Winter Gathering – On Authenticity

My biggest impression after the Winter Gathering is just how grateful I am for the overlapping communities in my life.  This event required me to play a lot of roles, from organizer and host, to presenter, space holder, and participant.  Everyone at the event was someone who has been part of my yoga journey in some capacity for varying lengths of time.  Many in attendance were not just people who I feel fiercely committed to doing the work of personal and social growth with, but through this work they’ve become my friends to laugh and be silly with, my support in times of need, my confidantes, and my accountability. After years of working together we’ve got significant personal and professional interest in each other’s lives.  Of course, one of the challenges of being so close with one another is the potential of finding yourself in an echo chamber that just amplifies your blind spots and hides the personal and structural flaws that are most in need of the work.  Riding the waves of positive emotion that were forged during our weekend of sharing, I realize that it’s important to stay open to challenge and strive for equity in our spaces.

“Our methodologies are forged within the default mindset of colonization over people, planet, capitalism-as-religion, winner take all, rape and plunder as spoils of victory, human and natural resources taken as subjugation to the land-owning, resource controlling, very,very privileged few…”

“…with all due respect to Ghandi— We can no longer afford to just be the change.  We actually have to be the transformation, which is to say we have to transcend the form, the construct we find ourselves in.  

            The only way we can do that is to observe the construct that we’re in instead of trying to tinker with it right away with the same blind spots that we came to the problem with.”  Radical Dharma, Talking Race, Love, and Liberation by Rev. angel Kyodo Williams and Lama Rod Owens with Jasmine Syedullah, PhD

The theme of our weekend was ‘Authenticity’ and without any pre-conceived notions of what we would find, recognizing that every voice has value, and knowing that anything we arrived at would change, we set out to explore who we are as individuals and community.  We looked at ways that we can create spaces that encourage authenticity and to hold space for each individual’s view on our shared experience. 

In order to do this we played around with group dynamics a lot!  We had some of the usual formats of a teacher sitting in front of the classroom sincerely sharing the teachings to which they’ve devoted themselves.  Kia guided us in pranayama and Scott guided us in mindfulness.  This connected us to the tools that identify and support us as yoga practitioners to do the work.  We explored the roles and definitions of the teacher-practitioner relationship over the weekend.  Teachers are important and a good one can be a trusted guide and access point to wisdom traditions.  The teachers were skillful in pointing the tools back to the practitioner allowing the practitioners good judgment to adapt the tools for their own bodies, minds, and contexts.

            In a room of 35 practitioners we had an Assisted Self Practice (Mysore style), with seven teachers in the room!  That might sound overwhelming, but the teachers and practitioners had made some agreements before hand about how we would operate in the practice space.  We explored new dynamics in the teacher-practitioner relationship.  Consent cards were present, each practitioner starting with a “No Thanks” turned face up. They could switch it to “Yes, Please” when and if they chose to opt-in to having a teacher involved in their practice.  It was agreed that the cards could be turned up or down at any point during the practice.  Practitioners could ask or refuse any teacher for support or an assist during their practice.  Dialogue between practitioner and teacher was encouraged.  Yes.  There were times where it got noisy, but it offered a new lens through which to consider practice.  Having a support team of teachers made it less about the individual teacher and more about the group of practitioners.

Practice is not static and this weekend was a social experiment among curious folks from various ashtanga yoga communities who wanted to explore together.  One day a practitioner may want more assists, one day they may want more space.  One day someone may feel like talking their practice over, discussing what it brings up for them or strategizing about their progress.  Another day, silence might be what is needed.  The key is that the practice space should encourage us to listen inward to what we need and to feel comfortable that when we express it our choices will be respected.  This was only a single weekend, but it gave us all an opportunity to play with best practices in the classroom so we can start to consider ways forward that will be supportive and effective, that will create safer spaces that share power between practitioners and teachers. Our practices and communities are tools that can be used to do the work of personal and social development or bury us in vertical hierarchies and dull our awareness.  This weekend we explored ways that our practices and communities can offer us the support we need to do the work of authenticity.  

