Your Big Toe

by Jen Whinnen

My older son recently spent a day touring his brother’s art based school to see if he liked it better that his current school. He’s never been that into the arts but his interests have changed this year so we asked him to check it out just to be sure. Throughout his day at art school he was surly, sullen and bossy. He was mean to his brother and blatantly rude to the teachers. Half way through the day he texted his dad, asking to go home. When we tried to talk to him about it his only response was that he hated it, that it wasn’t what he wanted.

We’ve moved a lot in the last six years and he’s been to several different schools. Each time he’s moved to a new school he’s approached it with gusto and optimism. He had the faith of a child; he was going to be accepted and liked because this is a well ordered universe and that’s how things work. But, he’s older now. He’s entering into the world of  “tween-dom” and the resilience of “just wait until they see how slick I am at Minecraft!” is waning. He’s becoming self consciousness. The idea of starting all over again was too stressful. It was clear that no matter how great the school may be for him, we needed to respect his wishes.

This is an important distinction, one that is often hard as a parent to make. Parents are supposed to make decisions for their children. We are supposed to figure out what is best for them, tell them what to do. However, as they mature, we also have to take into consideration their burgeoning sense of self. We have to allow them to make their own decisions and respect that they may actually know their own minds.

As a teacher however, I do not have to toe this line. As a teacher I have to do the opposite. I must accept that my students are fully in charge of their own experience. And believe it or not, this is often hard to do. In fact, one of the most common thoughts my student teachers begin their training with is “I am going to teach the yoga that transformed me so that others will be transformed the way I have been.” On the surface this sounds like a lovely, well intentioned idea. However, it is terribly misguided. A belief rooted in the assumption that everyone wants what we want, or conversely, if they don’t want what we want they are wrong, is a recipe for conflict and disappointment. 

Like a specialized school designed to address the talents of specific children, yoga isn’t meant to convert or change others. It is meant to clear the lens to whatever degree that lens wants to be cleaned. Yoga will absolutely allow one to expand one’s consciousness beyond the mundane experience of being in a body, but yoga’s validity is not hinging upon that happening to every student of yoga. 

The teacher’s role is not to save. It is to facilitate. The teacher provides guideposts and opportunity, but the experience, whatever it is, depends entirely upon the student. Understanding, transformation, if it takes place at all, arises from one’s own effort and will. 

B.K.S. Iyengar once said “How can you know god if you don’t even know your big toe?” What a great question this is! How can we know anything about anything when we don’t even know our own minds? To presuppose that you know what someone’s motivations are, is to grant yourself an omniscience you do not have. We teach our children to share and tell them not to bite because they literally do not know any better. But when it comes to the motivations of adults, we have no real way of knowing what’s going on. Any time we step into the arena of deciding the emotionality of “why” someone is doing something, it’s a distraction. We’ve stepped out of the arena of our knowing our own big toe. 

So, how can you know god when you can’t even keep yourself focused on knowing your own big toe? How can you say what is good or right for someone else? 

You can’t.

When we sit as judge and jury on anyone, even if we are literally being called to serve on a jury of our peers, we don’t actually get to define their experience. We can cast a judgment on someone’s life, prescribe a punishment for a crime, we can look at the physical body and make suggestions based on what we see, but the internal life of that person will always be in their hands. What they choose to do with their punishment, what they do with our instructions, where they go in their mind, is up to them.

“Why would someone do that!?” Oh how I regularly find myself asking this question! And each time I do I take myself away from the work of finding right action. 

If you are called to teach, do it. You don’t need a reason to do any more than you need a justification for learning or loving.  That pendulum swings both ways – you can’t know what motivates others and they don’t get to dictate what motivates you. 

Work to understand your big toe.

That my friends, is a full time job.

The Forgiving Meal

by Jen Whinnen

One morning over winter break I found Jack with his head buried into his Dad’s chest, choking back tears. When I asked him what was wrong, he said “Jai said he wishes Z was his brother instead of me.”


These are harsh from any sibling, but it’s especially harsh coming from a little brother whose adoration has always been absolute. My boys have, for the most part, enjoyed a pretty close friendship. The bedrock of this friendship is Jai’s unwavering belief that Jack is the world’s greatest big brother. Jai identifies himself as “Jack’s Brother.” That’s how he introduces himself, how he knows himself. To Jai, Jack knows every good thing in the world, has shown him every good thing in the world, and always has his back. Because of this, Jai has always been happy to step back and bask in his brother’s glow. 

That is, until recently. Lately they are like two little tributaries, diverging off in different directions. Jack sometimes just wants to be left alone. Jai never wants to be alone. Jack finds himself annoyed and frustrated by his little brother. Jai is constantly being hurt by the rejection. My hope is that some day they will merge back into the same river, that they will find the same flow, but right now they bicker. They pick on each other. They yell and fight a lot.  

Over the break Jack’s best friend spent a few days visiting us. Jack didn’t want to share his friend.  He was mean, telling Jai to go away, not including him. To someone who’s always been included in every activity, who sees Jack as his best friend, this hurt. It hurt a lot. So, Jai went for the jugular. 

“I wish you weren’t my brother! I wish Z was my brother instead!”  

Jack was crushed. And then, of course, he got mad back. “Jai is the worst brother in the world! I will never forgive him! Never!”

My older son is at a (highly dramatic) crossroads. He can choose to retaliate, to say something cruel, to punch his brother. He can go on excluding him, tell him he’s a terrible brother, that he never wants to see him again. All the anger options were on the table. And they all looked pretty good. Anger and Revenge always come ready to party. They bring the dishes with the best sauces and most delicious toppings. Dripping in buttery pools of contempt and sugary indignation, they are so very, very appealing. 

