Why Trans and Queer Yoga?

August 6th, 2014

About a month ago, I took over the Monday night spot teaching “Free Trans and Queer Yoga (FTQY).” In a heartfelt offering, Rhani started this particular series a while ago, out of her house, clearing out the furniture in her bedroom on a weekly basis, and squeezing in seven mats. She gave me the opportunity to sub in her home a couple times, and when the class moved to a beautiful performance space at CounterPULSE (80 Turk St, San Francisco).

There are currently three weekly classes in the FTQY series at CounterPULSE, and when I was offered the Monday night slot, my first response (after “Yes”) was, “Can I call it a community class instead?”

queeryogaThe irony is that for many years I complained about a lack of inclusivity and welcoming for transgender and gender non-conforming people in yoga spaces. I spent, well, wasted, endless amounts of energy arguing in my head with people and occasionally discussing in person the constant stream of slights. And finally, here, a class for my people, and I chafed at holding “Trans and Queer” in the marquee.

Despite the slights, I’d stuck around with yoga practice in community. All that damn practice and now my people are all people, and my desire to re-frame a queer class as a community class aligned with my intention to welcome everyone and anyone, especially those who for whatever reason found traditional studios uncomfortable, unaffordable, and inaccessible.

I also understand there is a trickiness to spotlighting an identity in a spiritual practice like yoga that is designed to shift the default state, the “I” sense, into a deeper awareness of unity and oneness. This trickiness is the part of the discussion that interests me the most, for it lies at the intersection of spiritual practice/inquiry and actual lived human experience.

So… “Why Trans and Queer Yoga?”

People ask me this all the time. I have concrete answers. I’ll get to the specifics soon. But let me first try the roundabout response. The fact that friends, studio owners, and yoga teachers ask this on a regular basis, often with an incredulous tone, is the very reason for the need.

I want to explore briefly the concept of “privilege.” Take a deep breath. Are you afraid, excited, guilt-ridden, or confused? The very mention of privilege can do that to some folks. Don’t worry, we’ll start with me. I like to share experiences of my own privilege in terms of gender because I’ve experienced being perceived as a man and a woman, not to mention an ambiguous ma’amsir.

Privilege is often thought about in terms of what you get, the advantages available to a person or particular group of people. A couple years ago, I trekked in the Himalayas of Nepal, and every night when my woman companion and I arrived at a new guest house, the owner (always a man) would only negotiate rates with me. As a man, I got the attention and power. Simple. But privilege is interesting, and a little less obvious, when thought of in terms of immunity or exemption, what one gets to avoid or does not have to face.

In my twenties, as a woman, I went on many long solo travel adventures. On an isolated overnight train to Budapest, a man whipped out his dick and gave me a rape scare. In Brunei, a Cameroonian soccer player stalked me for two days. In Sarajevo, my hostel manager became a dear friend, only to ignore me completely after he saw me have dinner with a guy. Now that I present as a man, I do not have to deal with or think about any of these things happening. There is an advantage, a privilege, in what I, as a man, don’t have to face.

“Why Trans and Queer Yoga?” is another way of saying, why does gender and sexuality matter in a yoga class? There is a privilege in entering a yoga studio and not having to face, consider, or think about gender or sexuality. Often, if something does not affect us, we do not notice (or even believe) it truly exists.

I have experienced more instances of hurtful and invisibilizing gendered language, assumptions, and jokes than I could possibly mention in a single blog post. Jokes about pregnant men that discount trans men who carry babies. Cues where men do this and women do that, erasing trans folks. Assumptions about the body parts that men have and the bodies part that women have when who knows what body parts a person has under their clothes. And the bathrooms, not so fun. Separate men’s and women’s bathrooms subject gender non-conforming folks to stares, questions, and reliving the traumas (slurs, calls to security, and occasionally violence) that befall those of us thought to be in the “wrong bathroom.”

So many of these harms are unintentional and actually an attempt at kindness. Just the other day, an assistant asked if his child’s pose assist was okay on me (presumed to be a man) because he was “so used to women’s hips.” What a big (and incorrect) assumption about the nature of my hips.

Or five years ago, when a teacher kept referring to the seven of us in a class as ladies. It was the night before my top surgery, my last class that I hoped would ground me and bring me peace before major surgery. “Ladies, ladies, ladies, ladies…” she addressed us throughout the entire class. How was she to know she was misgendering me, that referring to me as a lady was like a dagger? She truly had no way of knowing. Which is the point.

gender neutral restroommThe questions to really ask are… Do we need to use gender in a yoga class? Do we need to gender other people? What bad could come from removing gendered assumptions, expectations, and language from yoga? What would it be to ask our studios to have a gender-neutral bathroom? What would it be to provide an “other” gender option on forms for yoga retreats? What would it be to spend 1 hour on diversity and inclusion in a 200 hour teacher training?

It is a privilege to be able to look the other way, to not see gender in a yoga class or studio. Which brings me to the last few things I’ll say about privilege. With privilege comes responsibility. The responsibility to bring awareness to that which may not affect us. And, while many discussions about privilege limit this word to a hierarchy of groups on a ladder of social advantages (i.e., cisgender white men above transgender women of color), there is a more nuanced and interesting way to expand privilege.

I have the privilege of being comfortable talking about gender and privilege. I have language others lack, experience with difficult conversations, and knowledge of the land mines lurking in these hard, triggering subjects. I have the resources to find the ground and my breath in conflict. With these privileges comes responsibility, my responsibility to engage in these conversations with openness, heart, and compassion.

In the end we decided to keep the Monday night class with the name “Free Trans and Queer Yoga,” partially because the fliers are printed. But also because it is a gift to queer and trans folk. A class like this lowers the barriers to entry and allows queer and trans folks to explore yoga in a safer, more accessible, and welcoming environment than traditional studios often provide.

FTQY also provides an opportunity for a group of people, who for many years, had only one option to find and build community: gay bars. FTQY is in an invitation into an exploration of wellness for a community that for too long focused only on survival, and an opportunity for healing our wounds and historical traumas. I feel great about this series, especially the other teachers who are dedicated to showing up every week to hold the space.

And still, every Monday when I post on Facebook, I have this great desire to put an asterisk next to “Queer and Trans Yoga” and say more, to say all that I did here – about both the complications and the importance of such a class. It’s too divisive, and reductive to simply put queers over here, and others over there.

My class is open to anybody who read this far, and who cares to be part of this conversation. Your presence is an act of support. Your engagement is allyship. This is unity.

5 Years on Testosterone: A Reflection

July 24th, 2014

A couple weeks ago, I was in San Diego with my family. Requiring my usual dose of alone time, I left my parents and brother at the beach and headed back to our rented condo. Sitting on the balcony, overlooking the far reaches of the sea, I glanced back inside to the living area. There, I saw a man. He wore a tank top, sported some facial scruff, and had the lean face and unmistakable Ashkenazi Jewish features of my brother. “Eric,” I shouted inside. No response. “Hey, Eric,” I tried a bit louder.

My heart skipped a beat as the information reorganized itself. The image I saw inside was not my brother, but my own reflection in the mirror. I am rarely jarred by the sight of the person I have become. And when it happens, I have only two words: Thank You.

This week celebrates my five year anniversary on testosterone hormones. It’s been a long time since I’ve been referred to as “she”; a long time since I toiled in fear over losing my hair and needles, over who I might hurt and what I needed to do to start living anything close to a life; a long time since I surrendered to this hormone, come what may, and watched in awe as my body transformed, a transition that many witnessed, and yet was mine. Precious. Private. A gift that only I could give to myself.

Five years. Five fucking years. Excuse me for the nostalgic sentiment. I believe that the wood anniversary (silverware is the suggested gift, by the way) requires some reflection, and I have been thinking long and hard about what I might write. I do not know. And so, I begin anyways, as we often have to, trusting that a first step will lead to a second.

