Yoga in the service of life and death

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Ellen Fein is dying while very much being alive, and her voice is so important to share.  She is a devoted student of Yoga, and has used some of her time on this Earth to support others as they walk towards death.  I wanted to use this space to testify to the impact she had on my life and my teaching.

In 2009, a friend of mine asked me to support her with Yoga.  For a Yoga teacher, it is pretty normal for friends and family to ask for support, but this time, the request felt heavy.  My friend was living with stage 4 breast cancer, and she was asking for support to manage the pain and stress of living with the treatments to slow a progressive disease.  I felt that I needed help in order to work with her complex situation.

I knew of Ellen because she studied with one of my teachers, Gary Kraftsow, and the community of the American Viniyoga Institute held her in high regard.  She did a lot of work with end of life care and support of cancer patients.  So, I asked for a consultation.

On the phone, Ellen was very kind and listened carefully to the story of my friend and what she was asking.  After I had told her everything, she took a moment and gently said, “Well, your friend is dying.”  And, for a moment, time stopped.  That was the first time anyone spoke this truth.  Up until this point, the only word spoken were of wishful thinking and denial (which many needed for their own sanity).

Ellen did something really important after that, she told me that I was completely qualified and skilled to treat the body with Yoga Asana so she wouldn’t even consult me on that aspect.  However, she gave me insight to what my friend may be experiencing.  The greatest gift that I could offer, she told me, was to hold a space where it was safe to talk about death or the realities of the ‘details of death’ (organizing one’s stuff to help the family left behind).  She helped me realize that my friend had no one with whom she could speak about dying because her beautifully supportive circle were also terrified.

Ellen’s guidance took me back to something my teacher Gary once said about the motivation we have to practice Yoga – “Best case scenario, everyone you know and love will die, and then you will die…. and we are scared.”

Ellen helped me be in a space outside of my own fears in service of my friend.  Until her consultation, I had let my own fears keep me in denial and I could not serve her as a Yoga guide in that mind set.  So, I let death be our unspoken companion in Yoga sessions.  My friend never spoke of death but she she spoke of loneliness.  I started to see that the idea of dying created this sensation in her.  It was vital that she never feel alone, so I created a partner-meditation technique that we would do together because for her to sit alone was for her to sit with death, and she was not ready…. her readiness was my guide.

Ellen helped me realize that approaching Yoga as a teacher meant being in complete service to the moment with the student – it is so simple but requires one to remove their opinion from the equation.  We carry the tools of the tradition in service of life and death.

My friend completed her journey towards death a few years after she first asked me to support her.  She spent the last year of her life living very far from me, and I last spoke with her from a hospital bed about desire to meet my second child who was recently born, and we both held that vision knowing that it would never come to pass.  But, in that moment, my role was to be with her in the beautiful moment of happy meetings that will never come.

After losing my friend, death and I had some conversations.  The fear of death haunted me in a way that I hadn’t experienced before that time.  My friend’s death and knowing that she left behind a young child and husband triggered my greatest fears, and I had to do some deep work for myself to come to a peaceful space about it.  Since that time, and because of Ellen’s guidance, a fearlessness has arisen.  When hearing of a frightening diagnosis, accident, etc, my mind does not jump to fear as easily as it once did.  It goes more to a place of curiosity about what we can do to walk towards death with more peace.

To put it simply, Ellen helped me to consider dying while very much alive.  Please check out her online resources for some beautiful guidance.

Restlessness and Revelation

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Navtej Johar, an amazing dancer, poet, Yoga teacher, once reflected on the inherent conflict between experience and expression – a conflict that is worthy of contemplation during times of global crises like 2020 and 2021.

What you experience is completely personal.  It is a sensory/mind interaction that only you ‘witness.’  However, once you attempt to express what this experience was, the completely personal must come into contact with the history of language, which is inherently external – defined by and given to us by others.

A restlessness arises when there is a disconnect between our experience and how that experience is expressed.  Spending time in this gap between experience and expression drives one to action.  It requires us to reinvent vocabulary or find other ways to embody this restlessness. (paraphrased from my notes on Navtej’s 2020 workshop Taming the Sensory Body).

