“The experiences of unity among peoples are more important and crucial than all the concepts, prejudices, ideologies, faiths that may divide. And if you can multiply these experiences of unity over a time interval of sufficient duration, you can undermine any barrier that separates one man from the other.” ~ Howard Thurman
I have struggled to write this post for more than a month. I have started it many times, and then, thinking more deeply, started it over, and over, again and again, on paper, in my mind, in my conversations and in my meditations and prayers. I have not stopped thinking about the “incident” at the Northwest Yoga Conference, as it is now commonly called, since the moment that incident occurred.
The last time I wrote, I shared a quote from Howard Thurman, a quote with which I began all of my workshops at the conference. I said that I needed some time to rest in its wisdom, for finding the right words and voice to speak.
“There is something in every one of you that waits and listens for the sound of the genuine in yourself. It is the only true guide you will ever have. And if you cannot hear it, you will all of your life spend your days on the ends of strings that somebody else pulls.”
I have listened for the sound of the genuine, and thought deeply about what I want to say, and how I want to move on from this painful, destructive but also potentially restorative, experience. I will use this incident in my own life, my own teachings and my own exploration of faith, spiritual practice and social justice for many, many years to come. I have awakened, integrated and learned much from what happened and have had many clarifying moments as a result.
One of my students, in response to my first statement wrote, “I can’t imagine what must be testing you so completely. I have faith in your ability to find the best resolution to the issue. Please know you have my faith and support.”
Indeed the entire incident both tested and reinforced my faith, and it was interesting to me that she used the word faith twice in her response. In fact, I was at the opening ceremony of the Northwest Yoga Conference that cold night in February, asked to speak about faith and to provide the participants with an interactive experience where they could explore the idea of faith, what the word means, what the feeling is, and how we can share it with others.
This was not the first time I had spoken about faith and practice at the Northwest Yoga Conference. Four years earlier, I had given the keynote speech and talked about the gifts of our shared practice, inviting students to enter into a deeper relationship with yoga as a spiritual practice. At that time, I was just beginning to dive fully into an understanding of yoga as a mystic tradition, and was at the early stages of my own journey through yoga to a deeper faith in God, turning back to the Christian religion of my childhood and discovering a new relationship to both yoga and Christianity through the perennial tradition.
For me, the experience of the conference this year, the opening ceremony, the rest of the weekend, and the days and weeks that followed, proved to be an exploration of faith, a painful but necessary examination of the practice we came together to share at the yoga conference, and a leap into the darkness as we try to pull apart a web of complexity and reorganize around various truths. This will test our faith, and as tests of faith always do, invite more clarity about our true work, both individually and collectively.
My own experience of faith assures me that it was no accident that I happened to be immersed in the teachings of one of the greatest Black mystics of our time during this period, that I arrived at the conference “on the edge of the inside,” as my teacher Richard Rohr often says, ready to situate myself even further on the margins of the “yoga community,” one in which I had been an uneasy participant for years, no accident that it was in the context of Black History month that this event occurred or that it would prove so violent and divisive, no accident that I had recently dog-eared the pages of Howard Thurman’s “Jesus and the Disinherited” in which he wrote, in 1949,
“It is clear that much of modern life is so impersonal that there is always opportunity for the seeds of hatred to grow unmolested. Where there are contacts devoid of genuine fellowship, such contacts stand in immediate candidacy for hatred.”
I have faith, too, that this event unfolded as it must, and that if we see in it the opportunity for reflection and “centering down,” as Thurman often suggests, that we will grow in our capacity for fellowship, holding complexity, deepening love and radical transformation.
I can only share the work that I have done, the thoughts I have considered, the “truths” that seem to have stuck around the longest with the least amount of ego. This is no final treatise.
