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Zen and the Art of Being a Bridge

Be happy for this moment. This moment is your life. -Omar Khayyam

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When I was in middle school, my cross country coach took each of the team members aside one afternoon and gave us individualized advice in preparation for the upcoming weekend meet. “Priya,” he said to me, “You are the bridge. You’re not back with the slow pack, but you’re not up there with the faster runners either. I want you to push yourself and catch up with them. Keep pushing, even if you can’t catch up.” I hadn’t known it before he said it to me, but I really, really liked being the bridge. Unfortunately, I wasn’t serious enough to take his advice, because I remember eating almost a whole bag of pretzels before the meet with my friend and staying in my usual comfortable spot, running mostly alone, my stomach roiling up and down hills. I was way more interested in the moment to moment aspect of the journey than in my result. Or maybe I was just a naive middle schooler.

When I am in places of infinite perspective, I am infinitely comfortable with myself. Hiking in the depths of the mountains and walking through the underbellies of their canyons, I find peace beyond measure. I never feel lonely on the trails. In the beginning of his book Eat and Run, Scott Jurek includes a quote that goes something like this: Deep within ourselves, we contain powers to accomplish far more than we thought possible, abilities that we may never know exist because we do not push through the suffering. I am very secure in that reserve of mental strength, and in that way being a bridge is useful. It allows me to do things like completing the NYC Marathon, which I did not fully train for, because I understand that doing a marathon on little training lies well within the realm of my mental willpower (and anyone’s, for that matter). There is more potential in the indomitable human spirit than we realize (this can be a bad thing, too…many people would rather die than be humbled sometimes). I am encouraged in my endeavors because I believe in everyone, not only in myself.

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I am a bridge between divorced continents and patchwork histories. Being in your early twenties and moving away from where you’ve grown up is, I imagine, something like diaspora. Is partially the reason that when I finish a Jhumpa Lahiri book I have to pick up something “lighter” for a while (think Sophie Kinsella). Because the idea of traversing oceans in order to start a new life sits tucked away in a box in the back of my head while I am wandering around new cities scuffing footprints into the earth. Silhouetted against buzzing lights I think this is what immigration must have felt like. As a bridge I’ve been able to grow like a mangrove, send out my tendril roots in water and adapt.

But one thing that I have not found with this state of mind is the ability to address my shallow and deep insecurities, or the ability to tap into humility. It’s a great way to ignore them, staying with a confident status quo. That’s where yoga and meditation come in for me. I have been practicing Ashtanga yoga consistently (meaning 5-6 days per week) for about 1 1/2 months now and have been learning the primary series through Mysore classes. I was raised with a rich understanding of Hindu traditions and Vedanta philosophy, but I did not fully embrace consistent yoga asana practice, or begin studying in a particular tradition (Ashtanga) until very recently.

When I first began learning the primary series, I felt as though my body was a piece of technology that I didn’t know how to control (how those from older generations must feel every time another iPad or iPhone or iWatch comes out), the epitome of unfamiliar. Here was a piece of equipment that I nourished, clothed, and rested every day, an equipment of self-expression, and yet moving in space felt foreign to me. I have spoken to many others about how, especially throughout high school and college, I finally found the means to reclaim my body through spoken word poetry. To stand tall in the face of Western ideals of beauty and sexualized distortions of Indian culture, which overwhelmingly predominated in the yoga world that I was experiencing at the time. In my senior year of college, I wrote this final paper for a seminar entitled “Philosophy and Practice of Yoga” – it was recently published in Elephant Journal and you can read it here, or below as a blog post: http://www.elephantjournal.com/2015/10/cultivating-a-more-feminist-yoga-practice/

After writing this paper, I decided to take my own advice and become an active advocate for inclusive yoga spaces. I was recently named a Yoga and Body Image Coalition Community Partner (www.ybicoalition.com). Going through the same sequence of poses several times a week, I am learning to live more fully in my body. In traditional Mysore classes, each student practices at their own pace, and the teacher offers adjustments and new poses when the student is ready. Up until now, it has been difficult for me to gauge my limits, but now, moving fluidly through the poses that I do know, with the benefit of muscle memory, I have established a “baseline.” I appreciate Ashtanga’s tradition of self-inquiry, since it has helped me gain a somatic awareness. Through this awareness I am able to assess why I act a certain way in a certain situation. I am able to respond rather than react. I am able to listen more carefully, and for the sake of listening rather than responding.

