Friday, April 23, 2021

HOW TO TAKE DOWN A DISABLED BLACK ELDER: VIDEO DOCUMENTATION

 


https://www.facebook.com/OneMichigan/videos/719453185507150

 

The allegation of sexual assault being used to discredit Baba Baxter Jones is captured in this Facebook video. Read my detailed commentary posted with the video on the Facebook link. Here are the key points:

  • The assault is announced at 2:10, loudly and publicly. The person yelling is wearing a white visor, seems agitated, and is looking over her left shoulder. The assault apparently happened seconds ago ("That man just grabbed my ass..."). 
  • Watch the video from about 1:58, pausing every second to view each frame. Pause at 2:01, when this person is 6-10 feet to the right of Baba Baxter. 
    • Note the movement and pace of the march, set by the chants and drums. 
    • To drive the chair, Baba's (dominant) right hand must stay on the joystick. To move his hand off the stick would STOP THE CHAIR. It would also require that those behind him stop, while everyone else kept walking. Power wheelchairs to do not have "cruise control" or "auto-pilot." The wheelchair user's hand must be on the joystick at all times to drive it.
    •  At 2:05, see this person walking forward diagonally to her right to report the assault.
  •  The march was paused from 1:13-1:30 to let marchers consolidate. The person making the allegation is standing behind the DWB sign, with Baba about 15-20' back (1:13).
    • As the march restarts at 1:30, Baba's right hand remains on his chair for the remainder of the video.

In conclusion, as a survivor of sexual assault, I support and believe other survivors. If the person in the video claims harm, it needs to be investigated, and the harming party held accountable. In this case, it's physically impossible for Baba Baxter to have committed assault as alleged, while driving his chair. Meanwhile, the actual perpetrator has not been held accountable.





HOW TO TAKE DOWN A DISABLED BLACK ELDER

Just how do you take down a disabled, Black, community elder activist? Read on.



June 29, 2020

It was the height of the Black Lives Matter protests. I was at home, for a respite from the urgency of the daily protests, when I received an alarming text from a friend: “Seems ______ is saying baba baxter touched one of "her youth" inappropriately at the march. Just look out. She actively, consistently targets activists. And I dunno what happened but I would expect a shit show.”

I had just come home from the rally with Baba Baxter Jones to protest the recent police aggression against marchers in Southwest Detroit. I’d been attending marches for several weeks by now, and had come to see the young protesters like my own children.  The night before, the police had responded with such violence that protesters could’ve easily been killed. As a survivor of multiple incidents of racist police brutality, Baba Baxter felt passionate about these marches and attended as frequently as possible. I participated with him once or twice a week, and other nights we asked allies, friends, and advocates to accompany him.

A little later I went to pick Baba up from the march. Several march organizers waited with him, to help load him and his power wheelchair into the truck and trailer. He seemed confused and shaken up, and I told him about the heads-up text I received from our friend. “What happened?” I asked.

Baba said, “I don’t know, it was really strange. This big guy came up to me during the march and he was trying to talk to me. I was distracted because we were chanting and yelling, and I was trying to steer the chair through the crowd. I couldn’t really hear him, but he said something like, ‘I know what you did back there.’ I didn’t know what he was talking about, and then he walked away.”

When we got home, we started to piece together the situation:

  • A youth* claimed Baba had touched her inappropriately. This was in the midst of a crowded street march, with hundreds of people around, with Baba flanked by organizers, while he was trying to navigate his power chair.
  • For some reason, Baba was being targeted as the perpetrator. The man who came up to him was an organizer with the group, One Michigan, that hosted the youth.
  • The allegation had already begun circulating through the community.


I contacted some of the march organizers by text to warn them of the allegation. Several responded right away:

  • “that’s insane - here for baba 100%!”
  • “People have troubling personalities that need energy work. Sorry this must be stressful AF. We don’t believe that of Baba ofc. Love to you and Baba.”
  • “I was next to baba the whole time I didn’t see him touch nobody inappropriately”


As of that night we did not even know exactly what was alleged. What kind of touch? When and where did it occur? Who was touched on what body part? Why did they think it was Baba? Who witnessed it?

The likelihood of the allegation struck me as nearly impossible for many reasons:

  • We’re in a pandemic, Baba is immuno-compromised, and strict about spatial distancing. No hugs, only elbow bumps, masked, no physical contact.
  • He’s acculturated march organizers to have wheelchairs in the front line as an accommodation for disability. It’s extremely difficult and stressful to navigate a wheelchair through a crowd, and nothing’s worse than getting bumped from behind by a wheelchair. For safety and practicality, it’s best to put wheelchairs in the front of the march.
  • Because he is always in the front line, he is flanked by organizers leading the march. On the night of the 29th, One Michigan stepped in front of DWB for one section of the march.
  • The power wheelchair makes Baba highly visible and impossible to hide, sneak around, or do anything illicit.
  • Baba has a spinal cord injury and nerve damage in his arms and hands. He can only reach out so far towards people around him. He maintains a space bubble around the chair. With his right, dominant hand he must steer the chair continuously. His right hand cannot ever leave the joystick while moving. His left hand can only reach so far, especially while he is in motion. The likelihood of touching someone, anyone, in any way, while driving the chair, in the midst of a crowded march, with his left hand, seems nearly impossible. Those who’ve never used a power chair should try this out themselves, while imagining they have a spinal cord injury and nerve damage that restricts both lower and upper body movement. Someone would’ve had to be practically leaning on his chair to even be accidentally brushed by his elbow, and this was unlikely at the height of a pandemic.
  • If such a touch occurred, wouldn’t there have been witnesses? Hundreds of people were marching, and Baba was smack in the middle of the street, surrounded on all sides by marchers.


