The carrying power of a bridge is not the average strength of the pillars, but the strength of the weakest pillar. I have always believed that you do not measure the health of a society by GNP but by the condition of its worst off.
I started yoga teacher training this week. I love yoga. I have loved it for more than twenty years. It’s a total mind-body-spirit experience. I credit it with helping me heal from the grief of losing my daughter and so much more. So, after a long deliberation about it, I decided it was time I started teaching this practice that has brought so much to my life. The first class was an introduction to a lot of the basic stuff like breathing and meditation. In yoga everything builds from the breath, which is a beautiful place to start, really. We breathe, inhaling to expand ourselves to become all that we can be. Great inhales, we learned, could relieve symptoms of depression. Inhales energize. We exhale and release tension, cooling the body. The exhale, held for just a few seconds calms the nervous system and reduces stress. This breath connects us all, as we share the air we breathe. Movement in yoga is done with the breath always, allowing for clear and purposeful poses and the grace to hold them for longer and longer periods of time. The third piece is always the drishti or gazing point. The use of drishti in asana serves both as a training technique as well as a metaphor for focusing our consciousness toward a vision of oneness. I love this! Drishti organizes our perceptual apparatus to recognize and overcome the limits of “normal” vision. So first we breathe and then we move and focus our vision. All of this is done with the goal of priming the body to be able to sit in meditation for longer periods of time. Booyah!
We talked about the five wonderful precepts from The Present Moment, by Thich Nhat Hahn and the way of the yogi, which is to be mindful of the way we present ourselves to the world and the commitment to do no harm. The second of the five precepts talks about being aware of the suffering caused by exploitation, social injustice and oppression and asks that we vow to cultivate loving kindness and learn to work for the well being of all people. Yes!
When we took our lunch break, the television in the café was on and President Obama was making a speech in Selma, Alabama to commemorate the anniversary of the historic march. One of my classmates was trying to hear the President’s words over the din of the lunch crowd and seemed a little frustrated that more of us weren’t more interested in what he had to say. When we asked her to join my new friend and I at our table, she motioned to the TV, letting us know that she needed to pay attention to current events. A little while later, she did join us and our conversation turned to the movie Selma. “Have you seen the film Selma?” our fellow yogini asked. Neither of us had yet seen the film and we replied thus. “Do you know what happened in Selma?” our intrepid friend further questioned us.
Now, as you have possibly surmised, my tablemate and I were white and our third friend was African American. Upon being questioned, the two white yogis looked at each other as if for support and both of us gave short and embarrassingly insufficient answers to our friend’s very passionate and relevant line of questioning.
A little while later we were all back on our mats to finish our first day of yoga teacher training. But I couldn’t shake the feeling of unease that I was left with after our lunchtime conversation. Why had I not yet seen the film Selma? I had seen most of the other nominated films. My husband and I had talked about seeing it many times but just hadn’t gotten around to it.
My husband and I were married on January 15, 1983, on the birthday of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. Over the years we have spoken of this with pride as though we had planned it. In reality it was the date that was open for the reception hall and also the time he could take leave from the military. In truth though, we both share a deep respect for Dr. King. My husband spent much of his childhood in Hawaii, and while that sounds heavenly, it was anything but as he was bullied and called a “haole” (an insulting term for white person) by the locals. He felt racism firsthand and so has always been sensitive to any form of bigotry or injustice.
When I was in the sixth grade I was promoted to Captain of the safety patrols and, lest you think I brag, it was a post that I took very seriously. Part of becoming a high ranking officer required that I go to patrol camp to socialize with officers from other schools in the county and learn the skills befitting of the rank to which I was being promoted. Now, while my school was predominately white, many of the other schools in Prince Georges County, Maryland where we lived were black, and so at patrol camp I was in the minority.
It was a different experience for me but wonderful and I made fast friends with a girl in my cabin from another school. We hung out for the week and had a great time together. The most dramatic thing that happened, as I recall, was an incident with a bee that stung me on the top of my head – ouch!
When I met my husband in college one of the first things I remember loving about him was the story he told of growing up in Hawaii and how he felt as a young white (blond) boy who was quite obviously in the minority. I loved the humility and his sensitivity and kindness for others that developed out of that experience. At the time, I was fresh out of a Liberation Movements and Human Freedom course that had begun to stoke the fires of feminism and human rights in me.
I guess what I am trying to say here is that my life has been pretty happy and normal. I was raised a white girl in America in the sixties and seventies and graduated college in the eighties. Lots of change was happening then but none of it really affected me and the way I experienced the world, or so I thought.
One day I was at my mother’s house and found an old memoir written by my great-great grandmother Scott. I started reading and was fascinated to learn more about my mother’s side of the family and their experiences living and raising a large family in Oxford, Mississippi after the end of the Civil War. I was shocked to learn that my great grandfather had been a horrible man, a Klansman to be precise. He must have been pretty awful because my great grandmother divorced him, which had to have been a hardship for her with seven children to raise. He was educated, an attorney, and probably an alcoholic although Grandmother Scott never says so outright in her journal.
