Friday, September 19, 2014

The Yoga of Crying

My asthma has not been this severe since 2003, when my body went into a delayed state of inflammation 2 years after my mother died. Anyone less stubborn than me would have checked themselves into a hospital and gone on steroids. Lucky for me (or stupidly) I am too imbued with the Korean spirit of “화이팅!” to give in to big pharma. I know from experience that short term solutions often exacerbate conditions and create long term harm.

I also trust my body enough to know that eliminating current symptoms is not addressing deeper soul issues that my body is communicating to me. So almost nightly I have been breathing my way through wheezing episodes using a mix of Buteyko methods, pranayama, asana, and acupressure points. I have cut out gluten, sugar, and cow’s milk from my diet, I’ve been spending more time in Sirsasana and Sarvangasana, and everything else I can think of. 

One night, unable to sleep because of spasming bronchioles, wondering if I had left any stone unturned, I did an internet search on “cure asthma.” One story caught my eye. The writer described going to a kinesiologist who told them the asthma was unprocessed grief from losing their father as an infant. The kinesiologist moved the energy around, the client went home and cried for 3 hours. After this cleansing, they experienced a total cure from asthma.

As soon as I read this post, I felt like crying. So as not to wake or disturb my sleeping roommate, I went into the bathroom, often the best place to cry, and the tears came quickly. What brought on the tears? One grief leads to another. I thought about my aging mentor on their deathbed, I thought about BKS Iyengar whose death came at a time when I did not have the space to fully grieve. Images and memories of my mother and father arose. I pictured myself as an infant separated from my family. I thought about the Korean movie I had recently seen in which families were divided by emerging superpowers, where sons were pitted against each other. I cried over the 300 children killed in the Sewol ferry catastrophe, and their grieving parents. So much to cry about.

After several minutes I realized my breathing had returned to normal, and that the act of crying had shifted the inflammation in my lungs to my eyes and nose, both profusely watering, and that my lungs had become quiet. I went to bed and slept deeply.

In previous posts, I’ve described the strong emotions that come up for me each day here in Korea. I realized I have not been giving myself enough time to really feel what I feel. Thus I have begun a conscious practice of daily “crying meditation.” I make the time once a day or more to cry for at least 5 minutes. I close the windows so my neighbors don’t worry about me. I choose a time when I am alone, because when I am engaged with others, I am usually more interested in our conversation and our sharing rather than sitting in my sadness, personal and collective.

Once I settle into the feeling of grief, the tears come, sometimes quickly, and other times with reluctance. “Laughter yoga” is popular these days, but maybe we also need a yoga of crying. Like laughing yoga, I sometimes have to “fake it” at first, going through the motions of crying in a way that feels like acting, but within a minute the actor’s tears become sincere tears. I cry for myself, I cry for my family and friends, I cry for the two nations I belong to. I cry for generations. I channel the grief of Mother Earth, the stars exploding and being created anew. 

As I cry, the inflammation moves upward and outward, my heart center becomes brighter and clearer.  I am “화이팅!” and I am healing.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Jindo Crew, Resilience, and Further Opening

Abandonment pounds through the pulse of Korea. Separated families, orphans, missing spouses, abductions, common during wartime. But after war, during the economic boom, the pattern of abandonment continues. “Goose daddies” whose wives and children fly away to the USA for education, women coerced or betrayed into giving up their children for adoption, overworked parents who rarely see their children, and the myriad of addictions that devastate relationships.

My own pre-verbal pattern of abandonment is triggered here. I didn’t think anything special of the fact that my parents left me for 6 months when I was an infant. I thought it was normal. My father, always devoted completely to his profession as a scientist, took my mom and oldest brother, age 4, to Rochester, NY, in 1964, leaving me and my brother, age 2, with my grandmother. This is so common in Korea it’s hardly worth mentioning.

Not until I had children of my own did I re-think this event. Not until I mothered, breastfed, and bonded with my own babies did I realize how wrenching an extended separation could be. I had a hard enough time leaving my infant for 2 hours to go to an appointment, much less 6 months. What did my mother feel as she left her infant and toddler behind to accompany her husband? What kind of withdrawal must my brother and I have gone through as our bonds with our primary caregiver, our father, and our brother, were severed? Luckily we knew our grandmother well. Nevertheless the role of the primary provider, our mother, is unique, and elicits specific hormonal and neurological responses.

I know that infancy abandonment has affected me in many ways, even if I cannot always recognize or articulate them. In my body, I am experiencing Korea heavily in my heart. Daily I break myself open to both joy and sorrow, to both laughter and tears.

