Monday, May 14, 2018

Flying with Baba Baxter

Being the primary caregiver for a Disability Justice activist = never a dull moment! 

Our latest project entailed a journey for the Poor People’s Campaign, from Detroit to Washington, DC. Baba Baxter Jones, a TBI and spinal cord injury survivor and wheelchair user, discovered that airlines may require some passengers with disabilities to travel with a “safety assistant.” This law would apply to certain cases of severe disabilities preventing the passenger from independently evacuating in case of emergency. In these cases, if a safety assistant was deemed necessary by the airline, the safety assistant could not be charged to fly.

Baba, who experiences dementia due to his brain injury, and cannot move his legs due to the spinal cord injury, fit 2/3 of the criteria (the third criteria being severe vision/hearing impairments). However, in extensive phone and in-person conversations, the airline refused to require him to bring a safety assistant. Instead, they insisted repeatedly that they were trained and fully available to meet his every need from curb to curb. They reassured us over and over that Baba would be able to travel independently with their accommodations. Left with no choice but to take them at their word, the campaign bought a ticket for me, knowing Baba would need assistance in DC, and we embarked.

The public paratransit van was over an hour late picking us up from home, but we still managed to arrive at the airport by 7:10am for an 8:25am flight. Airline representatives told us we could check-in curbside, then be escorted through security, to the gate, and onto the plane. Instead, it turned out the Wheelchair Assistance counter was inside the building, which required me to leave Baba with the transport van, go inside, and ask a Wheelchair Assistant to come outside and help us. This would have been impossible if Baba was alone. Rest assured, the beleaguered paratransit van driver was NOT interested nor required to navigate airport logistics, handle baggage, and stay with his client until the airline’s assistant was secured.

The airline assistants accompanied us through the arduous security process, which was complex due to all the medical equipment Baba carries and wears, which includes back and leg braces, a medicine bag, breathing machine, and much more. Since he cannot stand nor easily leave his chair, he needed a pat-down. The airline assistants stood by, but due to space constraints, were about 15 feet away, and could not be easily called. With considerable effort and my help, Baba “recombobulated,” and we were on our way.

At the gate to the plane, we were met by two men who were assigned to move Baba into the narrow on-board wheelchair and to his seat. Baba was told earlier by phone that the airline had a mechanical device to facilitate transfers. But when we asked the staff, they had no clue what we were referring to. As could be expected, the folks who are assigned heavy lifting, the most risky work, and probably among the lowest paid employees with the least control over their work environment, are almost always Black and Brown folks. When Baba checked in with them and asked them if they were prepared to take full responsibility for what they were about to do, they started to realize the risk involved in moving someone with severe spinal cord damage, and called in two more men to assist with the transfer. 

With considerable, cumbersome effort the four men lifted Baba from his chair onto the onboard chair and strapped him in. Getting him through the wide-aisled first class section was manageable, but the twist to get him into the narrower economy section required much jostling and squeezing, which was jarring and painful for Baba. The four men then awkwardly lifted Baba over the bulkhead armrest and into his seat. By this point, Baba was writhing with back and neck pain, breathing heavily, dizzy, and feeling humiliated and disrespected. He felt dehumanized, like a piece of luggage. Nevertheless, he was eager to move on and get to DC on the already delayed flight. Against his wishes, EMS was called in. They checked his vitals, he declined to go to the hospital, and we were on our way, an hour late.

For some mysterious reason, the airline had assigned the bulkhead seat for Baba. Every other row in the airplane has an aisle armrest that can move, but not the bulkhead. How much easier and safer it would have been to be in another row! We were befuddled about both the intial seat assignment (why wasn’t Baba given the option of being lifted over the bulkhead arm or being slid into another seat?) and the last minute lack of common sense of requesting a passenger in another row to trade seats.

By this point, Baba needed to relieve himself.

“Ummm, how do you accommodate wheelchair passengers who need to use the restroom???” we asked the flight attendants.

They stared at us blankly, then sorrowfully and guiltily. “Well, we have an onboard wheelchair, but we don’t have staff to transfer you in and out of your seat.”

