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THE HONEYMOON PHASE – FALLING IN LOVE WITH YOGA
The year is 2000. I’m a Peace Corps Volunteer in rural Namibia. Teaching math to kids who barely speak English. I barely speak Otjiherero and have no experience as a teacher and have minimal training. The kids have little desire to learn math from me and I have no idea how to manage the classroom. I try offering rewards for doing well. I try offering punishments for poor behavior. I try yelling. I try sending them to the principal’s office. The one thing I’m getting good at is coming home from school and bawling my eyes out. I have no idea what I’m doing in rural Namibia trying to teach math and no idea what I would do if I left.
My sister sends me a book on yoga. I devour it. I wake up every morning before school and spend a few minutes tuning into my body. Stretching. Tuning into my breath. Watching my mind and listening for the “still small voice within.” I walk to school on a cloud of peace and awareness. During the day when I notice my stress level rising because the kids are acting like 12-year olds, I pause my teaching. I feel my feet on the ground. I take a few deep breaths. I become aware of sensations in my body. I calm back down. I become hooked. I finally have a way to control my anger. I find that on the days I don’t do yoga, there is inevitably some event that I am unprepared for, some curveball and I invariably say words I regret, in a tone I regret. If I leave my home without yoga in the morning, I feel like a flammable substance just waiting for a spark to ignite an explosion. With yoga, I am able to take life’s unexpected events in stride.
The kids that stressed me out and drove me to yoga.
Meditating at one of my first yoga retreats – look how peaceful I was.
I get deeper and deeper into it. Yoga is not as mainstream as it will become in 2020. I seek out yoga teachers wherever I travel. I start attending retreats and workshops. I attend a yoga teachers’ training and start teaching. I believe I am on to something that could change the world. If only everyone could feel the peace and oneness that I feel, all conflict would end, all the problems of the world would be fixed. “Everyone just needs to know the peace and beauty within!”, I believe. I desperately want everyone to experience this. Every day, spend some time moving mindfully, meditate daily too, watch your breath and then you will also have this feeling of calm that you can call upon whenever you feel your “negative emotions” rising up. It feels revolutionary.
BECOMING AWARE OF CRITICISMS
When I was in graduate school, one of my professors cautioned me about practicing yoga and told me that he believed it was a “Neoliberal form of governmentality”. I shared this quote with my yoga friends, and we had a really good belly laugh. I was certain that this professor had been buried too deeply in his Marxist Manifestos and had never experienced the beauty of a deep conscious breath.
MOVING TO ANGOLA – ADDING STRESS
Fast forward a few years (2016) and I had been living in Namibia for 9 years, teaching a study abroad program by day, and teaching the odd yoga class in my free time Overall, I was quite comfortable. I had a secure income, work that I loved, fabulous friendships, a sense of community, and healthy routines. I was going through the bureaucratic legal process of getting married. He wanted us to move to his home country, Angola, to revitalize his family’s farm. It sounded intriguing, adventurous, and fun, but I was also hesitant to give up my comfortable life in Namibia.
My favorite yoga spot on the farm in Angola
The challenges of the move to Angola began even before I got there. I planned to spend a few months visiting my family in the US after I left Namibia. Due to visa complications, a few months became 6 months. Meanwhile, my Mom’s health declined. My family and I felt the need to have someone with her 24 hours a day. As the only one in my family who didn’t have employment at the time, I was with her many of those 24 hours. It was physically demanding, stressful (constantly making decisions regarding my mom’s care that could potentially have grave consequences), and emotionally exhausting – particularly when it became apparent that she probably was not going to be with us much longer.
F$%^ Your G.D. Bliss!
Then I moved to Angola. I’ll attempt to give a glimpse of how “Kansas” differs from “Oklahoma”. Angola is a Portuguese speaking country where the drivers are comfortable with a much smaller zone of safety around their vehicle (read 1-2 inches) than I was familiar with, so I didn’t feel comfortable driving. I was financially dependent on my husband’s family, which was a huge transition for someone who prided herself on being a strong independent woman. In short, I was hanging out at my mother-in-law’s house, unable to drive, unable to communicate freely and comfortably with most people, and I knew no one other than my in-laws. Our intention was to move to the farm, so living at his mom’s was meant to be temporary, but we ran into one obstacle after another, and kept finding ourselves at his mom’s house.
