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Volcanic Ganesh carved from igneous andesite on Java in the 11th century. Purchased in 1957 by the University of Michigan and now sitting in a quiet back room between Durga and Vishnu in a place I visit when I need some churching. The last two weeks have been the deepest, most challenging of my Mysore teacher tenure: keeping steady mind and open heart while the collective nervous system triggers and emotions run hot. As well they should. Obstacles summon energy. Here we go…. #ashtanga #yoga #SCOTUS #sympatheticnervoussystem #wholelifeispractice #yogateacherlife #umma
Hey. Thank you to those who asked. This space went dark for three months, for two reasons. For twelve years I’ve committed to writing here at least by the month, but this fall was so huge. The streak broke.
Reason one: I have been ceding the podium.
This is what young western women are trained to do, when there are big men who are supposed to lead. We hold our piece. We stand by. And I am trained to be a good girl, complaint and loyal, one who follows the rules and supports everyone. As explained in the comments on the previous post, this fall, others needed to speak. It was not my time.
In August, the brilliant teacher Jubilee Cooke gave me an afternoon of her life. She made time for me and answered my questions with no agenda at all. I listened. I saw how I have not understood parts of my ashtanga family history. I had nothing to add. Personally, what I’m interested in for our community is generative culture and rehacking the internet. Fringey stuff. Posts I didn’t post.
Because on a community level, those thoughts felt less important than hearing from the silverbacks who were in power in America in Jubilee’s time. The zeitgeist called them all forth. We needed to hear from the ones who brought this practice to us and showed us how to worship. Thank you and we love you so much. What can you offer us now about your new learning process? Surely our wonderful leaders, who love us like we love them, would realize that we could not go forward without their going back to honor any woman who was disrespected, hurt or silenced. I felt sure that this fall they would wake up to how they (with the rest of us) helped create a system where they became protogurus, black holes of power and authority and reverence.
When I was learning this practice at the beginning of the century, ashtanga culture invested so much in our beloved senior leaders. We needed them, and we still do. In ashtanga we signaled their dominance in workshop marquis, domain names, cover photos on books. Most potently, we empowered them through the ritual incantation of their names in meaningful conversations. Silverback 1 says this, he is so amazing. Silverback 2 says that, yes he has taught me so much. We always loved them and needed them so much. As their era closed, I led my students on to the Ashtanga Yoga Confluence, to bask in their knowing, and feel so safe and loved and well led.
I did all of these things, and modeled deference for others. I loved our strong men. This love is in my blood. I won’t deny it. Not only do I like it that way, but I find this frequently healthy; it feels warm and safe and strong to be your dad’s girl. My own father helps form the center of my emotional deep-structures; this adoration has shaped my psyche and brought many blessings.
But there’s a contract when you ritualize a leader, and in our practice it was called due in this year. Not a surprise, from a certain altitude. There was a giant eclipse in on the July full moon of Guru Purnima, here in the year that Jupiter the Guru has (through the western view) traveled through the cosmic truth-finder territory of Scorpio. Expanding what was hidden so much we cannot not see. Today is Jupiter’s last day in Scorpio. The window I’ve been watching, waiting for them to step forward, closes in the morning.
Societies make ritual investments in our silverbacks for one evolutionary reason: so that they have the power to lead us when things get hard. I knew that this dream-team of beloved apostolic teachers were masters of timing. They were spiritual warriors of dharmic action. So I knew they would see their moment.
They would know how to make women feel safe when we needed it most.
And surely they did see it. But, Jupiter moves on now, and they did not rise to the times. Many days this year, I was more worried about the silverbacks and their emotional pain than about the women who really suffered in the past. Please please consider: suffering is not equally distributed. That is the last lie that power tells. But the vulnerable suffer more than those in power. Always always always. Nevertheless, still I worry about my beloved leaders, in part because I am still conditioned to care more about the emotional discomfort of those in power than about anyone else.
