In memory of (Part Deux)…

After my last blogpost about Michael Stone’s untimely passing- a student asked what we should do with our emotions 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 that Yoga Sutras. He doesn’t mention emotions… at all. What he does offer is a detailed map that allows us to understand ourselves more clearly: the koshas (or subtle bodies). When you study the koshas: the annamaya kosha (or material 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 suffering (or dukha) is experienced differently throughout each sheath. For example, you can experience physical discomfort- my back is tight; or energetic discomfort- I’m fatigued; mental discomfort- I’m in a funk; and so on and so forth. As we are able to distinguish where the discomfort comes from we can dismantle it. If we realize that we are fatigued, a rigorous physical practice may not be the 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 you tease them out 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 situation remains the same.  I have a choice as to how I deal with things, but I don’t get to chose the flat tire, the flat tire chose me.

After my motorcycle accident two years ago, the overall sentiment mirrored back to me from the majority of people was that it happened because my spirit was trying to work something very old and deep out. Life was trying to tell me something big, so I should listen. There was some earth shattering, mysterious, unresolved issue inside of me, that only near death could shed light on. Dum dum duuuuuuuuuuummmmm…

Well, it turns out 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. 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 can help us ride the tides of our lives, but it does not provide all the answers for all of its woes. It’s not a magical potion that fixes Trump, climate change and cancer, though it can help us get through all of it. We forget this.

Silence and shame are killing us. Michael hadn’t come out about his bipolar disorder to his community yet. 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 the 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 been addicts, and all sorts of other things we can all relate to. I wonder what would happen if we break our silence? I think people could handle it. It might even make us more compelling.  

And as students, what would it be like to move away from ‘magical thinking’? If we listened with less judgment if something would not have happened had someone just practiced harder or been better. Sometimes, offering that little benefit of a doubt can be so wholehearted. It’s called trust. And isn’t that what we are practicing? Wholeheartedness. So that if someone asks for help, we realize it’s because they really need it, not because they are being undisciplined.

Had Michael found the strength in his community, he may have found heart in knowing that so many others struggle like him with mental illness and that there is no shame in it. Maybe he would still be around to gift the world his wonderful teachings.

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 where we need an expert, we seek them out. Because yoga is not a magic fix all potion. It is a system for better living and better dying.

The world is better with our stories in it. We are always stronger together. 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 in 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. We need each other.

“We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”

~Hopi Elders

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