Monday, November 22, 2010

Isn't every day Men's day?

Actually, no. Not anymore, anyway.

The gender story in North America has changed so drastically over a period of barely one generation. The wildly popular show Mad Men is an uncomfortably accurate portrayal of life between the sexes in the early 60s. My mom's response to the show was: "Why would I watch that? I don't want to remember being chased around a desk." My mom is not that old (seriously. You should see her doing yoga).

Shocking, right? And now things are different: women have a lot more power in the workplace and in family situations, women win most lawsuits related to sexual harassment and child custody, and more and more women are becoming primary breadwinners. Women are also shown to be better at handling mental illness because they have close friend groups and a willingness to seek professional help. So what's the problem? Of course women are still dealing with our issues, and though it's (very) tempting, I will not delve into my own challenges as a woman, especially in academia.

But things have certainly changed. The woman's movement was just that: a woman's movement. Women got together, discussed ideas, created organizations, fought for each other, and worked bloody hard to change the role of a woman in society so that now we have (at least officially) the same rights as men do. The birth control pill meant that women could decide if they wanted children, how many, and when. No one needs to depend on anyone else financially. Divorce is about as common as marriage, it seems, and women are far outperforming men in education, if not in the workplace.

So what have men been doing all this time? How exactly have men been negotiating this new world where women as a whole have become something different, and no one's been allowed to ask any questions?

For example, what is the appropriate way to approach a woman at a bar? Do women still want men to pay for dinner and hold doors open? Do women want rich men or educated men? Is it 'manly' to get pedicures and use hair products? Why is it assumed, at least in the judicial system, that women are better at childcare than men? Now that women want men to express their feelings more, how exactly are they supposed to do that?

And a plethora of other questions I can't begin to imagine because, of course, I am a woman. But I have my own questions.

Like why are there so many sexual scenes between women in popular media and so few of men? Why is it playful and sexy when women are doing it and so serious when it's between men? Why don't men talk about their feelings with their friends? Why are so many men dropping out of school? Why is bullying in schools so bad that little boys are actually committing suicide?

And how can I possibly explain to my boyfriend rationally that I want to be understood and a strong, intelligent woman and still want him to tell me I'm pretty? I can't. I can't explain that. We are all very much still in this thing, and it's still broken.

Last weekend, my colleague Charlie and I went to an event called "International Men's Day" to present our Broga: Yoga for Men workshop. We have created a style of yoga that focuses on opening men's common tight spots (shoulders, hips, hamstrings), healing areas of common pain (knees, lower back) and celebrating the poses that are actually a little easier for men to do (arm balances, inversions). Often when I mentioned this event to my students and whoever was around, I would be greeted with shock, surprise, sometimes expecting it to be a joke, and, a lot of the time, the question: "Isn't every day men's day?"

This is a question about which our organizer, David Hatfield, had a lot to say. David heads a weekly workshop called "Manology: 21st Century Masculinity" that is basically a group for men to get together and talk about the above and many other questions to do with men's health, wellbeing, gender roles, and yes, of course, feelings. One of the main issues men have to deal with today is the common assumption that men still feel totally in power and have no questions at all about their sexual identity, especially if they are heterosexual.

The world is still a very different experience for little boys and little girls growing up, and some of that stuff has gotten a lot better, and some of it has gotten more confusing than ever. Little girls are now told they can be whatever they want when they grow up, they can have children or not, they have the right to do anything a boy does and lots of other empowering stuff (though perhaps teen magazines [and extended families] tell a different story), and little boys are still being told that boys don't cry. The role of the 21st century father has become something pretty different than what most of us grew up with, and nobody seems to know exactly what these new roles are supposed to entail.

At some point in our history, women got up the courage to stand up and start questioning their roles in society and how they wanted things to change. It's time for men to start doing the same.

But if women don't support men in making the world a better place for everybody, then we've all failed. Anyone who thinks every day is already men's day needs to open their eyes, and if our kids are going to do any better than us, we are going to have to help each other out. Things will never get better for women or men unless we are on the same side.

To me, that's the meaning of satsanga: a community (sanga) dedicated to truth (sat). Truth is, we've all got work to do.