Right on time and apropos of everything: days after I met Jubilee, I recovered memories of being physically assaulted by boys in high school. Two incidents. I thought I’d survived, fought both them off, made ear-splitting noise, clawed and got their horrible mouths and hands off my tiny body. Turned it into a joke back at school. Sorry guys! Don’t feel bad that I rejected you. Let’s stay friends. This is how we collaborated to define those encounters out of my identity. I got to keep my life story happy. I remained good and nice and compliant. I believed it was nothing. Nothing in my nervous system. No shadow on my deep structure of trust. It was nothing revealing absolute nature of growing up a preacher’s kid in the reddest right wing of rural Montana.
Reason two this space went dark: September-October happened in Ann Arbor.
After almost a year of directing my energy to support the longest-term practitioners and not investing in many new relationships, I took on a handful of new students who had kept after me long enough to get me excited to do the foundational work with them. I also have gotten a little bit skillful at timing, sometimes. Eight autumn weeks in a Midwestern college town powerhouse + a bright-eyed crew of beginners: that is yoga gold. Everything else moved to the background, and I went mama-bird for the fall.
And then, Kava***** faced brilliant Christine Blasey Ford. He was a bomb here. A depth charge in the psyche of many who had written an attempted or actual rape out of our stories. This bomb went off in a way nothing else had yet during Jupiter in Scorpio. The recovered memories, the conditioning into compliance, the desire to be caring and liked and safe: these structures I’d churned through in late August were now the stuff of my town and my Mysore room. Healing, and heavy, and right on time. Painful. Intensely emotional. Not bad.
Still as old pain surfaced among so many ashtanga practitioners, next to nothing came from the old so-called leaders. And here’s me, watching myself carrying the same credential that the leaders use to hold themselves in a special place. The credential we as students use to hold them over ourselves! The line on the resume that’s supposed to make you turn up for their workshops and buy their videos and let them pretend to know things. Certification. A word we use to distribute power unequeally, and to evoke the privileges of silence when we have it. I was no different. When hierarchies maintain themselves through silence, it’s an indication they have nothing to offer. And here was me, doing the exact same thing to back up my seniors. I felt complicit, and didn’t want to be one of them. I decided the moral move was to give the title back. Do my tiny part to empty things out.
My therapist (yoga teachers need a therapist) and my mentor (yoga teachers need a mentor) fought me. They said I’d lose what brings me most joy in this life: my teacher’s trust, and Mysore. I said it was my duty to support the women. They said speak up already then.
But I can’t help heal anything. I wasn’t there. I can only listen and accept and show love.
I don’t know. I see that yes our history begins with patriarchs. Question is, how many degrees of our freedom does this delimit? Yes a person makes her own history, but not under conditions of her own choosing.*
I don’t know but here is a name to say. Jubilee. Jubilee. Jubilee.
A word of celebration. A word that sometimes means debt forgiveness. Jubilee.
Behind all this another shadow rises, from even deeper in the collective unconscious. The patriarch. Yoga George Washington.
The shadow shows up in the fear that the practice will lose its power without a dead beloved grandfather at the start of time. Back when Jupiter entered Scorpio, I put the name to our condition. Patriarchy. Men and women unfreinded me online and in person for simply saying the name. It was that threatening, just to note the fact of what we once were. Saying the word patriarchy seemed to suggest, to them, that a different way of being were also possible. As if there could be another way. Criminal thinking.
Let me repeat this crime. It feels good. Yes there is an empty space in the center of my psyche for an old, dominant grandfather godman. When I am in that place, I can not make meaningful life moves forward without the idea of a founding father behind everything. Know the feeling?
This psychic conditioning says “What did the old man say? What did he teach me? How can I honor that and lift him up in everything I do? How can I be happy or safe without my father? Founding mother: eh. Politically correct, but weak and has low standards. It’s the elder father who can tell me what reality is. That’s who God is.”
I believe all that sometimes.
I have worshiped these feeling-ideas so long.
Have you sat before an altar? Have you made one? Part of why ashtanga is my practice is that it teaches us to pattern consciousness in this way. An altar is a map of the surrendered deep psyche. That’s the altar’s function! Soul entrainment. You alter your mindstate before the altar. Wash your mind empty, and the alter will project inside you the shapes before you like a photo negative. Every time I’ve altered my state before an altar of a grandfather guru, that surrender has retraced the old-man-god coloring book page in my mind. The heart explodes. Then it’s the everyday self’s job to recolor the structure with whatever perfect god-guru it can find to try to reproduce that experience.
