Love Calls Us to the Things of This World:’ Teaching Yoga and Poetry in China

Dali China communityOn the heels of a disastrous election in the United States, I got the lucky chance to travel to China, made possible by a dynamic group of Chinese feminists, some of whom I first met when teaching poetry and justice workshop in Thailand a few years ago. In China, I taught “Working for Peace, Insisting on Justice” seminars in two provinces, the first in Guangzhou in southern China, the second in southern China, the second for community organizers, academics, NGO workers in Dali, considered a spiritual region, with deep Buddhist roots and centuries of artistic work.

The seminar started with yoga each morning, followed by lecture/conversation on transnational feminist activism, self care, trauma, and healing, communal lunch, afternoon writing, yoga and dance, home made, home grown dinners all together. Such dancing spirits in the sessions, such wit and honesty as they asked about how they can believe in their writing if they have been told that they are inferior because they work in factories? They stretched their bodies out all over the room as they wrote, laying on their backs, sides, curled up, in chairs, writing with abandon…then offering up thrilling haiku, essays on standing up against police at their work place, mourning the loss of a marriage, feeling lonely as the only child from one child policy, barely surviving childhood abuse. Xia, not only translated my specific words, but also channeled the tone of my voice and my body language. Ours became an intimate dance with my cheek on hers as she whispered simultaneous translations of people’s poetry, creative writing, and political analysis without interrupting the flow of their words. In one of the workshops someone came up with the idea of hanging their writing on the wall, so they could all see each others. During breaks they laid out jackfruit and tiny packaged puddings, kumquats and animal crackers, joy in their eating, yoga, writing.

becky thompson workshop chinaEarly morning yoga, included learning a yoga dance to Herbie Hancock’s Imagine Project, lying in savasana, moving from garundasana to arda chandrasana, curling into rabbit, working with a partner to breathe into each other’s spines, playing with crow, crawling inside to find their perineum. We meandered our way through discussions on internalized oppression, trauma resilience, organizing strategies, qualities of the mind and sheaths of the body, as the classes alternated between English and Mandarin, participant translators dancing their way between the two languages.

As was my experience when I taught yoga on the Southern Ute Indian reservation in Colorado, even if people hadn’t done the specific asana I was incorporating into the practice, they came with a deep connection to the earth, a soulful resonance with silence and quieting the body, and a reverence for receptive learning. The yoga was not about having certain clothes or mirrors or props or precise postures. In fact, in Dali, I taught in a borrowed down coat, not understanding that when they said it would be about 40 degrees there, they meant inside and out (since the was no heat). The yoga was about playlists with music from Cuban singer, Pablo Milanes and Dominican singer, Silvio Rodriquez and Vietnamese musician My Tam, and Snatum Kaur and Luther Vandross and Beyoncé, with her lemonade creativity and vision. They knew that music. (At points it occurred to me that what was most appreciated was not the sequence or meditation in child pose or petal pose….it was my playlist….I say this because, as I witnessed when traveling in South Africa, Tunisia, and Lebanon, and Italy, jazz is a world wide language. In restaurants and clubs, you often hear the A and B sides of jazz albums rarely heard in the US, the music beloved through out the world.)

Music linked us through the postures, so much so that by day three on the second workshop I came to understand that, in that communal setting, a round robin yoga class made much more sense than me calling out postures, which is what we did, for way past the allotted hour class, a round robin that turned into flinging and flying dancing, which turned into a belly dance lesson, since five women in the second workshop had been studying belly dance for years. Teaching yoga in China, witnessing how partner yoga, sitting spine to spine and swaying with each other, listening to each other breath, can quickly look like everyone is drunk, even though no wine was served. Teaching yoga in China, making room during lectures and discussion to meditate together, to rest in child’s pose, to sit on the floor for the whole seminar together, wrapped in blankets and scarves, people able to sit on the floor for hours, closer to the earth, since they are used to malasana, practice it several time each day.

Teaching yoga in China: seeing poetry and yoga as deeply connected, both working with ribbons of energy, through words, through movement, with breath. During one of the lunches, as we all sat at round tables, lazy susans in the middle of each table spinning fresh bok choy, seven kinds of tofu, mushrooms, steaming rice, cherry tomatoes, a woman in her sixties turned to me and asked if I had a poem I could give her that would make workers braver. She used to work in a factory, was a migrant worker, leaving her children for months, years at a time, and is now a social worker. She asked me, all 90 pounds of her, if there was a poem that could help, then maybe they could stand at the front of the line when police beat them, instead of the social workers. My eyes were puddles, overwhelmed by her request, her courage, knowing no poem, no yoga posture, could answer her request and yet, here we were, eating together, her courage filling the space….
And then there a 63 year old Chinese medicine doctor who says she has found ways to reverse the aging process through the practice of ancient Chinese martial art….she who insisted that I teach her how to do a head stand. I showed her one very cold morning before my class, and then met her one day later, she, with a cushion in her hands, clearly having practiced many times in the last 24 hours, wanting me to see, take a picture of her in head stand. [VIDEO] Then, she insisted that I hold her sword. As I tried to twirl it….I, of course, got the tassels all wrapped up in the sword, she tried not to laugh, then asked me to get into a pose so I could hold the sword, my feeling its energy, in my hands, extending into the heavens, never before having felt the earth’s energy through my body, up to the sky.

