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Suggested Additions to Adyashanti’s Anemic “Post-Election Letter”

Spiritual teacher Adyashanti published the following Post-Election Letter to his Facebook page on November 19th . It was formatted as a caption to the photograph below. Since posting, it has been shared 1.7K times amongst his almost 57K followers.

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I don’t know how representative this is of the rest of Adyashanti’s work or writing. I don’t know whether it’s an uncharacteristic foray into politics. It might constitute a conscious shorthanding of complex issues for a social media format. But it’s a public letter on a platform of tens of thousands, addressed therefore to a broad spectrum of folks and experiences, so I’m responding to this (and this alone, being ignorant of his other work) as if it’s an important and influential document.

Also, it’s not unique. Since the election, posts like this have permeating whole sectors of yoga and meditation land. These sermons are built upon on (at least) five dangerous errors:

  1. Spotlighting emotions like fear and anger as fundamental problems to address, rather than the violence and oppression to which these emotions are responding. This amounts to a kind of spiritualized tone-policing that values civility and respectability over justice.
  2. Failing to show any awareness of how gendered, racial, and class privilege shapes and determines both the unequal consequences of political oppression and our unequal abilities to respond to it. By suggesting that everyone is responding to the same thing and from the same place, this language mirrors the propagandistic tool of false equivalency. In the campaign this was used to claim no difference between parties, or to focus on emails over admitted sexual assault. In these sermons, false equivalency is used to equalize the emotional responses of people in vastly different situations.
  3. Pretending that spiritual language is neutral, and that vague appeals made to undefined values like love and wisdom are somehow the first step to addressing violence and injustice, and not the first step to actually ignoring violence and injustice. Vague and supposedly neutral spiritual language is essential for keeping a spiritual teacher’s usually depoliticized base of support intact. For an example of a (white, privileged) spiritual teacher who’s actually challenging this norm, check out what’s happening on Marianne Williamson’s page. She’s willing to lose hundreds of her it’s-all-good hardliners by the minute by taking a pretty basic stand on pretty basic issues. I’ll embed an example below.
  4. Fostering the notion that charisma is more important than content.

Adyashanti has said that he has “penetrated to the emptiness of all things and realized that the Buddha I had been chasing was what I was.” So I’m sure he won’t take it personally if I use his incredibly anemic letter to illustrate these errors and offer edits and suggestions:

_____

LETTER FROM ADYA: Dealing with Post-Election Turmoil (would you consider “Trauma”?)

This election has stirred up a lot of emotion in people — mostly fear and anger, as far as I can see.

(Possibly from your vantage point you can’t see terror and clinical depression — consider adding these in? Also stirred up is the violence at rallies and now a surge of hate crimes spilling over the border into Canada. Positioning emotion as the primary problem confuses the response to existential terror with the bodily reality of it. This seems to be a standard move by spiritual teachers who want to reduce complex socio-political issues down to matters of internal attitude that they can minister to with books and retreats. Maybe better to avoid this opening gambit.)

We are in a time of great cultural upheaval in both the United States and Western Europe.

(Maybe add in the Middle East? Climate refugees? Syrians drawing neo-Nazi backlash as soon as they scramble up the beach?)

People on both the left and the right of the political divide feel disenfranchised, ignored, and threatened in so many ways.

(To avoid extending the pernicious false equivalencies and white male working-class myths that propagandized the US and Brexit campaigns and that aren’t borne out by available data, how about adding some nuance here about who has been disenfranchised and how?)

And it all boiled up to the surface during this election. It was bound to happen and in many ways necessary.

(Repressed racism and misogyny also revealed themselves, not as emotions, but as foundational structural realities. Maybe consider adding these? Also, the fatalism here is problematic. Some of your congregation will resonate with the nod at karma and hints at purification, but those who will be deported by Theresa May or killed by the Trump presidency cancelling the ACA may not.)

Cultural turmoil brings change.

(Not sure if you intended this, but this sentence could be read as providing tacit rationalization and forgiveness for your devotees who voted Trump. Returning back to the top: suggest subbing in or adding “trauma”. Also: physical violence brings change too. How should members of your congregations resist it?)

The question is, what kind of change will it bring? This is the great unknown, and wherever people encounter the unknown, the most common instinctual reactions are fear, blame, and anger.

(It’s true that volatility is a primary tactic of autocratic rule. But the motives and tactics of fascism are not unknown. Some people are having instinctual reactions not because of some general flaw in human nature, but because they know exactly how their situation is deepening and worsening in ways worse than white men like us can ever know. Also, now you’ve bookended your opening graf as though emotions — especially responsive anger, last-listed here for emphasis — is the real problem, and not what people are angry about. See above.)

I feel that this is a time when we who seek to be more conscious, loving, and wise get to see exactly how deep our wisdom and love really are. This is where the rubber hits the road — no more abstractions or high-minded ideas; this is where and when it is needed. This is where we come to see if we are still caught in the old ego-minded world of reactivity, anger, and fear, or if we have come upon the consciousness of wisdom and love. It is also a time when we can see if we are hiding out in transcendental ideologies of how unreal it all is as an unconscious defense against engaging with the world as it actually is.

(So this is a really nice graf that actually says nothing and speaks to no one outside of your in-group of devotees. Because you’ve posted it as a public letter I’m assuming you want it to mean something to other people as well, and not just be a calling card pointing to your charisma. To your previous admonitions against reactivity, etc., you now add the aspirations of wisdom and love. But what exactly do you mean, and how do these actually play out? In writing a letter that — so far — offers no real-world substance, how is your critique of transcendental ideology credible? What can you do here to resist the general sense your congregation is supposed to glean that because of your calm voice and beneficent smile everything will be okay if they connect to the inner wisdom you describe for them in your books and retreats? Isn’t that the very embodiment of a transcendental ideology, while pretending to critique it?)

There are important political and cultural issues at stake here to be sure, and we all have a stake in the outcome, which is why so many people are so fearful and angry. It’s as if 50 percent of the population cannot possibly understand, or even care to understand, the other 50 percent. And human decency and sanity have gotten lost amid the angst. Sadly, we have stopped truly communicating in the process.

(Who has stopped truly communicating? BLM, trans activists, anti-oppression workers — they have all been communicating pretty clearly for years. So are the Standing Rock Water Protectors. All of them are powerfully motivated by and communicating the righteous fear and anger of the planet itself. Also, is it wise to responsibilize your congregation for communication patterns that are pathologically distorted by fake news, click farms, and propaganda?)