So many other questions arose: Why did the youth think Baba touched them? Why didn’t the adults in charge discuss the allegation with Baba, aside from the brief, threatening, non-specific reference from the man who came up to him? Who else at the march that night knew about the allegation? Did anyone investigate the situation that night, to get to the bottom of it, and clarify exactly what happened?

To me, it felt like there was clearly a misunderstanding of some sort, and that the youth may have been confused about exactly what happened. After all, it was a hot night, a tense situation, and a loud, shouting crowd of folks from disparate groups and identities moving through the streets. Trauma confuses our senses and perceptions, and impedes executive function. If I experience inappropriate touch in a crowd, it would be easy for me to blame the wrong person, or mistake an accident for an assault, or be triggered and relive a past trauma. As a child, I would hope that the adults in charge would recognize these possibilities and respond accordingly. If the adults had calmly and rationally investigated the situation right then and there, the damage could’ve been nipped in the bud.

Inevitably in community organizing—especially when coalitions are rapidly assembling to address urgent issues—rifts, disagreements, and factions start to bubble up. Rumblings at the marches had been ongoing for a couple of weeks or so. This is human nature, and no big deal, but these conflicts and growing pains present necessary challenges to work through in mature and strengthening ways. Was this allegation arising out of these rifts? Was Baba being scapegoated?

I felt strongly that, for some reason, Baba was being singled out and attacked, and that he needed immediate protection. The following night, June 30, I was unable to accompany Baba to the march but a friend, a well-connected Southwest Detroit resident and indigenous healer, volunteered to be with him. I asked her to smudge and cleanse the space and the people around them, because it seemed apparent to me that a lot of messy, destructive energy was circulating. I advised Baba to speak out and ask for protection, and specifically to ask members of the safety team to march alongside him because he was being singled out and accused of perpetrating harm. But when he finally got a chance to speak, a Detroit Will Breathe organizer cut him short and would not let him finish, saying “Nobody is beyond reproach,” implying that the rumored allegation may have been true.

The next day, July 1, Baba and I had a phone conversation with a DWB organizer, acknowledging the allegation of harm made against Baba. Baba and I immediately requested investigation, dialogue, and a restorative justice or mediation process to address the allegation. DWB agreed to the process, and asked that meanwhile, Baba stop attending DWB events. I suggested that if a cooling off period was desired, then One Michigan, responsible for making the allegation, should also stop attending DWB events. DWB disagreed, because the organization was part of their coalition, despite my argument that all coalition members needed to be held accountable.

Days went by, and we received no word from DWB about the dialogue. I also reached out personally to One Michigan, by phone and email, and received no response. At a July 4 community event, we spotted members of One Michigan whispering to our friend, one of the event organizers. Later, my suspicion that they were spreading the allegation proved true, although our friend did not take the bait, and instead urged One Michigan to take it up with Baba, and seek mediation.

The following week, On July 6, I urged Baba Baxter to start attending marches again, because they are public events, and one cannot be barred indefinitely from public events. On July 7, I reached out to DWB to reassert the need for dialogue. They responded that they no longer planned to pursue dialogue because the youth didn’t want to participate, and also because they took Baba’s presence at the July 6 march as a gesture of disrespect. They closed our text thread with “We are looking for ways to move forward and will keep you posted.”

Baba and I took it upon ourselves to reach out to a member of the Detroit Safety Team, an experienced restorative justice facilitator, who agreed to facilitate a process between Baba and DWB. They reached out repeatedly to DWB that summer, who failed to follow through with the requests for information to get the RJ process started.

It was getting clearer and clearer that DWB and One Michigan had little to no interest in resolving the situation.

We thought the whole ordeal may have died a natural death, until a representative of DWB revived the allegation, through an email listserve to the Coalition for Police Transparency and Accountability. I responded to the message with clarifying information, reiterating the ignored requests for dialogue and investigation. CPTA agreed to support the process and help move it forward. We are currently in that process.

Most recently, the allegation resurfaced on Facebook, in the context of the upcoming Michigan Democratic Party Disability Caucus elections, to argue against Baba Baxter’s campaign for Chair. This person even posted a video in which a voice can be heard saying, “that man just grabbed my ass, in the wheelchair, he just grabbed my ass!” (2:10)

Rewinding the video frame by frame reveals the implausibility of the allegation. Namely, the accusing party was diagonally to the right of Baba (2:01). He could not be moving in his chair, and grabbing someone on his right at the same time. Apparently the accusing party and those perpetrating the allegation do not understand how a power wheelchair works. It doesn’t have “cruise control” or “auto-pilot.” The wheelchair user’s hand controls the chair, which will only move when pressure is applied to the joystick. If the user moves their hand off the joystick, the chair comes to a complete halt. To “grab [someone’s] ass,” he would have had to stop completely to reach his right hand out. The youth would also have had to stop to be within reach. Everyone behind them would then be forced to stop, and they would have witnessed said assault.

Baba keeps his water bottle and food bag hanging on the right side of his chair. Did she brush against something and think it was a hand? Did someone else in the march assault her? Who knows what she actually felt? But what is clear is: Baba’s right hand was driving his chair the entire time, and that hand never left the chair, and the chair did not stop moving.

I wish this kind of scrutiny and logic could have been applied much earlier. So much secondary harm could have been prevented.

