Change the way you look at things and the things you look at change ~ Wayne Dyer.
There comes a time in life when we are all called to look at death square in the eye. Although I am no stranger to funerals, this really hit home for me in 2016. In early spring of that year, my stepdad was diagnosed with “some type” of gastric cancer. It would take another month to determine the exact type and stage. The wait was agonizing for him. During the time between not knowing and knowing, I had the great fortune of taking my first trip to India. Since then, I have returned four more times. I took the image above in Varanasi at the Manikarnika Burning Ghat. A ghat is a flight of steps leading down to the river. There are 84 ghats along the banks of the sacred Ganges in Varanasi - most are used for bathing and puja (ceremony), but two are used exclusively as public cremation sites. On average, 80 cremations occur each day. During the pandemic, that number climbed to approximately 200 per day. The Hindu tradition views life and death as impermanent, whereas the soul is viewed as immortal. This means that there is an ongoing cycle of birth, growth, decay, and death (Baba Hari Dass), and then, rebirth. However, if one dies or is cremated in Varanasi, it is believed that the soul will be released from the ongoing cycle of rebirth, and the dead find the “path of the sun,” or nirvana.
While there are many life lessons that I have learned from traveling in the magically complex country that is India, embracing a broader perspective around death is right up there at the top of the list. Wayne Dyer said, “Change the way you look at things and the things you look at change.” Well, being in such close proximity to death on my trips to Varanasi has helped me change the way I look at death. And although I am not completely comfortable with the idea of me dying yet, it has helped me view death as a transformation of energy rather than a finality of life. So, when my dad was diagnosed with cancer in that spring of 2016, I had the privilege to support him through his cancer journey and practice a version of this newfound perspective. In that vein, this post is one part tribute, one part self-reflection, and one part Yoga for Cancer public service announcement.
When someone is diagnosed with cancer, it is like their whole life gets reduced to this one event. To be clear, it is a huge deal, but even so, there remains a whole part of a person’s life that is not cancer. So, I would like to share a little about Ed Campbell’s life before his cancer journey.
I referred to him as the “enlightened redneck,” because of his ability to give the sagest advice in the most blue-collar way. He came from humble beginnings, and legend has it that he was born in a boxcar. Ed played many roles; he was a husband, a brother, a father, a stepdad, a grandfather, a great grandfather, a father-in-law, an uncle, and a friend. He was a millennial parent before it was a thing; telling us four kids from as long as I can remember that we were the smartest, and best at everything we did, and that we could be anything we wanted.
He was a sensitive and compassionate person who would give you the shirt off his back if he could. As a carpenter, he built and renovated more houses than I can remember. As a skilled painter he was able to travel all over the world refurbishing cruise ships. He was generous with his time and his labour, always volunteering to help family and friends with their home renovation projects. Some might have even called him a true Karma Yogi (selfless servant.) He was a creative person who loved to write both fiction and non-fiction and loved to tell stories (both fiction and non-fiction.) He loved to dance, and he loved country music. He and my mother owned a business and worked together every day for over 40 years.
You may be surprised to know that right up until a couple of days before he went into hospice, he was making my mother an egg and tea every morning! He thought it was important to do something for her. It gave him a reason to get out of bed when it would have been easy to stay there. It made him feel alive and useful to continue this morning ritual.
Exactly one day after my return from India, my dad and I made the first of many trips to the hospital. This was the visit where he would do testing to find out what type of cancer he had. It went something like this; my dad was tested, the diagnosis was determined, the Gastroenterologist came out and very matter-of-factly said, “It’s stomach cancer, it’s advanced and it’s in operable.” We all looked at each other in silence for a moment and then the Doctor simply walked away. Stage four stomach cancer – it was shocking news. We were secretly hoping it was colon cancer. We sat in the waiting room and cried and then he said, “maybe this can help you with your Yoga ‘stuff.’”
The first question my dad had for the Oncologist was “how long do I have?” Nobody really wants to hear the answer to that question. So, when he heard the Dr. say, “about 3 months, if you do nothing, and around 10 months if you do treatment.” He made a quick decision to do palliative chemo; 8 rounds of IV chemo in combination with oral chemo and a plethora of other medications – 2 weeks on and 1 week off. Even at a reduced dosage, it was tough going. It literally felt like a death clock started ticking.
According to Yoga philosophy there are five main obstacles, or Kleshas, that we humans experience throughout our life. They are Avidya (ignorance), Asmita (egoism), Raga (attachment), Dvesha (aversion) and Abhinivesha (love of life and fear of death). Arguably, my dad now faced the biggest obstacle of his life. In his commentary on the Kleshas and Abhinivesha specifically, Baba Hari Dass said “this love of life appears in all beings equally, no matter whether they are a worm or a human being, or whether the human being is foolish or wise. In spite of all the evidence to the contrary, one thinks, ‘Perhaps death will not happen to me.’”
The survival instinct is strong in each of us, and still it seems that some other intuition takes over when one is faced with their own mortality. Perhaps this is a remembering of the contract we make when we come into existence. I witnessed my dad digest the events of his life very quickly. He started to ask the big questions, and on one of our what he used to call “chemo dates” he said, “I wonder how you let go of life?” To which I shared that I had once heard that Baba Hari Dass said “you simply leave the body like you’re taking off an old worn overcoat.” To which he replied, “well kid, I’m not ready to take off my coat yet.” But not more than two weeks later, having already said goodbye to the bird that lived in a tree close by the house, he shared that he was no longer afraid to die.
Without going in to all the gory details, I will say that Oncologists are surprisingly accurate at predicting how much time someone has left to live. After 10 months from the original prognosis, on January 22, 2017 (my mother’s birthday) he left his body peacefully, with a smile on his face, Elvis Presley softly playing in the background and me by his side silently chanting the Mrityunjaya mantra to help him on his journey.
