Jivana Heyman 0:05
Hello, and welcome. This is the Yoga Revolution Podcast. My name is Jivana Heyman, my pronouns are he and him. This podcast is an exploration of how we can live yoga, right now, and how we can apply the yoga teachings in our lives. We'll discuss the intersection of yoga and social justice, as well as how to build a practice that supports our activism. All my guests are contributors to my new book, Yoga Revolution, Building a Practice of Courage and Compassion. Thanks so much for joining me. Let's get started.
Hi, everyone. Thanks again for joining me. I'm so excited today to have Michelle Cassandra Johnson, here as my guest. I love talking to her and I just want to introduce her briefly. So Michelle is an author, yoga teacher, social justice activist, intuitive healer, and dismantling racism trainer. She approaches her life and work from a place of empowerment, and bitumen and integration. Oh my god, I love that so much. And personally, I just love Michelle, so much. I'm so happy to have you here. Hi, Michelle. Hi, Jivana. Thank you for inviting me to be here with you. Yeah, I always learned so much when I speak to you. And you know, I think I think we first met a few years ago, you were a keynote speaker for the Accessible Yoga conference in St. Louis. Is that when we I think that's when we first met. That is when we met. Yeah, thank Yes. Yeah. The first time we met. Anyway, I just I love I love your work. I love reading your books, plural books. And I'm so grateful to you for contributing to my book, which is what I kind of want to talk to you today. I thought, I wondered if you could start by sharing the contribution that you gave in the book like the little quote there do you have that?
Unknown Speaker 2:06
I do, I would be happy to read it. Okay, I do not see my practice of yoga as separate from the work I do to create a just world. They are one in the same to me, the way I practice and what I choose to center as the practice of yoga are focused on how we create adjust world. Yoga is about selfless service, devotion and knowledge. These paths are important keys to us realizing a world in which we can we all can be free, by practice of meditation and movement as well as the study of the Bhagavad Gita provide emotional and spiritual assessments to me. There's nourishment from spiritual practice allows me to fully see with clarity, the ways in which injustice persist on our planet. Being spiritually fed pushes me to strive to do everything I do in my practice off of my cushion or mat in service to the collective good and our liberation.
Jivana Heyman 3:03
Thank you. That's so powerful. And you know, I'll tell you even just today, this came up for me because, you know, we're back, it seems like the pandemic is continuing with COVID. And it feels like there's a lot of confusion in the yoga world about how to respond to to that. And on our Accessible Yoga, social media. There's a lot of discussion right now about that about vaccines and the question of like, how does a yoga practitioner respond to this moment, and I feel like what I see people doing is often misusing philosophy, to be about choice and using it to kind of support individual choice and not an entity. That's freedom. That's what Yoga is about just accepting everyone. And I just love what you said about yoga is about service. How did you say? Yoga is about selfless service, devotion and knowledge. I mean, that's just so powerful. What do you think about that, about how the teachings are often used kind of people people use it to make their own point or something? Yeah, I
Unknown Speaker 4:21
think this is a reflection of the dominant culture and how many of us are conditioned to think of ourselves as individuals not in relationship to other beings and the planet, the world around us. And so, and within the industry, wellness and yoga and you, you know this very well, there's, like, hyper focus on individual transformation, without actually talking about how we need to transform as a collective and, and I've been thinking about this a lot related to the pandemic as well. I think it's just highlighting things that have always been, but like, I want my sovereignty I want choices as well. And the choices I make affect everyone and everything. And the philosophy points to that, because it talks about how we're in relationship. And people taking that and internalizing it as I get to make a choice about what I do that that feels counter to the teachings and the practice, in
Unknown Speaker 5:17
Jivana Heyman 5:19
Yeah, yeah, exactly. It's hard because I think the teachings were often a lot of them were meant for monks, you know, and we're designed to, for people who are withdrawing from the world, at least a lot of the teachings that reread like the sutras in particular, the Gita feels different, you know, the Bhagavad Gita really speaks to, and I know, that's the source you use. And you mentioned in that quote, like, the Gita speaks to more of service oriented practice. And I feel like there's two very different approaches to yoga, I think.
