Yoga Church? How Can Queer Yoga feel more like Church than Church?

The average American goes to church about once a month. As a seminarian I tend to go to some sort of church function two to five times a week. I know what you are thinking—no, I don’t sign autographs.

But one day last year I went to church and I didn’t even realize it was going to happen. HDS welcomed Jacoby Ballard from Third Root Community Health Center in Brooklyn to lead a queer yoga class. I have been an on and off yoga person for years, but yoga has never felt like church…

This time was different. We started with a Check in.

We started with a check in, which at first I was hesitant about. Never before had I been to a yoga class in which I knew even the names of those practicing beside me. The check in wasn’t just the usual surface stuff. There was a moment of opening. People shared deeply what was going on and what they were bringing to the mat, and what the mat was bringing them. This wasn’t going to be just about exercises, we were flexing our hearts too.

We practiced in a circle.

Looking towards each other—seeing each other face to face. Beginning our practice with meditation and progressing to partner yoga, Jacoby’s soft guidance, nuanced and grounded with queer sass, helped us move through the postures with our partners with relative grace.

It was in one of those awkward stretching poses that I realized yoga had become relational. No longer just me and my mat, I was in the middle of a community devoted to each other’s practices, bodies, minds and souls. In practicing parter yoga you each become an extension of the other’s body. Extensions that ebb together, flowing as one. Holding each other’s tension, and encouraging a tending stretch Isn’t that the embodiment of church?

Dwelling together, holding each other’s tension as we hope to grow and deepen ourselves.

I realized that the way I do yoga is the way many people do church. I pay my fee for each class, do my body work and leave. At church, many people put their twenty in the collection plate, do their spirituality, and leave.

To truly do church though, you can’t think of it as a transaction. You are not buying your spiritual development. You are investing in it, and trusting a community to invest with you.

I wonder what a Yoga studio would look like if we modeled it like a church?

A community that comes together to provide high quality instruction coupled with deep care.

What would a yoga studio look like if they asked for yearly pledges and not weekly rates?

What if we let go of a model of Yoga based in transactions and invested in a model based in community care? A co-op yoga studio that was owned by the people it served. Even a network of studios who covenant together to provide Yoga to the outside community as their response for the gift of life?

Am I getting too far out of the realm of reality? Or is this the type of thinking we need?

We don’t need churches to continue looking like they do now. We need communities that are what churches were in the past: places of authentic meaning-making community that can never be found in any transactional event or community. Shifting to the center practicing being human together.

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The Tea Party May Be On To Something…Or Why Secularism May Not Thrive In America

Me: I just found the best academic journal EVER?

Friend: Um…. ok… What is it?

Me: The American Review of Canadian Studies.

Friend: Is their a Canadian Review of American Studies as well?

Me: No, that’s called everyday life in Canada.

Friend: *Rolls eyes*

After living in the United States for almost a year, I can tell you, a journal like the American Review is sorely need. Despite the depth and commonalities our two countries share the bi-directional knowledge and gaze is severely slanted towards Canadians gazing South. My friend and fellow blogger Andrew Steven-Rennie in a recent post titled “Why We Arn’t the Church Any More” calls on religious folks in the United States to look North for insight:

To the church in the United States of America: We are your future. [Speaking of Canada] You should be looking to us for your future, in the same way that we Canadians ought to pay attention to what’s going on in Europe. You want to moan and bitch about decline? Fine. But it does no good for Europe to look for solutions in Canada, and Canada in the United States. We’re going in the opposite freaking direction here.

We all probably know the narrative Andrew is describing. The arch of secularization. First Europe, in the wake of World Wars and the withering of state churches, entered a new secular age. Next, the rest of the western world  followed: Canada, New Zealand, Australia and the United States embraced secularity, reason, and the diminishing role of religious authority and power. Religion , when present, would become a private and inconsequential in the public sphere. Look to us, Andrew pines, because this will be you!

Andrew has good reason to cry for Americans to look at Canada. The United States is seeing the decline in religious observance and the rise of the ill-named “Nones” (those with no religious affiliation).

