Friday, November 30, 2018

An Open Letter to Senator Bernie Sanders

Dear Senator Sanders,

One of my husband’s favorite t-shirts bears your image, or at least an image of your wild hair, and your glasses. It also bears the number 2016, the year we hoped you would prevail in the Democratic primary, and then continue on to become our 45th president. You don’t need me to tell you that things didn’t quite work out the way we wished.

I’m writing you this letter because I was dismayed to read a quote from you that seemed to excuse voters who chose not to cast their ballots for politicians of color, like Stacey Abrams or Andrew Gillum, who were running for Governor in Georgia and Florida, respectively. In your interview with the Daily Beast you said, “I think you know there are a lot of white folks out there who are not necessarily racist who felt uncomfortable for the first time in their lives about whether or not they wanted to vote for an African-American.”

Later, in a clarifying statement to NPR, you said that any votes Gillum or Abrams lost over their race were entirely due to what you called racist campaigns run by their Republican opponents.

It seems like you are willing to characterize the campaigns as racist, but not the voters who lapped up that racism and marked their ballots accordingly.

I am writing this becauseI think you, like many older, Progressive, white Americans, seem to be on the cusp of making an important realization about white supremacy and the way it plays out in all of our lives. On the one hand, you know that racism is real, that it causes untold pain and suffering to Americans of color. On the other hand, you are reluctant to admit that you, or really any white working person in America today, is actually racist. 

So allow me to offer a little help, in the hopes that this may also be useful to other white, Progressive, Liberal Americans. We are racist! We can’t help it! We have been raised in a country that insists we are all created equal, yet patently denies equality on the basis of skin color in every institution in our supposedly democratic society. Just a quick reminder (all statistics from the excellent book by Robin DiAngelo, White Fragility): The ten richest Americans are 100% white. The US Congress is 90% white. US governors are 96% white. People who decide which TV shows we see are 93% white. Full-time college professors are 84% white. 

With all of this whiteness dominating our governmental, educational and cultural institutions, is it any wonder that biases against people of color continue to poison our minds and hearts? Think of it this way, because I know you care deeply about the environment: pollution emanates from coal powered plants, oil refineries, and manufacturing. These toxins affect our air, water, and soil, and make their way into our bodies, even affecting our DNA. It’s not our FAULT when we get sick from breathing poisoned air, we couldn’t help but absorb the pollutants into our lungs. Racism is a little like that. It surrounds us in the news we read, the curriculum at our elementary school, the movie that depicts yet another Black man as a drug addict or criminal instead of as a loving father, brilliant scientist, or caring school principal.

The pollution of racism is not only found in images depicting Black criminality, but in messages of white superiority. We are inundated with these lies from our youth until our old age, and the only way to undo some of the bias is to consciously WORK to untangle it every day. 

Bernie, I know you care deeply about people of every race and ethnicity. But you need to do a better job refining your ability to speak about these matters with sensitivity and intelligence. Yes, income inequality is terrible for almost all Americans. But it hurts people of color worse. Yes, lack of access to affordable healthcare is a travesty in this country, but health outcomes for the Black community are even worse, due to food apartheid (huge areas where no fresh food is available, often where communities of color live), as well as inequalities in treatment by biased doctors, nurses, and hospital administrators.

Please allow me to suggest the following steps to increase your racial IQ: 1. Recognize that as a progressive politician, you are not immune from bias, and you still have learning to do. 2. Hire a great team to help you learn and do better. Use some of the resources working Americans have poured into your campaign coffers to hire young people of color who can help you craft policy and write speeches. You’ve done it before! When I read the Racial Justice portion of your website, it is clear that you have some very smart people working for you. Keep diving in and learning more about how white supremacy and racist ideology hurt everyone. When you show us you are willing to do your inner work to dismantle racism in yourself, and call it out wherever you see it, even among the coveted white working class voters of America, it will be a powerful example of lifelong learning.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Seekers, Beware: New Age Spirituality Can Be Poisonous!

Let me begin this column by thanking my friend for posting a video called  “Ten pieces of Wisdom from Wayne Dyer.”  Like much New Age spirituality, these little teachings contain some truth, but I think overall they promote a dangerous worldview. That’s why I left a comment after the video saying “Deeply problematic white people words.” The yoga world is full of these harmful ideas, so I have had many years to ponder why they are so appealing and what might be some stronger, more real medicine for our troubled times. Gentle readers, will you take a journey with me through some of these aphorisms?

“If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.” Okay, let’s say I am looking at a pile of garbage. Granted, there are different ways one can look at a pile of garbage. One way would be to say, “Yikes, our household makes a lot of garbage, I wonder what we could do to produce less garbage?” Then we could start composting (which reduces one’s household waste by one third), we could start buying more food in bulk, instead of purchasing heavily packaged items, and, if we really want to become trash reducing super stars, we could start buying less stuff in general. Now these life changes, which I highly recommend, will take some effort and energy, and are sure to reduce subsequent trash piles in your house. But do they change that original pile of garbage we were contemplating? No, they do not.  

“You cannot be lonely if you like the person you’re alone with.” It is really great to learn to like, or better yet, love yourself. But isn’t it possible that some people are lonely because human beings are social animals? Our primate ancestors thrive in groups, and whether we are extroverted or introverted, a certain amount of human contact including conversation, hugs, and meal sharing seems to make life more bearable. Instead of asking a lonely person if they could love themselves more, how about we ask ourselves if there are any people we know who might like a visit?

