Thursday, December 31, 2009

Walking the Talk

As we approach the new year, indeed, the new decade, many people talk of setting new year’s resolutions. Such resolutions are virtual obsessions in the U.S. and often carry built-in failure. Most people resolve to lose weight, to make more money, or to achieve that promotion—all potentially useful goals, but all focused more on the end result than on the journey. If we do slip up or fail to achieve our goal, we often feel worse about ourselves than we did to begin with.

Instead of focusing on achieving that end result, over which we may or may not have control, we might instead commit ourselves to how we want to be in the world. In feminist terms, we would call this “walking the talk,” or putting our beliefs, politics, and values into practice.

Buddhist philosophy reminds us that attachment is one of the key sources of suffering. The writer Rachel Naomi Remen makes a powerful distinction between attachment and commitment, one of which tends to be much more life-affirming than the other. She writes,

“While attachment has its source in the personality, in what the Buddhists refer to as the ‘desire nature,’ commitment comes from the soul. In relationship to life, just as in human relationships, attachment closes down options, commitment opens them up….Attachment leads farther and farther into entrapment. Commitment, though it may sometimes feel constricting, will ultimately lead to greater degrees of freedom. Both involve in the moment an experience of holding, sometimes against the flow of events or against temptation. One can distinguish the two in most situations by noticing over time whether one has moved through this activity closer to freedom or closer to bondage. Attachment is a reflex, an automatic response which often may not reflect our deepest good. Commitment is a conscious choice, to align ourselves with our most genuine values and our sense of purpose.”

Commitment, then, is about grounding ourselves in our deepest values and infusing our actions with that clarity. It is more about how we meet life’s challenges than it is about the end result. Paradoxically, because we are less attached to things being any particularly way, we often achieve our goal anyway, but with less suffering along the way. Regardless, we can view the journey as a path of deep internal joy and growth.

I remember the first time I heard my yoga teacher invite the class to “let go of that which doesn’t serve you.” I felt a wave of relief and even freedom wash over me with the realization that I can choose what I cling to and how I want to move through the world.

As we move into the New Year, I invite all of us to return to the clarity of what’s truly important to us. May our deepest commitments infuse our world with beauty and light.

Monday, November 2, 2009

The Gift of Vulnerability

A former student of mine recently wrote to me about an abusive relationship she found herself in after graduation. She described the familiar cycle of isolation, emotional manipulation, and physical abuse that resulted in a loss of self. I remember this student as sassy, intelligent, outgoing, and funny. So it broke my heart to hear of the pain she endured.

It is a familiarly painful story that I hear from many women. The loss of self she describes echoes my own story of addiction, which served as a self-destructive “coping mechanism” for a period of my past. In my case, it was a way to silence the self-denigrating voice of judgment that had grown too powerful. In her case, the abusive partner’s version of reality distorted her own.

Though our experiences were different, this former student and I had some commonalities. We were both passionate about feminism, social justice, and women’s empowerment. We both had a solid network of friends. We both had voices of wisdom deep inside us warning us the situations we were in were dangerous for our well-being. And yet, the destructive situations snuck up on us and took their toll nevertheless.

However, those deeper seeds of wisdom and self-honoring eventually prevailed, helping us pull out of the situations and getting us back on our feet (with the help of loved ones, of course). She tells me that it was her feminism and what she learned in her Women’s Studies courses that gave her the strength to leave and rebuild her sense of self. For me, it was this same grounding combined with the self-honoring lessons of yoga.

In yoga, we recognize that those experiences that are the most painful for us are also often the ones that provide the deepest and most profound life lessons. As we are pulled into the darkest depths of the painful situations, we discover our inner strength, capacity, and insight. These experiences are not our “flaws” or “failures,” but rather the textures that allow for the deepest growth. When we emerge on the other side of it, we can reclaim our lives with a joy and peace that we could not have imagined. The legacy of our own pain can help us become more compassionate for ourselves and others.

For me, the combination of yoga and feminism provided the tools to foster a self-honoring voice of wisdom. My former student is still finding her own path and discovering the tools that will work for her. But for both of us, we discovered that life will, at times, take us under. When that happens, rather than sinking, we have the opportunity to delve into the rich vulnerabilities of our own hearts. The gifts we find may surprise us.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Body Wisdom

Yoga continually reminds me how to listen to the insights within my own body. This past weekend, I participated in twelve fabulous hours of workshops led by Martin and Jordan Kirk of, two Anusara teachers who hold a permanent spot in my heart. At one point, I overshot my edge in the very last handstand technique. Instead of opting to work with a spotter, I went for it and ended up falling.

