Purifying Change: A Baptism of Fire

The yoga world is ablaze as abuses of power come to light. It is a baptism of fire as old structures burn and we create new paradigms for the future.

The Blazing Truth

I watched the flames from my bedroom window.

The church was on fire – again. It was 1986 and this would be the third fire for St. Stephen’s in fifteen years. Each time, the fire would be contained and the damage quickly cleaned.

But then two years later, a different kind fire erupted. And this one broke loose. This time, it wouldn’t be put out.

Historic and rampant sexual abuse within the Catholic Church. First, it was our associate pastor who was convicted. A few years later, the pastor committed suicide amid more allegations

I can’t help but think, maybe some fires just need to burn.

“Barn’s burnt down / Now I can see the moon” — Mizuta Masahide

Burn Baby Burn

That same year, another massive fire started. This one in Yellowstone National Park.

Of course, fires are nothing new in Yellowstone. In fact, its landscape and ecosystem are largely shaped by fire. I mean, it literally sits atop a super-volcano! (Dormant, of course).

And fires serve a purpose. They are necessary – some even prescribed – to remove disease-ridden plants, encourage new growth, and even help prevent bigger, more catastrophic fires. Except in 1988, the fire got so out of control that it burned more than half the park.

That’s 500,000 acres of plants, trees, and animals – destroyed. It wasn’t clear if the park would ever recover.

And all the while, the park let it happen. For years, all fires were suppressed and extinguished – a short-term strategy that seriously damaged the entire eco-system, leaving it over-crowded, diseased, far more vulnerable in the long run.

So park officials had now adopted an opposite approach: to sit back and just watch.

But nothing is protected if everything is destroyed.

Some fires need our attention.

If You Can’t Stand the Heat …

I was in college when all the sexual abuse within the church became known. And the truth is, I had already begun to drift away for other reasons. So the abuse sealed the deal for me – I was done. I left.

My parents did not. But it wasn’t because they weren’t horrified – they were. So much so that my mom in particular has made her role in the church as much of a crusade to seek and create reform as anything else. (I often think now, the higher-ups WISH she would’ve left!)

Admittedly, my younger self judged my mom for staying. My righteousness came easy. I had no relationship. No fondness. So for me, this was not a complicated decision.

It is now, though.

Because now it’s the yoga world that is on fire. And not just in Ashtanga. It seems every community, every lineage, is currently having to own their own historical abuse of power.

And now I stand in my mother’s shoes. I only hope I can fill them.

Tongues of Fire

Fire is one of the most basic natural cleansing processes. It’s how water is purified and instruments, sterilized. Certainly there are other ways, but none that are quite as rapidly efficient.

There is literal purification by fire, but also one that is spiritual. And why in nearly every spiritual practice, fire is a common element of transformation. From burning bushes to tongues of fire, the message is clear: when God wants your quick and undivided attention, expect things to get heated.

And in the yoga practice, we aren’t taught to wait. We generate that heat on a daily basis. It’s called tapas, that daily, disciplined practice that serves as a necessary part of our own distillation process.

But here’s the beauty of it – what is pure is also simple. Or as Eddie Stern might say, it all boils down to One Simple Thing.

I get it. It’s upsetting each time a guru falls. With every crack in the system, our faith takes another hit. Or it would if it is in idols and institutions where your faith rests.

Mine does not. Catholicism is a deeply flawed institution, but it wasn’t all bad. Because the one lesson I walked away with is perhaps the very one that carries me now: God is not the church. Only God is pure.

In the same sense, Ashtanga Yoga is a method. And I’ve always known it was flawed. So the fire doesn’t scare me. Because what is actually burning? A structure? An idea of perfection? Dogma? Our silence?

Not the moon. The moon is still there. And in fact, maybe now we can see it better without the walls in our way.

Besides, if there’s ever a barn to be burnt to the ground, it’s the structure of silence in which we’ve abided – everywhere.

My silence has not protected me. And your silence will not protect you … for it is not difference that immobilizes us, but silence. And there are so many silences to be broken. – Audre Lord, Sister Outsider

So let these things burn. Let the fire do its work.

For the Catholic Church, the destruction is still happening – giving even more rise to voices like my mom’s and my Aunt Ellen – who wrote this Washington Post Op-Ed. Change is much slower than they wish but would be nonexistent without them.

Nature is far more resilient than we can ever anticipate.

So too was the growth in Yellowstone. The fire burned fast and fierce until the first snow and no one knew what to expect after that winter. But as it turns out, nature is far more resilient than we could ever anticipate.

My husband, Robert, remembers the park both before and after the fire. And of all the changes that came about, there is one he always takes time to appreciate – the parts of the park no one could access or even see before the ’88 fire.

“You see that river over there and that mountain? Before the fire, you couldn’t see any of that,” Robert always reminds me.

“It was the fire cleared that the way.”