This Just In: Social Justice Warrior Still Loves Remembrance Day

I am a social justice warrior. I realize there are many people use that term like an insult. There are people who want to associate social justice with being a bleeding heart, beta, blue pill or a cuck. They want to make advocating for social justice seem self-righteous, rude, aggressive, condescending and even violent.

 

But I just believe in human rights and a progressive social vision for our future. I believe that rights come with responsibilities. I believe that freedom is not free. It comes at a high price.

 

And that is why I love Remembrance Day. It is a day when we remember the price of freedom. In Canada we lost nearly 50,000 people to defeat fascism. We sent over a million soldiers. We had an entire generation suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Parents who were severely traumatized raised millions of sons and daughters. Imagine the impact in Russia where over 20,000,000 people died in that war.

 

My grandpa was in the battle of Dieppe. He married my grandma in Winnipeg only weeks before hopping on a train and spending four years at war in Europe. He was shot and nearly drowned during the siege at Dieppe. After recovering at a military hospital he was sent back to the front lines.

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I cannot imagine the horror he faced. I cannot imagine how my grandma felt after getting a letter telling her that her husband was missing in action. I cannot imagine coming back to Canada and just being expected to settle down and get back to work.

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You are surrounded by deafening explosions, watching your friends bleed and die in the mud, having no choice but to shoot and kill people in order to survive. And then one day they tell you it is over. Now go home and raise a family. Just like that.

I think it is very important that we remember the price that has been paid for our freedom. German fascists banned unions, turned education into Nazi indoctrination, shut down small businesses, made women give up their jobs to focus on raising children, stripped Jews of their citizenship and banned Jewish children from schools, and made massive investments in the military. We should have seen the concentration camps coming.

 

We should have done something sooner. But Neville Chamberlain, the British PM, colluded with Hitler and agreed to look the other way as long as the German military only moved east toward Russia. It wasn’t until Hitler came west that the British, and later the Americans, got involved.

 

We paid for that collusion. We paid for our ignorance. The Ford motor company had factories in Nazi Germany and we agreed to not bomb their factories, which later turned out to be producing tanks. Working class people paid dearly for the greed and self-interest of corporations who did not want to compromise their German investments. We pay for their wars.

 

And we will continue to pay if we choose not to remember. This sacred day is an opportunity to remember how horrible things can be if we allow hate and intolerance to grow unfettered. Freedom of speech is a lovely thing to celebrate, but we need to remember that the publication of Hitler’s Mein Kampf was made illegal in post-war Germany. They recognized that the book bred hate and intolerance. Hate speech set the stage for the Nazi’s to seize control of the German state.

 

Freedom is not free. We have to make hard decisions. It is not as much fun as partying, binge-watching Netflix, and buying new gadgets. But those things are all meaningless. They provide us with no lasting joy. They contribute nothing to the world. They give nothing to others. They are a hedonistic retreat from the harsh reality that inequality and intolerance are growing all around us.

 

Nobody wants to pick up the cross. But that is precisely what is required. We need to create space for the voiceless and marginalized. We need to demand more from our governments and from each other. We need to be courageous in our compassion. We need to be fierce in our defense of human dignity and freedom. We need to speak truth to power even though the powerful never seem to listen. Even though it seems like a drop in the bucket. We need to remember that the freedoms we have now were earned with the lives of our grandparents.

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We need to not only love and respect the sacrifices that created the freedoms we enjoy today; we need to make sacrifices ourselves.

 

What does that mean in practical terms?

 

That is not for me to say.

 

That is on you.

 

Remember.

Yoga: Desired and Required

I often start my yoga classes by “taking the temperature” of the room. I ask questions and try to get a sense of what my students want from their class. Sometimes that means getting requests for specific postures or muscle groups to stretch, but more often it just informs the pace, intensity, and overall vibe of the class.

Last night as I was taking the temperature before a vinyasa class, a student told me she wanted nothing but relaxation. Straight to the savasana! When I suggested that she might have chosen the wrong class, she told me that even though she didn’t feel like a challenging flow class she knew that she would appreciate it later.

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You probably do the same thing all the time. You may not want to go to bed early, but you know you need it. Sometimes you would rather just sit and watch TV but you need a little evening walk. You want potato chips, but you need vegetables. There is often a wide gulf between what you desire and what you require.

Every yoga class, and every yoga practice, offers a choice between what you want and what you need.

This is not a rant against staying up late, watching TV and eating chips. I like all those things! But I also like early bedtimes, walks, and veggies. And those are things I need. The fact is that without late night Netflix and Doritos I would be just fine. I do not need them.

You need to move. You need to move in ways that challenge you and encourage your body to adapt so that you can continue to grow. You need the things in which you are deficient. You live in a very loud, crowded world so you need space and silence. You live in a very busy world so you need to slow down. When you get sedentary you need movement.

