Friday, April 25, 2014

The Weekly Tithe: Space and Freedom Behind Bars

This week in The Weekly Tithe, we celebrate the practice of mindfulness in the least likely of places: prison.

Photo credit: the great Robert Sturman
Prison Yoga Project
I first learned about PYP in December 2011 while seeking to expand public perception about what yoga is, who it belongs to and what it looks like. I had seen the incredible documentary, The Dhamma Brothers, a couple of years earlier and was aware of the application of alternative healing methods within the prison system but had yet to learn how widespread or effective yoga had become in this context. The project was started by James Fox, who began bringing yoga to at-risk populations when he received his certification in 2000. Some struggle to understand why prisoners should be taught yoga, something that's come to be considered a luxury. I will share PYP's statement on this, which was offered on their Facebook page today:

"Some people can’t understand why we teach yoga in prison. “Why cut a prisoner any slack at all? They’re getting what they deserve. Do the crime, do the time.” Or, “I’m against spending any taxpayer money on coddling criminals.”

The fact is, most released prisoners come right out into the community where they originally committed their crimes. Thanks to scant rehabilitative help in prison, more than 60% re-offend. Our work offers an inexpensive way to improve prisoner health with the possibility of reducing the rate of re-offense.

Most prisoners suffer from Complex Trauma -- chronic interpersonal trauma often experienced as children, such as abandonment, hunger, homelessness, domestic violence, neighborhood violence, sexual abuse, bullying, discrimination, drug and alcohol abuse, and witnessing crime; including murder. Sometimes horrors so unimaginable they don’t have a name. We call this “original pain.” These experiences, imprinted by the terrifying emotions that accompany them, are held deeply in the mind, and perhaps more importantly, in the body, with the dissociative effects of impulsive/reactive behavior, and tendencies toward drug and alcohol addiction, as well as violence. Carrying unresolved trauma into their lives impacts everything they do, often landing them in jail, where they experience even more trauma.

Traditionally, cognitive behavioral therapists have helped people process unresolved trauma, but more recently psychiatrists, psychologists, clinical social workers -- many working with US military veterans -- acknowledge that embodiment practices such as yoga, enriched with mindfulness practices, can have more impact in alleviating the symptoms that lead to both reactive behaviors and stress related disease.

The Prison Yoga Project was founded in the belief that yoga, taught specifically as a mindfulness practice, is very effective in releasing deeply held, unresolved trauma, allowing us to address the resultant behavioral issues. We've learned from 12 years of experience in San Quentin and many other correctional institutions that a yoga and mindfulness practice can help offenders change trauma-driven unconscious behavioral patterns…usually the behavior that put them in prison.

We ask, “upon release, what kind of former prisoner do you want to bump into at the grocery store, on the playground, or when you’re fixing a flat tire on the side of the road? Do you want the guy stuck in his cell for 15 years? Or the one who has received some rehabilitative care?” We live with the results of their imprisonment, don’t we? Prisons are a dumping ground for people with addictions, trauma and mental illness. So we focus on impulse control, mood disorders, violence control, depression, despair, addiction and PTSD.

There’s a major breakdown in the criminal justice system in this country. The system is retributive -- mostly punishment -- do the crime, do the time. At PYP we believe in restorative justice. We believe in victim-offender education and we provide prisoners with tools for self rehabilitation. We've helped thousands of prisoners by instilling self-control and fostering accountability, addressing the damage they've caused to their victims and themselves."

If you believe in the healing effects of yoga and want to help bring them to men and women as a way to better all of society, please consider donating to Prison Yoga Project. If you're a yoga teacher or committed practitioner, you can train with PYP to bring yoga to at-risk, highly traumatized populations. I believe that yoga belongs to everyone, that it is good for every body and that at its best, it can make miracles. As always...

Give good, do good, feel good!