Some American’s have answered his call. In fact the American Review of Canadian Studies took up Andrews call three years before he made it no less. In Martin Marger’s  Religiosity in Canada and the United States: Diverging Paths, Mather’s found that despite having similar experiences of religiosity in the early 1960s Canada and the US have had very different vectors in regards to religiosity.

In this survey in 2010 the article describes the relative static nature of American religious observance at 40% over the past four decades, akin to many “developing” countries. Whereas Canada has moved closer and closer towards European levels of religious practice. While the article does account of regional disparities within the two countries these disparities do not affect the trend. The question is why the difference?

Two countries that have very similar cultural contexts, economics realities, and geographic locations should have similar outcomes when subject to the same sets of global trends, right?

The most compelling reason the authors could find was that of human security:

 What drives variability in religiosity is the degree to which people feel physically, economically, and socially secure or insecure: “ … religion becomes less central as people’s lives become less vulnerable to the constant threat of death, disease, and misfortune” (2011, 69)

In fact the existence of the Canadian social safety net in the form of universal health insurance and a developed welfare state is a key reason for our journey towards secularity.

Applying this model to the US–Canadian religiosity divergence, then, expanding
American inequalities in income and wealth and greater economic insecurity in general, have produced greater social anxiety and thus stronger religiosity, particularly among the most vulnerable groups. At the individual level, the relationship between income and religious participation and belief is very clear (Norris and Inglehart, 2004).

Maybe those Tea Party folks are on to something. Maybe Obama’s master plan is in fact to rid the United States of religion by creating a ‘welfare nanny’ state.

None of this is to say that Andrew’s blog is inaccurate, in fact I think he is truly on to something larger. The question for churches in Canada is what happens when you have lost your dominance and with it a huge mechanism of your previous means of functioning? Maybe the United States will experience this soon. But with population growth trends coming from strongly religious communities I doubt we’ll be seeing the end of Christian dominance in America anytime soon like we have in Canada.

 

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Seeing Gender Differently as a Spiritual Practice

Spiritual practices take on many forms; meditation, prayer, running, crafting, gardening, writing; are all common examples spiritual practices. I have a challenge for you: Start seeing gender differently — as a spiritual practice. We all know that their are more than just two genders but just because our head knows this doesn’t necessarily means that we bring this fact into our everyday life.  In fact I would assume many of us continue in our lives placing most people we meet into one of two boxes: male or female. It’s easy right? Everyone’s doing it! When we find an exception, they are just that an exception that proves the rule rather than transforming the rule itself.

Seeing gender differently flips this common assumption on its head, and its easy to try. It has three steps:

1. Assume that everyone that you meet has a unique gender. 

2. Cultivate a curiosity about how they express their unique gender. 

3. Notice when and where you slip back into auto-gendering. 

As I have begun to practice this, I have found a deep diversity in how many different ways gender is expressed. From the way we dress, to the way we interact. Starting from a place of intentionally seeing different allows a  more deeper investigation of the true unique ways every person engages their gender performance. I have noticed moments where in the past I would have been surprised by the “box” a person would have been put into, I haven’t even batted an eye. Just another person inhabiting their unique gender. For me this has become a deeply spiritual activity. Seeing a person’s gender as unique and not placing my gendered constrained onto it is part of honouring the inherent worth of every person. It stops a process of prejudging, and opens me to true deep connection.

As our society increasingly learns about transgender people, gender independent children, and the general breakdown of certain gendered characteristics, we can use our spiritual practice to set us free from our old understandings. We become more able to welcome all genders to the table and more able to stand on the side of love.

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#HonourtheApology

Today is the National Day of Prayer to demand the Canadian Government release all documents about residential school. For more information click here.  This was my prayer this morning:

Spirit of our land sweep across our nations,

Awaken in us courage.

The courage of those who have gone before.

The courage of those who refused to be Idle No More.

The courage for the next generation, and the next, and the next.

A courage that demands answers from our governments.

A courage to hear the truth about residential schools.

A courage to look in the mirror and see how we may have been hurt or implicated.

But most importantly the courage to continue the healing.

