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.

Meltdowns • 14 April 2015

Filed for an extension on the March blog deadline. Bringing the shala back up to speed administratively took the first half of April. Each new student represents an energetic investment. I find that it is so worth my effort, and theirs, to set up a strong foundation for practice at the begining. Slowly, slowly, one by one. This is the teaching practice.

Anyway, about what happens at the end of the season in Mysore…

Do you ever play the game where you pretend another’s consciousness is living through your body? As those last two weeks of March melted everything down, I imagined a series of friendly minds stepping in for the beautiful parts, buddy-breathing off my subjectivity. What if Danielle’s ears could hear the alarm at 3:00, stirring movement in legs that had rested for hours but not really slept? Joy, is that you seeing the mosquitos swoop in the dark kitchen, smelling the ginger-cinnamon elixir I substitute for coffee, and feeling the soft chemical rush of a dropper-full as it brings up the energy for practice?

At 3:30, I imagine Anthony’s laughter at the first bars of Sloop John B on the headphones, as the bike engine revs. Maria’s knowing nod as we coast down shala road in the dark, trying to feel something like a breeze before the sweltering day sets in.

Every year, there’s a night toward the end of this month when the jasmine and the jacaranda trees throw down all their flowers into the street. You make your way to practice in the dark, depositing white buds and yellow blossoms on the shala steps along with your Havaianas. For a few days, this ambient aromatherapy softens everyone up. Wifi stops working and without Facebook, the local social network shifts from mutual surveillance to just hanging out. Planned electricity shut-downs take out lights and fans. This is when half the shala has the good sense to return home to the green places, where you can breathe, and sleep, and think.

Then the remaining yoga-visitors go to mush. Not in a bad way. This year, the words March narcosis would repeat at random in my mind’s ear. March narcosis. March narcosis. A joke of a mantra that set itself up on repeat in place real cognitive stability.

Temperatures always jump that last week or two of the month – some nights the low is in the 80s. One morning a few years back, the thermometer on my clock read 100 when the alarm sounded at 3am – I don’t know whether that was an accurate read, or a temperature induced malfunction. I also don’t know how to sleep under such conditions; and nor do most of the other yoga-visitors. So our consciousness melts together. We start getting summer-camp-level sentimental. Our true colors saturate our personalities and friendship bonds of a lifetime solidify. The collective hip flexors lengthen, never to be the same again.

It’s not enough to give a GoPro to the dozen ashtangis left in town who have an amazing life – the people weaving their motorbikes around cows and making eye contact with old women on their stoops, maybe doing backflips in the shala at four in the morning, eating succulent secret breakfasts and drinking coconuts bigger than your head… people who on the inside are weeks out from REM sleep, fueled by vata foods, and yet in certain ways more conscious than ever. (Mystics from the Kentucky Christians to the Burmese Buddhists use sleep deprivation to push past the veil of unconsciousness… ). The moving pictures of this visual world are stunning, but they communicate nothing of our collective altered state. The less we sleep, the more we wilt, the more fully we see what we are made of. If anybody’s going to have a Mysore meltdown, this will be the time.

The game is my way of melting down – the imagining of other selves within my body picking up these sense data, experiencing this experience. Since I can’t even manage a to-do list during the March narcosis, may as well sign the data-stream over to an avatar. On the rare occasions I can get out of the experience-collecting business, the day-to-day doesn’t feel so personal.

We all have a tribal side, and it’s easy to wish we didn’t. If you have sworn off competitive sports drama, stadium rock, or charismatic religion, probably it was to get away from tribal mind. Good call. That primitive side of us has sharp teeth and big shadows. But it also has an ecstatic love energy – a sort of mutual, sensory understanding that is shared through myth and a certain sort of breath. Even if you have the good sense to stay out of Mysore in March, maybe some part of your nervous system still picks up remotely on its healing lunacy. Insofar as the method is alive, we are all in this together.

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There was moment a couple of weeks ago on the evening drive to the cathedral, coasting downhill in Muslim town past running chickens + neighborhood dance party in the street, when the memory of my first real mentor came through. Lyle M. Nelson. I was over the moon just then, and that’s where I found him.

What if Lyle could be here for this? Did the empath-funnyman from smalltown Oregon ever ride a motorbike? He was fascinated by India, but did he ever get here? Would he agree with the choices I have made? What if I were his avatar?

I played the consciousness game with Lyle for days, and when the internet fuzzed in for a few hours, went and read his obituaries from 1997. He never told me (when he was writing the first email letters I’d ever received, or taking me out for expensive lunches at the restaurant where I waited tables on weekends) that he carried on a life-long correspondence with Groucho Marx. He also didn’t tell me about the third location (besides Oregon and California) where his life had played out: Ann Arbor. I learned from the obits that he came to Michigan to be (among other things) the first ever employee of Public Television, and that he was VP of the University by the time he departed again for California. It wasn’t important to know these things until now, so that I can guess he also walked alone in the arboretum in the spring. So I can imagine him as one of the forgotten occupants of this 116-year-old house.

Lyle and I wrote each other long letters for the last two years of his life. He hounded me to get out of the dying journalism field (of which he was a master), and told me to write as much as I could. With the writing, I should discipline myself to do it, but not be perfectionistic about the product. In those two years, I burned through the identities of post-Christian hipsterism, Existentialism, and Derridean post-modernism. My sense of reality and how we know things morphed rapidly as I mainlined on popular culture, and read every big-idea-book I could find. He liked it when I added a second major in Philosophy.

I thought I needed someone who could “get it” – someone whose interiority mapped well enough onto mine that he would understand why nobody else understood. Lyle was that person. He let me go right ahead and experience my 18-year-old consciousness as the center of the universe. He held space for me to dismantle my belief system down to the level of perception. The way I explained everything – it was to him. For him. Without that, I probably would have used alcohol to tolerate my mind; the grades and job would have felt it. As it turned out, he used that correspondence to hide some of his ideas in the back of my mind before he left. Probably more than I know.

I bet Lyle wrote letters all morning in his final years, to me and Groucho and the journalists who he mentored around the world. In the first one he ever sent to me (it was a response to a very long and emotional thank you letter I sent after the first week of college), he said that he wrote a thank you note, or a welcome note, every day. He said this was a good habit for life.

It has been good habit.

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I don’t think about metaphysics now; I think about action. This has been the case for about a year, long enough to put it in words. What I am studying is action.

Where does action come from? Where does it go? What traces does it leave? What is the relationship of some action and ego? Or of another action and grace? What is the active consequence of failing to act?

This is kind of anti-abstract (really: the doctrine of codependent arising just doesn’t help that much). It’s an inquiry that happens in 3-dimensional space. It’s in the practice of watching my mind and watching the world.

What is the source, the character, the half-life, of this specific action?

The past few weeks, what’s come up with this is new sensitivity to the story of how I am special. Furthermore, we are special. Our generation is special. The group is special. This family is special. Our species is special.

How deep into the tissues does this story go? How much of the electricity in each nervous system is allocated to keeping the specialness trip running? How much of our total cognitive function is spent in the work of scraping out some sentimental story to make sense of our individual will to live?

Specialness is real, everywhere. But what depth of life force would flow through us if we just didn’t need to devote large quantities of our energy to feeling special?

Western Mind • 1 March 2015

A cow walks into a Xerox shop on the Gokulam high road. Storm wind drops down from the honey locusts, she flicks her tail so hard her udders sway, and I gun the blender-engine in my Scooty Streak. Rain, two months ahead of season. There is no defensive driving here: street safety is in merging. You only exceed traffic speed if you’re a 19-year-old boy on a crotch rocket and a cell phone. But this threatening wind makes me weave through V.V. Mohalla like an Angeleno, and by the time I hit JLB Road the rain is sputtering. A branch snaps overhead and cuts my arm as it falls. Dust flies in my face and for some reason it’s hard to hear. It’s safer to get to the Sisters before the streets get wet. I tuck down their alley between kids running home and park right on Ratna’s rangoli to keep the bike out of the downpour.

