Monday, September 9, 2019

Don't Reach Out to Me







Gimme $10 every time you use the word “outreach.” Gimme another $10 every time you say “inclusion.” Gimme $100 if you land on the word “diversity.” Gimme $1000 if you use the word “Caucasian.”

Why would I want to grasp your outreached hand? Why would I want to be included in your group? Why would I want to be tokenized to create diversity in your institution?

The language of purported anti-racism is actually perpetuating white supremacy/systemic racism. It doesn’t really change anything.
-       OUTREACH implies someone from the inside reaching out to someone on the periphery, to bring them in (to the status quo system of white supremacy).
-       INCLUSION, similarly, means including a marginalized person, without necessarily addressing why they were marginalized in the first place, nor attempting to change those conditions.
-       Fuck DIVERSITY. The presence of a few people of color or others from the margins doesn’t mean shit has changed. Mostly we’re there to make white folks feel better, and give the illusion of progress and anti-racism. As a life-long token, I will say that the main reason I am welcomed into privileged spaces, an Asian woman, is because of rampant systemic anti-Blackness, which posits me as less threatening or radical. An insult to both of us.

Let’s not forget the most offensive word of all: CHARITY.
-       CHARITY reinforces the status quo by providing just enough funding and resources to keep those on the margins alive, without threatening to dismantle the power structure that keeps givers on top, and receivers on the bottom.

To stop using these words means we have to stop applying these concepts. We have to completely restructure how we see each other and relate to each other. Our institutions need to reflect more equitable relationships within our communities.

Instead of OUTREACH: CONVERSATION, COLLABORATION, and PARTNERSHIP

Instead of DIVERSITY and INCLUSION: CULTURE-SHIFT

Instead of CHARITY: SOLIDARITY and REPARATIONS

Actually the alternative to all the above offensive words/practices/philosophies is REPARATIONS. All systems and institutions and individuals need to acknowledge the need to repair the harm which has defined and built America. Anyone who takes this imperative seriously will operate from a totally different mindset, and their actions will reflect that.

For instance, our Iyengar Yoga studio, instead of offering a free class at a mosque (as OUTREACH), in order to connect with our Yemeni neighbors, we could instead participate in community meetings and events. At such gatherings we would meet and dialogue with members of the Yemeni community. As we got to know them, and they us, we could begin neighborly conversations, and share questions, concerns, and needs with each other. Perhaps there would be opportunities to attend each other’s public events. Possibly there would be interest in what Iyengar Yoga could offer to address back pain, or other common conditions. It would behoove us to learn more about our neighbors and what they experience. Maybe there would be mothers seeking activities with or for their children. Who knows? But conversation and relationship-building would precede any assumptions or handouts. By this sort of community-building, we could create collaborations and partnerships that would be mutually fulfilling and sustainable.

What does a CULTURE-SHIFT look like? Once I was in an Iyengar Yoga class and we were instructed to get chairs. One student went to the chair rack and started handing the chairs out, like a bucket brigade. The teacher said, “no, don’t pass them out, studies show it’s faster to just get your own.” This promotes a culture of individualism, and assumes that efficiency is more important than sharing and connecting with each other. This can feel alienating to someone who already feels like they’ve had to make a cultural commute to attend class.

A student at that same studio asked me why everyone was so cold and unfriendly. White folks need to recognize white culture, which is often characterized by individualism, stoicism, and emotional distancing. They may feel they are being polite, unobtrusive, and respectful. In this case, the student felt marginalized by this coolness and felt unwelcome.

Other times, Iyengar Yoga teachers can be quite vigorous and energetic in their instructions, or zealous in their manual adjustments. Those coming with a history of trauma (virtually all people of color, many immigrants, and those with histories of colonization) may find all of that triggering. They may need a gentler approach, or more emotional space to process the instructions.

Sometimes people of color are not comfortable being instructed by a white teacher. Just like it would be inappropriate for a women’s class to be taught by a man, or a yoga for big bodies class taught by a thin person, or a class for seniors taught by a young person, a white instructor cannot relate to a person of color’s experience.

In order to have more CIYTs of color, we need to attract more students of color, and meet their needs such that they may be inspired to progress along the path. Sure, there will always be a few folks of color adequately conditioned to survive in white settings. But I can tell you from personal experience that I’ve paid a high price for assimilation, that I am no longer willing to pay. My body expresses that toll in the form of chronic stress, high cortisol, and autoimmune dysfunction.

Finally: no more CHARITY. Instead, what would it look like to actually take responsibility for harm committed over generations and centuries? In short, white folks are indebted to black and brown folks. Instead of grand public gestures of magnanimity, what about permanently dismantling the systems and structures that have maintained racial inequity? What about redistribution of resources and profits?

Here are some practices Iyengar Yoga Detroit Collective has adopted, or is considering adopting:
-       Weekly Black and Brown yoga class. sliding scale/donation (“Community Gift”): Those who are able are welcome to pay full price.
-       10-50% discounts for people of color, according to self-determined financial capacity.
-       Cooperative structure, collectively run, community-centered in order to keep class prices low, cover day-to-day tasks, and prevent burn-out.
-       Several Community Gift classes each week for various needs (all-gendered Uterine Health, Emotional Health, Restorative, and Philosophy)
-       Patreon page to encourage ongoing monthly donations, and annual ask to our immediate and greater communities for monetary donations to support our programs (reparations!).
-       Rewarding and encouraging membership with annual profit-sharing.
-       Advisory board of community members of color.
-       Collaboration with local public schools to bring school teachers to a weekly afternoon class.

These ideas are the tip of the iceberg for rethinking what Iyengar Yoga in the community can look like, beyond charity, beyond outreach, toward collective liberation.



