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Who Gets To Say So
Tensions between a social definition, a personal practice and a hierarchy of power confound yoga’s freedom
BY MAGAZINE EDITOR SUSAN MAIER-MOUL
One of the reasons biology is so hard is no one can say what an organism is. It is, however, all too easy to say what an organism is like.
In itself, this is not a bad thing to do; trouble arises when one substitutes the latter for the former.
Robert Rosen, Life Itself
Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche is charismatic, and he employs a disarming directness. His style keeps it simple, good humored and personal. A decade ago, a retreat with this Tibetan teacher confirmed yoga as a path for me, a “way” of investigating and being effective with how life, and being a body, work.
Rinpoche’s premise was crisp: I have exactly one purpose, he said. I want to decrease your suffering.
I believe we live multiple lives, and I believe unfinished business from this one shows up in the next one. I believe that much of what complicates the life you are living now is unfinished business or karma from your last life. So my purpose is to get you to finish some things and take less with you to do in your next life.
For three days we “finished things” with five people we had chosen to release from our karma. Finishing involved the use of all our senses, concentrated hours of total focus, and the movement of our breath and bodies as we sat close to our teacher following his clear directions.
Tenzin Wangyal called what we did yoga. What impressed me wasn’t its lack of “postures,” but its absolute reliance upon the body as a perfect vehicle for working with karma.
We didn’t do the yoga he gave us to subdue our bodies or tame our minds. In fact, that polarity never came up.
Instead, he taught that because we had lived these particular unfinished businesses with our bodies, we could deliberately complete and release them with our bodies, as well.
Yoga as power
Have you ever been asked to choose whether you are the sort of person to make decisions based on what you feel or based on what you think?
When I was young, I’d get strung up by that one.
It came up in job interviews and office retreats and I’d be just speechless. It seemed natural to be aware of myself when asked to make a decision, but strange and bitter to be asked whether my self-awareness was thinking or feeling.
I was told by some people that I was over-thinking the question and therefore was a thinking-type personality. Just as often and with equal conviction, I’d be told I was being confused by my feelings, and was therefore unable to answer the question because I was a feeling-type person.
These and similar experiences caused me to be increasingly suspicious of who gets to decide where a line gets drawn, who gets to say what matters, who gets to define legitimate. As I got older, I felt despair as I began to understand the ways in which I unwittingly or lazily cooperated with the that’s-just-the-way-it-is status quo. I became suspicious of me, too.
What I learned was in order not to be merely instrumental to someone else’s agenda, I needed to pay attention to what was really happening, not let myself be told just any story.
What I found when I began to practice yoga was a reliable way of developing attention, a practice not only based in my body, but supremely interested in developing the extraordinary potential of my physicality.
Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche taught me a special power of my body.
Who get’s to say so and who gets to say no
Dividing a person’s senses between thinking and feeling is a way of defining them down. Accordingly, throughout the course of history, one people dominating another has done so culturally by denigrating the Other as one who can neither think nor feel.
In US history, indigenous Americans have been slaughtered and dispossessed; women have been owned as chattel in marriage and denied the right to vote; and African American people have been savagely beaten physically and psychically because they supposedly couldn’t feel pain or prejudice anymore than they could suffer the effects of the southern sun in the harsh cotton fields.
We expect the inheritors of this injustice to live their lives as though that history had an end, a point where someone who gets to say so drew a line. The truth is, their bodies cannot live something that isn’t real.
Today even children who don’t adjust to the lines drawn by dominant culture are hounded to death by the very people whose responsibility it is to protect them.
Why must we free yoga from fundamentalism about what it “is”? Because to be the one who gets to say what “is” and isn’t in the definition of yoga is to exercise power, power that rightly and innately belongs to each of these people.
The techniques of yoga bring freedom. It’s there in the special power of each of our bodies.
The hard work of responsible language
In Spider Woman’s Granddaughters Paula Gunn Allen lays the down low this way The one who tells the stories rules the world. True, that.
Pretty Shield, a Crow wise-woman, describes an attack:
Now I shall have to tell you about the fighting, a little, because it was a woman’s fight. A woman won it. The men never tell about it. They do not like to hear about it … I was there to see. Yes a woman won that fight, and the men never tell about it. … I did not cover my eyes. I was looking all the time, and listening to everything.
It’s hard to be responsible with language; it’s frustrating. I am constantly in the inquiry of my own stories; of the stories I encounter, who is telling it and whose purposes it serves. Pretty Shield does not allow herself to be told just any story. The men don’t like to hear her story because it changes their power: the story renders Pretty Shield’s experience legitimate.
Not telling the story erases it.
It is all too easy to say what yoga is like. In itself, this is not a bad thing to do; trouble arises when one substitutes talk about what yoga is like for what yoga is.
This is only my opinion: It seems to me there is a wide and wonderful space of practice(s) and power to be shared.
By which I mean the pleasure of working definitions: at some point yellow is orange. And the accompanying joy of practice: there’s a conversation to be had about the aliveness at the end of yellow and the beginning of orange.
When we use stories as gates to define some people in and other people out, to say who is doing it right and who is doing it wrong, then we are in trouble, as Robert Rosen says, because we’ve confused our experience of what freedom is like with the false authority of saying for someone else what their freedom will be.
When we tell our stories to break down the walls around practice, when we enlarge what it is possible and legitimate to discuss, then our descriptions of what freedom is like become a key in the lock of power, opening yoga for everyone.
* Paula Gunn Allen Spider Woman’s Granddaughters: Traditional Tales and Contemporary Writing by Native American Women, 1990.
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