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.”

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.

Yoga Heals My Trauma, But Never Takes It Away, And That’s Good.

Just attempting to write on the topic of trauma is incredibly triggering—at least partially in a good way. The good part of this triggering is that it is bringing more aspects of myself to the fore for healing. Another good part is that my anxiety is real. I feel it. I know it. I trust it. It is mine. I can breathe, focus, attend to it with my breath, and know I am okay. I can practice yoga, and claim for myself once again, my body, mind, and heart from the grip of terror.

What came up for healing just then were memories from childhood when people who loved me tried to control what I understood of my truth for me. This experience happened more than once and was incredibly traumatic, and ultimately had the effect of profound self-doubt and confusion on top of an already painful situation. They must have thought (the people I’m referring to have died and are not available to ask) that since I was a small child when my mother was removed from my life for mental illness that they could paint a picture of that time that would make me feel good. What would be the harm in that? A small child can hardly know what’s happening, right? Wrong. What they said conflicted with my sense of the situation, and with what I had heard from other people who were around at the time. I needed them to be my allies, and so I listened. It was not an easy time for people who were a part of it. Lie to the child and they will think they are normal and grow up to lead a happy life, right? Well, maybe—but not without some serious healing work if they’re anything like me.

I now associate my trauma with that safe, healing space that I’ve learned to cultivate in my yoga practice and in community—no way could I do this alone! So when I began to focus to write about the process of healing trauma with yoga, some stuff came up, and good. I say this because I strongly believe that awareness is everything. If I have stuff coming up, I need to be there to witness and support the process as I can.

Most of the time yoga works gently, slowly and affirmingly to support awareness that provides a welcoming home for all memories and thoughts. There is a place in myself for everything in the foundation I build in yoga for my mind, emotions, body and spirit. There is enough room to process my pain, suffering and to hold my yearning, anger, jealousy, and lust.

It is essential to cultivate a psychological and physiological anchoring base in the body through an understanding and practice that can be learned in yoga. I found my body-based home in the study and exploration of pelvis. This practice also provides safe space for psychological and emotional aspects of healing.

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Hara (self-energizing earth centre within the pelvic bowl) is the rock on which we build the temple of the body. Those who are centered in the chest have too much ego and those who are centered in the head have too much intellect. The chest and head must rest on and be stabilized in the center of gravity.
~Dona Holleman, ‘Centering Down’

Who defines trauma? Trauma exists as invisible wounds inside individuals. Each person defines what is trauma for their self. A yoga practitioner goes within to create the space for their own healing with the support of technique, experience with practice, and a trusted teacher (sometimes the teacher can be ones own body).

Who defines healing? This is also something a person can know for their self. When someone feels better, safer, more alive, and curious or motivated they may feel that they have had healing.

One common misconception about healing trauma that can be harmful is the idea that “healing” means that the effects of a situation are removed or taken away. To me “healing” means that something that used to block my vibrancy or joyful celebration of my life has shifted so that I can more fully love, accept and celebrate myself and trust my ongoing healing process.

I have survived difficulty. I have hurt people unwittingly as a result of my own wounding that other people can’t always see (and that I can’t always see). I can sit with, practice with, and live with the imperfections in my situation as I strive to see more, heal more and to love more people in my life!

So: no. I don’t strive to rid myself of trauma. It is false to do that. It would just serve to continue the repression and self-doubt that the situation with my well-meaning family members started (and that our culture encourages) that I described earlier in this piece. It would be like trying to erase part of my lived experience, or lying to myself about it. I see great dignity and value in welcoming my full self to my practice and life.

I am a rich resource of experience and healing that is continuous, loving, and caring.

The “C” Words for Penis & Vulva.

Vulva or “Cunt” tree in San Francisco.

Vulva or “Cunt” tree in San Francisco.

The pelvis is made of words. So much of how I sit, stand, take care of my body, and hold myself in yoga postures has to do with how I feel about my pelvis. And the words used for my body have so much to do with a relationship I cultivate with myself.