I have watched this growing in our culture over the last 25 years and now it has boiled over. As a populace, we have stopped seeking to understand one another and have sought instead only to be understood; or, in many cases, insisted upon being agreed with. We have failed to take care of one another, to love, cherish, and understand one another.

(This generalization is worthy of Pope Francis or the Dalai Lama. But if you want to add real spice to the spiritual/religious landscape, it might be a best practice to always balance the personal-moral appeal with a critique of power. Who has failed to take care? The “we” of this graf is either terribly exclusive, or it is pretending to be inclusive by erasing how structural oppression destroys access to care. Either way, it deepens the hyperindividualism of the neoliberal mode, which says: it’s all on us, where “us” really means “me”.)

There are very important issues at stake here: issues of poverty, inequality, political disenfranchisement, racism, sexism, the list goes on. But as each of us advocates for those issues that are important to us, we too must take responsibility for the breakdown of civility, decency, and unhealthy communication. No one forces our state of consciousness upon us. No one forces us to act out of fear, rage, and unconsciousness. We will either relate out of our conflicted mind states, or from the more evolved aspects of our nature.

(This one is complex, so I’ll number it out:

  1. The list that begins this graf ends with a rhetorical elipsis that affects boredom and hints at the unreality of the world.
  2. The second sentence pivots upon the subtle dismissal of material issues to turn the conversation back again to emotions and moods — again — as if the internal states generated by oppression etc. are as important as the oppression itself.
  3. The third sentence is a metaphysical speculation about the nature of consciousness, presented as if it’s scientifically true. “No one forces our state of consciousness upon us,” is, actually, demonstrably false. There are people responding to the electoral results from a history of PTSD, for example. Or women who have been raped who will now be tweeted at and governed by a confessed but unprosecuted sexual predator. States of consciousness can most definitely be forced by power and propaganda. It’s a mark of privilege to not understand this, or to deny this. Unless you’re going to claim that we are not subject to neurophysiological conditioning, maybe you can consider changing this.
  4. It’s not okay to imply that people who are angry are unevolved, rather than, say, not dissociative. A rewrite like this might cause less harm: “Depending upon your neurotypicality, it might be possible to observe states of your consciousness with a witnessing mood, in which you could recognize the rise of fear and rage and redirect it or self-regulate more quickly. This could be of help in our relationships. But it won’t work for everyone, and it won’t erase the structural power and pain that make it harder to do.” This is a little clunky and harder to use as a vehicle for certainty, but so is democracy.)

I cannot say exactly how to relate with those who are caught in their own conflict…

(“I cannot say exactly how” sounds like a disclaimer. Maybe it belongs up top? After all, you can’t really say much about anything except your own meditation technique and experience, right? Including this at the top might nail down your scope of practice for those who are confused and think you are offering evidence-based advice, and not simply persuading people that anger/rage etc. are wrong. Secondly, “caught in their own conflict” sounds pretty exclusionary to my ear. I get that your brand rests on the implication that you yourself have no internal conflicts — including the conflict between wanting to be a meditation teacher and wanting to be politically relevant — but who are the “caught” you are referring to here? You don’t want to insult anybody.)

…except to say that if we seek to understand as our first impulse — and to respond from the wisest, most patient, and loving dimension of our being — we will at least be standing on a foundation of sanity and peace. And our actions, whatever they may be, will then be expressions of the highest consciousness that we have attained, and we will have taken responsibility for our own feelings and impulses, and made the wisest choices that we have access to.

(The vagueness here really might only give your congregation a nice feeling that they’ll depend on you to top up. Without defining the “foundation of sanity and peace” arrived at by the “wisest, most patient, and loving dimension of our being”, you’re really only directing people’s affect. You’re also suggesting that the subjective states of feeling wise, patient and loving will mean that ethical actions will naturally follow. This is not true. The Nazis loved yoga. And Zen monks of your very own Sōtō Zen lineage supported the Rape of Nanking. Why not use this space to tell your congregation to get concrete training in anti-oppression work?)

If we are inspired to advocate for certain causes, we will do so out of love for those causes, rather than out of rage against the perceived “other.”

(Here’s one last nod at false equivalency to mop up. This sentence makes it sound like people “other” each other equally. It’s not true, unless you believe in things like “reverse racism”, or that “SJWs” are as guilty as the alt-right for offside language. Also, what do you intend for your congregation to feel about their rage? Shame? That they should repress it?)

Perhaps then we will become agents for sanity, peace, love, and the living of it in this confused world of ours.

With Great Love,

Adya

(Finally, I’d suggest not publishing this letter as a caption for a guru headshot. The portrait suggests that you’re floating above the “turmoil” of the election in a sanctified, linen-clad body. Your Nordic, silver-fox gaze is an invitation to paternal transference. Not everybody is ready or willing to surrender to this, and some never should. Think of everyone who surrendered to their transferences onto Trump himself. It’s a dangerous mechanism. Yes, it’s just a photo, but you probably don’t want to subtly gaslight your students into telling themselves that everything really should be alright, because you’re gazing on them with knowing approval. Maybe a picture of you doing something besides meditating or teaching would work better?)

_____

Here’s that Marianne Williamson post:

What a Yoga Bro Who Sees His Trump Vote as An Act of Love Tells Us About Yoga Spaces

 

Honestly I’m conflicted about spotlighting this article (trigger warning: predatory gaslighting), but I think exploring it might be instructive. My intent isn’t to isolate this individual any more than he’s isolated himself. It’s to show how Yogaland is woefully ill-equipped to engage the Trump era because of this malicious fact:

the discourse of neutrality, openness, and empathy can be effortlessly co-opted by a cynical and grandiose narcissism and used by those whose job it is to put others into psychosomatic stress positions and presume to shape their inner lives. This has always been a problem. Now it’s a cultural crisis.

For the record, I reached out to the writer with a draft of this post to ask if he wanted to walk back any of his statements. “I’m not changing a word of what I wrote and stand behind it,” he wrote back.

I’ll start with an article summary:

The writer hits every note of privileged commentary in one go: false equivalence, selection bias, normalization of misogyny and rape culture, religious bigotry and white supremacy, preaching equanimity to distressed citizens, and a side-order of tone-policing.

