Yoga for the Body Politic

The paradox of education is precisely this – that as one begins to become conscious one begins to examine the society in which he is being educated.      James Baldwin

For a couple years now (since Trayvon was killed, really) I’ve been adapting the skills and awareness I’m developing through yoga to help me feel for patterns in the alternate pathways of shame and resources as they circulate through the body-politic. When I begin to perceive something in the social fabric that disrupts my dominant narrative, I recognize the resulting confusion and discomfort from my work in my own tissues. My web of beliefs, sensations, thoughts, and almost automatic actions is tightly woven. The shape of it is precious to me: my identity.

I ask myself: “Is this me? Or is it what the system says I must be?”

We humans depend on each other for everything, including upholding the communal illusion of individuality. As I seek to loosen my bonds, I hope that different choices will be available for me. But that is only Me.

I know there are others in my community who are working with questions of karma and dharma (even if they do not name them as such): which actions are mine to take? Which do I take merely to maintain my story of self? To stay comfortable? Which do I not take because they threaten the continuity of my ideology? How do I get this debate out of the air above my head and into the meat of my guts?

I believe Ethics are a Karma conversation: do the actions I take have the effects I desire? If my desires – along with the rest of my reality – are formed through action, can I reshape what I want by changing what I do? These are classical conversations, but the ways we have them can be very modern: with sharp attention to how the scalable, hierarchical systems of patriarchy, capitalism, colonialism, and white-supremacy express themselves in every matrix, and a steady will to honor voices that alert us to our own traps.

I am beginning an experiment in holding space for these conversations. Michelle at The People’s Yoga has generously donated the NE Killingsworth space once a month for our meeting. We will practice feeling, communicating, listening, and sustaining mindfulness in community through meditation, deep inquiry, and conversation. Seeking steady engagement around charged sensations, we hope to develop skills for supporting each other’s awakening – politically, socially, and spiritually.

Through Living Yoga, I teach teens in lockup. Last week while we were talking about society, the system, and the power of mind, one of the girls said, “I don’t think it really has to be like this. I think that if we decided to, we could just stop doing all this – just look at each other and change it. Just stop! And do it differently.”

I told her I would try.

The donations collected at this month’s gathering (4/22) will benefit the Living Yoga Yogathon.




For the month of April, I am fundraising for the Living Yoga Yogathon. Please give HERE.

I have been volunteer teaching for Living Yoga for just a couple months now, but I feel very dedicated to this work. I’m pleased to have the opportunity to raise awareness (and hopefully some money) for an organization that is helping make yoga more radical, accessible, and relevant for all of us by bringing more people and more perspectives into the practice.

Back in June, I participated LY’s Trauma Informed Volunteer Teacher Training and was impressed by the practical, purposeful approach the trainers and administrative staff brought to every element of our time together. As an experienced teacher, I also got to reconnect to the essentials of the practice by learning with people who had never taught a class but were so passionate about what yoga had done for them they just had to share.

As I progressed through placement and clearance, and into teaching, contact with LY HQ has consistently been efficient and supportive. Volunteering my time practicing with teens at the Donald E Long detention center each week is a privilege in so many ways. And I think the kids appreciate it too.

For the Yogathon, Living Yoga asks participants to set an intention for their own practice through the month. My goal is to increase stamina, which I think of as the ability to remain engaged and active when challenges drag on. Because this is yoga, I am interested in the particular strength of staying in – in a pose, a conversation, or an uncomfortable environment – without collapsing into exhaustion or victimhood, and, balance-wise, without hardening along the fortifications of ego or identity.

To me, more stamina means easier breathing, fewer oppositional thoughts, increased sensitivity to nuance and intersection, and a commitment to staying engaged emotionally. As always, these are embodied values. I want stamina so I can spend more time in spaces not designed for me. I want stamina so I can listen through my opinions to my human needs, and so I can do this for people whose opinions threaten my identity. I want stamina so that when I do difficult things, I do not need more recovery time than the people who – without choice – do these difficult things everyday.

The day after the election, I taught my regular Wednesday morning class. My students were in shock, weeping. I knew, and felt deeply, personally, that the loss of the election was an identity loss. It was my job to help students feel that the ground was still under them, the breath still within and without.