Interestingly, had I remained calm in that moment of uncertainty before I found my balance, I could have used the principles of alignment to protect myself and remain upright. Instead, fear overtook me and I crumpled to the ground, bruising my shoulder in the process.

The soreness in my shoulder the next morning made me worried that I might not be able to finish the weekend workshops. But Martin and Jordan are renowned for their yoga therapeutic expertise. They showed me how to use Anusara principles of alignment to not only protect but also to help heal my shoulder.

Over the next two days, the level of wisdom that emerged from my own body astounded me. Each time I unwittingly let my side body collapse or failed to keep my shoulder blades back, my body reminded me with pain. But when I practiced the principles, I was not only painless, I felt much more freedom in that wounded area. The pain, instead of being a showstopper, actually helped me more fully embody life-affirming movement.

We often consider learning to be an external process. Women in particular are often taught to perceive our bodies through external lenses and criteria. But when we turn inward, our body can share its own power of knowing. Yoga is about learning how to listen.

Friday, September 25, 2009

The Sheepish Yogini

Hello, friends. My apologies for the delay in my regular posts. After working with John Friend in his workshops in Park City a couple weekends ago (fabulous!), and getting over a cold right before, I have been playing catch up at work. That may happen from time to time during the semester, but I will try to be as regular with my posts as I can.

I hope to get back to my schedule this weekend. In the meantime, here's an insightful quote from yoga teacher Shiva Rea to ponder:

"The yogini is a woman whose body has become her temple, her source of discovery and renewal, the place of remembering her life force."

Monday, September 7, 2009

Talking the Talk

Feminism has long noted that our language helps construct our reality. Far from being mere exercises in “political correctness,” feminists note that the language we use shapes our understandings of social issues and our relationships with one another.

Anusara yoga has taken this awareness to a new level. Anusara teachers infuse our speech with life-affirming attitudes. We recognize that language matters; the storylines we tell ourselves influence our understanding of the world. As yoga practitioners and teachers, we can take the opportunity to create more empowering storylines.

What does this sound like? Instead of squeezing or tightening our legs together in handstand, we hug in toward the midline. Instead of stretching our torso in a forced way, we imagine inner body bright, which creates fullness while maintaining a soft opening. We receive a deeper breath. We allow our experience to be what it is. And we shine forth our full potential in each pose. The difference in wording crafts a more loving and empowering tone both on and off the mat.

With its base in Tantric philosophy, Anusara takes this positive angle even further to infuse yoga practice with metaphor. Anusara teachers learn how to paint descriptive pictures for our students. We radiate our energy outward on exhales and draw in on inhales like an ocean tide. We float our leg up in Warrior I, allowing the waves of energy to ripple through us. As we transition from Warrior I back to Downward Dog, we recognize that when we flow with our breath, we can harness surprising strength.

Mere semantics? I don’t think so. In a media-infused culture that trains women to view ourselves with a critical, objectifying, and fragmenting gaze, it can be transgressive to speak to ourselves and others with language that reflects our value systems and our principles. Over time, we can sculpt a more compassionate and empowering reality with life-affirming language, much like ocean waves carve softer shapes out of hardened rocks. The rhythm of time and practice enables ripples of powerful change.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Sometimes Just Being Is Enough

The feminist writer bell hooks has noted that “teaching is a performative act.” Years of working as a Women’s Studies professor has taught me the truth of that observation. Not only is one in front of a group of people as a professor—or as a yoga teacher—but one’s job is to engage them in an active learning process. For me, it brings out a performative nature that I did not know I had growing up as a shy, bookish, only child.

But “being on” also takes its toll, especially if one is as introverted as I am. I can relish, excel, and enjoy the performative nature of my work, but sometimes I hit a wall and I just don’t feel like “being on.” And yet, as they say, the “show must go on.”

Yoga has taught me how to just be in those moments. Each week when we enter our yoga class, we are in different moods with different states of energy and different distractions. The self-reflection we develop through our practice helps us learn how to access deeper layers, regardless of the circumstances. The result is often an intensely transformative educational moment.

Once, when I was first learning to be a yoga teacher, I had a vibrant and witty lesson planned. Then I walked into the yoga studio to teach my first mini-class to a group of other yoga teachers while being observed by a senior yoga teacher, and all my anxiety arose. What if I wasn’t any good? These were experienced teachers, I thought; they would all be so much more talented than I. Who did I think I was?! My heart started racing.

Normally, I would have just bluffed and put on the performance. But the self-awareness and mindfulness that yoga has taught me has opened a deeper possibility: turning inward and offering a teaching from where I am at that moment.

