On Marriage, Perfectionism, and Reconciliation

July 16, 2018

Grant and Hepburn

“Not every fateful moral choice, every judgment of good and bad or right and wrong, is a matter for public debate…[T]he issues in moral perfectionism are not crises of conscience of this kind…they are deciding on what kinds of lives they wish to live and whether they wish to live them together, to consent to each other, to say yes to their lives and their life together; nothing has happened between that that requires more than their mutual forgiveness.”—Stanley Cavell, Cities of Words*

In one of the greatest remarriage comedies ever made, the dazzling and insufferable Tracy Lord (Katharine Hepburn) cries out in anguish halfway through the film, “Oh, to be useful in the world!” It is a strange line given to such a sharp and capable woman, one who is almost too useful, we might say, a woman who always has the higher moral ground and never hesitates to make this known to others when they fall short, and they inevitably do. She is so perfect as to make her frequently unpleasant and simply no fun to be around (though not always, it should be noted), haranguing her own mother at times, for not breaking with her scoundrel of a husband, Tracy’s father. Tracy’s desperate words are said in response to watching the man she loves, but whom she has divorced some years earlier (Dexter Haven, played by Cary Grant) and for whom she continues to display a deep disdain, storm out after having called her down, not for the kind of immoral behavior in others Lord is herself so fond of pointing out, but rather for her inability to see herself as she really is and to make herself intelligible in just that way to others. He gets her, and the audience gets that he gets her from the very start. Why, we wonder, is this woman, always ten steps ahead of everyone else, so incapable of getting herself?

My husband is fond of saying that I am the Hardrock 100 of wives. This is a 100-mile footrace through the San Juans of Colorado that he has run a few times. For a while, I beamed at this comparison, because I assumed by this he simply meant that I was the prettiest. The beauty of the Hardrock Endurance Run, as anyone who has run it or spent a significant amount of time on the race course will tell you, is, without question, one of the most stunning in all of ultra-running. It is perhaps the most storied and legendary of all the 100-mile races in the world. It also turns out to be one of the hardest to conquer. The terrain, altitude, and elevation gain all combine to make it one of the hardest races to complete and one which many will reasonably decide, after having toed the line at the start, is simply not worth finishing. Over the years, I have come to understand that it is this latter aspect of the race—its difficulty and tendency to make even the best runners drop out—that my husband is referring to when he draws the analogy (perhaps our good friends knew this all along).

There are probably many things that Joe finds difficult to take in his marriage to me, as is the case for all married people, to be sure. But, knowing him as I do, I suspect that what he really means by this is not merely that my relentless “nagging moralism” is exhausting and that he and others could never live up to my many expectations of them, but rather that this particular feature of mine is an even harder pill to swallow in light of the fact that the source of my unhappiness and restlessness (and certainly of his) is frequently not the moral failings of others, but rather my own inability to see myself rightly and to understand and come to terms with my own complicated desires.

Tracy wants to be useful, by which is meant important, in big and small ways, and, ultimately, right. Right about her family members’ lives and how they ought to live them, to be sure, but also right about public matters of great importance—gender relations, class allegiances, spousal abuse, rights to privacy, and so on. Front-page sorts of moral questions, which are really not questions or crises of conscience for decent folks at all. Most of the people in Tracy’s life find her endless quest to settles these scores tiresome, not because they disagree with her regarding right and wrong, but because they are simply trying to go about the business of living the best life they can, which very often entails making daily compromises, accepting their own failings (for Dexter, it is drinking, a habit that Tracy finds utterly repulsive and cannot countenance, as do I, much to my husband’s chagrin), and turning away, perhaps only momentarily, from Big Moral Questions, in a way that Tracy simply will not abide. They all take for granted that she is Right, and so does the audience. Yet, there is something about her that is not quite right, not quite whole.

I recognize some part of myself in this story, and something about our recent move out West has amplified this fact. In my own endless quest to be right, and to be recognized as right by my husband and by nearly everyone, I have neglected what the late philosopher Stanley Cavell called Emersonian perfectionism, that is, a kind of moral perfectionism that is concerned less with Big Picture rights and wrongs, and more with how we stand in relationship to those with whom we have said we wish to live, to give our consent to and to have our own consent asked for in turn, and to allow ourselves to be made fully intelligible by them.

Despite the many attractive aspects of this transition, it has often times felt like a struggle in which I am the loser and my husband the winner. And I have even, in my lowest moments, said exactly this to him and, indeed, to anyone who would listen. Look at all that I am giving up! My career, my friends, my family, a huge support system, a house that I loved, a life that I have made for myself. All of that and more, so that he can take a “big fancy job” (yes, I even say it just like that!), fly to glamorous places in first-class and drive convertible sports cars around, while I stay home with the kids full-time, and assume the role of housewife and helpmeet. I say these things because they are, of course, in some sense true and unsettling. And it does make the eyes roll. But I say them, too, because I know they are the things that I am supposed to say. I am a feminist, after all, committed to gender equality and all that such a notion entails in a modern marriage, and if you are a nagging (liberal) moralist of the sort that is Tracy Lord in The Philadelphia Story, you are likely to find choices I have made perplexing at best, untenable at worst. For how will Hollie be useful in the world?

