to visit another’s room, it can only be in the spirit of gratitude and love of community. Provided I’m not harmed (which has never occurred), if I have any distraction or internal commentary on the experience, then the practice is to notice and neutralize any ego charge in those vrittis. What works, personally, is to pack a breathable golden bubble along with my mat, and not to open on a subtle level unless I’m with my teacher. In the first five years of this, I learned something important about filtering my awareness and taking responsibility for my own distractions, and in the meantime forged loving friendships around the world. (I may have had more ability to generate safety from within a bubble then; now I feel entirely permeable, more apt to benefit from the unique safety of brahma muhurta.)

Anyway, circa 2005 one day when the conditions were right, safe space happened for me on Broome Street. I still had not met a teacher I fully bonded with, but finally I was able to detect and enjoy a safe space. For the first five years of practice, I did not know it existed. I say this because it seems safe space is extremely rare, and it seems authentic practice can get going without it. May Broome Street’s work be continued.

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In safe space, you will never be a leader’s love interest or sexual quarry. So you don’t have to shield against that, or to move your body as if under the sexy gaze. Meantime, teachers don’t want you to think they’re hot. They’ve decoupled their ego needs from the sensation of being beautiful to others.

Again, safe space is rare. I wish it could be discussed without bringing up the birds and the bees, but that wish comes from my own cowardice and for a minute I’ll set it aside.

The idea that I need the perfect mate to mirror me back to myself, to be whole: this is narcissism. Maybe we start practice with this belief; it’s just an accepted thought form in the culture. And, with a certain orientation to yoga (i.e. an ethical, intensely self-aware orientation) we can get over it. Teachers who are not over might be able to keep their sexual energy clean most of the time, but there is still a background scanning for the practitioner who has just the right stuff – right energy, right body, right star chart – to be a consort. It’s palpable.

There truly are people – a lot of people – who have done the work to clean up their sexual boundaries, even as the intensity of their subtle energy increases. I see a few wonderful, healthy role models out there. And I’ve learned from one strong woman and two alpha males who get it. Clean energy can be cultivated through mentoring, when there is the possibility of directness and no compromises.

For people who wish there was more safe space: I promise, this work is happening authentically around the world, in a way that is not obvious in internet yoga, and in a way that builds foundations for future safe space.

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Back to yoga schools and yoga stores.

Here’s the thing. The political economy of safe space strongly favors the yoga school. By contrast, yoga stores in and of themselves can’t generate safe space. Capitalism’s game is to commercialize space and to create consumers. The store sees you as a number. Class size matters. Your practice may be an object, and can be used to attract new consumers. Particularly if you have a body that looks conventionally beautiful and sexy in 2D. Ultimately, the yoga store views you as a perpetual consumer – new products/experiences will be pitched at you although these things directly, relentlessly undermine your chitta vritti nirodha.

By contrast, schools see you as a student whose activity is learning and healing. The school says bring whatever awkwardness, incompleteness, confusion you’ve got. We welcome your ratty clothes, haphazard hair, and that halting morning zombie walk (no, it’s not just you). That’s exactly what belongs. Not to complicate the badass self-mastery story that helps people get out of bed for practice, but yoga schools are shrines to the awkward.

Organizations tend to maximize whatever it is they measure. Want financial profit? Keep complex money metrics. Want to maximize student numbers? Count heads. This is yoga store logic.

Because it’s unhelpful to just theorize safe space, I’ll share that I run a yoga school, and take care not to let my ego default to the surrounding capitalist logic. Okay, my mentality is a product of my dedication and devotion and my prayers of thanks and highest possible intention; but also, my mentality is just a product of my metrics. So our daily sign-in sheet has a studiously unknown number of lines, and if they fill up people just write their names in the margins. I give them a sign-in so they can note their presence to themselves, but for me, counting heads feels like counting postures. And I do not believe that the quality of this organization’s work is expressed in quantities.

