Monday, November 30, 2015

Ode to My Snuffly Self

I’ve had a fantastic week of teaching in Seoul: attentive, earnest, responsive students, phenomenal translators, a beautiful studio, and compensation that affirms and values my work. I’ve had a great time with family and friends in meaningful conversations over beautiful food. I’ve had space for refreshment, films, and hanging out. What more could I ask for?

To tell you the truth, I am completely distracted by my chronic respiratory challenges. I can’t go 5 minutes without having to deal with rasping, dripping, snuffling, or some other creative expression of respiratory inflammation. But I refuse to spend the whole blog complaining. Instead I am contemplating:
  •        What are our bodies communicating through chronic conditions?
  •        How do we balance short-term relief with long-term solutions?
  •       How do we honor our whole selves, including our chronic conditions, without putting the rest of our lives on hold, or becoming that self-absorbed, hyper-sensitive person?
  •        How far will we go to heal, and is there a point when we just accept things as they are and stop trying so hard? 

I’m at the point where, if there was a pill, I’d pop  it. Mind you, I stay away from  pharmaceuticals like chickens avoid foxes. I can’t tell you the last time I took anything as mild as aspirin.

What began in my 20s as seasonal allergies became in my 30s chronic rhinitis. In my 40s it blossomed into occasional asthma, bouts of eczema, and digestive sensitivities. In my 50s, the inflammation is chronic and moves around from place to place like unsettled refugees. It’s all part of the picture of autoimmunity, which my family embraces like a long-lost lover. It feeds on stress, our lifeblood. It’s linked to intergenerational trauma, displacement, immigration, and the everyday stresses of the oppressed. Or you could just say I have bad genes, a point of view I refuse to cave in to.

In my 20s and 30s I spent a lot of energy on environmental changes: dust mite-proof pillowcases, special vacuum cleaners, HEPA air cleaners… In my 40s and 50s I am focusing on bolstering inner capacity to self-heal through acupuncture, homeopathy, diet, and bodywork.

Last night, awake at 3am and unable to lie down because of the swelling going back and forth between my nose and my lungs, I fantasized about steroids. I’ve been determined not to repeat my mother’s health debacle, which culminated with the removal of her thymus gland and decades of Prednisone to treat myasthenia gravis. It led to her early death at 65 from the ravage of steroids on her vital organs.

But last night, I started counting backwards. Let’s say I outlive both my parents and make it to my 72nd birthday. That, to me, is a long enough life. I’m not one determined to last to 80 or 90. I accept steroids as a downwardly spiraling path, a dead end. But maybe, I mused in my half asleep desperation, mentally making a pact with the devil, I could be relieved of symptoms for oh, maybe 10 years, before my final demise?

My mother, also a chronic insomniac, weaned herself dramatically from sleeping pills in her final years, flushing the pills down the toilet. She hated the craving Ambien created as she became immune to its effects. But as she recognized that her death was near, she started taking them again. Why not get a few good nights of sleep before she dies? she thought. Nothing to lose at this point.

It’s a ridiculous approach to health, frankly, and it’s really about suppression than anything. But maybe there is a place for this? Maybe I can just admit that I got the short, painful life genes, and surrender to my doctor (on that mystical day I qualify for Medicaid/Medicare) and the mandates of allopathic medicine.

Truthfully I’d take the damn pills if they actually worked. But what I have observed and experienced is that often a cascade of other ills and side effects are triggered, so that a 60 year-old on one pill becomes a 70 year-old on 6 pills, and an 80 year-old on a dozen.

An important step for me may be to admit that I have a chronic condition. All my adult life it has felt essential to be available to my children and to put their needs before mine. As a teacher I have had to bring my strong, capable, trustworthy self to every class. Yet that has meant that I may not be bringing my whole self: tired, grumpy, wheezy, frustrated. I need to give my friends, family, and students the benefit of the doubt and trust that they will fully accept me as I am, not as I pretend or wish to be.

I have to dismantle my ableist thinking of my chronic condition as a moral shortfall, or a failure of will. While I believe in my heart that we should take full responsibility for our health, we inevitably encounter a limit to what we can do, and how far we can go. I need to compassionately recognize and honor those limits, wherever they may be on a given day.

Here’s to self-compassion, self-forgiveness, and ultimately, healing, whatever it may require.