Thursday, August 8, 2019

Ageism, Ableism, and Racism



Take a look at this fabulous 6-minute video on Disability Justice, created by Candice Kwok and Pallavi Kurakula, our undergrad interns, who made it as a final project for their Wayne State University Community Writing class, taught by Rachel Dortin. This summer, they worked with Advocates for Baba Baxter and the Collectivefor Disability Justice.

As much as I love the video and the message, and appreciate their hard work, it took me a minute (ie several days) to get past my appearance on the video. I had no idea post-menopause had given me jowls, loose facial skin hanging from my jaw. I had no idea I looked so oooold. When I look in the bathroom mirror, I’m happy enough with my appearance. But I never check out my profile!

I was always one of those girls who looked way too young. Petite and round cheeked and high energy, when I was 18, I looked 14. When I was a mother of 3 at 27, I looked 20, and got treated like a kid. As an Asian American woman, I tend to be seen as a perpetual outsider, a service worker, lower class, and child-like. I never felt like I got my due respect, even when I was running households and organizations and projects. I always lied about my age, in the other direction. When I was 27, I’d say I was “almost 30.” I couldn’t wait to turn 40, and maybe, finally, be treated as an adult.

No one ever believed me when I corrected them about my age. One way white supremacy works is disrespecting seniority and status of people of color, like calling grown men “boy.” Because I looked youthful, white folks felt free to dismiss me and talk down to me, or treat me like a mascot or a little doll. It’s dehumanizing, hurtful, and insulting. Folks meant well enough, but it didn’t soften the effects.

Sometime around menopause, at age 50 or so, people stopped remarking on my youthful apprearance. At long last, I was “looking my age.” I spotted little crinkles at the outer corners of my eyes as I was brushing my teeth, saying “eeee.” I rubbed my face, thinking it was dirt, until I realized they were permanent lines on my face! My hair was finally getting a peppering of white hairs, my tanned arms were getting saggy near the elbows.

Ageism runs deep through the generations. I recall my mother and aunties asking me as a child to pull out their white hairs while they sat and talked story. They slathered themselves with all manner of expensive products to prevent wrinkles. But I proudly sport my white hairs, framing my aging face, grateful for my signs of seniority. My mother would be rolling in her grave.

Back in my birthplace, South Korea, you don’t even see white hair. Even halmonis and even some harabojis (grandmas and grandpas) dye their hair jet black. It’s considered rude to show up otherwise. What was the norm before Western domination and the American Empire established themselves on the Korean peninsula? I can’t help associating ageism with racism, capitalism and the colonized mind. South Koreans have a love/hate relationship with all things American. While most claim to be proudly and distinctly Korean, their economy is dependent on the USA, as America’s 6th largest trading partner. This comes after American-backed genocide, family separations, dictatorships, and decades of military presence, still ongoing.

The colonized mind shows up as internalized shame, wanting to do better, look better, and compete for higher status. I recognize this as my family legacy. Nothing’s wrong with excellence. But when excellence comes at the expense of one’s heart and soul, and one’s community, it’s time to step back, look at the bigger picture, as well as bravely gaze within.

Same with beauty. We all crave beauty, which is closely tied to pleasure. We celebrate the beautiful sunset, a magnificent lake, a gorgeously presented meal. But who defines physical beauty? Who defines femme beauty? What does the the pursuit of personal beauty cost?

I am a militant anti-ageist, as opposed to being anti-aging. When people used to tell me, with the kindest of intentions, “You look so young for your age.” I would tell them that there was nothing wrong with looking one’s age, that aging wasn’t something to avoid, but rather to embrace, and that I looked forward to looking old. I swore up and down that aging IS beautiful, and that society was wrong to idolize youthful appearance.


But the jowls.

I admit I am casual about my appearance. Mostly I DGAF. I don’t wear makeup, or even own any. I’m not even one of those super consistent moisturizing people. I rub some extra virgin olive oil into my skin after my shower, and that is it. I’ve always loved the sun, and do not use skin protection.

Could I have prevented getting jowls?

I came across a hilarious ad on Facebook that I could not resist clicking. It was an older Japanese woman teaching something she calls “Face Yoga.” She is selling a series of facial exercises designed to prevent wrinkles and sagging. Apparently the one that would help me involves opening my mouth very very wide, then wrapping my lips around my teeth and holding it several seconds. I’m supposed to do it every time I’m peeing. Not because it has anything to do with the urinary system, but because it’s a convenient and private time.

It seems harmless and maybe it could help… but for me, it plays the edge between self-help and self-hate. I mean, does this do anything for me besides make my face more muscular? Does it affect my health, my mind, my overall well-being? Maybe so, if my well-being is based on looking youthful.

Instead, I choose to take the radical stance of letting myself get old, and look old. Amidst the pressure, especially on women, of “preserving” their youth and lying about their age, I choose to let it all hang out. My task is not to fit in and succeed within a status quo which is patriarchal, misogynist, racist, and ableist. My task is to subvert the dominant paradigm, and build something revolutionary that is affirming to me and my people.

As a longtime Iyengar Yoga practitioner, 5 years post-menopause, I am noticing changes in my body. I’m losing muscle, my joints are looser, and I am more prone to injury. I am invested in staying strong, healthy, and active in the coming decades. After all, I have grandchildren to play with and care for. I am committed to maintaining or intensifying my yoga practice so my body, inside and out, will last another 20-30 years at least, and I can be present for my babies.

But my grandchildren DGAF about wrinkles, gray hair, or jowls. They just want me to play with them, climb trees with them, and follow them down the slide. My appearance is of no consequence.