In this case, I scrapped my plan. Instead, I delved into the fears and anxieties I was feeling, and created a class plan from what I learned through that exploration. I used my fears as a way to open and connect with students, instead of a way to shut them out. My theme for that day was how to witness anxieties without clinging to them or pushing them away, a theme which I wove throughout our poses. We were then all—students and teacher alike—able to practice how to meet our responses with skillful acceptance, compassion, and humor.

This ability to turn inward and teach the material from where I am has often produced a profoundly authentic and transformative experience, both in the yoga studio and in my academic classrooms. I have entered feminist classes with the same philosophy of allowing what is. Those classes have often become turning points in the semester for students to own the material for themselves in new ways.

What yoga has offered, then, is this simple but powerful understanding: Often, just being authentically present and self-aware is more than enough.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Receiving the Gift of Feedback

Life really is a Shakesperian comedy at times. Last week, my blog post carefully laid out my philosophy on mentoring. I pontificated, quite sincerely, about how I strive to create a supportive environment for constructive criticism in my Women’s Studies classrooms so that we can all grow to our full potentials.

Then what happened?

I got critiqued. My partner, Amy, offered me suggestions about what I was doing that wasn’t really working and how I could improve. They were insightful and helpful.….And, well, all my baggage arose. I got defensive, hurt, and a little angry.

Funny how life offers us opportunities to learn what we need to learn. It’s never easy to take criticism, particularly when it’s regarding something about which we care deeply and have tried to do our best. In this case, Amy offered helpful feedback designed to be supportive, but it wasn’t easy to receive it as such.

I wondered, as she and I processed the interaction and the feelings it brought up for both of us, why I reacted so differently to this incident than I did to the suggestions of my yoga teacher earlier in the week. What makes some guidance feel like support and others like threats?

In my Intermediate yoga class, we were doing hip openers, leading up to Eka Pada Sirsasana (Foot Behind the Head Pose). My teacher, Ali, had us lie on our backs and guided us through how to put our ankle behind our head, then how to sit up while maintaining that position. Yes, that’s right, I said sit up, with our ankle behind our head. Some of my classmates were even able to stand up.

But I struggled. At one point, Ali suggested that I pause, and then she guided me through how to more productively align my body to get my shoulder more successfully under my foot. Why, I wonder, did that moment feel so helpful while the interaction with Amy felt like criticism? Why did I take one suggestion as encouragement and another as invalidation?

I think it’s because on the mat, I am embodied first. I have let go of concerns that I might look stupid or disappoint (I am trying to put my foot behind my head, after all!) And I don’t attach judgement to my teacher’s suggestions. I simply try it and see how I experience the result. When sensations or emotions arise, the poses offer a safe place to explore and move through them to make life affirming choices.

In yoga, I have given myself the permission to be a learner, and that means allowing myself to not be good at something. That perspective is harder to embrace in our personal lives, but we can often grow much more when we allow ourselves to embody the openness of inquiry. In yoga, I am not attached to outcome. I don’t care whether I can stand up today with my foot behind my head. I am much more interested in what I can learn in the process of trying to do so, and that nonattachment helps me make more life affirming choices about how I react to things.

Relationships offer us deeply fertile ground to cultivate that resilience. With loved ones, we often get caught in our reactions instead of fully embodying them, letting them pass, and then mindfully deciding the best course of action. When we can give ourselves permission to be a learner, we can better receive the gifts of the experience.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Learning to Achieve Our Potenial

I’ve already confessed to being a groupie of the television show “So You Think You Can Dance.” It stands out from other reality TV shows in part because of the relationship between the “judges” and the contestants. There is critique. There is constructive criticism. There is even competition. But it’s all done in a supportive way that is designed to help a dancer achieve his or her full potential. Unlike most reality TV shows, the tone of the feedback is not catty, sensationalized, or cruel. It’s done as a kind of mentoring to encourage and challenge people to excel beyond what they thought they could do.

That is the environment that I strive to create in my feminist classroom. One that is inspiring, mutually supportive, and challenging. One in which the collective elevates every individual to strive for their best. For me, feminist teaching and mentoring means helping students think outside their box and creating a collaborative learning environment in which everyone grows together in different ways to create a whole that is more vibrant than we could have imagined.

But that type of environment is a bit counter-cultural. It’s unfamiliar for many of us. Far too often, U.S. culture breeds a kind of dog-eat-dog climate, in which only one person can “win.” Look at the typical reality TV show—it’s rarely about collaborative teamwork so that everyone can accomplish a goal and succeed to the end. Instead, people undercut and betray each other, play on each other’s weaknesses, and strive to win at the expense of others. These shows continue because viewers like to watch that drama.

