New Integrated Blog and Website

Thank you for having joined me and followed this blog. I have some new posts up on my integrated site where you can follow me to read about the politics of yoga, mindfulness and holistic living (including some recipes for vegetarian families), Canadian literature, and my own creative writing pieces from time to time. Please have a look at the new site and follow me there to join my ongoing dialogue on yoga and creativity at http://www.HoldingTheInvisibleString.com. The follow/subscribe icon is on the right-hand side bar. Follow me on Facebook at Chétana Jessica Torrens and Holding The Invisible String. Find me on Twitter @CJessicaTorrens. Om for now! CJ

Decolonization and Diversity

On Sunday, I shared what I heard at the talk on Cultural Appropriation and Yoga. First I wanted to share the discussion we had, and I think it is very important for us to recognize discrimination and colonial power structures which create barriers within yoga. That said, I anticipated that this could be read as promoting one type of yoga practice or space. Actually, I feel this discussion about acknowledging the riches of yoga and acknowledging the diversity and complexity of the South Asian wisdom traditions points to creating positive, textured yoga spaces and practices in Western contexts that are accessible to people.

I have long been a proponent of the idea that if we explain why we are bringing sounding and mantra, or some use of Sanskrit, symbolism, that most people understand the very human, welfare-based message of them, and that it is not a barrier to participation, but makes participation deeper and more meaningful. But, as the discussion we had on Saturday implied, this needs to be done skillfully, and explained and explored. If people are truly resistant to any form of yoga symbolism or the mere mention of its incredibly rich development in South Asia, this is likely a barrier caused by a misunderstanding and fear of Hinduism or other traditions in general. Again, gently working with this and trying to address and approach it through information and cultivating awareness is really what the de-colonizing discussion leads is towards.

The yoga tradition is not monolithic – it is diverse, and there are different paths and processes for different stages of life, contexts, purposes etc. Many of the texts are inherently non-dogmatic in that they contain choice and diversity within them. The Bhagavad Gita is a great example of this, and is where we first see the outline of the different paths: bhakti, karma yoga, karma sannyas, and jnana. Acknowledgement of the rich history and diverse technology of yoga should also be freeing rather than constricting, and in that sense is very post-modern.

One of the big issues for some people is anthropomorphic deities. And, as I often stress in training, these are not universal within the broader yoga tradition. Where they are found, there may be an understanding of them as rich representations of energetic pathways, or as the embodiment of divinity. And so, having spaces/classes that use Vedic symbolism like Om or the swasti symbol is also very true to the more niirguna schools. Arya Samaj, for example, which is a Vedic revival organization, does not use anthropomorphic symbolism because in the Vedas God is repeatedly described as vast and formless. This is also true of Sikhism and Kabir(ism). I personally have diverse sacred objects and symbols in my teaching spaces, and I often explain that thi is to give access to the diverse methods and approaches across traditions in the broader Sanatana Dharma. Though I tend more towards niirguna practices myself, I have had rich experience in saguna bhakti practices. So, just very briefly, I want to make clear that this is not the promotion of one monolithic type of space or practice. It is about acknowledging and not denying or obfuscating the depth and heritage of a practice due to continuing colonial ethos.

Cultural Appropriation and Yoga

I went to a talk last night by Nisha Ahuja at Kula Yoga about cultural appropriation and yoga. It was a really helpful evening for making us more aware of the continuing effects of colonization, how this manifests in some of the ways we approach yoga in the West, and how to minimize this appropriation.

Firstly, I thought it was really helpful to name the forces of colonialism: denial, destruction, eradication, surface accommodation and tokenism. In yoga this may manifest as the denial of the rich heritage of yoga, or even the denial of its origins in South Asia. Destruction and eradication began during the colonial regimes that disallowed and suppressed the practice of the wisdom tradition and other linguistic and cultural aspects. If we teach yoga asana without mentioning or giving some access to students of the rich, plethora of yoga practices, giving some context to the heritage of yoga, we continue with this eradication. Surface accommodation and tokenism may manifest when we have spiritual objects or mantras that we don’t explain or treat as trinkets during class, thus paying lip service to yoga’s rich heritage without sincerity or real knowledge. This also gets into the area of access, and diversity in the yoga spaces in the mainstream.

