The start of September, I faced my students for the first time in two months. While I’d finished my own practice in a side room, the main space had filled silently, with all these people I’ve known for years. Touching the threshold my fingertips buzzed in contact with its tiny nails. I called us to attention with a body full of excitement.
There’s an invocation we say to begin. It gets the body’s hidden drums (pelvic floor, diaphragm, soft palate, falx cerebri) vibrating together. It’s a poem to summon a line of teachers from back in time, finally describing a wild jungle shaman with cosmic tools who purges the poison of conditioned existence. I had been away in India, chanting call-and-response, but back home we do it in unison. I’ll never be a guru and thus don’t lead the rites: I teach it to beginners, and then we as a group co-create each ritual new. But that first day in September, my system was in the rhythm of following my teacher. After the first line, I forgot what to do next and stood there, facing them, empty. Not noticing I’d fallen silent, the student body filled me in. Putting Patanjali in his place.
That is the collective becoming intelligent. A flit in time, easy to miss, easy to dismiss. But there are so many of these hints of collective sentience now. They’re tiny but not trivial, because it’s not just social connection that is arising – it is a kind of intelligence I want to affirm. It shows up not just as shared resonance and esoteric knowledge reproduction, but as aggregate selfless action, collective health care and food sharing and safety, and the lateral transmission of energy in the form of inspiration, hormones and technical know-how. This becomes a group that can radiate altered states (a meditation we call tristhana) to the new folks without my saying much on day one but “breathe like the room.”
My hands know the hormonal cycles of these bodies, the ways they generate focus and pheromones among each other. Young women driven by western culture to amenorrhea (this is a hidden epidemic) recover a lunar rhythm. Secret stewards organize mats, and feed parking meters, and leave mundane/beautiful offerings at the altar. People stay home when contagious, because the health of the group pre-empts the fix they get from collective practice. The currently eight pregnant people connect in hidden ways. Those who are better off in a material sense know when and how to give housing and food to those who need to close a gap.
I bring faith, technical and historical information, a bit of planning, and the right sort of predictability. They trust me to be strong for them if there’s a breach in safe space; some tell an old story about exactly what that looks like. There is also the matter of embodying, after semi-deprogramming from western mind, our lineage’s acutely peculiar relationship to time. (Ashtanga time is nonlinear but absolutely exact, mystical, hyper-intuitive, and dotted with retrograde cycles where you age in reverse and the tides of transmission turn and flow out to sea. Long story.) Beyond bringing them these things, six years in, I’m a center that does best to fall silent.
So this is not a teacher-centered collective. But here they are, offering astonishingly refined energy back to me. Go to minute 10:10.
Listen. There are crowds, and there are collectives. The crowd is not compassionate. The crowd is not smart. I’m a rural right-wing preacher’s kid from one of the poorest counties in the country, exiled and reconciled to her roots. I love where and what I’m from; it is humble heartbreak territory. And I won’t lie to you about the primal side of me. Of us all. No the crowd is not compassionate. And no it is not smart.
But the collective that can congeal anywhere, anytime. The collective that practices. The one that is designed well, and then freed to create itself. That collective may be compassionate, and that collective may be go far beyond smart.
This ain’t politics. It’s a matter of what kind of information can travel through a social nervous system. For now, care, compassion and radical creativity are not the default in a human complex system. In these times, you must be deliberate if you want them to come about.
And now we are here. Pure uncertainty. Don’t tell yourself you can ride out what’s coming on without a new paradigm. You’ll waste your strength trying to hold an old reality together. Every day each of us will be deciding. What to perpetuate, what to join. And what to generate.
The last two years, I’ve tried to integrate the learning from my 20s into my work now as the director of a yoga school. In that past life, I studied cultural and economic history in a sort of salon, the Historical and Comparative section of the UCLA Sociology Department. Dear friends who shared those years remember them as our golden age, getting schooled hard in Marx by Maurice Zeitlin and the sources of social power by Michael Mann, learning to read a book a day. Our crew of of international intellectuals would debate for hours on my Santa Monica balcony at night, and then I’d get up and do corporate asana at Yogaworks Venice or Beverly Hills, practicing next to Tobey Macguire or David Duchovny (two of the few then-celebs whose sweat smelled good). I disowned all that because ashtanga was eventually just better. Better than golden ideas and sunshine and brilliant friends. Yoga subculture really is that good. (And yoga subculture is also potent; we can redirect what we’ve got to be far more awesome than we’re being now). I let that old life go to seed until last year, when I realized that yoga teachers would do a lot better by their students if we dropped the promotional capitalism frame that westerners take for granted, finding more fertile models in grassroots social movements and complex systems.