Transition, any transition really, is exciting and terrifying, and often painful – the letting go, the exhale, the metaphorical death, all of the known left behind in the clearing of the ground for something new. Trans folks don’t speak too often about the grieving process. Some, I’m told, don’t experience a loss. But I did. I do. Enough time has passed that I will occasionally foist an old picture of myself upon new friends, or feel my heart might break just a little when I hear the name “Nina.”

And then, the transition period, it ends. It’s over. My zits faded out, my voice stopped cracking, beard maintenance became routine, and negotiating my way around the men’s locker-room, especially the showers, was just a part of my existence. I was about thirty-three years old when I noticed that the friction in my moment-by-moment experience had disappeared, the final settling of this interminable anxiety. Holy shit, I thought, is this what cisgender (non-transgender) people experience every single day? Possibility replaced survival, and I was just me.

Now, there are moments when gender is not on the forefront of my mind, times when I completely forget that I’m transgender. It simply doesn’t matter. That is the great privilege of being aligned, inside and out. And, still, in other moments, most moments, I know I’ll never forget I’m trans.

Sometimes the reminder is unexpected and jostling: deciding whether TSA is more likely to stop me if I take my “M” passport or my “F” driver’s license to San Diego; disappearing far into the woods on a hike so nobody can see me squat; avoiding questions about my childhood when hanging out with my two favorite kids; the male pregnancy jokes and the “back when I was a woman” jokes and every time transgender experience or gender non-normativity is good for a laugh; listening to so many assumptions about me based on my male presentation; all the ways society and even well-meaning friends render trans folk invisible, non-existent, and unworthy of inclusive language.

Sometimes the reminder feels like my gift to the world: noticing and quietly questioning every single time a gendered word – girls, he, dude, man, ladies, brother, ma’am – is uttered, an inquiry that inspires me to creates more freedom for all; investigating all systems of organization, all systems that marginalize and exclude; exploring my own relationship to various men in the healing of historical and personal traumas.

Five years into living as a man and I’m only beginning to see how deep my resistance is to men. I may fall in love with individual men, as friends. But I avoid (cisgender) men as teachers, leaders, in any position of power, and in any argument or even heated conversation. Show me even a hint of arrogance in a male form and the bile rises up in me. Men’s locker-room banter and even unintentional sexism makes me want to puke. My large scale disgust has long been apparent, but only recently am I noticing the small, lurking undercurrent of my resistance.

Recently, I attended a GLBTQ meditation retreat and found myself shocked to notice the constant stream of negative thoughts focused upon the men: “look how much food that guy put on his plate”; “could he possibly take up any more space and make any more noise with his mindful breathing”; “he meditates on his couch!? men are so damn entitled they think enlightenment will come to them while lounging?” On silent retreat, I was stuck with only my thoughts and some compassion, a very strong sense of isolation born of my own barricade, and the only out: a newfound curiosity to see what I might discover if I leaned in closer to men.

Gosh, there is so much more I want so say about gender, trans experience, male privilege (my own), men’s empowerment circles, and using George W. Bush in a metta practice (advanced practice, for sure). But, before I digress all over the place, I’m going to rein this back in to my main topic – 5 years on T, which isn’t so much a topic as a milestone, a check-in point, a somewhat arbitrary pause for a thought or two.

Trans or cis, man or woman or other, gender is an identity and a cultural institution that we all must engage with on a regular basis. I’ve never been in the camp of abolishing gender completely. I’ve always been more interested in loosening the constraints we all experience in our ideas of what it means to be man, woman, or trans. At five years into a new incarnation of my own gender, I’m pretty sure this is just the beginning of the work of a lifetime.

When Yoga Becomes an Obstacle to Yoga

July 16th, 2014

For a long time, when my friends would skip our regular yoga classes, I’d keep my thoughts to myself: I’m sure your date is cute and all, but can’t you go out another time, like Sunday morning?; Birthdays happen every year, you’ll catch the next one; So, your parents are in town… bring them to class; What is up with all your hetero friends, thinking they can schedule weddings whenever they please; Pregnant! You’re pregnant!? Do you realize how long you’ll be out from yoga?

It has now been over a month since I’ve stepped inside of Yoga Tree, by far my longest absent stretch (not counting travels) since 2008 when I had top surgery. One reason for my break is that I’m attempting to rest my body, but there is another big reason for my break: my yoga practice was getting in the way of my practice of yoga.

obstacleintheroadMy love of yoga classes (and yeah, I’m mostly talking about a specific teacher and community) was just that, a love so deep that nothing, literally nothing, could make me miss my classes. It was the workout, the sweat, the physical exercise, and the effects of consciously linking my breath and movements – the moments of stillness, the sense of connection I felt to my own body, and the sloughing off of the globe I carried on my shoulders.

But this wasn’t mere asana addiction. There were stretches during this period of steady attendance when my physical limitations were extreme, classes when I could only comfortably take child’s pose and savasana. It was those classes that meant the most to me, when my teacher’s jokes, or the melody of a Sita and Ram chant, or the care of an assistant setting me up in a restorative pose could bring me near tears. With the asana stripped, I felt an increased sensitivity to the subtleties of sounds, kindnesses, touch, and laughter.

I felt grateful that I could still be in the room, and that I was welcome, more than welcome, to show up in any condition. By continuing to actively include me and holding a space that allowed for my limitations, my community let me to explore the teaching that we practice exactly as we are, with whatever we have, at that very moment.

Of all the things I treasured about these yoga classes, it was the sense of belonging and community that I needed the most. I felt loved when I could nothing more than lie on my back and rest. I was surrounded by friends, those I knew and those I did not, who placed practice at the center of their lives and inspired me to return again and again to a softening through the breath, compassionate awareness, and the infinite potential contained in even a moment of presence.

Just the thought of missing one of these yoga classes made me feel unbearably lonely. For a mere mortal, a human such as myself, deep love often comes with deep attachment. Once in the middle of a class, my mentor walked by my mat and told me to take a week off. I dropped out of the pose, sat down, and started to pout. “Why?” I asked, even though my back was killing me. “I don’t know,” she said. “I saw you and felt compelled to say that.”

I was upset because she was right. But what would I possibly do when everyone was in class? Where would I go, who would I talk to, what else could possibly be satisfying? Building an entire world around yoga had been my pass out of a social life concentrated in bars, and away from a very long history of self-medicating with substances. I did not want to go back into this world. I did not want to go back into the world at all.

I lived inside of the glass cage of the yoga studio. I could see what was on the other side – dates, hikes, maybe even an interesting job – and it just seemed so mundane, so uninspired, so banal – I enjoyed and found meaning in many activities, but they felt like a consolation prize, filling in the cracks of time not otherwise devoted to yoga.

lie on the floorAnd although I’ve been writing mostly about specific community and set of classes, my attachment extended to many other classes attended while my teacher has been on a sabbatical, and recently to my home practice. My morning sadhana, this sacred time, had grown to contain so many elements that for an hour-and-a-half, all I could hear was a voice in my head going, “and then, and then, and then, and then…” For weeks, I fought through the voice, terrified to give up even one chant or one pranayama, waiting for something to shift. And then it did.

I stopped. I just stopped. Well, mostly. I stretch, I prostrate, and I sit for quite a while. Ok, maybe I do some neti and tongue scraping and candles and prayer. But I cut out the excesses for now. Cut them out until my heart becomes hungry for them again. And I stopped going to classes for the moment. Of course, this has been easier with my teacher still gone. But the effect on my practice has been extreme. All of a sudden my practice is no longer concentrated in the mornings at home and in the studio at night.

Sometimes, after work, I lie on the floor and let myself feel sad. Or I sit on my meditation cushion because I’m curious about what will happen if I go there instead of to the kitchen for a snack. Or I do a couple poses or a simple breathing exercise just for fun. I ask myself questions: Where is there space? What can I explore? I now swim laps (i.e., try not to drown) in the pool. I started to blog again. I go for walks and feel angry and frustrated about how my body feels, and I beat myself up for not being able to accept my current condition. I look at people with more tenderness. Gosh, this being human thing is hard.