I have an assignment that I give to my kinesiology students early in the semester. It is a course on the philosophy and practice of yoga. They are assigned a few articles that describe different styles and brands of modern postural yoga. Then they have to interview a friend or family member who does not practice yoga and decide which style would be best suited for them.

Almost everybody chooses the style that seems most aligned with his or her subject’s personality. Somebody who is very “type A” gets hot yoga. Somebody who is out of shape gets restorative yoga. But that is giving people what they want, not what they need. The type A powersuit probably needs some bolsters and blankets. The couch potato probably needs to get on their feet and flow a little.

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As a teacher, this is not really up to you. Your students show up to the classes they choose and it is your job to teach that class. I believe that as yoga teachers our primary responsibility is to serve the student. You need to believe your students when they tell you what they want. Never assume that you know somebody’s body better than they do. That is not your job.

As a student though, you need to choose your teachers and classes well. In past centuries your teacher would tell you precisely what and how to practice. Your guru was the undisputed authority of your practice. But times have changed and so have yoga teachers. Now yoga teachers are specialists. They each have a niche market and a field of expertise. They proclaim the benefits of their own style and approach, but you will rarely find a teacher advising students to go elsewhere in order to find a better match.

You need to do your research. Get educated about different styles and approaches to yoga. Try a number of different studios and teachers, but not necessarily to find the one that you want. Try to find what you need. What nourishes you and leaves you feeling refreshed? Find the yoga that feels more like veggies and less like Doritos. Find the teachers that serve you and the practice that fuels the fire in you.

Ultimately, if you can find ways to desire the things you require you will be serving yourself in the best way possible. Stubborn determination and sheer power of will can help you “push through” your cravings and get you practicing in ways that are aligned with your needs, but that is exhausting. Finding creative ways to start loving the things you require will mean you are intrinsically motivated to practice (ie. you don’t need a kick in the ass) and that your practice is well-rounded and nourishing.

That might mean asking more questions of your teachers, but more likely it means asking more questions of yourself.

Are you getting what you need?

How would you know if you were not?

How many of the things you want are also things you need?

How many of the things you need are also things you want?

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Talking About the Tallahassee Hot Yoga Shootings in Your Yoga Classes

I think yoga teachers should be talking about the shooting at Tallahassee Hot Yoga last week. It is an uncomfortable topic and not really in line with the feel-good vibes characteristic of most classes these days. But if such a thing as a “yoga community” exists, this needs to be something we care about. We need to find a way to find some shared meaning from this violence and loss.

One of the hardest things we have to do is to find some kind of meaning, value, or lesson in the wake of tragedy. It is how we humans are able to let go of our sadness and anger. It is the thing that helps us move on with our lives after something devastating turns everything upside down.

I did not know Maura Bikley or Nancy Van Vessem. I have never been to Hot Yoga Tallahassee. I’ve never even been to Florida. But I share something with those women. I was also doing hot yoga on a Friday night. We were most likely practicing some of the same postures that evening. We most likely share a great deal of the same philosophy and outlook on life. They are yoga people. They are my people.

Yoga studios are places of healing, community, and connection. They are a really interesting hybrid of a church, a gym, a community center and a coffee shop. They are a secularized sacred space where you don’t need to share a particular faith in order to join. You don’t even need to share a particular practice as some people come to meditate while some just come for a workout (most come for something in between.)

Yoga can connect us across all social boundaries. This is why the work of accessible and body positive yogis is so important. It broadens our circle and makes it possible for even more people to connect with our world and ourselves.

On Friday night we were reminded of our connection with an angry, violent, hateful part of the world. Our yoga studios cannot insulate us from hate. All the issues that we face in the world come knocking at the doors of our yoga studios. Our sacred sanctuary spaces have porous boundaries.

Abuse, exclusion, inaccessibility, bigotry and every other repugnant reality of our world cannot be held at bay with prayers, mantras and even the most radiant white light. Our safe spaces can be endangered. Our sacred spaces can be profaned.

Yoga classes, like all our ritual behaviours, are an attempt to find order in the chaos. The world is so wild and unpredictable that we crave something that just makes sense. That is why yoga franchises like Ashtanga and Bikram became so popular and manage to maintain a huge following even after the founders of both styles were exposed as sexual predators. For Ashtanga and Bikram practitioners, it isn’t about the teacher. It is about the ritual.

The ritual provides a sense of normalcy. It is predictable. You roll out your mat and the teacher says very yoga teacher-ish things. You practice the same postures with the same instructions. You grow in confidence and capacity until the whole thing starts to feel like 2nd nature. Whether you have had a good day or a bad day, you can count on your yoga ritual to make you feel like everything is as it should be.

