Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Sacred Surrender: Thoughts on Roe v. Wade, the more-than-human, and the continuity of life

 
Grandkids napping, 2021

My Korean immigrant mother told me only one thing about sex: “We don’t believe in abortion.”

It was the 1970s. She had recently been diagnosed with an autoimmune condition, myasthenia gravis. Chondoso-halmoni (“Evangelizing Grandma”) came and stayed with us while Mommy recovered from major surgery in which the doctors foolishly and violently removed her thymus gland, mistakenly thinking it was the culprit to her weakened condition. All her life thus far, my mother was a rather lukewarm second generation Christian socialized with Confucian values. But in her vulnerable, post-surgical state, Chondoso-halmoni—not our real grandma, but a community grandma, eternally old but unreasonably spry—turned Mommy into a repenting, born-again, Pentecostal Christian.

I would never begrudge Mom or anyone else their redemption. But every redemption has its price, and in order to feel in the right, others have to be in the wrong. So I must have been wrong, terribly wrong, in 1984, a junior in college, to find myself pregnant.

My body blossomed into pregnancy within weeks, as if it had been waiting for just this moment. I felt bloated, nauseous, terrified, but I couldn’t help entertaining the notion of keeping this baby—that’s how much my hormones had already begun taking over. I went so far as to write a letter to my parents on my manual typewriter, explaining the situation and my decision to become a young mother and postpone my senior year of college. A letter I never sent.

In my 12th week of pregnancy, I finally committed to terminating the pregnancy. I was drowning in guilt, remorse, and shame, but I was resolved. I would go on with my life. I would finish school. I was in a relationship, but I would let it take its time, and not let it be shaped by an unplanned child while we were so young. The doctor at the clinic was a brusque, impersonal Korean man. He exuded no judgement, but I couldn’t help feeling guilty and sinful. I asked him what was the baby’s sex? And he scoffed and said, “It’s not a baby.”

Nevertheless I felt I had taken a life. In my short pregnancy I had strangely experienced a budding relationship with this being that I was carrying. Politically I was, and continue to be, staunchly pro-choice and a feminist. But in my soul I experienced a severance and a deep sadness.

I buried my sadness and proceeded with my studies. I won a writing award, and created a volume of poetry as my senior thesis. I told next to no one about my secret loss. I went on with my life.

Maybe partially in response to my unresolved grief, I married early, at age 21, with my 25 year-old partner, took myself off birth control pills, and found myself pregnant once again almost immediately. Apparently my body longed to be pregnant, over and over again, like my basil plants that bolt within weeks, continually flowering and seeding. This time I knew I would keep the baby.

I dove into motherhood and zealously embraced natural childbirth, breastfeeding, family bed and more. Motherhood radicalized me and awakened me to my own power. Becoming Meiko’s mother grounded me and gave me an undeniable sense of purpose and joy.

As soon as Meiko began talking, she started referring to her big brother, Suki. Suki this and Suki that, we heard story after story about Suki. This went on for several years. It finally ended when she surprised herself by finding a photo of Suki, her imaginary brother, in the basement of my parents’ Korean Church in Buffalo, New York.

“Look!” she said, startled. “There’s Suki.” She pointed to a boy in one of the family photos lining the walls of the church. He looked about 8 or 9, standing with his family. Meiko was maybe 4 or 5 at this time.

“Oh, wow,” her dad and I said, humoring her, as surprised as she was. We went on with our day, Meiko grew older, and Suki faded away. But for those years, Suki was a presence in our family, and in Meiko’s toddler life. It doesn’t matter whether we regard an imaginary sibling or friend as an angel, a ghost, a projection of a mother’s guilt, or simply a product of a child’s imagination. I also embraced Suki, and some non-logical part of me even regarded Suki as my own.

This is how I would describe my pregnancy and decision to end it:
A being came into my life. After careful consideration, I declined to admit this being to fully manifest in my body. In the triangle of me, God, and this being, I stepped forward and said, no, not now. And released this spirit back into the ineffable cosmos.

Once I departed from conventional Christian notions of heaven and hell, the spheres of spirit revealed themselves, and I recognized the unstoppable pulse of life everywhere. Once I shifted the lens from the human point of view to the more-than-human perspective, I realized that life reveals itself through all forms, including the wind, water, trees, art, and sometimes even the seemingly mundane.

When does life begin? An impossible question, because when does life end? My answer is never.

After Meiko, I gave birth 2 more times, to Katja, and her brother, Malachi. I experienced yet another pregnancy, when Malachi was 2 years old. Once again, I found myself struggling with how to relate to this being. Once again, I was caught off-guard. I felt complete with our 3 kids, and up to my ears in responsibilities, with barely enough time to care for myself, do any writing, or even rest.

This time I did share my concerns with a few trusted friends, and eventually decided, yet again, to terminate the pregnancy. This decision pained me, possibly even more than the first time 9 years prior, because I never thought I would have to do it again. A friend accompanied me to my second abortion, and we walked through a phalanx of protestors at dawn. She held me while I cried when it was all over. Just because we commit to a course of action doesn’t mean we don’t grieve our losses. And just because I am grieving does not mean I made a wrong decision. I can be sad but not regretful.

What is right and what is wrong? Life doesn’t operate in binaries. We live in the “yes, and.” We muddle through the contradictions and complexities. We do the best we can in any given moment. Why would we do any less?

I released another being from my body, so that I could care for the 3 I gave birth to, with a modicum of energy left for myself. It was a profound and difficult act of self-care and self-love.