Unfortunately, higher education is not immune to these cultural pressures. Students know that they need to work in groups, but they haven’t necessarily learned true collaboration. What’s worse, there is often still this underlying ideology that one can only succeed if others do not. That the places where one has not yet achieved one’s potential are weaknesses and flaws, rather than possibilities. That one grows by declaiming someone else. Women in particular have often learned to compare ourselves to one another and consider it a failure if we find ourselves “deficient.” As a feminist teacher, I have to work against these cultural tenets to create a more supportive yet challenging climate in my classrooms.

Anusara Yoga has offered me some techniques for doing so. In my Anusara classes, we genuinely cheer one another when someone has a “yoga moment” and does a new pose for the first time. We are inspired when someone embodies a pose we cannot—it invigorates us rather than invalidates us. Our practice is a journey of growth, not a race to the finish line. While we admire and support our fellow classmates, we don’t compare ourselves to them. As John Friend describes it, it’s a philosophy of “Yes, I see that I’m good and I can also expand and evolve that goodness in its artistry.” It’s also about embodying the “intention of wanting to help each other experience the ultimate freedom in every expanding moment of the artistry of life.”[i]

My Anusara classes have truly shown me what it feels like to learn in an environment in which we are all already enough. It’s a climate I strive to create in my feminist classrooms. We all have potentials to grow into. We start from a place of validity and worth, and we support and inspire one another to blossom from there into directions we haven’t even imagined.

[i] John Friend’s Blog, “The Art of Feedback.” Anusara. 13 August 2009.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Finding Our Place in the Family of Things*

I just returned from five days visiting old friends in Central NY, a place that still rings as home to me. There, I reconnected with people I consider family, nourished my love for the Finger Lakes countryside, and relished in the sense of belonging that I felt in my bones the minute I arrived. Jamming to the Bee Gees, sailing, kayaking, and hanging out by a bonfire under the moonlight, I was reminded of the centrality of interconnection to a sense of well-being.

In Tantric philosophy, Divine energy pervades every living being and therefore weaves a deep web of interdependence. In fact, Anusara™ Yoga places the yoga kula, or community, as one of its top three principles. The collectivity of the yoga kula raises the quality of everyone in it. It creates a symbiotic relationship wherein the collective strengthens the individual, which then in turn strengthens the whole.

Feminism also emphasizes the relationship between the individual and the collective, the personal and the structural. Large scale change occurs when we work together, each taking our responsibility for our part in the greater good. Both Anusara™ Yoga and feminism recognize the value of community. It helps us feel connected. It reveals our interdependence. It offers us support and the gift of supporting others. It helps us find our place in the “family of things.” In doing so, it enables us to blossom into our full potential.

Try it:

Vrksasana (Tree Pose): Gather in a circle with your Yoga Kula, interlace your arms, and take tree pose. Then, striking a balance between standing on your own and leaning on one another for support, lean back. You can more easily add a small back bend to tree pose when you can receive the support of one another.

Partner Stretch: Take a good Tadasana. Your partner will stand behind you, take a good solid stance, and hold your wrists. With that support, you can fall forward as far as feels comfortable, trusting that your community will support you. Lead with your heart, and communicate with one another to ensure a safe and exhilarating stretch of body, mind, and heart.

*The title is a reference to Mary Oliver’s poem, “Wild Geese”

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Moving From Within

Ok. So I have just discovered the So You Think You Can Dance television show this summer. I am hooked! Now in its fifth season, the show features professional dancers who get weekly challenges with professional choreographers and compete to become “America’s Favorite Dancer.”

As a feminist pop culture critic, I see the flaws with this and every other reality show. But what intrigues me about So You Think You Can Dance is how profoundly “moving” the performances are, with top notch dancers and seasoned choreographers. The performances stir something. They inspire. They intrigue. As the show’s producer points out, dance is a medium for emotions that cannot be expressed any other way.

Good dance, like yoga, comes from a place of deep embodiment. Many physical activities in the U.S. are about mind over body, or about achieving a particular body type. Anusara® Yoga, on the other hand, comes from a pavriti perspective. Unlike the nivriti perspective that seeks to transcend the body, the pavriti path celebrates the body as a key part of our integrated experience.

Anusara® Yoga, then, is about honoring our bodies as part of our holistic experience. We move from core to periphery, so that our actions come from the inside out. We have to first come into our hearts and know who we are, then expand out and share that with the world. This yoga recognizes that our bodies have wisdom and helps us cultivate our connection with that wisdom.