The elephant in the room is ableism. I wonder how much Baba Baxter’s disability consciously or unconsciously scared the youth and adults who alleged inappropriate touch? PWD (people with disabilities) are often objectified, and seen as deviants from the norm. PWD can elicit fear because they are othered, kept out of the public eye, and dehumanized. Seeing them reminds us of our own mortality and vulnerability. A wheelchair often elicits fear, especially a power chair which we perceive as a small motor vehicle. Just like racism, ableism shows up without our conscious realization. Like white supremacy, it is both the air we breathe and the water we swim in. Baba Baxter especially stands out as a Black man in a wheelchair, not to mention an assertive, visible, unapologetic Black man. He often elicits trepidation. Is it possible that this young person unconsciously projected such fears onto Baba, even if he never touched her, then told an adult, who may have taken her literally, without scrutiny? A conversation and investigation could’ve addressed all of this months ago.

Meanwhile, none of us in good conscience can allow further assertions of this allegation. We must put it to rest immediately. At the very least we each need to view this video closely, understand the mechanics of a power wheelchair, and understand Baba Baxter’s physical disabilities. We need to actually investigate the harm the youth may have experienced that night. Unfortunately, DWB and One Michigan may have put more energy into assassinating Baba Baxter’s character than to conducting a proper sexual assault investigation. We need a clear, well-facilitated restorative justice process to address all harm. Unless and until we take these steps, true healing remains elusive.


*A subsequent Facebook post stated that “the youth” was not a minor as we were originally informed, but a 19 year-old young woman.



ADDENDUM: Baba Baxter’s Personal Statement, July 8, 2020

When Black lives are under attack ... What do we do..? What do we really do? Is that just a hollow meaningless chant that makes us feel good when we say it? How can we say Black lives matter, if we're not prepared to actually protect Black life? How do we really protect Black life? What do we really do? How are Black lives being attacked? Is it just the police or are they just a symptom of a much larger problem?

George Floyd was a Black life. George Floyd was a Black man. The whole world watched in shock as George cried out for his mother, as his last breath was squeezed out of his helpless body. Why was George attacked? Why wasn't George protected? George was not the first Black life, or the first Black man to be attacked. He was not the first Black life or Black man to not be protected, or not matter.

Black lives, and Black Bodies have always been under attack. Black men have never known what it feels like to wake up and not be under attack. Black men are always perceived to be the 800 lb gorilla in the room. Black men are taught at a very early age that you have to tiptoe through life like you're walking on eggshells. A Black man can never appear too aggressive, or assertive, or confident, or masculine, or any characteristic that might intimidate or threaten others, except if the other is another Black man.

A Black man is conditioned to live in fear. Fear of himself, fear of other Black men, and especially fear of others who do not resemble Blackness. The mere presence of a Black man causes others to feel insecure. So how can a Black man matter, or be protected in a society that is conditioned to fear him, a society that targets him, and places a bullseye on his Black body from the moment he is born? When a Black man tries to protect himself he becomes the enemy, When you try and protect a Black man you become the enemy.

This society was founded on the oppression of the Black man. This society with all of its -isms thrives on the oppression of the Black man. These -isms are structured and institutionalized. A Black man is always under attack, and forced to defend his very existence within these -isms. Society has carved out a place for the Black man and if he dares to step out of place he's punished.

Now what if that Black life, that Black body is a Black Man, and Disabled? Now it becomes even more complicated because another -ism is attacking. It's called Ableism.*





Sunday, November 22, 2020

Mask Up! Building Personal and Collective Resilience Through Prāṇāyāma and Masks

Patañjali yoga sutra II.50: As the movement patterns of each breath - inhalation, exhalation, lull - are observed as to duration, number, and area of focus, breath becomes spacious and subtle.

(~tr. Chip Hartranft)

 

 


The COVID19 pandemic has been a fascinating opportunity to study the breath, immunity, and the nervous system, for Iyengar Yoga practitioners like me.

 

Today in class, we explored the idea of breathing through and with resistance. From a yogic, and general health, point of view, the nose is the perfect instrument for breathing. The narrow passageways, the mucus membranes, and the hair of the nostrils serve as filtration, cleaning the air as we inhale. The nose creates a small amount of respiratory resistance, toning the diaphragm and stimulating the phrenic and vagus nerves as we inhale and exhale. Nitric oxide accumulates in the sinuses, which plays an anti-viral role.

 

Mouth breathing, on the other hand, allows us to gulp large amounts of air, with little to no resistance, for instance after a sprint, when we may need instant oxygenation. However, during more typical day-to-day activities, mouth breathing can be very damaging, ranging from mild discomfort like cotton mouth and chapped lips, to hyperventilation, anxiety, asthma symptoms, sleep apnea, and more.

 

In today’s class, we added another layer of resistance through twists, creating an uddiyana kriya-like situation, deliberately restricting the movement of the diaphragm. We noticed how the abdominal twists prevented the diaphragm from fully descending to let air into the lungs. Instead of fighting the restriction, we practiced breathing into the resistance, and the whole circumference of the waist in this position of confinement. We also observed how the breath could be re-directed into the spaciousness of the chest, while using auxiliary respiratory muscles such as the intercostal muscles, and how even the arms could assist, by externally rotating to spread the collarbones, descend the trapezius, and engage the shoulder blades into the back ribs to assist the actions of the intercostals.

 

We explored this further in supine Ujjāyī, Viloma, and in seated Ujjāyī with prāṇāyāma mudra. We finished with a prone Śavāsana, with a narrow folded blanket under the navel, observing the breath in the back body with a mild restriction in the front body.

 

As always, Iyengar Yoga invites us to observe what these practices bring up in us physically, physiologically, mentally, and emotionally. The breath is one of the most obvious and powerful tools we have for self-observation, developing sensitivity and understanding, and eventually, transformation and healing. We undergo immediate changes in breath, heart rate, and body temperature when we experience stress of any sort, and we can bring immediate change to our state by consciously altering the breath.

