Monday, October 3, 2016

An Open Letter to Yoga Studio Owners

Do you have a Black Lives Matter sign in your studio? If the answer is no, I encourage you to ask yourselves, “Why not?”

I put a Black Lives Matter sign up in my studio in December of 2014, when the police who killed Eric Garner of Staten Island, NY were acquitted. The sign is pretty much the first thing you see when you enter the studio.

We end class with the word “Namaste,” generally translated as “the Light in me bows to the Light in you.” These beautiful words, spoken in the peaceful, quiet studio at the end of class, call us to do more than just wring our hands when we see violence perpetrated against human beings.

As yoga teachers, we love and care about our students. We want them to be happy and healthy. We cry with them when they go through a loss. We rejoice with them when they get married, adopt a baby, or heal an old injury. Can we then acknowledge that our students of color are hurting? They are in pain and they are stressed. They are worried about their kids, their friends, their communities. They see themselves in the weeping relatives that it has become all to common to see in our social media feeds. I put that Black Lives Matter sign in my studio to show my students of color that their lives, and the lives of their relatives, matter to me.

The Black Lives Matter sign is just as much for my white students. White people have the luxury of not thinking about race if we don’t want to. In 1988, a professor named Peggy McIntosh wrote a paper called White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack. In this paper, she described white privilege as a set of unearned assets that a white American can cash in daily. Things like shopping in a store without being followed by a suspicious salesperson. Or assuming that if you buy a house in a nice neighborhood, that your neighbors will be pleasant or neutral toward you. Or seeing a police car in your rear view mirror and not fearing for your life.

But white people should think about race a lot more than most of us do. Instead of claiming to be “colorblind” or “post-racial” we should educate ourselves about what our brothers and sisters of color are going through, and what they have been enduring for generations. As yoga teachers and students, we are asked to cultivate maitri (friendliness) and karuna (compassion). These beautiful states of heart and mind are not only for ourselves, our friends, and our family members; they are for the whole world!

Yoga teachers care deeply about the bodies of our students. We help our students learn to work safely and appropriately in each pose. We want everyone to practice in a way that enhances health and increases physical and mental resilience. So shouldn’t we, like doctors, be especially outraged by policies and procedures that strip Black bodies of dignity, self-determination, and even life? After all, the first of our yamas (yoga ethics) is ahimsa (nonviolence).

 A student of mine posted a beautiful photo of a White Coats for Black Lives vigil held at U.C. San Francisco. Medical students and residents are holding signs that say “Black Lives Matter,” “Do No Harm, and “Say Their Names.” Where is a similar movement among yoga practitioners? Our second yama, satya, means truth. Are we afraid to speak up?

If you own or run a yoga studio, you know you are not just running a business, you are holding a sacred space. A place where people come to learn, to practice, to transform, to rest deeply, and to heal. Can yoga studios do more to help our society heal?


Joanna Colwell is a certified Iyengar Yoga teacher who founded and directs Otter Creek Yoga, in Middlebury, Vermont. She helped start the local chapter of SURJ, Showing Up for Racial Justice.

Monday, January 11, 2016

The Bhagavad Gita and Black Lives Matter

Serious yoga students will, at some point in their practice, find their way to the Bhagavad Gita, the section of the epic poem The Mahabhharata. The story opens on a battle field, with the trembling warrior Arjuna, terrified to fight. The Bhagavad Gita, which served as Mahatma Gandhi’s guide to life, is basically a conversation between Arjuna and his chariot driver, who reveals himself to be the god Krishna. The translator of one of my versions of the Gita calls it “India’s most important gift to the world.”

Because this dialogue between Arjuna and Krishna takes place during a war, and Arjuna is urging Krishna not to run from battle, but to take up arms and fight, literal minded peaceniks such as myself often struggle with the Gita. Even though my teachers assure me that this is a metaphor for engaging with life, I can’t help but look around me at all the horrific effects of war, and recoil from the violent setting. But for people like me who get tangled up in the question of whether the Gita justifies war, Gandhi offered some extremely practical advice: just base your life on the Gita sincerely and systematically, and see whether you find killing or harming others acceptable.