“A new Dharma is one that insists we investigate not only the unsatisfactoriness of our own minds but also prepares us for the discomfort of confronting the obscurations of the society we are individual expressions of.  It recognizes that the delusions of systemic oppression are not solely the domain of the individual.  By design, they are seated within and reinforced by society.”  Radical Dharma, Talking Race, Love, and Liberation by Rev. angel Kyodo Williams and Lama Rod Owens with Jasmine Syedullah, PhD

In the afternoons, we sat for discussion in a variety of interpersonal settings to do the work of discussion and active listening.  We asked that in each of the phases of the gathering everyone tune into their inner state and note any reactions to the work.  Authenticity is often considered to be an essential inner state that is more real than our social self. We can sometimes burden ourselves with expressing that inner state without change in all circumstances.  However, a key feature of our humanity is adaptability, empathy, and co-operation.  We are hard wired to respond to one another and operate on unspoken social contracts that enable us to work together.  Acknowledging and accepting this is crucial to knowing ourselves and being a more skillful agent in the world.  This knowledge is where we go from being nice to get along to being compassionate in holding space for multiple view points.  Being nice to get along means that we aren’t questioning or aware of the dynamics in which we find ourselves.  We are often simply trying not to rock the boat, even when the social dynamic is harmful or oppressive.  Being aware of and compassionate towards social dynamics gives us the choice to engage or not, and change when necessary and possible.

We sat in dyads where one person spoke and the other practiced active listening.  Active listening is hard.  It is bearing witness to someone’s authentic truth without judging, validating, fixing, or responding.  It is so hard not to consider what their truth means about us, to center our experience as we listen, or think about what we want to say next.  

Then we sat in small groups of four to discuss questions for reflection before then joining the full group for a free form discussion.  In each of these settings we might feel more or less comfortable and we might find ourselves responding differently.

On day two we sat in circle with a selenite wand as a talking piece.  Every one in the circle had an opportunity to speak and everyone else had the opportunity to practice active listening.    It was incredibly important that everyone know that they could participate in any aspect of the weekend or not.  The progression of the weekend felt supportive, opening the door to trust and intimacy without feeling oppressive or coercive.  By the end of the weekend, their was laughter and tears and many radiant smiles. This blog is going out to all participants attached to a feedback form so that everyone who participated can offer their feedback privately as well.

The Same

            This is a time when


            is split off from


            and Being


            hardly at all.

            But here and there

            on this side of the horizon,

            people meet in circles

            to form communities

            and speak their hearts

            that seek the same.

                        —Meir Carasso

In these different exercises the practitioner/teacher dynamic was muted if not totally erased, and the individual/community dynamic rose to the forefront.  It felt like a completely different type of yoga workshop.  It felt as though it honored tradition, but responded to the time, culture, and environment in which is was situated.  There has never been and will never be another workshop like it.  The very structure of the workshop itself was democratic and so the content would be adaptive and flexible depending on who participates.  I look forward to making these workshops more widely available so we can broaden the tent to include as many voices as are willing to participate.

“We live in a world in which we need to share responsibility. It’s easy to say ‘It’s not my child, not my community, not my problem.’ Then there are those who see the need and respond. I consider those people my heroes.” -Fred Rogers

Kinship Gathering

This past weekend I took part in a revolutionary act.  Around 30 people met in the desert outside of Palm Springs, Ca. to experiment with new ways of being in community as Ashtangi’s.  We gathered around a felt need to process the turbulence that has arisen in the Ashtanga community these past years as we’ve struggled to understand ourselves, to look into the shadow of our community together, to find out what we will and won’t stand for and just what kind of a community we are.  It seemed important to meet face to face, off of social media so that we could experience each other as humans.  In this self-selecting group, several people talked about coming off of our individual islands to swim in friendly waters together.  We sat in circle together.  We shared in art, and ideas, and practice, and food, and loads of delicious chai.  Throughout the weekend we shared grief, confusion, inspiration and fellowship. 

