After my latest blogpost about Michael Stone’s untimely passing- a student asked what we should do with our emotions or feelings when we practice. Are we supposed to leave them at the door or do we bring them into the room?
Patanjali gives little counsel on that in the Yoga Sutras. He doesn’t mention emotions… at all. What he does offer is a detailed map that exposes where emotions/feelings originate more specifically: the koshas (or subtle body). When you study the koshas: the annamaya kosha (or physical body); the pranamaya kosha (the energy body); the manomaya kosha (the mind body); the vijnyanamaya kosha (the wisdom body); and the anandamaya kosha (the freedom body), you realize that dukha (suffering) is expressed and experienced differently throughout each sheath. For example, you can experience physical discomfort- my hamstring hurts; or energetic discomfort- I’m fatigued; mental discomfort- I’m in a funk; and so on and so forth. As we zoom in on where the imbalance is, we can dismantle it and in this way understand ourselves more fully. If we realize that we are fatigued, a rigorous physical practice may not be the best answer, perhaps a pranayama practice focusing on building prana is more fruitful. Thus, we are able to work more accurately with where we are. However, these things are best understood through the lens of the student/teacher relationship as they are complex. It’s better to have a guide who can help us tease them apart and unpack them. And in the end, I am skeptical that practice can override chemistry.
My post was written before Michael’s family released the details of his heartbreaking and life-ending struggle with bipolar disorder.
Our culture as a whole, especially the wellness community, is guilty of extreme ‘magical thinking’– believing that we can change our world or our circumstances with our minds alone. It is true that shifting our perspective changes our experience, but it doesn’t change the experience itself. Meaning- if my car has a flat, I can sit there and cry while I wait for AAA or I can take the doggies for a little walk on the grassy median and wait in the sunshine. Two different outcomes. The tire is still flat. I can choose how I deal with things, but I don’t get to pick anything other than a flat tire, the flat tire chose me.
After my motorcycle accident two years ago, the overall sentiment mirrored back to me from most people was that it happened because my spirit was trying to work something very old and deep out. There was an earth shattering, mysterious, unresolved issue inside of me, that only near death could bring to light. And I was finally going to get the meaning of life delivered right to my door step, so I should listen. Dum dum duuuuuuuuuuummmmm…
Well, now that I’m enlightened, I can tell you there was a message: accidents happen! Mind blown, right? It did change my life and my path and pretty much everything. Yet, to this day, I have not found this thing I needed to almost lose my life over to understand. Sometimes life just sucks. Sometimes, good things happen to bad people and shitty things happen to really good people. You cannot escape your fate and what life has in store for you, even if you try to live a good, kind, honorable life. Karma is not an eye for an eye. It is so much more nuanced than that. No amount of meditation and yoga will save you from your life. They simply won’t.
I found myself having ‘magical thinking’ when reading the article about Michael and his struggle. How can a person who has such a deep practice and discipline still struggle like this? Practice couldn’t take the bipolar out of him as it could not take the break out of me. Yoga is not the answer to everything. It’s not a magical potion that fixes Trump, climate change and cancer. It can help us ride the tide of life, but it does not provide a one size fits all solution for all its woes. We forget this.
Silence and shame are killing us. Michael hadn’t come out to his community about his mental illness. As Brene Brown says, ‘shame is an epidemic in our culture. It feeds off of secrecy, silence and judgement’. She also says that empathy is an antidote to shame. Which is why I believe sharing our stories is of utmost importance.
We, in the wellness community could afford to be more open about the stuff that makes us human. I know teachers that have gotten hurt and have made huge efforts to hide it from their students, teachers who have hidden addictions, mental illness, and all sorts of other things that make us fallible. I wonder what would happen if we break our silence? After all, Michael is not alone. Earlier this week a younger, less famous yoga teacher, Lael Feldman, jumped off the George Washington bridge. And this is just in our community. I believe people can handle it. I also think it will make us more compelling.
And as students, what would it be like to move away from ‘magical thinking’? If we listened with less judgment about whether something would or would not have happened had someone practiced harder or been better. Sometimes, offering that little benefit of a doubt can be so wholehearted. It’s called trust. So that if someone asks for help, we realize it’s because they really need it, not because they are being undisciplined or weak.
Michael may have found strength in his community. He may have taken heart in knowing that so many others, like him, struggle with mental illness and that there is no shame in it. Maybe he would still be around to gift the world his wonderful teachings. And imagine how many of us would have benefitted from his wisdom on these subjects?
So, to my students: don’t leave the best parts of you at the door, the parts that make you complicated and flawed. They are what we have to work with. We do our work. And if we hit an impasse, we seek out an expert. Because we are not magicians, we are yogis. It is a system for better living and better dying.
The world is better with our stories in it. If you are ever in a dark place you can count on me. Reach out, call me, email me. I will write you back. Help is around you. Even when you feel most alone. And if you have questions for me about challenges I experience on this journey, about my being transgender, or my body after the accident or anything else for that matter, let’s talk. Don’t wait. The door is open. I’m here now. We are always stronger together.
“We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”
PS. I have a A favor to ask: I have some free time to plot and plan in August. I would love it if you tell me what you would like to work on this coming school year. I would love to hear what you think I can improve in retreats, classes or anything else along with any ideas you have that I may have not yet explored and how to make the ones already out there better.
So far, I have the retreats that are on the website planned. We are finalizing dates for another weekend retreat with the band in the fall, that will be up soon, some more kirtan and yoga classes and more kirtans, and I am developing a training (like a teacher training) for non-teachers so you can deepen your knowledge and your practice. It would be one weekend a month for four months and we would get to study and play together. I’m also toying with some podcast ideas and adding that to the website plus an online course in armbalances. I’ll also be adding a phonetic translation of the teacher’s chant for people who have asked for it soon. And lastly, I have begun to ponder another album…
What am I missing? You are why I do what I do. So bring it on.