Instead, one metric for this organization is how many days I actually see and get to work with the students in my care. I ask specifically how well this school is doing by them over time – if practitioners report, or I see evidence, that yoga is improving their lives. I account for how equally I distribute my attention across the student body, running my mind over each individual member of the school and systematically wish them well day by day.

When I am done with this daily accounting, I count blessings. On days my mind despises the idea of blessings, still they get counted. It’s just organizational bookkeeping. Counting heads and money might feel safer. Marketing might seem to give us an ace in the hole. Oh well.

Organizations – stores, schools, whatever – have a kind of momentum. For a store, the imperative is to increase profit. Quarter by quarter, year by year, there is a drive to make more money now than before. I didn’t understand until I took Econ that capitalism does not abide a flatline. But schools have their own drives – they’re not docile entities. Learning must increase. If one is not deepening their understanding, then for better or for worse, this is kind of a problem. “You should always be growing in your practice,” RSJ tells the ashtangis in conference. This is something I’ve learned to be very careful with, because when my mind is curious and hungry, it isn’t necessarily perceptive. Growth can be invisible. The school may be doing its job well not only when there is dramatic change, but when students hold steady, or when they integrate practice into a life that is subject to the forces of chaos.

To the degree that safe space may arise here, in this school, the organization itself is not a direct source of chaos in practitioners’ lives. But when the time is right, safe space can be the place to touch in with that which is chaotic in consciousness – that which is so scary, hard, ugly or just awkward that the ego will not go there without respect, privacy and safety.

Safe space isn’t spa yoga, and it won’t channel the mutual appreciation society to shield us from feeling weird about being exactly who we are. There is this thing in yoga about taking action in the face of fear. It conditions us to open, to reconcile apparent opposites, to see and step away from harmful motives. I don’t know… maybe perfect, limitless love arrives on a flash of light and lasts forever. All grace, no work. Do tell me if that’s the case. Meantime, safe play and practice in territory the ego deems dangerous is one long slow boat to Love.

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P.S. Insideowl sends a short newsletter, insideout, 12 times per year.

P.P.S. As for the last post, the image is from emprints and used by the artist’s permission.

The Yoga Bio • 1 May 2015

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This post is the first in a series on the yoga industry. The topics here are inspired by questions from practitioners who have learned yoga as a strictly person-to-person oral transmission in a grassroots setting (the shala where I teach) and only later encounter the modern asana climate beyond our shala. The ideas are further shaped by 3 years in the non-profit world, 6 years of waiting tables, and by 7 years of graduate study in historical and economic sociology at UCLA. My graduate mentors were the late Peter Kollock and by other professors who would not prefer to be cited on a yoga blog. More questions for this series are welcome.

There is a script for the self who teaches yoga. Your industry bio requires the following elements.

(1) A description of how you found yoga, or how yoga found you.

(2) The symbols printed on your receipt (RYT- 200, 500, etc.)

(3) A list of people whose workshops you have taken (“studied with.”)

(4) Some unique adjectives for the flavor of your class.

(5) A quirky-wise-individualistic sentence on what yoga means to you.

Capitalism is smart. This is an example. In the space of a text box in the MINDBODY Online ™ software, you (the yoga teacher) and yoga have been cast as commodities. The text box bio denotes the class for sale, and also represents a success story in the consumption of the larger-sized yoga units (workshops and trainings) that one can also buy from the studio. The teacher’s work has been characterized as a kind of hobby (exactly the kind of work that should be part time and contingent), and his consumption of TTs and workshop has been legitimated as the mode of expertise-accumulation for teachers.

One of the commodities generated by this definition of the yoga teacher is relatively cheap (the teacher’s labor). And one is not (the good/service called yoga, available in 90-minute, weekend-long, and 200-hour sized packages). As long as teachers agree to these definitions of the situation, the loop of yoga production and consumption will spin without resistance.

So, what’s the problem? No problem.