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The best part is that I enjoy my bridge experiences more fully. I am able to experience profound emotions without having to identify with those emotions (or at least this is what I am working towards). I am able to celebrate successes and lament failures but with less residual impact, if that makes sense. I feel that when I practice, I am able to move through the world more freely and responsibly at the same time. Yoga helped me work through the death of my dog recently, an especially tough experience because I couldn’t physically say goodbye to him. I was able to see the circumstances for what they were and look back on the fullness of his life with us while acknowledging the emptiness his death left in my family. And more importantly, I was able to understand that feeling these things was OK and transient. Since I’m on the topic of Buddy, I want to give credit for him to being one of my first yoga supporters. We hung out almost every day during the summer and he was always close by while I was practicing. When he was feeling especially excited, he would even lie on my mat so that I would be encouraged to finish whatever pose I was doing and do the important thing, which was pet him.photo 1Since then, I’ve been thinking a lot about how it is so rare in this day and age for people to just sit with themselves and observe their emotions. What are we so afraid of? Every time I am in the car, I scramble to turn on some music, anything to get rid of the silence. I began attending Zen sittings a few weeks ago as well, and our sitting leader talked about self-love, best described as “compassionate awareness.” This awareness helps us express ourselves most beneficially for the good of other people. Just as in Mysore a pose may not be performed “perfectly” on a certain day, that pose invites the doer to observe the physicality of their existence, and how though the nature of their physicality may fluctuate, the fundamental unchanging nature of their existence does not. During the two 20 minute sitting periods of zazen meditation, I often find myself thinking about my feet falling asleep and focusing on what I should cook for dinner. But instead of berating myself, I let the thoughts arrive, coming to that fabric of total compassion that underlies all chatter of the monkey mind.

According to Kino MacGregor, Guruji/Sri K. Pattabhi Jois (https://kpjayi.org/biographies/k-pattabhi-jois/) used to say “pain good” to students. I sincerely doubt that he meant students should actively pursue pain, but I do think that there is something to be said for sitting with discomfort. Regaining that somatic awareness and coupling it with my practiced reserve of mental strength, I next hope to devote more intention to my practice daily. This could be as simple as moving through the Sun salutations at a brisk pace or maintaining form in chaturanga, a pose I struggle with daily. Or even not looking around the room at the impossibly complicated poses that other practitioners are doing. After all, ashtanga’s tristana (threefold) method gives equal importance to prana (breath), asana (posture), and drishti (gazing point). The more attention I devote to all three, the more I come to experience my practice as an unbroken flow.

In the Ashtanga tradition, as in the Zen tradition (from what I understand), any merits of one’s practice are dedicated to the benefit of all sentient beings. I was lucky enough recently to receive a yearlong scholarship for a year of unlimited yoga study from amazing nonprofit organization Yogi’s Heart. One of Yogi’s Heart’s hallmark sayings is “hard core, soft heart,” which I feel sums up so much of what I have written about in this post. By rooting ourselves in yogic philosophy and practice, we can contribute more positive energy to the well-being of our inner circles, our broader communities, and the whole world.

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TOTUS Reflections

This past year, I had the incredible opportunity to be involved with the TOTUS Spoken Word Collective at UMD, which allowed me to grow as an artist, poet, and individual. Check out my reflections and writing at this site: https://mypenbleedstruth.wordpress.com/ 🙂

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CULTIVATING A MORE FEMINIST YOGA PRACTICE

CULTIVATING A MORE FEMINIST YOGA PRACTICE

It is one thing to intellectualize self-love and acceptance; it’s another to embody it.