He pulls it all off quite efficiently with the data-free lies and equivocations that constitute the new normal: Trump is a peacemaker. His confessed sexual assaults “break the laws of political correctness”. Unlike Hillary, he has no conflicts of interest with foreign corps or governments. Sizeable blocks of Muslims and LGBTQ people voted for him. Also, guess what? Trump’s just itching to build hospitals in “Michigan and Detroit”! (Yoga bro: Detroit is IN Michigan. Appearing to know nothing about the people and areas you claim to care about looks like fake empathy.)

The writing comes from a well-placed NYC yoga teacher who works for a prominent brand lately in the news for failing to separate yoga from sexual harassment. He’s been teaching since 2003. (Full disclosure: he’s also been a student of the cult-leader I was once devoted to: an American Tibetan Buddhist who makes big money selling Tibetan Buddhism as a prosperity gospel to Chinese oligarchs. Thinking about that too hard could be hazardous to your health.)

On one hand this might seem like a weird source for these views. On the other it’s immensely clarifying. Looking at it directly might save you years of category confusion and emotional labour. If you needed any more proof that yoga and meditation practice is no predictor of political sentiment, critical thinking, feminist chops, equality values, or basic civics awareness, this article should banish the fantasy in a few brief moments, and let you get on with with your life.

Point #1. Yoga is like the Force. Jedis use it. So do the Sith Lords. And remember: Nazis LOVED yoga.

Our values are not coming from our practice so much as our practice is strengthening our values, which come from elsewhere. We can’t look to yoga techniques or texts for advice on morality or the common good. They aren’t specific enough to provide it, and private epiphanies can strengthen delusions as much as break them down. Remember that the Bhagavad Gita was the favourite text of both Gandhi and his assassin.

Did fifteen years of yoga and meditation practice soften me up to receive the life-changing data of feminism and BLM? It’s possible. But if I were living in a red state they could have also softened me up for surrender to the passions of Jesus or the alt-right. As Be Scofield argues, the spiritual realizations of yoga or anything else can express themselves as amplifications of the values you already hold dear. At the very least they must express through the values of the dominant culture. The writer here actually says that Trump’s election amounts to a “massive emotional and spiritual leap forward.”

Changing your values happens when you expose yourself to new values, presented and embodied by others you previously did not know or understand. It doesn’t happen by contemplating your inner life, which orbits around your existing values.

Point #2. Unless studio owners and trainers are explicit about setting up safe spaces, Yogaland offers no real opposition to predatory gaslighting, offered under the cover of yogaspeak.

The yogi who jumps the Trump shark isn’t just a mouthpiece of rightist bile. He can also do what Stephen Bannon can’t: position his privilege as open-mindedness and non-reactivity. He can bask in the role of “holding space” (even though he mocks the term) for the emotional hurt of people he pretends to care about, and whose suffering he cannot know or share.

Yogaspeak becomes the emotional Trojan horse for the very politics that are hurting his colleagues. How will he work alongside the queer and POC colleagues of his in-group? How will he serve the Muslims and women in his classes?  Is there a mudra for one hand in namaste, and the other reaching to grab  ____?

Sorry, but I don’t think that’s a gratuitous image. Especially when the writer finishes his piece with a jaunt into narcissistic emotional porn. He describes going as a Trump supporter — undercover — to a yoga center holding a vigil for those shaken by the election. He praises himself for his empathy and sympathy, even as he bypasses the panic some express over possible deportation. He savours the irony of being able to comfort people whose lives he just voted to degrade. He deceives people in order to participate in their emotions with a display of grandiose equanimity.

It’s like going to the funeral of someone you helped kill, holding hands with the survivors, and getting off on both the tears and your kindness in wiping them away. “Oh, you’re crying? I feel your pain. Here’s my big white handkerchief. Will I see you in restorative class for some deep healing?”

Even more disturbing is that he subtly compares himself to Trump, who, he suggests, might be an enlightened provocateur of our delusions: “How many spiritual stories are filled with tales of the adept on the road to enlightenment encountering a hag or a drunk, brashly writing them off, only to discover the skilful master was in disguise?”

Would the vigil-keepers have welcomed him if they’d seen his Twitter account, where he posts links mocking Clinton supporters, reports from Alex Jones (yeah the guy who claimed the Sandyhook massacre was staged) saying that post-electoral marches are killing children, retweets memes that suggest Clinton would have been an autocrat, and mocks “SJWs”?

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That they sure as hell wouldn’t have invited him makes his presence borderline non-consensual. What we can say for sure is that the Cadillac of white yoga privilege is being able to cackle along with the alt-right in private, and then flash your engorged charismatic empathy in public. White yoga privilege allows a person to capitalize on having no moral centre.

We’ve got to ask: how much of this industry is run by powerful men who are gratified by using their status to perform spiritual superiority over those oppressed by that very status?

Will this invigorate a discussion about the need for equality, ally and anti-oppression work – along with possibly psychological screening – at the training level of yoga instruction? Not because of politics, but because of vampirism. Obviously, no regulatory process can or should dictate voting values or prevent funeral masturbation. But on the basis of his Twitter account alone, this writer would be disbarred from a psychotherapy college and fired from a public school position. But give him a yoga class or invite him to a festival in Bali? No problem. Let that sink in.

The writer fantasizes he’s holding space for his opponents while actually aggrandizing his self-image. Now the question is: how would his opponents hold space for him, once the phony yoga veil is pulled back from the real values at play?

Bottom line: the yoga space is like any public space: you can’t tell who voted for whom, unless they’re wearing that red hat or H button or you ask them directly. If you teach in that space, you might be in the position of serving even those whose views would oppress you. You’ve got to decide whether you’re up for that. If you study in it, you may be taking guidance from an energetic vampire who mocks your values. This shouldn’t be a surprise, because Bikram. And all the others. If you’re really opposed to discussions of stronger regulatory mechanisms and training in Yogaland, consider these consequences.

So: what to do in this Wild West? The old books of yoga said: study your teachers for a long time. The new books of yoga, aka feminism, add: the personal is the political. Taken together, they would encourage grave caution in choosing the person into whose care you commit your most tender self, where internal and external justice are trying to conjoin.

 

After 11/9: How About a National Engaged Yoga Network?

This thought-experiment is meant for yoga practitioners and teachers who identify as progressive and/or opposed to the President-elect and the hellfire of social oppression, political regression, and environmental destruction that’s upon us.

It’s for those who wonder if they can maximize the physical, financial and emotional resources they commit to internal work and justice by combining them more than they’re combined already.