Essentially, I believe the preoccupation with looking youthful, for all genders, has to do with ableism and abhinivesha (fear of death). We’re scared of the very elderly, just as we’re frightened by people with disabilities. Just about everyone is afraid of losing their independence and the process of losing their abilities. If we live long enough, we will all become disabled: our sight and hearing will become weaker, we will lose physical strength, we will lose cognitive function, and we will become less mobile. Who will take care of me? we wonder, and anxiously lay in bed worrying.

We need a structural overhaul of society to accommodate the disabled of all ages. Every city should have dozens of intergenerational ecovillages with a mix of abilities. These villages should have land for growing food, their own windmills, solar panels, and water cisterns, with universally designed facilities to accommodate both the very young and the very old, and everyone in between. We need to cultivate interdependence. The concept of independence, so treasured in our society, doesn’t exist anywhere in nature, and feeds into the mythology and narrative of self-sufficiency. No. What is much more realistic and sustainable are societies where all abilities are welcomed and embraced, and the temporarily-abled gladly support the disabled, knowing they will take their turn soon enough. Each and every one of us evolves from being totally dependent, as infants, to increasing independence as we grow up, then return to dependence once we are aged.

What happens after that? I would like to go back to the earth in a burlap sack, let my body feed the earthworms, and have a fruit tree growing over my grave. I hope I will be remembered by at least a few folks, and maybe have some of these essays read and re-read. Meanwhile, I will return to spirit, where I came from before this incarnation, and my work and evolution will continue from that realm. When it’s my time, I want to leave with no fear and no regrets.

I refuse to fear aging. I’m learning to look at my jowls and not be afraid. I am entering the years of my second Saturn return, as I turn 56 on October 31, 2019. I am entering my 9th 7-year cycle on earth. On the cusp of my 8th 7-year cycle and my Jupiter return, turning 49, I moved to Detroit, and I will never look back. What will age 56 and up bring? Let’s face it: I’m no longer in the ego-busting throes of being middle-aged. Fuck that shit. I am entering my elder years. I have no doubt it will be more glorious than ever.

Saturday, May 25, 2019

A Yogic Racial Journey

Let’s face it. The USA was largely founded on 2 major events that continue to reverberate throughout society: 1. The genocide of indigenous people and the theft of their land, and 2. 400 years of chattel slavery which formed the economic basis of our nation.

We continue to see the effect of these acts of white supremacy daily in the USA. Just off the top of my head: unchecked police brutality toward Black people, the separation of families at the Mexican border, mass incarceration of Black and Brown people, environmental devastation in communities of color, and so much more.

So I hope we can all begin with the agreement that white supremacy and systemic racism inform and persist to the present day in our nation.

Systemic racism means that these biases are in the air, in the water, and in the soil of this land, so to speak. For instance, when I immigrated to the USA from South Korea at age 5, I must’ve noticed, I’m sure unconsciously, that most of the stars on TV and in movies were white, that Black and Brown people were disproportionately depicted in the news as criminals, that neighborhoods were segregated by race, and the lighter the skin of the residents, the nicer the houses and stores were. In my child’s mind, these observations were building an internalized bias in favor of whiteness.

Interpersonal and internalized racism results from systemic racism. If I have been shaped by my society, I can’t help but be a cog in the wheel of racism. For instance, if I have been conditioned by mainstream media to view Black folks as dangerous, I may unconsciously clutch my child’s hand a tad tighter when a dark-skinned person is walking toward us on the sidewalk. If I have been taught to associate whiteness with power, wealth, and beauty, I may strive to be associated with whiteness.

My race journey has been evolving over decades. I was not able to look at the issues of race and recognize the ways I had internalized racism until my 30s and 40s (coinciding, I am realizing at this moment, with my yoga journey). Now at age 55, I still find I need to uproot the generations of racist, colonized mindset within myself. Yoga has been a tremendous tool for becoming more self-aware, being able to sit in discomfort, and have the courage to do what is right and necessary to heal myself from these deep inner wounds.

None of this background was included in our recent Ahimsa in Action workshop at the 2019 Iyengar Yoga convention. We knew there would be a wide range of experiences and points of view in the room, and that we only had 2 hours. We wrongly assumed that we would have 30-40 attenders selecting to be there, who would be coming with a particular view and understanding of race and justice in America. We did not adequately bring the nearly 200 attenders to the same page as a basis of our discussion. Not everyone was able to roll with us, and some individuals felt alienated, confused, hurt, and dismayed, especially when we asked everyone to divide into white and people of color caucuses.

We could have spent more time together defining race and discussing what race means in our national context and history. We could’ve briefly discussed Bacon’s Rebellion, which many scholars reference as the event that first defined “whiteness” in our nation (not yet the USA).  We could’ve spent more time discussing the reasons why segregating by race can be constructive. We also could have provided a third option for those who did not want to self-select into a racial category. We could’ve spent more time in our small groups processing how it felt to define ourselves by race, in a heartfelt way.

Our decision to focus on race came after much discussion and consideration among the workshop organizers. We agreed that race continues to be the defining issue of the USA, and that Iyengar Yoga culture in the USA was not exempt from the harm of racism.

We plan to continue this work through and with the national Iyengar Yoga community. We are in discussion about having a monthly column, or link to a blog in the IYNAUS e-newsletter. We are discussing ways to encourage and foster small group discussions in each region. We are brainstorming and gathering resources for further work. We feel we are on the cusp of necessary change and evolution.

Many of our cities are already majority people of color, and the racial demographic of our whole nation is headed in this direction. Yet, for the most part, this is not reflected in Iyengar Yoga settings. We strongly feel that for Iyengar Yoga to be relevant and useful for younger generations and generations to come, we need to change the racial dynamics in our yoga communities.

