Mysore. KPJAYI. Near Year’s morning, 2018.
A trembling line up shala road in the dark, waiting for led intermediate. The natives are restless, scheming the perfect spot in a room that will be way over capacity, fearing the inevitable – when intermediate series is complete but the class doesn’t end, instead taking on a section of Led Advanced. I love it all. The crisp high of intense mind training, practicing in unison with friends I admire and love so much, a rare moment of sheer athletic prowess in of a practice that nevertheless has nothing to do with physical performance. The last time I wrote about led intermediate in 2011, it was a cocktail party. Now it is a New Year’s bash, as dozens of long-term practitioners around the world have moved in to rare expressions of “advanced” asana practice. But this group is restless and adrenalized – far from refined in a yogic sense.
As the collective nervous system buzzes, four young women from the neighborhood walk down the hill in bright sarees. I guess they’re going to the Ganapati temple for sunrise. Their hair hangs halfway-loose, threaded in jasmine, and their green and pink dresses pick up the dawn. All the way down the line, they laugh at us gently. Hello good morning, good morning, hello. You crazy, fearing foreigners.
What, I wonder, is more powerful than a smartass young woman, free of marriage, free of children, free of career? Their potential secretly terrifies the world. So, their world conspires to brainwash them with self-hatred, robbing them of their innate confidence. Trying to make them forget that world is theirs to reclaim, to enjoy, to protect. All theirs. They’re scary. Everyone wants the potential, and strength, and creative genius and social brilliance that courses through truly free young women. More than anyone, it is they who can look at everyone else, see the knots we are tied in, and laugh at us.
Here is the thing. For five weeks I have been sensing the field of ashtanga yoga in an epic moment of self-reflection around how this practice has treated vulnerable/ strong women. The mirror flashes for us, not just individually but as a community that spans generations, geography, languages, cultures. It is time to listen to the experiences of young women. To stop talking them down, and just listen without an agenda.
Glory to god in the highest, a new zeitgeist is born. It’s showing up now in any cultural sphere that is evolution-hungry enough to be open to “new” information. We are at the beginning of a renewal time spurred by painful reflection on immorality and abuse. Art, film, education, spirituality, journalism, yoga: domains where evolution happens naturally if we listen and allow. For my part, I thrive in times like these. Looking at hard things is not a problem; it’s information. Re-examining my stories is not a problem; it’s yoga. There is a churn so strong everywhere that it’ll unearth much more than before of what has been pushed away. This is healthy. The zeitgeist’s drive for forgotten knowledge and justice is a response to extreme abuses of inter-personal power, and to abuse of the planet. Of course it is. We are one year into the loudest expression of stupid violence the world has ever heard, in the form of the joker running Amerika. Not separate from this, the American Imperial Alliance (of Yoga) has been beguiled by a Bannon-esque social movement based on information overload and the neo-colonial dream that yoga is not from India. Climate change is so scary we try to blame anything else for our general state of confusion. And so: a justice-driven counter-movement has been summoned. Renewal has to come. Silenced women will bring it. Irreverently. Inexorably. This is why the surge now of feminine voice and strength. We were dying without it. We have been dying for too long.
I am a young woman, but not so young. I’m more focused on listening respectfully to the wisdom of others, than I am on cheeky self-expression. Seventeen years of ashtanga practice prepared me to perceive at my best now. So did seventeen years of sociology, a radical incisive mind training to perceive the strange in the familiar, and the familiar in the strange. Put those together and there’s some small capacity to hold multiple perspectives at once.
