I spent the first ten years of my life as the only girl amongst a group of a half dozen or so boys, my older brother, his friends - boys who accepted my presence amongst them with a shrug. Corn and tobacco farm country, with houses spread out along the roads - not quite suburbia, but most definitely not the city. Our days were spent running in the cornfield next to my house, or in the woods, tobacco fields and turf farms beyond. Mostly, we played at “War” - which consisted of breaking up into teams, then separating for a tenth of a mile or so, with toy rifles (or just a long wooden stick to represent one) clutched in our hands. We’d make plans of attack, then converge on one another in a clearing or empty tobacco barn, in brief battle. I remember I could never quite replicate the sound of a machine gun like the boys, but I was fast and stealthy. Because the boys most likely didn’t feel comfortable “shooting” at a girl, I had a talent for getting behind enemy lines. I was a good sniper and generally one of the last left standing, at which point, the battle would disintegrate as boys would descend into arguments over who was “dead” and who wasn’t. The play would reset then, and repeat itself a few times, only to end when one of us found something interesting - a dead animal, a mysterious piece of old, rusting farm equipment - for all of us to investigate. At the end of the day, as the sun crept down to the horizon through the trees, we would be called home to dinner.
For the most part, we ran wild and free in those woods and fields. It was a great childhood. The was well before the era of “playdates” and controlled, adult-supervised interaction with peers; my parents wouldn’t dream of actually taking time out of their hardworking lives to drive me to a girl’s house to have some gender specific play. My Mother bemoaned the fact that I preferred to wear pants and tee shirts instead of frilly dresses, and I would howl when she tried to brush my long hair. I was a “tomboy” not only by situation but also by preference, and knew intuitively: there was more freedom being a boy.
I became accustomed to the sarcastic interactions that account for showing affection between boys (but might be perceived as mean or humiliating by the girls I knew from grammar school, most of whom thought I was “weird” when I behaved “like a boy.”) I often observed boys posturing for social dominance, the moment turning quiet and tense, then abruptly and violently physical when de-escalation techniques like placation or sarcasm didn’t work.
I got into a scuffle or two myself. No punches were thrown, but we confusedly wrestled for a moment or two, annoyed with each other and frustrated by some trivial impasse. Then the shoving and pushing would stop abruptly, and I remember our awkwardness afterwards, the realization dawning on them that I was not in fact a “boy,” but a girl, and they’d been told they should never put their hands on a girl in anger. We’d step back, panting and red faced and look at each other, teeth clenched. And, then the anger would seep out from both of us, and they’d look away and mumble “Sorry” and I would, too, straightening my clothes and shaking off confused feelings. We’d go on with a new game or just walk away from one another, the awkward moment over, compartmentalized. There would be no grudges held, no apparent bitterness when play resumed, a “bygones be bygones” attitude to aggression that I have observed to be almost exclusively male.
One of the kids had an anger in him that could erupt unprovoked. He often sought to intimidate, and could be nasty; the older boys would generally handle him by physically dominating him, literally holding him down, when he took things too far. He was never exactly cruel to me, but I feared him a little; he was two years older, and he was the only one who was curious about me sexually far too soon for either of us. He’d try to laughingly grab my chest or genitals sometimes. I avoided being alone with him.
In my 11th year, 70s style raised ranches started popping as the farmland was sold off and turned into subdivisions. A pair of twin girls my age moved nearby, and at that time, things shifted in the neighborhood for me. They were the first girls I’d ever played with outside of school, and they initially preferred quieter, indoor play, Barbies and their EasyBake Oven, which I enjoyed for a while, but I soon became frustrated at being confined. I’d encourage the girls to join me outside, making forts and exploring the old barns, something they’d never done before, and they soon abandoned their Barbies for the woods and streams that wove through and behind the housing units.
Things shifted not only in our neighborhood, and the group of playing children, but also in our bodies, too. I got my first period around this time, my breasts bloomed early, and my days of running in the woods with the boys holding a fake gun ended, not only because the twins found my proclivity for playing “War” odd, but because we were all growing into different bodies. The boys, some already well on their way to becoming teenagers with chin stubble and cracking voices, began to treat me differently - not as one of them, but as a girl. There was a new awkwardness between us, a hesitancy and curiosity, too.
My childhood gave me a window on the male psyche and male behaviors that few women my age might otherwise have. I do feel more at ease with men in social situations than women because of it, and have only a few close female friends. Adult men interact with the same teasing, posturing banter and sarcasm that colored their childhood socialization, and it amuses me because it’s familiar and often funny. They laugh and turn serious at turns with one another. They support each other and bond with friendly competition. But, like all of us, they have a dark side, too.
Behaviors that are socially unacceptable - boorish or verbally aggressive - are met with a profound stillness in their bodies, a closed face, and an abiding silence, waiting for the tension to either subside or escalate. Sometimes these moments are followed by deflection and distraction amongst the adult male group, and if women are around, these techniques are employed more often. But, when that doesn’t work, they use their bodies, puffing up and growing taller, louder, sometimes violent.
(We are primates, after all.)
Last night at a local roadhouse we frequent - the community center here in the remote Hilltown I call home - a man I didn’t recognize, somewhere in his late fifties was standing amongst the locals at the bar, two empty highball glasses already in front of him, a beer in his hand. It’s a small place, and he was filling it with boisterous laughter, overblown in his growing drunkenness. The men sitting on either side of him were quiet and still, hunched over their beers and burgers, and when we sat down at a table adjacent, I sensed immediately the tension in the air around him. A few minutes later, he turned away from the bar, and accidentally-on-purpose shook the back of my brother-in-law’s chair, saying, “Oh, am I crowding you??”
My brother-in-law is a big man, a logger who takes no shit, but he matter-of-factly said, “I’m just sitting here. I’m good….How are you?” The man laughed, thought better of his aggression, and turned back to the bar and his drink. A little while later on, he did the same to my husband as he passed him on the way to the men’s room, placing his hand on the back of his chair and booming, “Oh, do you need more room here??!” My husband, also a big man, went still and calm, but he smiled good-naturedly and said, “No, I’m fine, I can move if you need me to.”
“Oh, no, no, you’re good.” He glanced over at me, then moved towards the bathroom. I sensed a layer of hostility in him that lurked just beneath the falsely happy surface - and he was holding the entire place hostage to it. We were all doing our best to placate him, to keep him calm. He returned to the bar without incident, and we began to eat our meal. A while later, my husband got up to go to the men’s. The man turned again from the bar, moved towards me and grabbed the back of my chair, saying loudly, “Hey! Move your fucking chair!” He gave it a slight shove.
I’m forced forward, shocked and angry. There is no need for this; there is plenty of room behind the chair. I look at him and say, “Excuse me?!”
He laughs, and says, “Don’t get so upset, I’m only joking!!”
I say nothing, but, seething with anger at his aggression and gas lighting, I take a breath, stand, move my chair close to the table, and then slowly sit back down. He walks around me then, close enough that he’s touching me, and he places his hand on my shoulder as he passes, rubbing it, and says, “Awww, don’t be mad, I was only joking!!” I want to tell this fucker not to touch me, but I know that if I do, the situation will escalate: he may become violent and release the anger that’s been brewing in him, for decades maybe, against me, against my nearby family. I say nothing, but hold myself very stiffly, forcing my breath to slow down.
My daughter is in the chair next to me. She bartends a couple of nights a week at this place, and as I said, while it’s a roadhouse, it’s also a wonderful community center. Everyone knows everyone else, takes care of everyone else, the food is simple and decent, the staff is great, and the beers are cold. She’s had to throw drunks out, and she knows what to say to this guy. She looks him straight in the eye and says calmly, “Bad joke,” with a smile on her face that is not quite a smile, but more a message of “Don’t fuck with us.”
He focuses on her. “What?!” My daughter is extremely beautiful, with long, auburn hair and huge brown eyes and a megawatt smile that she uses now on him, saying once more, slowly, “Bad. Joke.” And then she laughs lightly and looks down at her phone and shuts him out. He is staring at her, unsure, but I see him growing hungry for her attention.
I don’t like him looking at her that way. Disgusted, but also weary now, because I am tired of this - so tired of still having to do this, of needing to fearfully manipulate and cajole some men out of their endless craving for control, attention, acknowledgement, and their anger - and sometimes violence - in response to not getting it.
I try distraction and placation and say, “Hey, my name is Michelle, what’s your name, where are you from?” I hold out my hand, take his and shake it. He puts his other arm more firmly around me now, tells me his name and the name of his tiny Hilltown, but he is still looking at my daughter. I am loathing the hot heaviness of his arm on my shoulders, but want him to stop looking at my daughter, so I try distraction again and ask, “Did you come here on a motorcycle?” which he confirms. He asks where we are from. I am tempted to lie, but don’t and tell him. We say a few more insignificant things. My husband returns from the men’s, and the man immediately releases me, only to look like a hungry wolf at my beautiful daughter even more. She is still ignoring him, looking down at her phone and typing away. He turns to me and says, “How old is she?”
What a fucking creep this guy is, I think.
I look him in the eye for a moment, considering what to say to this pathetic, angry, lonely, frightened old man who is clearly suffering, who probably feels life is empty and meaningless, who fears losing control, who knows he will die some day, and who can’t deal with his endless pain, other than getting blind drunk and spreading intimidation and fear all around him. I am filled with a mix of loathing and compassion. It's a fine line, between showing compassion, and enabling toxic behavior, and I am not sure what the right choice is in this situation.