I admired Nisha’s bravery when at the beginning of the talk she explained how growing up hearing a bindhi and tilak referred to as a ‘Paki dot’ creates a painful separation, or making it painful to think about connecting to the Third Eye. This and the knowledge of how yoga and Ayurveda were suppressed during the colonial regimes in India may also make the mainstream, decontextualized yoga fad also painful and may distance South Asian people from wanting to participate in yoga classes or studios that don’t full represent them. This creates a continuing disparity in who has access to yoga (even in a diminished form). One participant mentioned that in a way this caused her to search out authentic offerings of the wisdom tradition, which made me think of the many very authentic, holistic and non-commercial yoga missions, such as Chinmaya Mission, Ananda Marga, Shri Chinmoy et cetera. I am often surprised how little awareness there is of such longstanding organizations in the mainstream. But this talk gave a different insight into that successful mechanism of commodification of a highly diminished yoga. I hope I have represented this piece of the talk. I am recounting what I heard and understood. It was live streamed, so I will post where/if it becomes available online.

Nisha asked us to write out what we thought cultural appropriation was, and who benefitted. The group put out words such as decontextualized, exploitative, gratuitous, entitlement.  There was difference of opinion on who benefits. In a very real sense, no one benefits from failing to acknowledge the rich heritage of the Indian wisdom traditions, or of the burying of huge aspects of it in the popular consciousness. I do believe there are derivative benefits to the popularization of yoga. They are diverse, but that still doesn’t mean we should not continue to work towards de-colonization. One participant mentioned that even though people were getting access often to highly diminished forms of yoga that did not acknowledge yoga’s roots, the glimmer of it may cause them to search further. The issues here are with exploitative commodification (gross overcharging for yoga teachings, attempts to make proprietary measures over sequences or things like medicinal use of turmeric!), and often the mainstream lack of understanding of the history of discomfort with Hinduism in relation to Abrahmanic religions. I won’t go into this here as I’ve written previously on this, but lack of understanding of this and the colonial legacy obfuscates the real negative effects and perpetuate anti-Indian stances and gross generalizations about Indian history within the yoga community.

One thing I mentioned in the evening was that ironically the yoga boom in the West and the success of the yoga industry have had an echo in India. This is not un-problematic, as it partly due to the legacy of colonial power disparity and internalized racism (feeling lesser than the colonizers). As yoga became popularized in the West, it created more interest in yoga in South Asia. Also, business people have propagated the ‘yoga for health’ model creating TV-gurus like Baba Ramdev, giving millions of South Asians access to teachings on pranayama for example, to which they previously had little access. Although it is not un-problematic, it does tie into the cultural revival of aspects of the wisdom tradition in India. 

At the end of the evening Nisha offered a list of things to reflect on and commit to decolonizing yoga, and I’d like to say that some of these were already important to me. The discussion re-enforced and gave texture to the reasons.

– humility

– acknowledging where something comes from and at the limits of what aspect you are sharing

– acknowledging the sacred objects in the space and explaining what they are (if you don’t know, that is problematic and you should consider how it may be tokenism

– acknowledging mantras, their meaning and why we do them and where they come from

– acknowledging the privilege we have in access to this teaching when some don’t have access or have historically been denied access due to colonization

– cultivate relationships with people who are related to the heritage tradition

I am grateful to have had such a skillful facilitator of this meaningful and important discussion. Thank you Nisha Ahuja. 