So I have listened, on many levels, from Mysore. Embedded in this place that has become an anchor for my personal study, assisting my teacher every morning with a crew of friends and colleagues I adore and admire. Then doing my practice. Plus other layers: I’m also in close correspondence with the shala I founded at home in Michigan, where practice goes on at real depth in the midst of – even because of – hibernatory long nights and window-cracking cold. And somehow I’ve earned the trust of some colleagues, people around the world who interest and hold my attention, who are devoted to service who allow me to listen to their process. And I’m letting a couple of strong, hyperactive young students stay in my guest room – breaking my own rule of letting new arrivals struggle to find their way in Mysore, because suddenly it is so hard to envision a future from age 20 in this world. Because our life will depend upon their waking up, I’m up for supporting the people I meet in that life phase who have the discipline and sincerity for real practice. They teach me a lot. Finally I’m listening to my teacher, whose words on this matter are extremely clear and strong. For all my training in the analytical mode, I confess I’m filled with gratitude for the support I receive here. So take me with a grain of salt. The support I’m given here is unflinching when I falter. It is extremely intelligent in ways it’s hard to appreciate from my linguistically limited, cosmopolitan perspective. This support is rooted in a purity of spirit that, I admit, reminds me of the care and safety of my childhood home. It is moral ground that is now being churned, fertilized with the garbage of growing consciousness, and replanted for renewal. Like always, my promise is not to post notes from our conferences here, or attribute words to my teacher. I speak for myself. These words are my karma, as always. I pray this is enough, and that the role I’m inhabiting now is of some value if you’re reading.
In case my writing is too dense or your concentration is too ruined to read more, I’ll break now with my way of only saying the real stuff at the end. In listening to stories, re-examinations, and explanations and denials of the forgotten history of abuse in the ashtanga practice, I have very little to say in response. Unless there is denial. Otherwise, for now, I’m listening to information. It’s not a problem. Blocked energy is moving, and I want to try to feel that. What I learn from all perspectives helps me understand why my teachers have focused with such care on safe space, empowerment of students, and moral development.
Many things have been said. Great. Renewal is powerful when it comes. Spring green. And when the energy of a group moves toward recognition and healing like it is doing here, transformation happens quickly. However, here are two minor points that I have not heard articulated by others and somebody oughta say out loud.
First, the argument that women are fully responsible for their individual interpretations of adjustments is not logical, from the point of view of those who say this. Thing is, those making this argument are devoted to the idea of surrender to a guru. In this framework, the student gives their power away and the guru steps in to carry them. So it literally does not make sense to say, in retrospect, that a woman in a state of surrender to her guru was over-powering that teacher in some way and causing him to act wrongly. If a person is distracted by the attire or affection of someone who has surrendered to him, by definition grace is not flowing through the person with the power. Mistakes are flowing through them. I’m so sorry to say this and I ask already for forgiveness if it is too cheeky. I’m not against the perspective that there are multiple interpretations of some adjustments. I agree with this. But I’m asking that this sub-argument be refined with logic because – like most of the world still – it is misogynistic. We can understand that some adjustments have multiple interpretations WITHOUT repeating the distrust and fear of women that blames them for men’s mistakes.
Second, while a lot in the mists of time is hazy, it’s clear that at times some women were silenced by other people acting together. It seems that people who could have responded by believing and protecting them did not have sufficient moral clarity to act in ways that were uncomfortable for them. Women were not believed, or were told to calm down. This is something that happens to agitated women throughout history. And it is how this conversation links back into the bigger zeitgeist. Through the sound of women’s voices.
In the sociology of organizations, there is a triple movement charting institutional conflict. If something you can’t live with goes down, in the big picture you have three options: exit, loyalty, or voice.
I highlight this to honor a range of human possibility here. For some, leaving is the only skill they know how to draw on when something goes wrong. For others, there is only loyalty.
The skill being called forth now is something beyond the binary torture of “do I stay or do I go now?”
It’s the really strong move. It’s taking voice.
We speak the world into being, you know. Why be spoken-over? Why not create?
Voice is a tool for renewal. The female voice was spoken over and silenced so fully, and so long, in this world that women have internalized the silencing. Or we have spoken in voices of authorities outside of us, voices that are not ours.
Well, ironically here’s my voice. I am a one who chooses loyalty. Over and over again, I look at my life and despite myself the pattern is devotion to particular relationships, to the places and artists and writers I fall in love with, to uninterrupted practice, to sustained lines of study. Taurus rising. Someone will call this cult-mind, because they are suffering and jealous: but it is profound loyalty that gets you through adulthood to conscious friendship with mother and father, and nothing I’ve touched in the relational plane feels better than that. I’ve had my intelligence disrespected for this loyal personality, and I’ve watched myself make mistakes of being loyal to a fault. All right. I accept this conditioning while also analyzing it carefully, and to be blunt I enjoy how this bias shapes my life.