I trust my instincts and say, “She’s 22,” and stare pointedly at him. No words are needed. He knows he’s crossing a big line with me now, I am the mama bear, and he becomes quieter, sheepish, mumbles, “Mom, you made a very beautiful daughter.” I let out a huffing short laugh and say nothing but continue to look at him, disgust mixed with pity. He says, “Well, goodnight,” and leaves.
The tension in the bar subsides, the group around us, both men and women, all begin talking at once about him - how he was “creepy” and they sensed how “off” he was. I feel relief that the man is gone, but also just want to go home and forget about the fear that coursed through me, and my frustration and anger because I could not physically protect myself or my daughter from this angry, disturbed, drunken man. I am weary because I had to turn to the age-old methods that women - and men,too but mostly women - have long employed to keep themselves safe from angry, potentially violent men.
We are far too often held hostage by hurt people who need to hurt people in order to feel…better? alive? seen? powerful? People who are so in pain that they need to lash out, make other people feel scared and small, so that they feel less scared and small. What’s happening in our country right now is an enormous, painful outpouring of centuries of collective fear and violence. We are all becoming profoundly aware of this pain. It is in all of us, including and especially those of us who have privilege and power, and who fear losing that privilege and power. This is why so much of what is happening feels frightening and out of control right now. We don’t know if an angry, powerful man is going to snap finally, and hurt us or kill us. (And, I believe that is how most people of color have felt for a very long time here.)
Some of us are staying very still and quiet, out of fear or in denial, hoping the tension subsides. And, some of us are using distraction, placating or manipulation to stay safe. But, none of these tactics are really working, because the men who run our country, our planet, are just like this drunken, pain-filled guy - except they have entire militarized and enslaved armed forces to perpetrate their need for control and power. Who can stop them if/when they choose to use it against us? We have seen what our leadership does to those who question their authority. Choke holds, pepper spray, concussion grenades are the least of it. Who among us will stand up when they deliberately spread pain and fear, perpetuating their endless need to control and bully? Because to stand up to oppression, whether it’s some angry drunk in a bar or a petty despot, means we literally put ourselves or our loved ones at risk.
And, for some of us, well, the pain is too great to live with, too.
Anthony Bourdain has killed himself earlier on this day, and I am sad and weary because of this, as well. I never ate in a restaurant the same after reading his revealing, brilliant Kitchen Confidential. His descriptions of life in the kitchen amongst the staff were familiar, just like the snarky, bantering, posturing, fast-paced, boy-dominated world of my childhood. And, the places he visited all around the world were not unlike my local roadhouse - filled with simple, decent people just trying to enjoy a drink and something good to eat, grabbing a moment of refueling and respite from their own struggles, their own pain and suffering.
Clearly, he struggled more than most of us do, but rather than turning his pain outwards in cruelty and malice, he modeled a better way of being; he showed nobility and true bravery through empathy, finding joy in the creativity, talent and beauty of the diversity of human beings he met on his travels. Seeing the good in us. He showed us how we should not fear each other, but embrace one another with tolerance, trust and acceptance. He didn’t seek to ease his pain through making others suffer, but instead, stood up for the downtrodden, and refused to stay silent in the face of cruelty or oppression - especially when the oppressed were women or people of color.
He was a true man, bantering and funny, wise and kind, and a brief, bright light that helped make our weary world a less scary, less unfamiliar place. He inspired me to trust and be brave and to travel and explore, and better yet, showed me how to travel and explore: without judgment or biases. He helped me see our world more clearly, and gave me hope for it and us. Yes, he chose to end his own deep, ceaseless pain. Perhaps that is the bravest thing he ever did, and may he be at peace now. But, while he lived, nonetheless he did so emphatically, empathically, gloriously and beautifully, and we are a better world because he was in it for a brief time with us.
In our own brief time here, may we all meet the world and the people we share it with like he did: with humor, clarity, compassion, wisdom - and above all, bravery.
Smile on your brother, try to love one another, right now.
Just as many of us enjoy opening the windows, washing the floors, and shaking out the winter dirt that has gathered into our homes over the winter, now is a great time to consider doing a personal Spring Cleanse, to clean up our bodily “temple.” The universal desire to “Spring Clean” is an intuitive feeling arising from the need for rejuvenation and renewal of our stagnant “winter” bodies.
Even if you exercise daily and “eat healthy” during the winter, most of us feel an ebbing of energy and vitality during the dark winter months. Our bodies tend to accumulate and store fat during the winter, and with that, we store toxins as well. We are part of this planet, microcosms of it, and as the recent Vernal Equinox - which constitutes the movement of the Sun towards its Northern transit within our hemisphere - transpires, we begin to sense that the daylight hours are becoming longer, the sun is shining more brightly, and the weather is becoming more seasonable and warm. With this environmental freshening comes an urgency to also feel a breath of fresh air within our own bodily forms.
So, if you’ve been feeling bloated, tired, are having trouble sleeping, have low energy, or have been irritable, those are all good indications that you should consider a cleanse! A Spring Cleanse is not meant to create feelings of deprivation or extreme austerity, but rather, to increase the feelings of lightness and ease within our bodies, improve digestion and to eliminate the wastes that have gathered in our bodies over the long winter. The results will be improved digestion, better sleep, mental clarity, a healthier liver and gall bladder, relief from dependency on detrimental foods/beverages, and improved/changed eating habits, too.
Now, if you’ve been practicing Ashtanga yoga for some time, you may have heard of the yogic precepts, the yamas and the niyamas - the first two “limbs” of Patanjali’s Eight Limbed (Ashta-Anga) path. If so, consider approaching your cleanse via the first two limbs. For the first limb, yama:
ahimsa - practicing compassion towards animals by eating no meats or animal products; and compassion to yourself if you feel unable to continue or negative feelings arise as you cleanse!
satya - be truthful about what you are eating, that is, if you feel compelled to eat something outside your cleanse diet, consider this as breaking the intention of the cleanse.
asteya - try not to “steal a bite” of a food outside your cleanse diet!
brahmacharya - this may be a hard one, as most Western yoga practitioners are householders and/or sexually active. The modern householder’s definition tends to be “wise use of sexual energy” when it comes to brahmacharya. This is entirely optional, but one could also consider abstaining from sexual intimacy during their cleanse, too.
aparigraha - nongreediness or don’t overeat during your cleanse! Eat what fills you, and from an ayurvedic perspective, this means limiting portion size to approximately 2/3's the size of your stomach. Ideally, 1/3 food & 1/3 liquid, leaving some empty space so that you have room for digestion. Large meals leave you sleepy, while a healthy portion improves your vitality and energy. Eat slowly, too, savoring and taking your time to chew, which will improve digestion, and satisfaction.
And for the second limb, niyama:
saucha - cleanliness, both with what we eat, and what we ingest mentally, too. This means sattvic foods - or cleansing foods! Easting cleansing foods that are light, pure, unadulterated and unprocessed, that are both fresh and seasonal. And, for mental cleansing, we abstain from media (either passive or social) that may also clutter our minds with stagnancy and mental toxins, too.
santosha - contentment with the cleanse diet, cultivating acceptance for the short time of practicing forbearance and tolerance for the limitations of the diet. Realizing that “this too shall pass.” Enjoying and savoring the simple, clean foods and the clarity that arises from eating well and lightly.
tapas - austerity, that is, non indulgence, limiting ourselves and our desires for pleasure for a few days, with the intent to purify mind and body, and also increase our digestive fire, and our mental fire, too, so that we are more physically and emotionally healthy and better able to exist within our world.
svadhyaya - self study, or study of scripture. Using the moments during our cleanse when we are most “triggered” to react negatively or defensively as an opportunity to reflect. For example, when I am feeling frustrated during a cleanse, I consider how privileged I am to have easy access to bountiful food choices; that realization it leaves me feeling grateful - and also, increases my empathy for the many on our planet who are not so fortunate.
Ishvarapranidhana - surrender to a higher power. When all else fails, if it helps, consider that what you are doing, what you are is really just a manifestation in form of the conscious universe, and by simply consuming mindlessly to survive in this universe, you are forgetting your real connection to it. By stepping back for a short time and really using the above precepts around your eating habits, along with all the other limbs, too (for example, cultivating dharana - concentration, focus, the 6th limb of Ashtanga, and doing asana, pranayama and meditation regularly as well) you will find that mindfulness and discernment will increase around not only your relationship to food, but also your relationship to your world.
Using these precepts as a basis for cleansing brings what we are doing beyond simply eating clean and healthy for a few days, into a true sadhana or practice. Do consider joining us in April. Cleansing will coincide with our Annual Practice Challenge, which happens all month - it’s a good time to instill in yourself new habits of both daily sadhana and better self care. If you’re intrigued and want to join in, read on below.
I’ve found that cleansing is more easily done when you are cleansing with someone else - so I can recommend two Options to Cleanse this Spring within the AYN community.