BKS Iyengar observed, “Most people want to take joy without suffering. I will take both.” I, too, refuse to go through life trying to avoid suffering. Especially as mothers, we understand somatically that we contain both joy and suffering, both life and death, and that we must accept both. Pregnancy and childbirth themselves teach us this with magnificence, no holds barred.

With each pregnancy, I realized that I was not a one-way channel, but that I was in relationship. As such, each agent practices sovereignty. We practice consent and dialogue. We are in circle with one another. Each party can decline to proceed at any time.

I also realized that I am part of an ecosystem, a collective, a network of realms and beings, and that closing one door allows another door to open. We each extend beyond our individuality, and belong to collectives of consciousness.

Shortly after my second abortion, my 2 year-old son, Malachi, woke up in the middle of the night crying. He wasn’t crying out of a physical need. “Baby,” he cried, “babeeeee.” He pulled me out of bed and took me into the playroom next door. He dug through the basket of dolls and finally pulled out the “fetus doll.” I was a natural childbirth teacher, and I had a model pelvis and model fetus doll, the size of a newborn human baby, with a cloth body and plastic head that the children loved to play with. He tearfully clutched the doll and we went back to bed.

It’s easy to speculate and impossible to have firm answers, but I know that strongly in that moment, I felt the spirit of the child I released present in our own family. Who knows what dream Malachi awakened from that night? Who knows why he wept for the baby? What baby? Or whether he was picking up on my grief, tasting it through my breastmilk? We exist in constellations, we feel each other nonverbally. We cry together, we experience both joys and losses together.

As Malachi became more verbal, he, like Meiko, referred constantly to his imaginary siblings. He had 3 brothers, Michael, Jonathan, and believe it or not, Goofy, who went on all kinds of adventures, and even died and revived. Our family, like all others, was a menagerie of beings and characters encompassing all levels of reality from the concrete physical to the imaginary invisible. I choose to let the mystery be, and embrace the weirdness and wildness of all possible life forms.

Once I was in conversation with a young woman, who described herself as firmly Democrat in her political views, except for the issue of choice. She explained that because she was adopted, she was anti-abortion, because she would not be here today if her biological mother had aborted her. The observation struck me as peculiarly Western, in its individualism, as if her personal existence was in and of itself a victory.

On the other hand, I’m inclined to say, although I did not at the time: So what if you were never born? You would just take form another time, another place. Is our uniqueness that precious? Is your current life that perfect that you refuse to imagine another embodiment?

Animism teaches me to be less precious, both about myself and other beings. It’s about the complexity of relationships rather than mere transactionality.

Here in Honolulu, I discovered a grove of several mature, incredibly abundant mango trees. They are in an old cemetery from the early 20th century. At first I hesitated to take the fallen fruit at the risk of being offensive. But the trees, heavy with fruit, implored us to partake, and alleviate their burden. After all, the only reason they produce fruit is to propagate themselves. So now I visit the trees often, leaving flowers, stones, and tokens at gravesites, tidying up and gleaning.

For many years, I was vegetarian. But I returned to being  an omnivore when I realized I was not keeping up with my nutritional needs. I had not found it possible to adequately nourish myself without being in relationship with other animal beings. Vegans must be in relationship with plant beings, and be willing to sacrifice them to meet their own survival needs. Omnivores choose to be in relationship with both plant and animal beings. To some extent, we take on one another’s karma. I recognize my hands are not innocent, and that to live, I require the sacrifice of other lives. One might argue that veganism emerges from an anthropocentric view, and that once we remove humans from the top of the power pyramid, we recognize that we live as kin with plants, other animals, fungi, bacteria, viruses, and the elements.

The peninsula of Korea is 75% mountains. While living there in 2014, I realized that the mountains, like humans, are constantly moving, changing, and shifting as living beings, but so slowly that it’s mostly undetectable to human senses. I’m talking not only about the obvious surface vegetation and animal life, but also the deep stony foundations. 1 day to a human being might be like 1 year to a mountain. The mountainous islands of Hawai`i where I now live remind me of this daily.

Why do we refuse to grant sovereignty to the more-than-human, while some insist on giving rights to unborn humans? Has Christianity convinced people that humans indeed sit atop a hierarchy, to assert dominion?

Or are we willing to consider, for instance, Elder Malidoma Somé’s description of his Dagara cosmology, in which trees are the wisest, highest beings, animals second, and humans third? Why do we easily choose to kill trees in order to build a house, yet harshly judge a woman who sacrifices an unborn human with whom she shares her body?

Every sacrifice—a sacred surrender, letting go, renunciation—is highly personal and intimate. I suggest our current debate over Roe v. Wade indicates we need to reinvigorate ritual and spiritual practices into our everyday lives. Why do many cultures pray before eating? Because we universally perceive that eating requires sacrifice, and that for our own bodies to survive, other beings had to lose their lives.

We understand that the energy from eating gets recycled, through our bodies, as we fuel our activities, and create waste, that then, if we complete the loop, goes back into the earth to provide nitrogen for plants. I hope that when it’s time for me to leave my earthly body, I can be consumed by creatures so that I am giving back to the earth all that has supported me through the decades.

The Roe v. Wade debate indicates that we live in a death-phobic society. When we see death as a one-way road, with a destination determined by our goodness or repentance, it definitely can be terrifying. But I see death as a transition from one form into another. We will each give up our physical presence as we return to the earth, wind, and waters, and shift into spiritual presence, as stories, memories, dreams, and more. From a yogic perspective, we eventually reincarnate, and come back into an earthly form to try again, to learn the lessons our spirits long for.