 

Being More Fully Present by Acknowledging the Past

Within the practice of yoga and mindfulness, we often stress not dwelling on the past, or being present. This is an incredible practice, as anyone can experience, when they let the thoughts of regret, or what if, and take a few moments to savour the crisp, fresh breeze, or the sun on the land, or whatever they are experiencing in that micro-moment. But/And, do we sometimes use the practice of yoga to avoid the past, and therefore fail to learn the lesson? My last post was about seeing through drama in order to learn from it, as opposed to avoiding it. Here, we’re looking at a similar balancing act: how to learn from the past without being obsessed by it.

Firstly, I think it is helpful to understand different aspects of the broader Indian wisdom tradition. While in Classical Yoga there is more of an emphasis on stilling the thoughts, including thoughts of memory, rather than exploring them, and a paring down of identity, in other areas of the tradition, we see family, calling and connection to the land etc. as grounding and stabilizing. I think the Bhagavad Gita, which is a vastly integrative text of various wisdom schools within the broader tradition, explores these different kernels of wisdom and how they apply depending on who we are and where we’re at on our journey, and what we’re looking for or need. This may depend on stage of life, stage of development in consciousness, family situation, Ayurvedic dosha or affliction. Further, letting go of attachment (read clinging) to family, social identity, and geo or cultural sentiment is different from having an aversion to it. Our sense of who we are and where we’re from can be grounding and stabilizing if we are also able to understand that this is just one aspect of the self, and we are aware of how it may affect our choices and decisions. Aversion to the past, however, or disallowing the grounding effects of heritage and community are even more likely to create obscurity rather than clarity. Sometimes I think it is important here to note the context of teachings and texts. Classical Yoga teachings were intended for people who were from an incredibly long, stable socio-cultural tradition. The lesson was to cultivate the ability to see outside of that. In our modern society, we tend to be dislocated from family and the sense of heritage culture and tradition, we are often distanced from nature as urban dwellers, and due to many moves throughout life, change of jobs, and communities, there is even further dislocation from our histories within communities we have been a part of. This is why, I believe, along with Patanjali’s amazing teachings about clarity of mind and emotional peace, most of us are drawn to the teachings of Ayurveda and Vedic ritual. We are seeking balance between Patanjali’s radical discontinuity with the past and with socialization as a method for clarity, and the grounding and healing practices of Ayurveda and other Vedic practices.

So, memory, awareness of what we’ve come through as a person, these are very important things on our journey. When we first come to the path of yoga, we might be tempted to throw the baby out with the bathwater – make radical changes, and departures from people, places, ways of living, and even thoughts or memories of who we’ve been. It is important to acknowledge this as part of our desire for clarity and peace, but also to see the aspect of aversion in it. Aversion of guilt maybe, or of taking responsibility for slow and integrated change within the context of community. It can be easy to make change when we step away, on retreat for example, but then the challenge is to support and nurture that within the context of a community that impacts us and that we also play a role in. To hit the nail right on the head, our tendency to want retreat and discontinuity plays right into our individualistic and ungrounded social context. In the long term it cannot be sustained, or it fails to produce a sense of wholeness or integration within a larger social context. There is a lovely recorded talk of Shobhan Faulds talking at Kripalu about the history of the Kripalu lineage, and the purpose and process of utopian communities. He concludes that a commune, or a utopian community is a stage in a process at the conclusion of which, the community then attempts to integrate what they have learned with the surrounding society. They do not seek to continue to be a micro-community in isolation, and if they do, dissolution ultimately comes. We can look at this with individuals also. Retreat and soaking in a yoga community is a beneficial stage in which we remove ourselves from our context in order to learn and grow, and hopefully gain insight into blind spots that were covered by a given context. Staying in perpetual retreat mode for one thing simply harbours different blind spots (though we may not realize this), and does not allow us the integration of past and present, yoga community and wider society.

