I. Pre-empting future suffering.
Ashtanga’s exhaling, everywhere. I returned home from India in March to the news that our shala’s rent was multiplying so many times over that we might have to close. No. Time to go into long-term planning mode.
The same week, two of the shalas I looked to as leaders – in Boulder and in New York –announced they were closing due to unaffordable rent. This is America ruled by real estate mafia: passive income for the 1%, double shifts for those of us who are actually productive. It’s a very challenging time to teach large group classes. A socialist esoterica school doesn’t get to have 2500 square feet on Main Street.
Except for when it does. I got quiet here to sort it out. I didn’t want to say a thing until deals were sealed. That’s done now. We have a long term plan and two contingency plans for stability.
They thought I might survive by opening a “yoga studio.” ADVERTISE. Build a following around my name as a brand. Run classes all day, with a variety of formats. Train teachers to take on my responsibilities as the main asana instructor, while I lead the business instead. Redefine my work to satisfy the building owners who want more rent. No. I’m not turning the shala into a store. Commodification is not a long term thriving strategy.
Ashtanga DOES need to exhale now. It is time for this practice to contract; become smaller; go back underground to do a ton of inner work. I will teach through this time and I will love it. The ashtanga I fell in love with 20 years ago was a tough-minded yet mystical counterculture. And as that, our shala will continue in a signless upstairs space on Main Street, where we’ve been for ten years. To survive, I’ll be running a variety of anti-capitalist-within-capitalism experiments. New organizational strategies are taking shape, little bit little. It’s so clear now that the ashtanga-splosion that happened the last ten years – obsession with postural achievements and worship of teachers –has been an avoidance of just looking inside. So now, we look inside or die. What will remain of this practice – given the economic pressure we are all under – desperately needs organizational forms that support grounded self-reflection, outside of the internet and yoga vacations. We will see what happens in Ann Arbor. The micro-experiments are up and running….
Something else I was quiet about… until the incisions were sealed.
The week after the news of our rent increase, I had arthroscopic surgery on my right anterior meniscus. The knee was fine as it was, but I saw a restriction in my mobility coming decades down the road. The time to stop and prevent future suffering was now.
Blame my practice if that’s the story you are telling. You’d be wrong, though it’s true I have practiced ashtanga daily since April of 2003, and much of the 3 years before that. I’m not pursuing flexibility. Rather, the coup de grace for my strong, mobile knee came when I collapsed upon seeing my father in pain. Long story. Two months in Mysuru healed the MCL; 4 minutes on an operating table gave the meniscus new life it would not have enjoyed in any other era.
Surgery was wonderful. I watched, without the meds. You know that thing, when peak experience bends time? The mind slows perception so you can count the stitches in the baseball that’s flying at your face. Watching a tiny knife inside my knee was like that.
The surgeon allowed me to watch the procedure, with one shot to the L3 to numb the lower body for 20-30 minutes. He doubted my ability to stay calm, watching my own body opened up without feeling. He had the anesthesiologist roll a stainless steel cart alongside my bed, needles and a face mask ready to go the second I lost my composure. And then he tested me, describing the procedure while we both listened to the heart rate monitor speed up as things got real.
Realizing this was a test, I took a controlled belly breath and asked the heart to slow. Magic. The surgery team prepped for 50 minutes; I kept the heart slow and steady enough to earn their trust. They said this level of control shouldn’t be possible. But then something happened. Over the course of a minute, I lost sensory AND motor function below the L3. The diaphragm would contract up under my ribs on a conscious, controlled exhale, and then halfway through the next inhale all ability to feel and to DO would drop away. If there is one thing I always have, one strategy above strategies, it is the ability to breathe with consciousness and control. One breath, I had it; and the next round I had half. Only the bottom of the exhale and the top of the inhale. But I needed the breath to stay deep and slow in the belly to keep the heart rate impressively slow. One false heartbeat, and they’d snap the gas mask on my face and sign the down-regulation job over to the drugs.