However, we feel anchored to the words that are externally identified with our experience because they are how we have always connected our inner experiences with the external world – for example, “when I meditate, I experience God.”  Words like ‘meditate’, ‘God’ have been defined for us, but what is it that we are trying to express with this two words? All words are bound to history, culture, etc.  These words are worth examining because by turning to them, our expression of an experience has the capacity to alter the memory of the experience itself.

As we move through challenging times, like the Corona virus pandemic and the significant ramifications of it, one may be aware of this kind of ‘restlessness’….. have you noticed it in your life in the past months? (this being written in February 2021).  Are you finding that certain expressions just to not capture this experience?  I have found that simple questions like “How are you doing?” have become loaded with so much subtext that it feels almost impossible to answer in casual conversation.

Moving towards the Unknown?

I sometimes reflect on the mythologies of spiritual traditions in times of perceived restlessness – Not in search of answers but in search of examples of how others have moved towards the powerful, sacred space of deep not-knowing.

I am reminded of a story of Francis of Assisi, a small Italian town full of spiritual practitioners.  It was the origin of the Franciscan revolution over 800 years ago.  It is a place I return to frequently with my teacher and collaborator Mirka Kraftsow for retreat and reflection.  One of the rolls I serve on our retreats is as storyteller, bringing the myths of Francis alive as we embed ourselves in the historical locations.  I have studied and sat with the details of the life of Francis of Assisi for several years.

As a young man who was the son of a wealthy merchant, Francis intended to serve as a knight in the crusades because that was what ‘success’ looked like for his gender and station at the time.  He failed, miserably at this goal. Captured, tortured, and ill, he returned home, , and he was deeply restless.

In this state of mind, he went to a small chapel called San Damiano outside of the city walls.  The little chapel was in disrepair but quiet and isolated.  In this state of restlessness, he had an experience.  The expression of that experience became a prayer in that tradition that marks the starting point of spiritual awakening:

Most High glorious God,
Cast Your Light into the Darkness of my Heart.
Give me, Lord,
Right Faith,
Firm Hope,
Perfect Charity,
and Profound Humility
With Wisdom and Perception
So that I may carry out
What is truly Your Holy Will.

One version of the mythology of St. Francis was that, in response to this prayer, the crucifix above the alter ‘spoke’ to him and said, “rebuild my church”. (there are other interpretations of this time in his life).

Whatever experience he had, this prayer may have been the beginning of his search for the expression of it. And what followed from this time was the story of his Dharma, of his life’s work.  Sitting with this restlessness drove the action of his life.  He asked for guidance – “cast Your Light into the Darkness of my Heart” – but he did not receive a definitive answer, rather a call to action.  What he misunderstood to be guidance to rebuild a small, decrepit chapel, was a fire lit to shape the Church (the organization as opposed to a structure) into something more accurately expressing his experience of the teachings of Christ.

The rest of the life of Francis was a constant conflict of struggling to express the experience of his own experience of deep faith that ultimately started a revolution of the Church that became more similar to the way that Francis experienced faith himself.

Only Don’t-Know

Francis of Assisi is far from the only person to find refuge in the conflict of not knowing what is deeply experienced – the deep wordlessness of experience.  It is the Heart of Zen teachings and touched upon in all spiritual traditions.  In fact, those who become sources of spiritual inspiration often do so because they actively seek refuge in this restless space of unknowability.

As we move through powerful times like the current pandemic, the deep connection with profound uncertainty puts us all in the realm of the saints.  This ‘don’t-know’ space is a sacred one, it is a natural state in the undefined reality in which we live.  Can we find Peace in that?  Can we find Refuge in that?

I find that Rainer Maria Rilke expressed the joy of this state beautifully (my English translation/interpretation from original German):

Be patient with all that lies unsettled in your own heart and
try to love the Questions themselves,
Like a mysterious mountain cabin, locked up tight, and
like books written in an unknownable language.

For the moment, do not seek the answers,
which you cannot be given because
you would not be able to live them.

Remember, the point is, to live EVERYTHING.

Live the questions now.
Perhaps you will, gradually,
without even noticing it,
live along some distant day
into the answer.