In an ironic twist, I also started to teach a yoga class*. It feels a little bizarre to start teaching at a moment when my body is off and there are so many cracks in what has been the steady container for my practice. But somewhere along the way, the container, or my relationship to it, became an obstacle to deepening my practice. And now that the shell is cracking, I feel like I may actually be practicing yoga, sometimes, and perhaps that is a good time to start offering a class.

*Mondays @7pm at 80 Turk St, San Francisco.

Knives, Girls, and Other Things I Pray For

July 7th, 2014

The other day, for well over an hour, I whined, complaining, and vented to my mom about my back-pain issues. Like a good mother, she responded with nurturing attention, care, and compassion as I went on and on and on. Then, like my mother, she made me laugh. “I’m not going to pray because I don’t do that,” she said. “But when I go to bed tonight, I’m going to wish real hard that you feel better.”

Isn’t that praying?

Ever since then, I’ve been wondering, what exactly is a prayer? Is it the intention I set for my yoga practice or meditation or the day? Is it the way I infuse this intention into my movements, return to it through the reminder of the breath, shape it into an open-ended question (What would it feel like to practice trust and surrender today?) instead of a demand (Today, I will practice trust and surrender.) Is it the metta practice I silently do on public transport, sending out well-wishes to my fellow commuters of peace, safety, health, and love? Is it offering the benefits of my asana practice, that extra vinyasa, to a friend who is suffering, or asking for the merits of my sit to serve the well-being of all?

genieYes, prayer touches all of those things, I think. But a prayer is also the very awkward one-sided conversation I have with Hanuman and Ganesh every morning.

Recently, I started talking, out loud, in front of my altar. As an experiment. The truth is, I have no idea to whom I’m speaking. I don’t address god, or even the deities before me. It simply helps my train of thought to focus my eyes on a monkey-man and a dancing elephant-boy. If I’m talking to anyone, this entity is most like a genie in a bottle. With only three wishes, I get a bit nervous.

Nobody in a robe has limited my prayers to three. But I figure if I’m going to start asking for things, I should start slow and refrain from getting greedy. It seems important to avoid throwing out everything that comes to mind. I don’t want to leave the chance that my desire for new kitchen knives will end up in front of my wish for world peace in the answering line. Plus, I’ve been told by those experienced with prayer that it is important to be very specific about your requests. A friend in a life transition asked to leave behind her old identity only to have her passport disappear in India.

Leaving a loophole in my prayers could prove disastrous. I try to be detailed about what I want, but it’s hard to nail a prayer on the first go around. A writer uses draft after draft of edits and revisions to get the words right. But with my morning soliloquy, I try to speak spontaneously. I hold my hand to my heart and hope my words spring from there.

“May I find a girlfriend…” I begin. And here I pause for a specificity check. I have a ton of girls who are friends. “May I enter into a romantic partnership with a girl, I mean, woman.” I congratulate myself. Even if I sound like a legal contract, at least my girlfriend will be age appropriate. “With whom, I have a connection.” I pause to think. What if we have an intellectual connection, but can’t get it up for each other. I add to my list of connection wants – physical, emotional, spiritual – and now that the list is so long, I consider throwing in my nice-to-haves…. “And may she also own a car.”

The problem with this wish, other than the insanity of my neurotic over-thinking, is that I can’t seem to carry it through from day to day. Once I try on these wkitchen knivesords, feel them come out of my body, I don’t really want them anymore. Well, maybe I want them, like I want new kitchen knives. But I don’t need them.

My morning prayer has become, more than anything, a reality check. What do I really want? What do I want so badly that I’m willing to ask for it again and again and again? I want my back pain to improve, and yet, oddly enough, for a long time I’ve been unable to make this simple request. Every time I open my mouth, I pray, instead, for the courage to face the challenges related to my back. For whatever reason, I find it difficult to ask for an outcome. Apparently, I can only ask for support in facing the process.

What’s that about? Do I believe that I don’t know the best outcome for myself, or that I don’t know what what’s out there for me or how I will get there? Am I trying to be noble? I don’t know. All I know is that when words come out of my mouth, they distill a truth that sometimes feels scary.

One thing that I’m able to pray for, regularly, is to feel connection, to my environment, to humans, to all beings, to the transitory nature of life, and for my thoughts, words, and actions to spring forth from this place of connection. I say it differently each day, through stumbles and falters. Sometimes I judge my phrases as clichéd, but no matter how bad I sound, I know that I’m speaking from somewhere inside that feels real.

Like a person who only needs one wish from the genie, using it, of course, to ask for more wishes, maybe I only need one prayer if it is the root of all that I wish for.

What is Healing, Anyways?

June 30th, 2014

During my first several years in the world of yoga, I did not understand many of the terms I heard regularly – metta, dharma, maya, Shiva/Shakti, Spirit, Atman, Prana, oneness, light. My lack of knowledge was to be expected. These words came from ancient languages like Pali and Sanskrit, referenced deities from an unfamiliar religion, expressed new metaphysical and philosophical ideas, and were overused to the point of meaninglessness. Over time, I developed a personal understanding of many of these words. But one continued to confuse me: healing.

I’ve been a little embarrassed to admit my ignorance. Healing is an English word. A simple word. A pedestrian word. Everyone around me in yoga workshops, retreats, and trainings would talk about healing journeys, intentions for healing, support from their healers, or their own roles as healers. They spoke of healing modalities that included energetic touch, past life journeys, hypnosis, needles, scents, magnets, hallucinogenic drugs, sensory deprivation, and a cradling in the uterine waters of a watsu pool.

bandaidsI’d nod as if I understood all this “healing.” But all I could think of was a paper-cut, the inflamed red skin, the rise in white blood cells, some Neosporin and a Scooby-Doo Band-Aid. You have a cut. You treat it. It gets better. Wasn’t that healing?

About two years ago, I hurt my lower back and ever since then, I’ve become more interested in healing. Or rather, I’ve become interested in eliminating my pain. Out of curiosity and desperation, I began to see a variety of holistic practitioners — massage therapists, acupuncturists, network spinal analysis chiropractors, and physical therapists/therapeutic yoga teachers.

Being holistic in their approach, these people saw pain as a sign and symptom crying out for my attention and care. They spoke less about removing my pain, and more about getting to know my pain, moving closer to it, an integration rather than a pushing away. I was able to get on board with this approach about 10% of the time. The other 90% went something like, “Fuck you, you damn hurty spot, get outta here so I can get back to my life.”

There is one place, one arena for practice, that I have been able to, or have had no choice but to pay attention to the demands of my body. On my meditation cushion. Every time I go on retreat and sit for extended periods of time, yes my back bothers me, but a more extreme pain strikes somewhere inside my chest region.

Sometimes the sensation feels like a repeated stabbing, slasher film-style, in my lower right shoulder blade. Sometimes it spreads like an electrical shock radiating across my entire chest region. Occasionally it moves from back to front and front to back. And most recently, for three days of sitting, a hollow pain camped underneath the center of my rib cage that felt like a high-power vacuum suctioning my heart into a black hole.

There is an upside to this type of pain. I don’t think I’m dying. I don’t blame myself for engaging in physical activities that could make it worse. Unlike my back pain, which I’m likely to attribute to a diagnosed condition, or Google myself into tizzy with an extra heaping of self-diagnosis, when my chest region hurts in meditation, I give up on searching for an anatomical or functional cause and worrying about surgery and medication. I cannot even locate the sensation in a muscle, ligament, bone, or organ. My pain seems rooted in a place so deep it feels ancient.

Recently, I was sharing my struggles with a meditation teacher well-versed in pain, and she seemed to make no distinction between my chest pain and my back-related pain. I found this confusing until a few days later when during one of her talks, she was sharing some of the benefits that sitting has had upon her life. As she mentioned a decrease in reactivity, a specific phrase hit me with the force of epiphany. “It stops here,” she said. “It stops with me.”