While I spoke at the opening ceremony, and witnessed in real time the entirety of what was captured on the now “viral” video, I have come to realize that whatever I might say related to those crucial moments and their aftermath will be of no use to the conversation. What is true, for everyone, is that watching a white woman pull the microphone out of the hands of an Indian woman – at a yoga conference no less – is disturbing at least and traumatizing at worst. It is to this ensuing trauma which we must turn our attention and apply the yoga we love in one its simplest definitions, freedom from suffering. This event brought forth an avalanche of suffering on individual, collective and systemic levels; the unease with the practice, the revelation of a fractured community, and the ever smoldering and insidious wound of racism. To test our faith, to apply our yoga, we must attend to each of these sufferings with great discernment and courage.
But how – when we are so reactive, so divided, when we have become so separate? How can we have that experience of unity such that it might undermine the barriers that cause that separation? And as a yoga community, if this is our current state, this is how we react, this is how we denigrate and exclude each other, this is how little curiosity we have about each others experiences, this is how little control we have over our own triggers, we must ask the question, “does the practice even work?” This harrowing incident gives us an opportunity to ask these important questions, to invite us deeper into awakening and into an individual exploration of our relationship to both the practice of yoga and the concept of community.
Part of the complexity that has emerged for me, is the recognition that this situation is being framed in the context of the “yoga community.” I think deconstructing that phrase has the potential to create clarity and a pathway to healing.
Thich Nhat Hanh said, in an interview with bell hooks,
“The sangha is a community where there should be harmony and peace and understanding. That is something created by our daily life together. If love is there in the community, if we’ve been nourished by the harmony in the community, then we will never move away from love.”
We must recognize in our current predicament, that is problematic to invoke a community that doesn’t actually exist, or is deeply dysfunctional if a case can be made for its existence at all. The word community has varied etymological roots but they all refer to something like “shared by all,” or “fellowship” and imply a sense of connectedness. The common understanding of community implies a sense of interdependence and a structure for operating within it. A healthy community finds strength and opportunity for relational growth, as it organizes around a shared value system, a shared set of expectations and some sort of self governance. Creating and sustaining community, and especially a healthy one, takes commitment, dedication, perseverance and hard work.
I have seen the words “yoga community” used repeatedly in talking about this incident. Sometimes it is with disappointment, sometimes with anger, sometimes with shame. I have seen, in the name calling and social media threats, the psychosocial dynamics of the “black sheep phenomenon” in which we tend to punish much more harshly people who we perceive to be in the same group as we are but who do not follow the rules or the ideological expectations. We are that much more disgusted by them because they are part of our “community.” How could they have failed us?
But I have also seen the opposite occur, the phenomenon of “out-group homogeneity” wherein everyone who is perceived as “not on our side” is exactly the same. In this case – thoughtless, racist, “horrible.” Although we actually have no idea of another person’s practices, the work they are doing, the books they are reading, the workshops they are attending, the talks they are having and the profound changes they may have already made in their own individual process and evolution, we assume them to be fragile, unexamined, uninterested and stuck, and worthy of our derision. How could they be so clueless?
One part of the healing, one opportunity for us to find an experience of unity, will be for each of us to find, define and truly participate in the building and sustaining of real community. These communities might be built around a particular yoga studio or teacher, they might be built around specific anti-oppression or social justice movements, they might be built around common ancestry or specific locations. But for these communities to be healthy, accountable and agile in conflict, they must have some agreed upon structures for dealing with friction and fighting , just as much as agreed upon structures for creating close, meaningful interactions. There must be time and space for the people within the community to be together, to learn about one another and to share resources, burdens and support, to work together and commit to seeing each other as necessary and valuable parts of the whole, even with their differences. There must be mechanisms for holding people accountable without demonizing or seeking to destroy them. These communities can start small and build, gaining a structural foundation that can support more and more diversity and innovation.