When it comes, I’m already face down on the visqueen in the back room with the other two sisters kneading smoky castor oil into my back with their toes. The holes in the concrete walls let the wind in, and the zinc roof drums over our chatter about the way Guruji taught them ashtanga in Kaanada, before these waves of westerners grew large.

All this, and the rainbow over Ramakrishna Ashram on the drive home, come in through sense gates re-callibrated to the one human consciousness that excites me most. My brother arrives in three days. What will he hear and see here?

We almost lost him the year he was thirteen and I was sixteen. They opened his skull, and part of the grey matter – and the person there – went away. Who came back to this world a year later, when they let him off the drugs that flat-lined his mind, was someone different. Not a regular person. Now good at everything, including the understanding of humans. A perceiver, a peacemaker, a creative, a tastemaker; and the first person to correctly call me on my shit and demonstrate a higher way of being in the world. So for 20 years I have been admirer and protector of a life I value more than my own. There is nothing more inspiring than a mind made subtle because of hang-ups it doesn’t have. I wonder dow much more there is to learn in letting ideas go than in collecting them.

Sensorially, it will be enough for him to suggest he sit on the bench across from the shala and drink coconuts under this week’s 4am full moon, while I put my feet behind my head. That much is a lot, experience-wise. My mind adds to this string of future stimuli the taste of chai, the sound of Muslim prayers at sunrise, the personalities of the dogs who live in the street. Plus maybe also there will be scooter lessons, secret breakfast, Loyal World, lessons in cross-cultural English, rice paddy obstacle courses with oxen and white herons looking on, morning puja at Srirangapatna, his ability to intuit on contact a city it took me 12 months to learn, work sessions at the Green Hotel, drives through Muslim town to Saint Philomena’s (with its diorama of Jesus arriving on the coast of India, greeted by a man in a loin-cloth holding a magic potion), his discomfort with this dissolute post-colonial scene, shopping for antiques, Indian toilets, and… (that which may leave the strongest memory) masala dosa.

This question of how he will perceive mundane Mysore resaturates experience I’d started to take for granted. Love is a drug. I’ve been on this one all February, while working to rebalance my body from the last year (and really four years) of teaching. It has also been a month of sisterhood with others who know what it is to build a grassroots program – with women who know the personal costs, and the healing capacity, of creating safe space.

Safe space is not something pop-culture yoga cares for. Colleagues who get it and can articulate how they hold it are rare. But for a small number of people here who have actually healed their own minds through years of practice, and who teach specifically so that others might do the same, safe space is a main concern. One of these women pointed out that serious Mysore teachers with serious rooms work about half the year. The rest of the time the students do dinacharya – same time, same place, same practice, just going inside. I won’t step back that much, but am coming to understand that the 11/1 ratio is not sustainable. It may be necessary during the first five years of farming from seeds, but I see the shala may do better in its adolescence if I learn to work a little less.

* * * * *

The other thing that happened this month was that an Ayurveda teacher decided to teach me. A random blessing I do not take lightly. What happened is that I went to visit a professor on behalf of a friend, with the idea that meeting experts can help me point in the right direction when students back home ask questions. The professor runs her own clinic, and is a lineage-holder from the guru Raghavendra Malladahalli. I got lost and annoyed in search of her, especially because I didn’t know what I’d say when we met and expected little more than 5 awkward minutes on her threshold. But it would have been a shame to turn back from a student related mission, so I didn’t give up.

I arrived late and dusty. I badly wanted to go home, until she sat down across from me and beamed. We talked for a long time that first afternoon, alternating questions and disclosures. We made each other laugh. I thought her pacing and idea-structures were exactly my style… though now I wonder if there is a more esoteric reason she holds my attention so fully. On the first drive home I felt the joints in my skull relax apart. Some sort of exhaust escaped through the fissures, and maybe a little light leaked in.

She invited me to keep coming back to sit together in the afternoons. The time feels significant and I’m living in an unfamiliar state of inspiration. That’s more than enough to keep me from asking what’s in this for me.

Oral transmission is dying. But where you can find it, it’s a hundred times more alive than anything else. A buzzing wire of life experience passed in present moments between two humans who are awake to each other. Look me in the eye, say the words with me, share my mind, answer the questions I craft to test you. It would be nice to have charts and workbooks to take home, but that would be too easy and too dead. Still there is homework: mantras, impossible questions, passages in Sanskrit. I asked if the point here is to reshape my western mindspace, and she just smiled. The person who does not meditate daily can not understand Ayurveda. Then she asked for the definition of a word whose meaning I could only piece together by remembering all the different ways she’s used it that day. Her faith that I am learning fast makes me learn fast.

I’d prefer not to talk about any of this this, but eventually what I will owe is to speak freely about how little I know. How little we know.

Ayurveda, we agree, will explode in the west the way yoga did. We will have teacher trainings and book learning and people attempting to teach for money without having gone to the heart of the science. Without having a teacher who has a teacher, or a blessing that has some power.

Westerners want to engage learning with our motor organs – arms, legs, mouth, anus, genitalia – without fully exploring the receptive capacity of the sensory organs. We know how to claim ownership and to turn knowledge into things, because for us having things is power. Some good comes of this. But we don’t get why sometimes learning is its own reward. In the situation of Ayurveda moving west, she says one positive thing she can do is to find individual westerners who are receptive, and send them home with a little bit of appreciation.

Part of the yoga is learning how to be a student. The western mind wants what it wants, and it wants it when, and how, it wants. What does it matter how we learn the postures? What does it matter how we become teachers? We look for the things. Poses and positions. So for us it is possible to collect a bunch of technique without ever understanding the traditional mode of transmission.

But what if the how is more important as the what? What if the point is to learn how to learn? Can we in the west have the flexibility of mind and fluidity of selfhood to work with these traditions on their own terms? In-person transmission is not staged or dramatic the way we make things in the west. It is not actually about celebrity. It is about mutual openness and vulnerability.

* * * * *

Wednesday we talked for less than three hours about the three hundred years the colonialists spent repressing Indian healers. Working systematically to kill their culture. They were brutal because Ayurveda was powerful. To dominate the culture, they decided, you must erase its history. You must turn its ways of making meaning into a joke.

The vaidyas were strong in the villages. People trusted them with their bodies and considered them parts of their families. (My mind goes to the Marxist priests in the Latin American campo – during the repression program of the Reagan years, the CIA saw to the massacres of the sacerdotes.) So the British had the vaidyas kidnapped. Eliminated. Their healing knowledge was sometimes repackaged in western terms so that some portion of it could survive, but more often it went underground.

Let’s remember this when the white junior scholars from England tell us yoga asana has no history. When they tell us Krishnamacharya got ashtanga from gymnastics. When they say the yoga we practice can trace its roots to twentieth century Los Angeles.

In India, a junior Ayurveda practitioner has been at the top of her school classes her whole life. She has undergone the equivalent of medical school and two practicums. Chance is she has a guru. In the west, are we going to ignore Ayurveda’s context and history well enough that 200-hour TTs will succeed?

I imagine an Indian who takes a single night-school course in American law or allopathic medicine, and then sets up shop as a lawyer or doctor. She might take a western name. Maybe she’ll get some raven tattoos and cultivate a love of artisan cocktails. But this is hard to see happening, because it would require generations of skill in erasing occupational history and asserting cultural ownership.