The relationship with my stepdad was sometimes complicated. We did not always see eye to eye. In fact, we had been known to have some good ‘debates.’ However, through it all, I grew to love and respect him. He was always, and I mean always, there for me in my moments of need (and there were a few).
When he was diagnosed with cancer, I came to realize each family member has their own way of coping in a crisis. It can look like denial, avoidance, the use of humour or sarcasm, or sinking into addiction. My coping mechanism is to spring into action: trying to determine what is needed and then getting it done. Since I am a Yoga Therapist specializing in Yoga for Cancer, I put on my imaginary cape and got to work.
It is important to note here that supporting a loved one who had cancer gave me a whole new appreciation for my chosen field. Never having been through it myself, I understand now more than ever, I never fully grasped all the complexities that accompany a cancer diagnosis. It is one thing to theorize about it, and work with clients and students, but I did not know what I did not know. For instance, in addition to understanding medications’ side effects, having someone be an extra set of eyes and ears, and having someone to ask questions and translate the scientific jargon is a necessity. It is helpful, and sometimes even essential to have someone attend doctor appointments, keep a journal or take notes with important contact numbers and personal information (i.e., birth date, medical health # etc.) It was key to track progress or decline in appetite, weight gain and loss, and the effects of chemo and other medications from visit to visit. All this information proved to be valuable when my dad was admitted to hospice. The nurses were surprised and impressed at the amount of data I had collected. Of course, they could not have known I was afraid that I would miss something important, so I captured literally everything.
To express what it means to support someone who is on a cancer journey is difficult. I cannot envision the challenges for those who must go it alone. What I came to learn first-hand is that when someone is told they have terminal cancer, the shock can be profound. The stress from receiving the news affects everything, and the body goes straight into fight or flight mode. And it is not just the cancer patient, but the whole family that is affected. The body’s response to the physical, mental, and emotional pressure is to release stress hormones. This, in turn, increases blood pressure, speeds heart rate, and raises blood sugar levels. As you may know, these physiological changes help a person act with greater muscular strength and speed to escape a perceived threat, but of course the type of strength that is required for a cancer journey is quite unique and different from outrunning a puma. This is a different type of battle, and the perceived threat never really leaves the mind. While you definitely need internal strength and fortitude, there is no amount of speed that will help you outrun the diagnosis.
You can never know in advance the path your life will take, or how or when you will be called into service. I could have never known in advance that service would look like making countless trips to the oncologist’s office, to chemo appointments, CT scans and x-rays, and ensuring that blood transfusions were made available when necessary. It was important that my dad had a strong advocate to ensure that when his faith in a big medical system was challenged, he was getting exactly what he needed when he needed it. Not to mention all the deep conversations we had about questioning life and how one lets it all go. The most challenging conversation, though, was giving news we assume a daughter should never have to give. When he could no longer attend doctor’s visits, I was asked to tell him how much longer he might have left to live; it was a matter of weeks. We cried.
What I understand now more than ever, is that grieving is not something that happens at the ‘end,’ when someone leaves their body. It happens all along the way - when you find out your loved one has a terminal disease, when you find out that the treatment will no longer work, and at every difficult stage in between.
YOGA FOR CANCER
If you were wondering whether there is really a need for Yoga for Cancer, according to the Canadian Cancer Society, there were an estimated 225,800 new cancer cases in 2020. That is an average of 617 Canadians being diagnosed with some form of cancer each day. The numbers are staggering, to say the least.
I concluded early on in my yoga teaching journey, that yoga is not ‘one-size-fits-all.’ Which is to say that each person’s practice is entirely unique to them. This could not be truer for people who have cancer. Back in 2003, as a new teacher, I remember leading a class where four people, each with different types of cancer, came to practice in one class. It was a challenge to feel as if I was teaching four different classes in one, but it prompted me to become a Yoga Therapist with a specialization in cancer.
Since then, I have gone on to develop and lead Yoga for Cancer workshops for Yoga teachers who want to understand more about cancer and how they can use Yoga to support their students.
In order to teach Yoga to people who have cancer safely, you need to have knowledge and information. Compassion will take you a long way, but it is not enough. There are more than 100 types of cancer and many different types of treatments, such as:
Each of these treatments has side effects that can be debilitating, and which remain long after the initial treatment. For example: chemotherapy, a drug that can identify fast-growing cells, can result in hair loss, nausea, ‘chemo brain’ (confusion) and bone loss as chemo breaks down the bone building process. Chemo can cause hormonal imbalances; premature menopause (and all the symptoms that go along with that); and neuropathy, a neurological sensation in the feet (and fingers) that makes it difficult to feel the feet or hands on the floor. Surgery, on the other hand, can cause mobility issues, discomfort, fatigue, extended recovery time, scar tissue, depression, loss of range of motion, pain, digestion issues, constipation, and risk of infection. Additionally, it often causes lymph-edema - a buildup of lymph fluid in the body that cannot find its way out due to lymph node removal; and while it is manageable, it is not reversible.
But there is hope! Since we Westerners need empirical proof, science continues to verify what Yogis have known since time immemorial. Research on Yoga for cancer has been taking place for several years, showing improvements in fatigue, mood, anxiety, cancer-related pain and stress, cancer-related symptoms and medication side effects, and overall quality of life.
I am often asked what type of practice should be adopted by students who have cancer. Generally, without doing a full intake to determine the type and stage of cancer, treatments regimes, medications, ensuring folks are cleared to attend classes by their medical professional, it would be irresponsible to recommend a practice. It is important to remember that having cancer does not supersede other medical conditions that may need to be taken into consideration.