Once again, the airline had given us a promise impossible to fulfill, that they would be able to accommodate his needs on the plane. Humiliated and dejected, Baba had no choice but to use his relief bottle under a blanket in his seat, in public view. The flight attendants were not even able to empty his relief bottle for him, because they’re not equipped to handle bodily fluids. What if he had had to urinate again on the flight?
Baba Baxter at the end of the flight to BWI
All the while, the full plane was silent and tolerant. The other passengers knew better than to express frustration, anger, and impatience  due to a delay caused by a person with severe disabilities. To fly at all requires financial means, and predictably the plane was majority white and white-passing folks. A few Black and Brown folks gave us empathetic smiles and props on their way out, but for the most part, the passengers did the white-polite thing, of averting their eyes, pretending Baba did not exist, and going on their way with suppressed frustration. 

The overwhelming impression I got was that they pitied Baba. He got lots of sympathetic side-glances. But what I wish they could muster is outrage! Anger that the airline handled the situation so poorly. Anger that Baba was manhandled, put in harm’s way, and injured. Anger that a passenger would be denied the ability to use the restroom. Anger that the airline's lack of preparedness and poor handling caused a one hour delay. Anger that our brothers are required to obey orders and commit harm to someone with disabilities. 

Until able-bodied folks are able to empathize our way to solidarity with PSWD (People Surviving with Disabilities), and demand change, corporations, institutions, and governments will continue their harmful policies and practices. Have you ever been on a plane with PSWD with paraplegia? Or are you such a person, who travels by air? I’m guessing most of us would answer no to both questions. We need to understand why this is so, and what we all can do to correct this injustice. Join us in our fight! 

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Embracing Disability

“Isn’t it depressing?” my kind and compassionate activist-artist friend, Jung-In, earnestly asked, when I told her I was the live-in caregiver for an elder with disabilities.

She went on to clarify. “I mean, everyone wants to be around babies, but when you’re taking care of Grace [Lee Boggs] or Baba Baxter, don’t you get depressed?”

Grace Lee Boggs, one of our seminal revolutionary elders, died at age 100, and I was honored to be part of her caregiving team in her final years. Baba Baxter Jones, another Detroit revolutionary, uses a wheelchair, and has spinal cord and traumatic brain injuries. In asking her question, Jung-In was openly addressing the discomfort and resistance most of us experience when we are in the presence of PSWD (people surviving with disabilities), especially the highly visible forms of disability that require obvious accommodations.

She was revealing her own biases, and projecting her own feelings by asking the question. But don’t these feelings pop up for the rest of us, in our most honest moments?

I understood her question because I had wondered long and hard myself, if I could handle the task of being Baba’s live-in caregiver, before I committed to it in March 2017. Even though I had taken care of my parents in their final months and years, participated in Grace’s care, and devoted years to caring for my own three children, and even though, as one friend observes, caregiving is in my lifeblood, I wasn’t sure if I could handle this job. I didn’t know if I could be the live-in primary caregiver for someone needing significant, ongoing, day-to-day care, with mobility, nourishment, hygiene, emotional support, and medical and legal advocacy.

I’ve now completed Year 1 with Baba. To answer Jung-In’s question, NO, it’s not depressing.

Poster by ADAPT
Challenging, absolutely. Humbling, most definitely. Overwhelming? At times. But depressing? Never. In fact, I’d say that caring for Baba, as well as Grace, and each of my parents, has been inspiring, incredibly life-affirming, and profoundly instructive.

But I empathize with Jung-In’s question because it’s easy to see how some would run away from my position. Being around someone with a severe disability makes us squirm. We naturally feel uncomfortable. Our feelings can range from pity, to fear, to shame, to morbid curiosity, to admiration borne of guilt. 

Recall what it feels like to see a person who is homeless on the street. We tend to avert our eyes, we don’t know where to look. What if they ask for money? We might have a little change, but we’re trying to pay off our debt, or we have mouths to feed, or a mortgage to pay. We feel guilty because we have homes, at the same time we feel relieved that we’re not in their position. We might be woke enough to not blame them for their condition, but we hesitate to cut them so much slack that we could imagine ourselves in their shoes. It’s triggering to see someone so vulnerable, and we are eager to draw a strong boundary between them and ourselves. 

I’m recalling the 1994 winter Olympics. My 6 year-old daughter, Katja, saw a beautiful, elegant woman figure skater on TV, and she said, “That’s me,” her eyes glued to the screen. In the next moment, there was a commercial for an international humanitarian agency, soliciting donations, featuring a hungry, sullen, glassy-eyed child, meant to evoke pity. Katja, without skipping a beat, said, “That’s NOT me.”

Just like Katja, we consciously or unconsciously feel compelled to separate ourselves from the suffering, poor, needy, elderly, and disabled. “That’s NOT me,” we want to believe, and we move on to the next thing.