Unknown Speaker 5:54
Yeah. And I think about the yoga sutras as what do I need to practice so that I can transition out of my body and this realm with ease, and I'm connected to everything? I know, it's about much more than that, like a sentence of what I think the practices are about. And you're right. I mean, they, they were for individuals. And I think this is, this is tricky. And I also think we need to contextualize the teachings to what is what is happening and honor the teachings, right. For the time that people were in when those teachings were teachings were created, you know, and that the Bhagavad Gita does feel very different because of everything in it and the context and the war, and fighting a war to protect innocent people. But also that internal or external war, the larger self and doing everything and devotion to God that feels so related to the sutras as well, right. And all of these practices, deep devotion to something bigger.
Jivana Heyman 6:53
Yeah, there's definitely a strong relationship between the philosophies. But I do think the emphasis on the sutras is more like an inward path, leaving the world and the Gita seems more of this service focused path of connection and duty. And also devotion, like you said, bhakti yoga like love through love of the Divine within us. Which I mean is mentioned in the in the sutras but doesn't feel as much of the emphasis, I know that your first book, skill and action really used that framework. I mean, you talk about the sutras, too, I know, but that the Gita really is the framework, right for that.
Unknown Speaker 7:34
Yeah, because it just when I was introduced to it, it spoke to my spirit in this way. I was like, oh, there is this this text and teaching and information about how we live our yoga and how we live, right, and how we relate and what's at stake? And what are we willing to do? And how do we live into our duty and what we're meant to do, and we're here on purpose. So it just it was I mean, perfect timing. When I
Unknown Speaker 8:01
Unknown Speaker 8:02
read from the event, I didn't know what they were reading from. And it really obviously struck me, because skill and action became the name of my, my body of work and the book and so much of what I do now and talking about how to radicalize spiritual spaces. And I also want to say, I think the yoga sutras when I said, for me, they're about like, what do I need to practice? So I can leave this body with ease and be absorbed? Right? And then I'm part of everything and everyone. I also think about how I want to leave the world. Right? How do I want to leave this place? I think that is part of what determines whether or not I get to transition with ease. How have I impacted the space? Right? And so I'm not sure that was the intention of the teaching. I just wanted to name that because I've been thinking about it. It's not just my transition, it's for me, it's legacy two, and what do I want to leave? How do I want to leave this space? For other folks who will be here after I am? Or if I come back in a different incarnation?
Jivana Heyman 9:03
Yeah, that's beautiful. I mean, I, I've said that in the past myself that Yoga is preparation for death. And, and I do think that's, I think that's what you're saying to you. Right? Like, it's, it's preparing? Because you're, it's cultivating that inner relationship with the part of you that will transcend the world, you know, when your body and mind are going to die. The spirit is immortal according to the teachings and so that's that you're cultivating that inner relationship, in preparation. But also it's true that a lot of the teachings in the sutras are about ethics and how we interact in the world. You know, like Yama, you know, the teachings of Yama, which we speak about a lot. I mean, like Ahimsa is not only about practicing Ahimsa so that your mind can be peaceful but also so that you do less harm, right? So it's both things inner and outer. Because what I've really tried to get to in the book, I mean, this book is really an exploration of that. I don't know if you'd call it attention, but about the relationship between our inner work and our outer work. And I think that what I see in the yoga world, it seems like a lot of focus on the inner work, without really looking at how it how you can't perform that inner work without looking at your external actions. They're not, they're really the same. So we can talk about them, like separate things, but really the there's There are so intimately related, what we the way we practice, our inner relationship affects our outer relationships and the way we serve. And I feel like that's what you're getting at to with your work around the relationship between yoga and social justice or racism or anti racism, right, like how our inner work reflects in, in our lives and in the society.
