Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Palestine on my mind

















When you are an immigrant, your life is by definition fragmented, divided, often walled. When I left Iran at the age of 15, and started the bewildering process of not only being a teenage girl, but coming of age in a place and culture and language that was wholly unlike my own, I created a wall so high and wide between myself and all that had been, that it took over 15 years to take small bricks out and see to the other side. I tried to forget, actively, because yes, some parts of what I had seen and lived through were not easy to live with, but mostly because in those early years, I did not have the capacity to hold the two worlds at once. I turned away from any communication from friends. These were people I had grown up with; we had experienced the war and our first loves and first heartbreaks together, grown intimate in the claustrophobia of all around violence; I turned away from them and turned towards the new place, language, and customs I had to learn in order to survive. I am ashamed to admit this aloud, but at the time, the two realities could not exist at the same time. These friends still reach out, and still have kept the door open; I have yet to learn how to walk through, my shame and the years between us too large.

In the fifth grade, I wrote a poem that won the best poem in my age group in Iran. The poem was from the point of view of a Palestinian child. I don’t know where that poem is today; this too, is a condition of an immigrant’s life, lack of continuity, loss of sentimental objects and treasures; no first drawings, teeth, shoes of mine made it out of Iran with my family when we left. When you run, a suitcase is a luxury. A few years later, in middle school, I wrote a short story about a Bosnian boy; this too, won the first prize. In hindsight, I think they gave me those awards not because my work was exceptional, but because I was a half-Armenian girl, from an all Armenian school, and empathizing with the plight of muslims. I look back on this to remind myself that long before I learned how to build walls within myself, I was well-versed at dismantling them. I think we all have that capacity, and along the way, the world scares and hardens us into survival mode, and we lose touch with our capacity for true empathy, for holding it all within ourselves; we choose sides and simplify our reality.

I am telling you about my childhood, because I have to tell you that I did not enter Israel and Palestine without bias. I have been awake to the Palestinian plight my entire life. perhaps some of what I learned in Iran was propaganda; I don’t doubt that. I grew up walking past large murals that depicted Israel and America as blood thirsty Satans, digging their claws into Muslim hearts, and squeezing every last drop out. I grew up hearing much more about the Israeli murders of Palestinian youth than I did hearing about Palestinians blowing up buses and cafes. My last image of Tehran is the mural at the airport, proudly declaring ‘We, as a nation, do not recognize the state of Israel.’ I walked in, already sympathetic to a people whose homeland had been stolen; whose youth were killed in droves, families dispersed across many inhospitable landscapes.























And still, I was not prepared for what I saw on the ground: an intricate system of oppression, military occupation, and blatant disregard for international law. The deliberateness of restricting Palestinian movement was something that no news report ever really conveyed to me, and short of experiencing it first hand, I would’ve never understood the impact of it. In the places where the conflict is near its boiling point, Hebron and Jerusalem, the conditions are unequivocally one of apartheid: streets that are only open to Jews, demolished homes, separate court systems, the indignity of the checkpoints, and the complex I.D. system that further separates and fragments an already traumatized population. Upon returning to the States, I am saddened and dismayed that the discourse around this conflict is so muted, so controlled, and so completely racist, colored by the west’s recent history and doomed relationship with the Arab world, that any dissent is quickly shut down; I am disgusted that empathy and the value of human life is apparently less than the value of territory and land. I am horrified at the amount of money that my government pulls from our tax dollars and pours into the funding of a military regime (3.8+ billion dollars a year). I am disheartened that even in progressive, liberal American circles, anti-zionist sentiment is automatically equated with anti-semitism as a way of shutting down the conversation; many progressives who pride themselves on their inclusive politics fail to notice that Zionism is by definition a racist ideology, and one with deep roots in armed terrorism. What I heard over and over from Palestinians is that they want to live in one country, with equal rights, and what prevents that is the uncompromising issue of a Jewish State. A Jewish state will always treat those who are not Jewish as second class citizens, at best. This is not, as many are fond of crying, the only democracy in the Middle East. A system that puts the rights and dreams of one religious group over others is by definition not a democracy. The ugly reality of the settlements in the West Bank, with their particularly aggressive residents, makes the idea of a two State solution a very idealistic dream.


I went to Palestine because I felt a calling, a voice inside that knew it was time for me to connect certain dots. Palestine was the closest I’ve gotten to going back home, since I left Iran and my life became fragmented into before and after. The level of deliberate social fragmentation that I witnessed opened up some old wounds; I came home a bit unhinged, not knowing how to relate to this place I’ve called home for the last twenty years, not knowing how to talk to people who do not know the reality I just witnessed, good, well-meaning people. This was very similar to immigrating here, and having to fit my reality to this, American reality; I have to admit, this is an exhausting task. I returned tired.





My time in Palestine was a mixture of the familiar, the surreal, the heartbreaking, and the spiritual. My days were spent driving from West bank city to West bank city, the best tour guide in all of Palestine at the helm, my American friend, Nora. This driving tour of the region afforded me plenty of time to learn about the intricate and cruel system of checkpoints, ID cards, and the ugly atrocity of the wall attempting to keep Palestinians from having free or easy access to vast array of resources and basic human needs. I visited Jerusalem, Nablus, Jericho, the Dead Sea, Bethlehem, and the devastating Hebron. I taught yoga to four different populations, and learned that when daily stress is that high, the yoga practice manifests as joyful, meditative, and always approached with gusto. I was taken care of and taken in as if I was a long lost daughter returning home; I was asked repeatedly where I was from: Iran,  which was often met with a palm placed on a heart and small bow of the head, and the word respect. A gesture that always made me choke up; no where else in the world would this happen. I ate food that dripped with life, and walked in souqs and bazaars that date back thousands of years. I met remarkable, ordinary people who are doing extraordinary work to educate, to encourage life, to initiate difficult dialogue, to bring about inner peace, to stand up to bullies and oppressors. I met a man from a 70 year old refugee camp, who is teaching theater and the arts and audio recording to the kids, who is empowering children to act and write and perform, because in his own words ‘I don’t want them to die for their country, I want them to LIVE for their country’.