At the same time, I knew from the African American and Native American activists who I follow that Donald Trump’s election was not the same emotional punch in the gut for them. Even though their communities would suffer more than liberal, white communities like ours, they were less shocked. The hope and trust we had depended on as we depend on gravity and breath: this had been taken from my activist mentors so early in their lives that they had very little left to lose. Donald Trump could scare them, horrify them – but his election did not shock them. They already lived in the America that many of us had just realized existed.

I do not scorn the need my community members had for comfort in the days and weeks after the election. I know it well. But I see it – as I see any disconnection – as an invitation to connection. If the shock of the election was some sort of puberty rite for so many liberal whites, I did not want to turn away from what I saw. And yet, I did.

In the wake of the election, I kept doing what I had been doing: practicing yoga, reading and thinking about race in America, listening to women of color. I didn’t listen to the national news, but I never really do. The night of 45’s inauguration, I looked at for a few minutes and came as close as I’ve ever been to a panic attack. It surprised me, this evidence of how I had held my body away from our new reality. I felt the dam of denial fail and the rush inside was black. I read two books to my baby in her bed and knew only that I was breathing and that she was breathing next to me.

Before this feeling, I knew that just being able to make space between my body and our sociological and political reality was one of the prime indicators of my privilege. What I realized (again) that night is that avoidance can be the equivalent of moving toward the panic. Hardening and collapse are deeply interrelated. They depend on each other. The difficult, delicate space between them is not just the moral high ground, it is the most practical place to stand. When I realized (crash) that there was a long march ahead, I also realized that I would need the stamina to make that march.

So the next morning I recommitted to the work of creating practices that allow me to spend more time with the discomfort of what is happening, while planting conscious flags of secure embodiment in spaces that feel disempowering. These are stamina practices, because they let me stay longer in the space of action so that – hopefully – I can be of more use to those who have to live there.

Yoga teaches us to lean into discomfort while remaining connected to physiological indicators of safety. I practice to stay in meditation through boredom, through anger and frustration. I practice to stay aware of the fact that all I am doing is sitting still (on a pillow!). I stay through round after round of reactivity, noticing what I do to try to get comfortable, how that comfort eludes me, how I obsess over little pinches and chase very specific squirrels. I take time, allowing myself to wonder why some spots are so much stickier than others. Allowing stories to rain down like graduation caps, only momentarily meaningful. The breath is our all-the-time tool, right? Am I still breathing? From there, I can make my way back to being ok.

This is what I teach the teens I work with through Living Yoga at the A&E program at the Donald E Long detention center: how to make space internally, orient to sensation safely, and develop trust in the process of getting to know themselves. In turn, they remind me to let go of my ideas, stay present as things change, and develop trust in the process. Being buzzed into a locked ward is not reassuring to me on any level. The fact that I may leave but these children may not is worse. This week, one girl with whom I have practiced several times told me she was leaving before we would see each other again. I held her gaze. It was clear between us that though she did not want to stay, leaving was not easy; she was not ‘getting free.’ I told her I was grateful to have practiced with her; she said the same. What we have shared is significant, and also dust in the wind. Her life and mine have little in common; the space between us reasserted itself as I put my coat on, walked away.

Last week, during the Women’s strike march in New York City, a group of activists was arrested. Cassady Fendlay, among them, wrote this:

“Yesterday I was arrested for an act of intentional, nonviolent, civil disobedience. I am free now, I am fine and I actually feel really good, because I am so fortunate to have so many of you sending me love, making calls about me, and supporting me.

“Getting arrested is like the biggest privilege walk I can take. This is not a reality most of us are ever subjected to. It made me think of Kalief Browder and Sandra Bland and all the black and brown people who are arrested for things that I would not be arrested for. Who don’t have a team of loved ones in the cells around them, gathered outside in front of the precinct and making phone calls and sending prayers from afar.

“Getting arrested is a privileged activity for me. And that is why it is important. Because when the privileged people intentionally enter a system that is designed not for us, we begin to disrupt the bigger system of making some people “worthy” and some people subhuman. On International Women’s Day, I fought to smash every barrier that makes that false distinction, whether it’s sexism, racism, Islamophobia, homophobia, transphobia, classism, ableism… Every human is human.”