Unfortunately our prayers and rituals only provide a thin veneer of shelter from storm. The real power of yoga studios comes not from our yoga mat rituals, but from people coming together.

When Scott Beierle’s gun jammed on Friday night, one of the students attacked him and managed to get his gun away from him. That gave the other students in the class a chance to run for their lives. It was a fearless, selfless, and decisive act that saved lives in that yoga studio.

Rather than trying to escape, Joshua Quick risked his life to protect the other people he was practicing with. That is the real power of yoga. We come together with people we hardly even know and create a sense of community and family.

The magic of yoga happens when we practice together. It is not about spectacular postures and individual achievement. It is not about charismatic teachers and cultish devotion to ritualized sequences. The magic of yoga is in the meeting of two calm, quiet minds who acknowledge one another with a gentle “Namaste” at the end of their class.

The magic is in people from around the world coming together to support the community at Hot Yoga Tallahassee. We need to start seeing ourselves in each other and looking after each other. We need to have zero tolerance for abuse, hate & bigotry in our communities. We need to support each other and ensure that we welcome and include as many people as possible.

A yoga that is more interested in selling pants and taking selfies is not a community. That is a market. That is a yoga industry. Right now we do not need a yoga industry. We need a real yoga community. We need to practice more than sun salutations. We need to practice love and compassion.

That is the lesson to be learned. That is the value we can find. That is the meaning of this darkness. It is a chance for yogis around the world to come together in a shared rejection of the abuse, exclusion, inaccessibility, and bigotry. We can affirm a yogic identity that is based upon respect, inclusion, accessibility and diversity. We can use this moment of darkness to express our solidarity.

A real community does not always agree with one another. We may not even really like each other sometimes. But we love each other. We see ourselves in each other. We feel each other’s pain and celebrate each other’s victories. We push each other to get better and pick each other up when we fall.

There is no one right way to be a yogi. There is no one single method, philosophy, or style of yoga that is best. Because we are so diverse as a community there is no point trying to determine who is doing it right. But we can all concern ourselves with getting better.

Who is America? The new Sacha Baron Cohen series is hilarious ideological combat

The guy being subject to national humiliation below is Jason Spencer, who was elected to the Georgia House of Representative in 2010. He resigned today as a result of being pranked by Sacha Baron Cohen.

Think about that. A comedian just took down an elected official. The show aired on Sunday night. By Tuesday Spencer is stepping down, most likely under massive pressure from the Republican Party.

 

Cohen has upped his game in a big way. Borat was just farce. This is more like ideological combat. And it is super funny.

 

In the same episode he convinces a reality TV star to lie about saving the lives of 6000 people from an African warlord and then filming a PSA advocating for arming child soldiers.

 

In an interview with Dick Cheney, Cohen managed to keep a straight face while asking Mr. Cheney if his wife wanted to see less Bush and more Dick. Unbelievable.

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Later in the episode he pranks a small town hall style meeting into believing that a massive Mosque is going to be built in their town. Some of the residents get super upset over the idea of Muslims coming to their town. One of them even says “I am a racist towards Muslims. That Mosque would look good on fire.” Even crazier, nobody else from the town even bats an eye.

 

It is important to become more aware of the darker and more frightening elements of culture. You may find yourself in a comfortable bubble with nothing but kindness and good vibes only (in fact, I hope you do!), but there are some cruel, angry, and desperately misinformed people just outside your bubble.

 

Having said that, the show doesn’t dishearten me entirely. In the premiere Cohen sat down with Bernie Sanders, who came off as patient, rational and kind. In episode two, Cohen interviews Ted Koppel, who also just did his best to deal with Cohen’s character in a way that was thoughtful while absolutely dismissing his pro-Trump conspiracy theories.

So we have not completely gone to shit. There are good, intelligent, capable people out there being nice and doing their best to make a better world. Now we just need to vote for them.

 

One of the simplest political actions we can take is to choose to support people who we feel are doing good things. This might happen at the polls, but it is really about starting to really get behind health and education in all aspects of our lives. We need to keep learning and growing both as individuals and as a culture.

Opening the Heart of the Prairies

I am a yoga teacher from Saskatchewan. People here take care of each other. Sometimes my students complain that my morning classes are too social and friendly. But that is something you just have to get used to. People from Saskatchewan talk to strangers; because once you start to talk you realize you have common friends and acquaintances. Once you start to talk, you are no longer strangers.

 

An open heart is one that honours difference but embraces harmony. An open heart is capable of healing and being healed. Opening the heart of the prairies means acknowledging the suffering and damage that has happened here, not so that we can assign blame and dole out punishment, but so that we can heal together and take care of each other.

