Sunday, March 15, 2015

Yoga Culture and the Biomedical Centric Narrative


Photo credit: kakisky from morguefile.com

Having just completed this long response to a Facebook thread about yoga, the use of pharmaceuticals by yoga teachers, alternative medicine, and the problematic nature of "New Agey" responses to health and wellness issues, I decided it was worthy of a blog post. The original post by a yoga teacher who was shocked to learn of two long time yoga teachers that used meds to treat their depression was, after an apparent fluffy of negative responses, taken down. It was replaced by this apology, while the original piece was responded to by several yoga bloggers, including Matthew Remski and Charlotte Bell. While I appreciate many of the points both Matthew and Charlotte offer, I was struck by what I'd label a biomedical centric quality to their responses. Something that I also found in the discussion that ensued on Matthew's FB page, and which I feel needs to be unpacked in detail to avoid falling into an all too easy "good and evil" binary. Below is my attempt to do a bit of that unpacking.

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I've been following this discussion for a few days now, trying to figure out if I should say anything or not. I didn't get to read the original post, so I don't know what kind of claims the author made about pharmaceutical medications or Western bio-medicine in general. One thing I do find curious is - in this depression saturated continent of ours, where medications is a commonplace solution - how the author was "shocked" or even "surprised" that some yoga teachers are using pharmaceuticals to address depression or similar challenges. I honestly don't get the wow factor there.

One tendency I have noticed whenever these discussions about medicine come up is that the power and demands of the biomedical point of view are not often made explicit. For example, there's rarely any direct dialogue about the societal position of biomedicine as orthodox and state sanctioned. And how that positioning allows proponents to dismiss anything else at will without any damage to their credibility or standing. Taking a stand in favor of pharmaceutical intervention has little of the social risk that taking a stand in favor of an energy medicine approach to anxiety or depression does, for example. Or that the same positioning means that the terms of engagement will default to biomedicine's unless deliberate effort is made to question and open space for differing worldviews.

Here, I see many appeals to "experts" and a need for "expertise" and "evidence," without naming the fact that behind this is a demand for whatever is being considered medicine to give deference to biomedicine's criteria for determining validity. That the definition of depression, for example, needs to fall in line with how biomedicine sees it, and/or that any treatments being offered must be backed by scientific "proof," or be explainable using the language and structures of biomedicine. And that anyone who offers some potential treatment option needs to demonstrate a certain level of "competency" - as biomedicine defines competency - or else they'll be lopped off as New Age flakes or charlatans.

Again, I didn't get to read the original post before the author took it down, so I don't know if she made a lot of universalized claims against drug therapies in particular, or solely in favor of alternative approaches. Personally, while I'm not a fan of pharmaceuticals, I think all options should be available for people to choose from. And I wouldn't offer anything with a blanket statement that "THIS IS IT." So, if the author of the original post was operating from that attitude, then I totally get why so many folks reacted so strongly against her post.

At the same time, what I have witnessed over and over again in these kinds of conversations is a tendency for everything to slide under the control of a biomedical narrative. That those who question biomedical interventions are suspect until they prove otherwise. And that "alternative" medical modalities are only valid if at least some of what they offer can be explained or demonstratable under the biomedicine framework.

Along these lines, I actually would argue that the plethora of ill informed yoga folks who knee jerk reject all forms of biomedicine and biomedical approaches, and offer yogic soundbytes and superficial elements of other medicine systems in response to issues like depression are actually a product of this same narrative of inquiry. It takes a lot of effort, strength and persistence to nurture and offer a medicine worldview that isn't biomedicine in this society. Far easier is the path of least resistance, where you know you don't resonate with the dominant model, but make little or no effort to learn and then practice a different one.