PSWD and those who are homeless are often treated similarly. Everyone professes to love and admire Baba Baxter, but only a handful actually show up to assist him. The degree to which we can show up, I’ve come to realize, is the degree to which we have come to terms with our own vulnerability and dependence. Those who have the capacity to be most present are those who have had the privilege of working through these issues. Maybe they’ve cared for loved ones, or are PSWD themselves. They’ve learned how to cultivate healthy interdependence, and how to ask for help. Often because they’ve received help themselves, they make it a priority to give it when needed.

If we have experienced suffering in our own lives, perhaps we’ve softened enough to be present for others. Grief, loss, injury, and illness give us the insight and fortitude to dismantle the ableist within. They also help us to realize that each of us is only temporarily abled, and that at some point, we are highly likely to be disabled ourselves, and dependent on others. The spiritual task is not to avoid becoming dependent, but to cultivate the capacity within to gracefully ask for and receive help.

For the first six months of caring for Baba, I resisted many of his requests. I didn’t understand why he wanted things a certain way, and I couldn’t identify with all his preferences. “Wouldn’t it be easier if ….?” I constantly questioned, until my ableist lens starting to thin out, and I started to see the world through his eyes. What I interpreted as a minor annoyance, was for Baba a gross injustice, or even a safety threat. It’s exactly the same way I may experience a racial microaggression, that to a white person would seem inconsequential. To an outsider, I could even seem unreasonable, hypersensitive, and delusional. Because the white person has not been in my shoes, they may not recognize racism, nor have they been harmed by it. In fact, they have no doubt benefitted from centuries of white supremacy, which makes it even harder for them to recognize it, much less dismantle it.

Ableism works exactly the same way. It’s not just about complying with ADA law. It’s also about the root causes and attitudes that perpetuate lack of access and rights. We begin to dismantle ableism when we say: that PSWD IS me. I could quite easily, in the blink of an eye, be that person. In fact, in many ways, I am already that person. We choose to be in alliance with PSWD, not out of guilt or pity, but because we cannot be whole without accepting the inevitable demise of our abilities, and the concurrent blossoming of interdependence. We are inspired by the life stories of PSWD, their resilience, sense of humor, resourcefulness, and the wisdom they have gained. They are leading the way for us to eventually renounce our own abilities, and embrace our own transformation to come.

In full disclosure, it's taken me decades of activism--beginning with feminism, to anti-imperialism/anti-war, to anti-racism--to finally come around to anti-ableism. Of course I always supported it intellectually, but to embody it fully and embrace it has honestly taken me decades. And I'm still very much learning, still constantly stumbling and finding blind spots.

I’m no martyr, not a saint, not a glutton for punishment, and I’m thankfully not depressed. I’m here in peace and love, to grow and learn every day. 

Friday, February 9, 2018

Ableism and Abhinivesa

"Many ask me whether pranayama, controlling the breath, postpones old age. Why worry about it? Death is certain. Let it come when it comes. Just keep working. The Soul has no age. It doesn't die. Only the body decays. And yes, we must never forget the body, since it is the garden we must cherish and cultivate."
- BKS Iyengar, Light on Life, p.104-5

If we are supremely blessed, we will have the opportunity to witness a loved one’s transition from earthly life to the spiritual realm. If we have the privilege of caring for elders and the terminally ill, we will bear loving witness to their physical demise. If we are able to trust and embrace the process, we will each get to realize that we are temporarily able-bodied, and accept the shifts from ability to dependence to disability, to our last breath, with grace.

Guruji, Shri BKS Iyengar, in the limelight most of his adult life, allowed the public to witness his transition into the eternal infinite. We witnessed over the years how the most robust and vigorous human we had ever known gradually became frail. We devotees watched his gait become tentative, listened to his worsening cough in the practice hall, and observed the evolution of his āsana practice to accommodate his aging condition. We watched Guruji wrestle with abhinivesa, the practice of clinging to life, by not running away from the inevitability of death, but stepping graciously into the final stage of his life, and into his final days. He refused to hide his increasing physical disability, and our love for him evolved from admiration of his prowess of the outer layers, to recognition that his greatest power lay much deeper within.
Photo by Andy Richter
Through his example, we were given a chance to overcome our inner ableist—that part of us which fears, rejects, and judges disability, whether it’s physical, emotional, or mental.