Option 1, for those who are unsure about how to cleanse, and need guidance and help with recipes, you may join fellow AYN student and owner of Valley Ayurveda, Brooksley Williams, as she guides clients through a traditional Ayurvedic Spring Cleanse. You can learn more via Brooksley’s Info Session at Valley Ayurveda on April 5th. I can personally attest that the Valley Ayurveda Spring Cleanse is a very thorough way to Spring Cleanse, and easy, too because Brooksley provides everything you need for your Spring Cleanse in a beautiful Cleanse Kit that makes it easy. Participants follow a monodiet of kitchari for several days, plus practice internal and external “oleation” followed by a purge - and along with that, recommended daily yoga - all of which really helps remove the months of winter gunk from your body!
If, however, the idea of a monodiet and internal oleation causes trepidation, I can offer something that I do usually a few times a year. Let's call it Option 2, “The Light Spring Cleanse.”
What is nice about this Light Spring Cleanse is that it can be done for 3, 5 or 7 days (or ever after) depending upon your own preference, and there is a greater variety of food to choose from vs. the Ayurvedic Cleanse diet. The Light Spring Cleanse is basically a vegan diet that also eliminates processed foods, caffeine, alcohol and sugar. This means eliminating the following foods/beverages from your meals:
-all processed foods
-sugar (no substitutes, either!)
-meat and fish
-nightshades i.e. tomatoes, eggplant, potatoes (optional)
If this sounds rather austere and restrictive, just know that the results of backing away from all of the above for even just 72 hours is akin to bringing your car to the shop and switching out the air filters and getting the oil changed. It hits a reset button within your body. Focusing on fresh plant food is the key - those high in chlorophyll for enzymes and vitamins, fruits and veggies for fiber, and some kind of probiotic (I prefer kombucha.) And of course, water, without ice. Hot water before bedtime is a wonderful thing, soothing and calming. Hot water in the morning with lemon is better than coffee to “get things started” and water throughout the day, too, especially between meals. Consider a gentle herbal laxative, too, to help keep things moving.
If you’ve never cleansed before, than try just three days at first, to give a sense of the nature of cleansing and limiting your access to foods that you may crave and enjoy generally, but that in the long run are detrimental to your overall health. It’s easiest to do this over a long weekend, starting Friday night with a precleanse salad for dinner, and then going vegan for the rest of the weekend and continuing into Monday morning, too.
However, if you have cleansed previously, than consider doing the Light Spring Cleanse for longer than three days.
If you consume a lot of caffeine, I will warn you that the third day may be difficult because of caffeine withdrawal, but if you can, stick it out after the third day, and you will begin to feel better - rejuvenated, refreshed and lighter. As an alternative to caffeine, I highly recommend dandelion root, rooibus, or herbal tea like tulsi or pepperment. In fact, drinking herbal tea, especially peppermint, is really helpful throughout this cleanse whenever you get “cravings” or feel the desire to “cheat.”
You will feel compelled to “cheat” at times - and it’s then that it’s most difficult to continue and finish your cleanse - but don’t give up! Consider the yama/niyama - i.e. satya, truthfulness, and santosha, cultivating contentment/acceptance for what is. If you do cheat, have ahimsa for yourself, and yet consider svadhyaya/self study to determine where the need to “cheat” arises from in you. Then, with tapas/fire of austerity, return to the Cleanse diet for the remainder of your intended cleanse, and burn out both the mental and the physical toxins that may plague you.
Finally, some recipes. I generally use a few tried and true vegan recipes and put them into rotation for a day or two, then switch them out with another few tried and true vegan recipes for another few days. This approach works for me because I don’t become “bored” with the same meal every day. Plus, it gives me an opportunity to explore vegan meals that I have been curious to try. If I go out to dinner with friends, I am usually better able to follow my vegan Cleanse diet without having to feel deprived or experiencing what my kids tell me is "FOMO" - fear of missing out!
I offer a few ideas and recipes below that I enjoy during my cleanses. They are all satisfying and ample.
Breakfast: I don’t eat a true breakfast generally; as an Ashtanga teacher and practitioner, I leave the house early every day after a cup of tea and a tablespoon of unsweetened almond butter on a piece of toast. I don’t eat again until after I am done teaching, then practicing (at around 12:30) so I can’t offer any breakfast recipes - but if you do eat breakfast, consider unsweetened nut butter with a banana, or oatmeal with nut butter and coconut flakes. (Remember: no sugars of any kind!)
Lunch: I usually start with a base of brown rice and add vegetables and some kind of legume or nut for protein. For example, massaged kale, avocado, sprouts, and chopped almonds with lemon and olive oil as a dressing. Or, brown rice, roasted tofu, radishes, scallions, chopped savoy cabbage, cucumber, peanuts, and a soy-ginger dressing. Just consider the rice the blank canvas, then add a variety of vegetables and top with a non-sweetened dressing of your choice.
Dinner: I’ll roast a sweet potato and have that as my “main” with a drizzle of olive oil, salt and pepper, and maybe a handful of chopped toasted almonds or pepitas, alongside a green salad which I’ll top with a tahini dressing.
One of my favorite soups is this Red lentil Split Pea Dahl. It’s so hearty, I usually don’t accompany it with Brown Rice, but if you feel the need, certainly do so! I personally omit the raisins - and I recommend halving this recipe, as it makes a lot!
I also have fallen in love with this Sweet Potato, Chick pea and Kale “Roasted” Salad. It is excellent for either dinner or lunch. Just omit the cheese!
Miso soup with silken tofu and chopped dulse or wakame seaweed over the top is an excellent and light dinner (or breakfast) too. If you need to, feel free to add rice to the soup to make it more hearty.
This beautiful Golden Pad Thai with rice noodles (omit the egg) is an excellent dinner, too.
Another thing I try is to use, instead of the rice base, lentils as a base. For a basic and very reliable lentil recipe, try this one. And then from there, you can top your lentils with a variety of roasted or fresh vegetables and dressings. I love putting avocados on top - try this recipe.
Georgiann offers one of her favorite vegan dahl recipes here, and says, "This Easy Dal from Jae Steele really is easy and delicious and I make it often. The tomatoes are optional if you're recommending no nightshades."
So join us in a Spring Cleanse, and don’t be afraid! (For myself, I'll be cleansing starting April 5th through the following week, but feel free to choose any time during the month of April.)
Happy, mindful eating, and healthy, happy Spring!
Anger that has long been simmering inside me (erupting this year more times than I am proud of) has been replaced in the past few weeks with a weary yet calm clarity. I learned long ago that this world was filled with men who were sexually aggressive and violent, men who did terrible things to (mostly) women, and I knew they did these horrible things sometimes for years to many women, and that they got away with it, too - enabled and abetted and sometimes even celebrated by those around them. Because, Me, Too.
It is deeply disturbing and discouraging for all of us to finally bear witness and come to terms with the overwhelming magnitude of the priapic decrepitude and selfishness that afflicts far too many men and women on our planet. It is a pandemic, a plague so pervasive that we have for centuries simply accepted these behaviors as part and parcel of shared reality.
Traditionally, women have always been held responsible for cultural sexual propriety; men generally are not held to the same standards, but have been given the benefit of the doubt about where their lust drives them, time and again. They have the power, within most cultures and within most justice systems, to exhibit with impunity the most toxic and violent of behaviors towards women, and women historically have had little recourse or justice. But, I think that time is finally ending, and I am filled with a degree of hope and excitement that I am alive to witness it.
The male hegemony that ancient patriarchs orchestrated many millennia ago, where womankind, who had shared status and power with men, were purposefully negated, diminished and forced into positions of inferiority, has clearly backfired - and badly. A concerted masculine effort at diminishing the once equal feminine aspect of our world created (within the men it was supposed to empower) a deep-seated disconnect, confusion, fear of unknowing and disintegration. That the result of patriarchy was endemic masculine despair, self-loathing, shame and humiliation, its toxicity increasing generation upon generation with greater and greater means of violence against each other, against women, and against our Mother Earth, is sadly ironic. These behaviors are so genetically ingrained in us now that most humans do not know any other path but violence in response to fear and despair - nor do they comprehend that they cannot completely alleviate the pain or heal themselves through that path. Many are deluded, lost, and filled with shame over what E.M. Forster referred to as “panic and emptiness” behind their fragile walls of false piousness, civility or bombastic “strength.”
We blindly follow the dark examples of generations of abusers and enablers before us, with men continuing practices of purposefully negating and diminishing women while simultaneously seeking the source of her life force, a power that was foolishly discarded long ago as worthless by our forefathers. And, our world is filled with women who diminish themselves as they desperately, fearfully cling to the shreds of power and safety that men deign to share with them, often using the only tools left to them - sexuality, manipulation and subservience - as a means of gaining status with angry, frightened, hungry men who force their deep sense of self-loathing, despair and fear on the very ones who hold the power to save and heal them.
What a world.
Truth is, even if we’ve think we’ve never done such things ourselves, we have all been witness to and enabled toxic sexually aggressive behavior at least once in our lives. You’re kidding yourself if you think otherwise. Perhaps you offered a weak shrug, an uncomfortable laugh, and changed the subject when you saw it or experienced it. Maybe you excused a perpetrator, turning a blind eye to their toxicity, glorifying their good points, while you simultaneously shunned, vilified or blamed the victim, sneering at their foolishness, what they were wearing, where or when they were walking, what they were doing - their temerity of just being. No matter how many times we hear about “false rape allegations” those are statistically minute, and as for the laws on our books stating that perpetrators are to be punished, we all know they rarely lead to convictions or harsh sentences, but almost always result in the shunning, shaming and blaming of the victim who dares to speak out. In some extreme patriarchal societies, to this day, speaking out can even result in the punishment or assassination of the victim of the crime, in order to “restore male honor.”