Maybe it was not “healing” I’d failed to understand, but “karma.” Talk about a complicated term. It is often used as a “What goes around, comes around, bitches” companion to flipping the bird. In the simplest of translations, it is the law of cause and effect. The challenge, I think, is that karma takes as its foundation a sense of time beyond the single human life span. Concerning oneself with the effects of actions that may occur lifetimes down the road, or accepting that one’s situation in this life could be due to events that precipitated thousands of years ago is not easy. Or at least it hasn’t been for me.

About two years ago, I spent ten days in a Tibetan Buddhist monastery with over a hundred Westerners. When the topic of karma came up, discussion quickly devolved into hands shooting up around the room to ask variations of, “So, let’s say I kill a fish. But the fish is to feed a starving person. And the starving person sells the fish to buy alcohol and commit a crime. But the crime helps a lot of people. Will I have good karma or bad karma?”

santaFor an hour, our beloved nun did her best to answer these types of questions, as if Buddha sat in a back office like Santa Claus deciding if we had been “good” or “bad.” My monastery friends joked about a computer in this back office, referred to as the “karma machine.” We had basically the supplanted karma with the Judeo-Christian dualities of heaven/hell and saint/sinner. Finally the nun told us we might want to put “karma” and “reincarnation” on the backburner for a little while. Which I did.

Currently, with much of my time (too much) spent experiencing and contemplating pain, I have circled back to exploring my relationship to karma. I find it challenging in terms of responsibility and regret to acknowledge that through overexertion, through pushing and over-doing, through disconnection and desire, I caused an injury to myself. But I also recognize, sometimes anyways, that this experience presents an opportunity to move on without paying this same stream of energy forward, to say, “It stops here. It stops with me.”

Healing pertains to guiding my back into a healthier state. But it also pertains to the impact of a car cutting me off on the road, of growing up in a household filled with anxiety and neurosis, of ancestors who were sent into showers that released poisonous gas instead of water, and of all the non-linear, circuitous ways that actions inspire further actions, and causes have consequences, sometimes unseen and unimaginable at the time.

It is now less surprising to me that I found healing difficult to comprehend outside of a medical diagnostic framework. It is not easy to pause and experience uncomfortable sensations in the body, born of causes and conditions we may or may not recognize, to experience that which many of us call “pain.” And maybe aromas and cups, hot stones and asana poses, offered by a skilled practitioner help support, provide a safe environement that allows us to release the traumas, small and large, that we tamp down to get on with our life. Perhaps healing is what is possible when surviving no longer takes precedence.

Beginning. Again.

June 23rd, 2014

A little over a week ago, I hit rock bottom. I was lying in bed, watching my 78th episode of “The Good Wife” in the past month, drinking relatively cheap wine out of a small jar, a souvenir from my favorite coffee shop in Bali. Hours passed. My already hurting body stiffened. I may have found a quinoa seed or two stuck to my comforter. Yes, I ate dinner in bed that night. Which is pretty much the definition of a low moment.

Back in my twenties, rock bottom meant waking up with a nasal drip and a sore jaw in a room that smelled like stale bong water still in my smoky clothes from two days ago with a buzzing alarm screaming it’s time to grab an Egg McMuffin and get to work. So, this is a probably a good time to mention I like to say things like “back in my twenties.” This phrase makes me feel old and wise, and like change and growth is possible. Plus, it’s the kind of lazy writing you can get away with on your own personal blog, but will cause most editors to immediately place your piece in the rejection pile.

The downside to this self-growth business is that I’m now significantly more sensitive to how I treat my body and mind. They say “Crack Kills.” But over time so will the “The Good Wife.” After that binge, I woke up at five-something am the next morning with a dull headache and dry lips, the kind of subtle yet frustrating hangover that comes from drinking barely two glasses of wine. I rolled through my morning sadhana, the rituals and yogic practices I do every morning with a sense of disconnect that is becoming all too routine. I felt like ass. No, I felt depressed. I felt exactly like I did in my twenties. Lost. And as if I had run out of options and distractions to make myself feel better.

If I had told all of this to a friend, the inevitable next question would be, “What is wrong?” Despite considering this a rather useless and futile question, a pointer to something I need to fix, I would make my best attempt to answer. Depending on whom I was talking to, I would either go on and on about the challenges (many self-imposed) of having back-related pain. Or, I might bring up what seems to me to be a little more interesting.

I am stuck.

Over the past couple years, I have taken three major trips, all of them to places in Asia (India, Nepal, Bali, and Thailand) for extended periods of time. I love traveling. I really do. And my adventures – a euphemism for reading in foreign coffee shops – have provided the wonderful illusion of movement.

There are many ways to plant oneself in the middle of the crossroads, plop down in indecision, and resist change. The obvious ones are staying in a job, a relationship, or apartment that is no longer working. But disappearing with a backpack every six months is another sort of a rut. I’m too anxious to sit still in my stagnancy. I go here, there, and back to here. People seem to think I’m “doing something.” But it’s more like I’m pacing. I am terrified of change, of real change, of actually exploring what may need to shift in my life.

I spent the last week down by Big Sur, on a retreat with many folks I consider to be family. The constant ebb and flow of the ocean, the waves crashing and receding, the wind by the edge of the cliffs, was all a bit crazy-making. I had to go inside occasionally, to hide from the elements, the constant movement, the reminder of constant change that can feel overwhelming. As I watched the whitewater rise out of the blue, I wrote in journal and began to wonder… what would it be like to start blogging, just for a little?

Of course, my immediate response was to pull back, to turn around and fall into the worn groove that is my pacing. No, no, I can’t do that. Writing about myself may have been cute in my twenties; now it’s self-indulgent. And I’ve spent enough time in developing countries to consider most of my challenges “first world problems.” But I’ve also come to see that if you dismiss that which is calling for attention, the next thing you know, you’ve watched 66 hours of “The Good Wife” in bed.

Lately, I’ve been isolating myself more than usual, afraid to share my struggles, to admit that I’m kinda stuck. So, instead of hiding, and second-guessing myself, and waiting until I have something interesting to say, or an up-to-date online image, I thought I would start without thinking what comes next, move some words, thoughts, and experiences through me, to mine for some truth, and to reach out in a way that has always been a comfort in times of aloneness… blogging.

Confessions of a Serial Traveler

December 13th, 2012

Back in April, I was sitting in an Internet cafe in Kathmandu. I’d just emerged from 10 days at a monastery and Facebook informed me that my yoga teacher from home would be leading a retreat in India around the New Year. “You in?” the post read. “Yes,” I commented without hesitation.

At the time, I was so damn close to India. A bus or cheap flight could carry me across the border in mere hours, and yet I would not go next week, or next month, but over six months later, after returning to San Francisco. My decision would’ve been ridiculous, if it hadn’t felt so completely right.

For my entire trip, I’d been engaged in an an internal battle — to go to India now or at some indeterminate point in the future. A voice inside, the not-so-nice one, really gave it to me, “What are you waiting for? If not now, then when? If you were a real backpacker, you’d strap on your pack and go…”

I had my reasons to hold off: The monsoon season was coming, I had queer weddings and family visits back in the States, I needed to forget what shitting my pants was like before I could get that sick again, India was not a tack-on but required a whole trip itself, and there was something inside of me that was still preparing — the willingness to look, the openness to feel, the courage to surrender — for what I believed India would ask of me. The voice of truth resounded underneath the reasons, “I’m not ready.”

My perceptions, preconceived notions, and ideas about India — from books, movies, and my fascination with how over a billion people could possibly live on such a relatively small piece of land — have been building since 2002, when I first traveled around Southeast Asia and began hearing the backpacker lore. It was not the stories themselves that impacted me, but the looks on the faces of the storytellers, the way their voices shifted and their eyes dropped all pretense. I was 24 back then, and it was the first time I recognized something in these looks that I would distinctly call “real.”