“One of the marvelous things about community is that it enables us to welcome and help people in a way we couldn’t as individuals. When we pool our strength and share the work and responsibility, we can welcome many people, even those in deep distress, and perhaps help them find self-confidence and inner healing.” ~ Jean Vanier
I believe this desire to alleviate suffering, to welcome people in deep distress and to help them – and us – find inner healing is a motivating factor for many of us who practice and teach yoga. We can ask ourselves: in what ways do I participate in my communities? How do I engage in true curiosity, listening and conflict resolution? How am I supported in my community, and how do I offer support to others? Who is in my community and how do I engage them? Who is not in my community? How does my community overlap with other communities and what ideas and tools do I have to bridge them, creating a wider circle of belonging? In the place of this ill defined “yoga community,” we can each be committed to building, participating in and sustaining real communities of love and kindness, communities in which healing can take place and individual and collective transformation can occur.
A second part of the healing will come from an exploration of the term yoga itself, what it means to each of us individually, what it means to the people around us, how we have benefited from the practice, and to what degree it is a viable spiritual practice for us.
Barbara Holmes, in her book “Joy Unspeakable,” says,
“Freedom starts as a small ember within; it must be fanned and fed by intentional acts of faithfulness toward God and the nurture of self and community. The neglect of one or the other extinguishes the tiny flame.”
Yoga might be defined as “freedom from suffering” by some, and simply as “freedom” itself by others. This freedom, this yoga, indeed starts for most of us as a small ember within. But in fact, yoga is tricky business. The word yoga, both historically and in contemporary use, means many different things to many different people. Is it an act of faithfulness toward God? Does it imply the nurturance of community? What is its utility in growing a spiritual sense of self?
While we in the United States have mostly adopted yoga as a physical practice, we are vaguely aware of it as a spiritual discipline as well, but this ambiguity in our understanding has perhaps contributed more anxiety and confusion than any sort of faithful foundation. Because we have no shared definition of yoga, no one answer about what legitimizes a practice, we have no shared sense of where to turn for guidance or structure. If we see yoga as primarily a physical practice, to what ultimate goal is this practice leading us? What are our shared texts and who are the wisdom elders that help us to understand their complexity? Do we look up to BKS Iyengar, who famously shamed, hit and traumatized his students under the guise of fierce compassion? Pattabhi Jois, who was known for his predatory and abusive adjustments? Kausthub Desikachar and his abuse of power, sexual harassment and intimidation? Do we quote Patanjali, who hardly advocated for yoga asana at all in his classical text or do we look to the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, which among other practices, invites us to cut our lingual frenulum – the little piece of skin under the tongue -, to ultimately attain the state of yoga, a state in which, according to the Pradipika “The mind becomes absorbed in the the seat of the all-pervading, almighty Lord.” And who has the authority to teach us these esoteric practices when we are learning and practicing by and large with others who, through their 200 hour trainings, have a limited – if any – understanding of these practices at all?
If instead we see yoga as a spiritual path as described in the Bhagavad Gita, do we even show up at yoga conferences? Or do we spend our time in Hindu temples, or perhaps more accessibly, at a Vedanta Society where, under the tutelage of Swami Vivekananda, hatha yoga and practice of asana is but a distraction? Or do we turn our attention to the widely quoted Indian saint Ramana Maharshi, a jnana yogi whose main teachings were about self-inquiry, who describes hatha yoga as, “useful for those who cannot otherwise still the mind?”
Complicating matters further is the fact that, especially in the Pacific Northwest, we live in a highly secular society which is both skeptical and cynical with regard to religious doctrine and practice, and in a particular moment in time when we are collectively asking the questions – am I even allowed to practice this? Where did this come from and who has given us the authority to practice, much less teach? We can see this kind of anxious and uneasy relationship to the practice when we deride each other for referring to or quoting from scripture in their efforts to untangle the complexity of the conflict, immediately rejecting all allusions to the yoga path itself as spiritual bypass. We reveal our own deep discomfort with the practice when we accuse each other of colonization and appropriation even in the most sincere of practitioners.