As I mentioned above with blind spots, in our yoga practice it is important, as with any healing journey, to have a multi-pronged approach. Holistic yoga, if we take advantage of all of its diverse practices, is just that, a multi-pronged approach. Mantra is great for shifting obsessive thinking. Asana is great for revitalization and detoxification. Pranayama is great for importing prana, and detoxification and clarifying thinking. Visualization and energy work are great for connection to the Vast. Karma Yoga integrates the practice with work in society. Bhakti Yoga roots us in Divine connection. Jnana Yoga is the work of rooting out patterns, erroneous judgements and diminished thinking. Understanding this, I come back to this concept of acknowledging the past. Recently, though journaling and creative writing, I recognized again how powerful this type of exploratory practice is. One takes a symbol or story that seems to continue to come up, and indulge and unpack the symbol or the story through flowing creative writing. If this is done over a month period, for example, though it may seem like dwelling on the past, this practice, if balanced with other practices after each session to keep one present and to integrate what comes up, can really reveal blind spots or aspects of our past that continue to clandestinely influence our thinking and our beliefs about ourselves today. We can categorize this as a type of Jnana Yoga perhaps. If we are always doing practices to replace troubling or patterned thoughts, we may not be allowing for a key insight to rise up, before proceeding with an integrative process. Journaling about recurring symbols from dreams is a similar type of practice. 

To sum up, as always, I’ll give credence to the idea of yoga as a path of balance in which being fully alive in the present requires that we’ve also taken time to heal, acknowledge and integrate the past. 

Is there a role for drama?

In the yoga community we talk a lot about eliminating un-necessary drama in our lives. But today I’ve been thinking about the useful role of drama, and not missing the lesson.

One of the first problems is that we may project the cause of drama on another person. Of course, drama is often created by an intersection of two (or more) people, and events. So the solution is not just about moving away from someone and ‘their’ drama. In fact this may just exacerbate the problem, because it will just inevitably return and even intensify.

Rather, I think we need to move in closer and look at what has happened so that we don’t repeat or recreate the patterns. Sometimes fleeing or trying to move away from situations, we don’t allow ourselves to examine what has really gone on.

The flip side of fleeing drama is stuffing it down, or disallowing it. For me, this is part of not allowing ourselves to fully feel. Again, in the yoga community we talk about evenness and contentment. But do we misunderstand these traits to as the process as opposed to the end result. What I mean is that the process toward clarity in out thoughts, words and actions may at times be turbulent. This is after all a powerful cleansing. A cleansing of the mind, and a cleansing of the body, and a cleansing of the samskaras at our deeper layers of being. Learning to fully feel, and to release patterns requires that we be open to their rising up for processing. At first this disturbs the mind, and often the whole system, and we can use techniques to manage this. We are on the road to witnessing and bearing witness. I wonder if by disallow the turbulence, and the feelings, we may actually be blocking the process to clarity.

So, I come back to my common refrain: yoga is a textured balance and a sophisticated process of coming towards clarity. Simple maxims and pat phrases can often be interpreted in ways they are not intended. Through mindfulness we can get clarity on un-necessary drama in our lives and how it is created and co-created. But, it is also through paying close attention, and giving ourselves a chance to notice and track feelings and patterns that we can unpack and learn the message that drama is there to teach us.

Yoga and Transformational Experiences at the Anglican Studies Program Retreat

Interestingly, I have met in the past two years in India two long-standing Christian ministers, both of whom have been practicing yoga for decades. The conversation and sharing has been so rich and insightful.

Along with other synchronicities I will explore later, these meetings led up to my co-facilitating a retreat this past weekend at the Galilee Retreat Centre in Arnprior with a group of twelve in the Anglican Studies Program at St. Paul’s University in Ottawa, aspiring to be ordained as priests. Rev. Kevin Flynn asked me to co-facilitate this retreat about a year an a half ago, and since then, we had been discussing ideas for the retreat which settled to a very experiential program including morning yoga practice, and various Transformational Experiences, and discussions about diverse contemplative and mystical practices in our lives. Firstly, the group was incredibly sincere and open, and many of us shared interests and expertise in history, literature, education, social action, music, rare books, and manuscript restoration, as well as of course theology and religious studies and practices. So, the experience was so rich on many levels.