At the same time, my elderly friend and mentor in Detroit is ailing. I said my goodbye before I departed for Korea, and it breaks my heart that I cannot be physically present. I have served as a would-be midwife to the dying, for my parents, and for close friends, as a benevolent angel of death, I darkly joke. I am so sad I cannot be there for my friend, and devastated to be so far away, in a city where I do not have a community to celebrate and grieve our friend’s life and ongoing transition into death.

All of this has my body in a state of inflamed red alert. Old asthma patterns have been triggered. Respiratory inflammation roams from sinuses to nose to throat to chest. I strive to be patient with myself, nurture myself, and to lean into the connections that remind me that I am not alone, I am not abandoned, I am resilient, and am always surrounded by love.

My friend Jung-In points out that Koreans do not identify as a colonized or occupied people. She would not be able to live with such an identity. Instead, she experiences Korea at its best as a nation of resistance and survival. She looks to the fierce farmer activists over generations, fighting for the right to grow food, protect the land, and support their families. She works with teachers dedicated to meeting the needs of stressed and burnt-out urban youth. She allies herself with the protestors and hunger strikers at Ganghwa-mun demanding that the government take responsibility and make amends for the Sewol ferry disaster.

I would also like to identify with the b-boys and b-girls of Korea! I had my first exhilarating encounter at a festival last night, with the fantastic Jindo Crew, whose performance took my breath away, and literally left my poor sensitive lungs wheezing. My breathing is back to normal today, and I am bravely opening my heart and lungs further and further, embracing all that green and pink of the heart chakra.

Beyond decolonizing, I am re-indigenizing myself, taking in Korea’s rhythms and flavors, feeling the land beneath my feet, taking a nightly moonbath on our rooftop, feeling the stars watching me even if the bright city lights obscure them.

Monday, September 8, 2014


the walls of seodaemun prison
are plastered with photos of resisters
each one my brother
or the sister i have longed for

steady unsmiling gaze at the japanese camera
trademark korean cheekbones
broad nose and heavy lids
the features passed through generations

this is my TSA airport face
when i accept the humiliation of a body search
insisting on eye contact with the agent
to acknowledge our shared humanity
innate equality undiminished by state authority

incarceration doesn't dull
strong jaw of the profile shot
the sharp dignified chin
i rest my forehead on cold stone prison floor
bow down to the ghosts of revolution

meanwhile back on the subway
i gaze at the before and after ads
of plastic surgeons
see how our korean features 
are being obliterated by choice
our solemn gaze
turned into a round-eyed anime caricature

i pray to my ancestors
forgive us the frivolity of our lives
in the holocaust of yours
indulge us our escapism
in the face of your captivity
allow us to forget it all
even momentarily
if that's what it takes
to survive yet another round
another hour, day, or lifetime
of polite senseless savagery

Sunday, September 7, 2014


8 sept 2014

After creatively finding ways to doze in O’Hare airport with 2 suitcases, a backpack, and an ukulele (good thing my Iyengar Yoga training involves the use of props), I boarded the plane and landed in Korea. Immediately greeted by my friend, Jung-In, we took a local bus to her place in Bucheon, a city of 1,000,000 adjacent to Seoul.

She is generously sharing her space with me--a studio apartment across from the university. It’s manageable for 2, Korean-style, with sleeping mats we fold up during the day. The simplicity is reminiscent of India and comforting to me. The location couldn’t be better, since I will be studying Korean for 4 hours/day, 5 days/week at Bucheon University. We are not home together for many hours at a time so we are managing to not bump each other. 

Jung-In (Kiara) works afternoons and evenings at a YMCA after-school program, doing enrichment classes with middle and high school kids. We met in Milwaukee, when she was a graduate student in music. I sought her out as a Korean tutor in exchange for home-cooked dinners. We didn’t get very far with the tutoring because we would get engaged in deep, soul-stirring conversations that required English on my part, and we got to be fast friends. She returned to Korea after Milwaukee, and has been re-learning the culture after being gone for 9 years.

As I’ve been bustling about--getting a prepaid phone, learning public transportation, exploring the neighborhood, meeting folks--I totally understand why many folks would never do this. The simplest task is quite daunting without language facility. Right now I am heavily dependent on Jung-In for the most mundane things, like how to use my $10 phone or an ATM. I’m in an incredibly vulnerable and humble position and lots of times feel absolutely ridiculous. For instance, my silly phone was flashing all night, and I couldn’t turn it off so I stuffed it into my backpack. (In the morning, I asked Jung-In, and as a reassurance to my ego, she couldn’t turn it off either!)