So, Ashtanga yoga. Questions of power and ownership will always be with us. Every few years, we will re-remember the economic and cultural inequalities that make it possible for westerners to claim Ashtanga as our own and keep it moving forward in a positive way. Periodically we will catch ourselves turning postures into commodities, or mistaking paper for knowledge.

Incidentally, did you read The Case for Reparations? Best thing that happened on the internet last year. I keep returning to Ta-Nehisi Coates, because he helps me see that privileged Americans can’t even cope with the last 70 years of local history. How much more evolving do I have to do as I attempt to expand my empathy in time and space in order to appreciate modern yoga?

Again, does authorization matter? Well, are you using it to erase history, or using it to keep history from being erased? Are you using it to pretend you own stuff, or opposing it because you want to pretend you own stuff? One person’s accountability mantra is the next person’s superstition.

Credibility gets built with one-on-one with the people who know who we are when the chips are down. It gets built when others observe over time our habits of thinking and talking. It comes from how honest we can be with our bodies. Some people have a blessing to teach from a teacher who has a real teacher of his own. Grounding like that comes from someone who knows your heart, and your training, and who will have your back.

Meantime, lineages are dying everywhere. If you do the research you can find a few live wires. The rest is chaos or trails of tears. It’s good to expect a teacher to establish his own credibility with you, person to person, and to take the time to see if he is more action than advertising.

The other day a friend here told me this story. One of SKPJ’s oldest students showed up in a major city for workshop. The room was packed. He began like this: “How many of you teach yoga?” Many hands went up.

Then: “Who told you to teach?” Silence.

I hope that this question, also, will keep coming back.

Tenderizing • 31 January 2015

Innnnncoming. DTWJFKCDGBLR, exhale. There’s a new billboard as you leave Bangalore airport. A man in a stiff pinstripe suit sits under palm trees next to a lake. Pure nature around him, and a miserable little macbook open on a knee. It’s another ad for an elite housing enclave. English text: “Your own quarter acre on the golf course. Where work, style, life and leisure meet.” The message is big in the technoburbs, where fine-grained social stratification and American consumer values meet.

It’s important to see what’s happening here sociologically, and that I’m a part of it. I make this drive every year. Each January, the highway stretches further from the airport, three stories above the ground. It’s a different story up there allright, replacing the lights and grit and quiet thrill of the 3am streets with something like Gotham – a 70MPH executive view over what appears to be industrial waste.

I’ve just read the storybooks The Peripheral and Aghori: At the Left Hand of God, so my mind’s mood lighting is dystopian (from Gibson), tempered with a happy thrill to the darkside (from Svoboda). I roll with it. Soon we’ll have a hundred mile welcome mat, and it won’t feel much different from summer night drives overtop LA or Detroit. In this an other ways, it will get easier and easier for the crowds coming to Camp Mysore (Joseph Dunham’s affectionate term) not to know much of India.

The highway ends, letting us down in a pile of gravel, where we sniff around until we pick up a trail going our way. We speed south in the dark, south, south, south. Next morning, switchbacks through tiger preserve that borders Tamil Nadu state. There are promising warning sides for leopards (my favorite), including a picture a big cat jumping into an open car window with the caption: DO NOT FEED THE MONKIES. We pass peacocks and deer and an enormous wild boar stalking the roadside. Then a far more enormous transport truck tipped over in the eddy of a hairpin turn. Two men sit on their haunches, guarding their pounding hearts, and stare out over a many thousand foot drop. Monkeys chew their knuckles on the ledge.

I have driven the mindbending roads to Ali Shan, the Hellroaring Plateau, and the El Salvador-Honduras borderlands. What’s different about this crazy mountain pass is… it is also a full-on truck route. At every turn, there’s a face-off between the upward and downward moving energy; we sometimes wait for up to 30 trucks to head up before we can sneak around a corner heading down. (Now as I write this, we’re northbound nearing the mountain again, and I ask that Madhu the driver be bold enough get me to the church – KPJ registration – on time.)

Back on the way south to the Ayurveda institute, we get good and lost south of Coimbatore. Finally we see a tiny, faded sign, and follow it past some family farms to the end of a barely passable road. Signs of life: piles of refuse outside a long, low terracotta wall. I try an opening in the wall and find abandoned bicycles, more junk, and a long walkway heading east. Around a corner, the walkway turns from mud to granite, then becomes covered, then slopes down through lush gardens. Hibiscus are in bloom and there’s no ambient wifi, no sound but birds and breeze. A tall man with bright black eyes appears, says my name and his—Hakeem. “We are waiting for you.”

There’s the lingering matter of my suitcase, which went missing in Paris when the moon turned new. Air France Bangalore has found it impossible to locate the receiver of their own ringing phone for the past day, so I speculate they will have an even harder time finding this place should the bag resurface. The only thing to do is put the matter in a friend’s hands and not think about it until Mysore. Meantime here I arrive as they would prefer: without baggage.

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It is easy to drop in. There is a routine, and minimal stimulation, and an omnipresent but strictly unexpressed feel of loving support. For the first 8 days, I see only the doctors and only leave my room to watch the kittens who play in the hibiscus around the corner. The doctors tell me they need at least a month to go deep with this method; two weeks is nothing but a little experiment, and I’m not really going to get it.

There is not a formal meditation instruction to keep my mind on task. I could revert to a technique but instead just feel things out, doing as I’m instructed and not more. The discursive center goes dim, making the image center ultra bright. For days my life streams before my eyes. Whole-body memories of meaningless flashes from the post: some grocery store parking lot in Missoula, an intersection in Madrid, the Amnesty International storage closet in DC, a store window in Anchorage, the silverware-rolling station at a waitressing job. Around the third day, the content turns to faces and situations that aren’t from this life, huge steams of content that pass too quickly to put in to words.

It feels like part of the cleansing process, watching the first things the mind does upon entering a virtual dark cave, when the projections are still running at top speed.

Like if you had a TV set that you unplugged, but instead of going dark it took a life of its own and streamed mashups of the last 10 or 100 seasons of comedy and drama. That input-free projection would reveal everything about the TV’s own limited understanding of what those shows were about. It would be helpful to see the mashup the TV recycled objectively, as a kind of abstract art; to not believe the stories it threw on the screen; and to appreciate the total absurdity of the play.

I love that every day the doctors ask about my dreams.

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Ayurvedic massage, abhyanga, is a vinyasa practice. Rhythmic strokes put together in themes and sub-themes, repetitions and cycles. Every visitor at the institute is oiled for an hour daily by one or two therapists, then washed in bean or nut paste. This is unbelievably pleasant for the receivers. Some say it takes the edge off compulsions that come up when the only thing you eat for days is ghee and overcooked rice in water.

I was prescribed a further daily treatment, elakkizhi. After the oiling, two women – Bindu and Radhika – heat herb poultices over a fire and lightly pound my body for an hour. I lie on a tall table made of a single piece of cherry colored wood, with strips of cotton to cushion the joints as they put my body in different postures. The poultices smell of grass, leaves, tulsi, chamomile and a little jasmine. They’re bound in cotton, dipped in sesame oil, and left to sizzle over the fire.

Bindu and Radhika work constantly keeping the poultices hot and my body in their vinyasa rhythm. Not unlike a super-advanced but gentle game of whac-a-mole. Their speech, in Malayalam, is incoherent music, full of tongue-widening consonants and high notes that sound like a wind instrument. Eventually, Bindu warms up a bucket of water and washes my body in a paste that smells (and tastes; oops) like freshly cut grass, coarse jaggery, and pounded chickpeas. (That’s the closest I get to soap for two weeks.) When I’m dressed, she takes my Ayurvedic vitals (sense-based indicators of health like pulse, eye quality, skin texture), applies a tilak, and accepts my eye and body gestures of thanks.

