Street Yoga for You, Me, and All of Us

So I picked up a paper, it was more bad news
More hearts being broken or people being used
– You Were Meant for Me, Jewel

I’m writing about something that’s probably out of most people’s mind already: the London riot that happened earlier this month. I’m also writing about related events happening in Seattle in September and October for Street Yoga.

In our attention-deficit 24-hour-news world, where the lifetime of a tweet is but a fleeting hour, yesterday’s horrible news needs to be topped with even more horrible, more outrageous, more destructive news today. This morning I saw a funny tweet, and I paraphrase: “The media could hardly contain their disappointment as hurricane Irene has not turned out to be the calamity they had hoped it would be.”

For the most part, this is life as I know it in this early-21st century media, continuous shock and awe of all kinds of titillating and sensational reporting.

The London riot was no exception. It was big news for a few hours. There was finger pointing, there were promises of punishment, there were comedy materials for late night show hosts and Tweeters. (“Did London lose a hockey game or something?”)

Amidst the sound bites, one man wrote a thoughtful piece reflecting on the root causes and proposed a solution, one that could be considered radical in certain circles. This surprised most of us who may be more familiar with him as Mr. Katy Perry, or that crude comedian dude: Russell Brand.

In his heartfelt essay, Big Brother Isn’t Watching You, the most common impression Mr. Brand left seemed to be: “Damn, who knew the Get Him to the Greek dude can write like that!” For me, his essay hit closer to home as someone who’s been involved with Street Yoga and went through their Teacher Training.

At the training, I was exposed to exercises and concepts that clearly demonstrated to me the complex and intertwined social support system (or lack thereof) for the youths in our society: the ones struggling with homelessness, poverty, abuse, addiction, trauma and neurological & psychiatric issues.

These are the people Street Yoga strives to serve. A homeless child grows up to be a homeles adult, and the vicious cycle continues, as homeless adults create homeless children. How do we nip this problem at the buds?

Here’s Russell Brand on the death of Mark Duggan, a young man gunned down by police, spawning a peaceful protest and the ensuing infamous riots.

However “unacceptable” and “unjustifiable” it might be, it has happened so we better accept it and, whilst we can’t justify it, we should kick around a few neurons and work out why so many people feel utterly disconnected from the cities they live in.

Unless on the news tomorrow it’s revealed that there’s been a freaky “criminal creating” chemical leak in London and Manchester and Liverpool and Birmingham that’s causing young people to spontaneously and simultaneously violate their environments – in which case we can park the ol’ brainboxes, stop worrying and get on with the football season, but I suspect there hasn’t – we have, as human beings, got a few things to consider together.

I found those protests exciting, yes, because I was young and a bit of a twerp but also, I suppose, because there was a void in me. A lack of direction, a sense that I was not invested in the dominant culture, that government existed not to look after the interests of the people it was elected to represent but the big businesses that they were in bed with.

Why am I surprised that these young people behave destructively, “mindlessly”, motivated only by self-interest? How should we describe the actions of the city bankers who brought our economy to its knees in 2010? Altruistic? Mindful? Kind? But then again, they do wear suits, so they deserve to be bailed out, perhaps that’s why not one of them has been imprisoned. And they got away with a lot more than a few fucking pairs of trainers.

These young people have no sense of community because they haven’t been given one. They have no stake in society because Cameron’s mentor Margaret Thatcher told us there’s no such thing.

If we don’t want our young people to tear apart our communities then don’t let people in power tear apart the values that hold our communities together.

As you have by now surely noticed, I don’t know enough about politics to ponder a solution and my hands are sticky with blood money from representing corporate interests through film, television and commercials, venerating, through my endorsements and celebrity, products and a lifestyle that contributes to the alienation of an increasingly dissatisfied underclass.

But I know, as we all intuitively know, the solution is all around us and it isn’t political, it is spiritual. Gandhi said: “Be the change you want to see in the world.”

Now, I, like Russell Brand, don’t know enough about politics. Nor do I feel like I know enough about “being spiritual”. To me the word spiritual is quite a slippery slope and it frequently gets thrown around without context or consideration.

When I read that sentence, I stopped momentarily to ponder what Russell was probably thinking in his head when he wrote it. What could he possibly mean?

I don’t know, but here is what I know for sure. My yoga practice, and especially my sitting practice, has offered me benefits which I don’t think I’d be able to get in any other way. What kind of benefits? Flexibility and strength, surely, but I’m not just talking about yogasana only.

If one were simply doing yoga for the physical benefit, they could easily gain it going for a run, bike ride, or lifting weight. No, I’m talking benefits that involve behavioral changes. I’m talking coping mechanisms. I’m talking about a way of being and a way of existing in the world.

