This is dedicated to all the women and men whose stories of abuse and violence have been lost within the societal chasms of shame, culturally accepted complacency and worst of all…silence. If we were beside you, we’d pull up eleven chairs and listen to what you have to say.
This is the one of the hardest things I have ever had to write about. I have sat with it for four months, not sure what to do other than be quiet. However, being quiet is starting to feel very wrong. I don’t believe quiet is what we should be when it comes to things that are uncomfortable: the despicable, the unfathomable. When our human condition wants us to turn up the music, change the topic and run away.
This is a story about violence and its opposite, the ecstatic expression of love. I have published this with permission from my students who joined me this past summer in Spain, not using any specific names in context of the story and respecting the anonymity of the main hero who l will simply call: She. There is no use in guessing who She is by investigating beyond this blog as She is us and we are her.
As for the “villain” of this story, I will instead call him Angel as I believe there are Angels who are born into our world and fall as swiftly as they arrive, carrying the role as messengers skilled in all things horrible. I will call him Angel because He is also us and we are Him: a co-mingling of light and dark, absorbed and pixilated by what life has dealt us. Sometimes we are lucky, sometimes we are not. Caught and dropped from slippery arms, newborns to old age, a Dante journey, Hell to Heaven – the polarities are so predictable yet we are still surprised by them, especially when pain arrives. Our group of yogis made a similar journey over twenty-four hours and seven days, mimicking the rest of Humankind in time and space. We are eight billion fallen Angels and She’s of Graceful poise passing on the street, buying coffee, buckling our seat belts trying to figure out which way is up.
As for you, our She. I will never be able to do justice to what you experienced but hope that you hear the love and admiration we have for you within the heartbeat of each word. We love you.
And for all of you, my ten heroes, you embody what we studied during our days leading up to our Master Class of Yoga: The yoga of Action – Kriya/Karma, the Yoga of Love – Bhakti, the embodiment of sisterhood and family – Kula. You are the group of ten that I called for without knowing, teaching me so much more than I ever could have scripted into my silly curriculum.
For three weeks this past June, ten students and I ate, slept and immersed in the art and science of yoga in Southern Spain. We were tucked away in a vast corridor within the Sierra Las Nieves mountain range, a stunning green amphitheatre of olive groves, chickadees and wind storms. There is not much on this plot of land but a crumbling monastery and a few local farm houses. It dates back to the time of the Spanish Inquisition, a time when Carmelite Monks lived sustainably and a spiritual mystic, St. Teresa de Avila was said to help set up a hermitage. The land emanates peace, off the grid, accessed cliffside along a bumpy dirt road with the nearest White Town of Andalucia thirty minutes away.
On the evening of June 28th at around one or so in the morning, Angel, who had been hired to temporarily help build a straw-bale cottage on the property entered She’s tent without permission. She was already awake and alert with her light on as she had been aware of someone pacing the tall grass around her tent for several minutes. Freaked out, she recognized him because there were only a few staff volunteers who had been helping out during our training. He entered uninvited, drunk and high from having gone into town to watch the World Cup despite the strict no-drinking rules of the retreat centre.
For about an hour he talked incessantly in Spanish despite She not understanding him. (Angel was a visitor to Spain as well, not knowing much English). Her mature, calm attempts telling him to leave didn’t work. She knew his intentions were not good ones, hoping he’d come to his senses and leave. He didn’t leave, instead he grabbed her by the shoulders and forced her down. She fought and screamed in defence. He eventually fled from the tent and a hairsbreadth later, two of the neighbouring girls arrived at She’s tent, finding her in shock. They figured they must have brushed past him as he ran into the dark of the mountains. Thank God, physically speaking, She was not hurt beyond a bloodied lip and slightly dislocated jaw due to him putting his hand in her mouth and having the instincts to do what she felt was right in the moment: bite, scream and fight back. We are so proud of you.
It was the second scream that woke most of us up. I was in my hut. I have heard students scream in the past at sand crabs and the crash of thunder over the Pacific but this one was the kind I never want to hear again. Liquid heat boiled from my abdomen to my skin that said, “Wake up. Move now.” I turned on my lights, sat up and stared while the sound of flip flops and a clattering lantern came running toward my door. It was one of the volunteers, pale and panicked, “You must come now, one of your girls has been attacked.”