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Prairie folk imagine themselves as the descendants of brave, hard-working settlers who started with nothing and built this place from scratch. And that is not totally inaccurate. My great grandfather walked here from Winnipeg. I can’t even imagine the boldness and perseverance it must have required to settle here.

 

But that origin myth does not account for the people who already made a home of this land before the settlers arrived. Settlers needed to be believe the land was free for the taking.

 

The prevailing attitude here is that white settlers just worked harder and were more productive than their indigenous contemporaries. The economic and political power enjoyed by white immigrants is imagined like a family heirloom. As though the settlers gambled and won the prairies. But the game was rigged from the start.

 

The settler’s interests were protected by the state. Policies ensured that settlers always had an upper hand. They were allowed farms four times the size of farms allowed by Indian Affairs. Residential schools attempted to “kill the Indian in the child.” There is no nice way to frame that.

 

It is cultural genocide. It happened. And if we don’t confront it, it just keeps happening.

 

I hope reading this makes you feel uncomfortable. That is what reconciliation is supposed to feel like. That uncomfortable feeling is reconciliation’s price of admission.

 

There are so many people in this province who are not ready or willing to confront the truth of this place. But it is the only path forward away from the cold, heartless colonial attitudes that have caused so much suffering here.

 

Opening the heart of the prairies means standing with your face to the wind. It is bracing and tempting to turn and run from it. Like walking through the rain, our inclination is to scurry for cover rather than calmly walking and accepting our cold, wet reality.

 

Yoga teaches you how to make that calm, cold walk with your face to the wind. In meditation there is no escape from your thoughts. You can try for years to block them out with mantras and platitudes about inner peace, but ultimately your thoughts are just your thoughts. Live streaming, play-by-play, commentary flows from your mind like water from an artesian well. Good thoughts, bad thoughts, random thoughts, all of it just whirls about in your mind. Yoga teaches you how to sit and watch rather than being swept away.

 

That is why I believe yoga can play such a vital role in opening the heart of the prairies. Learning about the role that your ancestors played, knowingly or not, in genocide brings up all kinds of defensive, reactive, and deflecting thoughts. One of the requirements of reconciliation is listening. We need to be able to calm ourselves and get out of a reactionary mindset into something more contemplative.

 

Have you ever seen somebody do or say something so ignorant and hurtful that you thought to yourself, “what were they thinking?”

 

Well, if you never sit quietly and observe your thoughts, how would you know what you are thinking? If you don’t see your patterns, you can’t ever change them.

 

Yoga is all about awareness. One of the things that people love most about yoga is how it wakes up the mind and body, allowing you to see yourself in a new light. There are literally thousands of people who sit and stand with alignment that is causing or contributing to chronic pain. Teaching those people to sit and stand in healthier, more structurally sound ways, involves pointing out their postural habits. Awareness of the habit makes changing it possible.

 

I believe that racism is a habit. White settlers have a habit of discounting, diminishing, and disbelief when their hear indigenous voices. This habit started when the colonial government told settlers that the land was free for the taking. Settlers were told that indigenous peoples were not “us.” Indigenous peoples became a cultural “other” that did not factor into “our” plans for this land.

 

If we do not start to see this habit of thinking, it is allowed to continue unabated. We need to reformulate our idea of who “we” are to include indigenous peoples.

 

The attitude of the provincial government toward the Justice for Stolen Children camp in Wascana park provides a case in point. “We” had a plan for a beer garden in the park. “They” had tipis set up where “we” wanted to celebrate Canada Day. If we are not aware of our colonial habit of thinking that frames these issues in “us” vs “them” there is no way for that habit to change.

 

Being from the prairies isn’t better than being from anywhere else. But it is different than being from anywhere else. The people here are different. Not better. But different.

 

The people are unpretentious and don’t bother putting up much of a front. That is one of the reasons Saskatchewan can appear so much more backwards and racist than the rest of the country. The backwards racists here don’t take the time to hide it.

 

Like I said, not better. Just different.

 

The yoga in Saskatchewan is like the land. It is very easy to drive through or fly over without giving it much notice. But look more closely and you will start to see why people choose to stay. A smaller population means a smaller market, which means it is very unlikely that any yoga teacher here is going to see much in the way of financial rewards. Like the people selling mushrooms and micro greens at the local farmers market, yoga teachers here are not doing it for fame, prestige, or money.

 

Yoga teachers here, like in every small market around the world, teach because they love it. There is also no elite gym like Equinox or fancy studio chain like Core Power where you can be a part of a fancy yoga scene. There is very little in the way of social payoff from attending a studio here. The students are also in it for the love.

