I asked the shala if they wanted to practice on Christmas, and they emojied back like:
Yeah, did you even need to ask? Yes the ritual remains on religious holidays, apocalypse days, and snow days. You still don’t know the schedule?
Oh, right. That was when I realized: some time last year the entity that is the shala crossed a threshold. Ten years of practice without a break. What a surprise. In that time, the organization has convened for every practice day. I was not tracking this, but realized that subconsciously the log I’ve been keeping for the group on Slack since March – an entry for every practice day we take in lockdown – has been a way of tending the space. Today, following Led Primary, I posted Shala Log #245 to note that practice was complete, I’ll see them again Sunday, and 2021 has begun.
Zoom sickness is real. The app is problematic. Still, Led Class with its thumbnails of mats and cats explode my heart. Many of us teachers find that Led is easy on the deep mind, whereas observing Mysore style practice grinds away at the soul somehow. I think our community should be extremely cautious about what is happening to our most experienced Mysore teachers right now, and not expect the most knowledgeable of them to labor too long each day in Zoom rooms. Reducing Mysore to 2D has the potential to erode the skills cultivated by years in Mysore rooms learning to teach with our teachers. I have a theory about why and how, for another time.
Led is different and kind of amazing. There, I have learned to syncopate my sentimental noises between the beats of the count. How to mute myself out while toddlers climb up parents’ standing poses, and cats lay in laps for ut pluthi. How to catch three people doing the same thing simultaneously on three continents, and connect them in sync with a couple of words. It brings a lot of energy, which has been harder for individuals to generate in isolation; and it eases the loneliness in a real way.
Over the years, the hardest thing about working in a transient town has been that I often get just a year or two to teach the foundations to people on post-docs or at the beginning of a tech career that soon takes them to India or Singapore or SF. So I invest deeply for a couple years in people who ten go out to the wider ashtanga community and, I thought, would never return. It is just a lot of goodbyes. But now a good number of those long-departed are back, from kind of everywhere.
And a few more new souls have found their way to us through fairy doors in the digital, in ways no less real than walking up to the shala. So OF COURSE the Zoom thumbnail collage blows my heart into a million pixels. How can we all be here, actually breathing in synchrony, actually meditating in the same way as a whole? Our coming together makes such a positive difference for us all.
While I count, I study what I can about their surroundings, the movement of their ribs as they breathe. Sometimes there will be two different people in Seattle or Tampa or Minneapolis and the light in both rooms will change at just the same moment, because one cloud just moved. Always the dogs on various continents get rowdy in unison (how do they decide?); there is no perceptible logic to the children, roommates and cats. I want more than anything to introduce them all to one another in the real, put them in a room to breathe together, to learn again through gesture and touch and the carefully unsaid.
Later, I have no intention to settle for two-dimensionality. But it’s good in the way that early internet ashtanga (The EZ Board, Ashtangi.net) was good: a search function for like minds that can later give way to the more-real. I predict some resistance in transition back to 3D, because it will be awkward and uncontrolled and intimate and scary…. But that’s for later.
In September it got too cold to teach outside, so I rented a car and drove to Montana. Up over the Mackinaw Bridge into the rocky shores of deep Lake Superior, down through Wisconsin and Minnesota, a few days in haunted South Dakota, then a loop around Devil’s Tower up into the bottom right corner of Montana and my parents. Teaching all the way on wobbly wifi; sleeping in tents; listening to local radio for a sense of each place’s mindset; reading DeToqueville in the evenings to bookend what felt like the Death of America.
I thought I’d keep going to Seattle, to be the one person in attendance at my brother’s new show at Jacob Lawrence Gallery, but that was when the fires hit. My parents and I cleaned Billings out of box fans and furnace air filters and FedExed them west so he could keep breathing. And then, facing my anxieties about Montana and falling hard for their bribe (a new calico kitten named Allegra – the one word, an Engadin greeting, they learned on their first-ever trip out of America last year) I settled in to my parents’ basement for a couple of weeks. The biggest weeks in a very big year.
It’s been three years since they moved off the campus of the rural children’s mental hospital where they had worked since 1969. Yes, I grew up on campus of an idyllic ranch… that was really a mental institution. Long story. Now they live in town, and work as a hospital chaplain and childrens’ therapist. Other people’s trauma is their normal; they are both a little Gandalfy in their calm-under-pressure vibes, and in their taste for epic drama. Gandalfy but small (we all wear the same clothes interchangably). So it had not entirely registered with me that Dad was facing severe Covid trauma daily in the ER. Not until I was there. He brought home all we needed to know in his sad evening heart and downcast face. The deaths he was holding space for during September are too private and heartbreaking to share here. We would process together by pumping blood through the heart, biking out through corfields into the high brush plains of Yellowstone county.
