The Importance of Understanding Medicine and Healing for the Revolution with Marisa Hall

SA
Hi Marisa, how are you this morning?

M
Hi, my love! I’m doing well 🙂 A little sleepy, but at my core feeling inspired. How are you? Am I allowed to ask you questions?

SA
I’m good… or maybe that’s my default at this point. You totally are allowed to ask me questions, I want this to be a conversation.  

M
Amazing, I just wanna hear how you are! And I think we all have our default answer. Like, the truth is probably 90% of the time my truth is a foundational exhaustion. Beyond that, there’s life to be lived, so I find fuel somewhere. Like here! I woke up so sleepy but was like I gotta get it together for this interview

SA
Well I accept you as you are, always. Talk to me about this foundational exhaustion. 

M
Yeah, I actually was just talking to Marlee about this yesterday. Like, the reality of what we fight for. I’ve been considering this question a lot. What are we fighting for? And what we’re seeing in this catalyst in the movement is really just advocating for the ordinary. For it to not be exhausting for us (Black people) to do regular ass things (to be in love, to cook, to sit, to open our emails, open books, to take baths, write poetry and letters and get the flu) without the additional weight of fearing for our lives. It’s about the right to exist in the mundane and extraordinary. 

So when I think and talk about foundational exhaustion, I’m talking about waking up and feeling that weight. And I love the ordinary, I love being queer and black because we make life sparkle by way of achieving the ordinary. To live in this body is to exist in transcendence and that is a beautiful thing, in the end. I don’t know if that answers your question. What else would you like to know?

SA
I love this explanation because it’s so acute, it’s something that’s important I think, as a non-Black person, to recognize that weight, to understand this reality of Blackness for Black people, not just an imagined projection. Holistically, it’s an important part of acknowledging white inferiority, to know the history of oppression, and the current weight of it. What I love about you, and the work you do, is that you also are finding ways to shift this energy, to really look beyond it… to find joy, to find healing, to find reprieve. I want to start at the beginning. Tell me about why you gravitated towards making medicine? What compelled you?

M
Mmm this is a question I’ve mulled over at so many points over the last year or so, and I think there are so many multi-dimensional factors that have played a part in my journey into making herbal medicine.

The first and probably most important influence has to do with my ancestry and where I grew up. Some of my most vivid memories from my childhood are in my grandmother’s garden, in the Bay Area, California. My maternal grandmother’s family is Louisiana Creole, and she grew up in rural Louisiana with the norm being growing your own food and leaning heavily on community knowledge and resources to heal. When she moved to San Francisco after she and my grandfather got married, there was a lot of shame in that way of thinking, I think. To live and heal off of what you grew was a delicate balance between leisure (what you wanted to do) and class implications (what you could or couldn’t afford to do). So she was kind of discouraged from leaning on plants for medicine as not to embarrass the family, but did it anyway. 

When I was little, I spent so much time in her garden, mostly when I was home sick from school. I grew up with my mom, and my grandmother’s house was the default when she was working, and I got sick a lot as a kid. So, my grandmother would be doing her thing and I would lay in the grass and eat strawberries while she hung laundry on her clothes line, or sit under her fig tree and eat the fruit, or sit by the fence and eat the berries. The sun and the fruit were so healing for me and we were always outside. I think as an adult, my inclination was, for so long, to lay in bed when I wasn’t feeling well, and it took this re-ignited interest in nature that reminded me that being outside with plants is actually so integral to being well for me.

Plant medicine offers this bridge from the external (the dirt, the wind, the matter), to the internal (the vessel, the body) and I was reminded of this over and over after my grandmother passed away, because she would show up in nature all the time, often right when I needed her. And also when my family has needed her. There was a moment last summer when I went home and had a conversation with my mother and aunt about dandelion (which I was diving deep into) and they started reminiscing about my grandmother making them dandelion tea to soothe their morning sickness when they were pregnant. It’s such a beautiful lineage to uncover.

When I was in college there was a point when I was super anxious and depressed and was on medication for about a month, and it did not work for me. This is not at all to say that medication isn’t essential for some people, but I realized in that moment that I wanted to find other ways of managing without numbing myself out – I wanted to feel everything, just not be overwhelmed by the sensation of feeling everything, you know? Being amongst plants has always felt like something that is so sensory and joyous, but I also feel held. So, I guess there isn’t so much an origin story to my inclination to work with plants so much as there has been a constant presence and slow gravitation toward this way of working with them and being able to share it with people – which has been the coolest, most magical thing I’ve ever experienced and continues to blow my mind.

SA
The idea of you eating strawberries on the grass, or figs under the tree, is so beautiful to me. What a joyous idea. I think for me, though my knowledge of plants is not as expansive as yours, there’s a similar gravitational pull… and maybe a lineage (as you touched on with your grandma, too) that there is this almost inexplicable sensation of coming together with plants. I think that’s why I personally ingest a lot of plant medicine… I access myself through them. Another world, but another more honest self.

I’m also just suddenly remembering the time I put a picture on instagram of my backyard and you pointed out the dandelion, and it kind of made me emotional… because there’s so much beauty we don’t see that’s around us, and communing with plants is almost an instantaneous way of accessing that connectivity. 

Tell me a memory that brings you joy of learning more about plants.

M
Yes! I think it is so ancestral, and that we all have the ability to listen to plants more closely and notice beauty that is offered with no pretense more often. I wonder all of the time what we’ve done to deserve such beauty and an abundant resource and then have to remind myself that something made in and of nature would never ask that question. They just exist and offer. I’m just over here tryna be more like a plant.

I trained with Amanda David (founder of Bramble Collective in Ithaca) and owe so much of my framing of all of this to her guidance. One of the core principles that she focused on is the idea of ‘barriers to cure.’ 

So, in thinking about something like anxiety, one might refocus the lens to consider what the aspirational feeling or emotion or way of being might be, and what is getting in the way. So I realize that I want to feel calm, but instead I feel jittery or agitated or restless — the question that I’d ask myself, is what is between me and that peace or relief? The medicine that I choose would align with the thing that’s in the way. Getting really close with what can be scary brings me joy. A plant like Motherwort wraps its arms around fear.

I remember harvesting motherwort for the first time (which, if you search for a picture of it is this gorgeous, stalky green plant with jaunty leaves and serious thorny buds all up the stalk), and having a conversation with the plant and needing to go so slowly as I cut one stem at a time. It was a moment of collaboration and permission between the two of us, and that intimacy in process has been such a powerful and motivated constant reason to rejoice as I’ve done this work.

SA
So “barriers to cure” is essentially a concept of understanding your bodily response and then learning how to holistically provide for yourself? 

M
Yeah, essentially. It’s searching for the root of something instead of focusing on a symptom. The western medical system is all about treating symptoms. Numbing pain instead of trying to figure out what is causing pain and offering slow, tender care to that place while also finding ways to offer relief. And I think that folk medicine and western medicine can exist and work in tandem, for sure, but holisticism is so central to how I think about care and addressing dis-ease. Our bodies are so intelligent, we just need to pay attention and trust that we’re the experts in our own experience.

SA
Ugh, I love you. Yes, and I imagine this is one of the reasons that during the revolution (and before) you’ve been providing medicine for Black folks to heal and take care of themselves. What do you want people to think about when it comes to holistic medicine? Especially for someone who has maybe been failed by the Western medical system, but doesn’t know where else to look…

M
I want to encourage people to look inward. One thing that being in relative isolation can do is push the individual to pay attention to what is going on for them, which again, can be incredibly difficult and uncomfortable. So you take something like getting home from a protest in the middle of a pandemic where people are met with a lot of anxiety about their health, anger about systemic fuckery (thinking of a different word here), and physical and mental and emotional exhaustion. What tools might be helpful to temper a moment like that? 

I want people to be open to advocating for themselves, for saying no to things that don’t feel quite right, and knowing what questions to ask. It’s all about empowerment, and chipping away at this barrier that is, in a lot of ways, a learned mistrust of self. When we realize that we have everything we need in community, I truly think we’ll be able to be unrelenting in our pursuit of joy. 

The decision to offer medicine to black people at no cost was meant to remove another barrier so that the financial access piece was removed. Everyone should be able to integrate tools that could open a door to a fuller experience of their lives.

SA
I have been thinking so much about the learned mistrust of self, and how that engineers a constant state of anxiety because you never know what to trust (and especially not yourself) which therein creates a cycle of self-sabotage. One of the most helpful spiritual lessons I’ve ever learned is “trust your knowing.” During the revolution we’re learning how to equip ourselves, what are 2-5 herbs you think everyone should have, and why? Whether for protection, healing or self preservation.

M
Ooh, I love this question! I really love the idea of trusting your own knowing, because there is an implicit knowledge of knowing and an opportunity to ask yourself, what do I know? and how can I reach a greater state of knowing?

I’m gonna embed an image of an image of a little worksheet/zine that I made for a workshop a while back, but some of my favorites are:

Tulsi – this is an adaptogenic herb that is delicious and abundant and you can feel it. What integrating tulsi (in tea, tincture, etc) can do is help your nervous system recover from intense sustained stress, and help your body adjust to stressors so that all of your energy isn’t expended in the ‘fight or flight’ wheel that is so easy to get stuck in. When considering the energetic components of a plant, tulsi is one that grows so abundantly and toward the sun, so it’s excellent for fostering a sense of levity and expansiveness. It’s important to keep that in mind while we’re all trying our best not to burn out.

Rose – rose is honestly just the best. I put it in almost all of my blends, and it just feels like a hug. It’s an anti-inflammatory, and is a mild sedative. So if you get hot/flushed when you’re stressed and just need something to soothe you and help slow you down, rose is gentle and effective. Also just delicious.

Bee Balm – bee balm (monarda) has a beautiful flower that is like candy for hummingbirds. It has these trumpet-shaped flowers with the sweetest nectar at the base, and the leaves act as really powerful immune support (better than echinacea). My physiological focus in the revolution has been care for the nervous system and care for the immune system. Sleep plays a big part in my practice, but monarda is something I reach for when I’m feeling like I need something to bolster my system’s defenses.

Nettle – nettle is a superfood, so if you’re looking for something that is nutrient rich (and a neutral base for teas) nettle is a wonderful option. It’s a diuretic, so supports the urinary system which is also really important to take care of in moments of high stress as it purifies the liver, kidneys, and urinary tract. If you’re drinking or eating foods that feel hard for your body to process, nettle is good to integrate for balance. I usually try to have it early in the day for energy.

SA
Marisa, thank you. This is so powerful. Are there any last things you want to add?

M
Thank you! Lemme think…

Ok, two things:

One is a quote that has stuck with me in reference to considering one’s own healing which is in line with the Wise Woman Tradition by Susan Weed (has it’s issues, but there are some principles that can be reframed):

‘The focus is on the person, not the problem, nourishing not curing, self-healing not healing another. A give-away dance of exploration and experience, with no answer to the question “why?” No blame, no shame, no guilt, no reason, no answer ever to “why?”’

The second is this photo of my grandmother harvesting dandelion in San Francisco, in a white dress that she made, which I just adore. Nothing can keep us away from the earth, and that is powerful. To know that as long as you have access to the earth, you have access to healing.

SA
Have you read “Braiding Sweetgrass” by Robin Wall Kimmerer?

M
I love that book so, so much! That was really the window that swung open for me (maybe 5 years ago when I first read it) in realizing that working with plants was something that I had to do.

SA
You remind me of Robin. The way you write about plants, really evokes a true love and dedication to them. It’s spectacular to witness, thank you. 

M
Thank you so much for offering this space! I love talking to you, always. Plants will always love you back and guide the way. I just want people to trust you can always turn toward the sun or go touch a tree when humans are bumming you out. 

Marisa is a writer, yoga teacher and herbalist from Berkeley, California. Her interest in healing stems from  a consideration of holisticism, to create a deeper relationship with self, and she offers these modalities (whether through making medicine, or teaching yoga) to nurture self-awareness, love and joy for one’s self and community. 

Connecting Ayurveda and Neuroscience and Uplifting the Divine Feminine

SA
Dr, I’ve learned so much from your work. I’m so interested in ayurveda and your practice as someone who not only deals with Indigenous medicine but also works in western medicine. What came first for you, was it the neuroscience or the ayurveda and did it go hand in hand? 

K
When you ask what came first, chronologically, I was introduced to ayurvedic medicine through my mom as a child. But if you have any ayurvedic experience you don’t approach it as, “Now we’re practicing medicine and now we’re not.” It has more to do with the ways that we live, the things that we eat. It wasn’t something overt. If I got sick, my mother would give me turmeric and honey before taking me to see a doctor. That became the backdrop of my childhood. 