To be honest, many people like me, born in the 1960s or earlier, were never taught the history of race in America, besides a superficial acknowledgement of Martin Luther King, Jr. Many baby boomers and Gen Xers were schooled in “colorblindness,” actually, and we were trained to exercise equality, instead of equity: that the correct thing was to treat everyone the same, without recognition of the vastly unlevel playing field. Because I did not deliberately seek them out, I had no exposure to writers and thinkers like James Baldwin or Malcolm X as I was coming up. Busy raising kids and householding, my education of racism and recognition of my own internalized racism didn’t come until graduate school in the late 1990s. At that time, I felt as if the scales on my eyes were falling away, as I was reading groundbreaking text after text by people of color.

However, Gen Y, millenials, and our current “Generation Z” have grown up with much more racial consciousness, and awareness of inequity. They are comfortable questioning race, status, class, sexuality, and even gender. I hear frustration from some of them about how the culture of Iyengar Yoga is stodgy, conservative, authoritarian, and unwelcoming.

I feel it is incumbent on us to take a good hard look at ourselves, our communities, and our studios, and that the first place to look is race. What are the racial dynamics in each of our cities? How does that play out in our studios? What makes a space feel like it’s for white folks? What is white culture? How is it expressed? How is it experienced by people of color? All of this requires that whiteness be named, and that white people recognize and acknowledge their whiteness.

Our workshop was an attempt to begin this conversation, perhaps prematurely. Many Iyengar Yoga practitioners are not versed in the culture and vocabulary of social change, cultural politics, and activism. We have thousands of hours of practice developing awareness of our bodies, but have we underdeveloped our awareness of our social bodies and political/historical bodies? Sensitivity about who each of us is in the context of society and history?

If I have an expansive awareness of my social and political bodies, I can identify with the separation of families at the Mexican border, and the foreclosing of my Black neighbor’s house based on racist bank policies, and the sex trafficking of Asian immigrant women in Florida, even though none of these events are happening directly to me. I can also empathize with Black students dropping into an Iyengar Yoga class who may find the culture unfriendly, or disrespectful of boundaries, or tokenizing, or any number of things. In other words, I deeply experience the racism of our nation when I pay attention to my social and historic bodies.

Just as it’s incumbent on me when I notice an imbalance in my body (often signaled by pain) to understand it and correct it, it’s also my responsibility to understand and correct imbalances in our society and in our communities, to the best of my abilities. It’s my responsibility to bring it to the attention of others, and to collaborate with others who find the imbalances intolerable.

OK, this work may not be for everybody. But we’re taking it on, because we believe the health and vitality of Iyengar Yoga in the USA depends on it.

Are you with me?
Much love in the struggle,
gwi-seok

Friday, April 19, 2019

Afterglow: Exploring the Path of Practice, IYNAUS 2019



It’s hard to speak truth to happy people. It’s painful to be the “complainer,” when everyone else is patting themselves on the back. The first serious research paper I remember writing in high school was about the mental health reform movement in the 19th century. Being a reformer is in my bones. Moving and shaking are inherent to my nature. Luckily I belong to the Iyengar Yoga tradition, in which “divine discontent” (a la Guruji) constantly drives us forward.

The 2019 IYNAUS convention was, by several standards, groundbreaking. The teachings, by Abhijata, were astounding, comprehensive, transformative, and healing. It’s the first time I recall the general membership meeting convening in a circle on the floor, instead of seating in rows with board members on a stage. We opened our hearts to each other, shed tears, and spoke openly. It’s the first time social justice has been explicitly explored in a workshop at a convention, and the thorny issue of race named head-on. It’s the first time we closed the gathering in a forum with our teacher, talking about our communities, expressing our needs, and sharing our resources.

But in other ways, this gathering was as painful as every other large convening of Iyengar Yoga teachers in the USA. If you’re willing to hear me out, please keep reading.

Do white people know what it feels like to be an extreme racial minority? East Asian, Southeast Asian, and South Asian folks were moderately represented at the gathering, but in so many ways, we Asian Americans have been taught to ignore one another and instead identify with the white majority. Why? Because for many of us, our immigrant parents trained us to succeed in the white mainstream world. They came here in pursuit of the American Dream, or perhaps driven by political oppression, believing their children would be better off assimilating into the dominant culture.

The handful of Black folks at the convention were an even more extreme minority. If I felt marginalized as a Korean American, I can only imagine what it felt like for them. The event was also overwhelmingly cisgender folks, and the yoga practice itself, based in cis language and culture. All these factors make these events challenging for many of us.

When members of marginalized groups don’t see themselves reflected back to them in their surroundings, they may inwardly shrink, detach, or dissociate. I tend to feel suffocated, and feel a need to get away. I’ve never stayed at an IYNAUS convention hotel for this reason, as well as the exorbitant costs. There’s a way in which I put on a cloak of protection when I am in majority white settings, and I need a safe space to take off that cloak.

It’s extremely painful to come from the majority Black city of Detroit into the vast ocean of whiteness which is an Iyengar Yoga convention. Let’s be clear: white spaces are constructed through generations of systemic oppression. I can only guess that it was the power of the yogic practice that gave Guruji the inner strength to withstand the rampant racism of traveling through white nations in his early years: denied housing, appropriate food, and transportation; treated as a mascot; and objectified, exoticized, and fetishized.

And despite my mrdu practice, I too, lean into my yoga practice to withstand the torrent of white culture in these settings. It’s gotten more difficult as I age instead of easier, because I am more sensitive to disparities, imbalances, and injustices than when I was younger, just surviving, and doing my best to raise my three children.

