Starting with a personal story, because the personal leads us to the political…
In 2001, my life during menopause was derailed by a spontaneous, ten-month-long, kundalini surge that started by blowing me apart (like a wind that came out of nowhere) and then put me back together again in next instant (however I was not the same). The next ten months were fierce (apallingly fierce) as I struggled with energies that were wildly intense and at times almost overwhelming. There is much more to this story, but I can’t share it here. Toward the end, I was suicidal, though I had no idea why.
I was in the grip of a genuine spiritual emergency, the kind written about by Stanislav and Christina Grof, but at the time I had no idea who they were or what was happening to me. I just knew I had to hang on and continue taking care of my kids. I figured I wasn’t having a psychotic break because I was outwardly functional. It was a powerful time, a time of self-initiation, lucid dreams, and other teachings, but I had no guidance as to how to get through the most mind-boggling mystical experience I could have ever imagined. (The following quote is from this document):
For the vast majority of people, opening to spiritual experience is a welcome and easily integrated process. However, for a small minority, spiritual experience occurs so rapidly or forcefully that it becomes destabilizing, producing a psycho-spiritual crisis. This is where spiritual emergence becomes spiritual emergency.
Fortunately, on the very worst day of all, I took one of my kids on an outing and stumbled across a clairvoyant at a Renaissance Faire who gave me the badly needed “key” to emerge from the wild energy which had been consuming me. By the next day, all was calm again and the wild ride was over. Just like that. I credit this woman with saving my life. (Later I discovered she was a teacher of Kriya Yoga, so she was experienced with kundalini energies.)
The strange thing is, at the time that this experience happened, I wasn’t studying kriya yoga, or tantra, or just ordinary yoga at the time. I was not engaged in any “energetic” practices beyond what I was using to cope with chronic fatigue (breathing and some mild Rudolf Steiner-style meditation). I had practiced a hatha yoga in my teens, like any good California hippie kid, but that was the extent of my history. I was only dimly aware of tantra but somehow, after the wild ride ended, I figured out that I should study it just in case the wild energy – which I now knew as “kundalini” – ever appeared again. I wanted to know what to do.
So, I found Ipsalu Tantra (or it found me), and my former husband and I spent a weekend at the Mt. Madonna Center. It had a disastrous effect on my already rocky marriage, unfortunately, and I won’t go into the specifics. Even so, I was moved to continue studying (in a kind of slipshod, overwhelmed-mom-with-chronic-fatigue, sort of way). Fast forward several years, and I am now an apprentice teacher in this tradition. And I do feel more confident about handling kundalini surges as a result.
I have had genuinely expansive, cosmic, and joyous experiences during the various Ipsalu “Levels” that I’ve attended (many “Ones,” a “Two,” and half of a “Three”, as well as Module One of the Teacher Training). These experiences have done me a world of good. I have grown, though it’s often been painful. I also have served on the organization’s Council of Stewards and have nothing but admiration and respect for Bodhi Avinasha, Ipsalu’s founder, and the many good people I’ve encountered in Ipsalu circles.
And I enjoy teaching the “Ipsalu Energy Yoga” routine, which is basically what I do in my (almost daily) practice. It’s a lovely blend of physical movement and meditative techniques that can be accessed easily by most people. My Hilo students loved it!
I don’t really make money doing this. If I can cover the rent of whatever room I’m using, and the cost of rack cards or photocopies (or the cost of stock photos of people of color to replace the white folks on the original flyer), I’m good. And even though I haven’t recouped those costs, I’m still good. I see Ipsalu Energy Yoga as a community service that should be available to all.
However… for a long time now I haven’t been comfortable with the default whiteness of Ipsalu’s student body and lack of focused outreach to communities of color. This is sad, as Sunyata Saraswati was the co-author of Jewel in the Lotus, along with Bodhi Avinasha. Back in 2010, I wrote in Carnal Nation about the invisibility and lack of positive inclusivity for yoga and tantra teachers of color, and urged the “yoga community” to do better. My soapbox was obscure, however, and nobody much cared.
Eight years later, the conversations about decolonizing yoga (and thus tantra too) have become more sophisticated and nuanced. I also believe the conversation has become more urgent. When I lived in Pahoa, I spent a certain amount of time cringing at how so many of the yoga/tantra events there seemed to either appropriate cultural “elements” (actually deeply held, sacred traditions which should not be cherry-picked) and/or be dismissive of Hawaiian sacred traditions, history, and the wishes of the people who still live there. I began to equate this kind of spiritual colonialism and cultural erasure with the attitudes of earlier Christian missionaries.
But back to yoga. Here are two excellent articles. Please read them now.
Yoga and the Roots of Cultural Appropriation by Shreena Gandhi and Lillie Wolff (Dec. 19, 2017). I’d always side-stepped the issue of westernized yoga as appropriation with the argument that well, Eastern teachers came to the West actively seeking students, so it’s okay, right? However, this quote from the article has knocked me flat:
“The reasons why yoga became popular, and why various Indian yogis started travelling to England and the United States to “sell” yoga, is also tied up with colonialism. Yoga was often used as a tool to show the British that Indians were not backwards or primitive, but that their religion was scientific, healthy, and rational. This was a position they were coerced into, and unfortunately reified colonial forms of knowledge – that knowledge must be proven or scientific to be worth anything.”
I can’t ignore this.
This second article, Why White Lady Sisterhood Needs to Evolve, by Rachel Rice (April 30, 2017), is also excellent and speaks to the issues of embedded privilege in so many approaches that I, as a tantrika and as a wellness professional, also encounter and even promote. As a hypnotist, I do indeed endorse positive thinking and suggestions. Nothing wrong with that if I also take care to cultivate a constant, critical awareness of the pervasive systems of privilege, racism, sexism and misogyny, transphobia, homophobia, classism, ableism, etc. and other prejudices and patterns of injustice, oppression, and gross inequities that may make “positive thinking” difficult or next to impossible.
Basically, I have to present my “wellness” expertise in this context: “here are things you can do to decrease your stress and preserve your health in order to survive and thrive while simultaneously fighting the power.” If I don’t recognize and acknowledge entrenched systemic injustices and the toll they take on human beings (particularly those who are targeted, such as people of color, immigrants, and trans people), my offerings of “wellness practices” can become unecessarily blythe and cruel. And spectacularly clueless.
Getting back to Ipsalu Tantra in particular, I have come to the point where I feel I should be more upfront with my feelings about these issues or I else leave the organization. I’ve not known exactly how far I should go in rocking the boat but that is no excuse. I’ve been remiss. In my own life, I’ve always been an advocate for combining political activism with spirituality, but I admit I have not been loud enough or persistent enough with Ipsalu.
I have to step up my game.
Acknowledgment: I want to thank Katy Benjamin, an activist and yoga teacher on Hawai’i island, for putting this particular bee in my bonnet this morning. Thank you, Katy!