What I do offer is this, considering that there is an imbalance of the immune system and all the side effects noted above, it is recommended that the Yoga Therapy approach should begin with a Langhana practice (restorative and detoxing), and then move onto a Brahmana (more heating) practice as the student becomes stronger. The same goes for any breathing practices. Usually, sticking to cooling and balancing breaths such as alternate nostril breathing or three-part breath, while focusing on long slow exhalations, will be beneficial. At first, the moral of the story is to relax the nervous system.
Here is a short accessible cooling practice:
Even with all the treatments and Yoga for Cancer, some people will succumb to this disease. I have a firm belief in the intelligence of creation, and that just as we know how to be birthed into this world, we know how to leave it. Both ends of the spectrum are unknown; what lies beyond the entry and the exit is a mystery. Sometimes it is painful and sometimes it is graceful. In my dad’s case I am thankful it was peaceful and, dare I say, elegant.
In the years since he left his body, I remain curious about his transition, and I am left with many questions. What was he smiling at when he departed? What did he see? Who was there to greet him? Where did he go? Because one thing is for sure, one moment it was clear he was in his body, and next, he was gone.
To be sure, our relationship was not always perfect, but he was a good and loving teacher. I believe he taught me what mattered most in this life and even in death I continue to reflect on what I have learned from him.
He taught me to shoot for the stars and reminded me that it is important to think outside the box, to be creative, and to improvise and unapologetically enjoy this one life we have.
He taught me that it is important to stay curious, and fight for what you believe in.
He taught me it is really important to be kind to people, especially those less fortunate.
He taught me that family always comes first, we are allowed to make mistakes, let each other off the hook and the real kicker, that love does not always look like you expect it to look.
In retrospect, it seems strange to call bearing witness to my dad’s death a gift. He allowed me to be present for one of the most intimate and possibly frightening and mysterious moments on the human continuum. He showed me it can be done with grace. The sheer fact that he seemed fully surrendered and accepting and not at all fearful and was an important lesson for me. It shifted something in me and for that I have nothing but gratitude. His death invited me to look at my fear around my own mortality head on, something we all must do at some point. I feel his energetic presence and even hear his voice in my head sometimes when I feel the need of support and I am reminded “goodbyes are only for those who love with their eyes. Because for those who love with heart and soul, there is no such thing as separation ~ Rumi.”
“Holding onto anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.”
One thing I can say with a high degree of certainty, is that human beings are complicated. The pairs of opposites are alive and well in each of us. Yoga tells us the sensory world is characterized by pairs of opposites (dvandvas): heat and cold, light and dark, male and female, positive and negative, honor and insult, success and failure (Yoga International). We have the power cast much light, and yet we also have the power to cause much pain. Before jumping to the conclusion “not me,” all we need do is turn on our TV, read a newspaper or look at social media to bear witness to the ways we hurt one another in small and unthinkable ways. In fact, at the writing of these “musings” the remains of 215 Indigenous children have just been discovered buried beneath a former residential school. Without minimizing this tragic event, I am sure we can all agree, we hurt each other. Then of course there the wounds we receive in our family of origin. These can be passed on from generation to generation. They are pain unlike any other, and the emotional or actual scars can run deep. Each of us have our own story of how things did not go quite “right” on our parent’s watch. If we are not careful, we can end up living our life through the lens of these painful memories, and nursed grudges. All this heartache has got me thinking about the fine art of forgiveness; how difficult it is for the ego, why it is in our best interest to do it, and how the practice of Yoga can help us navigate these frequently uncharted waters.
When you hear the word “forgiveness,” what does it feel like, and where does the mind go? Perhaps it brings up feelings of righteous indignation, or a fear of losing the battle. At times, you may even go so far as to build an army of support in your efforts to “hold the line.” Many people have been quoted as saying “holding on to anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.” It is a losing proposition. Does, holding onto anger do you expect it will do? Reflect for a moment on the times you have held on to anger for dear life and felt free. Can you think of any? I can’t! We can spend our whole lifetime holding on to resentment or rehashing an argument, looking at it from different angles, and rehearsing a monologue that may never be shared with anyone but yourself.
EGO and FORGIVENESS:
We could simply look at the negative aspect of ego as someone who is full of themselves, but of course the ego is much more than that. It is a collection of thoughts and stories of who I believe myself to be, which may or may not be rooted in reality. In Yogic terms, the ego is defined as Ahamkara or the sense of and the over identification with “I-ness.” Eckhart Tolle defines the ego as a dysfunctional relationship with the present moment which consists of compulsive, conditioned thought processes. In either case, the ego is the part of us that is largely responsible for all the pain and suffering in our lives. It holds onto painful baggage, makes us jealous, has us lash out in anger and is the part of us that wants to make us right and others wrong.
Let us be honest, the ego can be fragile, but it also needs to be pointed out that we need the ego to function in the world. When it is quiet, there is a sense of healthy self-esteem, and we are able to recognize our limitations. It can help us grow, express vulnerability, and help us take responsibility for our actions. However, when it is not quiet, which is to say that when we over identify with the ego, it is an obstacle on the Yogic path and in life. The unrefined ego has an extremely thin manifesto, in which it is trying to: be as comfortable as possible; be on the lookout for danger; be right at all costs; operate from a place of defensiveness; and attempt to get others to confess their faults. Something like, “You hurt me, now say you’re sorry.” Of course, when the apology does come, the ego only experiences a short-term reprieve from suffering, as it often does nothing to uproot the original hurt. Simply put, the unrefined ego continuously views the world as though it is being repeatedly attacked by other egos. It is like an egoic pinball machine, continually bouncing off the flippers and the walls, but not as fun. Suffice to say, the ego does not like anything that feels like it may destabilize its very survival.
