Tuesday, February 12, 2013



I’ve been in Detroit for a week now, and it is all it’s cracked up to be. Like India, where I was living and studying for the past month, everything is in-your-face-real. While oppression and exploitation exist all over the planet, here in the USA, we can choose to live in the delusional state of “free-est nation in the world.” We can stay in our bubbles and pretend democracy works for everyone. In both Detroit and India, poverty and devastation slam us in the solar plexus every single day. In India, every well-to-do neighborhood is surrounded by a ring of slums that provide the labor to make upper class life possible. A walk of any distance brings you into contact with children living on the street and rag collectors going through trash piles, which no doubt includes your refuse.

Here in Detroit, we are flanked by vacant houses. You get used to the burnt out buildings, shattered glass. You pull up to a CVS at midday and a security guard inside waves you off—the store is closed for no apparent reason. Everyone is doing the Detroit hustle—scrambling for a few hours of paid work, doing a little of this or that. We don’t need much to get by. Couple hundred to rent a room, another hundred for food to share in your intentional community, gas money if you have a car….

The macro task of yoga study is to discern between purusha—the eternal infinite, and prakrti—everything else. The world is so much prakrti, crumbling, burning up, decaying, so much impermanence. As our Vipassana teacher, Goenkaji, reminds us: anicha, anicha, changing, changing. If we accept our own constant state of change, no other impermanence shocks us or upsets us. Detroit reminds us of our own mortality.

But in that space of impermanence, purusha emerges. If we recognize the sacredness of all creation, human-made and otherwise, from crumbling sidewalks to 100-year-old trees, instead of seeing death, we see transformation and new forms of life. As Grace Lee Boggs points out, you can look at a vacant lot and see devastation, or you can see possibility. You choose.

One thing I love about India is that in a tropical climate, the nature forces are so strong. That is, if my apartment building in India was abondoned by humans for a month, plants, rodents, insects and other forms of life, would overtake it completely. Nature consumes, then recreates.

Many spiritual teachers acknowledge that everything is imbued with spirit, so as the Packard plant in Detroit crumbles, stone spirits are released from shattered glass and crumbling brick. Rain and snow water spirits wash over it all, and wind spirits scatter it. I think this is why humans have always been attracted to ruins. They serve as altars of sorts, shrines of human effort, once again proving to be impermanent, fleeting manifestations of prakrti, revealing what remains: infinite and eternal purusha.

If we recognize purusha at the Packard plant, we can recognize it in each other. We see the endurance of the human spirit, and tap into that as a renewable, sustainable resource. We see the endurance of the earth itself, how she endlessly renews herself. We see creativity, manifested through ways of living, making art, and relating to each other, as expressions of purusha.

Here in Detroit, knee-deep in crumbling prakrti, I am recreating myself in community, opening myself to the wisdom and brilliance of purusha.

Sunday, February 3, 2013


When we come to India, having invested so much energy and expense, it’s easy to fall into our capitalist habits and expectations. That is, we want to Get Our Money’s Worth.

A spiritual practice with powerful physical effects, yoga has become commercially attractive. It’s cheaper and often more effective than physical therapy, chiropractics, or conventional medicine. It’s more thorough and enjoyable than a workout at the gym. Because many people and some medical insurance plans are willing to spend money on yoga, yoga teachers have the potential to make a living teaching and running centers. As a result, we have taken a spiritual path and imbued it with material expectations.

Not to begrudge our material needs. We all need a roof over our heads and a warm room, nourishment, and even better, community, education, and enrichment. However, we may be disserving yoga, or even abusing the art of practice, by expecting it to meet middle class standards of living. It may be that the application of yoga to our economic sphere leads to a corruption of the practice and a compromise of our soul needs. Not only that, but the relationship with our teacher can become compromised and problematic.

In the Iyengar Yoga world, we respectfully and affectionately refer to BKS Iyengar as “Guruji,” and bestow this same depth of respect to his children, Geetaji and Prashantji. A guru is a spiritual teacher, one who teaches you the art of living an integrated life on earth. “Guru” refers to the interplay between light and dark, as the guru dispels the darkness of ignorance, implying that this teacher shows us both the positive and the negative.

We see this most boldly in the teachings of Geetaji. Her standards are high and her temper is notorious, and along with her brilliant lessons, she sometimes berates her students ruthlessly. She brings out the most difficult lessons about ourselves in her classes. We can react by becoming defensive, or ignoring her feelings, or shutting ourselves down and running away, or becoming angry in return that she is wasting our time and being abusive.

But if we see Geeta as our guru, an extension of the role of BKS Iyengar, we shed our egos, allow our tamasic nature—which keeps us stuck in our old ways—to be broken down, release the urge to be defensive, and accept all that she gives us as necessary to our spiritual growth.

This is completely different from a commercial, consumeristic relationship, and is one reason I typically avoid giving private lessons. When someone pays my hourly rate as they would another highly trained professional or therapist, they often have an expectation that they will be served. Often they will seek out a private teacher as a substitute for practicing yoga on their own. They expect me to come up with the sequence, do all the set-ups, and run them through it. In this way, they become my client instead of a student. For this reason, I typically give private lessons only to students working on specific issues outside the scope of general classes who already are, or are committed to, beginning practice on their own. Even so, I usually limit the sessions to only one, with perhaps a follow-up.

Geetaji gets frustrated when she sees international students coming to RIMYI to be served, to be told what to do, to show off what they already know, and to have their egos reinforced. She wants us to take responsibility for our own learning, to not wait for her to repeat every last instruction, to meet her where she is instead of expecting her to meet us where we are, We need to come to RIMYI as sisyas—spiritual devotees, not as clients trying to get a good business deal, and not as yoga tourists.

Increasingly, I see my path as that of a yoga sadhu, a pilgrim. I have packed up my life into a stack of boxes occupying a corner of the living room in the yoga housing co-op I am moving out of. What I cannot fit into that corner will stay behind, at least for now. I am experimenting with how much I can give up, in order to more fully embody the yoga path.

I feel my particular task in the world of Iyengar Yoga is to bring the art and practice to populations who have not traditionally been given access, and offer Iyengar Yoga as a sacred art. As I journey to Detroit to join the “Urban Healing Revolution” in progress there, I wish to restore sacredness to the practice of Iyengar Yoga by teaching on a gift basis.

Let’s face it, the teachings from the Iyengars are priceless. We cannot put a dollar amount on it. By removing the teachings from the commercial realm, I hope to reinforce this art in the realm of the spiritual. I ask my community to support the Iyengars, their teachings, and my role as their student, by giving what they can to support me as a teacher. Their gifts, whether cash, time exchange, or barter of goods, will allow me to continue my study, meet my physical needs, and “pay for” the next student to receive the benefits they have received.

Let us open our hearts, minds, and bodies to the sacred gift of the teachings of the Iyengars. May we especially accept difficult lessons with grace and gratitude. May we as students support our local teachers in keeping the gift of the teachings circulating. May we teachers trust our communities to support us as we share the priceless lessons we have had the grace of receiving, for the benefit of our communities.