Saturday, March 3, 2012

New Direction

I've moved my Feminist Yogini Blog. Come check it out on my new website: Beth Berila.  Exciting new work on yoga, feminism, and the body coming soon!

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Curiosity without Assumptions

How often do we demonize the people we disagree with?  How often do we see a cut and dry, right and wrong, simplistic divide with little attempt to truly understand another’s position?

We don’t have to look much farther than the recent Republican debates to see how little deep understanding or compassion exists in our public conversations.

I have seen it time and time again in social justice work.  People on the Left—and on the Right—over simply the “other side.” As if there are only two sides.  As if the person with whom we disagree isn’t human but is, rather, some great evil. 

I’ve done it.  My early feminist commitments were so passionate I assumed that I had THE answer.

Boy, did age and life experience unsettle that arrogance and idealism.

I am still deeply committed to my feminist ideals.  But I am much more likely to want to understand where another person is coming from.  I prefer to presume that the other person is as deeply committed to his or her ideals for just as passionate—if different—reasons.

I am not suggesting there aren’t deep human atrocities, acts so horrible that we wonder how a human being could possibly commit them.  But in our everyday lives—in our neighborhoods, in our workplace, in our communities-- I prefer to believe there are human beings with deep and divided commitments.

The journalist and On Being host, Krista Tippett, gave a powerful TED talk that offers some thoughts about HOW to meet one another with compassion. “Reconnecting with Compassion,” explores a “linguistic resurrection” of the word compassion. Tippett tells of her Muslim conversation partners, Malka Haya Fenyvesi and Aziza Hasan, who strive for “curiosity without assumptions.”

                                            TED Prize@UN, Filmed November 2010

What a generous way to enter a difficult conversation: with openness, interest, and inquiry instead of anger, judgment, and righteousness. It’s the same way we approach our yoga practice.

Each time we come to our yoga mat, we have the opportunity to learn more about ourselves.  We may do Downward dog every day, but each one tells us something new about ourselves. When we let go of preconceived assumptions, we can open to what is, instead of what we think should be.  In that open curiosity, we can explore the nuance and subtlety of our body. We can feel into the crevices of our emotions.

Those moments on our yoga mat can carry over into life itself. Each time we come to what seems like an obstacle in life, we can open the possibility.  Rather than closing down out of fear, we have the chance to learn more about ourselves as a person. We can connect with our neighbors and colleagues on a human level—around our kids or our yoga or our interest in cooking.  When we do, we are more likely to stay in the game when we disagree.  We are more likely to hear a person out, to dialogue, and to listen rather than be righteous.

That is the form of feminism that my yoga has taught me to embody—one I live into each and every day.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

When Did Self-Care Become Selfish?

One of my Women’s Studies students approached me this week, deeply upset.  She was agonizing over a decision she had made to cancel a meeting she was supposed to lead so that she could attend a significant professional opportunity. 

“Did I make the right decision?” she wondered.  “I know that this event (which only occurs once a year) will offer me important feminist and career networking opportunities,” she told me, “but….am I being selfish?”

How easily we women resort to guilt and self-blame if we take care of ourselves.  We are supposed to succeed, and, thanks to feminist movements, have many more opportunities to do so.  But still, we are somehow expected to put everyone else’s needs ahead of our own.

Or at least we think we are.

“Can the meeting you were supposed to lead be rescheduled?” I asked. “Is there enough time to accomplish what you need to accomplish even if the meeting is rescheduled?”

“Yes,” she said, “but I feel selfish. Am I making the right decision?”

The sense of duty and responsibility she feels toward her feminist commitments is admirable.  It’s what happens when we devote our lives to a cause larger than ourselves.  It is a kind of Karma Yoga that calls us to serve others. 

Judith Lasater poses the provocative question, “Is it possible…to serve without attachment to outcome, including how you should appear to others? How do you honor the spirit of karma yoga and also honor your own needs?”

This young woman offers a great deal of her energies to feminist organizing—so why was this one choice to prioritize her own professional advancement seen as an act of selfish individualism?

Her angst was familiar.  I often envy my colleagues who promote themselves with apparent ease.  I, too, have a hard time tooting my own horn or compromising my sense of feminist duty to work on my own advancement.

And until yoga, I had an even harder time letting go of responsibilities to take care of myself.