Unknown Speaker 10:57
Yeah, and we need to do the inner work, as you just named, and the outer work that they're in relationship and one in the same. And and I mean, this is a, I believe theme in the Gita too, right? Because of that the context and the external war and the internal world struggle, right, and resistance to live in to what Arjuna was most meant to do in this story in this in this space. And so I think we need to work on all levels. And yes, I feel like so many yoga teachers and spaces have been part of an expose to are really focused on change yourself. Focus on yourself, which, as you said, and I say this all the time, the external world affects us internally. And as you said, it's like our internal work affects the external landscape. So as there's no separation in that way, and I think we need to invite more folks and yoga practitioners and people who practice with us and study with us into this understanding of the inner and the outer and the connection between the two.
Jivana Heyman 12:00
Could you say more about how, like how, because this is something I struggled with, when I wrote was writing the book, it's like, how do you find, like, individually find that balance of inner work versus your, like, external activism or speaking up? Like, I don't know, if you have guidance around that?
Unknown Speaker 12:24
Yeah, well, here's one thing I know. And this may resonate with folks listening, if I don't take time to practice, if I don't sit in front of my altar, if I don't ask myself how I'm showing up in the world, or for myself, or for the people I love, if I don't go back to the Gita over and over or offer, make offerings to my ancestors, I notice a difference in how I feel, and then how I feel affects other people. So there's a direct, if I'm not in practice, then something's going to come out sideways. When I'm interacting with someone, I'm gonna be less centered and grounded, I'm going to be more inward in the sense of like, I'm not going to notice I'm connected to other beings, because the practice really reminds me of that, and brings me into that because I'm praying to something bigger than me. And I'm sitting in front of an ancestor altar that has my my people on it, right, and I'm looking at in my yard, and all the nature that's present there and alive. And so I feel like we have reminders, all the time of how we're connected. And the inner work that we need to do. As we've named, it definitely affects how we show up. And if we don't do it, we're going to show up in a way that is not in service of the collective good. This is this is my experience, right? So we need to be in, in practice, in whatever way however people do do this, right? However they practice and need to start noticing like, okay, I practiced in this way. And I noticed having a different conversation with my mother or my sibling, or the person at the grocery store when I was in a rush. And they were being slow in quotes, right. So So I think we start we need to start to notice, notice that and I mean, the inner work is, is challenging. And I also feel like it's about noticing our conditioned responses. I mean, this is yoga, right? noticing our patterns or some scars, our conditioned responses, and then trying to figure out what we want to shift about those right? Do we need to change the way we're thinking? Do we need to change what we're doing? Do we need to change the way we move physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually? So these are some of the things I think about when I think about inner and outer
Jivana Heyman 14:38
and can you make that connection to your anti racism work? I mean, how quick because I feel like as a person was in a white body, like I have a different job to do regarding that part of my work my inner and outer work, and how so I guess I'm I was trying to explore that in the book book a bit too. It's like how our position banality affects the work that we do regarding our inner practice and our outer practice.
Unknown Speaker 15:06
Yeah, in dismantling racism work, anti racism practice, we and I'm saying we because often I work with people collaboratively, we always talk about needing to work on the personal, the institutional, the systemic, the cultural, so that we need to do work on all these different levels. And we need to engage in practices like self awareness, which contemplative practice helps us deepen our self awareness, and our awareness about what is happening around us. And I feel like sometimes people, because of individualism, just the same as yoga get caught up in like, I've been to 18 workshops about racism, I am thinking differently, but they may not be showing up in it in a different way. So then it's you. The question is, what will we do to interrupt institutions and how they oppressed many people? And what will we do to change the political landscape? And the context we're living at? I mean, it's, there's, there's so many horrific things happening right now. And what will we do to shift the cultural norms, which takes takes a very long time are the narratives, right? And, and the, the culture has to do with what we're internalizing to about who we are and who others are. So it takes all of the work. And it's so funny, I was just speaking with someone in an organization I'm doing work with, and, and she is committed to anti racism work, and is having a lot of trouble with the inner work, like she has values and beliefs that are anti racist, and yet is like it stunted her growth around? What am I do interpersonally? When I'm speaking to someone, how do I treat she's a white-bodied person BIPOC folks in a different way, how do I have a conversation that invites them into having agency. And so it's, I just want to stress like people can can hold certain values and and still not show up in a way that will support us being free, you know. And I also think, in service, as we've, as we've talked about, and there was something else I wanted to say about the
Unknown Speaker 17:19
but it'll come back to me,
Unknown Speaker 17:21
I think I was so channeling that.
