Winter Solstice: A Time To Think

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Me & Kitty friend relaxing and cozy for Winter Solstice.

How to begin again. I start by getting excited. This is the first post in root wisdom for over a year. In the meantime I moved a couple times. I felt it was necessary to just shove myself forward. Things were stirred up. I don’t think things are resolved or perfect now, but I feel myself to be in a place to speak again. I hope I will not ever try to speak from a place that pretends to know for others. I do have expertise, practice, experience, patience, technique, thoughtfulness. I am someone seen as a “white woman” teaching yoga and writing. No news there.

Yet it is relevant. And complicated.  And entwined in a history of colonialism and oppression. “White.” I think about “whiteness,” and wonder what it means to be a teacher of yoga, discovered and developed in India by people who are not “white.” India is a country with class, race (darker-skinned people having less privilege than lighter-skinned people) and gender-based oppression. The United States is a country with class, race and gender-based oppression also, yet it would be incorrect to assume that this same-sounding comparison between countries is enough. There are important ways in which the history of these two places is different. What we call North America was colonized by people wielding power who decided to call themselves “white” (the term “white” as a classification for people was invented in the colonies—defined by slavery—that were to become the United States) as slavery was being utilized to transform the land and economy. Native Americans were moved and many killed to make way for the white colonizers. I believe that this history forms the beginnings of the culture and economy we have in the United States today, and it informs individual lives in ways that popular culture is only beginning to discover.

India was colonized by the British Empire for some time, but sovereignty was returned to people in India. The United States is a colonization process that held on, while in India colonization by British people did not keep hold. I understand that within these statements there is such complexity and specificity and difference that I am still not including.

But it might be enough background to consider that it is worthwhile to think about white peoples entitlement to yoga today. Wondering: Is the colonial mindset—that colonizers can dominate and own whatever they find—a vestigial element in the way white people regard yoga?

I feel it is not obviously okay to assume that I have full rights to expertise and ownership of this subject. The situation merits thoughtful consideration. By me. By a “white woman yoga teacher.” By whoever else engages in the subject, profession, philosophy, practice, lifestyle, business. I will say that. I think people in commercial yoga culture need to think about it. Not to establish guilt, because I’ve learned that guilt can be paralyzing or over-emotional and therefore not helpful.

I want to see and help yoga (colonized yoga?) to grow and embrace cultural complexity, and view this thinking as ideally processing towards cultural healing, growth and understanding (of white commercial culture and how it interacts with or “owns” everything is sees as useful or of value) for white people. I’m saying that specifically because I think awareness of power, inherited privilege, assumptions within white communities is imperative, super-important.

I am a yoga teacher. I have taught yoga since 2003. My livelihood is based in a yoga teaching business. I do not ask these questions lightly. What I learned in yoga has saved my life. I would be a different person if yoga, and the people I met through yoga, had not been accessible to me, and hate to think who I might have been otherwise—possibly not alive still.

I think it’s possible to examine this closely and to have something better come out of it—something more human, in the best sense of the word. And in the meantime, as this questioning is continuing, I will be teaching what I’ve learned & what has helped me and others I’ve observed over my years of teaching what I’ve known as “yoga.”

SUICIDE, Identity, and Survival.

Death has seemed to permeate spare moments recently. First I learned of the death of an influential teacher, then the news of the suicide of Robin Williams. In the meantime my own mind was manufacturing thoughts of my own death, so when I heard about Williams my thought was, “wow, he lasted a long time.” All the listings seemed to include his age at 63, a full 20 years more than I’ve lived, and in the moment of my own darkness that was seeming really amazing (as in how could he do it: live so long with such hopelessness!)—and I write this also knowing that 63 can be very young, but for someone carrying psychological heaviness 17 can also feel old.

In 2011 I wrote a couple pieces on SUICIDE (Suicidal Education. How Thinking on Death Might Help. and Open to a Radical Acceptance of Life, including Death and Suicidal Thoughts.). And a few years later, my thoughts on the matter have developed—go figure!

I was saying that suicidal thoughts can be seen as faulty ideation—which they can! But I also think that there is something to be honored and respected about experiences of pain and difficulty, and to simplify that process may not serve as strongly as delving deeper. And to just give some credit to the experience that life is hard when you feel that.

It is possible to try to live in a positivity bubble, but I think if we are lucky it will actually burst to let more of reality in. It is very hard to have one’s state of awareness shaken, but I also think that we are here to heal. And as we start to move through some of our personal pains, then it is time to open our cloak a bit wider to serve community and world concerns, and this—in my experience—wraps back in to deeper personal healing.

Let me explain about the “positivity bubble”:
Earlier in my process of learning yoga, I heard people talking of “news fasts” to clear your self of negativity. This can either be a helpful break, or the beginning of a habit to block out information. I do think it’s okay to choose and be discerning about news sources, but I also think that it is important to be open to hearing news beyond one’s self. Also it was suggested to use affirmations to replace negative thoughts with positive ones. I tried this, and what I discovered at that time was that my mind has a bullshit detector. Lying to myself had limited effect, but to ask yourself those questions about growing into greatness to help open a mental door you might not have seen before can have a helpful effect of affirming a positive light in the self. And practices of only surrounding yourself with happy people seems fake, and can be warped into only engaging in friendships and interactions that will advance one’s social standing or wealth which can result in more imbalance in our culture at large. Everybody’s individual actions (and actions of our ancestors) accumulate to produce all of the disparity and injustice in the world today. What are the actions that are more inclusive of community and world wellness?? is a question I ask in an attempt to direct healing rather than adding to the weight of the dynamics of injustice I see in the world today.

