Wednesday, April 1, 2020

#54

to love more fiercely,
profoundly,
and unconditionally,
and to expect that love from those around me.

to hold myself to a higher level of accountability,
exceed my perceived limits,
and intensify the transformation which launched my birth.

to hold the past, my ancestors, and stories of my cultures,
and reimagine and heal them as i step into the future.

to forgive and heal myself for all the harm i have done,
consciously and unconsciously,
deliberately and accidentally,
and open myself to divine grace,
so that i commit no further harm.
but when i do,
to catch myself, and make repair.

to embrace the age i am,
and the age i am living in.
to remember that i am choosing to be here now,
and chosen as part of the transition.

to shed the trappings of ego: shame, fear, pride,
grudges that hold me back,
and everything else i no longer have time for.

to tolerate no bullshit,
to demand equity,
to embody nothing less.

to rinse myself of all the old stories
that no longer serve me.

to glow more unapologetically,
and invite your divine light to shine brighter.

written on my 54th birthday, 31 october 2017

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Haraboji



My grandfathers visited me last night. They are both long gone from the earthly realm. To tell you the truth, I hadn’t thought of them in a while. I feel a strong connection to my matriarchs, but the patriarchy is more problematic, and I often neglect it.

But the other night when I woke up wheezing, my grandfathers showed up, completely unexpectedly. If the wheezing is mild, I know I can get over it with some breathwork to normalize my breathing. So as I laid there, I invited whatever ancestors could come in this moment to offer guidance. Inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale, pause, pause. Inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale, pause, pause.

Into that state of mild stress, my paternal grandfather, Haraboji, popped into my consciousness. Of course! He was a traditional Korean herbal doctor. He ran a shop and clinic in Seoul, Korea for years. The building still stands, and is now a museum. After our family moved to Hawai’I when I was five years old, he would still send bitter-smelling medicines to us, which I would watch my mother take by the handful and wash down with water. I don’t think I ever saw him again, and I actually have very few memories of him.

But my maternal grandfather, Weh-Haraboji, also popped in. He was also an obvious ancestor designated for this timely appearance. This grandfather was an American-trained MD. He was known for his “good hands” performing surgery. He was dean of Yonsei University Medical School, where my father was educated, and a founder of Severance Hospital, where me and my brothers were born. I feel much closer to this grandfather, because he visited us in Hawai’I, my mother was devoted to him, and he left a very clear, well-documented legacy.

So here I was, with my two grandfathers, healers from two different traditions, meeting in my body.

I realized how asthma, an autoimmune condition, is the manifestation of these two modalities, two sets of life choices, and the trauma and conflict in my own body. I was born in Korea, but raised in the USA. I have lost so much of my indigeneity, and so thoroughly colonized. In my middle age I started to take stock of all that my ancestors, my parents, and I had given up to be successful in America, and launched my journey to reclaim my Korean heritage.

What would I give to be able to apprentice with my Haraboji, and learn indigenous medicine? His eldest son, my father, chose Western medicine instead. My grandfather’s dream was to open a clinic with his son, combining both practices, but it never manifested.

In the face of Covid19, my request to my grandfathers was to guide me in how to process the  conflict and trauma in my lungs and draw it down, deeper into my digestive and excretory systems, where my intestines and bowels were waiting to metabolize this shit. Thanks to daily kimchi, lots of yoga twists and inversions, my guts are strong.

In the presence of my grandfathers, my breathing calmed totally, and I fell back asleep. When I woke up several hours later, it was from a dream, in which my parents visited me. This is what I wrote in my dream journal:

daddy, mommy, and I are in the airport. there’s a special spot in the airport we are supposed to be. I’m not going with them but I am accompanying them here. it’s kind of like a quarantine where you can be for a long time, I sense. I have to take dad there but he is walking very fast ahead of me. he goes down a floor. I am following him and trying to catch up. he seems lost, and I am trying to redirect him. I’m getting worried. there’s a museum of sorts on this level and I see him going in. I’m upset because it might be hard to find him in the maze of the museum. at that moment mom arrives and together we are exasperated and worried about his being lost in the museum in the airport.

I frequently focus on how a dream makes me feel. Like always, when my parents visit me in my sleep, I felt grateful, blessed, and reassured. I remember after 9-11, they came, in a dream, to my bedroom with a plastic grocery bag full of bae—round Korean pears. It was a loving, grounding gesture in a time of intense upheaval.

Once again, I felt blessed to see them. But it was disconcerting to see my father wandering and confused, or maybe he wasn’t confused. Maybe he knew exactly where he was going. He was walking his signature quick, brisk pace that we could never keep up with when he was healthy. Maybe it’s that Mom and I just didn’t want to go with him, and we thought he should be elsewhere. I also felt a vague sense of responsibility, like I was supposed to be looking after him and I lost him.