But, as Toni Cade Bambara told us, “if your house ain’t in order, you ain’t in order.”
Putting your house in order means many things, including knowing when to step back, recharge, rest, and regroup.

There is a reason that airplane recordings tell us to fasten our own oxygen masks before helping anyone else.  We cannot stay in the game of social change for the long haul if we don’t take care of ourselves.  And we cannot be sure to keep a grounded, clear, compassionate feminist vision of social change if we let ourselves get so burned out that our vision gets skewed and reactionary.

Yoga has taught me that it is, in fact, feminist to engage in healthy self-care.  When I carve out time for my yoga practice, when I have fun with friends, when I chill out, I can come back to my responsibilities with refreshed, rejuvenated, and, yes, grounded.   When I come to my mat on a regular basis, then I am much more likely to approach my feminist work with the compassion, balance, and equanimity that I want to bring to it. 

Giving to ourselves means we have more of ourselves to give.

My student will have made connections at that event that will let her continue to do her feminist social change work in the long run.  That is a good feminist choice.

“When you serve yourself, you make it possible to serve others. And when you serve others, you acknowledge your interdependence with all of life.”
                                    --Judith Lasater

Check out the reposting on Elephant Journal

Sunday, January 22, 2012


When I was little, I wanted to be Wonder Woman.  Lynda Carter rocked my world, and I even tried to make her snazzy red white and blue costume out of paper one year for Halloween. (It didn’t work).

How many of us, though, have learned that we have to be super woman to be good at our jobs at work and in life?  How many of us hold ourselves to impossibly high standards and feel that the only way to be truly good at what we do is to be invincible?  To, like Wonder Woman in her invisible jet, hide the messy work of our own, human journey?

I did, for years, as I tried to perform the perfectionism in my nature. In my classroom, I presented a knowing self, feeling insecure whenever I was challenged, but performing the invulnerability that I had been taught was expected.

But that only took me so far, and it kept both my teaching and my learning constrained.  It wasn’t until I learned that my true “super girl” lies in my vulnerability.  Yoga—and life--taught me that.

In my yoga classes, I feel accepted for my whole being, the flaws as well as the gifts.  Yoga gives me the gifts to work with what I consider to be my flaws in ways that turn them into gifts.  Just as my lower back pain means I can’t easily pop into a backbend, learning the proper tools helps me deepen my sensitivity.  I draw on the tools I have (taking my thighs back, widening my sitz bones, scooping my tailbone, broadening my lower back) until I can slowly, carefully, and gloriously, inch into a back bend.

I find the same is true with my fears, angers, and insecurities.  In my youth, when students questioned me, I used to search for the answer that made me seem like the “master” of the field. I operated on the assumption (one I had been taught) that I could only be qualified if I knew everything.  What a flawed model to teach our students and ourselves.

Thanks to yoga, I have lightened up a great deal. Now I often start with where I am vulnerable.  When I prepare to teach a yoga class, I look around my life for the areas where I struggle.  What keeps pushing my buttons this week? Where do I reach for mindfulness practices and find them stabilizing, or perhaps find them not enough?  I design my yoga classes from there. Inevitably, these are the classes when students come up to me afterwards and tell me they felt the class was directed toward them.  Somehow, in sharing my own authenticity, I had touched theirs.

I find myself using this skill in the academic classroom as well.  When we explore feminist theories, I illustrate for students where I grapple with the failures of some of the ones I hold most closely.  I try to model for them how to believe in something deeply and yet still question it and see its limitations. There isn’t an easy answer to the world’s toughest questions, and suggesting to our students that there is does them a disservice. When they raise questions that I don’t know how to answer, I work with them on how to sit compassionately with those unsolvable dilemmas.   Student feedback suggests that these are the classes that teach them lessons they will draw on for years to come, not merely content they will forget in a year.

Parker Palmer writes that we teach who we are, not merely what we know.  Once, last year, when a student was sharing with me a dilemma she was facing, I shared a time from my own past when I stumbled and got sidetracked from what I thought my feminist path was.  She looks puzzled, shocked, and then immensely relieved, as she exclaimed, “I thought you were always this cool.  I hadn’t imagined that you might have struggled like this too once.”

Once, I thought.  How about every day?  That day was another reinforcing message that our students need the life skills to weather hard negotiation. Mindfulness offers some tools along that path.  It is not just knowledge students need, but also emotional intelligence and compassionate, wise capacity.  Just as teachers teach who we are, students also learn who they are. 