–Melanie Klein

Introduction 

For most of my life, I have treated feminism and yoga as two separate spheres, failing to consider the benefits of applying each philosophy to the practice of the other. In this paper, I attempt to answer the question “Are yoga and feminism mutually exclusive?” by presenting a few of the perceived contradictions between yoga and feminism. I also consider the specific impact of antifeminist media representation of women on the evolving Western practice of yoga. Finally, I explore the subtle commonalities between the two philosophies before offering a few specific suggestions for how to enrich Western yoga spaces and practices with feminist ideas.

An Overview of Yoga Philosophy and Feminist Philosophy

Yoga, according to Mukunda Stiles, “is that which causes the vacillations of the mind to cease” (2). The eight limbs of Patanjala Yoga, elucidated in the Sadhana Pada of the Yoga Sutras, provide a means by which seekers who develop an attitude of non-attachment and equanimity can attain higher consciousness. The asana “limb” of Patanjala Yoga was introduced to the West after Swami Vivekananda’s speech at the Parliament of Religions in 1893. Asana practice has skyrocketed in popularity since the beginning of the new millennium, touted as a form of fitness and stress-relief.

In order to address the question of whether the majority of Western yoga spaces or yoga practices are feminist, I will utilize bell hooks’ concept of feminism in this paper:

Visionary feminism is a wise and loving politics, rooted in the love of male and female being, refusing to privilege one over the other, [committed] to ending patriarchal domination. A genuine feminist politics always brings us from bondage to freedom, from lovelessness to love (hooks 103-104).

I would expand this idea of loving empowerment to include genderqueer and transgender individuals (thus implying intersectional feminism), but leave hooks’ definition otherwise unaltered.

JC Peters humorously comments, “Ah, yogaland. A peaceful place where everyone is kind and enlightened, and sexism has poofed out of existence”. Whereas asana practice is often described as a method of relieving stress or releasing judgment in order to let things ‘just be,’ feminism necessitates the identification of oppressive systems and dismantling them. I often feel palpable physical discomfort in a situation that I perceive to be socially unjust, the opposite sensation of my experiences when I totally surrender in shavasana. Natalia Thompson captures this first sentiment perfectly, saying, “As a feminist, I am not accustomed to accepting things as they are.”

At first glance, the fundamental themes of these philosophies – feminist alertness to oppression and yogic non-attachment – thus seem to be in tension with each other. An overview of yoga’s (mis)representation in mass media may provide insight into how these philosophies are more similar than they seem.

Finding Commonalities Between Yoga and Feminism

As Melanie Klein observes, “the practice [of asana] inevitably [has] filtered through the lens of popular culture”. Yoga, in the last few decades, has become extensively subject to consumer capitalist culture and thus inextricably linked with media promotion. This commodification of yoga has been driven by “a small group of advertisers, designers, and magazine publishers promoting a fairly narrow aesthetic that is about technical perfection, youthful beauty, and impressive gymnastics” (Horton 9).

The hypersexualization of yoga attire and asana practice are manifested in advertisements for retail clothing stores, such as American Apparel (YogaDork). More surprisingly, however, these types of advertisements persist in yoga magazines such as Yoga Journal, in “full-spread ads…such as the image of a topless girl lying on her back, covering her nipples with her hands” (Shores). And often, advertisements for yoga classes or products undermine women’s opinions of themselves in order to convince them to make an investment in these products. Ironically enough, it is these selfsame narrow ideals of beauty and heterosexism that feminism strives to combat.

Just as feminism often seeks subversive methods to disrupt the status quo or resist the dominant, heterosexist narrative, solo asana practice is a creative experience similarly characterized by innovation, experimentation, reflection, and introspection. In fact, feminism and yoga both require an intense awareness of current conditions in order to cultivate clarity of thought and correct action according to one’s appropriate “mode of being” (known as svadharma in the yogic tradition).

Additionally, traditional Western philosophy has often emphasized the idea of the “mind-body duality,” which, in conjunction with the concept of personal identity, encourages distinct individuality. However, in Samkhya philosophy, the mind and the body both belong to the realm of prakriti, what people perceive to be the “real,” material world. The salutation “Namaste” beautifully expresses the Samkhya idea that bodies and minds are simply instruments of expression for the Universal Self: “The Self in me honors the Self in you.” Likewise, intersectional feminism is hugely inclusive and ideally affords an equal degree of respect to people belonging to all genders and abilities.