Most importantly, it’s for studio owners and prominent teachers who feel that their student base fits this profile.

If that’s not you, I wish you well, and we’ll talk some other time.

Ideas are one thing, but making them work can be bonecrushing. So before going anywhere with this one it would be good to discuss its pros and cons. Is it useful? Would spending energy on it splinter scarce resources? Is it an organizational idea that will preach to the choir and increase the insular bubbling that is part of our tragedy? I’d love to hear your comments, below.

Four caveats:

  1. I come at this without any political science or statistics training, so I’m totally prepared to be taken to the woodshed here.
  2. I know that the tone here might be too wonkish for many phases of rage and grief. It can be a mark of privilege and perhaps dissociation to offer theory too soon. I have no intention of interrupting all the colours of outpouring. If the timing doesn’t sit well for you, my apologies, and maybe you can bookmark it for later.
  3. The title for this organizational idea, Engaged Yoga Network (EYN) is a placeholder that can be changed, and not meant to be confused with or distract from the work of the Socially Engaged Yoga Network of Chicago, which does awesome local service work.
  4. I’m a dual U.S.-Canadian citizen with a lot of international readers. This could be an international initiative for sure, but it’s probably simpler to start focused. I don’t know.

Here goes.

If the 9-12 thousand1)Estimate from Andrew Tanner of YA. yoga studios that dot the U.S. were better networked, they could potentially provide organizational support via meeting spaces and marketing infrastructure to the political aspirations of a population larger than the Green Party membership, UAW, and MoveOn.org put together. This population would largely intersect with the same population that has dissociatively underserved the common good in relation to its resources and privilege: middle-to-high income white people. 

Ipsos tells us there are 36 million practitioners who have attended a yoga class over the last six months. Forty-five percent of them report practicing in one of the thousands of yoga studios in the U.S. That’s 16.2 million people: about 13% of the Nov. 8th voting turnout.

How does this demographic shake out, politically? We’ve been around the block enough to know that practicing yoga is not a reliable predictor of political sentiment or affiliation. People come from across the political spectrum to practice. Moreover, modern global yoga culture has historically positioned itself through the pretence of political neutrality in order to serve a politically diverse clientele, while projecting a spirituality that transcends politics.

That said, the harrowing electoral college map:

as of 11/11.

 

…reminded me of this map from earlier this year:

greenscale of practitioner concentration

From Ispos, Yoga in America 2016, p. 22.

 

If we transpose the electoral results onto the studio-practicing population, at the very least half of that 16.2 million opposed the President-elect. But it must be way more than that. The typical yoga class in an urban centre or mid-size town (where more of them are taking place) isn’t split evenly between red and blue voters. A higher percentage of yoga practitioners are college-educated than not, and there are more studios in urban than rural areas: these are both correlated with stronger blue leanings.

So we can definitely say that somewhere between 8.1 and the full 16.2 million studio practitioners currently oppose the President-elect. If we split the difference and called it 12 million Trump opponents, we’re talking about a block almost as large as the AFL-CIO. My gut tells me two things: that’s a conservative estimate, and it’s also a whole lot of sleeping infrastructure power that can be mobilized from the coasts inwards.

Questions:

Would those 12 million progressive practitioners be supported in their social values and deepen their levels of activism if their studios were signatories in a national political network? How many of those 12 million want that kind of support? Do they have brick-and-mortar, flesh-and-blood outlets for political engagement elsewhere, along with the time to invest in them? (I ask this because I know too many practitioners who say they would like to be more involved in political justice work before and after election days, but never have as much time as they’d like.)

Would those 12 million appreciate a space that offered the self-care of yoga and meditation in the front rooms, and community organizing in the back rooms? Would they mind that the advertising for each overlapped? Or do they specifically come to yoga spaces to get away from their socio-political exhaustion? And would an explicitly stated political stance alienate enough of a percentage of non-progressives in a given studio (in purple states and cities, for instance) to undo any positive gains? If this is a possibility, could the stance be modulated as needed?

These are questions that only each studio owner can hope to answer.

Owners who have jumped in headfirst have overtly politicized their spaces by hosting social justice events, fundraisers, and accessibility initiatives. A few have developed entire political economies, like my friend Christi-an Slomka who ran her former studio in Toronto with her colleague Jamilah Malika on a model that acknowledged its occupation of First Nations territory, fostered safer space, trained teachers in anti-oppression work, helped marginalized and racialized groups foster dedicated classes, and had a robust work exchange system. Her work is on pause for now, but her colleagues Leena Miller Cressman and Emma Dines continue it in Kitchener, Ontario. Laura Humpf of Rainier Beach Yoga in Seattle and POC Yoga, withstood withering attacks from the Right and Alt-right for offering yoga classes for people of color. She’s continuing the work nonetheless.. Lisa Wells has been hosting discussions on Racial Justice and Food Justice and hosted readings by Queer Poets of Color at her studio in Corvallis, Oregon. She’s now collecting gear and raising funds  and subbing out her classes so she can stand with the Water Protectors at Standing Rock before the month is through.

This organic layer of yoga-demographic radical activism is natural to college towns and diverse urban centres. But these yoga activists are usually on their own with their efforts in Yogaland. There can be deep costs to this isolation, in terms of physical and emotional exhaustion, and financial sacrifice. While many might want to follow in these leaders’ paths, the levels of commitment these leaders represent might be too demanding.

Slomka, Miller-Cressman, Dines, Humpf and Wells (is it any wonder that women are leading here?) might personally inspire graduates of their training programmes to emulate their activism, but if one of them wanted to open a progressively-oriented studio in Reno or Fort McMurray, wouldn’t it be nice if they were supported by something beyond personal mentorship, which is always limited by time and energy? What if she had instant access to a national network of ideas custom-selected for yoga demographics? What if the intellectual and emotional resources of that leadership were captured so that the leaders didn’t have to share them over hundreds of individual phone or Skype calls.

The progressive studio owners I know are all run off their feet. They always want to do more community and social service than they have time for. What if they belonged to a network that fed them monthly ideas for service and best practices?

Can we imagine an organization that can support the progressive work of any studio owner or teacher who wishes to mobilize their network to a commitment level appropriate to their community? Can we imagine a meeting-place for intellectual resources, support for initiatives in less progressive areas, and a greater sense of national cohesion?