As we drove through a seemingly normal intersection in Jerusalem, I heard the story of a young Arab boy who was kidnapped a few years ago by Jewish settlers at that precise corner. The police later discovered his charred body and determined that he had been made to drink gasoline before he was lit on fire. Nora was telling me this in an even tone of voice, telling me how it was during that summer that kids were not allowed to go outside to play for fear of copycat crimes.

Many times, I wanted to hit pause, tell her to stop, allow me time to grieve and process the last bit of devastating information before pouring forth more, but we kept on: if they could live like this, with no reprieve, the least I could do was to listen. This was tapas practice for me: listening, listening when all I wanted was to hug a bolster and cry for a few hours.




In Hebron, I listened to an old shopkeeper as he showed me the chicken wire ‘roof’ he’s had to erect over the normally open air bazaar because the settlers who have moved in above his shop, into Palestinian homes, used to throw their garbage onto the Palestinians below. I cried as he showed me the egg stains on the pashmina scarves hanging outside his shop, the bags and bags of garbage over head. He said now they pour their raw sewage, and hot liquids down. All I could say was sorry, listening to a man with not much too lose, holding on to his small shop, to bits of his pride and dignity. I felt powerless and enraged.

Also in Hebron, we met with Issa Amro, a prominent non-violent activist who is heralded as the Palestinian Gandhi. He is a ‘declared’ human rights defender by the EU, an OHCHR human rights defender of the year in Palestine 2010. And, Israel has brought 18 counts of made up charges against him in military court as of last fall; his trial began on March 26.




He was taking us through a tour of the old city, showing me the alleyway where he was born and was no longer allowed to walk into because it had been blocked, cemented, telling me about the vibrancy of the old Hebron as we walked through the ghost town, with most shops bolted up and shut. To go from one street to the next, we had to walk through several turnstiles at a checkpoint. There are more then 100 checkpoint within the city of Hebron.



We arrived at the Ibrahimi mosque where 24 years ago, an American Doctor, a settler, had walked in and opened fire on those praying. Eyewitnesses told the New york Times at the time that the IDF soldiers joined him, and 29 people were killed. At the mosque, I met an old man who had been present on that day, 24 years ago. He pointed to the place where the gunman had entered, pointed to the place where he had been tackled, disarmed, and killed. Everywhere, I met Palestinians who recounted the horrors with a deadpan resignation that contrasted the violence they were describing. He was no different. I imagined him 24 years younger. I imagined how a psyche shifts in the face of so much trauma and powerlessness, how resentment can clog the pathways to any sort of peace when your face is constantly rubbed into your defeat.



When we came out of the Ibrahimi Mosque, it seemed that in order to cross the street, we had to show our ID’s. Mind you, a short block away, we had gone through a checkpoint and to leave the block, we now had to go through another. Issa was on his phone, and he handed his ID to the young soldier, who appeared to really dislike him talking on his phone while she checked his ID. She yelled at him to get off his phone, and detained him at the side of the street for the next 45 minutes without giving any reason. She held on to his ID, while another, even younger looking soldier casually pointed the gun in Issa’s direction for the duration of the ordeal; at one point, when a group of passersby had gathered and were taking photos on their phones, the young soldier posed and grinned for the cameras. It was hard not to see him as a little boy playing dress up with a large machine gun.


We were walking the street with Ariel Gold who is the Director of activist organization, Code Pink, when Issa was detained. Ariel began filming and live streaming the events as they unfolded, and she asked me to film as well. Part of Issa’s work in non-violence training is teaching the Palestinian youth, who famously have shown their frustration by throwing rocks at Israeli soldiers (which, in turn gets them shot), to instead use their smartphones and take video of the soldiers' often illegal actions. So there we were, a yoga teacher from Iran by way of California and a progressive American Jew, on the side of a road in Hebron, documenting from 10 feet away Israeli soldiers detaining and harassing a known Palestinian human rights activist. My legs shook violently for forty five minutes, but I somehow managed to keep my camera hand steady. Meanwhile, a Jewish settler had appeared on the other side of the street, and was hurling insults at Issa in Hebrew. It did not take understanding the language to realize that he was taunting him and was trying to get a rise out of him. Later, I learned that he was telling Issa to go to Syria or Iraq, and see what ‘Arabs like him are doing to each other,’ and that ‘when the time comes, your liberal Jewish friends will be the first ones to kill you.’


After 45 minutes, they gave Issa his papers back and let him go. No reason. No apology.

We headed to his house to regroup. Except, that he could not walk with us. He had to take a different road, a longer road, because the direct road to his house was not open to Palestinians. Shuhada street in Hebron has been closed off to Palestinians since the massacre 24 years ago. There are still Palestinians living in their homes on this street, but their front doors have been welded shut, and metal cages put around their windows. In order to get out of their homes, the people living inside, have to climb to their roof, hop over to the roof of their neighbor, walk down into their neighbor’s home and out from their front door. Please, just for a moment, stop reading this, and imagine your life if you had to do all of that just to leave your house.