Does anyone else experience the immersion into middle and upper class culture as violence? Can anyone else relate to capitalism as systemic oppression? The Iyengar Yoga world is not exempt from the need to produce and consume, which drives our nation’s economy. Mega hotels and convention centers thrive on this need and culture. Packed into artificially-lit, window-less ballrooms for days on end, forced to purchase over-priced foods sourced unethically from industrial farms and international distributors, drinking water from Nestle jugs, in buildings staffed by immigrants and people of color…. Are you with me? Think about the garbage produced by this event. Where does it go? Think about the waste inherent in the hotel industry, including the dependence on fossil fuels and fresh water, our precious natural resources. What would it take to convene in a more carbon-neutral setting?

Am I going too far? Are you feeling a need to shut down? I ask you to stay in this discomfort with me a moment longer. After all, we are Iyengar Yoga practitioners.

The Iyengar Yoga hierarchy which we depend on to learn, grow, and evolve is also the hierarchy that kept survivors silent for decades regarding sexual abuse. How do we value, appreciate, and continue to learn from our teachers without tolerating the harm they may cause, intentionally or accidentally? Apparently, we Iyengar Yoga students in the USA are not exempt from patriarchy, considering how a prominent alpha male, Manouso Manos, was allowed to harm students for so long.

Finally, let us with humility and a wide lens, be willing to examine the question of cultural appropriation and Iyengar Yoga in the USA. In what ways are we prioritizing white American teachers over our Indian counterparts? In what ways are we butchering, misinterpreting, or misrepresenting our tradition and lineage? In what ways are we personally profiting from this Indian practice, without acknowledging or giving back to our roots? In what ways may we be complicit in caste-ism by upholding a Brahmin practice? Guruji and the Iyengars themselves were explicitly not caste-bound, and Guruji famously welcomed everyone of all castes, races, and religions into the study of yoga. Yet caste oppression still beleaguers Indians, according to my politically-aware Indian friends. In fact, the name Iyengar in India, especially in South India, I am told, is practically synonymous with Brahminism. How do we feel about that, and how do we deal with that? Is it any wonder that here in the USA, Iyengar Yoga is also associated with the well-to-do, and largely inaccessible to lower classes?

I don’t have the solutions to these problems, but I have a ton of ideas, and I bet you do too, if you’ve come this far in this essay. I believe the momentum is behind us to evolve Iyengar Yoga in the 21st century into a more just, balanced, healing path for our communities and our world. If you are very comfortable with all of this, I’d venture to guess you are approaching all of this from your head and not your heart. We need to go deeper into the discomfort, like holding a 5-minute Paśchimottanāsana, and resist the temptation to come out sooner, or to use too many props, or distract ourselves from the discomfort. I don’t claim that any of this is easy for me either. In fact, writing this makes me extremely vulnerable, and I know for a fact that many disagree with these ideas, and some will resent me. But how else does reform come about? Can we do this together? Contact me at badassyoganun@gmail.com.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Building and Expanding and Embracing: Thoughts on Relationships


for Kai and Malachi on the occasion of their marriage, 17 February 2019

Beloved Kai and Malachi,

I hope you will receive my words, then do with them as you wish. As a mother, a wife of many years, and one who has experienced close friendships and partnerships, I feel I have much to share. My advice is not pithy nor simple and will not fit on a card or in a guestbook. Neither is it glossy, easy, nor romantic.

Like many others, I cried at your beautiful commitment ceremony of marriage. What are those tears about? It’s welcoming y’all into the “club,” the sacrament, the covenant. It’s the oxytocin rush of witnessing your tenderness with each other and with all of us. It’s the joy and relief of seeing you in partnership, committing to holding each other up and supporting each other no matter what. It’s celebrating the beautiful family y’all have already started, the luminous Coco Malie, and the beauty of joining with the Leong ohana. It’s a reconnection, for me, of my island roots in Hawai’i.

If I keep pondering, the tears at your wedding are also acknowledging the bittersweetness and struggle of long-term relationship, and knowing I cannot protect either of you from them. In fact the complexity of the commitment is what lends it beauty, meaning, and the tremendous growth each of you will experience over the decades, if you are willing.

What each of us brings to any committed relationship are both our best and worst selves. The degree to which we are willing to self-examine and self-assess is the degree to which the relationship will thrive, or not. Your partner becomes a mirror. As we are falling in love, they reflect back to us all that is wondrous and good about ourselves. They make us feel so good and bring out the best version of ourselves. Over time, they begin to reflect back to us all that is messy, unresolved, and wounded within ourselves. We don’t like how they make us feel and who we are when we are with them.

May this feeling be a call for self-reflection, self-care, and healing. We are all the walking wounded. As people of color, we carry the wounds of colonization and white supremacy/white degeneracy. White folks are not exempt from these wounds, as perpetrators, witting or unwitting. The injustice of having benefitted from racism also weighs heavily on white people. All Americans carry the burden and wounds of genocide committed on the indigenous people, as well as the wounds of 400 years of chattel slavery. These wounds may not be conscious, but if we genuinely open our hearts and minds, and take the time to educate ourselves, we can begin to recognize these wounds, and perhaps begin to heal them.

The collective suffering of our people and our nation cannot help but infiltrate and influence our intimate relationships. Speaking for myself, my internalized racism and generations of colonization as a Korean resulted in my allowing myself to feel like a second class citizen, even in my marriage. I had to step away from my marriage in order to heal.

I know this was very difficult and painful for you, Malachi, but I hope over time, it is understandable, forgivable, and that you can agree with me that it was all for the best. Out of this challenging marriage came three brilliant adult children, who embody the contradictions of love, and possiblities of reparations.

