If you have taken a yoga class with me ever, you know that I often end my classes with a pause in verbal gratitude and honor for all the teachers of yoga and their teachings, and the labor that it cost them, a lot of which was taken by colonized force, to make the practice of yoga accessible and possible for all of us. And the blessing that we may all be faithful stewards of those teachings, offering back to those from whom these practices originated our promise to do the work of undoing suffering in service of the freedom for all beings.
Recently, a student asked me after class what or whom I thought about and offered my thanks to when I did this practice alongside the students at the end of class. My answer felt very awkward and unformed in that moment, and I promised her that I would try to articulate it better next time I saw her. It got me thinking...how have all my teachers in this life shaped me? What have I offered in return, as a steward of those teachings? I wanted to give a better answer, and so I started an email to her. Which turned into this.
My first teachers were contradiction, displacement and movement. I was born on an army base in North Carolina that was situated somewhere near the stolen ancestral lands of the native people on my paternal side, a people that I had only heard about in stories. A people that moved (and were forcibly removed) from their land repeatedly to suit the power-hungry oppression of the colonizers and settlers of that area. To make room for the military that would then enforce that removal. I guess it reminds me that I was born a contradiction, as many of us were. After being drafted into serving in that very military, and being shot down as a soldier in Vietnam, my father left the military, and we left that home.
Everything in me wants to tell you that my family was magical, but they were really just straightforward, practical, ordinary. They were good, hard-working, part-native folks mixed in with sturdy German stock and with a deeply religious streak that colored everything my parents tried to escape from their own childhoods. They tried, and under sometimes difficult circumstances, managed to undo some of that religious oppression. From them I learned about the need to cultivate and understand personal identity, about my own capacity for freedom, and about my understanding and deep need for of self-preservation.
My wall of a mother, with all her flaws and complexities, was strong as hell and made me a ferocious advocate for humanity, and particularly for women and for people experiencing oppression. Though as an adult I can reflect on how much I projected onto her early on as the source of whatever turned out to be good and decent in me, she modeled strength and courage and a serious no-bullshit-meter and for that, I am grateful. She also had a keen sense of fashion (see below), which completely escaped me (see also: me every single day).
*Do photos of you as a little tiny person tell your story at all? I know that mine sort of half-tell it, and here's a couple of them, with my sister and mom, and yeah my early obsession with CATS. I like how the one with my mom holding me echoes the one of me holding my first cat.*
My first best friend, my sister, taught me about proximity and sharing, and about boundaries because I had none, and how to tell the truth even when it was hard. Which mostly, I didn’t, because mostly, it was. I learned to create stories, dreamscapes, fictions where the things I wanted to be true were true, and I lived in alternative lands where people placed value on emotions, and where intimacy reigned. Like so many people I know, I learned about what I wanted by what I did not possess. I moved, emotionally speaking, into a place I could inhabit fully without fear.
From my third grade teacher, Ms. Coppotelli, I learned that my art and stories were a valid means of expression and that I was allowed, even encouraged, to express the complications of my mind through them. Elaborate, movement-based storytelling became a way of coping with the confusion of trauma, and I have since learned that the expression of storytelling itself is a subversive act. When we tell stories, we subvert the common cultural narratives that we are fed. This is why stories are a dangerous, empowering tool to fight against oppression.
Pat Walsh, Doug Smith, Arthur Lothstein, Phil Nurse, Margaret McMeekin; these are some of the earliest deeply honest and caring teachers in my life that held me as I was, saw me as a whole person, pushed hard on me when needed, taught me about honesty and acceptance, and gave me new tools to express and new ways to move in the world.
In my early 20’s I met several of my first few yoga teachers; the ones that gave me my first access to the tools necessary to stand, to bend and to bow, the ones that taught me even more about stories and how to tell them differently, and even the ones that showed me how to share the strength and growth of the practice of yoga with others. Some of these teachers have since turned out to be predators of one kind or another. This is sadly a familiar and deeply disappointing story for many of us on the path to healing and wisdom. I shall not name them here but you should know that although they never directly physically harmed me, I now know of many others that were harmed by them. From this story and its place in my own history, I learned that I too was infected by and instructed by patriarchy, misogyny and white supremacy, even in my ignorance. Though I could not name it then, something told me to move, to move away from them, and something in me listened.