Many of these homes, had windows that had been smashed, and because it was cold and because it is expensive, they had stopped trying to replace the windows. Instead, plastic bags and fabric had been pressed against the window to keep the cold air out.

On the walk over to Issa’s house, where we would meet him, we heard hundreds of what to me sounded like small bombs going off in the not too far distance. Ariel noted that what we heard was tear gas, and that the Israeli soldiers use it when the kids get out of school to disperse them.

The adrenalin and cortisol from the encounter with the IDF soldiers coupled with the terrible injustice I saw at every corner reduced me to sobs. Issa began reassuring me by telling me that he is used to the treatment, and then later, when Nora and I were on our way to Ramallah, he called to check on the Iranian girl. These were the kindnesses I experienced while in Palestine. 


I came back and I got very very depressed for a good while. All my old friends (mara) began dropping by, and I sat on my porch at the edge of the forest--lush and wet and magnificently calm after the longest winter in recent memory--and I poured the tea that we drank, the sun clearing the tallest redwood earlier and earlier in the morning. Mara bared her teeth; somedays, I flinched, others, I relented and had a listen.

The truth is, since returning from Palestine, I have changed, and so, as it goes, has my practice.  I have settled into a different phase in my relationship to asana, in part due to the inherent challenges that arise from being a teacher of the thing you practice, and in part due to, em, getting older. So, I practice, but the felt sense of it is different, the emphasis placed more on how it makes me feel in the moment and the next and the next and tomorrow as well; I am not looking to cause any unnecessary hurt, if I can help it. To say that the ambition is in the trunk of the car would be an apt description. But I think more than any other factor, what downshifted this runaway train was the students I met in Palestine. They were not drawn to yoga for exercise, for community sanctioned spiritual bypass and self-important 'entrepreneurship' of local minor teachers with DJ and rockstar dress up fantasies tucked away in their shadowy corners. No, they came to meditate, because they are desperate for anything that might help calm their frayed nervous system. They came to learn about how Yoga can help them sit at peace in their own bodies, even if all around them bodies are in defensive holds; when all around them, the body of their land is taken, stolen, raped. They came, because they have heard that contemplative practices are a salve for a psyche that has been oppressed, controlled, traumatized, and frustrated for generations; they came to heal their wounds and the wounds of their mothers and grandmothers and on and on. They did not come to break the body, or to transcend it, or to adorn it in fancy asana. They experience enough violence in their daily life: both implicit and explicit. 








Work saved me. I taught mysore and I went on my felt sense more than on histories, stories,  and thoughts. I walked into the room and let my instinct move me more than my eyes. I forgot people's names and memorized the tone of their breath, the tension I felt under my hands, and the way they responded to my touch. The work got much more interesting: I got out of my own way, and trusted myself and the students to find our way, together, alone. I booked it out of the studio as soon as I was done because all I wanted was to relate energetically; more than ever, I felt deathly allergic to small talk.

On my mat, the primary series day after day, until I lost: kapotasana, a comfortable leg behind the head, karandavasana, etc, etc, who cares. The breath was all I was interested in, and, me, the girl who loved backbends more than anything feared the simplest of them for fear of breaking open the cage of my heart, for fear of my guts spilling out of me, for fear of coming undone.

And I did anyway.

I rolled around on my living room floor, and felt my way into parts of the body I have not felt before. My spine got wavy and snake like, and I found an ease and inner (I mean, really, inner) strength that I had never before experienced. I got strong, but I still didn't feel sturdy. I wobbled a lot, inside, outside. I started an intensive that kept me tethered, engaged in understanding the why/what/how of practice. Many things fell by the way side. I cried. I cursed. I sighed heavy sighs. I lost my temper and apologized. I withdrew and wondered where everyone went, why they abandoned me. I felt like I did not fit in anywhere; the yoga world particularly repulsed me. In short, the trip to Palestine and the return to the States reactivated old parts of my psyche that had been dormant for a good ten years. 

Depression, in all of its sticky stubbornness kept me company through most of Spring. My mind constantly compared the two worlds and I felt like I was not doing enough, that I was not helping anyone who really needed help. All of the first world problems, including Trump and the freak show of our politics, felt trivial and vapid when compared to the injustices I witnessed and heard about in the West Bank. I read the news and all I saw was what was left out, the lies of omission, the whitewashing of the world. My friends, family, and a good number of my students showed genuine interest in hearing about the trip, and I told and told and told until their faces grew long and their eyes turned to their feet: how can this be, what can be done, why.




The days grew longer and longer and wisps of vapor lifted from the earth in the early mornings; the sun baking the mountain, and clouds of insects made me feel outnumbered; I took comfort in this fact. I planted tomatoes and eggplants and cucumbers and dahlias; the mint carpeted the garden, and I put its fragrant leaves in my tea every morning, the tea I brought back from Ramallah. 

The shell around my body began to thaw, bit by bit, two steps forward three back and on and on.















Now it is Summer and though the news is grim: Gaza kept in the dark, new settlements building, A teenage Muslim girl brutalized and discarded in a lake, inside, the heavy blanket of depression has gotten lighter, but not entirely lifted. And I wonder how realistic it is for me to expect it to be gone if a sincere Yoga practice wakes us up to what is, and, when what is is a whole lot of violence, injustice, and darkness manifest. I feel it in my students' bodies, this heavy-heartedness, this seriousness, this need to shed something. We open our pores in practice, and what is coming in is not pleasant. So I practice bandha, internal boundary setting, developing a selective membrane, and I do well for a bit until a flood comes and my boundaries don't hold and I wobble and feel it all again. This too, is practice.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Don't be surprised when it shows up

If I have been quiet on this forum, it is because this past year I dove deep in relationship with my local students, in two different towns, fifteen of them at a time, in an intensive format. It was my first year attempting this, and I experimented with it in several different settings: some 6 week courses focusing on fundamentals, and a 6 month course where one-on-one meetings were a large part of the experience. What I learned was this (again): Yoga is relationship.