Finally, I'm guessing that to some degree or another, the hostility towards folks like the yoga teacher who wrote the original blog isn't really about medicine at all. But about expressed entitlement. Namely, that because person X was at some point anointed a teacher via teaching certificate or some other flimsy method of approval, that they feel "empowered" to "help others" with any problem or issue that arises. That said "yoga teacher" thinks they understand enough to do so, solely or mostly because they've finished some basic course of study, or read a book or whatever. To me, this sense of specialness - that being a yoga teacher means that you have some great level of wisdom and knowledge to "share" - is really the crux of many of the so called controversies in "yoga culture" today.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

The spring breeze is our every breath


Photo credit: immaster from morguefile.com

The world before my eyes is wan and wasted, just like me.
The earth is decrepit, the sky stormy, all the grass withered.
No spring breeze even at this late date,
Just winter clouds swallowing up my tiny reed hut.

Zen Master Ikkyu, 1394-1481

Many years, we here in Minnesota are still being swallowed up by winter clouds. This year, not so much. All around, the trees are budding. The lingering snow and ice is melting. And the air is filling with the songs of returning birds.

The same might be said of how people experience awakening, enlightenment. Most of the time, it seems to be some thing distant, buried under the snow of our sufferings and attachments. However, it need not be that way. Even in the worst winter storm, there is a spring breeze waiting to be discovered.

Ikkyu stands exactly where he is in this poem. There's not much desire for something to be radically different, just description and acceptance of what is. And also weariness. A weariness that isn't what it seems to be.

The spring breeze that isn't in the relative moment is fully alive in Ikkyu's heart/mind. In the poem, it breathes a love into everything that is, just as it is. And in doing so, he moves beyond being owned by that relative reality.

That weariness isn't of a man who's been beaten down by the world. As I see it, it's of a man who has grown tired of riding the emotional tides of life's endless changes.

Whatever comes, he's ready to embrace it.

I must remember that the budding trees will someday be rotting logs. I also must remember that the rotting logs contain budding trees.

The spring breeze is our every breath.









Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Diving into Freedom


Photo credit: Sheron2482 from morguefile.com

One of the great temptations of human existence is to base your life on contingency. That you will actually take the courageous step once all the conditions are absolutely and utterly right for you. When you have the right boss, when you have the right job, when the car payments have been made, when the kids are through college, when you're on your deathbed. When you're dead. It would be certainly easier then. The though is that if only I can control the climate of my existence and get the temperature exactly right, then when I'm completely comfortable, and have a sense of freedom, and a sense that I'm not beholden to anything, then I'll take a courageous step in my life. Of course, these conditions almost never come.

David Whyte


Yes, this contingency seeking has been a common experience of mine. Tweaking and fussing, hoping and cajoling some situation in my life so that it will be a "safer," more predictable platform from which to jump off of.

Reminds me of the first time I jumped off a diving board. I was in swimming class, probably two or three years older already than most of the kids around me. The class teacher had gotten me to go up the stairs - how, I don't know. My knees were knocking, and I felt quite weak and dizzy as I went up, but somehow I made it to the top. Standing out on the board and looking out over the pool, I couldn't imagine jumping, let alone going upside down.

The teacher held up a long pole with a little hook on it and said I could grab it and use it as a support while I jumped. My young mind believed this for some reason, and I bent down and got into position to dive. Still absolutely scared, but somehow the sight of that pole kept me there. Then I heard the teacher count down - Three! Two! One! I stood still. Completely frozen. Someone said "Jump!" I looked at the huge pool under me and didn't flinch. Someone then said "Try again." And the count down began again. Three! Two! One! ...

As I began to move through the air, the teacher yanked the pole away, and a sudden racing shot through my body. It was too late to go back, and yet the fear ruined my form, and I ended up smacking the surface of the water with my back. I went under, and sunk almost to the bottom of the pool. Thoughts of drowning, which I knew nothing about, but could imagine - flooded my mind. And as it did, I saw the surface of the water coming closer and closer, despite anything in my head. Surfacing, I looked for the teacher, and said something about her taking the pole away, but the experience was clearly an example of the worthlessness of contingency seeking.

Thing is, though, when I look at how I have led much of my life, it's not much different than that little boy freezing, trying to calculate things out. Too much waiting for a pole to show up. Not enough just diving, taking the fears and calculations along for the ride.

But that's not the end of the story. Or even the whole story of what was. Liberation comes sometimes through recognizing the gaps in what you believe.