“We are One” ≠ “I am Special”

Reading Time: 4 minutes

The foundational teaching of many spiritual/religious traditions begin with some version of “We are One.”  This leads believers to the notion that compassion arises out of a deep awareness of our fundamental connection with other beings.  However, a problematic misinterpretation of this concept can lead some to the delusion that the awareness that “we are One” means “I am special”.

“I am special” thinking comes from the misapplication of the big teachings of faith to our everyday struggles.  When we feel connected to that idea of ‘Oneness’, it can make the ups and downs of life a bit easier to manage.  And some of us begin to see signs of this Oneness all around us (what can be classified as ‘magical thinking’), giving us more comfort.  This kind of thinking, though offering us comfort, can also lead to big problems when we start to consider things like public health policy in a Global Pandemic.

The “Oneness” concept actually aligns well with the physical sciences.  We are, literally, made from the same material as the rest of the stuff in the Universe – we are star dust.  Our biological forms can be analyzed using statistics – statistics is the mathematics of systems, not individuals.  Statistics can predict animal behavior (including humans).  It can predict trends in viral transmissions in the same way it can be used to predict weather patterns.  The efficacy of mathematical modeling of humanity indicates that “We are One” is not a bad model for our species.  Systems based analysis can show us where the system is broken, even if individuals in the system do not perceive it to be.

The trend in many modern spiritual/religious traditions has shifted this systems thinking to individualist thinking.  “I am special” thinking can be very helpful, in the short term, for those who are feeling lost or overwhelmed, but it should be seen only as a tool and never as a goal of spiritual practice.  When we begin to believe “I am special because I know that we are one (or I know God’s mind, etc)“, we create a fundamental contradiction in how we perceive the world.

We can see the potential harm from such thinking in the strong resistance to public health polices being proposed across the world in 2020.  Scientists who analyze the viral behavior (which is intimately connected to human behavior), they see trends and make predictions about what can shift these trends based on a systems analysis.  However, our individual experiences while living with an invisible threat, may be in direct contradiction to the analysis of the systems expert.  If the world in my immediate vicinity seems fine, then why are these ‘experts’ telling me otherwise?  If I have never known someone, personally, who has been gravely ill or died from this invisible threat, why should I believe it will impact me…. After all, I am special.

The problem is, all evidence indicates that we are, in fact, One system – whether or not we perceive it.  So, as a highly contagious virus spreads around the world, it will continue to do what it does, and the only weapon we have against it, for the time being, is to change our socialized behavior (it may feel like instinctual behavior, but it is behavior our society has taught us).

Poor leaders create a false dichotomy – “there is nothing we can do so we must give up changing our lives” or “the only think to do is to lock everyone away until we have a cure/vaccine”.  This dichotomy creates tremendous fear and confusion as people need strong support in behaving in a way that support the whole.  In fact, the reason that the spiritual/religious exist in the first place, is because acting as if “we are One” can be in direct contradiction to our socialized behavior.

Good leaders, on the other hand, recognize that they are asking people to go against their natural inclinations.  Good leader prepare people for the challenges that behavioral changes will create (and also give people less opportunities to act in a way that endangers everyone).  They make a plan based on the systems analysis and risk/benefit analysis.  Good leaders walk people through it, again and again.  The tell tale of a good leader, in this scenario, is that the plan will change with time, and these changes will be communicated in many ways.  A good plan involves action and analysis, then more action and more analysis.  This kind of approach continues in as many iterations as needed until the responsibility of controlling infections is out of the hands of the public.

in 2019, on a flight from Rome to Germany, I was seated next to a young priest who happen to be from a small town close to my home town in Germany.  We had a beautiful conversation on faith and the legacy of St. Francis of Assisi.  As we parted, he gave me a flyer for a community event he was organizing, and on the flyer, was a sentence on the importance of how we live our own lives and its relationship to universality.  It translated to something like, “The example of ones life should inspire the community to follow on the path of Oneness.”

Seeing our lives as and example in our community, how ever small, what kind of example are we? 