Yoga happens when we are vulnerable, afraid, angry, devastated; Yoga shows up when we reframe the experience, and rather than flaming the fires of self-pity, indulgence, or castigation, we open the lens to include EVERYTHING into the experience. Yoga is SHOWING UP to look at it all.

I spent the past year tending the roots of my tribe: each morning, driving the winding roadway bleary-eyed, the moon of the previous night hanging low on my left and the redwoods abound, peaking the summit of the hill with the caffeine buzz slowly waking up my senses. The descent down toward the mysore room still stirs me awake; soon, I will be there. The butterflies in my belly have not yet stopped their beating wings. The room feels at once like a precious cocoon, holding many people's tender hearts in its soft folds, and a cauldron where we are cooked and transformed, somedays, even burned.

What is my role here? Why me? 

I ask myself these questions often. Who am I to teach these people? What do I know? How can I rise to meet their particular needs, their particular sorrows and pains, on the mornings when I have an unspeakable sadness in my heart, crippling anxiety in my belly, and my own afflictions galore? 

Yet, unfailingly, walking into the room transforms me and my experience: the 'I' gets smaller until it merges with the 'They'. My breath synchs with theirs, my movements slow down to match their pace. My heart rate speeds up when the energy of the room builds to a crescendo; my spine finds a subtle arch when they bend their backs. I find myself grinning on the particularly potent days, thinking: I will be happy if I spend the rest of my life in mysore rooms. I get in the car and ascend the green hill, in the bright morning light, exhausted. On the other side of the highway, people are taking furtive sips out of their coffee mugs, checking their rearview mirrors and thumbing their phones, heading into work in slow-moving clusters of metallic pods. My work for the day is mostly done, save for my own practice, and a second teaching session in the evening, closer to home. Soon, it will be me and my mat, working out the kinks of lifting and shifting 40+ bodies, all the while staying open to what may arise: pain, sorrow, joy, heartbreak, loss, love; the whole lovely mess of human-ness.


***

My teacher came to town this past week to teach me and 40 of my students. How strange to walk into that room and roll out my mat, stand at the top, and draw my attention inward! How strange to be a student alongside my students! The first day, the excitement in the room was so intense that by the second sun salute, I was pouring sweat. The vulnerability of exposing my practice to my students was a big catalyst for change. Here I was, sweating, suffering, struggling with them, and here was my teacher, seeing my weaknesses and counting them out loud. That first day, I felt turned inside out, as if I was wearing my organs on the outside of my body, skinless, unbordered, unhinged; it was difficult to make eye-contact with the people I love, including my teacher. Day two, intensified this nakedness, and by three, I was tempted to turn the car around at the summit, make up an improbable story about why I couldn't be there that morning, and hide under the covers till the dust settled, until he left, until, until... Fight or flight, you say? Ha! I recalled all the times I have reminded my students of the role of the nervous system in the asana practice, the importance of working with our shadow side, the potency of practice when things get difficult. The importance of doing things that are particularly challenging for you. I wanted to go back and tell myself to shut the fuck up. What the hell do I know?

Nothing.



But slowly, slowly, the runner, the avoider, and the controller sat quietly and observed the process. Slowly, the hungry student emerged to accept the love, the gifts, the trust. The perfectionist and the realist had a meeting, and somewhere along the way, some form of integration had taken shape; some innate intelligence was rising up. Would this have happened without the external 'stressor' of a teacher as the seer? I highly doubt it. Does the teacher have to be perfect? I sure hope not. David often talks about the 'allies', these checklists that we must run through when we're practicing in order to orient ourselves: ground in foundation, breath, mudra, and the central axis, the senses drawn inward. I think the biggest ally is a skillful, honest, and compassionate teacher, somebody who has a healthy interest in your growth and wellbeing. Someone who gives a shit. The very thing that the 'avoider' in me (and possibly you) wants nothing to do with for fear of dissolution. The person who knows exactly when to turn over the stones, and which ones, to reveal the truth.



David's dharma talks in the afternoons followed an intense guided pranayama sequence. He spoke about how he believes the yogi to be a shaman, a conjurer who stirs up energy, induces an altered state, and embarks on a journey of 'truth-making'. He spoke about Yoga as the conscious decision to look, to interact. He told us that anything that is honest, reveals the true nature of suffering. As if reading my mind, he said: coming into the moment despite wanting to escape it is a form of tapas. He spoke of halahala, the poison of conditioned existence; he said that we are asking for it by practicing, so don't be surprised when it shows up!



He followed these talks with chanting so haunting that at times the entire room was sobbing. I'm still trying to decipher what exactly happened in those moments; I know enough to know that the thinking mind cannot make sense of it. The best way I can describe the experience of the week is this: my students and I walked through fire together, guided by a fiercely loving teacher. For the moment, the answer to the question of why me is this: because I've been fortunate enough to have received the teaching from my teacher, and because there is nowhere else I'd rather be than in the space of truth-seeking, with people who are courageously showing up to see.


Friday, December 19, 2014

On gurus and other perfect storms

If you are in the yoga world, you have by now heard about the horrendous and truly nightmarish accounts of the victims of the Mangrove Ashram. There were stories of people signing over their parental rights to a charismatic guru, who would then rape and violate the children with the promise of spiritual ascension, allegedly with the implicit knowledge of the community. There were gut-wrenching stories of an abused woman who then became an abuser herself, providing the charismatic guru with girls to destroy, thus perpetuating the cycle of violence and betrayal.