When I talk about my professional career, first I went into neurology. I think for so many people who grow up in one culture and are raised in another, you take advantage of the wisdom in your native culture and file it away as something that has meaning but not any significance in the modern world. When I dove into neurology, I was a full fledged believer in modern medicine. It was very, very exciting in terms of the sophistication, how complicated it sounded, all of those things the young mind is hungry for. That intellectual feeding frenzy that happens when you’re in a new field. I came out of neurology not expecting that I would practice ayurvedic medicine. There were still many principles that I practiced although many fell away during my actual medical training because of the nature of that lifestyle. It was once I started practicing as a neurologist that I began getting headaches, migraines. For a neurologist to get headaches you’d think it’s not a big deal, I have an entire repertoire of medications that I could use. I spent about a year experimenting with different medications that I was prescribing as a physician and none of them worked. 

It was at the end of me searching that I actually came back to my mom and asked, “When we were growing up there were these physicians you would take me to, how can I get a hold of them?” She helped me reconnect and that was the turning point for me. When I saw the ayurvedic physician, he spent 90% of the consultation inquiring about my digestion and telling me what I needed to do to fix my digestion. That was a completely novel concept, that my headaches had anything to do with digestion. Nothing else had worked at that point and when nothing else works, you enter a state of humility. After seeing him, in three months, my headaches were completely gone. My energy increased, my creativity increased. Even though I was introduced to ayurveda as a young child, it wasn’t really until after I became a neurologist, and had this personal crisis of debilitating migraine headaches, that I then kind of reawakened and started to look at why my gut health was the underlying cause of my headaches. That just broke the entire paradigm of the way I was treating neurology.

SA
And when that shifted for you, how was that received amongst your coworkers and your clients? How did you begin to integrate that into your practice? 

K
I was working exclusively in the US at Scripps Memorial Hospital which is a very well established hospital system and certainly not a spot where you would think that this young ayurvedic practice would take birth. It was a very pulverized reaction between my patients versus my colleagues. My patients were happy and relieved that they were finally having these conversations with their neurologist. 

I was a well respected neurologist in a well respected institution. The initial response from my colleagues was of complete disbelief and, to some extent, horror. I understand that it came from a place of concern. Over time, as more about epigenetics came out, more about the mind body connection and the impact of stress and the research about the cause of chronic disease, they became more open. They also started to see that my patients were doing better, doing better in conditions that we once believed only got worse. Over time, it went from being just a foreign practice to an understanding of the basic principles: food is medicine and disease is predominantly created through lifestyle choices. Throughout the next decade, more information about the microbiome started coming out and so eventually there was some acceptance, because there was some scientific validity on why and how people got sick through their personal journey. Not just their physical journey. 

When we look at ayurvedic medicine there are so many layers to it. When I first dove into it, I was predominantly focused on what people were eating, the main stressors in their lives and the kind of exercise they were getting. There is a lot of science behind the nature of sound and the vibratory nature of the universe. I would highly recommend mantra and a deeper appreciation for the role of sound in anyone’s life because thoughts are also a form of sound, the words that we use are also a form of sound. What are the chronic thoughts that we listen to? What are the words that we are sharing with other people in the world?

SA
You’re tapping into a higher purpose, higher consciousness, deeper potential for yourself. How do you think about engaging with folks who are reluctant to engage because of the spiritual notions despite the science that shows clear benefits? 

K
It’s a very interesting question. Now that I’m back between the US and India, I will say, it’s much easier to talk and discuss and offer ayurvedic medicine to the American community than it is to the Indian community. Even in India (the center that we went there to help start) 95% of clients were foreigners and many of the local people did not see the value of this medicine because they looked at it as moving backwards because it’s part of our generational medicine. 

Even though we call it ayurvedic medicine in India, or siddha medicine in Tamil Nadu, you see similar ancient forms all over the world. This was the way that we simply healed throughout one point all over the planet. If you go to Latin America for example, they have their traditions, in Russia, they have their traditions. And if you look at the heart of these traditions, the Native American traditions in the US, they’re all very similar. There was a deep understanding of the healing potential of plants. There was a deep understanding of the mind and the body and the community and the body. It wasn’t just for the individual, they were looking at the impacts of group consciousness on health. This was a universal approach to health. I think for cultures that have had that, they are now looking towards the west for material gain, they looked for material gain and in the process rejected their own past and treasure chest of wisdom. I think that’s a natural cycle that we have to go through. 

We go through this inner rejection of our culture as we see some other culture and think it’s doing better. Then, as we see that they are now adopting what we are not doing—and I always joked with my staff in India, because I was going around the world giving lectures on mantra medicine, you know people in China were so receptive, people in all these countries were so receptive—but it was so difficult to get my Indian staff to be receptive. Now the West is adopting what we started and they are starting to shift. I think to understand the global nature of these medical practices, it becomes helpful to separate them from any particular type of religious lineage and you realize that at one point this was how we approached healing.

SA
We have so much to learn from indigenous knowledge, but there is this constant grappling as people who are not living in our ancestral homes, living in the West trying to live up to this idea of Western success. How can we hold both at the same time?

K
What I have found is that you can better accomplish the American dream when you incorporate your ancient knowledge. It’s not like these practices are telling you to give up your home and go and live in a cave somewhere in a forest. Our research is showing the same thing, that when you follow circadian rhythms you sleep really well. Here’s how you solve inflammation – and you see professional athletes such as Tom Brady who adopt certain things that you would call ayurvedic into their lifestyle. And they talk about how they’ve completely rejuvenated their bodies, they feel younger. When we focus on the science of peak performance on life, then people do start to care about how they’re eating and exercising and managing their stress. They begin to approach their life in a way where their mind and body are so in sync that they can perform at their absolute best. So many of my patients were people who were successful at life and wanted to take it to the next level. I definitely treat people with chronic illness, but I had a lot of patients who were also looking into untapped potential. 

SA
I also want to talk to you a little about the ways in which ayurveda, traditional medicine gets appropriated and commodified in a way in which markets pick and choose and in that process there is a loss of holistic healing. I personally saw a lot of this at the start of the pandemic where there was this collective anxiety where people were struggling with not knowing what was happening. It was interesting to me because the wellness industry is a multimillion dollar industry, and so many people invest in it daily, and yet there was this general depressive state. I do think we’re slowly lifting out of it as people have been interrogating this a bit deeply. How do you reckon with that? Is that just a symptom of living in the biggest capitalist country?

K
My general approach to this is first, coming from a place of patience, compassion and non judgement. If a group is embracing yoga, and when we say yoga we’re really talking about asanas – yoga is an entire school of thought and asanas are the body positions – that is people’s ‘in’. They’re at least doing something that is connecting to their body, and maybe had they not been doing that practice, they may have never addressed that there is this darkness that needs to come out. As a country goes through it’s different developmental stages, and this pandemic is part of the developmental stage for all of the different countries, responding to it reflects which stage of development they are going through – from that you start to look further. After this, there is going to be such a different way of looking at mental health because we can’t just put tens of millions of people on anxiety medication, they need something to cope on a deeper level. As that need arises, the medical system needs to mature to help that need. I’ve found that with any relationship, not just as a physician, but with any individual and any organization in the community, that if you don’t first come in from a place of non judgement, compassion and patience, you won’t make much progress. You can sit there and analyze the problems, point fingers and describe the dysfunction, but you’ll never be part of the solution. 

SA
It really is about coming with an open heart and making space to meet people where they are at. 

K
Patience is really important when you’re talking about historical trends, I know the book that I wrote about sound medicine is at least 30 – 40 years ahead of its time, to really be understood. If I was frustrated in doing work that would take decades if not centuries to be really understood then I couldn’t do it. When you’re part of history, which we all are, if you do not have the patience and the appreciation for the historical process you will never contribute anything. You will only contribute that which you can see and reap the benefits of a human lifetime. The human lifetime is a very short span – if you look at how many people in the past, the contributions that they made weren’t really manifested till centuries later. With life in general you need to have a lot of patience and not get so caught up in the timeframe of a human life time because it may or may not be the time in which you see change but that doesn’t mean you can’t be part of the change. 

SA
If the pandemic is a portal, what are your hopes for how your practice evolves post pandemic or in the next 3 – 4 years?

K
I used to be somebody who did that a lot, I would have a one year plan, three year plan, five year plan. I could have never predicted that a pandemic would happen a year ago. I stopped pitching these scenes into the future and I’ve just become more responsive to what life wants at me right now. I’ve become less focused on what I want out of life, but instead, in this moment what does life want out of me. 

I will say that one thing I have felt in general as an impulse is doing more and more to reach out to women to explain more about what many ancient cultures have of the divine femine. It’s such a beautiful way to approach womanhood. There is this idea in ayurvedic medicine, and many ancient traditions, that when there is wisdom held within a woman in a household, the entire household changes. I’ve seen that over and over and over, the strength of women to rebuild the philosophy of the family. 

SA
Wow, I really resonate with this idea of the divine feminine and I’m definitely thinking about this concept a lot lately as well. How do you have those conversations with women in India? What does that look like especially as a country that can be contradictory to the divine feminine?



K
So many of these concepts of the divine feminine come from India, and so much of my inspiration came from India. But when I went to India, I was shocked at the state of womanhood there. I was kind of horrified. It was such a collapse of what we had known. There’s a tremendous amount of pain that needs to be metabolized as a nation. Unfortunately, usually when a place is colonized, women suffer the worst repercussions. I always start with, first of all, let’s heal the body. How do we start teaching women the basics of how to treat this body correctly. How do we eat correctly, what is the manual? You start with the body. Then you look at the mind and the traumas. Being a woman in India is not easy. Having spent two years there, I have so much respect for the amount of freedom, independence and leway I had as a woman raised in the US. I always keep in mind that my sense of self came from that ancient culture. It’s very paradoxical in a way that the reason I became the woman I am in America is because of my Indian heritage but I’m only allowed to ‘flourish’ under the social circumstances of America. As we first start to explore what are the traumas of their experiences, as we start to free people of the heaviness of the body and mind, now we can start to go back to what that means. If someone has gone through repetitive sexual abuse, it’s really hard to talk about something like the divine feminine until trauma has been released. Because for them, being feminine was a huge risk, it’s not something to be celebrated, they had to hide everything that is feminine because it was something that is treated that is a liability in cultures that abuses women. So you have to, again, always approach people where they’re at. 

SA
It’s really perplexing to me how much sexual trauma there is within the South Asian community and how rife it is not only back home but also within the diaspora. Which is such a contradiction to me because I look at tantra and all these ancient texts that really spoke to the divinity of sex and intimacy and yet there’s a complete juxtaposition to the extent that we can’t even talk about it with our families. There is such a taboo around this issue and I really do appreciate this conversation. How can women start those conversations within their diasporic communities? 

K
It’s a challenge and it requires a certain degree of understanding. I was really not prepared to see the level of sexual trauma that happens to women in India. I would say the women that I was around and working with, close to 90% had experienced some kind of inappropriate sexual behaviour. The severity of that varied, but the majority of women were raised in a way where they were constantly having to protect themselves. They were told, never be in a room with a man alone, don’t walk down the street. The first few weeks of being in India, I had already experienced inappropriate sexual conduct just by walking down the street in broad daylight. The culture is really built around secrecy and women having to protect themselves against constant threat, whether it’s midday or in the evening. 

I see a lot of Indian women who now live in other countries, and as we start to do the work, I’m amazed at how much sexual trauma is lodged in their bodies. It could be women in their 30s, 40s and 50s, and even in those ages it’s hard work. You have to have realistic expectations. Could you have groups in their 20s and 30s who are ready to discuss this? Yeah, I think that’s a completely different group, but if that group needs for their mothers and grandmothers to admit what was happening, you’re trying to get water from an empty well. It may be too much. I do think this conversation can begin with younger generations, but even in that conversation, it has to shift a little bit from not just our individual stories, which are of course very important, but what is the conversation of the nation, which puts it into context historically. It helps us understand why this is the way it is, and moves you a little bit out from purely being victimized to understanding this is a national phenomenon. Switching from our individual lives to thinking about the nation and then having dialogue about what we now do as women for our legacy and the next generation, from me it would be to you, we need to start asking what we do with that legacy. That has been a desire, and coming up more and more. I’ve been amazed that heavy conversations like that can be brought up in light ways. You can train women on topics like natural beauty products, and how to create beauty from within and that’s a way to bring them into the body. You can invite people into a very warm and safe environment and then begin to take the conversations a little deeper that way. You don’t need to totally shock them. Natural beauty for example, brings up so many themes in taking care of the body. So many of the beauty products created for women are so toxic and they created hormonal imbalances because of the chemicals that react with estrogen receptors. That is just one way to say, you may not feel that you are strong enough to process this trauma, but let’s start with where you can make changes. Let’s start with, where can you make a change that is honouring yourself as a woman. Let’s have dialogue about what it means to be a woman and then you can lead people as far as they want to go from there.

I’m spending more time in my yoga practice. Doing sun salutations every morning has been especially grounding


Eating a traditional Indian ayurvedic diet, incorporating more seeds that help balance hormones and cortisol levels

Reading:The Power of Now & A New Earth by Eckhart Tolle. Eckhart Tolle is a rare person who is a modern spiritual teacher who actually does reflect the ancient teachings. When I read his work, it resonates so much with the ancient texts. It’s not about ‘how you manifest this’ and ‘how you get a big this’ it’s really about what is our work as human beings. To be able to hear the words of the ancient sages translated into modern language has been very helpful.