We are asked to share the hashtag “notyoga,” but what is eminently missing is the begging question, “What is yoga?” This is the question that I believe needs to be answered for us each on an individual level. In fact, I would go so far as to say that relying on yoga – in our limited understanding – as a spiritual practice is dangerous, as it allows us to create an ersatz spirituality and a sense of smug insulation, leaving no room for real spiritual practice to be explored. What, then, is providing us with a moral compass, and who is guiding us in its application? Who, as a wisdom elder, supports us in our capacity to sit with discomfort and not knowing, and who encourages in us an unquenchable curiosity about our fellow humans? Who steers us into the profound faith that those others are doing their work, in their own way, just was we are doing ours, and that we are, indeed, all in this together?
We might use this opportunity to ask ourselves, individually and intimately, what is the source of my faith? How connected am I to the spiritual depth of my yoga practice, and what resources do I have or could I share that would help me – and others – to understand the practice on a deeper cultural, historical and spiritual level? What is my relationship to the practice and in what ways am I uneasy or anxious about my own permission to practice? Who are my wisdom elders within the practice, and on whom do they rely? What is my basis of faith, my understanding of, or reluctance to, the idea of God? Is yoga my religion? How comfortable am I with the religiosity of the practice and what do I know about that religiosity in its sociopolitical and historical context? Could my yoga practice be one thing – technology for exercise and stress reduction – and my spiritual life be another?
Desmond Tutu once said,
“Differences are not intended to separate, to alienate. We are different precisely in order to realize our need of one another.”
Krishna, in the Bhagavad Gita says,
“I regard them to be perfect yogis who see the true equality of all living beings and respond to the joys and sorrows of others as if they were their own.”
How, or is, our yoga practice helping us to see and honor both our differences and a vision of true equality? How do we use them as a means to see God in all her manifestations, to respond to the joys and sorrows of others. to have faith that we truly are interdependent and that we can move to a place of restorative justice and reconciliation?
And finally, I believe that it is through true dedication to these two complicated and deeply interrelated systems, community and spiritual practice, that we can together do the work to continue to dismantle systems of oppression, to work together towards our collective liberation, to pull out the rotten root of racial injustice and to move toward a vision of true kinship as described by Father Greg Boyle,
“Inching ourselves closer to creating a community of kinship such that God might recognize it. Soon we imagine, with God, this circle of compassion. Then we imagine no one standing outside of that circle, moving ourselves closer to the margins so that the margins themselves will be erased.”
This vision of faith includes everybody.
Faith and community are powerful foundations for social justice and social change, and the bedrock for spiritual practice. They each support the other in bringing forth higher levels of consciousness. All of the great change makers, from Gandhi to Martin Luther King Jr, to John Lewis to Father Greg to Reverend angel knew this.
In fact Reverend angel describes this perfectly when she says,
”In social justice work the only option is loving everyone. Otherwise, there is no path to real change. Whether we’re leaning toward the spiritual community or the activist community, what we need is the combination of a mind that wants to change the world and a mind that is steady, clear-seeing, and seeks change from a place of love, rather than from a place of anger.”
My practice of yoga returned me, through a winding path of Ashtanga yoga, to the teachings of Swami Vivekananda, to the Vedanta Society, to India, to Ram Dass, to the Living School, to the mystical Christ, to a place of deep faith in the mystery of the divine.
I have faith that this is also perfect, faith that we will find our way and faith that this has brought forward exactly what needed to come forward. I believe that if we “center down” and turn inward to our personal work of building and sustaining community, to examining, clarifying and deepening our spiritual lives and to have faith in the God that is mentioned so freely in the yogic literature, that we will all, individually and collectively, emerge from this mire of confusion, fear, anger and blame more connected and more powerful. Together we will be more ready to face the injustice of racism that is sacrificing and crucifying our human community at the altar of power, privilege and domination.
When I first wrote this, it was the day before Easter. May we all, irrespective of our religious or spiritual practices, (and the yogis did love Jesus!) find in ourselves and in our communities the spirit of renewal, and a true desire to rise together in spirit. May we bring back to life the experiences of unity among us, such that we too may undermine any barrier that separates us from each other. In this resurrection, may we find new ways to relate in faith and community such that we are stronger together in the most important dharma of our lives- that of equality and justice. We are all in this together.