In the self-conscious moments on the table, I am a happy chapatti. It’s then that I can’t help but feel a little bit sorry for the previous selves who did not know elakkizhi.

But mostly, the learning involves a very deep release of doership. Let the muscles, and the connective tissues, and the bones reverberate with this. Go beneath the pleasure to the emptiness on the other side of it. Allow the body to be tenderized and herb-massaged like the meat that it is.

See about letting go not just of doership but of narrow self-ownership: let the body belong to the process.

I know nothing of Ayurveda, and am guessing that many people in the west who claim to teach it know nothing too. The Doctors here are educated far beyond a conventional MD, serve years of apprenticeships, and often grew up in households and lineages of Ayurvedic physicians.

That said, there are big clues here about the Ashtanga practice. Healing practice includes: vinyasa; stoking of the internal fire; tenderizing of the tissues; untangling of the nadis; nyasa of the marmas. And cultivating, on many levels, a capacity to be moved.

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Love of Practice • 1 January 2015

To end the year the way I didn’t spend it, I took today off. Slept four hours extra, walked to the shala in the snow before the late-late sunrise. Sixteen whole degrees, making me way overdressed in a winter coat as large and leak-proof as a space suit.

The shala was already full when I arrived. The students who are also keepers of keys were not waiting until 8 for self-practice, and maybe thought I was a little bit of a slacker for sleeping in. God: to end the year just riding on the energy of their practice, the momentum they create together. I rolled out my mat in the third row and just merged. At Durvasasana, a giggle from the back. Our resident 7 year old hasn’t seen the irascible sage before, finds the posture funny. I wobbled and didn’t fall.

This was the curtain on 2014: re-ingesting in my own body the group energy that has come of age, matured so much that it acts independently instead of waiting for me to say when and how. The collective is self-intelligent, the shala version of a singularity.

The cliché about the whole being greater than the sum of its parts now applies. Four years after we incorporated, and seven years after my brother bought the domain (I was already trained for teaching by then, but in denial), this coming year is going to feature the novelty of rest. Crop rotation: two weeks with the Ayurvedic jungle doctors of Tamil Nadu, and two months in Mysore. Posting here next month will require escaping the jungle shamans long enough to bogart some wireless in Coimbatore; might not happen.

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Yesterday I compressed a year’s worth of time not wasted on the internet into a few hours of listening, reading and watching. I wanted to know, how did people talk when they talked about yoga this year? More specifically, I have been thinking about my love relationship with the practice, and wondering if there is space out there now to speak about something so intimate and possibly offensive. Some would say it is an abject, life-ruining, love. I don’t want to try to describe it and be mistaken for talking about gratification, escapism, or some sort of pointless self-control trip.

What I read yesterday is that people have talked this year about discipline and the reality of suffering on the mat, and on the other hand they have talked about practice as a place where one experiences “just being,” possibly with some positive emotions like gratitude and self-acceptance added in. There are translations into everyday language of notions that sound a little like Advaita, Tantric hatha yoga, ascetic Yoga Sutra style self-trancendence, and badass (Jack LaLanne/puritanical) self-mastery. Many competing ideas and discordant values.

Looking at all that, the emotion-motives I actually experience might reduce to a combination of (1) the commitment expressed by the self-trancendence writers and (2) the gratitude and immanence in the Tantric writers. This is not a contradiction. My practical experience includes discipline, sensory absorption, suffering, and ecstasy.

I don’t see any way around this. We live on a planet with a down and an up. Energy moves toward Earth, toward the sky, and across the surface. Gender (a dance, not a personal trait) expresses along a continuum that has end points of agency, and of receptivity. There are two big orbs in the sky, one of them powerful and burning, one of them reflective and shadowy. The planet is full of animals, and animals often experience each other as having separate minds – those of us who are not aspen trees or slime molds interact with perceived others not just by consciousness-sharing but through relationship. Under these conditions, being a human on Earth involves contrasts – of will and surrender, wholeness and particularity, upward moving energy and downward moving energy, transcendence and immanence, self and other. Not surprisingly: there is an aspect of human self-reflection that involves trying; there is an aspect that is about just being; and there is an aspect that is about serving. This is so logical for Earthlings. There is not just one idea to rule us all.

Go ahead. Become an Advaita person. Or an ascetic. Or a devotee of the “call off the search” school. See how many years you last until you break out of that cave screaming about how the other guys are right. No one idea is sufficient for a person having a long, full life experience.

Some of the most compelling big ideas in yoga this year had to do with immanence – of not going beyond the present moment or the particular personality. Of just being, and appreciating reality as such. Wonderful. But not wonderful as a belief system. Lately, immanence is being offered in a repressive way, as the school of not trying, of denying any feeling of separation from spirit, of hating on the impulse for transcendence. So the yogas of “non-duality” end up being aggressively (if not angrily) dualistic, cordoning off the yogas of discipline, focused action, and effort as “other,” “wrong,” and “bad.” See Mark Whitwell and Christopher Gladwell for variants. Godfrey Devereaux says efforts at transcending the individual ego/present moment are dangerous; J. Brown seems to imply that if yoga is hard, it’s not yoga. Invoking an unblessed lineage claim to U.G. Krishnamurthi, who despised relationships and everyday life, Brown teaches that relationships and everyday life are the ground of practice. Some confusion is there.

On the other hand, I don’t see articulations of the path of discipline as being infused with effortlessness, surrender, grounded sensory pleasure, and ecstasy. But that is very possible. Discipline, effortlessness, ecstasy. At the same time.

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The love of practice is not rainbows and dancing chakras. Practice is not my happy place. It’s more like love of practice leaves me on my knees saying thank you/ I don’t know what I’m doing; and in exchange for that abject thanks/emptiness, practice has taken away a career and made me a quasi-outsider to society. Um, thank you? This is not dramatic, or punishing, and there’s no fight about it.

The story behind this love relationship is that I encountered a distinct stream of energy, fell in very deep, and eventually looked up and realized that it had changed my consciousness and the course of life in a way that was really beautiful. In a way I wanted, but never could have found through trying or planning.

I don’t know if I will always do this. There is a commitment to daily practice that removes all doubt about what to do tomorrow morning, but I can’t see the distant future and I don’t really care about it. For now and tomorrow and 10 years from now, I trust this.

The love is not the result of feeling physically gratified by practice. Maybe at first it was, but like everyone eventually does, I found a formula for the reduction of short-term gratification. Take one woman, subtract southern California, add long hard winters plus body pain, subtract sleep, reduce teachers to 8 weeks per year, add teaching. The gratification reduction program has led to an increase in meaning, and deepening of the love.

The lover has many faces: mostly I don’t feel like the doer, but sometimes there’s strong effort. There is present moment joy/equanimity that means I do not suffer quite as much as I did before, but also a commitment to growth that demands I be slightly brave every day. Also (this might be offensive) there is some desire to change not just my own consciousness but our world through service.

Is that bad? The desire to make a contribution, and the hubris of believing that could matter? One or more of the impulses that I experience – transcendence, immanence, service –could be delusional. I don’t know. But that’s what is in me, and I’m not going to lie or spiritually repress myself in order to fit into a more narrow point of view.

This morning, merging with the student body, I was humbled to see the hardness of my own mind. It is so easy to stoke energy in the central channel from the first ekam in a room where that’s the program. When I am alone and it is early-early, at the beginning of almost every practice, every single movement requires effort. Breaking my inertia means going through a little, concentrated hell. Even if I’m buzzing, I just want to lie down. This laziness would be funny if it weren’t a threat to doing what I truly want to do. I know many of you are more mature than this– you just get on the mat and do the thing. And I know others would say if I have to fight some part of myself to get moving, that’s not yoga. A true practice should never be effortful.