 

Why do we live in a place where winter tries to kill us for 4-5 months of the year? Because it is our home. We adapt to the harshness by working together and taking care of each other. We push each other out ruts and dig each other out of snow banks. We smile at each other on the street and we talk to our neighbours. We love it here because of the love here.

 

Opening the heart of the prairies means loosening the boundaries of our identity in order to grow larger. It means including and embracing more. It means out-growing an outdated habit and learning something new and better.

 

Growing is almost never comfortable. It hurts to stretch beyond your perceived limitations. But just beyond the imagined boundaries of our identity there is the exciting possibility for something new. We can be more than we are now. We can embrace more. Include more. We can open our eyes and see the world a new light.

 

The prairies are a beautiful place. It’s the understated majesty of the place that gets you sometimes. There is no crashing waves or towering mountains, no skyscrapers or theme parks. Just an expanse of sky behind a perfect, solidarity tree in the valley. It can feel overwhelming in its vastness and emptiness. But that is only if we imagine ourselves as small and separate from the land and the people.

 

Opening the heart of the prairies is opening yourself to the land and to the people. It is standing with our face to the cold wind, but it is also standing to meet warm light of the rising sun. Together we can heal and be healed. With awareness we can apologize, forgive, and move forward together.

Defriended

How many times have you been “de-friended” on social media?

 

I haven’t been keeping score. But I am sure it is quite a few. A friend of mine has a recurring thread on his timeline where he recounts stories in which he was de-friended. It is hilarious. But while my friend laughs it off, I generally feel kind of hurt whenever I get defriended.

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Photo by Victoria Heath on Unsplash

Social media can become an echo chamber where you only hear opinions that you are likely to share and dissenters are usually called out, shouted down, and shamed before they have a chance to explain themselves. The echo chamber end game is being spoon-fed news and opinions with no need to question, read further, or think critically about much of anything.

 

So I do my best to curate my news feed to give me a diverse range of perspectives and opinions. I quite enjoy thinking and pondering about things, so the last thing I want to some kind of news-pablum, free from any discomfort or potential to offend.

 

Learning should always be a little uncomfortable. And why else are we reading about each other’s lives and opinions if not to learn more about each other?

 

You need friends who see the world differently than you. They will force to reconsider. They might get under your skin, but they are providing with such a valuable service.

 

“If you don’t believe in thing x or thing y then unfollow me right now”

 

I come across posts like this fairly often. They are lines in the social media sand. The authors of such posts are not looking to engage in conversation, get a new perspective, or learn why somebody might think differently than they do. This style of post is emblematic of how social media makes us dumber.

 

I realize some people are just nasty trolls who relish the thought of forcing you to respond to some inane accusation, ad hominem attack, or false equivalency. You should defriend those people. Your social media should be a place where you connect with people, not a place where put on your armour and go to battle.

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Photo by Tom Holmes on Unsplash

But you don’t need to go to war with most of your friends. You have things to learn from your friends. You have things to learn from your racist uncle, your snowflake co-worker, your self-righteously liberal high school friend, and your profoundly uneducated Trump-loving, flat earther rando in your feed. They have a perspective. They believe these things for a reason, and with some thoughtful comments and questions you can shed some light why they think the way they do.

 

You do not need to agree with every perspective you encounter online. In fact, I sincerely hope you do not. Lines in the social media sand need to be drawn from time to time. Just choose your battles carefully.

It is sooooooo tempting to write off people with whom we disagree as stupid. But that would be a mistake. They are not stupid. They think differently. Their priorities do not align with yours, sometimes in dramatic ways. But they are somebody’s son or daughter; they want approval and understanding just like you. They want to be respected and accepted by their peers. They want to not feel alone.

 

Social media is practice for living in a globally interconnected world. We are no longer in isolated villages where our neighbours all think, dress, and act the same as us. We live in a global village now.

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Our neighbours think, dress, and act in ways that we might not appreciate or understand. And sometimes people just need to think with their keyboards. They just like to throw some ideas out into the internets to see what their friends think. They aren’t professing to their most passionate political beliefs, they might just be trying on some hats.

 

If we have any hope of living in a peaceful, cooperative world we are going to need to start learning to appreciate and understand our differences. And if we can’t do it from behind our keyboards, there is no way it is going to happen on the street.

 

 

 

Colten Boushie and Saskatchewan’s Failure of Empathy

The verdict was disappointing but not surprising. In fact, on Friday night Sarah misread a tweet from a CBC reporter and yelled down the stairs “He was found guilty of first degree murder!” That was surprising. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I thought to myself “wow, things are actually changing around here.”

 

Screen Shot 2018-02-11 at 10.45.33 PMThen, only moments later, she realized her mistake. When she yelled down the stairs a second time my heart sank. Things are not changing. I imagined how that verdict must have felt to Colten’s brother and sister. For Colten’s mother. I imagined how it would feel to be Colten.