When I was first getting into yoga I generally felt that the sensations from my pelvis seemed blocked. I had no awareness to assist bringing my hips over my shoulders for a headstand. Over years of practicing yoga what I can feel in the pelvis and low back area has increased! Along the way I have needed to release layers of shame and trauma from my pelvis. It’s not just a mental thing. My pelvis now responds more fully in yoga poses, when it used to seem either opaque to my quest to understand, or like it was just holding on for dear life. Wellbeing has increased in my pelvis, and in the rest of me.

Part of a relationship with the pelvis has to do with sexuality.

…centuries of censorship have left us with very little language with which to discuss the joys and occasional worries of sex. The language that we do have often carries implicit judgments: If the only polite way to talk about sexuality is in medical Latin—vulvas and pudendas, penes and testes—are only doctors allowed to talk about sex? Is sex all about disease? Meanwhile, most of the originally English words—cock and cunt, fucking, and, oh yes, slut—have been used as insults to degrade people and their sexuality and often have a hostile or coarse feel to them. Euphemisms—peepees and pussies, jade gates and mighty towers—sound as if we are embarrassed. Maybe we are.
~Dossie Easton and Janet W. Hardy, ‘The Ethical Slut’

The fact that many of us find the words that describe the pelvis anatomy or activity embarrassing to say/obscene to hear can really block an essential and joyful part of existence. (It can also interfere with our ability to communicate with lovers, legislators, bosses, counselors as well as healthcare, health insurance, and law enforcement professionals when necessary to report problems or abuse.) I think that this is related to my own relatively numb pelvis/low back that I discovered as I developed through my yoga practice. As my awareness of sensations increased and I unpacked some of the emotional pain and fucked-up stories related to my pelvis I began to feel more sensory feedback from my body and to feel more centered and at home in my self. The foundation of the house of my body and psychology is in the pelvis. This work is making a huge difference.

Spinach phallus or “cock” in sushi restaurant. (image rotated 90 degrees)

Spinach phallus or “cock” in sushi restaurant. (image rotated 90 degrees)

So now I’m wanting to know and use all of the good pelvis words including “cunt” and “cock” (powerful words I like), and to empower myself with pleasure. It’s good to embrace the fullness of life while alive. And for me a part of this is opening up to my own sexuality, including words I am drawn to on the subject. I don’t think that these words should be private or shameful.

I do think that it’s good to keep some specific things private to retain or cultivate a certain power or potency in instances of relationship. Also there are appropriate (and inappropriate) places to celebrate our sexual selves. I don’t plan to share specific things I might do with someone or myself unless it somehow contributes to a teaching point, and probably that it is safely in the past and hopefully no risk to current relationships.

Thanks for sharing in the pelvic journey with me by reading this, and feel free to let me know what you think by leaving a reply.

Consent & Yoga Class.

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I want to dip into the subject of consent and touching in yoga classes.

For many years I experienced yoga styles or lineages from India that are authoritarian in structure. The teachers would physically adjust poses in ways that were sometimes gentle, sometimes forceful, and sometimes really intimate. There was a sense or perhaps it was communicated that the teacher was teaching in line with a guru’s style, and a guru doesn’t ask permission. A pupil or disciple in yoga is taught to surrender to the teaching to gain a benefit of what the supposedly more enlightened person knows.

Legally, according to this article from Yoga Journal online, there is implied consent for touch unless a student makes a specific request not to be touched:

…unless the student expressly tells the yoga teacher not to make physical contact, the yoga teacher generally has the student’s implied consent to touch within socially accepted limits…
~Michael H. Cohen, JD, MBA, The Ethics and Liabilities of Touch

This legal guideline lacks humanity, in the way that legal codes can. It reminds me of that aspect of rape culture thinking that includes believing that a woman wanted sex unless she is really fighting for her life or screaming. I guess what I’m outing about myself is that there were times when I was internally squirming, and telling myself at the same time to go with a physical adjustment because I thought I was supposed to, or I might benefit from the teaching.