Ultimately, the struggle the Gita is concerned with is the ongoing war inside all of us. Some might describe this as a war between the forces of light and the forces of darkness that live within every human heart. But this description of the perennial battle within us is problematic, and I hope that you, dear reader, will go on a journey with me to explore this. In yoga, we are very concerned with the light of the soul, that lives within all of us. Our practice is to help us uncover this inner Self and experience it directly. That is all beautiful and necessary. But what about when we describe the forces of evil as “dark?” 

A very poisonous mind state holds that people with more melanin in their skin are less human than those with lighter skin. Although this is patently ridiculous, we have a long way to go toward overcoming this untruth. My perception of white people in the United States in 2016 is that we think we are a lot further along in overcoming racism than we really are. If you watch television, you will see people of color in almost every advertisement for any product. So we like the idea of ourselves as a diverse nation. But if you read articles about race by people of color and then scan the comments section, you will see the most vile, hateful statements, definitely written by white people who are sure they are not racist!   

Even seemingly benign acts, like casting the British Black actress Noma Dumezweni to play Hermione in the new Harry Potter play, or Nigerian actor John Boyega to lead Star Wars, seem to bring out the crazy bigotry. But of course all we need to do is read the news to see how many more layers of our society are affected by this kind of prejudice.

The Cleveland police officer who shot and killed the twelve year old Tamir Rice is facing no charges, even though he shot the child within two seconds of arriving on the scene, and then refused to help him as he lay wounded on the ground. When Tamir’s fourteen year old sister tried to go to his side, she was instead tackled and shoved into the police cruiser. Imagine her pain as she watched her brother bleeding. Imagine the trauma she, the family, and the entire community has endured. When a police officer makes a split second decision and shoots a citizen, he is not engaging higher reasoning. He is acting on reflex and his subconscious fears and biases are directing him. We are all poisoned by racism. But most of us are not entrusted with the public safety. Most of us do not carry loaded weapons as part of our job. As citizens and tax payers, though, it is all of our responsibility to hold our public servants accountable for their actions.

We also need to hold ourselves accountable for our own prejudice. So I am very interested, in my writing and in my thinking, in finding ways to describe evil that do not include the adjective dark. For me it is helpful to visualize dark beauty. The night sky, fertile and life giving soil, dark skinned people I know and love, or admire from afar, chocolate!  I steep myself in the richness and depth of deep, dark color. We all need antidotes to the poisonous state of mind that says “dark is bad.” If we pretend this mind state does not affect us, we are simply denying reality. We are like someone with a serious health condition who refuses to see the doctor.

Verse 6:32 of the Gita says: “When a person responds to the joys and sorrows of others as if they were their own, they have attained the highest state of spiritual union.” On the battle field of the present moment, may this teaching strengthen us, unify us, and give us the courage to act.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

I didn't vaccinate my kid... and then I did.

It’s a little embarrassing to write this post. It would be easier to keep my head down, and keep my medical decisions private. But with all the recent news about the measles outbreak, and concerns about the high numbers of unvaccinated children in Vermont, I feel I must tell my story.

It begins long before my child was even a twinkle in my eye. Before I met my husband, even. I was working on an organic farm on the North shore of the island Kauai. The woman who owned the farm had two radiant children and a bookshelf full of everything you would ever want to know about natural childbirth and midwifery. When I wasn’t setting up drip irrigation or planting papaya trees I could usually be found reading one of these books. I’m not sure why I found them so fascinating, but I loved the photos and stories of women bearing their children without medical interventions.

Maybe it was because my own birth, in 1967, was quite the opposite of this. My mom was only 21, and had no wise older person to reassure her that she could have the natural childbirth she wanted. The doctors administered anesthesia, I was delivered with forceps, and my mom woke up three days later!

Many years after my time in Hawaii, when I became pregnant I sought out resources for a very different kind of childbirth than the one my mom experienced. I subscribed to Mothering magazine, which advocated home birth, breastfeeding, attachment parenting, and you guessed it, no vaccines. I can’t say I gave it a ton of thought. We had an amazing, empowering home birth, and our daughter was healthy and happy. If I had to boil it down, I would say that we had made a very different choice around birth, it worked out well for us, we distrusted the pharmaceutical companies, and worried that injecting our baby with vaccines would be more harmful to her health than, say, contracting chicken pox.