To me, this stamina: to go into a space that could be devastating, and come out feeling really good. Good enough to go back in.



I grew up deeply embedded in the seasons. In the small ski town in Idaho where I’m from, the mountains are church and the weather is God. When I remember being a child, I remember temperature and light and how these delicious and fleeting touches of time carried everything I trusted and looked forward to. The drip sonata played off every yellow icicle on the first day there was enough grass to go outside without shoes; the oily hush of the lake at evening glass-off; watching my Dad pull sweatpants over his shorts for the chilly early construction mornings before the dry, beating sun of late summer cranked on; traversing the low, partially frozen river, rock to rock, to crack the eggshells of ice on the surface of the shallowest pools and find the disappointing treasure of fallen leaves collected in matted piles beneath; the deep, gut blue realization of having eaten too much snow.

One of the deepest questions I’ve found in my yoga — as a teacher, student, and practitioner — is what is here? We study together seeking ways to connect — and ways to stay safe with what we find when we do. What is here in the body? What is here in the practice space? In our community? What is here for me alone, for us together? How can I make space for what is here for you, and remain present to what is here for me? How do we lift up and honor a diversity of experiences  How do we build tolerance and courage so that we can stay here — together — when we want to run away? How do we forgive ourselves, and each other, when it is all too much?



In The Wisdom of No Escape, Pema Chodron talks about meditation as an opportunity to practice remaining present in any weather:

The first noble truth says simply that it’s part of being human to feel discomfort. We don’t even have to call it suffering anymore, we don’t even have to call it discomfort  It’s simply coming to know the fieriness of fire, the wildness of wind, the turbulence of water, the upheaval of earth, as well as the warmth of fire, the coolness and smoothness of water, the gentleness of the breezes, and the goodness, solidness, and dependability of earth. Nothing in its essence is one way or the other. The four elements take on different qualities; they’re like magicians. Sometimes they manifest in one form and sometimes in another. If we feel that that’s a problem, we resist it. The first noble truth recognizes that we also change like the weather, we ebb and flow like the tides, we wax and wane like the moon. (p 39)

In my reading of this talk, Chodron is making three essential offerings: an embrace of cycles and changeability*, internally and externally; an invitation to move toward sensation as it is, without judgment, and the possibility of connection to the elements that goes down into our most subtle selves and is expressed across the spectrum of our physical and emotional experiences. In this formulation, there is not a better kind of weather or a better kind of body. Access to practice, here, is as universal as access to the weather. From where I stand, deeply complicit in the segregated, privileged, capitalist industry of modern American yoga — any step in this direction is one I want to take. But how?


Years ago, in my ongoing quest to connect my practice of being in the present to the repetitive rhythms I feel so fed by, I started studying a Traditional Chinese Medicine text given to me by my long-time acupuncturist and friend. This friend has been my primary doctor since early adolescence. Along with the understanding I have gained from her over the years, I received training in the Five Element system while I was studying Qi Gong, Tui Na, and Shiatsu at massage school. Instead of Chodron’s four, TCM finds five elements, and five seasons.^ What Lonny Jarrett does in Nourishing Destiny is offer a deep study of the elemental archetypes as they are expressed throughout the spectrum – universal to personal. He also depicts the Daoist vision of destiny:

Heaven mandates a unique mission for each of us to fulfill in this life. Recognizing and accepting this mission is only the first step in fulfilling the contract. Only through continually bringing our original nature into the world may we cultivate and preserve … the source of each individual’s power and authority in life. (p 31)

In Jarrett’s rendering, fulfilling destiny is a process of “joining heaven within (the commands stored in jing) with heaven without (the situations sent to one by heaven)…” In my worldview, the mingling of heaven within (nature) and heaven without (nurture) is felt forever in the ephemeral experience of being at home in your skin in the world. If destiny is a process of coming home to ourselves, then fulfillment is a process that happens inside the life we have, instead of – as capitalism suggests – only in the dream of a life we might achieve.