There was the face mask. There was the anesthesiologist with a hand on the mask. There was a wheel of gleaming tools rolling towards my leg. And I could not ask my breath to inhale, or feel it if it did. This is weird, but I prayed to the heart rate. Not a prayer from the heart, but a prayer TO the muscle, asking for a particular rhythm. Specifically I prayed to the beep. And all nine of us in the operating room stayed with the beep for four long minutes of meniscus shave. Please beep, be steady. Take care of our patient.
She beeped. The mystical thing was knowing in my unconscious gut that the breath was down there in the belly even while my pranamaya “I” was offline. My training in nervous system self-regulation couldn’t help; but the autonomic system had me. For half of every breath cycle, there was nothing my “I” could do. This was visceral-mystical game, half the inhale and half the exhale as will, half as surrender, and the heart holding both sides accountable. That shot in the spine represents the most drugs I’ve ever done in my life. It was a very good trip.
I said no to the Oxycontin they offered for no good reason; a day with ice and the books of Sheldon Pollock was sufficient. I tried to watch Innerspace too, but the real thing’s better.
II. Authorities of Post-Authoritarianism.
Sometimes you just need to hear it from a man. And old man.
You know? The realizations. The “new paradigms.” The re-programming instructions on how to fix yourself. It helps to hear it from One Who Knows.
Yoga is in a big post-authoritarian moment right now. This is positive. Thank god. (Insert subconscious grandpa god-image.) Thank… the men who have come to save us…?
How is this post-authoritarian again?
Please think about John Friend. Sorry. Not the man, the syndrome. The man with a roll of paradigms inside his coat, one for every era. Savior – Power Abuser – Savior again. Doesn’t matter what story we’re all telling, he just needs to be the one with the Solutions. The movable Savior.
Anyone can be that guy. What is required is a careful understanding of victimhood. He describes the Problem, and uses one or more Victims to illustrate why his Solution is necessary. If someone notices the pattern, the Savior himself moves into Victim mode, giving birth to new Saviors who become emotionally invested in defending him and his holy Solution. It’s totally fine if you hold some Solution dear – new paradigms can be great. But just go behind the energy for a minute. The second the Savior plays Victim, you know he’s not in it to help anyone at all. He’s playing for power. This means many more future rounds on the Savior-Victim-Problem wheel.
So: yoga’s anti-authoritarian moment. It will have authorities.
Basically modern yoga is entering Season 2 of Westworld.
This spring in the ashtanga world, I’ve had old men (I’d call them colleagues, but they genuinely might be insulted by this) tell me I suffer from years of submission into the authoritarian/patriarchial culture they themselves embody… and which now they can cure me of. I thought my anger about this was just my own, but this month some of the senior teachers I respect most have told me they also can’t believe this moment we are in. Having to listen to angry, dominating men tell us how we’ve been wrong all these years.
Dominating men: do you imagine we need you to think for us? Do you think for a minute that we didn’t see your authoritarianism problem the minute we walked in the door? Do you think we didn’t create discrete, systematic, non-authoritarian ways around you from the start? We never needed to change you; we just made sure to show you enough respect you wouldn’t get obsessed with dominating us, and to stay sufficiently invisible that you wouldn’t “fall in love” with us. The anti-authoritarianism we’ve always had isn’t a Solution. It’s not a workshop title. It’s just that unlike the Saviors, a lot of us have minds that are grounded. We don’t get lost in big ideas. We use our brains.
We hear one woman say she was mistreated: we believe her. It’s just good sense to a grounded mind. Women don’t lie about abuse. And abuse can come from Perpetrators, from Saviors, from Saviors playing Victims. Dear Savior: you ever exploit someone who opened up to you, humiliate a vulnerable person for power, “fall in love” with a woman in your care? Is this question upsetting? Sorry. Don’t worry: the answer doesn’t make you a Problem because those of us with a grounded thinking process try to stay out of that game. But still, if these questions are upsetting, please lay off the Savior thing. It’s not helping anyone but you.
Putting energy into the Savior thing keeps us locked in a dominance system that was already old when I started yoga twenty years ago. It’s a way to keep dominating old men in power. But anti-authoritarianism grew up without saviors from the grass roots of grounded minds of generations of both men and women. I will explain.