My pediatrician sister in law was horrified, and sent us terrifying photos of kids with the diseases we were choosing not to vaccinate against. It did nothing to change my mind. I was just sure that I was making the right choice. My mind was made up.

Fast forward ten years. The state of Vermont tried to get rid of the philosophical exemption, the rule that allows parents to send their kids to school unvaccinated, if they have a nonreligious objection to immunizations. Parents who didn’t believe in vaccinating stormed the statehouse, and the philosophical exemption was allowed to stand. I got a lot of emails urging me to join the lobbying effort, but somehow I just couldn’t muster up the enthusiasm.

A short time after this, my good friend Regan, a documentary film maker, posted a question on Facebook, asking her online community to weigh in on vaccines. I was really interested to read their responses, because a lot of her friends are scientists. The ensuing discussion was fascinating, and weighed heavily in favor of vaccines. But some of the comments, from Regan’s friends who are disability rights activists, pierced my heart. “Do you realize,” one of the comments read, “that many babies and children can not be vaccinated, no matter how much their parents wish they could be, due to different immune issues such as cancer. These children depend on herd immunity. In other words, they depend on the healthy individuals in the community receiving the vaccines, to prevent outbreaks of the diseases that can be so life threatening.”

Reading these comments, I realized that I was putting the extremely slim chance that a vaccine could harm our child ahead of the reality that someone else’s child’s life could be endangered. Suddenly I felt I had been unspeakably selfish. I spoke to my husband about it, and we made an appointment with the pediatrician the very next day.

Just as there is scientific consensus that climate change is real, there is overwhelming scientific consensus that vaccines keep the whole community healthy. You are unlikely to find scientists who do not believe in climate change, and you are unlikely to find scientists who do not vaccinate their own children. As Neal deGrasse Tyson said, “The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.”

I am an outspoken advocate for natural childbirth. I have had the incredible honor of attending six births, besides that of my own daughter. I’ve helped my friends navigate the challenges of breast feeding, co-sleeping, attachment parenting and other holistic ways of mothering. And after one last appointment, my child will be all caught up on her immunizations.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

 Painting the Tree of Yoga

I didn’t have enough going on over Chanukah, Christmas, and New Years, so I decided to paint a sixteen foot long mural on one of the walls in the yoga studio. Really, I would have preferred to do this at any other time, but this is just how things worked out. Actually, I wasn’t planning on painting the mural myself at all. I pictured myself more in the role of a benevolent overlord, saying encouraging things, like “Wow, it’s really coming along beautifully!” Or, “Maybe a little more green down at this end?”

When the studio moved to its new home in the Marble Works, a little over three years ago, I immediately began to imagine how this long wall would look, covered with a mural of a huge, spreading tree, with eight limbs. Because yoga is described as an eight limbed endeavor, the tree would depict each aspect of our practice. Although most of us are first drawn to yoga for some physical reason (we have a bad back, or we want to lower our blood pressure, or we want to be more flexible) we soon learn that through the doorway of the physical postures, we can learn about all the other facets of this rich practice.

The first limb of the tree is described by the sanskrit word Yama. Yama means abstentions, or ethical precepts, or What Not To Do. There are five branches coming off of this limb. These five ethical precepts are Not Harming (nonviolence), Truth (no dishonesty), Not Stealing (practicing generosity), Continence (no sexual misconduct), and Greedlessness (no hoarding resources).

Now my original intention for this mural was that someone, a real artist, would paint the tree, complete with bark, leaves, and nesting birds, and I would come along and write the sanskrit word along each limb. You may have guessed, from the opening paragraph of this column, that this is not exactly how things worked out. One of my students, a lovely young person and very talented artist, took my rough sketch and turned it into an elegant eight limbed tree, outlined on the wall. She sketched a monkey sitting on one of the limbs, and painted a beautiful peacock on another. Then she dropped off the face of the earth! Apparently this is not at all uncommon among college students, as finals and the holiday break approach.