So, all that said, here are my recommendations for y’all to create a beautiful, lifelong relationship:

1.     Self-reflect: Avoid projecting and blaming. Take responsibility, without self-flagellation. Each day is an opportunity to forgive ourselves for our shortcomings. The degree to which you can forgive yourself is the degree to which you can forgive others. Why not assume that each person is doing their absolute best at any given moment? Of course, we will each fall short. Be gentle with one another for their shortcomings. Our shortcomings are what make us each fully human, complex, mysterious, and thus more beautiful.

2.     Protect each others’ hearts: Be vulnerable with each other and trust that they will respond with compassion and care. Instead of lashing out with anger or blame, share your wounds, and allow the entire spectrum of human emotion to flourish. Practice being emotionally honest. Be quick to ask for help from family, friends, and professionals as needed. If you are on a path of growth, it’s healthy to seek outside counsel from time to time, whether it’s a spiritual teacher, a relative, a mentor, or a psychotherapist. Make each other’s healing a priority, and remember, PEOPLE ARE MORE IMPORTANT THAN THINGS.

3.     Give each other space:“S/he’s in the shower!”: that is, they are still in the process of growing and becoming. Why yell at someone for being dirty when they are in the shower, washing themselves up? Let them take the time to fully clean up. After they come out of the shower, you might say, “Oh look, you missed a spot. Since it’s so hard to reach, shall I help you scrub it?” They might say yes, they might say no. Don’t take it personally either way. Everyone needs to progress in their own ways at their own pace. Also each person needs their own friendships, relationships, and activities outside marriage. No one person can or should try to entirely meet another’s emotional, spiritual, and artistic needs. Never expect another person to make you happy or fulfilled. That is up to you.

4.     Side by side, not face to face: I believe the most successful partnerships are ones where equally powerful beings stand shoulder to shoulder, working together, looking outward together. It’s not about being totally face to face, focused only on each other and expecting the other to devote themselves to you and fulfill your needs. It’s a matter of shared values, and perhaps shared projects. For many years, the shared projects will be raising your children. After that, if you have each done your inner work and partner work, you will have other shared projects. Hopefully you will not distract yourselves with materialistic indulgence, but rather with meaningful and purposeful activities that are healing and long-lasting, not only for yourselves, but for your people and communities.

5.     Call out, call in: Along with all the above practices, be willing to be called out, when your blind spots show up. Do your best to respond with, “I hear you. Let me think about it,” instead of getting defensive. No need to hash it out right then and there. Take your time. At the same time, do not accept put-downs, name-calling, gaslighting, and other forms of abuse. Vow to not stoop to that level. When you feel yourself and the situation you are in escalating, step back, step out, or whatever you need to do to de-escalate.

6.     Equity, not equality: Recognize the power structures that permeate your marriage. It is not exempt from racism, colorism, sexism, misogyny, toxic masculinity, classism, colonization, etc. Learn to recognize these systemic oppressions. Women’s rights are not the same as men’s rights. Do not try to treat everyone the same. Not everyone has experienced the same traumas and abuses, whether individually or intergenerationally. Let the marriage be “liberated territory.” Create the world you want to live in through your marriage and family.

7.     Something larger than yourselves: At our most difficult moments, may we all remember that we are but specks in the universe, and “THIS TOO SHALL PASS.” Everything is impermanent except God. When our problems seem big, may we gently remind each other to step back and take the longer view. It helps to be connected to the larger community as well as to the natural world, and not limit ourselves to our immediate surroundings.

I’m sure I’ll think of other things later, and that y’all will have things to add as well.

I love you both unconditionally and support you both unconditionally. I am here for y’all and your family. I am so grateful for everything y’all have already taught me. I look forward to growing together over the years.

much love,
mom



Thursday, September 27, 2018

Transforming the Wounds of Our Elders and Teachers

I’ve been studying Iyengar Yoga since the mid-late 90s and teaching since 2001. I’m not a joiner of clubs and such, and tend to feel most comfortable as an outsider, continually drawn toward peripheries and in-between spaces. Even so, I found the practice of Iyengar Yoga so fascinating and compelling that I have devoted more than two decades of my life to it. Meeting BKS Iyengar, and beginning direct study with Geeta and Prashant Iyengar, in 2005, led me even deeper into the Iyengar Yoga world. It has become my life path, my spiritual path, and my path of livelihood.

And now, along with so many others, I am wrestling with deep heartbreak, dismay, and frustration that Iyengar Yoga has made the news this past month due to allegations of sexual abuse. Even though BKS Iyengar has not--nor anyone else from his family--been accused of sexual misconduct, Guruji’s name cannot help but be sullied.

The USA Iyengar Yoga community is especially reeling from the publicity surrounding a beloved Senior Teacher, Manouso Manos. Some say that Guruji should have banished Manouso during the first round of sex scandals, in the 1980s, in addition to the public reprimands and the insistence that he would only forgive him once. Some blame Guruji for Manouso’s alleged continuation of abuse. Some say Manouso, in his aggressive, bullying behavior, was only mimicking how Guruji himself behaved.

I will not deny that I have witnessed, received, and possibly even been the perpetrator of verbal abuse in an Iyengar Yoga setting. To be honest, I really do not recall being verbally abusive to a student, and I have never been called out on it, but I know that in the heat of the moment, when I am deep in “teaching brain,” especially when students are at a critical moment in an āsana, I sometimes blurt things out without premeditation, the same way a basketball coach will yell things from the sidelines at heated moments in a game. 

