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.