The inner ableist rears its head constantly, in a capitalist society that determines our worth based on our productivity and consumption. Someone who is dependent on others, in this framework, is a leech, a parasite, and a burden. Bad enough to start off as helpless babies and children, we are quickly taught to adhere to a schedule, follow adult regimens, and literally fit into a box. What a relief for our parents for us to grow up, get jobs, and live on our own. But this period is temporary. Anything can throw you back into a dependent state: illness, pregnancy and childbirth, an injury, and the ultimate inevitability, aging.

How does the inner ableist show up? Here are a few examples:
  • Some friends have gathered at a lake, in canoes and kayaks. We are enjoying paddling around lazily on a summer afternoon. One friend, who is a poor swimmer, capsizes her canoe and is flailing for help. Another friend is nearby, but ignores her. The flailing friend eventually rights the canoe and climbs back in, wet and traumatized. Afterwards she asks her nearby friend why she didn’t help, to which she replies, “I didn’t want to embarrass you.”
  • I’m watching the movie “Hugo” on the airplane. In one scene, a WW I veteran gets a catch in his prosthetic leg, which throws him forward, when he is trying to impress a woman. She does the “polite” thing of turning away and pretending she doesn’t notice. He gruffly explains that he has a war injury, and mortified, starts to turn and walk away.
  • A cousin is caring for her father, my uncle, in the final stages of cancer. She is deeply disturbed by having to care for her once strong and capable father, seeing him writhe in pain, and be dependent on others to care for his most basic needs, including urination. She feels traumatized by bearing witness to his lack of ability, and caring for him in his final weeks.
  • An acquaintance wonders out loud, when I tell her that I am serving as a live-in caregiver for an elder with brain and spinal cord injuries and paraplegia, if I have allowed him to become dependent on me, implying that independence should be the goal.
Do these stories spark feelings and associations in you, and remind you of other examples of ableism? They come up every single day once you start noticing.

I believe the root of ableism is indeed abhinivesa, which, as Patañjali’s Yoga Sutras inform us, afflict even the noblest of sages. That is, we are so materialistic and physically-bound, that we end up fearful of death, that ultimate mystery and loss of physical form.

We are also afraid of physical pain. In the throes of pain, it seems like the most objective experience in the world. But pain itself is deeply subjective. We’ve all had the experience of being in pain, and then forgetting about it when another experience displaces it. We’ve noticed how something can hurt like hell in one instance and in another, hardly bother us. 90% of women in the USA expect childbirth to be painful, while 90% of women in the Netherlands expect it NOT to be. That is, pain has many contingencies, and arises in any number of contexts.

Most of all, however, I think we are afraid of dependence and vulnerability. We are terrified of entrusting ourselves to others. We find it embarrassing and humiliating, and we don’t even want to ask for help. We have been brainwashed to buy into the belief that we must be supporting ourselves and earning money to be useful, and if that is impossible, we are worthless.

When I decided to leave my marriage in 2010, and thus leave my mutual funds, retirement accounts, life insurance, healthcare, and 2 houses, I had to look into the crystal ball and imagine how I would end up, especially in my final years, with my inevitable disabilities.

I decided that as long as I was nominally useful, even as a storyteller and lullaby-singer, that perhaps someone would put me up. And that even those abilities would eventually fade.

My father, in his final years, months, and days, gave me an incredible gift that many have not had the honor of receiving. His dying was gradual, and entailed a progressive loss of abilities, until the day came when he could no longer swallow water. My mother made the compassionate and courageous decision to take him to a hospice at that point. My family traveled to be with him, and I had the honor of staying with him for his final week.

My father was never particularly attentive nor devoted to us kids. A good Korean dad, he provided for us and modeled hard work, and left the parenting and nurturing up to our mother. I think a part of me always longed for a closer relationship with him, although I didn’t know how to pursue it or ask for it. But in that final week with him, despite or maybe because of his weakened, unconscious state, I was able to feel closer to him than I ever had when he was able-bodied.

I held his hand, read poetry and the Psalms to him, sang to him, swabbed his mouth, washed his face, and massaged his feet. We also spent many hours in silence, and I slept in a cot in his room. I was the only one present when he took his last breath, and I was holding his hand with my other hand on his chest, while the other family members were driving over. Tremendous, nonverbal healing transpired between us in that week that could not have happened earlier.

I hope my loved ones have a chance to care for me when I am disabled. I know I’m supposed to say exactly the opposite: I don’t want to be a burden to you, I want to be independent as long as possible, don’t worry about me.