Although he is generally sympathetic, Joe finds much of this production from me to be a waste of time and energy, not because I am wrong about how exhausting this transition has been and how hard it is to stay home with small children (to deny either would be to put his own life in harm’s way), but rather because he knows very well that there is much about this new life that I have been wanting and craving for years now, if I would just be honest with myself about those desires, conflict though they may with certain deeply held principles and ideals.

And I suppose that is the point I want to make—to myself and to you. Sometimes in life, very often, in fact, we find that commitments to some particular moral or political ideal clash with deeply held desires, desires that it may well not serve us to turn away from, even if we knew how to do that. In and through my conversations with my partner, which are sometimes less verbal than I would like, and so perhaps I should say “conversations,” I return over and over again to the fact I am most at home in the world when I am in communion with the nature and, in particular, the expansiveness of the American West, when I am with my children on our own terms (an extreme privilege, I realize), when I have the freedom to write and to think without the expectation that I will produce anything at all worth something in an academic market that I don’t really believe in to begin with, when I can decide what I shall do and with whom I shall do it on any given day, etc.

But, far more relevant, is the education that I receive daily in my marriage regarding what it means to be true company, an actual helpmeet, if you will, to one another. I could have chosen any number of others, and I very nearly did. And those others might well have been in complete agreement with me right on down the line, sharing my “values,” in a way that my current husband may well not. But their imaginations were impoverished in a way that I could never have lived with and, because of that, would likely never have received the education that I needed to, an education about what it means to be human—frail, imperfect, complicated, a walking contradiction. When he calls me down for my relentless insistence that things be this way and not that, in my cooler moments, I know that he was the only one to whom I could have given my consent to respond to my own lack of education and my demand to know something that will alter my deep unhappiness with the way things are in the world, and the way I am in it.

When my feminist theory students used to ask me what was one thing—the most important thing—they could do to maintain equality in a marriage to a man, my answer was automatic: work. Don’t give up your exit option, maintain some identity independent of your role as wife and mother if you have kids, do something out in the world, be useful in the world, and, above all else, make your own money. My mother was the best role model in the regard, and she and my father maintain separate checking accounts to this day. I said this because I really do believe it to be very important to maintaining equality in a relationship (not to mention sanity and economic independence). But it will not secure the deep sort of freedom a person like me is also after. That sort of freedom has everything to do with the kind of moral perfectionism that concerns itself not with the right behavior of others, but rather with the placement of serious demands upon oneself, demands that have to do with the care of one’s own soul and the hard work of becoming intelligible to oneself.

Stanley Cavell wrote that what makes remarriage comedies of the Golden Age of Hollywood like The Philadelphia Story so compelling, and what makes us interested in these relatively privileged couples at all, is “their pure enactment of the fact that in each moral decision our lives, our senses of ourselves, and of what, and whom, we are prepared to consent to, are at stake.” They are a reminder of Aristotle’s great teaching on friendship: we choose to live with those who make us better, who can provide us with the education we need, and not the education we want, so that we may live a flourishing and first-class human life. I think what The Philadelphia Story teaches us is that so often one can never be sure we have chosen correctly, but we nevertheless consent to the one that has the courage to call us down, who has put the picture of our self together rightly, and can help us to do the same.

*Stanley Cavell passed away on June 19, 2018. I learned much from him about Emerson, moral philosophy and classic Hollywood film, as well as animals and Wittgenstein. His work was quirky and impossibly hard to follow. I keep trying.

July 13, 2018


Notes From a Feminist Housewife

“Women have sat indoors all these millions of years, so that by this time the very walls are permeated by their creative force, which has, indeed, so overcharged the capacity of bricks and mortar that it must needs harness itself to pens and brushes and business and politics.”
—Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

[Scene: I have taken my little boys to the park, a park that they absolutely loved on our first trip to it last week, in the hopes of getting some writing done in the shade of an ample oak tree the the center of the park while they play. This has seemed completely within the realm of possibility on several occasions, and so I didn’t think myself a complete idiot for having tried on this day.]

I used to think that Virginia Woolf was so passé.

[After typing just this first line, Oliver has interrupted me for the first of what will turn out to be countless interruptions, thus making this particular trip to the park to play and write a complete and utter failure.]

[Next scene: Several days later, at my kitchen table, while the boys scream and run around naked, waiting for breakfast to appear….]

Having taught feminist theory at the college level for some time now, until recently anyway, I always taught Woolf with some trepidation. The irony, however, in this instance is too rich and her relevance too real for me to let pass without further remark.

A room of one’s own, an actual physical space where a woman can cultivate intellectual, literary, creative, artistic, and even moral capacities necessary to her flourishing and general well-being. A room, if you can imagine, constitutive of her very freedom. All of this once induced much eye-rolling from me, seen as the epitome of white privilege, the least attractive kind of feminism, appealing only to naive first-year English majors from good, clean, unbroken families.