It turned out that as soon as my artist friend had taken her last final, she had gone to NYC to take part in the Black Lives Matter protests, after the grand jury had declined to indict the police officer who killed Eric Garner. I couldn’t be more proud of her for joining in these historic demonstrations. As I was painting the word Ahimsa (sanskrit for nonviolence) on the first branch of the first limb of the tree of yoga, I was thinking about the dreadful statistic that in the United States, every twenty-eight hours a person of color is killed by a police officer, security guard, or vigilante.

The second branch on that limb, Satya (sanskrit for truth), asks me to search inside for how racism has affected my own mind and heart, and to tell the truth about it, to myself and others. The phrase “Black Lives Matter” is so apt, and yet so heartbreaking. Why do we have to paint this on a sign, and hold it up on the street corner? It is painful to recognize how much our society disregards the lives of people of color. How else to explain the fact that African-Americans, who only comprise 13% of regular drug users, make up 35% of drug arrests, 55% of convictions, and 74% of people sent to prison for drug possession? It’s an unjust and immoral system that has fractured the lives of so many U.S. citizens.

While my heart aches for the hundreds of thousands of families who will be missing people around their holiday tables, I am glad that people from all walks of life are grappling with these issues, having difficult conversations, and taking to the streets. Even in little Middlebury, Vermont, over a hundred people came out on a chilly December afternoon to say, “Black Lives Matter.” I think a lot of people came to that vigil because they could put themselves in the shoes of a mother who lost her son to police brutality, or a father whose teenager is sentenced to life in prison.

The tree in my studio still has a ways to go, but each limb is named, and the branch that says Aparigraha (sanskrit for Not Being Greedy) asks me to look within and see what I have to offer to this world. My prayer for 2015 is that we can all look into our own hearts, and stretch ourselves to be as generous as possible with our resources of time, energy, and money to create the society we want to live in. I want to live in a country where everyone has equal opportunities to thrive, no matter how much pigment they have in their skin. How about you?

Thursday, October 16, 2014

The Family That Marches Together...

The Family That Marches Together…

Most Sunday mornings find me attending church at the Champlain Valley Unitarian Universalist Society, but on September 21st I was in New York City for the People’s Climate March. My family and I joined many thousands of other Vermonters who made this trip to the Big Apple to be a part of this historic event. The night before the demonstration, we were having Vietnamese food in Brooklyn with my two aunts and my youngest cousin, Lola. Lola is the same age as my daughter Wren, and neither of them was particularly excited about joining the march.

I am carrying on a time honored tradition of dragging my child to numerous protests and demonstrations, so that she will grow up to understand that our freedom of speech is like a muscle that must be stretched and strengthened so it doesn’t atrophy. My mother did it to me, and I am doing it to her. Someday, hopefully, she will know the joy of convincing her own recalcitrant child that there could be no more important way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

My beloved aunt Terri, mother of the aforementioned Lola, was not planning on forcing her daughter to attend the march. Lola has recently turned 13, and her roller derby name is Sherlock Homicide. I wouldn’t mess with her either. This gave Wren some ammunition for her campaign. “I have a lot of homework I need to do. How come Lola doesn’t have to go, but I do?”

I replied, “Wren, I don’t want you to be 18 years old, and learning about this historic day, and wishing you had been there. It’s just too important. We are going to help turn the tide, take the world away from fossil fuels and toward a just and sustainable economy that values all of life. Plus we came all the way from Vermont. You can do your homework later.”

At this point in our dinner conversation a small miracle occurred. “OK,” Lola said, “I’ll come to the march.” We adults smiled into our Pho (this is a delicious Vietnamese soup that unfortunately is not available in Middlebury).

The next day we applied sunscreen, filled our water bottles, and took the subway into Manhattan. My aunt Wendy, who had come from Massachusetts for the demonstration, and who was probably the first person to RSVP to this climate rescue party, was having fun deciding which people on our train were also on their way to the march. As our train neared Columbus Circle, she decided that pretty much the entire subway car was heading to the demonstration.