 

Then I start browsing social media for stories and analysis. I don’t like to wade into these issues half-informed. Perspectives are so important and we have a tendency towards being sucked into echo-chambers where we only encounter opinions that are similar to our own. So I seek out other opinions and perspectives. Especially ones different from my own. These are the kinds of things I read:

 

It’s a tragedy, but if they didn’t go ripping around somebody’s property it wouldn’t have happened.

 

The real victim here in Gerald Stanley.

 

This is not about race. It was an accident. Pure and simple.

 

I have no remorse for somebody who steals from people.

 

You don’t need to think that Colten Boushie was a good person in order to think that he did not deserve to die that day. You don’t need to think Gerald Stanley is evil in order to think he was wrong to start waving around a handgun that day. You don’t need to think the shooting was intentional to recognize that racism affects the lives of non-whites in ways that white people might have a hard time seeing and understanding. And you don’t need to be a bleeding heart to have a heart.

 

You don’t need to be a preachy social justice warrior to empathize with Colten Boushie and his family. The insistence that this is not about race belies an attitude of indifference or ignorance towards Canada’s colonial history.

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Imagine having your children taken away. Imagine having your culture taken away. Imagine growing up in a windowless trailer with no functioning toilet on a reserve outside of North Battleford. Imagine the growing up with the hopelessness, isolation, abuse, and disease associated with poverty in northern communities. Imagine this playing out over multiple generations.

 

If you step back from yourself, from the things you believe and things you want to believe, you can’t help but feel your heart breaking.

Imagine you are Colten Boushie’s mother waiting for her 22 year-old son to come home when you see the police cars with sirens headed straight for your home. They barge into your house, telling you your son is dead before searching his room. They ask you if you have been drinking and smell your breath. Just try to imagine how painful that must have been.

 

The people of Saskatchewan, of Canada, need to feel that pain before we can even begin to talk about reconciliation. Without empathy there can be no reconciliation.

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Insisting that racism played no part in this case, that racism is not a problem because you are not a racist, or that reverse racism is just as bad is the opposite of reconciliation. It sows discord and factionalism.

 

What we need right now is to hear the stories and listen with an open heart. We need to know what life is like in northern reserves. We need to hear about how many white kids have been day-drunk and ripping around farmer’s fields with little more than an angry phone call to the RCMP. We need to hear stories from residential schools. We need elders to tell us about the way things were, and the way they might be. We need to listen.

 

I am a middle aged, middle class, straight white guy with a nice home in a beautiful neighborhood. My wife and children love and support me. My neighbors smile and wave when I walk down my street to my business where I meet more and more of the wonderful people in my community. I have leveraged that privilege for many things, not the least of which is a public voice.

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Empathy demands that my privileged voice speaks out at this moment. This is not a decision made with my mind. It is the voice of my heart.

 

Justice for Colten means more than empathy. It means large-scale changes to the justice system, reconciliation, and some serious soul-searching when it comes to institutional racism in Canada. But it starts with empathy.

Yoga, Conspiracy Theories, and Fear of the Unknown

Let me start by saying I love Las Vegas. I don’t think I am supposed to, though. I am a yoga teacher. I am supposed to love Bali, Sedona, and Tofino. I have never been to any of those places. But I have been to Las Vegas and I think it’s an amazing place. So the terror attack at the Mandalay Bay this fall really shook me up.

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I kept on searching for it and reading about it online. I wanted more information to try to make sense of it. Then I slipped into the rabbit hole. Things started getting all kinds of weird.

 

On October 4th YouTube changed its search algorithms around the Las Vegas mass shooting as a result of incidentally promoting conspiracy theories. There were so many conspiracies floating around the web that when people searched for “Las Vegas” on YouTube they were led to videos about FBI cover-ups, ISIS plots, and all sorts of unveiling how the illuminati were pulling the wool over our collective eyes.

 

It worked. Shortly after making the change the front page of searches for “Las Vegas” contained much more reputable sources. Thank goodness. Not only do conspiracy theories trivialize the horrific loss of life that takes place during terror attacks, they also divert attention from the real issues that these attacks raise. Gun control, religious extremism and mental illness and alienation may not be as fun as the illuminati, but they are real issues that we can actually address.

I realize that some conspiracy theories turn out to be true. Because people are often sneaky and manipulative. I imagine the Bay of Pigs and Golf of Tonkin were both conspiracy theories at one point. But it was years of careful research and people risking their careers that got that information out. Not cheap YouTube videos.

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What does this have to do with yoga, you ask? Well, I’m a yoga teacher. And I have a knack for making everything about yoga.