My grandma’s last bike, out of many, is a BMXish fold-up cycle with wheels half the circumference of a proper road bike. She rode it into her 80s and now it’s my mom’s. I’d pump those tiny wheels 5-10 miles every night, still slowing Dad down enough to ease my worries about him going over his recommended heart rate. Best weeks of the year, just being there beside him, in motion, as he played his part in history and worked through his feelings about it all. And now I have this weird cycling habit.
On Sept 30 I was outside Oskaloosa, traipsing around places my paternal grandparents, and their parents, all lived from the middle 1800s until 1954. That morning during teaching, a weird email came in. A too-familiar name, a number to call immediately, and certain dread. My student Lisa had died for no reason in the night. Her young sons and husband were in shock; they just wanted me to know. I didn’t know what to do on a leadership level, so I drove and cried and talked to Lisa for ten highway hours across three states. She too was from eastern Iowa. And that day, I felt she was hovering both there, and around Michigan with her shala and family, and all I could do was just be with her in this in-betweeness of place and aliveness and endings.
On a personal level, losing her is a slow stab of pain, mostly because I heard so much about her sons each day in the before, and still feel right now that part of them cut off as she disappeared. On the drive back home, I got to the place of being able to tell the shala, in digital, that a vibrant and adored one of us had suddenly, unreasonably left her body. Holding the space for their loss was the job, I thought, but the next day they all just took it over. They found ways to grieve through cooking, tree planting, letters, ritualized memory, and a dozen different sorts of potent memorials. Lisa thorugh this has done an Obi-Wan, transforming into a disembodied, sweet spirit around the 2D shala.
What the students’ ability to grieve and serve in 2D showed me was that much of the value of my work is not done by me but by the community of care that forms around daily practice. I have no interest, now, in facilitating lone wolf ashtanga. I have been the lone wolf, purifying my nervous system at 3 in the morning and silencing the mind, dreaming of caves and liberation from the messiness of community life. It’s all very comfortable. Being alone feels amazing. And in this era, my work is not for that. It’s to facilitate practice in a way that helps us to find union outside of the individual, so we can be there for each other in grief and tragedy and joy and celebration. We live in a world that makes it very hard to forge communities the size and density that churches, temples, mosques and synagogues were to our ancestors. The woo-woo that held those places together doesn’t stick anymore, but the initiations of birth and maturation and death still need a collective to hold them. When you are a child and your mother dies, you need someone to bring you meals, to express how important she was in the world, to care about how sad you feel and witness what this means for your life. We all need to do this for others too, or some of our empathy function is lost. There is a long history of lone wolf practice and abandonment of others in the spiritual traditions. It has always tempted me, but now at the time at which isolation most available, it has somewhat lost its intrigue. It feels like the world needs more of us in these times.
I think a lot – a LOT – about solidarity. And about how you don’t know who you are, or how strong your practice is, and especially how real your relationships are, until there’s meaningful stress put upon you. It is then that the fake friends, fair weather practices, and superficial personae are swept away. What I saw about myself in September is that when things get tough I’m less stoic and equanimous than I feel day to day. But the shala itself showed me how strong it was. I guess a decade of daily practice will do that to you.
In October things got insane in Michigan. Insane. The highest drama history I’ve lived through. You probably heard about gubernatorial kidnapping plots and rich racists trying to cancel voters in Detroit. Look closer, and it gets a billion times weirder. Anyway, I have been learning the real estate market here for two years, since I became the lease holder for the physical shala on Main Street. I was the first person in my family to purchase a home, back in 2013, so the learning curve has been steep. But under Mercury retrograde and a collective sense of terror as the election approached, with mortgage rates the lowest they’ve ever been, and at the cusp of the dramatic inflation I expect in 2021, I saw a moment to make a move. So I doubled down on my commitment Michigan, sold a place downtown and bought the one my old-lady self will want in the forest. It was a way of opening to that collective moment of terror and using it to invest more deeply in this place.
For now I am getting to know the most obvious new neighbors: hickory and oak trees, birds with bright red heads and blue ones that flutter in groups, deer who lie down in the snow in the evening to rest, but who are gone in the morning when instead huge turkeys – their beaks buried down in their neck feathers – stand sleeping in the snow. I guess this land is particularly safe in these times for even the slowest and meatiest of creatures, a human or two included. But that’s all I know, so far. I’ve been an urban, and really an international, being for so long that it will take me time to learn what languages are spoken out here.
