Thursday, August 22, 2013

Do your practice, all is coming

So I've written about Ashtanga in this space before, but not as much as I'd thought I had. It's been on my mind for weeks now.
This is Kino MacGregor, the yoga world's Ashtanga darling. She's got a killer bod, and her down-to-earth instruction has made the practice accessible for lots of practitioners. I can't swear by her methods, but she sure is cute. And check the delts.

This isn't a yoga blog, it's true, despite the fact that I write about yoga an awful lot. I write about yoga so much because I think about it, and because it's a really useful tool in understanding some of what I struggle with in life (right now, a sense of direction, #BlackPowerisforBlackMen, what "Spirituality" means, who am I post-surgery). My yoga practice is the place where good writing happens, it's a place that is safe when almost every other place feels threatening, and even when my practice feels distant or stiff (as it does right now) or rife with self-judgment, it's where I go. So even as I'm thinking about how much it hurts to connect to the pain of rejection (specifically within the context of culturally being abused and rejected by black men, not as a mate but as a member of one's (my) own community), yoga feels appropriate.

So, Ashtanga. If I haven't said it yet, I have a complicated relationship with Ashtanga. Ashtanga is a deeply athletic, highly structured system of asana that involves practicing the same sequence of poses, in the same order, with the same breath technique and the same energy locks, or bandhas. It's broken down into several series, Primary, Intermediate, etc. and I think there are seven or eight in all. But Primary is Primary, no matter where you go. It's a bit like Bikram, or maybe a Catholic church in that way: you can walk into any Ashtanga studio anywhere in the world, and the Primary series will always be the same. You don't need to speak the language to practice.

(As an aside, the name is a bit of a misnomer. Ashtanga translates to "eight limbs", which actually describes the path of yoga as a lifestyle as opposed to exclusively a physical practice. Asana, poses, is only the third  limb of eight that constitute yoga: but that's a bit of a rabbit hole and would take us off our point.)

I love the structured nature of the practice. At its best, it feels rhythmic, meditative, familiar and always challenging. Structured things make me quite happy. I love order, and I follow rules. I swoon in office supply stores. There is a part of me that is deeply soothed by the structure and order of the Primary Series. I don't have to decide what to do, because it's all there, laid out for me, I just have to show up and try.

I fell in love with Ashtanga in grad school. I'd recently moved away from my friends and community, I was chest-deep in my thesis, and I spent so much time making words that I wasn't interested in any kind of experience (especially a spiritual one) that involved language. So every Sunday night, I would go over to Yoga Now--back when it was on the North Side, on Broadway at Thorndale--and take the free class taught by Patricia Hyland. A dark-haired short woman in her 50s, Patricia had been practicing Ashtanga for decades, and would start every class with an unsolicited and rambling mini-lecture (welcome by me, despite my need for silence) about Ashtanga. Then she'd decide it was time to get down to business and we'd do Half Primary, all of us. It was hard. It was quiet. It was an opportunity for me to dive into whatever I was bringing into the room that day, and to come face to face with it. I loved it.

But I also have a hard time with it. I'm the kind of yogi who takes the whole idea of different yoga traditions with a giant grain of salt. There's a kind of purist vibe about Ashtanga, its ancient quality, its connection to the Indian subcontinent (Mysore is both a method of practicing that involves learning sequences slowly, one pose at a time, over many months or years, and the city in Southern India for which the method is named), its profound discipline and punishing demands. I believe in the wisdom of our teachers, and I understand why one woman would  prefer Iyengar to  vinyasa, and why Tantra traditions just seem too far out there for some Type A's, but really. At the end of the day, it's all about a physical practice that unites movement and breath, body and mind, gross and subtle, masculine and feminine. Does it matter what lineage we hold up as our favorite? (Having said that, my sweet spot is Tantra, because that metaphysical, shiva/shakti stuff is right up my street.) I wonder about the safety and accessibility of some poses: Ashtanga strikes me as a system of yoga westerners would take to like fish to water, because it's can be goal-oriented, about go-go-go, push-push-push, achieving the next level. Lots of people hurt themselves when they practice thoughtlessly; they push too hard. This is true of just about any physical activity, so it's not a huge deterrent, but still. Also, I struggle with the beauty of Ashtanga. Ashtangis are gorgeous, and I mean in the way you'd expect a yogi to be: they're lithe, muscular and graceful. During practice, they mist themselves with oil and water (only so that they can shove arms through legs in kukutasana) and they glisten with strength and beauty. Not long ago, Yoga Journal did a spread about this woman and this project, and it really rubbed me the wrong way. As stunning and powerful a practice as this is, I don't trust the outward celebration of the stunning physical body that it creates in its practitioner.