I go into the little hell because every time I practice alone, knowing from experience that practice will eventually take over. Sometimes after 1 minute, and sometimes after 45. I don’t know why the resistance still has to exist, after all this time. Is it constitutional? Am I a hard case? I can’t know, but when I say that I love practice, and that I am in a love relationship with practice, this includes the little hell. It is the love in the relationship with practice that enables me to go there.

A few years ago I started feeling strongly that attachment to rituals is a block in the heart. A knot in the central channel that shrinks and over-specifies love. I think maybe my love of practice started as this – as commitment to ritual – and this was useful for a time.

And now it feels more pointless. Like, this lover could leave me on the side of the road and I might just keep walking, forever, never to reach Valhalla. Unless “arriving” is the ecstasy and momentum on the way to the place we already are.

Smart Yoga, Shibboleth • 30 November 2014

Yet still this Trinity sends out its message

Through the winter-dark, “arise, arise, re-animate,

O Spirit, this small ark, this little body,

this small separate self; of the world’s mortals,

make but one immortal, let but one awake,

to set the dead pyre flaming

that the Phoenix, Venus, Mercury

may fire the world with ecstasy,

with Love who forgets our faults

with Love who redeems the lost,

with Love, Love, Love unique”.

-from Sagesse, by H.D., Winter 1957

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The planet tilted this month and everything went epic. I feel it in the empty center of my chest – an oscillation between the mundane and the mystical. Between raw grit and radical sensory clarity at one extreme, to full power synchronicity at the other. When enchantment comes barreling in like this, I get lost in time, the cats become animal spirits, and I brim up to the tear-ducts with the beauty of this terrible world. Looks like we’ll hit the synchronicity apogee in a week or three. The pendulum swings about four times a year, and my consciousness at its mercy.

For now, everything is turned on. It’s thrilling. Walking to practice at four in the morning, there’s both the beauty of the world out there, and the increasing intensity of the world in here. When I cross the threshold from my street into downtown, my vision is narrowed down by a hood, a hat, and a faux-fur-lined parka, but inside I see an orange underground fire roar behind an iron grill, embers flying as some god stokes it with a log the size of my body.

Now that it’s freezing, it’s ok to run a little hot. My tri-doshic constitution tilts to its central setting, so digestion can burn through anything, and practice is strong and deep. Thanksgiving morning I waited until 7 to get on with it, and was rewarded with a drop of sweat on my mat for the first time in months. It’ll likely be sweltering Mysore March (coming in 2015, as it turns out) before that happens again.

HD, by HD, came in the mail last week. A library book removed from circulation at some place called the Berkshire School, sent here without a return address. In it, Hilda Doolittle’s poem Hermetic Definition, including passages about falling in love with someone far her junior in the Groves of Academe (Ann Arbor). And Sargasse, about an owl in captivity – regal, sharp eyed – and a woman who marks passing time according to the angels and gods and planets said to govern each distinctive hour.

The book is full of Greeks, roses, owls, academic arbors… muse crossed with goobeldygook. Intuitive fuel spiked with absinthe.

I partake; charm reigns. The Editor walks in on me reading Bihar school books in bed and smiling idiotically. “What is it about Moola Bandha: the Master Key that makes you so happy?”…. We have monthly open house at home for the students on a freezing Thursday, packed into my living room laughing about the absurdity of our own profound sincerity, and then I walk through the cold to the sauna (whatever it takes to sweat). On the way home, texts with three respected colleagues about trouble in paradise leave me in a bit of a sour pickle…. On a Saturday, the Editor and walk through the snow to the prime bookstores and coffeeshops of this over-educated town, and later I’m the only human in the vast arboretum, crunching and crackling ecstatic along the Huron. Toes ice cold and fire in the belly: maybe this will be the year my hard case of frostbite (sleeping in an Oregon snow cave for a month in 1997, with less than adequate gear) begins to thaw. And maybe not. When there’s a world inside the world, I really don’t care.

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But wow, I ended up speaking with a lot of colleagues through the back channels this month. Then Ferguson happened, again, and sent me to social media longing for meaningful discussion. It was plentiful everywhere but in in the Ashtanga yoga niches of the internet. Here is my best effort to be direct and plain about what I picked up from the edges of planet Ashtanga this month.

It feels like the internet is eating our young. Sucking the guts out of your concentration and your discriminating mind before you ever get off the ground.

My friends, there is some stuff we’re forgetting to practice. Asana is a fraction of yoga – the fraction one can learn in person with an experienced teacher. And then she can have the good sense—and good taste—to leave at that. It seems that many of us are turning asana into an opiate – letting it serve the same function as organized religion and professional sports. A place to channel thought and emotion so that we don’t have to feel, care, act, outside the world of chasing likes and beautiful backbends.

I am still the biggest asana junkie I have met – I practice more, and more intensely, than anyone I know, and I’m not afraid of whatever projections people have about that. But seriously, even at the most intensive level, if asana is eating our higher consciousness, we are doing it wrong. If it is making us act culty, or narrowing down our generosity to the world and to our own bodies, we are doing it wrong. If it is spurring whole programs of narcissistic input (stat counting, calorie counting, asana counting, student counting) and narcissistic output (like-farming in all its variations), we are doing it wrong. Like, this is obvious, right?

Come on. Are rajasic/obsessive asana training, and the Axis Of InstaTwitFace, going to highjack your brilliant practice? Shiny young Jedi, if you are serious about your practice, you frankly don’t have energy to waste. Developing strong concentration is hard, and the dark side (the black hole of clickbait) apparently wants you to fail.

Listen, do not be lied to. Yoga isn’t actually a total-control program, or a technology for honing the body beautiful. It’s a heart practice. Maybe even a soul practice. An equanimity practice. And before all of this it’s a mental discipline.

If vritti is hungry for the children of the Force, here are some ways to stay on the razor’s edge and ride it under the radar….

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Smart yoga.

Shibboleth of the century. At the turn of the 2000s, the way “smart yoga” manifested in Los Angeles was in asana classes where you’d get into triangle pose and then someone would talk to you for 10 minutes about your acromium process. I was not smart enough to get it. Honestly, it would take years to cultivate the internal spatial relations to telescope between an abstract picture of a skeleton an the feeling within my body.

Anyway, I would submit that smart yoga is usually something different. It is silent. Get the technique you need, get any burning questions answered, and then recognize that the desire to talk or be talked to is quite possibly coming from anxiety about the experience of being in the body. Intense anxiety. Being in the body, in silence, while breathing, is scary.

Scarier yet is sitting the body on a cushion, in silence. I sense that sitting practice requires either incredible bravery or – as was my experience – stupid levels of curiosity. But back to asana.

Being in the body is unbelievably hard for a good portion of us. There are some who are blessed with animal intelligence, with a kind of kinesthetic naturalness that I consider brilliant because I came in without a whit. But for anyone with crazy vata, or who identifies as “smart,” or those of us who have some trauma tracers in the nervous system, learning to be quiet with the body is probably hard. The last thing we want to do is feel.

It is possible to practice asana, every day, for years, without more than a few passing moments of real proprioceptive awareness. Deeply cultivated body intelligence is a big part of what I’d call smart yoga.

Smart yoga is casing the heck out of anyone you might call teacher. For example: what are her relationships with all her former teachers, and is there any heavy baggage there that she’s going to pass on to you? Are there any holes in the resume, or any influences he’s keeping hidden? Is he a little tooooo charismatic? Is she quick to celebrate your learning and mourn in your difficulties, in a way that suggests her boundaries aren’t clear and maybe she thinks your practice has something to do with her? (She’s wrong. It’s your practice, not her credit or cross to bear.) Did he have less than 10 years of practice before he got in to teaching – as if your practice deserves any less than 10,000++++ hours from a teacher? Did she get into teaching because her teacher chose, and trained, and blessed, her, or… for some other (deeply suspicious) reason?

