Zelda Spoonbender, feline dominatrix, has retired to her winter palace. Said residence is my belly. In my dreams I’m aware of whiskers in my face and weird warmth in my spine. She’s invented this inter-species tummo, purring fuel into my solar plexus so that I wake easy before the alarm, stoked to salute the sun for the 5755th (+/-30) practice day in a row. Stoked, even though said sun won’t show for another 4 hours.
Somehow that makes it easier: being so far beyond the sunrise’s event horizon. It is just dark and cold all the time now, like when you’re floating in space. There are no ideal conditions, except for the ones forged on the inside. Freezing four am ain’t bad, the way we’re living it. More:
Feet on the floor and Zelda’s beta-twin, Moonpie, hears me from downstairs. She gallops across the 120-year-old floors. By the time she hits the stairs she’s up to a full whimper-sprint, crying for me to rendezvous at the the bathroom. This is the one place that is hers only; over five years she’s worn down a plaster corner for marking it so much. She bolts in, tail quivering and eyes wide, vigilating for her big sister. I latch the door, turn on the heater and throw her catnip-stuffed banana on the bath mat. She dives and misses, but immediately enters a full kitty-crack placebo state. Ecstasis. Ecatasis?
So here I am, eyeing the twenty-three pieces of clothing I must layer on before going to the shala in the snow, jazzed for practice like a kid, and Moonpie makes her move. She chortle-meows, the result of trying to roar while also diving (again) for her banana; while also stoned. She opens her round eyes to the roundest, in the middle of her round moon head, and does this arm-raise thing, fluff-belly prone and like a cartoon human who just woke up. Then she makes her biscuits. In the air. Literally she is cuddling space. It’s cosmic. Inhale right paw squeeze, exhale release, inhale left paw squeeze, exhale release, remember to purr, remember to lock eyes with the human. Cute catastrophe. My world disappears. There is only fur + rapture. After timespace coalesces and collapses a few more times, I try to talk sense to Moon about the need to get to work.
This is not a drag. Cold Midwest magic continues on through these quiet deep Mysore mornings when all three batches of my students start practice in the dark. The trees downtown are strung in lights; the collective mind of this super-concentrated town is fixed into its end-of-year projects; and when you go outside now there’s a frosting of snow on everything, just a powdered-sugar skiff. The daily work is simple but not easy, teaching not so much WHAT to practice as HOW. Let the discipline and passion ramp up only to the degree you can outrun it by a hair with equanimity. That’s the will and surrender thing: run as hot as you want, but only as far as you are cool. Cool enough to have nothing to prove, sweet enough to let the curiosity grow ever stronger with the skill. Playful when it’s hard. Open in the mind.
I am teaching a teacher for the first time in a couple years. There is a lot to say about this that will go unsaid for now. But I want to mention the ways that original values and motivation define a path. All I can hope in this weird time for our practice is that yoga will evolve to be something deeper and less delusional in the future; what I see I can do for that is invest in a few people who have the potential to take it further than me if they want. So I’ll train someone for their own sake, and for the sake of practice. Not for me. Not for money or power or to make my job easier. The meta-message for a new teacher is that you’re never going to get any bling from this; teaching isn’t an actualization or an arrival, not a way to “make it” or get fame or wealth. Yoga’s just sacred. Offering the tools to a tiny number of new transmitters, in the simplest and most disciplined way possible, with no investment in the fruits of that action… I guess this feels like the strongest move I can make for the practitioners who haven’t been born yet. My way of being a good ancestor in the practice. Same as me, there will be others who know that all we can do to give thanks for this priceless healing knowledge is pay our thanks forward.
The funny thing in all this, though, is that it’s the students who train the new teacher. I want them to invest their own experience, their own support, their own variable consent day to day, in the teacher’s direct experience. Long run, what this means is that the new teacher has not just me as a colleague, but an entire shala of people personally invested in their initiation into the role. This process does amazing things for the lines of interaction in the Mysore room. The students are the ones who know what they’ve learned from me and from their practice. They know what they feel. They teach the new teacher how to be with them, how to leave them alone, how to be with their energy and if needed their touch. When I give an instruction, it’s asking the student to manifest their knowledge in what they’ve been already doing for years, so that the teacher can try to feel that understanding intuitively. The amount of data available to the new teacher is overwhelming, of course. That’s why learning to teach this method takes a very, very long time and is mostly not describable in words. Apprenticeship: the teacher has to learn how to learn. Again, and extremely extremely well.
The other thing going on at home these days is that people come from other states visit for practice. I mostly let them decide what our dynamic is going to be, while always looking for funny ways to explode the stock role of the Yoga Teacher Who Knows. As visitors and I improvise new ways of showing up for reals, I am even more careful not to touch them in a way that might make them hungry for more of what I have. Sorry. My work is not a transaction: “service” in a yoga context refers to something called karma yoga, NOT to a drive-through “get-serviced” industry.
Yoga is meditation, is all. We are just being with ourselves, rhythmically always, and ecstatically if possible. When we get down with technique, it’s half high-end biomechanics as described from the inside, half how to think like a cat. Backgrounded with the meta-message to take the long view: move and breathe the way your 90 year old bodymind wants. Sattva guna. So easy to contact, really, in these quiet long night days.