Quite a few people who knew I was heading to this retreat, or saw my post prior to leaving on Facebook, expressed interest in knowing how the weekend went. It has taken me a week to be able to even contemplate writing this piece. And perhaps I will have to come back to it again later, but today being Sunday, I have been inspired to share a little bit about it today.

Firstly, I must say that upon arriving at the Galilee Centre, and taking a few breaths of fresh air on the breeze off the majestic Ottawa River, scented with the aroma of huge heritage pines, I felt I was in for a grounding stay, supported by the elements of creation. That night, after a Kripalu-style getting-to-know-you activity with matching pair discussion slips for partners to find each other with words such as ‘ritual’, ‘transformation’, ‘practice of silence’ et cetera, we enjoyed a lovely service in the chapel. Behind the altar was a large arched window overlooking the river. That evening, led by Kevin, we sang by candle light, sparse, mystical phrases, ”Come light of light into my heart. Come spirit of wisdom into my heart”. At this point, the richness and the coming together of contemplative traditions that we were embarking on, was already so palpable. Such that going to bed that night in a very clear, retreat room with single bed, desk and chair, I felt buoyant, lifted up by spirit in nature, spirit in community, and spirit in joined voices and silence. And also a deep gratitude for all of those things, as well as being able to facilitate in this way.

On Saturday, after yoga and prayers, we shared porridge and broke our silence with a very social breakfast. The rest of the day unfolded with ritual, sharing and the discussion of contemplative practices. I am so glad that we began with the journey of the walking of the labyrinth. The centre has a beautiful, large, flat labyrinth which consists of grass and inlaid bricks to mark the path to the centre of the labyrinth. Four diagonal directions were marked with benches, and from the entryway one looked out to a statue of Mother Mary and the river beyond. The practice of labyrinth walking is very similar to a walking meditation, which I often lead. The walking is slowed to promote mindfulness. We synchronized the breath also with the movements of arms and legs. The added bonus of the labyrinth is that there is a centre to the journey, and to the healing contemplation. And on the way back, a kind of integration of the experience in which we focused not only on the healing, but on ‘bearing witness to each other’ as we journeyed back out of the sacred space together. For me, this was one of the most profound experiences of the retreat, and got so much to the heart of what I feel contemplative practices have to offer.

Later, we discussed common elements of such practices in diverse traditions, such as silence, slowing down, singing or cooperative movements or dances, rhythm and repetition. I gave some examples of each on a handout, and will offer a snippet of that here.

Experience or Ritual: The facilitator, and possibly the group will co-create an experiential activity. An experiential activity is any process or inquiry that causes the participants to gain new insight about something simply from engaging with the group and the process/space created by the ritual. Facilitators can design experiences or activities to demonstrate philosophical or spiritual concepts, or help participants get in touch with states of union between body, mind and higher mind, and to connect with states of wonder, bliss, absorption or devotion. These might include:
• Slowing down to enter a more intuitive and receptive state;
o Through deep breathing or patterned breathing,
o Slowed movements or gestures (including mindful eating activities),
o Moment of silence or witnessing
• Collective singing and observing its effects;
o Hymns,
o Mantras,
o Devotional songs,
• Use of rhythm and repetition;
o Recitation of short repeated phrases,
o Repeated movements like circle dances or Sufi dances, Tai Chi etc.
o Drumming,
o Walking meditation, or Labyrinth walking,
• Visualization or harnessing of attention;
o Meditation on an icon or chakra,
o Prayer with an icon, or meditation on the heart of Christ,
o Candle or full-moon gazing,
o Moment-to-moment mindfulness,
o healing circles,
• Soaking in nature and/or reflecting on the primordial elements;
o Evoking the directions, elemental rituals like fire/water rituals,
o Canoeing or kayaking,
o Gazing at uniform fields of vision like vast, still lake or clear blue sky,
• Formal religious rituals like Holy Communion or visiting stations of the cross.