This is a profound shift in a culture that often encourages disembodiment. Women are particularly susceptible to disembodiment. We are barraged by objectifying images around us and often experience sexism in our daily lives. For survivors of trauma, disembodiment is often a survival mechanism. The detachment and isolation that results from this disconnection with our bodies has a price.

But we cannot merely tell people to become embodied. If we are living a disembodied life, we often don’t even know the full extent of it, much less how to change it. Physical practices like yoga can help heighten our experiences of embodiment. Yoga offers tools through which to become aware of our bodily experiences with compassion and affirmation. This compassionate self-reflection, along with the support of a yoga kula (community), is key.

I used to think that I didn’t understand dance, so I rarely went to performances. I wanted “get it” intellectually when the true heart of dance is to feel it emotionally and physically. My practice on the mat has changed that. Yoga has opened new doors for how to participate and make sense of the world.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Learning How to Listen

So why do many yoga classes begin with a brief meditation and then end with Savasana? These practices help ground us. We can quiet our minds, scan our bodies, emotions, and minds to see what we need that day, and, at the end, fully receive the gifts of our practice. Unlike exercises that are about mind over matter to achieve a goal, Anusara® yoga is about listening to our inner experience so it can inform and dialogue with external ones.

But how do we learn to listen? This is not an automatic skill. Women in particular often have trouble finding their inner voice when gendered socialization often pressures us to subsume our needs to those of others. Cultivating a clear listening to our inner experience, and learning how to appropriately integrate the inner and outer worlds, is a skill we can—and must--learn.

Many top universities recognize the value of what Brown University’s Contemplative Studies Initiative calls “critical first person” study.[i] This type of study involves a curious inquiry of one’s inner experience, and then an ability to step back and examine the significance and meaning of that experience. Practitioners learn how to integrate their internal experiences with the third person study that is more traditional in many educational contexts.

Yoga is one of many powerful tools through which we can learn this “critical first person” study. It can help us not only find a clear inner voice, but also examine how the personal is political. In Anusara® yoga, we move from the core to periphery. We turn inward and allow that awareness to motivate our external actions. And we then take what we learn from our outer experiences to inform our internal ones. It’s a mutually enriching process.

Try it:

Ardha Chandrachapasana: From Ardha Chandrasana, bow forward to find your core and to grasp your foot, then extend your foot and head back. Find your extension only after connecting within.


Monday, July 13, 2009

In a recent issue of Ms. Magazine, Aimee Liu provides a moving account of living with an eating disorder. She concludes that women who suffer from the illness need to cultivate a sense of self in order to heal. Liu writes that “our bodies contain us. They carry us and work for us and give us pleasure. They speak for us when we dare not admit the truth. We owe it to ourselves to remember how to listen” (emphasis added).

After years of teaching Women’s Studies, I am convinced that Feminism offers for both women and men a powerful and empowering counter balance to misogyny. But I am also convinced that we cannot merely tell people to have a sense of self, or even empower them only intellectually and politically. If women have internalized the disembodiment that saturates U.S. culture, they often have no idea what it would feel like to become embodied. Women’s Studies (as well as other disciplines in Education) needs help students learn how to cultivate an engaged and integrated embodiment.

Yoga can provide such tools. With its emphasis on compassionate awareness, students can learn to pay attention to our bodies. Anusara® Yoga, in particular, offers some valuable ways to listen to one’s body. In an Anusara® class, students learn precise alignment principles as they move through poses. We learn how, in the words of John Friend, “to follow the breath and let her lead.” In doing so, we can cultivate an affirming and reflective way of inhabiting our bodies from the inside out, rather than the externally driven motivations that can prove unhealthy for both men and women. We can learn, then, how to better embody feminist principles.

Liu, Aimee. “The Perfect Pantomime.” Ms. 11:2 Spring 2009: 74-77. Print.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Connecting the Individual with the Collective

Feminism strives for a balance between individual experience and systematic, large scale patterns of oppression that pervade society. Change, then, needs to begin at home, but it also needs to be a collective effort if it is to create structural transformation. Ultimately, we realize that we are integrally and inevitably connected to both.

In yoga, our front body represents the individual, our back body the universal. Most of us lead from the front body, particularly in the U.S., where individualism runs rampant. Try it: take a good Tadasana (Mountain pose) and bow forward into Uttanasana. Which part of you leads the way?

Now, imagine infusing your torso with the support of your entire community. Get really tall and full. Take your shoulder blades down on your back as though it were cradling your heart. Then bow forward, leading with your heart, knowing that you are fully supported by the greater good. In yoga, as in Feminism, individual empowerment is strengthened when we collectively engage to create a more socially just society.