This is similar to the way I’ve had sex with partners because I thought I was supposed to or because I was afraid to stop something that seemed to be already in motion. Assuming a woman is there to pleasure men damages women. Assuming a yoga student wants to be touched is potentially damaging, too.

It could be that some readers do not think that this sexual piece relates. But it does for me because it’s only relatively recently that I’ve started to understand there are things I can do to experience ownership of my own body. And for me this is everything. I wasn’t raised in a culture that taught me this, but somehow my instincts have led me into a place where I can start to feel this and to heal, and connect to others who are exploring this, too (Here is an article about my burlesque debut.).

When someone touches me without permission they could easily hurt me, trigger me or push me past a boundary I’m not ready to cross.
~Andrea MacDonald, With Your Permission: Yoga, Consent and Authentic Embodiment 

I love the simple beauty and honesty of the above quote by Andrea MacDonald (Her whole post on consent based yoga is so awesome.). This is true. Touch can access vast tracts of information in our bodies. If someone wants it and is prepared with information and support, amazing healing work can be done. If someone is not ready for that/didn’t want it/doesn’t know what is happening then they can be harmfully reliving a trauma triggered by a touch that very likely did not have a harmful intention behind it. It’s happened to me, and to other people I know, too.

(People can also be physically harmed by yoga assists: an important concern, but this is not the aspect of touch that I’m focusing on for this article.)

I’m interested in cultivating an atmosphere in my classes that can support the kind of healing I really believe in. Important aspects of this are the concepts of consent, self-determination and respect.

I offer years of consistent training and practice in yoga (and teaching) in my teaching, and I believe that yoga technique is extremely beneficial for people’s bodies. I also believe that how teachers regard students in classes is extremely important, too.

In my classes I give students the choice to opt out of touch that day, if they would prefer. It’s an honor to me when a yoga student takes this option because there have been times when I wish I had had that choice, or when I was criticized for refusing an adjustment, or I just didn’t feel that I had a choice in the matter. So I’m glad if someone chooses that for them self at any point in class. It gives people more flexibility in choosing what kind of experience they would like to have in class on a given day. They can determine certain aspects for themselves.

Also when I am close to an individual in class (who has not already opted out of being touched), I will usually ask them if it is okay to assist their yoga with my hands to move the body in a certain way to try to help them connect with the pose in a deeper way and build awareness, or to be safer. When someone says “yes” or “yes please(!)” and smiles, I know that I have their permission or consent to proceed. If I see that someone stops breathing when I get close to their yoga mat, then I will probably just try another verbal cue, perhaps a demo with my body, or move on so they can have the space to be more comfortable.

I find it respectful to allow people their space in yoga class to experience themselves in a way that is encouraged rather than coerced. And I know that a lot of people appreciate my hands on them, so I have built-up confidence there, but I don’t want to assume that everybody wants that all of the time.

And I want to share that I have received so much benefit from physical adjustments or assists in yoga, so I do think it is an important tool in teaching when it is used with respect and care for the person receiving the assist.

I also feel that offering the concept of consent and even using the word “consent” in class can be helpful. Right now it seems like the eyes of our culture are opening on this subject, and yoga teachers can help by teaching about it in class. It is a safe place where we are relating closely with other bodies. It is so empowering to discover that you can say no and yes to being touched if someone (like me) didn’t get the chance to learn it growing up. This is a big healing opportunity.

As people start or continue the journey to determine their selves, from taking responsibility for their wellness and safety in yoga class, I believe that this offers a metaphor and vast potential for healing and self-pride beyond the yoga room.

Origin of Nakedness.

Birth: “as naked as the day you were born.”

Newborns are wet, covered in streaks of blood, and coated with a white substance known as vernix caseosa…
~Wikipedia.

A baby comes into the world with stuff on it, but naked enough, I suppose. A little being who’s, “genitals are enlarged and reddened,” via Wikipedia. Genitals are organs of reproduction: sex organs. And we don’t think of children as being sexual until puberty, but there they are born with “enlarged and reddened” sex organs. Does it say something about us that we enter the world this way (beyond the scientific hormonal explanation), or is it just a freak of nature (no meaning beyond body chemistry at birth)?