When Baba Hari Dass was asked, what is forgiveness? He responded “forgiveness is forgetting the past actions of some outer agency which created pain in life and not feeling the least amount of anger or hatred toward the person. As long as our ego is strong, we cannot learn to forgive. We always defend our ego and are ready to take revenge in any circumstances.”
If the ego is so determined to be victorious at all costs, you might be asking, how can we get it on board with forgiveness? As Eckhart Tolle says one of the first things we can do is, “simply become aware of when the ego is shows up.” Your next question might be when it does show up, how would you recognize it? Tolle also shares, “you can be sure it has arrived when you are busy attaching verbal or mental labels to situations, and people, becoming more critical and deadened to reality.”
It takes dedicated practice, over a long period of time, to refine the ego to a place where the idea of experiencing, or asking for forgiveness, beyond the superficial, is even possible. It takes time to arrive at a place where we can embody true compassion and realize that hurt egos, hurt egos. Once we arrive at this place though, an opportunity for real forgiveness opens within us. At the end of the day, we can only forgive to the degree to which we are conscious and present. Only then will we recognize that anything a person perpetrates against another is done out of a deep level of unconsciousness. The deeper the offence, the deeper the unconsciousness. And while this does not give anyone a green light to cause harm to another, it does provide context: people do what they know, and when they know better, they do better.
I will be the first to admit, it can be difficult to acknowledge and take responsibility when we cause harm to another. It is an intricate quagmire built on grief, shame, guilt, and embarrassment. This requires more than simply saying “I’m sorry” and moving on. This requires a certain level of ego fitness, deep self-reflection (Svadhyaya) and acknowledgement of the “wrongdoing” on how one’s actions have negatively impacted another. It is the essence of true reparation and like developing any new skill, it takes practice and courage and it is healing.
BENEFITS OF FORGIVENESS:
While there might not be a hard and fast formula on how one should forgive, I am inviting us to explore the notion that when we hold onto anger and resentment, we suffer. There is a cost. Our tender hearts, despite having the capacity to hold so much pain and carry such burdens, pay a price.
Holding onto anger and resentment continues to uphold the ego’s manifesto. Although it may feel satisfying on some level, living with this type of stress does nothing good for our physical or mental health. There are many accounts which show that holding a grudge may have even more negative effects than the issue which caused it. According to the Mayo Clinic, chronic stress has many adverse effects on the nervous system such as:
If that is not enough incentive to move us in the direction of forgiveness, a grudge held onto has the potential to bring its anger and bitterness into every relationship, and to darken new experiences.
On the other hand, when we can forgive or be forgiven and let go of anger and resentment, we create a pathway for improved peace of body and mind, and for healing to occur. Here the Mayo Clinic lists a slew of health benefits which forgiving someone can bring to our life:
YOGA PHILOSOPHY TOOLS FOR FORGIVENESS:
I want to be clear; I am not suggesting for a minute that we should confuse forgiveness with approval, acceptance, or denial of a traumatic event. If you are struggling through difficulty, I encourage you to seek support and get the help you need.
If we are so inclined though, we may look no further than the Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra for guidance on forgiveness. At first glance, they can seem overwhelming, academic, inaccessible, and slightly out of reach. However, if we look at this philosophy as a tool to navigate our day-to-day lives, they reveal themselves in a different way.
Patanjali makes it very clear that that there will be pain in life, but he is also clear that suffering is optional. From the very beginning of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, we are welcomed into exploring how each of us can have a relationship with the present. Rather than being imprisoned by our past or seduced by the idea that life will be better in the future, we are encouraged to flow with the grace of the moment. Sutra 1:1 starts by simply inviting us into the “now” or “atha,” a blessing and reminder that life only happens in the here and now, and in this place, joy is experienced, and suffering is lessened. It is not lost on me that this is easier said than done.
At the end of the day forgiveness, much like love, is a verb; it is an action. It is an active choice we make to let someone off the hook, to drop the story, and to deliberately release feelings of anger, resentment, or vengeance. If we dig a little deeper, Sutra 1:12 introduces Abhyasa (practice) and Vairagya (dispassion, non-attachment, absence of desire) and reaffirms the importance of Nirodhah (controlled, restrained, blocked) regarding calming the thoughts, which I believe are at the core of forgiveness. Abhyasa is the quiet commitment and persistent effort that we make to remain in practice and harmony. This sutra helps us recognize that finding peace is not for the faint of heart, and like any other muscle that gets stronger by lifting weights, it can only be reached by dedicated and consistent practice. While there are many interpretations, I have read that the word Abhyasa comes from a combination of two root words: “as” meaning “to throw,” and “abhi” meaning “towards.” So, it could be said that Abhyasa is to continually practice throwing oneself towards wholeness, peace, and forgiveness.
In Sutra 1:33 we are invited to explore another practical tool by what Baba Hari Dass calls cultivating feelings of love for the happy, compassion for the suffering, delight for the virtuous, and indifference for the non-virtuous. These four concepts are genuine methods that can help navigate the human condition. It shows us how to navigate jealousy, grief, and our reactions to people we think are being too good! But it is the last method, “indifference for the non-virtuous,” that is the kicker. This points to how we are to respond to people who have done wrong and are less than kind. When we feel we were mistreated, we come to accept that we cannot control the behaviour of others. We can learn to work with our own conditioning and our reactions first. The idea of indifference is quite different than dispassion. It does not mean we ignore the wrong deed, rather it means that we learn to respond more skillfully and cultivate kindness and compassion in our own body and mind first. To become more response-able, rather than reactive, takes time.
In full disclosure, I must confess that after many years of practice of exploring my ego, knowing all the health benefits, and studying the philosophy, it has not always been easy for me to let things go. The truth is depending on the “violation” at the hands of another or myself, sometimes things can still take a long time to digest. Like you, I am a work in progress. The process of unpacking what I am holding on to, identifying where it sits in my body, and finding the appropriate tool (Yogic or otherwise) to help loosen the grip of whatever has got me has at times been a complicated puzzle.
