New Monasticism: A Feminist Perspective From a Woman, Yogi, Mother, and Spouse (excerpt)

By V.K. Harber

I am many things: a woman, a yogi, a mother, a spouse, a writer. I am also a contemplative. Before you begin imagining me serene and peaceful, clothed in flowing robes and residing on a mountaintop, allow me to tell you straight away: I’m not that kind of contemplative. No, I am elbow-deep in the business of life and all the mess and beauty that it entails: family, children, sex, love, relationships, and work. I am a new monastic.

Central to my interpretation of new monasticism is the acknowledgment that we cannot effect change in the world unless we are deeply and wholly engaged with it, embracing it at every turn. The goal of the new monastic movement is not only personal transformation for the individual, but radical social change. From where I sit, personal transformation that does not motivate one to become actively engaged in the work of healing and rebuilding our broken systems is not what the world needs right now. This feels especially true both as I reflect on my own experiences and those of other women within these systems, as well as when I consider the futures of my children. I cannot help but see the urgency, the necessity, of engagement. Even if my spiritual practice led me to a place of personal contentment, how could I be content with the state of the world?

As a yogi, a mother, a wife, a woman, I have experienced that spiritual transformation of the individual not only can occur within the framework of a full family life and career, but that it is even more likely to occur if one is completely committed to the transformative process. If one chooses to see it, every interaction and experience can serve as spiritual practice. The experiences that are provided by a deeply engaged and full life are, therefore, invaluable. And these experiences as engaged members of society, struggling ourselves within the broken systems that need to be fixed, provide the necessary motivation to effect radical social change.

I can only speak from my own perspective, which is that of a married heterosexual female mother, so none of what I say about my own experience excludes or minimizes the experiences of men and fathers or non-heterosexual persons or people partnered in different ways. But from my perch in the world, I find myself asking these questions: Why I am I drawn to this movement? How does this affect the way I live my life? What kind of presence am I in this world? What do I want to embody? How does commitment to the transformative process manifest in my life?

I came to Yoga via what Matthew Fox might call the “yoga of despair”. I was in the deepest depths, unsure of how to keep living, unsure I even wanted to keep living. Yoga, very literally, saved me.

Now as a yoga teacher and student, one of my greatest ongoing frustrations is witnessing it being used as a means of pacifying the masses through the commodification of Spirituality. It has become a popular way to engage in a shallow new-age spirituality that, while not entirely useless, is far from authentic. Inner Peace is the product and people are buying. Trite slogans abound, serving the purpose of making a person feel as though they are on the path to some form of enlightenment, without asking anything of them. Spending 90 minutes on a yoga mat, five or ten of them in meditation, will not bring true inner peace and more importantly will not heal the world. We do not serve humanity if the end goal of our yoga practice is to feel good.

After years now of practice and teaching, my relationship to Yoga and its place in my life is still constantly evolving. When I can set aside my frustrations with how it is practiced in the West I realize how much clarity it has given me in recognizing what I want to embody in the world. The yogic framework is what allowed me to re-enter into a relationship with God after the troubled start I had with my family of origin. I experienced a wholeness, a completeness in my practice that once experienced and named, I could bring “off the mat” as they say, and into the world. The yogi’s commitment to non-violence, which encapsulates all other commitments and moral obligations towards Self and others is perhaps the guiding principle of my life.

A commitment to non-violence involves more than abstaining from physical, mental, and emotional violence. It means being actively engaged and committed to peace. Not just talking about peace, but creating it through thoughts, words, and actions. By choosing peace when there are other, perhaps easier, choices to make.

My yoga practice occurs on many levels: physically, energetically, mentally, in relation to my inner wisdom, and spiritually. I do inventory every day, sometimes multiple times a day. How do I feel in my body? What is my body communicating to me? How is my energy? Am I feeling depleted? Am I feeling full? Am I spending my energy wisely? Do I need to plug any energy holes? Where is my mind today? Is my mind quiet and calm or loud and chaotic? Am I clinging to thoughts? Am I retelling stories over and over again? What are my knowledge and experience telling me? What wisdom is revealing itself to me today? How connected do I feel to God and all other beings? If I feel disconnected, what do I need to do to reestablish connection?

It is this daily practice that helps me to be at ease, a prerequisite for being present in the world in a positive way. If I am distracted by physical discomfort, if my energy is depleted, if my mind is overactive or sluggish, if I am not paying attention to wisdom as it is revealed to me, and if I am not feeling connectedness I cannot and will not be a healing presence in the world.

As a yogi who came to Yoga from such a broken place and one who is well acquainted with despair, I know firsthand it’s potential for healing and creation of wholeness. As such it is not enough for my practice to remain personal. I feel called to share my story, to empower others to share their stories, and to create and hold space for others to experience healing.

As teacher, I struggle very much with knowing the best way to teach each student. Most people come to Yoga, not seeking spiritual awakening or total transformation, but something that on the surface appears very superficial. I try to be very aware of the need to listen and trust what a person is telling me they need, rather than deciding for myself what they really need, even if I know what they are saying is not what they mean. Many times it is not that they are completely unaware of what they need, it is that they simply lack the vocabulary to express it.

I was a yoga teacher before I was a parent, but I’ve discovered that both relationships are dependent on a need to be able to tune into another person without projecting. So much of being a yoga teacher is simply taking a person in without judgment and this is surprisingly done with few words. It’s not what you say to a student, it’s how you make them feel. And unless you are at ease yourself, you will never be able to put another at ease.

A few years ago I started working with a group of women who were living in a group home after serving time in jail for mostly drug-related offenses. They were all recovering addicts who were in a program and attempting to regain custody of their children. It was one of the few group homes that would allow women who had already regained custody to stay while they found a job and a place to live. All of them were victims of sexual violence to varying degrees. To even attempt asana practice with these women would have been a waste of time and energy at best, and harmful to everyone at worst. For people who have never experienced sexual violence (though I would argue that most women have to some extent or another) even if they are not embodied, they can still begin a physical practice. At first they will be punishing their bodies, forcing them, treating them like objects, but hopefully they will eventually move beyond that and into some form of embodiment. However, for women who have experienced sexual violence, who know intimately what it means to have their bodies forced, used, controlled, and subjugated by another, a physical yoga practice is virtually impossible. Their bodies are a source of shame, fear, and pain. Asking them to move them in unfamiliar ways is simply asking too much for where they are. Our entire yoga sessions were spent breathing. That’s it. We sat or lay down and focused on our breath. We noticed the effects the breath had on our bodies, our minds, our energy. I grew more as a yogi and a yoga teacher from teaching these women than I have from all of my other teaching experiences combined.

If my Yoga practice happened only in my home or on my mat and never motivated me to teach, to engage with a community, what purpose would it serve beyond my own personal joy? And would I truly be able to experience joy if I were not involved in this work? I can recite Yoga sutras and I can talk endlessly about yogic philosophy, but what good is any of it if I am not using it to build relationships, to facilitate healing (my own and others)? While traditional monastics have chosen to live sequestered, literally or figuratively, as a new monastic I am compelled to use the wisdom I’ve gained from my practice to engage deeply with the world.

V.K. Harber is a yogini, a writer, and co-founder and former Managing Director of Samdhana-Karana Yoga: A Healing Arts Center, a nonprofit yoga studio in Tacoma, WA, USA. As a teacher she has specialized in teaching yoga to person with limited mobility, PTSD, and developmental delays, though she loves teaching people of all abilities. This is an excerpt from a longer work by.