Friday, November 05, 2010

Tada drashtuh svarupe-vasthanam: hanging out in my own true nature

I sometimes teach poetry at schools with this organization called Wordplay, that helps bring a more positive understanding of reading and writing poetry to young kids. One of the ones I did recently was at a private girls school, and we asked them what they were studying right then. "My Last Duchess," they told us, by Robert Browning (c. 1842). My partner, Barbara, asked: "Does anyone know a duchess here? Anyone have a best friend who happens to be a duchess? No?" Of course they laughed, but she was making a really important point: WHY are we studying this? Poetry has always been a sounding board for society, and one of the most interesting things about studying it is that you learn something about the culture that created that poem. There are, of course, lots of reasons to study Browning, but what a lot of people need to understand is that contemporary works of art can teach us more about ourselves.

So when I am in a yoga class, and the teacher starts spouting off something from the traditional texts or something she learned from her 'teacher,' who by virtue of being from India must understand something better or higher than we ever can, it sort of makes me angry. I wonder what that person knows, personally, about what she is saying. Does she actually believe it or is it just someone else's words coming out of her mouth?

I don't have a problem with ancient texts or teachers per se, it's just as it happens i live here, and now. In Canada. In the 21st century. And I want to make my life better. That's why we do yoga, isn't it, most of us? To have a better life right now, not 200 years ago in India. It's just not where we live.

That being said, one of the basic lessons of yoga is that every lesson must be experienced to be understood. The Buddha is another one who said over and over, don't listen to me! Go learn it for yourself. Avidya--non-knowledge--can often come disguised as what someone else has told you.

One of my major teachers is also my business partner and one of my closest friends: Coco Finaldi, and in a course she is teaching right now at our studio, East Side, she writes:

There is a wealth of knowledge available to the yoga practitioner; asana,
pranayama, kriyas, scriptures... It is important to understand that the in-
formation itself doesn’t hold all the answers to self realization or to the
state of Yoga. Yoga is comparable to music in that music needs to be read
and played in order to be heard and experienced. The mystical writings of
Yoga need to be read and played, practiced and experienced.

And as I am indeed learning, she is RIGHT. The Sutras are these ancient (think 300 BC) writings by a guy or possibly a group of guys named Patanjali about the practice of yoga. I never thought I would be finding something from 300 BC make sense in my life right now, but here I am, with Sutra 3:

Tada drashtuh svarupe vastanam: When the thought waves are controlled, the seer is established in his own true nature.

This didn't make any intuitive sense to me until about 11 days ago, when I started a 40 day challenge to meditate, for at least 11 minutes, every day. Here's what usually happens:

I sit down. Assume the position (chin mudra). Sit quietly. My mind begins to yell at me. Thoughts from the day, plans for later, worries about the studio--oh yeah. Focus. Focus on your root chakra. Root chakra, root I subbing a class tomorrow? When is that, how will I get, focus. Don't attach to your thoughts. Focus on your third eye. Third eye, third eye....that was a weird dream last night. I wonder what it meant...stop! focus.." and I go on like this for another 9 minutes. I can't tell you how challenging it is to stop the thoughts. I have had 'successful' sits in meditation, where my mind yells at me less, but part of what I want to do here is let my thoughts run. Everything in my life has changed so dramatically over the past year and a bit, and everything has happened so quickly that I haven't had a chance to process it. There are more effective meditations I know are available to me, but I kind of WANT my thoughts to run wild, so they can say their piece and then leave me alone.

Anyway, though the meditations themselves sort of feel like failures, the rest of my day feels totally different. I can tell that some of the garbage (you are not good enough. That was a bad class. Should I be doing more of this pose or that pose in classes? Why don't I write poetry anymore? Why can't I jump back from crow to chatuanga? I wonder what my boyfriend meant when he said...) starts to quietly filter out, and I am left with the real things in my brain that either need work or are actual real life truths for me. I feel like I am sitting in my true nature a lot more of the time (though I wouldn't say I have control over my mind!). I care a little less what other people think of me. I am more sure of where I am going and why I teach the way I do. I am more patient with myself and more compassionate when I can't do everything I want to do. I am letting my relationship be. I am learning that I am good on the inside, somewhere, not just a mess of insecure thoughts (though yes, sometimes it feels that way).

So what did I do to express my newfound freedom and self-trust? I marched down to East Vanity Parlour and got half my hair shaved off. Even though everyone told me not to. And it looks freaking sweet. And I have a feeling Patanjali would approve.