My faith tells me that when we reach across our divisions,

and grasp hold of another’s hand in love we build a bridge.

Spirit of our land build bridges across our nations,

so that soon, we can live in right relationship:

Nation to Nation.

#HonourtheApology

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White academia’s racial blind spot

seanneilbarron:

I am writing for a new blog about privilege, oppression and diversity in post-secondary education. Check out my first piece.

Originally posted on uni(di)versity:

I swear I’m a good student, but in this particular class we were playing Bingo. Granted, not an overly well-recognized form of Bingo; instead of numbers we used words like Black, African-American, Womanism, Womanist, Racism, White Supremacy, Oppression, Woman, Feminist, Stereotype.

In this lecture, we were discussing womanist thinker Emilie Townes’ book “Womanist Ethics and the Social Production of Evil,” and I was infuriated. We crossed three squares off our bingo cards during the three-hour lecture.

Just three.

My professor was using a major womanist thinker’s work, whose main thesis was that womanism, through its attention to the particularity and diversity of the oppressions against black women in America, finds a humanity that is shared among all people and can only be accessed when we work through our own individual particularities. My professor used this thesis without even a casual mention of the particularity of the experience of black women…

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Two Different Churches, Two Different Feelings, One Realization.

I’m sitting in my pew the Sunday after the Boston explosions. The church is in metro-Boston, a city where three people lost their lives and hundreds were wounded, and it’s packed. A woman gestures towards me and asks if she can share my pew, “Please do” I say and wave her in. We get to talking, her name is Sharon and she has recently moved into town for a new job. We pause as an usher approaches and grabs her attention.

“I’m sorry I missed you when you came in. I just wanted to say Welcome, We are so happy you joining us today” the usher says.

She smiles and says she is happy to be there and they engage in some small talk. After a few minutes Sharon gestures towards me and says that I am new to the church too. The usher, who is a tad older than I am (read: a good 30 years), makes an uncomfortable smile towards me and abruptly turns on their heel and walks away without a word. I was stunned.

The rest of the service was powerful; the sermon walked the balance of prophetic witness and being a space for healing. The music was loud and heart felt. The congregation joined in the lament and joy that are mixed together in times like this. Yet, despite it all, I couldn’t shake that question: What was up with that usher? I usually try to stay for coffee after church, to meet people and see if this community is one that I want to frequent again. Today I didn’t. What I found most striking was despite knowing in my head that this was only one person and not representative of the congregation, it truly affected me.

That worship wasn’t the only time I went to church that week; despite being in lockdown the Harvard UU Ministry for Students (HUUMS) met in a Google Hangout to worship. Which was, let me tell you, an experiment: We had a mere two hours to plan a service, learn, ready and use unfamiliar technology, and get the word out. We had 12 people join us for the service. We awkwardly sang together, alone in our homes staring at our computers. We shared joys and sorrows. Our worship leaders lit candles for each of them. Some people’s microphones didn’t work so we read out their contributions from the chat box. That day, when police were asserting their presence and we were asked to say in our homes, seeing the faces of my community was the breath of fresh air I needed. No it wasn’t the best way to worship, and HUUMS isn’t going 100% digital in the future. But under the circumstances I can’t imagine a better way for us to have been together on that day. In seeing each others faces, sharing what was on our minds and in our hearts, singing and praying together, we may have stumbled upon the divine online. Sometime to celebrate. Yet it made me pause:

I found God more in a Hangout than in flesh and blood church last week.

I found more connection from singing awkwardly in my living room than singing with hundreds of fellow UUs in a historic church.

I found more relief from seeing my friends’ faces than listening to a great sermon in a community that seemed to pass me by.

Church is more than community. It’s more than a message. It’s more than a welcome. It’s more than just living out your values together. But when one of these things isn’t there, no matter how good the rest of it is, I know I won’t be staying.

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The Day After

The streets are almost deserted. As I walked to my class this morning, each person I passed gave me the same smile. Boston is not a smiling town. Today, there were smiles.

Smiles that said I’m hurt but ok. Smiles that said I’m trying to get on with my life and it’s hard. I noticed myself giving them the same smiles back.