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Uncommon Woman

For any woman who’s ever been told she’s too much:
You, who broke out of the mold before they even cracked it off you. 
You, who came out inventing your own how-to-scale-a-wall with only vowels. 
You, who fireflash in the eye of so many midnights, so many men who want to taste your hem, 
who dream of being desired by an Uncommon Woman, if only because
their dressers are empty of anything but brand name cologne and predictable portrait. 
Let them call you different. 
Let them bait the minnows of you heart. 
Show them your heart is a school of fish, a solar system of all moons. 
When asked, say, "My heart is always causing the mating season." 
When they call you full of yourself, say, “Yes.” 
Breathe in their scorn and breathe out Atlantis. 
Let them come with their saw blade smiles. 
Let them come with their saw blade hands.
Let them come to see if you slice small enough to replace their handkerchiefs, 
the ones they’ll loan to who they’ll call easier girls. 
Let them choose easier girls.
When he tells you he is tossing your broken root out his open window,
and holds up to the glass a more common woman, surrender. 
Gracefully surrender the pretend olive branch of his matrimony. 
The pretend complete protein he slipped onto your third finger while you stood
in shoes that were always too small for you. 
When he says she is easier to handle, live with, attach to, fuck, I want you to remember your neck.
The way it ascends space, and always has, above the rest. 
You were brought here for so much more than walking two by two up a ship plank. 
Anyone common enough to go coward at the depth of his love for you, wasn't meant to walk beside you.
So go live in the liquid bowl of gold you were handed for a skin.
Uncommon Woman, let the easier girls pick up the socks.
Embrace your splendid singularity.
And look to the rest of us Uncommon Women standing in the centers,
holding up the tents of our skirts, we call them cities. 
Love should not have us stoop to fit a portrait.
Love should have us elevate our infinity.
So, Uncommon Woman, don’t settle for less.
Instead, stride towards the ever shedding horizon.
Take her example of renewal. 
Wear your grief like a party dress!
Remember, the sun’s only lover is not the Earth.
She’s got moons on every planet.
-Tara Hardy

Sunday, April 13, 2014

The Weekly Tithe: Growing Community, and my charity:water birthday

Oy ve, so much for weekly. I've had a whole lot of life happening lately and haven't been grounded for long enough to keep up on regular writing. This week we return to The Weekly Tithe with a profile on Acta Non Verba: Youth Urban Farm Project.

Deeds Not Words
My amazing friend Kelly started Acta Non Verba (ANV) in response to the gaping inequalities present in East Oakland in the areas of access to nutritious food, health education and extra-curricular activities for children and teens in the area. ANV uses the garden as a classroom to not only teach kids about where their food comes from, how to grow it and prepare it healthfully, but also leadership skills and community building. My favorite part of the program, though, is the seed fund. The garden sells fresh produce to the community, which is considered a "food desert," and puts the proceeds into college funds for the kids and teens in the program. This supports and encourages young people to aim not only to graduate from high school in an area with an almost 40% drop out rate, but to pursue higher education. Their time and effort working in the garden is rewarded not only in building invaluable life skills, but in actual monetary support for their future education. I don't know about you, but this makes me insanely happy.

There are lots of ways to support ANV! If you're local, you can volunteer in the garden planting or building, either on a regular basis or on periodic farm work days. You can also taste the fruits (and vegetables) of the kids' labor and purchase a CSA box or visit the farm stand- because who doesn't love locally and organically grown produce? If you don't have a talent for gardening or already have a veggie source, you can also send some money ANV's way to nourish their good work for years to come. Like ANV on Facebook to keep up with the goings on around the farm!

In other news, this year I have pledged my birthday to charity:water. They do amazing work building wells and bringing clean water to communities where lack of or difficulty in access mean high mortality rates among children under 5 and overall suffering for all people. I love their work and hope to raise $3000 for my campaign. That's only 100, $30 donations and at the time of this writing, I have already received 3, so it's only 97 more to go! Please help make my 30th birthday the best yet by contributing to my campaign and joining me in this truly life saving effort.

Tomorrow is Tax Day 2014, and it's the perfect time to begin thinking about Tax Day 2015 and the tax deductible donations you can make this year in order to lessen the tax sting next year. Donations to both Acta Non Verba and charity:water are 100% tax deductible, so you know what to do...

Give good, do good, feel good!

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

One Breath at a Time

He went to rehab this morning for the fourth time...or maybe it's the fifth. My memory doesn't serve me particularly well normally and this is something I'm keen to let fade. I've been running for two weeks, living out of a tightly packed bag, moving about the world in search of the path of joy. I touched back down just in time to say a sad, strained good bye.