I read the accounts in a thick haze of an unexplained fever, my eyes barely able to focus on the screen, my mind incapable of unimagining the nightmare of it all.

How do we lose our agency? Why do we give our power away to predators and sociopaths? What are we running from that makes us blind to what we are running toward?

I fell asleep to the eery nightmare of Mangrove; When I awoke, it was to the memory of a book I read years ago, when I was thinking about applying for a fulbright to India. The book was Jung and Eastern Thought, and I recalled how surprised I had been at the time to learn that Carl Jung had strong opinions against Europeans practicing Yoga, particularly since I found many of his theories/practices were compatible with Yoga.

I say to whomsoever I can: "Study yoga--you will learn an infinite amount from it--but do not try to apply it, for we Europeans are not so constituted that we apply these methods correctly, just like that. An Indian guru can explain everything and you can imitate everything. But do you know who is applying the yoga? In other words, do you know who you are and how you are constituted?"

***

I had just returned from the woods, where we had taken retreat. There had been a storm, a recent death, disheartening encounters with former teachers. We retreated into a stone lodge--a sturdy, unshakeable fortress--, and around us trees fell and winds bellowed and water poured from the sky. We sat every morning. We moved and breathed. We observed silence, though our eyes found each others' and we couldn't help but smile and communicate in hushed whispers. We ate roots and greens and colorful, lush fruits, and indulged on fats. And we laughed. We laughed at the mundane, the taboo, the grotesque, and the absurd. We laughed until we held our sore-from-laughter-cheeks, held our aching bellies, and we felt full. A sangha is a powerful, healing thing. A common desire to know and grow around a practice and a teacher can knit people into a strong fabric. A sangha reinforces intimacy. For four days, we reveled in it. 

I was surrounded by a small group of people who refer to me as their teacher. On the last day, we stood in two unwieldy concentric circles and we looked each other in the eye as a meditation on seeing the person behind the eyes. The idea was not mine, but my colleague's, and I may have openly groaned when she suggested it. Nevermind my resistance, I wept from the first person to the very last. Every single person I looked at, I saw them as a small child, deserving of all of my love. Every single person looked at me with grateful eyes, loving eyes, trusting eyes. 

Overwhelmed, I drove away from the lodge back to my seaside city. En route, the world was cleaned of its accumulated dust, and the earth looked like a well-fed baby: soft and lush and calm. I saw the eyes of my students before me in quick succession. I meditated on the responsibility of being a teacher: the ego trap, the potential for confusing their gratefulness for my own greatness. The potential for taking ownership of their growth. The potential for abuse, for deceit, for taking advantage.

Later that night, fever shook my bones awake. 

***

Over the years I have thought about what Jung might've meant by 'do you know who you are and how you're constituted?'. The ironic part is that many of us credit yoga for learning more about who we are and our constitution. 

This is how I am, partly, constituted:

I have always considered myself an outsider. I was a child of a christian man and a muslim woman; I did not identify as either, and in each circle, I felt as the other. My formative years were spent in a beautiful and ancient, culture-rich country that was run by an authoritative, patriarchal, fundamentalist regime. The same regime from whom we had to hide the fact that my father was a christian, because that made my mother an apostate, whose 'crime' was punishable by death. So we lied, and we were scared. A lot. 

In school, my parents requested that I be exempt from all religious classes. Even as they had a common enemy, the state, and neither were devout, my parents each feared 'losing' me to each other's religion, to each other's tribe. Their love was not devoid of complications; fear was a driving force, as well as anger.

I lived with the outside world mirrored inside our home. 

I grew up with a strong sense that belief systems were the reason for much of what was wrong around me. Everywhere I turned, someone was trying to convince me of the righteousness of their particular belief system.

The muslims called me Najes, which means unclean and is a term used for animals.

The christians said, you are one of us, because of your father. Nevermind that you have your mother's eyes. In time, you can erase her from your face. 

All of this aside, I was a child of a revolution and fiercely independent. I said no a lot. 

***
A bright-eyed student of mine on retreat asked me to speak about the philosophy behind the practice. Normally, I would've been overjoyed that a young student would show interest in anything other than asana. On this particular day, I was filled with dread. Why? Because I don't want to mislead her, give her a false sense of why we practice with a clumsy turn of phrase or left-over, stale magical thinking handed down from an imperfect lineage of teachers. I don't want to affect the fake indian accent and speak in aphorisms. I don't want to say a lot of words that mean nothing in the end.

Because I don't just trust that what I read is true.

Because I am a teacher in a tradition that frequently gets boxed in, defined, not only by outsiders, but by the members of the tradition.

Because some of the boxes make me cringe and make me want to scream no.

Because I find myself in a position where many look to me to teach them something, and I am in, as Adyashanti poetically coins it, a spiritual winter of sorts. I cannot convince you of the relevance of the yoga sutras in our modern day practice, because I am questioning a lot of what I've been taught, and I'm not quite sure that we've been looking at them through an honest lens.

Because I cannot pretend that doing a sequence of postures, in a particular way, everyday, is a superior way of gaining knowledge over ourselves; I know that it is a way. I know that for now, it's my preferred way. I cannot in good faith tell my students that I have some idea of what their way should be.

Because I want them to ask the questions, and then stay quiet for a long while.

Because I don't know if there is a god.

Because singing the praises of gods I did not grow up with tastes like cold wax in my mouth.