Finding the Collective in Twist:

Often, we lead with the front body in twists, wanting to reach our full extension as quickly as possible. Instead, try leading from your back body. On each inhale, lengthen the spine and extend out through the top of your head. On each exhale, twist a bit further from the back body. Allow the larger universal good to guide your individual actions.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Embody the Change

Ghandi challenged us to “Be the change you want to see in the world.” Sherri Shapiro, a feminist dance educator, has posed the question: “How can we understand through our embodied knowledge what it might mean to live freer and more empowered lives?”[1]
Both yoga and feminism reveal that embodying our principles allows us to act with integrity.

In Anusara language, we activate skull loop to “be the change” we want. Skull loop starts at the center of the upper palate. It is a circular flow of energy that moves back and up along the back of the skull then over the top of the head and down the face to the starting point of the upper palate. It takes the hyoid bone back, keeps the neck open, and the head in proper alignment. It’s also the natural position I embody when I “walk the talk” of my feminism.

The action of skull loop, like the action of integrating ourselves with our feminist principles, allows us to work for social change from a more sustainable place. Instead of jutting our chin forward and forcing things to happen, or gritting our teeth together and willing change, we breathe, align with our beliefs, and move from there.

There are times when social oppression demands the urgency of reacting to violence and forcing change. But over the long haul, embodying our principles allows us to extend further in healthier and more sustainable ways. We stand tall in our beliefs. Rather than merely resist oppression, we create new possibilities.

Inspiration for Daily Practice:

Note: The following are some possible poses for skull loop. They do not consist of a complete daily practice with proper warm ups or sequences. These notes emphasize skull loop. They do not cover all the actions that must be engaged to safely enter and leave a pose. They can, however, be integrated into a full practice that is appropriate to your level of ability. As always, consult your yoga teacher and a physician before attempting new poses.

Utthita Trikonasana (Triangle Pose): Activate skull loop to extend energy out the top of your head and elongate both your lower and upper side bodies. Once you have embodied your full integration, turn your head upward and radiate your potential out to the world.

Setubhandha Sarvangasana (Bridge Pose): Skull loop helps you actually press the base of your head into the ground. You then have a firmer foundation from which to extend forward out your knees and through your pelvic core. A solid grounding in our principles allows us to act from a more centered place.

Urdhva Dhanurasana (Backbend): When we move out of our comfort zone, we often resort to defensive habits and jut out our chins. Backbends can cause this reaction in a beginner. When going up into a backbend, remember to activate skull loop, to trust the proper alignment of your body, then press up. Trust that even in new territory, we have something to offer and something to learn.

Bakasana (Crane Pose): When we enter new territory, many of us experience doubts about our capabilities. Activating skull loop in crane pose helps you align with your potential, become lighter, and float up into the air. When we integrate into principles we know we can trust, we don’t have to so easily give into doubts. We can then surprise ourselves with the heights to which we can soar.

[1] Sherri B. Shapiro. “Toward Transformative Teachers: Critical and Feminist Perspectives in Dance Education.” Dance, Power, and Difference: Critical and Feminist Perspectives on Dance Education. Sherri B. Shapiro, Ed. Champaign, Illinois: Human Kinetics, 1998. 7-22.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Feminism and Yoga?

What on earth does feminism have to do with yoga? Certainly, it’s not hard to do a feminist analysis of the recent commodification of yoga in the West. Nor is it hard to critique the hyper-thin, young, flawless, mostly white, middle class models we often see doing yoga in Western pop culture.

But I am more interested in the insights that emerge when I place feminist and yogic principles in a deeper dialogue. When I recently completed my 200-hour teacher training program with Senior Anusara practitioners, I was struck by the many parallels between Tantric yoga practice and feminist praxis. In this blog, I will explore the richly textured insights they offer one another. I hope that you will join me for weekly posts.

Action over Form

For starters, both Anusara yoga and Feminism emphasize process over product. Contrary to the achievement drive that thrives throughout U.S. culture, Anusara yoga values the self-honoring process of regularly coming to our practice. Whether we “achieve” any particular pose is far less important than whether we make the choices that support the optimal alignment of our body—and our being--on any given day.

Similarly, feminism has long taught us that “by any means necessary” is rarely an ethical recipe for social change. As Audre Lorde so famously wrote, “the Master’s tools will never dismantle the Master’s house.” Instead, we need to create new practices in society that honor ourselves and others. Only then can we sustain progressive changes and access the rich tapestry that is our global culture.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

In the Spirit of Inquiry:
Finding Balance in Mid-Semester Crunch
By: Beth Berila

“Our own self-judgment or the judgment of other people can stifle our life force, its spontaneity and natural expression. “
Rachel Naomi Remen, M.D.
In this time of frigid cold stretches , when campus is carpeted in treacherous ice and we have to bundle ourselves in warm layers until we are hardly recognizable, I find myself longing for warm spring days. Like many people, I rejoiced in the brief warm spell this past weekend, when everyone seemed in a better mood and neighbors I hadn’t seen in weeks ventured outdoors. In beautiful weather such as that, it becomes easier to be spontaneous and playful, to reach out to others and connect.