 

One of the many gifts of my yoga practice is comfort with uncertainty. I have had the rug pulled out from me so many times. Every time I think I know how and why a posture functions, I learn something new that throws the whole thing into doubt.

 

I used to do physical adjustments on my students because I learned so much from my teacher who did them to me. Then I learned about trauma sensitivity and stopped. Then I learned about the role of touch in depression and anxiety. This is not an article about consent and yoga adjustments…but I have learned to be so much more open to differing perspectives because my own perspective has changed so over the years.

 

Back in the 1990s I was an angry, militant vegan. Then I fell in love with somebody who eats cheese. So I became an angry, militant vegetarian. Then it dawned on me that everybody needs to figure out a diet that works for him or her. Then I became a happy, tolerant vegetarian. And who knows what the future holds? I don’t’ think I will become a meat-eater at some point…but I don’t know for sure.

 

I am uncertain. So are you.

 

And I am totally comfortable with that.

 

I do not know what the future holds. Neither do you.

 

Sometimes we like to make plans as though we know what will happen next. But that is all in our imagination. The reality is that that we don’t even know if we will have another day on this beautiful planet. Our future is not promised to any of us.

 

What motivated that heavily armed lunatic in my favorite hotel? Why did the Vegas shooting happen? Why do any of them happen? What makes somebody take the life of a total stranger? If we knew, maybe we could prevent the next one.

 

But sadly we do not know. If you are not comfortable with uncertainty it can drive you crazy. You could end up diving headlong in the YouTube rabbit hole and swimming in the utter madness of the uneducated and misinformed theories of random Internet trolls and quasi-fascist talking heads.

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So lets take a breath here, ok? Your thoughts are fleeting wisps that form and shift in your mind like clouds drifting across treetops. You don’t even know what you are thinking most of the time. Seriously. Pay attention to your thoughts. It is a mess up there. Your thoughts are an example of the uncertainty that characterizes our lives. And that is not a problem.

 

Embrace it. You don’t know why things happen the way they do. You don’t know what is going to happen next. We are hanging off the front of a train engine throwing tracks ahead of us as we plow forward into the future. Lets not kid ourselves into thinking that we know the truth. All we have is a provisional kind of faith that what we are doing is good enough for now.

 

In yoga and in life, just keep throwing down those tracks. Take things as they come. Don’t share crazy conspiracy theories on your social media, but don’t judge people who do. Stay kind, thoughtful, and open-minded…just not so open that your brain falls out.

Faking Yogasms: Are You Practicing Authentic Yoga?

 

 

Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the men of old; seek what they sought.”

~ Zen Master Basho

If you want your car fixed you need to take it to a mechanic. That mechanic needs specialized skills and abilities in order to get the job done. Would-be mechanics can’t simply imitate other mechanics.

 

I suppose that you could fake it though. You could just hang around people who fix cars. Pay attention what they say and how they say it. Then you imitate it. Wear what they wear. Speak how they speak. Pay attention to their mannerisms and cultural references until you look and act just like a mechanic.

 

And that will totally work… until it comes time to actually fix a car.

 

If you want to actually fix cars then their mannerisms, culture and clothes are of little use. You have to study and practice. You have to watch what they do, much more say than what they say.

 

The most important question you need to ask them is this: What did you do when you wanted to become a mechanic? THAT is what you need to know. Not what they are doing now, but what they did years ago. How does one become an authentic mechanic?

 

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Colin kneeling in fire

If you are new to yoga and want to find a authentic teacher, imitation is your main obstacle. As with mechanics, it is the skills and abilities of yoga teachers that set them apart and make them great. The mannerisms, clothing and culture of yoga are only convincing for novices. But somebody who has adopted the clothing and language of a yogi can easily pass for an authentic teacher if we are not paying attention.

 

Inexperienced yoga teachers will often mimic the sequencing, pace, tone, and body language of more experienced teachers in order to convey some sense of mastery over their craft. If you take some time to scroll through YouTube videos of famous yoga teachers you might even recognize some of the instructions and mannerisms from classes you have taken at gyms and yoga studios.

It is not just famous yoga teachers that suggest authenticity. There are a number of words that bright young yoga teachers quickly figure out have some magic power. I’ll write you a poem made only of a selection of these magic yoga words:

 

vinyasa core power flow

embodied prana chakra mindful

awakened heart highest self

yummy grace delicious at your own pace

intention purpose alignment

grounding great vibes

inspiration roll to your right sides

 

It is not just the words, but also the dress and the mannerisms of yogis that are appropriated and mimicked in order to give the appearance of accomplishment. The obvious examples are the top-knots, long beards, mala beads, half-closed eyes, and rhythmic swaying to unheard music. Movie directors and sketch comics that want to spoof yoga and yoga teachers have figured out that caricature of a yogi.

