Tuesday, December 19, 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,

Saturday, September 30, 2017


coco mālie kawaioli krishok
6 pounds of decolonization
each syllable proclaims your lineage
your auspicious arrival
daughter of natives and immigrants

small earthling self
constellating through the cosmos
into our arms on the fall equinox

did your grandmother sense you?
as your mother’s ovaries formed in vitro
perfect little ovaries the size of mustard seeds
the embryo implanted into the lining
made rich by centuries of women survivors

hailing from portugal
the philippines
and hawaii

the follicle that would become you
carrying the stories that comprise your genes
your body knows the flavors and recipes
passed through umbilical cords into amniotic fluid

my son introduces my korean mother and father to you
and the polish and italian parents and grandparents of his father
the nightshades appropriated by the conquistadors from the americas
into italy circle back
and land smack dab in the middle of the pacific ocean

floating in your salty ocean
every grandmother and great grandmother and great great grandmother
caresses you
welcomes you
stay, little one, stay

where is my mother in your perfect dna?
where is my halmoni and the women before her?
could you taste the go-chu and ma-nul in the fluid
preparing your palate for kim-chi?

every gulp of breastmilk connects you back to the islands
and peninsulas of the matriline
those who survived genocides
the korean women during wartime, struggling to feed their children
buffeted by aspiring super-powers
the filipina clutching their identities, their homes, and families
the wahine fighting for their waters, their language, and their land

how many times can land be stolen?
how many times can a woman be raped?
how many times can she be humiliated and trampled?
how do we reclaim our bodies, our homes,
our food,
our stories,
our children and grandchildren?

I feed your mother the tomatoes and potatoes
from native america via italy and poland
I feed your mother the kim-chi from ground chilis
packed in po-ja-gi and carried across boats
I feed your mother my mother’s myuk-guk
iron-rich birthday soup of roasted sesame oil, soaked mushrooms,
and seaweed from oceans that touch both
this island and my grandmother’s peninsula

it is all I can do to not take you to my own breast
of dried milk ducts and shriveled ovaries
I am past childbearing
I have entered the larger realm
of the intergenerational embrace
I am backed by my ancestors and their ancestors before them

I carry their wounds and their brilliance and their strength
I am here to embody all that as I cradle you
in arms that stretch generations

welcome, my child
coco mālie kawaioli krishok

Mama Gwi-Seok’s Guide to Raising Strong, Confident, Free-Thinking Solutionaries, Part I

This has just happened:
I have become a Halmoni! Coco Malie Kawaioli Krishok was born on 11 September, and I've just returned from spending 9 days with her and her parents, my son Malachi, and his partner, Kai. In the airport coming home, I realized there was still so much I wanted to share, based on my experience of the last 30+ years as a mother. Here is the beginning of some thoughts regarding parenting.

Although patriarchy still shapes much of our society, don’t buy into it by reinforcing gender stereotypes. Invest in identity traits outside of gender. As your child grows, they will certainly express tendencies, which should be accepted and supported. Some of these tendencies could be attributed to their sex and hormones, but emphasizing gender can reinforce stereotypes that are often oppressive.

No baby or child is “bad.” They are all inherently “good” and perfect and beautiful. A mellow, laid-back child is not “better” than a spirited, high-energy child, and vice versa.

Sleeping and eating are too important to teach. In a healthy environment, babies will eat when they are hungry and sleep when they are tired. Sugar will dull their appetite for healthy food, and stress around sleep will cause anxiety and sleeplessness. The best place for baby to sleep is where everyone gets the most sleep. Don’t worry about whether they will outgrow baby patterns or not. They WILL!

Recognize when you are imposing an adult, work-centered, capitalist requirement upon your child, such as requiring them to eat or sleep at certain times. Sometimes this may be necessary. But notice how often this is required and the impact it has on your child and your family, and consider other options.

Be prepared to be both nurturer and warrior, both gentle and fierce. The fact is our society does not fully support children or mothers. Fatherhood is also, in turn, de-valued. Our society sees children as unproductive and the work of parenting as unimportant. We pay lip-service to parents and children but fail to back it up with policy and programs like paid parental leave, good education, and comprehensive health care. No one values your child as much as you do, so you have to fight and advocate for their rights and needs. No one knows your child as well as you do, so you have to fight for what they need as individuals. Don’t let your child become a cog in the wheel of a destructive, negligent society. Also remember that fighting for women’s rights is fighting for children’s rights, because women are the ones to bear and breastfeed children and frequently serve as primary caregivers.

Limit screen time to protect their senses and their sensibilities. The mainstream corporate media is the primary way that we are brainwashed into being good workers and consumers. You will not regret the limits you place, and when and if it’s time to remove them, it will be easy to do so. However, the reverse is difficult and will cause resentment—to take away a privilege that has already been granted.