Most of you reading this have experienced, I’m sure, at least one chilling moment in your life, where awareness transmutes into an acidic ping pong match between thought-senses, thought-senses. While I followed her, I bounced between: “Is this for real?” (The sound of dry grass). “Are they safe?” (Stepping on an anthill). “Where are the girls?” (The glow of the moon). “Call the Police” (Shivering skin). “I never should take students off the grid.” (A cat rushing past my feet). “What was that sound?” (The rustle of a nearby bush). “Am I safe?” (Moths fluttering outside the cottage windows). “This is all my fault. This is all my fault.” (A mosquito biting my arm).
It was one of the scariest walks of my life toward not knowing what I was about to see. I’m going to guess that it was for everyone else as well. As for She, the scariest had already happened and by the time I arrived, was launched into the bizarre back flip characteristic of post-traumatic outer space. The ten of us converged around the unlit hearth of the cottage, a confused pilgrimage up and down hill paths and trees, to its stone walls of perceived safety. Wrapped in hoodies, blankets, messy hair and pupils dilated – we bumped into each others elbows with She at the centre. One of the girls had already put on tea and made a plate of food.
The heart of yoga’s teachings from the wisdom of the Vedas to Russell Brand’s rants speaks on the nature of Love, Fear and Transcendence. I learned that the distance between Love and Fear closes in during dire times, making for an intense hallway of choices. This closing in has a purpose as it allows the speed of consciousness to be all the more efficient. It gives us time to contemplate and wrestle with both, when mistakes are made or when victory is borne. The gift of consciousness is our friend and biting enemy. It is our direct route toward transcendence, through all our messes and battles. When I walked into the cottage, despite seeing fear in all of the girls and feeling it in my own veins, love was working at an equally high speed, without a hiccup. It was an exquisite display of our manmade dichotomy, the towers of order and chaos in marriage with love. The polarities are endless to speak of, we can all relate to them.
I watched the others. Their way with her. While I was doing a head count, they sat She down into their nest of arms, an instant mandala of skin and crumpled up Kleenex. They offered her ice for her swollen lip but mostly whispered quiet affirmations and wiped the tears from her eyes. One of the students who is fluent in Spanish was immediately on the phone speaking to the police. She had been on task ten minutes before I asked the manager on duty to call 911. The fluidity of communication with the authorities could never have happened if it weren’t for her.
We realized that our passports and wallets could be potentially stolen while we hid together waiting for the police, so while five of the girls stayed with She, the rest of us held hands in the dark and walked to each of our tents to gather our valuables. We had no idea of his intentions, where he was or if he was going to strike again. We traveled up and down the mountain, our arms filled with purses, wallets and back packs, walking in a dream like state of acute awareness and the pump of adrenals. We later had a laugh recalling that before we left we all instinctively scanned the kitchen for weapons. I handed two of the girls broomsticks, one of the girls picked up a teapot and another picked up a paring knife. One of them cleared her throat and said, “We should probably just hold hands and stick together.” We nervously laughed and agreed.
Within the hour, a siren sounded at the top of the mountain drive. The local policia navigated their way to us, the dirt cracking beneath SUV tires down the skinny potholed road. It was a strange sound to hear. It didn’t belong. But we were also very happy to hear it. By sunrise, She, another of the students and I were in the police office in the nearby White Town. We watched the officer type on his computer for what felt like two hours while the report was translated from English to Spanish and back again. A tiny window revealed a beautiful morning sunrise of pink onto rooftops. The office became stuffy with morning heat. The clock ticked. We stared at the floor in silence and picked at dry rice crackers that one of the girls stuffed into my bag in haste. A calendar with a sad Jesus hung crooked. A portrait of the King of Spain looked over the officer’s shoulder. Ice melted on She’s lip. We began to make little jokes here and there and speak of inconsequential things like the dry rice crackers and the newly appointed King of Spain. There is never a right way or a wrong way of handling things when you don’t know which way is up.
Back at the retreat grounds the girls attempted sleep, nestled on top of one another like pups in a kennel with pillows and mattresses dragged in from their tents heaped in the middle of the kitchen. It looked like a pre-teen slumber party upon our return. From 5a.m when we left until day break the girls took turns sitting on the porch keeping watch with the manager on duty. His blood shot eyes scanned the property, waiting for daylight to go on the hunt. He eventually cracked his closet cigarette addiction and chain smoked while cursing beneath his breath. Some of the girls contemplated joining him. I had a laugh when they confessed to this later. He didn’t sleep for 48 hours. Nobody did, really.