I’ve been on a bit of a quest to uncover and mine what is real inside of me, to listen for it and let it gently guide me beyond the objections of intellect, jeers of cultural-conditioning, and rut of habit. When I quit my job back in February, I thought I was just taking a short pause, a respite after writing and promoting a book, and a break to figure out what I would do next for work. I thought I’d go to Bali and Nepal for four months, come back home and ease into creating a life for myself.

There is a common metaphor (at least in the circles I run) about trapeze artists, and how they must let go of the bar, free floating in the air, before catching the next one — it is the idea that you must, despite the uncertainty and fear, launch into the unknown before the next thing presents itself. I’m not a big fan of this metaphor. I mean, the moment of flying through the air unattached, it’s so quick, it’s over before you know it. For me, the leap into the unknown feels more like skydiving. You take that first frightening step out of the airplane, and then you fall, and fall, and fall, and fall. You are flying through the air for a long time, long enough to consciously feel the rush and terror, to wonder if the parachute will open. Perhaps there’s a fatal flaw to this skydiving metaphor in that it lacks a “next” thing out there, another trapeze bar to catch, but when you’re truly floating in the space in between, there is no obvious “next” thing out there. That’s the whole point. Or maybe this is all my way of saying this short pause in my trajectory has become a grand pause; I’m still flying through the air.

For the past six months in San Francisco, I’ve been living like a nomad, carrying milk crates and garbage bags from house to house,  and occasionally cherry-picking a few extra possessions from my storage bins. I ask myself regularly, “Do you want to unpack? Are you ready to settle down yet?” And despite my need for stability and security, the question itself is the answer. If I wanted to drop anchor, I would be slowly lowering the chain, instead of shying away from anything that could hook me into staying still.

Rather than look for a job, I accepted the first job that presented itself. Like many of my previous jobs, it is so far from removed anything I am passionate about that my friends laugh at the way I’ve compartmentalized, drawing clear lines separating All That Inspires Me from Work. While my job is temporary, my cubicle misery is familiar and falling into this type of situation is clearly a pattern.

The other day, I had lunch with an old co-worker and right before I left, he wished me well on my travels and said, “I hope you find what you’re looking for.”

I walked away wondering if I was, in fact, looking for something. I thought about the archetypal backpacker, hitting the road (often in a time of crisis) to do some soul-searching. I’ve traveled too much to believe in the romance, or the illusion, that I’d “find” something on the road. Soul-searching adventures teach you how to live with yourself, much like liberal arts degrees teach you how to think — the knowledge is experiential rather than tangible.

The very reason I travel is that it’s one of the rare occasions that I stop looking for something, when my curiosity, wonder, openness, and joy somehow overrides the discomfort, sickness, anxiety, and overall fucking struggle that comes with the  journey. It isn’t always pretty, and it certainly isn’t easy. But it’s real. I’m ready for real. I’m ready for India.

This trip is my sixth extended get-away in the past decade. Looking back, I see that those trips all form couples, pairs of two, folding into each other nearly back-to-back. While I never planned them that way, it’s almost as if the first were a warm-up for the second, with a short break in between to take it all in. Lately, I’ve been attending a lot of meditation/yoga retreats, enough to learn that the most important part of a retreat is the first few days after, and that it takes many, many periods of retreating and returning to daily life to practice integrating the two.

I’m wondering if the mark of a true traveler is not in their ability to get-away but in their ability to get back into daily life with their traveler heart still intact. I’m thinking that the best time to ask me what I’m looking for is when I return.

Some Savasana in Chiang Mai

May 22nd, 2012

I ended up in Thailand because it’s my philosophy that as long as you’re flying through a country, you might as well spend some time there. (Although this did once get me stuck in Brunei for too long.) I chose Chiang Mai because it’s known as a center for yoga, reiki, meditation, and Thai massage courses. Because I am very interested in and extremely afraid of (my two prerequisites for all my travel activities) touching people, a massage course seemed like a good way to end my trip.

I researched courses, asked friends for recommendations, and visited specific schools, but after a few days in Chiang Mai, I lacked the motivation to commit to 5 or 10 days with a hard-fast schedule, or pack up and leave my guesthouse, a tree-shaded complex in which I’d splurged on a $15/night garden-style room with a king-size bed and spacious living area. Resistant to signing up, I berated myself for my laziness. “When will you have another opportunity to learn Thai massage?” a voice asked. “When will you have another opportunity to live freely without your cellphone attacking you?” my own voice countered.

My first few days were marked by the decision-making fretting that has accompanied every new destination on this journey. I picked my fingernails, tossed and turned in my sleep, and ate my anxiety in mass quantities of mango, coconut, banana, and the occasional salted insect. The hardest decisions I’ve made on this trip have involved not doing something — not going to India, not posting the blog I wrote about trekking, and finally, not enrolling in a massage course.

Which left me faced with the backpacker conundrum — how to fill the next 10 days — move on to the river-town of Pai, volunteer at an elephant park, day trip to Burma? Everywhere you go on the road, if you take a look around, there’s always another destination, another must-see “monkey show,” another opportunity to miss. But here the activity touts were so passive, sleeping in their tuk-tuks or sangtheows, my only exchange seemed to be some version of:
“Hey, Mr. Long-Haired Guy, Where you from?”
“The U.S.”
“U.S.A., then why you so short?”

This “city,” especially the old city where I stayed, was so quiet and peaceful with its Wat (Buddhist temple) lined streets that I slipped easily into a near aimlessness, a daily yoga class as my only foundation.

Even though I’d launched my trip with a yoga retreat in Bali, I had not anticipated that yoga would become the through-line, the constant that I’d return to again and again at other retreat centers and studios, as well as guest house rooms and balconies. Here in Chiang Mai the class offerings and teachers were particularly strong, and I branched out beyond my usual vinyasa flow to take some special classes like “yin yoga for the digestive system,” “modified ashtanga series,”  and “mandala flow.” Each night I’d peruse the schedule and turn whatever class I chose for the following day into the main event, often surrounding it with a wander to a used bookstore or a vegetarian restaurant.

I kept to myself quite a bit for these two weeks, but by the end, I was regularly talking to people. It may be a universal rule of yoga that if you show up at the same studio every day, and the studio has a heart, you’ll eventually have friends. I started to feel at home at Wild Rose when I noticed that Rose would greet me before I’d even entered the place, catching me or my ponytail through the window.

On my last day, I booked the latest flight out so that I could attend a “visions and vinyasa” workshop led by Jenny Blake, a teacher and life coach from NY. I really wanted to take the opportunity for a body-centered inquiry into what I envision for myself when I return to San Francisco. Home had definitely been on my mind. My intention for this part of the trip was, as I’d written in my journal, to prepare for coming home.

This was the last leg (not counting a quick visit to a friend in Taiwan), my final chance to practice all that I’d learned without distractions. I ate most of my meals in silence (no reading while food was on the table), tried to walk everywhere with awareness, and sat for meditation in the mornings with a renewed focus. I also took the opportunity to dabble in my growing interests. I tried a one-day Reiki course and a half-day back/shoulder/neck massage course to see if next time a longer course might be for me. Mostly, I did a whole lot of nothing except rest and absorb, treating it like a savasana before I curled into the fetal position, sat up, and opened my eyes to face the Western world.

In yoga, savasana has always been my most challenging pose. To just lie there and do nothing is incredibly hard. To arrive in a new city and do nothing or close to nothing, emptying the space of activities instead of filling it with them is incredibly hard. “Some people say that savasana is the most important pose of all,” Jenny said during that final workshop, “That it is the only pose that matters.” How true, I thought, how very true.

How to Save Ladybugs from your Body Hair and Other Lessons from Kopan Monastery

May 6th, 2012

At the beginning of April, I took a ten-day Intro to Buddhism/Meditation Course at Kopan Monastery (near Kathmandu), and this is what I learned:

Taking a vow not to kill is harder to keep than it sounds.