Yes, we grieve. Death rends the hearts of the living. We miss our dearly departed. We long for their physical presence. We lose too many too early due to war, genocide, disease, injustice, and inequality. We fight to change these conditions, while learning to accept the losses when we cannot prevent them. Grieving is a continuation of loving. Reinvigorating ritual and spiritual practices must include deep, daily grieving. Our capacity to grieve expands our emotional range, and our capacity for joy and pleasure. The goal of life is not to avoid death, suffering, and loss. We came here, I believe, to learn, grow, mature, evolve, and, hate to say, our hardships are sometimes our greatest teachers.

My first intimate experience of death was the sudden loss of my older brother, John, when I was 24 years old, and he was 25. The event devastated me and my family, especially my mother. We don’t necessarily recover from huge losses like this. But his death opened a door for me, as a young woman, to come to terms and begin to accept the inevitability of death, and start to understand death in more nuanced ways than mainstream culture and religion taught. Later, in my 30s, I accompanied each of my parents through their death journeys. In my 40s and 50s, I had the privilege of being present with friends and mentors through their dying processes. Each of these experiences, as well as my abortion experiences, broke me open, so that I could receive profound teachings, about what it meant to be alive, in this body, in this time and place, in relationship with all other beings—human, more-than-human, embodied, and disembodied.

Let us live into the complexities and contradictions. Let’s not police each other’s bodies. Let’s cradle, nurture, and cherish all life, realizing that life neither begins nor ends with the physical body. Let’s be present with each other, and hold each other in our grief. Let’s enter the wells of grief willingly and deeply. Let’s celebrate the stunningly beautiful temporality that gives us joy and pleasure: our bodies, our human loved ones, the waters, mountains, stars, moons, planets, the winds, the stones, songs, art, our plant and animal kindred, and so so so much more. May it be so.

Wednesday, March 23, 2022

My Ūrdhva Dhanurāsana Journey


This Ūrdhva Dhanurāsana has been 26 years in the making. I’m not a natural backbender by any means. Every centimeter of this pose has come through struggle, and deep waves of healing.

I began exploring yoga in the mid-1990s as a young mother of 3. I thought yoga might help me with balance and flexibility as a dancer, and classes fit in well with my youngest child’s kindergarten schedule. Little did I know the impact of yoga, particularly Iyengar Yoga, on the entire trajectory of my life.

I remember the first time I learned Dwipāda Viparīta Daṇḍāsana on a bench with my first serious Iyengar Yoga teacher, Maria Luisa Basualdo, it just about killed me. I had no idea my spine was so resistant to movement. All this time, I had gotten around just fine, and in fact, was otherwise quite mobile. It was a strong message from my body to my mind: hey, pay attention to this.

In retrospect, when I started yoga at age 33, I had just completed a 10-year nonstop streak of birthing and breastfeeding. I was depleted literally to my bones. My children had literally sucked me dry, but I didn’t know it. I was young enough to be fully functional, in fact more than functional, but your typical supermom. I parented long days and nights while my husband worked late. I chauffeured my children back and forth from Waldorf school, extracurricular activities, and playdates. I cooked constantly, tended a garden, and ran a household, while nurturing a life as a writer, writing teacher, and a part time job as the education coordinator at Woodland Pattern, a poetry center.

At the same time I lived as an extreme racial minority in one of the most racially divided cities in the USA, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. It would be many more years before I would awaken to the ways I had allowed myself to live a marginalized life, and begin to reverse those inner and outer conditions.

In fact I cannot discuss Ūrdhva Dhanurāsana without discussing race. My stiff, resistant dorsal spine was the armor I didn’t even realize I had put on. Apparently, I had developed a habit of bracing. It probably started as a young teen, when our family moved from Honolulu, Hawai`i to a suburb of Buffalo, New York, when I went from a pan-APIA culture to almost white-out conditions. Not only is the region notable for the piles of snowfall, but my school and neighborhood were a brutal experience of immersion into white supremacy.

Of course, my readers know I’m not referring to KKK, but to ordinary, everyday global white supremacy, in which white culture undergirds every institution from banking to education to food systems to religion and more. All of a sudden I was in an ocean of whiteness and in a state of culture shock from which I never fully recovered.

However, out of survival, I did assimilate. I learned to talk like a white girl. I learned to make fun of myself and my people. Through my teens and twenties, I learned to ally myself and identify with whiteness. I married into white culture, and gave birth to three half-white children.

That first Dwipāda Viparīta Daṇḍāsana gave an inkling that something was off. Why did this particular part of my body present stiffness and resistance? What was being communicated to me?


I cannot discuss Ūrdhva Dhanurāsana without also discussing grief. My father died in 1999, at age 71. My mother died two years later, in 2001, at age 65. I served as a caregiver for both my parents as they were dying, and sat with them as they took their final breaths. As difficult and painful as the dying process can be, these were some of the richest days of my life which I treasure more each passing year.

After my mother died, I developed asthma. The annoying post-nasal drip and nagging allergies of my twenties—symptoms of the autoimmune conditions I had inherited—bloomed into more serious forms of eczema, asthma, and digestive issues. It took another 10 years of working intensely with alternative and complementary health providers to understand and tame these conditions of chronic illness. Since then I have also come to understand autoimmunity through a psycho/social/political lens, and come to grips with illness as a socially manufactured condition. Covid-19 made this abundantly clear, as we watched those with high social status, like POTUS, sail through largely unscathed, with state-of-the-art medical care and drugs unavailable to others, while many Black and Brown folks, in places like my former home city of Detroit, fell through huge chasms of care, and lost their lives to the virus. We also witnessed how marginalized communities suffer disproportionately from chronic illnesses that make them especially vulnerable to Covid-19.