Yoga practice will continue to help those of us lucky enough to do it to self-regulate. But can yoga infrastructure help resist the tide of the next four years — especially for those who don’t have time to do yoga?

I’m thinking that an “Engaged Yoga Network” would consist of two arms:

  1. A simple, crowd-sourced manifesto of progressive values to which studios can be signatories.
  2. A network of online resources especially crafted for yoga spaces, that support teachers and both stimulate and normalize activism at the studio level.

There’s so much great progressive yoga-related content out there, being generated by organizations like CTZNWELL, Off The Mat, and the Yoga Service Council. EYN would be about helping to aggregate it and integrate it with the rhythms of physical practice spaces.

In addition to the class downtime space of rooms for strategic meetings, many studios already use a potential delivery device for this often-fragmented content, in the form of client management software. Imagine studios being able to add a tab or menu item to their MindBodyOnline interface that they could load up with news, resources, and events from an EYN content consolidator? What if every signatory had an EYN portal on their homepage?

But yet another fancy web-based tool does not a movement make. The value of EYN could be to mesh the best of progressive yoga content and activism opportunities into the presentation of regular studio programming, through which actual people people actually meet and feel things together and maybe have tea. It could function as the thematic backdrop for self-work. That’s what politics is, anyway.

An online foundation could open the door for studio owners to pick and choose initiatives and commitment levels that suited their time and budgetary limitations, as well as the tolerance of their student base for activism. A studio in Ithaca would be well-positioned to go full-on progressive-political, trying all kinds of things that wouldn’t fly in Phoenix. But both could be supported by and affiliated with the same stream of content and inspiration. And neither would be working alone.

I mentioned above that global yoga operates under the pretence of political neutrality. Not to belabour this, but it’s a pretence because the culture lives in spaces of privilege and non-diversity where financial boundaries and time constraints restrict accessibility. Modern global yoga has grown in popularity in perfect sync with the rise of neoliberalism. We could almost say 2)Brian Culkin has a forthcoming book chapter on this. that yoga functions as the individualistic religion of the neoliberal era. Even most of its physical spaces exist through the processes of deindustrialization and gentrification that have mercilessly increased inequality.

In other words, as the notion of the common good has catastrophically devolved over the past forty years to where we are today, yoga culture has thrived. Isn’t that weird? Its thrived in part by not pushing back, by letting white and privileged people restore themselves without questioning themselves. Maybe, this week, this fact has become unbearable to many of you.

The typical yoga studio is already a politicized space. At this critical juncture, what kind of politics do we want it to communicate? Could there be a more pressing time to mobilize every resource we have?

It was Be Scofield who first convinced me that yoga practice doesn’t naturally lead to progressive action. I once asked her why then, as a social justice activist, was she interested in yoga culture at all? “Because,” she replied, “it can lend organizational power to progressive ideas.”

Yoga culture doesn’t make people progressive, but it does gather together progressive resources of space and intention and infrastructure. These resources are untapped because for many reasons the culture mainly positions itself as apolitical, and recognizing this is false carries costs.

The untapped progressive resources of yoga culture are built on the physical presence and privilege of as many as twelve million people. Many of these might already be politically engaged. Is it worth trying to use this infrastructure to support and encourage those who aren’t yet doing as much as they can or want to do? And can the growth of yoga into the heartland be consciously and efficiently linked to a growth of progressive listening, attunement, and coalition-building in the heartland?

LMK what you think if/when you have a moment. Everyone is so busy and overwhelmed. Blessings on all of your work, whatever it is.

 

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N.B.: My usual policy is to publish all comments. But I’ll be selective here. If it’s not constructive or if it’s spiritual bypass-y, I won’t publish it. There’s really no time to waste now.

Also: I don’t feel any ownership or authority over this idea. There are way more qualified people than I out there to run with this or something like it, if it’s worthwhile. I’ll support them any way I can.

 

 

 

 

 

References   [ + ]

1. Estimate from Andrew Tanner of YA.
2. Brian Culkin has a forthcoming book chapter on this.

Billy Bush and the Rape Culture Alpha-Toady Dyad: 1 Quote and 8 Thoughts

I’d like to share this sharp reflection from a friend-of-a-friend on Facebook, and record a few additional points that have been inspired by it, as well as a whole lot of personal memories.

The thing that disgusts me most about that tape of Trump bragging about sexual assault is not him (although that is *plenty* disgusting), but Billy Bush’s response. Because I’ve heard that kind of response my entire life. When you are a guy, you occasionally find yourself in unwanted proximity to these two kinds of toxic masculinity: the alpha male and his sycophantic toady. The former brags about doing things to women against their will, while the latter laughs and showers praise on him for doing so. But while the former is pathological in all sorts of ways, the latter is enraging *and* pathetic. Because the toady is both perpetrator and victim of the patriarchal power exercised by the alpha male. When Bush cravenly exclaims “Yes! The Donald has scored. Whoa, my man!” he is abjectly trying to gain some purchase on the privileges of heteromasculinity from which he feels excluded (the fact that Bush is widely rumoured to be gay only reinforces this point). But the toady can only accomplish this through endorsing and even trying to share in the assault on women’s bodies. The bodies of the women waiting outside the bus, unaware of their role as currency in the exchange between alpha male and toady.

Tl; dr: Trump is to rape as Billy Bush is to rape culture. And the GOP, by keeping Trump as their candidate, are all Billy Bush now. And how fucking pathetic is that. — Derek Nystrom

 

  1. Rape culture is a hierarchy, and toadies strike a dirty bargain to gain advantage within it, in relation to the violence of the alpha male. Their need to avoid violence is plain when we see that they are often physically smaller than the alpha. If they are the same size or larger, they are often physically other or inept in some way that makes them vulnerable. Vaudeville enshrines this as a basic sight gag: the sidekick is a shrimp or a geek or a lurch or a fat guy. Each are targets, each knows it. The internal pressure of the toady’s anxious defensiveness reflects the alpha’s psychic armour and doubles the charge of his aggression.

 

  1. The toady has likely gone through an initial hazing, and is subjected to periodic and arbitrary exclusions and humiliations. That these are arbitrary is key: the shadow-fuel of the toady’s enthusiasm is knowing that he can be excluded or fired or sued or mocked or physically brutalized at any moment. Enthusiasm is not just vicarious self-identification with the person who can assault women at will: it is also an attempt to sublimate immediate danger. The easiest and safest thing to do for the toady is to perform joy in the transfer of his humiliation onto another person, while stabilizing his social capital by gratifying the dominance of the alpha.