Because of this aspect of my mind, I went quiet last winter when in response to my queries about the hidden history of ashtanga I was told, “a woman should know her place.” That is a spell. You are a woman and you are to know your place. This isn’t the droid you’re looking for. Boom. My psyche is conditioned to certain types of surrender. So when an old teacher told me “Be careful not to ask the wrong questions,” as if the ghost of Guruji might come back to haunt me for caring about women’s bodies, that deep part of me indeed accepted this rebuke and retreated back into silence. For a minute. The more obvious parts of me knew it was wrong, that a crew of senior teachers were raging about losing their certification, so enraged by a minor status decrease… while refusing to answer my questions about whether any women had been harmed. This is how it works: the privileging of the discomfort of the powerful over the pain of the vulnerable. Submission structures deep in the mind can be invoked with ritual language. Blessings and curses work the same exact way. And I have learned to be careful which alters I alter for.
When I left LA in 2009 and started practicing by myself in Michigan, without asking why I constructed different altars. At home: my altar now is roses and rocks, with deities and teachers and owls and monkeys and tiny objects from students around the periphery. At the shala: the altar is always ever Ganesha. A perfect beast! The summoner of the group and of your mulabandha, the tragicomic remover of the human obstacles, there in the place I’d been trained to put a father-god.
And this year, our shala altar got a conch shell, gifted by a student home from the ocean. Because in my mind, the Patananjali’s shankha was always the counterpart to the dharinam. It’s so obvious. The conch shell is sound, it is the calling-together-tool, and it is the secret right-befor-your-eyes worship of the female body. Pudendic symbols are everywhere, but we have been listening right past them, forgetting to bring them into form. Shankha. Shankha. Shankha.
Witnessing this structure the old altars traced inside of me, I will give it a little less power.
So although I am heartbrokenly grateful he existed and accept the devotional place he holds in some of my friends’ hearts, this is not a post about Pattabhi Jois. Thank you, gone man. I say your complicated name. I say it out of respect for people who do love you. Out of recognition I’d be lost without this practice and the people it has given me. But also, most of the time, I refrain from saying your name out of respect for others who are not you. Because respect is to be equally distributed too, and there are a lot more of the vulnerable women who are triggered now by your name than there are, well, of you. Sorry, dear long-departed human being. Your emotions count for less than they did. I am not afraid to hear of your mistakes. And, we must keep moving on.
Controversy about ashtanga history, efforts to change the story from a good one to a bad one, calcifies a wound in my psyche that wants to heal. Fighting over the good/bad status of a dead guru I never knew confirms and confirms and confirms that all our meaning has to arise out of how we define our relationship to a gone grandfather god. Yes that conditioning is inside me, and no I’m not living that story anymore.
It’s important to note that for my generation of teachers, we can all collect power and reverence and defacto authority in one very easy way. By activating those old frames, to use Lakoff’s language. What we do is: we model for our students the idea of the perfect authority figure, and we show you how to surrender to it. We imply this is the embodiment of virtue. This is the ritual mode of frame reproduction. It gives students an implicit model for how to treat us. This is how I and my generation learned to treat the American silverbacks as gurus. It is, apparently, a bit dangerous.
I’m going to get myself in trouble now, being noncompliant for the good of the group. Last month, my junior colleague in Toronto promoted the work of a wonderful female student who had written a blog post legitimating the notion of the guru. Describing himself as her guru. We read how this white western male teacher gets guru-like (absolutistic) power over her even when he does problematic things, and thus we have a model of how we too can have a yoga boss. This power move rests on the energy and image of a virtuous, trust-worthy, compliant woman. Surrendered + supportive women are where godmen get legitimacy when their power is on the line. When the virtuous woman steps forward and takes the hit, performs the moral labor, and stands by her man, it is through her that we empower him. In my deepest conditioning, I am great at that move. It feels so good to be the adoring one. I have to go inside my psyche in order to understand these impulses and resist them. That is really hard, but the work feels good in a different way. If authoritarianism is getting this needy for legitimacy, maybe we’re on the edge of new growth.