Fiction withdrawal is painful — Ignore the voice inside your head that says “Just one short story. Nobody has to know.”

If you can only read Dharma books, the best escape is to go to the monastery bookstore and read Pema Chodron’s, “The Wisdom of No Escape.”

It’s okay to believe in reincarnation when you live at a gompa (i.e., a Tibetan Buddhist monastery), but when you return to the West, guard this secret with your life, this life.

The Tibetan word “gom” means to become familiar with; to mediate is to become familiar with your mind.

When most worldly pleasures are taken away, tea can turn into a vice.

Excessive body hair is a death trap for insects.

There may be no such thing as a dumb question, but there sure are unhelpful ones, like “Let’s say I go fishing, but I don’t kill any worms for bait, and the fish I catch is for a beggar, so my motivation is right, but the beggar will probably sell the fish to buy alcohol… Will this cause me to have good karma or bad karma?”

When a herd of goats circumambulate the stupa, they sure do leave a mess on the ground.

You can wash vegetables in cow pee-pee because it’s so clean, and cow dung is more useful than human ka-ka.

It is funny every time a nun says ka-ka and pee-pee. And oddly enough, nuns say this often.

Philosophy and religion are interesting to talk about, but practice is what matters.

Practice is what you do when things are going wrong, not right.

If you take a vow not to kill, you may inherently be taking a vow to save.

In a group of 105 Westerners new to Buddhism, allot them only 5 questions about reincarnation. Maybe then, they’ll use them wisely.

They may wear robes, but monklets are naughty little boys. (Which is why they need naps).

The only antidote to the effects of eating too much white bread is to drink too much nescafe.

If you develop a crush on a girl in your afternoon discussion group, it will be hard to concentrate in afternoon meditation.

A prostration is a bow, not to an image, idol, or a person, but to the wisdom it holds.

Regret and guilt are not the same thing. The former inspires change; the latter is useless self-flagellation.

It’s a relief to keep silence for two out of three meals a day.

Rescuing an ant, lady bug, or tiny insect from your body hair is extremely gratifying and very powerful.

You may start to hear a rallying cry in your head before you eat, or practice yoga, or meditate: “Do it for all sentient beings!”

Life is precious.

You may think that spending ten days in a monastery is an escape from reality, but deep down you know it’s bringing you a millimeter closer to reality.

“It’s Neti Time!” — A Nepal Yoga Retreat

April 1st, 2012

A dozen of us sit around an oval table, two candles offering the only light. In the main cities of Nepal, the electricity is out for around 12 hours a day. Load shedding (or rationing) it’s called, and the schedule varies day to day. Generators and solar power exist, but tonight, on the top level of the Sadhana Yoga and Meditation center, high above Lake Fewa, the candle flames set the perfect atmosphere for an impromptu concert.

A German guy has just returned from his trek, returned to this place where he’d previously spent a week, a place that feels like home. Those who know him hail his return with requests for songs on his portable traveler’s guitar. He opens with a narrative song about a monkey who yearns to fly only to realize he cannot land. Soon, I’m laughing harder than I have in weeks and singing along to a catchy chorus that goes, “Hey monkey, monkey… Hey monkey, monkey…”

On the far side of the lake are pinpricks of light from city of Pokhara, where every establishment caters to travelers — convenience stores that do your laundry, paragliding companies that will arrange your jungle safari, and too many restaurants misinformed about backpacker eating habits. I did not come to Nepal for white bread toast and spaghetti. Perhaps Lonely Planet can send a memo.

The scene in Pokhara is a more laidback version of Thamel, the backpacker neighborhood in Kathmandu, and a more uptempo version of the main town at Chitwan National Park — the other places I’ve been. Touts are significantly less annoying in Nepal than in other countries, but if like me, you don’t have a plan upon arrival, adventure-information overload is a danger. Whether you are ready or not, within a day almost any company can whisk you away to trek in mountains so high that altitude sickness is a reality. And I was not ready.

I came to Sadhana to rest my eyes from pinballing the storefronts, to find some likeminded and likehearted travelers, and to center myself before taking on the mountains, rivers, and as it would turn out, the sky.

The bell rings at 5:30 am, and we gather in the yoga hall for warm up exercises and morning meditation. The practice is centered around the repetition of mantras (“Om” and “So Hum”) externally and internally for concentration. My mind wanders as it always does during my own morning meditation, but I am surprised by lack of self-judgment, that in the past year it has become a tiny bit easier for me to sit still.

Following our morning herbal tea, Divyam rings the bell. “It’s Neti time!” he shouts from the balcony. When we are all gathered in the garden area, he begins, “Namaste and welcome to this nasal cleansing program.” All of the newcomers are nervous. Unlike me, they have never poured salty water into one nostril and watched it come out the other. Some people sound like they are choking or drowning, partially because they are laughing. The only appropriate way to end a group nasal cleansing is with a ridiculous physical exercises. Up and down we bounce, fingers tucked under our armpits in the chicken dance, forcefully blowing out excess water through our noses.

Our morning yoga session is led by the center founder, Asanga. He reminds me of a wizard and leads us in pranayama (breathing exercises) that I know but do not practice often enough. During the physical portion, we begin with pre-asanas that are like kindergarten calisthenics and then asanas (poses) that we hold for three minutes, timed by a stopwatch. It is one of my intentions to be open to a yoga style that is different from my regular vinyasa flow. I figure if I haven’t cut off friends in the States who practice Bikram the least I can do is be open to this branch of Hatha that extends back to India and the very roots of yoga. And while the method is very different, I have to admit that in this Himalayan land, “downward dog” looks a lot more like a “mountain pose” as it’s called here.

Every few days, we practice laughing yoga, a traditional (Buddhist) practice that has us squealing and cackling for no reason at all. At this time, Santo, a young guy who speaks little English and works in the background, runs up from wherever he is on the property, bursts into the room and breaks into a fit of hysterics that energizes us even more.

Usually, our morning walk is short and leisurely. We stroll past the “Great Compassion School,” or down to “Happy Village,” or kick around a soccer ball. The highlight of the day is breakfast, either because we’ve already been up for four-and-a-half hours, or because the banana lassi, lightly spiced like the masala tea, and the muesli with curd (yogurt) is amazing. One morning we count almost a dozen different items from coconut to apples to dried dates in our bowls. Because I am language inept, I learn only one Nepali phrase, but I practice it (and am corrected) at every meal. “Mitho cha!” Delicious!

The bulk of the midday is for hanging out. This means we sit on the veranda, watch the paragliders twirl above the lake, and engage in the typical backpacker banter. Q: How long are you staying? A: I don’t know, maybe 4 days, or 7 days, or maybe 10 days. Q: Where are you going next? A: I don’t know, maybe Thailand or Burma, or maybe I’ll just stay here? Q: Where is the best place you’ve been? A: India. Definitely India.

Surprisingly, I find myself looking forward to the noon meditation session. I’m headed into a Tibetan monastery for a Buddhism/meditation course soon, and I’d been afraid that I might OD on meditation. But the opposite occurs. I feel like I’m just warming up. As my larger trip begins to take on a shape of its own, it’s apparently unfolding around yoga and meditation. I seem to seek this out wherever I land, as if I’m taking a real world survey course in Eastern philosophy and practice.

And I’m a spiritual lightweight compared to the two girls who are finishing up their 21 days at Sadhana shortly before going into a hardcore Vipassana meditation course. I like them very much immediately, and in the couple days that our time overlaps, our connection feels effortless. I make friends while I am here, those I will catch up with when, on our own schedules, we all  re-enter civilization.

In the late afternoon, we practice karma yoga, thirty minutes of kitchen help, watering plants, cleaning the yoga space, or one time, shoveling rocks. I enjoy this tiny contribution to the upkeep of the community, but there is a deeper intention behind this practice. “Yoga is union of body and mind,” Durga (Asanga’s wife) says to me. “And in this karma yoga, the yoga of action, we unite our work with our body and mind in meditation.”