 

Today’s breathwork in particular created the opportunity to build carbon dioxide tolerance. When we’re stressed, we easily fall into a cycle of overbreathing, disrupting the balance of O2 (ideally 94-96%) and CO2 (4-6%). If we have low CO2 tolerance, we feel we must breathe more, thus exacerbating the stress, and perpetuating the cycle. However, we disrupt the cycle when we build up our CO2 tolerance, which allows us to stay calm even in the face of stress, and keep our breathing at a normal level. In other words, CO2 tolerance teaches emotional resilience.

 

This is where masks come in. Most of us have an understandable natural resistance to masking up. It’s uncomfortable. It’s binding. It’s clammy. It pulls on our ears and our hair. We feel we can’t breathe. Some feel the economic impact of quarantine outweighs health hazards, and even the ensuing loss of life, so masking represents a huge sociopolitical and cultural divide.

 

Strong emotions may arise in some who refuse to mask: feelings of constriction, suppression, suffocation that bring up the urge to fight back. No one wants to be told what to do, especially folks who are not used to having restrictions. In our society, that tends to be the people on the highest end of the social hierarchy who have the most freedom: white folks.

 

As a person of color, an immigrant, and a woman, I’ve understood from day 1, without even being told, that I had to mediate my behavior, and that I could not bring my full self to every situation, and I always had to have my guard up. I’ve also been a frequent traveler to India and South Korea, where masking is part of the culture, mostly due to issues of air pollution, but also as an act of social responsibility to prevent the spread of illnesses.

 

What I now understand through the yogic physiology lens, is that masking can raise our carbon dioxide level in our bloodstream, and unless one trains oneself to tolerate such levels, we may experience discomfort, air hunger, and a feeling of gasping. Do you remember that old school cure for anxiety and stage fright? You were supposed to breathe into a brown paper bag until your breath settled down. When we panic, we tend to hyperventilate: too much oxygen. Restricted breathing, into the paper bag, still permeable (like a cloth mask), helps balance the O2 with CO2, tones the diaphragm, and awakens the parasympathetic nervous system, which signals us to calm down and slow down.

 

We have to train ourselves to breathe softly, steadily, and evenly through our noses as we mask. Most of us habitually overbreathe. We increase lung capacity not by gulping huge amounts of oxygen, but by mediating the breath, as yogis teach, through nasal breathing with soft inhales, exhales, and periods of retention (breath holding). Prāṇāyāma involves conscious mitigation of the breath so that we build up our CO2 tolerance, and balance our sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems to create a calm and alert state.

 

All of us need to stay calm while protecting ourselves and others through masking and distancing. Can we shift our perception of the mask from an object of restriction into an object of liberation? If we experience strain in it, can we understand that strain as a signal to shift the way we breathe? To apply prāṇāyāmic principles and practice softer, more subtle bāhyābhyantara stambha (exhales, inhales, and stoppages)? We can make mask-wearing a practice for  healing and transformation for ourselves and others.

 

Friday, November 13, 2020

An Iyengar Yoga Sequence for Sacro-Iliac and Hip Stability

Many questions have recently come up from folks experiencing pain in the region of the sacrum, low back, and/or outer hip. Current events, including skyrocketing COVID19 rates, may be contributing to the instability many feel. We all may need to step up our grounding, centering, stabilizing practices in the face of so much suffering and uncertainty.

I've had intermittent SI issues for some years, especially early in my practice. The issue seemed to resolve itself as my practice became more balanced and mature. However, since menopause, and some accompanying loss of strength and muscle, some of the sacral and hip issues have returned. At least once a week, I concentrate on strengthening and stabilizing this region, and the sequence I've developed through lots of exploration, research, and trial and error, has been helping a ton. I hope it helps you too.  

The wonderful, classic Tadasana with a sacral strap and block. Here, the strap is at the level of the pubis and horizontal center of sacrum. It can also be taken a little lower, toward the greater trochanter/outer hip. It's also wonderful to wear more than one strap: 2 or 3 at varying levels can be incredibly helpful. The strap/s should provide immediate relief from discomfort, and can be worn all day, while you drive, or whenever. Place the buckle at center front, so it doesn't dig into your skin, and you can easily adjust it. It should be VERY snug. The block is not a requirement, but is helpful in doing the next asana. You could add another strap below the block if you wish.

Tadasana variation: Here I am shifting my weight to one leg. Try not to bend to the side or forward, but to make the weight shift subtle and slow and only until the other leg becomes light and the foot just barely leaves the floor. The standing leg will be working hard, and the gluteals, especially the medias and minimus, firmly engaged. The lifted leg and its glutes will also be engaged. Do both sides to correct asymmetries.

Utkatasana is also helpful. Make it a shallow bend, emphasizing the knees and ankles more than the hip flexion, staying upright with the trunk. Lengthen the buttocks downward and press them forward, strongly engaging the gluteus medias and minimus especially.

Here I am doing the same weight shift I did in Tadasana. Ekapada Utkatasana is quite challenging and will ask a lot of the legs and hip muscles to maintain symmetry. In other words, don't let the standing leg outer hip bulge out. In all poses, the work is to keep the femur heads deeply engaged.

From a narrow Utthita Hasta Padasana (not pictured), I apply the same concept of leaning from side to side. The strap is not absolutely necessary but will intensify the work of the pose and the training of the muscles. You can also use a resistance band if you have one. In either case, the lifted leg needs to stay facing forward while abducting and pushing OUT into the strap. The standing leg, as always, should be stabilizing the femur deep in the hip socket. The intensity can be adjusted by the distance between the feet: the further apart they are, the more difficult the pose. Make sure the gluteas medias and minimus are fully engaged on both sides.