My early understanding of the Yogic path — gained through readings of texts like Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras and study with my teachers — was that it had a direction: up, out, toward freedom and away from struggle. I see now that I, personally, may have confused enlightenment with the Dream** of the American West on which I was unconsciously raised.  But as Michael Remski reminds me in his ‘remix’ of the Sutras, threads of yoga, many of us fall for the mystical authority of the teachings and “the implicit promise that the core problem of human life will be resolved.”

For many of us, reading [Patanjali-s sütra-s] involves a seamless seduction into this other world. What happens there? How is it different from our own? How much older and more serene? How much wiser are these words than those we hear within?

Meanwhile, the quiet integrations of any and every moment can slip like grains of sand through our fingers. Every breath contains a pause. The heart beats without effort. You watch tall grasses reveal patterns of wind. Food melts in your mouth. An emotion rips through the flesh, erasing your name. A preverbal child gazes at you and you remember the open sky. Your lover looks downcast and your chest splits. Before sleeping, you float for an instant, suspended between gravity and space. (p 28)

Instead of an esoteric end-game of deep cleansing and studious silence, yoga, here, is held in the sort of experience that is accessible to everyone. As Swamiji said, time and again, Everything in life is yours to use.  Nothing is yours to keep.


Since moving to the city – from a farm – in 2007, I have grown a garden over most of my backyard.  For years I kept a blog as a place to make garden notes, and I read between the lines, now, a slow, steady shift in my understanding of Portland’s seasons, the importance and ubiquity of cycles, and the looping, self-renewing shape of sustainable growth. I found in my long, skinny beds — along with cat shit and slugs, living sustenance and work without reward — a patience and humility that my practice sorely needed.  A context. A new map. Fundamentally, seasons help shape a time in the practice for each thing – growth, cleansing, sorting, planning, wondering, accepting, and resting. There are so many opportunities to let it go, and so many to try again.

As I wrote here in another season, I think the practice is valuable anywhere we find it. When you find it in your own life, as it is, it will be all the more valuable to you. That’s what the seasons are to me. Already here, already meaningful. My intention in offering any class at The People’s Yoga is to stand as a road sign on the spiritual path, pointing not out or up, but in a big fat circle, welcoming travelers wholeheartedly to the road they are already on. For me, TCM’s Five Seasons and their corresponding emotions, colors, sounds, organs, and tastes form together a sort of mystical, temporal guidebook to the constant transition of living.  These guidebooks are everywhere.  We are drawn to them in all shapes and with differing degrees of commitment. The first time I read Patanjai’s Yoga Sutras, I was sitting at my University commencement, sweating in my pale blue cap and gown, the sun beating on my bent head as some intellectual luminary droned in the far distance. The map of academia was already old to me; it no longer matched my experience of the world. With a small copy of Swami Prabhavananda’s translation open in my lap, I felt like a pirate with a treasure map and no decoder. Everything else faded; I knew what I needed to know.


I am deeply grateful for the freedom with which I have been able to explore this treasure map over the years, but I have long since tossed out the idea of a treasure. So many venerable teachers have touched me that now I find teachers everywhere. The Yogis, the Buddhists, the Daoists: they all tell us that the essential thing is practice. “The teaching which is written on paper is not the true teaching,” writes Suzuki. “Written teaching is a kind of food for your brain.  Of course it is necessary to take some food for your brain, but it is more important to be yourself by practicing the right way of life.” (Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, pg 28) With all due respect to Suzuki, I’d love to just snip that last bit off there — because what is ‘the right way of life?’



Let us try to be ourselves by practicing.

Occasionally, in the dance of sensation and response, we are able to feel what is here in all its shifting complexity. The sky breaks and mends and breaks again. Raindrops make rings in the lit corner of a puddle. A rag of a leaf slides past in the gutter, then sticks. The arches of your feet quiver in suspension.
There is break here, a softening toward connection and belonging. The relief arises and passes. We begin to practice again.

Yoga for Bigger Bodies begins January 14th; Yoga Foundations begins January 17th. Find out more.




*I personally think this is an issue to take up with the patriarchy; hetero-normative, colonialist male society’s distrust and pathologizing of the cycles that govern both Native cultures and womens’ bodies is evident in the alternative meanings of changeability offered to me by the internet: anxiety, uncertainty, volatility, insecurity, vulnerability, weakness – to name a few.