Can we expand the universal thinking to the individual life choices of those around us, even if it leads to discomfort or even pain (emotional, financial, physical)?

How are we supporting our community in these times as we move forward together?


Mind like Foot Prints in the Sand

Reading Time: 2 minutes

Many Yoga techniques are about placing the Mind, whether we are using the body to hold the attention or some inner image or sensation.  Place your attention “Here”, place it “There”…. Hold it “Here”, hold it “There.” – the practice, initially, is in the placement.  

When I first began to deeply explore seated meditation practices, my teacher began with exercises inviting us to place our Mind on a particular image or idea and hold it there for a period of time.  When experiences were shared after the practices, I felt a bit confused initially.  Many colleagues would share deep, meaningful impressions left by the practice, but I had a different experience.  I asked my teacher about it.  When I was asked to share my experiences, I said, “You asked me to hold this image in my mind, and I did.  Then, after a time, you asked me to release the image, and I did.  I don’t seem to be having any ‘profound’ awakenings, just placing my mind and letting it go.”  I was assured that I wasn’t “doing it wrong” and encouraged to just continue without looking for any particular experience.  And, after years of practice, I can see why my teacher smiled at my comments.

Each placement of the Mind in an inner (or external practice, for that matter) is like a foot print on the wet sand – they leave an impression on the Mind.  Sometimes, our placement becomes so refined that we build an intricate, amazing sand sculpture that is a source of awe and inspiration for all who see it.

But like all inventions made on the shoreline of life, the tide must, inevitably, come.  When we become attached to our Mind creations, we may try, like children, to inhibit the coming tide, building temporary barriers around our beautiful mind creation – “I am THIS, I am THAT.”  But, all Mind creations are destined to reunite with the Source.

The water in the sand that allows the impressions to stay is the same water in the infinite ocean of Samaskara.  The impression was never separate from the Source; it was just more tangible.   Once we are comfortably able to form impressions, it becomes our first connection to the Source.  With practice, we don’t need to hold so tightly to the impressions we have created because we begin to trust that we already are that Source even when we cannot see the impressions in the Sand.

What are the impressions that your practice creates on your mind? 

What happens to You (and your practice) as those impressions are wiped away with the tide of time? 

Do your build barriers to stop the tide or do your welcome the completion of one impression to make space for the next?

The Problem with Identity

Reading Time: 10 minutes

“I stand before my highest mountain, and before my longest journey, and ,therefore, must I descend deeper than I have ever before descended.” (Nietzsche)

“The crucial element I wish to consider here is that element of a life which we consider to be an identity; the way in which one puts oneself together, what one imagines oneself to be…This invented reality contains a great number of elements, all of them extremely difficult, if not impossible, to name.  The invented reality has struck a certain kind of bargain with the world; s/he has a name, we know what s/he does, and we think, therefore, that we know who s/he is.  But it is not that simple.  The truth, forever, for everybody, is that one is a stranger to oneself, and that one must deal with this stranger day in and day out – that one, in fact, is forced to create, as distinct from invent, oneself.  Life demands of everyone a certain kind of humility, the humility to be able to make the descent that Nietzsche is talking about.”  (Excerpts from James Baldwin’s “The White Problem” – 1963)

James Baldwin speaks of the capacity for freedom when we do not become attached to this thing we call ‘identity.’   He speaks of identity as a creation that can arise within and something that must also be allowed to dissolve a be created again each day.

I posit that identity, particularly, the identity assigned by an external source (society), is both a source of deep suffering and also holds the potential for deep personal freedom.   Before I speak of this idea, consider two very important experiments that tap into the heart of human identity – The Stanford Experiment and Blue eyes/Brown eyes Experiment: 

The Stanford Experiment (Philip G. Zimbardo, 1971 )

Dr. Zimbardo created an experiment to test the phycological effects of perceived power using the setting of a mock prison at Stanford University.  The initial experiment was set to run for 2 weeks and 24 random white male volunteers were vetted to reduce any chances of physiological instability or disfunction.  What happened became a deep investigation of human identity. 