Going forward, Yoga will see an anti-authoritarian paradigm coalesce. It’s good in the long run, bizarre in the short run. There will be gurus of consent culture and trauma commodifiers. We will pay money and attention to learn about the post-authoritarian paradigm, from authorities who spend their days self-promoting on the internet rather than serving in classrooms. I want to talk about the established sources that the new authorities of anti-authoritarianism will mine for ideas.
The new gurus will get their material from nurturers. From field-tested anti-authoritarians. From people whose M.O. was always to be hyper-sentisive to the vulnerable, and to risk their own reputations on defending them. From people who have the moral intelligence to go against the flow of their professions if that is what it takes to protect their students. I’m thinking especially of a generation of senior women and men who teach only to their personal students, whose material is a non-branded form of asana that they created out of years of study and service. I suspect ashtanga lost some of these service-driven teachers, because our asana obsession and authorization/ certification hierarchy can be a distraction from a real commitment to serving those in need. My guess is that most of these people defected before my time, but some of them stayed and worked within the subculture. My first decade of practice, I ran across a dozen of the ones who stayed. These are the strongest teachers in the field. They aren’t writing about their work; they are DOING their work. If you’re here to co-opt my ideas about anti-authoritarianism, I won’t help you find these people whose practice and insight are so much better than mine.
….But I can say the ways that I have been post-authoritarian for the first ten years of my teaching practice, and how I learned to be like this. The reason to note this living history is, again, to challenge the proposition that the post-authoritarianism is new, and that there is anyone who can speak of it with authority.
Post-authoritarianism, consent culture and trauma sensitivity are the background intelligence of all of today’s yoga; since I started practicing it’s been a muted mycelial intelligence that makes this whole thing sustainable. It’s the nurturers – both men and women – who made yoga what it is now, and who continue making it every day. The majority of what we know isn’t from Saviors; it’s from servants.
For 18 months, every teacher I know who operates from nurturance has been alienated, devastated, even traumatized to learn that ashtanga yoga has a history of sexual abuse. Worse, we are still as a subculture muting vulnerable women. All of the nurturing teachers are sad for the women. Most of us are sad for the authorities who are broken because they didn’t nurture correctly when they should have, and can’t find a way to process their cognitive dissonance and guilt now. Our generation of nurturers is soul-searching, and blaming ourselves that we did not somehow do better. I am sorry. We are sorry. That we didn’t see. We’re worried about EVERYONE else, whatever their perspective on historical abuse of power in our practice.
Nurturers are great at moral labor; we’ll carry that guilt the Saviors are shoving off. And while we do so, our hearts go to any women who has ever been abused, silenced or shunned. This is how nurturance operates inside a person’s mind. It’s a kind of mind that rushes out to the most vulnerable person and asks what can be done. The answer is never to a Solution. It is so much more more humble than that. It is meeting their needs, without disempowering them by Saving them.
Repeatedly I tell the Saviors I have never been an authoritarian, that I don’t have the problem they want to fix in me. Because I have been taught and mentored by nurturing men! But a woman who is not broken and does not need saving is not of value in the Savior world. There are spaces online where ashtanga teachers discuss the discipline. One by one, non-authoritarian teachers have realized, we are not even heard in conversations about authoritarianism. If women say someone is not safe, we are disbelieved. If we say we are not Victims, we are disregarded. It’s fine. We just go back to our work of nurturance.
You know how the mind of an authoritarian works? It believes our broken-hearted softness makes us weak. For this reason, in the near future, anti-authoritarianism will pass from the everyday work of meeting needs on students’ own terms, to an intellectual property of the Yoga Alliance. It will be used in service of that organization’s epic colonialist dominance move. This moment in yoga history will end quickly, but it’s exciting to watch because it points to how authoritarianism could truly die. Dialectically. In our own times, on a large scale, we could see the emergence of a deep, even devotional, simple, non-sectarian, post-colonialist understanding of yoga. The sublime performative contradiction of colonialist, authoritative anti-authoritarianism could make the whole edifice explode. Think about it. Then what remains is the same old mycelial network, teachers who do the daily work of nurturance without thinking that makes them Saviors.