Vasisthasana variations: Here I have to work hard in the lower hip to grip the femur in. I can intensify the challenge by abducting the top leg, as in Utthita Hasta Padasana (no rotation), and challenge further by using a strap or band and pushing out into it. Resist the temptation to do the work from your abdominal strength, and instead redirect the effort into the legs and hips.

 

Coming down onto the forearm brings the body more parallel to the floor and increases the challenge. Even more intense (not pictured) is having the feet on a chair and the hand on the floor.

Chatush Padasana variations: this is one of the very best for SI and hip issues. You could also hold the block between the thighs here. Ekapada requires strong effort in the standing leg to make sure the hips stay level and square. You can work up to it, by doing the weight shift as in the earlier Ekapada poses, or with the lifted leg foot on a wall or chair. 

Enjoy and good luck!
 
 
 
 
 

Monday, September 28, 2020

More on Trauma, Retribution, and Iyengar Yoga

from Leading with Love: Inspiration from Spiritual Activists

 

Like love and wisdom, trauma is cumulative. Every new trauma re-opens the doors of past traumas. The traumas can be personal, collective, and intergenerational. No one is exempt from experiences of trauma, but definitely some people have experienced more traumas, and more repeated and severe traumas, than others.

 

Global white supremacy, empire, patriarchy, and capitalism create a breeding ground for both individual and collective traumas. Theft of people, land, and resources over centuries…wars fought to control these people, land, and resources…ensuing genocide…divide and conquer strategies pitting neighbor against neighbor…hypermasculinity as a survival response to incessant violation…abuse within families, especially of women and children, repeated over generations….I hope you get the picture.

 

We are all trauma stewards. We are all required to tend to, and hopefully heal and recover from, our own traumas, if we are to survive in this world. As adults, we each need to develop ways to feed and house ourselves, which requires some level of functionality, despite the blows we have endured. We’re extremely fortunate if we develop livelihoods that nourish us spiritually, and enable us to be present as trauma stewards for each other. Due to structural inequities, as well as cultures of violence, neglect, and blame developed as a response to trauma, many people are just surviving.

 

Even some with accumulated material wealth are just surviving, from a soul perspective. They are spiritually bereft. #45 reminds us daily of the brutality and systemic violence our nation is built upon, and the ill-gotten generational wealth, shaped by generations of abuse, that put a sociopath in power. We witness daily the unspeakable ravages such a person, operating within systems and institutions built on oppression, can commit. We witness the hordes (stil a significant minority of this nation—30%) who respond to the dog whistle of his trauma, which resonates with theirs, who support him unquestioningly. They resonate with his fear of white annihilation, scarcity mindset, desperation to blame the other, and inexorable smugness of white superiority, because what else do they have to cling to? They even insist their God is white.

 

This is what our nation is made of. This is the culture Iyengar Yoga has emerged from. This is what all our institutions have emerged from, including IYNAUS.

 

Our nation is also shaped by struggle, boldness, vision, and resilience. Too many heroes to name from over the centuries, but off the top of my head, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Grace Lee Boggs, Charity Hicks….

 

Will we take it upon ourselves to shift and transform our culture and its institutions? There’s a part of me that says, fuck it. I am so thoroughly disgusted with mainstream society and I long to disengage from all of it.

 

But then I get hungry, and thirsty, and cold. I need a vehicle to acquire necessities. I need electricity to heat my home and wifi to communicate and get information. I need a goddamn debit card. I have not managed to get off the grid.

 

So like most of us, I am carving a middle path. I practice harm reduction. I am stewarding my trauma through somatic, creative, spiritual practices. I build community with others on parallel paths. We compare notes, teach each other, share food and resources, and support each other.

 

We are all survivors of abusive lineages and colonization. Most of us have been both survivors of harm and perpetrators of harm. How could it not be so? What parent has never lost their temper and lashed out at their innocent child? Or have times of shutdown or dissociation, when we are emotionally unavailable? In our intimate relationships, haven’t we all done and said hurtful things? When we open up so wide for each other, we make ourselves vulnerable to each other’s traumas. I’ve not met anyone who is exempt.

 

Iyengar Yoga in the USA is no exception. No institution is exempt. We need to regard each other and all our institutions through a trauma-informed lens. Why the fuck would I ever expect an institution to protect and serve me? Every institution and system was designed to serve the dominant power structure, and to protect their property.

 

IYNAUS emerged from a need to control who could represent, control, and access the teachings of BKS Iyengar. The community had grown exponentially worldwide, and Guruji was no longer able to personally mentor each teacher, nor monitor what each nation was doing. So associations were set up, with guidelines established locally, and overseen from a distance by Guruji.

 

Is it any wonder that despite the extreme minority of men in yoga classes, at least the past 5 presidents of IYNAUS included only 1 woman? Is it surprising to anyone that the culture of IYNAUS and Iyengar Yoga is overwhelmingly white? Even in a nation that is increasingly BIPOC, and will soon be majority BIPOC, the culture of Iyengar Yoga lags far behind.

 

IYNAUS as an institution reflects the community that comprises it. In our nation it has traditionally been a practice of the educated upper middle class. The middle class serves, in this nation, as functionaries of the upper class, and have been given access to many resources in exchange with compliance, and willingness to uphold the power structure. As such, are we surprised that our community struggled to figure out how to hold Manouso Manos accountable for decades of sexual abuse? And that allegations of other men abusing their power in the Iyengar Yoga world remain unsanctioned and unabated?