 

The Benefits of Applying Feminist Philosophy to Yoga Practice

 

In addition to stereotyping women as emotionally prone (and therefore mentally weak), patriarchal societies have commonly demeaned and compartmentalized unique attributes of women’s bodies to defend and perpetuate sexism (Horton). Amy Champ argues that yoga has the potential to spark “fourth-wave feminism” because asana practice takes the body as its physical medium of expression. Practitioners of yoga reclaim agency of their own bodies, and “because yoga has a somatic base, it offers the potential to override body-based notions of gender” (Champ). For example, Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha writes about this reclamation of agency by practicing yoga in her essay about surviving incest as a queer feminist of color:

I do yoga taught by a mixed-desi queer girl who teaches yoga for people of color, who believes that it has the power to heal and decolonize our bodies. I do stretches and breathe into where I can’t feel…I breathe into where my legs shake when I try to raise them an inch off the ground…There is so much knowledge inside my body…I come bit by bit back into my body (99).

A feminist practice of yoga can thus be especially useful for trauma survivors, since experiences of trauma can often lead to dissociation, and yoga practice allows survivors to relearn and reclaim their bodies – to afford them importance. Although asana poses such as the Virabhadrasana (“warrior”) variations often “draw on the language of male experience,” as Natalia Thompson mentions (seeing as Hindu warriors, such as those in the Mahabharata, were traditionally male), yoga encourages adaptation of each posture to the nature of each body, rather than forcing each body to fit the posture. Such adaptation has a parallel in the domain of feminist speech – namely, the reclaiming of misogynistic rhetoric, a particularly powerful tool of expression.

Yoga practice can also be useful for women on the opposite side of the spectrum, those who monitor their bodies to an unhealthy degree (those suffering from eating disorders or body dysmorphia). Fredrickson and Roberts’ “objectification theory” posits that women who have experienced frequent sexual objectification are at a higher risk for mental health problems such as “depression and eating disorders” and tend to exhibit severely “habitual monitoring of the body’s outward appearance” (1). In yoga philosophy, this theory finds a parallel in the idea that identification with the gross aspects of the material world, and development of desires (towards which the body-mind instruments are directed) can only trap an individual in a cycle of neverending suffering, in the ocean of samsara.

Interested in the interplay between the objectification theory and yoga practice, in 2006, Impett, Daubenmier, and Hirschman conducted a two-month study (with predominantly white women) and discovered that body monitoring and self-objectification decreased with habitual yoga practice. Since yoga is a method of cultivating emotional awareness and reducing dependence on identification with the body and the mind, reduced self-objectification seems to be a natural byproduct of the yogic path (Lewis). Regarding asana, B.K.S. Iyengar writes, “The yogi does not look heaven-ward to find [the Self] for [the Self] is within.” Feminist empowerment and release from self-objectification similarly makes use of introspection.

Thus, a feminist yoga practice can have a wide variety of applications, all of which encourage healing from past histories to “make peace” with one’s body, whether by reassigning value to the body (especially in the case of trauma survivors), or by presenting the body in a new perspective by highlighting its capabilities rather than its appearance (useful for all who have to grapple with subpar media representations of women on a regular basis).

 

Beginning the Process of Creating More Feminist Yoga Spaces

 

Yoga, perhaps, then, is an inherently feminist practice, one that completely embodies the “wise and loving politics” described by hooks, but one that has become misrepresented and distorted by mainstream media. Asana practice in the West, too, has suffered from the mainstream media portrayal, becoming divorced from the philosophy of which it is an integral part. So how can the potential benefits of feminist yoga, as described above, be extended to more practitioners, particularly those who are currently excluded and marginalized?

In yoga classes, I have often noticed that my fellow practitioners and I have the privilege not to have to engage with the systems of oppression that feminism commands I acknowledge. It is very important to note, however, that “the pressure to maintain a non-combative atmosphere…in which everyone can feel safe, can actually work to silence discussion and/or completely eradicate the possibility of dialectical exchange” (Musial). Hence, the quality of harmony characteristic of the yoga studios that we so comfortably praise may actually be an environment that only a selective few can enjoy.

