There’s a piece of me that is fascinated with alternative ways of making meaning and wishes I could have committed myself to the path of teaching yoga as a livelihood.
I had the chance to encounter this reality last month when I went to a presentation at the University of Victoria called Politics of Yoga: Sex, Religion and Power in a Global Industry. It was hosted by the university’s Centre for Studies in Religion and Society as part of a series that engages scholars with local practitioners from various traditions. The presentation connected the Victoria yoga community with two thinkers, including Ashtanga yoga practitioner/instructor, Angela Jamison (see my conversation with the other presenter, Andrea Jain).
I first stumbled upon Angela through her blog, Inside Owl, sometime around 2010; I was struck by her eloquent ramblings on practice and her no-bullshit insight into modern yoga. Angela’s blog is essentially a repository for her musings and ideas, rather than a tool of self-promotion.
Her writings contain multiple references to her introduction to yoga in Los Angeles in the 1990s and her migration from the centre of North American corporate yoga to Ann Arbor, Michigan for a visiting position at a university, only to leave it in order to start a traditional Ashtanga yoga shala (which translates as ‘home’ or ‘place of yoga’). This is no ordinary yoga studio – Ashtanga Yoga: Ann Arbor operates out of a shared space on Main Street, students commit to showing up for practice at least three days a week, and there are no set fees. Instead, practitioners discuss a payment that works for them, requiring an open conversation about value.
Angela runs the shala as a sociological experiment, building a business outside of marketplace forces (she wrote about this in her essay in 21st Century Yoga, “How Yoga Messed With My Mind”). She’s applied a visionary, counter-cultural approach to a traditional practice. Her shala is a fascinating model of community and relationship; I wonder what the world would be like if there were more of these projects in our city centres.
It seemed like some kind of magical confluence that Angela should end up in my little west coast town. She is small, intense and yet warm, and talks at the pace of her rapid-fire thoughts. After many text messages and much coordination, we were finally able to connect at the end of her fourth solid day of teaching. We perched on some steps on a sidewalk in Fernwood (a charming neighbourhood in the centre of town) and talked for 45 minutes. This is the heart of our conversation.
IAYB: Let’s start with the threads of community and relationship, as they seem to be intrinsic to your practice and teaching. How did you end up leading an Ashtanga yoga shala in Michigan?
Angela Jamison: When I moved to the midwest after almost a decade in California, I practiced by myself. But I was still really lonely for community, so I started teaching free lessons for my neighbours and academic friends. I wanted to share this thing that had been shared with me. I have a deep sense that I have debts that I cannot repay, for all the learning and support I’ve received from different sources. And it furthers my practice to be in relationship, because I prefer to NOT be in relationship. At some point there was this desire to give back that arose in me and it could not be ignored. That social network continued to grow, and there was this little part of me that taught yoga lessons and imagined that she was an academic. I had my identity and my security. But my path had stopped being academic and everyone saw it except me. In the end, I let that whole identity go, burned it down. But I still miss the library privileges.
IAYB: Why do you call your shala a sociological experiment?
AJ: The social experiment began when I started to let people join me in practice at six in the morning in a tiny, creaky room in my apartment. Because how else could I actually share this? They didn’t know how to breathe and they didn’t know how to concentrate, and I couldn’t tell them that. I could share practice on a conspirational level with a rotating cast of people. I was surprised that I loved this conspiracy and accountability. Now the shala runs on two things – students agree to show up three days a week, and we have an honest conversation about what’s sustainable for them to support the institution. This foundational agreement stabilizes their practice, and gives me ground on which to work with them. It enables the emergence of relationship.
IAYB: It sounds like you run your shala as a radical act of trust, rather than a conventional business.
AJ: As the shala unfolded, I had no agenda to make a living out of it. I’d been a graduate student for so long, and I’d grown up on a ranch raised by Christian hippies where there was no sense of ‘making it’ in society. I’m really careful about how I share the love that I feel, but it’s one thing that keeps me going. It has been my leading light, in terms of decisions about how to teach. I don’t have too many students, and I don’t compromise on depth. Some people say I run the shala like grad school.
I ask myself how I can create local value in the shala by bringing my energy and my reverence to the space, to the relationships, to anything of a potentially spiritual nature. In the honor of diversity, this is a shala that’s fomenting a subculture within a subculture, while the corporate yoga paradigm is finding the richest so-called consumers.