But I would be lying, and I would be holding back what I know to be true: that there is so much potential for healing, reconciliation, love, and tenderness, when caring for a loved one with a disability, and I don’t want my family and friends to be deprived of that opportunity.

Overcoming ableism means recognizing and valuing our inner worth, which is eternal, more than our outer abilities, which are only temporary. It means being willing to reveal our vulnerabilities, and welcome others to do the same, in order to open the doors to healing. It means depending on each other, and not feeling ashamed to lean on someone, who will in turn, need to lean on others at some point.

Caregiving for someone unable to fully care for themselves, whether it’s an infant or child, an adult with disabilities, or an elder, is a kind of currency. It’s a work trade, a barter. Even if there is money involved, the payment doesn’t actually touch the real value of the care. Caregiving most likely will not be reciprocated tit for tat with the person we give care to, especially in this age when the family structure is in transition and being redefined. Instead caregiving as a currency enters an alternative “marketplace,” and invites others into this intimate exchange of giving and receiving.

What do caregivers receive? A glimpse of the eternal. An understanding of something beyond temporal reality. A chance to come to terms with their own vulnerabilities and disabilities. Opportunities to dismantle their inner ableist. A practice of overcoming abhinivesa, that most tenacious of the kleśas. May it be so.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Making Space for Transformation

 “Let her scream!” Raya insisted, as a student’s yells pierced through the yoga hall during a medical class. A Senior Teacher was lifting the student's shoulders in Dwipāda Viparīta Daṇḍāsana while another teacher was lifting her hips waaaay up.

Raya’s comment was shorthand for: She is experiencing intense sensation in an āsana that will heal her. Don’t let her stop doing the pose just because she is paining, complaining, or fearful. Indeed, the seasoned teachers did not stop, kept her in the pose, and repeated it several more times.

Although we are typically coached to “keep our cool” in yoga practice, it’s not unusual to hear grunts, moans, and an occasional scream in the practice hall, especially during the medical (Remedial) class, with students coming with sometimes quite serious injuries and illnesses.

Usually they don’t even realize they are making such sounds, and they have no control over it. Occasionally when I have received very strong adjustments, a sound will simply pop out, absolutely involuntarily. It’s not a scream of pain. It’s a response to an intense sensation, an arrival at a place I’ve never been before, often a surprising place and experience. Typically we are not even aware that we are making noise, and are so deeply absorbed that we are oblivious to what is going on outside of our intense inner experience. Even those who are rather reserved, quiet individuals will have the occasional, seemingly out of character outburst, during an āsana adjustment.

Sometimes the teachers will do a strong adjustment to “test the waters,” seeing how much a “patient” (as they refer to the students in the medical class) will tolerate, how far they are willing to go, how determined they are to heal, and how much they are willing to trust them and trust Iyengar Yoga. They want to see if they’re going to be worth their time.

Immediately after that medical class, Rajlaxmi led a beatific Prāṇāyāma session. She commented on how creating space in the body is making room for the spiritual body. She described how subtle space is—ākāśa, and how we are actually welcoming spirit into our physical beings. She talked about the inner light we all contain, but that it’s covered up with the emotional body through the kleśas, and mostly invisible to us. We worked all through class in creating the space in ourselves for spirit, and to let the inner light through.

It reminded me of eurythmy, a movement art based on sound, in which every vowel and consonant has an expressive archetypal gesture. We all intuitively understand the relationship of movement and sound. We can’t help but say “Ahhh” at the sight of a beautiful waterfall or rainbow. We coo “Ohhh” when we see a little baby, and “Mmmmm” when we see delicious food. Sounds just come out of us, both from intense pleasure and displeasure and everything in between.

Rajlaxmi’s poetic observations and the outcries I heard in the medical class made me realize we are actually welcoming or expelling spiritual forces and energies through our vocalizations. When we silently utter “Om” as we do at the beginning of each of Prashantji’s classes, we are shaping our vocal apparatus around the syllable, even if the sound is unheard. When we work with the sound forms in Prāṇāyāma in his classes, I am finally understanding that we are shaping the ākāśa within, and as such, manifesting God in that inner space.

So I’m also extrapolating that the vocalizations we occasionally make are an expulsion of negative spirit within. That perhaps Abhi and Raya are wringing out the demons, so to speak, that keep us bound up and in pain. That the grunts and yelps and yelling are elements of a yoga exorcism of sorts.