 

  1. The unconscious toxic mimic of homoeroticism here should not be missed, nor its contribution to homophobia. The toady is masturbating the alpha, psychically for sure, but even physically, by mirroring and amplifying his excitations. If the toady is homophobic himself — and he may well be in part through the process of displacing having been called faggot enough — it is in part because he can’t imagine a homosocial world without humiliation. And what if, horrifically, the toady is actually gay? Reflecting on this as a straight man fills me with overwhelming admiration for what many gay men must have to do to come out and try to be at home in the world. They have to find and trust and believe in their tenderness and love amidst the alpha-toady dyads of dominant male dynamics. Unbelievable how scary and hard that must be. I can hear a million voices saying well, duh! as I write this. I’m truly sorry I didn’t see it before, and how essential the bravery of queerness can be to dissolving male violence, where it doesn’t replicate it. What an inspiration it is, capturing my awestruck gratitude, along with, I hope, that of every other hetero man who wants a different world.

 

  1. The toady might actually loathe women as much as the alpha does and seek to likewise assault wherever he can, or he might have convinced himself he loathes women in order to limit his cognitive dissonance, or he might not loathe women at all, and be caught up in a massive internal split. It doesn’t matter to women, who carry the heaviest burden. The toady’s goal is to offload shame, and if he doesn’t assault to do it his contribution is the pathetic enabling so integral to rape culture.

 

  1. I think an unexamined voice in the horrendous victim-blaming that men use to deny or minimize rape culture is that of the toady who is really saying: “I figured out how to offload alpha violence. Why couldn’t you?” Deeper still, I can imagine a toady affecting a special hatred for the rape accuser because she is standing up for herself exactly where he couldn’t, and under circumstances inconceivably more difficult. Her nobility challenges the omnipotence of the alpha, but it magnifies the toady’s impotence. The toady must reframe her speech as whining or self-pity, which is what he’s doing inside. He hates her brave stride to regain her dignity, because it reminds him of his shrinking, dirty bargain.

 

  1. I believe the somatic trace of that bargain might be a core obstruction to some men becoming true feminist allies. I’m not talking about the alphas, for whom there’s no hope beyond damage control. I’m talking about those who live in that enabling territory all the way up to toady, but deny it through attempts to self-cleanse through mantras like #notallmen. Yes: it’s daunting to consider the ramifications of male privilege and to wake up to the oppression of patriarchy. The empathy of some might be jostled into activism from these considerations alone. But others will have to remember and feel it in their bodies — that place and moment when they absorbed the violence and dulled its pain by discharging it onto someone smaller, other, or gendered differently. Once you feel it in you, watch out: you’ll have to really recover from it instead of drinking or inflating yourself with your chosen distraction. A big reason you punched down was because you didn’t even recognize your humiliation, let alone recover from it. It was normalized. Once you recover, you may be able to ally yourself and start punching up. But that can be a long road.

 

  1. There isn’t enough time and money in the world for all the adult men who need it to do all that therapy. They’d have to want to besides. Fat chance. We’d also have to collectively offer support through yet another cultural “conversation”, designed to expose wannabe-ex-toadies to the proper self-inquiry resources etc. Who has enough spoons to “call them in”? How many toads can really change their toadiness after their 30th birthday? Emotional capital is a precious resource, and maybe shunning is the economical choice in some cases.

 

  1. Consider the littles at home and in the schoolyard, where it all begins. Where forces as old as time shape the alpha-toady bedrock of the culture. It forms through countless tiny acts of domination and submission that any woke parent can see. But with hard work, the energy within this primal economy can be transformed into rhythms of consent, nurturance, protection, and acceptance.

That Time White Supremacy Meant That I Didn’t Get Shot

Last summer the intersection at the bottom of our street was ripped up for repairs. I waited in our bougie car for the traffic cop to signal me through. My partner was in the passenger seat and our two and a half year old son was in the back, in his car seat.

The officer made a hand signal I couldn’t understand. When I didn’t do what he was asking, he pointed at me and started yelling at the top of his lungs. His face went red and he was spitting. He was a big burly white guy, like me.

I had an instant bodily reaction, familiar from being bullied as a child and preteen by men in other uniforms who looked like him, and from teenage violence in which I lashed out, sometimes to defend myself and others, sometimes to exact blind revenge on my peers for the sins of men who looked like that cop. The feeling is a shock wave of rising heat, a flood of cortisol and endorphins I can feel singeing the roots of my hair.

It’s the biochemistry of both patriarchy and the revolt against it. It’s exhilarating to the extent that you’re pretty sure things will turn out all right.

In a blur I finally understood his instruction, crossed the intersection as he directed, but then stopped at the far curb and threw the car into park and unsnapped my belt. I heard my partner trying to reason with me from a distance. I forgot about my child altogether, and opened the door, regressing to about fifteen years old.

I walked hard and fast at the officer, inflating myself with menace, pointing my finger, yelling “Stop bullying people” and “You have no right” and “You’re a public employee” and who knows what else. He looked impassive, settled back on his heels, and kept his thumbs hooked into his bulletproof vest. I came within five feet of him and then felt the acid dissipate as I saw my face in his mirrored aviators. I stopped, registered the détente, and wandered back to the car in a daze. The door-open chime warning brought the world back into focus.

Coming down from it over the next few hours was oddly pleasurable. My backache was gone. For the rest of the afternoon I had the luxury of self-analyzing, connecting the dots of history and feeling that led to the outburst. I had the luxury of weighing the ethics of my rage against the afterglow of its emotional discharge. I could hold and cuddle my son thoughtfully on a park bench and chat calmly with my partner, who’d never seen this side of me before – it doesn’t come up that often in our middle-class environs – about why I can go from zero to a hundred in an instant.

We were able to chat under the maple trees because I wasn’t in custody and I hadn’t been tasered or shot. I had a conflict with a cop and I was able to turn it into therapy.

I forgot all about this until recently, when it became clear again how many times I’ve cheated danger or even death with my whiteness.

But beyond the obvious crisis points — a heavy penny dropped deeper to show me how white supremacy grants me daily doses of emotional and somatic freedom. The traumatized control in the voice of Diamond Reynolds as she watched Philando Castile die and protected her daughter and her own life walks a line between survival and perseverance I will never feel in my body. It’s the voice of hypervigilant dignity, rehearsed for generations of never being allowed to lose it, not even when your lover is executed beside you, of bottling in the terror of an entire culture and history, even as more is being poured in, minute by minute.