Withholding your obedience, your respect, your trust, until these questions are answered: this is smart yoga. I have a very deep faith that we all get the teachers we deserve, for better and for worse. This is part of how.

The closer you get to the source, the more concentrated the environment. There isn’t going to be an emphasis on sales, or workshops, or publicity. There aren’t going to be a lot of extra things or experiences to buy. You’re not going to be asked to pay money to learn to assist the teacher.

The room is going to be fairly silent because the teacher will have worked through her anxiety about the body to some degree, and will have learned – over many, many, many years – how to listen and communicate with subtlety. The teacher will not experiment on you or try out lots of new ideas or instructions, because after countless hours of this stuff, he will not be easily taken for a ride. What will interest him is your running your own micro-experiments while he holds space.

So the closer you get to the source, the more embodied the experience, the quieter the space, the less money/ attention/ adulation the leadership wants from you. So there’s just practice, and it’s sacred but not special. And the more we figure out how to care for the self with respect and rationality and compassion, the more obvious it is how to care for the world.

Sadhana, Sattva • 31 October 2014

The high holidays begin tonight, when the snow arrives. This afternoon I will teach at the University, then go to the shala, then come home for mulled cider with friends and a stream of child unicorns and superheroes, and afterwards a Ryoki Ikeda show. My lawn is covered in yellow leaves now, and already there are fairy children jumping in the hop-scotch squares cemented into the sidewalk.

I imagine these three Dias de los Muertos are when the portal opens all the way: three days of the dead, three days of the glistening darkside. And then my birthday – the day oneness is natural because it’s so exciting to have been born in to this world in this time, in the same form and time you have also come in. Personal because not personal.

But anyway, it’s been more like a full month of the darkside already. I expected a couple weeks of easy time for my own practice and vacation, in advance of intensifying the teaching work for the fall. What I got was that my father had a heart attack, and my back hurt for weeks, and then my not-so-secret love (Mysore, India) told me not to come in January. Paaaaaaaain. I had under the impression that my father was immortal, and that his ecstatic, unconditional love for all people at all times forever was a background condition of the universe. So experiencing him as human is fundamentally not ok. I felt like my subtle body was passing a sharp heavy stone from tip to tail – taking its own sweet time meandering through my kidney region and through the annoying backwaters of Murphy’s Law.

Without some sort of sadhana, I know that what I would have done with this difficulty is (1) be awesome or (2) try to disappear. Regarding the first strategy, the weird thing is that resilience comes extremely easy in this system, in part because concentration is not a problem, and maybe also because as a small child I was conditioned to overcome streams of human (specifically, other humans’) trauma. Point and shoot. Poof. All better. Sometimes it’s a bit too easy to cultivate positivity in equal and opposite measure to the forces of the big three: fear, anger, sadness. But these energies are part of being human.

So there’s this curiosity about my human experience. That aspect of curiosity, combined with the non-negotiable fact of having a sadhana, combined to make it possible to do self-practice this month – especially while on vacation in a farmhouse on a Lake Michigan peninsula. Otherwise I would have stayed in bed, or just lay on my mat, with my heart-mind covered in dust. Or maybe just ate junk health food and hung out on the internet. The try to disappear strategy.

There was one morning when moving and breathing at the same time required more of me than I knew that I had. The mindbody knew the way, but it is still impossible for me to do this practice without showing up with my whole self. A level of presence was necessary of me that smaller aspects of myself did not want to bring.

When the curiosity combined with the devotion to move the mind into the field of my actual, painful, experience, what I got was this stream of gratitude. A little surrender that was enough for the iceberg in my chest to break up into an ice floe that I could actually move with and perceive. Which was much more painful than disappearing, but the gratitude took the edge off.

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Vritti.

The yoga industrial complex relies on one tool to build up its power (over others’ minds and actions), and to fortify its material and energetic bank accounts.

That tool is vritti. Content-provision. Click-bait. Anything to get in your head and create a pattern of thought-control if not compulsion in you by sheer force of repetition. Blip, blip, blip, blipblipblipblip.

Keep up with the news. Stay connected (but not really). This is the trained desire in us that allows the complex to cash in. And I don’t really mean on money so much as subtle energy. Every blip for the consumer is a ka-ching for the producer.

Huge amounts of power are being given away just because we humans are ready to pay in subtle energy for the relief of something to do with our wandering minds.

Headlines, head-lines, h e a d l i n e s. Lines inside the head.

The tool is inside us. It is the bored and seeking mind that needs content.

The yoga industrial complex cannot exist without your energy. It is parasitic on human attention.

The strongest, sweetest thing a young Jedi can do is decide. Where exactly am I going to put my moment-to-moment energy? What exactly is worth my priceless attention? Where in the world is my heart?

Deciding is the foundation of concentration. The awareness and the heart can have a fighting chance to open up. Different. Scary. Awesome.

Concentration is deliberate coalescence of our own spiritual power. It’s badass. But that’s another topic.

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Asana Improvement Tips.

I seriously have no idea. But here are some first thoughts.

1. Figure out what you want to cultivate.

For me lately that is receptivity, and the capacity to perceive extremely clearly (if not to direct) the shape-shifting nature of matter. What I intend to understand is not postures as things, though postures are an ideal back-ground for this practice.

2. Meditate on where you would like healing. The whole asana thing is about healing. That’s why to do it.

Is the healing mental, emotional? Spiritual, physical? I have found that understanding where I’m truly at takes time and silence.

For me lately, the healing is largely spiritual. Mending the rends in the one. Really.

If someone relatively new to the practice is completely obsessed with asana, there might be push factor in play. Some impulse away from another level of self that’s in pain. The asanas themselves will improve if those push factors are dis-covered. They’ll be inwardly deeper.

3. Take the mind that wants a shortcut as the object of practice, instead of doing what it says.

Asana is so important! If it is ritually, mundanely sacred, do you want to study it haphazardly? Without strong internal intention and concentration? From someone whose background and motives aren’t crystal clear? Does you not deserve a clear, concentrated transmission?

Don’t let the hungry asana ghost run the show. The people with the “best” asana practice have taken a tiny bit of technical advice they trust, advice that forces them to work against samskaras that don’t serve, and have gone inside with that instruction until they understood it on many levels.

4. Cultivate sattva.

Developed asana is relaxed and it has nothing to prove. It might start out very rajasic, and that’s good if it balances a tendency toward disease and dullness. But over time it becomes luminous and relaxed. Sattvic.

One way to approach this is to choose high quality fuel. (Alimentary, informational, relational.) Later you’ll be able to turn anything in to fuel, but at the beginning some discrimination is useful.

It may be that many of us come to a strong asana practice because we are addicts. Really. There is an energy signature, and a scent, to the adrenaline junkie and that’s not the same as a clarified stream of life force. Again, some adrenaline is great if it gets us off the sofa, but with strong intention it is possible from early on to build a fire that burns clean.

There is a lot of energy available in a courageous heart that wants to learn to put smaller aspects of ego in check. Asana can be such a good tool for doing just that.

Brinks of Lucidity • 30 September 2014

I’m in a Mysore room like always. As usual there are several pair of practitioners’ eyeglasses on the windowsill. One of them magnifies the liminal world of spirit beings. I know the spirit-realm is a little pathetic: more hungry ghosts than angels; get a body already, folks. Still, I slip on the glasses.