Anyway, back to the depth charge of October. I tell my therapist and my beloved silverback mentor that I want to withdraw from the scene entirely. I say I have duty to fulfill with my students, and this duty is pure joy. Let me just be a student to my teacher. Let me be with him in Mysore and just absorb, and then be here and just transmit. Let me opt out of the symbolic churn of nonsense that somehow happens on the internet adjunct to the real practice. My accountability people tell me that’s to easy. That I don’t entirely belong to myself now. That I have a duty to speak from the place inside of me that doesn’t make everything about the old men.
They summon this other part of my mind.
Yes. In fact, I can do what I need to do without a domineering man standing over me.
But wait… I always had this. For a decade my teacher has done nothing but reject my efforts to be a nobody at the back of the room, has shaken me back alive when I disappear into a puddle of surrender and adoration and self-abnegation. Mysore from 2009 has always been like this for me. The opposite of the spiritual bypass. Forcing me, in my role as a student and teacher, out of silent invisibility.
Do not believe western people doing virtue signaling about guru worship on the internet. There are many sources of this practice, one of whom is my teacher in Mysore. This celebrity guru worship stuff – to whomever it is directed – tells you that a person has not put in the time it takes with a real teacher to understand.
I first went to Mysore in 2009. That self was fully formed as a practitioner, my tenth year on the mat, trained by the first generation through the advanced series.
Ashtanga yoga was my practice from the beginning; I was one of the lucky people who find in this life a practice that really does it for them. My dear spiritual-friend Angela came around the world and found me last month for the first time in 20 years. She said maybe we all have a particular imprint deep in the mind, and only a few of us find the corresponding personal practice that holds us and fascinates us and opens us in this life. She said she could see I’d found mine just after we parted in 1999.
That’s true. I grew up with spiritual people but didn’t entirely believe I had a soul until the imprints lined up, and something luminous started to shine out through that inner-outer correspondence. The year 2009 felt like a second life of my practice began in Mysore, in a way that shored up the western minded filter on my first decade with my spiritual match. Same practice, other side of world. So much happened in Mysore 2009. Some of it is documented in these archives.
One thing that happened, was that Patthabi Jois died. I witnessed the end times. I’d watch him up on his balcony, me in the street drinking coconuts after practice. One of last mornings, this set the stage for a dramatic, permanent change in my awareness. I don’t question the woo-woo around him; something was there. But something is there in everyone. It doesn’t make us gods. I read Memoirs of Hadrian that trip, in addition to lots of other things. A dying emperor was just one part of the massive epic backstory of this beautiful practice.
Backstory is important. Backstory is complicated. Hidden backstory must be known. If it is not, it will repeat and repeat and repeat. Adored men in power touching vulnerable women wrong, and those women’s own teachers not protecting them? This part of the backstory will force itself back into the unconscious and play out over and over again. Until it is accepted and known and put to rest. We have to do this. Vulnerable women need us to do this, for them. We cannot continue letting the vulnerable be our last priority. It’s just like this:
Oh thank heaven, we can really stop and listen and accept this now. Some people were demeaned and hurt and some lost their practice. It happened. We are so sorry. We will not let this happen again. We will not do this again.
Riding the derivative last wave of guru culture is a way of not saying this. Social media itself is largely derivative, so it’s not going to help. The internet will go on reproducing the deep structure of authority. It’s blind like that. We thought it was here to undermine authoritarism and opaque power hoarding, but no. The internet perfectly reproduces and amplifies opaque hierarchies of power. For now….
The men who were the women’s teachers needed to lead and they did not. Their silence is serious. And I’m done holding silence for them. They didn’t say what the time needed.
There will remain corners of the practice where any word in support of vulnerable women is taken as a threat. Where there is still power in the incantation that a woman should know her place. Where the past reproduces itself in sepia, all the undertones washed into rose.
I was angry when I first fell in love with Mysore, regretting the decade I’d been told not to go. But since then, circumstances unfolded in such a way to show me that I could have lost my practice. I seem to sense out there a group of women who really did lose their practices. Not ghosts. Whole women who moved on to something better for themselves. Ashtanga lost their names while busy incanting others. With Jubilee, one who left, I asked what she’d like to see from this community. She did not care, other than to say she hoped we can heal. Lady has a life of her own.
*This is me not citing Marx, because when he wrote that he forgot to include the generative power of his wife Jenny von Westphalen.