 

We excuse none of it. But I am thoroughly convinced that healing will come from outside the institutions. I hold their feet to the fire, at the same time that I actively build the alternative.

 

Iyengar Yoga Detroit Collective has a reach that extends beyond our city and region, due to globalized technology in the face of Covid-19. We have Iyengar Yoga practitioners from around the world able to participate in our webinars, workshops, and weekly classes. We are able to share our imperfect, evolving, trauma-informed, anti-oppression practices. We have study groups and committees explicitly addressing the prevention and correction of harm. We have a fund to support our many projects. We are in conversation with other communities with the same goals. We identify with the global Healing Justice movement, as defined by Cara Page and Kindred Southern Healing Justice Collective, emphasizing the relationship between social justice and healing trauma, individually and collectively.

 

How do we hold each other accountable without relying on institutions bound to repeatedly betray us? This is the starting point for radical, revolutionary love. We must create these containers for each other. It’s our only hope for healing. Transformative justice and restorative justice circles can meet with or without survivors, with or without perpetrators, because participants understand that harm occurs in social and historical contexts. There are many ways TJ/RJ sessions can be structured, and no one structure fits every situation. Each community must take responsibility. TJ/RJ is not a quick fix. It will require multiple sessions, with expert facilitation, possibly over weeks and months, and even years. As we know, healing happens in layers and spirals, and hopefully, never truly ends. TJ/RJ is the alternative to cancel culture, which never really works because it doesn’t address root causes. If healing happens in layers, acts of harm result from layers of trauma.

 

In the words of abolitionist Angela Davis, “We have to imagine the kind of society we want to inhabit. We can’t simply assume that somehow, magically, we’re going to create a new society in which there will be new human beings. No, we have to begin that process of creating the society we want to inhabit right now.”

 

 

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Is Guruji the Problem?

Remember that scene in the “Black Panther” film when the white man wakes up from his coma in Wakanda, and Shuri addresses him as “colonizah”? Our Detroit audience loooved that line. The dynamics between them illustrate a classic misogynist, colonizer mindset. “Alright, where am I?” Ross demands gruffly of Shuri, who is clearly in power, but whom he is treating like a servant by his tone of voice, body language, and incredulity. If you glance at the comments in the YouTube post, you will see colonizer mindset of white folks upset at Shuri’s use of the term, decades and generations after historic colonization of Africa, evidence that there is no such condition as “postcolonial” to be found. Our minds remain colonized, and colonization has become more subtle, through institutions, economics, and multinational corporations moreso than governments.

 

Meanwhile I am reeling from another exposé of harm in the Iyengar Yoga world, and heartbroken to learn of a senior teacher’s alleged abuses. I sincerely hope restorative and transformative justice practice will be employed to address lingering trauma and prevent future harm. It’s the only way to heal and go forward.

 

Furthermore, author Anneke Lucas uses this situation to build the argument that the harm inflicted is rooted in the patterns and behaviors set by BKS Iyengar himself. Guruji.

 

It’s not a new argument, and I’ve addressed the issue in previous essays. Lucas’s perspective grounds itself in a larger anti-guru, anti-lineage movement. Too many spiritual leaders have inarguably committed harm, and the conflation of spiritual devotion with unchecked power is absolutely toxic and nearly ensures abuse.

 

If it were possible to oust all abusive spiritual leaders, would we also dismantle the spiritual traditions? What is the role of elders, gurus, and mentors? Would we cancel our own grandfathers? It’s one thing to write off someone we have no relation to, as an intellectual exercise. It’s another thing to attack an entire lineage and tradition in which a teacher has been treasured and beloved, despite harms committed. I firmly believe we need to wrestle with the contradictions, hold that tension within ourselves, without clinging to either/or positions that fail to address deeper issues.

 

What deeper issues?

 

Our embrace of hierarchy as a species, for example, can create unhealthy power dynamics. Why do we continually put certain people on pedestals and give them power? We need to acknowledge that as complex social beings, we yearn for leadership, and benefit from others’ experience, talent, and genius. We need to acknowledge that at the spiritual core, we are all equal, but we are not all equal when it comes to knowledge, experience, and wisdom. We need to build firm containers for each others’ brilliance to be taught and shared. We need our teachers and mentors if we are to grow, as individuals and as a society.

 

The other side of this coin entails our desperate hunger for scapegoats. “If there were no prisons, we would realize that we are all in chains,” observed Maurice Blanchot, 20th century French philosopher. This explains why mainstream America rejects abolition of the prison industrial complex and the Defund the Police movement. As long as the problem remains “out there” and not within each of us, we feel safe.

 

Our unprocessed trauma compels us to point fingers at the other, and makes it unnecessary to look within. As long as lynching mobs believed that the negro was the problem, they avoided the recognition that they themselves, white people, created the brutal and violent racial hierarchy based on their imagined superiority. And that the great lie of white supremacy was rooted in their own feelings of inferiority and fear, borne of generations of their own trauma and oppression. All too often, the oppressed, given half a chance, become the oppressor. Their ancestors had fled the wars, genocide, starvation, plagues, torture chambers, and class oppression of Europe, only to recreate the trauma here in the New World, with a new underclass.

 

So now we come back around to BKS Iyengar.

 

We are not yet engaging in a robust public discussion about the issue of race and colonization in the context of Iyengar Yoga. Born in 1918 and raised under British colonial rule, BKS Iyengar was of a generation and temperament that swept racism under the rug. What he knew to do was the same thing my parents, growing up under Japanese colonial rule in Korea, knew to do: put your head down and work hard. By work hard, I mean, as if your life depended on it. As if it’s the only thing you can do to ensure survival. 

