Privilege is the awareness that my discomfort is a choice. It is a place from where I voluntarily maneuver. The world is organized in many ways around my comfort and survival. Too many folks in marginalized bodies wake up every day without this basic privilege of choice.
So I choose to show up to discomfort because to not show up would be an act of violence, bolstering a veil of self-care without acknowledging that there cannot be unity & liberation without a capacity to be intimate with the suffering of all beings. It is spiritual. To have a spiritual practice without a fire towards showing up to the suffering of others is like the inhale without the exhale.
I have to hold myself accountable to my discomfort. My yoga practice is not & cannot be separate from my politics, my relationships, my access, my teaching, my bones, my spirit. And this reality makes me feel even more alive.
“Maintaining our spiritual practice is essential to our collective liberation.”
"In the contemplative yoga practices, we are asked to breathe, notice, and sit with the questions, deeply consider them, and create from them still more questions with 'stretch, resonance, and flexibility.' We must hold this responsibility dear, and not proceed breathlessly profitable in the modern yoga gold rush; as though there was a color blind, post-racial, post-colonial vacuum in which only yoga exists, forcing yoga into the shape of a perfect alibi for whiteness to persist."
// Roopa Kaushik-Brown
My love for yoga cannot be separated from my love for social justice work. It just can't. It would be body without mind & mind without spirit; fragmented and without wholeness.
And I'm grateful for that.
My darkness is also my dharma.
I am flawed, but learning.
I am compassionate, but sometimes complicit.
And this is my work.
This is my heart.
Thank you to those who understand or work to understand.
I am a healthy 29 year old woman. Well, I might have some spatial awareness issues (walking into shallow pools at brunch after only two cocktails, for example) which result in bruises in very weird places. But, looking me over, nothing worrisome. Yet at 29 years of age I have a deep fear of losing my vision. I have a deep fear of losing my ability to witness and absorb every hue of this life. Now this fear didn’t develop out of thin air. When I was 15 years old I went to the optometrist for a routine eye exam. I had never had any eye issues and I didn’t even wear glasses, but during the exam the optometrist (the wonderful Dr. Cleary) found a tear in the retina of my left eye. To this day, we’re not sure if it was congenital or trauma-induced (retinal detachment runs in the family and I had many not so pretty headers in soccer). Regardless, I was rushed from small town Plainwell, Michigan to Kalamazoo to Grand Rapids and finally to Detroit to see a retinal specialist. Side note: even as I’m typing this out, my hands are sweating and the whole thought of writing about this is not pleasant. But—pressing on.
The surgery to repair my retina was successful but, because it was noticed a little late in the game, half of the vision was lost in my left eye. A year or so later, a cataract developed and I had a voluntary surgery to replace the foggy lens (during spring break of my senior year, actually. Party on). At 18 years old, I had never broken a bone in soccer. I had never jammed a finger more than a handful of times in volleyball.
I have no allergies.
I’ve never had a cavity.
But I go to at least two ophthalmologists (different than optometrist) every year to examine, dilate my eyes, and make sure that all is well.
And today is the day. I hate it, and at the same time I recognize what a privilege it is to be able to do this. To take extra care. To be insured to do so.
It’s a human right to be healed.
It’s a human right to be well.
I’m sure I will be well.
And for folks who are able, please go get that full eye exam (dilation and all). And eat your carrots. Xo.
Can we please stop using yoga and mindfulness practice as an excuse to be idle, minimize, or disregard systems of oppression?
The spirit of mindfulness---the spirit of the practice---is not to be comfortable. There is this somewhat self-destructive mantra in society that happiness is the key. You’re supposed to be happy. You’re supposed to be content.
No. You’re supposed to be human.
For the privileged, mindfulness is not to witness (hear or read), acknowledge (or have a feeling), and then release (disregard) the reality of social injustice. The spirit of the practice is presence and full engagement with life in this moment. It is a shifting towards union. Union is driven by ethical compassion. Sincerity of being. Karuna.
As yogis and practitioners, it’s critical that we eventually move beyond our own space of experience. The narrative of our own suffering is valid, but it doesn’t exist in isolation.
If we turn inward to find peace and stop there, this withdrawal from the world is problematic. It’s a distraction. We turn inward to face our superficial habits & assumptions in order to be a focused & present participant in the reality of life.
It is powerful to pay attention.
The Buddha wasn’t just a wanderer in the forest.
Patanjali wasn’t an idealist.