I carried all of this knowledge unconsciously in my dorsal spine, and in anahata chakra, the heart chakra. The combination of grief manifesting in my heart and lungs, depletion from motherhood, and the allostatic load of racism showed up in my struggle with backbends.
 

One day, I attended class at the New York Iyengar Yoga Institute, with the illustrious Lara Warren Brunn. I believe we were walking our hands down the wall from Taḍāsana to Ūrdhva Dhanurāsana and back up. As I stood back up, Lara startled me when she pounded my sternum twice with her palm and said, “LIVE HERE!” I will never forget that moment, in which I recognized that, in fact, I had not been living there. Instead, I had been armoring, protecting, defending, and grieving.

These days, most yoga practitioners in the USA agree that āsana itself does not constitute a yoga practice, and that all 8 limbs must be practiced. The Iyengar Yoga tradition embraces this, and teaches us to cultivate all 8 limbs. However, Iyengar Yoga famously emphasizes and prioritizes āsana practice as the primary gateway to aṣtadala yoga (the 8 petals of yoga). For me, this emphasis works. As a youngster, I would not have been able to stick with a practice that did not include vigorous physicality and a huge does of tapas. The subtle practices came much, much later.

I turn 59 this year, and I appreciate the physical practices even more. What sense does it make that my Ūrdhva Dhanurāsana now is so much more profound, quiet, lifted, and aligned than when I was in my 30s? Believe me, it’s still a struggle, and I need to call up everything within me to do the āsana.

But now I’m back in my childhood home, Honolulu, Hawai`i, in a pan-APIA community. Everywhere I go, I see myself and my children and grandchildren reflected back to me. My feet are back on the `aina that nurtured me as a child. Year-round I am warmed by the sun and warm ocean waves. The protective mountains surround me. The currents and breezes flow all around the island I inhabit. I’ve promised myself I will go hiking at least once a week, and to the beach at least once a week, even if it’s just for an hour. I see my children and grandchildren at least once a week. I’m also committing to having friends over for dinner weekly. I’m experiencing a harmony and ease in my life that is completely novel. It’s a good life, which is the understatement of the year, and has been nearly 60 years in the making. And it’s from this deep well of healing that my Ūrdhva Dhanurāsana emerges.


Deep pranams to my teachers, who never gave up, and kept pushing and challenging me, and infused me with their tapas and wisdom when I felt I could do no more, especially Lois Steinberg, Gulnaaz Dashti, Laurie Blakeney, and of course, Geeta Iyengar. Deep pranams to all my students, who provide bottomless wells of inspiration and motivation.


Thursday, February 3, 2022

The Lowdown: My Period



I came to Iyengar Yoga through a side door: dance. I started doing yoga, casually and randomly, in my late 20s and early 30s, as something to do when I couldn’t make it to a dance class. When I experienced Iyengar Yoga and its rigor and precision, I realized it was worthy of study on its own, not just to supplement my dance ambitions.

As I started going to weekly classes, my Iyengar Yoga teachers instructed us to let them know if we were menstruating. I had no idea why, and I never bothered to tell them. I was already habituated to tucking in that tampon and throwing my body around in dance classes for years. It never occurred to me to do anything less.

However, as I became more steeped in the yoga practice, I started to notice a few things:

  • I always assumed that a menstrual period lasted 5, 6, or 7 days. It was just something you put up with. But when I learned Geeta Iyengar’s menstrual āsana sequence, my period shortened to 3 days.
  • I would sometimes have cramps, headaches, and bloating. But doing certain āsanas alleviated or even eliminated these conditions.
  • The menstrual sequence felt good on my body and mind. Was I just being lazy? What was happening, really?

Geeta Iyengar referred to menses as a mini-childbirth. At first, this struck me as odd. But as I pondered it, this comparison started to make sense. By this point in my life, I was already a mother of 3, as well as a natural childbirth instructor. So I knew about the reproductive cycle, childbirth, and postpartum. I just had not connected it all to the non-pregnant state of menstrual cycles until I started reading and learning from Geeta Iyengar.

Let’s say a doe is in the woods, about to give birth. If she is startled, she will get up, start moving, and her labor will stop. She will seek a safer location, then return to laboring. Not until she is safe and relaxed will she give birth. Humans are the same. What I realized is that the reason why my periods lasted nearly a week is because I was so active during it. The bleeding stopped and started according to my activity. When I started practicing the menstrual sequence, I supported my body’s natural rhythms and functions. I refrained from exertion and strenuous activity for a few days. For 2 days, I seemed to bleed profusely. Wearing pads instead of tampons helped me better discern the state of my flow. By the 3rd day, I was lightly spotting.

I noticed that the supine poses in the sequence helped me to relax and sometimes even doze off. If I had a headache, 10-15 minutes in Supta Baddha Koṇāsana, supine “butterfly” pose, with a bolster under my back, and blankets supporting my thighs, seemed to cure it. I learned that during menstruation, due to the exertive uterine contractions expelling the endometrial lining, our body temperature slightly elevates, and Supta Baddha Koṇāsana, with its aeration of the armpit and groin regions, cooled off the body.

Supta Vīrāsana helped to lift and tone the uterus: two effects I had never heard anyone mention. The uterus is comprised of layers of muscle as one of the strongest organs in the body.  I found this pose impossible and painful at first, after years of building up strong legs in Afro-Caribbean dance. But with the help of bolsters, blankets, and repetition, the easier it became.