Hence, women’s silence. Because who wants to bear the shame and humiliation, the public abuse and vilification, the risk of potential annihilation that will inevitably come with breaking that silence?
Women are finally so fed up enough with the status quo, with being abused and ignored and marginalized and killed, that we are willing to risk our very selves and our futures by sharing our stories. It’s the Festivus Airing of Grievances, my husband dryly, apprehensively calls it. But, we are not laughing. Perhaps now we will begin to shape a world where these behaviors will no longer be tolerated? Finally, society is beginning to believe victims. Every day, I am astounded by how much impact the Me, Too movement is having on our culture and on ourselves. And, surprisingly, I’ve found a depth of gratitude for Donald Trump, because I believe the endorsement and anointing of this serial sexual predator to the most powerful position on the planet was the catalyst for a seismic shift in women, and in our collective human consciousness.
Women are mad as hell, and we are not going to take it any more.
About ten years ago, I bumped into the son of my seducer and abuser. We recognized each other in our older bodies with unpleasant surprise and some caution. He had been popular in my High School, a couple of classes ahead of me. When we locked eyes this time, we were both parents of teenagers; I was approaching 42, the same age that his Father had been when he targeted me. The son’s eyes, which had once looked at me with loathing when we were teenagers, now showed a deep shame and fear. We acknowledged each other with a nod, then quickly parted. I knew he knew what his Father had done to me. And I knew that the fear I saw in his eyes was that I was angry, that I might finally accuse his Father, that “pillar of the community” who assaulted me.
But, I chose to maintain the silence that I’d held for over two decades then, as I do now. I accept responsibility for my own youthful stupidity and yes, even collusion that placed me in a position where I allowed myself to be abused by him more than once. I won’t name my abuser, because even though now would be a good time, even though his wife and son blamed me for his toxic transgressions against me, even though they enabled him and his wife called me “slut” - they were his victims, too. They were afraid of his rage and his power - his panic and emptiness - just as I was. I also see there’s rarely been a place for enablers and witnesses to abuse to find justice or safety either. And, furthermore, it will always be his shame and toxicity to bear, not theirs. (It never was mine, although he tried to place it upon me.) I don’t blame them for enabling his toxicity, I understood it, I enabled it, too. So I forgave them, long ago.
I even forgive him. He knew he should not target a vulnerable sixteen year old who could have been his own daughter, but panic and emptiness outweighed his humanity and he diminished himself. He knows what he did to me, and I imagine he suffers in lonely silence, a confused dread and fear of the threat of public humiliation hanging over him (because I was not his only victim) filled with a self-loathing and shame he may never be able to resolve. (Or not. I don't care.)
I believe a lot of men feel that dread right now - and their family members or friends, too. May this moment be the catalyst for their own self-inquiry and healing, too.
So, where do we go from here? What should we do now that we actually believe women, if we really want these changes arising from Me, Too, to do some good and last - if we really want to heal ourselves individually and collectively?
We must first see the forest for the trees and bring the most heinous, violent, egregious perpetrators to justice, ensuring that our criminal justice system works for all, not just for men. This immediate change in our justice system could do much to help bring healing. And for those lower on the scale of offense, who may not qualify for criminal prosecution, I believe the strength of public humiliation, or loss of status, will do much to create a lasting change in these sort of boorish behaviors.
Still, in this much needed frenzy of revelation and retribution, I’ve observed many folks in a righteous fury wanting to go after not only the abusers, but even their enablers. They want to dismantle and burn, on self-righteous, hypocritical pyres, anything these men have created or touched, including the folks that may have enabled or colluded, too. And, I am here to say, as a survivor of sexual assault, for all the reasons I shared above about the enablers of my own perp, we shouldn’t, because it’s just more violence. “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”
Many may also want to destroy the creative output of the perpetrators, and here’s where things get murkier. I am going to go out on a very controversial limb here and say we should wait and take a step back before we chose that path. I am deeply ambivalent about destroying the art or the creative output of these men, because much of me believes some of their works have taken on a meaning beyond the diminished, deeply flawed men who created them. I am certain that some of the beloved books that have given me the greatest of solace and meaning in my life were written by men who were sexually aggressive or abusive of women. And I am not sure what to do with that fact. This is a confusing and frustrating place to be, as a survivor of sexual assault. While much of me wants to humiliate and punish the perpetrators of assault, and I react with shared disgust and abhorrence every time I am triggered by the stories of victims, we all have the potential of human grace, nobility and rehabilitation, even the most abhorrent and violent of us. Not all our acts are evil, yet, evil and delusion veils our light sometimes. But, I do believe the light's there, in all of us.
I also admit: I want to have my cake and eat it to - that is, I am ambivalent because a small part of me really wants to continue to use Mario Batali’s recipes, wants to watch films that star Dustin Hoffman, or are directed by Woody Allen or Roman Polanski, or produced by Harvey Weinstein. As well, what about the women who were forced to demean themselves in order to create the art that they loved through the aegis of toxic men? Should they be “punished” through the act of never watching their films or works of art they participated in or made with diminished deviants like Harvey Weinstein? Shakespeare in Love is a lovely, graceful, entertaining film, and the excellent, extraordinary Frida, written and starring Salma Hayek and directed by Julie Taymore is yet another superlative work of art. Both films are Oscar-winning box office smashes that likely would not have been made unless Harvey Weinstein had produced them. That he was a monster who horribly abused the women who had the misfortune to come into his orbit will forever disgust me and most people - but nevertheless, his power and creative vision within the misogynistic culture we all exist in helped bring a lot of great art made by some amazing, talented women and men to fruition. (It is simultaneously deeply disturbing that his very existence also silenced countless talented, creative women, too.)
So, am I an enabler of sexual predators if I admire or find solace in something wonderful these toxic men created, or helped bring forth into our world? Maybe. Maybe I do not get to allow myself these pleasures or the solace of these works of art any longer, because healing the lives that have been hurt by these men is more important than any work of art? If that’s what it takes to heal them, maybe we should all deny ourselves the solace they bring?
Should we shun the art because of the sometimes deeply flawed humans who create it?
I still don’t know the answer yet. It begs the question: How do we separate the man/monster from the art, or things of beauty, grace or meaning which extremely flawed men may have created or helped produce or share with the world? Can we even do that? And what if these flawed men are people that we love and revere, who have blessed us with learning, beauty and grace by their very presence in our lives? Is that possible to hold both feelings simultaneously - love tempered with deep anger and disappointment - and still help survivors find healing? A white haired old man now, and a grandfather, I am certain my abuser’s family and their community loves, respects and reveres him, and doesn’t suspect about his toxicity. If they do, I’m sure they don’t know how to handle their ambivalence about him, either. I hope he seeks their forgiveness.
I am really wrestling with this question right now, especially as an old, well-discussed story about the many transgressions of the Indian progenitor of the yoga that has been my life’s practice, Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, has resurfaced these past few weeks. Jois died in 2009, but the story and the images arise on social media again every year or so. Recently, it’s been further whipped to a frenzy with some purposefully orchestrated Facebook “justice” - a mob mentality fomented by agenda-driven folks aligned with the American-based bureaucracy, the Yoga Alliance, who desire to destroy the Indian-based Ashtanga Yoga lineage, out of commodification, spite and most likely for self-aggrandizement and accolades. I suspect there is a hope that they can step into a power vacuum that might be created from its destruction or humiliation - and hence, loss of status, and money-paying yoga students. Always follow the money.
These folks are so hypocritical and manipulative, they sneeringly hurl the epithet of “cult” to incite anger and confusion amongst a community I've known for over two decades, that has sometimes felt a little dogmatic at times, but never has felt like a cult. (I stopped practicing Ashtanga for almost two years when I was injured by an IUD, and no one cared or came looking for me to "return.") What’s worse, they are actually using the stories of survivors, ostensibly to help their healing, but also to quietly further their own ends (see above) - a fact which disgusts me. More violence against women. Without belaboring the story, I’ve included a link, here in the words of one of his victims, that help explain how Pattabhi Jois behaved, and the attempts by his students and family at ending his behavior as well as the enabling that surrounded his behavior here.
Yes, it’s true, he touched people, men and women, on their genitals sometimes while adjusting them in asana. Some students were traumatized by this, some were not. Few who experienced it or saw it and knew it was wrong challenged him on it. Many enabled. This fact is deeply disappointing, but not criminal. Because, news flash, unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last few months (or maybe if you’re a man, sorrynotsorry) we all now know that we live in a culture where pretty much everyone - every institution, workplace, family, and community - enables. To publicly humiliate enablers does nothing to help heal survivors. It’s just more abuse, albeit coming from a place that seems justified. It’s not.
I have not seen nor heard of ANY evidence of actual collusion or aiding and abetting of the behavior - that is, “honeypotting” - in any of his family or students, and that’s encouraging. There is no excuse, however, in modern society to do the things he did. So, I am not excusing him. These grievous instances of a beloved, brilliant man’s deep flaws - of his own “panic and emptiness” and his refusal to change his behavior, his "relapses" - sadden, anger and upset me to this day. For this reason, I’ve chosen to remove his photo from Ashtanga Yoga Northampton. It’s not respectful to his victims, nor is it healing having it up there, not only for myself, but for anyone of the students that practices with us who may also be sexual assault survivors, to see it every day.
