Monday, November 9, 2015

Bhakti and Identity Politics

Frequently, I find my social justice political self running up against my spiritual yogini self. It's a really good, generative tension, but it often leaves my head spinning.

Case in point, last month Jivamukti yoga focused on Spirit Guides as an entry point and deepening in all Jivamukti yoga classes. This is one of the many reasons I love Jivamukti yoga: it constantly pushes me. If I'm a student in class, I'm pushing up against some edge, like my overwhelming fear when a teacher instructs us into a handstand (generally in the middle of the room). As a Jivamukti teacher, I am constantly calming myself when panic emerges at the call to teach my students about Spirit Guides as they move through a yoga asana class. Seriously?! What do I know about Spirit Guides? How do I make this relevant to yoga asana? How do I make this relevant to their larger lives? How do I not feel like a total kook?

But the deal is that Spirit Guides appear in the texts informing yoga. They are a related idea and Jivamukti says consistently: go there. Go into the areas that challenge. Don't shy away from what feels too "out there." Figure out why it is a part of this tradition.

I know people who live in my midst who are members of cultures that do have a strong tradition of connections to ancestry and spirit. I am consistently working to be aware and conscious of how I'm incarnated this go round, as a white chick with a ton of privilege, so I can speak authentically. I can claim the experiences I know and also have deference for that which is out of my range.

In the midst of this, there are larger national conversations about identity politics, or really understanding the implications of walking through the world incarnated as a women, or a person of color, or another identity that is "othered." From my vantage point, based on what I've been taught by teachers in this field, it serves us all to listen to these experiences and not try to claim them as our own if they fall outside the range of personal lived experience. This sets up more honest exchange. Having an awareness of how one's identity shapes experience is part of teaching about appropriation, when people assume comfortable aspects of a culture or experience. I've long been concerned about appropriation as a white teacher of a traditionally Indian practice. Appropriation can go from disrespectful to dangerous when those with power (at this moment in time often "First world," wealthy white folks) claim aspects of say, Indian spirituality, while having no understanding of what it's like to live in brown skin in a largely light-skin-biased world, without feeling the implications of US foreign policy in Southeast Asia, nor the impact of living under a global economic system that consistently priveleges Europe and the US. Hence: appropriation. "I'll wear a bindi, because it's pretty, without understanding that many Hindu brown-skinned women face prejudice for wearing the same."

Jivamukti, while an overtly political yoga school (especially when it comes to animal rights), hasn't spoken officially on this topic (to my knowledge). I don't say that as a slight. I love my yoga school and tradition. I feel like my teachers are truly steeped in these teachings, are working towards their own enlightment, and liberation for all. Towards that end, they constantly teach us to step inside our stories to get out of our stories, meaning, understand all that we feel we are in this incarnation and then understand that we're so much more. We don't have to be bound by the rules and slights of this world.

With deep spiritual understanding, that is a profound and liberating message. I have heard what I feel is a watered down version of that message that sort of implies skipping the step of recognizing who each of us is in this incarnation. "Go ahead and wear the bindi because in the end we're all one!" sort of "color-blindness." In my mind, that limits all. That limits white people who are often blind to the experience of being raced in this world. For white people to become more empathetic, responsible members of the world, we need to listen. This type of color-blindness obviously is also limiting to people of color, who continue to feel like they aren't heard or respected.

I'm trying to wade through by being accountable to who I am now, with some level of understanding that we are all much much more.

Last week I went up to Woodstock for a Dharma talk with Sri Milan Baba Goswami of the Vallabhchya lineage. He spent much of the talk explaining Bhakti, a path of yoga to realize liberation through relationship. A bhakta is devoted to their isvara, an avatar of God that they relate to. In Sri Goswami's lineage, he is devoted to Krishna. Even within this devotion to Krishna, we try to identify our specific relationship. Some worship Krishna in his incarnation as a baby. Their worship for God has a parental care. Some worship Krishna as Radha, feeling a sense of devotion that you would have for someone you were in love with. There are a multitude of ways to realize this relationship. As we would in any relationship, reflexively we come to understand who we are in this partnership. Sri Goswami explained that bhakti yoga asks us to gain a lot of self-awareness so that we come into this relationship offering love with ever increasing clarity.