Community is a source of security. It’s a lightly bounded organism to bring people together at a level of consciousness that has to do with something outside of the market: connection and care. The people in the shala have a diversity of economic, social, and gender experiences. They don’t practice asana as an end in itself. It’s a morning preparation to show up in the world as a form of yoga. The practitioners are making some extremely positive things happen in the world, in quiet and sometimes secret ways, that are being supported by this community.
IAYB: I love how you’ve created a container for practice and an alternative idea of value. What have you learned from your experience?
AJ: I don’t want to export a model, but I’ve also learned things about best practices. From a sociological standpoint, what actually works for sustainable organization is creating value. Because what we are doing is also nothing. It’s time together. That’s it, that’s all we have – the breath and janu sirsana. Janu sirsasana is a piece of priceless cultural knowledge. I don’t care where it came from or where it’s going, that moment that you ground your sitbone, you extend your spine over your leg, you breathe and you look at your nose – for me, being in the body in that way is a sacred moment. I’m going to create reverence around it. And consciousness, growth, relationship. That direct experience is priceless. It’s also an incredibly smart investment in our futures, one of the best we’ve got. The investment in this post-consumer sense is through the body, and through presence. That accrues in its own time.
I really do worry that yoga is a big ol’ religious social movement that’s going to just tranquilize the people who have the time, money and resources to change the world. It feels so good to breathe, move, and find inner peace. I ended up unwittingly finding my way to a community that was countercultural, within a culture that is an opiate. Within that I found Ashtanga. And I found community, even though what I really wanted was to be alone in my practice. Ashtanga and the culture around it can be subversive in a lot of good ways.
Right now the edge of the sociological experiment is letting the organization become increasingly self-intelligent. My own competence and devotion are limited resources. It’s not just my vision anymore. I’m mainly responding to an organizational whole that has become greater than the sum of its parts, and it has its own intelligence.
Post-script: after our conversation, Angela generously followed up with an email with more thoughts, and they were so good I had to incorporate them into this post. It felt unnatural to add a question and try to force it into the Q&A interview, so I’ve just added them here.
I feel the forward momentum of my work around organizational design, as well as advocacy and mentoring for people who feel strongly that the corporate and Instagram-driven models for yoga are poor pedagogy, harmful for the environment or relationships, or just plain boring. Everyone I talk to around this stuff has a creative drive of her own, a deep well of study and practical experience, and really well considered moral feelings about their work. I do have a lot of best practices for radical yoga organizing – some of which I share openly and some of which are delicate enough that they’re just part of what I transmit to the people who come to apprentice with me for 3-month stints. So in that sense, yes, I’m sharing a model. But that feels pretty limited in its creative potential – my focus right now at this crux in my work is listening to and learning from kindred spirits. And watching them get clear about what ideas they want to drop and what ideas they want to act on… seeing where that takes them and takes the whole field of consciousness that is emerging here.
And it really is a field of consciousness. To the extreme chagrin of my academic friends, I’ve gotten really interested in scientifically dubious fields like process philosophy, cybernetics, mimetics and the softer side of complex systems theory. All of these fields posit that consciousness is a kind of entity, and that consciousness evolves. The Dharmic world view makes the same metaphysical claim. In this view, consciousness does not reduce to matter (and thus mind does not reduce to brain tissues). Rather, consciousness is greater than the sum of its parts, is pervasive and unbounded – and it EVOLVES on its own. My academic friends laugh at my emerging world view, but it’s based on my direct experience with stewarding the shala in Ann Arbor, and now with interacting with the emerging field of resilient yoga.
I don’t know how else to describe this field but as the field of resilience. British Columbia is ON FIRE like never before and those fires are going to burn until the snows come. If they come. We don’t have recorded history of fire like this. Meantime the US is doing nuclear war brinksmanship that implicates the entire west coast here in ways it’s easier not to think about. Nations and glaciers are going down FAST. Time is speeding up. We need vision, and inspiration, and actual servant leadership, and very well educated risk taking, not requiems for the yoga business model. It’s happening too. The resilient teaching I see sparking online all over the place is totally grounded, luminous, pragmatic, accountable. And it’s morally intelligent. Methodologically, one of the most important things is that this resilient pattern supports deep inner contemplation – REAL pratyhara – within contexts of human-environmental connection. It’s not going to work on social media, which is destroying human ability to sense ourselves inside for more than one minute. The resilient pattern is both inward looking AND forward looking. It has to be.