I want to assure you though, a forgiveness practice does not need to be complicated. Sometimes it is a simple as moving the body through a couple of sun salutations or getting close to the ground, lying on your back with hands on the belly and breathing. It could be walking in nature. At other times it might be a prayer like this one:
Buddhist Forgiveness Prayer:
When you are stuck in emotional quicksand, and you find yourself reliving an old wound or becoming triggered or hurt from a new one – rest assured relief is as close as these words. With practice we realize what has become contracted and small. The instant we notice this and are brought back to presence, to the breath and to spaciousness, can be a moment of quiet celebration. This is the “field beyond ideas of wrongdoing and right doing” that the mystic poet Rumi writes about. "I'll meet you there."
What’s love got to do with it?” Tina Turner
As I am sitting down to write about how upset I am this week upon hearing more people of colour being killed at the hands of the police, I have Tina Turner’s song “What’s love got to do with it” rolling around in my head. I mean, it is unrelenting. It will not stop! Perhaps it is because I have had several conversations recently about the importance of centering love at the heart of all actions and I have just finished teaching a Yoga class that was themed around love: the importance of cultivating self-love as the foundation for loving others.
If you are unaware of this song, it is from 1984. Since I like words, I googled the lyrics and am surprised that my 2021 self sees that they are somewhat cynical, to say the least. The words speak to me about distrust and pain, and past disappointments. The line “who needs a heart, when a heart can be broken” is a common narrative in music and in life. The unwavering message it sends is that love hurts!
Many of us have been confused about love for our entire lives. We are conditioned to act as if love is a transaction - giving something to get something in return or withholding something if something is not received. If we are being honest, I suspect we have all been there at one time or another. It is messy and painful and dare I say, boring. This type of “love” reminds me of an excerpt from Rumi’s poem:
of domination and servitude
are what you know as love
But love is different
It arrives complete
Like the moon in the window
Whether aware or not, many of us spend our lives looking for a source of love that is enduring and cannot be taken away. I am reflecting on when Baba Hari Dass was asked, “how does one participate in loving others?” he answered “one can’t love anyone until love is established within. Love is a pure state of mind where self-interest ceases all together.” Clearly, this is a not what would normally be considered a romantic or transactional type of love. What is being pointed to here is tricky in the early stages of practice. If not vigilant, I acknowledge that even after many years of practice, it can still be tricky (my family can attest to that.) If we have not cultivated a loving attitude towards ourselves this teaching may be at the very least, a challenge.
Often when we embark on the Yoga journey we are in some type of physical or emotion pain and suffering. Our Yoga classes encourage us to let everything go, to love everyone, and that it is all love and light. The maiden voyage is smooth sailing for a time and we get a reprieve from the pain that life inevitably throws our way. The power of Yoga opens us to new possibilities of being and seeing the world. However, if one sticks with the practice long enough, we find that eventually things take an interesting twist and we come face to face with our conditioning. We come face to face with all the less than kind ways we treat ourselves and each other; like negative self-talk, how much anger we have, how we self-medicate with food or alcohol or____________ (fill in the blank).
Make no mistake, I believe that absolute, unconditional love is at the heart of Yoga. I would say, besides peace, if there was a goal in Yoga, unconditional love might be it. I wonder though, how difficult it is to experience unconditioned love and remain there in a sustainable way if we have not yet, at the very least, cultivated an attitude of basic goodness towards ourselves.
Perhaps more accessible, is another important teaching from Baba Hari Dass, which is to “Love everyone, including yourself. This is real sadhana.” Babaji reminds us to not abandon ourselves or one another.
So, how do we go about loving ourselves? How can we move towards unconditioned, transaction free love of others? Depending on our life circumstances, the answers to these questions will be different for different people. Nevertheless, we can begin by simply acknowledging that the most intimate relationship that we will ever have is with our own self.
SMALL STEPS TO DEVELOPING SELF LOVE:
Each of us can learn the fine art of nourishing self-love and happiness. As Thich Nhat Hanh says everything needs food to live, even love. This is not an exhaustive list, but we can begin to develop love by experimenting with a few small steps:
If meditation interests you, the Metta Meditation is a beautiful accessible practice. This practice uses prayer like a Mantra. The word Mantra in Buddhism means “mind protecting” and prevents the mind from getting up to its usual mechanics. This practice gives a simple, direct way to help cultivate the quality of love in your own heart:
ASANA (PHYSICAL PRACTICE):
When it comes to opening the heart through an asana (physical) routine; I suggest keeping it soft and quiet. However, if you are working on strengthening your resolve, you may want to add a couple of loving warriors. In any case, don’t move the way fear makes you move, move the way love makes you move, move the way joy makes you move (Osho.) Here is a short, sweet and accessible practice:
THICH NHAT HANH’S ELEMENTS OF TRUE LOVE:
Learning the fine are of loving another is also a practice. In his book How to Love, Thich Nhat Hanh teaches that true love is made of four elements:
Both Baba Hari Dass and Thich Nhat Hanh teach something similar; it is personal. We must start with ourselves first by “purifying” the mind and attend to our own suffering before we can love fully and without self-interest. Through these practices we learn that love is an organic living thing that needs tending and watering, much like a garden. When we take this level of responsibility for our own well-being, love becomes a healer. I want to underscore this takes time and perseverance and lots of humility but exploring practices that open the heart is a worthy endeavor.
As I come to the end of these musings, I am still disturbed about what initially led me to write this post. I notice however, that even writing about the transformative power of these practices has soothed my heart and mind. My breath is deeper, and I have more space in my consciousness and my heart to hold the complexities and contradictions of life at the same time. Tina Turner’s song “what’s love got to do with it” is still rolling around in my head – and to that I say, everything. Love has everything to do with it!