Here is why Yoga Alliance anti-authoritarianism will eat itself: it will be driven by people whose minds are not grounded. Leaders who don’t have that basic thing, the part of you that makes it impossible to play follow-the-leader, or to pretend the boss is always right. That healthy ego that keeps you out of cults. Narcissist leaders lack healthy ego, and their institutions lack enduring values. Their legitimacy claim is to Save you of their ills. History wrote this plan out for us already. It predicts things will get culty for a minute. Enemies will be sought and persecuted; saviors will play victims. Then it’ll pass, and the professionals will still just be here taking care of our students above all, and doing our reverent best to honor a priceless, ancient tradition from a world we can just barely understand.
I’m just the loudest of a deep background of teachers who serve. Most of us are nurturing women. And some of us are the kind of alpha-male the Alt-right never understood: the leader who lives to shelter others. My generation is full of these nurturing teachers, and we are the ones studying the wounds that the culty aspects of yoga creates. This is what nurturers do. We take responsibility.
This is a whole world of practitioners who have all along acted out of what I’m going to call futurism. Futurists are NOT idea jocks with a platform (any savior here to change the world: Elon, Zuckerberg, heads of state, the Yoga Alliance). Futurists are stewards of history, Earth, and human bodies. In yoga, it’s people who know that our role is to take care of our students, and of this practice that we fundamentally respect. Growing in to the ideology of service that my fellow nurturing-teachers taught me by example changed the entire meaning of my life. Before teaching, the meaning of my life came from the past. “Actions leave traces” was a statement that helped me find the meaning of the present in history, and I devoted my 20s entirely to historical study. When I started teaching, I realized that “actions leave traces” can’t be a warm, sweet, nostalgic trigger anymore; it’s a mantra that has me examining the first, second and third order effects of every teaching move I make. Teaching is not about me, and it’s not about short-run effects. It’s about what happens far from here and now. It’s about this student’s body when he is 85, and about what will come of Yoga in a century if we treat it as sacred – and if we don’t.
I learned futurism by tuning in to the murmur of the nurturance network. I’ll sample the murmur below. This is not language of dogmas, or solutions, or enemies. It is the mundane shoptalk of nurturers. People who identify risks early, and who are the first responders any time they can be there for someone in pain. The particular topic below is recent intuitive responses to routine abuses of power. The teachers who talk like this with me share the idea that what we’re working with is priceless and sacred. Students’ experiences are sacred. And the yoga tradition: yes, priceless.
I have found some of the futurists who populate the non-ashtanga world. We are united by horror at what the Yoga Alliance is angling to do to future yoga (remember, we see risk early). And we are drawn together by our worry about the effects of gymnastic internet yoga on the next generation of practitioners. Still, most of what I know about futurism is within ashtanga. In that world, futurism sounds like teachers talking over coconuts, or WhatApp across 12 timezones. This is not an ideological program. It’s the background value system of the quiet nurturers I admire most. I can tell you their murmur has had this post-authoritarian theme for the entire decade I’ve been looped in. (About a dozen of you might recognize our conversations in this anonymized stream.) Let’s just un-mute this background hum in yoga consciousness for a minute. Again, this is my anonymized verion of nurturers thinking about the future, feeling weird about aspects of the present that don’t bode well and need to be addressed quietly for students’ sake:
“…I feel weird about this idea that teachers have some sort of wisdom or grace the student doesn’t understand until they submit. Yeah me too. Surrender is a thing, but westerners turn it into a bypass. How many people have I met who got injured in a workshop after the teacher lectured about the importance of surrender? I feel terrible for these students who go through this. It’s also such a tragedy for yoga. Let’s not infantilize people….”
“…I feel weird about training my students to bow to images of other humans. Like, can idolatry of humans ever be a healthy example? It feels so dangerous for them. And I’d be mortified if they ever treated me like that later. Gotta do the right thing on this one….”
“…Ok so what does it look like to give power to students? Encourage them to learn to practice alone? Be radically faithful to them, but never ask them not to study elsewhere? Say ‘I don’t know’ a lot? Suggest to study the tradition early, so that they also feel like it is theirs – the teacher isn’t the guardian of the meaning? Give them the opportunity to hold us accountable by coming early any morning to practice alongside us? Exaggerate fallability; ask them to check our memory or facts…?”