How has she learned that voice? Through how many incidents, from listening to how many relatives, and going back how far in memory? What was I taught with equal gravity? Did I ever need to learn the specific speech rhythms and intonations that others rely on to stay alive? My brain and breath formed around such different sounds. What does it mean to say that we’re all created equal? What part of us is unformed by inequality?

I am an unconscious racist in the sense that in the course of living my normal life, “just doing my job”, I can delegate the work of really holding and surviving the violence of patriarchy to women and people of colour. While others are holding and surviving it, I get to do ongoing therapy to expunge its personal effects, almost in the moment. I can regularly congratulate myself on the strides I make towards a private equanimity. I have the luxury of the time that lets me push back against my dissociative defences.

I have time to heal, because time equals space and most spaces are safe for me.

As a white progressive, I can also use my responses to patriarchal violence as a stimulus to progressive growth. But it’s not through my inner goodness that I can see a bigger picture. It’s through feminism and movements like BLM. It’s because of women and people of colour speaking with searing clarity about their lives that I can recognize my entire bodily equilibrium and things as intimate as posture and the ability to hold eye contact (a side-benefit of the white male gaze) is epigenetically inextricable from privilege.

Every personal narrative flowing from patriarchy is in some way about not feeling safe in the body. But my story evaporates in social relevance where it really matters. Regardless of what I’ve been through, I feel safe enough to show my rage at a perceived slight from a police officer. I can show my son – not without pride – the fleeting dignity of acting unrepressed. I can fearlessly use a cop for catharsis, to cleanse my nervous system from wounds that are decades old. I can indulge the punkrock joy of saying “Fuck the police” within their earshot. I can feel what I need to feel and, because it’s been felt, shrug, take a deep breath, and get on with my life.

Like many white people struggling to understand allyship, I’ve learned as much as I can over the past few years – mostly because of BLM actions and the resources they spread around – about what real change demands in terms of self-perception and socio-political action. I’m slightly more aware of structural privilege. I’m a little sharper with my language. I’ve studied the five-points posts and the checklists. I’ve studied up on the stats on anti-Black oppression. I’ve crushed hard on Ta-Nehisi Coates: his life and work feels so much more important than mine. The argument for slavery reparations is a no-brainer.

The ideas have become clear enough that when BLM shuts down the Toronto Pride parade for a half-hour to re-radicalize what has become a such a bourgeois affair that our prime minister can photobomb it while selling arms to Saudi Arabia, I know without question it’s the right thing for them to do, and that I’ll support their demand that Pride nixes the police float next year. They’re saying: cops don’t get photo ops with marginalized communities as if they share the burdens of violence until they do a lot more work. And they’re right.

But this political/conceptual education isn’t enough to really get under the skin. It’s like trying to feel ecologically clean because you recycle egg cartons and stress over voting Democrat or Green. It’s dutiful, but it’s not enough in a burning world.

It’s not enough because I enjoy a deep comfort in my body that isn’t mine as much as it’s been stolen for my benefit. This is not a theory. It’s the felt freedom to walk where I will and drive with a busted taillight and roll my eyes when I see the flashing lights behind me. And even – when I was younger – to catch myself sneering a little inside, as I know many white progressives do, at the artless life choices that led this chump to police academy. I was so unconscious of all this that I could look down on cops because they were obviously there to serve me. It makes sense, given that policing has historical roots in protecting privilege.

White supremacy says: “You can pull me over, and when you let me go with a warning, maybe we’ll nod at each other in silent acknowledgement of what your main job is.”

I have two white sons now who will grow up with this basic bodily comfort, probably with less violence than I’ve known, but in a universe apart from the constant violence others bear. I’ll never have to have “The Talk” with them that I’m ashamed to say I’ve only recently learned Black parents have to have with their sons about how to stay alive. I watch some people talk about the Talk, and hear an intimacy forged in family relations, rooted in an existential threat.

What Talk will I have with my two beautiful sons? What Talk will go beyond making them and I feel better about how we vote and post about our white progressive cred? What Talk will not distract them with the indulgence of guilt, and help them feel their basic, even boring okayness, which all children should feel, with such wonderment and surprise that they ache to extend it outwards?

How can I turn the intellectual case for equality into a somatic urge? How can I nurture a reflex to make space, rather than take it up – which is what I learned to do under the belief that injustices could mainly be solved through personal triumph instead of grinding structural change?

My sons have already inherited incalculable material advantages. I can show them this factually with education, and present the moral argument that they are obliged to share what they have, somehow. Maybe they won’t reject it if I’m not too preachy.

How can I show them that the embodied confidence they are already mirroring in me is a resource and not a right? What poetry, what music, what sport will show this and share this?

If I am breathing freely, they are already breathing freely. The real capital of whiteness is felt in the bone as totally natural. How can I make this unnatural, unequal inheritance contingent on them sharing it? What can I give them that when they meet the daughter of Diamond Reynolds or anyone like her, they instinctively — without any of the resistance I have felt — pour their hearts out into the reparations that begin with silent listening?

 

Elliott Goldberg Rides the Elephant: An In-Depth Review of The Path of Modern Yoga

 4.5/5 stars: Highly recommended. One bump, and some questions about framing.

Inner Traditions | 544 pages | ISBN 9781620555675 | August 4, 2016

 Order here.

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Remember that old Indian fable of the rajah who blindfolds his pundits, asks them to grab onto different parts of an elephant, and then report on what the object is?

The guy grabbing the leg announces that the elephant is a pillar. The one touching the ear says it’s definitely a woven basket. The pundit touching the head is convinced it’s a big clay pot. The rajah compliments each confident answer, and then reveals what they’ve missed.

It’s an apt metaphor for the recent explosion of modern yoga research in English. So many pundits, so many hands on the elephant. But who’s the rajah in this parable?

In 1996, Norman Sjoman uncovered the influences of South Indian wrestling exercises on modern vinyasa sequences. In 2004, Joseph Alter detailed the tensions between esoteric and scientific aspirations amongst early Indian yoga modernizers like Swami Kuvalyananda. Mark Singleton bootstrapped these and other findings into 2010’s groundbreaking Yoga Body. Singleton’s thesis boils down to this: the modern yoga we know today in studios and gyms from Boston to Mumbai developed from a turbulent early-20th-century collision of Euro-American physical culture movements and older Indian practices of embodied spirituality. It found expression through a tangle of colonial tensions, technological shifts, and the identity crises of actors negotiating “modernity” from either side of a blurring West-East divide.