Jivana Heyman 17:25
Yeah, well, actually, I had a, one of the things I share in the book is just the possibility that the inner work can help us be more reflective of the privilege we have, or that we lack. So that like, if you have privilege, you could use those inner that inner work to be aware of that and create more space and be more conscious of your actions in the world. And if you feel that you don't have privilege, and that you're oppressed, that you can use the practice to take care of yourself more like use it as self care more. And that subtle, that subtle difference is important. Like you can't... Yoga is not just self care period, there is like a really subtle way that we need to be moving in and out depending on where we are. And also just individually, how we're feeling. You know?
Unknown Speaker 18:12
Yeah. And we know there's a lot of talk about self care as individuals and in relationship to collective care. I mean, we can look at everything that's unfolding right now. And you're right, our roles are different, you know, based on the our location, our positionality, the identities we embody. And so I love what you named about, if we have more points of oppression, that we may need to engage these practices to rest, because things like white supremacy are unrelenting, right? And if we are, you know, racializing, this white body, we may be overwhelmed by the world too. And the system too, and also white body folks are benefiting from white supremacy not spiritually, I always say this and not on a soul level, but in in almost every other way. One can benefit from from a system and and be provided protections, right and rights that other people do not have are not afforded to others. So part of this practice and this is the Bhagavad Gita, right? figure out your, your role. And you can't practice someone else's Dharma that will cause more suffering. So figure out your right role and how you want to show up for the task at hand and what's needed.
Jivana Heyman 19:25
Yeah. Yeah, that's great. Thank you. I, I also love I love the direction you're going with your work like your new book, which really talks about the grief of it, like, it almost feels like you're, you've found a way to express the emotion of the social justice struggle. You know what I mean? You've personalized it. And talk about it as grief that we have to process and how emotion is how we get through this work, and we do this work not just by action, but by feeling is that is that fair? Did I did I share it
Unknown Speaker 20:07
is very fair. And it's a, you know, it's in response to history and what we have denied or have not acknowledged as far as systemic oppression, and also our own trauma from the systems. And what we've internalized, as I mentioned earlier, so it is it is about making space for our grief. Because so many of us get the message that we, we shouldn't grieve, or there's no time to grieve, or we need to be strong. And that means not making space to grieve. And Finding Refuge feels like the right next book after Skill in Action. Because I think Skill in Action raised awareness for a lot of folks. That's what I hear, right, it spoke a truth that resonated with with many people and finding refuges. Also looking at how people have been excluded and how people have been harmed and this patterns we keep, we continue to repeat. And then what happens in our bodies and the trauma that arises from not making space to process. So it makes sense to me that it's the end the heart work, it's you know, the heart work that the work we need to do and the spiritual practices, we need to engage, to change our hearts to notice our hearts, which again, will change how we engage in the world.
Jivana Heyman 21:26
Yeah, and actually, so I quote you later in my book, fromSkill in Action, but actually you speak to this, I think this was maybe the seed of Finding Refuge, that book, I know if I can read you back your quote here. So beautiful. You say, "if we're going to make social change, we need to cultivate a practice of feeling. If someone could think us out of the social injustice that we're swimming in a very smart, someone would have done so by now. When one connects with their feelings, as as you ever teaches us to do, they can connect with their heart. If one is connected with their heart, they have the opportunity to be changed and to shift their perspective, they have the opportunity to feel the pain of living in a world that is designed to break the Spirit through violence, oppression and injustice. feeling the pain individually and more importantly, collectively, allows for us to grieve to acknowledge and to tell and to aspire to be better than the legacy that white supremacy has left us."
Unknown Speaker 22:25
Yeah, that quote. That is a powerful quote, to hear, hear back. And I do think that is the seed and connection between the two and really what we're inviting people into when they when they practice with us, right like the deep work, not the easy practice, although this practice can create ease for for folks and cultivate that. And I think it's important to have a place of refuge, obviously, right and ease and it's deep work like I'm unbinding. And unraveling and coming back into wholeness is what this practice has helped me do.