That is why, when I pointed out the small, steamed, unadorned plate of empathy and forgiveness, Jack gagged. Where’s the sweet satisfaction of retribution in a small plate of humble pie? I want to carbo load on gooey piles of hot, steaming anger! Where is my righteous heartburn if I put myself in someone else’s shoes? 

I tried to reason with him, “Try and understand where Jai is coming from. How would you feel if you were being excluded?” 

As Jack railed against my logic and I continued to try and reason with him I thought “oh man, I sound just like my dad!” and I groaned a little inside. My dad had this “empathy and forgiveness” lecture/sermon that he usually delivered after I’d had a fight with one of my sisters. I would sit on my bed, staring at the bedspread patterns, twirling a loose thread around my finger, and meow out while he droned on and on and on about how important it was to let go of your anger, to try and put yourself in someone else’s shoes, to forgive. 

Of course he wasn’t wrong. To give in to rage, passionate anger and indignation is a kind of suffering. We are the ones who have to struggle through it and if we don’t let it go, it stays with us. It compromises our peace. It wears us down. 

In my years of recovery after my dad died, I spent many a bitter thought lambasting my dad’s philosophy. I saw it as his manipulative way of not taking responsibility for his past, for forcing us into “forgiving” him and never taking responsibility. But, what I understand now is that he wasn’t telling me “just forgive me so I feel better about me,” but “forgive so you feel better.” He was trying to tell me that he couldn’t do it for me. I had to make that choice. I could hold tight to my anger forever, nurse it for as long as I wanted, or I could chose to forgive. Either choice is viable. But, either way I must choose. 

My little pep talk with Jack yielded exactly zero empathy result. (I totally get why my dad held me hostage for so long – kids are stubborn!) I let him go and an hour later all the boys were playing together just fine. Such is the memory of a child! 

However, I am still here thinking about anger. Anger is a force, a power. It’s not bad per say. There are times when it can be useful. But it is a powerful force. It can rule us or we can choose to master it. I know that I often use it to distraction. I get mad for petty reasons, I punish unnecessarily. I use it as a default in many ways for dealing with the day-to-day mundane things I don’t like. 

And that’s an abuse of power.

With the inauguration less than 24 hours away many of us feel pretty angry. Understandably so. It’s important that we remember why we’re angry and remain vigilant in our support of those working for social justice and our public health. 

It’s also important to remember how much that anger and frustration taxes us, how much it takes from us. 

So what to do? I’m not entirely sure. I do know that I need to lean into my practice more. Yoga teaches us to be comfortable in the uncomfortable. It shows us how to engage while disengaging from the ego. It helps us remain calm and practical. These practices are going to be vital in the years to come. 

Since I can not control anyone other than myself, I will offer you my own personal “treatise” for the coming administration in hopes that it might help you too:

  1. I will continue to try and engage in political discourse with those who do not share my views respectfully and with an open mind. 
  2. I will continue to resist social injustice and support those organizations that align with my morals and values. 
  3. I will continue to teach my children the importance of empathy, sympathy and compassion (whether they like it or not).
  4. I will try to do all of this with as little anger as possible. 

When I step up to the emotional table and take a look around at all of the offerings, I will try and remember to choose the healthier, lighter options. I will aim to take small portions of the gooey stuff and go easy on the gravy. Hopefully by the end of the meal I will be able to walk away from the table less bloated and a little lighter. 

I hope the same for you.


Resilience Training

by Jen Whinnen

Whew, what a season this has been!

I’ve sat down a dozen times to try and write the opening of this newsletter and I keep getting stuck. I find myself just sitting, staring at a confused screen full of jumbled thoughts and messy sentences. I don’t have adequate words for what’s been happening in this country and in my own personal life. I am entirely inadequate. I feel completely incapable of completing the tasks set before me. Where do we go when we feel there’s so much to do, and so many people to protect, and we’re so full of worry and doubt that we just want to flee? I don’t actually have an answer for that. Oh how I wish I did!

However, I do know that we have to keep plugging along. We have to keep trying to be the best, most loving, most supportive people we can be. And to do that, we have to refine our resilience skills. Because resilience, the ability to accept that things are going to be hard and uncomfortable, but to keep doing it anyway, will fortify us.

Resilience can be learned. And I know this because I was in my late my 20’s before I had any resilience skills. Before that every time something got uncomfortable, I quit. I simply didn’t know how to be uncomfortable. When I was “bad” at something, I assumed that meant I was bad at that thing forever and gave up.

So how did I learn otherwise? Yoga, of course! The routine of a regular yoga practice, of teaching myself to just show up regardless of how “bad” I was at it, slowly changed my mindset and taught me how to try again. This seemingly basic skill, learning how to start all over again, created the conditions for success and wellbeing. Thanks so much yoga!

Now, I’m not going to say that yoga will fix the current state of affairs. It won’t. We can’t fix community problems by going to a yoga class. But, yoga can calm the mind. It can help unbind bound emotions and give us a moment of pause. And in those moments we find a path, a way of being of service, a way to hold down the fort, to protect others. The practice itself won’t do the big things, but it will direct us to ways that we can. So, get on your mat again and again. Use it to reveal the path you need to take to muddle through these murky waters.

And then, get off the mat and do the things. Use the practice to teach you to be flawed, but dogged in your pursuits. Don’t give up, but also know that you are going to have bad practices. And then get up and do it again. Be redundant in your effort. Show up every day and stick with it.

You are proficient, powerful and have so much offer so get to it!