From many other teachers along my path of yoga that were not participating in predatory behavior, I learned discipline, softness, and the wisdom to stay close to my stories. I was given the capacity to move, to learn how to trust, how to process the stories of my body and my youth, and how to allow those very stories and movements to move me to teach.
*Here's some late 1990's/early 2000's photos of my learning life in yoga, from early Kripalu days to close quarters in New York City, to opening day at The Bhaktishop in 2007. Even then I wasn't into the whole here's-a-photo-of-me-in-a-complicated-asana thing.*
From Dana and Jasmine I learned about the 8 limbs of yoga and why it might matter to try and uphold them in the complexity of a yoga/business world that wants to consume not only me and my quest for a compassionate way to offer the teachings, but wants to consume the generous nature of yoga itself. From Christina Sell I learned to stand in integrity, acceptance and honesty, and to see myself in relation to “yoga” and all it offers with clarity. To understand that all light is accompanied by shadow in this practice, and both are welcome. That fear is a constant companion, but can be offset by faith.
I learned about devotion and how to place it wisely alongside love from Swami Tripurari. I know its very controversial in these complicated times to have a guru, but I have had one for over ten years and it totally works for me. It’s given me an inroad to grace I would never have known otherwise, and it has given me access to chanting, singing and moving in a whole new way: with my heart.
Somewhere along the way I understood that I needed to learn how to gather circles of like-minded people together to pray and breathe and move and tell stories and celebrate and mourn and heal and ritualize and create. Somewhere along the way, all of these people in their own ways taught me how to teach yoga in a way that I hope is accessible and communal, and that includes everyone’s movement and everyone’s story.
Other Native or part-Native friends with deep roots, like Shayne Case, are helping me understand myself and where I come from with journeys, ceremony and medicine that feels so healing to my own heart. From my friend Kenya Budd and so many other vibrant teachers I learned about my own inherited racism and about the painful truth of cultural appropriation, alongside new understandings of white supremacy culture, and the history of violence that is endemic to the culture of being raised white in America. I learned to open my eyes and to do more than simply bear witness to these cultural systems. I learned that I must push back against them, in any and every way that I can. Nothing will move without first being pushed or pulled. And to strengthen my back for that work.
Strong back, soft heart.
I’ve learned volumes from my circle of powerful women, including Molly Padulo, Monicka Koneski, Danielle Hanna, Kate Busby, Jeannie Songer, and Lisa Pate; they have taught me how to see and be seen, how to course-correct and be accountable in public, how to witness each other’s growth over time, however painful, and how to stay still and present for it all without judgment and in the uproar of music and laughter, grief and sorrow.
Cancer taught me to not be afraid. From love I emerged, and to love I shall return.
My partner Justin Hocking gave me the window into love and acceptance that allowed the deepest healing I have experienced, with a fierce compassion that was previously unknown. And he teaches me every day that humor and laughter are the deepest medicine of the awakened heart.
I learned every single good and generous and positive thing that I know how to do from someone else, and have the opportunity to teach yoga because so many (both mentioned and not mentioned here) have shared their generous wisdom and grace with me. So many teachers of yoga and other disciplines, in friendship and studentship, have healed me, held me, taught me to get the hell out of the way, and allowed me to grow year after year.
Layla Saad says that there is no love and light without truth and justice.
Its these teachers that I think of when I share that blessing and that task to gratitude in every class, and I have the great good fortune to share this Yoga School Project at The Bhaktishop with you because of all that was shared with me. I wish for you to be able to experience the support, love, care and joy that I was given through movement, our own stories, our capacity to hold an inclusive space for others, and our own innate ability to heal. I co-created this program nearly 12 years ago and like my own inner life, it has evolved and tumbled and grown in a dynamic way to represent so many aspects of what we might call “yoga.” It is rich with possibility, depth and experience and the voices of SO MANY TEACHERS that we all are blessed to call into presence each time we open our mouths to share what we have each been gifted.
We are deeply honored, and we are ready. Is now the time for your journey into your deeper self, your own teachers, your own stories, and into the teachings?
Applications are available now, and we are hosting an Orientation on Thursday July 26th at 7pm to have some good conversation about the program in the company of a few of the teachers that represent several aspects of the program. We begin September 7th, 2018 and the journey is rich, transformative and collaborative.
Are you ready?