It was in my only non-religious class that we paused today for a moment of silence. A space to acknowledge, a space to pray, a space to say to each other that this happened and we are going to continue living.

I have been oscillating between two sides. One says don’t read the news, while the other searches #CambMA on Twitter to see where the latest bomb scare is. Two were on my path home yesterday. I waited for them to be deemed safe before venturing home.

The media coverage has saturated the airwaves with constant coverage.  It wears at me.  It wears at my weak spot, the same hurt that I wrote from yesterday. A spot that I was criticized, rightly or wrongly I’m not sure, for voicing yesterday.

How can we mourn this tragedy but not ask questions that go beyond it?

A friend challenged me about this.  About proximity and about what should matter first. He challenged me to question my response.  Should meeting the pastoral needs of those close to us come first and the larger questions of why later? Can we care both about each individual tragedy but also systemic tragedies that creates those smaller ones?

I don’t know the answers. I can see how what I wrote yesterday can be read as political. Because it is. Any public words spoken about a tragedy are political. Remembering, marking, pausing — they are all political acts. What has been gnawing away at my heart for the past 24 hours is this type of political action, this public sympathy, seems to only be generated around specific circumstances. We believe that we in the “West” who are privileged, primarily white and educated in the institutional sense, are the only ones who really bleed, or whose blood truly matters. I was talking to one of my professors about this today. The conversation came down to one question: Who does our society think ‘should’ and ‘shouldn’t’ die? This question can be as explosive as the bombs that shook Bolyston street.

Marathoners shouldn’t die… because who runs marathons?…..

Children shouldn’t die ….well our (white) children shouldn’t die. Other children are simply tragic casualties in a grander narrative.

It boils down to privilege. Privileged people shouldn’t die.

But everyone else.

No mass tragedy.

No real public outcry.

That’s my point.

When AIDS was sweeping my queer ancestors off the map…

When the ‘World’ sanctioned Iraq…

When the West invades another country…

When a person of colour is shot by police in america….

We were writing the story and answering the question “Whose lives matter?”, and we answered with ‘not these people’.

The bombs in Boston were acts of terrorism, no doubt. Their aim was to alter our mental states to change how we live. It was not just another mass-shooting or one of the 30 gun deaths in America everyday, or the systematic violence of mass incarceration, racial profiling, or immigration enforcement. There is a difference between these types of events and the psychological effect they have on us.

However, it still follows the societal script. For your death to matter, you must be privileged and/or you must die at the hands of an individual with direct violence. Not the more powerful and destructive power of systemic violence.

My point has never been that we do not mourn what happened in Boston. God knows how many prayers I have offered in the last twenty-four hours. My point is we have to mourn death. Period. We need to get down on our hands and knees and lament it all. We must look up from our tears and begin to stammer out a new story. A story that says that death matters, no matter who died or how. We need to mourn but not do so selectively. Not when those left out are always the ones whose lives do not matter to the dominate culture in the first place. We must mourn them all.

There are not enough candles in the world.

If we were to light one for each death.

For each man gunned down,

for each trans* person attacked,

for every woman left battered,

for every child caught in the crossfire,

for every family starved by sanctions,

for every militant massacred.

If each time this happened we gathered all together:

Massing,

converging

on town square

on common green

and internet chat room.

Lit only by the faint dancing light of a candle.

Together lamenting,

together rejoicing in the life that still lives

There wouldn’t be enough candles.

At first their would be runs on the stores to buy them.

A new practice taken up with vigour.

Shelves left bare.

Determined remembrance for each departed.

At first.

After a while though,

it would just be another item to buy on the grocery list.

Every night gathering together to read yet another set of names.

Each night would bleed into the next.

Even still there are not enough candles.

Part of me wishes we would engage in this lament.

Part of me wishes those

who sell the guns,

and who make weapons,

and pass the policies,

and deploy the troop,

and utter racist words,

would all be there.

That slowly the names would smooth away

the rationalizations,

the false projections,

the twisted logic,

the false hopes,

the idealistic dreams,

that all dwell within the violence.

But i know,

There are not enough candles in the world.

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