“No matter how revolutionary the practice of Yoga is, it is not helpful if we continue to limit certain folks from participating.”
While many have been contemplating the arrival of spring, I have been contemplating privilege and oppression; especially in the context of Yoga. I view these concepts much like Purusha (pure consciousness) and Prakriti (matter, or that which is created), in that they can be examined separately, but they are inextricably linked together. In this same way, privilege and oppression are dubious neighbours - opposites which work in lockstep with each other.
I am specifically interested in exploring gatekeeping (more on this in a moment) and accessibility to Yoga and spiritual communities – you know, who’s invited to the party, but more importantly, who’s not. How easy is it for black, indigenous, and people of colour (BIPOC) to attend classes, do teacher trainings, or attend conferences? Who is it that is allowing this access? If we choose to undertake this mission, then, when we consider privilege, we are also compelled to examine oppression, and all the ways in which we do, and especially do not, invite participation into these spaces.
Those of us who have dedicated ourselves to practicing and teaching Yoga know the profound power it possesses. Yoga assists with the simple (or, often, not so simple) ability to lean into the discomfort of the human condition. Yoga and Yogic philosophy can teach us how to make friends with life at the very least and, at best, help us to transcend our suffering and experience liberation. If we follow just the simple instruction of paying attention to the breath, of following the inhalation and exhalation, then we can come to understand how the air that enters our body is transformed by some alchemical process into prana (life force.) With the magic of grace, our internal world and mind are softened; even transformed. And perhaps we, for just a few minutes, are free. We learn over time that the freedom found within these simple practices can be revolutionary. But no matter how revolutionary the practice of Yoga is, it is not helpful if we continue to limit certain folks from participating.
I wholeheartedly believe in the importance and the responsibility of maintaining a formal seated and physical Yoga practice. I am equally interested in how I can live Yoga “off the mat,” and how I can educate others to do the same. At the heart of this practice is the exploration of right alignment between oneself and society (the Yamas): developing the skills to be able to honour someone else’s experience and acknowledging how we each play a pivotal role with one another.
For me, nothing exemplifies this more accurately than the following poem by the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hahn:
You are me, and I am you.
Isn’t it obvious that we “inter-are”?
You cultivate the flower in yourself,
so that I will be beautiful.
I transform the garbage in myself,
so that you will not have to suffer.
I support you;
you support me.
I am in this world to offer you peace;
you are in this world to bring me joy.
We may consider right alignment between oneself and society as “refining” ourselves, by polishing our own rough edges and applying the practices defined in the Yamas of non-harming, truthfulness, non-possessiveness, non-hoarding, and the right use of energy. And slowly but surely, we come to realize how our individual actions impact the other.
So, I am inviting us to recognize that there are some folks who continue to be excluded from these practices, because of a little something called “gatekeeping.”
If you are unfamiliar with the term “gatekeeping,” allow me to share a couple of definitions with you:
Simply put, gatekeepers assess who is "in or out." (Wikipedia)
We often see gatekeepers as people who hold legitimate or sanctioned power, like a president, a judge, or a doctor. However, we all guard different gates to greater or lesser degrees. We guard gates overtly and we guard gates unconsciously. “We are all micro gatekeepers” (Michelle Johnson).
In our daily life we gate-keep in many ways and I want to be clear it is not all bad. In fact, often is very necessary. For example, I guard a variety of gates for my elderly mother, ensuring her well-being financially, medically, and sometimes emotionally. If you have young children, you may guard gates by limiting access to electronic devices by controlling what is watched and for how long. But gatekeeping can also become problematic. For instance, when we micromanage someone’s work product or constantly criticize the way our partner parents the children or looks after the pets.
What are some of the positive and/or negative ways that gatekeeping shows up in your life?
We also see gatekeepers in spiritual communities. Spiritual gatekeepers may be self-appointed and/or in positions of leadership that determine:
It must be noted that in the examples above such as costing classes, etc. does need to be done and is not inherently bad. But we do need to look at how it is being done, who it is inviting in and who it is excluding.
Perhaps even more problematic, spiritual gatekeepers may take it upon themselves to set arbitrary standards that define what devotion looks like, who is devoted, and more concerning, who is not. This type of gatekeeping has the stench of spiritual superiority. Baba Hari Dass, wrote, “As soon as a person starts thinking, 'I want to be a better person,' that is the start of Yoga.” For me this statement is so inclusive and welcoming. It leaves it up to the individual to be their own gatekeeper and determine what being a “better person” means and therefore what devotion might look like for them rather than it being decided by an external authority.
Do not misunderstand me. I believe in the importance of healthy boundaries. They create safety and respect between self and others and individuals and organizations. A gate can be a legitimate boundary that needs to be respected.
There is a place for gatekeeping in Yoga practices for instance. Take the methods of pranayama (breathing techniques). It is important that students be prepared physiologically with beginning breathing techniques prior to moving on to intermediate practices, under the guidance of a qualified teacher. The same can be said for Yoga Teacher Training curriculum. It is important that it be taught in an organized manner, that it can be clearly understood and digested, so the student is being afforded the best learning outcomes.
We have an invitation here to be transparent about positions of power and leadership in spiritual communities. Let us keep reflecting on how folks in these positions often become the gatekeepers of this revolutionary path to freedom, and that this can have a very real and damaging impact on the ability of another to access this path, or to become part of a Yogic or other spiritual community.
Finally, I will leave you with three questions that I was left with during a recent workshop:
We have a responsibility to one another. The philosophical teachings of Yoga as set out in Yamas are all about relationship with self and society and so, at their core, they are also about social justice.