Ardha Chandrāsana, half moon pose, with the support of a wall, a counter, or dresser, immediately alleviated the feeling of heaviness, bloating, and cramping. Utthita Hasta Pārśva Padanguṣthāsana, extended leg to the side, had a similar effect.

The forward bends, done with plenty of support, were mentally restful, and taught me how to hinge from the hips while keeping my abdomen soft. Janu Śirṣāsana, seated pose with one leg bent out to the side, seemed to encourage my flow. In fact, afterwards, my flow would become quite heavy, and then the next day, dry up.

My last period was February 2014, when I was 50 years old. So why am I writing this article now? We continue to live in a misogynist society. I continue to meet menstruators who neglect menses, who have never learned anything about their cycles except that we should engage in normal activity, and nothing should stop us from doing anything non-menstruators can do. At the same time, it seemed like, especially during the stress of the pandemic, almost everyone was having more than usual menstrual discomfort. Furthermore, even among yoga practitioners, there seems to be an enormous disparity in what folks believe and practice regarding menses. Some do no āsana at all on their moon. Some do everything except inversions. Some do everything with no exceptions.

The proof is in the pudding. I suggest you try Geeta Iyengar’s menstrual sequence for at least 2 days, when your flow is heaviest. There are many versions, ranging from the full 2-hour sequence, to shorter 60-90 minute versions, and special poses for specific issues. Here is a common 90-minute sequence. Meanwhile, refrain from strenuous activity, including heavy lifting, running, and swimming. Use your heavy days as rest days. Consult with a trusted certified Iyengar Yoga teacher to learn the set-ups and particulars of each pose. At Iyengar Yoga Detroit Collective, we have a Tuesday evening Uterine Health Class offered online and in-person.

I taught in the Dance Department at Alverno, a women’s college in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, for many years. I always covered menses and taught the menstrual sequence. Every week, I’d reinforce it and give modifications and alternatives for menstruators. In the end of the semester assessments, many students reported that learning about menses and the menstrual sequence was their favorite part, and testified to the benefits they received.

Not only do Geeta’s recommendations make sense and feel good, practicing the sequence taught me how to slow down, and counteract the grind of capitalism and the incessant pressure of productivity. The tasks would just have to wait. I learned how to prioritize my health, and ask for what I needed. It gave me time for introspection to deal with emotional ups and downs. In white supremacist, patriarchal capitalism (thank you, bell hooks!) all these practices are deemed unimportant, so practicing the menstrual sequence becomes an act of political resistance.

At first, I forced myself to do the menstrual sequence. Later, I craved it. Now, post-menopausal, I miss it, and practice it once in a while anyway. I still have organs down there, and the physiological and mental effects still carry benefits. Many non-menstruators, including men, sing the praises of the effects they receive from the beautiful sequences designed for menstrual health.

I’ve not yet mentioned the post-menstrual sequence, a fantastic, inversion-centered sequence, which helps to dry out the uterus, restore energy levels, and balance shifting hormones. I love and value this sequence as much as the menstrual sequence, and continue to practice it. The depths of Geeta Iyengar’s revolutionary teachings continue to reap benefits. All I can say is try them out, preferably with the guidance of a CIYT. Consult Lois Steinberg’s comprehensive book on menstruation. Gather your basic props and improvise as needed.

Let me know what you notice. Be attentive to the more subtle effects. May the menstrual practice be a balm, refuge, and healing for us all.
 

Tuesday, January 4, 2022

Crying at Costco

Sunset over Honolulu from my 10th floor window

In an effort to stock a kitchen from scratch, I borrowed my son’s Costco card to buy staples: olive oil, vinegar, flour, and more. I resist these big warehouses because the size of the store and the quantities overwhelm me. Living alone, it would take me a year or longer to go through these products. However, I was heartened to see that prices were not much higher than on the mainland, as opposed to grocery stores where prices seem to be doubled. I figured I could freeze or share what I could not use.

Unlike other Costcos, I found myself happily wandering the aisles, surrounded by Asian folks. There were many intergenerational group shoppers, and my ears caught many Korean conversations. The aisles were well-stocked with shoyu, gochujang, and lots of other Asian staples. I felt affirmed, mirrored, and blended in: a new feeling for me after so many years on the continent. This is what it must feel like to be white, I thought, or to be Black in a city like Detroit. I felt all warm and fuzzy inside.

But I got to the checkout, only to be rejected.

“You’re not on this member’s account. You’re not allowed to shop here.”

“Can we call him?” I asked. I had just spent nearly an hour picking out what I needed.

“No. This card says ‘non-transferable.’ You cannot use it.”

A team of us routinely shop for Baba Baxter in Detroit at Costco and had never encountered a problem. I was sure there was some way to get around this. Now there were two staff members, insisting on the same thing: NO.

Damn, it’s just some fucking groceries! I wanted to say. I was also tempted to ask the next person in line if they could buy my food and get reimbursed. Instead, I accepted the rejection and left the store.

In the shelter of my car, I wept.

A waste of tears! Costco? How petty could I be?

What came up for me was a feeling of being trapped in the capitalist consumerist machine. Being forced to spend money I’m trying to string out as long as possible. A rejection of the cooperative way of life I have been cultivating for so long. In Detroit, we share everything. My friends and I are all trying our best to hack the system, not get stuck in unfulfilling jobs, DIY, skill-share, live abundantly on less, practice interdependence, and reduce our carbon footprints. One Costco account can support several households. Living on less means we have time to grow food, take care of each other, and be available as needs arise. Now here I was back in the matrix. I felt forced to capitulate to the oppressive, exploitative, materialistic machine.