“…I mean, can a shala exist without instagram? I think that is where students go to look for teachers now? I don’t know but doesn’t someone have to try to set an example for another way? Maybe that’s what is happening now – yoga teachers commodifying themselves and working full time to feed the mediabeast – but long run there’s gotta be people who show there is another way. I’m gonna sit this one out for the team…”
“… I feel weird about new students objectifying my teacher like some sort of god. It’s dehumanizing. It’s like western students feel entitled to having their own personal super-human to throw all their projections onto, like this is psychotherapy. This feels super dangerous, like a setup for alienation later. It feels important to just relate to teachers as humans and be open about the fact that we don’t assume they are always be right or always have a good reason for what they do. This culty vibe is just not safe for the future…”
“…Wow there is some seriously wrong unsolicited advice going down in classrooms. I can’t believe how disturbed my student is by this random thing a senior teacher said to her years ago. Leaves a mark. Dammit, it’s so sad for the student, and obviously the teacher was just projecting. I mean, you’d think our colleagues would understand the basics of consent? This is tricky because how we get across the idea that unsolicited advice is garbage, without playing the savior and creating some sort of perpetrator energy around the person who gave the bad advice? Seems more important than anything not to start up a victim cyclone about something a student can also maybe decide to blow off…”
“…I feel weird that old men sleep with young women who look up to them as teachers. Yeah, this makes me afraid for young students. I don’t understand how you’d ever sexualize a student? Are we the only ones who feel an incest taboo? Maybe at this stage we just don’t pretend this is legit, even if it means we’re socially ostracized for it? Maybe warn the young women…?
“…I feel super weird about yoga teachers making a big deal about their devotion to their teacher – they’re training their students how to be ritually submissive. Yes. Super awkward. Probably this is well-intentioned, but dangerous for the people in our care. Let’s keep our heart-feelings about our teachers to ourselves…”
“…I feel weird about the workshop circuit – this idea of acting like the authority and then leaving before I even know the effects of the work. Yeah, that’s super challenging. Amway Ashtanga – let the local teacher send you the money, and fix the mess you create. I mean, let’s find every way we can to take long-term responsibility for the instructions and the touch that we give…”
“…I feel weird about teachers in really attention-getting clothes, or almost no clothes. Can I say that? No I don’t think there’s space to say this out loud. Yoga’s still in second wave feminism right now; women’s power here is seen as super capitalist and individualist. Dudes will claim this gives them cover to go shirtless when they teach. But when I pay close attention to students I see it creates sexual overtones, and that’s why it matters for future students to do things another way. If we wait it out, feminisms that center the vulnerable will get popular enough to help out here. I can’t believe ashtanga still in second wave feminism…”
“…Sometimes I get an impulse to adjust someone outside the clear plan we have for their practice. Do you ever just roll with that? I dunno, kind of no. I used to before I really thought how the law of cause-and-effect plays out in my realationships; but increasingly I just feel super weird about random touch. I think the deeper my understanding of consent goes, the clearer I get about the intention of my every action in the classroom…”
“…I feel super weird about marketing stuff to students and especially about taking money from them if I’m not actually working for them. Yeah, that’s definitely weird. Easy money feels dirty because it’s not ours. Their resources matter. The money we earn is the money we work for. We’re not passive income bots…”
…And so on.
This is actual, anonymized shop talk from 2019. It must be offensive to some, but you may as well know it’s there humming in the background as a constant protective force.
This is the process of nurturing teachers anticipating problems – by feeling weird in their guts – and solving them before they arise. Gentle futurism.
By contrast, the Savior identifies problems far after the fact, and imposes new idea-based paradigms to solve the limited aspects of reality he perceives as the Problem. The point is to see the world from above and impose authority from that place.
Nurture is not an IDEA. It’s a methodology that works with the exact situation at hand, and never makes big moves. “Move slow and plant things,” the permaculturists say, in contrast to the authoritarian’s “walk soft and carry a big stick.”
Grounded thinking literally leads to ground-up forms of action. It’s small, gradual, slow, and mostly anonymous. Not idea-driven and centered around single personalities. Nurturing teachers emphatically do not need authorities to them straight. They need authorities to talk all day, from very far away, and stay out of the way of the work on the ground.