Reading: Attached by Amir Levine and Rachel Heller. I decided during this time, I wanted to be a better parent. My son and I are separated right now because he’s in India, so now I’m thinking, what is it going to be like when I go back? How do I become a more compassionate and receptive parent? This boy is going to need, really, months of learning how to feel secure again. Attached is a wonderful book on attachment theory. It’s helping me understand better what the impact of this detachment is going to be on for him.

Dr. Kulreet Chaudhary’s combined expertise in both modern neurology and the ancient science of health known as Ayurveda has uniquely positioned her as an expert able to pull from the broadest possible base to treat her clients. She is passionate about raising awareness for the need of a paradigm shift in contemporary medicine that focuses on patient empowerment and a health-based (rather than disease-based) medical system. 

On Weed & Its Articulation

Mennlay Golokeh Aggrey is an incredibly inspiring person to me. She is the author of “The Art of Weed Butter,” an instructional resource, as well as an educator on the ethics of weed. There is something holistic about Mennlay’s approach, and articulation, that is encouraging. It makes me understand the importance of thorough discourse, even about what we consume, and how we consume it. She is also the co-founder and creative director of Xula CBD, the co-host of Broccoli Talk podcast, and the founder of a new benefit pop-up dinner, Cenas sin fronteras. Today we’re talking about her journey through weed, African botanics, her future-dreams, as well as Xula—and what it means to create ethical products.  

SA
My darling Mennlay, how are you?

M
Well, if I’m honest. I’m not doing super well today. But I think this topic of conversation might be a beautiful way to process some of those feelings. Since we’re still in Cancer season after all.  

SA
As a double Cancer (moon and rising) you know I’m all about this. I have a lot of things I want to ask you because I’ve found over the years you’ve just articulated so many of the things that I’ve often thought about weed, and the world of weed… So I’ll start by asking, can you tell me when you first started smoking? Should we start there? I feel like there’s so much stigma about weed and what it represents, and there aren’t enough (especially femme perspectives) of a relationship with the plant and what it offers. 

M
This is a beautiful place to start! When cannabis, weed, ganja, mota first came into my life, I was 14-years-old, a freshman in high school. At that time I was neither cool, nor an outcast. Just sort of floating somewhere in between. I was away at a boarding school for low income kids who might have “white potential” as far as success in school or whatever so I was away from home in Hershey, Pennsylvania. Dairy town USA. Life then was confusing and I suffered from what I know now as depression. Mostly because I was displaced from my family in a white town/space. So anyway one day I was at the roller skating rink with some friends from school. These type of activities were allowed on the weekends. So we were there and some of my friends had invited some dudes to come hang with them. As they were all sort of flirting and kicking it, I was passed a blunt. So I took the blunt and smoked what was my first hit of weed. It was less out of the desire to be cool, but more to avoid having to make-out with or talk to anyone—more so out of curiosity—to finally partake in this thing that I didn’t know much about.

This was that typical first time, this out of world experience where time stretched. My memory doesn’t allow for much more than that. But I know time slowed down and I found myself in a space where I didn’t feel depressed or anxious or awkward. I finally felt like myself (a space cadet LOL). At that point, I think I knew that this experience was for me. This feeling. It helped me connect with just being—a teen—a weirdo —whatever. It suspended time and allowed for me to be whoever and whatever I was.

I kept this a secret from my mother, other adults, and most other friends. My cannabis life was undercover from my first time in 1998 until 2005 when I first started cultivating weed in Humboldt, fresh out of college. For a long time, disclosure was dangerous and unacceptable. There just wasn’t space for me to talk about my experience. But I wrote a lot about it in my journal.

SA
I’m trying to have transparency of my own journey with weed, because I’ve seen marijuana—Santa Maria—to be such an important facet of my own healing journey. It’s kind of wild to me that you smoked your first blunt by accident, in order to not make out with anybody. In that there’s this inherent innocence that I love, it’s so cool that we get to rewrite rhetoric that doesn’t always make space for us, and our relationship to this magical plant. Was this your beginning of smoking weed more regularly? Do you smoke weed regularly? I’d love to know your journey and where you are with marijuana. 

M
That’s a really good question and something I often space out on. No, I didn’t smoke regularly because I didn’t know where or how to buy it. And honestly, I didn’t really yearn (lean on it) for it too much until college. In high school it was a once and a while ritual, whenever the so called bad kids would show up to the skating rink with herb, or if we snuck out. Which is another long ass story.

So, maybe I would consume herb every three to six months. In those times between, it was as if I was still able to hang onto that feeling of open time and space. An open heart and lightness that allowed me to enjoy my youth more than I had been. I think as the eldest child to a single immigrant mother of four, I often was the mother. Or internalized a lot of her woes. And so with weed, even in those few moments I could let go. And that extended beyond the moments of being stoned. 

SA
I wanted to ask about your upbringing. Was your mother strict? Or religious? Sometimes I have a hard time remembering exactly what happened in my relationship to smoking more regularly, but it has been really rewarding to go back to this teen self and try to understand her. Anyway—it’s also interesting to know you were the eldest, because even in your recollection it feels as if you were really mature about your decision to smoke weed (at a young age) and something I feel like is very “eldest child.” What began the transition to actually deciding to smoke? 

M
LOVE THIS QUESTION. You’re right, there is something rewarding about going back to teen smoking baby. To be able to conceptualize or maybe even compartmentalize what and why and how is nourishing. My mother was sort of the black sheep in her family. She had me at a young age and didn’t go back to West Africa with my father when he wanted to send us back. I think she was an outcast in her African community and didn’t take to religion in the same way as other parents might have. I did have a teen bible that I read a lot. 

When I started consuming herb it forced me to digest and question who this white Jesus was and why my family would worship a god that was brought over by missionaries. My mother and I did fight about this a lot and I think once I was regularly smoking in college I challenged her a great deal about my relationship to god. That’s when I became more spiritual and into the idea of something higher than me. 

The transition was fluid. I started school and had more access to herb and smoked a lot more of it. But my family still never knew. I had to set the example for my little sisters who I think still saw me as a next to mother type influence. Someone who made the grades and did the right thing, but someone who was obviously getting weird when it came to my beliefs about the environment and other self-righteous first year of college bullshit.

SA
White Jesus… Damn, the truth. Well moving from this idea of “the colonizer’s religion” (I definitely struggle with that myself, with Islam as well… that colonized a lot of indigneous cultures as well as profiited off the transatlantic slave-trade) but we started Studio Ānanda as a place to have these conversations. 

I feel like with the rebranding of “CBD” there’s this inherent whitewashing that happens, and I wonder how that’s impacted your work—how that question of whiteness—has impacted the way you navigate these spaces?

M
CBD aka diet weed has been (for me) a reluctantly deeper exploration of white wellness for. From its unexpected legalization, to its ability to make other psychoactive cannabinoids aka TCH look “bad.” I was initially really hesitant to start a CBD company, but my business partner (who is Mexican and queer) really encouraged me reimagine what we could change about the CBD space. 

One of the most vile aspects of white wellness is the constant appropriation of indigenous plant medicine. So it made sense for us to sort of reclaim it. To sort of position CBD as a gateway drug to plant medicine for BIPOC people. It is after all ours. Patient’s access to cannabis has unfortunately been left out of the discussion in legal markets For example, as we’ve seen legislation change in California from medical to recreational, we notice that free and or discounted access to cannabis for low income patients, and patients with HIV /AIDS, cancer, and other chronic illnesses have become second thought. Even though these same patients in the past are the reason why we have seen so many advancements in the industry.  One of the most important parts of 1996’s Prop 215 was that it was a law passed for patients, The Compassion Act… Back in the day as a professional cultivator, it wasn’t uncommon to gift or donate herb to folks who needed the medicine the most. That was one of the most beautiful manifestations of the law. 

So for Xula, the CBD brand I’m launching along with my partner Karina Primelles, we’ve been very mindful about ways in which we will offer compassion discounts and donations to people most vulnerable in our communities. 

SA
Yes. I wanted to actually start asking about Xula. What was the reason behind starting it? I mean you’ve obviously explained the need for it, but I’d love to know more behind the decision to start it. Especially during a pandemic (or maybe even more the reason for!) 

M
Xula, as a company, started in 2018 though we don’t officially (legally) launch until the fall of 2020. We initially planned to launch here in Mexico, making CBD available here in the Mexican cannabis market. But as of now according to the Mexcian government herb and all drugs are technically legal to have and use but not to sell, that includes CBD and THC-dominant cannabis. So after a year or so of waiting, we decided to move into the US market since we’re both also US citizens. 

I am not Mexican, though I finally live here legally, she has her papers!! Haha! But the idea of Xula spawned from Karina and I’s desire to give folks access to legal CBD and cannabis in Mexico while also trying to negate the stigma of cannabis initially created by Spanish colonizers. Hallucinogenic drugs like peyote had been used in Mexico for millennia, as you know, but it along with weed became controversial during the colonial era when the Spanish associated them with communion with the devil and with madness. Fucking haters. That vile racist rhetoric crossed the border to the U.S administrators. Mexico’s cannabis prohibition began in the late 1800s years before prohibition in the United States. 

Getting a little off topic, but Xula is a direct response to that. Xula is a direct response to the absence of womxn, queer womxn, and BIPOC people in the cannabis space. We’re centered in Mexico City and honor not what it means to be a Mexican woman, a Latina woman, a Black woman, an indigenous woman. But also it means to be femme, non-binary and desire the feminine, softness that is cannabis herself. 

We fuse ancestral herbal knowledge and modern scientific understanding to create our products. They focus on hormonal balance, cramp relief, sleep and anxiety. We grow our own organic hemp farm in Southern Oregon, and use about 50 additional herbs organically grown and sustainably wildcrafted. Xula’s philosophy is embedded in the idea of bringing our awareness of plant medicine back to its native people and the ancestors of those native people. Our philosophy is to shift CBD from being in a white, basic, vanilla, hetero spaceto a one that celebrates the fluid aspects of cannabis. The indigenous aspects of cannabis, the feminine and non gender conforming aspects of cannabis. 

SA
Also—CBD/cannabis is that a good way to differentiate them?

M
Maybe the best way to differentiate them might be CBD hemp and weed cannabis. It’s such a fucking scam all of it to be honest I hate it. But I think yeah let’s do CBD/ hemp and cannabis.

SA
You’re touching on something that—as a consumer of a lot of different cannabis products—I think is important to question. We need to holistically consider the impact of our consumption. I’ve recently been thinking about ways to engineer radicality in how we engage civically, and what if we started pressuring white owned CBD hemp companies to create a system where they were regularly donating to bail funds, or indigenous groups that harvest CBD hemp/ weed cannabis? Imagine if companies cared less about profit and more on making medicine accessible to everyone. 

I wonder if any of these white owned companies think deeply enough about their responsibility? Because I think if you are white-owned and you have a responsibility to give back monetarily, significantly, and regularly. I wonder and worry about the future of sustainable CBD hemp / weed cannabis, but it sounds like Xula is considering these aspects (and even just how to have integrity as a company) which is really exciting. What are things that you want to see shift in the next few years in regards to how we create anti-capitalist /radical spaces for CBD hemp/ weed cannabis, and we can be dreamy about this.

M
So Xula also owns our hemp farm. And it’s operated by women. That’s been huge and important for us. We also plan on having an access / patient corner where we offer discounts to certain communities. 

But dreamy anti-capitalist ideas for the entire space, for me, would be for all white-owned hemp and cannabis farms and companies to give 25%, 50%? 100%?! LOL of their sales, or harvest to some sort of board that distributes the wealth and or medicine to marginalized and queer Black, Latinx and indigenous communities. 

In 1619, the Virginia Assembly passed legislation requiring every farmer to grow hemp—meaning that it was illegal to not grow hemp in the United States. Guess who were the people growing hemp? Enslaved Africans. Apart from normal reparations for Black folks, the cannabis industry (hemp and marijuana) needs to also pay. The hemp industry, the agriculture industry, the industry of Wall Street all owe M-O-N-E-Y to the families of enslaved ancestors and to the Native people whose land they looted and stole. 

If there was a way for those payments to be made directly from especially corporate hemp and cannabis farms and companies (particularly those with higher gross incomes or whatever smart economists say) need to pay. We already know that only 5% of people in the industry with executive/leadership roles are Black. 81% white, so something radical has to be done to tip those scales. Because equity isn’t cutting it. Donations won’t cut it. They need their assets taken and redistributed directly from the government as a form of reparations from the establishment of the cannabis industry in the US. 

SA
THIS IS INCREDIBLE. We’re in the middle of a global revolution/global movement toward Black liberation and integrity in this sense seems so important. I keep saying this all the time, but we have to evolve as a species. I believe having these conversations, and just dreaming (which I feel like Mariame Kaba and a lot of abolitionists seem to emphasize how dreaming is SUCH AN IMPORTANT part of real liberation) so I’m grateful to be a witness to yours, as it reflects my future and hope to. 