I am trying not to go woo woo on y’all. I’m trying to keep it super-grounded real. So whether one is atheist or a fundamentalist Christian or anything else, I hope you can relate to my observations, that the Iyengar Yoga practice is to drain ourselves of what no longer serves us, and to create space for the next stage of our evolution. You could say, we’re ridding ourselves of our former selves and making way for our higher selves. We’re constantly creating ourselves anew.

“Why does it sound like you are all having childbirth pains?” scolded Geetaji in an intense backbend class some years ago. We are frequently coached to keep our focus within, stay calm, and breathe through the intensity instead of grunting and moaning our way through a challenging class. I understand this and practice this, but sometimes the sound pops out, completely involuntarily and unconsciously, like a cough or a sneeze. Maybe it sounded like childbirth because we were actually giving birth to ourselves on some level.

Not that every yoga class should be punctuated with screams. But we must expel our inner demons, whatever it takes, those forces that hold us back, that keep us stuck. May we, with sensitivity and self-compassion, tune into our ākāśa, and make space for the inner Divine, whatever it takes.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Yoga Lineage: Who’s Included?

Here in Pune, on my 6th trip to RIMYI since 2005, I am more aware than ever of the passage of time, and the mortality of my teachers. Since Guruji passed in 2014, and Geetaji and Prashantji have stepped up to uphold his legacy, Geetaji has reminded us repeatedly of how we must carry on in our own associations, not come to her with petty conflicts and confusions, and recognize that her years with us will also come to an end. She is enlisting the international community of Iyengar Yoga practitioners to carry on Guruji's teachings with integrity.

In an age of 200-hour yoga teaching certifications and the rampant proliferation and commercialization of yoga, the issue of lineage rarely comes up. In a nation built on immigrants who, by choice or force, abandoned their heritage and homelands to embrace the American dream (or nightmare, as it turns out), we place much more value on individual initiative, personal accomplishment, and the myth of meritocracy, than we do on legacy and lineage.

In fact, most yoga teacher trainings pride themselves on being “eclectic,” gleaning from many traditions and presumably bringing “the best” from each. This dabbling mentality typically results in lack of depth and a mindset of extraction, typical of settler colonialism. “I’ll take a little of this, toss that away….” without consideration of context, history, politics, and the consequences of extraction.

In a way, lack of lineage, at least familial, is freeing. We are not bound by class and caste for generations on end, and at least theoretically, there is more economic mobility. But does this apply also to yoga lineage and spiritual traditions?

Prashantji told a sweet story of going to a festival with his father as a small boy, unable to see anything except the hips of the adults around him. But then his father took him up on his shoulders, and little Prashant was able to see far and wide, well beyond the vision of those below him. It’s the same now, he said, explaining how he is standing on the shoulders of Guruji, and what he can see is because he has been taught, supported, and uplifted by Guruji.

What our lineage has given us, we also owe back to our mentors and ancestors. In the Iyengar tradition, we give to Guruji’s Bellur Foundation, which supports his home village with a hospital, high school, junior college, and more. We also “pay it forward” by devoting many hours to our own students and mentees, sharing what we have learned and nurturing their growth.

Belonging to a lineage means always being accountable to someone. Even my mentors, 40-year students of Iyengar Yoga, must answer to the Iyengar family. How many of the recent yoga scandals could’ve been prevented had there been more accountability? At its best, lineage manifests as conscience, so instead of authoritarian shaming and punishment, we develop the inner discipline to be our most noble selves.

All of this is well and good, but where does progress, growth, and evolution come in? When do lineage and tradition become oppressive and stifling? When is it inadequate for the times we are living in? For instance, in this super busy, crowded month at RIMYI, as far as I can tell, there is only 1 Black person in attendance. What does this say about the global Iyengar Yoga movement? How does this impact a highly racialized, 85% Black city like Detroit, MI, which has been through the wringer of white flight, corporate land grabs, foreclosures, water shut-offs, school closures, and more? How will it be possible to cultivate the practice of Iyengar Yoga in communities that have not had exposure or access? How will we develop teachers from and in those communities? From the perspective of my racially fraught home city of Detroit, in the inescapably racist USA, what does it mean that Black bodies are such an extreme minority at RIMYI?

If we know our roots, if we know where we’re from, if we know who we are accountable to, we should be able to evolve from there.