After I got a chance to regain my equilibrium, I decided to go to my neighborhood food cooperative. I had been meaning to join and volunteer anyway. Even though the prices would be higher than Costco, I could get a worker-member discount, as well as build community. After the feelings of dejection faded, I was able to remember, and act on, my values. On my way over, I got a call, which I ignored because it was an unknown number. But they called twice, then texted me.

Before I’d left home that morning, I had handwritten 3 notes. I slipped them under the doors of my next door neighbor, and the residents directly above and below me. The note read:
Hello, neighbor! This is Peggy, in #1004. I’m wondering if you would like to share wifi with me? We could split the cost and each save money. Let me know if you’re interested.

Who is “Peggy”? For the past 6 years, I’d been training my communities to use my Korean name, Gwi-Seok, instead, as part of my process of reindigenizing and decolonizing. But I’ve noticed something here in Hawai`i. Because I blend in so easily here, I don’t feel a need to assert my Korean identity. For the first time since childhood, I feel a sense of security about my racial identity. I don’t feel othered, exoticized, or like an outsider. I don’t feel like the people around me are whitewashing me; they are yellow-washing me, actually. As such, I’m as comfortable with “Peggy” as with “Gwi-Seok.” My family calls me Peggy and that feels fine. I introduce myself to casual acquaintances as Peggy because it's just easier.

The phone calls and text turned out to be from my downstairs neighbor, an older Black woman, who was happy to share her wifi with me. She came up to talk to me, and we had a beautiful neighborly conversation, resulting in both of us saving $40 each month! I promised to invite her (age 75) and her husband (age 85) up for dinner once I got settled.

Kokua Food Co-op also welcomed me with open arms. It’s a small neighborhood co-op and deli. The volunteers seemed to be mostly senior citizens. In the past, I have typically veered toward younger friends, because it seemed I had more in common with them than with people my age or older. Often I have found progressive white boomers exhausting and exasperating, because they are often entrenched in white saviorism and unconscious white supremacy, without an adequate analysis of patterns of power and harm. But here, in Hawai`i, many folks in their 50s and 60s+ seem to be a lot like me. Of course, the capitalism that defines our society still painfully prevails. But here at the co-op, I’m hopeful I can find folks who prioritize community over profit.

Today I went to the People’s Open Market, just 2 blocks from my home. These markets were started in the 1970s as a way to promote healthy local eating, and support local farmers, while selling discounted fruits and vegetables. I picked up some inexpensive daikon and papayas, and plan to make ggakdugi later this week. Also, I found the compost bin at the local community gardens. Even though I am far down on their waiting list to get a plot of my own, I can certainly contribute to their beautiful compost pile.

Another small victory resulted from my ask to the Facebook “Buy Nothing” group, listing the household items I am seeking. I don’t want to fill my apartment with new Walmart and Target shit produced overseas. I’d rather re-use and re-purpose what others no longer need, and spend my dollars somewhere it can support local community. One person is offering a batch of mason jars, another a small rug, someone has 50 clothes hangers to give away, and another person has pots and plants.

I feel encouraged that I will be able to create a healthy, sustainable life in this new/old city. Fuck Costco. Hello, neighbors!

Monday, December 20, 2021

An Apprenticeship with `Aina

Ha`ena Beach, Kea`au, Hawaii
 

I left my home city of Detroit with nothing on my keychain. No house, no car, no keys. Modernity made it relatively simple to journey across a continent and an ocean. Instead of taking months or years to travel by foot and boat, I simply shelled out the money to jump on airplanes, and my belongings will be flown over later by the US Postal Service.

My first initiation into this new stage of my life was shedding of my belongings, giving everything away that I could possibly part with. This took months, and still I was left with 18 boxes of drums, yoga props, books, and clothes. I still have not completed going through photos, and seemingly endless files, the bane of a writer’s life. Not only did I have to shed material belongings, I had to bid farewell to many loved ones, dear friends, teachers, and students. I had to cut short my apprenticeship to Detroit, with so many lessons still remaining, and so many projects left incomplete. My long journey from Detroit to Chicago to Los Angeles to Hilo was devoted to emotionally processing, grieving, and simultaneously closing and opening doors.

My first morning on the island began with rainfall, as it typically does. I borrowed an umbrella and ventured forth. My senses opened up to receive the overwhelmingly lush stimuli, such a far cry from the dormant winter landscape of upper Midwestern North America. Bird calls I did not recognize, plants I am just getting to know, unfamiliar fragrances, a different rocky soil under my feet.

Even though I lived here as a child, and I have been back numerous times to visit my children and grandchildren, I felt like a newcomer to the land. I brought tobacco from Waawiiyaataanong, my former home. I sprinkled it at the roots of trees as an offering, I walked across volcanic rocks and gave it to the crashing waves of the Pacific Ocean.

To the spirits of the land, the trees, the animals, and the ocean,
Greetings from Waawiiyaataanong.
I come in service and goodwill.
I ask to be in relationship with you.
I ask you to receive me.
I ask you to teach me how to be your faithful student.
I ask for your guidance.
I promise to take care of you, and ask you humbly to take care of me.
I hope to live out my earthly time on these islands,
and I gently ask for your permission to be here in intimate relationship.
Please teach me how to be a loving servant to the `aina, and all living beings of the islands.
Please teach me how to honor the indigenous people of this land.
Please teach me how to tread lightly on the land, and be in loving service.
I know I will make many mistakes, and that my presence will inevitably be harmful.
Please help me learn how to minimize harm, and live harmoniously with the land, water, people, and all beings.
I ask you to nourish me, and teach me how to sustain myself, lovingly giving and receiving.
May it be so.