Given this love/hate relationship, I go back and forth with Ashtanga. For a time, I practice, working diligently but compassionately with what bit I can in Primary series, then I decide Ashtanga's not for me, and I give in and do what I want to do: sun salutations that involve lunges, poses to open my outer hips that I can actually get into, yin (!) yoga. It's wonderful. But then I begin to feel like something's missing, like my practice, all loosey goosey and going with what my body wants, just isn't hooking me enough. I pull out my Ashtanga books and handouts, and I cruise the interwebs for one or two Ashtanga blogs that I can cling to for inspiration when my discipline is flagging and I just don't wanna anymore.

It's a cycle. Not vicious, but not fun.

I find myself back again, fascinated by the structured and nature of Ashtanga, thinking that given some other life changes I'm dealing with that it would be good to have a yoga practice that was a) unchanging; and b) could help me connect to myself, get to know that which is new, grow, change and discover. I need exercise, I need to build strength, stamina, discipline, endurance. Why not pick up a yoga practice which will help me cultivate all these things?

Because it's fuckin' hard, that's why.

I don't mean hard like, man-I-can't-get-my-foot-up-to-my-thigh-in-tree-pose hard. I mean hard. You want a practice that will force you in an unattractive way to get to know your ego, Ashtanga is it. It requires a lot of you and takes a lot out of you, and if you don't bring a truckload of patience and compassion to the mat with you, and I mean every time you practice, you won't make it. I find myself thinking of it as the ego smashing practice, because every time I step to the mat, what I think I know about yoga dissolves and evaporates in the room and it fills with my hardworking, frustrated energy.

I wasn't sure if I should even try practicing Ashtanga at this point in life. It's true, I need to get back to a place where my body is strong and healthy. I'm softer in places I don't want to be, and taking care of myself means building muscle tone, endurance and strength. I began to wonder if I was just too old, if I should just let go of Ashtanga forever.

But the Universe has been sending me all kinds of messages not to do that. On Sunday, the Foundational class I went to at my favorite studio was taught by an Ashtangi, and our class mirrored the Primary series in a way that was uncanny, although still accessible. Kino MacGregor, see above, keeps showing up on an online yoga magazine I check out. On top of which, one of the yoga blogs I read just posted a led Ashtanga-inspired video for beginners. The Universe is rising up to meet me, and it's bringing Primary series.

If my body learned these poses once, it can learn them again. If I learned to wake before six a.m. so I can finish my practice and have breakfast early, I can learn again. If I woke and practiced without checking FB or Twitter, I can do it again (although that will be quite hard). It just takes more time this time around.

I'm considering making my journey with Ashtanga a little more public this time. Not here, but maybe at my blog at MsFit. If you're interested, let me know. I like reading those kinds of things, but I don't know if anyone else does.

Until I decide, I guess my job is to put my head down, make my body my laboratory, and trust the words of Sri K. Pattabhi Jois. Do my practice, all is coming.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Twitter made me wince.

I recently discovered #BlackPowerisforBlackMen, a hashtag that's been trending, a kind of home for a conversation about the privilege black men live with (and benefit from) at the expense of black women. It was borne out of #SolidarityisforWhiteWomen, which is equally powerful, but is also another story.

(Sidebar: I think it's really cool that what's rocking my world is a collection of letters and symbols, as opposed to a physical experience I had, something I ate or read or saw. I'm stunned that Twitter has been the home for this kind of dialogue. The Internet is changing our world, y'all; and I'm old, I don't even understand how fast things are moving.)

So tweets that feature this hashtag can and should be found if you do a Twitter search, but some I've read include:

"Because somehow I am expected to smile for u, on command, on the street, when we've never met." (@Shannonboogie)
"#BlackPowerisforBlackMen because the only real issues and people that matter in the black community is black men." (@B_Jenelle)
"#BlackPowerisforBlackMen when BM subtlely blame BW for fatherlessness and then blame them for homosexual black boys by extension." (@Minniemette-- this one is SO complicated, to me, I don't know where to begin)
"BlackPowerisforBlackMen when black men want us to protest police brutality and racial profiling but forgive Chris Brown, Kobe etc." (@ZerlinaMaxwell This hit me like a brick in the face, because I've experienced this very feeling."

It's powerful stuff. Mikka Kendall and Jamilah Lemieux are the women who started this conversation, and to whom I'm grateful for doing so. I've been thinking about it since it popped into my feed Monday morning, and I'm a week behind, late to the party as usual. Clutch Magazine collected some tweets and put them here, and if you haven't read yet, do it. This is a conversation that I'm not having with many people.
Holy God, this woman. She knocks my socks off. Jill Scott, will you be my mentor?