Jivana Heyman 23:08
Right Finding Refuge. I mean, I didn't say that that's the title of your second book, Heart work for Healing Collective Grief. It's just an amazing book that I've recently read. So in that section where I quote you on what I just read back, I actually speak about the process of working to quiet the mind and I what I what I feel like is often misunderstood in yoga teachings is the relationship between the mind and emotions, it feels like we speak very intellectually about the mind without really addressing the power of emotion, which, to me, emotion is what moves my mind. You know, emotion is what really gets me going. My thoughts I can generally control emotion, not at all. So I feel like that's where you're going too is like looking at, at least in this quote really looking at the role of our emotional life in our spiritual practice. And I connected to a part of the Gita where there's a passage, you know, where I think it's in chapter two, where Krishna speaks about what happens when the mind is out of control. You know, when we dwell on the pleasure of senses, okay? And then he speaks about well, but when there's peace, and there's a quote, I don't know which translations you'd like, but there's this one n section in a translation by Juan Mascaro, which is the Penguin Classic Gita that's just so beautiful to me. I don't know if I could read this to you. Yeah. He says "when a man dwells on the pleasures of sense attraction for them arises in him, from attraction arises desire, the lust of possession, and this leads to passion to anger. From passion comes confusion of mind, then loss of remembrance, the forgetting of duty. From this loss comes the ruin of reason. And the ruin of reason leads man to destruction. But the soul that moves in the world of the senses and yet keeps the senses in harmony free from attraction and aversion finds rest in quietness, and in this quietness falls down the burden of all her sorrows. For when the heart has found quietness, wisdom has also found peace. There is no there's no wisdom for a man without harmony and without harmony, there is no contemplation. Without contemplation there cannot be peace and without peace can there be joy?" I love that, me too, translation. Yeah, it's powerful. Do you like a translation? Do you know that?
Unknown Speaker 25:36
I don't. I've been looking for a new translation. And I'm gonna check it out.
Jivana Heyman 25:42
Yeah, it's, it's very poetic, you know, which is amazing. I think you'd enjoy it. I love that line about in this quietness, falls down the burden of all her sorrows for when the heart has found quietness, wisdom has also found peace. And I feel like that's the message of your second book.
Unknown Speaker 26:07
I think so too. Yeah. And listening to it thinking about that is that is the message. It makes me think about our conversation earlier about inward and outward work. And when we go into the heart space, and we listen, or we build the skill of being with the heart, things can emerge that will I mean, there's there's wisdom there that will support us in as you just read, creating a world that is not about destruction, right. But instead a world that is about liberation, or is about everyone finding their their peace, and creating conditions for peace. Yeah.
Jivana Heyman 26:52
How do you suggest we do that? Like, what do you offer people in that? How do they connect with their wisdom?
Unknown Speaker 27:05
Be quiet. Initially, right? Like the quiet go into however people do this, like I meditate, right? But and and pray and sit, as I said, and talk to the ancestors or invite them to talk with me. And yesterday, I did this, what do you what do you need me to know? And and what would you like as an offering. So these are things I do all the time. But like being still, in a world that's moving very fast, there's a lot of urgency, there is a lot of work to do. And, and if we're like never quiet, it's going to be hard for us to hear how we can actually do the work differently and do the work that's required for us to shift the tide. And all that is happening right now. So yeah, contemplative practices, whatever they may be for someone to go inside to listen. And as I said, Be still and recognize when we're being swept up or distracted by things like dominant culture, and capitalism.