Now that time has passed and life taken its course, I see it was I who was naive, to imagine that such a thing was superfluous to the struggle for women’s emancipation (something, by the way, which sounds very old fashioned, but which I still believe is a real thing worth fighting for). Having taken for granted for so long expansive time, solitude, space not constantly invaded by others, a body that was mine in some real sense and not always pulled, poked and prodded by others who put their own needs above my most basic ones. No, now V. W. is my muse. I cling to her and the idea of that room day and night. Sure, it’s true that many are less free than me. I get that. And I am acutely aware how bothered some will be that I write these words at all, let alone while mothers are presently having their children ripped from their arms in this Land of the Free. And though that is a horror unimaginable to me and to most of the mothers I know, and I certainly would never put my own emptiness these days in the same category as that kind of suffering, it is also true that a woman can be made unfree in a myriad of ways. I used to say that to my feminist theory students all of the time, with the sadness of someone who cares for them and knows how many times they will rediscover this truth over the course of their lives. And I suppose that my present circumstance, in which I, unlike the women about whom Woolf wrote, have played some role, for sure, has helped me to see how the denial of time for oneself, specifically time to improve oneself and to make moral, intellectual, and artistic contributions, is a kind of oppression that is most pernicious, not least of all because to carry out of all the little tasks and functions for children and spouse necessary to their own flourishing is to put yourself in the service of others as you watch your own status and capacities diminish. If you are not watchful, ever-vigilant. And people say to me, “It is the greatest gift you could give your kids and family,” or “you will never get this time back,” (yah, that is exactly what I am afraid of, thanks) or “you’re actually taking on the most important role there is—mother.” I find most of that trite and cold comfort, if not offensive. I love my children, yes. I want to spend time with them, yes. But not at the expense of my own sanity and flourishing. Anyone who knows me must know this. (All my friends nodding vigorously now and rolling their eyes. Don’t worry, I am more to say to you later about why I chose this and how I didn’t fully.)

For someone like me, writing, reading, and thinking are what feed my soul. It cannot come last—after my kids, husband, community, politics, etc. It’s not a luxury, to have that time and space, like I once thought. I cannot find myself any other way. My center just will not hold. There’s no self, no family, no community, no politics, no nothing without this. So at the risk of being just another nitwit with a blog, the gift of social media and technology that keeps on giving, here goes.

*Ignore the typos and bad writing. I wrote this in less time than it took you to get ready this morning, while doing more things than you will likely do all day today. So, there.



Thoughts on the Teacher-Student Relationship

In the days following Michelle Goldberg’s expose for Slate Magazine concerning allegations of sexual harassment and misconduct at Jivamukti Yoga, a lot of debate and discussion has taken place on the Internet.

Many teachers and students are genuinely trying to grapple with what happened and think and speak carefully about it. But there are also views being expressed that are unsettling, either because they are, thoughtless, hasty, defensive, or, most troubling, reflect an inchoate and amorphous notion of relevant concepts like power, consent, ethics, and even Love.

Before I say more about that, let me say two things: we should all strive to be both clear in our thinking about this particular case and its wider implications, as well as forgiving and charitable to all parties. To do so is to understand that our fallibility is a central part of our humanity. However, if you are a person who believes that the teacher in question or the founders of Jivamukti Yoga (or anyone at all, for that matter) are incapable of erring, then you should read no further, for you will not be persuaded by reason. (You are also the person about whom the author of the Slate article is concerned, by the way.) To those folks, there is little to say at all on the matter. But to the rest, here are a few thoughts that I hope might sweep away some of the dust and offer clarity.

Firstly, Jivamukti is, as its founders Sharon and David constantly remind us, a brand and a business. It is also an institution of learning and, as such, sets out specific guidelines for the teacher-student relationship (section 4), as well it should. Let’s get right down to the first issue: what we know happened between this particular teacher and student, that is, what is not in dispute by either party, was unequivocally unprofessional and a violation of the Center’s own policy on sexual harassment and teacher misconduct. The policy states that “all forms of sexual behavior or harassment are unethical, even when a student invites or consent to such behavior,” and then goes on to give a rather capacious definition of sexual behavior, including speech and gestures. This sort of policy is consistent with that of many public institutions and private businesses. So, regardless of what one thinks of the student’s intentions, actions, or will, the Center and the teacher are responsible in a very specific way and ought to be held accountable. The very idea that that is even in question by so many followers of Jivamukti is incredible and requires taking the untenable position that the Center and its founders were wrong in the first place to have such a policy OR, as Jivamukti has recently claimed in a legal motion to have the entire case dismissed, those guidelines are merely suggestions and not binding. They certainly do not read like suggestions; rather, they read like actual policies and a description of what is expected of teachers and, of course, that is exactly how they were intended.

Secondly, it has long been established that meaningful consent cannot be achieved in conditions of inequality. Now, maybe you want to say that words like ‘equality’ and ‘inequality’ have no place in a satsang of Jivas where “it’s all about peace and love, man.” Again, if you are that person, then reason-based arguments are not likely to persuade you, and feel free to read no further. Love is a crucial component of yoga, but there are true and false forms of Love, as anyone who has lived long enough to be in Love and to be merely infatuated knows. One need only be in the presence for but a few moments of the most senior teachers at a place like the Jivamukti Center to understand that everyone there is not equal. (Indeed, I suspect that is precisely why the ethical guidelines say very little about what is expected of the student. They recognize that it is the teacher who wields much of the power, and so is charged with the ultimate responsibility of ensuring that the integrity of the teacher-student relationship remains in tact.)