Saturday, November 21, 2015


my lips taste like fermented cod liver oil
my molars are nubs after a half century of daily use 
my outer eyes crease to match my smile lines

my armpits are moist with night sweats
my menopausal bald spot opens to cosmic wisdom 

my nipples sag with a job well done
my uterus is a bare deciduous tree

my jowls sag in sirsasana
my inner thighs wrinkle in sarvangasana
my ashy knees complement my ashy elbows

each year I require more antioxidants
each year urdhva dhanurasana becomes more difficult 

each year invites more self-love

watch me fall asleep during the group sit 
watch me 6-step alone in my bedroom 
watch me give away all my books 
hoarded and held sacred for too long

call me out for my ignorance
call me out for my attachments
call me out for the ways I have failed to evolve

watch me gray and bald and sag 
watch me embrace every good fight 
watch me balance on my hands and fall

believe me when I tell you
I have not yet peaked 

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Pot Roast

confined to bed
and sensing her demise
she asks for boiled beef

though I am repulsed by meat
and haven’t a clue
how to prepare it
I nod and promise her pot roast
as her eyes brighten

what I refused to do for my children
or my husband
I now do for her

just as I made myself
carry a phone
so she could reach me
I now teach myself
the art of the pot roast

after all I have watched my mother-in-law
enough times
sprinkling the roast with salt and pepper
searing it
stewing it with potatoes and carrots
how hard can it be?

pot roast might’ve saved my marriage
(if I had wanted it saved)
if I had occasionally purchased
a nicely marbled english roast
and simmered it until it fell off the bone
as a simple act of kindness

it might’ve saved my molars from root canals
the mineral-rich broth curing tooth decay

it might’ve taught me
the dialectics of sacrifice and compromise
honoring the steer
that gave its life
for others to thrive
even a very very old woman
who still has enough teeth to chew tender meat

and now for the first time since she’s left us
I rub a roast with sea salt
and freshly ground black pepper
I quarter onions and slice carrots
I throw in some thyme and parsley
from the field street garden
and leftover wine from her repast

I eat pot roast alone now
the portion I would have saved for her
gets tucked into the freezer

as I age
I too crave boiled beef
the fatty broth
and the carrots that melt
between tongue and upper palate

in her honor
I chop, sear, simmer
as the onions bring salty tears
I pull the meat off the bone
then boil the bones until they disintegrate
I take the nourishment
as my bodily memorial

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Yoga and Capitalism Throwdown

"Each generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, fulfill it, or betray it." 
~ Frantz Fanon

20 years sounds like a lifetime to my students, when they learn I’ve been practicing for 20 years, and teaching for 15. In the world of fly-by-night American yoga, that qualifies me as a senior teacher. We live in a society where yoga has been commercialized to the extent that, with zero experience, I could pay a few thousand dollars to be certified and teaching in less than a year.

But in the Iyengar tradition, a 20 year practice ain’t much. My teachers have been practicing for 35-40+ years, and BKS Iyengar himself had an 80 year practice when he passed away at age 95. They say you are as old as your years of practice, so you’re a 1 year-old if you’ve been practicing for a year, a 5 year-old if you’ve been practicing for 5 years.

That qualifies me as a college sophomore when it comes to the practice of yoga, whereas my mentors are middle-aged “professor”-level practitioners. Even so, in the city of Detroit, where Iyengar Yoga teachers are few and far between, I’m considered one of the most experienced teachers.

How ironic is it then, that the more I progress on the yoga path, the less money I earn? Through decades of study, I’ve gained a mid-level certification, one of a small handful in Michigan, yet I am earning less money than ever. What gives?

Capitalism just can’t capture or reflect the real value of certain practices and products. In Detroit, you can buy a house for $10,000 that in any other city would cost $100,000. Similarly, I may net $50 for teaching a workshop, that in other cities would net $500.

But you can’t squeeze water from a stone, and if I live in a city of 40% poverty, where many of my students are unemployed and underemployed, I can’t charge top dollar without alienating them. If I seek to meet my students where they are, and engage in an earnest exchange, I need to be at their level myself. Otherwise, teaching becomes a top-down gesture of charity, rather than solidarity.

I realize I could move out to the suburbs, where the money tends to be concentrated and where there is far less unemployment. I could receive market rates, and earn what my peers in other cities are making. But I didn’t move to Detroit to serve Bloomfield Hills. If I want to stay in Detroit and build kinship and offer healing to my friends and neighbors, I need to make financial compromises.

I make ends meet by taking brief forays into monied communities. Basically I use out-of-town gigs to subsidize my work in Detroit. I ask those who can pay more to pay more. I welcome alternative currencies, including barter and time exchange. I embrace voluntary simplicity, growing my own food, living rent-free by exchanging work, and expanding my range of do-it-yourself skills. I choose to spend 90% of my time and energy in my own community, which means accepting less money.

10 years ago, as a beginner teacher in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, I would never have agreed to teach for the city recreation department for $25/class. I thought it was a travesty to receive $5/student for a studio class. Although I am a far more experienced teacher now, I settle for these terms. Sometimes, if a class is small, I even receive less than the minimum hourly wage. Financially, I’d be better off flipping burgers or washing dishes.