Teaching by shaming is part of the legacy of Iyengar Yoga. It’s not the only method, but one sees it arise in India, at the Iyengar Institute, and beyond. I recognize it as part of the legacy of colonization, as a symptom of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. As a Korean, with parents who grew up under Japanese occupation, followed by American militarization, shame is practically our family surname. It was in the air we breathed, and in my mother’s breastmilk. I know from shame.

How would colonization even work without the tool of shame? Colonized people were taught to disown their heritage, culture, spirituality, values, and resources. We were taught to emulate and envy the ways of our colonizers. Those of us with family and geographical histories of colonization have internalized shame, and under stress and desperation, it re-emerges.

When Geetaji yells at students, and calls them “stupid,” I can hear my own parents at their most frustrated moments, reprimanding us children harshly in Korean. 

But I also see and hear Abhijata, a generation removed from her aunt Geetaji, and two generations removed from her grandfather, Guruji, and their traumatic, colonized pasts. Abhi consistently teaches with persistence and patience, grace and firmness, and has never, as far as I can tell, been abusive to anyone.

I have continued to study with Geetaji at every opportunity. I don’t condone verbal abuse, but I recognize where it’s coming from, and take it upon myself to transform it, as Abhi has, into more affirming practices. As such, we are transforming the wounds of our elders and our teachers. We are healing our ever-unfolding pasts, to open into a more compassionate and loving future.

I don’t emulate all the parenting practices of my mother and father, and their parents. I made a conscious decision not to discipline my children with shame. I can’t promise I always succeeded, but as God is my witness, I did my best. After all, when we fail to break the cycles of abuse that most of us have experienced in some form or another, we also fail to transform and heal the wounds of our elders.

Now, getting back to Iyengar Yoga in America, 2018:

If, as some claim, Manouso Manos is taking Guruji’s lead, and bringing his bullying into Iyengar Yoga in the USA and abroad, while mixing it with sexual predation, inappropriate touch, and sexual abuse, a tragic error is unfolding. 

Others claim exactly the opposite, that Manouso is a gifted and brilliant healer and teacher, who has saved their lives, even. They insist they have never been harmed by him in all their years of study.

Can we not respect both these statements as truth? Can we practice openness and suppleness not just of our muscles but of our minds and hearts? Can we acknowledge that, although thousands of students have never been harmed by Manouso, some have? Can I see beyond my own limited point of view, and empathize with another’s? Even if only 1/100 or 1/1000 claim to have been hurt, isn’t that enough to take action to ensure that it will never happen again?

It’s incumbent on us, the progeny of our human and imperfect teachers and mentors, to absorb the lessons given to us, and improve them. The best way to honor Guruji’s brilliance and genius is to bring his legacy up-to-date, #MeToo and all. We must uphold his name and teachings with śauca and svādhāya, by purifying the essence of Iyengar Yoga, and with unrelenting self-study.

Our method is one that embraces pariṇāma, transformation. We trust that we never stay the same, but rather, are ever-evolving. BKS Iyengar, in forgiving Manouso in 1990, asserted this belief in redemption and rehabilitation. 

Yet, we cannot permit one another to be harmed. When we stand by in silence, we forfeit the responsibility of healing our inherited wounds. We do our ancestors wrong, shortchanging them of their evolving legacies. We betray each other, break trust, and damage community. At this crisis moment, we have the opportunity to provide space for redemption while holding each other accountable through practices like Transformative Justice.

I will not cover up the sins of my father or mother, or of my teachers. I will make it abundantly clear to my children, grandchildren, and students, that they will not hide mine. Instead, I expect those who follow me to exceed me, glean the best of what I have provided, and take it to the next level. We must do no less for Guruji, by striving to become our most gracious selves, vowing to do no harm, burning up the seeds of inherited saṁskāras, and strongly holding each other accountable.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Letter to the Activist Community: Thoughts on Ableism

Dear Activist Comrades,

Over the past year or so, I have been Baba Baxter Jones’s live-in caregiver, and have also had the privilege of being present as his friend, engaging in many in-depth conversations about activism, ableism, and much more. I’m writing this letter to share some of what I have learned, and hope it can be useful to y’all. 

I was born in 1963 and have been an activist and organizer since the 1980s, working on campaigns to end wars, support women, dismantle racism, and much more. I moved to Detroit in 2013 from Milwaukee, WI, largely to be near Mama Grace Lee Boggs, and to join her caregiving team. 

However, not until this past year did I really begin to understand and confront the depth of my ableism (bias against people who are differently-abled). Similar to my feminist and racial awakenings in my 20s and 30s, recognizing my inner ableist has been extremely uncomfortable and disconcerting, and, to be honest, I have fought it every step of the way. The very same way a racist person clings tightly to their prejudices, I clung tightly to my ableist way of seeing things.

It took 6 months of living day in and day out with Baba Baxter for me to begin recognizing how much I was imposing my ableist standards on him. For these first months, I constantly argued with him about why he did things the way he did. After all, I raised 3 kids, was married for 26 years, and ran households and organizations. I knew how to do things. Why did he want things done differently? Why couldn’t he see the logic and sense and efficiency of my methods, and comply?

What I failed to do was fully understand his experience as a Black man living with severe disabilities. 

It took me months to understand the depth of his vulnerabilities and disabilities. Baba Baxter comes across as a robust, outspoken social justice warrior. He IS that person, but there is another side to him that he doesn’t indulge frequently, publicly nor privately, as a PSWD (person surviving with disabilities).

