September 12, 2011

Fierce Medicine & Forrest Yoga. (Kind of a Book Review)

When, at the beginning of yoga class some months ago, the teacher mentioned an upcoming Forrest Yoga workshop, I promptly piped up to ask: is it gonna be in a forest?

Does not every journey toward truth and healing commence with a smart-assed remark? No? Okay, anyway, I was then told about Ana Forrest, who emerged from a history of horrific abuse, bulimia, and addiction to create a style of yoga focused on healing.

Pain, whether physical, emotional, or spiritual, need not be a constant in your life. You can always choose to develop a different relationship to it, so if you cannot walk free of it completely, you can liberate yourself from the suffering you’ve attached to it. That is a walk of freedom.
Ana Forrest (all quotes in this review are taken from Fierce Medicine)

Following the workshop, I looked forward to reading her book, Fierce Medicine, and, a couple months later, the universe—or, at least, that sector of the cosmos known as Elephant Journal—responded by sending me a copy. If one thing became rapidly clear in this hybrid autobiography/self-help manifesto/fearlessly unorthodox yoga manual, it’s that, far from the hippie teacher I’d imagined intoning languid affirmations amongst the trees and flowers, Ana Forrest is the kind of yogi who’d kick my wisecracking ass, and an ass-kicking fierceness is at the heart of her yoga.

Warriors are strong poses, and you can’t wuss your way through them.

Forrest describes her take on asana practice as a practical, if intense, method for working through pain, trauma, and powerful emotions like fear, learning to track through feeling, riding the wind horse of the breath. In the process, she’s daring and metaphorical, mystical and sometimes baffling, painfully sincere and sometimes flat-out offensive, but never boring or predictable. At times, her stories—the sweat lodge ritual in which she disemboweled and killed her wounded inner child with a knife; being rescued, apparently, by her Sacred Ones after (literally) jumping off a 30-40 foot cliff—might make readers suspect she’s a true visionary, or total lunatic, or a bit of both.

My choice of Kali as a healing partner might be frowned upon by some in the Yoga world, where one of the most sacred principles is ahimsa, the vow of nonviolence, the pledge to do no injury to sentient beings. But I’ve never taken that vow; that’s not how I roll. I am so not a turn-your-cheek person. (This is why those nice Jainists never invite me to their picnics.)

For those who’ve read enough yoga books that there seems little to look forward to in a new one beyond once again reviewing the yamas, koshas, and asanas, hoping for slightly different perspectives and elusive bits of information somehow left out of all the others, Fierce Medicine may be a welcome change. Throughout the book, Forrest is unflaggingly unorthodox and original, drawing from a mixture of traditional yogic and Native American traditions, woven together with her own insights. As such, she brings in a lot of variations and practices that might be unfamiliar to even seasoned yogis—from her emphasis on active feet and hands to fear journals to Death Meditation.

How often did I hear from my Yoga teachers, “You must first love yourself before you can love others”? That’s a myth. If I had to do that, I’d be dead.

And, while, clearly, she has great reverence for (some) teachers and traditions, she’s not a starry-eyed seeker bowing down before every hallowed custom, musty book, or solemn old man armed with a robe and accent. Refreshing iconoclastic, she doesn’t shy from profanity, negative thoughts, or disrespecting her elders, and is bound to ruffle some feathers (and, in fact, clearly intends to).

Although I studied yoga with B. K. S. Iyengar himself, the most important lesson I learned from him was to disobey the dictator…

The book also may serve as an antidote to idealized modern yoga narratives, meant to coax people into yoga studios and show just how spiritual their authors are. Forrest makes clear that, for all its benefits, no practice is a Get Out of Samsara Free card. Her stories of continuing struggles with unhealed wounds, severe bulimia, and other forms of abuse even after becoming a prominent yoga teacher—not to mention that she sometimes seems a bit nuts—make clear that, whatever one’s beliefs or practices, healing is an ongoing process. And, as importantly, for all she has to impart, she’s not knocking revered teachers off their gilded pedestals in order to take their places, but is still down here struggling with the rest of us.

When you first start to Speak Truth, it may come pouring out, like verbal puke.

And some may struggle with Fierce Medicine. The way the book weaves from sometimes phantasmagoric autobiography to philosophy and psychology to bare-bones instruction can be disconcerting. The same can be said for sometimes jarring changes in tone, as, within the course of a couple of paragraphs, she’ll go from talking about sparkling energy that delights the Spirit to stop making such a damn drama about it and just get up. Then, clearly, Ana Forrest likes being disconcerting, and keeping readers alert is exactly her intent. Habitual sleepwalking through comfortable patterns and accepted ideas is precisely what she wants to disrupt.

What’s the one small step you can take to change an unhelpful pattern? If the answer is ‘Nothing,’ you’re not being creative enough.

Certainly, I found that such a hybrid style broke the book into parts I enjoyed reading sitting in my coffee shop chair, and others I skimmed through with plans to explore further back home on the yoga mat. Then, this isn’t a book meant to be simply read and put on the shelf. And, while some asana addicts might be tempted to skip through the narrative parts to the instruction, the parts do, ultimately, fit together, beautifully placing practice within the larger context of the practitioner’s life.

I recognize healing when my students start having orgasms in their sex life—or even on the mat! (They’re quite happy to share this news with me.) Now that’s something to look forward to!

Her mixture of iconoclasm and reverence can also be disconcerting. At times, she mercilessly pummels the deceptive promises and feel-good spiritual diabetes of the yoga world. Then, just as I thought I’d found a long-lost skeptical sister, she’d start sounding every bit as woo-woo as those she mocks. Much as her eyes may have rolled when some rainbow-and-unicorn-obsessed dude suggested they were lovers in a previous life, they couldn’t have matched mine while reading about her project to magically sew up the ozone layer.

“Affirmations are like whipped cream on garbage,” she told us. “You can make it sweet, but it’s still garbage.”

But, then, it seemed, any time I was about to dismiss Forrest as a flake, she’d say something that seemed to cut through every bit of bullshit in the modern and not-so-modern yoga worlds and I thought hallefuckin’lujah, sister.

I had read everything I could find about enlightenment. But the more I read, the more despair I went into because these texts had nothing to do with me and my problems. Enlightenment? I just wanted to wake up without wanting to kill myself

(To which some readers might respond how nice that you two utterly clueless so-called yogis who don’t understand the vital importance of the correct path to enlightenment found each other. And that’s fine. Ultimately, Forrest makes clear that her practical philosophy is to take what works for her, and discard the rest. And, certainly, that’s the only way to read—or choose not to read—her book) (as well as my review of it).

There’s a difference between an open heart, which can feel, process, and stay steady, versus a stuck-open-window heart, which lets all sorts of crap fly in.

Anyway, I suspect Forrest would prefer eye-rolls and even disbelieving sneers to the blissed-out nods and mindless smiles of those eager to swallow anything labeled “spiritual,” and that she’d rather see her book burned than turned into dogma. I’m not about to do either, but am glad I read Fierce Medicine, and look forward to spending more time with it (the good parts, at least…).

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