These past years I’ve been working with Amāyu as well as my friends and colleagues here in the S. Florida yoga community, and part of why I wanted to go to this gathering in the desert was to see how other folks have been responding. It hasn’t always been clear how to move forward.  Our community has been in crisis and so turning to each other and looking to our usual leaders for cues on how to respond has led to confusion and anger that has been stifling.    My response has been to listen, reflect and seek guidance outside of our community and then to organize to create governance and training.  I’ve been searching for solid ground I haven’t always known the right thing to do and I’ve made mistakes, but I’ve known that change is upon us and we need to respond in ways that are as profound as the revelations that shook the foundations of our community were devastating.

It felt important that there were no leaders this weekend. The event was hosted and facilitated, but we didn’t come to seek answers from charismatic leaders, we came to find community. We practiced together with our mats in a circle without the gaze of authority and without pressure to perform.  Each person’s practice was their own. We could each choose to practice in a way that was meaningful for us individually, or not to join the session at all.  It felt like an antidote to authoritarianism. 

An Olive Branch was invited to mediate.  From their website:

“We help spiritual communities proactively reduce the impact of destructive discord by providing training on ethics, policies, governance best practices, and conflict resolution.

We also stand ready to help spiritual communities as they react to the suffering, chaos, and breakdown that results from ethical misconduct. We provide processes for healing and restoring harmony.”

It’s very telling that an organization like this needs to exist.  I asked them how much of their work was on the pro-active training side and they said it was unfortunately far less than their work mediating communities in crisis.  They also went on to say that our weekend was a little out of their wheelhouse as they are used to working with organizations and we were simply a group of practitioners gathering at the margins of our community.

The weekend wasn’t perfect, nor was it meant to be.  There was a notable lack of representation from Pattabhi Jois’s victims, which I was very aware of considering the event took place during the time-frame of the “Take a Seat for Justice Pledge.”   I do understand that there was dialogue between organizers and victims prior to the event and efforts were made even if it didn’t come to fruition.  It may just be that neither side was ready for that type of direct engagement, even with mediators. I don’t know.

If anything it felt like it could have gone deeper and addressed the specifics of abuse in our community more directly.  Abuse and trauma are incredibly difficult to keep in focus.  The pain of staying with the heaviness can make it desirable to let it recede back into the shadows just for a moment of respite.  But the shadows are where abuse thrives. 

I know that in the past I have turned to my practice for refuge and healing from trauma.  Exploring it critically for cracks and seeing danger and harm where once I saw safe spaces feels like a loss.  I think these past years have caused many of us to feel defensive over our practice community and it takes time to see that critically examining is just house keeping and it’s an act of love and devotion, like mending a broken but beloved home.

But this weekend was a hopeful beginning.  Everyone there was so kind and tender with one another.  None of us knew what to expect from this weekend.  It was at times raw, but it always managed to maintain the advertised kinship. I encountered perspectives that were wildly different from my own.  The dialectic helped me see new ways of understanding my own position.

 This weekend felt important, not because anything was resolved or any momentous decisions were made but simply because it restored my faith and trust in community.  I feel like there may be a way for me to share practice in community again post my resignation from the KPJAYI (or whatever it is called now).  I wasn’t certain if that was possible before this weekend.  Teaching without a community of peers to whom I am accountable has felt disorienting and unsettling these past few years.  I’ve had great friends and colleagues with whom I could process. I’ve had tons of support from practitioners and friends I’ve shared yoga with over the years.  I’ve got people with whom I can have difficult conversations and with whom I can be vulnerable.  But I have been skeptical about my ability to organize in a community again.  This weekend I got to see ways in which we may be able to organize without leaders, in equitable community based on shared agreements and practices where everyone present has an opportunity to have their voice heard and their contribution valued.