When I arrived in Detroit in 2013, Grace Lee Boggs asked me, “Why are you moving here?” I answered, ”To join the revolution.” White folks, entrepreneurs, and artists were bombarding the city, often to the detriment of communities. Many were coming for cheap rents or to purchase property or to start a business they couldn’t afford in their former cities. Instead, I made a commitment to be part of the fabric of community already here, and not to come as a colonizer. But old habits die hard, having grown up in imperialist white supremacist patriarchy, and I had my hand slapped a number of times when I did not adequately wait, listen, and respect the will of Detroiters themselves.

Detroit taught me how to be in community, how to apprentice myself instead of coming with answers and solutions. Detroit taught me how to consult and listen to elders, and what it means to be an elder. Detroit taught me how to be part of the land and water, how to share it, how to listen to it, and nurture it. At the energy vortex of several Great Lakes, and a national border, Detroit is a hub and crossroads for every type of being and interaction. Detroit paved the way for me to move back to the islands, as an adult, this time.

My second initiation back to the islands occurred three days after arrival. My daughter, Katja, and I decided to walk to the nearest beach from her house. The maps app told us it would take 1 hour, about a 3 mile walk. No problem. I put on my swimsuit, a wrap skirt and tshirt over it, and my sturdy walking “slippahs.” My daughter said, “It might be muddy, you might want shoes.” But I didn’t own any hiking shoes and I said, “I’ll just wash off in the ocean.”

Ha. Famous last words. Midwestern mainland mud doesn’t even begin to compare to Big Island mud. Not to mention the wildly uneven terrain of volcanic rock and roots of trees in the dense rainforest. I felt ridiculous holding up my skirt, skipping from rock to rock and over roots. Several times I miscalculated and sloshed down into mid-shin mud. Several times I lost a slipper and had to drag it out of the mud. I won’t even mention the mosquitoes. Any number of times I could’ve slipped and fallen. It’s only by the grace of the gods I made it through the rough trail.

Finally the trail opened up to a remote, empty beach, with breakers slowing down the waves to a gentle ripple at low tide, and a narrow strip of black and gray sand. My feet practically cried stepping into the soft yielding warm sand. The tiny bay was the meeting place of a river and the ocean, and the water currents flowed between the warmed ocean water and chilled mountain spring water.

I laid down on the sand and looked up at the cloud-dappled sky and the waving palms. “This is what it must feel like to be dead,” I announced to Katja: unbelievable beauty, calm, and ease, having gone through an ordeal, probably much more harrowing than my short hike, and a feeling of joy mixed with the grief of having left behind so much that you love.

After a swim and a delicious meal of leftovers, chips, and sliced mango, we decided to make our way back home before the predicted rain started. As we retraced our steps, each footfall became a prayer. Instead of shit, damn, fuck, I decided to say yes, thank you, please, I am here, I am listening, I am receiving. After a while, I started to use each step to bless the earth, to caress the stones, to send love to the `aina. It was still arduous, and I still fell in the mud once or twice. One false move and an injury could have required an airlift rescue, which happens frequently in Hawai`i. Thank god for my yoga practice and the moderate strength and balance I’ve managed to maintain.

When we got home, I had to wash off my slippers several times, scrubbing them with gravel and rainwater. Even after soaking in the bath, I could not get all the mud off the cracks in my feet and in my toe cuticles.

I asked the `aina to teach me. I am receiving my lessons. There will be many more to come.

#####

For those who’ve expressed a desire to come and visit me here, here are some recommendations:

  • Right where you are, honor your own land, and seek to be in harmonious relationship with all the beings of your land.
  • Learn as much as you can about your desired destination: history, politics, flora and fauna, language, etc. Read articles and books, listen to podcasts, ask questions.
  • Create an altar of images or symbols of the desired destination. Consult with the spirits of this place, and request consent to be on this land. Express your intention for this journey. Wait and listen.
  • If you feel a resonant “yes,” make plans to come in a responsible and respectful way. Bring with you an offering for the `aina. Include an offering for the indigenous people of the islands.
  • When you arrive, make a point, as soon as possible, to engage intimately with the land and waters. Create your own prayer and ritual of exchange.
  • Create opportunities to be in community, and to contribute your time and energy, which could include financial reparations. Come to be in relationship and reciprocity.
  • Whenever possible, support the local economy and local people. Do your best to avoid exploitative, tokenizing, racist businesses, institutions, and platforms.
  • Be humble and modest. Come to learn and to serve.