I've been only that scared and calculating little boy. Leaps have been made, small and large. Keep going there. Keep going there. Just like the breath in meditation. That's the path. That's the pool of freedom, ever ready for you to go swimming in.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Notes on the Yoga Industrial Complex


Photo credit: mantasmagorical from morguefile.com

This article came across my blog feed a few days ago. I read it, found myself nodding in places, and also resonating with some points in the comments section. Then I chose to let it sit, and see if it interested me enough to return to. It did, so here we are.

In 2011-12, I completed a 200 hour yoga teacher training, following a good decade of yoga (and Zen) practice. I knew full well upon entering the program that there are too many "yoga teachers," and that the bulk of what passes for yoga in America these days is little more than a glorified exercise routine. However, after a year of witnessing from the inside, I came to the following conclusions:

1. The vast majority of yoga studios are built on models that discourage (by design) the development of a community of practitioners. Individual students might become friends or even "practice buddies," but the only "practice communities" I've ever witnessed in studios (where folks actually study and practice in a group over a sustained period of time)are the temporary ones in yoga teacher training programs.

2. Nearly universally, yoga teachers fall under the category of freelancers who work a series of temporary gigs. (Yes, some of those gigs might last several years if a person's classes keep attracting enough students, but for many, this isn't the case.)

3. Yoga teacher training programs are often more about the greens than about developing great teachers. If you pay the fees and finish the classes, you're awarded a certificate. The depth of your practice, wisdom, and/or actual ability to teach is mostly secondary.

4. Yoga teaching is treated as a "career," which is by definition creating a few problematic frames: a) a transactional sensibility where an expectation of financial gain is present b) a "productivity" sensibility where an expectation is present (amongst students and teachers) that certain goals will be met in short periods of time. (Such as students will learn x number of yoga postures in a given class or series of class, and have some level of achieved performance. Note: this kind of stuff is often not explicit or stated, but more an underlying, sometimes unconscious expectation.)

5. A "successful" yoga teacher under current standards is one that tends to have full classes, and/or classes with enough devoted students that they are both making some income, and also maintaining their "value" to the studio.

6. There's a lot of what I would call "Rugged Individualism" spirituality offered in yoga studios. There's not really a collective anything going on, even though numerous folks enter and exit the doors of a studio in a given day, week, month, year. There's rarely any talk or consideration of how systemic -isms (racism, sexism, classism, etc) impact any given person or group of people's spiritual lives and/or understanding of what it all means (or could mean.)

I offer this as a set of insights I have had since teacher training, which made me feel sympathetic to Jessica's situation in the post I linked to, even though I also agree with comments in the comments section pointing out entitlement and privilege in her words. More than anything, though, I think it's important to recognize that her situation didn't happen in a vacuum. There are numerous collective circumstances that have come together to make it both very difficult for yoga teachers to sustain their teaching (even if they "day jobs"), and also much more likely that whatever is offered as "yoga" will be a mere fraction of what yoga is as a spiritual discipline.



Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Brief Meditation on an Increasingly Deranged Planet


Photo credit: snowbear from morguefile.com

This has been bubbling up for me today. Noticing how warm this January has been, after record cold last January. Thinking about our ancestors. How they looked to the patterns of the natural world for wisdom. And then a knowing that so few of us do this today, followed by a feeling that even if the majority of us return to these patterns, what if what we are picking up is at least partly deranged?

A few weeks ago, I was in Iowa. It was warm there too, and on one of the lakes outside of Des Moines, hundreds (maybe even a few thousand) geese had landed. Were squawking at each other. Circling. Waiting. Whatever they were doing there, it seemed off. Geese usually fly to the border states and Mexico in the winter. They don't winter in Iowa. But given the signals they've been getting, perhaps Iowa felt right the first week of January.

If this is the new normal, we might have to go beyond simply "going back to nature" so to speak. Aligning ourselves with a natural world that is deranged, in large part because of ignorant human activity, isn't going to bring about the healing that we seek. Our attention skills need to be honed to the point that they allow us to witness the deranged, and see through it to the dynamic "homeostasis" behind the curtain. If we seek to build/create in alignment with our ecosystems, we're going to have to learn how it organizes to thrive, rather than simply mimic what is currently present. Like riding the breath in meditation until it settles deep in the heart of the body/mind, so to is the practice of returning to true unity with/in our Earthly home.




Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The World Inevitably Exposes Our False Identities


Photo credit: Penywise from morguefile.com

There is no I and there is no other.
How can there be intimacy or estrangement?
I recommend giving up trying to get there by meditation,
But rather, directly seizing the reality at hand.
The message of the Diamond Sutra is:
Nothing is excluded from our experienced world.
From beginning to end,
It inevitably exposes our false identities.

Layman P'ang (740-808)

This is quite a jolt of a poem, don't you think? I have been reflecting on this whole "exposure" process lately. How every spring, the snow melts away and reveals both a round of casualties and, also, a round of new life. Body of a squirrel. Barren tree. Rotting couch cushion. Tulip blooming. Burst of bee balm. Newborn robin. Shiny bicycle.

I think there is a place for hiding in, for holding on to those identities, those parts of yourself that aren't completely right, integrated, alive.

And yet, at the same time, it's foolish to either stay there very long, or believe that you can stay there very long.

Winter comes to all of our identities, and everything that we do.
And spring brings in what's next.

Monday, January 5, 2015

The Continued Exoticization of #Asians and #Buddhism in America: On Brad Warner's CNN Interview About #NYPD Officer Liu's Funeraln



The recent funeral of NYPD Officer Wenjian Liu offered, among other things, a clear window into race relations here in the United States. Occurring in the middle of the current police "slow down," the funeral also was used as another opportunity for members of the more conservative wing of the NYPD to protest NYC Mayor DeBlasio's fairly mild reform agenda. With plummeting arrest rates, and no real rise in public safety concerns in New York, the NYPD's actions demonstrate the highly bloated quality of the department. Indeed, some of the very issues being raised by the #BlackLivesMatter protests - the hyper-excessive arrest rates for black and brown folks, the Broken Windows policy, and the general state-sanctioned violence of police forces - are being shown for what they truly are: racist, classist oppression.

Meanwhile, this morning I saw the video above floating around my Facebook feed and I had a moment of "huh," followed by a sigh. The choice by CNN of Zen teacher Brad Warner as the face and voice for Buddhism in the US, and in particular, the one to speak about the rituals at Officer Liu's funeral, speaks volumes.

1. The Asian as perpetual outsider narrative is totally upheld here. Not only does the mainstream media choose a white male to represent Buddhism, but they also cast the funeral of a Chinese-American officer as "exotic" enough to require explaining to their audience.

2. The ignoring of, and/or deliberate suppression of, Asian-American Buddhism narrative is upheld. Numerous Asian-American Buddhist teachers and community leaders could have been selected to do this interview, but they weren't. Furthermore, the robust Chinese-American community as a whole is ignored here, not deemed worthy enough even after several generations on the continent of narrating the story of one of their own.

3. The narrative of celebrity worship. While Brad Warner is barely known outside of Buddhist circles, he's something of a celebrity amongst convert Buddhists. And while Brad's a sincere practitioner and serious student of the dharma, the public persona he's developed, and which his almost cult-like following has propped up, easily comes off as superficial and rebellious in a boyish, teenaged sort of manner.

4. Which serves to uphold the narrative that Buddhism is either trivial or not really something to be taken seriously by the rest of Americans. I have a feeling that Brad's choice to don the robes he rarely uses for this interview was in part coming from an understanding of this issue. He probably knew that the punk rocker turned rebel Zen priest image just wouldn't cut it for national TV news.

Here's the thing. I'm guessing Brad simply responded to the call from CNN and did his best to offer folks watching some insight into Buddhism. I think he did pretty good actually of giving some Buddhist basics in a forum that's horribly prone to superficial sound bytes. In fact, he sounded heartfelt and caring as well, something that often gets downplayed or erased in these interviews. So, understand that this post isn't about bashing Brad; it's about the complexities of systemic racism, and also the dynamics behind marginalizing minority religions and spiritual traditions in a still overwhelmingly Christian nation.

Your thoughts?