What are things we can learn from the plant itself? 

M
One of the most interesting things about weed is what it teaches us. It’s hands-down the only reason why my curiosity and late night stoner nights turn into hard core albeit half-baked research moments. Some of the research I’ve done on cannabis, plants, food, flora and fauna has brought me to my own self discovery of Africa’s botanical legacy. And my ignorance to it. I think I’ve always had an innate understanding of who and how certain seeds and plants found themselves in different parts of the Americas, but I never considered it to be a legacy stemming from Africa. Like duh of course the original people would have had their hand in every species of plant and animal. Why the fuck it that so radical? Of course cannabis didn’t just show up in Asia and then somehow through magic end up in Europe and the Americas. It was changed genetically, chemically and consumed in Africa and like most plants brought to other parts of the world through trade, voyages and of course the fucking trans american slave trade. What I think we all can learn from Cannabis sativa is its ability to use itself as an example of how white dominant thought has plagued our knowledge of our collective botanical history. It challenges everything we know about plants, nature, healing and who is responsible for that knowledge. 

SA
Thank you for that beautiful articulation. This is the crux of something so major—how deep, and far, the impacts of colonization go—as well as the responsibility we have to rectify this. For folks that are maybe new to this conversation, where would you direct them to think more deeply about weed/the colonization of botanics… as well as maybe more holistic conversations around weed justice… 

Z
Botanics / orgs and readings

Soul Fire Farm 

The Black Farmer Fund

Farming While Black

In the Shadow of Slavery: Africa’s Botanical Legacy in the Atlantic World

Cannabis prohibition + colonization readings

Home Grown: Marijuana and the Origins of Mexico’s War on Drugs ((Spanish))

The African Roots of Marijuana

Digging up Hemp’s Dark Roots

A brief agricultural history of cannabis in Africa, from prehistory to canna-colony

Cannabis Justice:

Cage-free Cannabis

National Expungement Week

NuLeaf

Cannaclusive

Equity First Initiative

SA
Any CBD companies you feel are worth supporting/ highlighting? 

M
Brown Girl Jane

Dehiya Beauty (they only sell a balm but i still covet it)

Elio

Frigg

Confronting the Capitalist and Casteist Appropriations of Yoga with Neha Sharma

SA
One of the most visibly violent wellness spaces is the yoga industry. In the west, this is driven by white capitalists appropriating Indigenous practices for profit, fetishizing and erasing true custodians of the practice. The misinterpretation of yoga is actually a double edge sword. Historically, as a practice Indigenous to South Asia, it has been reinterpreted by upper caste Brahmins as a tool of exclusion towards the Dalit community. Accessibility to yoga is widely spoken about in a Western context in recognition of the lack of space made for Black, Indigenous and people of color in general, yet an unintended supremacy lingers in the ignorance many have towards it’s South Asian roots. From the invisibility and lack of centering South Asian practitioners to a masking of the casteist interpretations of the actual practice. What have your experiences as a South Asian yogi been like in the Western world, and what does it mean for you to engage respectfully with yoga as an Indigenous practice?

N
I could write an entire essay on this, but I’ll keep it as concise as possible. As an Indian-American yoga teacher based in NYC, I have witnessed, experienced, and encountered the blatant ongoing appropriation of yoga in every sense of the word. From studio spaces to merchandises to management, being a South Asian yogi in the western world can often feel like being a foreigner in your own home. I entered the industry three years ago and since then I’ve been taken far aback to find that I have visibly no fellow South Asian yoga teachers or students in the space. I’ve never seen a single South Asian yoga model on popular yoga apparel brand ads like Lululemon or Alo, which are typically completely washed with white women and a token Black or East Asian woman. Similarly, I’ve never seen any South Asian teachers hired to teach at those brands’ studio spaces here in NYC. I’ve been an anomaly in this industry, which I’ve always found odd as an educator of the sacred practice belonging to my own ancestors. I first started teaching in small boutique studios throughout Manhattan and Brooklyn, owned and managed by white women who often knew nothing of the practice, let alone had any sense of respect for the Indigenous roots of it. One studio owner said to me once after I did a demo, “we don’t use Sanskrit here”. I thought to myself, “that is like going to church and saying, ‘we don’t say Jesus here’.” Needless to say I didn’t take the job, but somewhere between the insulting kitschy “beer yoga” and “hip hop yoga” trends, it quickly became evident how Western capitalism has violently stripped away the very essence of yoga and what it represents at its core. Western capitalism has robbed yoga of its Saucha (purity) by breaking a core philosophical principle of Asteya (non-stealing). Across the board, it’s clear that irresponsible brands getting a kick out of “Namaslay” and “Namastayinbed” have no intentions for truly embodying the cultural roots of yoga as an Indigenous practice of India. Images of the gods and goddesses I’ve grown up to praying to have become logos for their disgraceful marketing tactics. I’ve seen a Ganeshji tattooed on a non-South Asian girl’s foot — an utter sign of ignorance and disrespect. These realities have been unsettling me for years, and have filled me the same rage I feel when I think of how colonization has historically stripped Indigenous people of their identity, resources, and rich abundance for personal capital gain. I have now transmuted this rage into committing to the radical decolonization of yoga. I teach my classes with Sanskrit names for the asanas. I refuse to teach in a space that perpetuates watered down versions of the practice with trendy labels and unrelated pop fitness branding (what the hell does Cardi B have to do with yoga!?). I often take the time to illuminate the South Asian roots of yoga through my dharma talks while creating an inclusive space for all who are willing to learn with an open mind and ego-free heart. I’ve made a promise to never again work at a studio or with a company unwilling to acknowledge the Indigenous sanctity of yoga. As a South Asian teacher and practitioner, I believe it is my responsibility to engage respectfully with yoga as an Indigenous practice through action-oriented reclamation and raising my voice loudly against appropriation. *Tip* for my fellow SA teachers, an important but often overlooked place to start is to start correcting people on pronunciation. It’s not “Naaaaa-maaaa-stayyyyy”. It’s “Nam-uh-stey”. Don’t allow people to butcher our beautiful language while continuing to call themselves educators of this practice.

SA
A critique of the commodification of wellness is absolutely needed in order to sustain a practice that is genuinely focused on a deepened awakening for the Self, the Community and the Earth. Without challenging the underlying power structures of white supremacy, casteism, capitalism, the patriarchy and colonialism that often leak into wellness platforms, we are reaffirming the status quo and recreating power imbalances. How does your practice approach this idea?

N
Living in a deeply capitalist city like NYC, the commodification of wellness is so insidiously ingrained, it’s nearly impossible to disintegrate from it. It’s a constant work in progress to dig deep into the systems in place and identify the power imbalances. You can drink all the green juice in the world and wear hundreds of dollars worth of yoga leggings, but that does not make you a real yogi. The more of a pull there is towards the material possessions in the wellness industry, the farther it pulls one away from core yogic ethics like Aparigraha (non-attachment). In my personal practice, I make sure to never stop questioning what is being presented to me and how it is being presented. For example, many wellness brands recently hopped on the black square trend on Instagram in support of the “amplify melanated voices” social media campaign. Many brands completely missed the mark, posting performative content which simply reaffirmed lack of authentic reflection on true representation of Black, Indigenous and people of color in their marketing and corporate management. At this point the ignorance or alleged confusion is disingenuous because Google exists. Educators exists. There are endless resources available for those who seek true reformation. Those who are ready to learn, will in fact take the first steps to doing so. When they do, that’s when I’ll make space for them on my radar. In the meantime I continue to navigate the wellness space with just the right amount of healthy, bold skepticism and I support those who are working to dismantle the colonial structures in place. My practice is about tapping into ancestral intuition and resilience to challenge the status quo. Do not believe everything you see or hear. Keep asking the hard questions. Discomfort is how change gains momentum.

SA
How has committing to a decolonized practice of wellness allowed for an enhanced sense of your own Self?

N
It has been liberating. Each day I learn more about myself, my practice, and my purpose. I am undeniably committed to decolonization of wellness and yoga. This commitment has brought more like-minded Black, Indigenous and people of color leaders and wellness educators into my sphere, and I am happy to say I have virtually met more South Asian healers in the industry since. I believe once you sharpen your focus and find what fuels your fire, the tools for stepping into your own power will come to you. There is so much more work to be done, but I’ve discovered a new spark of hope that the decolonization process is underway and here to stay. It truly is a reclamation of Self. I am excited to be an agent for change and a medium for sharing the message.

Combining her training in alternative eastern medicine and healing with a comphrehensive background in healthcare, Neha has come to understand how mental health stressors, diseases, and chronic body pains negatively impact our lives in an increasingly demanding world plagued by external pressures. Through her work, Neha observed many gaps in the system, noticing the lack of emphasis on preventative health care. Witnessing how human behavior and lifestyle choices inevitably impact health and wellbeing at large, Neha figured it’s time to take back control over our mental and physical health without relying solely on medication and doctor visits.

Understanding Disability Justice and Harm Reduction with Chiara Francesca

SA
I’m so excited to speak with you, Chiara. How have you been feeling over the past few days? Can you describe your energy?

C
Yes! I have been trying to show up for community, and for loved ones close to me. While trying not to leave myself behind. Chicago has been a bubbling of activity, of frayed nerves, of hopeful heartfelt moments, and much heartbreak too. I am learning to set boundaries everyday, and to both be present, and not soak up everyone’s feelings, or feel like it’s on me to meet everyone’s needs or asks. There is so much more to it, just finding slowness when the spinning gets faster and faster has been where I try and find myself today

SA
Wow, yes. I’ve been dipping in and out to what is happening in Chicago right now. I can imagine that as someone whose work is so integral to community bonds, creating those boundaries are so necessary to rejuvenate yourself, filling up your cup so that you can provide adequately to both others and yourself. Can you tell me a little bit about what your healing practice has looked like since the uprising? 

C
I don’t know if I feel like my work is integral to the community. I am just a speck. I’ve seen the work of generations of Black and Brown organizers in the city going on for days and weeks and months on end. I want to uplift the work of Chi-Nations Youth Council, BYP100, Black Live Matters Chicago, OCAD, Let Us Breathe Collective and so many others who have been on the frontlines of all of this

I am not sure how I feel about filling the cup. Like how do we move through having cups that have been empty or chronically unfilled for generations? How do we move from a place of trauma and chronic divestment and still find abundance? Still build without using the same tools as racial capitalism and white supremacy? That has been the work.

Since the uprising, and the pandemic I have moved through many different iterations of work. At first it was supporting folks remotely, then I organized wider resources to be used for home care, like the Acupressure for all doc in English and Spanish. In May, I transitioned to seeing patients in person. I have been doing treatments with COVID safety in mind while trying to wrap my mind around what it looks like to ethically prioritize folks on the frontlines, since I cannot see everyone who is asking for/wanting treatments. 

Two other things have been happening: 

1.  Is the organizing-in-progress of a healing justice space with other practitioners to support folks on the frontline with COVID-safe community care.

2. Trying to figure out what to do with using social media platforms as an organizing tool. The explosion of interest that this moment has sparked ideas that are actually long-standing that the wider society is finally shining a light on. I’m trying not to get sucked into lengthy back and forths with folks online that are asking for a lot of labor.

SA
I really admire your humility in articulating that you are merely a vessel for the insight and knowledge that has been passed to you through your practice. I do want to recognize that, as someone with CPTSD, the work that you’re doing has been so transformative for me. The acupressure for all doc especially has been a resource that I’ve been coming back to weekly, I really thank you for all your offerings.

Coming back to this notion of navigating cups that have been chronically unfilled for generations, violence against people like us is not a coincidence nor a byproduct, but a necessity for the systems we occupy to thrive. Healing justice and harm reductionist work holds keys in mitigating centuries of effects of intergenerational trauma, structural oppression and violence. As you have been seeing more and more interest being sparked in these practices, what are some ways long term impacts and healing of intergenerational collective trauma is being centered within these conversations and movement building spaces? 

C
I am so glad to hear the doc is useful! so much work is born out of hope and not knowing how it will land, so it fills my heart to hear that <3

I see that we are coming to terms with the fact that there is no arrival point. Not in healing and not in filling cups. That awareness doesn’t mean that we accept oppression or scarcity, instead we let go of the anxiety of perfectionism, of being “fixed” or “healed.” We let go of the notion that there is a set arrival point. I see us personally and collectively moving like waves. There is always growth, and always death and decay, and they interplay and intermingle. We can use death and decay for growth. We can use our tired or disabled bodies, and the experience they bring, to create new paradigms. In many ways the “perfect” able-body is what white supremacy and capitalism wants us to be so that we can be efficient laborers. The sick body, the disabled body, the traumatized body, is a body that cannot play into racial capitalism. It is a body that refuses collaboration with systems of oppression. It is a revolutionary state on its own.