This is how I feel about my Korean heritage—that I’ve lost my way and am trying to find it back. I wonder if my father also feels that something was lost when he decided to emigrate with his family to the USA from Korea? His former home is now a museum in the most expensive and touristy part of town. He disconnected himself and his children from our ancestral land, and from extended family, culture, and history. He lived under the oppression of white supremacy, the nagging constancy of being othered, and the incessant pressure to prove his worth. How many more times did he see his own father after we left?

All of this is what I carry in my lungs, grieving what I and my parents have lost, what I am unable to pass on to my children and grandchildren, along with anger at the colonizers and the ways I have allowed myself to be colonized.

At the same time, I have so much love and gratitude for all my blessings on this adopted land. My three amazing children. My two mind-blowingly precious and brilliant grandchildren. The hundreds of people from all over the world I have been blessed to meet and learn from. The Iyengar Yoga practice, which has sustained, challenged, nourished, and saved me so many times. Baba Baxter Jones, who teaches me daily what it means to be human and living interdependently.

With all my heart I love my life and all I have gained, at the same time that I deeply grieve all I have lost. How I wish I could regain my fluency in Korean, my first language, and, even at this stage of my life in advanced menopause, gain the ability to read and write fluently in my native tongue. How I wish I could go back and talk story with my few remaining elders on the Korean peninsula. How I wish I could fully understand what happened in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, leading up to our departure in 1968. So much I am trying to understand, because all of these questions, longings, and losses are in my body, roiling, conflicting, inflaming, constricting, binding. I’m fighting myself.

Did Weh-Haraboji ever feel he was betraying his heritage by embracing the medicine of the west? In his success, did he feel colonized, co-opted, exploited, or tokenized? Did he respect my paternal grandfather and the traditions he represented? But even Korean medicine and training came largely from China. So what is tradition, authenticity, true heritage? Does it even exist?

Recently South Korea has been prominent in the news, for having largely slowed and weakened the effect of coronavirus. They’ve been upheld as the exemplars in public health for their strategies of widespread testing, contact tracing, and containment. Maybe part of my grandfather’s legacy is in helping to build a strong medical system that has been able to withstand an unprecedented crisis like Covid19. Maybe, by helping to establish the medical industry, he has played a role in the healing of Koreans in the face of pandemic.

Covid19, or as 45 deemed it, “the Chinese virus,” is attacking the lungs of the world. Hitting us all in the heart chakra. I need to make my lungs strong and supple to withstand the storm in which we are already besieged. I beckon my grandfathers to guide me. I invite my grandfathers to work through it with me, and heal with me. I offer my lungs as the site of renewal, as the hoped-for merging of disparate traditions and cultures, as a juncture of both sides of my family tree, as a meeting place for east and west. Maybe this is the healing center my paternal grandfather had longed for?

What do your lungs represent, carry, and struggle with? What stories, what grief, what love? Can we decolonize our lungs, heal through multiple generations, and grow into stronger, more whole beings through this crisis? The international scope of the epidemic brings us all simultaneously to our knees. How do we support, learn from, and heal each other?

Much love and gratitude to all in this moment.

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Shame, Contrition, and Grief in the Face of Covid19



Coronavirus has us homebound, and along with the economy, spirits are down for some folks. Others may feel agitated, anxious, or restless. Some feel angry or resentful. Many are scared. We may also enjoy moments of hope, assurance, and connection. In a given hour, we may experience all these states.

I’m reminded of a time I went to a Zen Buddhist meditation center. We started innocuously enough, with 20 minute sets, and walking meditation in between. Easy, I thought, since I had a fair amount of meditation experience under my belt, sitting for up to an hour, however haphazard and half-assed it may have been. The priest arranged each of us facing a wall, spread throughout the room with our knees almost touching the wall.

The first few minutes were manageable. But soon I could feel the wall encroaching on me. All my prior experiences had been sitting in circles or rows. In a meditation circle or in rows, I can expel my energy and let it dissipate. I can crack my eyes open and take a reprieve from my own mind and get a little bit of sensory input and distraction, even momentarily.

But facing the wall, there was no escape from myself. Every breath, every fleeting thought, every vibration bounced off the wall and came right back to me. I started to feel restless. My heart rate and body temperature started going up. Claustrophobia started to edge in. I could not have been more relieved when the priest struck the bamboo clapper.

What was it within myself that was making me restless? With my face twelve inches from the wall, what was coming up that I could not bear? There was nowhere to turn and no one to blame.

We have a similar opportunity now, maybe with a little less intensity, and for many, with the comforts of internet, food, and opportunities for distractions. Even so, lots of folks are feeling restless, anxious, depressed, bored, frustrated, and any number of difficult emotions.