Because I feel no connection to hindu deities, no part of my being lights up at the mention or image of them. To me they are statues, dolls, paintings, metaphors. I find them beautiful, but not spiritually stirring.



because a cathedral of redwoods moves me to tears; I find nature, children, literature, acts of political resistance spiritually stirring.

I cannot undo the feeling that much of what I see in the yoga culture is unexamined and unconscious renderings of christianity, dressed up to look more 'exotic' and not so loaded for the practitioners. I don't know if this is necessarily a destructive thing. I know this may be a judgement.

I don't think all judgements are bad.

Protests are on my mind these day. Protests are a form of judgement of what we don't want and a demand for what we want.

Maybe in comparing the sex abuses of catholic priests to the abuses at Mangrove to the conscription of young boys into ISIS and Taliban, the common denominator is that we get in trouble when we operate in the realm of absolute belief systems, because often, someone at the top is selling us the beliefs for their own benefit. Someone at the top appears to us like a god, or, our idea of a god, and we give up our own internal ideas of who we are and what constitutes us. Perhaps, Jung was talking about this: know what your ideas of god, of self, of religion, of morality are before you enter into relationship with a guru. So if a guru is by definition, heavy and they draw you in, you do not lose your sense of self.

Or, get rid of the guru. Have teachers. Be in a mutually respectful, reverent, horizontal relationship with them. Read books. Have open, honest dialogue in a functional sangha that allows for open dissent. But most of all, seek and trust your direct experience. Listen.


***

We came out of the womb of the retreat, and the world is caught in a frenzy of lists and commerce and exhaustion. It is the time of the year when we stubbornly practice not listening. Because if we actually listened, we'd know that it's time for introspection, for hibernation, for silence. But alas, there are items to be checked off a list and we like doing this, dammit, because this is part of what constitutes us: the pavlovian response to the scent of pine and sugar, the temporary rush of acquiring more, and the less than satisfied feeling the morning after.

Listen: I know I may be bringing you down. That's not entirely my intent. My intent is to say, hey, let's define this thing that we love, yoga, as we go, so it does not reinforce our cultural and personal patterns and blindspots. I love asana for its quick ability to show us to ourselves. I am not an 'orthodox' teacher, and I have always chosen rather unorthodox teachers, those who respect their teachers but have done things their own way. So it boggles my mind when I see students say things like 'but that's not ashtanga' or 'but that's not the pose' in response to modifications, to different approaches, to softening their practice. I say this to remind you that we all have the fundamentalist teacher inside of us; we all have the perfectionist, the punitive, the unworthy inside of us. We practice with all of these 'selves'. We teach to all of these parts of our students. For the most part, we do not come to yoga unscathed by conditioning. We do not come to teaching with all of our parts fully in the light and integrated, loved.

Do you see how perilous and how sensitive this teacher/student relationship is, how ripe for planting seeds and suggestions and enacting spiritual derailments? What are we going to do about it?


Listen: this has never been done before: this many people, outside the Indian subcontinent, practicing yoga. It's an exciting time; it's a delicate time. It's an opportunity, and we are bound to make mistakes. It's also time to dismantle some of the structures that do not serve us. Not because they challenge us--I'm all for being made uncomfortable--but because they are rife with the potential for abuse. We have fallen too many times.  

(Jung later changed his tone about yoga in the west. Harold Coward notes in the same book that Jung believed that yoga was just another method for self-awareness, and so the emphasis should not be on it specifically but on its purpose for being. A Western form of yoga should then be developed. )

How attached are we to our image of Yoga? Are we ready now to get to work?




Monday, September 22, 2014

The Arc of Human Change

 For many years now, I've been toying with the idea of going back to school (again!). This time instead of completely changing course, I'd like to gain the skills that would enhance the work that I already do. I've been reading up on somatic psychology and specifically the Hakomi method. What intrigues me about this work, perhaps, can be summed up in this paragraph:

The Hakomi Method of Experiential Psychology offers an elegant, comprehensive and highly effective approach to human change. Hakomi combines mindfulness, unique and powerful somatic techniques, and a focus on present experience to access and transform deeply held, life-limiting core beliefs.

Sound familiar? This is the work we do in our Yoga practice: dismantling our self-limiting beliefs one by one. The beauty of it is that for the most part, this process happens spontaneously; the work arises when we are ready. Sometimes the work hits us over the head like a hammer, and other times, we recognize it in hindsight, as a slow and gradual shift in perspective. It's what keeps me interested in both teaching and practicing, this noticing and dismantling of patterns and conditioning. And of course, when working with the emotional body, the terrain can be rocky at times. I think at some point, having more specific training in the ins and outs of the human psyche will be hugely beneficial to me and my students. For now, I'm in the research phase...


***

Speaking of the desire to be an eternal student, I recently came back from working with David Garrigues for the second time in four months. I went back because I knew that he could spark a fire in me so bright, that it would enable me to shift my own stubborn 'life-limiting core beliefs.' Every great teacher has a very specific gift, and I found David's super-power to be his ability to empower his students through intense and difficult work. Being a home-practitioner, I NEED this kind of work. I need enough heat a few times a year to carry me through those cold, winter mornings when everything aches, and the last thing I want to do is get on my mat. I need it when, like a few days ago, I get on the mat and all I hear, before EVERY pose, is the taunting voice coming from parts of me I do not recognize, saying 'YOU cannot do this'. I need the fire when I've given all I've got to my students and am sitting empty, in a puddle of self-pity. That's why I went back to David. And I am not being melodramatic when I say that the way he worked with me in backbends changed me.

*photo taken on 9/12.