Both yoga and feminism find “roots in community building and consciousness of intention” (Musial 226). Rather than focusing on attaining a societally-defined, ideal body, practitioners must aim to develop a more holistic practice, one characterized by the yogic idea of vairagya (“letting go”). Awareness and compassion are the first steps to a conscious reformation; though yoga philosophy encourages non-judgment and non-attachment to the goals of one’s actions, yogis must acknowledge that “body shaming, victim blaming, and culture-blindness” exclude certain people from current yoga spaces (Dark). Various organizations with growing social media presences, such as Decolonizing Yoga, aim to highlight the voices of practitioners belonging to marginalized groups, including “queer people, people of color, and disability activists” (Scofield).

Yogis must also acknowledge their own privilege in being able to practice yoga in the first place, seeing as most practitioners are wealthy white women (Murphy). Just as intersectional feminism acknowledges with compassion various forms of oppression, including ableism, racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, and transphobia, more inclusive physical spaces must be created to provide all yogis with the opportunity to practice. To reiterate a previous point, yoga in the United States is predominantly practiced by women, yet yoga advertisements constantly objectify women through the use of the male gaze. As Jennifer Musial observes, “Yoga students commonly ask about ‘corrections’ to their asanas. This language is significant [and reflects an internal] perception quite often formed by consuming images of young, able-bodied, white, ‘fit,’ long-limbed yoga models” (219). Although adjustments to poses are traditional and are expected of responsible yoga teachers, the type of corrections that Musial speaks of here relate more to students’ desire to emulate the bodies they see in the media rather to practice a pose correctly. It is worth re-mentioning that various yoga postures are meant to be adapted to different bodies, rather than the other way around; thus, a natural danger appears when one body type is idealized above all others. A change in this mindset will require more attentiveness (to the media they are consuming) and awareness (of how this media is affecting them) on the part of yoga students.

On Instagram, as a type of direct challenge to these ideal portrayals of yoginis, the past few years have shown a rise in the posting of “yoga selfies,” pictures of various, self-identified practitioners with hashtags such as #fatyoga and #blackyogis. While some practitioners regard the idea of the “selfie” as egocentric, posters themselves use the medium to promote body acceptance (Horton).

Along with innovative uses of social media to encourage feminist yoga spaces, established yoga studios and organizations themselves must embrace the idea of body acceptance and escape the dominant media narrative in order to resist objectification of women. Of course, inclusive yoga spaces alone will not resolve the problem of objectification, but they will help to “kickstart” the process by bringing together individuals of all body types and with a variety of histories. In the future, perhaps the next goal for these spaces will be to serve as safe havens for people with genderless bodies as well.

Ultimately, productive dialogue about how to create more inclusive spaces for yoga practice finds useful commonalities in both yogic and feminist philosophies, most notably in the idea of a heightened self-awareness. After all, the most seasoned yoginis and nuanced feminist thinkers “learn to sit with unease but refuse engagement in the unfolding drama,” placing value on an intuitive understanding of the present (Musial).

REFERENCES

Champ, Amy. “Yoga and Fourth Wave Feminism.” Amy Champ, 03 Oct. 2013. Web. 20 Apr. 2015. <http://amychamp.com/2013/10/04/yoga-and-fourth-wave-feminism/&gt;.

Dark, Kimberly. “Is Your Yoga Studio Feminism-Free?” Ms Magazine Blog. Ms., 1 May 2014. Web. 24 Apr. 2015. <http://msmagazine.com/blog/2014/05/01/is-your-yoga-studio-feminism-free/&gt;.

Fredrickson, Barbara L., and Tomi-Ann Roberts. “OBJECTIFICATION THEORY Toward Understanding Women’s Lived Experiences and Mental Health Risks.” Psychology of Women Quarterly 21.2 (1997): 173-206. Web.