Especially for those who have enjoyed mobility, access to shopping and resources, control over their environment, ability to make a living, etc., the shelter in place order as been extremely inconvenient, to say the least, and at worst, panic-inducing. But for those who have been habituated to living with restrictions, coronavirus is only somewhat more limiting than usual.

For instance, many of you know that I am the primary caregiver for Baba Baxter Jones, a Black male elder living with disabilities. His condition is such that he cannot leave the house by himself, requires special vehicles to accommodate his wheelchair, is on a fixed income, unable to work, and depends on others to provide groceries and meals. As he recently pointed out, “COVID-19 is a disability. Welcome to my world, m_f_r!”

Many folks of color have always experienced living restrictions. Systemic economic racism is such that poverty disproportionately affects Black and Brown folks. Detroit is filled with Black and Brown folks with unreliable transportation, whether it’s a vehicle they cannot afford to insure, a hoopty they can’t risk driving across town, buses that don’t run on time, or lack of opportunity to acquire driving skills. Many still fall through the cracks regarding healthcare, earning too much to qualify for Medicaid or Marketplace, but not enough to cover co-pays.

Most POC know where they can go, and where they cannot comfortably or safely go. Sometimes this is because they feel physically threatened, and other times, it’s because they know they’re likely to be targeted, hassled, tokenized, stereotyped, or otherwise aggressed, especially by white folks and law enforcement.

People like me have been dismayed and a little amused at the reactions of some white folks, who may be clearly ill-equipped to deal with these conditions, if this is the first time they are experiencing imposed restrictions, or, as one Black friend put it, “anything that isn’t unmitigated ease.”

So, white friends and other highly privileged folks, I join Baba Baxter in saying, “Welcome to my world.”

Are you experiencing scarcity, and fear of not having your needs met? Are you feeling physically threatened by everyone you meet, any of whom could be carriers of coronavirus? Are you worried about your finances? Are you afraid you might get sick, and not have the care needed to overcome your sickness?

At best, this could be an opportunity for empathy, and a wake-up call to the inequities so many Americans and others experience daily. Then maybe this could lead to a closer look at history, and why systemic oppressions persist. Keep going, and maybe one will wonder, “What is my role in all of this?”

Maybe you will conclude, like Ibram X, Kendi, that you can’t be anti-racist and a capitalist at the same time. Maybe you will also conclude that you can’t be an environmentalist and a capitalist at the same time. Maybe you will reflect on generational wealth and privilege, and who has benefitted, and who has been hurt.

If you have benefitted from the structural -isms, this required period of reflection and introspection may bring up a whole range of feelings, including resentment, anger, fear, and shame. This is where it gets juicy. Do not run from these difficult emotions. You may need to marinate, and stew for a while. Besides, there’s nowhere to go. Here is your wall: face it.

If shame rears its head, welcome it in. Shame especially gets a bad rap. It silences us, it shrinks us, it makes us ill, and sometimes it kills us. But shame is part of the emotional healing process when addressing injustice committed or perpetuated by ourselves, our ancestors, and our governments. Sometimes there’s no getting around it. When I drive from Detroit to Milwaukee, I have to contend with the traffic in Chicago. It’s just part of the journey, and I can’t avoid it. In my isolation, I can wallow in difficult feelings, I can rage against them, but I cannot deflect them for long. Can I stay in the discomfort, and remember to be patient, and trust the process?

If you can stay with shame, on the other side is its gentler cousin, contrition. Contrition comes when we can admit the harm committed, acknowledge the privileges we have, and deeply grieve. If shame is actively avoided, we never get close to the depths of grief. Grief is grossly underestimated and undervalued. Whenever we love, we make ourselves vulnerable to loss. When we lose what we love, we land into the arms of grief. Grief is a mature stage of love. Allowing ourselves to grieve fully, deeply, daily, inch by inch we climb out of grief into an expanded, more soulful, world view.  

We have so much to grieve. I achingly grieve the state of the planet, the loss of glaciers, the rising waters and devastation of people, cities, and nations. I carry the grief of my ancestors, my people, and others separated from their homeland by war, empire, colonization, and greed. I grieve the suffering caused by coronavirus and its thousands of untimely deaths, and these losses reverberating through families and communities. I grieve all the ways I unknowingly harmed others, and the destructive systems I’ve upheld, unable to find ways to extricate myself. Soooo many mistakes over so many years….. My white friends have all of this to contend with AND the burden of global white supremacy.