Trust the genius and brilliance your child came into the world with, and trust yourself as their steward, protector, nurturer, and teacher. Others will try to steer you and your child toward their agenda. Keep your eyes on the prize, and let your child reveal their gifts in their own time. There’s no advantage to blooming early, and lots of potential harm in forcing it. Trees are healthiest and strongest when their growth is slow. Children also should not be rushed.

Remember illnesses are building a healthy immune system. Do not overmedicate, and trust their bodies to correct the imbalances that inevitably occur. Support their immune system with the best healthy food, and natural, nontoxic remedies. Instead of antibiotics, treat with powerful PRObiotics. If and when you must resort to allopathic treatment, do so judiciously and minimally.

This is the most difficult lesson in parenting: you will not be able to protect your child from all harm. Wrap them in a cloud of unconditional love, and recruit extended family and friends to do the same. When harm occurs through illness, accidents, conflicts, institutions and authorities, your child gets the opportunity to learn how to respond: by standing up for themselves, asking for help, expressing their needs and feelings, among lots of other constructive ways to act.

Remember all needs are sacred. When they are whining and crying and acting out, they are expressing needs and asking for attention. What is attention but love? Everyone has the need to be cherished, protected, seen and heard. Notice the magic in the room when a newborn enters. Remember that magic even as they get older and make you angry and frustrated. They will always be that most innocent and fragile baby inside their gruff exteriors.

Your needs as parents are also sacred. Do not shortchange yourself or burn yourself out. Your health must be preserved at all costs. Parents need to take care of themselves and each other as well as their children. It’s not either/or but both/and. Your child may not understand this at first, but you must model self-care so that they will eventually learn to take care of themselves.

Children must never be deprived of the need to contribute to the greater good. Everyone must build the household together. Housework and cooking are tasks everyone needs to contribute to, starting at the earliest age. Children naturally imitate and will work side by side with you, whatever you do. Welcome them, and give them age-appropriate tasks. Include them as much as possible in everything.

Trust, love, feel, discern, intuit, and trust yourself some more. You will figure out what is best for you and your child.

In unconditional love,


Sunday, January 1, 2017

Happy New Year 2017! A Year to Use Your Gifts Fully in Sacred Struggle

“Humankind will always be engaged in struggle, because struggle is in fact the highest form of human creativity.” ~ Jimmy and Grace Lee Boggs, Revolution and Evolution in the 20th Century

2016, by all measures, was a year of upheaval, loss, and profound challenges. Especially since the recent election, I am determined to enter 2017 with renewed vigor. I don't have time to lapse into despair, or to squander energy in rage, or to numb myself with infinite distractions. I am determined to stay woke, to take self-care to another level, to throw all of my weight into the sacred struggles of our time, and indeed, to engage in struggle as “the highest form of human creativity.”

Between capitulation to the status quo and incessant protest, lies a third way: building the life and the society we long to live in. This is the most fulfilling form of resistance I can imagine. Outside the repressions of a counter-revolutionary government and institutions, we create with our friends and loved ones, another more compassionate, balanced, sustainable, and joyful path.

Perhaps you believe, as I do, that on some deep inner level, we each chose to be on the planet at this time, and even to be in these (not so) United States in the 21st century. If this is true, these are the times you’ve been preparing yourself for. Welcome!

What does the sacred struggle look like for you in 2017? For me, I’m determined to:
  •  Develop more quiet time: morning pranayama, evenings with candlelight instead of electricity, and reduced use of electronics. 
  •  Heal my injuries and illnesses: to prioritize and spend the time and energy and money to heal the physical and emotional conditions that result in illness and injury.
  •  Recognize when I need help, ask for it, and use it, whether it’s emotional support, health care, medicine, time, food, advice, information, and more.
  • Share my resources freely: firstly give credit and referrals to my friends, colleagues, and mentors, especially those who’ve been underappreciated due to systems of oppression; offer any experience and appropriate skills (and not take it personally if declined); show up and support individuals, groups, and organizations; speak up as needed (and be quiet as needed).
  • Speak truth to power and pressure our leaders, governments, and institutions to meet the needs of the people: I put my legislators on speed dial, will write letters and emails ad infinitum, organize, and join movements.

I hope these actions will manifest on numerous levels, from developing Iyengar Yoga Detroit Collective as a healing justice gathering place, to forming an all-abilities housing cooperative, to expanding my yoga teaching to be even more inclusive, and protecting the rights and resources of the people.

This is just the beginning. I look forward to hearing how you will exercise struggle as creativity and righteous justice in 2017.