Wendy and Terri are my mom’s two sisters. When I was in high school, I got to participate in another march with my aunt Wendy, also in New York City. That one was a march for nuclear disarmament, in 1982. Wendy’s daughter, my cousin Clara, was only one year old, so she rode in a stroller. The only thing I remember about this march is that we sang, “All we are saying… is give peace a chance” as we walked through the city streets. When I Googled this demonstration just now I found out that Jackson Browne and Bruce Springsteen both sang at the rally in Central Park, where the march ended. This means I have been to a Bruce Springsteen concert and I don’t even remember it. How is that even possible?

Win and I pushed our own stroller in Vermont’s first climate rescue walk, from Ripton to Burlington. Wren was three years old, and thus too young to voice any objections. Organized by Bill McKibben, John Elder, and a handful of Middlebury College students, this walk was the seedling that grew to become the global climate movement. A year later, my aunt Wendy, Wren (still in the stroller), and I took part in a ten day walk across the state of Massachusetts. Wren and I missed the kick off event, due to a serious snowstorm, but met up with Wendy along the route. This walk was organized by a coalition of churches and faith leaders from many different religions. We slept on the floor at a different church each night. I think there were around thirty people walking, college students, ministers, grandparents, and one yoga teacher. But when we got into Boston, on the last day of the walk, we were joined by hundreds of others, drumming and chanting as we headed up Commonwealth Avenue.

I am so glad that I’ve been brought up to speak out against injustice in the world. I’m proud that I come from a family of rabble rousers. My parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, and cousins are precious to me, and one of the things I love most about them is their love for the whole human family. When I walk arm in arm with my family, I think about all the other families in the world, and their right to have a future free from the perils of climate disaster. May we all walk and work together, for a future to be possible.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Saying Goodbye to Guruji

If you read The New York Times, or listen to NPR, you may have heard the name B.K.S. Iyengar, the legendary yoga master who passed away on August 20. Mr. Iyengar's students called him Guruji, which means beloved teacher. I have been practicing the form of yoga that bears his name since I met my first teacher during a California earthquake in 1989.

Although I never had the blessing of meeting Mr. Iyengar in person, most of my teachers have studied directly with the Iyengar family, some for decades. All of my teachers have stories about Guruji's incredibly demanding teaching style, his fierce demeanor, his sense of humor, and his burning zeal for the practice of yoga.

The eleventh of thirteen children, born to a poor South Indian family, Iyengar suffered from numerous tropical diseases and was not expected to survive childhood. As a weak and sickly teenager, he was sent to live with his sister and her new husband, yoga master Krishnamacharya. Krishnamacharya was a strict teacher, but Iyengar credits him with introducing him to the yoga that would ultimately improve his health and set him on the path to teach others. At this time in India, the practice of yoga was going through enormous changes. While it is true that some yoga postures can be found carved into stone in ancient temples, a surprising number of yoga poses are relatively modern transplants from disciplines as diverse as Indian wrestling, British army calisthenics, and even Scandinavian gymnastics!

This global melting pot of practices was simmering on the burner of the Indian Independence movement when B.K.S. Iyengar was striking out on his own to teach. Mr. Iyengar was one of the first Indian teachers to instruct large groups of people. Because his students came from all walks of life, and didn't all speak Hindi, classes were given in English. Teaching in a language he was not fluent in forced him to develop a highly specific way of communicating the actions he wanted his students to perform. It is these directive, specific instructions for each posture that make this form of yoga unique. This is why becoming an Iyengar yoga teacher means a lifetime of study and practice.

Most people credit the violinist Yehudi Menuhin with bringing the teachings of Iyengar to the west. A devoted student of yoga, Menuhin wrote the foreword to Iyengar's 1966 book, Light on Yoga. Menuhin credited his yoga practice with helping improve his violin playing, and even gifted Guruji with a wristwatch inscribed with the words, "To my best violin teacher, B.K.S. Iyengar."

Menuhin arranged for Iyengar to travel to Switzerland and Belgium, where he taught the 80 year old Queen Elisabeth how to do a headstand! Iyengar began to travel regularly to the U.K. and then to the U.S. These international travels eventually resulted in Iyengar's teachings spreading all over the planet. There are hundreds of Iyengar Yoga schools around the world.