Our job is to help them do that, so that, in the words of Parker Palmer, “As we learn more about who we are, we can learn techniques that reveal rather than conceal the personhood from which good teaching comes.”
So maybe I am not Wonder Woman, with all those cool bullet- repellant bracelets. But I think I am teaching students that their "superbness" doesn't reside in their flawlessness but rather in their capacity to compassionately stay with the big questions.  

How do you bring your vulnerability into your teaching?

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Do I Look Fat In This?

“My breasts aren’t big enough. My butt is too big. I don’t like my stomach. Do I look fat in this outfit?”

How many women have criticized ourselves like this at some point in our lives? Probably many of us, particularly if we live in Western societies. Here, cultural messages about women’s bodies and thinness saturate our media and “fat” is seen as a reflection of moral worth. Rather than seeing beauty in a range of body sizes and types—as yoga would have us do—women learn that only a narrow image counts.

Of course, it’s no surprise that women’s bodies are objectified in our popular culture. The most damaging part happens when we learn to objectify ourselves. Feminists such as Susan Bordo and Sandra Bartky have written about how women learn to police and regulate ourselves. We internalize those media messages so deeply that we place ourselves under surveillance and often find ourselves lacking. We learn, from a very young age, that we are valued more for our looks than anything else—a message that damages women’s self-esteem from a young age.

How often to we check our appearance when we walk by a mirror? Do we see ourselves as a holistic being, with talents and dreams? Or do we focus on body parts and scrutinize with a sharply critical eye?

Fragmenting and judging ourselves works to keep women down. It is sexism at work. Women become disembodied—judging our bodies as if from the inside out. We learn to see our bodies as something to hone, tone, berate, but not as a part of ourselves that needs to be listened to, befriended, and honored. 

That’s where yoga comes in. In yoga, we can learn to reclaim our bodies. We cultivate the connection between our movement and our breath. We bring our attention to our present experience and learn to accept to without judgment.

 We come home to our bodies.

On our mats, we learn how to integrate our heart, mind, spirit, and body. We learn to work with our physical limitations—which we can eventually see not as limitations but as the unique gifts of who are.

 In yoga, we learn to value our bodies for what they do for us and what they have to teach us. When those old voices of self-critique arise, we can more easily notice them, put them into perspective, and refuse to feed them. Instead, we can learn to surround ourselves with love, compassion, and acceptance. We greet ourselves, in the words of the great poet Rumi, like a valued guest.

We become re-embodied.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Hi, folks. I have decided to take a hiatus from writing this blog for a while so that I can immerse myself in my yoga practice and in larger scale writing projects, including some that link feminism and yoga. Thank you for following my blog; I truly appreciate it. But in the interest of balance, I am going to let it go for a while.

Wishing you all a balanced and joyful summer. Be well,

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Recharging with Todd Norian Workshops

I am spending the weekend in therapeutic intensive workshops with Todd Norian, an insightful Anusara teacher who is visiting my home town of St. Paul, Minnesota. He came in the nick of time, when I was in greater need of revitalization than I had realized. As I sit in the workshops, I am drinking up the inspiration and information like a woman who forgot to bring her water bottle on a long hike. It feels deeply nourishing.

Of course, I recharge on my yoga mat each time I practice, and with my friends each time I reconnect with them. But it has been a hectic semester crunch, when more and more tasks are thrown on my plate, more budget cuts threaten the Women’s Studies Program in which I teach, and stress and anxiety permeate many of the students and faculty with whom I work. I feel like I have been able to remain level but not soar, stay steady but not access the deep joy that allows me to open and thrive.

So participating in twelve hours of intensive Anusara workshops this weekend is more invigorating than the breath of spring that is beginning to infuse the Minnesota air. I drink in Todd’s energy and humor, supported in the laughter and warmth of the other participants. I refill the wellspring of knowledge, learning how to help people with knee, shoulder, or hip injuries. As my knowledge deepens, so does my joy.

Though it may seem, to some, like work to allocate my weekend to workshops, the time is spent reconnecting to the energy that allows me to center and thrive. It doesn’t just quench my thirst, it nourishes me and surrounds me with the intrinsic goodness that clarifies how I want to be in the world. As Todd reminded us, the Tantric philosophy of Anusara reminds us that joy is our birthright, and that “life is not a problem to be solved but rather an experience to be savored.”