First, teaching asana classes for one’s community is a good hobby. A person who does it for 3 hours per week does well to take weekend workshops to sharpen up her alignment skills and place the practice of asana in historical context. If she is using asana teaching an outlet for service, then there is no reason to approach the work with a professional mindset or to put a ton of energy into examining the relationship between capital-Y-Yoga and group classes on posture. The hobbyist resume is a good model in this case.

Second, the yoga bio is just commodification doing what commodification does. It’s natural. Turning experience into things that can then be traded for money is capitalism’s job, and if you go with the flow consciously sometimes you can direct this process to the greater good. Commodification isn’t bad. It is not art; it does not (cannot) treat learning as an end in itself; it does not support the notion of pricelessness. Still, commodification just happens. It can be a value neutral process. Studios that commodify yoga and teachers’ labor are actually not evil. They are effectively speaking the common tongue.

BUT. Well, two big things.

If you are still reading, probably you have far different standards than a profit-driven studio for (1) what constitutes a yoga teacher, and for (2) what is yoga. So it’s appropriate to use different language entirely to describe the work and the subject matter.

It may even be possible to use language as a tool to resist the alienation process that commodification promotes – a process in which workers become detached from the deep value of their work, or the work itself gets detached from the essential creative energy it once contained. (On which: look up “sensuous human activity.” Work that expresses the life force is in essence erotic. Marx said that, not me.)

This post magnifies the yoga bio as a tiny common moment of yoga commodification, so that devotional practitioners might see different options. They might change the symbolic terms of engagement. Why bother? Because: does the yoga studio logic make sense for devotional, lineage-based practice? Is yoga about uncritically reproducing mass culture? Is yoga socially transformative? Is yoga punk rock? Is teaching an art? Are relationships a service rendered for a fee, or something outside of the market? Let’s talk options.

Item 1 (how you found yoga) above puts yoga in the category of “after work hobby.” Contingent, part-time, contractual workers have hobbies. Not professionals. People who have a day job find their hobbies by happy accident. QED.

Item 2 (reference to a TT for legitimacy) eclipses merit-based selection of teachers, and merit-based blessings to teach. Receiving a call, and receiving a blessing, based on merit, is essential to parampara. An RYT designation, by contrast, indicates a service that was paid for, and that anyone else can purchase too. That’s capitalism. Money is its own standard.

Item 3 (workshop list) defines student-teacher relationship as short term and non-exclusive.

With many teachers come many lines of action. And no necessary follow-up from either party. There is not a shared project between teacher and student. By contrast, the long-term, semi-exclusive relationships of devotional practitioners are characterized by mutual accountability.

Item 4 (description of what makes your class special) implies that yoga needs to be branded. Make it creative. Put your spin on it.

Item 5, (what yoga means to you) like item 1, is unprofessional. Does the sociologist conclude her bio with a statement on what society means to her? Or the psychologist tell you what the psyche means to him? From a professional standpoint, devotional practitioners understand that there is a difference between Yoga, and the particular personal questions we trying to resolve through practice at this time. “What yoga means to me” is transitory, because we are life-long students. That changing interpretation may condition how we pass on the methods we have been given, but it doesn’t define the student experience. Students are invited to engage with a Yoga that is bigger than the teacher.

More regarding item 3. Using workshops (rather than enduring relationships) as the mode of continuing education gives studios another thing to sell. The illusion of relationship is created (and commodified) with photos of momentary interactions. This process effectively alienates the workshop teacher from his labor, which in a devotional setting would rightly be found in the form of grounded, long-term, mutually accountable relationships. But what about workshop teachers who don’t care about such things at all, because they aren’t actually grounded in a lineage?