Nevertheless, I believe in the inherent goodness of people, that they can rise above their flaws, rise above the panic and emptiness that haunts them to reveal the loving light of their true and essentially noblest being. Few things have convinced me more of this truth than Ashtanga Yoga. I love my Ashtanga sadhana; it has literally saved my life. I am dedicated to and believe wholly in the Ashtanga practice and what it has to offer the world - this beautiful eight-limbed practice to knowing who we are that Sri K. Pattabhi Jois shared lovingly - yes, lovingly and compassionately - with my teachers, and which they lovingly and compassionately shared with me. I practice it and teach it with reverence - not for the man who shared it with us, but for the students. It is a brilliant and wise system that has brought me great solace and beauty, and through it, I hope to continue to serve those who wish to find some solace and beauty in their lives to, too.
Finally, what can be done to help heal both the survivors and the shaken Ashtanga community?
First, we need to believe the survivors and support them as they process and heal. That means listening to their stories, acknowledging their truth without defending Jois, and seeking compassionately to find justice for them in the way they need, if that is possible at this stage, because, after all, he is dead.
(Which begs the question: Do we “visit the sins of the Father on the Son?” Do we malign or punish his family or his students? Maybe those that deny or refuse to believe the survivors should be taken to task - but those who freely admit error? Again, enabling is not criminal, it’s just deeply disappointing. I’ve observed a Facebook frenzy of self righteous anger against and shaming of those who have already bravely come forward to admit their enabling, and that’s wrong. Again, as a survivor, I don’t believe that’s the answer to finding personal healing surrounding sexual trauma means shaming enablers who show remorse, and shame on those who do.)
Second, the Ashtanga community and its senior teachers need to continue to be absolutely transparent, forthcoming and honest about what happened, what they observed, and the parts they played in what happened, too. Come clean, and share your stories, please. Truth and reconciliation needs to happen for the survivors, and for the entire community to move forward in a healthy and positive way.
Third, the KPJAYI must take active public steps immediately that ensure and safeguard the interests of victims before those of Ashtanga teachers, living or dead, no matter how “loved” or revered. If they do not already exist, clear and accessible protocols need to be developed and established to address any further allegations against transgressions by Ashtanga teachers. Obtaining the help of organizations that support survivors of sexual assault, both here and in Mysore, India, to help develop those protocols is key.
Fourth, more stringent vetting and regular peer review of those who wish to teach Ashtanga should seriously be considered by all Ashtanga senior teachers who offer any kind of teacher training or authorization. If I have to do a CORI check here in the States to volunteer to sell cookies at a Bake Sale at my kids’ grammar school, I think we in the Ashtanga world can come up with at standard means of determining whether or not the teachers we are authorizing to teach are at the very least, not sexual predators. And we don't need the Yoga Alliance to show us how to do that.
And, lastly, without question, there needs to be an established, International Ashtanga Code of Ethics, based on the tenets outlined in the first two limbs of Patanjali's Eight-Limbed path, Yama and Niyama - including compassion, nonstealing, nongreediness, austerity, self-inquiry, and wise use of our personal sexual lifeforce - for all who choose to teach this practice.
May we all find our way.
I keep coming back to this image throughout this past year of turmoil - she is the Hindu Goddess, Kaali. She is generally portrayed wielding a scimitar, with which she cuts off the delusional heads of demons, drinking their blood, burning them to ashes at a glance, and using the decapitated skulls as a macabre necklace. Her form is black. (And lest you be deeply disturbed by her as a "foreign" idol, consider that her darkness has a direct corollary in the Black Madonna, much revered in Europe still.) While her methods may seem to be quite violent and terrifying, in the Hindu mythology, she generally manifests as a "last resort" - when all else (including the masculine divine) has failed to defeat evil/delusion. In so doing, she frees these demons from suffering, along with the rest of us. (Because they do suffer, even though they seek to hurt others.)
She may be considered a metaphorical representation of what ultimately needs to happen to create lasting personal change and healing within ourselves. Some folks, especially women of a feminist bent, find her imagery appealing, empowering and inspiring. Everyone loves Kali - until they meet her. Because real, lasting change is usually accompanied by some level of deep suffering or austerity. A cleansing fire.
When delusion takes hold and refuses to relinquish control over our thoughts, words and actions, sometimes we must call on this level of power, and be exposed to the burning fire of her fearless, overpowering, take-no-prisoners love, to remove the veils of ignorance. Hers is the fiery power of the feminine divine, of Nature itself, the ultimate power upon whom we all depend. Without her, we would not exist. And, although she is fearsome in her aspect, she should be not feared, but sought out earnestly and embraced in times of need. Her power is tough love, the ultimate love, and deeply compassionate.
She's not an enabler.
Right now, with the “Me, Too” movement, we are experiencing a moment of deep cultural change. Women have found their voice. We are enraged. We will no longer be quiet. We want change, and I believe, this movement will bring about change. It’s about time. This cultural change is necessary and vital, but, it’s not going to be pretty as all of this plays out - because what was done to survivors of sexual assault was not pretty. The demonic energy of the deviant, the selfish, the delusional was foisted upon victims, who in many cases were forced to bear that demonic energy silently, suffering under the shame of it for decades in many cases.
Remember that energy can neither be created nor can it be destroyed. What we are witnessing is a collective release of energy - a deep pain and fear that resides in (mostly) men - that has been dumped upon (mostly) women for centuries, through sexual assault and misogyny-related harms. This delusion is finally coming to light so that it may be released and eradicated, so that survivors may be free of a shame that was never theirs to begin with, and so that healing can come to our world.
Now, let’s notice the guy beneath Kali. That's the Hindu God Shiva. He's not bad - in fact, he's kind of the “ideal man" in the Hindu pantheon, although he can be a bit detached from the world and reclusive. He represents the primordial, supreme Consciousness underlying all of the universe — and he loves the Goddess infinitely and completely (as we all should.) He is equally as powerful as the Goddess, but, interestingly, was unable to defeat the demon - in fact, no male God in the Hindu pantheon could. They turned to the Goddess, as she was more powerful than any of them, and because she had been underestimated by the demon - because she was a woman.
Post-epic battle, Shiva lies beneath victorious Kaali who has become so enraged, she has lost control and risks destroying the entire universe herself! But, Shiva does not defend himself. He does not try to patronizingly calm her down or tell her she's overreacting. He doesn't call her shrill or angry. He doesn’t say to her, “Not all demons” or “I don’t need a lecture!” He simply becomes completely silent, passive and deeply loving and empathic - and in so doing, gives space to her rage and her justifiably fury and lets her work through it.
And she is able to release her rage because he has empathy - and he shares with her, too. He does not try to push her down or control her, because he knows they are equals. And, importantly, she is also not trying to wrest control from him. Together, as equals, they bring balance to the universe. They share. Her rage subsides, and she becomes the more physically benign form of the goddess once more. But, her power is latent, always with her - and equal in every way to his.
One last thing I’d like to add: Many men (and women, too) have a hard time with the thought of equality because they can only imagine that the existing power structure (i.e. patriarchy, men controlling women) will invert itself and they will be the losers. Not so! They simply cannot imagine a selfless society based on SHARING power equally, or that such a society can exist AND be stable and happy. But, we all know it is the only practical solution.
Perhaps this is why her image and her story stirs me so much. Because these images, this vital mythology, goes directly to an unexplored, shadowed power (but not an evil one) that exists in all of us, both men and women - a beautiful shadow of untapped potential: the latent feminine, the power of Nature itself that will bring balance to our world.
Jai Kaali Maa!
I ran a yoga studio from 2009-2014 much like many folks run yoga studios nowadays: I held the lease, paid the rent and overhead, taught most of the classes to keep that overhead down, did most, if not all, of the administration, balanced the books, and basically was a control freak about all of it. Several other teachers taught on the roster, a few classes each, and I did my best to pay them fairly ($5 per student with no maximum, and $25 minimum even if no one showed up.) I ran the studio this way because this "single owner" studio model was the only model of yoga studio I was familiar with. I took most of the risk - and yes, I reaped most of the rewards.
Or, so I thought at the time. Thing is, after about 3 or 4 years of running a yoga studio this way, I found it wasn’t feeling rewarding, either spiritually or financially. In fact, I was burned out. I was spending more of my time marketing the studio, trying to sustain existing students, and gain new students, and less time doing the thing I loved, which was serving human beings through the act of teaching Mysore style Ashtanga Yoga.
The space itself was lovely, but the building was marginal and in a poor location. The last 18 months I taught there felt like walking through waist deep water. And, I was going through a profound change personally as well, which prompted me to finally listen to and follow my intuitive voice that was screaming at me: THIS ISN”T WORKING! NOT FOR YOU, NOT FOR THE STUDENTS.
And, so, I closed that studio and, inspired by Marie Kondo’s, The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up, divested myself of 99% of the props, mats, and years of accrued paraphernalia of the old studio. I sold it all, because I knew I never wanted to run a studio again - but I still wanted to teach, so I subleased in a holistic center that provided a nice open space and yoga props on Main Street in Northampton, and taught Mysore five mornings a week, with a couple of Led classes at night. I also separated from my husband of 20 years and moved with very few personal items into a small, simple, austere apartment. This was the first time in my entire life that I lived alone, and I loved it. I was happy, and it was this time away to regroup - not unlike returning to samasthithi - that helped save my marriage, in the long run..