Let us utilize shame, contrition, and grief as a personal call to action, to identify more deeply with the most vulnerable in our society. We recognize the disparities are a result of the profound inequities we have put up with, or felt powerless against. Let’s commit ourselves to dismantle the privileges we have taken for granted. We each have parts of ourselves which are privileged, and parts of ourselves that are marginalized.

Let the privileged parts of yourself actively dismantle the systems that have upheld you, while allowing the marginalized parts of yourself to blossom, take up space, and embody your whole self. The current mutual aid movement is an opportunity to integrate those parts of ourselves. We realize all of us have something we can offer the community, at the same time that we can ask the community for assistance.

Do you have access to resources? Food, money, health care, jobs, protective medical equipment, transportation, good health, strong immune system, information, training? Do you have a Zoom account you can share? or Netflix, Showtime, Hulu….? Time to pony up. Do you feel vulnerable due to disability, age, chronic illness? Time to ask for support and assistance. Time to DEMAND change from our leaders and governments. We must all do better.

These are the times to grow our souls, as Mama Grace Lee Boggs foretold. Stay home. Go deep. Don’t let yourself off the hook. Our planet and community depend on the integrity of our inner work, along with the unrelenting rigor of our outer work.

PS I just learned that our State Representative, Isaac Robinson, died at age 44, due to difficulty breathing, presumably from Covid19. I am unspeakably shocked and heartbroken. He was a good, good person, devoted to the people, and a tireless warrior. A huge loss on every level. The grieving is only beginning.

Friday, March 13, 2020

We Embrace Our Time and Place, and We Support Each Other Through Crisis: Iyengar Yoga for Respiratory and Immune Health and Resilience

During events like this current outbreak of COVID-19, we see anxiety and even panic all around us, which the mainstream media loves to fan and fuel. Instead, can we use this time to remember, and to practice, the calming and strengthening modalities we have cultivated for times like these? We’ve all memorized the CDC recommendations. But what about chamomile tea, favorite books and movies, or going for a walk? I’m sure you have many other practices.

We are incredibly fortunate to have Iyengar Yoga as a resource. BKS Iyengar and Geeta Iyengar developed specific practices for therapeutic application for just about every condition. Although BKS Iyengar was taught as a teenager by the legendary Shri Krishnamachar at the Mysore Yogashala, he quickly discovered, the moment he began teaching, that most of his students could not perform the classic āsanas and vinyasas.

From the very start, in the 1930s in Pune, India, BKS Iyengar (1918-2014) devoted himself to making the practice of āsana accessible to all. Simultaneously, he began considering how āsana could be applied to address the medical needs his students were presenting: arthritis, infertility, low back pain, cancer, and every other condition possible.

His eldest daughter, Geeta Iyengar (1944-2018), developed the practice even further, to specifically address the conditions half the population routinely experience, ie women. Geetaji gifted us with invaluable insight on yoga for menses, pregnancy and postpartum, menopause, and all the challenges these stages of life may bring. She further developed the work her father started, and guided the therapeutic classes in Pune until the very end of her life.

To this day, the medical and therapeutic practices of Iyengar Yoga continue to evolve and develop, through BKS Iyengar’s granddaughter, Abhijata Sridhar, and others, especially Lois Steinberg, my mentor in Urbana, IL. These therapeutic practices are comprehensive, profound, insightful, and take years to learn and apply. To these teachers I owe deep gratitude and a tremendous debt. Forgive me for any missteps; after 20+ years, I am very much still learning.

Before we discuss Iyengar Yoga therapy, let’s acknowledge that almost all the yoga of the diaspora has been disseminated through a Hindu Brahmin lens. Firstly, let it be absolutely clear that BKS Iyengar, though born into the Brahmin caste, from the very start opened the gates of yoga to include people of all castes and religions. His students and teachers have always reflected the great diversity of India, including Dalits and Muslims. Currently, the right wing Hindutva party of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is claiming yoga as a Hindu practice, and using it as a tool to oppress and marginalize Muslims. Recently, we've witnessed an uptick in violence against Dalits and Muslims in India.

Let’s be absolutely clear that the yoga we embrace at Iyengar Yoga Detroit Collective is an anti-casteist, non Hindu set of postures and breathwork meant for the good of ALL humanity. Let’s remember that yoga philosophy is nonreligious, and Sanskrit was a spoken, colloquial language in 1st millennium BCE, before it became favored and protected by the elite. It is our collective task in this day and age to reclaim sacred practices, and denounce the abuse, perversion, and exploitation of such practices, in no uncertain terms. It is also our duty to share these teachings with all people as tools for healing.

Let’s also acknowledge that what we call yoga in the west is largely a commercialized, for-profit practice of the fitness industry, catering to a largely white, upper class and upper middle class population.

At Iyengar Yoga Detroit Collective, we reject both those narratives: yoga as a Hindu Brahmin practice, and yoga as fitness for those who can afford it.