In terms of how healing is being centered now vs in the past – I have been involved in social justice work for like almost twenty years, it used to be all martyrdom and self-sacrifice. The “stay up all night” and  “the revolution doesn’t sleep.” Shaming comrades for needing time off or even to step away for illness was the norm. We are ways away from that. Healing is being talked about and spaces for healing are being consciously built-in social justice and movement spaces now across the board. Here I want to uplift the work of Cara Page, Tanuja Jagernauth, Adela Nieves Marinez, Charity Hicks, the 2010 US Social forum in Detroit as a place where the architecture of Healing Justice came together (and Healing By Choice is active in Detroit today and part of that legacy) 

SA
Having that intentionally grounded point of no particular arrival point or end goal is something I have been wrestling with. There is something so radical in being open to what comes and trusting that we are equipped with the tools that will allow us to address whatever that is. 

This concept of the “perfect” able-body as the most efficient, productive body in the capitalist and white supremacist system is one I want to stick with. The binaries imposed by the imperialist, casteist, white supremacist modernized world brings with it an ableism that really does render anyone less than fully able, incapable. What does it mean to ‘be well’ and be sick, be disabled, be traumatized? What are some challenges and some successes you’ve seen in the ways that healing spaces have been opened to those who live in differently abled bodies?

C
The first feeling that comes up in my gut is a big old sigh. We are ways away on this one. We are in the baby-stages of disability justice being a framework that is visible to folks. The short answer is that healing spaces, as society as a whole, have not been accessible, and it feels like very slow work. I have been trying to think really hard on this one. To understand why disability justice seems to operate so differently than other movements for justice (although it’s all connected). The best way I can make sense of it is that the continuum and wide difference in experience of what being disabled means—building community, changing policy, and even relating across differences is very difficult. Add to that the fact that for most disabled folks isolation and community-building is already challenging. I want to uplift the work of Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha and the anthology “Care Work,” which comes to disability justice from a radical anti-capitalist perspective. Crip Camp is getting a lot of traction right now, and there is a online series of workshops that are up right now, and a really excellent starting point for able-bodied folks to learn about disability justice and for disabled folks to be in community.

SA
Making those lines of connection across struggle are crucial in order for us all to come together in community and solidarity. Can you tell me a little bit about your work in harm reduction? Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about harm reduction and narcissism as incompatible. Although, we live in an ego state. Collective healing can occur when we put our differences aside long enough to realize we are on the same side. Being gentle and compassionate with ourselves and each other, how do you move through this when the systems above us maintain an individualistic, narcissistic conditioning? 

C
There is so much to say about harm reduction

1. It is how I approach my practice and every relationship as an acupuncturist, in terms of honoring where someone is at when they come into the clinic. Honor that they are the expert on their wellbeing and experience and that the tools they are using are valid.

2. I also feel that the experience of growing up/being poor and disabled and a teen mother, makes everything harm reduction at a basic level. In the sense that oftentimes you have to make do with what you have. The tools you have are often imperfect, messy, cobbled together, and the best you can do at that given moment.

3. As a political framework I came to it through doing domestic violence prevention work and on screen advocacy at the hospital. This meant showing up at the ER  to support folks after DV or sexual assault incidences. I was lucky enough to be trained by folks who believed and practiced harm reduction as a framework for supporting people through domestic and intimate partner violence. Right now Just Practice, Shira Hassan’s organization, has a beautiful offering on Transformative Justice coming from a harm reductionist framework.

I think that we need to build up a tolerance for discomfort and conflict, and to build awareness around the differences between unsafe and uncomfortable. I am not sure collective healing can only occur “when we put our differences aside long enough to realize we are on the same side.” I think one of the most important aspects of healing, collectively, as a society, is to be very clear about who we are centering. The idea of “putting differences aside” has been weaponized too many times by white supremacy and whoever already holds power. I am more interested in: Who are we centering? Are we centering the needs, experience and asks of folks most impacted by oppression?

And also, can we have generative friction? What does that look like? Conflict is not bad unto itself, rather it is necessary. The internal work of self-awareness, of healing our personal and intergenerational hurts is vital.

SA
Eek yes, thank you for pointing that out, the constant need to center and recenter instead of pushing aside & homogenizing/monotonization. Generative friction and the need to sit in uncomfortability is really where transformative action and healing begins. The need to embrace and see both individual and collective trauma in order to move from it. Thank you, Chiara.

Before we end, I just want to ask, what are three (or more!) things you are either reading, making, listening to, watching, eating that are helping you ‘be well’ over the past few weeks?

C
Watching:
I May Destroy You. It’s really intense and deals with painful stuff. It feeds me to see those experiences represented, I feel seen as a survivor and an immigrant (although the show centers British-African diasporic folks, there are so many parallels. The way trauma is depicted feels accurate in a way I have not yet seen).
Reading “Rust Belt Femme” by Raechel Anne Jolie. 

Again, it feeds me in the way I feel seen by what is written about poverty and single parenthood, although it is also painful at the same time. I guess the moral of the story is that nothing is simple, and nuance is where it is at.

Dancing to: I have dance parties in the kitchen with my kids very regularly and we just blast music and dance to Ghali, The Weeknd, Santigold, Caterina Caselli, M.I.A., La Tigre 

Originally from Italy, and currently residing in Chicago, Chiara is an acupuncturist, organizer, artist, immigrant, and former teen mother living with a disability. She completed a 3 year Master in Acupuncture at the Pacific College of Oriental Medicine, earned an MA in Italian Studies from NYU in 2015, and an MFA in Painting and Drawing from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2012, where she was a Soros New American Fellow. Her clinical focus is on mental health, trauma, CPTSD and queer/trans health. She is committed to making healthcare accessible and in building collaborative healing spaces. Chiara is involved in the Chicago Healing Justice Network, which aims to promote healing justice from an anti-oppression framework.

Slowing Down for Sustenance, Traditional Chinese Medicine and Cuisine

SA
Hi Zoey, describe your energy today.

Z
Hi! I feel a bit slow today because I am having my period 🙂 

SA
How does your spirit feel?

Z
My spirit is good, positive, inspired, as almost always. 

SA
I’m so intrigued by you and your practice. The way you integrate Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and cuisine is really fascinating and inspiring to me as someone who is constantly looking for holistic paths to healing. How did this journey come about, can you tell me a little about Five Seasons TCM?

Z
Thank you so much! My journey of using food for healing started when I got sick at the age of 17. At that time, I had just moved to the U.S. and the American diet, which was ladened with highly processed foods, added a lot of stress on my body. I was suffering from a variety of ailments—joint pain, acne, irritable bowel syndrome, breast tumours, and rapid weight gain. It got to the point where I knew I had to change the way I ate. After that realization and plenty of hard work, my conditions got so much better and I decided to pursue healing through foods as a career. I took the traditional western approach, getting a degree in nutrition and completing a dietetic internship. However, after almost two years of working in the dietetics field and western healthy cooking, I was very disappointed and bored. It was so restrictive and limited. It was not healing for me. I almost felt I was going to get sick again. That’s when I decided to look into TCM foods and nutrition. And that was absolutely eye-opening. I’ve been doing that since, combining east and west. I was hosting weekly medicinal dinners in New York, calling it Table 81 NYC. We fed probably around 500 guests so far, which we hope to resume doing after covid. 

Five Seasons TCM  (@fiveseasonstcm) is a new brand and website that I am launching very soon, where our audience can find free recipes, knowledge on TCM nutrition, and information on herbs and foods. They will have the option to purchase some culinary herbs and blends as well, or to take a quiz to understand their body constitution to know what foods are better for them, as everyone is unique. I’m very much looking forward to launching it in early September! 

SA
Existing in America where racist, sexist and discriminatory conditions seep into all institutions including the way we access health, wellness and food, what have been some of the challenges you have faced as a practitioner in the west and some of the lessons?

Z
All of my actual clients and patients (the majority of them are white) are very respectful and open-minded. They truly appreciate Chinese medicine and are interested in learning about Asian culture. I am super grateful to have them. However, I’ve definitely experienced racism online, as I have some social media presence. At the height of COVID, under my Tiktok TCM cooking videos were comments that said my dish would cause COVID-19, or looked like “the bat soup”. Sexist comments from white men are so common that I am immune from them already. It seems like, since I am an Asian girl, I am obedient, ‘wifey’, and it’s okay to tell me “you have small beautiful asian eyes.” Aside from these personal comments, the wellness industry as a whole is often discriminatory against Chinese Medicine or culture. Many white-owned brands will use TCM ingredients but never give credit. In my nutrition textbooks (yes, textbooks), “Chinese food” is always the bad example that equals a high-fat, high-calorie, fast-food diet. It is ridiculous to me that the amazingly rich cuisine of my country is just condensed to sesame chicken takeouts. Also sesame chicken as a dish doesn’t exist in China, fyi. 

I am obviously bitter about these experiences, but I think the important lesson is that we as Chinese practitioners need to own the narrative around TCM more. We need to take the responsibility to educate the public, translate the medicine and culture better, and modernize it. We don’t want to be “enemies” of the western way of thinking. Rather, we should be translators and teachers. Once there is more exposure and explanation available from Chinese practitioners, ignorance fades. I encourage brands and media to feature more Asian practitioners to talk about wellness and health. It’s not that hard. You wouldn’t hire a French chef to cook Sichuan hot pot. 

SA
There are so many different aspects of TCM. I had my first acupuncture session in 2018 for vaginismus, and immediately began to feel the energy that was stuck in my pelvic region flow. It allowed me to think about how energy can become stuck physically in the body, but also mentally. The notion of balancing qi is integral to TCM. Right now, we’re experiencing a lot of collective grief, despair and frustration particularly in the west where it feels like systems are not changing but instead, proliferating. I recently learned that the Black Panthers were actually integral in the widespread of acupuncture as a preventive, holistic healing treatment throughout America. How can we think about TCM as a knowledge system that can help transform the unhealthy societies we occupy?

Z
I’m glad to hear your positive experience with acupuncture! It is an amazing modality of TCM, aside from moxibustion, herbal medicine, food therapy (what I do mostly), guasha, cupping, qi gong, tui na (medical massage), etc. When you dig deep, the TCM culture here in the U.S. is closely related to politics, immigration, and social movements. Acupuncture is quite well-known in the U.S. and is included in most health insurance. However, I think only 2-3 sessions are included, which is not enough at all. TCM often requires a long-term commitment and a relationship between the practitioner and the patient. But TCM can also be done at home, easily, and at a very affordable price. The most ideal situation will be that people could moxa themselves at home (heat therapy using mugwort), do self-massage, add medicinal herbs and dietary principles into their everyday eating, and practice qi gong or tai ji as they would do yoga. TCM can be a lifestyle and it is not difficult to do if the knowledge and material (herbs, moxa sticks etc.) is available. I think there needs to be more free resources on TCM for people to practice it at home. This way, their lives can truly benefit from it. 

SA
As a South Asian, I’ve seen the many ways Ayurveda and yoga has been commodified by the west, particularly, white dominated spaces. The wellness industry is a multibillion dollar industry and yet, more often than not because of white supremacy, it makes no space for those of us who are actually indigenous to these practices. As a consequence, what happens is an engagement in wellness that is not sustainable but simply treatment based – people will engage with the body but forget about the mind and the spirit. How have you seen this with TCM and how does your practice navigate the commodification of TCM?

Z
You are spot on with the commodification. I have a lot to say about this. TCM is not designed to be commodified because it is so holistic, individualized, and it requires the understanding of an entirely different “scientific” language and system. My patients or followers will ask “I have xxx, what herb should I take?” because they are so used to the western medication format, where there is a bottle of pills for a certain condition. However, in TCM, it doesn’t work that way. TCM practitioners need to utilize syndrome differentiation, which takes years of school, to figure out the root problem of the symptoms. There are at least 5 different types of PMS and the prescription of herbs for each of those can be very different. I’ve seen TCM companies in the U.S. selling herbal formulas in supplement form without guiding people to differentiate their syndrome or body constitution. This takes out the individualization aspect of TCM and is frankly very irresponsible. Also, people here want a quick fix. They are oftentimes not patient enough. TCM can be a longer process, especially for food therapy. It takes patience to learn, adapt, and change, but the results are well worth it. Imbalances do not just change after a herbal meal or a week of acupuncture, they adjust slowly from lifestyle changes that require time and effort. The process of it is also a learning process of our body. In my practice, I try to guide my patients and audience to be their own practitioner. Forget about the rigid one-fit-all standards or wellness trends, learn what your body is asking for. I offer educational classes and raw culinary herbs and ingredients as “commodity”, rather than an unnecessarily minimal/modern/western-looking box of supplements that make unrealistic claims. However, I do think the commodification of TCM can help it gain more recognition and exposure. And there are a couple of brands that I do like. For example, Elix Healing sells tincture that is personalized for women. 

SA
Food is medicine! There is so much science that shows the important link between the gut and the brain. Caring for our microbiome is so important to overall wellness and yet, unfortunately, modernization through capitalism has resulted in health care professionals who would rather prescribe us with medicines than treat our diets to handle mental health and general nervous system wellbeing. The antidepressant industry is a market in which rich elites profit off the effects of miseducation, poverty, and individualism. With Five Seasons, if and how are you thinking about these concepts when presenting to a western audience?