Why do I accept these (what many would consider demeaning or insulting) wages? In my heart of hearts, I know that my work is valuable and immeasurable. I’m following my call and doing my life’s work. What more can I ask of myself? I’m offering my very best to my community and doing what I believe I was born to do. I know a little about the body and mind, and how to heal ourselves through yoga, although there is so much more to learn. I offer my teachings to people like me—activists, artists, healers, farmers, community organizers, people pursuing their life’s work, friends and neighbors.

I don’t measure the value of my work through the lens of capitalism. That’s Donald Trump’s arena, not mine. Capitalism teaches scarcity. Community-based alternative economy teaches abundance. Despite teaching for less, I have always had shelter and have never missed a meal. I have time to practice yoga everyday, I contribute to the community by offering a healing practice. I have time to study, to play, spend time with friends, make music, write poetry, cook, and garden.

I have no need for vacations, because there is nothing to vacate. I balance my teaching schedule with time for rest and reflection. I don’t plan to retire, because yoga teaching is a life’s work that gets better and better with maturity. I have opportunities to travel, where I can offer my teachings to new communities.

Getting back to Fanon’s epigraph, what is the mission of our generation? One friend claims that the disease of our age is materialism. That is, we have lost touch with the nonmaterial soul and spirit forces in our midst. She has coined the phrase “materialism of thought,” to describe the hardening of ideas into schools, dogma, and partisanship, for financial or political gain, while ignoring the spiritual depth and complexity of our thoughts and actions.

Others would say we urgently need to dismantle capitalism, which has run its course, become more extreme, and has created an increasingly destructive gap between haves and have-nots, while wreaking life-threatening environmental havoc.

Almost everyone seems to agree that we need to create systems anew, that we must create a more sustainable, equitable world.

What, pray tell, does yoga have to do with any of this? If I must be the change that I am seeking, what does that look like for me as a yoga teacher? The answer will be different for each person, and cannot be dictated from above, but only from within.

When I first arrived in Detroit, I was determined to teach completely on a community gift basis. The plan was to gift my services to the community, who would in turn, give funds, goods, or services in exchange. In doing so, I hoped to re-establish yoga as a spiritual practice, rather than a commodity in a commerical world.

This experiment did not totally fulfil my hopes. Iyengar Yoga was so new for so many people that they did not know how to value it without a price tag. Because we have all been brainwashed by capitalism, the fact that I was essentially giving this service away meant, unconsciously to many, that it was worthless, like government cheese. In an era when absolutely anyone can buy a yoga teaching certificate, what I was offering was not, to the casual observer, any different from the free classes at the gym or at church, taught by the average 200-hour-trained teacher, even if I have more like 5000 hours of training under my belt. At the same time, it undermined the Iyengar Yoga teachers who were already teaching and charging in a traditional manner.

If I am not succeeding at being the yoga teacher to the masses, sustaining myself through the generosity of a broad community, I could instead sell my services to the highest bidders. This is the way capitalism works after all. Scarcity is created by charging a premium price to an elite audience, and creating status by courting unattainability and exclusivity.

In doing so, would I be betraying or fulfilling the mission of my generation? Frankly, I have no problem charging more for those who can pay more. What I will not do is give them more than I am already giving to everyone else. That is, those who can pay me $100/hour are encouraged to do so! Then, come to class like everyone else. I will continue to be the best teacher I can possibly be, to the monied as well as the un-monied. I will continue to give everything I’ve got, sharing the wisdom that I have received from the Iyengars, my Senior Teachers, and gleaned through my own practice.

What I will not do is differentiate my services depending on ability to pay. All my students receive the same exacting, thorough, deeply attentive group instruction.

Will you support me? I have not wavered in my determination to offer yoga to the widest possible population, while recognizing my own needs, without lapsing into scarcity mindset. Truthfully, I have not had health insurance since 2012, because it is unaffordable. I have no retirement fund. Thank God for Gigi, my ultra-reliable 2001 Honda Civic, which I do not plan to replace anytime soon. I’m still committed to the path of the yoga nun, badass as ever, I hope. Iyengar Yoga Detroit, in my humble opinion—and the opinion of our devoted students—the very best yoga studio in Detroit, is still struggling to become fully sustainable.

Can yoga be the means through which we can discover the mission of our generation, and fulfill it, and not betray it? We can demand no less.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015


“It’s a loving addiction,” said my poet friend, about our shared passion for buying books.
Over the years, I’d collected thousands of books. I outgrew one house, using up every inch of wall space, and when we moved into another house, I preplanned to accommodate my copious collection, building floor to ceiling shelves. At one point, it was a $100+/month habit, during and in the aftermath of my creative writing MFA.