We strive to bring the profound art, science, and philosophy of Iyengar Yoga to everyone who needs it and seeks it. We strive to share the comprehensive practice of Iyengar Yoga as a tool for healing personally and collectively, on physical, physiological, emotional, mental, and spiritual levels.

And now, here we are in the Ides of March, facing COVID-19 on a global level. We embrace our time and place, and remember that we were born for this. Perhaps you believe as I do, that on some spiritual level, we chose to incarnate here on planet Earth at this particular time, together. What did we come here to do, and to learn?

Most importantly, let’s be in this together, despite the required social isolation. Remember that all the precautions we are taking are to protect our most vulnerable, whether or not that includes you. None of us have the luxury of being cavalier about washing our hands, like, ALL the time. And there are even more ways we can be useful for each other through Mutual Aid. We are each here, both as learners and teachers.

I offer this in the spirit of sharing resources. I am already teaching online, and will do more in coming weeks. Meanwhile, here are 3 āsanas you can do daily at home:

1.    Supta Baddha Koṇāsana (Supine Bound-Angle): This pose is wonderful because it is calming for the nervous system, stimulating for the lymph system, and brings circulation and vitality to the heart and especially the lungs. If you have knee issues, try stuffing rolled washcloths behind your knee, and have lots of support under your thighs. If you have low back issues, make sure you are strongly lengthening your tailbone toward your heels, and if it still aches, slip a folded blanket or towel under your buttocks. If you have shoulder pain in this pose, elevate your arms with more blankets or towels, or fold your hands onto your abdomen. 



2.    Setubandha Sarvāngāsana (Bridge Pose): This pose also brings tremendous circulatory and lymph benefit to the heart and lungs. It adds the throat lock, Jalandhara Bandha, which balances the thyroid, draws the senses inwards, and quiets the mind. If you experience low back pain in the pose, keep your feet on the floor, legs bent, as you extend the tailbone toward the knees. You could also try placing a small lift (folded blanket or towel) under the buttocks. If you have shoulder pain in this pose, elevate your arms with more blankets or towels, or fold your hands onto your abdomen.

 

3.    Chair Sarvāngāsana (Shoulderstand): If I could only do 1 pose to boost my immune system, this would be it. (This and other inversions are contraindicated for menses. Contact me at kwisuk63@gmail.com if you want more info.) This pose is wonderful because of the combination of inverting, which encourages venous return to the heart/lungs and lymph flow, and balances the pituitary and pineal glands, with Jalandhara Bandha, the throat lock, which balances the thyroid, draws the senses inwards, and quiets the mind. The most common error in this pose is resting the head on the bolster instead of the shoulders. THE BOLSTER IS FOR THE SHOULDERS AND NECK. The head is on the floor. If your low back aches here, reach the tailbone to the heels, lift the buttocks, and place support under the hips and legs (another bolster, or a blanket under the buttocks).



In all these poses, make sure your chest is very broad and open, with the shoulder blades pressing into the back ribs to support that opening. Remember that these poses are designed to support the lungs and respiratory system, and make the lungs strong, supple, and resilient.

These poses are not about developing strength and flexibility. You can do that after this outbreak settles down and we are no longer in a pandemic. This is about staying healthy and reducing contagion, for the benefit of all. This is how our personal practice becomes collective and liberatory.


Saturday, January 18, 2020

Loving, and Releasing the Patriarchal Alpha Male

My son, Malachi, his 2 year-old daughter, and I took an after dinner walk around the block last night. My final evening in Aiea with his family, I wanted to enjoy the cool breeze and sunset outdoors, as well as allow Coco to get out her pre-bedtime wiggles.

Friends and strangers always marveled that Malachi is my son. He is literally twice my size, and came out at over 9 pounds at our homebirth. He was born naturally strong and athletic, with a thick, muscular body well-suited for football, baseball, and every other sport he embraced.

Watching Malachi father Coco is a joy. She and her little brother, Silas, love climbing and crawling up on Daddy. They love being carried and tossed around by him. His large hands and strong arms hold them securely, and they get a good view of the world from his 6 foot height.

My own father was not a huge presence in my daily life as a child. He was the quintessential Korean immigrant workaholic, who relegated virtually all childrearing and household matters to his dutiful and hyper-competent wife, my mother. Through my son, I vicariously appreciate fatherhood, and the physical strength, stability, and security dads can provide to little ones.

Even though I missed that masculine presence in my young life, I still felt the raw wound of my father’s absence when he transitioned out of his earthly life. I remember getting on my bike for the first time after he passed, and being surprised at how wobbly and insecure I felt on it. It was October in the midwest, and I had a scarf securely wrapped around my neck and a wool hat, as if they could help contain and ground me. I realized in that moment how stabilizing his presence had been for me. Losing Daddy was like losing my footing on the earth. He had provided that for me without my consciously realizing it.

