Thursday, November 5, 2015

Diary entry: On Yoga Culture, Retreats, Decolonizing Yoga

So when I get time to myself to work on my current yoga-related writing and creative projects...I often write about something else, like the good procrastinator that I am. Toss this entry up to the intense Scorpio energy of the moment? Not sure. I normally wouldn't share such a long entry and post but this one felt like perhaps some of you think about the same things? Or maybe it'll open you up to think about such things? 
Big thing to remember when reading...I LOVE YOU ALL. All of you yoga teachers leading retreats around the world and putting yourself out there to help people love their bodies, have fun, and be themselves. Please know these are my journal-like thoughts and important thoughts but that I'm not trying to judge anyone. So much of this is toward myself as much as anyone or anything else. 
Thank you for reading and being part of a vulnerable discussion within myself...that I feel others can benefit from as well. 

(There's so much that circulates the web about the topic of retreats, and about yoga culture in general. It seems like these discussions have been more frequent over the last 2 years or so. The older I get, the deeper into my yoga practice, the deeper into motherhood…I want to also continue learning and bettering myself as a person. I've been reading and having more discourse about cultural appropriation, about the environment, politics, agh…everything! Here's the thing. It matters! We have the discussions and we can do them with love and respect. Gosh, it's easy to get caught up in the negativity...especially during highly political seasons. Here's some thoughts on some things I've been thinking about. )

I decided this year after reading this that every time I host a retreat, I will try to donate some proceeds to an environmental cause that gives back to or protects the land we visited. I believe the environment is a most pressing issue of our time. I've also decided to try to stay consistent with my retreats in that they are places that I have a strong connection to and are sustainable for me to do (especially since I have a family). In addition, they must support the local people and culture, they must be out of respect, and they will be mostly about taking time to slow down and give back to oneself through the yoga and meditation practice, and less about fitting in as much as we can for the sake of saying that we went here and here and saw this and this. 
I'm not for or against the yoga selfie boom. I'm for what feels right in a moment. I'm for being yourself and expressing yourself as you need in this moment in time. 


Now, I'm a highly sensitive person, and sometimes it all gets to be too much. But, if I can do it, and take time to read things, educate myself, look at my actions, and try to change…so can you. It's a balance. Motherhood has taught me a lot about that...and yet I still have so much to learn.
You see, it's hard to look at yourself and realize, "shit, I was saying that or doing that without really thinking about where it comes from and who it could be affecting." This happened to me recently and it forced some vulnerable feelings to well up. You see, I don't do well with criticism. As highly sensitive, I wasn't allowed or praised for my sensitive nature growing up. It was looked upon as a weakness instead. This has taken a long time to work on in myself, and well, I'm still working. 
In many ways, it's easy for me to be transparent and vulnerable. I do it all the time on Instagram, and most especially surrounding motherhood and body issues. This actually really helps me with my own issues and dealing with criticism better. I'm trying hard to keep it as real as I can fathom, while also staying true to myself, staying at least a little bit private, and also inspiring. It's all so weird, right? 
But at the same time, this yoga teaching career is the path that I chose for myself right out of college at a young age. I've thought about giving it up sometimes, as it all has gotten much more saturated and stranger to navigate. I've definitely changed a lot in this last decade. In some ways I'm more passionate about aspects of the practice than ever before. When I see how it effects me as a partner, mother, daughter, sister, friend…then I keep plugging along. I'm just hitting a decade of teaching! I'm also realizing more and more how honest and "me" my teaching is. 
I've worked hard this past decade to discover my voice. To build my practice. To become a teacher and not just act like one. To learn more. And more. To listen to myself. To take the breaks. To give away my services for free. To also ask for what I think I'm worth. To honor what I do as an art. I do believe I'm not just teaching yoga, but I'm teaching how to make your life an art and a canvas for growth, color, risks, change, awakenings, fun, breaking out of stagnant moments, getting through pain, etc.…
I've stuck with my teaching to the lunar cycles in my quiet way of doing so for this entire decade and I'm just now starting to emerge out of my cocoon to share it more widely…to work on getting some creative projects out there and sharing it, and to feel comfortable and at ease doing so. 
I mean, ten years is not really a long time to have been teaching yoga. There is way too much to learn and way too many variations of the practice and wisdom to be discovered. It's really true that it's a lifelong practice. But in our fast-pased world, people are seasoned teachers after just a few years...and so now after doing it for ten...I feel strange in ways that I haven't done certain things, like helping to lead a teacher training. But that hasn't been my goal and I'm still grateful that it hasn't happened for me. It's simply interesting that that can be a gauge for "success" after someone has been teaching for a certain amount of time. 
I'm also not always staying up with all the things that yoga teachers are supposedly doing these days. It makes me feel odd sometimes because I : 
didn't study with so and so, or go to this training and spend my money going to this module at this resort, and then perfecting my scorpion pose while in the sassiest new pants and then having myself in said pose featured in Mantra magazine on stands at Whole Foods which then scored me 1,000 new followers on social media. Yowzers. I mean, this conversation is old now, right? We all know of it. I'm not going there. I shop at Whole Foods and I like all things mentioned in doses and with a certain angle of looking and knowing about it all. I just find it interesting that when I get new students or get asked what I do at parties/events, they often want to know those logistics instead of perhaps how many hours I've spent on my own yoga mat listening to my own body, and how many hours I've taught classes. To me, that's so much more valuable than who, where, when, how I have studied the practice or how I look doing it. Though it ALL has some value and purpose, sure. I'm simply pointing out the obsession with success via numbers, images, status, popularity...
None of my evolution as a teacher have gained me huge accolades in the way that our culture likes to say people are successful. I've never been in a magazine about yoga, or been nominated for something, but I've been super successful in so many ways in that I've inspired people to teach yoga themselves, or to break addictions, or to find more calm and less stress...all important ways to provide in my own community. This has been a big lesson for me. That it's all as important. But also that now I must keep going and encouraging those that I've inspired to become teachers to look deeper into how and why and what. Yes. I feel that ten years in, it's important that I'm looking at all these things again for myself, too. The cycles in our lives are real and we have to honor them. 