The men thought to be most stable were assigned the role of ‘guards’.  The ‘prisoners’ were arrested without warning (after they consented to the terms of the experiment) at their homes by fake police.  The ‘prisoners’, like actual criminal prisoners, were anonymized by wearing uniforms, being assigned a number rather than a name, having their heads shaved and personal belongings removed.  The guards were asked to ‘assure law and order’ was upheld.  

The first night, the ‘guards’ began to harass the prisoners, and it escalated quickly from there.  One the second day, there was a prison rebellion, which was put down by the guards with force including using chemical repellents.  After the rebellion, the guards decided to use physiological punishment as a means to control the ‘prisoners’ since they could not bring new ‘guards’ in to constantly watch the disruptive ‘prisoners.’   Within 3 days, the first prisoner had to be released because of emotional distress.

The experimenter, himself, played the role of the prison warden and within these first days, he began to lose his former identity and take on his new role.  In addition to the volunteers and Dr. Zimbardo, there are approximately 50 people who visited the ‘prison’ in some capacity – some curious professional colleagues, some families of the ‘prisoners’, a priest.  None of them thought to demand an end to what had become a place of torture for the ‘prisoners’.

On the sixth day, graduate student Christina Maslach was invited to conduct interviews with the volunteers (as she saw them, not as Guards and prisoners, as they saw themselves).  She was the first person to raise the alarm on the ethics of the experiment, and it was terminated on that day.  Extensive reflections have been written on the meaning of the experiment and why is went so wrong, so quickly.    One thing that is very clear is that human beings very quickly take on the identity assigned to them and our behavior can almost immediately conform to the expectations of that identity.

Brown eyes/Blue eyes experiment (Jane Elliot, 1968)

Jane Elliot is an anti-racist educator who was so deeply impacted by the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. that, on the day after of his murder, she vowed to dedicate her life to awakening white Americans to the monstrosity of white supremacy.

She had all white students in her classroom, and they had often spoken of racism.  The children were sympathetic the the plight of Black Americans.  She asked them to do an experiment with her to help them really understand what it feels like to face discrimination.  She told the children that, for the day, children with brown eyes would be ‘superior’ to children with blue eyes (smarter, kinder, and other qualities though to be positive).  Since they were ‘superior’, they had access to certain privileges like more playground time or extra food at lunch.  The blue eyed children had restrictions placed upon them like not being able to use play ground equipment, not drinking from the same water fountains, etc.  So the kids could identify the blue eyed children from a distance, brown eyed children placed a collar on their necks.  The experiment was reversed on the second day (blue eyes children being ‘superior’).

This children, particularly on the first day, quickly began to denigrate their classmates.  The ‘superior’ children quickly became arrogant and mean.   They also saw improved academic achievements.   At the same time, the children in the ‘inferior’ group saw a decline in academic performance and became quickly subservient to the ‘superior’ children.  

“I watched what had been marvelous, cooperative, wonderful, thoughtful children turn into nasty, vicious, discriminating, little third-graders in a space of fifteen minutes.” (Jane Elliot on the results of her experiment)

The experiment did not end in the classroom for Ms. Elliot.  The children were tremendously touched by the experiment and were asked to write about it.  Some of their writings were published in the national news.  Her entire community turned their back on her.  None of her fellow teachers would speak to her (accept one), her parents lost their business in their small town, and she received many death threats.  She continues to do anti-racist programs and lectures for children and adults.

When white supremacy defines ‘Identity’

What is important to note in both experiments is that they are both considered ethically unsound – not, necessarily because of the premise of the experiments, but rather because of how quickly people in the experiments assumed a new identity and began to behave monstrously towards others, committing what may be permanent psychological harm.  These few shocking days of experiments revealed that identity does not exist unless we believe it does, and if that identity has been placed upon us by another, it has the potential to rewrite even our own fundamental ethical foundations.

We, at least in the United States and Europe (the cultures of my birth and my life experiences), each have within us a monstrous subroutine called white supremacy, which assigns us an identity from birth.    This subroutine is has been inserted into our programming from the first breath and many of us have never learned how to disable it or even recognize that it exits.