^The delineation of late summer  – which was evident to me in the exaggerated temperature shifts and golden grass of the back-to-school days of my high-desert childhood – completes the loop.

**used here with Ta-Nehisi Coats’ meaning

All photographs were taken by me in winter in Portland. 


Practice. I just love it. The word, the idea, the habit.

There’s such a softness to it. No beginning, no end. It’s forgiving and challenging at once.

My seven year old daughter says, “I just can’t get the hands right!” She’s bummed because in a drawing that otherwise looks about how she means for it look, the hands stick out. They are an interruption. I love them for just that. In the hands in her drawing, the shine is off. The glossy, finished look she’s going for dissolves into a wobbly, uneven expression of uncertainty. I look at those hands and think of falling asleep as a child, my own hands strangely huge in my fading consciousness.


So often, her hand glides over the page, one mark feeding the next as she rides the flow. When she gets to the hands, I can see the wobble in the wheel. It lets me in. She grips the pen tighter, responding to her lack of certainty with the hollow push of control. The result is different, but not what she wants. As she begins a new drawing, I watch her feel for what she means, what she knows. She’s truing her own mechanism.

That’s practice.

In drawing, the journey from eye to mind to hand through the marking medium onto the page (whether you are rendering or drawing from a collected bank of stored imagery) is a breath pattern: receiving, transforming, releasing. As with the breath, in truly creative work both the internal and external environments are transformed. Along the way, breath by breath, mark by mark, there are trillions of tiny transactions: opportunities to feel connected and fluid or to bump along a jerky interface, alternately slipping and gripping, feeling separate from the source.


Practice is the conscious process of honing the transformative potential of repetitive activity. In the external environment, we link practice with improved results. We use instruction and goal setting to motivate and measure those results. We develop standards and systems that can be used to control individual and group concepts of success.

However: in my experience none of this has very much to do with practice. Education and repetition can train the body – can even train the mind – without ever speaking to our deep uncertainties or eliciting a single spark of illumination. The core characteristic of practice is the quality of our participation in the great exchange: the depth of our interest, the degree to which our accumulated experience supports our further inquiry, and the support we are able to receive in the quest to bring more and even more of ourselves into the conversation.

When Zelda is truing, she sometimes copies drawings made by illustrators whose style she likes. Sometimes she colors in coloring books, strengthing her hand, getting to know her tools. Sometimes she picks a bouquet from the yard and draws a still life. Other times she gets frustrated with the repetitive search for more control and swoops wide in the other direction, making big, loose, abstract drawings, full of speed and life and void of conscious decisions. Sometimes she just keeps doing her pop-star looking, anime-influenced heroines, grinding away at the hands, or the eyes, or whatever part is drawing her out, ripping them up, crossing them out, filling her notebooks with beginnings.


The variety of approaches she has access to in the context of this practice is part of what I think of as her creative range. The more ways she can pursue her inquiry, the less likely she is to overwork and burnout. Range is also a descriptor of the area in which you can look for nourishment. Developmentally, if our reach into the world does not find contact that is both firm enough and soft enough to match us, we cannot learn from it. As we grow, gradually diversifying our own tonal range, we are able to be met in more ways. A component of practice is the expansion of how we learn.

Sometimes, for months, Zelda doesn’t draw much. When she does draw, she makes one or two pieces that look like classic kids’ art: clouds, flat line of grass, rainbow-in-the-corner kind of things. Her attention is clearly elsewhere. When she returns to drawing from one of these rests, she has collected a whole new catalog of internal imagery that comes spilling onto the page. New forms ask for new skills. Or, alternately, hand skills she’s been honing (dressing barbies or braiding hair or swinging on the monkey bars) demand and elicit a finer line or a deeper textural treatment. Sometimes a new box of nice markers will turn the tap on, but not always. And sometimes it comes on and I find her at bedtime sharpening the old, ignored color pencils.


Watching her trust this last component of her practice is hugely helpful me. For many long years, I had guilt about how much I practiced. It was too much, and my body hurt; it was too little, and how could I claim to have a practice at all! In my constant application of imposed standards, I nearly lost the tender thread. I thought that a Yoga Practice was a thing external to me that I could earn or achieve. Watching my babies struggle – with joy and fury and fear and deep sadness and great good humor, again and again and again – to roll over, crawl, feed themselves, stand, walk, pronounce words… I saw that practice is our natural state. It is the wheel that turns itself and rolls us toward our own fuller expression and plants us, as it rolls, in the present.