I am not saying that all are not equal with disdain or even regret, and I am incredibly indebted to many of those senior teachers at Jivamukti. I do not view them as my equal as yoga teachers or practioners, but rather as my superiors. Equality is not always appropriate, nor is it always productive, and I would say that is the case in nearly every learning environment. Authority is crucial for things like spiritual and philosophical development. If we acknowledge that the two parties were at least unequal with respect to status in the Jiva community, in the workplace (and the Center is most definitely a workplace), and in the context of the teacher-student relationship, then we have established that consent is at best tenuous, if not impossible. (And, of course, this is why taking into account inequality on the basis of gender, race, and age is so relevant in many sexual harassment cases.)

When you enter into that sort of mentor-apprentice arrangement you are, interestingly, consenting to be in a vulnerable position, and so it is absolutely crucial that the teacher, the Center, and the wider Jiva community all work to protect and nurture the student, to guard against actions that may not be in her or his best interest. That also involves, by the way, being clear with the student if he or she demonstrates behavior that suggests they are not psychologically, emotionally or physically healthy enough to engage in the work together, which requires that the teacher be lucid and perceptive enough to do so. One need only review the public court files for this case and, in particular, the transcripts of a conversation between the teacher and student, to see that this was clearly not the case here. In that conversation, the student, after having received the benefits of a therapeutic relationship that helped her to see the inappropriateness of all that had unfolded, is lucid, grounded, and firm; the teacher, on the other hand, is desperate, confused, and utterly incoherent. This suggests, among other things, that perhaps the teacher is not psychologically or emotionally well enough to hold the position that she, incredibly, continues to hold.

Managing teacher-student relationships predicated upon inequality necessitates discrimination when accepting students, and we teachers should desire students who are critical thinkers, have healthy boundaries, and know that spiritual growth requires self-care not self-abnegation. Indeed, in this case, the student’s success was dependent upon her willingness to serve well and to be dutiful.

Now, we could say something like, “Well, if she didn’t want those things, she should have just said no,” and “a teacher’s power is given by the student,” and to such things I want to say, really?

I took Leslie Kaminoff to be saying precisely that when he was quoted in the Slate article, albeit in a rather insensitive manner. Perhaps we should ask ourselves, what sort of world have we helped to create where a woman, or any person, could be asked to do the sort of things that were asked of this student by her teacher and somehow not screw up the courage to say, “No, wait, this is wrong and I won’t participate in it.” Who among us can never recall a time in our lives when we succumbed, even if in a small way, to someone who had some bit of power over us–whether for the sake of getting along, protecting other interests we may have had, not wanting to be seen as a troublemaker, not wanting to give proof to the lie that the teacher was infallible, wanting to please, and so on? To say such a thing like “she should have known better” is certainly uncharitable, if not entirely incorrect, and fails to take into account all of the ways in which young women are taught to acquiesce, to be good girls, to go along to get along.  Yes, she could have said no, if she was willing to walk away from her career and community, if she wasn’t worried about emotional, psychological, and financial backlash, and so on. Those stakes are pretty high. And, yet, the student in this situation is not a mere dupe. It is totally possible to know that something is wrong AND be afraid or unsure of how to address it it. Let us be generous and remember when we may have felt this way in our own lives.

But the larger point I want to make is that the “she should have known better” response to such a clear violation on the part of the teacher is utterly bizarre and clearly a deflection. It strikes me that such a thing could only be uttered by a teacher who is afraid of such allegations coming his own way one day, or someone who has not yet thought deeply enough about how difficult it is to refuse something when doing so means the complete unraveling of one’s entire universe.

Jivamukti teachers and mentors are being paid to impart some knowledge and skills to students that, it is presumed, they did not possess before seeking out a teacher. Fraudulent talk of “I am merely a reflection of my student’s holiness and power” aside–no one says that when it’s time for the teacher to be paid. Nor should they. The problem is not with the inequality in the first place, but rather with a failure to adequately protect the most vulnerable in such circumstances. And when those of us in the Jiva community, which ascribes to a form of ethical veganism wherein looking at a frog the wrong way makes you guilty of the deepest sort of cruelty, cannot see abuse and a violation of brahmacharya between two human beings right in front of us, something has gone terribly awry.

Thirdly, Jivamukti Yoga taught me that it is my moral responsibility to see my students as holy beings who have sought me out for some guidance, some bit of truth. To love my students and to see them in just this way is to, first, respect them, and, second, to uplift them. If I feel I cannot do so for whatever reason, I am bound to let them go. That did not happen here, and it should have. You can respect someone who is not your equal; it is considerably harder to do so if you are simultaneously objectifying them sexually and asking them for sexual favors.

