Predator & Play • 31 January 2016

Moment, Moment.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

……………………….

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Female Body • 26 November 2015

Tara Hands Feet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to approach

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

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

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

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

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

“She doesn’t. We’ve never met.”

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

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

Prayer wheels

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

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

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

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

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

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

……………………………..

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

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

Ginko

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

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

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

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

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

P.S. Insideout.

Notes to a young teacher • 27 October 2015

High Tide

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

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

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

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

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

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

………………………….

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

…………………….

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trust first, and you will be trusted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SAFE SPACE • 24 August 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Back to yoga schools and yoga stores.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Yoga Bio • 1 May 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, what’s the problem? No problem.

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

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

BUT. Well, two big things.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is everything I want to know about a teacher.

(1) When did she start practicing?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

…………………………………………………….

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.