I also mentioned new scientific research on how cooperative movement and collective singing/chanting cause us to release oxytocin and thereby have a bonding effect helping us feel connected as a group, but also causing us to feel greater oneness with All-that-is. Secondly, we spoke about research in education such that movement enhances the ability to concentrate. This helped to demonstrate the inner wisdom of rituals involving slowing but not stilling completely, the use of rhythm and repetition, and cooperative movement and song. And so we brainstormed examples of these, perhaps not all in wide use, from our traditions.

After this very rich discussion of the doorway of silence, breath, mindfulness and repetition of ecstatic phrases, we practiced anuloma viloma and meditation. As many of you know, I usually perform these practices with the Ham-so mantra and am a big proponent of bi-syllabic mantras. For this context, we used an Aramaic ‘mantra’ which is said to have been used by Jesus, meaning ‘Come Lord’, which was also 2 syllables: Maranatha. This also felt like an amazing coming together of cultural or tradition-specific components to create a wonderful inter-faith experience that I really do feel helped to create safety and accessibility to a practice, a doorway to mystical/contemplative experience.

In conclusion, the retreat offered me an opportunity to again experience (after all my travels and years living in other countries), that having a chance to get to know someone from another tradition, and explore the many points of commonality, or the common human experience and how we journey through in unique but comparable cultural ways, removes distance and the un-known, and brings us together to the enrichment of all.

If I could put in a note here – I have long been a proponent of more inter-cultural and inter-religious studies in schools. It is more exposure and understanding that will help us in society and community building, not less. For this, I am excited about doing more such work on universal rituals, and also blending rituals as an educational, inter-faith experience, and also introducing people to the yoga tradition who already have a primary identification with another faith.

Other Experiences of the Past Year

Last winter at the Ashram, we had an Ash Wednesday ceremony led by Robert Bryant, an Episcopal minister from Portland, OR, who was in teacher training at the time. It was held for anyone who wanted to join in, and took place in the garden with ash anointed from that morning’s fire puja. This was a very moving experience for the 7 or 8 of us who participated, I believe in part because it allowed us to freely practice a sacred ritual within the sacred space of another tradition. As such, it signaled that we do not have to divide things up and sector off parts of ourselves. I feel that this is the way of the future – understanding and exploring diverse spiritual practices from historical and current human culture, as well as understanding these and other more secular mindfulness practices are hugely beneficial to our physical, mental/emotional and spiritual/inner wellbeing.

Daily wonder, everyday moments

I really appreciate this post by David Frawley on the solstice and the fact that there is no magic pill [my words], and that a shift in consciousness is the work of a decade, a generation. We participate in this through our dharma, personal and social. Moments can be auspicious, and the alignment of planets surely has an influence on us, just as the phases of the moon. Ritual, celebration and symbolism are very important parts of life and human culture. 

That said, we do not live in or for a moment; just as we do not live our marriage on the wedding day. Celebratory, auspicious moments give life texture and bolster us for a new day. But they are not more important really than the many moments that make up our days. The ordinary days in which we rise, give thanks, make breakfast for the kids, and/or ourselves, contemplate non-independent existence, move out in the society, do some work, some days inspiring, some days basic and routine. We still take out the garbage, walk the kids to school, or take out the dog (in the rain or sleet, and even when we don’t feel like it), we feel fully the range of human emotions that pass through, see ourselves as both infinitely small in the scale of the universe, and infinitely vast. Life and inspiration are also in the daily greeting of the crossing guard, and the conversation with an elderly neighbour. 

Lately, I’ve been noticing a lot of talk about grandiosity. I posted about this a few months ago. I would challenge us as a yoga/wellness community, and/or local community, to find meaning in the ‘small’, meaningful, everyday interactions in our lives that give daily life texture, and enrich our sense of community, belonging, purpose. Here’s to the people serving and sharing every day in what may seem ‘small’ or un-grandiose ways. Being and sharing in these daily moments and series of moments is a big part of our dharma. For this I am grateful. And please do read the following by David Frawley, who never ceases to inspire me with his grounding work in the vast tradition of Sanatana Dharma. Om!
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Powerful Winter Solstice December 21, 2012 The winter solstice is always an important event in the Vedic calendar. It marked the beginning of the New Year and new cycle of rituals in the ancient Vedic system of fire worship. Astronomically, it marks the time at which the solar energy reaches its lowest ebb in the nort…See More