Yoga, first of all, gets me into my own body, it gets me to be comfortable in my own skin. This may be automatic and easy for some people, but for me, it’s a learned and acquired taste. It gets me to not only work out and burn a few calories, but it gets me to get to know myself, from a bodily, tangible perspective: here’s my head, here are my toes, here’s the sensation resulting from this movement.

So that’s on a bodily, physical level.

The sitting practice, the meditation practice, is the next level up. Sitting, of course, is not appropriate for everyone at all times. It is not a cure for many psychosis, it’s not a cure-all for all that ails us. It is not a just-add-water solution. It is not a pill.

It is a red pill, in a way, however, in the sense that, as the red pill wakes Neo up to the truth of the Matrix, meditation wakes me up to the real me. That I, too, have those characteristics which I publicly condemn and punish. I’m selfish, I’m spiteful, I’m frightened. I’m generous, I’m loving, I’m fearless.

Seeing everything all mixed up inside makes me realize that I, like others, have the potential to act one way or another, at all times. Sitting reminds me to have compassion for people with their addictions, their trauma, their neurosis, since I, too, have those to varying extent. I, too, see how difficult it is to change, even the most benign of bad habits.

I am not so different, not so separate, not so above from them after all.

What makes me choose not to destroy other people’s properties and set them on fire in most instances? Like Russell Brand, I have a support system. I’ve got a mother and a father who’ve worked tirelessly and unselfishly for my well-being, from my most basic needs to the highest one: Love.

I’ve been privileged to live in a society where I can go to school, get a degree, and have first world problems, like the fact that the internet connection is so slow today in my office building, and the air-conditioning is on too high.

What about the kids without anyone telling them they are alright, they are loved, and they can be musicians, architects, developers, doctors, or whomever their fancy wants to take flight? That they’ve got other options besides agression or submission?

I think most acts of violence can be traced back to a feeling of worthlessness, or feeling rejected, abandoned, unloved, and ultimate, something extra, disposable, replaceable. Who will tell these kids, as my teacher Judith Hanson Lasater told us in a training: “You are not extra. Stand on your mat like you matter”.

Luckily, self-examination and introspection is not only available to the privileged ones. You can have a private jet and a mansion full of designer clothes and cars, and may not ever reflect inward. Or, you can be in a foster home and get to know yourself, one breath at a time.

This is what Street Yoga aims to do. With dedicated social workers, educators, and yoga teachers, Street Yoga seeks to reach out to create a quiet revolution: to encourage people to know themselves rather than be manipulated by others.

“Each one of us struggles daily to maintain our sense of integrity and personal wisdom. Yoga creates a quiet place for people to experience their own bodies, minds, and feelings. They can evaluate what is useful and true.

They are encouraged to deeply listen to themselves. Their independence, creativity, and sincere questioning are encouraged. Yoga, as we present it, is not an ideology, not a cure-all, not another message that we expect people to buy into.

Yoga is a safe space to look for oneself. Yoga is a place to investigate and to make one’s own assessment and choices. It is an offering and a hope for greater independence, empowerment, and self-awareness.”

So, why am I telling you this?

This September, Lululemon Pacific Place will host free in-store yoga classes every Sunday morning to raise awareness for Street Yoga. I’ll be teaching on Sunday September 4, 2011 at 9:30am.

On Saturday October 1st, we’ll have a Fall into Gratitude benefit event: a dinner and dance party at Waid’s Haitian Restaurant at 1212 E Jefferson St. There’ll be a dance performance, an art show, and of course, dinner, all for only $40. It all starts at 6pm.

I hope you’ll come to the free yoga classes and the dinner, and if the spirit moves you, dance. I hope you’ll consider making a contribution to Street Yoga, or similar organizations like Yoga Behind Bars, YogaG, or YogaHOPE. You can encourage educators and your city school boards to look into programs like Mindful Schools.

Most of all, even if you do none of these things, I hope that you, and I, and all of us have the strength and tenacity to continue to learn to work with our bourgeois and non-bourgeois sufferings, and first world or second or third, or universal problems.

And if you don’t do any yoga or meditation or believe in sending your hard-earned money to any organization, I hope you reserve some room for hope in humanity even after watching the 5, 7, 9, and 11 o’clock morning and evening news.

That indeed there are groups of people taking on the crazy and scary work of working on themselves, and in the process mending whatever destruction the Dark Lord or Red Skull instigates. Isn’t that why we cheer for Harry Potter and Captain America?


Don’t take my words for it. Hear the words from the Street on what yoga means.