At night I’ve been reading helpful things, not for myself but for this work. How can my daily experience of teaching yoga be so mundane, understated and predictable… while on the internet the practice calling itself ashtanga is perceived by new readers as an exercise cult? The few locals unfortunate enough to have fallen down the yoga social media rabbit hole suffer for it and tell me it’s crazy out there. I don’t know, but maybe it has to do with the way the internet works now.
What helped this month was Barbara Coloroso, who evolved Catholic authoritarian education from spanking and behavior mod to a pedagogy of accountability. She did this because children who learn to hang on an authoritarian nun’s or parent’s approval/insults make the perfect “henchmen” for abusers. The “not-so-innocent bystander,” she writes. When you’re trained to hang on outer approval, you don’t learn inner accountability structures. Then in an abuse scenario, you don’t know what the right thing is. Coloroso’s anti-fascist intent is supporting humans to learn to protect society’s most vulnerable people, especially when the cost for taking action is social disapproval. The Catholics understand how wrong authoritarianism can go, in a way that has enabled Coloroso to work out an antidote to the culture of silence it created. She’s brilliant. I’m waiting for her to get a genius grant.
It has helped also to read bell hooks, a most beloved writer and human, who has been making books for 25 years on how to teach critical thinking. She articulates things I have felt in my bones, about how mutual respect of teacher and students edifies, and how learning without that respect degrades your soul. She’s done a lot to evolve the work of her mentor Paolo Freire, whose first articulations of a Pedadogy of the Oppressed inspired the field of radical education but also, at its worst, fostered a disdain for mastery that led to the new age cultures of the blind leading the blind. She writes in her latest book that she would never assign an exercise she would not herself do. She writes that establishing a context for students to have voice and express a personality over the course of many months together in classroom is key for pre-empting alienating authority dynamics in the classroom. Yes.
And (this is freaky) it has helped way too much to go back to Rene Girard. Girard is one of the few French theorists I really found silly when studying philosophy and sociology. Now I feel like I’m reading him the way you read Milton Friedman to understand rapacious capitalism. Girard : Facebook :: Friedman : The Chicago Boys. That is, Frankenstein. I am too optimistic to believe his theory of human nature, but the problem is, he accurately described 40 years ago the collective mind that would emerge today. For him, the organizing force of a society is everyone’s wanting what others seem to have, and the ritual scapegoating that emerges out of copycat jealousy spheres known as society. Public executioners, and the executed, are the twin gods in these worlds, where there are constant cycles of deification and villificaton simply to channel the violent envy everyone is experiencing because they want each other’s cars and lovers and yoga postures. Thanks for the insight there, Sauron. Here’s a fascinating overview that skirts the issue of Girard’s religious commitments.
What brought me joy in reading this month were your letters. My god, thank you so much.
Last month’s post generated the most loving, personal responses I’ve ever receieved here. From a couple dozen of you who feel a long-time connection to the intimate voice here, tapping in to help me to understand what is actually going on in ashtanga now.
I truly want to understand yoga somehow, in these times, around this planet. That’s part of why I’ve gone more quiet these years. It’s why I’m not feeding, or reading, the feeds.
I will make time to write back after the new year, though sometimes I still don’t find words for writing back. For now I’ve re-read what you are saying, three times and more. First to get the sense of your experience; second to feel for patterns in the “data” across the group of letters; and third to digest my intuitions about what I’m really feeling out there.
Here is the thing about a letter, vis-à-vis a quip attached to a push notification. Letters condition us in the opposite way we are conditioned by social media. Staccato bursts that must be fast and short to be liked are more likely to be reactive, as well as angry or obsequious in tone. That’s the pace of such emotions.
A private personal expression takes concentration, creating a line in consciousness where connection and emotion can deepen over the course of writing. Language is a limited tool; my experience is that one of its few extremely good uses is between individuals and small groups, where we can develop relationship and understanding in slow ways. The emotions that go with this, I think, are the warm and connected ones. Care, admiration, listening, love even.
A letter is inviolable to me. I’ll not cite anything specific here or reveal in any way who it was who wrote. Even the one mail of hate, don’t worry: what you said is remains private between us.
In the most general way, though, I want to share two stable patterns. The kind of truth here is from my ethnographic and interview-based research methods training, which I took throughout the fourth year of my PhD. It’s not just what I want to see, but what the patterns surprisingly shore up.
First, there is a strong response to what I opened up about before, about the inner conditioning to privilege the emotions of the powerful. This is how everyone but the most entitled give our power away. And how the process remains invisible to those at the tops of hierarchies. So many people feel this happening inside them, but what I’m hearing is that the people we’re conditioned to protect from real self-awareness aren’t just those with the demographics of the silverbacks but also very much the Americans. We are an incredibly self-important crew, and the rest of the world sees this, sees our outsized egoes and the way that makes us presume to be the ones who know. And they don’t tell us, because they don’t want us to feel bad. This is a huge point of learning and resonance for me. My nationality gives me this opportunity to understand entitlement from the inside.
Second, holy, there is a lot of heart in this practice. People whose self-inquiry is honest and loving and damn devoted. People who feel pretty alone because of that. I feel like there is a whole ring of people around the world, practicing on a razor’s edge, developing discernment inside and out, sure that this is your path but not sure you have a community.
I have to say this even though there’s no fix for the feeling. Maybe just the winks and the possibility of magic in finding each other down the road.
More coming now that I’m back on schedule. Thank you again so much for writing.