Thursday, November 25, 2021

Thanksgrieving

 
THANKSGRIEVING

i am just beginning to dip my toes
into the ocean of grief
my parents tried to protect me from

no longer here to shield me
no children i have to tend
i peer into the waters
and begin to wade in

mmmmm, with cross-lateral arm strokes
forward and back
the water is ice-cold
but underground springs spurt volcanic hot currents

this is the suffering i have put aside
in order to proceed
chopping wood, carrying water
ever mouths to feed
gas tanks to fill
compost to turn over

i have listened to your stories of suffering
and held them in my body
believing they took precedence over mine
as if grief is finite
i used up my quota of grief on others

but now
waking from sleep
or chopping vegetables
or humming on my exhales
my own ancestors peek through
lifting the curtain to enter

true grief is abundant
wraps around us like river currents
grief begets more grief
like rivers flow into oceans
and oceans flow into other oceans

grief tenderizes rage
keeps me on my knees

healing has become commoditized
sold to the highest bidder
as if reparations can satiate my grief
as if the brittleness of justice is adequate

give me the temporality of justice and repair
but let me stay here
in my ocean of grief
knowing it will never be commercialized
nor subjected to the ravages of capitalism

grief is an elder to healing
we cannot heal until we have wept each other’s tears
i absorb your grief and mine
like the wetland absorbs the hurricane
like the willow tree flails and dances through the storm

no one has exclusive rights
or a trademark for grief
no one queues for grief
all our ancestors call through the ether
in many tongues that i have come to understand

may it wash over me
may it flow through me
may we weep oceans
may we bathe ourselves in one another’s grief
and hold each other with tenderness


Monday, November 8, 2021

A Humble Request

Beloved Iyengar Yoga Detroit Collective Community,

I have been unspeakably blessed with our beautiful community. I am so deeply grateful to each person who has helped to build and evolve it. I will be departing in 1 month for my new home in Hawai’i. I will continue to teach weekly online, conduct study groups, and continue to be a worker-owner from afar. I plan to return to Detroit twice each year to conduct study intensives and daily classes.

Here is my tentative teaching schedule as of January 3, 2022 in Hawai`i Standard Time (UTC-10) unless otherwise noted. Convert to your time zone here.

Sundays, 7-9am HST, Level 2
3rd Sunday, 3-4pm ET, IYDC Yoga Philosophy (Iyengar: His Life and Work)
3rd Sunday, 7-8:30pm ET, IYDC BIPOC Study Group (My Grandmother’s Hands)

Mondays, 4-5:15pm HST, Level 1B
Mondays, 5:30pm HST, Level TBD

Tuesdays 7-9am HST, Led practice

1st/3rd Wednesdays, 8-9pm ET, BIPOC Apprentice check-ins
2nd/4th Wednesdays, 8-9pm ET, Mentee assessment prep check-ins

Thursdays, 9am HST, Level TBD
Thursdays, 6:30-8pm ET, IYDC Common Ailments (formerly Yoga Therapy)

2nd Fridays, 7:15-9:15pm ET, IYDC Pedagogy Study Group

2nd Saturdays, 11am-2pm HST, Monthly Āsana/Prānāyāma Workshop
4th Saturdays, 6:30-8:30pm ET, IYDC Yoga in Society Study Group

I have been happy to teach, especially since the pandemic, for nominal pay. I have thrived with a strong roof over my head, an abundance of nutritious and homegrown food, a generous community of friends, and none of it has required very much money.

However, to be perfectly honest, I will be needing a much stronger flow of income once I move to Hawai’i on December 14.

I have gladly led study groups, taught workshops, taught Community Gift classes, participated in committees, held office hours, provided consultations, and mentored teachers and apprentices for little to no pay. My particular skills, honed over many decades–teaching, writing, caregiving, holding space–do not translate to high pay under capitalism.

As I transition to life in Hawai’i, I come to ask you to financially support me to any degree that is right for you. I will continue to follow my dharmic path no matter what, and give all I can to our community. Your financial support will not define my relationship with you, nor will it determine my teaching and mentoring commitments.

Some of you already support my work monthly as Teacher Education Subscribers. Thank you! I appreciate your continued and/or increased support as I relocate.

If you can offer dāna each month, beginning in January, that will make it much easier for me to devote myself to the yoga path and continue my work. As a full-time teacher over the past 20 years, I have sometimes taught up to 12-13 āsana classes each week, and I am prepared to do so once again if required. However, if financially possible, I would prefer to teach 6 or fewer āsana/prānāyāma classes/week, while continuing the monthly workshop, study groups, BIPOC Apprentice Program, mentoring, and continue to serve as an IYDC worker-owner on several committees.

If possible, I would prefer not to open a separate Patreon account for myself. Instead, I prefer to ask you, as a practice of sovereignty, to take it upon yourself, if you choose to donate, to use the payment method of your choice and give monthly (Venmo @PeggyKwisuk-Hong, Cash App $gwiseok, PayPal to friend at paypal.me/gwiseok, Zelle kwisuk63@gmail.com).

If it’s easier to conceive of paying me as a transaction for services provided, here is an itemized budget:
 

Teacher Education Subscription: Community Gift $50-200/month

  • Pedagogy Study Group, 2 hours monthly, $20-40/session
  • Yoga in Society/Philosophy Study Group, 2 hours monthly, $20-40/session
  • Monthly Āsana and Prānāyāma Workshop, 3 hours monthly, $20-60
  • IYDC Yoga Philosophy Study Group, 1 hour monthly $10-20
  • IYDC BIPOC Study Group, 1.5 hours monthly, $15-25
  • Email, text, and phone consultations, as needed, $100-150/hour


As further incentive, I plan to rent a 2 bedroom apartment, so that I can host visitors. A friend of my son is willing to rent her beautiful unit to me at a steep discount short term. I will need cooperative rental assistance in order to afford this $1500/month unit (normally $2300–argh!). If you would like to visit me for 1-4 weeks of intensive study and practice, please consider paying into this cooperative housing plan at an additional $50-100/month.

Thanks for supporting me in my continued growth, as I strive to come ever more into right relationship, with the planet, with the land, with the practice of yoga, with each other, and all beings.

Namaskar,
hgs