A giant, cleansing wave of radical change had swept through my life, both personally and professionally, creating a fresh, clean slate from which I could start again.
Part of my daily practice included studying Sanskrit, chanting Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, and studying other ancient texts - like the Gita and the Upanishads - in addition to my asana practice. I accredit the strenuous mental effort of that sadhana - and the resonances of Sanskrit within my body - with my own personal evolution of clarity and purpose. I began to look more and more at teaching as an act of service, as devotion to something greater than running a “yoga business” designed to personally support me and “make money.”
I believe sincerely and have experienced personally that sadhana/practice, when done reverently and consistently for a long time, without attachment to the results of the practice, becomes a catalyst for positive change. I knew that letting go of the results - letting go of the striving to achieve financial success, and simplifying what I offered by teaching as a form of devotion and service - helped create an alchemy within me that lead to greater self awareness, compassion, wisdom and clarity.
But, old habits die hard, and after a successful year and a half in the subleased space, with a growing student community and apprentices who desired to teach, I found that I was falling back into something I didn’t want to do: running a yoga studio.
So, I tried something radically different. Over the course of a weekend, at the suggestion of my friend and fellow teacher, Georgiann Kristek, I developed a model for a collective or cooperatively based yoga studio - one where all the teachers would share. This meant sharing not only the risks, but also the rewards. Sharing the space, sharing the props, sharing the students - no teacher, including myself, would say, “These are “my” students” - but rather, “This is OUR yoga community.”
Here’s how it works in its simplest form:
-Each teacher pays a portion of the rent based on the ratio of classes they teach.
-Each teacher collects 100% of the income from their classes. (Yup, you read that right.)
-Each teacher is responsible for one of the administrative duties required to run the studio.
-Business decisions (i.e. schedule changes, marketing expenditures, etc.) are made collectively and put to a vote democratically; consensus is the goal, but every teacher has veto power if they are strongly against something.
-Teachers are invested in the success of the studio community as a whole vs. in competition with each other.
-Teaching is an act of service to support and help the students develop as conscious human beings.
-Creating a strong, healthy and conscious yoga community is the main purpose of the studio.
These last two are especially important for this model to work. It is not a capitalist model, based on extracting all the resources from the environment - those resources being students. (Remember, students are NOT dollar signs walking through the door, but human beings.) The intent of this model is to serve, give and love one’s fellow human beings, to become more conscious and self-realized - which is the goal of yoga, after all - and to help the students find that freedom, too.
Here’s a simple, practical example:
A group of 4 teachers wish to share a practice space and create a yoga community together. They find a 1000 square foot space that is ideally located and affordable at $1000 a month. After outfitting the studio with props and decor, a cost shared equally between them, the group chooses teaching slots and divvy’s up the schedule in a fair way through consensus. They will have a total of 20 classes a week in the space - three classes a day, two on Saturday.
Each teacher takes on a portion of the administrative duties based on their time and talent - i.e.cleaning, beautification, doing the books and payroll, social media marketing, the email newsletters, managing the schedule, updating the website, creating and distributing print media, etc.
The group also chooses to sublease the space in off-hours to two groups: a dance group and a singing group, who rent 2 hour weekly class slots at $100/month - thus reducing the gross rent to a net $800.
Divide the net rent of $800 by the 20 weekly classes the cooperative teachers share, and the rent per weekly class per month is $40.
Each teacher pays $40/month for each of their weekly classes.
Teacher A - 8 classes a week, $320
Teacher B - 6 classes a week, $240
Teacher C - 4 classes a week, $160
Teacher D - 2 classes a week, $80
Plus two subleases = $200
And, the monthly rent of $1000 is covered.
(Now, this is a very simple example, but, you get the gist, I hope. We all pay some small additional money each month to the rent ratio to cover any marketing costs. For start up costs, we split to costs of outfitting the studio equally (this was the “buy in” to be part of the collective.)
This model is the model that AYN has been following since October of 2015, and it works for us - even through a move to a new location. And, it has not lead to feelings of being “burned out” - because all the teachers are invested in the success of the studio. It works for a variety of reasons:
-The teacher relationship is collegial and supportive, not competitive.
-We communicate with each other.
-We know and trust each other.
-We practice together.
-We share with one another.
-We are generous with each other.
-We have the same goal: that of creating a positive, healthy, supportive space for our students, to serve them and help them grow through yoga sadhana.
A rising tide lifts all boats.
In our modern capitalist, post-industrial world, sharing is seen as somehow weak, foolish, or ineffective. Especially here in the States, the belief is that an individual needs to “fight” for their “piece of the pie” - and that the pie is finite and apt to be gobbled up by more voracious, “stronger” competitors.
Turning around my own personal attitude about what success "means", my own beliefs about sharing and giving, into believing that “the pie” is not finite, but in fact, abundant and infinite, and making community and service the main goal of teaching yoga - serving, giving and loving fellow teachers and most especially, the students - makes all the difference and has helped create a successful, fulfilling and inspiring yoga community of kind, conscious students - and happy, fulfilled teachers, too.
I’m proud of what we’ve created and sustained through this means, and happy to share this with inspired, curious yoga teachers who want to work differently - those that are willing to try running a studio not based on the capitalist “resource extraction" model, but rather, aligned with service and devotion and community - the sharing economy. It feels good to share! Email if you want to learn more.
I walk into my studio most mornings each week, and the first thing I do after taking off my coat and shoes is to greet and honor a statue of the Hindu deity, Ganesha, that resides in the practice room - usually with a short Ganapati chant that I sing while lighting candles and incense. If I have time, I anoint him with fresh water or essential oil while ringing a small brass bell as I chant. He’s a massive, modern bronze representation of Ganesha - beautiful, elaborate and stylized. One of his four hands holds a bowl of prasad, another an axe, and the third a goad. His fourth, one of the right hands, is held forward in a gesture of beatitude, with an OM symbol in red on his palm. His eyes are gently lidded, head surrounded by a halo. He is impressive, calming, and holds the space of our little shala quite as gently and firmly as he holds the sacred symbols in his hands.
In Hinduism, the divine presence is everywhere and everything, and it is accessible through form. Hinduism uses anthropomorphized form, whether it be Shiva, Kali, Devi, or Deva, or Ganapati, to access the divine - and to understand our own true nature. For the divine presence is everywhere and everything, and is ready accessible through all forms. So, what does the story of this particular form - a deity with the body of a corpulent young man and the head of an elephant - mean on a sacred level?
He is arguably Hinduism’s most popular deity, known as “the remover of obstacles.” But, he also represents the obstacles, too. It’s important to honor our obstacles, because it is through engaging with them and resolving them - whether they be ignorance of our true nature, egotism, attachment, aversion or fear of death - that we learn and grow as fully functioning human beings.
On the occasions when students ask me about Ganesha, I begin by telling them that he’s “on loan” from Anna, one of our teachers, and, then if they indulge me, I like to share my favorite version of his origin story. (Now, this is just one of many origin stories about Ganesha, and I owe a debt of gratitude to the Indian authors Devdutt Pattanaik and Ramesh Menon for shaping my version of the myth.)
The story goes that once, Shiva, the primordial, ash-smeared, dreadlocked, ascetic, primordial yogi - and anthropomorphic manifestation of universal consciousness, or purusa - was preparing to leave his home in the Himalayas to immerse himself once more deep into tapasya. His consort, Parvati, the Devi, the feminine divine - who also happens to be prakriti, the prime material energy from which all matter is composed - knew that in order for the universe to find balance, Shiva must not withdraw, self-contained and alone unto himself, as is his wont, but rather, engage more fully with the world of form. So she followed him to the door of their home and said gently to him, “I would like us to have a child.”
Shiva, distracted as he prepared to leave, responded to Parvati dismissively, saying, “Why should we have a child? I have no need, nor desire for a child; I have no ancestors that must be honored, for I was never born. Nor do I need a child to take care of me in my dotage, for I will never grow old nor die: I am immortal.” So saying, he embraced Parvati, and with his ganas, the retinue of ghosts and goblins who attended and followed him constantly, left her to go and meditate deep in the Daruka Vana, an ancient deodar forest set upon the steep Himalayan mountainsides.
The Divine Goddess incarnated as the daughter of the Mountain King Himavan to become the consort of Shiva. He was her husband, her love, and she was utterly devoted to him - but she had incarnated specifically to induce him to engage in the world of form, and Parvati would not be turned from this goal. She silently watched him walk away down the mountain for a few moments, then turned indoors and called to her servants, “Prepare my bath.”
She entered the marbled bath chamber, and some of her attendants rushed to help her, removing her bright yellow silken sari, her gold ornaments, her jewels. Parvati’s smooth dark skin glowed in the soft light of the chamber, and, resplendent in her nakedness, with hair unbound, she stepped down into the steaming, sweet-smelling, flower-strewn hot water. Then, she took precious oils and golden turmeric and anointed her body, creating a thick paste that mixed with her sweat and her skin. Scraping this clay from her body, she molded it into the image of a young boy. Holding this moist clay form in both her palms, she breathed life into it.