As a teacher, I felt compelled to buy not only books for myself, but for my students. I’ve taught childbirth classes, parenting and breastfeeding classes, creative writing classes, and yoga classes, so I built up libraries in all these fields. When I threw myself into the anti-war movement, I had to build up a library of peacemaking, social justice, and post-colonial studies. I developed a passion for primates, and what apes could teach humans about themselves, so built up another library. I worked at Woodland Pattern, a literary center and the world’s premiere small press poetry bookstore, where I got the employee 30% discount, and could order any book on the market. My kids inherited the love of books, and grew up with the best of children’s lit. And so on….

I joked that I’d never become enlightened until I got rid of my books.
What had begun as pleasure and education for self, family, and community, had become burdensome. I couldn’t possibly read everything I’d collected. They presented an organizing nightmare. I developed a dust allergy. I recognized the unhealthy attachment, but didn’t cease my habit. Truthfully, my books kept me from leaving my marriage. Part of me longed to live simply, to forsake home ownership and the middle class life, to live modestly in one room, in intentional community. But what would I do with all these books? How would I move them and where would I put them?

Ultimately, I did end up leaving my marriage, my house and gardens and other middle class trappings, including my books. After a year’s separation from my books, I gathered them up to build a community library in the housing cooperative I had helped start in Milwaukee, only to decide I had to move to Detroit.

Since 2010, I have moved 7 times, and my books 4 times, sitting boxed in basements when I didn’t have the capacity to take them with me. Finally, on my 52nd birthday, last week, I decided the time had come to dissolve my library. I refused to ask my friends one more time to help me move my books. I had burdened them one too many times, bagging and boxing and loading them into cars over and over. No more! Besides, books didn’t belong in basements. They had already been water-damaged once, and I wouldn’t risk it again. I knew I never wanted to be a householder again. I knew I never wanted to live in more than one room, making a small footprint, so I could travel back and forth to Korea, India, and wherever else I felt called.

Decades of yoga practice helped me recognize the false ego identification I had invested in my books. They represented all the parts of myself I valued and wanted to present to the world. You know, a Frantz Fanon-reading, Anne Carson-carrying inter-genre poet, and a school of bell hooks radical feminist mom, cooking vegetarian gourmet, standing on my head as an Iyengar yogi healing justice activist. I had mistaken my books for myself, the classic error of confusing the temporal for the eternal.

That thing I said about my books holding me back from enlightenment? That was just a joke. But now I knew I had to do it.

A few years back, I had a yoga student who retired from his position as an English professor. He spent months dissolving his lifelong book collection. I was both shocked and jealous.

“How did it feel?” I asked him.
“Terrible,” he answered flatly.
“Then WHY DID YOU DO IT?” I asked, identifying with his sorrow. My books were like my children. How would I live without them?
“I HAD to,” he explained. The only room in his house to practice yoga was his study. His study was so littered with books, he couldn’t even lay a mat down. It was his books, or it was yoga. And he chose yoga. He only held on to 6 books, the books of BKS Iyengar.

I filed that story away and knew it was critical. I thought that one day in my 60s or 70s I might do the same.

But as usual, that day came a decade or so sooner than projected. I do everything fast and a bit early. Like getting married straight out of college, and becoming a mother right away, when all my friends were backpacking across Europe. But then, I was in my early 40s when I became an empty nester, when same-age peers were checking out kindergartens. So by 52, I was ready to take the next step of a yoga nun: radically lightening my load.

I started announcing this resolve months in advance, at first with great trepidation, barely whispering my intention, knowing I had to say it to make it manifest. Then with growing determination, I started telling more and more people that I was going to be giving away my books. At first it was a proposal more than a decision. But my friends received my announcement with excitement, having eyed my library and taken interest.

I decided I would give away my books at my birthday party. I laid them out on tables, shelves, and stairs, and invited friends to take a stack. At first I recommended books to particular individuals, and told them they didn’t have to take them. But soon I became giddy, matching up books with friends, and insisting that they take them. Finally, I took a picture of each friend with their stack, as a commemoration of the books and the friendship. Some folks I didn’t even know showed up, I suspect to check out the collection, and I gladly let them take their fill as well.

So now I am one step closer to enlightenment, and literally lighter by a ton. I made one more inroad to the sharing economy, and made a lot of people happy and excited. In the spirit of sharing, we also had a potluck, open mic, and jam session. It happened to be the evening of Grace Lee Boggs’s memorial service, so we got to honor Grace by building beloved community, and sharing knowledge and ideas through the power of books and conversation.

Read, write, talk, and pass it on. Thank you, friends, for generously receiving my books!