These academic bones have been wrapped in more journalistic flesh: William Broad’s brusque tour through the dodgy medical claims of yogapreneurs, Stephanie Syman’s history of America’s peculiar romance with yoga’s “subtle body”, and Elizabeth Kadetsky’s poetic account of her ambivalent romance with B.K.S. Iyengar, his yoga, and his family.

The rajah in my comparison here is yoga culture en masse. It’s praised each of these reports in varying degrees. But there are always reservations. In reading about their cosmopolitan yet private religion, modern practitioners yearn for something both more intimate than scholarship and more precise than the confessional. They want books that grasp beyond the trunk and tail.

Along comes Elliott Goldberg with a dozen years of dogged research, a sleuthing style metered out in engaging chunks, a deep appreciation for the embodied sensations offered by competing visions of asana practice, a sharp eye for human foibles and historical oddities, and no shyness around sharing his own aspirational definition of the yogic goal: to open up or attune to “Being”. With his weighty tome The Path of Modern Yoga: The History of an Embodied Spiritual Practice, Goldberg makes a bold attempt to ride the elephant. As blindfolded as everyone else, he wobbles a bit, but hangs on for long enough to produce something that a lot of people have been waiting for: a penetrating, body-aware cultural history of a modern spirituality, written through richly realized characters. Ken Burns should option it for PBS.

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Learning About the Need for Trauma Sensitivity Is a Little Like Learning About White Privilege

 

A few days ago I critically Faceposted an infomercial featuring a Jivamukti Yoga School teacher demonstrating a series of assists on a fellow teacher as she glides through a sun salutation. Presented as appropriate for all teachers, the technique was classic Jiva, featuring hovering, intimate, near-constant touching. It was totally consistent with what’s presented in the 2014 manual Yoga Assists, co-written by Jivamukti founders Sharon Gannon and David Life along with Michael Roach.

Also consistent with the book, the video opens with and sustains a key omission. It offers no contraindications for the body-contact-heavy encounter. There is no discussion of individual needs or student consent, and no indication of any formal attention paid to the fact that touch can traumatize or re-traumatize as much as it can facilitate healing. Thankfully, unlike the book, the video doesn’t get into how the teacher should read the students chakras and use these assists to help them purify their karma.

The video may not be the best PR move for a company dealing with the fallout from a recently-settled sexual harassment lawsuit. Especially when the plaintiff claimed in an interview that the advances of the sued teacher weren’t limited to the bedroom, but also communicated through intimate adjustments in class. But the criticism in my post stayed away from all that, to focus on the simple absence of basic disclaimers.

I tried to be careful not to implicate the presenters directly. It seemed clear to me that they were doing exactly what they were trained to do. The video gave me no reason to doubt their good intentions. They were competently and artfully offering a technique that is standard across the Jivamukti platform, as many commenters confirmed. I was taking aim at the message of the presentation, not the presenters.

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“But He’s Not Erect”: Rationalizing Videos and Lies

This post might mark a shift of this blog into firmly opinion-column/commentary territory, as a lot of what I’m working on now beyond book projects is mostly higher-stakes investigative journalism, and when I publish on a corporation like Jivamukti, for example, it needs to be on a U.S. site with a U.S. server, because libel laws in Canada are pretty stiff. Here I can be sued on the premise that I’ve harmed a company’s reputation, even if the reporting is accurate. Because the major paying publications in the U.S. yoga world have turned down these articles and I have no independent liability insurance I’m grateful to Be Scofield at Decolonizing Yoga for taking them on.

I’ve published four articles on the now-settled sexual harassment case against the Jivamukti Yoga School. One about what the plaintiff actually had to say after the school essentially called her a liar, one on how JYS and other yoga groups use silencing tactics when complaints emerge (including the failure of the Ashtanga world to address the open secret of their guru’s sexual harassment), one on how the case has provoked a powerful discussion about the need for trauma-sensitivity training in yoga culture generally, and a fourth on how JYS and Michael Roach, the charismatic and controversial American Buddhist leader, exchanged both form and content from 2003 to 2012.

This post is about a side-issue that’s emerged in the online dialogue surrounding these articles.

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Pooping Unicorns in Paris: a Solstice Prayer

 

Creative Director Daniel Harmon is talking about the viral commercial he and three of his brothers produced for Squatty Potty.

But he could also be talking about how capitalism is dealing with climate change.

“The big challenge for us was taking the really gross world of the colon to a place that was clean and fantastic and friendly and approachable. And delicious, for lack of a better word.”

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Yogagate: The Downward Dogwhistle Story

 Last updated: December 6th.

 

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Liquid Facts, Solid Derision

 

On Friday, November 20th, the Ottawa Sun broke a story that went viral. The global backlash has distorted and minimized an issue that South Asian thought leaders in yoga culture have been grappling with for years.

“Student leaders have pulled the mat out from 60 University of Ottawa students,” the story began, “ending a free on-campus yoga class over fears the teachings could be seen as a form of ‘cultural appropriation.'”

The class was administered by the student-run Centre for Students with Disabilities (hereafter “Centre”), under the umbrella of the Student Federation of the University of Ottawa (hereafter “Federation”).

“Jennifer Scharf,” the piece continued, “who has been offering free weekly yoga instruction to students since 2008, says she was shocked when told in September the program would be suspended, and saddened when she learned of the reasoning.”

The Sun reported that Scharf was told via email that:

“Yoga has been under a lot of controversy lately due to how it is being practiced,” and which cultures those practices “are being taken from.” The centre official argues since many of those cultures “have experienced oppression, cultural genocide and diasporas due to colonialism and western supremacy … we need to be mindful of this and how we express ourselves while practising yoga.”

In a phone interview with me, Sun reporter Aeden Helmer clarified that these quotes came from a single participant in a 17-page email correspondence between the Centre, the Federation, and Scharf that ran from September through November.

The Sun article concluded with the comments of Federation official Julie Seguin, which argue against the validity of the cultural appropriation reasoning. Helmer confirmed via email that Seguin’s quotes were drawn from that same correspondence, which suggests that the Centre and the Federation were not in agreement on the issue as it was being discussed.

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