As a feminist/womanist and social justice activist, I’ve spent most of my adult life advocating for the rights of women and femmes, and learning to recognize and exercise my own power and authority. As my feminist consciousness developed I became increasingly disgruntled with habits of men and alpha males, who tended to take up way too much testosterone-driven space and energy, and whose domination in society too often led to war, brutality, and destructive policies. My daily life revolved mostly around women and femmes, and they pretty much exclusively comprised my beloved community.

But becoming a halmoni (grandmother) and interacting with my son and his children has been a gamechanger. I have a newfound appreciation for masculinity, and am noticing its beauty and gifts. Also, for the past several years, I have been the live-in caregiver for Baba Baxter Jones, an alpha male from a long line of alpha males. Intellectually I disparage the expression of testosterone expressed as toxic masculinity: hypercompetitiveness, domination of physical space and air time, defensiveness and suspiciousness bordering on paranoia, and tone-policing and the expectation of subservience.

My Chinese acupuncturist, feeling pressured to give birth to a son after 2 daughters, was reflecting on how sons were needed back in the day. “But now,” she commented, “we have machines.” I laughed at how plainly she described the situation, and largely agreed.

And yet, it’s more complicated than that, isn’t it? I can’t help noticing in myself how a part of me, biologically and inadvertently, is drawn to the strong male figure. It’s almost like I can’t help it, as if it’s happening on the level of pheromones and my somatic, unconscious self.

Recently in the USA Iyengar Yoga world, I am also witnessing and experiencing the role of the alpha male in our community. The loss of Guruji in 2014, our beloved teacher, BKS Iyengar, felt similar to the loss of my own father: a feeling of “what now?” and groundlessness, as if our foundation had crumbled beneath our feet. Guruji had been a larger than life presence for thousands of us for decades. He held lifetimes of knowledge and wisdom. He was the bold, courageous, wise, unimpeachable moral authority of our tradition.

Shit hit the fan when former Senior CIYT Manouso Manos’s sexual misconduct was exposed through mainstream media in 2018. Yes, it was long overdue. When we all learned the details of the abuse and assaults taking place over decades, it became clear to the greater IYNAUS community that Manos needed to be held accountable as a sex offender and predator with a long-lasting and severe disorder, who had no place in Iyengar Yoga.

But believe it or not, shit’s not over.

I was naively shocked and dismayed to learn that Manos still has a loyal cadre of CIYTs (certified Iyengar Yoga teachers) studying with him. I am told this cadre includes a few Senior CIYTs, and that this is splitting communities, especially in Southern California.

I see this as an expression of our personal and cultural love of the patriarchal alpha male. We are habituated to seek them out and even relinquish our power to them. Otherwise, how would someone like Manos have gotten away with his assaults over the years? Without blaming the survivors nor the current hangers-on, I do feel an urgency and responsibility to name the elephant in the room: our unrelenting loyalty to the patriarchal alpha male and unconscious support of toxic masculinity, perhaps layered with the grief of losing Guruji.

Guruji himself embodied the charismatic, patriarchal alpha male. Nor did he completely avoid causing harm. He had a fiery, legendary presence which sometimes included angry outbursts. He held us to incredibly high standards. I reflect on it more deeply here. Are we hungry for a successor of Guruji’s legacy?

When I recently received notice of Faeq Biria’s workshop in the USA, I could not help interpreting the event in this light. Although Biria, as far as I know, has not been accused of the same type of abuse and assaults as Manos, he is associated with domineering, divisive, and bullying behavior, and many see him as a problematic presence in the international Iyengar Yoga community. Manos’s absence leaves a vacuum. Are we filling that vacuum with other patriarchal alpha males and their toxic masculinity?

Personally I was frustrated to see this turn of events. We have so many excellent teachers of all genders who do not practice these behaviors. Why do we keep going back to these individuals? Let’s also acknowledge that toxic masculinity can be practiced by alpha females, who have internalized such attitudes and behaviors. We may find ourselves seeking out such teachers.

What are we looking for in a teacher or mentor? Are we expecting them to fill a gap within ourselves? What does an excellent teacher bring out in us? How do we measure excellence in a teacher? In ourselves?

Speaking for myself, I have at times found myself responding to a strong alpha presence by going beyond my perceived limits, and surprising myself with what I can perform or accomplish. Sometimes their demands elicit an adrenalin rush that imbues me with courage and helps me rise to the occasion, like the way athletes psych themselves up for a game. This rush may be followed by an endorphin release that leaves me feeling blissful. (Please note, I am not a scientist so my description of the biochemical response may be inaccurate.) Afterwards we say, “The teachings were brilliant, I am healed, I have new insight.”