It is hard to practice this work-meditation if anyone begins jabbering away while we are peeling potatoes. But I observe it in Sunita, the cook who sings softly to herself behind us, and in Ganga, the workhorse and family elder who cleans, launders, and hauls firewood, always with a smile so deep and pure it appears ancient, as if she discovered joy in a time long ago, and only she knows the secret to maintain it. Karma yoga, perhaps.

And finally, the moment we all wait for. No, no, not the snack of masala tea and popcorn, but after. Chanting! “Now we will unite our beautiful voices in beautiful melodies and spread our beautiful energy,” Durga says, rolling her T’s. No matter how many times she says “beautiful,” it never gets old. Just like her smile, equal parts love and mischief. A leader of the village women’s group, Durga is strong and nurturing, exactly as her name suggests.

Every day, we pick three mantras/chants from the list, many that I recognize from home, but that Durga explains differently. While we sing, she plays the tambourine and her nephew, Kaushal, plays the drum. He often wears a Sid Vicious “Smoke the Herb” T-shirt, and sometimes in between sending text messages, he’ll casually and naturally fall into a few repetitions of “Om Namah Shivaya.” He is passionate about chanting, and he downloads a bunch of Nepali devotional music onto a thumb drive for me, an exciting surprise for when I get home.

Kaushal is my favorite. When he suggests I get up and dance at the end of one session, I climb over my own internal  resistance and rise in my spot. Prodded by the girls, and there are only girls, soon I’m in the center of the circle dancing alone to a chanting encore. I’m stepping outside of myself in this place, or maybe it is into myself. I am at ease in this environment, and I I soon notice that I am a resource for those who are new to yoga, meditation, and chanting.

Divyam leads evening yoga, which is always a mental challenge for me. Divyam is unadulterated sweetness, disciplined and dedicated, but he has a disciple’s demeanor and lacks the knowledge of Asanga. He passes on to us only what he recently learned and is unable to answer basic questions (asked often) like why we greet the morning with moon salutations and end the day with sun salutations. I’m not sure whether it is empathy, sympathy, or compassion but even as I’m regularly annoyed by stopwatch yoga, I alternate between these warm feelings toward Divyam, as well as myself for my own frustration and lack of focus.

After dinner, we do a quick candlelight meditation. When it’s over, Divyam places his palms together and ends this session in the same manner that he ends all of them. “This program is over. Thank you and Namaste.”

Seven days is a short time for me to experiment with a new form of yoga. Seven days is a long time for me to be away from booze, bud, internet, and especially coffee. This is probably the longest I’ve gone without those habits and substances since I was fifteen years old. I was so fearful about caffeine withdrawal that I brought a small bottle of emergency Nescafe that I never opened.

I felt at home the moment I arrived in Nepal, but it is only at the end of my week at Sadhana that I feel at home within myself. We practiced everything from extreme stillness to excessive laughter to stretching our eyeballs, and in the process, we received a lifelong foundation for yoga, or an addition to my existing foundation, something I’ll carry with me on the rest of my adventure. Some people travel to discover a new world, but I think I travel to discover myself in a new world, and it took a week of focus on my “sadhana” — my practice — to turn in before looking out.

Playing Gender in Munduk

March 16th, 2012

At a literary event the night before I leave for my trip, a random in the audience gave me the contact info for his friend, a queer guy living in Munduk, a small village in the mountainous north of Bali. A month later at midnight, Qian knocks on my guesthouse door in Ubud (returning from a quick jaunt out of Bali to renew his visa) and climbs into bed wearing only his underwear. In the morning, we wordlessly unroll our yoga mats. Before we hit the road, we have become friends.

Sometimes when you travel, you have control, or the illusion of control — some knowledge of where you are going and what will be there. And sometimes, you are along for the ride, accepting an invitation into the home and life of another, accepting what is offered. I make sure of only two things, boiled drinking water andvegetarian food, the second typical since meat is a luxury.

Qian and I are dropped off on the side of the road near a sign for waterfalls, these the main tourist draws in a town that receives one page in my guidebook. After a 7-minute walk on a dirt path, we approach a clearing where cock-fighting chickens and bred pigeons (apparently birds are decorative) and a well-behaved dog wander. Qian lives on the second level of this humble home in a tree-house like room with glass windows on three sides and a balcony that overlooks the orchard and misty valley.

Qian is here to study, practice, record, and produce gamelan music. As I understand it, gamelan refers to a collection of instruments (loosely reminiscent of xylophones, although some remind me in shape of clay pots used for cooking ) many with bronze keys set above bamboo tubes. The keys are struck with mallets, some round while others look like hammers.

Gamelan is everywhere in Bali. Everywhere. And along with performances and lessons I often see a phrase: “playing gender.” I cannot wait to ask Qian and shout at him, “What does that mean!?” He starts cracking up. The gender (with a hard “G” and an “er” sounding like “air”) wayang is a type of gamelan. With two trans guys, the jokes are endless.

I am excited to meet, Made, the gamelan teacher. He wears bifocals, has an intellectual mien, and everything about him cries musician — he builds and tunes gamelans, as well as teaches, composes, and plays. Having toured in the States, he speaks decent English and eagerly talks to me about his work. In fact, gamelan seems to be the only thing on his mind. During my first day, he sits around smoking, drinking coffee, messing around on the flute, and praying it doesn’t rain so that village gamelan practice will happen.

When it starts to rain at 6pm on my first night, Made turns to me, “Very bad, Nick, very bad,” he says. “God does not like gamelan.”

In the treehouse, Qian and I fall into one of our effortless conversations — about queer San Francisco, artist colonies, art fundraising, touring, or gender (soft “g”). We do not notice the rain has stopped until Made calls up to us. “No, no,” Qian whines.

“This is what I hate,” Qian says to me. “I never know where I’m going, for how long, what will happen, and when I’ll be back.” I get it. I totally get it. I’m along for a brief ride, but this is his  daily life.

Made, Qian, and I put on our headlights, plod through the mud, and reach the road where two helmetless young men on scooters pick us up. It is dark, wet, drizzling, and for 2 kilometers along a very windy, hilly road, I think only of one thing — dying.

About a dozen men — ages fourteen to sixty — arrive slowly, cigarettes gangling from their mouths. The gamelans are aligned in pairs on a long raft of cement protected by a corrugated metal roof. Along the cinder block wall, bamboo flutes (sulings) hang. One coiled light on a string hangs from the ceiling. Water drips off of the leaves and roof, a pitter-patter of drops soon overtaken by the twinkling of keys.

Supposedly they are learning a new piece, but it sounds practiced. Up close, what impresses me the most is the way the musicians strike the keys with the mallets and quickly stop each key with the base of a hand. Their movements are so quick, like a magician’s trick, a sleight of hand that I hadn’t noticed until now.

They practice for a couple hours until coffee is served and the animated conversation eventually dies down. It is midnight before we are back on scooters and making our way home.

We are staying with Made’s daughter and her family (her husband and three kids). None of them speak English, and I am aware that I am communicating wholly with my body language, my face, my walk, and the few Indonesian words I know. My new favorite words are “Makan, Makan” — “Eat, Eat.”

This is shouted up at us constantly for we are fed constantly — fried bananas with palm sugar, chayote, bamboo shoots, greens that the son hands to his mother through the kitchen window, tapioca, cassava roots boiled and fried, cassava greens — and always white rice. We do not eat with the family for reasons I don’t understand; the cooked food remains under a dirt-caked fly protector, and people eat whenever they want.

Everyone in the family sleeps downstairs on a collection of mattresses, some without sheets, that rest on the floor in front of TVs that blare constantly. We all share the bathroom with a real squat toilet, not the kind at tourist spots where you bring your own toilet paper and leave it in the waste basket on your way out. No shoes are allowed inside the bathroom, or the house.

I do very little while here other than go on a short trip to the waterfall. The middle child, the son, silently guides me. This kid is beautiful, all of them are. He is lanky with fuzz over his lip, ears that stick out, and a kindness that makes me believe (mistakenly perhaps) that he will not become an angry, sullen teenager like those in America.