Jivana Heyman 28:11
And I mean, I really appreciate that. But I'm wondering, like, I just know, for a lot of people, that's the biggest hurdle for me to after doing. I've been doing this for a long time practicing for 30 years, and it's still hard to be quiet. I just wondered if you have some basic tools, like when you say I asked my ancestors, Can you describe what that's like more? I mean, is that a fair question? Like, just,
Unknown Speaker 28:36
it is? Yes, because it's new. It's a new practice for some folks. And and people who may not have are people who may not be conscious of their relationship with their ancestors, or there's trauma or I mean, many things. I sort of said it, like, Oh, this is something I do, because I've done it for a long time. So the way that I come into stillness, which, which actually doesn't always mean my body is still it means I'm mindful and moving slowly, though. I am pausing. That's what I mean when I say stillness. But the way I do this is I pray, I sit. I pulled divination cards. I, when I sat and asked my ancestors, I was in meditation, and I looked at the altar and said, What do you want me to know? And just asking that question and then waiting. It might not come like right then it may come two days later, and in a way that that people may feel like, Oh, this is meant for me and I didn't expect this. And people may not get an answer right away. So continue to ask for if people want to work with their ancestors, their healthy ancestors to to support them to give them wisdom. Our ancestors lived through conditions similar to the ones we are living through right now. In a lot of ways. I mean, the trauma is deep, it runs deep. It's Old. And there's wisdom there that we can draw from. And I just believe they're, they're wanting to share their wisdom with us so we can do the things we've been talking about in this conversation. And then the other thing I do is nature, like, the culture tells me I'm not nature. And it also says Don't be in relationship with nature. And so I last night, I was on zoom for nine and a half hours yesterday, and I, it was such a long day. And so I, I went outside at like 830 after I got to see him and I walked in my yard, and I have a ton of flowers and a garden and chickens and bees. And I saw this Carpenter bee sleeping on a black eyed Susan and I saw this Bumblebee sleeping on a sunflower and I talked to the chickens and I felt my feet on the earth. This is a practice that allows me to slow down. Right, notice what is around you. And listen, if I had been moving too fast, I would not have seen that those bees sleeping. Right or being still or the beauty like I was so over whelmed with the the yard the beautiful likeness in my yard in my space.
Jivana Heyman 31:16
Oh, wow. Yeah, that's so helpful. Thank you. I know that. For me, I often think about what's going on in my heart in my mind and the inner dialogue that I'm having. And I think what you describe is so great, because it's like, it can be so subtle to be just watching yourself. And it can be more effective to have, you know, to use nature, not us but to engage with nature. That way, something bigger than yourself, you know, or your ancestors. On an altar like something an external can be a great mirror. Yes. You know, like an altar is a great mirror for the Spirit. And so sometimes my practices like I, I wonder sometimes who's listening to my mind chatter? Like, right, am I hearing it? Why I reflect on that, like, the listener? You know, and the speaker who's speaking, it's gonna say that who's speaking, who's saying, well, that's why I love the Gita too, because I always I like to think of the Gita like that of like this inner dialogue, you know, I'm sure it's an it's a whole narrative story. But also, it's this inner dialogue, right, like Arjuna and Krishna within. Right, right. Yeah, like the listener and the speaker, the student and the teacher. Thank the human and the divine part of ourselves, you know? Okay, well, anyway, love talking to you what anything else you can share with us any other thoughts?
Unknown Speaker 33:01
I'm really excited about your book, and appreciative you are your second book, right? appreciative you are putting it out in the world, so that we can engage with it as a tool and teacher, so thank you.
Jivana Heyman 33:18
Yeah, I appreciate that. Really, it means a lot to me. And I, I also very much appreciate your books and your teaching. And, you know, we'll put links in the show notes to all of your work, and people can find you for trainings. And we're I know you do all kinds of teacher training and workshops and anti racism work and your books and you have what else you have a bigger podcast. Yeah. What else? You have so many things? I don't know. It's good. It's like all the different things I want to do. They're all connected. Yeah, so I hope people will get your books. And, you know, and study with you more, because I learned so much from you all the time, just like today. So thanks so much for being here. Michelle. I really appreciate it. Thank you. Jivana. All right. Take care. You too. Okay, bye. Thanks so much for listening and joining the conversation. Yoga is truly a revolutionary practice. Thanks for being here. If you haven't already, I would love for you to read my book, yoga revolution, building a practice of courage and compassion. It's available wherever books are sold. Also, you can check out my website jivanaheyman.com. There's some free classes on there and meditation, and you can find out more about my upcoming trainings and other programs. Hope to see you next time. Thanks. Bye.
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