Baba lives with chronic pain, resulting from his 2005 car accident, and subsequent injuries since then. He doesn’t like to talk about his pain, because he says it makes it worse to focus on it. However, since I have been caring for him, I have been insisting that he tell me, so that I can take measures to help him alleviate the pain. Sometimes the pain is so bad he cannot get out of bed. He avoids taking pain meds because he hates the side effects, but is occasionally forced to. The chronic pain, which includes frequent headaches, prevents Baba from being as active as he would like to be, and can be preoccupying to the point that he cannot check anything off his to-do list. “Simple” things like returning phone calls sometimes cannot be completed. Disabilities can range from mental to physical, temporary or permanent, or severe or mild. Like others with chronic pain, he has good days and bad days, cannot predict what his condition will be, and must adjust daily.

Baba Baxter also is a survivor of Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). Even though he seems cognitively capable in many ways, there are gaps that show up regularly. He has been diagnosed with early onset dementia, and he has short term memory issues. He also can become quite frustrated, irritable, and confused, and has lost some of the coping skills he used to have before his injuries.

For these reasons, expecting Baba Baxter to do what able-bodied folks take for granted, like keep track of several calendars, keep up with emails and texts, return phone calls, meet deadlines, and other organizing tasks, without assistance, is unrealistic. Baba’s POV as a disabled person is invaluable and absolutely necessary to the community, but to ask him to function independently instead of INTERdependently is ableist and unreasonable.

In this day and age, we are rightly expected to ask for what we need. Baba Baxter is very experienced at asking for accommodations, but it becomes extremely tiresome, and sometimes he simply does not have the energy. It’s the same way POC get fed up trying to educate white people. Baba gets tired of painting himself as a “victim” and talking about what he has difficulty doing and what he needs, only to experience the same responses over and over. He gets frustrated because people apply ableist standards, about how and when things should get done, and fail to adapt plans to make accessibility a priority. 

Furthermore, there’s a way in which we consciously or unconsciously attack PSWD, even in our movement spaces. Just the way the Nazis found PSWD threatening to society, we feel irritated by the presence, participation, and inclusion of PSWD. The accommodations they need are cumbersome, and their struggles come across as shortcomings, that resemble incompetence, weakness, inferiority, selfishness, or laziness. We have been trained in the culture and language of “equal rights” without necessarily being steeped in building equity. We don’t want to give someone extra help, and actually we could use some ourselves. In a culture that emphasizes INdependence instead of healthy INTERdependence, it makes us wriggle to see someone who is “needy.” 

Sometimes we regard Baba Baxter as a thorn in our sides, because he’s always challenging us to do better, and be more inclusive, accommodating, and accessible. It’s human to react with defensiveness when we’re asked to go beyond what we perceive as reasonable, or what we’re used to. Sometimes in such situations, Baba Baxter ends up being a target of conscious or unconscious antagonism and hostility. When we antagonize PSWD, we deflect attention from a lack of accommodations to victim-blaming. Instead of taking responsibility for adapting conditions for greater accessibility, we may want to blame PSWD, for creating difficulties themselves. 

I ask everyone receiving this to read this with an open mind and heart to uncover your inner ableist (no one in the world is exempt, including PSWD themselves), and be utterly honest about the range of feelings you experience in the presence of PSWD, and how your actions are shaped by these feelings. This is NOT to shame nor blame, but to help us understand how ableism works, so that we can dismantle it together.

I am aware that in Detroit, we have heard some of Baba Baxter’s requests many, many times, and some of us have become inured to them. Sometimes Baba Baxter’s requests are regarded as bothersome, or too much to ask, too difficult to fulfill. I understand this completely, and often feel overwhelmed myself. Yet, I have come to realize that Baba’s requests are not unreasonable; it’s the way our society and systems are set up that are unreasonable. For instance, it’s not at all unreasonable to request accessible transportation. Yet, the ableist society we live in makes it extremely difficult and costly to arrange this. Why do we allow bus and van companies to charge more money for accessible vehicles? If demand continually exceeds supply, shouldn’t transportation companies purchase more accessible vans? Aren’t these ableist policies? As activists, we must be the change we wish to see in the world. If we do not demand transportation for all, who will?

Creating an anti-ableist society requires creating a new culture of inclusion. To wait for PSWD to come forward and demand accommodations before we take the trouble to arrange it, is an ableist practice. That’s like a university saying, “We will create a Black Studies Department only when we have enough Black students who are interested.” No, the university should create the Black Studies Department anyway, because it’s the right thing to do, and very likely, will eventually attract the Black students to support it. Instead of saying, “we will have ASL interpreters if hearing-impaired attenders pre-register,” we should have ASL regardless, because it’s the right thing to do in creating a culture of inclusion. If our organizations provide accommodations, it sends the signal to PSWD that they are welcome. Why do so few people in wheelchairs show up at rallies, demonstrations, and direct actions? It’s not because they are disinterested. It’s because they don’t feel welcome, supported, or included. It may not have even occurred to them that they could come. Baba Baxter keeps showing up only because he is a born fighter, too stubborn to be deterred. 

All of this is to say that I believe ableism is the deepest and most difficult to uproot of the “–isms,” because it addresses our most basic issues of survival and dependency regarding life and death. Being with Baba Baxter means confronting our own fears of dependency, pain, and disability. If we are lucky enough to live long lives, we will all face some level of disability. Officially 20% of us in the USA are disabled, but I believe this is a low estimate, due to our ableist shame that prevents us from admitting we have a disability, which could include mental illness, chronic illness, and more. If we can come to terms with our own disabililties, we can begin to dismantle the inner ableist, become more welcoming of other PSWD, and demand the accommodations that we each need and deserve.

I hope this gives y’all some food for thought. Ultimately, this letter is not about Baba Baxter, but about all PSWD, and making our movements stronger for all. I offer this in love and struggle,
gwi-seok 
(Peggy Kwisuk Hong)

PS here are some excellent resources for recognizing and dismantling ableism: