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Teachers Matter

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Art by Elise Winters

A few Words for the Memorial of Elise Winters

March 3rd, 2019 at the Jewish Memorial Chapel in Clifton, NJ

by Sandi Higgins, February 2019

Boulder, Colorado

If I have anything to share in the radiant memory of Elise Winters, it is mainly thanks to my high school English teacher, Woody Rudin, who bragged affectionately about her every chance he got. I graduated from Northern Valley Regional High School Old Tappan in 1999, but Woody was still sending me personalized emails exploding with pride about his wife’s accomplishments all the way into 2010: Elise’s jewelry was showing at the Newark Museum, Elise’s jewelry was being worn by Gwen Ifill on PBS, Elise’s jewelry was rolling down the runway on the fashion models of Cynthia Rowley (and Woody was upset that the young fashion models were taken out of school indefinitely to work as models)… 

I have only met Elise Winters in person briefly with her husband, but I can tell you, she was always there with him even when she wasn’t. 

The last I saw Elise was with Woody after a theater performance that I gave at the Bergen County Players in Oradell, NJ in the summer of 2017. They had graciously attended my show, Chapter Two, and joined me and high school friends at the coffee shop next to the theater after the performance. Woody and Elise were vibrant as ever and exemplified the meaning of togetherness in every sense. I wondered what could be in their water because they both had such a glow. They appeared to me as the perfect symbiosis, a natural partnership that anyone could envy.

Rumi says, “Goodbyes are only for those who love with their eyes. Because for those who love with heart and soul there is no such thing as separation.” There may be no goodbyes for those who love with more than their eyes, but there is still grief for those who can no longer see the ones we love. Upon learning of Elise’s passing, I have tried like many to imagine: what words of solace could make a difference here? What words are strong enough to help lift the weight of grief?

As a teacher-figure, Woody has always encouraged my creative endeavors, in particular my writing. He has always given me an utmost sense of “being on to something”. That is the best way I know how to describe Woody as a mentor: he listens to what you have to say and looks back at you like you’re “on to something” (not “ON something” but “on TO something”). The joy with which he listens, the look in his eye, it all seems to suggest that there is something wonderful ever waiting to be discovered if one just follows their thread of inspiration. He doesn’t impose his own vision but naturally gives you the hope that yours has promise, that you have something of your own to develop. This is the quality of a real teacher. 

Years after I had graduated from NYU Tisch School of the Arts, while still struggling to make a living in the gritty, grimy, go-go-go of NYC, I got an invitation from Woody to join him at the Joyce Theater for a dance performance one night. Honestly, I felt ambivalent. I was uncomfortable in my own skin at the time. And is there anything scarier than facing someone who believes you have promise when the world has shown you how easily promises can be broken? Despite my ambivalence, I went to meet Woody. Of course, I heard more praise about Elise. And after our meeting for the dance performance, I somehow felt more hopeful. There were still good people in the world. Maybe I was still one of them.

Thank you Elise and Woody for sharing “a certain quality of light that seems to illuminate from within.” Peace be with you!

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Woody Rudin & Elise Winters
Obituary for Elise Winters (received by email)
Elise Winters, an artist and arts educator residing in Haworth, has died at the age of 71, having survived and thrived during 16 years of treatment for cancer at Englewood Hospital in New Jersey.
Winters’ artwork resides now in the permanent collections of six major museums in the country, including: the Racine Art Museum in Racine, Wisconsin; the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Newark Museum in Newark, New Jersey; the Museum of Art and Design in Manhattan, and the Mingei International Museum in San Diego.
In an article published by Ornament magazine in 2009, Winters was quoted as saying, “I have never been this happy about what I’m doing…the work I’m doing now feels like I found my voice and it’s flowing off my fingers.”
The article describes Winters’ one-of-a-kind art jewelry as having “a certain quality of light that seems to illuminate from within. This shimmering characteristic calls to mind the radiant sunlight of early dawn.”
She was chosen to be featured in the 2010 New Jersey Craft Arts Annual, titled “Make Me Something Beautiful,” held at the Newark Museum. Virtually all of the promotional advertising for that exhibition included images of Winters’ creations.
Prior to becoming a full-time artist, Winters taught art classes in various school systems, including the Dumont Schools, where she created a three-year program for photography which led a number of her students into careers as professional photographers.
She is survived by her husband, Sherwood Rudin of Haworth and two brothers: Aaron Winters of Rochester, New York and Dr. Dan Winters of Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
A memorial gathering is now being planned to celebrate Elise’s life and her contributions to polymer art and to arts education. This will be held at the Jewish Memorial Chapel in Clifton, New Jersey on Sunday, March 3 at 2:30pm. The date was set to give adequate time for friends, family and former students to make travel arrangements and to prepare remarks they might like to offer. Everyone receiving this email today should consider themselves invited to attend and to speak, if desired.
Those wishing to make donations in Elise’s honor should consider a contribution to the Oncology Department of the Englewood Hospital, or to the Racine Art Museum, in Racine, Wisconsin.

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Activism, Ashtanga, Buddhism, Hatha Yoga, Healing, Health & Wellness, Hinduism, India, Kundalini, Liberation, Meditation, MeToo, Perspective, Sexual Health and Wellness, Social Justice, Survivors, Times Up, Violence, Womens Wellness, Yoga

#MeToo Healing Part 3: Perspective & Kundalini

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It occurs to me that some people are uncomfortable with an open discussion of rape/sexual assault/sexual harassment, etc. There is a lot of fear around the subject of sexual violence. Indeed, an experience of sexual violence and its aftermath can be very frightening to say the least. Not everybody is ready to embrace the positive side of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements that are pointing out, stirring up, and overturning the violent social constructs that ignorantly underly our societies today.

So, I want to offer you a more invitational perspective.

A perspective that is also more hopeful. You might say that it is also more radical. My perspective offers you a way of looking at the experience of trauma as a form of yogic awakening, a psycho-spiritual upheaval in the uncoiling of kundalini. Please don’t roll your eyes at the mention of “kundalini” nor at the cliché association of yoga with “healing”. A French theater teacher of mine once told me, “a cliché is actually a truth just waiting to be dignified.” Let’s see.

This newfound understanding – I would also call it my way of integrating my own experience of trauma – has been churning in my consciousness for at least the past 7 years, at least since I started practicing the sadhana of Mysore Ashtanga Yoga. In this time, I have seen my relationship with life evolve in a process of expansive transformation that seems somehow connected to my practice.

Indirectly,  I feel this perspective that I am about to share here was crystallized just this past week in an intensive Ashtanga yoga workshop with Ty Landrum on the Ashtanga Second Series – also known as Nadi Shodhana (cleansing the subtle energy channels in our bodymind). In this Ashtanga vinyasa workshop, Ty inspired me (and probably everyone in attendance) to think more multidimensionally about our practice, and thereby, all that arises along the ever pulsating continuum that is life and death.

For me, this continuum includes – among other things – a traumatic experience 10 years ago at the International Society for Krishna Consciousness in Mumbai, India.

An important benchmark in healing from trauma seems to be the ability to access its memory without being overcome by it. I am so happy to have arrived at this benchmark.

Before this experience in Mumbai, I don’t recall ever feeling such a primal connection to my survival instinct, to the desire for life itself.

In the yoga workshop last week, Ty was saying how our desire for life is at the root of all other desires. There is one creative pulse at the source of our being. Yoga practice helps us to combat the existential estrangement we feel from this primal creative impulse.

Connecting with this creative pulse is what our yoga practice can ultimately do, and thereby, liberate. Tapping into our most primal desire for life itself can liberate us from all other desires (and subsequently: sufferings) because all desires stem, like fractal reflections, from this primal energy. This primal energy can be understood as bliss consciousness, and it can also be called, kundalini.

I’m going to elaborate a little bit here:

When kundalini rises in our bodymind (physiologically, from the root of the spine to the crown chakra), it inevitably confronts any psychic knots in our energy system. Whatever is blocking our psycho-spiritual development is blocking the flow of kundalini. These knots or blockages in our subtle energy system can cause real upheaval in our lives – like a lightening bolt hitting a rod can electrify whatever is touching that rod. Undoing these knots to free the inner flow is part of the practice of yoga. The “sudden” and “jarring” experience of knots coming undone is related to the practice of “hatha” yoga, which literally implies using force to awaken our bodymind.

Now, if we can understand “trauma” as a sudden and jarring effect on our nervous system, then we can start to see its functional integration in and to the context/process of hatha yoga practice, in which the Ashtanga vinyasa practice is rooted.

Personally, the traumatic experience that I had in Mumbai in 2009 put me first and foremost into a direct connection with my primal desire for life itself. The experience of this desire was completely overwhelming. I am a person who refuses to eat meat, however, at the moment that I was attacked on a life-or-death level, I felt ready to murder the man who was trying to murder me. I was determined to stay alive. I wanted to survive. I did not want to die in that moment as he tried to choke me. I did not want to die as he pinned my body under his. I kept fighting. I kept screaming.  I felt so strongly that I couldn’t let him shut me up. And I am sure that is how I actually got his hands off of my neck. That is how I got his whole body off of my body. Not by the strength of my arms but by the persistence of my voice. He was afraid that someone would hear me.

When he finally jumped up and ran away, I jumped up and ran after him. There wasn’t even a thought in my head. Until, suddenly, jarringly, I realized that I was running naked. This realization stopped me in my tracks. It was a Zero-Experience, an experience without any other reference point that I can offer.

For now, I’d like to add that recognizing this traumatic experience as a sudden and jarring awakening of my kundalini shakti has nothing to do with any moral judgement on the experience.

This perspective is not about passing a morality judgement.

Morally, I would say, my experience in that moment was negative and should not be something that happens to people. We should do what we can to prevent such harm from ever happening and that is the virtue of the #MeToo & #TimesUp movements.

Spiritually, however, I have to say that it is in fact how my karma unfolded in the awakening of my consciousness. This process of awakening is a positive experience.

Can you relate?

More on this in another post.

Love & Courage,

Sandi

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Activism, Ahimsa, Ashtanga, Health & Wellness, Hinduism, India, Liberation, Media, Meditation, MeToo, Paradox, Satya, Sexual Health and Wellness, SexualHealing, Shastriya Sangeet, Social Justice, Sustainability, Tradition, Violence, Womens Wellness, Yoga

#MeToo Healing Part 2: Media, Truth & Non-Violence (Satya & Ahimsa)

This is a video from the Indian TV news after I was raped/sexually assaulted at the International Society for Krishna Consciousness guesthouse in Mumbai, India in 2009. I still do not know what the reporters are saying in this video but I can tell you for sure that the animated depiction of two men knocking on my door, and “me” opening the door to converse with them in my room, is totally false. The way I am depicted is in blatant disregard for the facts, as if a fantasy by the reporters is acceptable journalism. I never wore a crop-top at ISKCON. I wore long kurtas. Nobody knocked on my door at the guesthouse apart from the man from room service delivering tea to my room the night before the attack. After drinking that tea, I blacked out. I woke up semi-conscious in the dark hours of morning with a man already violently moving on top of me.

Sexual violence does not heal in private. It festers. The mediation of our #MeToo stories – and the public investment therein – is essential to the healing of sexual violence because sexual violence is a social epidemic that can only survive if it can promote itself as something “private”.  Assuming that we want to end the epidemic of sexual violence that plagues the planet today – and that on this battlefield we are fighting for a healthier future for all – we must acknowledge that the media has a great responsibility to bring such “private” matters to the “public” in a skillful way that both public and private can win, or heal, together. Skills are what we go to school to develop, along with knowledge. However, speaking from my personal and direct experience, the mediation of sexual violence has felt like an unskillful, losing battle. 

When the media lacks integrity, we all lose. There is no healing where there is no truth nor, at least, the intention of seeking the truth. In Ashtanga yoga philosophy, the value of ahimsa (non-violence/non-harming) is connected with that of satya (truthfulness). Ahimsa and satya go hand in hand such that we do not use the seeking nor telling of the truth in a way that could be harmful to another. Telling our truth requires as much conscious intent as does seeking to know our truth.

This seems like a conundrum, especially for victims of sexual violence. How can I speak my truth about the harm that another has caused me without causing them harm in return? Two concepts need to be clarified to answer this question. First, what is harm? Second, what is my relationship with the one who has harmed me and the one to whom I am speaking about this harm?

First, harm is that which hinders or injures the integrity of another. We harm ourselves when we harm others. If one has already injured their own integrity by acting in a harmful way towards themselves or another, then it is actually helpful and not harmful to articulate this loss of integrity. Only by accepting a loss can we accept a gain to restore it. A crime can only be brought to justice if it is acknowledged as a crime. Justice is the restoration of balance in the pursuit of an ethical relationship with each other.

Second, all relationships are non-dual. This means that our experience of harm is something that has arisen in relationship, in a connection between the parts of a whole, and therefore it can only be resolved through relationship – not in some isolated and disconnected idea about “self” or “other”.  We too often take the part for the whole.

Perhaps the best metaphor for non-duality is to look at our own bodies. If there is pain in the knee joint, then there is something that has gone awry in the relationship between the hip and the ankle. If the knee doesn’t say anything, the hip and the ankle joints may not accept the problem in their relationship, and the pain will only get worse. The knee must speak up for itself in order to correct alignment to prevent further pain. Should the knee fear harming the reputation of the hips by expressing the truth of its pain? Of course not. And our knees naturally have no hesitation. Similarly, we should not hesitate to speak up about the truth of our experience in fear of doing harm. Where the harm has already been done, the integrity has already been lost.

Keeping with our metaphor between the hips and the ankles, we may need to recruit new muscular assistance from our body in order to correct the alignment that is causing pain. This is akin to the role of the media. In reporting on sexual violence, the media should be employed to help correct the alignment that caused the violence. However, adjusting one’s alignment can go either way – properly to relieve the pain, or improperly to make it worse. If the media increases the tension in the joint by misreporting the violence, or by sensationalizing the experience of pain, the alignment is not going to improve and the pain is only going to get worse.

In my experience, the media’s reporting on sexual violence was harmful, even if it was helpful to bring attention to the problem.

I am grateful that the crime was of interest to the news, but it was re-traumatizing to see it so blatantly and rampantly mis-reported. Without any real investigation, the media ran the story like wildfire across TV, print, and online. Not only were the myriad reports rampant with errors, they were also sensational. Sensationalizing and dramatizing reports of sexual violence in the news can feed the same social hunger that drives these crimes to occur: the craving of sensation, the fear of fear, the need for power, the experience of powerlessness.

According to RAINN, an American is sexually assaulted every 98 seconds. Since reading this blog post, how many Americans do you think have been sexually assaulted?

I am an American citizen and I was the victim of sexual violence in India.  I wonder: did this crime ever get counted? If so, where? As a statistic in India or in the USA?

Where are such international crimes brought to justice?

Courage,

Sandi

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Activism, Ashtanga, Buddhism, Health & Wellness, India, Liberation, Meditation, MeToo, Paradox, Sexual Health and Wellness, SexualHealing, Shambhala, Social Justice, Sustainability, Tradition, Womens Wellness, Yoga

#MeToo Healing Part 1: Paradox

The true testament of any practice (spiritual, physical, mental, etc) is what life experiences it can help you to work through. What does it help you to move through, to get unstuck from? My yoga practice (particularly, Ashtanga Yoga – in synergy with other elements, which I will also discuss in future blog posts) has helped me to work through the experience of rape/sexual assault/violence, trauma, and PTSD.

Ashtanga yoga practice helps me to get unstuck. Getting unstuck doesn’t necessarily mean getting rid of something, like karma – though it could be interpreted that way. What I mean by getting unstuck is getting space between “you” and your “experience” or “story”. It means getting a greater sense of freedom to choose. It also means being present. This journey of unsticking, to put it lightly, is one that perhaps other survivors can relate to, despite all the differences in the details of our journeys.

The worldwide Ashtanga Yoga community is today reckoning with accusations of sexual assault against its beloved founder-guru Sri K. Pattabhi Jois (as are many other students with controversial gurus from many other yogic and spiritual traditions, such as in the Shambhala Buddhist community). This compels me to discuss my paradoxical experience at greater length.

The paradox that I and all people who share my scars must confront is: how can the founder of a yogic and spiritual tradition that has helped me to heal from sexual violence be himself a perpetrator of sexual violence? Can I still spiritually bow to him and his teachings with true respect? Can I carry on my practice without feeling confused or even complicit in some kind of contradictory value system, and thereby compromised in the healing process?

I tend to agree with the founder of the #MeToo movement, Tarana Burke, that we must speak out from wherever we are. It can be risky – but so is the alternative, to carry on as if nothing happened. We help to heal ourselves, each other, and our world by acknowledging and exposing pain while aligning this pain with the purpose of social justice and spiritual growth.

More in the next post.

Courage,

Sandi

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Activism, Animals, Buddhism, Environment, Healing, Health & Wellness, Liberation, Meditation, Music, Social Justice, Survivors, Sustainability, Vegan, Womens Wellness, Yoga

actually, it’s ours: in this together

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Yoga practice can transport us out of the suffering of conventional reality and reveal to us a kind of indestructible personal universe, a playful spaciousness within our own mind & body – but – that – is – really – only – a – beneficial – experience – if – the yoga practice also calls us to return to the conventional, collective, shared experience of suffering, the daily realities of this planet. We have to face all the HALAHALA! In yoga mythology, halahala हलाहल is the poison that arises from the churning of the ocean of samsara in the battle between the gods and demigods (perhaps a battle of our own intentions) for Amrita, the nectar of immortality. We seek the way out of the suffering in order to get back into it, we practice and non-attach, not to escape nor disconnect from the world, but to re-turn and re-connect with greater contentment, compassion, calmness, courage, purpose. ✌️💕🚀 Music: That Day Musician: Jef 🎶 #yogawithsandi

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Activism, Animals, Aqua Yoga Play, Ashtanga, Environment, Healing, Health & Wellness, Liberation, Plants, Sustainability, Yoga

save our oceans: free screening this thursday!

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“Described by naturalist, Sr. David Attenborough, as ‘one of the most important films of our time,’ A Plastic Ocean is the documentary that has captivated audiences and incited positive action around the world. Through stunning underwater shots and disturbing footage of plastic pollution, the film investigates the damage caused when plastic consumption goes unchecked.”

Refreshments provided. Zero waste event. Click here for the FB event page details.

DATE: Thursday, January 31st

TIME: 6:30 – 9:00 PM

LOCATION: Ocean First, 3015 Bluff St., Boulder, CO

COST: Free!

Photo and Info shared from: https://www.oceanfirstinstitute.org/events/a-plastic-ocean-film-screening/
Ashtanga, Class Schedule, Health & Wellness, Liberation, Meditation, Vegan, Womens Wellness, Yoga

unleash your inner unicorn