Motherhood and the Practice of Abiding in Yoga – Radio Clip

In my last post I described a radio interview I gave recently. It was an incredibly energizing experience talking with Madhuri on this topic. For the next few days you can listen to this interview free at: http://drishtipoint.ca/women-motherhood-and-yoga/. I hope some of you have a chance to listen! Om!

Motherhood and the Practice of Abiding in Yoga

While I was in Rishikesh this year I had the lovely opportunity to speak to Madhuri Phillips in the context of an interview for Drishti Point Radio out of Vancouver. We had discussed an interview about motherhood and yoga and the more yin, contemplative practice that I feel is very natural to mothers. I had a wonderful time with Madhuri sussing out my thoughts on moment-to-moment awareness practice as the other face of the contemporarily popular practice-practice aspect of the yoga tradition.

During the interview we speak about savouring the moment, spending time with small children and recovering the awe-inspiring mystery of nature. I remember many wonderful teachings and teachers – like Dr. David Frawley’s descriptions of pratyahara in nature such as gazing at the clear blue sky above our heads. Which incidentally also reminds me of EM Forster’s nod to Emerson in A Room with a View in which his character George Emerson reports, “My father says the only perfect view is that of the pure blue sky above our heads”. I could hear in the back of my mind, but don’t have a chance to mention Candace O’Denver’s beautiful description of the “small effort that it takes to rest as awareness”. Ah, that tangential description gives you a bit of an idea of the lyrical nature of the conversation.

I’d love to transcribe the interview here, if I’m able, but for now, here is the link to the live streaming:

Monday April the 9th 5-6pm PST on Vancouver’s Drishti Point Yoga Radio. You can also live stream this from anywhere in the world!
http://www.coopradio.org/

December 6th: Lost Time – 22 years on

This December 6th, twenty-two years on from the massacre of female engineering students in Montreal, I’m reflecting on lost time and wasted potential.

Twenty-two years ago I was in second year university. I remember it was hard to deal with the fact that male flat mates and friends did not think this was a crime against women. They said Lepine was crazy, and this wasn’t a reflection of the status of women in society. But we were university women at the time – the women of Ecole Polytechnique were our colleagues. The two male friends I spoke to that day felt that if women went to vigils and banded together to mourn, it meant they (men) were to blame. It was so much easier to avoid the issues and focus on the insanity of it all. But, for me and my female friends, that didn’t feel like the whole story.

Two years later, graduating from what is arguably one of our country’s best universities, was ironically the greatest drop in status I have ever experienced. One day I was a well-respected literature student, the next, I was an unemployed, dime-a-dozen graduate with a ‘useless’ liberal arts degree. I didn’t want to jump on the post-graduate train like many of my friends. It felt like throwing good money after bad. But the bleakness of a talk I’d been to in the English department a few months before graduation weighed heavy on me. An older male professor I did not recognize led a meeting informing us of the statistics the university had gathered on English undergraduate employment in the years after graduation. I think most of the female professors would not have been able to face us with such news, with no support plan in sight. The report outlined that women in the first five years after graduation were most likely to find employment as clerks and bank tellers. I remember the professor smiled apologetically after reading this, and explained that this was only the first five years, until they found their place. I don’t remember much of what he said after that. I thing something about people finding their niche, starting small businesses, going back to college for specific professional certificate courses. It is ironic this beacon of higher learning was subtly telling us ($100,000 and an incredible amount of work and dedication later) we would probably have to now go to community college for some practical certificate in human resources management or some such.

This reminds me of a particularly personable male colleague with a 3-year sociology degree who decided to just go to Hong Kong and get a job in business – which he did with seeming ease, while I did my 2 years time as a clerk and then fled overseas to teach English.