Finally, the Jiva community’s inability to say clearly and unequivocally, no, this behavior is unacceptable, as is the Center’s failure to appropriately respond, is precisely why so many remain skeptical of yoga as a method for physical and spiritual growth. For much of the outside world, times are changing (though it is surprising how many still defend such obviously egregious behavior when engaged in by someone thought to be a masterful teacher), and we yogis are lagging behind romanticizing and sensationalizing what we all know to be creepy at best, unjust at worst.

Yoga’s failure to get with the times (to be “hip,” as Sharon would say) will be the source of its downfall for years to come. In other words, this shit doesn’t fly anymore, nor should it. Yoga is not for every one, David is right about that. But if our goal is to bring yoga to those who are ready to receive it, we may want to consider that a goodly number of completely reasonable people out there read that Slate article and thought, “Yeah, that shit is bananas.”

May all beings everywhere be happy and free.



A Response to the Question of the “Cultural Appropriation of Yoga”

The following was written in response to this piece, written by Andi MacDonald, who I do not know but whose piece was sent to me by my dear friend and colleague Donna Bickford.

First, thank you, Donna M. Bickford, for the chance to engage with this piece. I like it a lot, actually, and certainly agree with much of what the author says about privilege in yoga (racial and otherwise) and what yoga means to most people today and what it should mean. Here are a few other thoughts, which might invite new ways of thinking about all of this: 1) Yoga is a specific discipline and practice–it isn’t simply whatever we want it to be. We might have different interpretations of yogic texts, or different traditions in which we are rooted, or different practices that we are more or less drawn to (I like meditation, you prefer karmic yoga, etc.) and thus can reasonably disagree about what it means. But it does mean something and, thus, it takes a specific shape. With that, then, comes the recognition that it isn’t everything. In other words, it is not, actually, a method for dismantling racism, engendering economic equality, cultivating gender equality, etc. It is something different. All of these things have to do with power. Yoga, on the other hand, has to do with Self-knowledge and Love. Yoga can teach us some important things about power, but it isn’t a practice or even a way of being that is adequately equipped to help us negotiate and transform relationships of radical inequality. And to expect this from it is to expect too much. 2) One of the reasons why I do not think it is wise for yoga to serve as yet another platform for white people to “teach” us about racial equality is because there are plenty of wise and willing black folks out there already doing a good job of this. And, anyway, when white teachers do teach about racial injustice from the seat of the teacher, it is usually in a comfortable, palatable way that, to my mind, does not actually bring us to the risky place of discomfort and dis-ease that is perhaps necessary for political accountability and honesty. This is not always the case, of course, but often it is. One way of demonstrating that we have learned something about our power and privilege is to stop talking (especially about how much we have learned and how much better we *could* be) and instead create more spaces for marginalized voices to be heard. 3) I am very honored to teach in the lineage of Jivamukti Yoga, which, many of you will note, is incredibly politically engaged, in particular, around the issue of animal rights and non-violence with respect to animal lives. We are ethical vegetarians and try to adopt a lifestyle that causes the least amount of harm to others; we pay particular attention to our relationship with animals because it their suffering has been so invisible to so many and for so long. Why is this an acceptable form of political engagement for yoga? Because when we speak in the name of animals–that is, when we speak about their rights and what counts as just behavior towards them–we do so precisely because they are not able to do so themselves. They are, therefore, peculiar members of our moral community, in so far as they lack the capacity for usual forms of communication. But this is not true for other marginalized and oppressed groups. They ARE speaking in political spaces, and the best we can do right now is to listen and learn from them. 4) The author is right. Yoga is a spiritual way of being in the world. It is also a set of practices designed to help one achieve the aim of Yoga, which is a state of union with the Self and with all beings. My teacher Manorama D’Alvia often quotes her own teacher and friend, Sri Brahmananda Saraswati, who, when speaking about the ego and yoga, liked to say, “Mind your business!” And what could be your business but knowing your Self? Let us not pretend that Yoga asks anything more of us than that. For that is enough to keep us busy for a lifetime. Of course, do your duty, as the Gita teaches. Do what you must do, and walk the journey you are here to walk. But when you are doing yoga, know where to aim your arrow, and know what the practice is meant to achieve. Not an end to all of our political problems, but rather an end to the way in which we suffer from them. Tricky, indeed.

Letting Go of Lululemon. Why It’s Totally Not a Big Deal.

First, let me say that I appreciate the opportunity to talk with friends and peers about the recent troubles at Lululemon, and I acknowledge that others, whom I admire and trust to be acting in good faith, take a different view than the one I express here. To that, I say, right on. Of course, it is certainly the case that some of my good friends work at Lululemon or are loyal customers, and others are ambassadors there. Many of them are struggling to formulate a response that corresponds to their own values and the principles of yoga, and I appreciate their efforts to be thoughtful. Some have chose to continue to support the company, even as they disavow the views expressed by the founder and CEO, Chip Wilson. But these are not friends with whom I never disagree. For such a person would likely not be a very true friend, that is, if we never were able to disagree and to hold each other to account for our actions in the world.