Healing in the body can only happen through a healing of our culture.
So, yes. We sit. We close our eyes. We encounter suffering. But then we try and intensify our relationship with it. Non-attachment is not discarding thoughts & sensation; it is refining and releasing the superfluous in order to see what is really there and needs our attention. And then we move into the world with more sincerity and humility.
And if you’re still reading this please know that I am telling every word of this to myself. I am paying more attention because I am in a season of being too comfortable with the narrative of my existence. My privilege. I have not been paying enough attention. Living overseas in a manufactured bubble is a choice; it is not an excuse to disconnect from social action.
Starting with yourself is important, but it is just that---- a start.
After over an hour of shifting and shaking my physical form, aligning and synchronizing with breath as much as I can, I attempt a shape of stillness. I elevate my sitting bones and try to grow taller in my spine. Relaxing my shoulders away from my ears as I encourage my tongue to melt away from the roof of my mouth.
I take in the figure of creative Saraswati, sitting lovingly on my altar before I allow my eyes to close. Palms settling onto thighs. Taking a few moments to reflect. I reflect on the intention of that asana practice---you are divine, embodied love. Really, you are. Your sweat thinks so.
I reflect on the various shapes & creatures I channeled that morning; humble warriors, cats and cows, a dancer, a firefly, cobras, camels, the shaky tail feather of a peacock.
And then, compassionately, I acknowledge my efforts and settle inside this shape of stillness.
But stillness isn’t absolute. I can feel the aftershocks of the practice. The residue escaping my skin and vibrating on the surface like the few seconds after fingers leave the skin of a drum.
It’s a protective layer of sorts. Holding my form as I journey to the inner landscape.
Now I am in seated meditation.
Now I am in seated meditation.
I am absorbing the nutrients of the practice.
I am isolating the voice that listens more than it speaks.
Let the breath be natural. Delicate, as one of my teachers says.
Gazing softly at the dance of color and stars behind closed eyelids.
But even that can be a distraction.
I am aware. I am aware that I am aware.
That piece gets me every time. Evolution to the point of being aware of awareness.
Awareness of body parts. My thighs connecting to the mat. The tattoo on my left big toe. My ears that look exactly like my grandfather’s ears. My heart rate shifting as my breath softens. The hairs on my head.
This body that is mine even though my mind doesn’t dictate the rate of my fingernails growing or the date of the next blemish on my chin (despite all the water I drink and whole foods I eat).
This body I spent years shaming when all it did was show up. What the hell is that all about?
Awareness of these thoughts. Awareness of all the thoughts reinforced over time to manifest as identity. I am creating future experience through this moment.
Back to the breath.
Now I am in seated meditation.
Now I am in seated meditation.
Sitting like the Buddha.
Or am I already the Buddha?
This is the work today.
Thoughts from my latest Instagram post//@_katowens
Who do you follow for yoga?
What images do you seek out?
What images inevitably always show up?
What do the yoga bodies look like? Homogenous much?
Please don’t be mistaken. Yoga is an inclusive practice, but society doesn’t want that. Inclusivity means empowerment. Empowerment means confidence. Confidence doesn’t sell.
So, we get images of advanced asana defining and diluting the spiritual path. Look at your screen & then look around you in your next yoga class and ask yourself: how many people of color? Larger bodied folks? LGBTQ folks? Older communities or disabled bodies? You deserve to own your experience and your practice, but you aren’t stepping off your mat into isolation.
For me, svadyaya is a constant unpacking of my own privilege and my own story within the modern yoga framework.
The yoga industrial complex doesn’t want me to feel empowered.
I have much more to say on this, but I’m also aware that there are TOO MANY folks who look like me taking up space on this topic. Diversity in yoga is not my space to define. I am not in a marginalized body. My white, cisgender, able body has plenty of representation.
So I listen. Ask questions. Do the research. If I’m triggered or feeling defensive, I ask myself why.
If you're still reading & still curious, I invite you to lean into that. If you don’t know where to start (for yoga or in general…although “not knowing” is kind of its own issue in this age of google), I got you. Please check out these folks/groups on social media:
and so many more, I’m sure….in fact, help a lady out and add on with a comment. #yoga #socialjustice
I’ve been retreating from the uncomfortable lately. I haven’t written a blog post in months and I’m even finding it hard to journal random thoughts or reflections. There seems to be this unnecessary anchor of anxiety. I feel like every time I go to write that something profound must manifest off of the page. So, I don’t even entertain it. For years my writing was messy, but a critical part of my day
But now it’s just hard. Why is it so hard?