Right before we left the police station, I decided to turn on my phone. The manager texted me that Angel miraculously had returned to the property and passed out in his tent in the employees area, disoriented and oblivious. We’re still not sure what he was thinking. A lack of awareness? Complacency? In denial of the severity of his actions? Who knows. We returned with the police immediately. The girls meanwhile didn’t know Angel had returned and the manager left it this way so not to scare them. For an hour he ran up and down the hill, covered in sweat and winded by the time we arrived, making sure Angel wouldn’t leave his tent while simultaneously making the sure the girls were okay. Another hero.
The police followed us along the dirt road, we figured it was the most action they had seen in two hundred years. Two districts of police cars followed our vehicle along the winding road, past the gate and to the top fork in the road towards the tent in which Angel had passed out in. While the police drove toward him, She and I made our way down the road towards the others.
By 9a.m he was in hand cuffs. I wanted to see the arrest for my own peace of mind so I walked up the mountain and watched from twenty feet away as he stood in the knee high grass outside his tent, confused and shuffling his feet in front of the police with his hands behind his back. My response was not what some would say…a yogic one. I played out a high speed run-jump-ball-hoof scenario, an ironic split second impulse to respond to violence with violence – how revealing. The reality was that I felt sick. Sick, recognizing how much worse the scenario could have been. Sick with relief that he was in handcuffs. Sick that She and all of us were still left violated in varying degrees. Sick that even in paradise, where a Saint lived, our trust was taken advantage of. I looked at him from across the grassy path. He looked past me, tilted his head and coughed out dry mountain air. I turned on my heels and walked back down the hill with my heart in my throat. I felt sorry for him. He is a rusty spoke in the massive wheel of abuse.
As I walked back to my students, not sure what to do, I was reminded of two principles as a teacher that I have been schooled on especially these past five years of training environments a) to show teacherly love to my students but remain detached from their decisions and actions in a training environment and b) that I can only control so much as their leader, the rest is out of my hands. I know what I want but I can’t impose it on them. They’ve gotta want it too like with any other teacher/student relationship. So, on my way back down, I convinced myself that most of them would have already made the decision to leave. I expected them to be on their phones speaking to their flight insurance companies and booking morning flights home. I was prepared for this even though I’d be heartbroken.
I was wrong.
We had our first meeting together later that morning. We gathered around a long table, stepping over each others messes of blankets, tired limbs and the aftermath of help-yourself breakfast bowls. We sat in silence at first and stared at a pile of tea cups and bees swarming at its centre. I sat at the head and looked to each of them. I had tried to gather myself earlier, brushing my teeth, asking anyone out there who was listening what it was that I needed to say. I heard nothing. I didn’t know what to say to them so I cleared my throat and said exactly that, “I don’t know what to say.” Then I put my head on the table and cried my face off. One of them stood up from the end of the table and hugged me.
Our She had articulated earlier during our drive home, from behind the fog of her trauma, that we should finish what we came for. So I looked up at them, wiped my eyes and repeated her wish, “I don’t know what you want to do from here on in but I think that in order for us to reclaim our power we should stay and finish what we came here to do.”
Even before knowing that Angel was detained they had all decided the same thing hours before we returned: that they would stay to the very end.
They all stayed. They all stayed?! Anyone who has ever been through any kind of rigorous training, especially in yoga, knows how challenging circumstances can be on a normal day. The nature of any kind of truth-based teaching, once you pass the honeymoon phase, can be extremely confronting and brutal. Who you think you are… probably isn’t who you are. It can be confusing and tiresome but there is no running away from your Self once you begin to know your Self. That’s why I always laugh (and swear under my breath) when people think all I do all day with students is stretch and Om.
These girls cracked my heart this summer, like the Grinch at Christmas, through green tough layers, sad and defeated and then feeling its deluge of strength. I still can’t believe they all stayed? For the rest of the week they did their best to keep in rhythm with our routine and practice. Meanwhile, She and some of the others who acted as witnesses would miss a few hours of class a day, travelling to and from town to court dates and testimonies. They were in the middle of a full blown trial as well as a teacher training! They’d return at the end of the day and would pick up their manuals to study. We would be in the middle of a morning practice and the feds would roll in midway, pacing the grounds kicking at the dirt and requesting to speak to a few of us at a time. Then the students would return back to their mats and do their pranayama and practice teaching as though nothing happened.