However, the larger, more important questions are:
  • How do I elicit this biochemical hormonal cascade within myself?
  • Is it appropriate to seek it out?
  • What is a mature or appropriate yoga practice for me and how do I build and sustain it?
  • Do I have an inner guru? How do I access my inner guru?
  • How do I embody both masculine and feminine energy, without any toxicity?
  • How do I appreciate and love the patriarchal alpha male without condoning violence and abuse?
  • How do we access the insights on our own? Isn’t that what Iyengar Yoga is really about? Isn’t that what Guruji modeled, day after day, for us? Daily penetrating the body and mind to reveal our own healing potential and brilliance, burning up saṁskāras, and moving toward liberation.

No doubt, we all stand on Guruji’s shoulders, and on the shoulders of our Senior Teachers. As loyal and grateful students, it is incumbent upon us to cull the gems, and take their teachings to the next level. If Manos has been our teacher, we can keep the lessons he provided that were constructive and nonharmful. We leave behind the abuse and toxicity. It’s time to move on to further develop the inner authority, independent of our teachers. Manos’s era is over. It’s over.

Are healing, reconciliation, and forgiveness possible? As yoga practitioners, we know that all of nature is prakrti, in flux, and impermanent, so I would definitively answer YES. But there needs to be acknowledgement of harm first and foremost. If there is denial instead of remorse and contrition, no parinama is possible. Under these conditions, continuing to study with someone like Manouso is essentially protecting him and condoning harm by not denouncing it. Neutrality and nonjudgement end up being complicity. I do not believe this is a time for upeksha, equanimity.

Furthermore, when we cling and refuse to detach from the perpetrators of harm, we deprive ourselves of the opportunity to come to terms with our own inner patriarch, or to develop bonds with other father figures who do not engage in toxic masculine behaviors. We heal those wounds that compel us, consciously or unconsciously, to wrongly conflate masculine power with abuse.

We have made significant strides in the 21st century, regarding consent, equity, and justice. Many signals indicate that the era of the toxic patriarchal alpha male is ending. May we take strong action to assert new practices of leadership and inner balance. May we lovingly and firmly take both personal and collective responsibility to denounce past harm and prevent future harm (II.16. heyam dukham anāgatam), including necessary legal action. May we unbind ourselves from perpetrators of toxic masculinity.

Monday, September 16, 2019

No Middle Ground: Yoga and Anti-Racism


“Yoga is firstly for individual growth, but through the individual, society and community develop.” ~ BKS Iyengar, Tree of Yoga
Most of us in the USA are busy getting by. Maybe you have a college degree, or post-college degrees, or not. Maybe you have children, maybe a partner, or not. You may own a home or not. Most of us have jobs, both paid and unpaid, and a whole boatload of various responsibilities. Most people in the USA are not activists or social justice organizers who work in movements for change, whether it involves dismantling racism/white supremacy, protecting the environment, electoral political campaigns, combating gun violence, or any number of other movements.

Whether or not we deem ourselves social justice activists, these issues shape each of our lives. As famed people’s historian Howard Zinn pointed out, “You can’t be neutral on a moving train.” The same way avoiding particular asanas (“I don’t do backbends because I have a stiff spine”) makes absolutely certain that the spine will get even stiffer, choosing not to get politically involved in our communities means decisions will be made without you. That is, by your nonparticipation, you are supporting the decisions of the powers-that-be, and their status quo.

Let’s say a neighborhood school is closing because the local school system is being defunded and privatized, and the state education budget is being slashed. Meanwhile, major corporations are getting tax breaks, and corporate developers are buying up land and buildings. If I choose not to speak out (emails, letters, phone calls, contacting elected officials, going to meetings, talking to neighbors….), the plan for “redevelopment” will succeed. Our neighborhood children and families will lose a major resource, be forced to travel to distant schools, and the fabric of the community severely weakened. Maybe the land will be turned into expensive condos, property values and taxes will skyrocket, and residents forced into foreclosures and evictions. You get the picture? We’ve got to connect the dots, and see the big, systemic picture.

Ultimately, silence is violence. We and our neighbors will simply get plowed over.

But we are yoga practitioners, and many of us professional part-time and full-time Iyengar Yoga teachers. We have devoted ourselves to this spiritual path. BKS Iyengar is our guru. We’ve studied at the feet of Geeta Iyengar. Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras are about the development and evolution of consciousness through the daily devotional practice of yoga. Many of us are teachers, running centers for the study of Iyengar Yoga, and training and mentoring other teachers. Many of us are involved in running local, regional, and national Iyengar Yoga associations. Many of us have devoted our lives to this arduous path. We may feel spiritually called to this work and this path. The practice of yoga over the years has honed and refined us energetically, such that we may be doing the work of 2 or 3 people in a single lifetime. That is, we have learned how to be extremely efficient and productive and effective in our lives, in each role we serve.