And there is the possibility for a woman to deliver a baby with an orgasm. Here’s a video about that:

So, in light of our sexual nature and possibilities right from the start of life, why are a lot of women so uptight (“uptight”=stereotype) about being portrayed as sex objects (the word “object” to refer to woman is a problem) in media, one might wonder? Sex is bliss, right? Are we just going against the unstoppable flow of nature if we want to limit or change certain kinds of representation? And what’s obscene about being naked? It’s how we were born, right? And yoga is hot and women are sexual, so what could be the problem with a video featuring a woman, in her black lacy panties and bra, doing yoga poses in front of a mussed bed with a sleeping guy still in it?

Hmmm… Here’s the video:

The woman in the video is beautiful, and the poses are awesome, but I’m bothered by some of the shots that are not about the yoga, like this one:

I think that this shot is about consuming this woman with a sexual gaze. And someone might say, “So, she’s sexy. That’s awesome. Beautiful.” In fact it was the word “beautiful” that first introduced me to this video in my Facebook news feed.

The first time I watched the video I stopped it about here. As I was watching, my thought process was set in motion by the establishing shot (shown just below). “Oh look, there’s someone in the messy covers,” I thought. After sex yoga, one might assume…

And I was just sort of turned off by the scenario set up by the video. I don’t really feel inspired by stuff like this. It seems to be more about sexual consumption than yogic expertise. And what the model is doing in this video is amazing and skillful. So why was I put off by it?

I was turned off by the packaging and presentation. There she is in an enormous and sparsely decorated bedroom in the city, apparently just having gotten out of the messy bed. She then must have put on her special “yoga bra and panties” just to be comfortable, or maybe because the producers didn’t think it would be appropriate for Equinox to release a nude video. I can only guess.

Everything we see in the images was chosen to tell us something, and mostly to make it exciting so that a lot of us would watch it. The poses are exciting, but the cowboy boots kicked off to the side of the bed are a little much. So I stopped it early. At first. Then I watched the whole thing because I wanted to write about it. And I’m impressed and confused. Impressed with the poses. Confused by the bedroom scenario and close-up sensuality shots (like the one shown above). I’m confused because that doesn’t appeal to me, and I feel like it’s supposed to.

I love sexuality. I just want to see something that makes sense to me. And I love yoga, but yoga isn’t about “getting off,” is it? Yet if a woman was truly having a orgasmic yoga on her own terms, I think it could be cool. In media, it’s a heterosexual man’s world. And I remain unaffected, if not a bit offended by the subtext of this video. Even though it shows a physically powerful woman, the scenario doesn’t read as empowering to me. Boo.

This week I also saw a picture on mindbodygreen.com that inspired me:

There are other images associated with this campaign by PLUS Model Magazine, but this one inspires me the most. I love seeing the model standing there smiling and looking at us. She seems more in control of her presentation. And the tape measure is usually such an overdone cliché for weight loss ads, but here the model is shown to be measuring her ample buttocks! This is super empowering. What I see here is that she is claiming her fullness. This woman is not trying to be small. Yay! I just get happy looking at this. It is fun. And she is naked.

She is sharing herself with us. It doesn’t seem as if she is being sold.

I think that this is what bothers me about the majority of images of females as they are often shown in advertisements: it looks like they are being sold. I mean it as badly as it sounds. I almost think that it encourages bad, disrespectful and even criminal behavior towards women to show them like a perfect product, available for consumption.

Nakedness is a natural aspect of ourselves. The body is the origin of our physical presentation in the world. It is good, like a baby is good. An infant is a pure, precious little being, and we all are also precious and worthy of appreciation. And sexuality is good when there are conscious, empowered adults deciding to express that way with each other. I think that the scenario in the Equinox video makes us into peeping Toms. I don’t like that.