The young adolescent boy that was born from her power was strong of limb, tall and beautiful of face - a face faintly reminiscent of Shiva’s own. Parvati named him, Vinayaka - “He who is born without Father.” Embracing one another, mother and son, they beheld each other joyfully in immediate understanding and love. After a time of peace and quietude together, Parvati handed the beautiful boy a study wooden staff, and said to Vinayaka, “Go to the door of our home, and stand guard there to protect me. Let no one - no matter who they are - come in.” Vinayaka bowed to his mother lovingly, touching her feet, and went resolutely and proudly to the door to guard his mother.
Of course, Shiva, who loved Parvati deeply for all his seeming indifference, eventually decided to return home from his meditations. Sending his ganas on ahead to announce him, he said, “Tell my beautiful wife to prepare for my homecoming.” They rushed back to the great palace perched on the crest of a mountaintop, and as they approached its door, saw standing before it a young boy, tall and silent, holding a staff in his hand.
“Move aside, boy, our Master returns,” they said.
Vinayaka smiled slightly at the haughty command of the ganas, but said nothing.
“Did you not hear us, boy? Move aside - or we will kill you!”
The boy replied quietly, “I will not move aside. And you cannot kill me.”
Incensed, the ganas leapt violently upon the boy with spears and swords, attacking as a group. Vinayaka calmly parried their blows with the staff, bloodying noses, smashing kneecaps and cracking their skulls expertly and swiftly, making the hideous, deformed ganas wail in pain and surprise. Defeated, they beat a hasty retreat down the mountain, where they met Shiva on his way, and told him,
“Master, there is a warrior at the door. We have never seen him before, and we told him to move aside, but he would not. We attacked him and he was easily able to stop us - look at the injuries he has given us!” Shiva, annoyed, said nothing, but strode quickly to the door of his home, where he saw the beautiful youth standing calmly at attention. Seeing he was young, he turned to the ganas and said, “Lazy fools, this is just a boy! How could you, my ganas, be frightened of him - or defeated by him?”
The ganas hung their heads, shamed at disappointing Shiva. But, the bravest of the ganas said, “Master, he is much more than he seems.”
“We shall see,” said Shiva, and he walked up boldly to Vinayaka.
“Boy, step aside. Let me through. You cannot stop me.”
Vinayaka said quietly but firmly, “You may not pass. Please do not try.”
Shiva, who was generally quite difficult to provoke, found himself filled with rage at this young boy who defied him so calmly. Without another word, he began to fight the boy, violently and expertly raining blows upon him with his trishula, his trident. But, he was surprised - and a little impressed - to see that even with all his skill as a warrior, he could not hurt the boy. In fact, the boy was his equal in prowess and skill. Vinayaka silently parried and defended himself from the Mahadeva, indefatigable and unbeatable, a gentle smile upon his face. Shiva laughed in delight at one point during their battle, impressed and amazed at the skill of the boy.
Seeing there was no way to defeat him, Shiva stepped back from the fight and returned to his ganas, who had been watching awed from afar during the battle. He said, “Go to Vishnu, and tell him that I need his help.”
Soon after, the great Hindu God Vishnu, the sustainer and preserver, arrived on the scene, and Shiva quickly apprised him of the situation. Vishnu, who is more worldly-wise than Shiva - and also not unwilling to resort to deceit to win battles - told Shiva,
“I will attack the boy, and distract him. When we are deep in our fight, strike his head off.”
And of course, this is exactly what happened, although it dawned on Vishnu, who was hard pressed to defend himself from the boy during the battle, that there was much more to the boy than met the eye - something surprising, uncanny and yet, familiar. But, dismissing this thought, Vishnu doubled his attack, then yelled to Shiva, “Now!”
Shiva strode up and with his trishula, he smashed the boy’s head to smithereens, destroying it. Blood spurted from the neck as the boy fell across the threshold of the palace, and Shiva, spattered with gore, stepped over the corpse and through the door triumphantly to where Parvati stood, looking pale and horrified. She rushed past him, looked down at the dead body of her son sprawled on the ground in front of the door, and screamed,
“My son, my son! You killed my son!”
She dropped to her knees, tore her clothes, beat her chest and pulled her hair from its bindings, wailing in rage and sorrow. Then, growing deadly quiet, she turned again to Shiva. Without a word, she changed before his eyes, from his demure and gentle wife, to the dreadful Kali - naked, huge and fearsome, eyes red and wide, hair unbound, maw open and tongue protruding, a necklace of demon’s heads around her neck, a scimitar in her hand.
He called to his ganas, who stood nearby in silent turmoil and fear at how badly things seemed to be going for their Master. “Quickly, go North, and ask the first living thing that you see for its head.” They rushed Northwards and came upon a beautiful, pure white bull elephant in his prime. Some say that this elephant was none other than Airavata, the mount of the God of the Sky, Indra. Others that he was one of the two elephants that waits upon the Goddess of Wealth and Abundance, Lakshmi (who, in some stories, ends up as Ganesh’s consort.) Regardless, the ganas approached the great elephant with their unusual request, and the elephant, knowing wisely who Shiva was and the importance of the request, complied.
Shiva took the elephant’s head, and placing it upon the corpse of the boy, breathed life into it once more. Kali calmed her rage, and became Parvati again as she saw life return to her son - and, too, as she saw that her consort, Shiva, was engaging with the world of form by becoming a father, as she had wished. The boy rose up whole, but much more than he had been before. His head filled with kindness, intelligence and wisdom, his body with strength, skill and fortitude, he was the child of both Parvati and Shiva now. Shiva embraced his son, sniffing the crown of his head affectionately, and said, “You shall be known as Ganapati, Lord of the Ganas” for, the incident had shown Shiva that the ganas, whose service to him he’d long been negligent of, had no Lord of their own, and their loyalty deserved acknowledgment. By giving them Ganesha to guide them, he acknowledged the ganas, and helped make them less needful. By engaging in the world of form by creating a child with Parvati, he brought balance to their marriage - and thus, metaphorically speaking, balance to the relationship of consciousness with the world of form.
Ganesha had been both an obstacle and the means of transformation of purpose, of engagement for Shiva, whose propensity was to be self-contained and disengaged from the world - from the Devi. Parvati had needed and asked for his help, yet he ignored her, indifferent to her needs. But, how can the needy ever learn to be self-contained if the self-contained do not engage with the needy?* Vinayaka was Parvati’s way of turning the tables on Shiva: as he would not engage with her on the level she desired, she created an obstacle that he could not surmount without admitting his own shortcomings, his own need. She changed the dynamic of their relationship, and Shiva became, ever afterwards, a householder God, with family and children - the only God in the Hindu pantheon who is portrayed in family portraits, along with Parvati, Ganesh, and their other son, Kartikeya.
Or so it is said.
*from Devdutt Pattanaik's Seven Secrets of Shiva
Love the quick profit, the annual raise, vacation with pay.
Want more of everything ready-made.
Be afraid to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery any more.
Your mind will be punched in a card and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something they will call you.
When they want you to die for profit they will let you know.
So, friends, every day do something that won't compute.
Love the Lord. Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.
Denounce the government and embrace the flag.
Hope to live in that free republic for which it stands.
Give your approval to all you cannot understand.
Praise ignorance, for what man has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millennium.
Say that your main crop is the forest that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested when they have rotted into the mold. Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus that will build under the trees every thousand years.
Listen to carrion--put your ear close, and hear the faint chattering of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world.
Laugh. Laughter is immeasurable.
Be joyful though you have considered all the facts.
So long as women do not go cheap
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy a woman satisfied to bear a child? Will this disturb the sleep of a woman near to giving birth?
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie easy in the shade. Rest your head in her lap.
Swear allegiance to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos can predict the motions of your mind, lose it.
Leave it as a sign to mark a false trail, the way you didn't go.
Be like the fox who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
“Evil is everywhere, and anger and hatred are loud. The shouting drowns out the quiet; tragedy and disaster block the view of the good. Yet there are always signs of progress toward a better future. Look, or you may miss them.” - from the NY Times, December 2015
I meant to send this out last week. In fact, there’s a lot of times I want to reach out to you and share my thoughts, but I know you get a lot of emails, and I’d prefer not to add to the cacophony too often.
Still, what a year. From a personal perspective, it was one of change: my youngest child became a college freshman and my husband and I are embarking on the “empty nester” time of life. Ashtanga Yoga Northampton moved from being my sole responsibility to being cooperatively owned and run by all of its teachers. And, I finally traveled for the first time to India this past October - a dream of mine for over two decades.
Collectively, it was a year that brought the forefront some serious human-caused problems that have been brewing and plaguing our world for centuries, to name a few: unceasing global wars and unrest, ever-present global poverty and famine, the proliferation of ignorant terror attacks, the acceleration of senseless gun violence in our own country, the shame of our continued institutionalized racism, and of course, the destruction of so much of our planet and its ecosystems, that we seem to be on course for a mass extinction of countless species - perhaps even our own.
It’s hard not to get discouraged by the suffering and pain that are so prevalent on our little blue planet, by the suffering we experience as individuals and as a species. It certainly doesn’t help that much of our media and many American politicians seem insistent on fostering a culture of xenophobia that exacerbates this feeling of separation, isolation, discouragement and apathy.