Perhaps they did not have the language for oppression and exploitation. The ugliness of colonization is that it’s designed to take over our minds as well as our resources, livelihoods, and culture, so that you admire the colonizer, emulate them, internally reject your own upbringing, and question your own right to autonomy and independence.

 

BKS Iyengar, Guruji, was indeed “the Lion of Pune.” But he was also a product of generations of colonization. It was the particular time and place his soul chose to reincarnate in, just as each of us have spiritually chosen to be here now.

 

He was 29 when India gained independence in 1947, but a nation does not shake off nearly a century of colonial rule overnight. Yoga as an indigenous practice, like many indigenous arts, was in disrepute, and he found little interest among Indians in the yogic path. Not until the Western* elite “discovered” him did he begin to gain recognition, and even then, only under their terms.

 

[*I deliberately use the term “Westerners” in this essay, as used by many Indians, to describe white bodies of the European diaspora, and people raised in nations established by white bodies, which lie primarily to the west of India.]

 

American violinist Yehudi Menuhin hired him as his personal yoga teacher, and began taking him on his travels. Guruji was introduced to and embraced by European royalty. But what were the terms of that embrace? He describes the conditions of apartheid of the nations he traveled to, without using this terminology. He was exoticized and objectified, treated as a mascot, like an unusually skillful servant one would show off to friends. A status symbol.

No one in the aristocratic circles of Europe wanted to house this foreign black man. On one visit, he was stuffed ungraciously into a dusty storage attic, into a space so small there was no room to even practice. This is one of very few stories on record, told by his granddaughter at the 2019 Iyengar Yoga USA convention, that mention the racism he faced. Guruji himself, just like my parents, never ruminated on those days publicly, and never criticized his sponsors. They say he fell out with Menuhin eventually, but I don’t know the terms of that disengagement.

 

In only one interview I have seen does Guruji mention the dilemma of racism and colonization. He describes how the slave, so to speak, had to teach the slavedrivers. He had to find the inner strength to not only face the colonizers, but to demand their respect as a trusted authority.

 

I believe that’s what accounts for his reputation as a harsh disciplinarian in the classroom, in contrast to his playful, nurturing personality described by his family. Guruji had to break through the tamas of Westerners' comfortable habits and entrenched minds, and the conditioning of Westerners to habitually and unconsciously view Indians (and other Black and Brown bodies) as inferior. Sometimes Guruji conveyed his lessons angrily, an absolutely understandable and healthy response to the colonial condition. You could say he embodied the suppressed rage of generations. Guruji’s anger never emerged outside the yoga hall, and I've heard no stories of private abuse. His outbursts were channeled through the teaching of āsana. Before and after class, everyone describes him as good-humored, loving, unfailingly generous, and affable.

 

Geeta Iyengar, an infant when Indian independence was won, was of the first generation to get out from under the boot of British colonial rule. Geetaji, bless her heart, was often openly furious with us Westerners, and minced no words. Her voice would bellow in the hall and make us all quake: “You people come here to take. You don’t come to learn. You don’t even read Guruji’s books. You come for ‘points’ to take back. You go home and have workshops, ‘Teachings from Pune,’ and teach the points you get in class, and make money from what we teach you. You don’t even care about Guruji. You don’t even practice.” 

 

Geetaji was describing the colonial condition. Europeans, North Americans, South Africans, Australians, and Israelis—the entire white global colonial world—and later the Chinese, other East Asians, and practitioners from all over the world, were constantly pouring in to RIMYI to bow before their Indian teachers, but some, to Geeta's sharp eye, coming as “spiritual tourists,” extractors, capitalists, and egotistical power mongers to take back trinkets of knowledge and sell them to raise their own status. Geeta was calling out the extraction and commodification of a sacred practice.

 

[A generation later, RIMYI decided it was their turn to capitalize on the popularity of yoga and Guruji’s reputation and legacy, and cash in themselves. A month’s study at RIMYI went from $200 in 2005 to $450 by 2017. They started hosting mega-conventions with 1000+ students just like the other regions of the world, and charging Western rates. They relaxed the RIMYI admission rules, so that instead of requiring 8 years of study and letters of recommendation, virtually anyone could come, pay the money, and take classes. Why beat them [sic] instead of joining them? Or is this a redistribution of wealth? Reparations/compensation for generations of exploitation?]

 

Meanwhile, many in the first generation of foreigners compelled to travel to India to study with Guruji directly were responding to his particular vibration and energy field, no doubt influenced by their own unprocessed trauma. Tada Hozumi comments that, “The reason why (almost all) famous embodiment teachers are white is because white people are the most dissociated people on this earth, so the medicines themselves simply decided to travel where they were needed.”

 

That is, the first generation of mostly white practitioners in the USA and elsewhere recognized something they needed from Guruji: the way the practice made them feel, the healing it provided, the insights they gained. They wanted to share it with others, and took it wholesale to their white communities. Some in the first generation went on to internalize his harshness, and project it on to their own pupils. They said things like, “My teacher would never allow that. Do it this way instead.” Or “You would get slapped for doing that in front of Mr. Iyengar. Never do that again.”

 

Many in second and third generations of Iyengar Yoga, however, had time and distance to process the emotional baggage of the teachings, and develop teaching in ways not shaped by colonization, that did not include bullying and shaming.

 

I fear that we are experiencing a clash of generations and cultures in Iyengar Yoga. Second and third generations of Iyengar Yoga students, especially those who have never studied directly with BKS Iyengar, are no longer willing to subject themselves to the methodology of the Guru and his “disciples.” We have language and reference points for abuse and trauma that were not employed in popular culture a generation ago. We will not tolerate misconduct or abuse in the yoga classroom or elsewhere. We agree that corporal punishment has no place in the yoga classroom.