Yet this vulnerability and humility is how we grow our souls. I cobble together idiotic, grammatically incorrect, poorly pronounced sentences and questions as I attempt to converse, and although everyone has been super nice, I know they are confused about everything I say, and that they have no idea who I really am. For someone like me who identifies as a writer, wordsmith, language artist, and deep conversationalist, I feel severely handicapped. My main tool has been taken away. So where does that leave me? 

Even my body language is culturally inappropriate. Women in Korea keep narrow personal bubbles. Yesterday I found myself at a bus stop with my arm straight out at my side as I leaned into a column. I realized I never see Korean women standing like this. Then I sat down and took my knees and feet wide and let my skirt fall between my knees. That also felt totally un-Korean for a woman. I’m a poor Confucianist. So there is much to learn, perhaps without completely scrapping my American self.

Nevertheless, I feel very welcomed. People address me as “seonsaeng-nim”--teacher--and I truly feel they are happy I am here and want to explore what I have to offer. I’ve already started teaching a beginner’s Iyengar Yoga class in Bucheon and will add 2 more in Seoul beginning later this month, including a teacher’s study group and an intermediate level class.

However, I am really here to be a student, not a teacher. I’m frustrated at my limited Korean, and shocked at my ignorance of Korean history and culture, and I know 4 months is just the tip of the iceberg. Daily, I must remind myself that where I am is just fine, and that any small amount of progress and learning is still growth. I recognize that this will be one of many trips to Korea, and that I have the whole rest of my life to learn and to heal.

Jung-In and I went to Gwanghwa-mun, the central mall where protests and demonstrations are regularly staged, historically and currently, and another day to Seodae-mun Prison, where resisters were captured and tortured and executed, primarily under Japanese occupation, but also used until 1987 under Korean dictatorship. The prison has become our own holocaust museum. I feel I must weep for months to process it all.

Yesterday, we had a small Chuseok (fall harvest moon) celebration with friends near Gimpo in their cozy traditional restaurant, and it was a most extraordinary meal, followed by a walk to a Koryo-era Buddhist temple, and a visit to a park on the Han River. Later Jung-In played flute with their son, Jin-Kyu, her former student at Gandhi School, a talented guitarist. As they riffed off American jazz standards and Korean folk songs, I felt a glimmer of what healing could be. A warm vibration filled the restaurant, overflowing into the street as pedestrians peered through the windows, under the hazy, almost-full moon. Syncopation, improvisation, deep listening, and play are our tools.

I am here. That is enough for now. More to come.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Poems from Korea

4 sept 2014


watching moonrise
as i eat brown rice and lentils
metal chopsticks tap on porcelain

waxing before my eyes
invisible to my north american friends
who doze in the thirteen hour lag

my moon glows
as your sun rises
i picture lamb’s quarters and queen anne’s lace
in the unmowed section of the field street garden
waving in the pink light

undeterred by clouds and bars on the first floor window
i soak up rays of the virgo moon
it washes away the vague sense of shame
which is a korean birthright
internalized confucianism
distorted into the guilt of not-having-done-enough
for abandoning my nation at the height of occupation
for losing my tongue to speak
the language of the colonizer

this is the season of self-forgiveness
in the generous glow 

of an early harvest moon

2 sept 2014

dozing on and off over dialectics
of being korean
and not

i am most integrated in air element
soaring above overheated
pacific ocean

how am i like
the ajumma flight attendants
and how not?

my hair is not permed and dyed black
i drape my bare feet rudely
in window ledges and seat arms
bunch up my skirt
so i can take my knees wide

but when my feet land on soil
i cannot help remembering
i come from revolutionary stock
impassioned and disciplined
who march in phalanxes into tear gas
and set palanquins on fire
who hunger strike for weeks
to willingly embrace the vulnerability
that connects them to the suffering
of the world

i’ve crossed the ocean
to shed yet another
colonized layer
to come down from yet another perch
of american privilege
where i could gaze from afar
and pretend the the children on the sewol ferry
had nothing to do with me
or that the lawsuit filed by the women
enslaved by their own government
for sex with american soldiers
were in fact not my mothers and aunties
being fucked by no one i know

i could insist it all happened in the past
as if the past
could be encapsulated like nuclear waste
never to harm us again

i could pretend time is linear
and not spiraling
i could numb myself with shopping
and gorge myself on waffles and iced coffee

but instead i am groggy with uncertainty
embarrassed with ignorance
tongue wrapped around broken korean
i squint at newspapers
that only leave me more confused
and remind me
that every healing crisis
begins with an aggravation of symptoms

i wait for it to get worse
before it gets better