Z
I have faith in the power of food and I created Five Seasons to guide people to think about medicine, diet, and cuisine in a different way. Healthy food is not the same for everyone. Ginger might be warming and beneficial for John, but it can totally cause excessive heat in Adam. Through Five Seasons, I want to help people to figure out their body constitution and understand what kinds of food are better for them and how their body might react and adjust to different foods in different seasons. I also included a food-herb library online, where the functions of ingredients are listed, so people can browse and seek a more natural “antidepressant” rather than taking pills. There are too many pills in western culture, from prescription drugs to supplements. You will see that on Five Seasons, almost all recipes use whole food and herbs, instead of superfood powder or tincture. I want to show the actual form of these medicinal ingredients and bring people closer to nature. The cooking process of whole ingredients is slower, calming, and fulfilling. It is a different experience from blending all the superfood products in a smoothie for 30 seconds.

SA
What are five different things you are doing/eating/reading/listening to/watching/making that are helping you stay grounded and be well during this time?

Z
Warm tea with hawthorn berry, rose, dried longan is a wonderful beverage to calm ourselves and reduce anger.

I’ve been eating all kinds of different congee that I make. They are really great for the summer and make my digestion smooth. 

I’ve been listening to my boyfriend’s new song (Walk with me, Aging Young Rebel). He was inspired by the BLM movement and created this song filled with positivity and good energy. It makes me want to stand up and walk for justice!

I’ve been painting since Covid started. I use my herbs as brushes to create textures and to transform a classic formula from memory/book to canvas. I simply love the process!

Daily self massage is a must.

With her background in clinical nutrition, professional kitchen, and TCM, Zoey specializes in mostly plant-based Chinese medicinal cuisine and holistic food therapy. She is also a meridian yoga teacher, moxibustion practitioner, and artist.

Making + Taking Space with Naj Austin and Ethel’s Club

SA
I am so honored and excited that we found time to have this conversation, thank you so much for your time. Can you describe your energy in three words today? How is your spirit feeling?

N
A heavy question! I’m also very happy to be chatting with you by the way. A nice break from the rest of my meetings. My energy today…restful, content, grounded.

SA
So good to hear. Ethel’s Club is such a radically crucial platform. The need to provide Black, Indigenous and people of color with accessible modes of mindful healing that both hears, sees and caters to their experience is something, I believe, aids the beginning of transformative action and Self awakening. I really see that in how Ethel’s Club is structured. What led to its profound creation and what are some challenges you faced when stepping forward with it’s conception?

N
Thank you for those kind and thoughtful words. A lot of things led up to the moment that Ethel’s Club opened doors to our Brooklyn clubhouse in November 2019. The two biggest forces were: my personal experience looking for a Black female therapist in Brooklyn that established a space where marginalized voices could stand in their power, and be seen and heard for who they are. With that in mind, the first idea was not specifically Ethel’s Club — I just knew whatever I built had to embody that ethos. The frustration fueled my need and desire to find a practitioner which blossomed into creating a place that sees you for you and also heals you with practitioners who look like you. To me a simple idea and, yet, a revolutionary one. 

SA
So incredibly revolutionary. At Studio Ānanda, we really believe that wellness for Black, Indigenous and people of color is a political act of claiming autonomy over institutional and technocratic spaces and very racist, sexist and discriminatory medicine and healing modalities that have been sold to us in the west. In America especially, health and mental care is disproportionately inexclusive to Black and Indigenous folks. At the start of the pandemic, and throughout the uprising, Ethel’s Club was moving so quickly to organize and present space for us to heal. Often, as folks whose work centers community health, it is not until crisis mode that our strategy becomes truly activated. What was that like for you and your team? And how did/are you taking care and grounding yourself as you both process and organize?

N
There wasn’t a lot of thinking – mostly action. It was right before the stay in place order happened in NYC and I had to make a decision about closing our doors. It wasn’t very difficult. I wanted to keep our community safe and out of harm’s way. The next hurdle was how do we continue to show up for them? What will they need? We managed to become the one immutable thing in many member’s lives. While the rest of the world was in flux, we were a place you could go online to take workshops, sessions, grieve, heal, laugh, talk. It felt like we were saving people. And I think we were, but at the time it didn’t necessarily feel that way. Taking care of myself is difficult. I am a caretaker. I worry about my team and my members from the time I wake up, until I go to sleep. I’m learning (mid pandemic) how to be a strong founder and what my personal wellness practices are. Each day is a new attempt at figuring out how to be better at both of those things.

SA
A daily choice we make with ourselves is to show up for our own self in order to be better for our community and those around us. It’s remarkable how with the virtual offerings, Ethel’s Club has been able to reach a global audience, stepping out from its original community in Brooklyn to now being a space where folks from around the world can tap into for grounding. What was it like seeing that evolution, maybe unintentionally, happen? And how integral are spaces like Ethel’s Club in allowing folks an arena to regenerate?

N
It was wild to see happen! We were so heads down in creating what we know, we had a member in the online clubhouse reach out and say “I live in Germany – is this event in EST?” and I think it was the first time I saw the enormity of the problem we were solving, especially as the world, all at once, lived through the pandemic. It was a very humbling experience. It has been exciting to connect with and provide space for creators, thought leaders, artists etc from all over the world who host our events – it sometimes feels like an endless treasure chest of talent. I am hard on myself and always feel as if we can be offering more, doing more but we’ve had members publicly state that they could not have “made it through” the pandemic without us. Or that we’ve transformed their lives. When I hear statements like that it’s surreal. But I think there’s power in identity and there’s power in reflection and we offer a place to find all of that in an authentic way. I think people have been searching for it for a long time. I feel very proud to be able to lead a company that is doing so much for folks, especially right now.

SA
I think it’s so beautiful how organic and fluidly this evolution happened throughout the revolution! It really speaks to your original inkling and passion that came from a deeply intentional desire to actively carve out thoughtful and considerate space.

And it truly is phenomenal that as a woman of color, a Black woman, you’ve pioneered such a transformative moment, especially considering that in 2016 the National Alliance on mental illness shared that Black women are 20% more likely than any other demographic to experience mental illness due to the compounding factors of racism, sexism and discrimination. The statistic is heartbreaking and enraging all at once. I was reading the other day about how the wide spread of acupuncture was through the Black Panthers’ integration of it in their clinics. This notion of holistic healing is so integral to the movement – the idea that to be a warrior in the revolution, we must care for our mind, body and spirit – and so much of how this movement has taken shape in the west especially comes from Black leaders. What does Black wellness look like to you? And how can those of us who are non Black but also exist in the wellness space help facilitate?

N
This is a hard question for me, because I think I’m still in the discovery process. I think Black healing can mean so many things – I’m inspired by the work of Tricia Hersey, Nap Bishop of the Nap Ministry who believes rest is a form of resistance. A form of reparations. A way to reclaim what has been stolen since Black people were brought here many years ago. I also believe in joy as a form of resistance – a way to reclaim something that is so often taken away from us. I think both are forms of self-care. For me, personally, it’s education. Learning and reading from our elders who have fought this battle and others like it. Understanding that I’m not alone, and that this is so much bigger. It’s hard for me to say how non Black folks can assist Black people on their wellness paths. I think the easiest way to start is to listen and be available to understand that Black people are not a monolith and will each navigate our wellness journeys in a way that best suits our path.

SA
Thank you, Naj. I think, if the pandemic has shown us anything it is that there is a clear disparity in who gets to be well, who has access to healing and health. Just as Black and brown communities were disproportionately affected by the pandemic, the structures of white supremacy are reaffirmed in the capitalist power dynamics that exist within the healing modalities of the western wellness and healing industries. Once healing becomes commodified and attached to capital, there is a type of disconnect that happens where we don’t interrogate why we are feeling unhealthy or the systems that perpetuate this inequity. Self reflection becomes limited and avenues for transformative action becomes narrow – we saw this especially with the performative actions of the ‘black tile’ phase. If and how does your practice with Ethel’s Club navigate these ideas?

N
My focus has always been on Black people and people of color navigating the above spaces and feeling as if it were not meant for them, although as you mentioned, many of the practices are born from Indigenous, South Asian cultures. The first way we navigated “being seen” and making wellness a form of everyday life and not a commodified-instagram version was to create a wellness studio inside the Brooklyn clubhouse. We pointedly did not make it any more special than the rest of the club because we wanted to make it clear that wellness is for us, it’s accessible and it should be part of your everyday life. When we brought everything online we approached it with the same ethos – how do we make people who have been left out of this conversation and rarely reflected feel seen and that this is specifically designed for them. Unapologetically. We do a lot to shake the frameworks that exist, call things what they are (I believe language is critical in ostracizing people out of spaces) and make things feel less performative. We’ve had many members message us and say “I’ve never tried yoga, but I went to that class and I loved it.” I want to create a world where people can always opt in to have practitioners who look like them be the way that they see the world and wellness.

SA
Yes!!! And that is what I love about the work that you’re doing. So much of it is about not seeing ourselves reflected through practitioners which automatically creates a detachment. When I engage with a practitioner who looks like me, it makes it easier for me to imagine that I, too, can become an expert at healing myself – thank you so much for reiterating that.

Before we end, I want to ask you, what are three or four things that you are eating, reading, learning, watching, cooking that are helping you stay grounded and well over the past few weeks?

N
I’m reading All About Love by Bell Hooks, I’m watching I May Destroy You (it grounds me in a much more reflective, philosophical way. I find myself rethinking structures that I thought were solid, specifically around consent and personal boundaries). I’m trying an all-vegan diet so I’ve been trying a lot of new recipes and flavors. I’ve felt very creative, which is nice. 🙂

Dance Dance Revolution with Vanessa Varghese

SA
Vanessa, how are you? Can you describe your energy today for me in three words?

V
Comfortable within it.

SA
How has your spirit been feeling the last few months? 

V
My spirit has been soaring high on love and an abundance of frozen dumplings. My babe and I came back to Australia for what was supposed to be a five week trip to get married. We ended up having to cancel, get married low-key COVID style and have spent the last 5 months living on my in-laws’ farm. I am feeling very loved and very in love with everything about life right now.

SA
What was it like moving back from Australia after spending some time in New York? 

V
What a question! So I’ve lived in Australia for a majority of my life, yet it’s the only place that gives me culture shock. When I was in New York I felt as though, for the first time in my entire life, I was invisible. I got to just be a human, not an exotic unicorn. So in being invisible, I’ve never felt so seen! At first it’s overwhelming when you return to Australia because you’re suddenly hyper-visible again. Then you learn to rebuild your thick skin. I’m totally fine with this reality. It allows me to see past a well-meaning comment and instead see that person for their soul. I don’t bother correcting people much, I know that’s considered bad practise but I actually need to pick my battles for the sake of my mental health.

SA
What have been some of the challenges you faced with Groove Therapy, as a woman of color taking up so much bold space in Australia?  The wellness industry in Australia in particular is so white dominated. How did you feel stepping out with your project initially? Were you met with resistance and how did you overcome that?

V
I know we exist adjacent to many white wellness establishments but we are so far out on our own limb that we don’t feel as though there’s competition. The main challenge is dance not being a part of Australian culture, so a lot of our energy in Australia is spent on marketing the benefits of dance and educating people re: the cultural roots of music and dance.

When you’re in a place like New York or London you don’t need to explain what hip hop, house or dancehall is before you proceed to teach it. Even if you don’t like or listen to a genre like, say dancehall, in those international cities, you’d know of it simply by virtue of existing in a melting pot of cultures that overlap and collide with your world.

But overall I haven’t felt bold or courageous starting Groove Therapy in the slightest. If anything I’m the one who is constantly inspired by the regulars who come week after week and show that support, love and appreciation for this little vibe we’ve created.

SA
Can you tell me a little bit about your practice as a dancer? I am so inspired by the fact that you began as a bharatanatyam dancer! What was that like? And how did you transition into Groove Therapy?

V
I love the fact that I began as a bharatnatyam dancer too! The thing with bharatnatyam is that it’s very…classical. So at around 17 I stopped because the training got hectic and I was too busy being a frivolous teenager. I started dancehall at 19 and felt a different kind of liberated. Street dance is so different from classical dance in that self-expression is part of the foundational technique.Classical dance, on the other hand, is about learning skeletal and muscular technique, rhythmic fundamentals, religious philosophies and history for years – decades even – before you can begin to comfortably break rules, push boundaries and express your own stories through the art form.

As for a link between the two – you don’t do anything in bharatnatyam without learning why. So, for me, it doesn’t make sense to simply learn a street dance move or listen to a genre of music without asking where it came from. I think it’s a fun kind of curiosity because it lends to a liberating, dynamic and kinetic history lesson every time you step into a dance class.