I’m writing this sentence after almost 40 minutes of staring, erasing, editing, and caffeine-ing.
I’m pissed because inspiration and an intense desire to investigate through writing just isn’t the norm right now. And it might shift tomorrow. And with Ramadan here (and things quieting down) I want…I feel this strong desire to patiently sift through the murky, cobwebbed spaces. Something is there. But it feels so dense (and empty) at the same time. But it’s important.
This post doesn’t sit well with me. But I’m sharing because I’m human and not everything is filtered, final, or clear.
And some days (or months) are harder than others.
But I won’t pack easy into the emptiness.
Holding out for the right medicine, I suppose.
Wat Pho is the largest and oldest Buddhist temple in the city of Bangkok. It takes up as much space as Buckingham Palace and has over 1,000 Buddha images (more than any other temple in Thailand).
The largest is the Reclining Buddha which is 150 feet long and 50 feet tall. Covered in gold leaf, it depicts Śākyamuni Buddha in Mahāparinirvāṇa, the state beyond Nirvana.
Even though this peaceful image of the Buddha is the main attraction for most visitors, I couldn’t ignore the intricate murals decorating the walls of the viharn (shrine area).
As I exited into the back garden of the temple complex, my eyes were immediately mesmerized by the many stupas sprinkled about the area. There are 91 stupas in total, many decorated with exquisite ceramic tiles and grand spires reaching skyward.
Meandering around these monuments, I was delighted to come across many statues of hermit monks in what appeared to be familiar asanas! Wat Pho is home to one of the earliest Thai medicine and massage schools; the stone statues depict various positions of Thai yoga, exercises clearly influenced by hatha yoga asana of India.
Amidst the madness of Bangkok, I felt so honored to witness a place of such beauty. One of the greatest gifts of travel is continuing to uncover the varied and deep influence of yoga.
If it wasn’t for a flight later that day, I could have easily spent hours getting lost in the details and the history of Wat Pho.
In the Bhagavad Gita, the hero Arjuna asks his friend Lord Krishna,
“If you are perfect and unified (yoked), unlike the rest of us who are disorderly, then why do you continue to act in the world? Why do you do yoga?”
Krisha replies, “I do it to hold the world together.”
To be on this path of yoga is to accept an invitation to the possibility of our own cultivation.
A deliberate engagement (with all the feelings).
But from that intention, our engagement must manifest into purposeful action.
The currents of the world won’t circumvent our yoga mats.
We are not separate.
We must hold it
hold each other
“As is your will, so is your thought; as is your thought, so is your deed; as is your deed, so is your life”
Moving into a new year, I always find myself surrounded by resolutions sneakily swaddled in the same deficit-driven language.
Make a new you in the new year!
You failed last year, but no more excuses. This is the year to finally _____!!
I’m not saying there is anything innately wrong with setting goals or becoming healthier or happier. What worries me is how easily the negative self-talk of “not good enough” and “start over” leads the charge of change. Within that container sits the supposition that the new year you is broken; you have no strengths to carry with you moving forward. But without a foundation of respectful recognition of past gains, what will you lean on when things get grueling?
We can’t diminish or dull the spirit by minimizing or negating all the beautiful things we have cultivated as human beings up to this moment. We are resilient creatures; we are not incomplete consumers.
This comes up a lot in the yoga practice. We blame the body for not achieving a particular asana or for distracting us early on in seated meditation. We rush to judgment. We rush to negative assumptions about our ability to be enough. These false perceptions of the mind, or viparyaya-vritti, permeate through our nervous system, denigrating us physically and emotionally.
Given the space to do so, the yoga practice pulls to our immediate awareness the internal sensations & feelings which have been dormant. Facilitated by the breath (the rising up and out of prana and the downward rooting of apana), we are brought to the present experience. And through this process, varying levels of insight can arise. These insights rarely equate to aha! moments.
Insight is appreciation of my willingness to just try my best.
It is acknowledgment that I am exploring, not achieving.
It is a brief (fascinating/freaky) cognizance that I don’t know how to digest my own food or grow my own hair. But my body does. The mystery runs deeper than humanity can fathom, so I will not sacrifice any more time not believing in all of myself.
So let’s think about making this a year of enhancing. Of refining. Of believing.
A year of naming the roots holding our resilient spirits above ground and unapologetically deepening them.