Prashantji commented on how he thought Guruji was wasting his time and energy traveling to Russia and China in his 90s to teach beginners. “Why go yourself when there are so many Senior Teachers?” he asked Guruji, who remained staunch in his commitment to go and teach them himself. Prashantji went on to observe that Guruji took as his dharma the sharing of yoga with the world.

At the risk of overstating my role, I have to admit that I take as my dharma the rattling of the gates of Iyengar Yoga in the USA. I am committed to expanding the population of practitioners, especially to include more people of color and low income folks. As such, I have taken it upon myself to progress on the path of Iyengar Yoga to help evolve the tradition from the inside out.

So what do I see as the future of Iyengar Yoga in the USA? Indulge me in this visualization:
  •  A proliferation of free and low-cost classes in nontraditional venues, like places of worship, community centers, and public schools. Perhaps childcare and transportation could be included.
  • Bilingual classes, ASL classes, adaptive classes for those with disabilities.
  • Cultivating serious study in such nontraditional settings so potential teachers can be recognized and supported.
  •  Low-cost teacher trainings in accessible locales to enable serious students to enter the path to certification.
  •  Affordable conventions and conferences.
  • Broader ways to assess teacher skill and competence, and accommodate different ways of learning and testing. 
Really, these are not radical propositions. Iyengar Yoga in India since its inception embraced all these practices. Iyengar Yoga by its very nature is designed to meet the needs of every ability. It’s just that the international proliferation of Iyengar yoga grew out of Yehudi Menuhin and his upper class, aristocratic following. Iyengar Yoga in the USA largely came through the wealthy and well-connected, and this legacy continues to this day.

Let’s be true to Guruji and his own humble roots, his commitment to Bellur, and his duty to bring Iyengar Yoga to the world. Standing on his shoulders and honoring our gracious lineage, let’s move the tradition forward, into cities like Detroit, making Iyengar Yoga more inclusive than ever before in the USA.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Happy Birthday, Geetaji!

Last Thursday in the practice hall at RIMYI, Raya came in and said, “This is not an announcement, but I want to let you know today is Geetaji’s birthday, she is offering prasad in her office, and that she is in a good mood.”

Naturally, we all stopped in our tracks, got out of whatever pose we were doing, and scurried down the steps and across the courtyard to the Iyengar abode. We live for moments like these! We had barely glimpsed Geetaji all month, and had been told she had been unwell. Not only were folks concerned about her, but Geetaji’s remarkable teachings are so much of the reason we journey here from all corners of the earth.

Teachers of my vintage, who started coming to Pune in the 1990s and 2000s, haven’t had the opportunity to study directly with BKS Iyengar, who retired from teaching weekly classes in the 1990s (?). Many Iyengar Yoga teachers active today regard Geetaji as their primary teacher. Geetaji’s teachings have brought me to my knees, brought me to tears, and have led to numerous breakthroughs, showing me that I can do more than I thought possible. Her teachings are consistently incisive and important, and although our classes with the “Pune All-Stars” are fantastic, we all miss Geetaji’s classes terribly.

So we were understandably thrilled to come downstairs and wish Geetaji a happy birthday! We filed in quietly in our practice clothes and barefeet, extended our right hand to be given a sweet treat by Geetaji herself, and knelt shoulder to shoulder in her office.

She was in lighthearted, jovial spirits, as she offered a word of encouragement to continue working hard on the path of yoga. She reminded us that yoga is unbound by religion, and is a philosophy truly for all. She mentioned that some Iyengar Yoga teachers were offering classes to domestic workers, and how important this work was. Domestic workers, Geetaji indicated, are often physically strained, and have developed many pains from their labors. She didn’t mention the class struggle of the poor who typically have little access to spiritual and healing practices like Iyengar Yoga, but it was implied and understood, as she went on to say how the business aspect of teaching yoga can so easily be overemphasized. Geetaji reminded us that yoga is truly for all.

This may sound quite glib and ordinary, but this is actually a radical seed she has planted. If we are to share Iyengar Yoga with communities like domestic workers, this means we should also be cultivating potential teachers from such communities. That is, for Iyengar Yoga to become an ongoing, sustainable, community-based practice, as opposed to charity or missionary work, teachers need to be part of the communities they teach in.

How do we do this? Is it even desirable or possible? My firm conviction is that we need to develop this kind of accessibility, not by watering down the profound teachings, but by removing the barriers that block people from reaching the teachings. We need to think broadly about making classes affordable, offering different class times, maybe providing childcare or transportation, steeping ourselves in cultural humility and trauma-informed practices, partnering with other organizations, and last but not least, making the classes fun and relevant and rewarding.