This is where the yoga bio gets fishy. If traveling experts give a bio in the hobbyist format, all we truly know about how well is how well he might entertain us. We don’t know if the person claiming expertise has an unbroken history of practice, or if he has passed any benchmarks with teachers or institutions that provide merit-based review and long-term accountability (and the possibility of losing one’s license). We don’t know if the traveling expert has an ability to choose good teachers of his own and nurture healthy relationships with them over decades. Most importantly, because traveling experts are from elsewhere, one doesn’t get the chance to evaluate who they really are as everyday people, or learn about them from the family and colleagues who know them best. But going to the trouble to get into the bona fides of this sort does not necessarily serve the commodification of yoga. What serves the commodification of yoga is experts who are charismatic and entertaining.

Ok. So you are not a hobbyist. Your personal daily practice comes first, and you have chains of accountability to both teachers and students. Teaching is something you have been called to do, and blessed to do. You teach because your teacher told you do to so, and because you deeply need an outlet for service. What language and class models do justice to this?

I don’t know, but where I started was by looking at how the hippies did it. Did that that first generation of western yoga teachers who studied in India think critically about capitalism? Maybe they were just genius keeping the yoga close to the ground, no matter the circumstances. Maybe their transmission was clear simple because they experienced the yoga as priceless, or because cultivating a bit of inner freedom from materialism and greed was one of the achievements of their particular zeitgeist. Whatever it was, the shalas the first generation started were no frills. Not a lot of bling in the brick and mortar, but all kinds of continuity in the habit of practice and realness in the relationships between people.

A few of this generation even pioneered the workshop model without commodifying yoga. Take a look at what Nancy Gilgoff and Peter Sanson have been doing without fanfare for 30 years. In the rare cases that they teach away from their own schools (which is where you really go if you want to absorb what it is they are living and transmitting), they travel to communities where they have a long-term relationship with the director. They decline requests from people they don’t know. Instead of looking for new markets (the imperative of capitalism is constant expansion into new consumers and new products), they just keep returning to the places they have been before. Because they take responsibility for following up on the instructions they have given in the past. And they have a long trajectory of fellowship with given individuals and groups. They’re not tossing their seeds haphazardly; they are cultivating ground they understand to be fertile. Karl Marx would be proud: they have created and shared their work without becoming alienated from it. Talking with one of the long-term attendees of this kind of workshop reminds of talking with Burners. They may not have made the greatest sacrifices or taken the craziest pilgrimages in search of the self, but they have been repeatedly, indelibly marked by an experience in a way that is too much a part of them to put in to words. They haven’t taken those workshops to get a piece of said teacher; rather that experience has become a piece of them.

Back to items 1-5 above. A devotional teacher does not have 200 hours of training; she has thousands of hours. You teach because your teacher trained you to do so, and gave you a blessing that entails both rights and duties. You invest a majority of your energy in personal practice and study. You have been practicing daily for a decade and more. You go to great lengths to be with your teacher – not for thematic sessions, but for the sake of hanging out in the same context where he carries on his daily life. You do this for months at a time, with nothing to be gained in the career realm. You’ve made so many weird life choices that you’ve lost the concept of “sacrifice” – practice is just the organizing principle of your life, in a way people of the mainstream find weird, sometimes offensive, and definitely punk rock. This makes you an outlier among yoga teachers, you know. Why not let the devotional flag fly?

How? Sadly, using the word “devoted” in your bio doesn’t help. The word is everywhere in yoga bios and is used to signify an emotion the teacher feels, not actions she caries out daily. Generally, adjectives won’t help. But facts… your facts can talk.

Here is everything I want to know about a teacher.

(1) When did she start practicing?

(2) How long has he had a daily practice without a break?

(3) Who have all her teachers been – not just the famous or convenient ones.

(4) Who is his teacher? That is, who trained and blessed him to teach, and whom do I go to if he screws up?

(5) How exactly does she make herself a student? What are her plans for time with her teachers in the future?

There’s a bio, right there. Just the bona fides.

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P.S. Insideowl sends a short monthly newsletter, insideout.

P.P.S.The image above is the creation of emprints, who gives her blessing for its use here.