Shit. I want to teach to local teenage girls. I want to teach to local Somerville people who have lived here forever, and not just to those that can afford to come or who feel accepted to come practice. I found SWSG a couple years ago and offered my time and have done special classes, and I hope to continue...but I'm also raising 2 young boys and trying to keep myself sane while doing so. Plus I enjoy bringing in some income to my family, creating some projects, and thinking about all of this important stuff at the same time. I've realized that I can't do it all and when I'm ready to devote more time to giving back to my community, then I will be able to. The fact that I'm opening myself more and more to these issues is progress. This is an art in itself. I'm so thankful for Bow Street Yoga because it feels like one of those places. And I think more studios are feeling like that around this area. But the problem still exists. So much. 

What's the problem? Well, it's not a problem, but a fact. I am a privileged white woman with resources. And I continue to lead retreats and teach. I'm not from India, the birthplace of this practice but I'm benefiting from it much more than Indian women or Indian-American women who are yoga teachers themselves could be. This is how our society has been set up. It doesn't mean I shouldn't teach. When I fell in love with yoga in my early 20's and then was brave enough to embark on this teaching journey...I didn't think about these things. At all. And if you didn't either or haven't until just now...there's nothing wrong with you. Deep breaths. We all have to start somewhere. Then eventually we can choose to pay a little more attention to how we're going about it all.
I feel something so honest and real when I teach and lead retreats. And it's not just ego. When the ego steps in…I try to take 10 steps back. Even then, though, I'm not saying all ego is totally wrong. (This is perhaps a female issue too. We have to allow ourselves to welcome our success and enjoy when it happens too. Ah, that's another essay...)
What I feel when teaching and hosting and sharing is something that's more than just the poses. And I think this reflects in the students who come and receive. I hope? Hey, I don't get the droves of people lining up that you might find in NYC or LA or even downtown Boston. I don't lead 20 person retreats or teach to 50 people regularly. I don't teach handstand or sweaty flow all of the time (hardly ever). I've changed my style throughout the decade and have lost people along the way. But, my heart remains the same. My passions and basis for teaching the practice remain the same. 