I should be clear here, that no one actually benefits from white supremacy, even ‘white’ people – ‘whiteness’ being a socially constructed identity for people who are perceived to benefit from this illogical belief system. White supremacy is a dysfunctional ideal rooted in delusion and is detrimental to any stable society.  Its founding idea is that some people (defined at ‘not-white’) must be exploited in order for the ‘white’ people to prosper, and, therefore, there will always be a need for creating  an exploited class. 

If a group of ‘inferior’ people cannot be found to serve as the exploited, an exploited group must be created, either by conflict or societal dogma (which will, inevitably, lead to conflict).  

Remember, the form of white supremacy in the roots of the United States and Europe arose from European Christians as they came across people when they moved away from Europe to ‘discover’ a world that already existed.  As Christians, it would have been in conflict with their values to slaughter and oppress the people they came across in far away lands.  However, to declare these people as ‘other than fully human’ was a way to avoid the conflict of the Christian teachings and slaughter of God’s children.  Once large groups of people were determined not to be fully human by the Europeans, these same people became the people to exploit. 

Colonialism was logical extreme of the Stanford Experiment and Jane Elliot’s experiments.  Europeans defined themselves to be ‘white’ based on relative appearance, but this definition of ‘whiteness’ had more to do with access to power than appearance, and it made the Europeans brutal in their conquests.

Naturally, there have always been exploited people.  The ancient myths and stories are full of tails of slaves, the poor, and royalty, often the most exciting stories occurring when one secretly steps out of their place – prince disguised as a slave to win a beautiful woman’s heart, etc.  However, the creation of ‘race’ as a construct at the time of colonialism took this exploitation to a new level as those in the exploited groups can now be identified by physical traits and so their fate became inescapable from birth.  

It should be no surprise that as ‘race’ became a social construct, we began to see the poor and working class ‘white’ Europeans begin to rise up against their oppressors. They began to believe their identity as a privileged group as they began to see themselves as ‘white.’  So, those freed from the identity as ‘oppressed’ took their place as ‘oppressors’ and demanded their autonomy.  This concept is most beautifully expressed in the preamble of the Declaration of Independence in 1776:

“When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

However enlightened these word may read, the system that arose from them were tainted with white supremacy – many of these men, themselves, held enslaved people hostage and the freedom of hundred of thousands of people in the country were seen as negotiable.  These men, who did not come from a royal line, were now demanding the right to their own destiny because, although they lacked parentage, they were, at least, white   

The philosophical, economic, and social systems that arose at these times became dependent on cheaper labor, social oppression, and assumptions of white superiority.  In 2020, we have become trapped by these social and economic systems, and with each explosion of protest against it, unravels the twisted knots of exploitation more and more, but what is beneath the unraveling is not yet clear.   Can we even conceive of a system not based on systemic exploitation?

Identity as our Gateway to Freedom

This takes us back to the identity that James Baldwin spoke of; it is a broader sense of identity beyond the specific identity of relative ‘whiteness’.  I argue that dedication to any particular, externally defined, identity has the capacity to distract us from our highest values.    

The Stanford experiment shows us what can happen when we create an identity that purely serves a social function (‘Guard’ or ‘prisoner’) and Jane Elliot’s work shows us what happens, even to the most innocent, when our society amplifies these identities based on assumptions of superiority.  The insistence on societally constructed identity, because identity only exists within relation to the external, is the path to destruction.

As Jane Elliot pointed out, those who perceive themselves to be advantaged by the subroutine of white supremacy can quickly become “Nasty, vicious, discriminating” people.  The rage and hatred white supremacy feeds within one has impacts on all of their relationships and in their communities (to the point of genocide)  and even on their personal health.  On the other hand, those even those oppressed directly by the ideals of white supremacy are running this subroutine in their minds leading to significant impacts on heath, economic prosperity, even intellectual achievements, and personal relationships.   

“You will always remember the first time someone reminded you that you are Black.” (John Boyega, 2020)

Remember, one does not get to chose which side of the white supremacist construct one lives on – Whiteness or Blackness will be defined for you by the world around you.  Society, in innumerable ways, demonstrates to us where we stand; and if we do not challenge it, we begin to believe it.  Those who are perceived as ‘white’ will be told as such by the reaction of society, and those perceived as ‘Black’ will also be told.   In this way, our deluded ideals created by European Christians from the colonial era are defining identities in 2020.