Mr. Iyengar said “You do not need to seek freedom in a different land, for it exists with your own body, heart, mind, and soul.” It is this freedom that we taste when we practice with enthusiasm, attention, and devotion. This is the reason so many of us get "hooked" on yoga.  Yehudi Menuhin, who was the first Jewish musician to perform in Germany after the nightmare of the Holocaust, surely felt this freedom inside himself. If we don't take responsibility for the tension that we carry, and find ways to transform it, we can be cruel and hurtful. Menuhin described this as "the tragic spectacle of people working out their own imbalance and frustration on others." Don't we see this in our world today, in Gaza, in Ferguson, in Syria?

The other night, our yoga community took part in a nationwide commemoration of Guruji's life. From Hawaii to Maine, teachers and students gathered in yoga studios, churches, living rooms, or wherever they happened to be. Across all of these time zones, we were practicing the same simple sequence of postures while holding our beloved teacher in our hearts. A friend of mine, a yoga teacher in NYC, performed the sequence while stranded at the Newark airport! I prepared our studio by building an altar and stringing flower garlands. The room filled with students, some beginners, some with decades of yoga experience. We all brought our hands together in gratitude for a practice that has transformed us. As we sat and breathed together, I was filled with the sense that Iyengar's legacy lives on in all of us. Only his body has died. His teachings live on, in each posture performed with concentration and devotion. In each quiet breath.

Monday, April 28, 2014

The Super Powers of Patanjali

Every Monday, my friend and fellow yoga teacher Jen and I meet early in the morning to carpool to Burlington for our yoga philosophy study group. A small group of students meets each week to wrestle with the essential yoga text, the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. We chant a few sutras, and then discuss their meaning. The sutras are concise teachings that lay out the nature of the human mind, and describe how we can use the ancient practice of yoga to transform ourselves.

These 196 sutras are divided into four chapters, called Padas. Our study group has made it through the first two Padas, and is now at work on the third. This chapter, called the Vibhutti Pada, describes the effects of yoga and the special powers that can be attained by devoted practitioners. I have always thought of it as "The Chapter on Super Powers!" Some of the accomplishments that Patanjali describes are indeed paranormal, and difficult for western, rational minds to embrace. For example, Sutra III.24 states that by concentrating on strengths, the yogi attains the strength of an elephant. Then there is Sutra III.16, which says that when we concentrate on the three transformations (of characteristics, state, and condition), knowledge of the past and future ensues. Other powers mentioned by Patanjali include knowledge of our previous births, knowledge of the moment of our death, knowledge of others' minds, knowledge of the solar system, and even the ability to travel through the sky!

As for my own knowledge attainments, after twenty plus years of yoga practice, I admit that I sometimes have trouble helping my daughter with her sixth grade math homework. I am able to travel through the sky, but only with the aid of the airline industry. I am fairly strong, but I would certainly not pit myself against any elephant, even a baby one.

So given that I do not expect to develop any of these yogic superpowers in my lifetime, what use is it to ponder these ideas? This gets to the heart of mystical teachings, and what, if anything they have to offer us. Can something be true, without being literally, factually true? To use an example from Christian mythology, can we celebrate the birth of the baby Jesus without accepting the Virgin Birth as fact? Throughout the ages, there are many tales of heroes born from a virgin mother. This exceptional origin story can point us toward recognizing a special being, one who can guide and teach us.

In Buddhism and Islam, there are also amazing tales of supernatural beings and events. If we cannot accept these stories as factually true, does that really mean we must reject them out of hand? Does our inability to believe in a literal Garden of Eden, complete with devious serpent, mean that this story has nothing to teach us? If we have trouble accepting that the baby Buddha walked at three days old, and left lotus flowers blooming in each footstep, can we not recognize that a deeper teaching may be waiting for us in this story?

Yoga is a practice of wholeness. When we are practicing with sincerity, devotion, intelligence and compassion, we understand how our thinking mind is NOT separate from our physical embodiment, and our spiritual unfolding touches every aspect of who we are. There is no need to cleave the rational, thinking mind from the spacious Self. If we deprive ourselves of the deep truths that mythology contains, we will be like a thirsty person sitting by a clear spring and refusing to take a drink. The spiritual aspect of who we are needs to be nourished with sacred stories and practices just like our physical aspect needs fresh water and good food. May everyone who reads this, and all other beings, be well fed, on every level!