It is always raining, or about to rain, the water occasionally dripping through the roof of the treehouse onto the bed. Mostly, we work. While I write, Qian sits at a stool in front of his computer (using a modem that uses radio waves) engaged in the creative and business aspects of gamelan  — choosing songs for an album, doing the cover art, contacting producers.

I write about Ubud. It takes me such a long time to write the blog post, longer than it should; it always does. In the past couple weeks, I have been rejected (or waitlisted) by the three artist colonies/retreats I applied to for the summer. I have been falling in and out of that rejection spiral — the why bother, “I suck” spin — that every writer experiences.

I look over at Qian with his headphones tuned to his music, and I think of the lunacy of artists, the lunacy of travel, the lunacy of love — the passions that call us, the cultures that steal our hearts, the people who become family. Somehow, isolated in this treehouse on an orchard, high in the mountains of Bali, it all makes sense, for a second, anyways. For this is where the two of us ended up when we let go of the illusion of control.


Check out Qian’s blog to hear the gamelan, support his work, and learn a thing or two from the master about this pretty amazing music.

What I Find in Ubud…

March 13th, 2012

The faint moonlight silhouettes palm trees against a blue-black sky. Inside the open-air Yoga Barn studio, over twenty of us — travelers and ex-pats — gather for the first in a new bi-weekly evening series, Bali Dharma Talks, a lecture and discussion about local life.

A spotlight shines on a pull-down blackboard. “Mula Keto,” our speaker writes. It means, “That’s just the way it is.” It’s something parents say and reminds me of the American version, “Because I said so.” Except that here there is a nuance. It’s based less on about authority and more on faith. It means just do it, but also implies trust it, believe in it. “Mula Keto” is the response when kids question the many offerings, ceremonies, and rituals that define village existence.

Our speaker writes and connects “spirituality,” “humanity,” and “environment” — balanced in harmony. Above this micro-level is the macro-level, one word “Universe.” At the very top, he writes “God.” He explains that this organizational system does not come from a specific book, class, philosophy, or religion, but is the tradition imparted to him growing up. His lecture is a series of digressions, and I collect the pieces that resonate with me, tonight and at other times, creating a patchwork understanding of the culture, or many cultures (for each village is unique) here.

He describes Ubud as a village and shares a bit about his childhood back when the main street was a dirt road and the market a field, before the trees were cleared for the arrival of electricity in the mid-seventies. He is not romanticizing, but bridging, the past to present, and to the future, accepting his responsibility and teaching us about ours as the inevitable growth and change continues all around us.

Ubud is a thriving tourist town and my home base in Bali. On the surface it is similar in many ways to my true home, the Castro — a tourist mecca and a theme park that I call “Gay Disneyland.” Ubud is a Yogi Disneyland, a spiritual theme park. The stores and restaurants pull from Sanskrit and Hinduism — Satya Jewelry, Ahimsa Clothes, Atman Cafe, Lakshmi Books, Saraswati Bungalows, and Durga Burger — Ok fine, I made the last one up.

I absolutely love it here. I pretend the Yoga Barn is Yoga Tree and attend classes in the morning and events in the evening. A Kirtan led by a visiting Ozzie, Kevin James, is one of the highlights, a foot-stomping, hand-clapping, musical extravaganza, a beautiful co-mingling of voice and sound, celebrating community and expressing devotion.

With my ponytail, fisherman pants, and white (albeit tan) skin, I fit in well in this scene and am almost too comfortable. I branch out by trying a chanting night affiliated with a massage center and ashram. A candle flickers in front of a lone frangipani flower in the center of our intimate three-person triangle. A Balinese man, Putu, plays the guitar and leads us in familiar chants with unfamiliar melodies, including one with the twist of a local tongue that substitutes W’s for V’s. From our hearts, we repeat “Om Namah Shiwaya” over and over and over again.

I find it expansive to explore what I was first introduced to in my San Francisco yoga world in here in Bali. I like seeing a much larger form of the Ganesha I have on my home altar guarding the front of many of the temples, guesthouses, and stores, removing obstacles, clearing the entrance. I like seeing a performance of the Ramayana at the palace. Even though I do not take to Legong Dance, when Hanuman and his vanara army enter I excitedly poke the Canadian singer-songwriter I coerced to come along. “Look, Hanuman!” I say. “This is the best part.”

Unlike the rest of Indonesia, much of Bali is Hindu. I’m told that as time marched on, foreigners arrived, and Muslims conquered, Bali was safely isolated due to the coral that thwarted boats. The Hindu that remains is mixed with animism, and as I gather, because I’m always gathering, somewhat specific within each village.

A unifying trait is devotion, expressed in rituals and ceremonies that are so constant, time-consuming, and expensive (especially if a lot of deaths occur in a year) that I begin to wonder if they are excessive. On a long day of temple sightseeing, we pass a shocking number of processions and temple anniversaries. My driver, Apel, attended a cremation the day before. “Do the ceremonies ever get to be too much?” I finally ask him.

“Yes,” he says, laughing like I caught him. But in his laugh, I can also hear, “Mula Keto.”

I spend a big part of the day in the car with Apel, talking the whole time. He is married with a four-year old son, and he recently borrowed a large amount of money to buy a tiny piece of land, 125 sq meters, to build a house. “Every day, I wake up nervous,” he says, gesturing a hand over his heart, pumping it hard against his chest.

His English is terrific, not just the words but the slang and the sentiment. He calls one of his friends a “high-class playboy” with a hint of admiration. “But that is not me,” he says. “I have to be me.” He desperately wants to be a good father and husband, speaks apologetically about occasionally drinking Arak, the local spirit (made from palm leaves) with his friends.

He is so earnest and honest. My skin feels translucent, like it can no longer protect me. I discover we are the same age, a few months a part. He wears a Hurley T-shirt and a pair of blue jeans. I feel a deep kinship with him. He teaches me much, including a new Balinese word, “taksu” — inner beauty, and I understand perfectly because I see it so clearly in him.

At Tanah Lot, I walk across the shallow ocean to the base of this temple; it’s so perfect it looks like it belongs in a snow globe. A couple hours later, I explore Uluwatu, another seaside temple, this built on a cliff so sheer and steep it is as if a sharp knife sliced off this bit of land. The view, the sense of the end of the earth, is the allure of these temples — homages to the ocean. It is a bit bizarre to feel the essence of God, then get in line behind a busload of Singaporeans to capture it in a picture. I enjoy my time in the car with Apel as much, maybe more than the temples.

On my last day in Ubud, I visit Sari Organic, the restaurant in the middle of the rice fields. I am thrilled to be outside the bustle of the town center. On the walk, I pass signs for places to rent by the month, and although I’d once thought I might seek a rental, settle for a bit and write here, I quickly realized that this trip is not for working on a project, but is a respite between projects.

I spend hours at this restaurant, many more than I intend, eating vegetables and chatting with a yogi and an Asia-phile who has been coming to Bali for twenty years. She is a New Yorker (it takes one to know one) but in the seventies, she lived in San Francisco, the Castro. She speaks with nostalgia about this time, a period along with the eighties and early nineties that I have pieced together from documentaries, archival footage, books, and friends.

The “Gay Disneyland” where I have made my home for the past 7 years may be full of tourists paying too much money for ironic underwear and bad dance music, but it is also the neighborhood where early liberation and freedom was experienced, community grew around enormous devastation and loss, and part of the foundation that allows for my queer existence was built. You can see Disneyland, or you can find the hallowed ground underneath.

As I walk back to my guesthouse on none other than Hanuman Street, I pass one of the places I have not visited on this trip, Taksu Yoga. In total, I’ve spent more than two weeks in and around Ubud, but I am only beginning to see behind the words painted on the storefronts, to discover what taksu means.

Perhaps next time I’m here I’ll rent one of those houses in the rice fields…