Geetaji’s message made my heart sing, because this is what we’ve been striving to embody at Iyengar Yoga Detroit Collective. We’ve wracked our brains, stretched our creativity, and consulted with students, friends, colleagues, and other cooperatives, to find ways to make Iyengar Yoga accessible and relevant to all.

I need to remind myself that I’m here at RIMYI standing on the shoulders of many. These include not only my teachers and mentors, but also my colleagues and students. I have the extraordinary privilege of being an Iyengar Yoga teacher not just for the sake of my own enlightenment, evolution, and well-being, but also to share everything I learn with all who wish to partake, regardless of ability—physical, financial, and otherwise.

Thank you, Geetaji, for once again, opening my mind and heart, and challenging me to do more and do better. May we embrace this challenge as individuals, as Iyengar Yoga centers, and as organizations.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Letter from Pune, 2017

Traveling abroad on a tight budget looks something like this:
  • Red-eye Greyhound from Detroit to Chicago, then
  •  Blue line metro to O’Hare, then flying 
  • Chicago to Delhi for the longest nonstop flight ever, another flight from
  •  Delhi to Hyderabad, and finally
  • Hyderabad to Mumbai, to be greeted by
  • Shuttle bus to Pune, through middle-of-the-night traffic jams, to our lovely rental home.
Sunset in Hyderabad

As exhausted as I was after days of travel, the moment we arrived in Pune, I felt a rush of energy. I immediately attributed it to BKS Iyengar’s presence in the city that was his home since his teenage years. Guruji’s shakti extends beyond the spiritual realm into the earthly realm of a December dawn as we finally reached our house. My heart swelled nearly to the point of tears. I was ready to head over to the Iyengar Institute, but I forced myself to lie down, knowing that I would crash and burn by afternoon if I didn’t get at least a few hours of sleep.

Guruji’s shakti and legacy extend beyond Pune, of course, all the way to places like Detroit, and our yoga co-op home. But it feels strongest and most palpable here. This is my 6th stay in Pune, and each time, it feels more and more like a spiritual home to me. Iyengar practitioners come from all the continents to study with the Iyengar family and to delve deep into their own practice, but based on many conversations, not everyone loves coming here.

The air quality has gotten worse over the years, though the dog poop on the sidewalk has decreased. Now it seems the rainy season never quite ends, interspersing periods of dusty dryness. Prices have skyrocketed, creating a bigger and bigger gap between the haves and have-nots, while expecting the foreigners coming to the Institute to shell out more and more.

With Angela Abiodun and Erin Shawgo at RIMYI
Still, I persist. I find a way by hook or crook to get here every 2 years like clockwork. I keep my living expenses ridiculously low so that my extremely modest teaching income goes right back into Iyengar Yoga study and travel. Walking through the gates of RIMYI (Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Yoga Institute), I am reminded of all the transformative moments I have experienced here: Guruji’s grand entry into the practice hall every morning, often at the elbow of his granddaughter, Abhijata, and later, with his great granddaughter in his arms; practicing in the same room as Guruji, while keeping one eye on him; so many teaching gems, each worth a lifetime of contemplation; and quiet afternoons in the library with Guruji at his desk.

There have been just as many deeply humbling moments as well, where I felt shaken to the core, coming to fully face my own ignorance and lack of understanding. But the practice of Iyengar Yoga teaches us that THAT is where the transformative power lies. “What I know is not important,” Guruji reminds us, “It is what I don’t know that is important,” while encouraging us to “Go from the known to the unknown, the finite to the infinite.”

And so I wake early to the songs of tropical birds and the sounds of sweeping, and nourish myself with tulsi tea, and homemade yogurt with pomegranate and a mini-banana, head over to the Institute to crack myself open, again and again. Oh, those hamstrings, yikes, that stiff thoracic spine, the ache of ropey groins, and that clogged, tamasic mind. I do feel “hopeless, helpless, and hapless” much of the time, as Prashantji chides.

But there are moments of sattvic clarity, and I live for these moments, when I glimpse my own eternal infinite, and see right through the limitations of day-to-day life. It might be in the stillness after a long Śīrṣāsana, or getting deeper than I ever thought possible in an impossible pose, or a sudden realization that makes me laugh out loud.

I extend unending gratitude to all my teachers and students over the years that have facilitated my study here. May I open myself to fully absorb the experience to bring back all I can to share with you.

With love and humility,