Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Yoga and Montana's Tongue River Valley

I live on the line between Cambridge and Somerville, Massachusetts. This geography means, among many other things, that on weekend mornings, the streets are crawling with young, hip, well-educated seeming people, all wearing yoga pants/black tights and hurrying around with yoga mats poking out of their bike baskets/Timbuktu messenger bags/Patagonia backpacks.

Now, I get it. Yoga is great. Heck, wearing a pair of paint-covered shorts and a ratty sweater and intensely supervised by my dog, I just spent a lovely thirty minutes with an online yoga lesson, in the privacy of my living room. I stretched my leaden hamstrings and lengthened my cramped back and side body. And I feel much better than I did before. Similarly, I have many friends who have found enormous comfort and strength from consistent practice of the discipline. It’s helped with chronic back issues, allergies, pregnancies, pulled muscles, depression, body image issues, and a host of others slings and arrows that our flesh is heir to. So I’m not knocking yoga, itself.

But I am concerned, when I see the army of hipster yogis flocking to class all at one time because it seems like an army of sad robots, blinded to the world by an intense yearning for personal enlightenment, for personal peace. I’ve attended yoga classes on and off, and what increasingly disturbs me is how little connection is made between the practice of bodily-awareness and anything beyond the yoga studio. They look just as frantic, as stressed, as harried leaving the studios, largely, as they do streaming in.

So, what is all this glorious, heightened awareness of our chakras, our inner eyes, and our abilities to move the energy of a deep breath into heretofore unknown nooks and crannies of our bodies…what is all this for? Because the armies of Cambriville yogis I see commuting with yoga mats and canvas grocery bags seem no happier or more peaceful than their weekday counterparts running for the T in business casual. The majority of these people are rushing, yammering into their phones, and barely keeping their outer two eyes focused on the present, let alone their inner, third eye. All of this practice, all of these practitioners, and we’re not raising the collective consciousness an appreciable amount.

The problem may lie in the blurriness of the line between selfishness and self-awareness. Yoga, as practiced by the yuppies, hipsters, and hippies of my observation, seems to dance this line fairly consistently. The Deep Ecologist in my soul wants more. First you must become aware of yourself, then your community, then the wider world, until your empathy and awareness extends through everything. But these are not clean, linear steps—you can think and act a little more empathetically in the world, regardless of how perfect your crouching warrior or happy baby poses are. Thinking a little harder, practicing a little harder and more consistently about the everything beyond the body, everything to which we are a part, I suspect that this could lead to some pretty great individual and collective happiness, and possibly, greater peace, global and personal.

Here and elsewhere I have written about my commitment to the landscape that I love. If you get enough place-based folks together, it begins to sound like a revival tent sermon. Everyone bearing witness to their land, speaking in tongues and raising hands and hearts and practically swimming in the mutual love of individual landscapes.

And, to this I say, heartily, Amen and Hallelujah and Shalom and Insha’Allah and any other words of sacred peace and joy. Bear your witness, love your land, your communities, your home.

But, it is not quite enough anymore just to think of ourselves, our own lands. We’ve largely, found our voices, found the strength to speak our truths. And, having done so, the time is well nigh to listen to others, and to speak up for others’ truths. A bunch of individuals saying different things is noise—a bunch of people speaking together, this feels a little more powerful, a little more effective.

Pastor Martin Niemoller was imprisoned in two concentration camps for his vocal opposition to Nazi control of German churches. When he was released, he wrote these words:
“First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out—

because I was not a communist;

Then they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—

because I was not a socialist;

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—

because I was not a trade unionist;

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—

because I was not a Jew;

Then they came for me—

and there was no one left to speak out for me.”

A good friend of mine, Beth Raboin, wrote to me a last week to tell me about a project that she is working on. Beth lives in Billings, Montana and writes for both her own blog, walksonstilts.worpress.com, and for www.hothouseblog.org. Beth’s latest project is to go around the Tongue River Valley of Montana and find the stories that aren’t being told, the stories of the people of that magnificent landscape.

The West has a mythos of being a hard and beautiful landscape. The phrase “The West” alone inspires an admirable panoply of images of the American mythos. But the truth of the place, the true stories of a landscape that demands equal parts love and work, these are better than any fiction. And the West is not simply big mountains and cowboy hats, any more than New England is a Red Sox game, with some maple syrup on the side. Our places, wherever they are, are known and defined and held through the stories, through the human history as much as they are by anything else.

And Beth knows this. Her rationale for going into the field, for knocking on the doors of local cowboys and Indians alike, armed with her tape recorder, notebook, her irrepressible humor and willingness to listen, is because this land is under direct siege. I write a lot about how I fear something in me would die if the alpine zone or rocky coastlines of New England disappeared. And while climate change is a real and terrifying burglar, casing the security of my loved places and prepared to enter and rob me, and the world, of them, what the Tongue River Valley faces is far more direct, far more immediate.

A coal train is proposed to cut through the Tongue River Valley, to better connect with the coal mining in the Powder River Basin of Wyoming and Montana. The mining area is likely to be expanded, also, ruining other landscapes that are sacred to people, that are home to a wonderful variety of flora and fauna. I’m vehemently opposed to coal as a power source, so this whole “at least the coal is American and providing jobs” line is moot, with me. There are jobs in putting up solar panels and wind turbines, and the Powder River coal seems to largely go to China, so this train has no bearing on our country’s best interests.

Beth and the stories she will collect like a magpie are tools to stop the coal train. She aims to dig in, to find the stories of the people, the stories that tie them to this landscape, to tour the ranches and burial sites, and to mine the land for its better riches. More information about this project is at the Tongue River Legacy Project’s website. I hope in my bones that a collection of stories about how precious the land is will stop a coal train’s construction. The land is being revalued through these stories, re-known, learned and shared and its pride and the power of the people dusted off. Change has come from smaller seeds before.

In this battle for a better world, these words are my best tool. Beth wrote to me, asking, essentially, to hire my guns for the campaign to save a land she loves, that I barely know. She asked because I love places fiercely. All she was asking was that I transfer some of that love, some of that awareness, out of myself and onto a different place. Try it. Imagine your most beloved landscape, with your beloved people, ancestors and descendents and the living, all on the brink of being plowed under by a coal train. Or becoming a desert before your newborn baby is your age. Or your grandparents’ graves being washed out to sea. And know that somewhere, at any given time, these things are happening to another person’s beloved. The Tongue River Valley is one such place. It is not the only one.

One of my favorite yoga poses is Warrior. I like it because it stretches my back and my legs, which, after years of traipsing around the mountains, are chronically tight. I also like the name. It is time to take the strength and dedication and peace of such practices and make them real through our actions outside yoga studios. The world needs us to listen, and to speak out.


  1. granite gardenerJune 5, 2013 at 8:42 AM

    yes! inner strength, flexibility and peace moving outward :)

  2. This is beautiful. As a fellow yogi and land-lover, I agree completely!

  3. P.S. I think you might like this site I discovered recently, Decolonizing Yoga, which explores yoga from a social justice perspective.