But loyalty doesn’t mean silence. Not silencing of others, not silencing of self. This, as ever, is my voice.
We’re in an open moment of figuring out the story of ashtanga yoga. I like it. No need to make anything happen or rush to narrative finality. The furthest reaches of evolution are charted by open questions, and by a deep feeling of nothing to prove and everything to learn. Given that my practice is grounded and secure, it’s extremely energizing to hang out in this cultural space of indeterminacy and creation.
So, I view this moment in the ashtanga practice through a lense of collective memory, which is an approach to understanding cultural history on the level of collective consciousness. There are some excellent, relevant conceptual tools there. As we negotiate the memory banks of ashtanga, I’ve sensed too many currents and sub-currents of culture to put into a post here. Briefly though, I want to highlight three tendencies I think a lot of people around here already see.
A person’s response to the idea that abuse and silencing could have happened in the history of ashtanga will be shaped by their lifestyle. Lifestyles aren’t just identities or clothing choices; they are entire resonances that give rise to internally coherent ways-of-reasoning.
I sense two big lifestyle tribes trying to figure each other out in ashtanga these days, and a third tendency that resolves some of their differences. First there are the hippies. Thank god for them – they are the ones who first rose up against their absent fathers and went nomadic, put on baggy pants and did drugs as way to be overtly non-conventional… and therefore eventually introduced us all to ashtanga yoga. Hippies aren’t a generation in ashtanga; this is a lifestyle that cuts across age groups while uniting minds. Young hippies rejoice when they find ashtanga, because it’s a culture in which they can make all kinds of friends and stabilize their lives. The inner hippie in all of us gravitates towards strong parental figures we can idealize, surrender to, and use to replace the absent, overworked parents who failed us. Hippie mind sees that sexual convention is a form of social control, and is biased against rules in this area as a matter of principle. Within this mind, the idea of the idealized surrogate parent doing anything wrong is mind blowing, and even more challenging is the notion that sexual energy should be regulated. There isn’t a lot of likelihood of standing up to an idealized parent, for reasons that have to do with underlying power dynamics. The conditioning around idealized parents and sexual freedom make good sense given the hyper-patriotic and capitalist life situations that hippie lifestyle helps resolve. But these biases are also a set-up for major discomfort on the moral ground where those two scenarios (parent figure makes a mistake + strong sexual boundaries are needed) happen to intersect. This is why for the first time in my life I’m gravitating towards the hippie corners of this community. There is energy in these pockets and I value it. It also feels like a zone within the practice where the broader zeitgeist is hard to integrate.
This puts the hippie ethos temporarily at odds with their old pals, the self-transformation crew. In many cases, it feels like this conflict is happening WITHIN individuals. Self-transformation and hippie-ness have existed together in this practice for decades, but now the self-transforming lifestyle is charting very different moves. Self-transformation is focused on sadhana, and personal healing as a road to compassion and service. Self-transformational lifestyle is little biased toward self help type activities, and may include unique personal wounds more searing than the bad luck of checkout-out capitalist parents. (The tendency toward self improvement doesn’t mean New Age, though; Ashtanga doesn’t mix well with New Age lifestyle. It also generates huge misunderstandings with the neoliberal postmodernism espoused by capitalist yoga stores – the aggressively “non-judgemental” view that “yoga is for everyone, and it’s anything you want it to be.”) The self-tranformers are the tapas people who take ashtanga as a kind of partner, who make sacrifices for the stability of mind it provides. I see in them an incredibly sophisticated understanding of sacrifice, devotion and service. The self-transforming lifestyle is karmic in its mindset, so it embraces difficulty. In this lifestyle, you don’t practice ashtanga because it’s fun and sexy; you practice because it is strong enough medicine to help you witness and decondition deep suffering. If there is news of some moral defect in the personal or cultural DNA of a self-transformer, they feel the pain of this intensely. It reminds them of how human they are, and how much more they have to learn. And then, feeling the pain, they are somehow thankful for it. That’s how they know where to grow next. Self-transformers are masters of catharsis, and their understanding of hard truth and renewal is the source of bright fire in this massive global community. The renewal upon us is coming out of that transformative fire.