SA
I never feel more in my body, more liberated and all powerful than when I am dancing. Taking up space physically is so revolutionary for those of us who are sidelined, it’s transformative for not only our physical selves but also for our mind and spirit. I know for you, dancing is a political act. How do you navigate this concept of liberation and how might you encourage your students to take the energy they cultivate on the dance floor, off the dance floor? 

V
Wow how beautifully put! I could talk about this for hours but at the end of the day dancing is fun, free and asks that you enjoy your own body for what it can do, not what it looks like. Those three elements are so anti-establishment to me. Having fun means feeling joy within a system that constantly tries to rob you of it. 

Dancing in your bedroom costs nothing. We live in a world that is so full of angst and noise that entire industries have been built around selling your happiness back to you at an exorbitant price. Enjoying your body for the way it moves rather than the way it looks is a huge middle finger to the fashion, beauty, wellness and lifestyle industries that manufacture, then profit off your self-loathing. 

Being able to grind, get low, flick your hair and grope your own damn body feels electric. Your skin glows from the sweat and your entire body is pulsing with the frenetic energy of serotonin charging through you. Go find me a cleanser that can do that.

SA
How has your knowledge of bharatanatyam aided your work with Groove Therapy? Do you think you’re tapping into ancestral knowledge and how does that come up?

V
So I still train as a bharatnatyam dancer under my guru Sahi at Navatman Dance School, New York. What I love about Sahi is she is progressive, contemporary and pushes boundaries without ever sullying the authenticity of the art form. We learn everything from tapping into intention by meditating before a simple Alaripu to aligning our spine, hips, feet, neck and the tips of our fingers whilst drilling our adavus. 

It’s not romantic, exotic or mystical. It’s very matter-of-fact Indian. You know – Indian aunties and uncles dropping their kids off, big cooking drives where the community chips in to make large vats of food and staying behind after class to help sew student costumes and build stage props. 

It’s India, not the idea of India. So more than tapping into ancestral knowledge, I feel very grounded when I’m there because it does not exist for the white gaze. Learning an ancient classical art form teaches you that the foundations and understanding of a culture simply cannot be rushed. There’s no 10 week crash course, there’s no intensive summer camp and there’s no volunteer work in some remote village that automatically certifies you with cultural authenticity. 

In that way, I’m able to understand my place as a non-black woman teaching street dances like hip hop. There’s a level to which I can pass on technique but it needs to be constantly supplemented with the voices of the creators of the art forms. Honestly I think I’ve mainly learned that the more you know, the more you realize how little you know.

SA
I think you’re sooooo cool, I’ve been following your work for so long and as a fellow brown girl born and raised in Australia, it’s been so motivating to see how you move against what is traditionally expected of us. How has this journey helped you understand a deeper sense of self? 

V
Wow thank you! I think I’m just stubborn and riotous in what I stand for. Then there’s my parents, who are half-hearted about tradition and quick to dismiss archaic cultural thought-practises when my sister and I challenge them. In that way my parents have let me be 100% myself. I’m mindful of my coconut-ness and the level of visibility I’m afforded within white spaces compared to so many of the more culturally Indian people out there so I try to be mindful of who I create content for. My biggest gripe is that we brown folk are so reduced to a few key tropes by Westerners – like slums, yoga, Appu, taxi drivers, Om, marigolds, bindis and curry. 

I want to highlight how truly diverse we are as a people. I want the world to understand how cosmopolitan we are. I want people to understand that many Indians have access to better tech than people in the west. I want people to see past romantic Hinduism and look at the way it is currently being weaponized within India’s politics. I want people to understand, truly understand, that we are not a mono-culture. We are a pulsing, breathing mass of contradicting ideologies, languages, religions, subcultures and socio-economic classes. We are affected by colorism, casteism and colonization. We are a throbbing dichotomy of an ancient world that exists within the hyper-futurism of contemporary India. I want the world to understand that we are more than just one narrative. So that’s honestly my reason for existing on the internet – to show people that I’m Indian but also that I’m Vanessa, a weirdo individual that can’t quite fit into any one ‘brand.’

SA
If the pandemic is a portal, what are your hopes for Groove Therapy post revolution?

V
Eyyy I see you Arundati Roy reference! Groove Therapy will continue to grow, morph and evolve on the same trajectory it was following pre-pandemic. The difference is the shift in global consciousness re: the way we live life and interact with cultures that are not ours, especially post the Black Lives Matter movement. I see such a shift in the way people absorb the same discourse we’ve always put to our audience. People seem to actually be listening! The lyrics to that song, the story behind the movement and the politics behind the sub-culture suddenly has a gravitas now. I can see the penny drop for so many in our community. I’m all about it.

SA
What are a couple things you are listening to/eating/watching/reading/making/creating that are helping you stay grounded during this time?

V
Oh! I’ve been interested in learning more on the art of good conversation lately. The other day my spirit lifted out of my body and watched myself talking to someone. I was boring. I just regurgitated the same ‘smart’ political opinions to every new person that came my way in the last month. Yawn. So now I try to converse in a way that keeps me interested. I try not to repeat catch phrases or same-same political musings and am trying not to say ‘um’ or ‘like’ as much. So far the results have been underwhelming. I bought a Masterclass subscription and I am devouring everything on it – the writing workshops, the filmmaking series and the cooking tips.

I’ve been getting into retro Arab pop, classic disco, vintage Bollywood and crate digging for contemporary Indian musicians who can sample carnatic/hindustani music without butchering it. 

I’ve been reading Arundhati Roy, David Sedaris, Miranda July, Jhumpa Lahiri, Khaled Hosseni, Jerry Saltz – the usual suspects, nothing you haven’t heard of. I’ve been trying to read Romeo and Juliet but it’s such a brain warp to read Shakespearean English casually before bed so I’m only like 5 pages deep.I tried my hand at pottery and it was a wonderful lesson on keeping your ego in check. I’ve been stretching on the beach. Turns out you don’t need activewear, a yoga mat or a mermaid body to stretch. You can just do it in your pyjamas and weird high bun to prevent those injuries. I binged the entire Indian Matchmaking series. I recently discovered that I’m really good at tennis. By really good I mean not as dismal as expected. 

I want you to know that I just re-read all the things I’ve been doing and realized how impressive it sounds, but please know that the last five months has mostly just been a montage of me eating toast and watching cat videos.

Training across New York, Paris, Berlin, London, Tokyo, Brazil, regional Australia, and her purple bedroom, Vanessa Marian Varghese is particularly fascinated with street dance and the way it is born outside of the dance studio context. In 2016 Vanessa founded Groove Therapy, aimed at making dance accessible to all walks of life. The program has brought dance to at-risk youth, Indigenous communities, dementia sufferers, refugee girls and the every-day person, using the political and healing foundations that these street dance styles are built upon and mindfully appropriating it in new communities to help spark global conversation and cultural understanding.

The Power and Purpose of Astrology with Emmalea Russo

SA
Hi Emmalea! How are you? 

E
I’m okay. How are you? 

SA
I’m good! There’s been a gap since we’ve last talked but I feel like I stay connected to you through everything you’re offering—like your classes and newsletter. Can we talk a little about Arthouse Astrology first? Can you tell me what led you to create this astrology portal?

E
Yes. Our connection feels related to us both being poets who are interested in making astrology a dynamic part of daily life, yes? I started these Arthouse Astrology classes almost immediately after quarantine as a way to connect with people and consider this new reality we found ourselves in through a cosmic lens. It was important to me that the classes were not only financially accessible, but also that they exist in an environment that felt connective, real, fun — the deinstitutionalization of knowledge, as bell hooks has said. Cosmic Edges was the first class (and I thought it would be the only one), but we’ve done five. I wanted to open up a discussion around how astrology, like art, is about ways of seeing and being. And in quarantine (or even when we feel quarantined) we lose certain kinds of light/sight while gaining others. We looked at hidden or sequestered or more dimly lit regions of the sky.

I started the Arthouse Astrology newsletter/blog a few years ago as a way to think out loud re: astrology, art, pop culture, film — to think critically and electrically about it — beyond astrology as a psychological roadmap. I’m a writer first, which is inseparable from my astrology practice. The planet/god Mercury rules astrology and also writing, poetry, travel, communication. Fascinatingly, these are all ways of moving between worlds, staying curious, playful, translighting light. Staying nimble. “Cosmic rigor” is a phrase from Artaud’s writing on theatre, but I love it for astrology, too.

SA
I agree we are similar in many ways! I think I once mentioned this to you, but years ago I read charts as a way to make money. This was in 2013/14/15 and I wasn’t really making any money off of writing. It was depressing, and I was stubborn so I didn’t want to get another job. So I found that it was reasonable to make money (albeit not a lot) through “beautifully written charts” by me. I think, in a way, I was also doing it as an offering because I love this idea of making astrology more accessible, and not this mystical abstract thing as it once. It informs so much of my writing as well, so I think we’re both coming at in different but similar ways. One of the reasons Arthouse Astrology is such an important thing to me is because it allows people that very foundational understanding of astrology, but in a really poetic way. Reading you always shows me how much you enjoy writing/reading—you quote Hélène Cixous, Marguerite Duras and June Jordan to name a few—it’s so wonderful. What made you create “Cosmic Edges”?

E
“Beautifully written charts” is lovely. Astrology is the “word of the stars.” So, how we deliver or brainstorm the cosmos is a major part of the art — the word, or Mercury — moving and divining. Reading and writing is how I process reality. As you say, I cite writers and thinkers like Cixous, Duras, June Jordan — lots of poetry, current happenings, and film alongside planets and transits — informing each other. Astrology charts are written, read, and interacted. So, living. I like to see them first as visual information, too. We live in a culture of images, for better or worse, and I like the idea of learning to read astrology charts and themes alongside of/in conversation with the images that we’re met with constantly in daily life via instagram, google, whatever. We’re flooded by images! It’s essential to be able to decipher them, think critically about them, practice. 

Astrology is, as I mentioned, a Mercury-ruled situation. And Mercury is a psychopomp — an androgynous messenger god who escorts souls between the heavens and underworld. This means Mercury, in its purest essence, is non-judging, playful, and a professional amateur. Curious, curious, curious. Mercury’s allegiance is to information. This is why astrology is not a religion/belief system or a science. There’s nothing to “prove,” which is easy to forget, because we like “proof.” I think we’re living in a time where it’s easier to be a fan or a detractor rather than a critical thinker or reader. Internet culture means it’s easier to “like” or “not like” rather than pausing, thinking, making connections. We lose Mercury.

Cosmic Edges (I thought maybe 20 people would sign up; 120 people did!) was also a way to enter astrology from its “edges” — to find unexpected ways into the cosmos via poets like Cynthia Cruz and Louise Gluck, Prince’s music, qualities of light at different points of the sky, and planets as entities with their own agendas and interests. 

In her work, bell hooks talks about how love is antithetical to dominance culture, and sadly, we live in exactly that. This translates, of course, to how we see astrology, ourselves, each other. I tend to really emphasize the importance of forming relationships with the planets, with the/your sky. This makes room for love and subverts the whole dominance-submission predicament. As you probably know, the tendency can be (even if we don’t realize it) to want to dominate the stars (what can these planets do for us, how can we use them to our advantage?) or feel frightened that they’ll dominate us (fuck, what are they going to do?) How can we form relationships with these planets? Call them directly? Make dialogue? Relate based on love? 

I taught a 7-week Venus retrograde class called Venus Daze, as you know. It was so fun — a space for devotedly looking at/thinking about Venus’s maneuvers while connecting her with our own lives, revolution, politics, art, etc. We talked about phoning the planets direct: 1-800-VENUS. Someone in the class even made a postcard that said 1-800-VENUS over a photo of Venus as the evening star. When I got it in the mail, I got teary! How we regard the planets can be a school for how we treat each other. How can we be more human(e) in these really device-drenched, techy times?

SA
Gah! You said so much I want to touch on, but firstly: “word of the stars.” Wow. I had no idea. I guess this segues into my next question, what have you seen that has been gained by this experience for yourself or even the folks that have participated so far? As you said, you’re pastiching disparate ideas, but bringing them together in such artful ways while making them accessible—for me, that’s such a beautiful act of service. With Studio Ānanda, that’s been the goal, to make healing information accessible and fun to anybody who wants to know more. All this information has been stolen or appropriated by whiteness or capitalism, so giving it back to the people is definitely a mission of mine. Everyone should have access to these things! So, I want to hear first about what kind of immediate impact you’ve seen though Cosmic Edges. You obviously see the value of people knowing more about their charts and learning about astrology and it excites me to know that so many folks (120!) just want to know and learn more.

E
On the last day of our Venus Daze workshop, someone asked me if making these classes has changed me. The short answer is: yes. I’ve learned so much about holding digital space and creating artful, slow, interesting classes instead of “content.” Or, just creating for the sake of having something to sell. I see these workshops and writings as part of my artistic practice. So, in one way, they’re part of a very long and large unfolding process. In another way, they’re about connection — which is the true nature of love, of Venus. 