My deep prayer is for those of us who have been fortunate enough to walk through an open gate, keep it propped open for those behind us, who have not been given such easy access. Because, as Fannie Lou Hamer, a women’s rights activist during the civil rights movement beautifully put it,
“nobody’s free until everybody's free.”
"Life can only be understood backward but must be lived forward -Kierkegaard"
We are coming to the end of black history month. I have spent much of this month attempting to “locate” myself. You see, I am in the midst of reclaiming myself, and putting me together feels like a literal re-membering; it has required deep reflection, study and acknowledgement of the actual physical and metaphorical parts of me that have been cut off, long forgotten or simply dismissed. In fact, a recent conversation with a family member revealed they were surprised to hear that I identify as a black woman. This is not a new narrative to me; I have lived with this my entire life. The thing is, “I do identify with being black, and if people do not identify me that way, that is their issue. I am happy to challenge people's understanding of what it looks like to be biracial (Rashida Jones).” So, I am asking myself (and my family members) the big questions about my own history. Who were my people? Who are these ancestors that walk beside me? Who is it that I carry in my being? I am following Kierkegaard’s lead in that life can only be understood backward but must be lived forward. I am working on healing my ancestral lines. It is a dynamic and sometimes painful process.
Part of my re-membering has been to look back in time and not only look at the alignment of the stars, but to reflect on the energetic climate of the world I was about to enter at birth. While there are many powerful black Canadians that I could reflect on, it is significant for me to imagine that at the time I was preparing to enter the world in April 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. was in jail, along with 50 other civil rights protesters. While in solitary confinement on April 16th, he penned the Letter from the Birmingham Jail one of the most important letters of his time, in the margins of a newspaper. It is the letter where he wrote, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Imagine that, while I was being birthed into existence in the wee hours of April 17th, Dr. King Jr. was writing about civil rights, equity, and inclusion. I believe that was the energetic climate I was entering at birth – it is in me.
With the help of my family, I have been able to trace my ancestors back to Jamaica, 1855. Although I do not have many stories, there is one that sticks out as especially significant; my ancestors were enslaved people, but they also enslaved people. I wish I had more of the story to share with you, but from what I understand, the plantation owner was from England, he had sons with enslaved women, and then had to return to England. From what I can gather, when he returned to England, he left the plantation to his sons, and those men are my ancestors. In fact, before hearing this story, I had often joked that as a bi-racial person, I contain both the oppressed and the oppressor in this one body. Imagine, for a moment, the karmic imprint that living with this type of narrative leaves on the soul. These are the stories I carry in the tissues of my body.
In the mid 1990’s, at the height of some profound anxiety attacks (ones where I felt I was going to die about 5 times per day for a year or so), I began to study Buddhism and Yoga. Although it did not happen overnight, anxiety is a distant memory. Over time the practices provided a sweet refuge for me and offered me a reprieve from suffering. The physical practice allowed me to move and remove blocked energy through and from my body, while the meditation practice gave me the discipline and structure I needed to work with my mind. From this, I developed a deep, compassionate commitment to myself, to my well-being, and to something beyond myself: the desire for freedom for all beings.
You might be asking, what does my ancestral history have to do with Yoga or Buddhism? I think the bigger question we should be asking is, what does it mean for Black, Indigenous, or People of Color (BIPOC) folks to practice Yoga in predominantly white Yoga spaces, or spiritual communities? What does it mean for BIPOC folks to bring along an individual and collective history of racial trauma, and not be able to discuss the pain of that history within their spiritual community? As many of you know, we are often - in society and in spiritual communities - encouraged to bypass the ugly stuff. We do not see colour and we are all one, right!? Please, do not misunderstand me, at the “absolute” level I do believe we are all connected, but on the “relative” level, I am very conscious that we are in different bodies, with different skin, and are treated very differently based on this.
I have spent the last few weeks taking workshops and listening to Dharma talks taught almost exclusively by black teachers. I am not going to lie; it has been refreshing to be part of a conversation that acknowledges a collective accounting of deep, deep pain. The racial type of ancestral pain. To be honest, I had no idea I needed this. I had no idea that we, as BIPOC folks, hold an individual and collective trauma so deep in our bones, we often do not even know it is there. I had no idea I needed to re-member parts of myself that I did not know were missing. How could I not have noticed that my arm, one of my eyes, my ear, or one of my kidneys was missing for all these years? Is this what it is like to live with internalized racism?? Attending these offerings was like being sewn back together, suture by meticulous suture, one beautiful and profound teaching at a time.
I have been longing to have an honest conversation about Yoga and racial inclusion for a long time. So, I am throwing down the gauntlet, the glove, and the chicken foot! It is that important.
If you are a Yoga studio owner, if you are part of a spiritual community, I urge you to open the type of dialogue that generates the heat of “tapas” – the tension and friction needed for change. Challenge your thinking around what racial inclusion means, what it truly looks like, and what you will do to make your spaces and teaching faculty more inclusive and representative of BIPOC. If you are not clear on how to start the conversation, I invite you to educate yourself. Attend workshops and read books by BIPOC facilitators and authors. Talk to your peers and colleagues about what, if anything, they are doing to become more accessible and inclusive. More importantly, develop relationships with the people and groups you want to include and find out what they need.
Like all change, this conversation is not going to be comfortable, but this tension is needed to get us to where everyone has a place to practice in which they feel safe, welcome and at home. This time calls for more than silence and simply bearing witness to inequity and injustice, it is time for action now. While we have this conversation, it is important for all of us to find the tools and practices to resource ourselves. This will help support us while we are learning to face and withstand the uncomfortable truth that has been present for so long for many BIPOC.
