In Stay Engaged

“Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within.”

—James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time

I’ve been thinking about love a lot lately. The whole year really. Love for my child. Love for my husband. Love for my community. And then, love for myself. More specifically, the way I’m tending to my relationship with myself. Am I sabotaging myself with doubt, fears and recriminations? Or, am I honoring my efforts at skillful living knowing they don’t always hit the mark? Over the past 20 years, my yoga practice has slowly, doggedly taught me how to show up for myself with clarity and conviction. More recently, the small bits of awareness I’ve been unearthing suddenly coalesced. I can now see my edges. The jagged kind.

Miraculously, this pearl of wisdom dropped, coupled with a capacity to soften around the sharp edges. So here I sit with the makings of reconciliation and what is clear to me is that these edges, they want to distance me from me. But this softness, that allows me to reconnect, this is love. I’m discovering over and over that practicing love means practicing connection. On social media I use the tagline #stayengaged. This is a persistent reminder for me to not turn away from what is edgy, shameful, murky or rife with injustice in myself, others or globally. Instead, I’m choosing to stay in the game and cultivate connection.

I am sharing some of my inner landscape with you because perhaps you, like me, are devastated by the abusive social and political systems this past year revealed. Or, were simply no longer silently concealed. Systems that tried to convince us to betray our human capacity to connect; to love. Perhaps you, like me, are hopeful that the injustice can be healed. But how? Can love heal injustice?  It’s not as if the best of them – Mother Teresa, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King Jr., haven’t already intimately schooled us on the transformative power of love.  However, we, and I am speaking to you yogis, we have the goods. We have the tools for action. What do we learn every time we get on the mat? How to have that hard conversation with ourselves. How to meet ourselves. How to connect. How to love.

In the words of MLK, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” However controversial or beloved these words are (they were woven into the rug in the oval office during the Obama administration), I’ve found myself wondering, is the transformative power that bends that arc towards justice love? I want to pull on a timely and poignant thread here. What does it look like to take the soft, surrender of love that we are learning in our yoga practice and use it as a tool for social action? Take me for example; a white yogi. When my yoga practice reveals that I’m using my jaw like a metal forger’s clamp just to get my hands to touch behind my back in in gomukhasana, I know I need to learn to soften.  Soften so I can actively lengthen my clavicles and wake up my scapular stabilizers to find more space. Soften so I can meet myself and witness that muscling this thing is not the path. So, I’ve used my yoga tools of awareness and surrender to reconnect to myself and get out of a holding pattern in the pose that ultimately doesn’t serve me or anyone. Would I not then have this same tool of awareness to realize when I am engaging with issues of structural racism in a conversation or a Facebook video, (like the one I saw of Sandra Bland being arrested), and I start to notice holding patterns? I tighten, I silently zone out, I notice the gravity of shame. Perhaps, I bristle in defense.  Or, the pain feels intolerable and the all too common phenomenon of white fragility takes over me.  Could I not then use my yoga skills of awareness to soften the clenching, sit with feeling more and at the same time turn off the tear faucets so I could wake up my knowledge of history, bind it with my capacity to see the present and act? This is my yoga.  My practice has helped me to see that I am intimately bound in a history of injustice that’s been on replay.  And it is jagged. The softening and waking up we know how to do is an invitation to step into the cycle of reconciliation. And the yoga tools we proudly carry are compassion, awareness, insight, a yearning for justice, unfreezing, active listening, tapas, connection and….. love; just to name a few. Can we start or continue to take off the mask, moved by the awakening nectar of love?

As a seasoned yogi, I can no longer separate my insides from my outsides and practicing love through connection is my jam. A few years back, at a moment when I spent a good bit of time on social media expressing my outrage at the tragic loss of life in the African-American community because of police brutality and structural racism, I realized that if I wanted to alchemize my belief system with action, staying in the protected realm of social media would do nothing.  I took stock of my skills, previous career in the field of international, post-conflict peacebuilding and present career as a yoga teacher and I founded Stay Engaged. Stay Engaged is an institute dedicated to the intersection of yoga and peacebuilding.  It is a vision I’d cultivated for many years but never quite this intimately, or in my own national conflict. It is born out of spending most of my adult life reflecting on and studying conflict prevention and conflict transformation. However ambitious the name, especially when the word institute is couched in there, it is the humble reminder to show up skillfully through peacebuilding education and proactively consider the way power plays out in our lives. Peacebuilding encompasses the term social justice by taking into consideration the energy that moves us to act. It embodies my yoga, my service and commitment to social and racial justice.  My first big project is about to launch in March. It is a 200-hour yoga teacher training for 15 women. Many of them are formerly homeless or lived at the intersection of homelessness, addiction, undocumented status, domestic violence and/or mental illness that rendered them precarious and vulnerable. The objective is to increase inclusion in yoga culture and offer yoga teacher training to those that might not have access to it.  The women are also staff at Homeless Prenatal Program which serves 4,000 families a year in San Francisco and, where I’ve taught Mom and Baby yoga for the last 4 years.  Primarily, my hope is that this training will add to their journey of personal healing to transform trauma and adversity in to insight and resilience as they themselves serve homeless families every day. And then, maybe they will want to reach out to those that might not have access to yoga with their own unique voices to add to the dialogue on wellness. This project is the way I am practicing love.

Find out more Gabby’s work and donate to this project.