Living at my mother-in-law’s house was very difficult for me. Don’t get me wrong, she is a wonderful woman and the home is beautiful. But it wasn’t my space. Being an independent adult who is used to having her own home, it was impossible for me to adjust to not feeling free in my home. It also wasn’t my husband’s space. He also didn’t feel like spending time there so he would leave and go spend time with his friends. This infuriated me since I didn’t have the freedom to drive off (since I couldn’t drive and I didn’t have a car), not to mention I didn’t have friends to go visit anyway. When he got home from spending time with his friends, I would blow my top. Then I felt ashamed for blowing my top. Then I would spend time doing yoga and meditating in order to try to be more calm. It became an ugly cycle.
REALIZING THE LIMITS OF MY YOGA PRACTICE
The original yoga book my sister had sent me in the Peace Corps became the foundation of my yoga practice. It is called We are all Doing Time by Bo Lozoff. Bo was living in a yoga ashram and regularly visited his brother in prison. He realized that his brother’s life in prison was really not all that different to his life in the ashram, except that he was in the ashram by choice and loving it but his brother was not in prison by choice and hated it. Bo started working with prisoners to use their time to do yoga and meditate. Many prisoners found the practice to be transformative, so he wrote this book. I found it to be a very powerful book and read it multiple times. The examples felt so intense. The book includes letters from prisoners who have been the victims of heinous crimes and the perpetrators of heinous crimes. They are using yoga to help them find peace, and to process their trauma and their shame. If yoga helps them, then certainly it will work for me, and my little issues, right?
Stock photo of the Book “We’re All Doing Time” by Bo Lozoff. My copy is lost now, but was much more tattered.
Inspired by how Nelson Mandela used his time in prison, I wanted to make sure my spiritual practice was strong enough that I could also survive solitary confinement.
The thing is, I was indoctrinated in a culture of perfectionism*, except I didn’t know that, because its the water we swim in, so to speak. I kept thinking that I needed to get my practice “bullet proof” enough that I could remain calm in solitary confinement or under torture. Every time I Iost my temper over some minor thing, I beat myself up for it. “Damn it! I’m not yet enlightened!” Back to the mat with me. When I was curious about putting my practice to the test by moving to Angola, I wanted to see just how “bullet proof” my practice was. Could I remain calm under any and all circumstances? I saw expressions of anger as failure. And as mentioned earlier, a sign of insanity. And it wasn’t just me. I noticed people carried assumptions about me as a yoga teacher. I often heard things like, “But you do yoga, why are you so stressed out?” I believed I should be invincible. And other people expected invincibility out of me too.
My fear of open expressions of anger was related to being indoctrinated in a culture that vilifies open conflict and idolizes “rational thought”. Either I am enlightened or I am a complete failure and a waste of a human being. I understood that the goal of yoga was to merge my individual consciousness with the universal consciousness and achieve enlightenment. The yard stick of enlightenment I used was to endure any hardship without losing my peace. Sure, they said this may take several lifetimes. But deep down I thought, “Not me. I’m close. I’m getting there. I’m going to do it in this lifetime.” But then I would get angry again. I shamed myself, “Oh crap. I thought I was nearly there. Damn. Back to the mat. Back to the cushion.” I refused to admit my that part of being a beautiful human is experiencing the totality of the range of emotions. I wanted the joy only, and saw the anger as failure – my personal failure. I refused to admit the normality of anger, nor did I want to hear the messages that my anger was communicating to me.
I was also feeling guilty. My mother-in-law’s house was really nice. There was plenty of food. It was safe and had clean running water and electricity. I had internet access. There are so many people in Luanda who don’t have those things. I felt like some sort of a privileged ungrateful B&^*$. I beat myself up again for being such a spoiled white colonizing brat, demanding my own space and privacy. I shamed myself more.
If I listen to this guy will all my problems be solved?
Then one day I was listening to a talk on cultural appropriation and yoga. They were explaining that it is impossible to fully understand the philosophy of yoga if you are not raised in the culture where it is indigenous. For example, western culture is hyper-individualistic and eastern cultures tend to be more collective. Since I wasn’t aware of the layers of the white supremacist culture I was indoctrinated in, I took this culture of hyper-individuality, fear of open conflict, worship of objectivity, and perfectionism with me to my yoga practice. Then it all clicked. I’m living in a very stressful situation and instead of addressing the situation itself, I’m blaming myself and thinking that if I could just be a better yoga practitioner, if I just meditate a little more, I could find perfect calm in this situation, or solitary confinement, or any tortuous situation I may find myself. But that’s a complete misunderstanding of yoga. Its impossible for me, as a cultural outsider to ever fully understand yoga philosophy. I have an intellectual understanding of what is meant by a more collective culture, but I’m heavily indoctrinated in hyper-individuality, rationalism, and perfectionism and bring them with me everywhere I go by default. And my lack of understanding made me use yoga in a toxic way.