We woke up every morning and read about the koshas, on the lessons of dharma, abhyasa and vairagya. Eyes stinging. Some of the girls would be falling asleep while others took notes with their chin in their hand. It was honestly the most heart wrenching effort I have ever witnessed in my history of teaching. The beauty of it was what we were studying, we had to put into immediate practice. For lack of a better expression, it was a fuckin’ brilliant life lesson. On the last day, they all taught and completed their teaching practicum in order to get certified, including She. When I did my first teacher training back in 2003, I taught for ten minutes and trembled with nerves. These girls taught for an hour each, some of the most beautiful classes I have ever evaluated. These trainings are never about the teaching, really. It is the process. It initiates you into a voice that is real and yours. I liken it to finding a long lost love and realizing they’ve been standing next to you the whole time. After so many years of being ignored, it brings tears and heartache for most.
I have sat in contemplation with what happened and why I’m inspired to publish this: the location and timing of events, coupled with good luck – She had us girls as her immediate support, despite it still being very difficult for her. A greater sensitivity to global violence (and peace) has kicked in full throttle for me because of this close encounter. My students are my extended family who I care very deeply for. There are millions who wake up to violence before breakfast every morning and have no one… oh, how lonely this must be. From those in the sex trade who are bought, sold and siphoned like cargo, to families who shuffle nervously at reunions, sweeping certain behaviours under a carpet of silence. I think about the girls, boys, men and women who live life behind fists and firing lines of violating words, desensitized to a point that they don’t bother feeling anymore. The topic of violence is as overwhelming as trying to define the many ways of love and I’m not about to attempt it here. Like any global issue, obsessing over negativity is futile, thinking of smaller to bigger steps of resolve is really all we can do.
I’ll end with a simplified way of what I’ve been taught in understanding violence – it is a predictable one given the context of yoga and might come off as overly-simplified but I’m thinking we need more simple these days. Ahimsa is a word thrown around in the language of yoga, it means non-violence, beginning at the most micro level. Even though it seems obvious to suggest that the source of non-violence begins within ourselves, I think it’s a useful starting point as for most of us, our own minds leak with discomfort and insidious internal battles. Like the late Georg Feuerstein says in his lecture, The Lost Teachings of Yoga, every day he’d try to practice this basic tenet of life that sounds relatively easy and every night he would come home and write down how many times he failed. Non-violence begins with how we think of ourselves as our thoughts carry energy. If we drop thoughts that are violating/violent towards ourself then that positive energy will transmit into all of our relationships. Positive relationships help build healthy communities. Healthy communities are also happy ones and naturally inspire us to be kinder and to look out for one another. When we are living in kind communities we want the same for others who are struggling. I believe that if our innate wisdom towards self-love wasn’t constantly hindered by the trappings of our collective/individual I-sense/mind-prison (ego) that global warfare and all violence would, of course, significantly decrease. I know it’s more complicated than this and call me a hippy-dippy for trying to hold the John Lennon flag of Give Peace a Chance but does it have to be so? Even the shittiest of circumstances can be changed with help, community and fiery vision. I think the illusion of separation is the ultimate breeding ground for violence. The minute we feel alone is the minute we fragment. Fragmented humans will commit fragmented acts that misalign with our innate nature of wholeness.
My girls and I… what we experienced together had a happy ending considering all of the what-ifs. They taught me more in seven nights than in my eleven years of teaching. On our last day, one by one we hugged good-bye, catching our flights from Europe to Canada to Australia. I’ve never been so sad to say good-bye to a group of students, considering I’ve become a pro of the-farewell over the years. An invisible fabric ties us together because of the randomness of what we were thrown into. I’m caught and cradled by its threads and I’m okay with that.
Thank you to my ten ten heroes, one manager, She and Angel – the profundity of your presence and the gifts as a result of your actions: all quiet, loving and frightful have had a ripple effect on how things can be better in our world – because of your courage in being who you are and nothing more. The messy, beautiful you. And I know it will continue to do so.