So if the positivity bubble isolates a person with people of power/privilege all lying to themselves, then it should be opened to include more air, information and people with different backgrounds and experiences. plainly said.

On the other hand I do think it’s important to bring love and compassion to life’s interactions, this is different from the harmful, policing, isolating form of positivity practice I was offering some space to explaining above.

make sense?

People should not use yoga and positivity practice to isolate themselves, people should use yoga to amp up energy and vibes that can help serve physical, mental and emotional healing with a greater goal of inclusivity of self-understanding, people, and environment in perceptions, awareness and choices.

I have discovered a great deal of healing in developing my self and connecting to others beyond the yoga community. At this point it seems like a non-negotiable to allow myself freedom to explore gender identity. It really seems clear that when “male” and “female” boxes are applied to things like identity, personality, skill-sets, and body type that those differences are often false. And to freely discover and be who I am means to look beyond who I was taught to be, and so much of that has to do with having been seen to have what is called a female body. There is also a spiritual healing that is represented by the integration of so-called male and female aspects in one’s self. Is it just taboo to talk about it in lived perceptions?

I think that the power differences that men and women commonly experience help to make our culture oppressive and harmful (rape culture is already an established concept, wage differences are also commonly known about). And I don’t believe that there is anything about this that needs to be permanent. We are humans. We can grow. We can learn, integrate, and heal. I believe that a part of this healing work has to do with how gender is commonly seen to be divided into 2 categories or classes. And I also think that this “war” not only harms the people involved, but it also distracts from the complexities of healing race and the harms, not yet fully healed, of slavery and colonialism on people and land.

What makes me want to live is a belief in love and healing, and to have specific ways that I, Brooks Hall, can experience and express love of self and others, and concrete ways that I participate in change, including cultural change that supports freedom of personal and gender expression. What stops me is overwhelm, and I promise to take daily steps to release that pressure.

So what I’m saying is that my life and artistic expressions of late have offered me a lifeboat of survival. It is no small matter or frivolous pursuit. To pursue ideas and expressions that can be challenging for people can appear like a kind of suicide, since the culture I am in values conformity. Men are like this. Women are like this. Yoga teachers are like this. I know I am not alone. In fact I know people who seem way more courageous to me than myself, but I do feel that I am doing my part in healing by pushing my own boundaries and creating an artwork, a life that is mine—while I have it.

Authoritarianism in Yoga.

untitled31of89Hello. In my recent post Why Queer Yoga? I raised the question, “Can we have yoga without the authoritarian class environment?” There was a response on Facebook that expressed curiosity about what I might mean by using the word “authoritarian”. Here I plan to offer a few thoughts on that.

An authoritarian class environment is a situation where a teacher/guide/guru is seen as someone who has the power or right to make decisions for students/class participants at some expense to their personal freedom. A teacher (and people close to the teacher in some cases) is regarded as someone who has a greater status than students. The class contains a hierarchy. Sometimes it is personal power that is wielded, and there are times when the power is a replication or amplification of oppressive aspects of our daily life in the current cultural climate, including sexism, racism, and ableism.

Sometimes people can feel like their yoga teacher is their “guru”. When this happens a person might give away too much power, and trust too much, too soon. It can feel wonderful to think one is special and that a magical teacher figure has chosen you, but beware. People in a human body (I know that might seem redundant, but sometimes an awe-struck yoga participant can think that their teacher is god-like) tend to have human distortions in their personalities, and even teachers with good intentions can create harm in an over-trusting student.

This happens a lot to different degrees in relationships. Anytime someone claims to know what’s right for you, remember that they have not lived as you. The only person who is an expert in being you is you. Any time someone claims to know what’s right for you this is something that should be examined for potential manipulation, or simply disregarded.

An experienced yoga teacher may be able to help you with your body, and they might be able to offer technique that can free the mind and even ease suffering. But we need to be able to discern how a teacher can help, and where they might be overstepping appropriate boundaries. Basically when it comes to choices about life expression, this is a sacred choice and holy territory for individuals to claim for their selves.

When someone leading a yoga class claims to have the power of someone else (their guru) to offer class participants, this is usually a way to get control and harness enthusiasm of students. Some might argue that this is an effective way to circumvent students’ natural defense against doing something different with their bodies, and feel that you can get more work done more quickly when students decide to “trust the word of the guru” even if it comes from someone’s mouth who is not the “guru”.

The yoga teacher or guide who is in the class with you is the person who is there. Again this sentence might seem redundant, but it exists as a point of confusion at times. Teachers are sometimes trusted as the word of a famous yoga teacher (possibly a “guru”) if they have spent some time studying with them.

Another situation that is authoritarian, more in the category of systemic oppression than a personal dynamic, is anytime yoga facilitators (teachers) refer to “men” and “women” to describe difference in practice or postures. It can be seen as a perpetuation of the deeply entrenched systemic categorization that supports sexism, the condition where “men” are seen as different enough to merit a higher status than “women”. It also causes violence to identities that don’t align with the assumptions about who gets privilege and who should submit to power that go with forcing people into two separate groups.

Also, shaming students for not being able to do certain physical feats in yoga is an expression of ableism. It appears to say that students who are stronger or more flexible are better (a higher status) than those whose bodies are weaker or stiffer.

And racism might show up in how yoga guides speak to class participants, or who they pay attention to in class, and what assumptions they make about “everybody.”

As people who choose to engage in yoga classes, either as facilitators/guides or as class participants, we can do well to educate ourselves about the dynamics that play out in class. It is a common teaching that we encounter situations within our selves on our yoga mats that tend to show up in our lives, too. This post is about seeing power dynamics, whether it is personal or systemic, as showing up in the yoga room that also play out in life beyond class.