The first time they go to rehab, you will be bursting at the seams with equal parts wild hope and anxiety. You will visit the first weekend they're allowed guests, attend the afternoon AA meeting with them and take a walk around the property, talking idly about nothing. You will be proud of them and afraid for them. When they leave early, disappear and relapse, it will feel like the entire world is collapsing on your chest. You were warned that this might happen but that did nothing to prepare you.

The second time they go to rehab, your optimism will become cautious and jadedness will creep in quietly. You will sing Amy Winehouse together on the way to drop them off and laugh a little too loud. You will only come to visit once. They might complete the whole program this time, but they make the classic mistake of returning to their previous environment and will relapse again. And again. And again.

You might recall what it felt like when they first told you they were doing heroin- the immediate wave of nausea, dizziness and blackening vision. They say it's casual, that of course they're in control, and you want to believe them even if you know better. It will be a secret that you alone keep and the weight of it will crush you. You buy a one way ticket as far away as you can get. You become the heaviest living being. You weep like a baby when Cory Monteith dies because it feels too familiar. You have long heart to hearts with them that spark what's left of your hope but ultimately disappoint. They have become a fluent liar.

By the time they go to rehab for the fourth (or fifth) time, your heart is weathered and hardened. There will be syringes all over their room and residue from cooking dope on their desk. You will begin to grimly consider that this disease may very well kill them as it has so many others. You are forced to surrender any remaining illusions that there's anything you can do but love them. You cannot control them anymore than you can the weather. You can only voice your concerns and feelings, and pray in a more focused and insistent way than ever before.

My God, please, let there be healing in their lifetime.
My God, please, help them find their way back.

Few moments have ever been as important as this one. The threads of future possibility rest in the shaky hands of someone you've come to mistrust and even fear. There is nothing you can do. This surrender feels like a tiny death everyday. Your dreams are haunted by darkened streets, handfuls of pills and a nagging, hopeless trepidation. You don't trust them to save themselves, you want for nothing more than to be able to do it for them, but you cannot. The most meaningful salvation is self-chosen. This is up to them. Once again, you give them your faith.

You keep breathing. You keep loving. That's all that's left.

Monday, April 7, 2014

No Sex in the City

The last time I took a new lover I spent a few months learning about him and carefully considering his candidacy before shifting the relationship tone. This was a new thing for me. Sex with strangers is not a normal occurrence but jumping right into a sexual relationship with someone I already know has been. I used to say that all my sex was surprising because I never thought about it ahead of time. It would just...happen! Whoops! This area of unconsciousness began to stick out like a sore thumb in my normal life of thoughtful reflection and self-examination. I recognized within myself the tendency to only act in the interests of my short term self in the arena of sexuality, living from the groin on instinct, and how this short term thinking was negatively affecting my head and heart.

So I made an earnest attempt to properly vet my next potential partner. I asked him big questions, met his friends and family, and spent neutral alone time with him. I waited, yes, in this I was successful. But I also ignored the abundant and obvious warning signs- apparent alcoholism and unresolved trauma, general poor choice making and the creeping sense that I was not being adequately valued. I took the time to get to know him well, but then ignored the findings because they didn't agree with my hypothesis that he was going to be dateable. I liked him so much in theory, but in reality he was just as much of a poor choice of partner as all the others. And since what all the others had in common was me, my own judgement came into question.

This shift in consciousness around sex happened to coincide with a lecture series on freedom at Mosaic LA. We were asked to examine different aspects of our lives to determine the ways in which we were bound or limited. I clarified that the way I'd been conducting my sexual life was causing me to shut down my heart and shy away from real intimacy, and concluded that I would abstain from sex until I was with my beloved. I wrote, "For as long as it takes, I will wait."

Ladies and gentlemen, I have now been celibate for 11 months...not that I'm counting or anything.

This is not to say that I haven't swapped scandalous words and photos, or thought salaciously about all the ways that I could break this self-pact. My ovaries are almost 30 years old and they shriek violently about making a baby. Everything in my biological being wants to get laid. But I haven't so much as traded kisses in almost a year. I'm a lusty, passionate physical affection junkie- if the kissing is any good it escalates expeditiously to nakedness. It was all or nothing, and it's been a whole lot of nothing for a good long while.

"My lord, how?? How do you do it?! I couldn't do it." I hear this a lot.

It's not easy. I'm honestly not that good at celibacy. There have been instances where, if circumstances had been different, I wouldn't have made it this long. My "success" can be attributed as much to self-control as to poor timing. All the same, here I am, all city and no sex. How, then, have I done it?