It is both as a yogi and a feminist that I suggest we turn away from the entire brand and corporation. Not out of spite or even anger. Although I certainly have felt anger at Wilson’s recent remarks, I, too, have compassion for him. We have all said things we wished we hadn’t (granted, he has said more than a few things that we all wished he hadn’t) and then fumbled to try and set things to rights. He is, after all, still a human being, deserving of our compassion and even kindness. But to be kind, as I have written in a recent piece on Kindness and the Practice of Yoga, is not merely to adopt the attitude that it’s all good or to continue to support an individual who has let us down so many times. Rather, to be kind is to both be honest with others about their hurtful actions AND to take a strong stand against them. It is often to put distance between us and the individual or organization that has acted wrongly, to encourage a season of genuine reflection on what went wrong and how to move forward. In other words, reconciling oneself to one’s own wrongs, Lord knows I have learned, takes time. It seems like a good time to give that to Wilson and the entire corporation. To be a yogi is not merely to express principles, but to actually stand on them in action. The principles of yoga require us to speak the truth, yes, but also to go beyond words, and to turn away from harmful practices whenever we can. Writing open letters and voicing our concerns are important, up to a point. But the best way to reach people who care primarily about profit and who continually engage in bad business practices and say hurtful things, is to quite simply take our money elsewhere. No smear campaign necessary. No need to spend too much energy on it. Just shop somewhere else and remember that you can do yoga in many kinds of clothes, clothes that are even inexpensive, comfortable, and plain, and the truly great teachers model this.

And, of course, I also have compassion for employees and ambassadors who are embarrassed by this whole ordeal. But we needn’t distort reality here and view these folks as the sort of people deserving of the kind of compassion and pity we might extend to the truly oppressed and marginalized. They are in a tricky spot, to be sure. But this actually has very little to do with them. And we certainly do not need to rescue Lululemon in order to make things easier for those attached to the organization, nor do we need to continue to represent it or support it financially because nice people work there. This is a kind of “don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater” response, implying that there are lots of nice people there and “good energy” on the floor at Lululemon, etc, etc. Okay, sure. But if we are to muster a truly meaningful response, we must ask, what exactly is the baby here? Lululemon is a for-profit corporation, let us not forget. Well, how could we forget? The clothes are hilariously expensive, far out of the price range of many of us, and simply unreasonable for many who can afford it. The company’s primary goal is to make money and any promotion of (“actual”) yoga that takes place is secondary (some might even argue contradictory to) the entire enterprise. For example, when I am asked to teach free workshops at the local store on a Sunday morning, it does not escape me that the cost is very low to the company to offer this to “the community,” they do not pay the teacher, and, if the teacher is someone who can draw out a crowd, the store has brought in some 50-100 people ready to start shopping as soon as the class ends! It’s a win-win for them, of course. All of this is to simply say, beyond a commitment to yoga and an adherence to feminist principles, it is simply as a practical person concerned with the dangers of turning yoga into something to be consumed by the economic and social elite that I suggest we simply turn away, for good, from this company. What do we lose? Nothing. In fact, we can keep a lot of the money some of us may have been spending on clothes we didn’t need in the first place, certainly not to practice yoga, anyway. In other words, even without Wilson’s latest round of embarrassing comments, it seems time for us to say to each other, “Let’s stop spending so much money on yoga clothes and couture. It’s totally unnecessary! Let’s use our resources instead to support worthwhile projects and give our money to those who need it. Let’s also stop seeking personal gain from Lululemon—whether by way of some status, esteem, or even publicity that we may receive by associating with this brand (and I count myself in this group, for sure). Let’s all move on.”

Some problematic institutions are valuable enough to our culture and to our way of life that they demand of us some kind of engagement. They are worth our efforts to  improve upon them and call them to account for bad behavior. Government, nations, churches, teachers, and yoga communities are just a few that come to mind. But to my mind, Lululemon is certainly not one such cultural institution, and that’s not meant to be a major slight against the corporation. But it strikes me that Lululemon doesn’t even come close to this sort of institution. Indeed, very few profit-seeking capitalist corporations would. But we needn’t be down about this or even spend any more time on it. The good news is clear: God doesn’t care what you wear and you can do yoga in plain old shorts and a t-shirt. You can even do it naked, if you please!

Peace and Love,

Hollie Sue

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Reflections on Kindness and the Discipline of Yoga

 samniyama-indriya-gramam / sarvatra sama-buddhayah, te prapnuvanti mam eva / sarva-bhuta-hite ratah

Those who are able to control their senses, have equanimity of mind and rejoice in contributing to the welfare of all creatures are dear to me.

Bhagavad Gita XII.4

This month my holy teachers have chosen the relationship between inner-peace and outward kindness as the Jivamukti Focus of the Month. Sharon-ji has written eloquently and creatively about how we might resist patterns of negative thinking concerning the state of the world today, as well as how we can and must expand our practices of kindness to include non-human animals. I’d like to turn our attention toward the nature of kindness and its place in yoga philosophy.