As I learned to trust the ebb and flow of my own practice, I found my range rapidly increasing. Really, the range had been there I think, but I judged it narrowly as a lack, and so couldn’t feel it surrounding and supporting me. I was looking for a very specific form of output, instead of feeling the wheel within. Which is another reason why this essay is about a kid’s drawing practice: the artistic output of a seven year old is mostly only interesting to her parents and her teacher. Her friends are interested, mostly because they also have drawing practices. They draw together, sometimes sharing a page, they copy elements they like, or they draw each other. They talk about the images and their preferences, and they move on. Though Zelda is delighted and proud when the work speaks of her inner intent, the final drawing is just a part of the process. She sees in the product her own presence as she arrived in the moment of making. It is an object that connects her to a state.

She is practicing having a practice.


Which is what we do with Yoga, right? We practice filling unconscious movement with consciousness, bringing awareness to gravity and energy. We practice finding ourselves in our bodies, instead of in images or stories. We study how our tissues hold emotion and how to hold ourselves gently and firmly enough to let it out. We practice being present in our bodies in space and time, available to ourselves in transition and confusion, patient in pain, tolerant of our cravings, our habits, our overwhelming emotions… We make space for what we don’t know and can’t think about. We build an embodied vocabulary: a set of postures and techniques that draw us into a state of continuity with change. We share with each other, copy, alter, repeat, revisit, let go, turn away, dig in. We take theory and make it flesh. We practice practicing. Because practice is how we grow – into ourselves and into the world.

Beginning this fall, on Friday mornings from 7-8:30am, at the smaller NE studio on Alberta street, I’ll be offering a seasonal subscription series. This course is scheduled to complement the Monday/Wednesday morning drop-in classes that I have been offering at TPY for years. Really, my desire to explore this more private form grew directly from the practice that I have built with a rotating cast of dedicated, supportive regulars at the big NE studio. I am deeply grateful that, along with the practices of my children and my own teachers, I have had intimate access to your generous, deeply personal practices, in a spacious and supportive environment, week after week. It is so encouraging, inspiring, and enriching; I can’t imagine my own practice without it.

As I have said in class: if we can find support – if we can find a way to yield – then, then, we can start to hear what we need, what we want. As long as we’re toggling back and forth between hardening and collapse, it’s so hard to feel into the tissues that we can only tell that it is hard. Struggling without internal awareness, we lean into what we can see, and pour out judgment, projection, and blame.

IMG_1835Having consistent, safe access to the generous vulnerability of our peers turns the wheel the opposite way. The Buddhists say that there is no me without another to know me, and the developmental psychologists agree. The journey toward understanding ourselves as processes instead of things is mirrored by the journey of transforming practice from an act into a state of being.

Almost everyone who practices at The People’s Yoga will nod when I say how much easier it is to step into your practicing mind-set (body-set?) at the studio. If you have a successful home practice, it is likely that you have a single space into which you can put your body that calls up the practice space within. When my daughter is deep in her drawing practice, she always sits in the same chair. She only wants to work on white printer paper. Range, in the body, is not just wide but deep: we need a steady environment in which to meet ourselves so we can build up our inner connectivity. As we spend more time in the practice, we learn more ways to get inside it. And as we become adept at entering the practice, we can begin to access it from it more places, and to bring in and use more of the material life gives us.


But the world we live in, and the habits we depend on strongly in order to live in it, act constantly to erode the practice. Which is why we must practice. Actively, honestly, in the supportive community of those who have their own practice, and so value what we can share of our practices – not as objects or ends, but as inspiration: evidence of a living process.

IMG_1837My hope is that a few of you, old friends and new, will find space in your lives this fall to commit to these nine meetings. We’ll have two off-weeks for home practice while the studio is being used for TPY teacher training, and then break for the Holidays before the Winter season series begins in the New Year. I am very excited to experiment with you, to shore up our personal practices, whatever form or phase they’re in, and to share the tastes and textures of our conscious experience.