Friedman, Jaclyn, and Jessica Valenti. Yes Means Yes!: Visions of Female Sexual Power & a World without Rape. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.

Greco, Lachrista. “Yoga & Feminism: Why You Shouldn’t Fear It.”Decolonizing Yoga. Decolonizing Yoga, 7 May 2013. Web. 25 Apr. 2015. <http://www.decolonizingyoga.com/yoga-feminism-why-you-shouldnt-fear-it/&gt;.

Hooks, Bell. Feminism Is for Everybody: Passionate Politics. Cambridge, MA: South End, 2000. Print.

Horton, Carol A., and Roseanne Harvey. 21st Century Yoga: Culture, Politics, and Practice. Chicago: Kleio, 2012. Print.

Horton, Carol. “Yoga and Feminism: Continuing the Conversation.” Carol Horton, Ph.D. Carol Horton, 5 May 2014. Web. 29 Apr. 2015. <http://carolhortonphd.com/yoga-and-feminism/&gt;.

Klein, Melanie. “Feminism, Body Image and Yoga.” Elephant Journal. Waylon H. Lewis Enterprises, 8 June 2010. Web. 26 Apr. 2015. <http://www.elephantjournal.com/2010/06/yoga-feminism-melanie-klein/>

Klein, Melanie. “Yoga’s 21st Century Facelift & the Myth of the Perfect Ass(ana)” Decolonizing Yoga. Decolonizing Yoga, 7 May 2013. Web. 25 Apr. 2015.

<http://www.decolonizingyoga.com/yogas-21st-century-facelift-the-myth-of-the-perfect-assana/&gt;.

Lewis, Waylon. “Walk the Talk Show with Waylon Lewis: Judith Hanson Lasater.” Elephant Journal. N.p., 12 Aug. 2010. Web. 12 Apr. 2015. <http://www.elephantjournal.com/2010/08/walk-the-talk-show-with-waylon-lewis-judith-hanson-lasater/&gt;.

Moradi, Bonnie, and Yu-Ping Huang. “Objectification Theory And Psychology Of Women: A Decade Of Advances And Future Directions.” Psychology of Women Quarterly 32.4 (2008): 377-98. Web.

Murphy, Rosalie. “Why Your Yoga Class Is So White.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 08 July 2014. Web. 28 Apr. 2015. <http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2014/07/why-your-yoga-class-is-so-white/374002/&gt;.

Musial, Jennifer. “Engaged Pedagogy in the Feminist Classroom and Yoga Studio.” Feminist Teacher 21.3 (2011): 212-28. Web.

Peters, JC. “Yoga and Feminism.” Spirituality & Health Magazine. Spirituality & Health, 28 Jan. 2013. Web. 20 Apr. 2015. <http://spiritualityhealth.com/blog/jc-peters/yoga-and-feminism&gt;.

Scofield, Be. “About – Decolonizing Yoga.” Decolonizing Yoga. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 Apr. 2015. <http://www.decolonizingyoga.com/about-2/&gt;.

Shores, Monica. “Yoga’s Feminist Awakening.” Ms Magazine Blog. Ms., 8 Sept. 2010. Web. 29 Apr. 2015. <http://msmagazine.com/blog/2010/09/08/yogas-feminist-awakening/&gt;.

Stiles, Mukunda. Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Newburyport: Red Wheel Weiser, 2001. Print.

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Journey to India – Yogi’s Heart Scholarship

After completing my Honors seminar, Philosophy and Practice of Yoga, this semester, I was inspired to apply to this wonderful opportunity: http://yogisheart.org/journey-to-india/

Watch Kino MacGregor talk about it here – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_55zSACVGQ0

I highly encourage all those interested in Ashtanga yoga to apply as well 🙂

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The Power of Speaking Our Own Truths

franny and hieuWith Franny Choi and Hieu Nguyen!