It is time to rewrite the subroutines.

The foundation of the spiritual traditions, as I have studied them, is to free us from the identity placed upon us that we have come to believe.  As we practice, we begin to see, hear, taste, feel, smell these subroutines on a deep level – our nervous system been wired to it.  However, once it is seen, it creates a bug in the system, short circuiting the power of the programming.  

Our identity is largely the result of the impressions that our world and our cultures imprint upon us, like a block of marble, slowly chipped away until a form appears – we think we are the sculptures, but were were only ever the marble.  The highest journey is to become free of the illusion that we are this identity that has been created for us and come to terms with the foundation of who we are, beyond culture and impressions of life. 

What Baldwin asks us to do it to ‘create, as distinct from invent, oneself’.  Invention is only converting what already exists and converting it.  What he proposes is far more radical.  In order to create, from scratch, you must have already destroyed your socially anointed identity.  Not only is he asking the we create our identity but that we recognize this identity as a temporary construct that needs to be degraded regularly – identity is only ever a fictional tool for societal interactions.

When we let the identity die, in each day, in each moment, we can truly become free from the confused entanglements of human history.  This freedom allows our actions to be rooted in our fundamental values, rather than the dysfunctional ideals of power and exploitation rooted in the identities placed upon us by our societies – the monstrous subroutines.  The only way to come up with new solutions to ancient problems is to work from such a place.  As a result of the death of identity, we automatically become more compassionate towards ourself and others.  As Zen teacher Hyon Gak Sunim once told me, “compassion is not a choice; it is what arises naturally when we are in touch with who we really are.”   

When we chose to turn towards the stranger within us each day, as Baldwin suggests, and recreate our identity over and over, we have found a gateway to compassion and freedom, not just for ourselves, but for our societies.

These words are in no way a guide to this unraveling of your own identity but rather a long winded invitation to ask yourself, “If I am not this identity, who am I?”

Within the illusion of life,

Death is the only reality,


is Reality the only death?

Within the reality of imprisonment,

Illusion is the only freedom,


is Freedom the only illusion?

(Dr. P. Zimbardo)

“Black Lives Matter” is Mantra

Reading Time: 2 minutes

We can only begin to deeply practice Yoga if we have the capacity to feel safe, even if for a moment.  The historical impact of white supremacy has traumatized millions of people, denying them safety in many ways, and in this moment we are seeing the direct impact of this theft on Black communities across the world through the lens of police brutality against Black bodies.  I stand in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movements, Black sisters and brothers, and with all of those looking to dismantle white supremacy in all forms.

The vision of SafeSpacesYoga is to acknowledge that modern industry of Yoga is one of privilege that has profited by exclusion; my goal is to reclaim these practice in the landscape of inclusivity.

It is my goal to create, as much as possible, a sense of safety for each person who comes to me – all bodies, all abilities, and all gender expressions and sexualities are welcome.  I do not teach ‘Yoga’, I teach people how to apply Yoga techniques to support their individual lives, and as a result, help each person find their unique expression of the ancient lineage of Yoga.

‘Black Lives Matter’ is Mantra

Mantra is the science of bringing meaning into the deepest spaces of our hearts as a source of deep personal transformation.  If you pay attention to the flow of life, you may see mantra arising like a mirror to show you yourself more clearly.  At this moment, “Black Lives Matter” is one such mantra – what does it offer us in this moment?  As my dear friend Dr. M. recently wrote:

“Try “Black Lives Matter” as mantra japa 108 times and see what arises. If it becomes painful for you then know that you are  beginning to share the pain of many. As Howard Thurman suggests do not run from the emotion but meet it head on until you can manage it.”
We can only move forward together.
In this vein, SafeSpafesYoga will be amplifying the voice of a friend and colleague who will go by the name Dr. M., to protect her privacy.
Dr. M. is a dedicated spiritual practitioner, poet, writer, and a recently retired medical doctor.  She is exploring, using the written word, the expression of her journey as a black woman in the United States at this time.