Months ago, I posted a stunning photo of Jill Scott on FB, and a friend of mine commented that she couldn't get behind JS because she has problems with interracial couples. In the article I linked to, she describes something called "the wince."

(So come with me down this rabbit hole.)

I totally know where my friend is coming from, at least cognitively. She's biracial, a daughter of a black man and white women, who love her deeply and taught her some lessons that have made her a pretty awesome human being and a thoughtful, compelling artist and educator. She's married to an equally awesome Latino man, and they have two beautiful children together. She is interracial couple; she lives interracial couple; she comes from interracial couple. To hear someone denounce interracial love, even as thoughtfully as Jill Scott does, strikes at a deep, elemental part of who she is.

But here's the thing: she's not a black woman. She's biracial, and they're not one in the same, much as we in the black community want to pretend and assert that biracial equals black. The one drop rule is dead, and anyone who would have you believe otherwise is walking through life with a small mind. I know, plenty of biracial people read as black and when they get stopped by Officer Bubba, it doesn't much matter who was white in his family tree. I'm also not saying that biracial is better, or worse, than black. I'm saying that being biracial provides her with a different experience, and it makes Jill Scott's experience further from hers. My friend's experience as a woman who comes from and shares two cultures make it difficult for her to experience the wince. Of course she can't get on board with this feeling; I don't know if she's ever known the wince.

Here's another thing: I write this as a black woman in an interracial marriage. I come from some remarkable black men, and I love black men, I've even dated black men, but I didn't marry one. I married the man I fell in love with. I didn't fall in love with him because he wasn't black. For the record, he's not white either (as if black and white are opposites when it comes to people, or love, as it if it were as simple as that.) He's American-Born Chinese, the first generation of his family born here, and when I described the kind of oppression and depression and dispossession I felt as a woman of color, he understood it perfectly as a man of color. But more importantly, I fell in love with him because he saw me and knew me, because my "angry black ass" didn't scare him away, and because he fell in love with me. I'm not ashamed of that anymore. People say the same thing of Christ, right, that they love him because he loved them? And Christ doesn't forget to fill up the electric kettle or chew too loudly over breakfast.

So, madly in love as I am with my husband, I understand at my center the wince that Jill Scott is talking about. I don't want another man, I got my man, and I love the idea of cross-cultural relationships and families. I love interracial love. But I know, and I see, how society heralds the beauty of white women at the expense of black women. I acknowledge the fractured nature of feminism in American history. I think about that section of Their Eyes Were Watching God, when Janie's grandmother is trying to warn her about what it means to be a black woman, about the rejection, dismissal, judgment and oppression you will endure from the world. I work to transcend the trappings of physical life and my expectations of it, of how the world treats me because I am a black woman--and this is what I have yoga for--but when I'm behind the counter getting shitty service, or when I'm being condescended to by someone my grandmother's age, or when someone is saying something patently racist and I'm expected to laugh it off, it's hard.

So when this happens, I want to believe that even though almost all of the world is uninterested in caring for black women, when everyone else has their own to deal with and black women better do for themselves, I hope, hope hope, that black men will show up for us.

And they don't. They don't show up. They blame us. They ignore us. They call us angry, bitter, and they choose women who have been heralded as the paragon of beauty for being the opposite of what we are. The sons, brothers, fathers and cousins make a choice that, whether they mean to or not, hurts us just a little.

How can we not wince?

Chalk it up to insecurity if you want, and maybe you're right. But I'd argue it's not an insecurity that comes individually, but that it's an insecurity that has been a part of the fabric of what it means to be a black woman in America, for centuries. It is one of many generations-old, deeply felt curses resulting from the original sin of American slavery. If black women are insecure, if we wince, it is because the men we need to champion us to a world that barely sees us in our own right, are actively moving away from us.

Perhaps this is why the hashtag weighed on me the way it did. It crystallized and verbalized a divide between black men and black women that is damaging my community. It woke a lot of people up, and got a lot of us thinking and talking, hopefully in that order. The question (as always) is how to take this energy, and education for some, and make something happen with it, as opposed to letting it just burn off like so much steam.

Monday, August 19, 2013

a surprise visitor

So my Favorite and I recently moved into new digs, and before we moved in, I did a bit of a cleansing ritual, to bless our new home. Now that we're, let's say, four-fifths unpacked, I thought it was time for a second ritual, so I pulled out the Feng-Shui (say, "fung sway") for Dummies and I did the Orange Peel Blessing. If you know me, it should come as no surprise to you that I'd do this kind of stuff. I'm the kind of person who believes in shifting the energy around them, whether it's with a deep breath, a sage smudge or a big change. My husband doesn't really go in for all of this, but he doesn't have to believe to benefit, and he's patient enough with me that I don't mind doing it alone.