To begin, let us turn to the Yoga Sutra of Master Patanjali, which was compiled somewhere around the 2nd century BCE. Here is where we get the clearest account of the centrality of something like kindness, as well as compassion, to yoga. Although there are several key passages on kindness (1.33 and III.24), the most fruitful place to look is in the second chapter, which is aptly titled the Sadhana Pada, that is, the portion on the discipline of yoga. First, take note: yoga is a whole discipline, of which kindness is a piece. As a discipline, and at a minimum, yoga will require regular and steady practice, thoughtful reflection, good teachers, self-directedness, a fair amount of effort (tapas), and a disposition reflective of both curiosity about the world and a deep belief that there is a moral order to the Universe to which we must attach ourselves. The yogi must be both skeptic and believer at once. To be disciplined one must have faith that the method works; but if the discipline is to remain relevant, we must, as the ancient yogis did, question the world in which we live.

In the Sadhana Pada, Patanjali offers ashtanga yoga (the 8-limbed path) as one method to achieve enlightenment, which I think of as the realization of the oneness of being, and this is a method that scholars and serious students of yoga take quite seriously. It is where we get the yamas and niyamas, those ethical observances having to do with our relationship to others (the yamas) and to ourselves (the niyamas). The yamas in particular are very much about kindness, instructing us to lead non-violent lives where all creatures are concerned (ahimsa), don’t lie to others (satya), don’t steal from others (asteya), don’t sexually abuse and exploit others (bramacharya), and don’t hoard things you don’t need or will never use (aparigraha). Although the practice of each of these will be difficult at times, indeed, that is why their observance requires practice, the definitions are quite clear. Each one is a form of kindness to others, of not doing something that we may wish to do for various reasons usually having to do with selfish desire, precisely because taking such action would bring about some harm to another living creature. The yamas are not about inner-truths or self-affirmations. They are not about the self at all, at least in the first instance, and to interpret them that way is to deprive the student of lucidity. Satya, for example, is not about one’s inner-truth. It is actually much simpler than that: don’t lie to people. Of course, one could argue that we need to ‘know ourselves’ before we can be truly honest with others and that is, no doubt, true to some extent. But, generally speaking, we all know what we mean by the instructive to not lie or gossip, and we can leave it at that. (I always encourage students who want to think more deeply about the importance of an inner-truth to look to the niyama svadhyaya, which means study of the Self.)

The niyamas are the substructures of the yamas, as my teacher Lady Ruth Lauer-Manenti once described them in a lecture on Patanjali’s ashtanga yoga. They are the actions that support us in our efforts to be kind to others, and they generally have to do with our relationship to ourselves and to God.            What we learn from the sutras on ashtanga yoga is this: kindness is not merely an outgrowth of peace of mind and the experience of yoga. Rather, it is an integral part of the practice that leads to peace of mind and the experience of yoga.

The yamas are also the framework within which we can begin to understand what a practice of kindness actually looks like. I have recently joined the throngs of individuals worldwide who are on Facebook. (Yes, yes, I am rather late to the party and it’s all Instagram and Twitter these days anyway.) Perhaps it is because I am steeped, blessedly, in a community of yogis, but I cannot help but notice the daily postings by so many people of affirmations and and platitudes about things like peace and, yes, kindness. Like many, I often feel inspired by the words of others as I go about my ordinary life, trying to be and do good, but so often failing. So I am grateful that others take even the few moments required to share with the rest of us what so-and-so says about mindful living or acting in the world. And yet. We must be careful—I must, anyway—to not be lulled into believing that the consumption of others’ affirmations, which are so often, it must be said, about the small self, are sufficient for kindness as a practice and as part of the larger discipline of yoga. Here are some general thoughts about the shape kindness should take, thoughts that have coalesced from much time spent reading and writing about two important yoga philosophy texts, the Yoga Sutra and the Bhagavad Gita. They are not meant to be exhaustive or authoritative, Lord knows. I wish only to begin to point us in a different direction for thinking about and for being kind.

  1. Kindness requires that we be keen observers of the world around us and that we constantly sharpen our capacities for fine discernment. This will take the form of an active practice, not the mere consumption of pleasant passages about how to be a better person. We must come to truly know what a particular action—say, the unnecessary taking of another life for our own nourishment—actually amounts to, what it really means (one wants to qualify, morally) when we do something that contributes to or amounts to the suffering of others. Kindness requires that we notice both the deep vulnerability of other people, as well as our shared capacity for doing harm.
  2. Kindness is not the same as being nice. It requires conviction in a way that being nice simply does not. It requires truthfulness (satya), and the courage to call others out for hurtful actions or speech, to buck trends and stand on the side of justice and decency, and not just when doing so is easy or comes with its own reward.
  3. Kindness draws on an imaginative capacity that is reflective of a rich inner-life. To love others truly and wholly, one must fully understand the difference between authentic love and its many false forms (infatuation, self-love, idolatry, etc.). (I am grateful to the philosopher Raimond Gaita for helping me to understand how important this is to our moral life.) To be in possession of such an imaginative capacity is to know that the value of certain virtues has nothing whatsoever to do with human nature in a biologistic sense. It has to do with the sort of people we can and should become based on deeply held and shared beliefs about goodness.
  4. To be kind is to cut a path somewhere between being at home in the world and being willing to affect change wherever needed and whenever possible. In other words, kindness doesn’t amount to an “it’s all good” attitude. It goes without saying that it isn’t “all good,” and to adopt such an attitude is to engage in the worst kind of self-delusion and mindless consumerism. The yogi must learn when it makes sense to let things go in a moment and when it makes sense to seize a moment and say, enough is enough.
  5. Kindness isn’t always easy. In fact, it’s often very hard. So if it feels really easy to you, consider the possibility that you’re not quite doing it right. I do not say this in a mocking tone at all, but rather to remind you and me that kindness as a practice of yoga asks us to make tough choices precisely because it requires us to be the sort of people who not only understand that the world is a complicated place but who are willing to wade into the murky waters and actually stand on principle. In order to move beyond simplistic and banal affirmations about “being kind,” one must engage in quiet reflection (often reading longer tracts on things like ethics and morality, even!), be able to articulate principles and to defend them when necessary, and, above all else, have the courage to live out those principles, even when doing so is hard and the choices we make entail some loss. As Sharon-ji has said, shedding the limits of kindness will often mean expanding our ideas of who is deserving of compassion (hint: all living creatures). But sometimes this will take a different form, namely being honest with others and ourselves when we have been merely nice to keep things comfortable and in so doing have managed to avoid the harder, but much more rewarding, work of being truly kind.