Nevertheless, if you’re a “cup half full” kind of person, as I am, there were many things that happened in 2015 that give me hope, too, some of which are wonderfully outlined in this editorial in the New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/25/opinion/moments-of-grace-in-a-grim-year.html?_r=0
It’s worth reading.
And, because I’m an optimist, rather than get discouraged by this increasingly mad world, I am planning on doing more of the following in 2016 to help alleviate my own angst and helplessness, and perhaps shed a little light - in no particular order:
Changing the whole world is an impossible task. But, it is possible to start making positive changes within yourself to raise your own vibration, to increase your own sense of light and lightness. Doing yoga together is another small thing you can do - because it fosters community, it helps connect you with others, and it spreads goodwill and cheerfulness. Plus, studies show, the more people you come into contact with, the healthier you become. You raise your own vibration when you do yoga with us. You raise our vibration when you walk up those stairs and roll out a mat and breath with us. And, you raise the vibration of people you come into contact with after you practice, too. It’s a win-win-win, whenever you do your practice.
I believe it’s the small changes we make in ourselves that might lead us all towards the light, towards a better world, not only for our fellow human beings, but for all life on our planet. It begins at an individual level and can spread outward, like ripples in a pond.
Please join us at AYN in 2016 to practice yoga with us. We are here to support and serve you, to be your community of like-minded folks, and we look forward to practicing with you this year.
Happy New Year, from all of us at AYN,
Michelle, Georgiann, Meghan, Alicia, and Anna
I have been an armchair traveller to India almost as long as I can remember. Now, after many, many years of deferring the gratification, I’ll be traveling to India during the next month, on the Namarupa Yatra. This journey is the culmination of my decades-long, long-distance love affair with India, one entirely conducted through years of studying its literature, philosophies, language and history, both ancient and modern.
I’m not going to India to simply practice yoga (although I will be practicing Ashtanga yoga almost every day with a few of the best teachers in the world - and trekking in the Himalayas, too.) My journey will be a Yatra, or pilgrimage. I’ll be traveling thousands of miles to experience darshan of Hindu Gods and Goddesses, in a variety of temples and sacred places (darshan means source of spiritual renewal, both seeing and being seen by the deity). This intentional, respectful spiritual journey will bring me and my fellow travelers to many of the most highly charged and spiritual places in India - to a land where epic stories unfolded thousands of years ago. It is a place where experiencing the divine is thought to be more possible than anywhere else in the world.
Friends who have been to India before me have all said something along the lines of: “Forget all you think you know of it, don’t try to control what happens to you there, and be prepared to be deeply moved and changed by your trip.” I’m trying my best to follow their advice so that I can fully enjoy and integrate all that India has to teach me. I am as prepared as I will ever be, and very grateful to leave my classes in the hands of my capable and supportive colleagues at AYN - teachers who have generously offered their time to give me this gift of freedom. Our schedule will remain unchanged, so that you can continue your practice uninterruptedly while I'm gone.
I think this will be the longest time I will have taken off from teaching Ashtanga in almost 10 years, and I will miss all of you (not to mention, my family and my pets.) I'm grateful to feel everyone’s support as I realize this dream.
Please stop in to practice with me Sunday or Monday morning - I leave on Tuesday October 6. I’ll be back in the studio on Monday morning, November 2. Meanwhile, keep up with your practice, and continue to share your presence and energy with our teachers and the AYN community while I am away!
I'll see you soon.
This is a reposting of a blog essay I wrote back in March of 2013 on my old Florence Yoga Blog. I'm including it here because of a recent request by Angela Jamison of Ashtanga Yoga Ann Arbor to share my story once more. Since I have written this post, I have shared my story with many students and many teachers of the Ashtanga practice, warning them of the risks inherent in these devices for all women - but especially those who practice Ashtanga. The risk of a severe physical and mental toll on women who use Mirena - and I suspect, other IUD forms of birth control as well - far outweighs the benefits. My recommendation: steer clear of IUDs, no matter what your age.
I've loved the practice ever since my first led Half Primary class 16 years ago. I've struggled with it, loved it and at times, hated it, too - but I have stuck with the practice with little variation because I believe it's brilliant and it works for most humans - if you put the time and effort into it, that is. At one time, though, I literally was unable to do the practice, for about a year, because it hurt way too much.
In 2004, I was looking for an alternative form of birth control, and an IUD called the Mirena was suggested to me by my well-meaning ObGyn. Placed inside the uterus, good for five years, the Mirena is a very small plastic device shaped like a "T" and it's impregnated with a low dose of hormones, so that you don't get pregnant. "Brilliant", I thought, "hook me up!" So, the device was inserted into my body, and all seemed well. Sex with no muss, no fuss, and no worries!
I went to one of Nancy Gilgoff's adjustment clinics the following Summer, where she was teaching us Uddhiyana and Nauli Kriya. After demonstrating the how-to for us, she said, ominously, "If you have an IUD in, do NOT do Nauli Kriya. I'm not even certain you should do Uddhiyana Kriya, either." My ears perked up, and I raised my hand and said, "I have an IUD in." Both Nancy and Christine Hoar said, almost simultaneously, "You should have it removed."
My reaction was skepticism, "Yeah, well, sisters, I really, really am done having kids. So, the IUD is staying in." And, so it did.
In year two of the IUD, I stopped getting my periods, but also started noticing an increase in water weight. (Let's be frank: I was really bloated, all over.) I was practicing daily, rigorously, but not a bit of weight was coming off. Practice made me feel so depleted, I would compensate by eating too much. There also was a little bit of back pain now accompanying the lovely bloat, too. Nothing severe, but it was there.
In year three, I started noticing that I could barely move when I woke up in the morning. My back was becoming increasingly stiff, and practice was starting to become difficult. I was noticeably heavier. I had been practicing all of Primary and all of Second before the IUD, but at that point, even Sun Salutes were becoming difficult. And, I had to practice later in the day, vs. the mornings, because my back was just too stiff and painful early in the morning. After an afternoon practice, my back would feel better, and I would think, "Oh, Good, practice fixed it." But, then, I would wake up the next morning, wracked with pain and feeling like I was 80 years old. (I was 40 at the time.)
I went to a doctor, who could find nothing wrong, other than "muscle spasms." I attributed the worsening of the initial, tolerable back pain to lifting heavy furniture. The pain got so bad, I finally decided that it was the Ashtanga practice that was hurting me, so I stopped doing it completely, and thought I'd try some other form of Hatha yoga. For almost a year, I tried other styles. Yin Yoga. Good, but not great. Iyengar. Dull, with too much talking about "how" and not enough doing. Kripalu. Better, but, still not great. Svaroopa. No movement at all, really, and so, no pain, but then the pain would return. I even tried Anusara, which was not a fit.
None of these practices addressed my physical needs, and certainly, none of them addressed my mental and emotional ones, either. I was getting weaker and weaker, too. Chronic pain, if you have ever experienced it, is extremely debilitating. You just don't want to move at all. After this fruitless search, I decided that the Ashtanga system was the most sane and wise, and the only one that addressed improving strength along with flexibility, and, even if what I was doing wasn't the traditional, "pure" practice, it worked better than all the other forms I had tried.
So, I did an extremely modified Ashtanga practice on my own (really, a series modeled on the Ashtanga sequences - but, no Sun Salutes, no vinyasas, a modified Primary with no forward bending beyond 80 degrees. Some of the first part of Second series, too, nothing beyond camel, `although the twists of Second series and Parighasana were very therapeutic, so I added those at the end of my practice. Shoulderstand sequence, once I hauled myself up into it, felt good and restorative, too. And, I turned to Vipassana meditation, which really helped manage the pain. I started to really read and study the Sutras, and I focused on the other limbs of Ashtanga practice. With these tools, which were nothing like what I had once enjoyed in my "traditional" asana practice, but were actually deeper in many ways, I learned I could manage the pain. My desire to continue on the spiritual path I'd started years earlier was aided by the gentle movements of the highly modified practice, along with the more intense meditation that Vipassana provided.
I did this for a year or so. It worked. Then, I went to a really great bodyworker, who, in just a few sessions, alleviated a great deal of the pain in my low back, allowing the spasming muscles there to relax and release. I very slowly started to do more Suryanamaskar in my practice, lengthening out the sequence of Primary series if it felt good. As soon as I felt my back starting to weaken or go into spasm, I would stop, do a gentle closing, and facilitate the slow but steady return to my former strength and flexibility.
This really worked well. Pain management was easier, and while I still had a lot of pain in the mornings, I could do the practice.
Then, I had the IUD removed, in December of 2009.
Within a week of the device removal, the pain in my back was completely gone. Within a month of removal, my body shed over 20lbs of water weight. Within six months, I was doing all of Primary and most of Second once more. People who hadn't seen me in a few months didn't recognize me. I felt young again. It was a miracle!
No, it was the removal of the Mirena. I googled "Mirena back pain" after I had it removed, and was stunned by the sheer number of women who's experiences were similar to mine.
Subsequently, I've had female students who have complained of back pain in their practice, and it's always one of the first things I ask: "Do you have an IUD inserted?" Upon removal of the IUD, their back pain and bloating went away, too.
Food for thought, IUD users! I know, they are convenient, I know, they are an easy and thought-free means of contraception. But, ease and convenience are definitely not worth the pain. Take it from me.