The room dances. Chaos vinyasa. Each practitioner stays in his own space with the mind on the breath, while the collective subconscious roils. My own subconscious as displayed in the dream-state is a jumble of others’ big ideas (after all, it’s images’ shared nature that makes them archetypes), so the dream-mind makes out this scene in tempera-laserlight loops, like a dynamic Alex Grey Van Gogh.

A woman with 80 year old skin and a 30 year old spine stands in the middle of everything. Her hair is soft, grey pincurls. She’s wearing a ragged housecoat covered in small round flowers, each of which is studded with a sapphire. She says in my mind: “I’m going up. Want to catch a ride?”

I stand before her with my hands on her ears, and lock in to her grey eyes, which have sapphires for irises. They roll back in her head, Game of Thrones style (another borrowed idea). As her eyes roll, I FEEL mine stop twitching inside my 3-d body head (the one resting on a pillow), copying hers as they lock into the center of the skull.

THIS IS A DREAM AND NOW YOU KNOW IT. WE CAN GO ANYWHERE.

The choice is overwhelming.

It often is, unless I have an astral to-do list on the night stand. The first time I woke up in a dream was on the floor of a senior Ashtanga teacher’s home shala in 2008. There was someone who I thought had hurt me, and who I was desperate to forgive. The psychic ache for letting-go was enough to make the magic happen; turns out that taking care of karmic business is (almost) fun in Technicolor.

Simulated forgiveness is no simulacrum though: it is real. When I reported the adventure, my host said: “Yes. The yoga’s working.”

Sometimes at the brink of lucidity, for all the intention to wake up in the dream, I lose my nerve because overwhelmed by choice. It’s not just that we could fly to other galaxies, or become alien dinosaurs, or take on the body of light. It’s that EVERYTHING, the whole gestalt, is subject to choice. The mind’s design goes all the way down. Any and every bit of it can be chosen.

Anyway. This time with the sapphire-woman, I stay liminal. Awake in the dream, but choiceless. Changing nothing. My hands are still on her pincurl-lined ears, but I’m looking out from behind her eyes and we are birds, flying in the dark, inside the vast set of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.

I peel my body up off hers, becoming a big-eyed baby bird growing up out of the back of a great raven. There’s an icy wind. I detach and wheel back to gaze on her. She’s Kali, the High Priestess; she is Nancy Gilgoff. (Later I want to decide she was my biodynamic cranio-sacral therapy teacher, who I meet days after this dream… and with whom I will be studying for years to come. She appears to be the crone I’ve been watching for….)

The reason I bring up the moment of choice is that some people are having strong, clear downloads from the subtle realms. Dreams, intutions, sixth and seventh sense phenomena in meditative states. These feel like messages. The mind wants to use them to make decisions in the three dimensional world. Kind of like oracles and chicken entrails – we will do anything for a line on the unknown. We want to think deterministically. As if everything happens for a reason.

But what if every possible thing is true, and every possible thing is false? What if everything and nothing happens for every reason and no reason? If everything and nothing are true and not true? Our minds have one thin line of apprehension on the chaos of the subtle realms. We can bear down on these information-streams and use them to narrow down our lives; or we can stay open, and hold back from turning dreams into belief systems.

So far, my way is to try to tolerate as much freedom as I possibly can, and then a hair more. Freedom is hard. But I’m working on increasing my tolerance, and at the same time balancing the dreamstuff with the tenor of my gut. That’s where the bullshit detector lives: the gut. And it helps with sorting through space trash from the astral realms.

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A yoga teacher is a common being in nature.

If you spot one that seems interesting, one possible thing to try is to keep your distance a while. Trace out the root system. Does he have a teacher? Does she know how to remain a student? Has he been trained in teaching? Has she been explicitly blessed by those who trained her? Does she practice every day? What are his true motives? Does he know how to keep the ego in check?

Someone who is rooted in these ways probably has a stable mind and a strong-flexible nervous system. In someone whose roots do not go deep, soon the teacher-identity may die on the vine. As well it should. Or worse, without any tap on real groundwater, the teacher will find an alternate energy source. A couple of obvious shallow root-systems are popular culture (working on the “celebrity,” “self help guru,” or “charismatic leader” templates) or becoming parasitic on students themselves (cultivating a following, and drawing energy from that crowd in a narcissistic feedback loop).

A really interesting thing to consider when observing a yoga teacher is one’s own motives. What am I looking for? Do I want someone “important” to associate with? Or someone to make me feel good about myself? It feels like these are very common default motives in our shared culture – motives that have a seed in every one of us – so we actually have to work against them if we’re shooting deeper than that.

So, what about asking whether a teacher actually loves, or can actually can act as a mirror, or whether she actually practices the aspects of the path where you need inspiration? There must be a dozen other good questions like this, once the more superficial motives are identified and set aside.

But back to love. At the zenith of the ooey gooey new age, M. Scott Peck said this not at all woo-woo thing. “Love is the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth… Love is as love does. Love is an act of will—namely, both an intention and an action. Will also implies choice. We do not have to love. We choose to love.”

Jackpot. Admittedly I do have warm fuzzies for my teachers. But that’s because I find them to be perhaps-inadvertent ego quashers, and this lightens my load. They are as they do. It’s not ushy gushy.

So far the very good beings I have met do not announce themselves. They can make themselves invisible at will; and groupies give them the creeps. They don’t often look like much, on the physical level. Joseph Dunham talks about the 11 years he spent in airports as the escort to a small, strange man in a sheet: that’s how Patthabi Jois looked to western eyes before he was a thing.

Anyway. If you do tag and bag a live one, it’s helpful to give a teacher decent care and feeding so they can thrive in domestication. Respect their energy. Don’t kiss ass. Draw the best out of them. Love is as love does.

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Speaking of invisibility, a note on something way more esoteric than nightly psychedelia: watching people self-alchemize. It’s a simple, slow process.

Someone decides to clarify her mind, and to actually do an ethical practice. She gets the words and the actions lined up. She starts watching to the way she uses energy, time, emotions and relationships; and suddenly she’s wasting WAY less life force than she was before. She stops customizing information, or amplifying emotion, to try to get what she wants. Communication is no longer a tool to induce desired effects in others. Emotions are now allowed to come and go on the transparent screen of the energy body. Efficiency and transparency make this person increasingly trust-worthy.

What’s interesting here is the way that the world responds. It reveals itself.

If you are not trust-worthy, there is a whole high integrity reality that is hiding itself from you. People who are living their best lives and doing great things in this world can detect the fact that you aren’t the best collaborator. They can tell your circuits are a little mucked up: the ego is a natural born huckster, after all. So the excellent world makes itself invisible to you. Not because you’re a bad person; just because you don’t have your shit together. So you miss out on the full force of epic love, support and relationship beauty that is happening all around.

As people get their ethical trip together, the world of excellent play comes forward. Lila pandava. The are creative opportunities everywhere. Increasingly. Not opportunities to get stuff or be somebody: that’s huckster mode. I’m talking opportunities to buff out the edges of the self. To serve. Intellectual-creative-caring eros abounds; and everyone is a trusted partner.

It’s not magic, or synchronicity, or grace: it’s that the sincere world that was always there sees you can handle the truth.

Pattern Recognition • 31 August 2014

The seasons upheave here between the Great Lakes. In LA, fall was a shift in the light and longer lines at the undergrad library. But in Michigan it’s a beautiful, overwhelming reconstitution; and it is a thrill.

Last week I went to the forest in the north, first to a yoga camp full of Yogananda devotees and geodesic domes, then to a retreat on the Boardman River, near the northern shores of the state. The plan was to write and hike in the mornings (catching up on backlog of journal themes and on fun letters I don’t write at other times – sorry to people who I didn’t end up writing…), and meditate in the afternoons.