 “Conflict cannot survive without your participation.” This is an interesting notion, and as a gold medal conflict avoider, I can see the appeal. But some conflicts are essential. As a female bodied person, I enjoy the right to vote because my ancestors didn’t shy away from conflict. Did you know that in the fight for women’s suffrage in Great Britain, in the early 1900s, many women learned the martial art jiu-jitsu to protect themselves from police violence?

 “Be miserable. Or motivate yourself. Whatever has to be done, it’s always your choice.” Really? It’s ALWAYS my choice? What about all those people in Charleston, South Carolina, whose family members were murdered while they were at bible study, by white supremacist Dylann Roof? What about the millions of children of migrant families living in fear that our next president will deport their parents? I suspect this definition of misery is a very narrow one. This is a real American “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” version of happiness. Most of us were raised with this idea, in some way. It boils down to this: “If you are miserable, it’s your own damn fault. Get up and make something of yourself.” Is this loving? Is this kind?

“Abundance is not something we acquire. It’s something we tune into.” Oh boy does this one make me mad! Does the person who came up with that idea (I’m looking at you, Wayne Dyer) know that in the United States, white people have 90% of the national wealth, and Black families hold 2.6% ? Is this because African American citizens aren’t “tuned into abundance?” Give me a break!

 “Loving people live in a loving world. Hostile people live in a hostile world. Same world.” Now I will agree that having a hostile attitude is bound to be a terrible way to go through life, and greeting my fellow humans with kindness and good cheer will make each day sweeter. But what about the terrible hostility innocent people experience every day? Was Tamir Rice hostile? (He was not. He was only 12 years old. But that didn’t stop police officers from ending his life.) So it’s a nice idea that if we are loving the world around us will be loving, but it does not take into account the evil in the world. Police brutality, abuse of children, rape. These are hostile actions that cause untold physical and psychic pain to loving people every day.

If we really want to live up to our full potential, as human beings, we are called to be honest with ourselves, and loving with those around us. Honesty means looking at all the ways we have been privileged to enjoy the life and material resources that we have. (Privileged doesn’t mean you have a trust fund, and it doesn’t mean that you don’t work hard. It just means many people are struggling, through no fault of their own.) Loving means not only being kind to those we directly interact with every day, but being brave enough to confront systems of oppression that keep people poor, struggling to survive, and afraid. Loving means letting go of the mentality that “you create your own reality,” and replacing it with a sincere desire for all people to be free.

“Go for it now. The future is promised to no one.” I think I like this one. Let’s keep it as it is.

Friday, December 16, 2016

We REALLY need a new National Anthem

Colin Kaepernick, a football player from my home city of San Francisco is in the news, and taking all kinds of heat, for refusing to stand during the national anthem.  The 49er quarterback said, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses Black people and people of color. … There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”

In his refusal to stand for The Star Spangled Banner, Kaepernick has made himself a lightning rod for the necessary discussion of race in America. He has also shed light on a little told tale of the origins of our country’s song. Settle in, Gentle Readers, this is one incredible story!

The Star Spangled Banner is a poem written by Francis Scott Key about the Battle of Fort McHenry in Baltimore during the War of 1812. This was a war our young country launched to seize Canada from the British. Although the U.S. lost that war, they did win the battle of Fort McHenry, and when Francis Scott Key saw the American flag flying above the fort, he was inspired to write about the “Land of the free and the home of the brave.”

Here’s the part I never knew. While the first part of the poem is what is sung at pretty much every sporting event in the U.S., the poem is actually four stanzas long. In the third stanza, Key celebrates the killing of Black soldiers who helped the British. An article in The Atlantic magazine tells how the British army recognized America’s weakness, slavery. British military leaders encouraged slaves, who were often hungry and clad in rags, to flee from bondage and help defeat their former masters. Some 600 Chesapeake Bay slaves joined the British Colonial Marines and marched with redcoats on Washington, DC, and Baltimore. 

At first it was single, enslaved men who escaped slavery to serve as pilots, guides, and spies. Later, whole families were making their way to British ships, whose captains promised the slaves free emigration to British colonies in Canada and the West Indies in exchange for their service.

Francis Scott Key was a slave owning lawyer. Africans in America, he said, were: “a distinct and inferior race of people, which all experience proves to be the greatest evil that afflicts a community.”

Let this sink in: The man who wrote our country’s national anthem owned slaves. This is the third stanza of our Star Spangled Banner:

No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave:
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave,
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

White Americans are long overdue in wrestling with the suffering of slavery, Jim Crow, and centuries of racism that is woven into the fabric of our country. Our founding fathers were perpetuating a great evil. Instead of admitting they were doing something terrible (owning other human beings) they projected the evil onto those “others.” This is still happening today. In the weeks since Colin Kaepernick began kneeling instead of standing up for the national anthem, 16 people have been killed by police in the United States. This is more police killings than many countries experience in an entire year!

True patriotism means holding ourselves, our government, and our institutions accountable when we do wrong. True patriotism means insisting we do a better and better job of making sure the beautiful words in our United States Constitution “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal” apply to everyone. I thank Colin Kaepernick for being so much more than a football player. By kneeling during the national anthem he has also become a teacher and a leader.

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?