The writing on this topic has been called scholarly. (As an insult.) I’m so sorry to alienate anyone. Honestly I know how weird it can feel when a girl plays in the masculine domain of macro-economic, historical knowledge. I also get how it’s nasty to openly undress consumerism. But some say my attempt at integrating these two lives offers them new resources. That’s enough. And for what it’s worth, there’s a new cache of techniques below.
Timing matters. Before now, I couldn’t say this: in the arc of socio-economic history, financialization of the economy and devastation of the environment have for years been rotting capitalism and the nation state. Crisis of land and economies is cyclic. In the past, history has kicked up depressions and fascisms in response to paradigm-rot; but at other moments humans have generated communities of care, radical spirituality, and waves of ecstatic solidarity that leave western rich kid festival culture in the dust. I spent 1999 and 2000 in post-Sandinista Nicaragua and Jesuit El Salvador getting a feel for that ecstatic solidarity, albeit not embodying the selflessness that was manifesting because my life was never in danger. To this day I can only half-appreciate the power of their radical collectivist Christ – what that entity did to rewire social nervous systems and define the meaning of life for generations.
This is a different time. A pulsing metaphor can be a key resource, but there’s more. Post-fossil fuel technologies, a fall in many production costs due to 3D printing and such, the benevolent death of consumerism, and social media can change the game. Yoga can absolutely change the game.
For the last two years my intention has been to show that carefully designed, non-commercial collectives are most nourishing for yoga in these times. Such collectives will endure, and will give birth to more of the same. (Why “careful” design? Because de-programming takes so much clarity of consciousness. Consumerism is in the water, and we’ll drink it down if we don’t filter it out.)
Teacher-centric yoga (personally-branded, consumer yoga) is not bad. Yoga is an entity and has its own intelligence. For twenty years it used the consumer machine to spread a thinned-down image of itself. Like a virus. Good job, yoga. Now everyone has some idea of you.
But the consumer yoga of my 20s is not helpful where we are going. We need collectives that are independent of the sick parts of our society – of which consumerism is the very sickest. Put yoga in restorative economies and generative cultures, and watch that marriage of intelligences go wild. The compassionate, creative kind of wild.
Restorative economy and generative culture are abstract terms, and like the other abstractions in this series I use them to point to rabbit holes you can find online. The grassroots are in full ferment right now. Compassionate, intelligent collectives are arising everywhere.
Here are some pieces of practice. Or praxis, as the ecstatic Marxist Christians of end-of-the-century Central America would say.
The shala here has come to life in two overlapping phases. The first was conscious design by a director, collaborating with a tiny group to build a foundation. The second is a selective stepping back, so the collective has more space to become self-intelligent. In this phase, I trust the group to generate goodness that I alone cannot.
Phase 1 – RAW MATERIALS.
I’ve said a lot about this, but here are some more techniques that helped us foster a grassroots group without much consumer mentality in the mix.
FIRST. Recognizing relationship as foundational. Regenerative and creative culture arise from connection. Far better than consumerism (where energy exchange is inherently exploitative) a relationship-based paradigm is a natural match for a tradition based on student-teacher relationship and long term commitment. You can’t sell inter-subjectivity. You can only develop it.
Consumerism disposes of people as objects; but in the open space beyond that paradigm, one can see how broken relationship is a very deep loss. If there are lies or abuse, perhaps it must happen. From the perspective of safe space, it is good to filter out such energy from the start. The shaucha of healthy boundaries is indispensable in a collectivity. Still, when it’s clear that relationship is what we have, reconciliation and forgiveness become high spiritual skills. If a story is being used to create hardness of heart, this degrades material, energetic, mental and spiritual resources. Relationship narratives that stabilize healthy connection breed strong energy economies.
Big picture, it’s important not to be story-poor. Not to let the imagination fail us.
SECOND. The banality of capitalism says a little consumerism is no big deal. “That’s just how things work.” Mmmm hmmmm. Suddenly you’ve got an underpaid front desk person, a retail space and a group-on. Commodification is the inexorable inner force of capitalism, and this is how it worms in. I respect it. And I see within my mind how easy it is to turn yoga in to things – an approach to practice based on postures and tricks and one-off marketable experiences where there is no sustained relationship of teachers and students.
Resistance is possible. But it’s easier to do things an entirely different way.
THIRD. Marketability meh, accountaiblility yes. For example, seeing how lazy I can be, I’ve set myself up in relationships where I am forced to grow. This originally began as a funny counterpoint to the capitalist imperative of constant profit growth. I chose students whose arc was steep and strong, so that I myself would be forced into spiritual growth. As it has turned out, that has usually meant staying in the super-inspired headspace of beginner’s mind myself.