As our government is putting out data that shows how full day junior kindergarten is going to increase the profitability of the workforce in twenty years, I sigh and hunch my shoulders. Wouldn’t it be so much cheaper, easier and more immediate to invest in good guidance programs integrated within high school and university curricula to help already-well-educated young adults find ways to use their talents, skills and education in the workplace right now. There are thousands of women graduating liberal arts every year and then virtually dropping into the vacuum of apparent uselessness in the workforce. I can’t tell you how many times I was told ‘but you have no job skills’. I don’t know if I even knew how to articulate the skills I did have, and how they could be applied: research, clear writing, knowledge of grammar and punctuation, reading and synthesizing long texts, analysis.

Just recently I met a young woman who has just graduated with an MA in Literature from University of Toronto (how’s that for skills in hoop jumping. We’re talking the cream of the literary crop!). She has a part time joe-job and is working on her creative writing. She told me her last boyfriend told her after graduation that she would make a great personal assistant. We both balked at the re-telling in dumbfounded outrage. So, twenty-two years on our society is still wasting the talents of women graduating in largely female dominated undergraduate degrees. Women who excel in the ‘soft skills’. There’s a pink collar ghetto if I ever saw one. Though my first career after clerking, is the pink collar ghetto extraordinaire! ESL teaching (largely kept part-time and out of the union, no paid vacation or benefits, largely year-round, continuous intake in private language institutes) is of course, as one of my colleagues described it – the Cinderella in the closet of the wider education system. After 10 years in the field with an MA in TESOL, I finally got to teaching at community colleges and universities where I lived in Ottawa.  I had gone through jobs as Algonquin, U of O, when Carleton called. I had promised myself I was leaving the profession in spite of feeling that I was doing good work, and absolutely dedicated to NOT sacrificing my clients’ education, though I was personally filling the gap between the budget of the administration and the needs of the students. The lovely woman who interviewed me and called to offer me my first 3-month contract was shocked when I turned it down. “This is the best-paying ESL teaching job in the city!” she exclaimed. “But I’ll have to re-apply for my job every three months.” “Yes, but for the most part we are able to continue giving contracts.”  No, I just couldn’t continue to be a part of it. Like at Algonquin where they had to lay us off every six months to keep us out of the union. I had called Employment Equity, who told me that it wasn’t really an employment equity issue.

When my first love, yoga, started to become more mainstream, and it seemed we could actually, possibly make a living teaching, I channelled all of my educational expertise and long-time interest in meditation and Indian philosophy into my second career, and opened a yoga teacher training organization. I am very happy, and feel that running an institute for yoga teacher eduction allows me to use so many of my interests and talents without the bureaucratic hassles of teaching at a university. Twenty years ago, I could not have dreamed of a more perfect career for myself.

But, when I think of all the wasted time and thwarted efforts, and the pamphlets that the English department gave us before graduation, the loss of identity, the unsupported struggle to serve society in a way that was meaningful to me, I cringe, I writhe, I feel fully the incredible impotence of second class citizenship. I help women (and men) find their unique ways of contributing through the diverse tradition of yoga, and this is incredibly satisfying. I wish I could help my brilliant U of T graduate friend. She’s 23, and may be looking at spending the next five years underemployed, while the Government of Ontario continues to roll out full day kindergarten programs.

In fact, I support publicly-funded full-day preschool and kindergarten programs, but not because they will help increase our GNP in 20 years, but because they give needed enrichment to children who might not otherwise get it, and they support women in going back to work and maintaining financial independence without having to spend most of their income on child-care. And as I have discussed, will adding two years of education on the books really help 50% of them contribute to our GNP if we do not improve our record in helping these educated girls achieve their career potential?

The women killed at Ecole Polytechnique did not get the chance to complete their education, to use their engineering skills or to enter the workforce. One man didn’t want the competition – women in this generally male-dominated field. To honour those women, I don’t want to waste any more time not playing my full role.

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copyright Chetana Panwar 2010

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