All well and good, no biggie, lots of water sprinkling and chanting and flowers. Then, I sat down and started planning dinner.

So less than an hour after the ritual was finished, I'm sitting in the living room searching for a vegan sloppy joe recipe on the tablet (they were awesome), and a black-and-white cat walked in through my open front door.

What's interesting about this, besides the fact that we don't have a cat, is that we live on the third floor of a six-flat. Typical Chicago, but it's not a building that's super-open to wildlife. The cat came from someone else's home. It's not a building where everyone leaves their doors open, because it'd just be open to a hallway, you know, not anything special. My door just happened to be open because I'd opened it as a part of the blessing. Additionally, it was maybe six pm, so people were getting home from work and whatnot. Either they weren't at home, or they'd notice that their cat had scampered away.

I saw something move out of the corner of my eye, and I look over and there's this cat, green eyes, big pupils, two-tone coat, walking in like he'd come from the back bedroom. I half-expected him to say, "Jess, did you forget to fill the Britta pitcher again?"

"Hi," I said. He turned and continued walking into the living room.

I called out to my husband and told him that a cat had just wandered into our home. He seemed somewhat at ease, making his way into the dining room and through the kitchen, he went into the hall closet even, looking for something (a food dish? a litter box?). My husband came out of his office and we stared at the cat for a while.

I was completely flummoxed. I've seen cats before, I get cats, I like cats. But this one didn't have a collar, and I didn't know whom he belonged to. He was thin, not beat up or bald or sickly, but as he mewed, I noticed that he didn't have many teeth. Where had he come from? What did he want? What should we do?

If my husband tells  you this story he'll tell you he was cool and I was confused. Don't you believe it. He seemed at a loss, just like me. My husband mewed at the cat and tried to get it to come toward him, out into the hallway, but the cat was not interested. He put some water out for the cat, who couldn't have cared less. He moved boxes around, trying to block access to various parts of the apartment, and they were somewhat successful. He knocked on doors, and I knocked on a couple more, looking for who might be the family for this cat.

The whole time I'm talking to the cat, I'm thinking, do you want to come and stay with us? Have you come here because you're looking for a family and we're it? Or are you lost? I've just done this blessing to rid our home of negative energy and bring blessings and luck to our family, and you're what walks through the door. Can you stay here? I mean, our lease says NO PETS, otherwise we'd probably be talking seriously about getting one. Do you know that? Have you come here because you want to live with us? Or are you just looking for your own home?

The cat looked confused, and sometimes ill at ease. He would sit in the floor for a while, mewing, and occasionally the tip of his tail trembled. When the neighbors came home with their dog, Tater, his ears started twitching and he began to hiss. What I couldn't do was ignore the cat. I couldn't just go back to dinner planning and Pandora radio like nothing had happened. Because this cat must have had a home, someone who would love it. But I didn't know how to help him get home. I didn't know if his home was this home, or another.

After about 15 minutes of trying to coax the cat back out our front door, and looking for someone in the building who owns it, we found its owner. Turns out, the cat's name is Buster, and he lives with a lovely woman on the first floor. I'm still not sure how it is he got out of her apartment. I wonder if he's a building cat that she takes care of.

That night, I dreamed of pets. Someone had left three puppies and a cat for my husband and me to care for, and we'd never had a bet before, so we had no leashes with which to walk the dogs. I went door-to-door, asking to borrow a leash for each puppy, when I finally had enough and managed to get the puppies wrangled into leashes, they didn't want to walk. Puppies don't really know how to go for walks, you know? They have to learn. There'd even been some indoor pooping, because they didn't know where they should go or not go.

I'm glad the lovely woman on the first floor came to get Buster. I wouldn't want either of them to be lonely for one another's company. But I do wonder what message, if any, Buster was bringing into our home. What drew him up to the third floor, and what would he have done if we'd just let him stay?

If Buster comes back, I'll be much more relaxed this time, because I know where his home is. Maybe I'll find out from him if he'd like to stay longer, or if he just wants to upset an afternoon's activity.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Loving Our Changing Bodies

This is not my orchid, although I do have one. It doesn't look nearly as good.

It's been a busy week. A week ago, my Favorite and I moved house, and so now we're swimming in a sea of boxes, and my chief responsibility has been to try and unpack our lives.

BUT, I wanted to take a quick moment and share with you a piece I wrote about what my yoga practice has been like after surgery. You can read it here. Exciting!