But the forest had this (slightly creepy) way of pulling back the veil to my subconscious: on the other side of the curtain, my implicit mental-emotional programming churns away, manufacturing this reality. Pattern recognition is jarring. So instead of writing in the mornings, I gave myself a relentless, merciless, off-the-cuff workshop on cutting through illusion (the newly obvious ones, that is). And on radical forgiveness. Churning, hiking, churning some more, writing, ritualizing, river walking, star gazing, and finally lucid dreaming about letting go. Very effective.

All kinds beliefs and expectations about what practice is, and should be, and shouldn’t be, seem to have accumulated. It feels so cleansing to skim off a layer of psychic pond scum. This is a very different activity from sitting in stillness and transcending the relative mind. It doesn’t feel like transcendence skills help much for pattern recognition, unless it is in supplying concentration for staying with activity that is painful to my ego, and in poking a bunch of light-n-brite holes in the fabric of consciousness – holes that can be exploited later to get a peek at manomaya and vijanamaya koshas.

Thursday I drove back down-state, as they say, together with hundreds of small town families taking a kid to college. As the line of us dropped into the Huron River valley and caught the first long view of the University spires framed in lush greens, a low rumble was coming on. The upheaval of the town’s population doubling, of its collective mental activity quadrupling. Oh but this is a vata town if ever there was one.

But it has its fire. Saturday Ann Arbor’s solar plexus (a massive stadium called The Big House – we can hear the roar of a touchdown from our hill a mile to the north) sparked back on. I took a while choosing cucumbers at the crowded farmer’s market, but then when I looked up, the whole place had cleared out. Kickoff.

We had a party for the Editor’s professor friends, especially the new cohort of junior faculty. I noticed I still love academia, but ended up in the corner with the Executive Director of a badass grassroots activist organization you’ve heard of. Said when she accepted the directorship, she “baked in” to her contract the authority to hire a co-director. Someone to share the power. They told her: “Men don’t DO that” when they get directorships.

“So what are we supposed to learn from each other tonight about women in leadership?” she asked. I said I don’t know, but in my mind there are some new ideas about leading from a place of receptivity. The social scientists have begun shouting what we already know: that it is very, very difficult for a human to maintain the skills of empathy as his power increases.

But the archetype of femininity (whatever that may be) is empathetic to the core.

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Receptive Leadership

It took an alpha male to wake me up to an archetypically feminine mode of transmitting sacred knowledge. He is a certified silverback, father of four, and Shiva devotee who towers over me. He is deep into his fourth decade of daily Ashtanga practice. His resonant bass voice rattles the rafters and my knee joints when he invokes the saints. And: he does not want my projections, or my power.

This is already saying too much, in his view. He goes with the flow in most everything, but there is one occasion on which he will cut in and disagree with a person: when he detects the ever-present meta-narrative (demonstrated in the paragraph above) about the perfect father figure guru who has finally set us on the straight and narrow and saved us from ourselves. This instructional move is not original – it’s characteristic of the more esoteric wing of 20th Century yoga (J. Krishnamurti, Gurdjieff, Ouspensky…). And I assume it’s the way the nameless, countless women teachers have operated all along.

As above, so below. Or, at another angle, the left-handed path.

I’m going to pretend there are two contrasting ideal types of transmission: transcendent/ right handed/ masculine (in which knowledge is delivered from above to open minds) and immanent/ left handed/ feminine (in which a knowledgeable person immerses himself as a forever-student among other co-learners). In a minute, let’s throw the binary away, but for now maybe it’ll help clarify something.

Ken Wilber distinguishes between hierarchies of knowledge and hierarchies of power (in Sex, Ecology, Spirituality, 2001): in a top-down (right-handed) situation, students are purely receptive. The teacher has the knowledge and power. But in the receptive model, in which the teacher has relatively more experience but also identifies as a life-long student, their students have to do more. More deciding, more figuring-it-out, more taking responsibility, more work. That kind of empowerment appeals to a lot of us in the West for the wrong reasons (a cultural inability to just buck up and have a boss since about November 1963) but when it’s done honestly it’s actually hard. It requires a practitioner go toe to toe with himself, in the field of practice, instead of consigning all decisions to someone else as a relatively clear way to route around his own mental and psychic obstacles.

Historically, ashtanga comes from father figures. Yet at the same time I see receptive teaching all over this practice– in every great teacher. Especially in strong men who have been made to be flexible. And it appears that a tremendous amount of our community’s strength and creativity comes from this sort of secret way of operating.

At random, here are some ways that receptive teaching seems to show up.

Uncompromising technique. Receptive teachers are surprisingly demanding about getting the small stuff right. If you’re going to survive on your own, you need the right foundation. Uncompromising teachers don’t want to babysit you for the first decade of your practice, but they will ride your ass for a few thousand hours until you have a consistent practice and correct method dialed in. That represents a huge energy expenditure on their part.

Investment in relationship. Receptive teaching is not about spreading one’s seeds as broadly as possible and letting yoga Darwinism sort out the rest. The feminine archetype imagines reproductive material to be precious – taking on a new student is not a casual decision, and the little monkeys are looked after carefully at first.

Letting them struggle, and letting them own the learning. . When you take your first steps (er, dropbacks), that’s yours. Your receptive teacher didn’t show you the crucial trick, and doesn’t get credit for anything. He just set some boundaries and held the space.

Speaking of which, boundaries. Receptivity requires safe space. Once you’re in, you’re in. But for a sacred space to come about, not only is there a need for strong transmission, but also for gate keeping. Maybe boundaries are for receptive leadership what hierarchies are to archetypically masculine leadership.

Openness about their own struggles and their suffering. My receptive teachers are transparent – when they have an emotion that can be ethically expressed in a given situation, they go ahead and let it show. In my experience, there is not a lot of distance between their public and private personae. Although this quality in a teacher can be horribly disappointing at first, I have come to find it inspiring. Profoundly so.

They don’t want your power. The archetypical mom has been waiting for you to get your driver’s license since the day you were born. She’s not going to give you the keys if you’re a basket case, but otherwise, for godsakes, please go ahead and drive yourself to soccer practice.

Unconditional acceptance. Students aren’t broken, and don’t need to be fixed. Love isn’t something one earns; it’s a background condition of everything we do.

“I don’t know.” Because they’re still a student. Or they want you to figure it out yourself.

“I AM NOT YOUR TRANSFORMATION.” When my teaching mentor stared down on me with his eyes popped out and Shiva hair flying, and staged whispered that line in the lobby of the Santa Monica YogaWorks in 2007, I started to give in. Fine. You are not my transformation. Working with this instruction is a different kind of surrender.

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Study the guru to forget the guru.

So there is a party with said teaching mentor, right here, four weeks from today, and the price of admission is reading all 427 pages of Guruji: A Portrait of Shri K Pattabhi Jois. We have a good number set now upon the work, and they know they know better than to show up having just skimmed or skipped a few chapters here and there.

I plan to sit back in the corner, drink gynostemma (jnano – gyno tea), and frame leading questions here and there. After four weeks and 400 pages of dreamy hagiography, will they be ready to have a senior teacher play search and destroy on big ideas?

Seven years ago, he and I would sit together after practice and I’d ask for stories, and instead what I’d get most days would be exercises in keeping it real. I was addicted to nostalgia and obsessed with the story of who we were. Still am. Sometimes he’d throw out a gems of the Guruji history, which I wanted more than anything (in those days, there were no published interviews and the best source for our history was the archives of the EZBoard, which probably makes better reading than the clickbait in your feeds).

But other times he’d just roll his eyes at my eagerness, look up to the perfect Santa Monica skies, and stage whisper that these are the good old days. These.