Rather than blaming myself for getting angry and then going back to do more yoga, a healthier option would have been to explain to my husband that our situation simply wasn’t working at all for me and that we needed to find another way. If I hadn’t shamed myself for getting angry, and instead simply acknowledged that my boundaries were being crossed and explained to him what was working and what was not, we may have been able to creatively brainstorm a workable solution. Instead of of focusing on enlightenment as an individual endeavor, in isolation from society, trying to have a meditation practice which was strong enough to survive solitary confinement, I could have used that energy to abolish the entire prison system.
One of my favorite moments as a yoga teacher – doing yoga with the then Mayor of Windhoek, Namibia.
WE BRING OUR CONDITIONING WITH US
I started reflecting on the words of my grad school professor when he said that “Yoga is a form of neoliberal governmentality.” I now see that for many people, the practice of yoga can be an escape from the stress and trauma of our current culture. I have deep respect for practices which give us tools to feel our emotions and to become more deeply connected with our intuition and the world around us. And sometimes we need practices to ground and center us. But I see many practices which lead to disconnection and escaping from the discomfort of the pain in the world and our lives.
ie. Don’t acknowledge any uncomfortable realities here.
In summary, this experience has made me realize that many western people feel the oppression of the spiritual practices they were raised in (patriarchy, systems of domination, etc) and go looking for what feels like more liberatory eastern or indigenous spiritual practices. However, we often don’t realize that, we bring our oppressive conditioning with us to the new spiritual practice by default. We approach the foreign spiritual practice with our colonial eyes and see new land for conquering, without realizing that the trauma of our ancestors is in our luggage, we can’t get away from it until we face it. We are entagled with the oppression we are trying to run away from.
SO, WHERE DOES THIS LEAVE ME NOW?
I have several future blog posts planned regarding where I am now with my embodiment, movement, and spiritual practices. But I’ll summarize a bit here. First, I spent some time sitting with the discomfort of not knowing. Floating in that scary in between space. Letting go of yoga without having a new practice to latch on to. More recently, I’ve been exploring a variety of other practices. Many have roots in Eastern traditions and so I have been hesitant and extremely cautious. I keep looking for aspects of spiritual practices that seem universal, ie that transcend a particular culture. For example, noticing how the body feels when I take a deep breath. Noticing the sensation of my feet on the earth. I’ve been looking for practices that have an explicit acknowledgment of the effects of society and culture on us as well as the ways that our spiritual practices can perpetuate or interrupt oppression. I’ve consistently been let down by practices taught by white people who refuse to acknowledge systemic oppression or privilege. Inevitably, I notice them exerting their authority, perpetuating a system of domination, and replicating the ways of being in the world that have caused the harm I’m seeking to disrupt.
I’m currently very drawn to practices that acknowledge a troubling history, acknowledge the current injustices, seek to repair harm, and are willing to humbly admit that we are exploring new ways of being in the world and there is so much we don’t know. I’m drawn to practices that embrace the fullness of the human experience: anger, sadness, fear, grief, joy, gratitude – all of it – Without labeling parts of it as good/bad or positive/negative. I’m drawn to groups that acknowledge that we are navigating unchartered territory. We have the wisdom of all of our ancestors with us, but we also have our learned tendencies of domination and control as well. We will make mistakes and currently, I’m only interested in practicing with those who are exploring different ways of being with openness and curiosity. There is no certainty right now.
I acknowledge that it is possible that there is a yoga space where this is happening. At this moment, I know I’m carrying too much baggage from my previous experiences of yoga and needed to step away to explore who I would be if I intentionally try to unlearn my hyper-individualism, perfectionism, fear of open conflict, etc. So for now, I need to be in new spaces where I’m less likely to fall into old habits, or at least where it is easier for me to recognize my old habits and attempt to heal them. Much much much more to come…
*If the concept of White Supremacy Culture being more complex than simply white people believing they are superior to People of Color, I highly recommend this introductory piece on White Supremacy Culture by Tema Okun.