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It only takes a couple of generations of imitation and mimicry before a gradual dilution of authenticity can make yoga practice a hollow shell of what it could be.

 

The product is tragi-comic yoga classes featuring earnest young teachers who have appropriated language and mannerisms from the last generation of yogis without any of the cultural context or realization that produced the language and mannerisms in the first place. And it is the student who ultimately gets the short end of the stick in this deal. That is why I am writing this piece.

 

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Perhaps one of the clearest examples of the influence of mimicry in contemporary yoga is the stereo-typically strict and demanding “yoga nazi.” You know the one. That intimidating and apparently angry yoga teacher who is super hardcore. That too, is caricature. The primary source of the caricature is BKS Iyengar.

Iyengar is famously severe in his approach to teaching. One of my favorite Iyengar quotes: “I hint, nothing happens. I hit and it happens.” Study his biography and his temper should not surprise you. Iyengar was malnourished and dealt with malaria, typhoid fever and tuberculosis all before the age of nine when his father died. His guru and brother-in-law, Krishnamarcharya, neglected him and out right refused to teach him yoga. When he did teach him it was harsh and unrelenting, sometimes resulting in more injuries. Of course he is a little surly.

Now, the intense and demanding demeanor of the “yoga nazi” archetype is not without value. Iyengar insists on total awareness from his students. You must pay attention. You must follow instructions closely. These things are not options. Clear, focused awareness is the bare minimum requirement. But taken out of its historical and pedagogical context, it is just bad acting masquerading as experience and authority.

 

Teachers who admire BKS Iyengar and aspire to be like him would do well to study his story and see how he came to teach the way he teaches rather than simply imitating his teaching style. His precision and attention to detail arose out of necessity. His body did not take easily to the postures. It was a struggle. Learning those postures required a great deal attention. Iyengar did not simply imitate the style of his teacher. He adapted yoga to meet his own, and later his students, unique life conditions.

 

The genius of Iyengar yoga lies in its ability to refine awareness through the refinement of the postures. The mood and demeanor of the teacher is a secondary trait. It is something that may enhance or detract from a student’s enjoyment of the class, but it is not a defining characteristic of the style.

 

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There are a number of traits and characteristics associated with having a yoga experience. Deep relaxation does tend to make eyelids rest somewhat lower on the eye. Sharp, penetrating awareness does lend itself to a certain brightness and intensity of the eye. Awareness of and absorption in the rhythms of the body and breath will occasionally produce and a bit of a swaying or rocking while sitting around.

 

The meditative perspective typically enables one to witness the moments of their life theatrically. Rather than having things happen to you, you experience the happening of things. As a result, the mundane may appear as absurd or entertaining. People with meditative insight tend to giggle and not get caught up in drama.

 

So many yoga teachers have adopted a public persona based on the “fake it until you make it” mantra. They dress how they think a yogi should dress, use words they think yogis use, and pretend that they love everything and everybody even though they may be quietly struggling with neurosis, depression, and anxiety. Frankly, it is a recipe for disaster for both teacher and student.

 

The “fake it until you make it” approach works well in a number of venues. Want to feel more confident? Sit and stand in a way that appears more confident. It works. But that approach is limited. The cultivation of yogic attributes requires practice. Not just practicing asana, but practicing our ability to retain a relaxed awareness in the midst of our daily dramas. It takes time. It requires patience. This is true of practitioners of yoga and so much more so for teachers.

 

You do not want a mechanic who is faking it. Do not trust your vehicle in the hands of somebody whose primary yoga practice is one of mimicry.

 

This is not about shallow, superficial “western” yogis who are destroying the beautiful and authentic core of an idealized “eastern” yoga. People from many countries have been mimicking their teachers for generations. This is nothing new. It is the reason why in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika (a 14th Century hatha yoga manual) says

 

The practitioner will succeed; the non-practitioner will not. Success in Yoga…is achieved neither by wearing the right clothes nor by talking about it. Practice alone brings success. This is the truth, without a doubt.

 

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Yoga comes to us as a result of being conveyed from teacher to student over the course of many generations. This is not something that happened in the past.   It is happening now. We are yoga.

 

Authenticity in yoga emerges from the authenticity of the yogi. We implement the technologies of yoga on our minds and bodies – which both exist within shifting social and environmental contexts – and the transformations that take place become the teachings (and teachers) of the future.

 

Yoga teachers should not be stars. Yoga students should not be fans. We don’t need any more idols. Authentic yoga practice is radically subjective. We need to apply yoga to our own life conditions rather than attempting to reproduce the life conditions of the yogis of past centuries. Authentic yoga does not mean ancient yoga. It means your yoga. Your insights, your struggles, and your transformation form the cornerstone of authentic yoga.

 

 

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