Social justice? Community organizing? Activism? We have no time, besides, ours is a special path. In traditional Indian society, we might be members of the priest caste.

However, the reality is that no one is exempt. No one can escape politics. No one is left out of history. No one is separate from social change. It’s only a matter of “Which side will I take, and how will I speak out, and take action?”

The “spiritual bypassing” described above has harmed Iyengar Yoga in the USA. We have a reputation of elitism, and our communities are characterized as the domain of the well-to-do, educated people in upper middle class enclaves. In the USA, that translates as “white.” Many Iyengar Yoga classes in the USA are populated by white folks over 40, often from university communities, with expendable income, time to study and practice, and money to afford $15-$25 classes and $50 workshops. They have stable housing, consistent transportation, healthcare, childcare, and other needs met.

In most cities, only the well-to-do even know what Iyengar Yoga is. But lower income folks practice yoga too. They attend classes at their community centers, places of worship, public parks and more. These might be free or donation or $5 classes. They might practice at home, from free or inexpensive apps, or YouTube. They might be doing yoga because they have chronic back pain, or it helps them deal with stress, or they don’t have time or money to go to the gym. But they probably do not come to our classes, if they’ve even heard of us.

In Iyengar Yoga circles in the USA, one often hears concern that our student population is getting older and older. Almost all our Senior Teachers are in their 60s and 70s. Many Iyengar Yoga centers are struggling, or closing. There’s been a lot of discussion about how to attract young folks to the practice. Often, there is a tone of resignation:
- “Iyengar Yoga is not for everyone.”
- “Everyone just wants a work-out. No one wants to study.”
- “People have to come to me when they’re ready.”

In some sectors of Iyengar Yoga in the USA, there is voiced concern that the student population is overwhelmingly white, or that the few people of color are upper class, or international elites. Most major American cities are at least 50% people of color (Black, Latinx, Asian, Arabic/Middle Eastern, Native American). Yet they are not represented in Iyengar Yoga classes in those cities.

Many Iyengar Yoga practitioners and teachers seem to be content with the status quo. There’s also an increasing number eager to do something to change this reality. Regardless of whether or not people see themselves as ‘political’ or activists, there are meaningful ways positive change is possible.

Those of us in the Iyengar Yoga Ahimsa in Action team, who helped organize the workshop at the 2019 National Iyengar Yoga convention, and who are continuing the work of addressing social justice in the Iyengar Yoga USA community, are not satisfied with this state of affairs.

We feel that the future of Iyengar Yoga in the USA is incumbent on our evolution as socially, politically, and historically interconnected beings.

That is, Iyengar Yoga does not exist in a spiritual vacuum. We are part of the fabric and history of the USA. We are the products of our racist history and formation, which continues to this day, in absolutely every type of human activity. We have a daily choice of being either racist, or anti-racist. Because white supremacy defines every aspect of our lives, there is no middle ground.

Our recent struggles regarding sexual misconduct in our national Iyengar Yoga community remind us that just as racism is embedded in our society, so are sexism and male dominance. Combined with a culture of hierarchy and silence, we have allowed members of our community to be harmed and traumatized. Our community is struggling with collective heartbreak, guilt, anger, and a continuing need for reparations and healing because of these injustices.

Here are two charts that demonstrate how all oppression is interconnected. They depict how the dominant group privileges certain groups while pushing others to the periphery and the margins. Whether it’s conscious or not, the dominant group continually reinforces their own power and centrality.








Silence and inaction inevitably benefit the dominant, privileged groups, and harm the border and targeted groups, just as avoiding backbends results in an even stiffer spine.

So what does it mean to be part of an anti-racist Iyengar Yoga center? So many things! We have a ton of ideas and activities, and perhaps you do too. We will be using our blog to collect these ideas, provide resources, and create a forum for discussion.

What can you do now?
- Subscribe to the Iyengar Yoga Ahimsa in Action blog.
- Read and study, get and stay informed.
- Connect with your non-white neighbors and communities. Begin conversations. Share resources.
- Begin a local Social Justice and Yoga study group.
- Write your own reflections on race and social justice regarding Iyengar Yoga.

We look forward to working together: white folks of all ages and classes, folks of color who may or may not feel marginalized in mainstream society and the US Iyengar Yoga culture, and anyone who is the least bit interested in shaping the future of Iyengar Yoga culture in our communities and in our nation.

Please join us!



















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.