I've been thinking about bhakti as it potentially relates to identity politics and appropriation. I remembered back to last year when I knew I would be traveling to India to certify as a Jivamukti yoga teacher. I called my friend, Sheena, and Indian-American yoga teacher, scholar, and activist who also did her yoga training in India. I asked her how I could be a respectful student or what I should watch out for. She patiently related some of her experiences as a student in the Himalayas studying among a diverse student body. She gave me great suggestions and helped me understand some of the ways that the learning process might differ from what I was used to. At the end of the conversation, I thanked her and asked her how she felt. I care about her and really hoped that my behavior in studying yoga in India didn't trouble her. Or if it did, I wanted a chance for us to process. She said, "I think I needed you to ask me about this and I'm glad that you did. I feel good and I give you blessings on your journey."

I felt so heartened. It was really profound. Both she and I spend time thinking about how we can build respectful spaces for ourselves and others. We do this individually and have at times done this together as co-teachers and collaborators. We often think of identity politics and appropriation in academic circles and with lofty language. It was so beautiful to see that we can step into what we believe our politics, in a very real way, by trying to be honest and accountable to one another. By no means do I feel like that one conversation let's me "off the hook" to be aware of my privilege and how I move through the world. But it did teach me that trying to behave respectfully does not have to be complicated. It can be like this relational aspect of bhakti: seeing everyone as an aspect of the Divine. As such, trying to have clarity around who I am to them. Working towards openness and mutual respect in all our encounters.

As a white person, I try to think a lot about how I and other white people can do better to be empathetic to those who experience racism, classism, and forms of oppression. Again, the blurry space between my studies in yoga and my studies as an activist feels pretty fruitful. To the best of my ability, be honest about who I am and experiences that I understand. Acknowledge what's out of my range, what is a stretch, and where I am in relation. In this clarity, grow together.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Just a waitress

For about a decade, I was a waitress. Most of the time I really loved waiting tables. It always felt a little bit like contract work. Sure, you answered to a manager and had some requirements, but by and large you are paid directly by the customers so you have a bit of say so over what you earn. I loved figuring out how to serve each table best. I loved the puzzle-like logistics of moving so efficiently: put in the appetizer on table 2, start the tea for table 3, bring extra napkins now, fill the rest of the drinks. It's a far more complicated job than many appreciate, it compensated me pretty well, and kept me active and on my feet. In so many ways it is and was for me, a great job.

On more than one occasion we'd be a little slow. I might find myself in conversation with a table. I'd divulge some more personal detail about myself: I'm an activist, I write, I teach yoga. Whatever I said, often their response was, "Oh! I knew you were more than just a waitress!"


I never figured out a savvy response to this. Every time I heard it I was so angry for so many reasons. My class consciousness raised it's ire. And my pride.

When I first started working as a teenager, I read bell hooks. I remember hooks writing specifically about blue collar jobs. She had plenty. She said she always did them to the best of her ability because doing work well is a good thing. She didn't dismiss blue collar work to only excel in white collar work, she simply did all work well.

Obviously, not everyone has the choice over the type of work that they can do. For me, her advice was formative. I read about Audre Lorde's early work experiences at a number of jobs and thought, "I'm going to really do this." Waiting tables was work that was available to me and it meant that when I wasn't at the restaurant I could devote my time to being a social justice activist. For the duration of my twenties, this is what I did.

I always wanted to say to these people, "But I am JUST a waitress. I absolutely am. Right now, I am waitressing. That is what I'm doing. I'm doing it well. There is no shame in that." And what about all the other people who in their classist minds were "just waitresses"? What were their markers? Different education? Different speech patterns or norms of interaction? None of these things make a person more or less intelligent and none of these things by any stretch make someone better or lesser than another. I wanted to say, "I knew you weren't just a lawyer!"

I felt so defensive about all the other blue collar workers out there. How did these people treat them? The "you're not just a waitress" customers always seemed so relieved that I was other than my current job, in their estimation. Why? What is so wrong with service work? In our economy, it's absolutely necessary.

In so many ways I was so grateful to work in the service sector. I had to move fast and develop a different skill set. I felt like it sharpened my mind and made me more agile. I honestly think everyone should work in the service sector for a time if not for the duration of their working years.

Now, when I do work I try to be wholly committed to that particular work. If I can be "just" a waitress, or yoga teacher, or writer, maybe I can also relinquish identifying with my work. I don't want to be circumscribed by how I earn my living and I don't want to do that to others. There's a strong likelihood that I would dismiss so many passionate, creative, talented people out there "just" doing their job.