Lokah Samastah Sukhino Bhavantu.


Hollie Sue

Light in Darkness

Maitri—adishu—balani (YS, III. 23)

Through friendless, kindness, and compassion, strength comes.

Many of us are very grateful that this week has drawn to a close. It has been a difficult week. And it will no doubt be marked for a long time to come by the terror, violence and fear that gripped so many Americans as a result of the attacks in Boston and the explosion of a Texas fertilizer plan. Our hearts have ached as we witnessed such suffering, and many of us have experienced frustration by not being able to do more to help. Although it can be difficult to find gratitude in dark times, we are indeed blessed to live in a country where this sort of violence is actually rare; too many people throughout the world today endure mass destruction and terror on a daily basis, even those living in the most beautiful and holiest of lands. We find ourselves unprepared, certainly emotionally, but perhaps even spiritually too, for confronting this sort of tragedy and senseless violence.

The Jivamukti Focus of the Month asks us to take a closer look at those cultural practices that we take for granted but which might be deeply rooted in violence and the suffering of others. In yoga class the last few weeks we have explored things like the very food we eat, the way we treat those we call “foreign” or “alien,” income inequality, and the use of violent imagery to sell products or ideas. We’ve asked ourselves what we can do to make a difference, to start to dismantle harmful practices and replace them with more compassionate, other-regarding ways of living.

My teachers’ words have resonated deeply with me this past week, as the recent events have thrown into such sharp relief the way in which terror, violence and fear are themselves cultural practices that permeate so many aspects of our lives, though often in the subtlest of ways. Of course, we can see violence in the bombings intended to kill and direct harm caused by the explosion of a plant owned by a corporation that sells fertilizer for profit.   That terror we feel on a very visceral level. But the terror and the fear have stretched out into the entire week. As we witness public servants losing their lives in the service of others, people unable to leave their homes, go to work, or take their children to school. And we have become frightened ourselves of the very world in which we live.

Some of that fear has sadly turned quickly into rage, and violence has been met with more violence—in speech and thoughts, primarily. Some have called for the death of the surviving perpetrator of the bombings in Boston, while others have used the events to express the desire still for more guns, more surveillance, more weapons, and an even stricter immigration policy to keep perceived threats out. We have experienced violence and some have responded thusly.

And how often do we do this in our own lives? In our interpersonal relationships, at work, or even with perfect strangers. We experience hurt and, without even thinking, we respond in a hurtful manner. Humans often feel a short-term reward, some perceived benefit, when we puff ourselves up and exert some power and control over others. We do this in and with our physical bodies, of course, but also through psychological manipulation and hurtful words, which can be more damaging.

I have found a sutra that helps me in dark times to remember that we can choose a different response to hurt and fear. Maitri adishu balani (III. 23). And it means this: Through friendliness, kindness, and compassion, strength comes. Here, Patanjali, the author of the Yoga Sutras, is suggesting that when we focus all of our attention, energy, and efforts on one feeling—like friendliness, kindness, or compassion—then the intensity of that total absorption pervades our entire being and our body, mind, and spirit become charged with that feeling such that it radiates outward and affects others. And through this practice, the practioner gains mental, emotional, and physical strength. In the Sutras, this power of strength—which I conceive of us as the courage of conviction, which fuels further kind, compassionate actions—is a kind of sidhi, a special power that is acquired through the practice of yoga. Most commentators refer to this as a kind of magic. But for those of us who believe in a Higher Being, it might be more useful to think of these powers as quite simply the revelation of the Divine at work in our lives. How else can we understand those holy beings who continue to be beacons of light in times of darkness?

This is how I have met all of you in class this week. Through your intentions and your efforts, you have brought so much love and light into a world that went dark for a time. I am grateful for your presence in my life and your place in this world. Continue to bring light to all you meet. Remind others in everything you do that by turning away from violence and fear, we can walk together towards Love and Light.


Hollie Sue