My own identity is grounded in productive activity (maybe that’s a defect; I accept it), so I resonate strongly with the self-transformation lifestyle. But those who really know me affirm that I lack the strength of character to do things I don’t like. For some samskaric reason, I have to act from enjoyment to be productive, so I plant and harvest feelings of joy, warmth and humor in practice, work and in relationship. This is a little bit needy of me and something I’m learning to set aside when it’s not appropriate, but it’s also a mind-refining tool consistent with the practice of yoga. It’s also why I resonate at times with the hippie lifestyle – if I’m not experiencing joy and making a little mischief, I lose energy.
That said, the lifestyle that I hang out in most is distinct from above. I feel it emerging strongly in a many of my friends and students and am going to call it the Conscious Relationship M.O.
This way of being seems to be based in a playful fascination with growth within open-ended experiences, based on a commitment to de-conditioning, and especially studying our families of origin for our original biases. This perspective may come about in people who have completed psychotherapy, but it’s also a result of long term study of Indian philosophy, or of going deeply into one of many philosophical traditions that move a person towards phenomenology. This is because the conscious relationship mindset is post-metaphysical or non-essentialist.
Huh? This mindset takes identity itself, and the roles we play in life, to be of an essentially empty nature. Teaching is an activity, not a person; teacher and student are postures we step in to and out of. So, ashtanga yoga itself not infused with the character of a particular person, because no particular person is of an essential, inherent nature. The ashtanga practice, like every person, contains multitudes. Far from being a moral cop-out, this hidden philosophical assumption is leading people around me to express extreme personal awareness and responsibility in the ways that they inhabit their roles. If no practice is inherently wrong or right, and no person is inherently good or bad, suddenly there is more call for constant mindfulness of our being and our action.
Suddenly we have to – or at least have the potential to – be awake and at play in the field of identity all the time. Nobody gets to perfunctorily exert power as a teacher or cruise on auto-pilot as a student; relationships radiate with all the presence we can bring to them. The main inquiry is in to what is unconsciously conditioning our minds and actions, and how curiosity and direct experience of impermanence can increase awareness. Why? Because **being is beautiful. Because compassion and service can always go deeper through the mechanism of really being-with fellow beings without objectifying them.
The conscious relationship mindset feels pretty new in the yoga world, but it’s definitely here all around me even if it’s so hard to put a finger on for now. I wonder if what I’m tying to say will even make sense here. The lack of easy answers for those in the conscious relationship perspective doesn’t mean morality is less important. Instead, morality the primary center of gravity. There’s an emphasis on moral self-reflection, flexible acceptance of our character biases, and shamless embracing of the hidden parts of ourselves. This would be excruciating, except there’s a sense that our personalities are themselves somehow a little empty. This lack of strong identification with a particular view frees up space to empathize with other mindsets, including past the minds of our past selves.
From the compassionate space of conscious relationships, there is diminished danger of abuse or of silencing. Because we’re all in process and we’re all incomplete, people are less likely to attach themselves to permanent identities of teacher or student, in which certain power dynamics can become entrenched. There is not the extreme loyalty to idealized parent figures that prevents people from using their voices when there is a moral problem. The devotion to doing hard karmic work that shows up in the self-transforming lifestyle softens a little bit with a feeling of freedom and even play.
Based on the listening across time and space, I feel strongly that this practice is in nothing less than an epic moment. I don’t know how we’re going to integrate this better ability to value of women’s voices, together with our own moral needs to take care of ourselves and each other. I don’t know if we will survive the political and climate changes that background the crisis of conscience we have just been though. But somehow the feeling of reflection renewal has me full of life. In the world I inhabit here, Indian women walk unaccompanied down streets at the end of a Saturday night, heckling ripped yoga men who are in a state of fight of flight. This scene doesn’t make sense in any of the old terms, but a new current that cuts across in my layered worlds is really going right.