Let's get clear about this: the poses are mere symbols. On my deathbed, I will not be proud of my backbends. But I may reflect on how I related to someone important to me, or, took some risk that went against the grain of my conditioning. This is how I see it: if I get stuck in the idea that my backbend is the end point, then the process of 'human change' has in a way, been aborted. But if I come up against what I believe about my backbends, and with an open mind and a whole lot of hard and sincere work, challenge my 'self-limiting' beliefs, then maybe I will set a new imprint, a new precedent, a new possibility for change. And maybe the next time I am in relationship, and I see myself as this, and I see them as that, something inside me will know to not take my position so seriously. 

That is the hope behind practice for me. Which is why I believe in Yoga as a transformational practice, beyond the physical.

For the longest time, I believed that my backbends were as deep as they were going to get. That because of my long legs and short torso, my body had no room to bend more. That I had tight hip flexors.

That my backbends were just fine.

That I was doing my best.

Until, David got to working on them. In a space of one week, my body was transformed. I'll let these photos speak for themselves. What is even more exciting than the arc of my back here, is that I have had no pain! No sense of cranking, no pushing, only a wonderful sense of moving into space. It's as if this is who I've always been, and I've just decided to step into it. I had to allow for the possibility that maybe, I could create space in a new way. That maybe, I didn't already know everything that my body is capable of doing. In order to open, I needed to let go of my own self-image, my same-same way of doing things, my rut.

And this is why I love this work: David did not do my backbends FOR me, he gave me the tools and the inspiration to work at them, and I made the choice to practice them. Transformation is mostly intentional, hard work. No one else can do it for you; there are no saviors, no heroes, and most of our gurus are dead. We can light each other's fire, but in the end, it's up to us to keep it aflame, through practice.

As hard as the work is, the payoff is priceless. There's an incredible feeling of relief when we inhabit the space inside of ourselves, and no, I am no longer talking about backbends.



*The first photo was taken on August 17th, and the second photo on September 22nd. Look at how the curve has moved out of my lower back, and how my legs have become more involved. I think I even look taller!






Sunday, August 3, 2014

When the sky is falling

Not too long ago, I was a graduate student whose Master thesis was a little novel called 'The Unsettled Dead'. I spent two years writing 300 pages, and then I spent the next three years, rewriting and reworking it, because frankly the novel in my head did not match the novel I produced. Like many a writer before me, I put the words and pages that had been etched in my brain in a virtual box, and I moved on to other things. I told myself and everyone who asked that I needed to be much older to write the book that I want to write. That I am practicing patience and discernment. That the time is not right.

In a lot of ways, my reasons were all valid. My subject, or rather my obsession, is the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980's. This is something that I know on a visceral and emotional level; this is the backdrop to my entire childhood: missile attacks, red sirens, basement hideouts, panicked adults, crying children, the sounds of explosions that still make me hate fireworks and fourth of July and even thunder, fallen and still smoldering buildings with people's random belongings obscenely on display, the news of the dead and the wounded, the captured relatives, the widowed and the suddenly child-less and their screams into the night, and the utter normalcy of war when it's your everyday reality. I wrote that book: raw, emotional, honest, but also clumsy, reactionary, and a bit overdone.

To understand this story better, you have to come back with me to even before I wrote the book. You see, in my early twenties, I was a scientist and an assistant researcher working for a pharmaceutical company formulating cancer treatment medications. I calculated, measured, and observed without an agenda. There were clear boundaries to the experiments, and an order to the process that calmed me. Naturally, 'the scientist' part of my brain watches me as I lose myself in emotion, in reflection, in story, and beckons me to look at things differently: without an agenda, objectively, and without getting too involved. This part of my brain is, as a new friend recently called, my 'bullshit meter'.

So you could say that my 'bullshit meter' convinced my idealist romantic side to use time to her advantage. Why am I telling you this? Because I feel as though some wounds are coming undone again, and I have gone back in the past few days and reread passages from 'The Unsettled Dead' and I feel as though we repeat the cycle of violence when we place more importance on empirical reason and less on empathy, compassion, and emotional honesty.  If you've taken my classes you know that I am allergic to talk of 'open hearts,' because my 'bullshit meter' has always gone off the charts when I've heard others talk in this way. But lately, all I want to do is go around the world and beg people to open their hearts to the suffering of others, and particularly, to the suffering of those they don't agree with, those they have historically (read: samskara) considered as other.

Needless to say, for the past three weeks, with the world falling apart around us, I could care less about my asana practice. This is rather inconvenient when you are a teacher, and your job is to help others move in their bodies in a way that makes them better people. And this is what I've been grappling with: how does putting my leg behind my head in increasingly absurd ways (I'm looking at you Durvasana) helping the world? How is it making me a better person? How is it relevant to what is happening now?

I guess you can call this doubt or lack of faith. I call it reality, and healthy skepticism. Truth is, even if I am dragging myself onto my mat everyday, it is helping me in tremendous ways: I am less likely to snap at those around me, I can read and hold the information that is coming my way these days without completely losing my mind and getting sucked into oblivion, I am able to challenge myself to think about this 'same story' in a new way. Also, I get to sit with the terrible feeling of being powerless, of knowing that even if I suddenly became enlightened mid-jump-through, bombs will still fall and children will still die. I get to sit with what is, as despondent as that may make me.

If you've read this far looking for answers, I am sorry, I have none. What I have are even more questions: how can we, yoga practitioners, help with the dualist mentality that is at the root of many of these violent conflicts in the world? What do we practice when the world is falling apart around us, and is asana just an analgesic, a numbing agent that we either indulge in or escape to? And, how can we do better? Is it, like my shelved-novel, a question of time? That with time and with more people 'awakening' we won't keep repeating this mess? Is that terribly naive? This last question from my bullshit-meter, of course...