 

At the same time, it’s almost exclusively white folks who are calling out the Guru and his followers. They are operating through a white lens and the POV of the colonizer, and its residual effects and traumas, which can last for generations. If the healing that was required in the 1970s and 80s was simply embodiment (as a departure from dissociation), perhaps the healing that is required in this decade is empowered embodiment to heal trauma. That is, we are seeking somatic practices that address the harm we’ve experienced, individually, collectively, and intergenerationally.

 

But we cannot do this effectively without understanding and coming to terms with the harm experienced by the accused perpetrator, Guruji, through the unspeakable harm of colonization. As timeless as we claim yoga is, we cannot remove Guruji’s teachings from the context he was living and practicing in. As Westerners, we cannot absolve ourselves of the hegemonic imperialism of the West and the lasting effects of the brutal British empire. Even now, we cannot escape coloniality, and our own distorted, colonized minds.

 

If Guruji developed his famous fire and shakti as a response to overcoming the oppression of whiteness, then it feels disingenuous for white folks now to blame him, as an individual, for aspects of the culture of Iyengar Yoga they reject. It’s like blaming street protestors for making trouble, without acknowledging the systems and institutions they are protesting, and the reasons behind their drastic actions.

 

Certainly we all have free will and individual choice, but we must contextualize our actions and decisions in history, politics, and culture, if we are to understand it and transform it.

 

I will not reject Guruji, nor the tradition of Iyengar Yoga. I straddle both worlds, as an immigrant from a colonized nation, who is now an unwitting representative of the American empire. I identify with Guruji and Geetaji’s anger. I recognize and resist white supremacy daily, and with every breath. My resistance is not always pretty nor graceful. I employ the profound tools I was taught by the Iyengars to wrestle, question, explore, evolve, to pray, and hopefully, heal. I carry the trauma of generations of colonization, and I hope, I also carry the healing. May it be so.

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

The Gift of Somatic Particularity in Iyengar Yoga

 

 

 

What in the world could that mean?

 

It’s a term I made up and just now started using, to describe what we are doing when we say we practice Iyengar Yoga. To say Iyengar Yoga is about “alignment” is both too narrow and too vague. Narrow, because usually folks are referring to the physical body only, and vague, because just how do you align the body with the mind, and the mind with the soul, as we are urged to do?

 

When we say Iyengar Yoga is about precision, that is also misleading. Yes, we frequently engage precise, incisive actions. Not just “stand on your feet,” but perhaps “join the feet and lengthen the big toes forward, while pressing the outer edge of the feet down and the inner heels together.” Why? Is it just to be bossy, dogmatic, and controlling? Precision itself is not the goal; it must serve a larger purpose.

 

So, what if we define the practice of Iyengar Yoga as a methodology to somatically understand and heal ourselves, by developing sensitivity to the particularities of our complex body/mind/breath matrix, through the technologies of āsana and prāṇāyāma? ie Somatic Particularity.

 

BKS Iyengar gifted all of us with an entryway into the body/mind/breath matrix. He taught us how to pay attention, feel, and come into relationship with the particularities of our bodies: Is the weight more on my right foot or the left foot? Why is one foot turning out? How does that relate to the hip pain, or to abdominal cramps? What about tension in my temple when I sit at my desk, or feelings of anxiety?

 

Through the somatic particularity of Iyengar Yoga, we learn to pay attention to ourselves. We start with the basics, the placement of the arms and legs, and how they relate to the trunk. With practice we become more observant and more detailed: how do the actions of my arms and legs affect my spine, my physiological body, and my emotional state? In āsana, we start to connect the observation of the physical body with the state of the mind, our feelings, and thoughts.

 

Through our individual practices of somatic particularity, we also learn to pay attention to social and cultural conditions and patterns. We become more sensitized not only to our own state, but also to the “energy in the room,” in our neighborhoods, in our cities, and beyond.

 

This is where the gift of somatic particularity comes in. Iyengar Yoga gives us specific tools to shape these observations into actions of healing and transformation. We learn not only how to heal the tweaky knee or aching neck, but also how to regulate our nervous systems, lower our blood pressure, calm the breath, manage trauma, and much more. Perhaps we can also apply somatic particularity to shift the dynamics in relationships, at home, work, and beyond.

 

How does this happen? There are no easy recipes or universal remedies. Sometimes the healing can happen in a flash, with one well-timed and attuned āsana. But usually the transformative healing evolves over years and decades. Through somatic particularity, we begin to understand how an action in one body part has a ripple effect through the entire organism.

 

Often the particularity is important. We move, as we are taught, from the gross to the subtle. The more particular and granular we become in our awareness and our actions, the more we access the subtle body. Abstraction does not typically bring about transformation. Abstraction usually happens in our minds, intellects, and imaginations, but the body functions concretely. No ideas but in things! as poet William Carlos Williams insisted.

 

This concreteness, this “thing-ness,” is the profound gift of Iyengar Yoga and somatic particularity. I have not experienced another somatic practice which consistently awakens this level of concrete sensitivity. Iyengar Yoga gives me the specific tools and techniques to engage the complex and magical instrument of the human body for the purpose of transformation and healing. We press this, we pull that, we turn this way and that, we invert, we extend, we compact, and all the while we are reshaping our minds and souls, always coming back to the body and its particularities.

 

May our devotion to this practice of somatic particularity be a transformative tool, to liberate ourselves and our communities, to expand our minds, hearts, and imaginations, to create the world we know is possible.