On my dad’s side, I had wonderful grandparents who were socially conscious, liberal democrats. My grandfather Thompson ran a newspaper, served in the North Carolina House of Representatives and was also well educated at Davidson, Princeton and Harvard, after serving in the military in WW I. My grandparents retired to a small town in North Carolina after years of civil service and raising their family (my dad and his sibs) outside of D.C. As a kid, I loved visiting my grandparents’ sprawling Victorian home, which boasted all of the hospitality for which the South is acclaimed. Each day we would gather for dinner in the large dining room (which always confused me as it was really lunchtime). And then in the evening we would have our supper, a smaller meal and less formal than dinner. At dinner we were served by the maid and cook, a sweet woman named Janie Belle who made the best flat fried corn bread you have ever tasted. She never minded that I slipped into the kitchen for seconds after dinner. I think she was actually flattered.
Janie Belle was black and had been taking care of my grandparents for as long as I could remember. I guess for them, having a black housekeeper was something that was common. There are stories of my dad being taught to walk by his housekeeper Annie Jane who gave him a loaf of bread for balance. Janie Bell was part of the family and someone else to look forward to seeing on that long drive south on I-95.
One day I was able to ride along with my grandfather to take Janie Belle back home after work. I remember my stomach sinking as we drove up to her house and I witnessed what I now know was poverty. I also saw the paltry sum of money that my grandfather gave her after her long day of cleaning, ironing, and cooking and, even at a young age, I knew it was a very small amount for the work she had done that day.
I share these family histories not to dwell on the past, but rather to share with you the awareness that my family has racism and prejudice deeply ingrained in it as most likely does yours. We all have the sins (aka missing the mark) of our fathers to deal with. But, as yoga and all good spiritual practices teach us, awareness is the first step to dissipating the energy of any negativity. We become aware, and then we are free to choose differently and take the next right step. We breathe in that awareness, we choose our next move, and we focus on where we want to be.
I’ve been listening to an audiobook called The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. In his book, Duhigg talks about how humans develop and sustain habits and what it takes to change them. Social movements, like the civil rights movement took root because of people like Rosa Parks who, on December 1, 1955 bravely refused to give up her seat on a bus. Ms. Parks had strong roots in her community and many rallied around her in friendship and support. Prior to that fateful day, both blacks and whites had become somewhat complacent with what was.
New strategies and behaviors arose under the leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King. Boycotts, church meetings and other non-violent gatherings helped create a new way of community response to unfair laws. The Montgomery bus boycott and the following Supreme Court injunction that buses must be integrated succeeded, according to Duhigg, because protesters were empowered and inner driven and also because of the friendships that developed out of a burgeoning community of like-minded people. According to the author, social patterns change because of the habit of friendship, which allows them to grow, through the habits of communities and are sustained by new habits that change the participants’ sense of self. Under the brilliant leadership of Dr. King people were able to find a vision for themselves that included both forgiveness and freedom from injustice.
Of course, I was not quite born when Rosa Parks dared to challenge the status quo. But, I am now aware that the time I was born into was something pretty special as people were really starting to wake up. I’m pretty glad I decided to pop in when I did. It’s awesome to witness the kind of change that has happened in the span of just fifty years, really. But clearly there’s still more work to be done.
Yes, I had a lovely childhood. Yes, I am aware that others’ did not. I am also aware that it was not very long ago, my lifetime almost exactly, that our brothers and sisters were not permitted to choose their favorite seat on a bus or to have a say in the election of our policy makers. Have I done anything wrong by growing up white and happy and somewhat oblivious to the plight of my black brothers and sisters? Maybe and maybe not. Maybe I didn’t know what TO do. I have never tolerated blatant racism nor have I invited into my circle those who have even the slightest racist of tendencies. I have raised my own children to respect all humans, as we are all equal and all children of God.
But perhaps I have done my children a disservice by not sharing the not so recent history that my somewhat privileged white ancestors lived. Perhaps we all need to look at and be mindful of the ugliness that went on in our country just a few generations ago. It wasn’t long ago my friends. It wasn’t long ago at all.
So, I did see the movie Selma. My husband and I saw it on March 8, 2015. March 7, 2015 marked 50 years since the extraordinary walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Those people showed such courage that day, courage that I don’t know I would have had. Which is why I salute them and also why I will remember where we have been and how badly we have treated one another, in an effort to move forward in a more mindful, loving and peaceful way.
The first of many books we are required to read for Yoga teacher training is World Peace Diet by Will Tuttle, Ph.D. I want to share a passage that I believe applies so well here:
“Within us lie the seeds of awakening and compassion that may already be sprouting. Our individual journeys of transformation and spiritual evolution call us to question who and what we’ve been told we and others are, to discover and cultivate the seeds of insight and clarity within us, and to realize the connections we’ve been taught to ignore. As we do this and as our web of journeys interweaves within our culture, cross-fertilizing and planting seeds, we can continue the transformation that is now well underway, and transcend the obsolete old paradigm that generates cycles of violence.”
We are all connected, like it or not, and the adage that a chain is only as strong as the weakest link is profoundly true. I think I am going to love my Yoga teacher training. I already love the basic lesson I learned on day one of our class: first we breathe, then we move and find our focal point, a clear vision for ourselves. Can we all just try this together?
Connie Bowman is an actress and voiceover talent, host of the podcast Happy Healthy You! and the author of Back to Happy A Journey of Hope Healing and Waking Up. For more information visit www.conniebowman.com.