SUMMER – SPRING – WINTER
Summer was a whole new world of practicing outside. In the spring, the 2D shala formed itself and came to life around the planet. In the winter I went alone to South America because I could not stop dreaming about the Amazon rainforest trees, and because more than anyplace in the world I wanted to visit the home of a beloved Argentinean friend. Those memories, rich and full of color, have nourished me all year. I think the fact that I was traveling alone, and keeping silence most of the month, opened my mind up to a huge amount of sensory experience that I am still tasting, savoring, 11 months later. Before that, right at the start of 2020, I spent the holidays and New Year teaching in Seattle.
How the 2D shala formed is a good story, but it’s getting into afternoon here on New Year’s Day, and this morning is the only time I’ve set aside for writing… and there’s something important from the start of the year I want to document instead.
BEFORE THE STORM
In January 2020, I had a kind of dream.
(TW: SKPJ. I apologize if this dream offends anyone, at all. Because it is offensive in a way. But I think this dream is supposed to be shared – I think that’s why it showed up in me—and I spent all of 2020 afraid to publish various previous drafts of what went down….)
What I’m about to describe happening on the astral plane started to heal my heart of the pain that dominated the previous two years, since we learned that Patthabi Jois sexually molested some female students in the classroom. And – far more surprisingly – that a group of senior students (mostly alpha men who presented themselves as authorities over the community) had shunned and silenced the women he harmed.
The dream of restorative justice I wrote about last January weighed on my heart for two years, from the time Jubilee Cooke generously met with me in person to remove the scales from my eyes. All the teachers I’m close with have felt this soul-crushing grief in different ways: be it as guilt; self-doubt about our own discernment all these years; as loss of trust in colleagues who have failed to atone for their actions or help lead us out of the cult mentality. And especially through sadness about treasured friendships whose foundation now feels unstable. In all of this, 2018-19 was a painful time for those of us who have been around a decade or two. We lost so much that held us together, in trust, story, place and path.
I coped by going deep local, focusing on how real the practice is in the daily life of each of my students. Their clarity has grounded my faith in the path more than ever—especially because they have been so stable in the absence of a binding myth. But still I felt sad all the time for two solid years, starting when Karen Rain came forward in 2017, about the sins we as a community committed against our most vulnerable women. About how we did not take care of our most tender.
About how we became followers, when we needed to be protectors.
So in the dream, I become a snake. (Thanks to latent Christian programming for the full archetypical buildout in my dreamlife.)
There is a bolus in my belly that I’m attempting to digest (like the way pythons digest small mammals in documentaries), but it won’t decompose. So instead my body is trying to yawn it out. I yawn, and arch my spine, and try to do a kind of peristalsis to move the bolus up out of the belly. Over a long time, it inches up past my floating ribs, opening up the constriction in my heart as it moves up. It passes through the throat, stretching open the soft palate in a way that feels excellent inside my skull. But it jams into my jaw, threatening to block me from ever eating again.
I’m stuck there a while. Then I’m reminded that I am a snake now, and snake jaws are detachable. Aha! So I unhook my mandible and continue giving reverse-birth to the bolus. It is a slow, slow process and as the bolus exits my body my jaw feels healed somehow, the anger and grief stored there coming out like afterbirth as the bolus drops to the floor in front of me.
You must know who it was. But not in the form of a godman: in the form of a foetus, innocent and fleshy and reverse-birthed from my body. A person I never chose as my teacher, a person who never even knew my name, who was nonetheless deeply enmeshed in my DNA as a result of twenty years of unbroken ashtanga practice. When he came out of my body, as a foetus, I saw that he was pure potential. In that moment, his karma was unknown. Just a being, a soul, with as much innocence and deviance as beings do have. In that moment he had not become the great and terrible things he would be to the people in my world. He was genetic material, formerly part of my coding. I never quite knew he was in there. But now he’s not.
So 2020 started with a clean CRISPR edit of my subconscious. And now I’ve had a year to practice autonomously, without this tender helpless stranger lacing my double-helix. It hasn’t really been any different. There’s something much deeper imprinted in me through years in Mysore rooms and on Mysore streets, and it’s materialized by the conch, the discus and the sword—not the reduction of our ritual potency to one human being.
Except I’m not so sad anymore. There is a lingering regret that the easy trust is gone, but it’s not the ache of a terrible family secret working its way out of my system. I just practice, and do the teaching practice, and find that I deeply, easily trust this path.
I also find that I have nothing to prove.