Today, I had the chance to perform along nationally recognized poets Franny Choi and Hieu Nguyen as a part of the second annual Asian Monologues. I have been a fan of Franny ever since I met her for the first time at Split This Rock last year, when I received my first immersive experience in the world of spoken word and social justice poetry. The whole evening was a testament to the power of how, as we like to say in our spoken word poetry class, “No one can speak your truth as well as you can.” I read poems about my turbulent home life, about my struggles with body image, about my attempts to carve out an identity as a daughter of immigrants. Others spoke of how the Asian American community is often silenced and called for more spaces such as this one in order to highlight marginalized voices. Still others spoke of the pain of diaspora within diaspora.

I often wonder whether becoming embroiled or involved in social justice issues distances me from the type of philosophy that is discussed in the Gita or in Advaita Vedanta. I write a lot of poems about the body, especially about reclaiming and exploring the body. Reclamation is a powerful tool of dealing with trauma and of processing emotional pain – especially the pain of being told that my body doesn’t matter. However, writing body-centered poetry also means that I tend to identify with the body deeply in some of my pieces. However, when I perform a poem – although not with all poems, I feel as though I have channeled my pain into something healing and constructive. In this sense, I am not controlled by my emotions; I am able to pull them out of my pocket to set myself free from trauma. So perhaps there is an intersection or overlap between yoga philosophy and spoken word poetry. My head is always so full after performances that I can’t process too much too quickly, but I hope to return to this topic in the future – and to write more about poetry in general.

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The Power of “I Don’t Know”

I hope to be a doctor. This type of doctor – one who prioritizes her patients’ needs and gives every patient autonomy over their health: http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/how-i-discovered-an-important-question-a-doctor-should-ask-a-patient/2015/03/09/ca350634-bb9c-11e4-bdfa-b8e8f594e6ee_story.html

But there is something uncomfortable I’ve noticed about the general attitude towards premed classes. Many, myself included, went through our elementary level classes focused on trying to cram as much information into our brains as possible without regard for the long-term goals. I didn’t appreciate the idea of “applied learning” until a couple years later. And if called upon in class to answer a question to which we didn’t know the answer, we would spew random facts even though we knew they were incorrect, or try to rationalize an answer based on knowledge we knew we really hadn’t studied enough.

Now, at my hospital job, the precision of the decisions that physicians make must be perfect. The job is both high risk and high reward, but a miscalculation can cost a patient their life, and time is of the essence. One must never assume in a medical context. Having worked there long enough to see patients in extremely critical conditions, I’ve observed how carefully the physicians work in order to deliver comprehensive care even when they need to work quickly.

No stone is left overturned. If a doctor has a critical patient that they need to treat right away, but they are unsure about something, they will still double check with another physician before performing the procedure. It is key to develop this habit of learning not to act on egotistical whims and realizing that it is not a bad thing to ask for help or advice, especially when your mistakes could cause a lot more trouble in the near future. I learned last week that in 2003, the hours that medical residents are allowed to work in a week were changed to 80-hour workweeks. Beforehand, residents had been working 36+ hour shifts (I even heard a story of a 60 hour shift) and 100+ hour workweeks, which had supposedly led to a patient’s death in one case (the case which was primarily responsible for the change). There is a certain level of masochism that goes into working these lengthy shifts. Even I feel it sometimes when working an overnight shift, or working long shifts many days in a row. I wonder How long could I keep going like this until I collapse? I’m eager to see how much endurance my body and mind have. When I heard the story about the 2 residents whose patient had died, though, I wondered what the mentality of those residents was like. Did they need help or relief and were too afraid to ask for it? Or were they just fulfilling expectations without considering the fact that they might be too tired to make rational decisions?

Vedanta and yoga philosophy emphasize this same type of careful learning that I described above – this yearning as a spiritual seeker rather than gloating over knowledge already accumulated or becoming complacent. The learning one has already acquired becomes a reserve of practicality, not a heap of laurels to sit upon.

I don’t deny that a basic level of strong scientific knowledge is absolutely essential to becoming a competent physician. But once that baseline level of knowledge is obtained, having the humility and courage to say, “I don’t know exactly how to solve this” when they first encounter a complicated medical case gives the physician a power of honesty and clarity of thought. And especially in the medical field, this allows for more creative thinking and collaboration – and lets the physician gain more insight into what the patient really wants.