Beautiful people, it is time to do some deep healing: individually, socially, and institutionally. With the heart of compassion and Ahimsa (nonviolence), consider the possibility that not creating more accessibility and inclusivity in Yoga and Buddhist spaces and spiritual communities is causing further trauma. BIPOC folks need a place to practice, to heal and reclaim and re-member themselves alongside teachers and other practitioners that resemble them. Please bear in mind that trauma is impactful for both the victim and the perpetrator. In the spirit of connection, we must remember it is impossible to cause trauma to others without causing trauma to yourself! In the end everybody is harmed by it.
May all beings be safe, peaceful and free of suffering.
They say these are strange times we are living in. I must agree. With the ongoing political and social climate, it is sometimes tough to keep the shiny side up.
Today, I am opening my first musings post with a quote by Eldridge Cleaver:
“The price of hating other human beings is loving oneself less.”
He was a son, a brother, a husband, a father and an early leader of the Black Panther Party and, in full transparency, he was a convicted felon. This quote has stuck with me since I first read Soul on Ice (a memoir and collection of essays written while he was in prison); I was sixteen.
I have a deep belief in people’s ability to change, forgiveness, redemption, and the teachings, wherever they come from. Small talk has never been my forte. I am a person who is comfortable living in the weeds of the human condition, while keeping my heart open and the big picture in perspective. I hope this sets the tone for what I would like to share.
A couple of months ago, I had a beautiful walk into downtown Victoria, my hometown in BC, Canada. I was born here, 57 years ago, and I have called Victoria home now for 30 years. Getting outside when the weather permits has become especially important during the pandemic. On my journey, I bumped into an acquaintance that I see from time to time. We had a conversation about the state of our community and the world. He asked many questions; including two that normally offend me, such as the age-old suspects:
So, rather than put on my battle gear, I took a breath, connected with my heart, and did my best to respond as kindly and with much as much compassion as possible. I am still learning too. It has been said that when you know better, you do better – it was a moment to educate.
"The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education." – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
You may be wondering why the first question is problematic. As if being born in Victoria, or Canada for that matter, was somehow not possible because of my skin color.
According to the Harvard Business Review, asking someone, “Where are you from?” can seem like a very innocuous question, but can quickly turn into a microaggression. It reduces someone’s identity to a social group, a city, or a culture, and that can trigger feelings of alienation. Microaggressions can also reinforce differences and magnify unequal power structures.
As for why the second question is problematic, in a word: colonization!
Colonization has systemically marginalized Indigenous people from mainstream society and has had a profound and disruptive impact on health, socio-economic welfare, and access to healthcare services, and don't get me started about the lack of clean drinking water. Enough said.
During our conversation, I learned he was from Southern Africa and was no stranger to privilege and racist ideology.
George Floyd had just been murdered. Many of us witnessed the horror of him having his innate right to breath denied, and on national television, no less.
I had recently attended my first Black Lives Matter (BLM) rally and heard the familiar cries of “all lives matter.” Of course, if all lives really mattered, we would not have been there that day. Let me be clear, I agree, life in all its forms do matter. However, in relation to BLM, saying "all lives matter" really derails the very important discussion that needs to be had about how Black, Indigenous, people of color (BIPOC) and communities are affected by racism. It's like watching your neighbour's house going up in flames and saying "yes, but all houses matter." (Kris Straub). But I digress.
Toward the end of our walk, he asked me "how do you stay so positive!?"
I told him that for the better part of 25 years, I have been extremely fortunate to have adopted a strong daily Yoga practice (Sadhana) which includes Pranayama (breathing practices) Meditation, Asana (physical practice) and other Yogic principles such as the Yamas (attitudes and relationships toward our environment) and Niyamas (attitudes and relationship toward ourselves.)
This practice has been an invitation that enables me to observe my internal mental landscape in relation to my external world; I use the word “my'' because each of us have our own conditioning by which we see things.
It is from that place that I choose to live. I have a deep commitment to the truth (Satya), so I added, "the conditions aren’t always perfect, believe me it's not always comfortable being me."
We had a little laugh, but I have sat with this conversation in the months since. As a bi-racial POC, I continue to be curious (Svadhyaya) about how I remain positive in the face of all of the unbelievable suffering?
Well, the truth is, sometimes I’m not.
My teacher Baba Hari Dass always said (and I am paraphrasing) “whatever the problem, regular sadhana is the answer.”
I understand this more than ever now. The ability to remain optimistic while at the same time feeling absolutely outraged, angered, and gutted by the current political and social climate speaks highly to the transformative power of a consistent Yoga practice (Abhyasa); should one choose to take the mission. Especially when your practice has been maintained over a long period of time.
So, I invite you into practice; become an alchemist. Turn your outrage and anger into gold. Practice (Sadhana) continues to teach me that anger and outrage are perfectly natural emotions full of wisdom. I have learned to welcome and even befriend them, so as not to be pinned to the floor, and learn from them.
This is where the alchemy happens, when transmuted, these emotions can become a positive energy that can and does change the world. From this perspective we are welcomed into living a life of non-violence (Ahimsa), or at the very least, less-violence. And although sometimes it does not appear like it, we are witnessing people “waking up” to this.
I hope you will join me and discover that you are the universal elixir that is needed during these times and then go out into the world and start, or continue, the challenging and beautiful work that is reserved for you (Dharma).
Hello, beautiful people. My name is Tracy Chetna Boyd (she/her). Among other things, I am a Yoga educator and Yoga Therapist, specializing in Yoga for Cancer. Although I have many teachers, my primary teacher is Baba Hari Dass. I have a deep belief in people’s ability to change, forgiveness, redemption, and the teachings, wherever they come from. Small talk has never been my forte. I am a person who is comfortable living in the weeds of the human condition, while keeping my heart open and the big picture in perspective. I hope this sets the tone for the musings I'll be sharing from time-to-time.