Over the din of hormone rush, I managed to hear a higher call that couldn't be unheard; the truth of my sacred heart begging me to make choices that create a space for love and true intimacy to flourish. I wanted to feel safe to let my guard down and be soft and receptive, but had come to realize that I couldn't trust myself to maintain the right conditions for that to happen. Like my former lover, I have a history of poor choice making in this area. In order to break the pattern, I had to examine and rewrite my entire sex, intimacy and love story. This would take far more time than I realized, require that I keep my head clear by keeping my hands to myself and lead me into the murky waters of my own sexuality.

What you realize first is the raw, primal power of contained sexual energy. It must either be released or channeled- I'm convinced that stagnancy in this area causes madness. There was a period of time during this last year when I needed all the energy and focus I could muster, so I decided to stop making self-love and began working to move and distribute my sexual energy in meditation. This went on for about two months, during which I experienced the electric vitality possible in learning to mindfully master this energetic flow.

Raising and channeling my sexual energy in yoga and meditation has been an ever present part of my celibacy practice, but I added a seemingly contradictory method a couple months ago: pole and erotic dance. Suppressing sexuality is the source of all manner of societal problems (I'm looking at you, religious institutions), but involving oneself in an admittedly sexy activity seems to be inviting unnecessary struggle. Wouldn't you want to minimize the amount of sexual energy generated in your body? Had this occurred to me earlier it might've been a cause for concern, but instead I just jumped into something I instinctively knew to be good for me. Best not to think too much sometimes.

The result has been a noted rise in sexual energy but it is sublimated through the circular sway and shake of my enlivening body to give rise to a still, deeply rooted confidence. It's a fully self-contained positive feedback loop; the more I move, the sexier I feel, the more confidence arises, the more I want to explore my dance, the bolder I become, the sexier I feel, the more confident I become, etc. My dance belongs solely to me for my own exploration and enjoyment, revealing parts of me to myself that I have never seen. I am titillated by the thought of sharing my dance with my beloved some day, but for now it is the most delicious and satisfying experience of my life so far to be my own witness to this transformation. No one and nothing outside of me is required for me to feel okay about myself. I am enough.

One of my most deeply held patterns was the tendency to look outside of myself for validation from men. This is something I've had a vague awareness of since I was a teenager, but really started trying to curb a few years ago when it became a truly problematic entity. I was having a hard time in other parts of my life, and would lean heavily on the guys I was interested in for gloriously distracting attention that made me feel less overwhelmed and messy. When they would fail to deliver what I needed, I would become irrationally resentful. In giving myself plenty of love and support, and through the validation supplied through my dance, I find the need for this male attention waning. In arriving at this place, I see how bound I was by my reliance on other people's approval. Letting that go means being free to be exactly who I am without concern for maintaining this outside feedback. I am beginning to earn my own trust, knowing that I'm less likely to make compromising choices in the search for approval.

When you detox from something for which you have a strong attachment, you can begin to see just how much it is emotional as it is biological. This is just as true for reliance on substances as it is for food or sexual attention. Deeper, subtler motivations lie beneath our urges and cravings which are difficult to clarify when we are still actively using our drug of choice. I had to consciously choose to abstain from sex to understand what it was that I was really after in my encounters. It was not a big leap from there to see how the choices I had been making were unsupportive and far from healthy. My celibacy and everything that's come from it have shown me who I am, and who I have the potential to be.

Celibacy may not be as educational or necessary for you as it has been for me. It's certainly not an entirely pleasant experience. However, if you have ever felt that sex or your sexuality is a burdensome or otherwise unhealthy part of your life, I'm here to tell you that there's another way. Yes, it's possible to go days or weeks or even months without having sex. No, that doesn't make you a prude, and no, your sexual organs will not stop working. If anything, if you take your period of celibacy to do some thoroughly, bravely honest self-discovery, you may come out the other side with much more confidence and self-knowledge, and that can't help but make you a better lover. Our inner workings can be scary places to explore, especially in the realm of sex and sexuality, but without going there how will you ever know who you are and what you really want? Explore, clarify and rewrite your story. Free yourself to confidently live your most authentic life.

Sometimes, at least for a while, the best sex is no sex at all.