Wednesday, May 21, 2014

On Dynamism and Faith

This is a post about asana, but first, a confession: I wake most mornings surprised that the world has not fallen apart around me. I expect the worst outcome of every situation, and do not change my mind even when the evidence suggests otherwise.  When walking in the woods or driving my car, I constantly think that I am going the wrong way. This leads me to stick to familiar trails, and even then, I often question whether I missed a turn and am bound to spend the evening alone, in the woods. Regardless of how much my students tell me that they enjoyed my classes, I stay awake for hours, breaking down everything about the classes I taught that day and thinking about ways I could've done better. I routinely beat myself up for not being a better teacher, even when I know that I am showing up with everything I've got; even when I see indisputable change and growth in my students; even when they flat out tell me.

I am a child of war: the skies were falling when I was young, so it is difficult to accept the perpetual california sunshine and air of optimism, no matter that I've now spent half of my life here, in this abundance of...everything. It is difficult to trust it. It is difficult to accept.

I am a child of revolution: the changes were constant, and the path kept shifting, so of course I don't trust that someone did not carve a new path in my favorite woods to throw me off. If I get lost, there is no one to find me; the work is mine and mine alone.

I am a child who was fed on a steady diet of high expectations and generous punishments; I do a great job of providing both for myself these days. As much as I am aware of this pattern, it takes a lot of work to interrupt it.



But this is a post about asana, remember? How does my list of patterns and samskaras relate to postures? It's simple: I approach my postures anticipating failure, ready to turn around, ready to dole out punishment in my head. This all came to surface when I studied with the King of Dynamism, David Garrigues...Up until then, I had carefully covered my patterns in the cloak of 'moving mindfully' and 'listening to my body.' Up until then, I  had grown expert at allowing my self-limiting prophesies to run the show of my yoga practice. Up until then, I kept taking the same familiar trail, for fear of getting lost in the woods.

David, in his enthusiastic and firm way, pushed me out of the woods into an uncomfortable territory of NOT KNOWING. I did not know what my postures looked like, and that terrified me. I didn't even know half the time why he wanted me to change them, but I did not ask. It really didn't feel important. Biomechanics aside, what he was asking me to do was have faith, believe, keep going. Not faith in him, or even the method, but in myself. Faith that my body is not as fragile as I think it is. Faith that it knows the way, even if I get lost a few times. Faith that the process is always more interesting than the outcome.

Dynamism is not about moving faster, it's about moving with confidence, with dispatch. It's about not wasting mental energy over whether I'm going the right way, whether the earth will open and swallow me whole, whether I look good while doing it, whether the world is falling apart around me. It's to get there (wherever 'there' happens to be that day), and then stay long enough to become fully alert, awake. As he said, to practice is to say Yes, day after day. I am learning how to replace the No with Yes. 



Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Perfect Conditions

It was a perfect day today in the mysore room for practice, and not in the way that you would imagine. Not many people showed up, of those who showed up, several were dealing with injuries from minor aches and tweaks to intense, debilitating pain. Of the ones who did not have physical pain, a few were dealing with intense emotional upwellings and changes. Did I mention that I've been dealing with an ongoing, non-yoga related, physical sensation as well?

So why was this a good day, you ask?

Because all of us, including me, could have said fuck this and left. Because all of us, including me, could've not shown up at all. Because all of us could have chosen ways of not-seeing, of not-feeling, of not-knowing. Because we showed up, and because we felt, there is no way that we can unknow now. I've long believed that you cannot call yourself a yogi, certainly not an ashtangi, until you have dealt with an injury, used the practice to learn about the patterns that may have caused it, and in the process developed more compassion and patience, a different perspective on the why of practice. I am not advocating a deliberate drive towards aggression that will cause said injury--one of the students in the room had slipped on ice in Atlanta and hurt her wrist, yet she showed up to see how she could practice in her new body--my point is that as embodied beings, it comes with the territory that our bodies will not always cooperate. It is our practice to accept the limits, while compassionately pressing against the edges of possibility. The practice is not there to coddle us and deepen the grooves of our existing patterns; rather, it is meant to bring us face to face with our tendencies, with our desires, with our doubts and insecurities and fears. It is meant to expose our mind and heart until we can't take it any longer, and precisely at that moment, we practice by staying, by saying yes, by being with all of the discomfort and the ugliness.

The practice is not separate from us. It is not a place to hide. It is not an indulgence of our senses nor of our ego. The practice will expose our wanting ways, our petty and valid desires: to be seen, to be heard, to be loved, to be touched. To be the best. To be perfect. To be somebody else.

When this unbearable, stinking bouquet of 'self' is presented to us, we know the practice is starting to take root, that it's starting to work. Until then, we are raking and digging our way to the core of our being.

I want you to hear this: to practice only when the conditions are perfect is missing the point. To wait for a rested, open body, to wait for a calm, steady mind, to wait until your life is not overwhelming you with its many demands is like waiting for Godot. He ain't coming. So get on your mat, stay on it, and practice! I don't mean postures; I mean practice seeing, practice compassion, practice radical acceptance of what is. Practice being truly in the body you have today, with no preconceived notions and no expectations. Practice staring at your fear of dying, at your fear of not being good enough, your fear of stepping into who you really are. Practice the big things and the small also: how you think about yourself, the language you use in your head when thinking about others; practice deep, ruthless honesty. Practice opening your eyes and your mind and your heart to everything around you. There may be other options. But chances are you will not be able to undo the knowledge of where your true work lies. Consider this a profound blessing.