Two things come to mind. First: the ethics and nuances of where and how we direct our attention. These spaces (zoom, social media, etc.) are not neutral. They really prize guru-ization. Instagram, as a capitalist tool, is built for audiences, not community. In these classes, which are always experimental, I really strive for community. Example: I center the chat feature. The conversations have become quite epic — hilarious, wild, smart, dynamic — with something like 7,000 words on average per class. People supporting each other, affirming, going deep. How can we prioritize connection over audience or “engagement” and not be transactional, not turn everything into capital, especially when we live in an attention economy?  

Second, everything is more generative and aerated when we don’t center our own astrologies. This means that while we all have certain qualities, fates, and sky atmospheres, we’re also all connected — part of one cosmic situation. So, I like to focus first on the seeing, the discerning, the play — at least in the workshops, rather than our own individual charts. Obviously, 1-1 sessions are a different animal. And I love them! I love divining and chatting about individual astrology. However, I am really devoted to astrology as a slow art. I think this transactionality is everywhere in this white supremacist captialist patriarchy we live in. Divination is not transactional. 

SA
This ancient information, that in practice should be accessible to all, rarely is. It’s so powerful to hear about anti-capitalist reclamation of healing modalities such as astrology, because I think what you’re saying (and what I believe as well) is that astrology is an incredible tool for healing. Of course it’s all interpretative, but I think there’s something immensely powerful in surrendering to divination methods. The more I’ve done that, the more I’ve helped my anxiety or fears. I’m not kidding, I think understanding myself astrologically has made me love myself more, and therefore lend that care to others as well. We’re obviously in the middle of a pandemic and global revolution for Black liberation—how do you think folks can use astrology to benefit themselves and the work for these times?

E
I like how you say that the more you’ve surrendered to divination modalities, the less fear you have. That’s totally beautiful. And it’s why I got into this whole astrology thing in the first place. Less about “curing” and quick fixes and way more about sensing, seeing, learning. I remember the first time I really studied my chart and learned about where my Venus is located and what it’s going through in my sky, I felt seen in a way I had never felt in therapy or university. I love therapy and school, so that’s not a dig. I actually get chills when I talk about it, even now — feeling witnessed/mirrored by the sky in that way. But astrology is another way into the self, and therefore the world. And it’s not necessarily about fixing, which we aren’t used to in these times. We like solutions, formulas. Astrology teaches about cycles of time — historically and also via different planetary speeds (the moon moves quite differently than Mercury, for instance). 

Re: your very important question about using astrology to benefit people during this global pandemic and movement for Black liberation — I think, again, it’s about seeing. When we can find different points of entry into our situations, we start to think about justice, love, and equity in new ways. We need new ways. The system, as they say, is not failing. It’s working quite well. And that’s frightening. Capitalism, which is inherently tied to systemic racism and all kinds of oppression, is tricky — because it has a way of recuperating even subversion and transgression back into the machine, making them trendy. Think of the wellness industrial complex. Healing modalities have been co-opted and made consumptive instead of accessible or revolutionary. 

When we work with astrology, art, etc. in ways that are engaged in critical discourse and not about groupthink or greed or “getting stuff” out of each other or the planets, we start to subvert our own systems. We begin to look at each other and ourselves as citizens. These times have a way of depoliticizing….everything. Astrology is not apolitical. Ditto wellness. How we care for each other and ourselves, what we choose to center or relegate to the edges is deeply political. What happens if we see ourselves as citizens who are responsible to each other instead of merely individuals on a path? Somewhere along the way, healing modalities started being about self-care at the expense of community care. 

SA
Precisely. I think what’s so cool is that in order for us to truly be anti-Capitalist, we are realizing that we have to address and face ourselves. That there can’t just be supplementary pleasures that fill those gaping holes anymore. I’ve realized in 2020—almost more and more as the year goes by—s that I need to completely align with myself, politically, spiritually and physically (as in how I embody those two things in my human form) so that means if I’m saying I’m anti-Capitalist, I’m not trying to surreptitiously hoard money or you know placate my shopping addiction. Studio Ānanada and everything we are trying to achieve, is creating an alternative language for cultural exchange, on multiple levels. 

I think a lot of folks often say you can’t be perfect like an adage, but I’m sorry this is so diabolical, but recently I’ve been wondering what would it mean to try to attain perfect spiritual standards? Of course those are subjective, but I’m curious about the possibility. What astrology offers is just another way to familiarize ourselves with our truths so that we can attain spiritual highs/heights. What are ways you’d direct folks who want to know more astrology who want to go deeper?

E
This makes me think of that Barbara Kruger piece: “I shop therefore I am.” Shopping brain applies to everything, right? The way we interact with each other, the world, art, astrology. Being against capitalism while in a capitalist system is a real mindfuck. Mark Fisher writes about how the danger of capitalism is its pervasiveness, the fact that there appears to be “no other alternative.” I like how you say “diabolical.” Shopping for happiness is diabolical, and often we don’t even know we’re doing it. Freaky. 

In “Love as the Practice of Freedom,” bell hooks writes: “Acknowledging the truth of our reality, both individual and collective is a necessary stage for personal and political growth.” I see astrology as a way to acknowledge “the truth of our reality.” Of course, like anything, it can be an escape hatch. It’s all about how we engage. I wrote about astrology as a love practice here

I was listening to a James Hillman lecture a while back and he was, I think paraphrasing someone, but he said something like: “By the time you’ve figured out what part of yourself the homeless person represents, you’ve already walked by the homeless person.” That beautifully and disturbingly sums it up. To really see each other’s predicaments and beauties, there has to be some kind of unhooking from the attention economy, from selfie mode, from shopping for truth. Humor helps, too.

SA
What future astrology excites you, if any?

E
I’m psyched by the fact that so many people are into the stars, tuning into astrology in dynamic ways — queering it, radicalizing it, going to the root and history of it, applying it to these times. I feel most excited by critical discourse — creating space for really asking questions, making mistakes, fucking up, coming together, laughing. Astrology as art, astrology as a way to be more human(e)! I’m excited about the houses — an often misunderstood or glazed-over part of astrology. I’m doing a special series called Strange Mansions for newsletter subscribers in October. 

Specifically: the Saturn-Jupiter conjunction on December 21st. Vibe change.

SA
Any last thoughts you’d like to share?

E
I adore you! I love this work you’re doing. Thank you. 

My website: https://emmalearusso.com/

My newsletter: https://emmalea.substack.com/ (the main way to stay in touch, get this work daily is to subscribe, as I’m taking a long break from classes!)

Readings: https://emmalearusso.com/bookreading

Classes to download: https://emmalearusso.com/arthouse-downloads

Personalized astrology write-ups: https://emmalearusso.com/skyoracle

Instagram: @arthouse.astrology

SA
And if you want to create a soundtrack to the 10 planets, what would they be?

E
AH! I love this question. I actually create playlists for Arthouse classes because music sets such a mood, creates a container. We’re all pretty into them.

Here’s one for VENUS DAZE 

Here’s one for the (MOON)WRITING WORKSHOP 


My list for Studio Ananda/Soundtrack to the Planets

Sun: Celebrity Skin by Hole / I Want to See You by Alice Coltrane

Moon: Swim Good by Frank Ocean

Mercury: All My Little Worlds by The Magnetic Fields / Wreath by Perfume Genius

Venus: The First Wave Birth of Venus by Suzanne Ciani 

Mars: Little Red Corvette by Prince

Jupiter: No Sleep Till Brooklyn by the Beastie Boys

Saturn: The Disintegration Loops by William Basinsky (all four albums!)

Uranus: Technologic by Daft Punk

Neptune: Dreams by Fleetwood Mac / Heroin by The Velvet Underground

Pluto: When the Man Comes Around by Johnny Cash / Love Song for a Vampire by Annie Lennox

Organizing through Imposter Syndrome with Zenat Begum of Playground Coffee Shop

SA
How are you feeling today, Z?

Z
Hi! OH! I’m feeling an overload of emotional progression. 

How are you feeling today, P?

SA
Woah, I wanna hear more about this emotional progression. I’m feeling good, ready to take on the day and glad I get to start it by talking to you. What’s on your schedule for today?

Z
I think this is a great way to start the day. My schedule is typical today. I have a few calls regarding Playground funding and programming. I’ve been thinking more about structure as for the last 6 months I was getting through each day by being task oriented in order to do my job efficiently and neglected my own emotions in the process. September is always a recharge month for me and I think it is suggesting, rather, forcing me to realign.

Did I just say all that in one breath? Talk about efficiency, haha. 

SA
I mean, happy Virgo season birthday girl!! When did you begin to notice that the structure you created for your organizing did not allow space for your own self? How has the transition been as you’ve started to be more intentional with taking care of your emotional health? And what is emotional health for you?

Z
Aug 10th was the day I acknowledged an emotional sewage block. Like I couldn’t communicate. It was weird, even as I had been communicating actively through work, I had a difficult time conversing with people socially. 

The transition has been taxing. I think after being in the crossfire of work and mental health declining I started to see exactly how much of myself I was sacrificing. 

Emotional health is having a fluidity of emotions. The ability to process with care and tenderness as every emotion passes. Accountability and trust is a virtue of this said process. 

SA
When we were speaking last night you said something about accepting the experience of depression. I think there is something very profound about that idea of being fluid and open with emotions instead of holding on and lingering. I’m really happy that you have been making time for yourself over the past month. The work that you do is incredibly transformative and also incredibly demanding of the mind, body and spirit. Playground has been so responsive to the needs of the community since the uprising and it’s been really comforting to be part of and observe how much care is being poured into the community. What have your experiences as a South Asian woman organizer been like? We talk a lot about imposter syndrome, and especially thinking about our own cultural expectations to have a more institutionalized life vs what we actually do, and then organizing in a city where we have settled and gentrified stolen land – there’s so many layers to it. What does that feel like for you? 

Z
The concept of imposter syndrome is something almost everyone doing this work is feeling.

Being South Asian plays a role in how imposter syndrome develops over time because even in this global city, there aren’t many South Asians organizing with the intention to center Black lives. This is a critique of my community although there isn’t enough diversity within the South Asian network or intersection of Black folks to begin with. I have seen a lot of my peers build intention and work cohesively so that all voices are heard and acknowledged. Solidarity and resistance work can often make you feel like an imposter. Are you good enough? Do you have the discourse to verbally debate? Do you have an audience? Are people going to be receptive of your message? Being skeptical is what I am leaning towards these days. IS perpetuates self doubt and that is a boundary I have learned to protect.

Playground’s response to COVID is something our ancestors would have championed for their own communities. When times get tough, the tough gets going. Building community around you to distribute food to those food insecure. That is exactly why we do this – provide actionable solutions. 

I feel like I have been on auto-pilot for the last few months. The road ahead has its peaks and valleys and challenging circumstances are just part of the process just as much as the bountiful moments are. 

SA
I love what you said about Playground’s response being something our ancestors would have championed for their own. What’s more South Asian than ensuring your entire neighborhood is fed? Like, that intuition that Playground runs with is so deeply ancestral to me, which is ironic considering it is not like you yourself belong to this dense South Asian community. That’s what is so magical about pushing back on imposter syndrome, looking at the conditioning we’ve experienced and being able to hold up the parts which could’ve worked and then tweaking it to build something you know you and your community deserves. 

Do you think that the skepticism we have for institutions outside of us is sometimes internalized with imposter syndrome? How important is it to work collaboratively and collectively, and how do we do that when we’re in a moment where, even amongst organizers it’s becoming clear that transformative justice and accountability isn’t centered? 

Z
In my text exchange with you last night we were talking about the recent tarot reading I did with you. One of the cards set for the future intention was about collaborating. I think Playground had made exemplary collaborations to set the precedent for organizing. In a time like now, my communication has been spread thin because I feel as if I have my radar up all times. Which can be divisive when learning to trust potentially collaborators and their position in this revolution. This is sometimes a risk we take in the name of pioneering change. The revolution has to be stripped of its individualism. Working collectively is a human trait, it’s how villages are built. The same organization can create a larger space for us, thus having actual impact, hopefully legislative. Now, that is holding this country that exists on stolen land accountable. 

SA
Totally, I think that it’s also important to be discerning about the intentions of potential collaborators & I completely understand needing to keep a wall up so to speak to make sure that the safety of your community comes first. In fact, I think it’s what draws so many people to Playground, it’s firm stance in centering and recentering it’s community in a way that is so uncompromising. 

Z
I am burning incense in my bakhoor burner, listening to quarantine mixes, revisiting hobbies, working out, trying new recipes @ home, I’m working on a bookclub right now so I have been reading excerpts here and there to gather what book will be centralized focus, drinking my Playground community blend coffee at home, gathering with close friends to talk through days that are harder than others, motioning a playground green house right now to offer something beautiful and building my new home to create an environment to do these self care rituals and practices. 

Zenat Begum is the owner and founder of  Playground Youth, a community-based organization operating out of Playground Coffee Shop in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. Playground Youth supports Bed-Stuy by ensuring a safe space to exchange art, cultural knowledge, and strategies. The organization tackles a range of community needs including literacy, food equity, and arts & culture through a range of accessible programs and events.