Meantime, workshops are the yoga consumer item par excellence. So far I’ve found it undermines consumer mentality if I only teach them in places where I have a long-term student-teacher relationship with the director, and if I commit to coming back repeatedly to support the group’s and my own growth. I can’t recycle content on them; I have to keep going deeper. With repeated contact, and sincere mutual investment in relationship, the creativity gets more interesting every year.
FOURTH. Ownership. Students here like that some of them pay more, or less, or in the form of service outside the shala. What’s important is the agreement, the recognition that we live in an unequal society and for our group to be egalitarian the contributions need to vary in both quantity and kind.
This leads to a sense of ownership of the shala that undergirds the ownership each person has of her practice.
By the way, if you wanted to make sure ownership/stewardship of one’s practice or one’s collective do not arise, shame students. Shame is emotional napalm. Shame is scorched earth. Shame is cheap control, and it’s not helpful if collective intelligence is the intention.
FIFTH. Understanding that story organizes collectives clarifies that awareness of scapegoat/martyr mind is key. It is easy for shaming/blaming mind to take over entire movements. The easy discourse of “I’m shall now make an example of you” excites the witch-hunter whose potential we all carry.
Think yoga people are beyond this? No, we love it. To exemeplify an exemplifier, think briefly of M. Remski. Yum. This mode of meaning-making cannot exist without a yoga damsel in distress– from the drifting everywoman at the start of his Gita essay, to the wife he finds when she comes for astrology expertise and her reading reveals she is just the right quarry for the magistrate himself (*important – see FN in the comment below), to the deluded smoothie drinker who he rescues with Ayurveda in his piece on bitter greens. That’s where I stopped reading, because I saw the structure this was solidifying within my mind, smuggling misogyny over my gates.
Demonizing/victimizing is a moral modus operandi that may that have some use, if only because it lets off steam from the medieval mind in all of us. But right now it is important to describe evil in a way that affirms interconnection and does not increase a charismatic figure’s power. Is evil one man? Discourses in which victims are rescued and perpetrators destroyed obscure the systemic nature of 21st century suffering. This keeps black and white capitalist morality going. These mindsets are addictive until we see them for what they are. If you’re thinking of that Jung line right now, well so am I: “The best political, social, and spiritual work we can do is to withdraw the projection of our shadow onto others.”
Here is the thing. The more clearly and fully we see life as a complex system, the easier it is to think like the universe, and act as the world.
Phase 2 – SENTIENCE
I don’t know, but this is what seems most useful for me now if I want the collective I’m behind to have space to become increasingly compassionate, creative and intelligent. There are just three practices that I can see for now. Still figuring this out.
FIRST. It matters how much time I spend in meditation, nourishing my intuition and non-reactivity. Looking at how my work flows in relationship with depth or lack thereof in my practice, quiet time apparently matters a lot. Sometimes 30 minutes on a cushion is all the stillness I get in a day. But I’m a stronger background presence for the shala if I get more emptiness (as if you can measure the void, heh!), and if I stay off the internet except in focused spurts of jumpy chaos. There is now a countervailing desire to have my finger on the pulse of rapid political change, so to the degree that I’m reading a lot more than usual online, it seems I must be careful to not let the chaos of this historical moment determine my consciousness.
SECOND. Get out of the way of other people’s interconnections. With a certain set of values guiding them, the collective seems to want to create miniature barter economies, art collectives, spontaneous acts of service. Yes. They need to have unmediated connections with each other where the teacher isn’t in the way. Who knows what will come of that, but so far it’s beautiful.
THIRD. Oh my God, we must learn history from people. So much human intelligence is there.
I remember being ten, my dad saying the words “great depression” and me saying “what?” He could tell me the masculine macro-history but my mind wanted a breathing, feminine, interior account. He helped my call my grandmother and I sat against the wall under the rotary phone and learned about the winter of 1931 in Oskalsoosa, Iowa. At 70 she could bring alive all the feelings, all the earned understanding, and she gave me all she could of the resulting skill. The way she cried to me through the phone, it woke up knowledge already in my cells because of her. This consciousness carries the intelligence of collective care through economic uncertainty; getting her story out in the open while she was alive activated that skill in me.
A generation is leaving us. These are the humans who brought in to the world the ideas and forms of connection we will take forward. We can leave that latent in the backs of our collective mind, or we can stop and get as much of it conscious as possible. Books are important for learning history we cannot contact another way, but the history right here in the beings around us is an extremely promising source of intelligence.
Meditation and inituition exist right now. But in esoteric yoga time, past and future are now too. More and more, my feeling for our collective’s possibility arises from a feeling for history. This is is what makes my understanding of where we are going become most compassionate, most caring, most fearless, most free.