I came home from China dazed. How do you transition from such a communal, connected, brave space to the individualism and repression we are suffering from here? So interesting to me that the activists I met in China asked almost nothing about the current national leadership in the US. What they wanted to know about was Black Lives Matter. They wanted to know about how to take the trauma theory I had been introducing to apply to work with political prisoners and their families. What work is being done on the ground in the US to stop the military industrial complex and school to prison pipeline. They wanted to know about feminist work on immigration. And self care. And the politics of yoga. I have never felt as graciously hosted as I was in China. My respect for their organizing knows no bounds. Together we read Bei Dao’s “The Answer” (emblematic poem of Tiananmen uprising, like Gil Scott Heron’s “The Revolution will not be Televised”) tucked in with others by Mary Oliver, Song Lin, Nazim Hikmet and Nikky Finney.

I came back to Agent Orange attempting to revoke decades of work in support of immigrants, decades of work leading up to the Standing Rock alliance building, undoing carefully negotiated gender free bathrooms. A devastating time. I came back to my daughter, and one of the youngest yogi’s in my class, Yumi, at the YMCA in Dorchester, a historically Black and Caribbean city in Boston where I have been teaching yoga for six years. In the yoga “world” in the US, there is an often unspoken but powerful hierarchy in terms of power and privilege…Those who teach at Kripalu, an elite yoga retreat center in Massachusetts, at fancy private yoga studios, are profiled in Yoga Journal, teach in resorts are considered those who have arrived. Those who teach in church basements, for free, in community centers, in places without windows, blocks, props, fancy sound systems, are rendered less status, a byproduct of a capitalist system where worth is entangled with capitalism, with exclusivity, with elitism.

I once had a famous, well respected leader in US yoga community—a teacher and author—tell me he won’t teach at a retreat unless he knows that everyone has paid at least $2000 to be there. His time is too valuable…he wants to know they are invested for him to return the investment. I tried not to let my jaw drop as he spoke…for in my world yoga cannot be bought and sold on the market. And there is no place I would rather teach than the Dorchester Y in a room doubles as a nursery, where, one season, the fire alarm was stuck to go on during every class about half way through. Talk about learning to find focus? It means teaching in a place where someone looking at the class offerings pointed to the schedule and asked if my name was “hatha yoga.” Where grandmothers drop their grandchildren off at the bus to make it to the 7:00 class. Where I don’t say I teach “trauma sensitive yoga.” For me, all yoga should be trauma sensitive. That should go without saying in this over the top violent society. At the Dorchester Y, everybody and their mother’s sister comes…..toddlers who I carry on my shoulders to give their parents a break while I teach the class; people in their seventies who roll their eyes when I say we are going to do a yoga dance but then try it anywhere. Lithe dancers in their twenties and people with recent knee replacement who spend most of the class in savasana. There are so many languages that when I ask for people to count down from 10-1 as we are in boat pose together in any language other than English, the numbers we hear are likely to be in Japanese, Chinese, French, Creole, Vietnamese or Russian. For me, what matters is how it feels in the room when the class is over, when, at least most of the time, after savasana, people stay quietly on their mats, hands in angeli mudra, in their own worlds; when a woman in her sixties who is finishing her dissertation on self care among pastors tells me she cried her way through “Eye on the Sparrow” saying, “I was so needing that release;” when practice against the wall, working our way into shoulder stand and maybe headstand leaves us laughing to the point of tears. This brings me to the eighth limb of yoga—bliss—which some interpretations of the Yoga Sutras lead us to believe is only available to Buddha, gnomes and hermits. For me, the practice of yoga can be about the cultivation of joy right here, and right now…in fact, maybe it needs to be, as an antidote to the current administration, as a practice of freedom.

Many of us have been taught to look for god in churches and temples, in mosques and scripture only to find that god often frequents other joints—in the color of eggplant, in a tip cup in Auschwitz, on a raft with a sputtering engine. Similarly, although yoga is now advertised on tourist packages and Lululemon models, the elegance of yoga often finds itself in the most unexpected of places. When I was teaching yoga, trauma and healing workshops at the International Women’s Partnership for Peace and Justice, a feminist Buddhist retreat center in northern Thailand, I learned of a woman living in on the refugee camps on the border of Thailand and Burma who could not go back to her village but also could not go to Thailand. She was, like millions of others, stateless. For her, as she worked in the camp, her yoga mat was her place of safety. The mat, her one piece of property which she set up in her tiny office, used to stretch on during breaks in her work day.

A kinesthetically conscious education is the wave of the future. While the fruits of the Civil Rights, multiracial feminism, LGBT and peace movements brought us to an understanding of the power of interdisciplinarity and intersectionality, our work now, is to bring the body into balance in the classroom and beyond-to move each other past cognitive awareness to understanding that goes deeper than words. Our work—to make sure that yoga is democratic, accessible, true to its multiple roots. Our path is part intellectual (to explore, learn, cite accurate, multilayered histories). It is part political (practicing asana in front of busses in San Francisco that have been privatized, only picking up the Silicon Valley executives, not the waitresses on the street). It is party somatic; (paying attention to the bodies in the room, and the stirrings within our own). And when we are lucky our work nurtures spiritual growth, helps us find ways to climb from the tenth floor of consciousness to the 36th floor, watching as the world sways from their height.

Yoga has taught me that our bodies have answers, can guide us in scary times, can help us find livable borderlands, can hug spaces of freedom even amidst contradictions that lineate our days. We can move there collectively. Each day with beginner’s mind.

By | 2017-09-25T20:57:54+00:00 July 22nd, 2017|

About the Author:

Becky Thompson is an award-winning writer, professor, yoga instructor, and activist. She has spent the last twenty-five years traveling across the world researching, teaching, and writing on issues of inequality and social justice. Thompson has published ten books including her most recent work Teaching with Tenderness: Toward an Embodied Practice.