I haven't cared for awhile to teach most of the class in Sanskrit, or chant. (okay, I do at few certain times say some poses in Sanskrit or do a chant here or there)
Some say this is not the true practice. There is so much judgement out there about what true yoga is and what is not.  It's more true for me these days not to use Sanskrit as much because I've never been to India and I'm not Indian. I want to include more people into the practice and sometimes I think using Sanskrit can not only confuse newbies to the practice, but also irritate native Indian practitioners. That's just me in this moment in time based on where and what I teach. I love knowing the names of postures in Sanskrit for my own use and I feel that teachers should know them, for the most part. It's an act of respect for the practice among many other things. And I know so many teachers who do it well and teach it well in this way. For me, it doesn't automatically make one a superb teacher who knows more just because they use the "right" terms. 
Shall I instead call myself teacher-of-movement and breath? I'm not sure about all of this yet. But I know that over the last 5 years or so I've been trying to figure out more and more of "me" in my teaching style and how I present myself. And so, that means more about: 
using yoga to reduce stress, teaching to slow down in our fast-moving culture, teaching to stay safe in the body, teaching to connect to our spirits and hearts, teaching for more love, moving your body as ritual, teaching as a way to connect to nature and the seasons, focusing on your breath…and it's so not about getting into a special alignment or coming up with the best playlist or the best sequence or getting in to teach at this particular studio or festival.
But again, I love people who do those things. And, I do teach with playlists that I connect to, I do like attending festivals sometimes, and I do like learning from all kinds of teachers and styles. There's no perfect solution, but it's worth learning what YOUR solution is and how it makes sense for you. 
I'm not saying that some yoga teachers out there haven't found their popularity and success for themselves in a natural progression. And I'm not saying that the white teachers who teach in Sanskrit or are steeped in the Indian tradition should not be doing so. No way am I saying so. For SO many, they truly have been to India on many pilgrimages and have a relationship to the land and people there just like I do with Iceland. They come at it all with utmost respect, research, immersion into the culture, and love. It's beautiful to witness and powerful. I'm simply saying that it's interesting to look into why you may or may not use Indian traditions in your teaching. And then to choose and do it with your whole self...or to leave it out if it's not YOU. (And perhaps also read sites like Decolonizing Yoga to get new perspectives.)
I think a lot of what drives the yoga careers right now and  what people are seeking are often for the wrong reasons. Who knows? Only YOU know. I'm writing this so we can ask ourselves these questions more and talk about it more. Let's not just succumb to it all because everyone else is doing it and we need to do it to. Let's try to keep teaching, making money, and supporting each other in doing so while also taking action to create change. The politicians aren't going to do it for us if we don't first activate and take steps ourselves. That's the way it is. We can't sit around and wait for studios to pay us more, or for other ethnic groups to find us. We have to ask and seek and provide. And, hey, I'm the first to say that I still have a long way to go. 

Yoga Retreats:
 Here's a big can of worms. My first retreat was with 3 participants down in Dominica (island in the West Indies)...8 or so years ago. The opportunity came about and I jumped for it. We became a part of that community and the land on that retreat, while also having amazing food to eat from the permaculture spot we were staying at and the gorgeous views and rainforest around us. It was not a spa-retreat, but sure it was privileged. One thing we did was to hang out with the people there. And my bff, who was also part of the retreat had studied there and already had a connection to the island and the plant-life there, so it wasn't from left field that we were going there to do a retreat. Anyway, my takeaway is that I had stellar people showing me the ropes of how to do a retreat but also make it count (huge ups to the amazing Trish for that). That experience put the retreat bug in my bones. It was profound for me personally to be immersed in that culture, to have my own spiritual awakenings, and to connect with others through yoga and my own knowledge. 
So time goes by and I travel to Iceland for the first time and have a deeply moving experience within myself. Initially inspired to travel there by my profound love and passion for Icelandic music, my love for this northern land deepened. I go back and go back there because it challenges me, it opens me, and it brings me into my heart. I make the trips happen and I begin (5+ years ago) to personally develop retreats there because it really feels like my Spiritual place in the world. I even looked up my astrocartography and Iceland has tons of interwoven energy running through it...for whatever that might be worth. ;)
When we go there on retreat, we hire people from the country to work with, we eat the local food, we learn about the culture, I try to teach for the people there when it's possible and include them as well. It's an exchange. It's also not a third-world country, so quite different than other popular retreat destinations. 
With all of this, however, I haven't really made much money myself from these offerings yet. Still learning on that end. It's an expensive place. And is it worth it to only get people along for the ride who can afford such a trip? These are predominantly white people in a predominantly white land. Is that irresponsible  of me? It doesn't feel that way at all when I'm in it. But I do wish I could somehow allow for more people to come with us and experience such moments. I'd need fancy people to donate money so that I could offer scholarships. Again, simply pondering here. Still unraveling and educating and learning... 