Many people expressed psychic shock at the rapid return of the cold on Monday. We knew, of course, that Minnesota winter was nowhere near over. Still, the sudden arctic air seemed unduly harsh. People scurried back to their warm shelters (if they are privileged enough to have a heated roof over their heads). Many students were absent from class on Monday and those who were present seemed physically drooped; their bodies literally slumped in the seats while they fought to remain awake in what is otherwise a usually lively bunch.

Of course, students’ fatigue is not merely a factor of a post-Superbowl winter Monday. We are approaching the time in the semester when semester crunch hits, when our schedules start piling up so high that we find it hard to make time for fun, sleep, or a nutritious meal. Often, we promise ourselves those things after we make it through the hump of deadlines, but the result is that we end up running on empty.

I wonder, as I steel myself against the biting wind and the upcoming onslaught of work deadlines, how we can cultivate an inner warmth and playfulness even when outer circumstances do not easily warrant it. How can we foster that exuberant vibrance when we seem so burdened by responsibilities, obstacles, stresses, illness, and yes, even weather?
In yoga this question is perhaps best addressed through the complimentary Universal Principles of Alignment called Muscular and Organic Energy. Muscular Energy is charged when we draw energy into our core to ground ourselves. As such, Muscular Energy is a source of strength and stability; we literally “hug into” our inner strength as a way to nurture and revitalize ourselves. It’s the type of energy many of us need to resist midsemester winter blues.

Organic Energy occurs when we extend outward, shooting our energy out through extended arms, head, and legs, imagining ourselves taking up more space with our energy then we do with our literal body. We radiate Organic Energy when we are creative and inspired, when we suggest new ideas or meet old ones with revitalized energy. Organic Energy infuses the air on the first couple warm days of spring; it’s exciting, imaginative, and passionate, which is why it is often considered more desirable.

And yet, we need them both. They are complimentary forces that feed one another. They are considered Universal Principles of Alignment because they are present in every yoga pose. They pulsate in a spanda, a dance where both play an equally important role, much like our breath moves both inward and outward. Muscular Energy always precedes Organic Energy for obvious reasons; we have to ground ourselves before we can expand. We cannot give what we do not have, though too often we try, particularly if we are women.

Similarly, we cannot sustain Organic Energy—that creative, inspiring, exuberance--unless we also take the time to hug in and support ourselves in whatever way works best for each of us. Self-care practices do not have to be overly expensive or time consuming. They can include simple, obvious gestures: a walk, a quiet time, or a fun evening with friends, but whatever rituals we do to care for ourselves are vital if we are to have the energy and vitality to extend ourselves in healthy ways, rather than overextended ones.

We absolutely need Organic Energy to revitalize and inspire us. Muscular Energy by itself would be like wearing winter jackets and scarves all year long; not only is it unnecessary, it will likely become stifling. We nourish ourselves in part so that we can reach out and share our insights and our gifts with others in order to contribute to our communities. The pulsation between the two should be balanced and rhythmic, like our breath. But it’s the balance itself that allows us to reach farther and explore our limits in healthy ways from the grounded strength of our firm foundation.

I think of this yogic insight as we head into that time of the semester when I often see students forgetting to eat or sleep in order to complete exams, work, and contribute to campus organizing. Those are all important goals, but they can only be sustained if we remember to hug in and give ourselves what we need to take care of ourselves. I write this column now to remind young activists and students to take care of themselves. We are not doing anyone any favors if we exhaust our energies in the short term to such an extent that we cannot contribute over the longer haul.

This is an important lesson to learn for those who are going into feminist and social justice fields, because so often those urgent social issues will absorb anything and everything we have to give. Add to that the gendered social ideology that women are supposed to give abundantly to others but rarely give to ourselves, and we have a self-defeating scenario. Moreover, in this time of economic uncertainty and budget cuts, many of us will be asked to do more with less. That many feminists will step up to the plate and do the work rather than let urgently needed programs die attests to our dedication and vitality. But we also need to make sure that we do not burn ourselves or others out in the process.

It’s important to remember that our commitment to feminist social justice cannot supercede our commitment to maintaining our own healthy selves. It’s usually when we feel we can least afford the time for that self-care ritual that we need to take it—we will be able to return refreshed and energized to the causes about which we are so passionate.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

How Can We Create a Vibrant, Engaging Semester?

The feminist poet Adrienne Rich once gave an inspiring talk to Women’s Studies students about the vital importance of claiming our education instead of merely presuming to “receive” one. As we begin a new semester, I encourage you to find ways to claim your learning process so that it is the most fulfilling and engaging it can be for you.

What might that look like?

Many of you know that I am an avid yoga practitioner, mostly because yoga has taught me many things that inform how I live off the mat, tools that fit well within my “feminist toolbelt.” You may or may not be interested in yoga. No matter--think of it as a metaphor for learning.

In yoga, we talk of beginner’s mind. No matter how often we come to our mat—daily, weekly, year after year, in pose after pose—we come to our practice with the mind of a beginner, open to learning whatever new lesson might emerge that day. The feminist poet Adrienne Rich calls this claiming our education. She wrote,

I want to suggest that there is a more essential experience that you owe yourselves, one which courses in women's studies can greatly enrich, but which finally depends on you in all your interactions with yourself and your world. This is the experience of taking responsibility toward yourselves….Responsibility to yourself means that you don't fall for shallow and easy solutions….It means that you refuse to sell your talents and aspirations short…” (Rich, “Claiming an Education”).

As you begin a new year and another semester, I encourage you to cultivate this kind of openness about your classes, your work, your relationships, and even to broader feminist sociopolitical issues. As you enter new classes, take more advanced classes, or perhaps step into a subject matter that is out of your comfort zone, see if you can bring that genuine inquisitive passion to your learning.

For me, beginner’s mind means that while I practice the precise alignment principles that I have studied, I let go of expectations or presuppositions as I come to my mat. I don’t presume that I know the pose so well that my mind starts to drift off to my next task at hand until I am merely mechanically moving through the routine. I don’t get too cocky in my ability to balance in a handstand (and if I do, I will inevitably fall out if it!) Nor do I bring previous unsuccessful attempts—my “failures”—to my next handstand or arm balance. (If I do, I will inevitably “fail” again.) Each of these prejudgements would rob my current practice of its dynamic, alive quality, lending instead a rote and dull tenor to my practice.

The challenge, of course, is to determine how you can bring the skills you have and the knowledge you have already learned to your life and your studies, while still nurturing that delightful openness that comes when you first begin to learn something new.

Yoga has taught me that when I shed any preconceived expectations I might have and instead come to my practice with a beginner’s mind, I am guaranteed to discover some new insight about myself and the world, even in a pose that I have done hundreds of times. Downward dog looks different when I am exhausted then it does when I am excited, just as it looks different as I celebrate an election or mourn the loss of a friend and colleague.

Each moment offers its own insight if we remain open and aware. Similarly, we can practice our solid critical thinking skills and still be open to the idea that we may not know all the answers—or even the right questions. We can be solid and passionate about our convictions and still open and willingly engage in dialogue with others who believe differently then us. And when we do, we almost always learn something worth knowing, about ourselves, about others, about the society in which we live.

College is generally built on a successive and progressive educational model; you take 201 as a prerequisite to 405; you learn basic concepts and then build more complex ones on that foundation. That is an important model for learning. Simultaneously, we can also meet each educational opportunity with a fresh perspective.

We are in an invigorating time of many new beginnings: a new year, a new semester, a new presidency. This week marks an historic event as Barack Obama took the oath of office and became the 44th President of the United States. The air of hope and community that infused the nation was a much-needed revitalization of our energies as we roll up our sleeves and get to the hard work of producing change. His inauguration speech pointed to the ways we have to strive for greatness, not merely expect it. He told us,

In reaffirming the greatness of our nation, we understand that greatness is never a
given. It must be earned. Our journey has never been one of short-cuts or settling or less. It has not been the path of the faint-hearted—for those who prefer leisure over work, or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame. Rather, it has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things—some celebrated but more often men and women obscure in their labor, who have carried us up the long, rugged path towards prosperity and freedoms. (Obama inauguration speech transcript, 01/20/09).

I invite you, even challenge you, to embrace your semester in a way that allows you to achieve the great potential that I have seen in every one of you. I challenge you to cultivate a beginner’s mind as you enter this new year and this new semester. Let go of intimidating fears if you are taking that calculus class that you dread, and don’t presume that you can coast through that PESS class that you think will be super easy. Bring fresh insights and energies to those feminist issues about which you feel so passionate. As the student, you have the option of making every class you take an enriching opportunity for learning and growth. No matter how good the teacher or the class is, you are the one who has the power to decide whether and how deeply you will engage each and every learning opportunity.