I hope that when people bring their groups and practice yoga in Iceland and take their selfies in front of waterfalls and glaciers in yoga poses…that they are doing it out of respect for the land, the culture. Not exclusively to get attention that they are in some other-worldly place doing an otherworldly posture. More than that, can they feel the power of the place? And how that's affecting their mind and body in that moment? If so, heck yeah, document it. Honestly and passionately. I'm not trying to be a punk. I've been there and taken my yoga selfies. I'm trying to continue the conversation happening all around us and within myself. I see more and more yoga retreat companies popping up and they are also discovering Iceland. Different teachers leading different retreats there on the regular. Nothing wrong with this, really. This is capitalism and how the world works. I just now understand how other places must feel that are tourist-driven and then all of a sudden start changing and getting influx of new groups...and mostly white people with money coming all of the time. And bringing their entitled behaviors and perhaps not respecting the land. These are my fears for Iceland. I want to support everyone going there and I want to keep going myself...but when does the madness stop? It's only just begun there. How do the people of Hawaii deal with it? Or in Costa Rica? And the Caribbean? I want to think that yoga practitioners and groups are acting differently when heading to these places on retreats...but you never know. And I've seen all sides. I do feel a responsibility as a teacher and retreat leader in this way to help with the issue.

Here's the thing. I did a Mexico retreat a few years back. We actually did hang and vibe with the workers from the retreat center. It was a special retreat center in that it didn't feel too pretentious while we were there. And yet, I did witness some snobby and negative energy when there from a different group at the same center. It made me think about how some people go to these places and treat the local workers with less respect and expect such luxury. It's the strangest thing. 

I loved being there, however, and I made wonderful connections there while feeling a deep call when we went into the local town to want to give back more. I envisioned going back some day and including the retreat center employees for a class or helping out somehow in the nearest town and doing things differently. I don't know. Maybe going back there is missing the point of all this. Maybe I won't ever go back at all. They don't need me trying to connect with locals. They need me to stay away and spend less airplane emission and keep giving to my own community and to the places I've built a deeper connection to. I'm not Mexican and I don't even speak Spanish well. So yeah. But, hey, I have a strong love for Mexico and its culture. And I know many people who lead retreats there as well as in Central America. This is not to say they aren't doing some awesome work there and respecting the places and people they come in contact with. And these places actually need the tourism. Agh! It's all so confusing. 

Then there's Nantucket. It's my other place for retreats. I've developed a women's retreat there. It's also an expensive place in a different way, and the island draws a super privileged bunch. I go here because I married into a family that has long-standing history with the place. On Nantucket, my husband grew up going there his entire life (now almost 40 years). We got married there. I've personally connected to the community, the land, the energy there. I'm passionate about it. I want to share it with people in a reverent way. This is why the women's retreats started. They are small and intimate. They are super special. I organize it all myself (with the aid of my co-teacher) and I utilize so many different artists, foods, people from the island. It all feels right. It's not a big to-do. Is it luxury with a conscience? 
I've hosted 2 scholarship participants a year. I'm only just starting to make a little money from this retreat. I donate proceeds from that little money made to the conservation fund on the island. I'm going to start doing that for Iceland too, when I make enough money to. I'm sharing because I want to hold myself accountable. And I would love to inspire others to think about their retreat locations. 

So my plan:
Continue my relationship to Iceland with retreats because it's pure special magic for me to share. It's real. Once a year or maybe every other year...or really just whenever my life can handle it. 
Continue the Nantucket retreats because this makes such sense in that I have family to stay with while there and it's truly the most sustainable retreat for me. 
Find special spots even more local and much more affordable as short-term retreats to open up to even more varieties of people and incomes. Vermont, NH, here in MA, RI? Urban retreats? More Yoga on the Farm! 

I'm putting this out there because these are things I think about. These are important issues! 
Not many people are sticking up for the people of color, the traditions from India, the lands we are retreating on, the earth we are polluting by traveling to these places to do yoga and meditation…? 
Who's been sticking up for native people that inspire us to use their terms, conjure their goddesses and animals and make a living teaching it while the actual native women who might teach it make nothing or never even get a chance to teach it? 
Heavy, I know. But let it breathe. Let it swelter. It's gonna feel uncomfortable. It's gonna make you feel like a jerk. To me, it's worth it to feel that sometimes when it's a lifetime for someone else. Someone else who is not white and privileged. 

Sending the love out, everyone. This is all written from a place of love. An opening. It's time for the shifts. I want my boys to be more aware of these shifts than when I was growing up. And hey, this all might sound negative, but I remain an eternal optimist. I'm not going to stop doing my thing. I'm going to push forward with more and more attention, respect, and love. I hope you'll join me. 

Super inspired lately by: